He’d spent more time thinking about his wife in the past twenty-four hours than in the past twenty-four years. He’d relied on his knowledge of her in planning what to say. He’d distilled it down to a script, which he’d practiced on the flight across the country.
But the woman he’d just spoken to wasn’t his Birdie.
We aren’t happy. We haven’t been happy in a long time.
Those two sentences had ruined all of his plans. He’d been scared by them, terrified, even. That was when he’d known she was serious. Fear had immediately put him on the defensive, made him say what he’d never intended to say, never even thought about.
He slumped over the steering wheel, listening to the rain. Always the rain in this godforsaken place.
He almost turned the car around. The urge to go to her, to take her in his arms and beg for forgiveness was so strong he felt choked by it. Desperate.
But what then?
She was right. That was the utter hell of it. He might have reacted impulsively–saying divorce, for God’s sake, what an idiot–but that didn’t change the truth.
If he turned around now, she’d take him back (he couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t), and they’d slide back into that boring, half-love rut they’d developed.
Here, alone in the car, he could admit that she was right. They both deserved better.
After all these years, she’d taken the decision out of his hands.
He closed his eyes, then slowly opened them. Rain patterned the windshield, thumped hard on the roof of the car.
"I loved you, Birdie," he whispered aloud.
It didn’t escape his notice that even when he spoke to himself, in this cheap little car where no one could hear, he used the past tense.
The next day, the movers showed up with the furniture. Elizabeth stumbled out of bed to greet them. As soon as they left, she went back to bed. She stayed there for three days.
And still, she didn’t want to get up.
She pulled the quilt up to her chin and lay there. Rain thumped on the roof, tapped on the window, a constant drip-drip-drip.
She understood now why couples broke up and got back together even if the love had turned stale. There was a safety in the known.
The irony was, this was what she’d dreamed of. All those years, as time and responsibility and daily life had slowly–so slowly–eroded her marriage and her personality, she’d dreamed of being On Her Own.
She’d always imagined that as an end in itself. A goal. A pie-in-the-sky dream that would bring with it little bluebirds of happiness.
She knew she’d made the right decision, but still, late at night when the house was dark and rain pummeled the roof, she worried that she would always be alone, that no one would ever kiss her again, or sit with her after dinner and talk about nothing. Worse yet, that no one would look at her slowly aging face and say, "You’re beautiful, Birdie," or whisper, "I love you," just before the lights went out.
She flung the quilt aside and sat up.
It was time to start this new life of hers.
(This was a vow she’d made at least twice a day since Jack left.)
This time she meant it.
She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and planted her bare feet on the cold floor. Like the Bride of Frankenstein, she lumbered to a stand.
"I could paint," she said aloud, just as she’d said every other time she’d managed to crawl out of bed, but even as she uttered the words, she felt defeated.
Slowly, her breath leaked out. She hardly made a sound at all as she sank back onto the bed.
If she didn’t do something, she’d sink into a pit of depression.
When a woman was in this kind of trouble, there was only one thing to do. Unfortunately, the phone wouldn’t be connected until "Sometime between noon and four o’clock."
She reached over to the bedside table for a paper and pen. Before she could talk herself out of it, she started to write.
I’m in trouble. After years of whining, I have finally done something about my unhappiness. Jack and I are separated. It’s funny that one little word, only a few syllables, can so profoundly rip the shit out of your life.
And here’s the punch line (though it’s a joke you’ve heard before): I’m even more unhappy. I want to kick up my heels and party till the sun goes down, but I can’t seem to get my industrial-size ass out of bed.
You were right, it seems, about all of it.
I could use a laugh right about now. (So tell me about your newest boyfriend.)
She immediately felt better.
Reaching out to someone was better than sitting here, wondering what she was going to do with the rest of her life. What would it be like to be a woman alone?
Suddenly she thought about her stepmother, who was also alone.
You take care of Anita, you hear me?
It was the last thing Daddy had asked of her.
She’d made a deathbed promise . . . and then done nothing to keep it.
She reached for another piece of stationery.
I am at the beach house by myself.
It’s quiet here, so quiet that I am beginning to realize how noisy my life was before. It is the way of women, I think, to follow the loudest voice, to constantly do for others.
I am trying now to find my own lost voice. Perhaps you are, too. An empty house can be a lonely, frightening world for women like us, used to listening to others.
My thoughts often drift southward these days, and I pray that you are okay. If there’s anything I can do to help you, please don’t be afraid to call. I know we’ve always been distant with each other, Anita, but in the words of Bob Dylan, "the times they are a changin’." Maybe we can find a new way.
She got out of bed, dressed in a pair of ragged sweats, green plastic gardening clogs, and a fishing cap, like Kate Hepburn wore in On Golden Pond; then she walked up to the mailbox.
By the time she got home, she was breathing hard and soaked with sweat. She definitely needed more exercise.
She was in the bedroom, peeling off her wet sweats, when something occurred to her.
The Passionless Women.
She was one of them now.
In the days following the breakup of his marriage, Jack made sure he was never alone. Each morning, he woke at four a.m. and was at the office by five, long before any of his colleagues. After hours, he found someone–anyone–and hung out at the sports bar on Fiftieth.
He didn’t know how else to handle the separation. He’d never been good at being alone.
Tonight, he stayed at the bar until it closed, downing drinks with Warren. When he finally stumbled home, he was well past drunk.
He walked into the apartment and called out Birdie’s name.
The silence caught him off guard.
That was when it really hit him. They were separated. Without thinking it through, he picked up the phone and dialed her number. It rang at least eight times before she answered.
"Hello?" She sounded tired.
He glanced at his watch. It was three in the morning here; midnight in Oregon. "Heya, Birdie," he said, wincing.
He imagined her sitting up in bed, turning on the light. "It’s weird being without you," he admitted softly, sitting down on his unmade bed.
"I shouldn’t have said ‘divorce.’ " Even now, the word made his stomach tighten. "I was angry."
She didn’t respond right away. He hated her silence; it made him feel as if this were all his fault. Finally, she said, "Maybe I should have done things differently, too."
"What now?" he asked. It was what he really wanted to know. For twenty-four years, he’d lived with her, slept with her, cared for her. Any other way was long forgotten.
"I don’t know." She sounded faraway. "I need some time alone."
"But what about us?"
"We go on, I guess. See where the road takes us."
"Well. Yeah." He tried to think of something else to say. "There’s plenty of money in the bank account. You can have your bills sent to me if you want."
"Thanks, but I’ve got a checkbook. I’ll be fine."
"Oh. Right." He fell silent again, confused. It felt as if they’d become strangers already. "Well, good night, Birdie."
"Good night, Jack."
He hung up the phone and flopped back onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
We go on.
What else was there? At this point, there were only two choices available to them. Go forward or back.
Like her, he wasn’t ready to go back.
With each passing day, Elizabeth felt a little more confident. She could sleep alone now; that didn’t sound like much. Certainly millions of women did it every night, but to her, a woman who’d slept with the same man for all of her adult life, it was something.
She was no longer afraid to eat out alone. Yesterday, she’d had breakfast at the Wild Rose, all by herself. She even tried tofu.
Today, she was determined to try painting again.
She grabbed her down coat off the hook by the front door and reached for the black canvas bag that held her painting supplies. She kept it filled with charcoal and paper, paint and brushes, and hope.
Outside, the air was crisp and cold. She crossed the porch and paused at the top of the stairs. The ocean was a smear of pastel gray and lavender. The grass in her yard looked like a patch of Christmas felt, tacked down here and there by the snow-white mushrooms that had sprouted overnight. A pair of cormorants flew overhead, circling lazily.
She flipped her hood up and walked across the squishy carpet of lawn, trying to avoid the pretty mushrooms. At the top of the beach stairs, she stopped and looked down.
It was high tide.
Disappointed, she sat down on the damp top step. White breakers bashed themselves against the rocky outcropping at the base of the cliff, spraying foam. Every now and again, she felt a sprinkle of spindrift on her face.
It reminded her of a time, years ago, when Daddy had taken her boating in the Florida Keys. Mr. Potter had offered Daddy the use of a speedboat to pay off a debt, and Daddy had thought, why not? how hard could it be to drive on water?–and off they’d gone.
It had been a disaster, of course. Every time they came into port, Elizabeth had had to lie on the bow and push them away from other boats. Bumper boating, he’d called it.
Elizabeth smiled at the memory.
Elizabeth twisted around.
Meghann was standing beside her mud-coated black Porsche Boxster. Her designer jeans and black cashmere sweater were streaked by rain, and her hair was so frizzy it looked as if she’d had shock treatments. "Are you aware that it’s raining?"
"Meg!" Elizabeth stood up, grabbed her bag, and ran. When Meg pulled her into a bear hug, it was almost impossible to let go.
"Don’t you dare start crying. Now, get me under a roof somewhere, preferably with a drink in my hand."
Elizabeth clutched Meg’s hand and led her through the gray yard.
"On the way here, I think I saw a fish swimming across the road."
Laughing, Elizabeth led her into the house, then built a fire and got out her only alcohol. A box of wine.
Meghann looked at the box. "This is worse than I thought. You have clearly confused me with a local. Wait here." She marched out of the house and returned a minute later with a suitcase, which she flopped onto the coffee table and opened. "Shoes come in boxes; wine comes in bottles." She burrowed through her clothes and pulled out a bottle of tequila. "After that poor-me letter you sent, I figured we might need this."