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Of course he knew she was seeing someone. He knew who it was, too. Six months ago, saying she needed a new direction in her life, saying she was tired of feeling helpless around anything mechanical, that she had no idea how to even change a tire, Ellen had taken a course in basic auto mechanics — "Know Your Car," it was called. She'd come back the first night saying it was amazing, she'd had the admittedly elitist idea that mechanics were illiterate, but this one was so well-spoken, and he'd walked into the classroom carrying a pile of books he'd just bought — hardback! Mostly new fiction, she'd said. But also Balzac, because he'd never read him.
"How do you know?" Griffin had asked.
"How do you know he's never read Balzac?"
"Because he told me. I had a question after class and then we just started talking...."
"What was your question?"
She stared at him, a tight smile on her face. Then she said, "My question was about the battery."
"But what about it?"
She looked down, embarrassed. "I wanted to know how you clean it. Okay?"
"Why didn't you ask me?"
"Oh, for — "
"No. Why didn't you ask me? I could have told you."
"Because," she said, slowly and deliberately, "it never came up between us. It came up because I am taking a class about cars. And I had a question for the teacher. Jesus, Griffin. What is this?"
"Nothing," he'd said. "Forget it."
Griffin didn't forget it, of course. Week after week, he'd watched Ellen dress for class, each time paying more attention to herself: fresh eyeliner just before she left one week, a more deliberate hairstyle the next, a lingering scent of perfume in the bedroom the night she'd gotten ready for the last class — the ridiculously expensive perfume Griffin had given her for her last birthday, for the record. He felt helpless against her drift toward another man, felt as though he were standing around stirring change in his pocket when he should be waging an earth-pawing kind of war. But the truth was that from the time he'd married her ten years ago, he'd been waiting for something like this to happen. She was always just beyond his grasp, in one way or another. He supposed, actually, that her cool reserve was one of the things that attracted him to her.
She couldn't be serious about this obvious attraction to someone else. She was nearing forty, that was all. He would let her have this, this secret relationship, this thrilling little romance. Let her and Mr. Goodwrench meet for coffee and have moony-eyed discussions about Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda and Seamus Heaney, all of Ellen's precious poets. Let her talk until she was finally exhausted by all that "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow" crap, by all those supposedly deep thoughts written by people who were undoubtedly a bunch of first-class hypocrites. Ellen seemed to think her pale gods spent all of their time sitting at their desks in rapturous torture, scribbling away with quill pens, when in fact they were probably mostly standing around scratching their asses and contemplating the contents of their refrigerators just like everybody else. It might actually be a relief for her to have someone to talk about that stuff with, so she would finally stop trying to make Griffin swoon over it — though lately she'd been pretty good about not asking him to read anything. She wasn't sleeping with the guy, Griffin was sure of that. She would never do that.
He leaned over her now and looked at her, her hair splayed over half her face. She was not a beautiful woman, but Griffin had never met anyone who appealed to him more. She exuded an earthy sensuality made more attractive by the fact that she didn't know it. "I love to look at you," he sometimes told her. "You're just...perfect." "Oh, God, Griffin," she would say. "Stop."
She moaned slightly in her sleep. Griffin lay his hand on her shoulder, then slid it down her back and onto her palm-sized sacrum. When she was in labor with Zoe, he'd given her a back rub against the awesome waves of pain. When he'd felt her sacrum, he'd thought it was the baby's head and had yelled, "It's coming!"
"Ohhhhhhhhh, really?" Ellen had moaned. "Really?"
"Yes, it's coming," he'd said, for a good forty-five minutes or more, until the doctor came in and informed him that he was not feeling the baby's head at all. They'd chuckled together over his erroneous assumption.
Ellen had gotten furious. "This isn't funny!" she'd said.
The doctor had winked at Griffin. "Pain pretty strong, Ellen?"
He was met with a nearly palpable silence.
"She's doing really well," Griffin said, then added proudly, "She hasn't had any medication!"
"Well, it's too late for that now, anyway," the doctor said.
"Why don't both of you just shut up?" Ellen said, and the doctor had winked again. "She's in transition," he'd whispered to Griffin. He patted Ellen's foot, and left.
Now, eight years later, Ellen seemed to be in another kind of transition. She was preoccupied: bereft-looking when she thought Griffin didn't see her, guarded when she knew he could. Twice he'd heard her on the phone when he came home, saying hurriedly, "I have to go." She wouldn't talk to him, not really, except to fill him in on necessary bits of business about Zoe, about what bills needed to be paid next, about who would take the cat to the vet.
It all made sense now.
Well. You had these times in a marriage, everyone knew that. You just waited them out, that was all. Griffin kissed Ellen's cheek lightly, then got out of bed to get his robe. It was Sunday. He'd make coffee and hash browns, eggs over easy. Zoe would sleep late, she always did, and Griffin and Ellen would sit at the kitchen table and read the Sunday paper together as usual. Maybe they'd find something on sale and go and buy it. He sat on the bed to put his slippers on.
"Where are you going?" Ellen asked sleepily.
He turned to look at her. "Downstairs."
She said nothing.
"To make breakfast."
"Stay here, okay?"
Sex? Griffin thought, and felt his penis leap up a little in anticipation.
He took off his robe and slippers and got back in bed. God, how long had it been? Ellen put her arms around him, her head beneath his chin, and sighed heavily. Oh. Not sex, then.
"You know something's going on, right?"
He stopped breathing.
He shifted his weight, checked, for some reason, the time. Ten after eight. "What do you mean?"
"Griffin, don't do this. We have to talk about it."
He said nothing, waited. She started to say something, then stopped.
"What," Griffin said.
"Oh, I don't know how to do this!" She sat up. "Look, I'm...Okay, I'll just say this: I'm in love with someone. And I...want a divorce. I'm sorry."
He lay back against his pillow, closed his eyes.
He didn't respond.
"I'm sure you're aware that I haven't been happy for a long time." Her voice was light, false. "And I don't have to remind you that — "
He opened his eyes. "Jesus, Ellen."
"It was never right between us, you know that."
"No, I don't know that."
"Right. I knew you'd make this difficult."
He laughed. "As opposed to what?"
"What do you mean?" Some color was rising in her face. Her voice shook.
"Difficult as opposed to what? This is supposed to be easy? You drop this bomb, and it's supposed to be easy?"
"Be quiet! Zoe will hear!"
"Your concern for our daughter really moves me. Let's get a divorce, but let's be quiet. Let's make it easy."
She would not look at him. Her mouth was a pale, straight line.
"Well, I won't make it easy for you, Ellen. Do what you have to do. But don't look to me to help you."
He got out of bed and went downstairs. He felt curiously light, emptied out. Numb, he supposed. Protected by a specific kind of anesthesia. Well, here's what: He'd make coffee. Just like always. Six cups, Bed and Breakfast blend. He'd make the same Sunday breakfast he always made. The cat, Slinky, came into the kitchen, meowing, and he fed her. One and a half packs, tuna flavor. He turned on the faucet, and then, for just a moment, gripped the edge of the sink.
Behind him, he heard Ellen come in and sit at the kitchen table. She watched him for a while as he made the coffee, as he got out the frying pan, the potato peeler. Then she said quietly, "I thought at first I could just have an affair."
"I felt restless, crazy, really sad, and I thought...Oh, I don't know, I thought if I did that, maybe I'd feel better, maybe I'd feel something. But I got deeply involved with this person. I fell in love with him. I wanted to talk to you about it right away, tell you...well, tell you who it was and everything. But then I figured you knew anyway." She hesitated, then asked, "Did you?"
"Did I what?"
"Did you know?"
He came to the table, sat down opposite her. "I knew you were seeing someone, Ellen. Yes."
She looked down at her hands, rubbed at one thumb with the other. "I want you to know I was really careful, okay? We used — "
We. "What the hell difference does it make, Ellen? Can you remember the last time you had sex with me?"
"Well, that's what I mean, Griffin! It's been so bad between us for so long. We're like...brother and sister. And with him, I feel I've finally found something I've always wanted, but never knew I could have."
Griffin stopped listening. He watched Ellen's mouth moving, her hands pushing her hair back from her face. He looked at the top button of her nightgown, half opened, half closed. He saw the thrusting motions of another man, entering his wife.
He looked out the window. It had begun to snow; huge, quarter-sized flakes waltzed lazily downward. To catch a flake like that on your tongue would feel like receiving communion. Ellen had seen this, too, he was sure of it. But suddenly neither one could remark on it. Nor would either of them awaken Zoe to see it.
The last time he saw snow like this was on a winter day many years ago, when he and Ellen were students at the University of Illinois. He lived in a dorm; Ellen lived in a tiny, slanted-floor apartment. Her roommate, Alexandra, was a sullen girl with long, greasy red hair. She wore only black, wrote lines of obscure poetry in a ragged journal, rarely spoke except to read her poetry out loud, and believed that wearing deodorant was giving in to the system. "Why don't you get another roommate?" Griffin would ask, and Ellen would always shrug and say, "She pays the rent. I don't think I could find anyone else, anyway."
On that long-ago winter day, Griffin went to Ellen's apartment with a sprig of lilac for her. Alexandra opened the door. "Lilacs!" she'd said. "Where did you ever find lilacs?"
"At the florist's," Griffin had answered, stepping into the apartment, thinking, Where else would I get them?
Ellen had come into the room fresh out of the shower. "What have you got there?" she'd asked, adjusting the towel she had wrapped around her wet hair.
"Lilacs," he'd said proudly, handing them to her.
"Oh, my God. Now?"
He nodded, feeling suddenly foolish. He'd paid twelve dollars for this single sprig, which now lay wilting inside the cellophane.
"Well...thank you," Ellen had said, laughing. She'd put the sprig into a wine-bottle vase, set it on the kitchen table. "Lilacs in January!" she'd said, and it seemed to Griffin that she was more bewildered than charmed. A fortune teller he'd once visited on a dare from Ellen had told him, "You're not too good with the ladies. You do everything wrong."
Ellen's mouth was still moving; she was explaining, pleading. Of course she had slept with him, he thought. How could he have deluded himself so? How many times had the two of them done it? How many ways?
She was saying something about Zoe now, about how they needed to keep her routine as stable as possible. Griffin forced himself to pay attention. "She needs to stay in the same house, in the same school. I've thought about this a lot, Griffin. And since I'm the one who stays home with her, it only makes sense that you be the one to move out."
He felt his stomach tighten, his heart begin to race. The coffeemaker beeped, signaling its readiness, and Ellen got up and poured two mugs. She set one in front of Griffin, one in front of herself. Griffin watched the steam rise up and curl back on itself, then dissipate. He said quietly, "I'm not going anywhere."
"I said, I'm not going anywhere. I'm not moving."
She nodded. "I see. Well, I can't. I have to be here to take care of Zoe."
Griffin pictured his daughter, a redheaded tomboy who would grow up to be a redheaded beauty who would knock the stuffing out of any man who crossed her. "All right, you can stay, too," he told Ellen.
"Griffin. One of us has to go."
He picked up his mug, took a sip. "Well, let's see, now. It isn't going to be me. You try to figure out the rest, Ellen. And from now on, call me Frank. I don't want you to call me Griffin. That's what my friends call me."
He went outside to get the paper. A world of news, not one bit of it about her. Or them. When he came back inside, Ellen had gone. He picked up her full mug, dumped the coffee down the drain. Then he got out the potatoes and began to peel them.
Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Berg
Posted November 3, 2005
I love EB's books!! but this one hit me very close to where and what i am living. I wonder and wish I could ask EB how she came up with Griffin's point of view. I was moved by his emotions. So often we can not see or feel emotions from our husbands. And we wonder what is really going on in their heads. And more importantly, do they feel anything outside of a bed sheet?? Griffin had the chance to sleep with a great girl. but he knew that he loved only one and could be with only one. and i love his justifications for loving her with all of her quirks. Love is love. Sometimes it's hard to explain to the masses. So why try??? That's another book for EB. Thank you Elizabeth for putting into words something similar to what I am closely dealing with right now. Hope my life turns out as well as Griffin and Ellen's does in the end. Monica
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Posted August 16, 2003
I read this book in under 24 hours-I couldn't put it down! The synopsis is that a long married couple's marriage is coming undone, only the husband doesn't realize it. When Ellen, the wife, tells her husband, Griffin that she is having an affair and wants a divorce-you can really feel his pain and his disbelief that this is happening. Ellen is clearly in the midst of a midlife crisis. I think many women will relate to the situation, if not to her way of dealing with it. The way that Griffin and Ellen deal with their marriage problems and their child, shows us all that there is much to be said for the comfort of a love well known, and the sanctity of family.
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Posted May 31, 2013
For women that want more substance and reality with their reading, Elizabeth Berg always delivers. In "Say When", though written from the man's point of view, she delivers a believable scenario of a couple breaking up. How it impacts their child, the wife's strangeness and affair with a younger man, and the pain that we go through for those we love. Not a sappy book, but with honest emotions.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 14, 2010
We all ultimately want to be seen by our partner for who we really are. Some people have the keen ability to look into another and see who they are. Although this may not be the central theme in Elizabeth Berg's work, it is significant none-the-less.
Ellen and Griffin represent those couples that have hit a wall in their relationship. The growth has stopped and routines and regiments have set in. Ellen feels undervalued and underdeveloped causing her to embark on a love affair to feel more fulfilled.
Griffin's patience serve as a reminder that some people, albeit a fictitious character in a novel, take their marriage vows seriously. This is a must read for those that are feeling disillusioned with the way in which people conduct their serious relationships. It was uplifting.
Posted January 19, 2008
As a married woman I found it interesting to 'be inside the head' of the husband in this story--and felt his pain. His love for Ellen was unchanging, even if he himself did...I found it encouraging to think of a man feeling that way. Women often want to know about these deeper feelings within their husbands--but it seems that they are rarely communicated. I find it interesting, now reading some of the reviews for this book, that so many men panned it and so many women loved it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2006
I thought this book was an interesting twist on an often too typical problem in marriages. I genuinely felt for Griffon, and all that he was going through. I have passed my copy along to several friends, A very good read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 22, 2006
This is the first book I've read by Elizabeth Berg and I found it to be stuck in neutral for the most part. When Ellen announces to Griffin that she was having an affair, even though he suspected it, I expected Griffin to be angrier and more upset at her than what he was. Instead he was passive as if the affair was going on for years and he accepted it as a part of their daily life. And who would condone their spouse living in the same house while leading separate lives with other people! Maybe a woman but not any man that I know. I look forward to reading other books by Elizabeth Berg even though this was a let down.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 14, 2006
This book gives insight as to why couples often divorce. Such real characters and down to earth writing. You can feel the anger, the sadness, and the recovery. Recommend it without reservations.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 28, 2006
I haven't read Berg before, but thoroughly loved this book. I just ordered 3 more Berg books! I fell in love with both characters. It makes you realize how easily a routine can fall into a rut...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2006
While I enjoyed the book and found some of the insights interesting, I find it impossible to believe that someone would sit back and allow a spouse to have an 'affair'. I don't think the true hurt was ever conveyed. I think the feelings depicted were those way past the initial impact. Still enjoyable and interesting. Always good to be reminded that it takes two, however, on some level it seemed to condone the affair which I belief is never acceptable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 23, 2005
I picked up this book because I was having one of those 'married moments' when you just can't go one more moment... I read it in one day, and came out of it with a empowered, and enlightened feeling. I was able to identify with all the characters, and it was such effortless reading. Highly recommended,I am going to pass it around to all the women in my life. It is very important to be reminded that men have fears and weaknesses, and it was nice to hear one man's perspective!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 28, 2005
Elizabeth Berg is a fantastic author. This book is great. It is so realistic and it explores what it feels like to be cheated on in a relationship. It also is a great example that marriages arent always perfect and that to make a marriage work, it takes both partners. A perfect book for couples to read together!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2005
First, I couldn't book the book down. I am one to never believe a man's feelings when they state that they are hurt since men really don't show emotion. When I read this book it really changed my mind !!! I think this is a great book to read so that women can actually know how a man thinks when the affair happens to them!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 6, 2004
I thought this book was great, I read it in three hours because I couldn't put it down. I loved that it was from the point of view of the husband, and even though it was pretty sad, I still really enjoyed it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 23, 2003
I finished it in a weekend, it was different to read about a marriage affair from the view of the husband and I fell in love with their daughter Zoe. Not one of Berg's best, but I enjoyed it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 17, 2003
This is a wonderful book that shows the other side of a marriage. We learn that men react to heartache the same way women do, Griffin's character is heartwarming. You can relate to his reactions to lifes dilemna's. Can't wait to start another Elizabeth Berg!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 26, 2003
I found this book boring. Griffin's reactions were more feminine than masculine. Ellen's wanting to talk every other scene grew old and Zoe's whining was annoying. If it wasn't for the Santa scenes, this book would get one star.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
Frank Griffin loves his wife and his eight-year-old daughter Zoe and is prepared to do everything in his power to keep his family together. He suspects his wife Ellen is having an affair with her teacher who is giving a night course in auto repair, but Frank is prepared to wait until she comes to her senses and gets it out of her system and never confront her with it.<P> It is Ellen who brings things out in the open by admitting she is in love with Peter and wants a divorce. Griffin refuses to give her one and won¿t move out of the house or their bedroom. Ellen finds the whole situation awkward and finally moves into her own apartment but she¿s at the house every day to take care of their daughter until Griffin comes home. Their impasse is finally broken when Griffin is ready to listen to what Ellen needs to say.<P> There is not a lot of action in SAY WHEN but it is a fascinating character study about two people who share space but fail to communicate. There are many funny moments in the book especially the scene when Ellen and her date meet Griffin and his date at the movie house. The two protagonists are both decent and kind people who go out of their way to make sure any disruptions in their daughter¿s life are kept to a minimum. Elizabeth Berg has written a heartwarming tale focusing on human frailties.<P> Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 7, 2011
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Posted October 26, 2008
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