My husband doesn't even wait until we're in the car to drop his bombshell.
We've just brought our daughterthe brilliant, beautiful, and beloved Emilyto her first day at Yale. I've met her roommate, unpacked her duffels, and made the bed with the soft sheets we got during our four-hour precollege shopping marathon at Bed Bath & Beyond. Okay, I didn't really use the sheets Emily and I bought together. I picked up a better set at the exclusive Frette store on Madison Avenue to surprise her. The girl got into Yale, darn it; she shouldn't sleep on anything less than 600-count sateen.
Bill, the ever-doting father, jokes around with Emily while he sets up her computer and assembles a bookshelf next to her desk. As long as we're both puttering at our little tasks, we can put off the emotional breakdown, sure to come the second we leave Emily behind and head back to our now very quiet house. Emily kisses her dad to thank him for his help, gives me a big hug, and then promises us she'll be okay. Our cue to leave. With less surety, I say we'll be okay, too. Now that our second child has officially become a college student, just like her big brother, Adam, our empty nest couldn't get any emptier.
On the way out of the dorm, we pass the freshman counselor's "Welcome" table, stacked high with campus maps, orientation bulletins, and two bowls, one filled with Tootsie Roll pops and the other with condoms. Bad idea to offer all that candytoo easy to gain the freshman fifteen. And, oh my god, that other bowl, brimming with ribbed, rainbow-colored, and glow-in-the-dark protection. Should I warn Emily to steer clear of any boy who reaches for the Star Wars condoms?
Bill and I step outside and I grab onto his arm and take a deep breath. I've been dreading this day since the first morning I left Emily off at preschool, but we seem to have made it through.
"I think we did fine, honey," I say, proud that I haven't cried once.
"We sure did. We raised a great kid," he says, distractedly patting my hand.
He's right. Both of us were young when we started our family, but we raised two terrific kids and had fun being parents. But now's the time for Bill and me to have new adventures together. I've planned a wine-tasting weekend, a romantic getaway to a four-star Vermont inn, and I've even snagged season tickets to the Knicks. Knowing this day would come, I'd been on the waiting list to get them for six years.
I look over at my successful stockbroker husband. He's always been handsome, but I realize he's in better shape than ever. The love handles are gone, and so are the muffin topsthe new bakery euphemism for that extra roll of flesh that hangs over the elastic band of your briefs. His abs could make the cover of Men's Healthwell, an inside page, anyway. And wait a minute, what happened to the wisps of gray hair that were appearing at his temples? I reach over, gently rub his now very dark brown sideburns and giggle to myself. I can't really imagine Bill using Grecian Formula, but he's done something. Maybe after all these years, my honey does have a secret or two.
"So, darling, our first night, just us," I say squeezing his strong arm even tighter. "What's your pleasure? The little Ethiopian restaurant in New Haven, or should we get home right away and I'll slip into something comfortable?" I lean over to kiss his cheek, but Bill has picked up his pace, and I just miss.
"Hallie, I have something to tell you," Bill says. He keeps walking, looking straight ahead.
Uh-oh. Bad opening line. I stumble, my heel catching on the pavement. "I have something to tell you" never comes before "I love you passionately," or even, "I've always liked your pot roast." No, "I've something to tell you" usually precedes bad news like, "The cat died," or "The house just burned down." Or in this case?
"I'm leaving," Bill says without breaking stride.
He's what? I mull the words in my head for a moment. Surely if "leaving" meant leaving for good, my husband, my mate, my partner of two decades, the man who made love to me just three nights agoor was it four?would have sat me down before breaking the news. My Bill, my sweet Bill, would even have bought me a cup of coffee first.
Unless he's no longer my sweet Bill.
Time stops and I stand frozen. For a moment, the whole world goes silent and the only sound I hear is a bird off in the distance, with a persistent, mournful call: You'll be alone you'll be alone you'll be alone.
But I can't even think about that possibility. Anyway, what does a bird know? I pull my attention back and try to misunderstand Bill's comment the best I can. "Fine, we'll leave New Haven and go home for dinner," I say. Then, prattling on, I add, "I can defrost some lasagna or whip up an omelet. I have some brie. You like a brie omelet, don't you, honey?"
Bill finally stops walking and turns toward me. "What I mean is I'm leaving you." He pauses and looks at me with what I'm sure he thinks is a kind smile. "We've had a good run. A darn good twenty-one years together in a happy marriage. You're a great gal, Hallie. I have no complaints. But it's time for my second act."
What is he talking about? His second act? Even Mike Nichols couldn't get away with that. This sounds like a speech he's been practicing in front of the mirror for days. But the show's not over. It can't be. He's not leaving. I take a deep breath. I bet I even know what's going on. Just like me, Bill's upset about Emily's going off to college and he doesn't know how to react. In fact, he's a guy. He doesn't even know that he is reacting. It's my job to reassure him.
"Listen, honey, we're going to be okay," I say gently. "I love you. You love me. I got season tickets to the Knicksjust like you always wanted. We don't need the kids at home to keep us together."
He doesn't reply, so to fill in the space, I keep talking. "I'm thinking of taking a pottery class."
Bill looks at me oddly for a moment, and then he nods. "That's great, Hallie. I'm glad you've got plans. I've made some plans, too."
We get to the car and I slide into my usual seat on the passenger's side. I start to put in the CD of the St. Lawrence Quartet playing Hayden that's always been one of Bill's favorites, but he takes it out immediately and replaces Hayden with something loud and blaring.
"What the heck is that?" I ask.
"Black Eyed Peas," he says, proudly. "My new favorite. They're very hot, way up on the charts."
I turn down the volume, but my head continues pounding. Who's this rap-music-listening Grecian Formula-using man sitting next to me? All these years, I thought I knew every detail about my husband but something changed while I was busy working, raising the kids, and buying him shirts at Brooks Brothers. I suddenly feel like a fool. What else have I missed?
The next hour and a half passes in a haze as we speed down the narrow Merritt Parkway toward the suburbs of New York. Given all the twisty turns, I don't know how anybody survives on this road and, right now, I'm not sure I want to. With the kids gone and Bill leaving, what's left? I stare out the window, seeing only my dismal future, and barely notice that we've missed the exit for our small town, Chaddick, until we pass over the bridge into Manhattan.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
Bill doesn't answer, but his mouth is set and his brow is clenched so tightly that his two eyebrows join in a solid line. One thing I do still know about my husbandthe caterpillar brow means something's up. Moments later Bill pulls over in front of a brownstone on a residential block in the West Nineties and stops the car, double-parked. He leans over and gives me a nervous peck on the cheek, then hands me the car keys.
"You know how to get home, sweetheart," he says, feigning nonchalance. And as if nothing has changed, he adds, "Drive carefully. It looked like there was a backup north on the Henry Hudson, so you might want to take Riverside Drive."
My mouth opens but nothing comes out. "You're not coming home?" I finally manage to sputter. "Where are we?"
"My new apartment," Bill says, gesturing toward the limestone stoop. Anxious to make a getaway, he gets out of the car and retrieves a duffel bag I hadn't noticed from the backseat.
"You have an apartment?" I ask, dumbfounded.
"Actually, it's not just mine" he says. He bolts up the steps to his new front door, and when he gets there, he turns and adds, "It's Ashlee's apartment. Ashlee, with two E's."
Ashlee. Ashlee. Ashlee. Ashlee. Ashleeeee. Say it enough times while you're lying under a fluffy duvet and it starts to sound like a primal scream. And screaming is therapeutic. As is banging your head against the wall, gouging your betraying husband's face out of every photo in the house, eating twelve superlarge packages of Oreosthe double stuff kindin a record two days (without any milk), and reading the entire stack of U.S. News & World Report magazines that had been gathering dust in the basement. I might as well live in the past since I have no future. I go through every issue from 1989 to 1994 cover-to-cover and read in a 1990 copy that Vanilla Ice's album is selling like crazy and that he'll last forever. Hah! Where's Vanilla Ice now? His career melted faster than sorbet in the summertime. Like me, he's been replaced.
I haven't watched daytime television since I was home on maternity leave with Emily, but now QVC is my constant companion. It's been a comfort these last four days to know I can order an Italian domed Byzantine necklace or a marquise tanzanite pinwheel brooch any time of the day or night. And I've ordered bothand more. The UPS guy has made so many deliveries he must figure I'm a compulsively early Christmas shopper. On the other hand, he probably wonders why I haven't bothered to bring any of my bounty inside. Unfortunately that would require my actually getting out of bed and going down the stairs, and right now I'm reserving all my energy for essentialslike replenishing my supply of Oreos.
I made Bill promise that he wouldn't tell Adam and Emily what's happened. I explained I didn't want to ruin the start of their school year, but the truth is I just don't want to talk about it. I figure it's like the tree falling in the forest. If a man leaves his wife and nobody knows, has he really left? But I should have realized that my husband's not that good at keeping promises. Adam has taken to calling twice a day from school and asking solicitously, "How are you, mom?" From the grave tone of Adam's voice, I'm worried that Bill has told him something even more tragic than our newslike maybe, on top of everything else, I have dengue fever.
Whatever's wrong with me, I've called in sick to my office for the first time in my fifteen years as a lawyer for Rosen, O'Grady, and RiccardiNew York's first and probably still only Jewish-Irish-Italian law firm. It's also the only law firm that could hire me, a WASP, on the basis of affirmative action. We specialize in antidiscrimination cases and, given the company dinners of kugel, corned beef and cabbage, and cannoli, we often specialize in indigestion. Still, I like the firm and they like me. I've always been able to keep my workweek down to four days, and the job comes with a good pension plan and a regular supply of Tums.
It's been years since I've had a whole day to fill without work and kids, never mind this many days, but trying to do anything useful right now would be impossible. I'm furious at Bill, and I'm even more furious at myself. How could he do this to me? How could I let him do this to me? You don't just walk out on someone after two kids and twenty-one years and say Adios, have a good life. Who the hell does he think he is, leaving without even a single discussion? For chrissakes, when we were renovating the kitchen, we spent six weeks talking about which color tile to pick. He wanted dark green and I wanted white and we settled on a sea foam with cream trim. That's called compromise, Bill, and it's what you do in marriage. The fucker. I don't know if I want to get him back, or just get him.
I sink back into the pillows, exhausted from playing the same rant over and over in my head. I need to do something elseanything. I stretch my hand in front of my face. A little bit of light is coming in through the closed blinds, just enough so I can make a shadow animal on the wall. Look, it's a bunny.
The ringing phone jars me back to reality, the one place I don't want to be. I've barely spoken to anyone in a week, except for the kids and my best friend Bellini. But from the caller ID, I see it's the firm's senior partner, Arthur Rosena man who's always been a fair boss. I roll over to answer it and cradle the receiver in the crook of my neck.
Arthur makes small talk for a couple of minutes, then says, "I hate to bother you when you're sick, Hallie, but I had a question on the Tyler case."
Since we're going to talk business, I reluctantly reach under the blankets for the remote so I can turn down the volume on Victoria Principal's pitch for her line of skin-care products. Though, as soon as I get off the call, I'm going to order some of her Prime Secret Reclaim EyeMazing Refirming Eye Cream. Never mind whether the stuff works, I just want to see how they fit all those words on a tiny two-ounce tube.
Focus. Focus. Focus. I listen to what Arthur has to say about the case. Our client Charles Tyler is being sued for sexual harassmentwith an unusual twist. The defendant claims Mr. Tyler passed her over for a promotion and gave it to another woman in the officewho he was sleeping with. In other words, she's suing him for screwing someone else. I try to make an intelligent comment or two, but mostly I try not to burst into uncontrollable sobs and spill every detail of my now-horrible life to Arthur. But he clearly picks up that something's wrong.
"So Hallie," he says hesitantly, "I don't mean to pry, but you've been out for almost a week. Should I be worried about you?"