A modern marriage.
On Friday morning, Ed Selwynn drove to the end of his driveway, nosed his sedan into the street, and stopped. An hour later he hadn’t moved. He ignored his many chances to pull into traffic. Instead, his gaze followed the caffeinated joggers as they bounced down the sidewalk, and then the neighbors as they tilted, adjusted, squinted, brushed, and puckered before leaving for work. It wasn’t until the driveways had emptied and the suburban morning had slowed, that Ed checked his fuel gauge, let out a sigh, and left for work. It was nearly ten o’clock.
When he returned home in the early evening, the August heat was still high. In through the rear door, he was reluctant to walk across the new foyer. He had torn away strips of satin oak to make room for marble tiles. There were only a few tiles needed, for the foyer was small, but Ed wanted the squares to remain unblemished for as long as possible. He directed everyone to enter through the kitchen. Margaret didn’t like the floor, said it didn’t fit well with the rest of the house.
Most nights, Ed dropped his briefcase beneath the coat rack, removed his shoes, and kissed Margaret, who might be at the counter snipping the last of her marigolds. Then, slipping across his white marble, he would head into his study. It was more like a small anteroom tucked near to the front entrance that Ed carved out for himself when the kids still lived at home and solitude was scarce. The room had a single window that Ed had fitted with a wood-slatted blind. The window faced east and caught none of the late sunlight by the time Ed typically ducked inside. The walls were lined with recessed bookshelves where hardbound volumes of significance, or at least significant heft, were left at eye-level. Once-inspirational biographies of business titans and military heroes sat thick and dusty on an upper shelf. A television and three pieces of furniture - an overstuffed leather rocker, a circular mahogany end table with three sturdy legs, and a small bar cart on casters that held four bottles of liquor, two crystal tumblers, and the requisite supplies. The casters often had difficulty negotiating the thick-pile carpet which, according to Margaret, had long overstayed its welcome.
Ed usually fixed a scotch on the rocks. It was the prelude to his favorite drink, a second scotch over the same ice. He would then fall into the chair's deep cushion and sip slowly, steeling himself against the sting of each gulp, immersed in hour-long military recaps on the History Channel. Ed often wondered aloud about the foolishness of long-dead generals, occasionally conjuring heroic vignettes in which he shined. He particularly liked the illustrations, the bulging advances and sagging retreats, lines carefully drawn over a map of some memorable battleground.
But things were different now. Only days earlier, Margaret had patted the sofa and asked Ed to sit with her. She was direct. She had found love with a local artist. Ed had sensed for some time that something was going on, bumped by the nearly imperceptible changes in his wife that only long-paired couples notice. She had begun to drift during their conversations, and she chafed at his most casual inquiries into her afternoons. And he knew Margaret had been unhappy. After all, hadn’t Margaret said their daughter-in-law encouraged her to move on when she had confided in the younger woman?
Yet, with all this in mind, the clues dangling within plain sight, their import failed to register with him. Ed sat devastated when Margaret told him of the affair, her matter-of-fact confession arriving as a hammer blow.
Margaret was calm. “Ed, I can’t do this anymore.”
“Can’t do what? What are you saying to me, Margaret? You’re leaving?”
“This guy…how long? When did this happen?”
“Please don’t do this, Ed.” Margaret then thought for a moment. “It’s been months, if that’s important to you. But you had to have known.”
“Jesus, Margaret.” Ed slumped in his seat. He sat quietly for minutes before he finally lied and said he understood, but he was stunned by the cliché of a middle-aged woman throwing her life over for a bohemian.
When he learned the younger man owned several galleries and didn’t actually paint himself, he grew more resentful, and depressed. Hadn’t they smirked when yet another of Margaret’s friends had moved on to another man, only to later phone Margaret out of the blue to confide disappointment in hushed, regretful tones? He was miserably sad, and he said as much, but he didn’t cry. Perhaps, he later thought, his words would have had a greater impact if they were delivered tear-stained. They were given directly, with all sincerity, and through labored breaths, but there were no tears. Maybe sobs were what she was looking for.
Ed turned his thoughts over and again. He had long believed duration equated with survivability. He had rested on their accumulated years together. A protective web of time. Thirty-one years. But was it all salvageable? Or was their union long past having that cathartic moment that can sometimes rescue younger marriages? Did it matter? Margaret was determined to leave, and he was powerless to change her mind.
Apparently, she had been preparing to leave for some time. Margaret had told their children of her plans even before she broke the news to Ed. She said she had been straightforward with both of them. After all, they were grown, and Ed Jr. was married with a child of his own on the way.
It was only after some discussion did Margaret agree to stay through the weekend. There was the dinner party for Ed’s new boss tomorrow evening, Saturday night, and the Blackledge’s were celebrating their twins’ tenth birthday the next day, on Sunday afternoon. Mike and Ellen Blackledge had invited half the neighborhood, most of whom knew Ed and Margaret well enough. Margaret called the two commitments her last concessions to propriety, acknowledging that Ed would dread explaining their separation to his new boss, or to their old friends.
But tonight Ed sat alone, immobile at the kitchen table for twenty minutes before heading into his den. He dozed off around nine o’clock to faint thunder, like distant cannon fire, but familiar and soothing, and it wasn’t until eleven that he rose from his favorite chair and went up to bed. Margaret had yet to come home.
He slept in their daughter’s room. The bedroom was pristine. Pastels flooded the room maintained by the young woman’s parents in the vain hope of luring her back home after college. Ed woke in the full dark to a pulsing rain and a wind that tapped the branches against the windows. He switched on a table lamp, sat on the bed for a moment, and then headed out of the second-floor bedroom and down the stairway. He walked to the rear of the first floor hall, to the master bedroom. The door was slightly ajar. The room was dark, but he could see Margaret was in bed, asleep. He watched her for a time. She was still. He couldn’t say how long he remained in the doorway, only that he closed the door after a second lightning streak flashed the room white, exposing his side of the bed, undisturbed.
Saturday morning was warm. The rain had stopped, but the sky was overcast and the ground was soft and oozing from the overnight storms. Thunderheads rimmed the horizon, and Ed sensed it was best to take advantage of the break in the weather and tend to the yard. The new shrubs appeared misaligned, and Ed busied himself unearthing the three that were most out of place, when he heard a rustling. The head and the broad chest of a large coarse-haired dog poked through. The dog was collarless, and his muzzle grimy from unleashed rooting about. Ed couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a stray dog in the neighborhood. Perhaps years before, when more casual residents would let their dogs roam free, certain they would return on their own after full exploration. But that was some time ago. In this era of doggy day care and micro-chipping, that didn’t happen. But there he was, paws caked with dried mud and belonging to no one in particular, he seemed delighted to have found new ground for adventure.
Ed approached him, flailing his arms in a big whoop. His visitor backed away at first, and then stopped and arched in a playful crouch before he was off in a leap, thumping and squishing on the wet lawn before disappearing into the trees behind their yard. Ed inspected the shrubs where the dog had pushed through. A few branches were cracked under the weight and he glared after the animal. Instinctively, Ed went into the house to grouse about the breach, and to let Margaret know he would replace the damaged shrubs before the day was out. Before he uttered a word, Margaret appeared in the hall holding a spent tape dispenser.
“Ed, do we have any more packing tape?”
“Yes, I’ll get it. You may not find it.” He walked downstairs to a far corner of the basement where most of the hand tools were hooked on a wooden peg board. The larger tools were in plastic containers that were labeled in thick black ink.
“Here you are, Margaret.” Ed hoped to spark a conversation. Maybe solicit an ally, or at least a sympathetic ear. He could tell her about the dog, how some branches were broken. Hadn’t she loved how the shrubs perfectly outlined their yard just as much as he? He wasn’t given the opportunity. Margaret simply thanked him and walked away.
Saturday night was humid, the kind of weather in which some people find it difficult to breathe. Ed turned on the air conditioning and the compressor first groaned, and then lowered to a hum, clinking periodically through the venting. Margaret prepared a veal roast and set out the fine china and the silver-plated flatware which she purposely set aside from packing up earlier in the day. She cut some gladiolas from the garden and put them in small crystal vases placed at each end of the dining table. Ed remembered they were a wedding present from his Aunt Mary.
Their guests arrived later than planned. There was no trouble with the sitter. Ed’s boss had had to respond to some emails. Ed, he was certain, would understand. The young man set his phone down on the white tablecloth and handed a dusty bottle of Cabernet to his hostess. The guests wore jeans and those expensive tee shirts that didn’t say very much in very small print. Ed thought his new boss seemed even more callow than he had appeared two weeks ago when they let Sam Crawford go and they brought in this kid from the west coast to run Ed’s division. Ed had spent that entire evening reeling off jokes to Margaret about the newcomer.
But that was before all this with Margaret, and youthful casualness aside, Ed felt they made gracious dinner guests. The younger man feigned interest in Prussian blunders, and his pregnant young wife engaged Margaret in a predictable discussion about the rearing of children. Margaret artfully let it be known her oldest was nearly thirty. “I understand, dear, but I’m well past all that now.”
Dinner was pleasant, although the younger woman did confess she was a vegan. No matter. Margaret was told the onion soup and the two helpings of roasted vegetables were marvelous, and could she have Margaret’s recipe. The four eventually gathered at the front door. Ed’s taller boss placed a hand on his shoulder and spoke to Ed in an earnest tone about Ed’s value to the company, how his input was crucial. Ed would have ordinarily found the gesture nettling, but his thoughts were elsewhere, and the good nights passed without comment.
“Well, that’s done,” Margaret said, once their guests had left. “It appeared they enjoyed the evening, although you never know about people.” Margaret looked away, and clasped her hands, and then righted herself to face Ed directly. “In any event, I hope it all works out well for you, Ed. He seems to like you.”
“He’s a kid, Margaret.”
“Yes, he is. But that’s no longer my business.”
“No, it’s nothing. Thank you.”
“Yes, well, I’m going up now. I’ll clean all this tomorrow. I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning.”
On Sunday, the next afternoon, they decided to walk to the Blackledge’s as a couple. Mike and Ellen lived only three blocks away, around the corner, and then two blocks down on Elm. The Blackledge home backed up to the same large wooded area that was adjacent to their own property. Margaret wasn’t talkative. Ed imagined her resolute, determined to see through what she had begun. She joined him on the sidewalk. She wore a summer dress, a pale yellow one with a simple floral pattern. Her auburn hair hung to her shoulders, partly tucked into a long, thin metal clip that flashed in the sunlight when she cast her head downward. Margaret was a half-step ahead of him, and she walked more briskly than usual. She held a purse, but her right hand, the one nearest to Ed, dangled free. He thought of the occasions when Margaret would seize the chance to clasp his hand when they were in public. Before long, he would find something of interest in a store window, or notice a neighbor to hail, or recall a story which begged for emphasis in the telling. Margaret was over fifty, nearly Ed’s age, but her energy was much the same as it had been many years earlier when she longed to elope - “Ed, it would be so exciting.” Ed had disagreed, intent on getting off on the right foot with her father.
The sun was strong, and the rays filtered through the thick woods. Ed looked to the trees and he squinted in the piercing light, searching for his intruder. He had mentioned the incident to Mike Blackledge, thinking he might have experienced something similar " “no strays, not around here.”
“What are you looking at?” Margaret asked. She drew back to get a better look at him.
“I’m looking for a dog.”
“The one I told you about yesterday.”
“What dog? When yesterday? Really, Ed? A dog? Now?” Margaret folded her arms and looked away.
“Did you tell Ellen Blackledge?”
Margaret turned and faced him squarely. “Ellen has known for a long time.
By the time they reached the celebration, Margaret was several paces in front of Ed, and when they entered through the opened front door they found a house crowded with relatives, friends, and neighbors. Habit led them to separate and search for familiar faces. Ed moved to the largest group, in a circle at the center of the living room. The surrounded guests of honor were dressed in identical downsized tuxedos. Ellen Blackledge said she had thought it would be cute if the boys lent a little formality to the occasion. Ed thought they looked like short waiters.
When he edged further into the large room, he found Henry Colquist perched on a sofa arm, and enjoying the sole attention of two women. Ed avoided Henry these days. Henry was a shade older, and Henry’s wife had passed a few years earlier. Ed said that a full blown “suburban seducer” emerged from a once dignified man. Margaret told him to not be so dramatic. “Let him be happy, for goodness sake,” she said. “He’s been through hell.”
Ed moved to the folding table which was draped with a festive cloth and already beginning to fill with birthday presents. He dropped an envelope onto the pile and walked directly to the makeshift bar where he found a small, unopened beer swaddled in ice. He surveyed the guests. The younger men sat in a group on the sofa and on the several mismatched chairs requisitioned from other parts of the house. They were having a conversation, or at least half of one, as most fixed on their smart phones, index fingers flicking, insatiable for anything not discussed first hand. Ed noticed that one of them had decided to sit Indian-style on a stuffed chair without first removing his shoes. Another had removed his Nikes, only to then position a damp sweat sock uncomfortably close to the open bottles on the coffee table.
Ed settled into a string of polite conversations with the neighbors, all loosely tethered by talk of civic improvements and rising property taxes. Nearly all of the original homeowners in the development were gone. Their initial goals met, their aspirations were naturally ratcheted up a notch. Ed had noticed that the conversations, friendly back-fence talks begun with sentimentality, usually slid into enthusiastic monologues about their new five-bedroom home.
Throughout the afternoon, he made an effort to disguise his disinterest while keeping Margaret within view. Perhaps it was the thought of an impending solitude that had awakened him, but he began to strategize, imagining ways in which he could rekindle Margaret’s interest. Ed panned the room and found Margaret smiling and animated as she huddled with the hostess in a corner. He watched them until Ellen Blackledge interrupted their conversation to welcome her new guests. Ed drew a quick breath, and then moved quickly to Margaret’s side.
“Margaret, I’d like you to think about this. Please reconsider.”
“Ed, this isn’t the place.”
“I understand. And you know I’d rather not discuss it all here. But time…”
“Thirty-one years of marriage wasn’t enough time for you? Ed, listen to me. Don’t do this here.”
“You know what I mean, Margaret. Maybe a little more time. I could…”
“You could what, Ed?” She waited for him to respond. “Nothing. Not even now. Okay, Ed. I’ll say it for you. The word is change. But I don’t think you will, not now. Nor might you ever.” Margaret spoke in a whisper, her words placed discreetly behind her martini glass.
“I think I can,” he said weakly.
Margaret spoke through a smile without facing him. “Ed, I’m tired. We’ve been through this. Maybe not the words, but we both know. We’ve known for a long time.”
“Known?” Ed glanced toward Ellen who was introducing her boys to the newcomers.
“That it no longer matters for us if you change.”
Ed winced. Margaret hesitated, then softened her tone and turned toward him. “I mean we can still have wonderful lives, Ed. But not together. It’s much too late for that. Ed, you know that.”
“I don’t think I do.”
“Please, Ed. Don’t make me regret staying the weekend.”
“Margaret, I’m just suggesting that together we consider what’s happening. Calmly.”
“My God, Ed.” Margaret’s voice rose, her drink no longer camouflaged her words. “How much calmer would you like us to be? My husband fell away years ago. Must I become…must I disappear into the woodwork with you?” The conversations around them quieted. Margaret again lowered her voice. “Ed, does it have to be a life sentence for me?” She drew a deep breath and moved closer to him. She spoke in a whisper. “Please, Ed. I’m afraid if I don’t leave now, then I may never.”
Before he could form an answer, if there was to be one, Ed caught sight of Ellen who was now making her way back to Margaret. He backed away without saying another word. And as the two women huddled again, Ellen’s stance grew less inviting, angling off more of the living room for their privacy. Margaret never strayed from Ellen, and the afternoon grew into dusk. Ed felt they had stayed long enough, and he caught Margaret’s attention. It was time to leave.
Again, there were no words between them as they began the short walk home. Ed wasn’t bothered by the quiet, having decided the privacy of their home, later, would be best for a long talk.
It was not quite eight o’clock when they stepped onto their back porch, and just as a foreign car was rolling up their driveway. Margaret’s back straightened.
“You’re leaving tonight? Margaret, please, you’re not this impulsive.” An incredulity had crept into his voice.
Margaret hesitated for a moment, struggling to suppress a smile. “I’m sorry, Ed. It’s better this way. I had planned to tell you tonight. I didn’t know he would be here yet.” The painter, as Ed would only refer to him, had not waited for Margaret’s phone call. “I imagine it’s for the best. Better an earlier break of it than to let things linger until morning, don’t you think?” She then continued inside, ignoring the man parked in the driveway. Once inside, she looked around at the cartons. By Sunday morning they had been stacked three high, and had made their way into part of the kitchen. “I’ll have all this out by tomorrow.”
“Margaret, I’d rather have been at work when you ran off. Margaret, I wish you’d wait…”
“I’ll be right down,” she told Ed, cutting him off. She headed upstairs. Ed sat in his kitchen and stared through the window that overlooked the driveway. The man in the car was motionless. His hands gripped the steering wheel. Ed did not see him look toward the house, not once, before Margaret reappeared downstairs.
“Well, good-bye, Ed.” Ed rose to his feet as Margaret edged across the crowded kitchen. She was careful not to look in his direction. He moved to the window as Margaret walked out onto the porch and stepped down to the waiting car. Without a backward glance, Margaret slid easily into the painter’s front seat, and they left.
Ed reclaimed their bed later that night, but he couldn’t fall asleep despite having moved the large television to the corner of the bedroom, the one nearest to his side. He slipped out of bed, walked past the dresser where Margaret’s wedding band lay, its’ gold worn dull with age, and went downstairs.
The house was silent. The living room was stacked and lined with heavy boxes that formed tunnels to be navigated until they were carted off in the morning. Ed heard a sound, a hollow one that could have been an echo, and it stirred the memory of when Margaret and he had first seen the house many years before. Ed headed to the back door in his tee-shirt and pajama bottoms, the night air still too warm for a robe. He swung open the screen door and walked onto the wide-planked wood porch. He found himself stepping over large wet paw prints that crisscrossed the deck. A few smeared the door frame. Ed looked for a dog, but he saw nothing. He moved to the middle of the yard to check further. The grass felt cool against his bare feet. He walked to the bushes he had replaced, and inspected his repairs. The boxwoods again formed a near-hermetic seal. Satisfied the sound was nothing, Ed went inside and bolted the door behind him.