Table of Contents
Teaser for One Last Thing Before I Go
About the Author
Also by Jonathan Tropper
The Book of Joe
How to Talk to a Widower
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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First printing, August 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Tropper
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REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
This is where I leave you / Jonathan Tropper.
1. Divorced men—Fiction 2. Fathers—Death—Fiction. 3. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 4. Family—
Fiction. 5. Self-actualization (Psychology)—Fiction. 6. Psychological fiction. 7. Domestic fiction.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Mom and Dad
Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. “He died two hours ago.”
“How’s Mom doing?”
“She’s Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner.”
I have to smile, even as I chafe, as always, at our family’s patented inability to express emotion during watershed events. There is no occasion calling for sincerity that the Foxman family won’t quickly diminish or pervert through our own genetically engineered brand of irony and evasion. We banter, quip, and insult our way through birthdays, holidays, weddings, illnesses. Now Dad is dead and Wendy is cracking wise. It serves him right, since he was something of a pioneer at the forefront of emotional repression.
“It gets better,” Wendy says.
“Better? Jesus, Wendy, do you hear yourself?”
“Okay, that came out wrong.”
“He asked us to sit shiva.”
“Who are we talking about? Dad! Dad wanted us to sit shiva.”
Wendy sighs, like it’s positively exhausting having to navigate the dense forest of my obtuseness. “Yes, apparently, that’s the optimal time to do it.”
“But Dad’s an atheist.”
“Dad was an atheist.”
“You’re telling me he found God before he died?”
“No, I’m telling you he’s dead and you should conjugate your tenses accordingly.”
If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised. But in fairness, we’d been mourning for a while already, on and off since he was first diagnosed a year and a half earlier. He’d been having stomachaches, swatting away my mother’s pleas that he see a doctor, choosing instead to increase the regimen of the same antacids he’d been taking for years. He popped them like Life Savers, dropping small squibs of foil wrapping wherever he went, so that the carpets glittered like wet pavement. Then his stool turned red.
“Your father’s not feeling well,” my mother understated over the phone.
“My shit’s bleeding,” he groused from somewhere behind her. In the fifteen years since I’d moved out of the house, Dad never came to the phone. It was always Mom, with Dad in the background, contributing the odd comment when it suited him. That’s how it was in person too. Mom always took center stage. Marrying her was like joining the chorus.
On the CAT scan, tumors bloomed like flowers against the charcoal desert of his duodenal lining. Into the lore of Dad’s legendary stoicism would be added the fact that he spent a year treating metastatic stomach cancer with Tums. There were the predictable surgeries, the radiation, and then the Hail Mary rounds of chemo meant to shrink the tumors but that instead shrank him, his once broad shoulders reduced to skeletal knobs that disappeared beneath the surface of his slack skin. Then came the withering of muscle and sinew and the sad, crumbling descent into extreme pain management, culminating with him slipping into a coma, the one we knew he’d never come out of. And why should he? Why wake up to the painful, execrable mess of end-stage stomach cancer? It took four months for him to die, three more than the oncologists had predicted. “Your dad’s a fighter,” they would say when we visited, which was a crock, because he’d already been soundly beaten. If he was at all aware, he had to be pissed at how long it was taking him to do something as simple as die. Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a lifelong member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can.
So his actual death itself was less an event than a final sad detail.
“The funeral is tomorrow morning,” Wendy says. “I’m flying in with the kids tonight. Barry’s at a meeting in San Francisco. He’ll catch the red-eye.”
Wendy’s husband, Barry, is a portfolio manager for a large hedge fund. As far as I can tell, he gets paid to fly around the world on private jets and lose golf games to other richer men who might need his fund’s money. A few years ago, they transferred him to the L.A. office, which makes no sense, since he travels constantly, and Wendy would no doubt prefer to live back on the East Coast, where her cankles and post-pregnancy jiggle are less of a liability. On the other hand, she’s being very well compensated for the inconvenience.
“You’re bringing the kids?”
“Believe me, I’d rather not. But seven days is just too long to leave them alone with the nanny.”
The kids are Ryan and Cole, six and three, towheaded, cherub-cheeked boys who never met a room they couldn’t trash in two minutes flat, and Serena, Wendy’s seven-month-old baby girl.
“That’s how long it takes to sit shiva.”
“We’re not really going to do this, are we?”
“It was his dying wish,” Wendy says, and in that single instant I think maybe I can hear the raw grief in the back of her throat.
“Paul’s going along with this?”
“Paul’s the one who told me about it.”
“What did he say?”
“He said Dad wants us to sit shiva.”
Paul is my older brother by sixteen months. Mom insisted I hadn’t been a mistake, that she’d fully intended to get pregnant again just seven months after giving birth to Paul. But I never really bought it, especially after my father, buzzed on peach schnapps at Friday-night dinner, had acknowledged somberly that back then they believed you couldn’t get pregnant when you were breast-feeding. As for Paul and me, we get along fine as long as we don’t spend any time together.
“Has anyone spoken to Phillip?” I say.
“I’ve left messages at all his last known numbers. On the off chance he plays them, and he’s not in jail, or stoned, or dead in a ditch, there’s every reason to believe that there’s a small possibility he’ll show up.”
Phillip is our youngest brother, born nine years after me. It’s hard to understand my parents’ procreational logic. Wendy, Paul, and me, all within four years, and then Phillip, almost a decade later, slapped on like an awkward coda. He is the Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasionally rumored to be dead. As the baby, he was alternately coddled and ignored, which may have been a significant factor in his becoming such a terminally screwed-up adult. He is currently living in Manhattan, where you’d have to wake up pretty early in the morning to find a drug he hasn’t done or a model he hasn’t fucked. He will drop off the radar for months at a time and then show up unannounced at your house for dinner, where he might or might not casually mention that he’s been in jail, or Tibet, or has just broken up with a quasi-famous actress. I haven’t seen him in over a year.
“I hope he makes it,” I say. “He’ll be devastated if he doesn’t.”
“And speaking of screwed-up little brothers, how’s your own Greek tragedy coming along?”
Wendy can be funny, almost charming in her pointed tactlessness, but if there is a line between crass and cruel, she’s never noticed it. Usually I can stomach her, but the last few months have left me ragged and raw, and my defenses have been depleted.
“I have to go now,” I say, trying my best to sound like a guy not in the midst of an ongoing meltdown.
“Jesus, Judd. I was just expressing concern.”
“I’m sure you thought so.”
“Oh, don’t get all passive-aggressive. I get enough of that from Barry.”
“I’ll see you at the house.”
“Fine, be that way,” she says, disgusted. “Good-bye.”
I wait her out.
“Are you still there?” she finally says.
“No.” I hang up and imagine her slamming her phone down while the expletives fly in a machine-gun spray from her lips.
I’m packing up my car for the two-hour drive to Elmsbrook when Jen pulls up in her marshmallow-colored SUV. She gets out quickly, before I can escape. I haven’t seen her in a while, haven’t returned her calls or stopped thinking about her. And here she is looking immaculate as ever in her clinging gym clothes, her hair an expensive shade of honey blond, the corners of her mouth inching up ever so slightly into the tentative smile of a little girl. I know every one of Jen’s smiles, what they mean and where they lead.
The problem is that every time I see Jen, it instantly reminds me of the first time I ever saw her, riding that crappy red bike across the quad, long legs pumping, hair flying out behind her, face flushed with excitement, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to think about when confronted with your soon-to-be ex-wife. Ex-wife in waiting. Ex-wife elect. The self-help books and websites haven’t come up with a proper title for spouses living in the purgatory that exists before the courts have officially ratified your personal tragedy. As usual, seeing Jen, I am instantly chagrined, not because she’s obviously found out that I’m living in a crappy rented basement, but because ever since I moved out, seeing her makes me feel like I’ve been caught in a private, embarrassing moment—watching porn with my hand in my pants, singing along to Air Supply while picking my nose at a red light.
“Hey,” she says.
I toss my suitcase into the trunk. “Hey.”
We were married for nine years. Now we say “Hey” and avert our eyes.
“I’ve been leaving you messages.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“I’m sure.” Her ironic inflection fills me with the familiar impulse to simultaneously kiss her deeply and strangle her until she turns blue. Neither is an option at this juncture, so I have to content myself with slamming the trunk harder than necessary.
“We need to talk, Judd.”
“Now’s not a good time.”
She beats me to the driver’s-side door and leans against it, flashing me her most accomplished smile, the one I always told her made me fall in love with her all over again. But she’s miscalculated, because now all it does is remind me of everything I’ve lost. “There’s no reason this can’t be amicable,” she says.
“You’re fucking my boss. That’s a pretty solid reason.”
She closes her eyes, summoning up the massive reserves of patience required to deal with me. I used to kiss those eyelids as we drifted off to sleep, feel the rough flutter of her lashes like butterfly wings between my lips, her light breath tickling my chin and neck. “You’re right,” she says, trying to look like someone trying not to look bored. “I am a flawed person. I was unhappy and I did something inexcusable. But as much as you might hate me for ruining your life, playing the victim isn’t really working out for you.”
“Hey, I’m doing fine.”
“Yeah. You’re doing great.”
Jen looks pointedly at the crappy house in which I now live below street level. It looks like a house drawn by a child: a triangle perched on a square, with sloppily staggered lines for bricks, a lone casement window, and a front door. It’s flanked by houses of equal decrepitude on either side, nothing at all like the small, handsome colonial we bought with my life’s savings and where Jen still lives rent-free, sleeping with another man in the bed that used to be mine.
My landlords are the Lees, an inscrutable, middle-aged Chinese couple who live in a state of perpetual silence. I have never heard them speak. He performs acupuncture in the living room; she sweeps the sidewalk thrice daily with a handmade straw broom that looks like a theater prop. I wake up and fall asleep to the whisper of her frantic bristles on the pavement. Beyond that, they don’t seem to exist, and I often wonder why they bothered immigrating. Surely there were plenty of pinched nerves and dust in China.
“You didn’t show up to the mediator,” Jen says.
“I don’t like him. He’s not impartial.”
“Of course he’s impartial.”
“He’s partial to your breasts.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, that’s just ridiculous.”
“Yes, well, there’s no accounting for taste.”
And so on. I could report the rest of the conversation, but it’s just more of the same, two people whose love became toxic, lobbing regret grenades at each other.
“I can’t talk to you when you’re like this,” she finally says, stepping away from the car, winded.
“I’m always like this. This is how I am.”
My father is dead! I want to shout at her. But I won’t because she’ll cry, and if she does, I probably will, and then she’ll have found a way in, and I will not let her pierce my walls in a Trojan horse of sympathy. I’m going home to bury my father and face my family, and she should be there with me, but she’s not mine anymore. You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.
Jen shakes her head sadly and I can see her lower lip trembling, the tear that’s starting to form in the corner of her eye. I can’t touch her, kiss her, love her, or even, as it turns out, have a conversation that doesn’t degenerate into angry recriminations in the first three minutes. But I can still make her sad, and for now, I’ll have to be satisfied with that. And it would be easier, so much easier, if she didn’t insist on being so goddamned beautiful, so gym-toned and honey-haired and wide-eyed and vulnerable. Because even now, even after all that she’s done to me, there’s still something in her eyes that makes me want to shelter her at any cost, even though I know it’s really me who needs the protection. It would be so much easier if she wasn’t Jen. But she is, and where there was once the purest kind of love, there is now a snake pit of fury and resentment and a new dark and twisted love that hurts more than all the rest of it put together.
“I have to go,” I say, opening my car door.
I’ve never been shot, but this is probably what it feels like, that split second of nothingness right before the pain catches up to the bullet. She was pregnant once before. She cried and kissed me and we danced like idiots in the bathroom. But our baby died before it could be born, strangled by the umbilical cord three weeks before Jen’s due date.
“Congratulations. I’m sure Wade will be a wonderful father.”
“I know this is hard for you. I just thought you should hear it from me.”
“And now I have.”
I climb into the car. She steps in front of it, so I can’t pull out.
“Say something. Please.”
“Okay. Fuck you, Jen. Fuck you very much. I hope Wade’s kid has better luck in there than mine did. Can I go now?”
“Judd,” she says, her voice low and unsteady. “You can’t really hate me that much, can you?”
I look directly at her with all the sincerity I can muster. “Yes. I can.”
And maybe it’s the complicated grief over my father that has finally begun plucking at my nerves, or maybe it’s simply the way Jen draws back as if slapped, but either way, the intense hurt that flashes behind the wide pools of her eyes for that one unguarded instant is almost enough to make me love her again.
My marriage ended the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake.
Marriages fall apart. Everyone has reasons, but no one really knows why. We got married young. Maybe that was our mistake. In New York State, you can legally get married before you can do a shot of tequila. We knew marriage could be difficult in the same way that we knew there were starving children in Africa. It was a tragic fact but worlds away from our reality. We were going to be different. We would keep the fire stoked; best friends who fucked each other senseless every night. We would avoid the pitfalls of complacency; stay young at heart and in shape, keep our kisses long and deep and our bellies flat, hold hands when we walked, conduct whispered conversations deep into the night, make out in movie theaters, and go down on each other with undimmed enthusiasm until the arthritic limitations of old age made it inadvisable.
“Will you still love me when I’m old?” Jen would say, usually when we were in bed in her dorm room, lying drowsily on her dented mattress in the thick musk of our evaporating sex. She’d be lying on her belly and I’d be on my side, running a lazy finger down the shallow canyon of her spine to where it met the rising curves of her outstanding ass. I was stupidly proud of her ass when we were dating. I would hold open doors for her just to watch it bounce ahead of me, high and tight and perfectly proportioned in her jeans, and I would think to myself, That is an ass to grow old with. I looked at Jen’s ass as my own personal achievement, wanted to take her ass home to meet my parents.
“When my breasts sag and my teeth fall out, and I’m all dried up and wrinkled like a prune?” Jen would say.
“Of course I will.”
“You won’t trade me in for a younger woman?”
“Of course I will. But I’ll feel bad about it.”
And we would laugh at the impossibility of it all.
Love made us partners in narcissism, and we talked ceaselessly about how close we were, how perfect our connection was, like we were the first people in history to ever get it exactly right. We were that couple for a while, nauseatingly impervious assholes, busy staring into each other’s eyes while everyone else was trying to have a good time. When I think about how stupid we were, how obstinately clueless about the realities that awaited us, I just want to go back to that skinny, cocksure kid with his bloated heart and perennial erection, and kick his teeth in.
I want to tell him how he and the love of his life will slowly fall into a routine, how the sex, while still perfectly fine, will become commonplace enough that it won’t be unheard of to postpone it in favor of a television show, or a late-night snack. How they’ll stop strategically smothering their farts and closing the door to urinate; how he’ll feel himself growing self-conscious telling funny stories to their friends in front of her, because she’s heard all his funny stories before; how she won’t laugh at his jokes the way other people do; how she’ll start to spend more and more time on the phone with her girlfriends at night. How they will get into raging fights over the most trivial issues: the failure to replace a roll of toilet paper, a cereal bowl caked with oatmeal left to harden in the sink, proper management of the checkbook. How an unspoken point system will come into play, with each side keeping score according to their own complicated set of rules. I want to materialize before that smug little shit like the Ghost of Christmas Past and scare the matrimonial impulse right out of him. Forget marriage, I’ll rail at him. Just go for the tequila. Then I’ll whisk him away to the future and show him the look on his face . . .
. . . when I walked into my bedroom and found Jen in bed with another man.
By that point, I probably should have suspected something. Adultery, like any other crime, generates evidence as an inevitable byproduct, like plants and oxygen or humans and, well, shit. So there were no doubt a handful of ways I could have figured it out that would have spared me the eye-gouging trauma of actually having to witness it firsthand. The clues must have been piling up for a while already, like unread e-mails, just a click away from being read. A strange number on her cell phone bill, a call quickly ended when I entered the room, the odd unexplained receipt, a minor bite mark on the slope of her neck that I didn’t remember inflicting, her markedly depleted libido. In the days that followed, I would review the last year or so of our marriage like the security tapes after a robbery, wondering how the hell I could have been so damn oblivious, how it took actually walking in on them to finally get the picture. And even then, as I watched them humping and moaning on my bed, it took me a little while to put it all together.
Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us.
So when I came home early on Jen’s thirty-third birthday to find her lying spread-eagle on the bed, with some guy’s wide, doughy ass hovering above her, clenching and unclenching to the universal beat of procreation, his hands jammed under her ass, lifting her up into each thrust, her fingers leaving white marks where they pressed into his back, well, it took some time to process.
It hadn’t yet sunk in that it was Jen in the bed. All I knew was that it was my bed, and the only man who had any business having sex in it was me. I briefly considered the possibility that I was in the wrong house, but that seemed like a long shot, and a quick glance over to the picture of Jen on my night table, young and luminous in her bridal gown, confirmed that I was in the right place. Which was something of a minor relief actually, because to make that kind of mistake, to actually let yourself into your neighbor’s house and walk upstairs to their bedroom oblivious to your error, was probably cause to expect the worst from a brain scan. And if I had walked in on my neighbors rutting like dogs in the middle of the afternoon, I doubt that even the most heartfelt apology would have been accepted, and I’d never be able to make eye contact with them again, let alone ask them to get the mail when we went on vacation. Also, our neighbors, the Bowens, were in their late sixties and Mr. Bowen was eating his way toward his third heart attack. Even if he was still sexually active, which I highly doubted given the circumference of his gelatinous gut, the effect of such an untimely intrusion would probably have sent him into cardiac arrest. So, all things considered, it was probably a good thing that I was in my own house.
Except, that being the case, it posed a handful of troubling scenarios, the most obvious of which was that the woman writhing on the bed in a pool of her own sweat, inserting her French-manicured index finger like a dart into the bull’s-eye of her lover’s anus, was my wife, Jen.
Which, of course, I’d known the instant I stepped into the room. But my brain was shielding me from the realization, giving me little random thoughts to process, just to keep me distracted, really, while, behind the scenes, my subconscious scrambled to assemble the facts and prepare a strategy for damage control. So instead of thinking, right away, Jen is fucking someone, my marriage is over, or something along those lines, my next thought was actually this: Jen never sticks her finger into my asshole during sex. Not that I had any desire for her to do so, especially now that I was seeing firsthand, so to speak, where it had been. We did some fun, nasty stuff from time to time, Jen and I—positions, props, creamy desserts, et cetera—but I fell squarely into that category of men who simply never feel the desire to bring their asshole into the mix. Not that I was judging the men who did.
Except for the man who was currently impaled two knuckles deep on my wife’s index finger, one digit away from the one she used to flip the bird at the guy who had cut us off in the HOV lane last week, two away from the diamond eternity band I’d bought her on our fifth anniversary. I was judging him pretty severely, actually. So much so that it took me an extra beat to realize that he was, in fact, Wade Boulanger, a popular radio personality who, in addition to screwing my wife and apparently enjoying the occasional bit of anal stimulation, was also my boss.
Wade is the host of a popular WIRX morning drive radio program called Man Up with Wade Boulanger. He talks about sex, cars, sports, and money. But mostly about sex. He consults on air with porn stars, strippers, and prostitutes. He takes calls from men and women who tell him, in graphic detail, about their sex lives. He announces and then rates his own farts. He tells lovelorn, sex-starved callers to “Man up already!” There are T-shirts and coffee mugs and bumper stickers with the catch-phrase. He is a professional asshole, syndicated in twelve markets. The advertisers line up like sheep.
I’m not knocking it. I was his producer. I booked the guests. I oversaw the interns screening the calls, the I.T. geeks who run the website. I met with the station bosses about format and sponsorship. I liaised with legal, H.R., and advertising. I ordered lunch and bleeped the curse words.
I’d been fresh out of college and working as an assistant at WRAD, a small local station, when Wade’s career was just heating up, and for some reason he liked me. When his producer was fired over a flap with the FCC, Wade hired me. We took long lunches after the show, whole afternoons spent in restaurants on the station’s dime, drinking dirty martinis and coming up with bits. He called me his voice of reason, valued my opinion, and took me with him when he moved from the local affiliate to WIRX. And when the show went into syndication, he threatened to walk when the station balked at my contract.
Wade is tall and beefy, with dark, wiry hair and a cleft that makes his chin look like a tiny ass. His teeth are a shade of white not found in nature. At forty, Wade still references his fraternity brothers like they matter, still evaluates passing breasts out loud, still calls them tits. He is that guy. It’s easy to picture him in his frat-boy prime, chugging down beers to rounds of applause, humiliating pledges, slipping roofies into the red plastic cups of pretty freshman girls at keggers.
There’s nothing in life, really, to prepare you for the experience of seeing your wife have sex with another man. It’s one of those surreal events that you’ve imagined at one point or another without any real clarity, like dying or winning the lottery. When it comes to knowing how to react, you’re in uncharted territories. And so, in the absence of any reaction, I stood there frozen, watching Jen’s face as Wade pumped away at her like the piston of a wide, hairy engine. Her head was arched back, chin pointed up to God, as she panted heavily through her wide-open mouth, eyes clamped shut with pleasure. I tried to recall if she’d ever looked so intensely committed, so beautifully dirty when we had sex, but it was hard to say. I’d never had this vantage point before. Also, it had been forever since we’d had sex during the day, and at night it’s harder to make out the nuances of your partner’s expression. Then Jen let out a long, urgent moan that started low before suddenly jumping up a few octaves into this kind of wounded puppy’s yelp. I was pretty damn sure I’d never heard her make that sound before. And as she did it, her hands slid down Wade’s back to grab his ass and pull him deeper into her.
I found myself wondering about Wade Boulanger’s cock.
Specifically, was it bigger than mine? Thicker? Harder? Was it slightly curved, the way some cocks are, hitting places inside of her that mine had never hit, heretofore untapped bits of soft tissue that made her cry out like that? Was Wade a more skilled lover? Had he studied Tantric technique? He had certainly slept with enough hookers and porn stars to have gotten some hands-on instruction. From where I was standing, it certainly looked like Wade knew what he was doing, but, in fairness, I had never seen myself have sex. Jen and I never videotaped ourselves the way some couples did, and now I kind of regretted that. Reviewing the game tapes every now and then might have been helpful. For all I knew, I looked every bit as convincing. But that yelp . . . I’d been having every kind of sex with Jen for over ten years, and she had never yelped like that. I’d have remembered.
I realized that I was already thinking about how I would tell Jen—my Jen—about this later, how I would describe this insanity to her tonight when I got home. But I already was home. And my Jen didn’t exist anymore, had dispersed into mist right before my eyes. And this new Jen, this squealing, sweating, anal-probing Jen, didn’t need me to tell her. She could probably tell me a few things.
I experienced a smattering of microscopic pinpricks across my stomach, the first hint of the anguish being readied below in the darkest recesses of my churning guts. It was still forming, but I could already feel the intense heat of it rising up into my chest like a concentrated laser beam, and I knew that once the world started spinning again, it would blossom into a white-hot flash and incinerate me.
And still they fucked, in and out, up and down, grunt and yelp, like they were going for a record, and underneath it all, the sounds you don’t think about, the slapping and slishing, the farting suction, the mechanical sounds of intercourse, the air thick with the pungent smell of their sex. And still I stood there, letting it happen, trembling like a weed. Then Wade lifted Jen’s left leg over his head and brought it down onto her right one, turning her onto her side without missing a thrust. It was not an easy maneuver to accomplish without withdrawing, this little bit of stunt fuckery, but the ease with which he did it, and the way Jen turned and rolled on cue, made it clear that they’d been down this particular road before. And that’s when it occurred to me to wonder how long this had been going on: a month? Six months? How many positions had they mastered? How much of my marriage was a lie? Jen was fucking Wade Boulanger sideways on my bed, on the rumpled Ralph Lauren duvet she’d bought at Nordstrom when we first moved into the house. My life, as I knew it, was over.
This is probably as good a time as any to mention that I was holding a large birthday cake.
I had left work early to pick up the cake, a chocolate-strawberry cheesecake, her favorite. Jen always called in sick on her birthday. We were going to go out for dinner later, but I’d come home early to surprise her with the cake. In the driveway, I opened the box and planted thirty-three candles and one for good luck. I stopped in the foyer to light the candles with a long-stemmed oven lighter bought specifically for this purpose. I could hear her moving around upstairs, so I discarded the box and headed up, treading slowly and evenly on the balls of my feet like a cat burglar, articulating each step the way you do to keep candles lit. Now the candles were already more than halfway melted, gobs of spent red wax splashed across the pristine white frosting like blood dripped on snow. If things had gone according to plan, Jen would have blown them out by now. Then she would have wiped a chunk of frosting off with her finger and licked it, kissed me with cream cheese lips, and we would have lived happily ever after. But I hadn’t planned for this contingency and now the cake was ruined.
Later, I knew, there would be a slew of painful questions that resolved nothing. How could she do it? When did it start? Why? Were they in love, or simply after the thrill of illicit sex? Which answer did I prefer?
I didn’t really want to know the answers to any of these questions. When you’ve borne witness to your wife’s illicit copulation, you’d probably have a better chance at achieving some sort of closure with a .357 Magnum at close range than with the scientific method. But I knew I’d ask regardless, because that’s what you did. I’d been forced into a movie, and there was nothing to do but follow the script. But right then, at that very moment, it came to me like a revelation, the single most important question to be asked, and I was pretty damn certain I was ready to know the answer. The question, in its simplest form, was this: How far up Wade Boulanger’s ass could I jam a chocolate-strawberry cheesecake with thirty-three burning candles and one for good luck?
Pretty damn far, as it turns out.
After that, many things happened, quickly and simultaneously.
The first thing that happened was that Wade screamed. Not because he suddenly had an asshole full of chocolate-strawberry cheesecake, although that certainly would have been reason enough. Wade screamed, I would find out later from an indiscreet paramedic, because, before entering Jen, he had applied a cream to his cock, a cream advertised on his radio program, formulated to enhance sexual performance, and a cream that, unbeknownst to him, was highly flammable, and now, thanks to the thirty-three birthday candles and one for good luck, his testicles were on fire. They hadn’t put a warning on the label, probably because most men keep their privates away from open flames as a matter of routine. So Wade screamed as he flew off—and out—of Jen, and rolled across the bed onto his back, cupping his flaming scrotum as he went. To make matters worse, he’d been only seconds away from ejaculating when he caught fire, and now, even as he writhed in pain, he spurted tiny ribbons of baked ejaculate into the air.
As Wade screamed and burned and came hotly into his hands, Jen screamed as well, rolling as fast as she could in the other direction. Jen screamed first because Wade had pulled out of her with such force, knocking the bridge of her nose with his forehead hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. And then, through the kaleidoscopic prism of her tears, she saw me standing at the foot of the bed, my hands covered in red and brown cheese goop, and so her scream was one of surprise and shame, which turned to pain as she rolled off the bed, landing in a heap on the floor, the heel of Wade’s overturned, four-hundred-dollar loafer digging painfully into her thigh.
And I screamed, because what I felt right then was so much worse than burned balls or a broken nose, which is what Jen would later find out she had suffered. This wrecked room had been my bedroom; this bed, smeared with cheesecake and bodily fluids, had been my bed; and this woman, this naked, cowering, crumpled woman on the floor, had been my wife, and now, in a matter of seconds, I had lost them all.
And then everyone stopped screaming and there followed one of those moments of dead silence where you just stand there feeling the planet spin beneath your feet until it makes you dizzy. The smells of sex and burnt scrotum filled the air like a gas leak, and I swear, if someone had lit a match the room would have exploded.
“Judd!” Jen cried out from the floor.
Still groaning in pain, his eyes lit with terror at the untold damage his testes might have sustained, Wade rolled clumsily off the bed and charged into the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Naked men shouldn’t run. From behind the door, the sound of running water could be heard, punctuated by Wade’s guttural curses.
I looked at Jen, sitting naked on the floor, her back up against her night table, knees pulled up against her flattened breasts as she sobbed into her hands, and I felt the urge to get on my knees and pull her into my arms, the way I would have under pretty much any other circumstances. And I actually felt myself moving toward her, but then stopped. It had been only a minute or so since I’d walked through the bedroom door, and my brain had not yet adjusted to this suddenly transformed world where I no longer comforted Jen because I hated her. I was a whirling mass of outdated reflexes and violent impulses, and I had no idea what the hell I was supposed to do. The urge to flee was overwhelming, but leaving the two of them in my house seemed too much like unconditional surrender. I needed to lash out, hide, get out of there, weep, plant my thumbs in Wade’s eye sockets to crush his eyeballs, hold Jen, strangle Jen, kill myself, go to sleep, and wake up and be twenty again, all in the same instant. A complete nervous breakdown was not out of the question.
Jen looked up at me, stricken, her eyes red with tears, blood and snot running from her nose down her chin and onto her chest. I actually felt bad for her, and hated myself for it.
“I can’t believe you did this,” I heard myself say.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, shivering into her arms.
“Get dressed, and get him out of my house.”
That was the extent of our conversation. Nine years of marriage gone in a heartbeat, and not very much to say about it. I stepped out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind me hard enough to dislodge something in the drywall, which could be heard rattling inside as it fell. I stood in the hall for a moment, shaken and desolate, exhaled a breath I didn’t realize I was holding, and headed downstairs to smash her grandmother’s china to smithereens, which is what I was still doing when the police and the paramedics showed up.
“So what happens now?” Jen said. We were standing in the kitchen, attempting a conversation amidst the copious ruins of the shattered china.
“I know this won’t mean anything to you right now, but I am really sorrier than I’ll ever be able to tell you.”
It wasn’t going very well.
“There’s no excuse for what I’ve done. I’d been unhappy for so long, you know, just kind of lost, and—”
“Will you please just shut your goddamn mouth?!” I shouted at her, and she flinched as if she thought I might hit her. Her nose had already swelled considerably and was starting to turn a nasty shade of purple in the spot where Wade’s forehead had smashed it earlier. When word of our troubles spread through the neighborhood, her bruised face would be the subject of tireless speculation among the housewives as they whispered over their nonfat lattes.
I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. “I’m going to ask you some questions, and I need you to answer them in as few words as possible. Do you understand?”
“How long have you been fucking Wade?”
“Answer the question!”
“A little over a year.”
You’d have thought, after the events of the last half hour, that I was beyond shocking by now. A little over a year wasn’t a fling, a random sexual indiscretion. It was a relationship. It meant that Jen and Wade had an anniversary. On our first anniversary, we had checked into a bed-and-breakfast in Newport. Jen wore a lavender negligee and I read her this goofy poem that made her cry so that later I could still taste the salt on her cheeks. How had Jen and Wade marked their first anniversary? And, now that you mention it, where did they count from? Their first flirtation? First kiss? First fuck? The first time someone said “I love you”? Jen was both sentimental and meticulous with her calendar and no doubt knew the exact dates of every one of those milestones.
For the last year or so, Jen had been running off at every possible opportunity to have sex with Wade Boulanger, my overly athletic, alpha male boss. It was inconceivable to me, no different than if I’d just found out that she was a serial killer, which would have been preferable actually. I’d have attended the trial, nodded somberly at the guilty verdict, told my story to People magazine, and gone about my business. At least I’d know where I was going to sleep that night.
“A little over a year,” I repeated. “You’re some kind of liar then, huh?”
“I’ve become one, yes.” She held my gaze, almost defiantly.
“Do you love him?”
She looked away.
I wasn’t expecting that, and it hurt.
Jen sighed, a long, dramatic, self-pitying sigh, as I considered the ramifications of slitting her throat with a shard of china. “We had our problems long before things started with Wade.”
“Well, nothing like the ones we’ve got now.”
She may have said something after that, but I had stopped hearing her. There was just the crunch of bone china underfoot as I walked across the kitchen, and the wailing hinge of the front door as I swung it open, and the sudden hiss of expelled air when my body finally remembered to start breathing again.
What the hell happens now?
I sat in my car, still in the driveway, gripping the wheel tight enough to turn my knuckles white, paralyzed with indecision. There is nothing sadder than sitting in a car and having absolutely nowhere to go. Unless, maybe, it’s sitting in a car in the driveway of the home that is suddenly no longer your home. Because, generally, even when you have nowhere to go, you can at least go home. Jen hadn’t just cheated on me, she’d made me homeless. A red-hot rage colored my fear like blood in the water, made me tremble. I wanted to throttle Jen, to feel her windpipe collapse under my thumbs. I wanted to stab Wade with one of those curved knives designed by aboriginal tribes for gutting humans, in through the sternum and up behind the chest plate to puncture vital organs, watch the dark blood, thick with dislodged bits of tissue, gurgle out of his mouth. I wanted to commit a dramatic suicide, drive through a guardrail into the Hudson River, leave Jen paralyzed with a guilt that would haunt her for the rest of her life, like I knew the sight of Wade humping her would now always haunt me. But she’d probably just go back into therapy, maybe even to that shrink she’d left because he made it a practice to hug her tightly after every session, a Freudian copping a feel. He would somehow convince her that she was the victim in all of this, that she owed it to herself to be happy again, and then my death would have been in vain. The best I could hope for was that she’d cheat on Wade by sleeping with her horny therapist, but was it actually cheating if you cheated on your illicit lover? I was new to all of this and didn’t know the bylaws.
In the rearview mirror I could see the front of the house, the bottom corners of the living room picture window, the line where the stone foundation gave way to staggered red bricks. My entire life, the sum total of my existence, was contained behind that wall, and it seemed to me that I should be able to step out of the car, walk through the front door, and simply reclaim it. The door would stick; it always did in the warmer months and needed to be pressed down as the doorknob was turned while you leaned your shoulder into the heavy alder wood. I had the keys right there, jingling against the steering column that I had no idea which way to turn.
What the bloody motherfucking hell happens now?
I checked my watch, the white-gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Jen had bought me for my thirtieth birthday. I’d been fine with the Citizen I wore, missed it, actually, when she gave me this bulky piece of showy hardware, but things like that were important to Jen. She’d taken to the suburbs like an actress getting into character for a new role, and she was always determined that we both look the part.
“We could go on a great vacation for what this watch costs,” I’d objected.
“We can go on a great vacation anyway,” she said. “Vacations come and go. A watch like this is an heirloom.”
I was too young to have an heirloom. The word conjured up images of bedridden old men with yellow, calcified toenails and skeletal wrists, wasting away in musty rooms that smelled of Lysol and decay. “It’s five mortgage payments,” I said.
“It’s a gift,” Jen said, getting all snippy like she sometimes did.
“A gift that I paid for.”
I’d been married long enough to know that the remark was wrong and unkind and not remotely constructive, but I said it anyway. I did that sometimes. I couldn’t begin to tell you why. You get married and patterns form. Jen was genetically incapable of rendering any kind of verbal apology. I sometimes said shitty things that I didn’t quite mean. We accepted these foibles in ourselves and in each other, except at the moments they actually surfaced in real time, at which point we had to fight the urge to savagely bludgeon each other.
“So our money is your money?” Jen said, her eyes lighting up with the joy of indignation, and just like that, she had seamlessly transitioned us into a different fight. This was a skill she’d perfected over time, like a boxer who jabs and moves before the counterpunch can arrive. Arguing with her never failed to make me dizzy.
In the end, I kept the watch; there was never really any question. The Citizen was relegated to the little compartment in my sock drawer that held a set of keys to our old apartment, a couple of obsolete cell phones, my college I.D. card, a couple of Japanese throwing stars from my brief ninja phase in junior high, the foul ball I’d caught off Lee Mazzilli at Shea Stadium when I was a kid, and a handful of other artifacts from versions of myself long since dead and buried.
And now the Rolex said three o’clock in the afternoon. I needed some time to think, to consider the situation, figure out my next move. I fingered the buttons on my cell phone, flipped through my list of contacts, but I already knew I wouldn’t call anyone. Maybe Jen and I could still fix this thing, and if we did, we wouldn’t want anyone looking at us funny. I knew irrevocable damage had been done, innocence had been lost, trust slaughtered, but still, it was the age-old conundrum: If a wife sleeps with a boss, but no one finds out about it, did it actually happen? There was no one to call, no friends who weren’t also connected to Jen. I thought about calling my mother, but my father was in a coma and she had enough to deal with. My life was in a free fall, and there was nowhere to turn. A cold sense of desolation lodged itself somewhere in the base of my throat, and suddenly I was no longer enraged or devastated, but terrified of the immense, throbbing loneliness that was only now closing like a vise on my internal organs.