Life in Exile
This is just a short little thing about a meeting of two friends. I started wondering what a man goes through a year after the painful collapse to a loving marriage. Does he move on? Does he start over? Does the pain ever go away? I suspect the answer varies with the man. This brief day in a life is an examination of that question for one man in one situation who is trying to be whole again and failing badly. The BTB crowd is going to hate this story. The RAAC crowd won't be any happier. There is no sex here.
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It had been a pleasant evening and I had smiled and laughed for what seems like the first time in a year. Old friends will do that for a man and for just one fleeting evening it was as if the events of the past year had never happened. Old friends leave a place in your heart that remains when they're gone and when you see them again, even if after a long time apart, they are the part that fits that space perfectly and it's like they never left.
In fact, they hadn't left. I left. I packed up one day, gathered together the few possessions that were most important to me, and I left.
You need to know me, to live with me for a very long time, to fully understand what that statement means. I am the man who forms attachments. When I buy a car, I keep it until it won't drive another mile. It fits me and it feels right. I don't just buy a house; I inhabit it. I bond with it. The walls become my fortress and the ground around it nurtures me. My job becomes my avocation. I rise in the morning with excitement and go to bed at night with satisfaction in a day well spent. My friends are everything to me and my family is foremost in all things. And yet, here I am a thousand miles from the place that I called home just one year ago. I left my home, I left my job, and most important of all I left my wife.
I didn't exactly disappear. I just decided to leave without warning and told no one. I wasn't hiding and in time I responded to their emails and text messages, eventually answering the phone calls and speaking to those I'd left behind. I resisted their pleas to return and made a break with my old life, starting anew.
Today, for this one day, all that fell away. Gene MacDonald was my friend and had been my friend through it all. We'd grown up together, went to school together, married sisters, and had lived just a mile apart. He was in town for just one night, passing from New York to Boston on work. He rolled into town late the night before and took a hotel room by the highway. Gene was considerate that way. This morning he was at my front door at 7:30 AM with two coffees and that mischievous grin I knew too well. I answered the door in my boxers.
"Well, are we getting breakfast or are you going to stand there and pick your ass all day?" Gene had a way with words.
I held my hand out. "Want to smell?"
"Fuck! You asshole. No, I don't want to smell. Put some pants on. I want to get some breakfast. And wash your damn hands! In fact, take a shower and wash your damn ass while you're at it. I don't want to be smelling you all through breakfast."
Ladies, if you're reading this, I'm sorry, but this is what guys say and do when you are not around. You don't need to like it. Just try to ignore it. We will behave better when you see us. Well, most of the time...
I have one of those apartments that some affluent people build over their garage when they want to have someone around to look after the place while they travel to expensive and exotic places. I know that sounds bitter. The truth is that the Smiths (that really is their name) are good people who earned what they have and are generous to others. I was looking for a small and simple place. My needs were minimal and this way I didn't have loud neighbors in the next apartment yelling and screwing and throwing wild-ass parties day and night. So Gene was able to make himself comfortable in the living room (1 sofa, 1 chair, and a kitchen table that doubled as my desk) while I showered, and we called out to each other.
"So, how you getting on up here? Is Providence all that you hoped it would be?"
"Smart ass." I muttered to myself. "Yeah! The liquor is cheap, and the women are easy if you don't mind a little chest hair." I heard him coughing through the wall. Score one for me.
"Hell, that image is going to stay with me..."
The day was looking up. I guess by now you've figured that Gene and I aren't your prim and proper, haute cuisine types, so I took him to my favorite diner in a small town outside the city. The crowd was more agreeable, the food was better, and the coffee was darker.
"So, what are you doing these days? How's the new job? You making friends?"
"Who the hell are you, my mother? Yeah, the job is good. I've made a few friends, or at least I have some people that don't make me run the other way when I see them."
"Are you doing anything for fun?"
"No, mom, but I'm keeping my nose clean."
"I told you to stop doing that. It's disgusting."
I just smiled and shook my head as I stared at my plate. This man, this friend, worked with some top-flight engineers and businessmen, but you'd never guess it to listen to him. He could turn it on and turn it off like a chameleon blending in with his surroundings.
"Come on, I've got twelve, maybe fourteen hours tops, before I need to crash, get a night's sleep, and hit the road when the sun comes up. What are you going to do to entertain me?"
"Well, there are a bunch of gay bars downtown. I know where they are, but I've never been there."
He was shaking his head. "Nope. Claire is very strict about that. It's her ass and nobody else's."
"Would you please? I love your wife. I don't need to hear that."
He was chuckling while he picked through his plate of brewer's hash and eggs. This guy, this irreverent jackass, adored his wife the same way I once adored my own.
"I got some news for you."
"If it's what I think it is, I don't need to hear it."
"No, no, not that. Claire is pregnant."
Well, that was all I needed to hear. I let out a scream and jumped to my feet. Pulling him from his chair and throwing him into a bear hug, I shouted, "You son of a bitch! When were you going to tell me!"
He was laughing like the fool he is, and we had attracted the attention of everyone in the diner. The parents with kids weren't too thrilled with my outburst. I looked around the room and said in a loud voice, "Can you believe it? They'll let anybody become a father now!" That drew smiles and a round of applause as we sat back down to our table.
"Really, Henry, you embarrass me sometimes with your inappropriate behavior..." He had to clear his throat to keep from choking. "What kind of role model are you going to be for your godchild?"
"What? Godchild? Really?"
Gene just shirked his head to the side and raised his fork in the manner people do as if to say, "Of course. Who else?" There was that grin again. "Claire insists. I tried to talk her out of it, but you know what she can be like when she makes up her mind."
There was no question about it. This day was starting out to be the best day I'd had in a year.
Gene and I grew up around the water. We fished the docks and haunted the boat yards as kids. When we were old enough, our fathers bought us an old Snipe sailboat in need of a lot of work. The four of us spent that winter rebuilding and refinishing the hull, mending the sails, and replacing the lines. We were able to build a boat before we learned how to sail it. We studied our knots, learned the language, and read the sailing books. Much to our mothers' dismay, our fathers had us out sailing in early spring long before the warming water made a capsize even remotely safe. Sailing became more than a hobby; it was a way of life for us both. So when breakfast was finished, we headed for the coast to explore the yards. The sailing crowd can be a great bunch of people and we soon found ourselves crewing for an older couple that were going out for the day. They actually offered to buy us dinner when we returned, but we would have none of that. The debt was ours and we treated them to the best dinner our shabby clothes would allow. The lobster piers serve up the same dinner as the expensive places, but the price is less, and the view is better. We had a lovely day.
Back at my place that night, we cracked open a few beers, sat in the plastic chairs I kept behind the garage, and we talked. We talked about the day we'd just spent, the work we both did, and we talked about Claire. We talked about the comings and goings back home and about all the friends I'd left behind. We talked about everything but the one thing that sent me here into isolation.
It was finally getting to be about that time when Gene needed to head back to his hotel room. Sleeping by the highway would give him a quick escape in the morning before the commuter traffic tied the roads into knots.
In a quiet, almost apologetic voice, he said, "She's dying without you, Henry."
"She'll live. She didn't need me before. She won't need me now."
"She needs you and the guilt is killing her. She cries herself to sleep at night. She doesn't go out. I swear she isn't seeing anyone. Claire goes over and sits with her and all she does is talk about you... and cry. She knows she fucked up, Henry. She isn't making excuses for what she did."
"Did she ever explain why she did it?"
"No. She goes to a shrink, but she doesn't seem any closer to an answer now than she was before."
"Tell her to get a new shrink."
"She needs you, Henry, with your arms around her, not some damn stranger with books and theories."
"She had me and it wasn't enough."
"Just talk with her, Henry. You don't need to take her back. Just tell her you forgive her. Tell her you don't hate her. She needs that much at least."
"I don't know if I ever hated her. I was angry and hurt beyond anything I thought possible. I never believed she could do that to me. When she did, everything died. I don't hate her, and I don't love her. I just miss the woman I married, but that woman is dead if she ever existed at all."
"She existed, Henry, and she exists now. I can't explain why she did it and I don't know what I would do if I were in your place. I just know that she's wasting away from the inside and you're the only one who can fix it."
"And who is going to fix me, Gene? How do I get to feel whole again?"
"Maybe you can fix each other. Isn't it worth a try at least? It's been a year. Are you any happier now than when you left? What do you have to lose?"
"Everything. Nothing. I don't know. I think about her and I wonder what would happen if she did it again? What would happen if I let her back in, trusted her again, and she betrayed me again? I fell a long way that first time. Where will I be if I fall again?"
"You won't, Henry. She will never make that mistake again."
"How do you know if she can't explain why she did it the first time? And was it even the first time? Did you ever find out who that asshole was?"
"Yeah. She told Claire he was just a guy she worked with."
It was dark by that point, but even in the dark Gene could feel my eyes boring into him.
"He doesn't work there anymore. I got to hand it to her, Henry, she went to his wife and told her everything. She begged for forgiveness and got slapped for her troubles. The asshole got dragged through a nasty divorce and left town. He's not in the picture anymore."
"It doesn't matter, Gene. Half the world are men and there's always another waiting for his chance."
"Nobody has a chance anymore, Henry. She's a one-man woman and her man lives in Providence. You pick up the phone and she'll answer. You say the word and she'll move. She'll live here in this apartment with you, or anyplace you want. Believe me, Henry, she's doing penance and she's got her head on straight now. All you need to do is pick up the phone and call her."
"I'll think about it."
Gene hung his head and thought that he had failed. We stacked our chairs, carried our empties to the can, and said our goodbyes.
Over the past year nearly every friend and relative had made the journey to Providence to have the same discussion. My sister had been the first and she had failed in an epic manner. She was through the door and with hands on her hips and began to berate me for running away like I did. She soon found herself on the outside knocking on that same door with no answer from within. When I finally opened the door, she apologized begging for forgiveness and patience. Her visit had been brief and a miserable failure, so she warned the others of what to expect as each had taken their own approach. Gene had been the only one with the patience and the history to take the time that was needed.
I sat alone in my apartment that night, and as my mind drifted back to a year ago, I reached up and turned off the one lone bulb that illuminated the room. I asked myself the same question that Gene had asked, "Was I any happier now than when I left?" I had to admit that I wasn't. I was no more over it than I was the day I left town.
I thought back to the day when I'd stood at the altar and taken those vows without reservation, "...till death do us part." and I thought "Why end it then? This is for eternity." It didn't last that long.
It had all happened so quickly and without warning. There had been no sign that my wife was cheating because she hadn't been. She had always been the faithful and loving spouse who assured me when I needed support and would quietly admonish me in private on those rare times when I needed a loving push.
I was supposedly an adult, but I still carried the bad habits of my youth. I still had some of those old buttons built into me and when they were pushed, it was bad. I knew that I could be quick to take offense. She had worked much of that out of me with her patience and support. However, any sense of betrayal by a friend or coworker would bring destruction. It was an old problem driven by insecurity that had dogged me all my life. When she cheated, it was that old reflex that threw gasoline on the fire of her betrayal. It was that same response that had kept me away for a year, refusing to speak with her, rejecting any request for forgiveness. I just tore our marriage down to the foundation and walked away.
It happened while she was out of town for work. She didn't travel often, but when she did it usually meant the better part of a week reviewing charges and contract compliance. She would travel as part of a team where she would review the books while others reviewed the manufacturing and test results. The trip in question was a long one as there were many subcontracts to examine. In the evenings, the team would go out for dinner and to blow off some steam. It was the second night of the site visit. She was dancing with abandon and drinking to excess. It was one bad decision and she said she regretted it deeply in the morning. Her friends told her to keep it to herself and never tell me, that no good would come of it, and reluctantly she agreed. The asshole kept trying for a repeat until she threatened to report him to HR. They were overheard. She had no idea that she had an enemy at work, but the wrong person overheard the argument, and her fate was sealed. One week later, when that same coworker felt she was not getting the attention her efforts deserved, I got an anonymous email. When confronted, my wife fell to pieces and confessed. It was only the one time and people are human, but it rocked my marriage. I packed very little and left without warning leaving my wife in devastation behind me.
I had relived that day a hundred times since and here I was reliving it again. It was all so fresh in my mind. Again I thought, "Am I any happier now than when I left?" I lived in isolation with no social life and no one to share my life. Neither of us had ever filed for divorce and I never did understand that. When I left, I just naturally assumed she would file for the divorce she wanted. The overwhelming misery and sense of worthlessness of a year ago had given way to a malaise that never left me. There was no one to make me smile, no one who would laugh at my jokes, and no one for me to hold at night. "Am I any happier now than when I left?"
I sat in the dark and pondered my life. Then slowly, hesitantly, I reached for the phone.
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I know, I know, everyone wants the story to be resolved. They hate an ending that just hangs there. I don't know what he does. Does he call Gene and chew him out, or does he call his wife? I don't know if he faces his demons and succeeds, if he tries and fails, or if he just stops and says, "Hell no!" If you figure it out, tell me. I'd like to know. I will tell you this much: anger and pain is easy to write, but forgiveness is hard.