Grateful

Evelyn never kept secrets from her two best friends, except for what might be the biggest secret of all.

Abstract illustration of an eye crying.

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Evelyn ignored the protracted honks of protest and continued steering her silver SUV through the clotted traffic, nearly scraping a few bumpers with her dicey maneuvers.

In the passenger seat, Delilah stuck pink Post-Its to select pages of a thick home décor magazine. Using her substantial alimony payments, she’d refurnished her living room, outfitted her master bath with a vintage clawfoot tub, and had the exterior of her home painted, twice, all in an effort to fill the void left by her divorce. PJ preferred the back seat, with her canvas bag stuffed with paperback thrillers and snacks perched conveniently beside her.

For each of the past 25 years, they had driven from Southern to Northern California and spent a weekend in San Francisco. They ate at eclectic restaurants, walked along the beach, and shopped. The road trip, always taken in June, was an inviolable tradition.

Secrets were rare among the three of them, but until today, Evelyn had been determined to keep her husband’s affair a secret she took to her grave.

“I need to stop off in Santa Barbara,” Evelyn said.

“No problem,” PJ said.

“Beautiful there,” said Delilah.

Evelyn took a deep breath and continued, “To see a woman Richard used to see.”

“As in romantically?” PJ asked, her thin eyebrows rising above the rims of her cat’s-eye glasses. “Impossible. Richard idolizes you. Always has.”

“I’m surprised too,” Delilah said, folding up her magazine. “But why is today the first we’re hearing of this?” She raised her chin in that commanding way she’d perfected as a sixth-grade teacher, fully expecting an acceptable response. With a serial cheater of an ex-husband, Delilah was less fazed by infidelity than by Evelyn’s belated confession.

“I’ve never told anyone,” Evelyn replied. By the worry on her friends’ faces, she knew she’d waited too long to seek solace from the two women who’d been her steadfast confidantes since college, over 40 years ago.

 

They’d met at a freshman mixer, back when PJ had been known as Penelope Jean. They’d each hovered solicitously at different spots around the refreshments table, noshing on chips and watered-down punch in a feeble attempt to mask the uneasiness of not fitting in.

“We’re misfits,” Evelyn had declared, after introducing herself. “So let’s be misfits together.”

With that, they’d formed their own little clique. They’d commiserated over grueling papers and bad dates. They’d advised, consoled, but had never judged. Or had tried not to, anyway. Unconditional acceptance, borne out of a shared need to at least fit in with each other, had formed a pillar of their long friendship.

“It happened about 12 years ago,” Evelyn said.

“Let me guess, she was really young,” said PJ, whose husband had left her for a 24-year-old drama student the day after PJ had turned 50. Since then, she’d been so age-conscious that she kept her hair dyed solid black and had invested a small fortune on creams and noninvasive procedures to stave off the wrinkles and age spots.

“She was probably in her early 30s back then,” Evelyn said, then explained that Courtney had been the prosecutor on the few criminal cases Richard had handled for his firm. At 52, he’d still been trim and attractive, with deep-set blue eyes, a strong jawline, and a full head of thick, peppery hair. He’d been propositioned by various women through the years, but Courtney had been the first to whom he’d fallen prey.

Richard had Alzheimer’s now. He was no longer the hard-charging attorney or the man who’d easily garnered random female attention. Perhaps one of the saving graces of the disease was the eventual loss of the inclination to care.

 

The affair lasted a year and a half. Ordinarily dauntless and self-confident, Richard confessed to Evelyn with his head bowed and shoulders slumped with the cumbrous weight of guilt, disappointment, and self-condemnation, knowing full well nothing would absolve him.

Evelyn permitted herself a brief stretch of self-pity and wept privately, hurt, humiliated, and angry. She felt extraordinarily old at the age of 50. Although she dressed well and remained slim, her hair had grayed completely, and deep lines had sunk in around her eyes, nose, and lips.

He moved out, at her insistence, and leased an apartment nearby, until she asked him back several months later. Beneath the emotional scars and tenuous trust, she still loved him. She imagined she always would.

A five-month stint with marriage counseling established that they still loved and respected each other, but by then, as they approached their 26th year of marriage, “love and respect” had become an empty, banal catchphrase rather than the aspiration they’d once held as newlyweds.

“You need more therapy,” the counselor stressed during their final session. “You need to dig deep to heal. Then learn to be with each other again. Get your mojo back.”

Evelyn scoffed at the mention of digging deep, which she equated with peeling off a crusty scab and reliving the traumatic aftermath of being told Richard had been with another woman. Besides, mojo was overrated, strictly for the idealistic younger set. At least that’s what she told herself.

 

The middle school library, where Evelyn had volunteered two hours of her Thursday mornings, was where she’d overheard two moms chatting blithely about their husbands’ ongoing affairs — affairs they’d expressly permitted their husbands to have.

Lorna was a fit and leggy 40-something blonde who often dressed in tennis garb. “Neil has his girlfriend,” she told Evelyn. “And I have my life the way I want it. I do lunch and the spa with my friends, and I do what I want, when I want. And of course we show up to the important stuff together.”

Alice was a petite redhead married to a real estate developer. “Barry and I have a deal,” she said matter-of-factly. “He has Erica, and I buy what I want. I can even see anyone I want. It works for us. It’s perfectly copacetic.” She fingered an impressive diamond pendant and nodded approvingly, as if indicating that Evelyn would be positively insane not to strike up a similar deal with her own husband.

“We don’t have to be martyrs like our mothers were,” Lorna added crisply. “Putting up with certain things in marriage without getting something out of it.” The conversations in the school library had certainly spiced up those volunteer sessions. If those women were at all distressed, they hid it well with their talk of clothes and workout regimens.

Evelyn deemed those women jaded, vapid, and superficial. Yet, something about their “perfectly copacetic” relationships continued to intrigue her.

 

Evelyn and Richard never again spoke of the affair. In fact, they rarely spoke. The absence of the usual everyday conversation cocooned them in safety, or the illusion of it, as if not mentioning the transgression gradually whittled it into nonexistence.

They marched on. Evelyn managed their household, their finances, and their children. Richard immersed himself in work, his reliable method of escape. They behaved in ways contrary to the advice of the marriage counselor, constantly tiptoeing around each other and deliberately eschewing any discussion of their problems. Doing anything but digging deep and reclaiming their mojo. Their marriage had become tiresome and dull.

In a moment of abandon, and deep despair, Evelyn proposed that Richard continue seeing Courtney. She’d already weighed the risks, one of which included the possibility that sending him back to Courtney, even temporarily, could further alienate her from him. However, she was also keenly aware of the tension and interminable silence that was eroding their marriage. She’d listened to enough of Lorna and Alice’s conversations in the school library to have gleaned that their “perfectly copacetic” open marriages had offered some modicum of satisfaction that was preferable to the ineffable nothingness she had with Richard.

“That’s insane,” Richard said, raking his fingers through his hair.

Evelyn stared at him determinedly. “Maybe, but so what if it is?”

“Do you want a divorce?” Richard had asked. “Is that what this is about?”

“No. No divorce,” Evelyn replied flatly, swiping her hands through the air. She envied Courtney for her youth, but she had little desire to relive her own younger days. She simply wanted to move forward, age gracefully and comfortably, and remain married while doing so. “I’m okay with it this time,” she added. “Hell, I’m the one who’s trying to get you to go along with this crazy, insane idea. But we won’t call it cheating. It’s more of an … arrangement.”

As she’d urged Richard to embark upon this unorthodox marital sojourn, she’d discerned something Lorna and Alice hadn’t conveyed. Being in control, assuming the role of orchestrator instead of hapless victim, was empowering.

“I made a mistake before,” Richard said. “I can’t do that to us again.”

“But how much of us is really left?” she asked in earnest.

He couldn’t refute or respond otherwise, a rarity for a silver-tonged lawyer who was gifted with the skill of persuasion.

She persisted, and when he capitulated finally, she panicked and asked herself, “What have I gone and done?” She nevertheless shoved aside her fears and became adept at distracting herself whenever she caught herself thinking about Richard in bed with another woman.

With chagrin, she realized that she’d become her own version of Lorna and Alice, equally jaded and forlorn, although she never deigned to mention a word of her proposal in the school library.

Six months after the affair began, Richard abruptly ended it. The set-up, arrangement, or whatever it was had tested the grit and stretched the limits of their marriage, leaving them more damaged and bewildered than ever.

 

“It’s all so … not you,” PJ said, her puzzled face framed by the rearview mirror.

Evelyn met PJ’s gaze in the mirror. “I’m not the traditionalist you thought I was.”

“Neither is Richard, apparently.”

“She gave him the go-ahead,” Delilah interjected. “He’s flawed, just like anyone else, which isn’t an excuse. Just an explanation.”

“None of this says why you want to see this woman,” PJ said.

“Courtney’s sick. A rare bone disease, according to her Facebook. I’ve got a few things to say to her.” Evelyn took her phone out of the caddy wedged between the seats and handed it to Delilah. “Why don’t you get into my Facebook. Look for a brunette with green eyes. We’ve been in touch off and on recently. It’s an old photo, but it’s her.”

Delilah’s fingers grazed the screen. “She’s gorgeous. Great hair. Great eyes. Great smile. Just the sort of gal I’ve always envied but just had to hate.” She shrugged and passed the phone to PJ in the backseat.

PJ lifted her glasses, leaving them perched on her forehead, and squinted at the dated image of Courtney. “And you weren’t afraid of losing Richard to this?”

“Of course I was, but I was the one he came home to. Both times,” Evelyn muttered, suddenly feeling more pathetic than proud of that fact.

Delilah said, “I may know the answer to this already, if I know you as well as I think I do, but did you ever go out and have your own affair, tryst, what have you?”

“No.”

“But you thought about it, right?” PJ asked. “Nothing wrong with one of those open marriages. Come on, admit you thought about it … even a skosh.”

“No.”

“Why not?” asked Delilah.

“Because I was happy before, but Richard wasn’t. Maybe it was a midlife crisis or plain old male ego that got him to do what he did. Whatever the case, I wasn’t going to let it split us up.” She sighed.

She had a fleeting urge to further justify what she’d done, but said nothing.

One day, though, she’d muster a cogent explanation for the unfathomable despair that had driven her to make an audacious but foolhardy proposal that had had profound and negative effects on her, Richard, and Courtney. She’d tell them that the so-called go-ahead she’d given had been intended as a means of salvation to benefit both herself and Richard and not a special dispensation for Richard alone. Finally, she’d find the exact right words to articulate the distress, trauma, fury, loss of self, and craving for clarity and resolution that she’d carried in her highly guarded emotional repository for the past dozen years. But first, she needed to fully comprehend all of it herself. She was even contemplating a return to the psychotherapy she’d previously sworn off.

 

Courtney was an aged, brittle-boned woman now. A sickly hue colored her gaunt cheeks, and her hair had thinned to unsightly gray tufts.

“Most people who say they’ll visit these days usually don’t,” she said resignedly, and led Evelyn to a brown sofa in the small living room. The place had a musty odor. The walls were white and yellowed at two corners from water damage.

Evelyn placed her leather tote beside her on the sofa. She informed Courtney of Richard’s Alzheimer’s, then observed the familiar expression of disbelief and sorrow she’d seen on the faces of family and friends.

“He was always so strong,” Courtney said. “Brilliant. Powerful. And you knew I loved him,” she added, referring obliquely to the letter of apology she’d written to Evelyn over a decade ago.

Evelyn had tossed the letter years ago, but the memory of it was achingly fresh. Courtney had apologized, because dating a married man was not something she’d ever thought she’d do. She’d confessed to having fallen in love with Richard. The more time she’d spent with him, the deeper her attachment, and the greater her desire for more of a life with him. All had formed the impetus for Richard to immediately sever ties. The written apology had proven some level of conscientiousness, but sending it had been a ballsy move.

“He never felt the same about me,” Courtney said, tossing up a hand and landing it gently on her lap. “He didn’t have to tell me. We never even slept together that second time around.”

Evelyn widened her eyes, stunned and oddly pleased at the same time.

“Oh,” Courtney said softly. “You didn’t know, did you?”

Evelyn folded her hands on her lap and digested this new bit of information. She imagined the anguish, disquiet, and sense of foreboding Richard must have experienced during that second time around with Courtney. She took a sliver of perverse pleasure in supposing that those unpleasant states of mind had been some sort of karma for the sheer pleasure he’d had during the original affair. She’d forgiven him long ago, but she’d never been certain he’d forgiven himself. Or ever would.

“Most times, we just went out to dinner,” Courtney said. “He was with me but never really with me.” She bit the corner of her chapped lips, as if stopping herself from reminiscing aloud.

Evelyn stood. She figured now was as good a time as any to end their visit. She pulled out a check from the inner pocket of her tote and gave it to Courtney. “I’d like you to have this.”

Courtney hesitated, then took the check and looked up at Evelyn, perplexed. “Ten grand?”

“I read your Facebook posts. You have bills. You haven’t worked in some time, and your insurance has lapsed.”

“Of all people, you don’t owe me anything.”

“No I don’t, but you were a part of Richard’s life, even if a small part, and therefore a part of mine. What you had with him was wrong, but it gave him something besides sex, at least that first time around, that I couldn’t give him. Or maybe I could’ve but didn’t try. Figuring it out now is pointless. All I know is that shit happens and everyone deserves some happiness. So take the check. I hope it helps.” She picked up her leather tote and walked across the living room.

Courtney followed, stuffing the check into a frayed pocket of her sweater.

Just as Evelyn opened the door, Courtney placed a hand on her arm and said, rather timidly, “Thank you.” Her large green eyes, sad and desolate, belonged to a woman who’d given and desired love but had never received it in return, a woman who’d lost all hope.

“You’re welcome,” Evelyn said and walked out. She was smiling but also had the inexplicable urge to cry.

She’d come here to atone for her part in the past, but she hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming relief. She was ready to forgive herself. Finally. She continued down the walkway, wiping a tear from her eye.

 

Delilah and PJ stood beside the silver SUV, concerned and curious. As if by some deep-rooted, soul sister instinct, they’d each extended their arms, and Evelyn walked straight into their embrace.

They huddled for a moment, arms wrapped tightly around each other, the warm sun beating on their backs. With these women, Evelyn always felt at home.

Evelyn pulled away and said, “Let’s get going. I’ll tell you all about it in the car.”

“I’ll drive,” said Delilah, who customarily drove the second shift of these road trips.

As Delilah steered the car away from the curb, Evelyn took one last glimpse at the drab little home. She wondered, uselessly, how many days, weeks, or months Courtney had spent alone in there. One day, her disease will claim her life, and the Alzheimer’s that was slowly but surely obliterating Richard’s memory, intellect, and persona — his very essence — will usher in the complications that will lead to the end of his. Compassion triumphed over regret and loathing. It had to.

Evelyn grinned at Delilah and PJ, her allies for life, grateful that whatever the future held, none of them would ever endure it alone.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. This is a fascinating story with unexpected twists and turns, much less the final outcome. I hesitated reading it at first thinking it was a woman’s story I wouldn’t be interested in. Wrong! There are lessons to be learned and pondered here for nearly everyone, Ms. Wang. Thank you.

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