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As she watched her husband walk toward her, Eleanor Weller searched for signs of his recent accident, didn’t find any, and wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed. She had expected him to be limping, or walking with a cane, or, more dramatically, listing, like an injured ship, but he looked as brisk and confident as ever.
He kissed her on the cheek. They had been separated long enough for her to find this endurable. Every other time she’d seen him during the past year, she’d held herself stiffly at a distance, sickened by the thought of coming into contact with him in any way.
He took her arm, grasping it too tightly, as was his habit, and led her into the restaurant. She was stunned that she allowed herself to be led in this fashion, after everything.
“You’re looking well,” he said, but she knew it wasn’t true. Since he’d left her she’d been steadily gaining weight, about two pounds a month, and now she had become the kind of woman who wears baggy dresses to mask her girtha tactic that never, of course, works.
“You too,” she said, and this was true. Adam had always looked well, and ever since he had left her for a woman who was younger than their daughter, he’d been looking better than ever.
“I’m glad we can do this,” he said.
“Get together. Without hostilities.”
“Why?” she said, not concerned about whether there was hostility in her tone.
“Because of everything we’ve meant to each other. Because of our history. Because of our children.”
“Well, fine,” she said. When they were seated, she drew a thick file folder from her bag. “Why don’t we get started?”
A waiter took their orders, and Eleanor noticed that Adam had changed his style of eating. He’d ordered eggs Benedict with sausages and home fries. He wasn’t being careful anymore. When they’d lived together she’d kept him on a low-fat diet to protect his heart.
He looked over the papers her lawyer had prepared. He’d seen them already, but he evidently wanted to make sure that the agreement she was asking him to sign was the same one she’d faxed him earlier in the week.
He read through it quickly. She remembered the first few times she’d watched him reading, more than thirty-five years earlier remembered how startled she’d been by the sheer speed of it.
In the beginning for many years, really she’d been excited even by the way he read. She had loved him that much. And yet he’d chosen to throw all that away.
She reminded herself to stay focused. She didn’t want to be distracted from what she needed to get from this encounter.
She was unhappy that she wanted to get anything from him, anything at all. It went against her nature. She would have preferred to sever all relations with him, never see him again. But she needed him to keep paying for her health insurance, and she needed him to sign over their apartment to her, and she needed him to supplement her income, and she needed him to make provisions for their daughter.
She disliked herself for all this. Her friends had told her that there was no cause for self-criticism, much less self-loathing. They said she deserved anything she could get from Adam, since she’d prepared the ground for his success by supporting him for all those years. Not supporting him financially, but supporting him by giving him time and space and quiet in which to work, raising the children virtually on her own. And it wasn’t as if she were asking for a big piece of what he had: she was asking for far less than what she was entitled to by law.
He finished reading the agreement and put it aside. “The only thing that still bothers me,” he said, “is the part about Maud.”
“We’ve been through all that. Just sign it.”
“We have been through all that, but I still think you’re making a mistake. She doesn’t need special treatment and treating her like a person who does need special treatment is the surest way to infantilize her.”
Infantilize. What a ridiculous word. She had a moment of grim pleasure in noting that even he, the great Weller, could speak in clichés, but it was a paltry triumph, as if catching him in the act of using an awkward word could remedy the imbalance of power between them.
“She needs extra help,” was all Eleanor said.
Eleanor and Adam had two sons and a daughter. Their boys, Carl and Josh, were doing well: married, with healthy children, good jobs, rooted in the world. Maud, their youngestshe was twenty-ninewas bright and independent-minded and radiantly lively, but she seemed to be missing something. She seemed to be in short supply of some quality that was mysterious and unnameable, but that was indispensable if you were to navigate your way through life uncapsized.
Maud had had two breakdowns: one during her first semester in college, one just after she’d graduated. She’d been institutionalized on both occasions. Nothing comparable had happened to her since then, and the second one was eight years in the past, but after you’ve seen your daughter fall apart, you can’t stop worrying that she’ll fall apart again. You can’t, at least, if you’re a mother. A father evidently can.
The waiter brought their food. Eleanor had ordered a grapefruit, but when he set it down in front of her she remembered that she wasn’t supposed to eat grapefruit. Her doctor had told her that they intensified the effect of the medications she was taking. She hadn’t eaten one in months, but this morning she’d ordered it on automatic pilot, since she used to like to share a grapefruit with Adam when they had breakfast together in the old days.
“I’m not going to fight you on this,” Adam said, “but I want to put it on record that I think you’re making a mistake.”
“It’s duly noted. Sign it.”
He removed a pen from one of the inner pockets of his sport jacket. It was a fountain pena Montblanc. A very expensive pen, which must have been a birthday present from Thea. Not a present that made sense for him: he was always losing pens, and he’d surely lose this one within a month. Eleanor had another flush of shabby triumph: he’s left me for a woman who doesn’t understand what he needs.
But she couldn’t actually be so sure. Adam did look better than he had in years. He was sixty-three but he could have passed for fifty. Eleanor was fifty-nine, and feared she could have passed for seventy. “What have you been up to?” he said. “How’s work?” Eleanor was a psychologist. She used to tell him stories about her clients, but her sense of professional ethics had grown keener over the years and she’d finally stopped telling him anything. He never seemed to have noticed the change.
“Busy,” she said. “Very busy.”
“I’ve been busy too. My little vacation already seems like a distant memory. I would have liked to stay longer in France, but after I broke my ankle I didn’t trust French medicine to fix me up. It was a wonderful week, though. We were”
She put her hand on his.
“Adam. I didn’t ask you what you’ve been doing. I don’t want to know. You hurt me very deeply, and I don’t want to hear about any of your ‘wonderful’ weeks. I don’t want to hear about any of your wonderful minutes.”
“Fair enough. I suppose there isn’t anything left to say, then.”
“I suppose not,” she said.
Since all of your minutes are wonderful now, she thought.
“I hope you won’t mind if I order another cup of coffee.”
While he drank his coffee she tried to keep silent, but she wasn’t sure she could. She had always played the role of family peacemaker, even when she didn’t want to. She found it impossible to let a tense silence go on too long. She could do it with her clients, but she couldn’t do it with people she loved, and, despite everything he’d put her through, she still loved Adam. She didn’t trust him; she didn’t like him; she would never consider getting back together with him; but she had lived the largest part of her life with him, and they were joined forever through their children, and she knew she’d never be able to stop loving him.
“Maud should be getting her Ph.D. in the spring,” she said.
“I know. She made me write down the date of the convocation.”
“She wants you to be proud of her.”
“I am proud of her. And I wish I could be there. I haven’t had the heart to tell her yet, but unfortunately I’m already committed to this Jewish book festival in Prague.”
Copyright © 2006 by Brian Morton
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