Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Finding Space by Alice Benson

Divorcee Ann is content with her lot in life, but maybe she should be demanding more; by Alice Benson.

Ann was grateful for the automatic timer on her coffee pot, a gift to herself on her recent thirty-third birthday. She could smell the pungent brew before she was completely awake. Some days, the sharp aroma of coffee was the only thing that got her out of bed. Well, that and two high-maintenance middle-school kids.

"Mom, what's for breakfast?"

"Mom, I can't find my Miss Me jeans."

"Mom, can you drive me today?"

"Mom, I forgot, I need batteries for my science project."

Once Ann got the kids off to the bus stop, she treasured her second cup of coffee and ten minutes of solitude on her tiny back porch before she had to leave for work. The porch was a mud room; coats hung there in the three seasons when it wasn't so cold that they froze solid over night. A catch-all for shoes, canvas bags, and recycling, without even enough room for a chair. But when the weather was above freezing, Ann took her coffee to the porch, stood, sipped and watched the world in her backyard. It calmed her. A big walnut tree, home to dozens of squirrels. A small patch of crab grass and dandelions that she'd given up doing anything to except mowing once a week. Chipmunks nesting under the back steps. And her birds. She hung a small birdfeeder on a squirrel-resistant pole, right beside the lilac bush. Cardinals, chickadees and sparrows hopped, sang, and pecked, adding color and sound and grace to her morning routine.

Ten minutes of coffee, nature, and seclusion and Ann was ready for work, even with a lack of sleep, insomnia her constant companion. She rarely had enough sleep; just one year out from her divorce and she still struggled to get through the nights.

At two o'clock each morning, her eyes opened. It was involuntary; she found herself awake, curled on one side, looking at the wall. She reached out and traced lumpy shadows, small portraits of ghosts and windmills projected by the hallway nightlight. After fifteen minutes, she got up and sat by the window, staring into the comforting darkness, remembering, trying to understand.

Ann was just eighteen when she met Jason; he was twenty-four. He came to pick up his sister from Ann's dorm. When she opened the door, there he stood, tall and gorgeous, better-looking than anyone she'd ever seen in person, like a movie star come to life, completely unobtainable. Two weeks later, he got her name from his sister and called for a date.

They went to a movie. He bought her Junior Mints. The candy rolled over her tongue and melted slowly; the chocolate coated her teeth with sticky sweet. It made her think of kissing Jason, immersing them both in the sugary wonder. When he reached for her hand, she gripped his fingers.

Walking home Jason asked, "How did you like the movie?"

"I loved it; it was wonderful." Ann spoke without thinking, then quivered at the smile on Jason's face.

"I can see why you might like it, but looking more closely, the direction was stilted, the acting turgid, and the story melodramatic. Overall, it was a fairly amateurish attempt," Jason said.

Ann wasn't even sure what turgid meant. A long wave of wanting rolled over her. Jason was gorgeous and smart. Ann felt the heat of her stupidity flare in her cheeks. She quickly learned to ask for his opinion before giving hers.

Ann did well in her classes, but Jason was her main course of study. She listened, she understood, she soothed, she comforted. His friends were her friends; she hated his enemies with a loyal fierceness. She wanted him and couldn't believe he would ever want her, so she made herself indispensible.

And it worked.

When Jason proposed, it was not the romantic, over-the-top proposal that Ann always dreamed of. He didn't hide the ring in a glass of champagne; he didn't get down on one knee. They were in his apartment, and he mentioned that he had a job interview in Madison, Wisconsin. "I think I have a good shot at this job. It's an excellent opportunity, but far away. Would you like to get married and move with me?"

Ann shoved the prosaicness of the proposal aside and flung her arms around his neck, thrilled to accept. Jason got the job; they moved eight hundred miles from her family. Money was tight at first; Ann got a job entering tax return data for an accounting firm.

Ann was a good wife, the Total Woman, personified. She understood her marriage and her role in it with a clarity that was unwavering. Her function was to create a world in which he was on stage, continually nodding graciously to a standing ovation. Where she was continually on her feet, clapping and cheering him on. And she did it, beautifully. She understood her purpose, and she fulfilled it beyond expectations, giving birth to his children, working full-time, keeping her figure trim and her make-up perfect, the house clean and the meals gourmet. She lived in a world of high-stakes marriage, and it was only when she lost that she questioned its validity, wondering if she lived in the present day or if she reverted to 1955.

With very little warning, Jason left, announcing his infidelity, plan for divorce, and remarriage, almost altogether, in one long, compound sentence.

Ann never got angry. She was sad, devastated, depressed, and lonely, but never angry. She agreed to reasonable child support and didn't ask for alimony. She did ask to stay in their house with the children, and she won. Being a good wife didn't extend to short-changing her kids. Jason and his new family moved further out, suburbia on two acre lots.

Through it all, Ann smiled for her children, reassured them of Daddy's love and devotion. And she never stopped loving Jason, never stopped missing him. Every morning at two o'clock, she rolled over, reaching and coming up empty, sleepy fingers hoping for warmth and substance, ending up with a fistful of Lycra.

Still, she was never angry. She understood. She couldn't expect someone like Jason to stay with her forever. Ann was resigned. Her life was fine; her kids were healthy and they did well in school. They were happy and bright. Her job was adequate; she didn't hate it. Her small family had enough of everything. She had her great love, and she lost. She couldn't ask for more. If only she could sleep through the night.

On Parent's Night at the Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Ann sat next to a slightly disheveled, but friendly young woman. Beth introduced herself; they started talking and found their daughters were in the same grade and on the volleyball team together. Beth invited her over for movie night.

"It's a lot of fun, really. Not too exciting, but we usually have a good time," Beth said. "You could meet some of my friends. We're mostly divorced, but I do have a couple of friends that are actually still married." She rolled her eyes and laughed.

"It sounds like fun," Ann said, surprised to find that she was telling the truth. "What kind of movies do you watch?"

"All kinds. But our favorites are action films. We started with the old Lethal Weapon movies. Have you seen them?" Ann shook her head. "Well, they're fun in a sick sort of way. And Mel Gibson was amazingly gorgeous in 1988. Since that was the first movie we watched, we call our get-togethers Mel Fests. It's just an excuse to drink wine, eat junk, ogle hunky movie stars, and talk smart. Stop by next Friday if you have time."

Ann pulled out her phone and entered it on her calendar to be polite, knowing she would never go. But on Friday, her kids were at their dad's house, and her phone vibrated, a soft buzzing sound against the table. She picked it up and stared at the meeting reminder, rubbing her fingers over the letters as if to divine the outcome of the event. What the hell. She shoved the phone in her pocket and drove to Beth's.

Beth introduced her to Janice and Carly. They watched White House Down.

"That was fun," Carly said. "Any movie with both Jaime Fox and Channing Tatum is fine with me."

Ann thought it was way too violent, but she didn't say anything. She sipped her second glass of wine, ate more Cheetos, watched, and listened.

The women sat with their legs propped up on tables, butts squinched down, heads on knees, heavy with thought, fatigue, life. Or they sat up, legs apart, arms flung open in wide expansive gestures. They weren't afraid to take up space, to say what they thought.

Carly said, "Did I tell you what Sam said to me yesterday? He told me he knew before the divorce that his daddy liked Lydia as more than a friend. You all remember Lydia, right? My former friend and neighbor who is now living with my ex-husband. Anyway, I asked him how he knew that and he said he saw them kissing in the living room. I said, 'Where was I?' and he said, 'You were cleaning the bathroom.' If we're talking metaphors for our lives here, this is positively perfect. My husband is making love to my best friend in my living room and I've got my head stuck in the stupid toilet."

They laughed, laughed with their whole bodies, heads back, mouths wide. Loud, open, fearless laughter. It reverberated around the room, bounced off the walls, surrounded them with love, caring, fearlessness, hilarity, bitterness, frustration, all at once.

Ann found herself joining their laughter. Their warmth, their intelligence, their fierceness drew her in, and she became a regular at their Friday night Mel Fests. They told stories and shared their lives, their loves, their joys, their defeats. And their stories, combined with love and support, were changing her; little by little, she was beginning to understand.

"I couldn't believe he even asked me out," Ann said. "He was just gorgeous, with dark, dark hair and green eyes that flashed." Ann laughed. "I know it sounds silly, but they really did sparkle, little flashes of radiance. He reminded me of a male version of Scarlett O'Hara."

Carly snorted. "Spoiled and thoughtless?"

"No, just in how he looked, I mean." Ann considered. "I never thought of him as spoiled. He didn't ask me to take care of him; I did it because I wanted to."

Beth sipped coffee. "Why were you surprised when he asked you out?"

"Because he was so gorgeous and smart. He had a lot of girls chasing him. I'm not that pretty; I never was. I was sort of cute, but he could have had anyone. I was so flattered that he wanted me. He wasn't just good-looking, but smart and successful. I would've done anything for him." Ann thought it was obvious.

"And, you did, right?" Carly said. "You did do everything for him?"

"Well, sure. Of course." Ann didn't understand what they weren't getting. "I was so lucky. Of course, I made him the focus of my life. Who wouldn't have?"

They encouraged Ann to get angry, to like herself, to understand her worth. Beth pushed her until Ann began to see a counselor. And the counselor helped, too.

One day, Jason told Ann the child support was going to be late again. And, instead of smiling and nodding, as she usually did, she said, "I have bills to pay. I need the child support on time every month. If you can't follow the court order, I'm calling a lawyer."

Jason frowned. His eyes narrowed and Ann backed up, but she didn't back down. And she didn't smile. Jason shrugged and left her house.

Then, two days later, Jason told Ann he was taking the kids for Thanksgiving, even though it was her turn for the holiday, and she said, "Fine." Small steps, she told herself.

Ann told Beth and Carly about her small victory and subsequent defeat. They hugged her and she felt cherished. Then guilty. And confused. Jason was the love of her life, after all. She hated fighting with him. She hated thinking awful things about him. He wasn't so terrible.

"I'm not sure Jason's that bad, you know. He never beat me up or anything. I watched this show the other night, and some guy was slamming his wife's face with a barbeque grill. Jason never did anything like that," Ann said.

"That's true," Carly said. "He didn't slam your face with a barbeque grill; he just slammed your soul with it."

Ann's whole body went still with the truth of Carly's words. Ann gave Jason her soul and he stomped it into the ground without a second thought. Her unwavering love began to tremble.

"But it doesn't seem as bad somehow. Maybe it's the intent. Jason didn't intend to hurt me. He cared about me; he just cared about himself more. He wasn't really that cruel, just selfish and thoughtless," Ann said.

Carly glared. "I don't care about intent. The end result is the same. I'm sick of those guys who say that they're 'trying.' They're not trying hard enough. I'm sick of being understanding. Just once I'd like to be the one who's understood and supported." She put her arm around Ann. "Wouldn't you like to be supported?"

Ann smiled. "That's why I have you guys."

"We are the best, aren't we?" Beth said.

The next time Ann saw Jason, she noticed that his eyes were a little too close together; his mouth a shade crooked. But, more than that, she noticed that he dismissed everything she said. And he did it in front of the kids. For the first time ever, she saw herself through her daughter's eyes. A partial human being, less important than everyone else. A bubble of anger roiled up from her belly. Then, fear. She was someone she didn't want her daughter to become. She was someone she didn't want to be. Was it too late to change? And, if she could change, who the heck did she want to be?

Three days later, Ann had her answer. Jason called her at ten o'clock, just as she was getting ready for bed. His wife was out of town; he wanted Ann to listen to his problem at work.

Something loosened in her guts and she finally realized that she already put in her time; she didn't have to listen anymore. "Jason, I'm getting ready for bed now. I don't have time to talk." Ann hung up the phone and walked to the porch. It was too dark to see the yard, but she pressed her forehead against the window and breathed in the night until she stopped shaking.

Ann was hanging in space, terrified, waiting to plummet to the earth, hurtling through the atmosphere at a thousand miles per hour, thinking she would smash into a million pieces on the altar of "the Bitch." After a few minutes, she realized she wasn't going to fall; she floated, and it was great.

She watched the stars until she calmed enough to go to bed. Curling tight around her satisfaction, Ann slept. At 5:00, her eyes opened. She looked at the clock and smiled, still tired, but for the first time in two years, she felt ready to get up and face her day.

2 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this story very much, both for its style and its content - a real game raiser in several senses,
    Thank you,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. i also liked this story, i found it totally believable and invitingly well written
    and it had a happy end!
    well done

    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete