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They refused to let her drive them to the airport. National was one of the busiest airports in the country, traffic was terrible; even native Washingtonians avoided it when they could.
"Except for the damned members of Congress," her uncle Pat had bellowed, pounding on the table to emphasize his opinion. "They've got their chauffeurs and their airconditioned limos, so it's no skin off their butts if the rest of us get high blood pressure and dented fenders trying to reach the damned terminal!"
Which, as her aunt Ruth pointed out, was not only unfair and exaggerated, but irrelevant.
Karen didn't argue. The last she saw of them was her aunt's fixed smile and anxious eyes, framed by the window of the taxi.
The taxi hesitated at the corner and, with an air of squaring its metaphorical shoulders, plunged into the maelstrom of traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. Then at last Karen let her own fixed smile crack and crumble and drop off her face. She rubbed her jaw, wondering if Ruth's face ached too, after all those weeks of determined cheerfulness.
It was a relief to let everything droop-lips, shoulders, spirits. Her feet dragging, she turned back into the house. Though it was only midmorning, the streets of Georgetown shimmered with the heat and humidity that are hallmarks of a Washington summer.
Like the other older homes in this fashionable section of the capital, which had been a flourishing town in its own right before the founders of the new nation moved in across the creek, Ruth's house dated from the early nineteenth century. It was built of red brick, in the formal Federal style, with a classic balance ofwindows and exterior ornament. Every brick of the facade and every stick of furniture within was familiar to Karen. She had lived with her aunt and uncle for a year while attending college, and had visited often since. But as she stood in the hall facing the famous floating staircase, she had a sensation of utter strangeness.
The change was not in the house but in herself. Only a month ago she had been a suburban housewife, settled in a routine as a fly is embedded in amber, with every reason to suppose her position was as permanent as the fly's. Jacks schedule was as fixed as her own. When he wasn't at the university he was at a meeting or a conference, or closeted in his office working on one of the endless stream of books and articles designed to ensure his rise up the ladder of academic success. When she wasn't doing housework she was typing his manuscripts or checking his footnotes or doing research for him. Everything she did was predictable, even the food she cooked. Jack was a meat-and-potatoes man, with no tolerance for ethnic- and health-food fads.
He had ordered steak the night he told her. He had suggested they go out to dinner, just the two of them--a rare occurrence in recent months. Afterward Karen realized she should have known something was wrong. But she didn't even suspect. His announcement, carefully timed to follow the cocktails, hit her with the stunning shock of a blow in the pit of her stomach.
Jack had mistaken her silence and her empty stare for calm acquiescence. He was relieved, he said, that she hadn't become hysterical. (Actually, he was rather disappointed; and he was visibly annoyed because she didn't eat the expensive meal he had ordered.) After dropping her at home, he had gone on to a meeting--Karen had a pretty good idea who would be at the meeting. The same person who had attended all the other meetings that had kept Jack so busy lately.
She went straight upstairs, packed a single suitcase, and called a cab. There was just enough money in their joint checking account to pay for a ticket to Washington, and she thanked God for modem banking methods as she withdrew cash in the light of the automatic teller.
It never occurred to her to "go home to Mother." When, several days later, she summoned courage enough to break the news to the woman who happened to occupy that role, she received, not an invitation to come home, but a shrill lecture. She must have done something. She must have failed in some way. She should not have left the house. She should have fought for her rights, and for her man. . . .
The diatribe didn't help Karen's morale, even though she sensed the fear behind her mother's anger. It must be your fault. Because if it isn't--if you were in no way to blame--then this could happen to anyone. It could happen to me.
Not all the wives Karen knew harbored that hidden fear. Her sister Sara, for instance. Sara, who had also lived with Ruth and Pat while she attended Georgetown University, now lived on the West Coast and had her hands full with four exuberant young children and an exuberant, adoring husband. That was one of the reasons why Karen had not sought refuge with her sister, but it wasn't the only reason. Sara's shining happiness would have hurt like salt in a fresh wound.
Ruth, her own mother's sister, was another of the lucky ones. But Ruth and Pat were older, childless, their joy in each other more muted in expression if not in intensity.
On the face of it, Ruth's marriage should not have worked. After a brief and disastrous first marriage, of which she never spoke, she had waited till she was over forty before she married again, to a man who appeared to be her exact antithesis. Pat MacDougal's anthropological studies had taken him into many of the wilder parts of the planet and had invested him with a loud contempt for the hypocritical conventions of civilization, a contempt he was not at all inhibited about expressing. Pat was big and loud-mouthed and clumsy; Ruth was petite and prim. Pat had a shock of flaming-red hair and a face that verified the theory of mankind's descent from a simian ancestor; Ruth's delicate features and fine bones were as dainty as those of a porcelain doll. Pat's language echoed with expletives; in moments of dire extremity Ruth had sometimes been heard to murmur a faint damn.