CHAPTER ONE - 2001
August 4th, 11:00 a.m. and it’s already damp between my $1.99 thrift store biking shorts and my Schwinn gel seat. Only a few joggers, plus a couple of parents with strollers or running alongside wannabe two-wheel riders on the bike path. The plunk of a turtle off a rock and the splish-glide of a few ducks landing in the river are pleasant reminders of weekend freedom.
Jogging toward me is a couple, both tall and lean. Why exercise when it’s obvious that they don’t even have to? Her in a skimpy track tank and shorts, him shirtless and in gym shorts. A black, speckle-faced Cocker Spaniel runs gleefully in the grass beside them. The gap narrows and I realize it’s my Cocker, Orville! Every muscle in my body tightens. Damn, that’s my husband Dan running with Patty, a teacher with whom he’s been sneaking off to run for the past five years. His eyes are fixed on the river, but hers flit to my face, my dog, my husband. Then in an instant, we’ve passed.
God, I thought that was over.
Stunned, my mind whirrs with possible options: One, I could whip a U-turn and raise hell in a public domain, or two, spew names for adulterers into the heavy air where they will, perhaps, hang and echo. My final option was to slither off my bike and cry on the riverbank like a baby getting a vaccination. A cramp in my gut urges me to get off the bike but I pedal frantically toward the next town, six miles ahead. For Christ’s sake, it’s our oldest son, Matt’s 19th birthday and the day before our twenty-third wedding anniversary. We’d just celebrated our sixteen-year-old son Luke’s birthday and eleven-year-old Kellen’s losing his first molar a week before.
“Asshole; what are you doing?” I scream at Dan inside my head. “Forget about our family, did you?” My face is burning up, humiliation times rage. My dad’s handkerchief doesn’t absorb all my sweat, although it had dried every tear of disappointment and heartbreak until his death a year ago. I hold it to my nose and inhale, longing for that hint of Clorox that always calms me. Not on a red hanky, I realize, yanked back to today’s shock. A swig of bottled water soothes my throat, I retch, and keep pedaling.
The burn in my thighs and white paint on asphalt tell me that I’m nine miles from home. I picture Luke, who inherited my thunder thighs, and who gives me tips about how I can tone them; today should be a good start. I’m ten miles from the next town, Henley, a place I’ve never been, but it’s farther from Dan and that skinny witch. Maybe the path goes all the way to Aurora, probably another twenty-five miles. We lived there for sixteen years, and I imagine pouring my despair into the lap of our former minister. Born in West Virginia the same year as my dad, he has a soft Southern accent, a space between his front teeth, and believes couples should be faithful for life.
The rumbling in my gut is audible now and I can’t ignore the cramps any longer. Is Dan home yet, has he fixed lunch for Kellen? Wondering whether anybody’s looking after my youngest son makes my stomach hurt even worse. I tuck my bike among the scraggly bushes, poke past the weeds at river’s edge, drop my shorts, squat, and release a diarrhea explosion, which splashes on the summer-baked earth and the back of my calves.
Our bodies react to trouble; my burning rectum suggests that I’ve been poisoned. I’ve no choice but to spit on the hanky to wipe away the toxin, but then what? No trash can in sight. I’m not stuffing it back in my waistband. Cotton will decompose in what, about a hundred years? My apologies to the fish, bikers, and blue heron as into the river it goes, This, among other things, is out of my control.
Being back on the bike gives me a feeling of flight, an escape, which seems like my only option. “Damn you both,” I shout, since riders are few and far between this distance from the city. “To hell with the two marriages you’re jeopardizing, your total of five kids who must’ve slipped your minds. Selfish pigs!” Salty tears at the corners of my mouth remind me of the Seder I attended last spring for Dan, curriculum director in the Balfour school district. Some Jewish families had asked him to attend in order to raise his consciousness about their holidays, in hopes that they would be considered when the academic calendar was created. Dan sent me, the “spiritual member” of our household, as his ambassador. I was touched by the meal’s readings and elements; one of them, salt water, representing the tears mothers shed over the male infants and toddlers murdered by Pharaoh.
My tears spill for Dan’s and my sons, for Patty’s daughter and son. I weep for my mother, who’s certain that the sun rises and sets in Dan. For Patty’s husband, and for me, dammit. Bikers heading north cock their heads at me; few people sob while they ride. The mascara streaks on my cheeks and swollen red lips must make it look like someone sucker-punched me. Yeah, someone did.
I press on to Henley, just five more miles. I don’t think this path goes all the way to Aurora, so I’ll ride until it ends, then make a plan. I’ve been a good wife, kept in reasonable shape, am a nurturing mother, have been supportive of Dan’s career, his seventy-hour workweeks. I prepare good meals. We have sex once a week, don’t we? I write thank-you notes to his family, work half-time as a school psychologist (even though he’s been harassing me to go full-time), keep a clean house. He’s an insufferable bastard and I hate him.
I reach the end of the bike path and heave a sigh of relief. I clamber off my bike and collapse into the long grass in the shade, taking a couple long pulls from my water bottle. I’m thankful for cool water, shade, dogs running without leashes, parents tossing Frisbees with their kids. My crotch and butt ache and the grass itches a little, but I’m strong, healthy and smart. I can handle this, I tell myself.
Overhead, I spot a pair of yellow finches soaring in the cloudless sky, then suddenly, they part and head in opposite directions. This seems somehow prophetic, perhaps a reminder that my gut is leading me in the direction I’m meant to go. I decide to drive to Dad’s cabin in West Virginia: no city water, no phone, just a gurgling creek beyond the back porch. I’ll pack up Kellen, grab a friend for him, take Orville, and we’ll get away. I’ll tell the boys that we’re going on a rugged adventure, that there won’t be enough water for showers; we’ll rinse off in the creek. They’ll be all over that. Matt’s working at the pool and Luke has football practice every day from eight to eleven, and again between one and four. They’ll be adequately occupied. Dan can figure out what to tell them.
The twenty-mile ride back feels interminable, both my rear and head throbbing. I burned off my breakfast bagel on the first leg of the trip and I’m more than peckish. I salivate over the very thought of a Pizza Hut Meat-Lovers, a United Dairy Farmers Cherry Cordial Hot Fudge sundae, or an Uno’s chocolate chip cookie served in a skillet. Why didn’t I bring a snack? I ask myself. Oh, right, because I hadn’t planned on seeing my husband on a rendezvous with his “running partner,” hadn’t planned on this forty-mile ride on a 90-degree day, hadn’t planned on careening off the edge of my world when I rolled out of Glen Haven, PA this morning.
Finally arriving home around 3:30, I devour a peanut butter and grape jam sandwich, then call my friend Ruth.
“Hello?” she answers.
“I passed Dan and Patty running when I was riding on the bike path earlier,” I blurt out. “They had Orville tagging along without a leash. I’m taking Kellen to Dad’s cabin for a few days, and was wondering if Jake would want to come along?”
“What a bummer. Sorry,” Ruth says. She’s aware of the saga of Dan’s running partner, as she occasionally walks with me for exercise. I gripe to her when particularly agitated over the issue. She’s a good listener, and as a Seventh Day Adventist, is as indignant as I am about their flirting with trouble.
“Nothing would make Jake happier and I can get a bag packed in half an hour,” she says. “You sure you’re okay to travel?”
“I’m mad and a little shaky, but the solitude will be good for sorting things out,” I say. “Gotta go; see you soon.”
When I told Kellen about the trip to the cabin, he was thrilled and quickly began tossing action figures, bottle rockets and beef jerky from the kitchen into his gym bag.
I limped upstairs, thigh muscles tight and sore, and secluded myself in the bathroom. I peeled off my sweaty clothes, dropped them on the floor and set the water temperature to lukewarm. The ribbons of shampoo and raspberry body wash trickling down my skin seemed to rid me of the violation I’d felt since 11:00 a.m. The water was soothing the ache out of my legs. I tilted my head back and basked in that simple pleasure.
A few minutes later I heard the door creak open and Dan began yammering about a job interview Patty had the day before.
“Get the hell away from me!” I shouted, my neck tightening.
“Lee, just listen to what I’m saying,” he went on. “Patty interviewed for an assistant principal job in Clawson yesterday, but it’s almost a month past the deadline for breaking her contract with Balfour.”
“I don’t care about Patty’s work issue or want to hear your bullshit,” I said, slapping water from the showerhead out into the room.
Disregarding my request for space, Dan continued. “She’s worried that if she takes the Clawson job, she won’t be hired back in Balfour after a couple years as an administrator there. Getting my opinion was urgent.”
“Go and close the door!” I snapped. He exercises and God knows what else with this woman and he wants me to care that she may not get hired back as his coworker? Unbelievable!
When the door clicked shut, I turned off the water and toweled off. Urgent need for his opinion. What seemed urgent to me was packing a bag, loading up the boys, and setting out on the 100-mile drive to the cabin. Dan’s car was gone when I headed to the van with my suitcase. Ha! Spared an explanation.
As if I wasn’t edgy enough from the day’s events, the freeway was crowded. After I’d been humming along in the left lane at 70 mph for forty-five minutes, a semi marked “Rush Trucking” veered in front of me from the right lane and drove 60 mph—for, like, three miles. I think he and the other semi driver he was passing were grooming a long-term relationship, and I imagined a chorus of disparaging comments being spewed from the dozens of motorists being detained. Disgust at the two massive rigs poking along side by side added to my stew of angry juices. Do I have a family history of hypertension, homicidal tendencies, or both? I wondered.
The cracking together of action figures and the boys’ scripting out of battles was amusing and the steady A/C breeze kept the late afternoon sun from toasting my face and arms. When Kellen spied a DQ we stopped for chocolate/vanilla swirl cones.
As soon as we pulled into the gravel driveway at the cabin, the boys leapt out, leaving the car doors open. They wasted no time scotch-taping bottle rockets to miniature army guys and propping them in Pepsi cans weighted with pebbles. Sheer glee on their faces as they lit the fuses and watched plastic figures soar fifteen feet into the air. Rifles, grenades, hands and arms melted as the wounded dropped to the powdery August ground. I watched nearby, snickering about the couple of asses I’d like to light up.
“Holy shit, did you see that?” Kellen hollered.
“Yeah, we’re kicking ass today!” Jake said.
Coarse language, I noticed, assuming it had been enthusiastically modeled by these guys’ four older brothers. But I had more pressing issues to be concerned about.
As I put Pizza Rolls, cheesy Metts, strawberries, grapes and apples into the fridge, I wondered if Dan slowly uncovered Patty’s breasts like he did mine, caressing and licking, watching the nipple rise toward him, firm and proud. Did he wait to climax until they were both spent, or did time constraints on illicit affairs cause a rush? Where the hell were these heated trysts happening anyway, the back of her Blazer?
Thundering feet on the porch rescued me from those disturbing images. “Can we swim in the creek?” Kellen called through the screen door.
“Absolutely! That’s what we’re here for,” I answered.
The water was about three feet deep and, despite our goofy water shoes, we enjoyed the sucking sensation of our feet sinking several inches into the muck. Every now and then a slight current would pull us along, which tickled the boys. Jake stood up and stuck a fistful of wet sand into his shorts, then grunted as he pretended to crap it out of his trunks. Eleven-year-olds can be entertained like this for a long time; happily, I discovered that I could, too. Even Orville seemed to be grinning, and with each low-sounding plop, howls of laughter poured out and I wondered if neighbor kids on either side of our eight acres were puzzled as to what was so funny. I also wondered if I could start healing, one loud laugh at a time.
Around 8:30, our meal at the pizza joint three miles into town hit the spot. The combination of driving, playing with fire and being outside resulted in both boys sleeping twelve hours that night. Me, not so much; crying, tossing in the dark, with intermittent bad dreams making for a fitful rest.
Around 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning I was picking at brown sugar cinnamon pop-tarts in the kitchen when I heard tires crunching in the driveway. Blowing off the curt voicemail I’d left Dan (from my brother Greg’s house, five minutes from the cabin) telling him where I was, with whom, and that he was to stay away, here he was. He approached the cabin like a dog with his tail between his legs, and with downcast eyes, handed me a sixteen-ounce box of Bevan’s Own Make milk chocolates and a white envelope.
“Go,” I said, blocking his entry to the cavernous room with a vaulted log ceiling.
“Look, just read what I wrote, and you’ll understand. Sorry,” he offered as he shuffled away.
“Just go,” I repeated as the frame to the ragged porch screen slapped shut. Tears stung my eyes as I sat back down on a bar stool and opened the card. Printing on the front read:
I’ll Always Love You. Real love is helping and reassuring, trusting and understanding and
loving, always loving…anniversary after happy anniversary.
Was he serious? Nothing about yesterday was reassuring, trusting, or loving! I wanted to shred the card, to tear the paper the way the fabric of our relationship was ripped the day before, in ’96, in ’97 and ’98, threads being pulled, a few at a time. The inside script tested my gag reflex even more.
When I think of all that we’ve been through and all the wonderful memories we’ve yet to make, I realize how much I’m looking forward to spending the rest of forever with you. Happy Anniversary, With Love
At the bottom, he had scrawled, It was hard finding the right card. Have a good anniversary! I love you. Dan
The right card? I’d been astounded by Dan’s lack of social awareness from the first week I knew him. He was awkward, aloof, and had difficulty empathizing with people, the poster child for ineptitude. A born codependent myself, however, I’ve always been more in tune with others’ feelings and needs than my own. Since seventh grade, I’ve been an exceptional accompanist, as I breathe with the soloist to match every pause, each credenza, every ritardando. As a twenty-two-year-old social work graduate, I’d planned to fix Dan’s character flaws when we married. His card felt almost cruel in its irony. Maybe the explanation on white notebook paper would better help me understand.
Lee, Patty was offered the Assistant Principal job at Clawson on Friday. She left a message asking if I would talk with her about taking the job and transitioning. I suggested we run and talk Saturday morning. I should have just talked with her on the phone. I worked pretty hard to get her a job outside Balfour. The job starts on Monday. My fault.
I was trying to be a good guy. I have a reputation in Balfour for helping people find and get administrative positions. Thanks for letting me know where you and Kellen were.
I must’ve missed the part where he apologized, so I reread it. Nope, not there. Grabbing a pen, I took the educator approach and began marking corrections in the margins and any open spaces.
Your letter is about you and Patty. It doesn’t acknowledge that you ran with her on Matt’s birthday, the day before our anniversary. Not an ounce of regret or “I’m sorry”’
Why didn’t you just talk with Patty by phone? The affirmation you get from helping people find administrative positions allows you to disregard my multiple requests that you not run with her. You shattered the trust I’d begun to feel, risked the solidarity of our family, made me doubt the foundation of our marriage again. I feel like an ornament, a minor community asset to you, an afterthought. When you can make some professional hay, you flick me off like a speck of lint.
When you have contact with Patty, you disrespect me, the mother of your children, the woman who cooks your meals and carefully launders your clothes. You humiliate me and disregard our wedding vows. You ran with her so you could applaud yourself about what a big cog in the wheel of school administration you are, Dr. Reinecke.
Even if Patty moved to Australia, there will always be a Jen (Kennedy Jr. High art teacher with her successful, but alcoholic husband), Tania (adjunct professor at IUP with her sad divorce story), Pam (Jefferson with her underachieving alcoholic husband), or Vicki (Hinton with her doofus fiancé) to hook you into their lair. Boundaries and trust are ongoing problems in our relationship.
I saw something poignant on the bike path yesterday: a pair of yellow finches were soaring together, then split apart mid-flight. Seems prophetic of our relationship.
Despite feeling completely unraveled by Dan’s visit and card, I drove to the tiny Baptist church near the cabin and skulked in just as the minister began his sermon. He preached about “How to See God,” while I sat in the back pew, sniffling into one of Dad’s white handkerchiefs. The front of the bulletin read “The grace of God teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age.” 2 Titus 11-12. I shifted in my seat and took notes: slave to desires, achievement, status, money, and admiration; the evil one delights in strife, divisions, and gossip. TV, books, and radio pander spiritual pollution. I clung to the solace of my bleached hanky and the image of Kellen and Jake still asleep at the cabin.
My puffy eyes and red nose and lips (surely evidence of the efficacy of the pastor’s message) must’ve made that guy’s week. Since he raced to the door during the postlude, I couldn’t avoid shaking his hand or commenting about what a powerful sermon he’d delivered. He squeezed my hand at length and said, “Bless you this week and be sure to come back next Sunday.” I might still be here in a week, I thought.
One trip to Fishburg, ten miles away, allowed the boys and me to hit Walmart for groceries and a set of bows and arrows. Everything’s A Dollar had the important stuff: more army figures, Reese’s Cups, cheese curls, matches, Milky Ways, rubber bands (to make a three-pound rubber band ball), and Rolos. We had to go back to the Fireworks/Beef Jerky Outlet exit to buy bottle rockets and Slim Jims.
The moment we entered the fireworks store all manner of harassment was unleashed. “Mom, we need some Roman candles and a couple Silver Salutes,” Kellen said.
“I don’t think so,” I answered.
“Umm, Mrs. Reinecke, I have enough money for some cherry bombs,” Jake offered.
“We’re sticking with Intro to Pyromania, guys,” I said, able to tolerate only so much risk. “You can’t even light bottle rockets in Glen Haven.” That shut them up pretty fast.
By Wednesday, I was really tired of water that smelled like sulfur, and the lack of air conditioning and decent food. Knowing that I had to return to work the following Monday was a stark reminder that I had a real life in Pennsylvania and probably needed to attend to it. The respite at the cabin had allowed me space, time to lick my wounds, to read, and to journal about the condition of my marriage.
I gave Kellen and Jake a twenty-four-hour warning, setting off a whirlwind of archery, creek-surfing, and fireworks. Thursday morning, we stuffed our bags with sandy, stinky clothes, gathered up plastic, metal, and paper debris from the yard and drove back to Glen Haven. Less traffic, less stress, more clarity.
Matt was lifeguarding and Luke had football practice twice a day, so the house was empty when Kellen and I arrived in late afternoon. Dan walked through the back door around 4:30, his eyes looking tired, but Orville raced to him, wagging his stub of a tail so hard he almost wiped out on the hardwood floor. Staring at the paltry contents of the fridge, I scowled at Dan. Two eggs, an American cheese slice, and a shrivel-skinned tangerine had about as much potential for a meal as the flimsy scaffolding of our relationship had for a lasting marriage. I sighed and closed the fridge.
“What?” Dan asked, straddling a bar stool at the counter.
“You know how you said Ron MacMillan was the only preacher you ever thought was sincere? Would you consider counseling with him to figure out how we can divorce with minimal scarring of our boys?” I asked, liking the emotional advantage of standing over him.
“Come on, I explained everything. Be reasonable,” he said.
“Ron has a master’s in counseling and has worked with lots of couples whose marriages have been in trouble. In case you haven’t noticed, ours is.”
“It doesn’t have to be. Patty’s working in Clawson and you’ll never have to worry about her again,” he said, his eyes wider open than usual, accentuating the creases on his forehead.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before and either her husband calls me about the most recent sighting of you two running, or I bump into you myself.”
“Jesus Christ, Lee, we live an hour from Aurora; I don’t have that kind of time.”
“We make time for what we love,” I answered. Dan lowered his head at an angle and closed his eyes.
It was quieter than usual when we dug into Kentucky Fried Chicken, instant potatoes, and biscuits. Luke guarded his plate with his elbows and leaned over it so any falling breading would be caught for a second chance. Matt glanced at me with a squint that betrayed suspicion or curiosity, I wasn’t sure which.
“What’s new at the pool, Matt?” I asked.
“The e-coli emergency I called on T-Tuesday was a big hit,” he said. “I see a turd floating in the shallow end near a toddler, a mother gabbing away with her friend, so I have a r-r-responsibility to clear the pool.”
Luke guffawed, blowing half-chewed coleslaw in several directions.
Brushing cabbage off his arm, Kellen said, “Luke, relax already!”
“S-so, I tweet my whistle, give the signal to clear the pool, and all hell breaks loose. K-kids and moms are whining, other guards looking like, ‘What the hell?’ My supervisor rushes out to see what the problem is.” Matt picked up a couple chicken thighs, looked them over, and I realized he was disappointed that the breasts were gone. He put a thigh on his plate. “I explain about the diaper m-malfunction and the procedures in the handbook and her face gets red. She says I should’ve checked with her. Orders me to retrieve said turd and proceed with the chemicals. The scene in Caddyshack k-k-kept playing in my head, the turd bouncing around to Jaws music.”
“I haven’t eaten a Mounds bar since I saw that movie,” I said. “I guess grumbling parents on a hot afternoon mean more to your boss than public health.”
Matt nodded, rolled his eyes, and squirted honey on a biscuit.
“How was football today, Luke?” Dan asked, always the sports enthusiast. More so than I but something I’d always liked about him.
“Torture.” Luke replied. “It was so damned hot that our clothes were soaked before we started running. Coach Russell was barking out drills faster than usual, hoping somebody would puke before ten o’clock.” Luke grabbed a drumstick, took a bite. “The water from the faucet was warm and Butler speared me in a drill, almost knocked me out!” he said.
“So, mostly business as usual,” Dan said, dipping his honey biscuit into his mashed potatoes and gravy.
“Why do you play, Luke? That all sucks,” Kellen said.
At this blasphemy, Luke turned toward Kellen and his mouth dropped open. “Dude, you have no idea how girls love football players, touching the bruises on our arms, jumping on us at the end of the game, dying for us to ask them to Homecoming. Besides, it’s my ticket to college; check out my scholarships,” he said, patting his oversized thighs. Kellen tilted his head and rolled his eyes.
“So, Mom, how was Grampa’s cabin?” Luke asked, pressing the pad of his index finger onto the crumbs on his plate, then licking them off.
“It was pretty fun, you know, the lap of luxury, days on end with intellectual giants, lots of filet mignon and crab legs, playing Scrabble ‘til midnight.” Every face seemed to relax and there wasn’t a single gas emission during the meal. Kellen told of his exploits in fire and sand diarrhea, then bragged that he only brushed his teeth twice in five days. His brothers grinned at him, then one by one, the boys picked up their plates and left the table.
“I’ll see Ron MacMillan with you, but I don’t want it to be about getting divorced,” Dan said in a hushed tone.
“I’m done with hypervigilance, the pain in my gut every time you leave in running clothes. You’ve sworn that you’re not spending time with Patty but it’s just easier for you to lie than tell the truth.” I put my silverware on my plate and slid it to the center of the table. Dan gathered the empty Styrofoam bowls and put them inside the greasy bucket.
“The thought of our sons being damaged because you can’t be an adult scares me, and after five years of this crap, I don’t see any other option. I refuse to get stomach cancer over your entanglements with women.” I stood and carried my dishes to the kitchen. “Email me some openings on your calendar. I’ll call Ron in the morning and schedule an appointment.”