Copyright is held by the author.
SARAH SMOOTHED her blond bob as she came down the stairs, her hand pausing briefly on her chest to check the position of the glossy, coloured stones on her necklace. Her husband Will had just opened a beer and was sprawled on the couch in the living room, his tattered t-shirt pulled partway over his rounded stomach, revealing the deep crater of his belly button surrounded by coarse black hairs.
“Lookin’ good, hot stuff!” he commented upon seeing her. “Dressing up just for me?”
Standing over him, Sarah tapped her watch. “We have to meet the Jacobs in about a half hour, and Jennifer always looks so put together.”
Will took a long swig of his beer. “Do we really have to go? Cause I’m miiiighty comfy here by the fire.”
“Yes, of course we have to go. It’s just the four of us for dinner and we never get to see Jeremy and Jennifer anymore.” Sarah sighed, pouring herself a glass of wine.
“And since Jennifer always looks so ‘put together,’ I suppose I have to shower?”
It was an effort not to groan. “It would be nice. You’re looking a little greasy.”
Will ran his fingers through his hair, catching a tuft between two fingers and molding it to stick up straight, like grey mohawk. “Awww, c’mon, I took a shower last week.” He smiled broadly at her, but she kept her eyes on her glass. “C’mon, I know you want me.” He grinned, moving closer as Sarah sat on the other side of the couch.
“Ewww.” She moved farther into the corner, her face burning slightly at her juvenile reaction. “Surprise me with another shower.” Sarah leaned her head back on the couch and closed her eyes. “Soap this time would be helpful.”
“Okay, okay, just let me enjoy the quiet of the empty house and the fire with my beautiful wife.”
Sarah felt a slight squeezing around her chest at the term, “my beautiful wife.” Not only did she not feel beautiful, but the possessiveness of the term made it hard to breathe. She didn’t move.
“It is nice to have both kids gone for the weekend at the same time, “ she said with a sigh.
Jackson and Maisie were in New York with Will’s parents. Will had wanted to spend a weekend away with Sarah, but the thought of just the two of them, without the distractions and routines of home left Sarah jittery.
“And to catch up with Jeremy and Jennifer!” Will widened his eyes with mock excitement and smirked. “It’s always so great to hear what superstars their kids are. I hope they’ll list every award and accomplishment.”
“C’mon, that’s more Jeremy than Jennifer.” Sarah had to smile slightly. “And they are our oldest friends. I never would have survived Jackson’s first year without Jennifer. We got each other through it.”
“And to think we thought we were superior parents because Jackson slept through the night before Bixby.”
“Ha-ha.” Sarah enunciated. “Just because Jackson will never be considered for hockey at Harvard or start a safe house tutoring program doesn’t mean he doesn’t have talents.”
Sarah threw a pillow at him as he drained his beer.
“Just promise you won’t start up some plan to improve the family tomorrow . . .”
Sarah rolled her eyes as he laughed to himself and climbed the stairs to shower.
Sarah and Will were only a few minutes late to dinner at the Meeting House, but found Jeremy and Jennifer tucked into a back booth with four drinks set perfectly on the table.
“The sign of a true friend!” Sarah smiled at Jennifer, upon eyeing the wine. “You know just how to start the night off right!” The women hugged and air kissed. A faint tremor of self-consciousness fluttered through Sarah as she took in Jennifer. She was casually dressed, as always, but she had a confidently tied blue scarf around her neck setting her blue eyes ablaze. There was something fresh and awake in her face, a lightness that seemed to lift away her middle-aged lines and illuminate her from within. Sarah couldn’t quite place the difference, but felt she was somehow in the presence of someone on the brink of some exciting adventure.
“Did you go someplace warm?” Sarah asked.
“Not unless you can call Christmas in New Jersey warm!”
“You look great! Did you do something? Your hair maybe?”
Jennifer just laughed and shook her head, her eyes twinkling all the more. “That’s why I need to see you more often!”
“So, how is your weekend without the kids going?” Jeremy asked as they sat down.
“It’s only been a few hours; the party is just getting started.” Will picked up his beer and drained the glass in one, long gulp.
“Will!” Sarah’s cheeks flushed. “Really?”
“All right!” Jeremy lifted his glass and followed suit.
“Looks like we’re driving.” Jennifer looked at Sarah and winked.
With great effort, Sarah stretched her lips across her face in what she hoped looked like a smile.
Will put his beer glass down and burped.
“Lovely,” Sarah’s fake smile quickly collapsed.
Jeremy and Jennifer laughed heartily, though Jennifer did cast a sympathetic eye towards Sarah.
“So, how is the art appraisal business going?”
“Well, you know, moving along.” Jennifer spun her fingers around each other like a wheel. “Lots of people dying, leaving lots of art to appraise.”
Sarah nodded knowingly, though she didn’t really understand much about what an art appraiser did, nor how Jennifer, in particular, had decided to become one. It was at one of these dinners a few years ago that she’d whispered excitedly to Sarah that she was taking classes at RISD.
“What’s RISD?” Sarah had asked blankly.
Jennifer had laughed and said, “Rhode Island School of Design! I’m in a certification program for art appraisal!”
A hollow feeling had opened inside Sarah that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. She’d had the same emptiness when she was 13 and her best friend had gotten her period and no longer wanted to play pretend games at recess.
“So interesting,” she murmured now, shrugging off the memory. “How is Lilly doing with the harp?” Maisie and Lilly had picked up the instrument at the same time, but Maisie had quit long ago. The last Sarah heard, Lilly was on a campaign to do the same.
At this Jeremy turned from his conversation with Will and joined in.
“Spectacular,” he inserted. “She’ll be playing at Symphony Hall next week.”
“Really?” Will and Sarah responded together.
“Her orchestra won districts, so Symphony Hall it is!” Jeremy sat up straight and his grin spread broadly across his face.
A familiar void opened rapidly from Sarah’s gut, unrolling slowly from her belly to her chest. Her eyes burned slightly, so she lifted her wine glass and took another drink, surprised to see her glass was almost empty. Why does this upset me? She thought. I’m the one who couldn’t stand the fighting to practice and let Maisie quit . . . But she’d always grappled with the sense that she was doing everything wrong. Even worse, that other people actually accomplished the things she only thought about. At times, she wondered if she had some secret power that enabled someone close to her to have exactly what she wanted.
In high school she’d developed a major crush on John Blackwell and dreamed of receiving a Valentine Rose from him. The fantasy has sustained her for days, so by the time Valentine’s Day came around the rose was a certainty in her mind. And when the door had opened during US History class and a rose from John was presented to . . . Laura Miles, her best friend at the time, she’d pretended her tears were of surprise and joy for her friend.
“And how are Maisie and Jackson?” Jennifer, catching Sarah’s eye, quickly interjected.
“Oh,” Sarah was caught off guard. “Fine. Same old, same old.” No fucking instruments or talents to be found.
“Jackson is still hoping to figure out a way to get into college by playing video games and Maisie is still making sure she doesn’t do any more than what is required of her . . .” Sarah caught the smirk on Will’s face and the emptiness inside filled rapidly with a hot fire of hate.
“That’s not true!” Even she was surprised by the edge in her voice. “Jackson works hard at school and has been designing video games, learning that programming language. And Maisie does well in school, she’s on the swim team and . . .” the words were flying from her mouth before she could form a whole thought and she found herself running out of breath.
Jennifer jumped in, “It’s all in how you frame it, Will. Jeremy is happy to tell you that Lilly is playing the Harp at Symphony Hall but what he hasn’t told you about are the nights we’ve almost come to blows to get her to practice and the tears and dry heaves she gets before every performance!”
Sarah was awed by Jennifer’s ability to intuit the essence of a problem and instantly zero in on the correct form of treatment. Right now, this made Sarah feel even more isolated and lonely. Not only was she jealous of her oldest friend, but her friend was trying to make her feel better for it.
“Moving on . . .” Jeremy picked up his menu. “We should probably decide what we want to order.”
Conversation about their children was kept to a minimum for the rest of dinner. The bulk of their conversation centered on what cable shows they were currently streaming and dissecting each one. Sarah and Jennifer discussed Downton Abbey while Will and Jeremy discussed a documentary on Scientology. They all discussed Breaking Bad, though Will hadn’t actually watched the entire series.
When dinner was over and desserts discussed, Jeremy and Jennifer looked at each other. Jeremy took a deep breath and said, “We have news for you.”
Sarah’s heart triple beat. If Bixby had gotten into Harvard she would throw up.
“You’re not pregnant are you?” Will boomed.
“God no!” Jennifer smiled. “Nothing like that!” She looked at Jeremy again and then said, very slowly. “Jeremy and I have decided to consciously uncouple.”
The words landed heavily on the table, leaving a wide border around them. Sarah and Will stared.
Will was the first to speak. “What the hell is that?”
The drumming in Sarah’s chest was so hard she put her hand absently to her chest as though to keep it inside.
“Isn’t that what Gwyneth Paltrow and that singer guy did?”
“Yes, well, its actually a real thing,” Jeremy said smoothly. “The idea is that we’re two adults,’ inextricably bound by history and our children.’” He actually used air quotes! “But we don’t want to stay married.” He shrugged. “It’s not that we don’t still care for each other, and we don’t want to make things hard for the kids. We just don’t want to spend the rest of our lives together.” He wagged his pointer finger between himself and Jennifer.
“You’re kidding . . .” Will nodded his head confidently. But Jeremy and Jennifer both smiled and shook their heads.
“But . . . why?” Thoughts and ideas were swirling in Sarah’s mind, but she couldn’t seem to isolate a single one.
“Well, you know, we haven’t been happy together,” again with the finger encompassing the two of them, “for a long time. She does her thing, I do mine.”
“But, that’s just the way it is . . . you’ve got kids, they’ll be gone soon, you’re just busy now . . .”Sarah’s voice was pleading.
“That’s exactly it!” Jennifer slapped a hand on the table. “We were having this conversation a few months ago about what it would be like once Lilly goes off to college, and he says he wants to downsize and move into the city, but I want to start exploring my own art and work on our garden and it just hit us. We don’t want the same things, and we don’t want to compromise ourselves anymore.”
“Compromise yourselves anymore? Is that what you’ve been doing?” Will voice was low and even, a tone Sarah recognized that always made her stomach churn and put her at high alert.
“Well . . .” Jennifer looked Will in the eye. “Yes. Isn’t that what marriage is? We compromise for each other and for our kids, but suddenly we realized we didn’t want to compromise for each other anymore.”
“I just can’t believe this.”Sarah sat back. “How does this work? Aren’t you just saying you’re getting a divorce?”
“Actually . . .” Jeremy’s eyes lit up and he leaned forward, “while it does involve divorce it’s really a more gradual and intentional process. Right now we’re no longer a couple, but we live together. So we need to be able to live together respectfully. When it feels right—”
“When it feels right?” Will’s voice was rising.
“Yes, when it feels right we’ll all look for a place for me to move into. Close by, so the kids can go back and forth.”
“So, how do you know when it feels right? Do you all sit around meditating until a light turns on telling you to move out?” Sarah noticed the muscles of Will’s jaw bulging slightly, his eyes opaque. “That’s ridiculous.”
Will sat back and crossed his arms staring straight ahead. Sarah leaned in slightly.
“Look, I know it’s hard for you—” Jennifer began.
“Hmmph,” Will’s eyes focused on the wall just behind and above Jeremy and Jennifer’s heads. “Hard for me? Not my problem. It’s your life.”
Sarah couldn’t help but roll her eyes at Will’s response. “Will, you’re obviously upset—”
“I’m not upset. What the hell do I care? I’m not the one fucking up 20 years of marriage.”
“I just don’t understand . . .” Sarah opted to ignore Will. “You guys always seemed so . . . so . . .” her voice was taut. Jeremy and Jennifer were the couple she wanted to be. They rarely fought, at least not in front of others. They heartily applauded the other’s accomplishments. Christ, they even said please and thank you regularly to each other! “I don’t know. Perfect. How could this happen?”
“You’re quitting!” Will’s eyes didn’t move from the wall. “Taking the easy way out.”
“Will, please . . .” Sarah put her hand on his arm. “Let them talk…don’t say that.”
“What? Am I wrong?”
“I wouldn’t say divorce is the easy way out and why are you taking this so personally?”
Will’s face was red, and droplets of sweat were forming on his forehead. “I’m not taking it personally. They’re our friends and they’re making a huge mistake. Why don’t you care?” Spit sprayed across the table.
“Don’t do this,” Sarah warned. “Don’t make this about you—”
“Oh, shut up, Sarah.” His eyes were narrowing at her. “I don’t think it’s about me—”
“Guys, come on . . .” Jennifer’s voice adopted the flat tone of a preschool teacher. “Let’s just all calm down.” She laid her hands out flat on the table as though to smooth it out. “Will, I know you’re surprised and I see that you’re upset. This is not something we’ve decided lightly, and our decision is final. We just hope you’ll support us through this change.”
“Jeez, did that come straight from a pamphlet?” Will’s breathy voice simulated Jennifer’s. “‘We hope you’ll support us through this change.’ Did you get that from Gwyneth’s website?”
Jennifer sat back and closed her mouth. Jeremy motioned for the check.
“Obviously, this is very upsetting for you,” he said, counting out the cash. “Hopefully you’ll calm down enough to move on from this.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Will muttered as he stood to leave and walked steadily out of the restaurant.
Sarah sat for a moment, her vision blurring and her mind blank. “I . . . I . . . he’ll come around . . . I just don’t know what to say . . .” And she followed Will out the door.
Will had already started the car and was revving the engine when Sarah caught up to him in the parking lot. She opened the door and leaned in.
“Can I drive?” Her heart was pounding unpleasantly and the world around her still behind a curtain of water.
“Just get in the car.” He kept his eyes straight ahead.
Sarah took a deep breath. She did not want to get into a screaming match right here in the parking lot, but she knew those fierce eyes and flexing jaws only too well. “Please . . .” Her eyes were ready to overflow now, and her voice was shaking. “Just let me drive, or turn off the car so we can talk.”
He revved the engine again, then pulled the keys from the ignition and threw them at Sarah.
They hit her in the forehead before landing in the seat where she grabbed them. Keys in hand, rage rose inside her.
She walked to the driver side of the car as Will slid over the gearshift to the passenger seat. “What did I do?”
Will took a deep breath and turned to face her. “I’m not mad at you,” he said.
This was the dance routine of their fights. Will would explode with anger, then apologize and think everything could go back to normal, leaving Sarah bubbling with fury. “What the hell is your problem? Its not like they’re getting a divorce from you.”
“Conscious Uncoupling? Really? How fucking arrogant can you be?”
“Why does that bother you so much?”
“Why don’t they just call it what it is?” There was still fire behind his eyes, but his voice was almost pleading. “And what’s so bad? Huh? They don’t want to compromise? Do they really think that’ll make them happier?”
“Maybe they do. I just don’t get why you’re so angry at them.”
Will leaned his head against the headrest. “I don’t know. Jeremy is just so fucking confident all the time. They decide this thing and they’re all happy, happy! Seriously. They get along better than any couple I know. There’s got to be more to the story.”
Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe, or maybe it was just time to call it.”
Sarah wondered how anyone knew when a marriage was over. So many times she’d imagined kicking Will, with his greasy hair, bad jokes and fiery temper, out of the house. She fantasized about life as a single mother, of having one less person to demand anything of her.
Sarah turned the key in the ignition and started to drive.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sarah startled slightly at Will’s question.
“What’s what supposed to mean?”
“‘Time to call it.’ Like it’s a game with a time limit.”
“Will, seriously.” Sarah groaned. “I’m really not up for a fight tonight. It’s just an expression.”
She could feel his eyes fixed on her, and kept hers deliberately straight ahead.
“You’re just waiting for the expiration aren’t you? You’ve been uncoupling for years.”
Eyes on the road, Sarah kept her mouth shut. The words filled the car like thick, poisonous gas. She knew she should say something, but couldn’t get her mind around the fact that Will had just put into words what she’d held secretly in her mind for so long.
Sarah watched the sun rise through her bedroom window, shocked at how long it took to finally pop over the horizon, and registering a slight disappointment at the matter of factness of it. There was no rosy glow or moment of suspense before its light began casting long shadows from the trees in her yard. It just happened. It was dark, and then it was light.
She rolled over and her brain sloshed inside her skull, pain echoing from one side to the other. Her eyes burned, but closing them brought no relief. She supposed she must have fallen asleep at some point, shut out the fighting and crying from the night before, but her body throbbed with exhaustion. She replayed the images over and over in her head.
Admitting she’d thought of leaving him.
Anger flashing in his eyes.
His words like bullets: “You’re a bitch . . . a cold, cold bitch. No one else will ever put up with you.”
Watching him pack his bag. Wanting to say something, but unable to speak.
The car screeching down the driveway into silence.
She put the pillow over her head. What have I done? Did I really want that to happen?
The other side of the bed was empty. This was real. Will was gone and she was alone.
She felt like she should call someone, but she didn’t know who. She and Will would have to tell the kids when they got home. Oh, God, the kids, and Will’s parents, and her parents. She’d have to tell them all. Her throat tightened as though she were being strangled, but just as panic was setting in, her airway opened, she inhaled and let out huge sobs emitting unearthly sounds.
This was a mistake! Of course it was. How could she do this after 20 years? And Will was right. She was a cold bitch and no one would ever want to be with her.
She sat up suddenly, her vision darkening briefly at the swift change of position, and searched for her phone. She could make this better. It could just go away. They’d avoided talking about their marriage for this long, maybe she could just take it all back. Blame the alcohol. Blame the Jacobs. They had to smooth this over.
It was only 6:30 in the morning, but she couldn’t wait. She found her phone still in the back pocket of her jeans and called Will’s number, only to hear it ring from the nightstand next to the bed. She stood up and paced. Of course he left his phone. Typical.
She couldn’t sit still, bursting with words that needed release. She didn’t know where to find Will, so set about showering, making the bed and doing her best to replicate normalcy. Every few minutes, she looked out the window and searched the street for Will’s car. Where would he have gone? To a hotel? To his parents? Did he sleep in his car? She put his phone in her pocket, knowing he’d return once he realized it was gone.
By 10 o’clock Sarah was having trouble keeping her eyes open, but fought the urge to let her lids close and surrender to sleep. Her earlier panic was turning into excitement. She was listing the ways she’d make it up to him. She’d grill steaks and make his favourite apple strudel, they’d sit by the fire to eat and go to bed early. They still had some time to enjoy their empty house, to recover ground after last night.
She was working on cleaning the refrigerator when she heard the car come up the driveway. She almost hit her head on the corner cabinet as she ran to the door, flung it open and ran into Will’s arms.
“I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” She sobbed. He stood stiffly, his arms still by his side. “Will, I don’t know what was wrong with me, I didn’t mean it. Really. I love you and I can’t imagine life without you.”
Wordlessly, he unwrapped himself from her arms and stepped back. His eyes were red above puffy, wrinkled skin, but his face was blank. Not angry. Not sad. Blank.
“No, you’re not sorry,” he said simply. “You were right. We’ve been avoiding this for too long. But it’s time to call it.”
Stepping back, the world spun a bit. Sarah looked hard into Will’s eyes. “No, no. Really. I didn’t mean it. Maybe things haven’t been perfect, but they’re okay. Maybe we just need to see someone.”
Will shook his head, a vague sadness in his eyes. “I’ve gone over this in my mind all night. I think Jeremy and Jennifer are on to something. Maybe that’s why I got so upset.” He shrugged, “They thought of it before me.”
“Will . . .” Was he joking? Had he finally come up with a new joke and this was it? She studied his face, but it remained still and, almost, apologetic.
“This doesn’t have to be nasty, Sarah.”
It doesn’t have to be nasty. Sarah turned the words over in her mind, studied them from every angle. It doesn’t have to be nasty, but that is exactly how it feels.
A month later, Sarah’s home phone was ringing as she returned from the grocery store.
“How are you?” Jennifer’s voice cooed from the other end.
It seemed she’d spent weeks unable to get out a sentence without crying. “Oh, I’m OK,” Sarah rested the phone in the crook of her neck as she unloaded the grocery bags. “You know, getting used to the new normal.”
“So he’s moved out? Where is he?”
“He found a little condo on the other side of town. A little closer to work, but the kids can get there easily after school.” She was surprised that her voice remained steady as she spoke.
“And Jackson and Maisie?”
“They are taking it all remarkably well. Right now they love going to his house because he doesn’t have a curfew.”
“Wow, so many changes.” Jennifer chuckled lightly. “I’ve got some news too.”
“What’s that?” Sarah was absently loading eggs and bread into the refrigerator.
“Jeremy and I have decided to stay together.”
Sarah froze, her heart in her stomach. “What?”
“I know, you’re probably ready to kill me. But that dinner we had — you know that night — really got us thinking. Why? Did we really need to do something so drastic?”
Sarah was aware of the phone still tucked into her shoulder as she stood in the cool air of the refrigerator. She shivered. “Really?”
“Yes, really. We even took a beach vacation without the kids and had an amazing time.”
Sarah took the phone in her hand and stared at the receiver. Jennifer’s disembodied voice filled the room with words like beach, massage, and cocktails as Sarah walked to the counter and put the phone firmly in its cradle.
Some people just don’t know when to call it.