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The Mother Road
By Jennifer AlLee
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Jennifer AlLee
All rights reserved.
I cannot get divorced.
"I want a divorce."
Tony repeats himself, speaking slower. Does he think I didn't hear him the first time? That somehow I missed his startling proclamation? Oh no, I heard every one of those ugly words. I just can't believe they came out of my husband. Not him. Not the man I've been so blissfully, ignorantly joined to for the last eighteen years.
"Natalie, say something."
I try to swallow, try to push down the shock that clogs my windpipe. This day started out so normal. How did it go so wrong?
When Tony arrived home from work, late as usual, I didn't complain. In fact, I had everything ready for a beautiful evening. Dinner warming in the oven, a special bottle of wine breathing on the table, and me, ready to celebrate. But when I greeted him at the door, my welcoming arms wrapped around a statue of a man, his arms hanging straight down at his sides, his torso cold and hard.
He's anything but statuesque now. Pacing like an agitated animal, he rakes his hands through his hair as he looks back at me. "Come on, Natalie. Don't give me the silent treatment."
Is that what he thinks I'm doing? Punishing him with my silence? What I wouldn't give for more silence. How I wish I could turn back time and press my hand against his mouth, forcing his lips closed so the words couldn't spill out.
But there's no going back. No undoing the news that all these nights I thought he was working late, he was actually getting cozy with his administrative assistant.
I stare back at him. What does he want me to say? What is there to say?
"When did it start?"
He stops pacing and sighs. I bet now he wishes he hadn't encouraged me to speak. "In Omaha."
Omaha? "I thought you went there alone."
"I was going to. Bringing Erin along was a last-minute decision. I needed a hand."
I'll bet you did. Facts bounce around my brain, banging into one another as I try to grasp what my husband is telling me. That trip was only three months ago. How can he already be certain that our marriage is over?
"We can get through this. We can go to counseling." The words squeeze out of me so thin and garbled it sounds like I'm talking through the speaker at a fast-food drive-through. Humiliation burns my cheeks, the back of my neck. Basically, I've chosen to ignore the fact that he's been unfaithful and am begging him not to leave me. If I have to swallow my pride to work things out, I will.
Because I cannot get divorced.
Tony closes his eyes, jerks his head hard to the left. "It's too late for that."
"It's never too late." I grab his arm, my fingers digging into his shirt sleeve, twisting into the cotton. Now that I'm touching him, I'm desperate. Desperate to keep contact. If I can just hold on, I can fix this. "We can work it out. Remember our vows? We're a threefold cord, you, me, and God. Together we—"
As soon as I say "God" his eyes cloud over and he yanks his arm away from me. "No. I can't do this anymore."
"But Tony, I—"
Pregnant. That one word sweeps away anything else I might have said. Pregnant. And after only three months. I put my palm flat against my own stomach and sink onto the couch. Well, now we know.
There's no fight left in me. I can't look at his face, but I see his feet step closer.
"I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for it to happen this way."
This way? In other words, he did mean for it to happen, just in a nicer, more humane way. Finally, my mind clears and I know exactly what I want to say.
"You need to leave now."
He doesn't answer at first. But then his shoes back away and he says, "I'll have my lawyer contact you."
The absurdity hits me, jerking my head up, pulling me off the couch so I'm standing upright, hands balled into fists at my side. "You already have your own lawyer?"
His face is a mixture of sadness and pity. Poor Natalie, it seems to say, how could you not see this coming?
He scoops his car keys off the hall table and walks out the front door. He pulls it closed behind him so gently I barely hear the click of the latch.
So this is how it ends? Eighteen years of love, work, planning ... over after a fifteen-minute confession.
The ding of the oven timer calls me to the kitchen. On my way there, I pass the dinner table, set so beautifully with our good china, a centerpiece of fresh flowers in the middle of a midnight blue tablecloth. And there, between Tony's seat at the head of the table and my seat to his right, is the reason I was so ready to celebrate. The contract for the next three books in the Happily Married series.
I cannot get divorced.
I'm a romance novelist. And not just any romance novelist. One of the top-selling Christian romance novelists in the country. I also write nonfiction books about—get this—marriage. I've put my life under a microscope and written about it, bared my soul, and now I'm considered an expert in the field. I make a living from couples who live happily ever after, or are at least trying to.
A cold numbness spreads through my body as I walk into the kitchen. I turn off the timer. Turn off the oven. Pick up the oven mitts from the counter. Open the oven door. Pull out the roast.
It looks perfect, but I pinch my lips together as the aroma sets my stomach to rolling. I don't even like roast. I only made this stupid thing because it's Tony's favorite.
So much boils up inside me—anger, grief, nausea—that I explode. I hurl the hunk of meat, roasting pan and all, against the wall and release a scream that comes from somewhere beyond my toes. Dropping to my knees on the floor, I weep as meat drippings and carrots and onions slide in slow motion down the wall and ooze across the floor.
My whole adult life has been about happily ever after. And now, it's over.
I'm getting a divorce.CHAPTER 2
How did I get in this bed?
I push up on my elbow but freeze, squeezing my eyes tight. Too fast. Slower this time, I kick off the covers and sit up, clenching my jaw against the throbbing in my temples. My feet hit the ground, toes crunching into an empty Oreo bag in the middle of a field of used tissues. That explains the aching in my head. I have a sugar hangover.
I remember very little of what happened Friday night after Tony left. Apparently, I cried a lot, went on a cookie bender, then crawled under the covers with all my clothes on.
Across the room, sun streams through the open window coverings. How totally inappropriate for the day after my life is torn in half. The sky should be gray and cloudy. Even thunder would be acceptable. Instead, I get sun, and somewhere outside, a bird is being so overly chipper that I want to track it down and shoot it.
I stumble into the bathroom and reach for my toothbrush, but my eyes stray across the blue-gray granite countertop to Tony's side of the double vanity. His electric toothbrush stands in the charger, flanked by his razor, comb, and a Costco-size bottle of Listerine. The fact that he walked out of this house without personal hygiene items means only one thing: somewhere, he has duplicates to all of it. Somewhere, he has a new toothbrush, a new comb, a new bottle of mouthwash. Probably at the same place where his new woman and new baby wait for him.
My stomach rolls. I jerk toward the toilet, yank up the lid, and promptly spill my guts. Thinking of them making a home together is too much. So are all those Oreos I gorged on last night.
I peel off the clothes I slept in and drop each one—chino slacks, white-silk shell, sea foam–green sweater—into the trash can. There's no way I can wear any of it again without remembering the night I got dumped. Too bad. That sweater was one of my favorites.
Once in the shower, I stand as still as a hunk of granite, chin to chest, letting the hot water beat down on my back. Maybe, if I stay in here long enough, the pulsating jets will pound the knots out of my shoulders, the steam will melt the fog from my mind. But when I step out of the shower twenty minutes later, my fingers and toes shriveled like prunes, I'm no less tense or confused.
How does a marriage of eighteen years end in one evening?
I grab a towel off the bar and wrap it tight around my body. Of course, it didn't just end last night. Tony and Erin have been sneaking around for the last three months, but she's worked for him for almost two years. Long enough for them to become friends, to form a close bond. Not that I'm giving him an excuse. Lots of men are friends with their assistants and it never goes beyond that. Never turns into an affair that ends with a choice between the loyal wife and the pregnant girlfriend.
Pregnant. After three months. The thought almost knocks me off my feet. That kind of thing doesn't usually happen so fast. I should know. For me, it's never happened at all.
The closet door creaks as I pull it open. I flip the light switch, illuminating the cavernous walk-in space. It's so unlike our first apartment, with such a tiny closet that all our clothes had been smooshed together. Now, there's at least three feet of space between my side and Tony's side. We've come so far. Not even our clothes touch anymore.
I stand in the doorway, staring at the neat rows of blouses, slacks, skirts, all organized by color and season. Part of my job is to look put together whenever I step out of the house. You never know who you might run into. But today, I don't want to hassle with zippers, buttons, or binding fabric. Today, I need elastic and soft, stretchy cotton.
By the time I head down the stairs wearing the oldest, most comfortable sweats I own, I'm starting to feel like I can do this. Tony may have blindsided me, he may have pulled the rug out from under my feet, he may have done every awful cliché in the book, but that doesn't mean I have to let him win. I can survive without him. It's like creating my own personal twelve-step program: one day at a time. One minute at a time. One breath at a time.
But when I enter the kitchen, the physical manifestation of last night's trip off the deep end is waiting for me. Beef, vegetables, and congealed meat drippings are everywhere, and the odor is beyond ripe. My stomach turns in on itself. I will never eat a roast again.
Donning rubber gloves, I attack the mess. I scoop the solid pieces into a grocery bag, tie it off, and dump it in the trash. It takes half a roll of paper towels to soak up the jellied juices. Then, armed with a spray bottle of ammonia-fortified cleaner, I hit my knees and start scrubbing. It's while I'm on the floor, rubbing a sponge back and forth across fat-covered tiles, that I finally start to pray.
That one word falls from my lips, over and over and over, asking God to explain this to me. But instead of divine revelation, more unanswerable questions crowd my mind—What did I do wrong? Did I push him away? Could I have stopped this?—but Why? is the only thing I can vocalize.
I don't know how long I'm down on the floor, scrubbing and questioning myself. Questioning God. When I finally sit back on my heels, I'm drenched with sweat, my cheeks wet with tears. The floor gleams. Now it's time to tackle the huge grease stain on the wall.
I scrub. And scrub. And scrub some more.
Rummaging under the sink, I find a more abrasive brush and a more powerful cleaner. Minutes later, I step back from the wall and sigh.
It's no use.
No matter how hard I scrub, a shadow of the stain remains. With the exception of the spot where I started to rub the paint off the wall, it's still there. Nothing—not expensive cleaners, not hours of elbow grease—will erase that mark. The only way to make it go away is to paint over it, but the stain's still going to be there, hidden.
Like the pain of Tony's betrayal. It might fade. I might be able to cover over it. But nothing is going to erase it from my heart.
The truth pushes me backward until I make contact with the kitchen island, and I send up a new prayer.
"Help me. Help me. Help me."CHAPTER 3
So that's it? It's over just because he says so?"
My assistant, Jade, sits on the couch beside me, her round cheeks flushed red, her silky black hair quivering in indignation. It's almost laughable. You'd think Tony walked out on her too. I guess he did, in a way. Jade's livelihood depends on my selling books, being a sought-after speaker, and needing someone to keep my life organized. Once news gets out about Tony's affair and my offers start drying up, Jade may have to work somewhere that doesn't allow her to come in at 10:30 a.m. wearing yoga pants and a USC T-shirt.
Thinking of losing Jade turns my urge to laugh into a need to cry. Back when my writing took off and it became clear I needed help keeping all the bits and pieces of my career organized, I posted a flyer at the community college. Jade was the only one to call about it, and when she showed up for her interview, flyer clutched in her hand, I understood why. It was just as well, because we clicked right away. But she isn't just my employee—she's my friend. Sometimes she's the daughter I will never have. The idea that I might have to lose her too makes me want to find something of my husband's— something small, fragile, and precious to him—and throw it against the fireplace bricks.
Does Tony have any clue how much damage has been done thanks to his raging hormones? If he did, would he care?
I motion to Jade, then pat the seat cushion beside me. "Come. Sit."
Her hands slice through the air even as she drops down on the couch. "I can't believe he'd do something like this. Is he crazy? Is he—"
With the reflexes of a kung fu master catching a fly with chopsticks, I grab Jade's hands and hold them still, enfolding them in my own. "He is a man," I say quietly, "who decided to change the direction of his life. It's lousy, and I certainly don't understand it, but there's nothing I can do about it."
Jade tilts her head to the side, eyes narrowing. "How can you be so calm?"
I give her hands a final squeeze before letting them go and falling back onto the sofa. "I've had a few days to process everything."
By "process" I mean completely fall apart and then drag myself together.
The opening notes of "Stayin' Alive" fill the room as my cell phone vibrates on the coffee-table top. Tony's ring, assigned to him because Tony Marino sounds so much like Tony Manero, the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever. I've got to change that ring to something else. Maybe "Love Stinks."
I reach for the phone, but Jade gets to it first. She snaps it up and holds it in both hands, pleading with me. "Oh, please let me get this for you."
It's juvenile to avoid his calls, but she's giving me an offer I can't refuse. "Be nice," I warn her.
Responding with a sideways eye roll, she pushes a button and puts the phone to her ear. "Natalie Marino's cell. How can I help you?"
A pause, during which time Jade sticks her tongue out at the phone.
"No, I'm sorry, Mr. Marino. She's unable to speak to you now."
"That's right. She told me."
Tony's voice goes up a level and snippets of his side of the conversation travel out of the earpiece and over to me. "No reason ... difficult ... act like adults ..."
Now it's my turn to stick out my tongue. Act like adults. What does he know about acting like an adult? Acting like an adulterer, maybe.
"Just a minute." Jade covers the mouthpiece with her thumb and leans toward me. "He wants to come over and get the rest of his stuff," she hisses. "What should I tell him?"
Oh, there are so many things I wish she could tell him, but I restrain myself. So he wants to get his stuff. I could put him off, could make him wait just to inconvenience him as much as possible. But I don't want to put Jade in the uncomfortable position of relaying that kind of information.
"Tell him to come by tomorrow after ten. I'll be out of the house."
I wonder what he'll take. His toiletries and clothes, obviously, and anything that's used only by him. But what about our communal objects? Will he want any of the photos from our vacations, birthdays, time with friends? Our wedding pictures? Then again, now that my marriage has crumbled in a deceitful heap, do I want to keep any of those things?
Jade ends the call and holds the phone out to me. "He'll come by tomorrow. Stinking sack of—"
"Jade." Even though I agree with her, my tone says Step lightly.
"Sorry. So where are you going to be while he's here?"
Excerpted from The Mother Road by Jennifer AlLee. Copyright © 2012 Jennifer AlLee. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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