Story by Leah Browning   •   Photo by Sunny Williams

It was childish, she knew, but Lela took the boy and left purely out of spite.  She wanted Jim to suffer the way she was suffering, and she didn’t have the heart to take a pair of scissors to his suits or set the house on fire.  Besides, she was a practical woman.  Things were simple enough now, but at some point, their son would need piano lessons and braces and other things she couldn’t even fathom.  Alienating Jim wouldn’t help anything.

Mikey was four, their only child, and Lela felt weak at the thought that someday he, too, would leave her.  The first night that they slept side by side in the bed at the motel, she gathered him in her arms and squeezed him too tightly.  He squirmed away from her, whining, “Where’s Daddy?” and she had to catch her breath before she answered.    

Everyone in her life, it seemed, was cutting her down, layer by layer, until she would open her eyes one morning and find that there was nothing left of her but a vague sense of injustice.  Her parents’ divorce had been bitter, and she had vowed to herself not to speak ill of her husband.  “He’s at home,” she told Mikey.  Then she tickled the boy until he stopped laughing and begged her to stop.  She couldn’t bear to answer any more questions.

Jim didn’t mind that they had moved out.  This occurred to her after three days.  He was calling every night, speaking mostly to Mikey, but first asking her how she was getting along, and did she need anything.  Lela had left the phone number of the motel on a slip of paper taped to the wall next to the kitchen phone.  Her handwriting was a terse, jerky scrawl, but neat enough to be read.

She had pointedly chosen a run-down motel on the edge of town, wanting him to see what he had done to their family, what he had reduced them to, but he never referred to it.  She had also used duct tape to attach the note to the kitchen wallpaper, but he had not mentioned that, either.  He did not feel their absence as she had hoped that he would.                        

The second night, Lela was unable to sleep, and she called the house—once, then several times, obsessively—but the phone rang again and again with no answer.  Jim wasn’t there.

She wanted to drive over to the house and see for herself, but Mikey was sleeping and it didn’t seem right to wake him.  She could see it now: she would drive over, her stomach roiling, and throw a rock at the house (missing, of course, because she had always been uncoordinated), and a neighbor would call 911, and the police would find her staggering around the lawn in her bathrobe in the middle of the night while Mikey sat buckled in the car, still half-asleep.  Then Child Protective Services would take him away and she would lose her precious boy, her baby.  The only thing that made sense anymore.

So instead of driving to the house, Lela took a pill and fell into a stupor on the bed, and when Mikey woke her in the morning, wanting breakfast, she had a sour taste in her mouth and dark smudges under her eyes.  But she was coping!  She could already accept the idea that soon she would have to go back home and begin a new life.  Look at her; she was acting so grown-up.  

When she and Jim had met, almost twenty years earlier, she had been eighteen, a headstrong, impatient girl prone to violent tantrums.  Jim had been six years her senior, a stately, ancient twenty-four, and she had fallen head over heels in love with him.  He was taken by her youth and beauty: enchanted, as she thought of it.  She had spent years envisioning this fairy-tale meeting and whirlwind romance, the dashing suitor and his beautiful blue-eyed bride.

This was ridiculous, of course.  Jim had already finished college and had a job in finance, and he was tired of cooking for himself.  He had begun looking at the women around him with different eyes, examining each one for her potential as a mate.  Lela had been hired as a temp by a CPA in his building.  She had striking looks; a set of wide, child-bearing hips; and genuine talent in the kitchen.  Jim was a boring man—she could see that now—and despite her age and temperament, marrying her had been both convenient and practical.  Perhaps this was why the affair stung her so, because it was so completely out of character.  He had never strayed in all their years together—or had he? she was plagued now by little stabs of doubt—though he must have had opportunities.

The point, though, was that Lela had changed.  She had been young and beautiful and vicious, in the way that beautiful people can afford to be, with a biting tongue and a bad habit of throwing things when she lost her temper, as she often did.  Gradually she had been tamed, by Jim’s quiet reproaches and by life, by growing older and more thoughtful and losing her looks, just a little, so that she saw an unwelcome stranger in the mirror every morning.  She asked Jim anxiously, “Do I look the same to you?” and he said, “Yes, of course,” and kissed her.

This was meant to be reassuring, and yet he closed his eyes when they kissed.  He never looked at her with the deep, lingering, longing gaze he had turned on her when they were courting, and when they were first married.

At the time, she was not quite twenty-seven years old.  The days when she found a stray silver hair were coming closer together.  At thirty-three, Jim’s temples were already almost completely gray, but he seemed not to notice.  When he got out of the shower, the skin hung loosely on his stomach and buttocks.  She could only vaguely remember ever being aroused by the thought of his naked flesh.  

They were living in a new house, on a cul-de-sac, and she befriended the women on her street, asked questions when she went out to lunch with the other secretaries from work.  “That’s just the way it is,” the married women agreed.  “The sparks go away after a while.”

“Then why stay married?” Lela asked.

They laughed at the question, but she was serious.  She and Jim were young.  They had no children.  Couldn’t they just move on?

But it seemed that they couldn’t.  The idea of divorce shamed her after all she had been through with her parents—their acrimonious fighting, the tug-of-war they had played with her—and even ten years later, she wanted to prove them wrong, to show them that she had not been too young when she met Jim, that she had not made a mistake by marrying him.  She swallowed her embarrassment and bought a copy of The Kama Sutra.  For a while things were better, but then they became stale and predictable again.  She eventually gave up.

When she was twenty-nine, Lela had an affair with a TV repairman who parked his truck two doors down and made love to her in the guest room, slowly, with the window open.  She had a sprained wrist and had had to take time off from work.  When the sprain healed and she could type again, they broke it off.  Just in time, too, as it turned out.  One of Jim and Lela’s neighbors, an older woman who walked her schnauzer every morning at eleven, had noticed the truck and decided that someone was scoping out the neighborhood, planning a robbery.  When she ran into Lela at the grocery store, she mentioned that she had been planning to call the police.

Every summer after that, Lela’s boss took her to a conference in New York, and they had sex in his hotel room after a bottle of expensive champagne.  The first time it happened, she had thought that it meant something—that he was in love with her, that they would run away together—but he never mentioned the encounters aloud, and she didn’t know how to bring them up herself.  Though he never so much as looked at her suggestively in the office, and their late nights were purely work-related, this annual mating became an unspoken ritual.

In fact, when she unexpectedly became pregnant, she was terrified that the baby was his.  After the birth, when Jim went downstairs to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee, Lela pulled off Mikey’s knit cap and unwrapped his white cotton hospital blankets, making him cry from the cold and from the loose, unfamiliar feeling of his arms and legs.  She kissed him and wrapped him back up, holding him close and crying with relief because he had Jim’s ears and the peculiar quirk of Jim’s pinky finger—not solid evidence, by any means, but enough.  She had already quit her job in the sixth month of pregnancy, and her boss had been transferred to Cleveland soon after, so she no longer had to worry about running into him on the street or at the grocery store with his wife.  

Lela had never again been unfaithful.  She had thought of it, certainly, but things had changed.  She was older, a mother.  The thought of Mikey someday discovering that she had strayed from her marriage sickened her.

After her parents’ divorce, Lela’s mother had gone to a party one night and drunk too much and come home two hours late.  She sent the babysitter home.  Then she woke Lela and cried, kneeling next to Lela’s bed and clutching her at the waist, whispering drunkenly into Lela’s stomach.

She spoke of being with another man while she was still married, about guilt.  Lela had stared down at the top of her mother’s head, still half-asleep, bewildered, not old enough to understand the significance of the confession but old enough to remember it later, when it became mortifyingly comprehensible.  For a period of weeks, Lela found it difficult to look at her mother without blushing.  She had never thought of her the same way again.

Did Lela want that to happen to her son?  Of course not, she told herself. 

And besides, she was no longer sure of herself.  When she looked in the mirror, there were marks across her abdomen, stripes that had faded to a purplish silver, stretch marks from being pregnant with Mikey.  There was a roll of fat below her navel that she could disguise with clothing, but there was no way to withhold it from a lover.  Jim didn’t seem to care what she looked like.  Her body held no secrets for him.  But the thought of another man looking at her, seeing the ravages of childbirth and age—her flabby arms and thighs, the bulge of her stomach—made her cringe.  No one would ever see her young, beautiful body stretched out on a bed under him again.

On the days when she felt emotional, after the baby was born and for years afterward, this thought could bring her to tears.  Jim would come home and find her standing at the island in the kitchen weeping over a pile of uncooked chicken.  When the baby was young, she might still be in her bathrobe, as he had left her that morning, her hair uncombed and her eyes puffy.

She couldn’t deny that she had been unfaithful in the past, but at least she had been discreet, she had been thoughtful.  Jim flaunted his affair.  He couldn’t help himself, really.  He was giddy.  If he hadn’t told Lela himself, she would have realized quickly what was going on.  He ironed his shirts more carefully; he sang in the shower.

And that, Lela realized, was what made this so painful.  She had only been fooling around with other men because she craved flattery and attention and stimulating sex.  Jim was serious.  He was in love.  He had told her this!  The thought of it made her feel sick.

He had come home unexpectedly early from work, kissed Mikey and turned on a video for him, and pushed Lela toward the dining room.  For some inexplicable reason, it occurred to her that he was going to surprise her, that he had gotten a raise or set aside some money, and he was going to take her on a cruise, or on a trip to Europe, and as they sat down at the mahogany table, she had grabbed his hand—her cheeks burned at the memory—and said, “Oh, Jim,” because she could scarcely contain her excitement at the thought of it, of doing that kind of traveling when she had only dreamt of it for so long.  

His smile had dulled a little, then, and she realized too late that she had been mistaken.  She pulled her hand away, feeling confused all over again, and he gave her a gentle one-two punch, told her that he was in love with another woman and that he wanted a divorce.

He was so apologetic, in fact, that it only made her feel more stunned.  There was supposed to be screaming, or storming out, or something, anything, she knew that much.  Not this sad, quiet conversation followed by a quiet dinner and bed, where they lay without touching, which was not unusual but now felt purposeful.

Why are you here? Lela wanted to ask him.  You love her, you’ve told me about it already, so why are you still in bed here with me?

She would have asked, but she was afraid to hear the answer, was afraid he was there simply because he had not thought of that, and if she brought it to his attention, he would rise and dress and leave her right then.  And though she was bored with him—with their marriage, their sex life, their inane conversations about dentist appointments or what to have for dinner—the thought of his leaving was like a knife in her heart, she couldn’t bear it, and she had to bite her knuckles to keep from crying aloud.

He turned over in bed and put his arms around her, murmuring something soothing that she couldn’t make out.  That only made it worse, made her begin to sob, because he was leaving her, and she found that she had expected their parting all along, but she had never known that it would affect her so.    

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