A witty tale of marriage and midlife longing, as a taken-for-granted wife pursues a fantasy love via e-mail.
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Date: Friday, June 5, 1:03 P.M. EDT
Subj: Apology to Thomas Marsh from Beth Riordan
Thank goodness! I found your e-mail address on the back of your lovely travel book, Walden Pond and Its Environs: The Transcendentalist's Tour. I am writing to apologize again for this morning's incident at the library. I assure you that it was quite by accident that your book made it into the stack I was dropping off at the library's "Take It or Leave It" pile.
As I explained during our brief encounter, I had spent the morning weeding out my children's bookshelves, deciding that Charlotte's Web could stay but Goosebumps would have to go, that sort of thing. I hadn't even attempted to thin out my own collection, other than to grab a couple of paperback novels I was sure I'd never look at again. I must also add that I was only contemplating fiction this morning, which should be further proof that discarding your guidebook was an honest mistake.
And what an awful coincidence that you should happen by at the very moment I was abandoning your book. I was so humiliated when you picked it up, wrote Best Wishes, Thomas Marsh with an elegant flourish, and handed it back to me. If that wasn't enough to make me suffer from terminal embarrassment, I discovered you were the same Thomas Marsh who lives next door. And I'd always thought you were in sales.
I don't mean to pressure you, but unless I am sure you have forgiven me, I will find it difficult to leave my house for fear of running into you. By the way,I reread your entire book the moment I got home from the library. I must say it was even better the second time around. During my original reading I may have been too focused on planning a family outing to fully appreciate its scope. I particularly like Thoreau's statement about how he put a piece of paper under his pillow so that he could write in the dark if he couldn't sleep, and the way you tied it in with the suggestion that the reader consider keeping a travel journal.
I hope this e-mail finds you since I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to seek you out in person. I don't think I ever quite believe that e-mail will actually get to its intended recipient, but that might be because I haven't been online for very long. That is the appropriate expression, isn't it? I always want to say inline, but then I remember that inline is for skates and supermarkets.
Well, Thomas, I'll bet you're in the middle of writing another wonderful book, so I won't keep you.
Here goes. I'm going to push Send now.
Date: Friday, June 5, 1:10 P.M. EDT
Subj: Thank you
Thank you for getting back to me so quickly. I did half expect you to simply open your window, stick your head out, and yell, "I forgive you, Beth!" across our yards.
Oh, and it was sweet of you to tell me that my e-mail was perfectly sent and that I have "the makings of techno talent". Not even close to being true, but nice to hear anyway. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I live in a house bursting with computers and yet have managed to stay so functionally illiterate. It seems that my family moved into the computer world and I was left behind licking my stamps.
You see, my children meet their friends in private cyber rooms to talk in fancy fonts and brilliantly colored words. They send each other mysterious communications they refer to as IMs, which I eventually came to understand simply means "Instant Messages", although it sounds far more menacing. My husband, Pete, spends his workday surrounded by the trappings of this new world. Each day he comes home from work I understand him less, not that he ever suggests bringing me up-to-date. If you asked me what his company does, I would have to say that all I really know is at one time they invented a kind of improved track for the ball of the computer mouse to roll around in. It seems, if you turn your mouse upside down and unscrew its underside (something I admit I couldn't bring myself to do), there is a free-rolling ball inside that must be guided but not inhibited by a collection of tiny metal strips. Apparently Pete's company improved the existing technology with just the right combination of slip and grip so that the mouse could more efficiently escort that tiny little arrow around the computer screen. That was several years ago, and probably the last computer development I understood in any real depth.
Well, enough about me. Again, I greatly appreciate your forgiveness, and I thank you for upgrading my techno self-image.
Oh, I almost forgot. I was so sorry to hear about your marital troubles. I'm glad you felt you could talk to me about them and that you could even ask me for a favor. Of course I'll help you out. I'm always happy to help a neighbor, especially one who has forgiven me for my completely unintentional insult.
Date: Friday, June 5, 10:12 P.M. EDT
Subj: Quick Question
This is absolutely none of my business but do you have any idea why your wife left you? Feel free not to answer that, Thomas. And let me assure you that, whatever your answer, should you decide to answer, I will still be happy to keep an eye on your house whenever you travel.
I guess I've just been wondering lately about relationships. Exactly how happy should one expect to be at this stage of one's life?
Date: Friday, June 5, 11:25 P.M. EDT
Subj: What a Nice Surprise
I didn't think you'd be awake and reading your mail so late at night, and I certainly didn't expect you to answer so promptly. But, what you said about relationshipsthat "everything has a shelf life, be it marriage or brussels sprouts". Do you really think that's true? Do you think there's an expiration date stamped on some out-of-the-way corner of every marriage?
Date: Saturday, June 6, 9:02 A.M. EDT
Subj: Your Opinion, Please
Do you have a minute, Thomas? Pete has taken the girls to swim practice, our son P.J. is watching cartoons, and I really could use someone to talk to. I did try to talk to my husband earlier but that wasn't exactly a resounding success. I got up this morning when he did, even though technically it's my morning to sleep in, put on a pot of coffee and brought in the paper while he was taking a shower, I even made blueberry pancakes.
"Pete," I said, before the kids came downstairs. "I'm sorry I've been so grouchy lately. Maybe we should try to talk about it. Because it seems to me as if everything is about someone else. Either you or the kids or the house. I feel as if the only time anyone even talks to me is to complain or criticize or to place an order for something they need."
"Uh-hmm? That's all you have to sayuh-hmm?"
And my husband of almost two decades put down his fork and looked at me over his reading glasses. He took off his glasses, placed them on the newspaper beside his plate and said, "I think I'm getting conjunctivitis in my right eye."
Answer me this, Thomas, if I'm not too presumptuous. Does it sound to you like Pete and I are having marital problems, and, if so, how do they compare with yours?
Date: Saturday, June 6, 10:37 A.M. EDT
I can't believe you once forgot your wife's name when you were introducing her to someone. That's really bad, Thomas. Thank you for making me laugh, whether or not it's actually true or you made it up just to make me feel better.
Date: Sunday, June 7, 12:03 P.M. EDT
Subj: Quick Note
Pete and I will be leaving soon to pick up the kids from their overnight at his parents' house. I'm glad I have last night to think about because my day will consist of Pete's mother's overcooked roast and the recirculated comments about the sorry state of the world that pass for conversation with my in-laws. I'm sure I could transcribe the whole visit in advance right now, and when I return tonight to check my work, I might be off by only three or four sentences.
Let me just say, before I rush off, how happy I was to run into you in the dark last night. Pete and I were having an impromptu cookout, an idea he came up with on the way home from his parents' house. "So, honey, how about having a few people over tonight?" he asked in a voice that was a little too cheery. Lately we both jump to fill our house back up whenever it empties of kids.
I said "yes" to the cookout just as cheerily, looking over at Pete as he was driving. Pete has the kind of looks that make him seem less substantial as the years go by. His hair is turning pale instead of grey, his skin is somehow lighter. He's getting shorter, I think, as if gravity were pulling his tall lanky body closer to the ground. I felt a burst of sympathy for him, until it occurred to me that he's probably aging better than I am.
When we got home, Pete made some phone calls while I dashed out to the store. And the cookout was fine, if predictable. All of the guests stayed outside until the mosquitoes chased them home or into the shelter of our screened porch. I had just wandered back outside to see if there were any stray napkins or paper plates that needed to be picked up. And there you were, standing at the junction of our yards. Even with that salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, in the dark you looked almost like a teenager. Maybe it was the wrinkled T-shirt you wore with your jeans, or the fact that you're in amazingly good shape for a man who must be ... how old?
Pete is downstairs yelling for me. Bye for now.
Date: Sunday, June 7, 7:26 P.M. EDT
I'm back and do you know what I wondered about all day? I know you're always traveling, but how is it that we've lived next to each other for years and years and never even had a real conversation? Is it a New England thing or something that only happens in certain suburbs of Boston, this studious ignoring of one's neighbors? Or is neighborliness a dying convention, like attending town meetings and taking trash to the dump?
How many years have we casually avoided each other? If I passed your driveway to pull into my own while you were standing in your yard, you would look up at the trees as if you had just noticed an unusual bird, maybe the yellowest oriole or even a lost tern that had wandered inland. Or you might squat down to the shrubbery as if you were inspecting for mites or rust or whatever rhododendrons are likely to catch.
It went both ways. If I drove in, my daughters in the car, returning from the morning swim practice, not quite 8 A.M. and I'd been out for over three hours already, I might pass you heading out for another one of your trips. If we couldn't avoid a wave, it was done without eye contact and with only the most superficial of smiles. Imagine sharing a small road, and each of us acting as if the other didn't exist.
I think somewhere along the line we had decided not to like each other. Do you remember? I have to admit to thinkingmaybe it was the way you draped your sweaters around your shoulders and knotted them jauntily at your chestthat you were arrogant and self-absorbed. A bit priggish I'd have to say to be completely honest.
And then, last night. I was startled by your "Hello, Beth" as it broke through the muffled noises from the back porch and the harmony of insect sounds. In the dark your voice was deeper than I remembered from the library, the remnants of a midwest accent more pronounced.
Please excuse abrupt sign-off. Entire family has sudden urgent need to go online.
Date: Sunday, June 7, 9:29 P.M. EDT
Subj: Pardon Me?
What do you mean you thought of me in the past as harried, sort of a cross between hurried and worried?
Date: Sunday, June 7, 11:11 P.M. EDT
Subj: Okay, Truce
I agree, let's put past impressions behind us.
And I did want to say again, Thomas, how much I enjoyed last night, enjoyed standing with you at the intersection of our properties and talking the night away. Do you know that it was after midnight when I came inside to find the last of the guests gone and my husband, fully clothed, snoring loudly on my side of the bed? I tried to take the fact that he was on my side of the bed as a sign that he had missed me, that he'd tossed and turned, wondering where I was and what handsome stranger I might be talking to in the dark. Of course, in the morning Pete merely asked, "So what time did we go to bed, anyway?"
I'd like to say, too, that I am so very sorry that your wife has disappeared without a trace. It must have been awful to return from weeks and weeks away, which of course you need to do in your line of work, who can blame you there, and find someone you've been married to forever gone and not know where or for how long. And then to have your grown children refusing to speak to you on the phone. You seemed so sad, so needing to talk, and I'm happy you felt that you could talk to me.
And then your story about the rabbits ... what was it you said? You had just liberated two domestic slaves from their inhumane captivity. Simply opened the door of their hutch, their prison, removed their figurative shackles, and allowed them the freedom nature had intended for them. Instinct will provide for them, you assured me, and I wondered if you were thinking about yourself, too.
It just occurred to me that I should have invited you to the cookout. How rude of me. You didn't wander over because you were hungry, did you? I'll remember to be more considerate in the future.
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