People in Your Life

An encounter with an old crush brings surprising revelations about the end of a marriage.

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

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“What did you mean when you said Ron would be surprised about the divorce?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“No, go ahead. Tell me what you meant.” I’m speaking with more playful ease than I am feeling.

“Well,” Harvey steps aside to let me walk into the last row of seats. “Ron lived next door to the woman that Carlton was seeing when you lived in Albany.”
“Excuse me? Hello? What are you talking about?”

“Good morning. We would like to welcome you …” A pudgy woman in a florescent purple dress invades our conversation with her over-amplified voice.
Harvey puts a finger to his lips to signal silence.

I open up my notebook and fish in my jacket pocket for a pen and hand both to Harvey.

“Write down what the heck you’re talking about. If you’ve known old Bill the Speaker here all that long, you’ve probably heard most of what he’ll have to say.”

Harvey sits holding the pen like he’s just been asked to write a sonnet. I give him an energetic, junior high school nudge that sends his pen flying, a perfect arc into his neighbor’s cup of coffee on the floor between the seats. The coffee’s owner starts to sputter.

“Tell her I’ll go get her another cup,” I whisper and hand Harvey a second–dry–pen. “And don’t let her read what you’re writing.” I start to get up, then lean across Harvey to ask the woman if she takes sugar. “Write,” I say to Harvey. “Write.”

It takes me forever to get coffee because there’s still a line, and as it is, I end up with tepid decaf with Sweet’N Low and Coffee-mate in a Styrofoam cup. (All we need are plastic potato chips.)

Harvey has placed his tablet face down on my seat and is paying rapt attention to his buddy at the podium, which I take to mean he doesn’t want me asking questions.

I pick up the pad and read in Harvey’s slash script:

You probably know all this anyway. Ron Baylor knew that this guy (Carlton) was having an affair with Ron’s neighbor, but it had been going on several months before Ron actually met Carlton at work one day when Carlton came to pick you up. They both acted like they’d never seen each other. But the next time Carlton came to pay a call on girlfriend, Ron met him outside and invited him into his apartment, giving him little choice, I gather, and told Carlton in no uncertain terms that he had to end the affair or Ron was telling you the whole thing. I get the idea he came on pretty strong, did the Catholic bit, and it seems Carlton was raised Catholic so all the guilt and fear of hell was there and ready for enlistment in the argument, and Ron got Carlton to take a Catholic oath on 20 different saints that he would straighten up and fly right. Three months later you and Carlton moved away.

My hands start shaking. Thankfully, Harvey is refusing to look my way. He has to know I never knew a bit of this. And how does he know, and who else knows, and how could Carlton have kept this from me for 27 exhaustively discussed, deceptive years? And how could I have been so stupid? I’m so angry I could spit. I want to throw something. Or somebody. Two or three candidates come to mind.

“So ultimately we find,” Speaker Bill intrudes with his hollow, microphonic voice, “that the longer a couple stays married, the deeper the ties between them.”

Deeper ties. What a wordsmith, what a phrasemaker our speaker is. Deeper lies, more like it. Bottomless pits of prevarication. I cannot take this in. I want to give the paper back to Harvey and demand that he erase it, say it was a stupid lie. It could be. Only, I know it’s not.

For years, I consoled myself that even if our marriage missed the boat on passion and playfulness and anything like real communication, at least old trust was there. That is, until Harvey Decker comes along with his Bic pen and dynamites the entire shooting match by telling me about a love affair that cannot have been possible. First off, Carlton didn’t have reliable transportation.

I try to figure. If Ron Baylor had kept his meddling mitts off my mate, if this interfering priest, who knew exactly nothing about marriage, had left my life alone and I had learned of the affair, then the whole business might have ended there. I might have slip-slithered out of that young marriage and gone blithely on my way to marry some whole different life. Or not. But at least it would have been my choice. Who the devil was this arrogant Ron Baylor to decide my life for me, condemn me to this Carlton of a husband, who may, for all I know, have had 10 more affairs I never knew about? Or–could it be?–Ron’s scare tactics did the trick, making Carlton a good soldier from then on. I would not presume this late in the day to speculate on Carlton’s faithfulness, a subject we two contrived to never once discuss in 30 years.

I just can’t stand it that Ron Baylor’s fingerprints are all over my life, that my whole marriage, that sturdy house of cards, may have been propped up on nothing more substantial than the wobbly stilts of his priestly, pompous interference. Plus, I am humiliated in retrospect to think that all the while that I was spinning yarns about flat tires and transmission fluid, Ron was busy scotch-taping my marriage back together. There’s no statute of limitations on pure shame.
Well, it won’t happen again. I can promise you that. From now on I’m paying fierce attention to everyone I meet, hanging on their every word, noting every nuance, treating people–I’m talking about strangers on buses here–like they are, or very likely might be, wildly important in my life.

No, I’m not. Why should I be the first person in the history of the world to learn from experience?

“Are you OK?” Harvey puts his hand on my arm.

“Yes. Why?” I’m more than huffy.

“It sounded like you groaned.”

Oh wonderful. It’s come to this. I’m going to fall to pieces in a padded auditorium full to capacity with psychotherapists. Dante could design a whole new hell with that scene sketch.

“Do you want to leave?” Harvey asks me.

“No,” I say.

Where would I go? I feel like I just got divorced again.

I try to look fascinated with the speaker whose earnest efforts have been entirely wasted on me so far.

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