(Welcome to week 13 of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-12, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Thirteen. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, Happy 4th of July!)
Everything feels as if it’s moving much faster now.
My divorce from Laura is final. Dunzo. Over. Nathaniel forwarded a tentative settlement agreement during the first week in June, at which point I hired a divorce lawyer from Philadelphia to scrutinize the details. It turns out the legalese wasn’t only on the level, but the terms were so generous, they prompted that divorce lawyer from Philadelphia to say the following: “How in theee hell did you ever get your ex-wife to agree to all this?”
I have been awarded equal custody of my children. I have been awarded most of the marital assets, including the house and two cars. I have been awarded the long, winding driveway and the creaking floorboards. I have been awarded the climbing ivy and the wine-cellar-cum-wreck-room. I have been awarded the shitty crown molding. I have been awarded the rotted-out drainpipes and the high, coffered ceilings. I have been awarded the granite countertops and the squeaky French doors. I have been awarded the entire 15,000 square feet where Laura and I agreed to build a life together.
I have also been ordered to pay a significant amount of alimony, though not nearly as significant as Nathaniel and I originally thought.
The bottom line is this: I am free … Free at last … Free at last.
I am free of billable hours and expense reports, free of living in that stagnant railroad apartment in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, free of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unending bullshit, free of feeling like an outsider in my own children’s lives, free of living 24 hours a day in my own head, free of Laura, free of Miggs, free of Arnie fucking Fischel …. Free at last … Free at last.
Thank God, Almighty. I am free at fucking last.
I do not know what Montgomery Miggs is doing with his life. I do not care what Montgomery Miggs is doing with his life. I do know that when Laura moved out of the house in Rosemont, she did not move in with Miggs. Nor was Miggs on hand to help with any of the heavy lifting.
I know this because my children told me so. My children tell me a lot of things these days … Things I’m sure my now-ex-wife would rather I not know. My children tell me Laura cried a great deal during her last few weeks living at the house. They tell me it was Miggs – and not Laura – who originally suggested all the patio furniture and family portraits be replaced when I moved out of the house. They tell me the last thing Laura would say every night before she put them to bed was, “Remember, your father loves you very much, and he misses you with all his heart.”
My children tell me they miss their mommy almost every day of the week now.
I do not have the heart to tell them how much I disagree.
I have not confronted Laura about her relationship with Nathaniel, nor do I have any immediate plans to do so. In the weeks leading up to our final settlement agreement, I had no interest in doing something that might cause Laura to reconsider her position. In the two or three weeks since, I’ve simply decided I no longer care.
I have somehow managed to become 100% emotionally detached from the situation.
I suppose Nathaniel Hawthorne would be proud.
Fuck Nathaniel Hawthorne, by the way.
Meghan McKenzie and I are together.
I am with her. She is with me. We see one another during the two weeks a month when Tommy and Sara are staying with their mother. Sometimes I travel to New York City to stay with Meghan for a few days. Sometimes Meghan travels to Rosemont to stay here with me.
When we are together, the two of us go on picnics. We go on ghost tours. We go on dinner dates and day trips to parks and zoos and museums. We get our drink on in dusty old dive bars. We take one another to places we’ve both been one hundred times or more, just so we can re-experience them through each other’s eyes.
Our relationship is simple and convenient, devoid of all the big-picture nonsense regarding where all of this is going, who should move where, when and why. In many ways, the two of us are behaving like teenagers again, trying desperately to recapture something that got lost along the way.
We get drunk. We have sex – the rabid kind that leaves your abs sore for days. We pass out. We wake up. We have sex again – the horny hangover kind that seems to make the world go round.
When I am with Meghan McKenzie, I drink. When I am without her, I abstain.
We enable one another, in more ways than one. Then we fuck the guilt away.
It sure beats going to meetings.
Today is the 4th of July.
Today is also my birthday – a fact which I downplay as much as possible, now that I’ve officially entered my mid-to-late thirties.
4th of July is a beautiful holiday to celebrate in Rosemont. There’s something very American about the smell of fresh-cut grass and slow-burning coals; Citronella candles and bug spray; roasted marshmallows and overdone hamburgers. There’s something very American about the pop of fireworks and a cooler full of beer; something very American about the sound of Springsteen playing softly from a speaker in the window; something very American about the distant buzz of lawnmowers; the rattle and skip of sprinklers; the rise and fall of fireflies, suspended like dander in midair.
There’s something very American about having a place to call your very own; something very American about having a place to call your home.
Home is where I’m sitting right now, safe and at peace, holding hands with Meghan McKenzie on the back porch as dusk begins to settle.
Meghan is nervous. This is the first time she has met my children. This is the first time she has ever met any boyfriend’s children, so far as I know. It’s virgin territory for her, which is fine, because it’s virgin territory for each of us as well.
So far, we all seem to be getting along just fine together.
Sarah immediately fell in love with the homemade bracelets Meghan was wearing on her wrists. Meghan responded by pulling a tiny sewing kit out of her purse and showing Sarah how to weave homemade bracelets of her own.
Compliments were exchanged. Bonds were formed.
Meghan and Sarah have been fast friends ever since.
Tommy, on the other hand, was reluctant to warm up to Meghan at first, going out of his way to be anywhere in the house other than where she was. He’s relented in little ways throughout the afternoon, and now seems much more at ease, even asking Meghan if she’d like him to toast a marshmallow for her once we’re all done eating dinner.
Shortly after the fireworks are over, we light sparklers on the grill. Tommy and Sara go streaming out across the backyard, their phosphorescent wands dancing like fairies in the darkness. Meghan and I remain on the back porch – beer in one hand, sparkler in the other, soaking in the made-for-TV majesty of it all.
By 9:45, Tommy and Sara have retired to the living room to watch TV. Meghan and I are still enjoying the breeze on the back deck, marveling at simple suburban pleasures like the wide-open sky and the zapping of bugs.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a proper lawn in years,” Meghan points out. “I guess that’s the downside of living in a city made of chutes and ladders.”
“It is kind of nice, isn’t it?” I ask. “Getting away from that every once in a while.”
“It sure is,” Meghan McKenzie responds. “It sure is.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Meghan says, leaping up from her seat. “I have something for you.”
“I thought we agreed no presents,” I say, reminded for the first time since this morning that today is actually my birthday.
“Wrong,” Meghan says, as she rifles through an oversized duffle bag next to her purse. “We agreed I couldn’t buy you any presents … And I didn’t.”
Meghan turns to face me, holding out a small, square, gift-wrapped box.
“Don’t shake it,” she warns. “It’s kind of fragile.”
As I peel back the wrapping paper, Meghan McKenzie scurries behind me and cups her hands over my eyes.
“I don’t want you to see until it’s completely unwrapped,” she says.
“Very well,” I say, laughing aloud as I tear through several layers of gift wrap, eventually scavenging my way down to a smooth plastic surface.
“Can I look yet?” I ask.
“You can look …………. NOW!” Meghan says, removing her hands.
There, resting in my lap, is a clear Plexiglas cube, approximately 5 inches on each side. Suspended in midair in the center of the cube is a rusty bronze ring with a tiny hairline crack along its surface.
The porch light behind us reflects off of the Plexiglas, creating tiny dancing prisms along the edges.
“Where on earth did you get this?” I ask, eyes still transfixed by the ring.
“I think you know where I got it,” Meghan says, cynically.
“I know where you got it,” I say. “But where on earth did you get it?”
“The night you left New York City all those years ago,” Meghan says, looking at the ground as she speaks, “I agreed to be the lookout for Miggs while he slipped the ring off of that statue.”
“Jizo,” I interject.
“What?” Meghan says.
“The name of the statue,” I say. “The name of the statue was Jizo. In fact, I think it still is.”
“Right,” Meghan says. “Anyway, it wasn’t until we were back at the penthouse that night that Miggs told me the whole thing had been your idea. The next morning when I woke up, I scooped up the ring and high-tailed it out of there. I figured Miggs would just assume he’d lost it, and maybe I could get some money for it at a pawnshop downtown. I was an 18-year old kid at the time. How was I to know there was no real street value for a 12th century door knocker with a running crack along its side?”
“You’ve had it all these years?” I ask, still staring at the ring suspended in mid-air.
“I’m a packrat,” Meghan says. “I have boxes and boxes of mementos from all those summers when I was growing up. I keep them in the basement of my father’s townhouse, speaking of which …”
Meghan McKenzie leans back and grabs her leather purse. She opens it and begins digging through accessories. She pulls out a dog-eared picture and hands it to me. It’s a faded photo of her and I when we were both 18 years old … Perhaps the only picture Meghan McKenzie and I ever appeared in together. In the photo the two of us are smiling – me with my arm wrapped tightly around Meghan McKenzie’s waist, Meghan with her head leaning back against my shoulder. The two of us look so young and drunk and carefree, as if all the adolescent bullshit that happened that summer had somehow gotten washed away with time.
“You have no idea how much this picture means to me,” I say, waving the photo back and forth in my hand.
“Of course I do,” Meghan says. “It means a great deal to me as well.”
“You know you were the reason I left New York City that night,” I say. “Well, you and Miggs, I suppose.”
“You knew?” Meghan asks.
“Sure, I knew,” I say. “I walked in on the two of you … and then I walked out on the two of you just as quickly.”
“I’m so sorry,” Meghan says, looking down at her toes as she sips on a beer. “I hope you understand I had no idea what I was doing back then. I was a fucked-up kid. I did a lot of things I wish I hadn’t done; things that got me nothing but down. That whole situation was so unfair to you … You were so sweet to me … I can’t even begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
“It’s OK,” I say, leaning over to kiss Meghan McKenzie on the cheek. “The whole thing’s behind us now.”
I lean back in my chair, staring at the faded photograph. Somehow, I can’t help but wonder whether it really is all behind us now, or whether the two of us are just doing our best to pretend none of it ever happened in the first place.
That, I realize, is precisely the type of big-picture nonsense I’ve been trying to avoid for the past six weeks … or perhaps the better part of two decades, if we’re considering things from a holistic perspective.
Midnight in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and the kids have been in bed for well over an hour.
Around 10:30, Tommy helped me set Meghan up in the guest room. Minutes later, he and Sara headed off to bed.
By 11:45, I can hear Sarah snoring in her room, so I tiptoe down the hallway and let Meghan McKenzie know the coast is – in fact – clear, before sneaking her into the master bedroom.
Once there, I lock the bedroom door behind us. Then Meghan McKenzie and I drink beer and smoke pot out the window before falling into bed together. Shortly after the sex is over, Meghan pulls me close and we stare at one another in the dark for several minutes – me running my fingers through her hair, she gently massaging my arm with her thumbs.
My heart is racing, and Meghan McKenzie’s body is quivering.
Both of us can feel a moment coming on.
I take Meghan’s hand, and I place it on my chest to let her know whatever it is she’s feeling, I’m feeling it as well.
“God, I am so in love with you,” Meghan McKenzie whispers, as she pulls
herself in tight, squeezing all the fear and apprehension out of each word.
I hold her close, providing all the non-verbal reassurance I possibly can before I respond.
“I love you too,” I say, allowing the weight of my words to settle in before
pulling back to look Meghan McKenzie in the eye.
I run the back of my hand along the side of her face.
“Are you crying?” I ask, feeling the moisture on her cheek.
Meghan wraps a sheet around her waist, and wanders over to the far end of the bed, where she sits for several seconds, staring out the window with her back to me, unlit cigarette in hand.
“Are you OK?” I ask, still lying behind her.
Meghan looks at the vanity chest in front of her, where the faded picture of her and I is propped up against a Plexiglas cube with the cracked bronze ring inside. She lights the cigarette. She allows the sheet to fall down around her waist, exposing her pale skin in the moonlight. She is beautiful – fragile and still, with a small tattoo of a wood nymph peeking over her left shoulder.
She looks up at her reflection in the mirror, then leans forward slightly,
revealing my reflection in the distance behind her.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?” my reflection asks.
“Not at all,” Meghan McKenzie responds softly. “What’s on your mind?”
“It’s about that night you spent with Miggs,” my reflection says. “That night that I left New York City all those years ago.”
“OK,” Meghan McKenzie replies, apprehensively.
“Did you tell Miggs having sex with me was like feeding a homeless dog?” my reflection asks.
“Did I what?” Meghan McKenzie asks, wheeling around to face me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t hav …”
“Why on earth would you ask me something like that?” she says, clearly mortified.
I stammer about, trying to piece together a split-second response to a question I really have no idea how to answer. But it’s to no avail. Meghan McKenzie has already scampered off to the bathroom, leaving me alone in the darkness, staring at a far-off picture of the two of us that was taken more than 18 years prior.
I resist the urge to chase Meghan McKenzie into the bathroom, pleading her forgiveness.
The damage, I realize, has already been done.
Clearly, it was something I said.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Fourteen)