Jul/Aug 2004  •   Fiction

...in Love and War

by Carolyn Steele Agosta

As Dan drives away, I see a fresh bag of trash sitting on top of my garbage can. His. For a moment, I picture myself running after that shiny white 4x4, flinging week-old pizza boxes and sour milk cartons after him. I linger on the image of a blackened banana peel hanging off his bumper.

Next weekend, he can't take the kids. He wants me to tell them.

"You're better at this," he said, and I'd have taken it with a lot more grace if he hadn't been wearing a clean shirt and after-shave. Heading out for a hot date.

Tyler and Bethany dump their bookbags on the floor, crumpled drawings of Indians and turkeys, pages filled with long lines of crooked letters.

"Dad says we can get a puppy," Bethany says. Her smile is soft and dreamy. "I'm gonna name it Stardust."

"Bath time," I announce, and they pull long faces but giggle later in the tub. Once they're in bed, I mop up the wet floor and step outside for a smoke.

It's cold out, and the sky is filled with stars. I drag deep on the cigarette, exhaling anger along with the nicotine and tar. A puppy in that little apartment. How's he going to keep up with a puppy when he can't seem to keep up with anything else? Jenny would say, save the anger, store up the resentment as long as you can, warehouse the rage. "Takes a lot of adrenaline, honey, to keep up the fight." She ought to know. I can see lights on at her house, Wayne's car in the drive. Raised voices match angry shadows at the living room window, and I wonder what they're arguing about now. His child support payments, always late? Another missed court date? "Don't even try to be reasonable or nice," she always says. "They're just waiting for that. The law's on the side of the one who can stick it out. Ain't nobody looking out for you now, baby, but you."

I know that she's right. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me from sucking my thumb is the pain when I bite, tweaking my anger to keep it red-hot. How else to deal with broken promises and lame excuses and all his stupid lies? How else to handle letters from my lawyer on the six most urgent steps to extricate my credit history from the steaming pile of Dan's debts? The books say get over it, be civilized. Yeah, right. What I'd really like is to shake him up, let him find out I'm not so predictable, that I have the capacity for hate. Maybe if I'd done that sooner, he wouldn't have brought another woman to our bed. Other women.

My cigarette is down to the filter. I toss it away and stand for a moment at the edge of the porch. Smells like snow soon. All along the street, windows are lit against the dark, and I can see one patch of light after another, rooms with people inside. What did they do right? And what did I do that was so wrong? Where did I fail to keep my family intact? What goddamned rule did I break? It's not fair. It's not fair, but that's a child's word, a concept as substantial as fog. I don't know how to do this. I wasn't trained for divorce.

Jenny's house is silent and dark. Wayne's car is still in the drive, and I can't believe she'd just let him stay. "No sleeping with the enemy," I whisper as I turn to go in. "Don't be a traitor to your kind."

Tyler is cranky in the morning, and Bethany can't find her shoes. We race around gathering up papers and coats, bring Pop-Tarts and bananas into the car. As I turn the corner onto Davidson, a police cruiser comes up the block.

"Rrrrr," Tyler says as flashing lights go by. "I'm going to eat you."

At the office I feel a semblance of control, but hitting the grocery store as I leave work just about saps the last of my strength. I roll the cart up and down aisles, buying fish sticks and raisins and boxes of juice. Our family cuisine has fallen to the level of a five-year-old, but it's easier than pretending nothing's changed. Sometimes I'd like to simply drop the facade. To rid myself of the American dream and just have us live in a tent like gypsies. Instead I listen to the experts, try to keep the kids' lives much the same, try to do the damn thing right. I'm going stone-broke, doing it on my own, and the house is too full of memories. Not only of what was, but what should have been. A family of four sitting at the dining room table, eating pot roast and apple pie. Or fajitas and beans. Or even Kentucky freaking Fried Chicken, so long as we were all there together. But it won't happen now, and it will never happen now, and I hate him, and I pretty much hate myself.

I round the last aisle and head for check-out, and then I see Dan. He's standing in the Ten Items or Less line, and I look at his cart. Motor oil, deli sandwich, a six-pack of beer. I wonder what he does at night in that bare-bones apartment, those quiet rooms. Watch TV? Sedate himself with a 104 channels, ESPN and Michelob Lite? Does he watch sitcoms where single dads have wisdom and wit, or is it action movies with good guys and bad guys and no quarter given? Does he have regrets? I have no idea. Dan sees me, and all the light goes out of his eyes, and it's strange how much that hurts.

For a moment I consider going up another aisle, but then I remember Jenny and walk over to him. "You tell the kids about next weekend," I hiss at his shirt. "No more dumping the dirty work. If you're going to let them down, then you have to bear the consequences. Not me."

"Oh, fine. I'll make them cry. Is that what you want? All men are bastards, right?"

"Not all men." I sense heads turning in our direction, but a reckless sense of power surges through my veins. "If you don't want to see people cry, stop whapping them across the face. Stop making stupid, useless promises and try doing what you're supposed to, just for the novelty of it. If you want to treat me like crap, that's one thing, but don't do it to your kids."

"Yeah, I'm the shit-king of the world, isn't that right? Remind me again." His voice is bitter, tight. "What's the matter, can't you even look me in the face?"

I wheel my cart around, go down to the other end of the check-out section. I can't. He's right. I can't look at his face, because I don't know who the hell he is any more.

It takes a long time to get the kids to bed. They're scared, upset, they don't understand. I don't understand either. Jenny's house is wrapped in crime tape: a black and yellow proclamation that something has gone terribly wrong. Wayne is dead, and Jenny's in jail. Revenge is an ugly word, but oh my god, she'd had that moment. That one victorious moment of knowing he felt the pain.

By midnight I've done all I can do. Folded laundry, paid bills, picked up toys and crayons and junk. For five minutes I stand at the end of my driveway, smoking a cigarette, looking at that dark house across the street. Finally, I throw the butt away and cross the line. Stepping over the tape, I creep up to the porch, cup my hands against the window. It's too dark to see in, and my breath steams up the glass. I can only imagine the scene. A black splotch on the floor, bits of blood and gore sprayed across the wallpaper and the curved-back couch. He used every possible loophole to dodge his responsibilities; she leveled the playing field with a vengeance. I wonder how he looked, whether his eyes were staring at the woman he never believed would stand up to him. Well, she did. It may not have been right, but perhaps it was fair. I don't know. I can't understand any more, can't make it register on my brain. Dan and I are through, we don't love, yet we are tied together as irrevocably as life and breath.

"Lady, step away from the house."

A police cruiser is shining a light on me. I turn and face it, hands balled into fists, my breathing ragged as if I'd been running a race. Raising my hands in a gesture of peace, that chump's refuge, I come slowly down the steps. I give name, address, apologize for trespassing. "It's just that I know those people. I feel bad for them. Do you know what's going to happen to her?"

His face is impassive, young. What does he know of heartache and loss? What does he know of that sensation of endlessly falling down the stairs, of constantly banging against the falsehoods of trust and fidelity? "I can't discuss it, Ma'am. You'd better go on home now. This is not a place you want to be."

I trudge back across the street, let myself in, knowing the officer is watching me turn on lights, close the door. I lock myself in so I won't run after him, banging on the trunk of his car, screaming at him about divorce laws and "justice" and how people manipulate it until it's no more than a twisted hunk of meddle.

In the bright light of the bathroom, it hits me what Jenny has done. She can't go backward from this, it's all gone too far, and for a minute my nostrils are filled with the scent of blood. Then I vomit, over and over, sinking to my knees on the cold floor. What am I doing? I can't go on with this anger clawing at my nerves; I can't go on hating the father of my children this way. Not when I have to see him every week, deal with him all the time. I can't go on being bitch to his bastard, harpy to his ass-holiness. It's killing me, not making me strong.

I'm shivering, shaking uncontrollably. I hate what I've become. I didn't want this. It wasn't on my agenda. I go to my room, crawl under the blankets. In the middle of the night, Tyler comes to my bed. "Scary people," he moans, and I take him in my arms, cuddle his round, flanneled body.

"It's okay," I tell him. "Mama's here. It was just a bad dream."

I have my own nightmare with which to contend. A vision of that other house behind the tape. I imagine lying on the floor in that darkened living room. Inches away from me, blackened gore reeks in a yellow patch of sunlight. I lie there, watching a fly wring his hands over so much blood, so little time. My children are sleeping in their beds. Tyler's is painted red and blue, with tiny motorcars glued to the headboard. Bethany's is pink. A Barbie fantasy of scallops and frills. I call, but they don't wake, and my voice wavers and echoes in a long hallway full of unopened doors.

Morning arrives like the US Calvary. I drink coffee, fix cereal, locate lost jackets and backpacks, herd the children out to the car. Bethany tells me, with great elaboration of gesture and voice, the continuing soap opera of the playground. Tyler is bright-eyed and eager this morning. He runs a HotWheel along the car window ledge. I start the engine and back out of my driveway, looking to my left at that silent house across the street. Then I look to the right and see my own house, with Tyler's trike still on the front lawn and Bethany's artwork in the window. It's their home, and I am the foundation. Tomorrow we'll rake leaves, go for a drive, eat hot dogs at a diner. Bethany will turn cartwheels on the front lawn. Tyler will learn to tie his shoes.

Life isn't going to be what I expected. Dan and I messed up. We took a good thing and turned it inside out, and now nothing fits. Bethany hums softly beside me as I head up the road into our day. Who would've thought that one November morning in my 34th year, I'd have to grow up?