A Contender

The Virginia sun still bore down hot on me that quiet Friday in late October although the wind whispered the advent of fall, as I made the short drive from my house to hers, only about four big blocks. It was curious, but not notable, that she had called and asked me to come over and talk for a little while since we did have three daughters together, and making decisions and being their parents jointly was one of the few things that we had managed in recent years without raised voices and lowered expectations. It was my guess that there was no crisis to deal with, as Jane had always been quick with the phone call when some sort of misfortune had erupted regarding the girls or anyone else that she was close to. So I expected that somebody’s grades had slipped, or had a new boyfriend from the dark side of the moon, or that one of them had suddenly realized her subconscious dream of running off to join the circus. Something that needed daddy’s attention, not “what should I do with my life,” but more along the lines of “can you get that spider out of the bathtub, please; it is so totally freaking me out.” Like anyone has clearly marked halfway markers on the road to their own personal insanity. But a daddy’s got to do what he’s got to do, and mostly my role had become one of a deaf and mute chauffeur, who did side work exterminating bugs. On most occasions, I had found myself feeling like an old Chinese woman, walking ten steps behind and to the left, and keeping whatever I might have to say firmly locked up inside of my mouth.

Of course, my years of training and military service had always stood me well in professional situations where keeping your mouth shut frequently means the difference between walking away alive or having that notification made to your next of kin. In my soldier life, knowing when to speak and when to suck it in came naturally, as it usually does for those who manage to make a career out of it. In my personal life, I was usually pretty outspoken, to say the least, and that certainly had caused me more painful situations that anyone deserves in this life, but as a wise old sergeant once told me, when your habit is digging holes and setting traps, you learn pretty damn quick to remember which way you entered. It saves your ass most of the time. And with the sort of covert work that I had done for most of my time in, ass-saving was at the top of the resume, along with the usual in-the-dark-of-night stuff that they write books about and make movies glorifying. And I won’t lie: having never really grown up very much from that pudgy misfit 12-year old, I had always enjoyed the cloak and dagger kind of stuff, which truth be told did not come around twice a week like the movies would have people believe, but every so often I had been tasked with the job of blowing something or somebody up, and just like those hotel implosion videos that everyone watches on TV, I got a really big thrill out of that small part of my job. Everyone loves to see that stuff happen.

If being a good soldier was something that I had taken seriously, and it was, it paled in comparison to how I took trying to be a really good dad. And Jane, to her credit, had really stepped up when our oldest started middle school, and with the blessing of her new husband, she quit working so that she could stay home and be there for the three of them as they entered the always-exciting world of estrogen. Better her than me; I have enough trouble with my own hormonal imbalances most of the time. But in fairness, we had both agreed, in a rare instance, when we separated, that we would always make decisions and conduct ourselves by taking the girls into account first, by putting their lives and their needs ahead of our own, and hopefully as a result to come up with a divorced parents’ model of how to do it right and not irreparably screw up your kids because of the bad choices that you had made before they even came along. It might sound a little silly, but it worked. And since I have always been a typical male in that I think in an extremely lean, linear sort of way, the whole thing was a natural for me. Men, generally, are like dogs, of course: we see the ball go through the air, we want to catch the ball, we run after the ball, tongue flapping and legs pumping, wind blowing and mouth open with teeth bared in a big happy grin – and we forget all about the fact that the ball has gone too far, out into the street, where there is lots of car traffic whizzing by – where we can get killed in an instant – all because we were chasing a stupid ball. Men, in other words, are almost always simply about getting from point A to point B, and it is not restricted to those of us with military lives, I think it has pretty much over time been hardwired into us: hungry, need food, find food, take food, eat -- and worry about the details some other time when we are not hungry.

I pulled up and parked in front of the house that used to be mine, and looked at it with a little twinge of affection. It was a nice place, on a little cul-de-sac with seven others just like it, and lots of big mature maples and oaks, with big yards for kids to play, and all the things that suburbia used to whisper to city dwellers, that siren call that created neighborhoods like this one in the late 1950s and early 1960s, places where men who saved the world could come, have a home, a wife, children, and a little chunk of the America that they had risked their lives for on distant beaches and in dark forests. Of course, in the case of my growing little tribe, we were the third generation to inhabit that house when we moved into it in the spring of 1990, just four weeks before my second daughter was born. And while the neighborhood had changed, as they all do, over the years, it was still families, most of them on their second or third homes, and looking for the same sense of community and security to be comfortable, to raise their kids, and to have a close-by, needed oasis from the craziness of Washington and the darkness that often surrounded what we did for a living in the service of our country.

Part of our separation agreement, the one that every lawyer I knew told me I was a complete moron to suggest, much less sign, was that I was giving Jane the house, with no dollars exchanged, with the requirement that she live there with them until our youngest daughter turned 18 or graduated from high school, whichever came first. I did that, along with a lot of other things, because I felt then that I had let my daughters down by allowing Jane and I to watch as our relationship died one final time, and I wanted to do whatever I could to ensure that the girls’ life stayed as close to what it had been as possible; that their lives were as untouched, day-to-day, as they could be: sort of like a neutron bomb – they get up one morning, and everything’s the same except that daddy’s gone. All their toys and books, all the furniture throughout the house, their bikes strategically dropped right behind the car on the driveway – everything the same while everything had changed. This was my feeble effort to leave as little damage behind as possible, since I knew that there would be plenty in the years ahead that would be completely beyond my control: eventual remarriages, step-siblings, all of what happens when two people decide that they can’t stay together but that that neither one of them sees much point to living alone, that life, while not what it was, will have to become about something, or someone, else.

And as luck would not have it, at that particular moment, on that Friday, my someone else was somewhere else, having left me one Saturday morning in July, by waking me up at 8 in the morning and telling me that I needed to get dressed and come downstairs. When I did, all I saw was boxes being filled and carried out to the U-Haul trucked parked poorly in the driveway. And so, after six years together, four of them married, it was over, just like a neutron bomb, and that irony was not lost on me at all. While I knew that we had grown apart in some ways, and while I knew that our life had not been what it could have been in the past couple of years, I never saw that coming. It was the emotional sucker punch of the century, and to say that it stung is to understate it by at least several degrees. Suddenly, all of the evenings going out to do “some errands” for two or three hours started to paint a different picture than the one that I blithely assumed at the time. And the out-of-town trips to visit her sick mother for the weekend. And the phone conversations that frequently had her getting up and walking to another room while she talked. And so on. Looking back, I was a dope in many ways. But at the same time, thinking about it all made me seethe sometimes. I never have had much time for those who would deceive me, even though deception has been a part of my stock-in-trade over the years, and being deceived myself really gave me cause for pause.

While my history with Mary was significantly shorter than the one that I shared with Jane, it had been intense in a way that usually only the middle-aged among us can fully understand: this was supposed to be a mature love, a grown-up love, a love that involved that last third of life, where we had made all of the stupid mistakes that people make before, and that now we were finally old enough, and wise enough, to enjoy each other and spend time together and watch our kids all become adults and start lives of their own. It was supposed to be a time to reflect, not on our shortcomings, which we both knew well enough, but on our successes and on the things we were proudest of having done, or having not done, as the case might be.

Jane and I had been married for nearly 16 years, had three beautiful daughters together, and had known each other for over 25 as I got out of my car and started heading up the brick walkway to the door. There was a lot of history behind that door, as I approached it, and knocked, even though, because of the girls, I still had a key. I always knocked. Jane opened the door, and then the storm door.

“Hey, come on in. I’m glad you came over,” she said, walking backwards a little as I entered the foyer. “You want a beer? I’m having some wine. You want a glass of wine?”

“A beer’ll do just fine, Jane. Just fine,” I replied slowly. She always had wine, to start out with, and I always had beer. I had no intention of this going any longer than a beer, anyway. I walked into the living room and picked a chair and sat down, immediately lighting the first cigarette. Jane walked in with my beer and her glass of wine, and sat on the sofa across from me.

“So what’s on your mind, this afternoon, Jane?” I saw no reason for beating around the bush, since she had called me the day before to ask me to come over.

“Well, I just wanted to find out how things are going with you, how you’re doing, that’s all. Just check in, ya know?” This was a deepening mystery already, and I had not been there for ten minutes. I took a long drag on my cigarette.

“I’m doing okay, I guess. I’m getting along. God knows I’ve been worse, at one time or another. Why the sudden interest in how I’m doing?” Again, let’s cut to the chase here, baby, let’s cut to the chase.

“Well, I’m just concerned, is all. I mean, we are raising the girls, and whatever is gone between us, you are still their dad, and so I worry about you sometimes,” she said as she lit up her cigarette. She took a good long drink from her wine glass. “You know, how you are doing affects how you are generally, and the girls always know when you are upset or not doing well, and that impacts them because they love you and they want you to be happy.” This was getting curiouser and curiouser, as Dr. Seuss would say, and I resisted a momentary urge to ask Jane why, if the girls were worried about me, they weren’t there.

“I appreciate your concern, but it’s my marriage, and I’ll handle it. I’ll do my best not to let it affect the girls. They’ve seemed fine to me in last couple of months,” I said as I took a long drink from my beer.

Jane looked me square in the eyes, with those chocolate browns that had disarmed me so many thousands of times before. It was truly her favorite tactic, and I was impressed that she still had it going on. “I guess, I guess I just wanted to make sure that you didn’t make the same mistake this time that you made with me,” she said, draining her wine glass.

Now I have, over the years, been in more professional situations that I care to recount where I have been momentarily stunned, but my training and my instincts had always taken over, saving what could have been disaster. But in my personal life, for reasons that remain unclear to me, I have never been that quick. “The same mistake this time that I made with you? What the hell are you talking about? How much of that wine have you had?”

“Not enough, I’m going to get a refill. Need another cold one?” Actually, I realized that I had finished my beer without realizing it. “Yeah, another one would be good.” She got up and went to the kitchen. The same mistake this time that I made with her? What mistake? What the hell was going on here? Where is she going with this?

She reappeared a few moments later, restocked. “Here you go, Alan,” she said as she handed me another beer. Having not been able to answer the questions in my head in such a short timespan, I decided to continue to dive in, although I was worried about what lay just beneath the surface, as any good diver knows. “I’m not at all sure I understand what you’re talking about, Jane? What mistake this time that I made with you?”

She hit me with the chocolate browns again. Shit. Nothing good comes from this. “The mistake . . . the mistake of just giving up, of just walking away, of just letting it go.” She was having more than a little trouble getting her words out, and I noticed suddenly that I was breathing a little harder than I had moments before.

“You mean about us? You mean about our marriage breaking up?” I asked, incredulous that after nearly 10 years that this subject was coming up. This was the abso-fucking-lutely last thing that I had been expecting. The last thing. And in my head, I heard: What. The. Fuck.

Jane said, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Us. There used to be an ‘us,’ remember? It wasn’t all that long ago.” Every muscle that I had, and a couple that I did not use very often, clenched. The lightning quick tightening almost pushed me out of the chair.

While I was trying to think of a response adequate enough to bother trying to push out of my mouth, Jane continued: “When we separated, you just quit on ‘us.’ You just gave up. You didn’t make any effort to see if . . . if maybe things could have worked out differently, if maybe we could have worked things out, if we could have found a way to stay together. You didn’t try to woo me back, you didn’t try to wine me and dine me, you just . . . you just stopped. And then, after a little while, I decided that you weren’t going to try, and so I moved on without you.”

I had been in enough situations where your heart involuntarily starts racing to know that I needed to pace myself with my response to these totally unexpected words coming from Jane. Still, with all of my training, and most of my wits, I had to work really hard at it for a few moments. Jane, after all, my rational, big boy self said inside my head, was quite happily married to husband number three, who, while initially having presented himself as someone that I would truly have loved to stomp to death with my work boots, turned out to be a nice guy, a good stepdad, and maybe even somebody who, under entirely different circumstances, I might have liked to go out with and toss back a few. “Let me see if I have this straight, Jane,” I finally replied. “Are you saying that we might have stayed together if I had come after you? Is that really what you are saying here? Because this is the first that I have ever heard of this. The first. Are you anything even remotely approaching serious, or are you just having some fun?”

Again, with the chocolate browns: “Alan, I’m being serious about it. And I don’t want to see you blow it with Mary the way you blew it with me. I just wanted to try to get that through to you, so that you could do things differently this time, do things differently by doing something with her. You didn’t do anything when we were separated except lick your wounds and act pathetic. I sometimes wish that you had. Sometimes, Alan, I really think that you could have been a contender. But you didn’t do anything, you just gave up on us. And when I realized that, all of a sudden Matt came along, he came into my life, and I moved on. I had to, I needed someone, and I needed to be happy with someone, and he was there, and you were, you were wherever you were, but that wasn’t here.”

Weird is not a strong enough word for what I was feeling. More like surreal. More like I am watching some stupid chick flick, except this time I am in a starring role. This made absurd seem quite reasonable. While I wasn’t completely sure of what I was feeling, I knew that I didn’t need any recitation of how she met Matt, any more than I needed her telling me at this late date that I had ever stood a chance of keeping our marriage together. The only thing that I was starting to feel sure about was that I needed to get out of there, and soon. “Well, I appreciate your concern, Jane, and I want to say thanks for your advice, but as I’ve said before, it’s my marriage, and I’ll handle it, however it needs to be handled. And I really mean that it is sweet of you to think about how I am doing with all of this, it really is, but I will take care of it. Really. I will be okay.” I got up, surprised that I felt a little lightheaded for just a split second, but thought nothing of it considering what she had just said to me, and after a couple of beers to boot.

Jane stood up, a tiny little wobble to her from two glasses of wine, at least. “Alan, please, just think about what I said. Just try to take it to heart, okay? If you need someone to talk to about it all, just know that you can call me, okay?” She had turned up the chocolate browns again, looking for my eyes, which I was averting out of instinct. Once burned, twice shy, as they say.

“Sure, Jane, and thanks, I appreciate it. Really I do. But I’ve got to go. I have some stuff I need to get to . . . .” I heard my voice trailing off, as if it was coming from someone else. I walked to the front door, leaving Jane standing there near the sofa. “I’ll talk to you. Bye,” I said as I fumbled like a kid with the door handle.

“Okay, Alan. Take care of yourself. Bye,” Jane said as she approached the door to close it after me. I stepped outside and the sun had started its daily descent, ever so slowly sinking behind the treetops. I got in the car and just sat for a minute or two, just trying to collect my thoughts.

And then I drove. I drove all around, thinking. Thinking about the bombshell that Jane had dropped on me about us. Thinking about what her motive really was, and then wondering if she had any motive at all, thinking that maybe she just really did still care about me. Trying desperately to put it all together, to come up with some sort of rational explanation that would allow me to absorb all of it as being something even approaching real life. My mind wandered through all of the years that Jane and I had been together, all of the good times and all of the not-so-good times and all of the bad times. The bad times really did suck, regardless which one of us was mostly responsible for them. And I finally decided, right or wrong, that Jane probably didn’t have any ulterior motive, that she was just trying to be helpful, and that she really did care about me, and I let all of that go out of my head.

Then at some point, I started thinking about me and Mary. Remembering how she had just walked out on me, with hardly a word, even as I watched her pack up her things and casually load up her rented truck. I remembered that incredibly sharp sense of loss when I returned to the house later that July day, after she had packed everything up and left. How everything of hers was gone, and everything of mine was left behind, a little like a neutron bomb. She took the cats too, all four of them. The house was not empty, but empty enough to feel like it was some kind of a tomb, and it had no sounds of cat bells, no noise from televisions, no people just in the next room, just me, feeling exhausted, feeling emotionally raped, feeling so totally alone. Every step I took on the hardwood floors had an echo to it, or at least it seemed that way to me. That first night alone in the house was a long one, and I stayed up way later than I should have, sitting in the middle of a silence that was far too silent, far too surreal.

And as I continued to drive, I thought about the days and weeks after. How the hurt and pain had nearly overwhelmed me. How I struggled each day to put one foot in front of the other, how I desperately tried to develop some sort of optimism about the future for me and Mary, even after we met for coffee in late August, and it became clear that she was not interested in trying again, in even trying to try. And how I had tried my best to put on a good face for my girls, which I am sure was not very convincing to them. They were all pretty intuitive, and had seen into my eyes, much like I imagine Jane did earlier. That vacant, dull look that even blue eyes as blue as mine could not mask. That hollowed out look that people who have been mortally wounded always have.

As the weeks passed, and the pain fell into that backseat that we all have where we put things that we would rather not deal with, but can’t really get rid of either, I became aware, ever so gradually, of the anger, the bitterness, the resentment, beginning to grow inside of me. Not a rage, not a firestorm, but a deep, simmering, slow burn. An anger unlike any that I had felt before, just below the surface, always present, but never flaring.

And as I drove, the feeling of that anger started coming back fresh, back from where it had slumbered, and started rising to the surface again, as it had the week before when I suddenly found myself thinking about Mary as I was packing boxes and sorting through junk, preparing for us to put the house up for sale. It was almost as if it were a new emotion, one that I had not experienced before, although after not very long, I recognized its face as a familiar occupant of my head.

After a while, I found myself in front of the house that Mary had leased back in July when she left me, parking my car as if I was arriving for a visit. And I sat there for a few minutes as dusk overtook the sky, and I marveled for a moment at how magical the sky looks at dusk. And I thought about what Jane had said, and I thought about what Mary had done, and I thought of all the various chapters of my life, all of my checkered past, professionally and personally. And on balance, I thought, not so bad. Not so great some times, but overall, not so bad. Except for Mary. That had been uncalled for, and I had not deserved that kind of treatment. And as I sat, I felt the anger start its slow burn inside me again, I felt its heat, I felt its swelling presence, I felt it creeping into my head like a nervous cat entering a room, and I realized that I was struggling to breathe.

I got out of the car, and noticed that the lights had come on in Mary’s house, and wasn’t quite sure why I hadn’t noticed that while I had been sitting in the car. I wobbled a little as I walked up the sidewalk a little way, not unbalanced, but not fully in control either. So I stood there for a full minute or more, and pulled myself together. Then, very casually, but with great effort, I hit the tripwire, turned, and got back into my car, and managed to drive away. The two hours on the timer would be more than enough time to get to Fredericksburg, establish my alibi, and wait for the news. And of course, the force of the explosion, contrary to what you may have seen on television, would be more than enough to obliterate the timer and the tripwire, so I would be free and clear, once again. Even though I was blowing it again.

A contender.

November 21, 2007.

Copyright © 2007, Ricky A. Pursley. All rights reserved.

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