by Judith StClaire
When he said he was leaving, my heart fell into a pit deep within me, crushed like a stomped-on aluminum can. After seven years of selfless devotion, I deserved more than, “You’ve become too old for me,” and “I want to be free to play the field and to try new things.” And then there was the inevitable ancient standby, “Besides, we’ve grown apart and we have different interests, now.”
Carrying a hastily packed duffle bag, he walked out the front door and down the hill. His diminishing silhouette imprinted itself upon my memory. Shards of my fractured heart whirled around the word groups, “too old … want to be free … grown apart.”
He drove away. I shut the door and turned to see two small, worried boys listen intently for the echo of their father’s footsteps. Somehow, I found my most genuine smile and stretched it as broad as I could. “Let’s pack a picnic supper and go play in the park.” We somber three quietly trudged toward the kitchen to find some solace among the peanut butter and jam.
Later that night, when my right foot missed the warmth which usually emanated from the other half of the bed, I got up and donned a pair of wool socks. They were his. Old. Worn. Threadbare at both toe and heel. But they were warm. And right then, I needed warm.
In the dim glow of the nightlight in the hallway, I threw his pillow off the end of the bed and leaned mine against the center of the headboard. There I laid for the rest of the night, in the middle of the bed with extra blankets tucked around me. I stared up at the ceiling hoping to see I know not what. Maybe the future. Maybe the past. Maybe where sleep was hidden.
The acute pain of hurt settled into a kind of numbness. Over the next several weeks, sightings of him with this blonde or that brunette were gleefully reported by our mutual friends. My list of true friends diminished with the delivery of every report.
Last Friday after work, my close woman friend and I attended the grand opening of the new brewery. From my chair at a tiny table-for-two, I looked around the great hall. At the end of the long, highly polished antique mahogany bar on the far side of the room, he stood, a head above the rest. Briefly he met my gaze, then he quickly looked away. The curly haired brunette tucked in close to his side worked for a colleague of mine.
The brunette saw me and waved. I tried to ignore the girl and her wave, but was unsuccessful.
After a brief, animated exchange of words between the two standing at the bar, she sauntered toward my table. There was no chair for her to sit upon, so she leaned a little forward and placed her right hand on the tabletop. It was then I noticed the friendship bracelet around her wrist. Exactly like mine, hers was new. She threw a proprietary glance back toward him. “Isn’t he just wonderful?”
“Depends on what you mean by wonderful.” I pushed the words out from between clenched jaws.
“Oh, everything,” she gushed. “He looks after my every need. I had this terrible trouble with my fireplace and he’s living with me while he builds a new one from the ground up.” She tittered. “I’ll admit that the great gaping hole in the wall scares me. But he says he will have it closed up in no time. Besides, if it rains, there’s always the blue tarp.”
“Ah, yes, the blue tarp. I had a fireplace project like that once,” I said. “Since its completion, quite a few pieces of slate have fallen off the face of the mantelpiece, and I have noticed the water mark on the ceiling by the chimney has grown to resemble a giant ape clinging to the steeple on the Empire State Building. And, the fireplace smokes in. The air inside the house is so polluted the EPA declared it an environmental hazard.”
“I’m just saying. You might want to think about getting professional help.” I wondered if I was talking about fireplaces. Probably not.
“What?” She repeated herself.
And then I was sure I could see an imaginary conversation bubble insert itself into the atmosphere directly over her head. Inside the bubble glowed a bright yellow light bulb.
“I know why you’re saying that,” she said. “You’re just mad and jealous because he is doing this project for me. Well, I appreciate him. Even if you don’t. I think he’s wonderful. And the fireplace will be beautiful when it is finished.”
“If it ever gets finished.”
“What?” the brunette said again. She frowned. “Oh!” She stamped her left foot. “He said it would be a mistake for me to talk to you. He told me all I need to say is that our relationship is purely platonic.” She pivoted and began to walk back toward him.
“Pity,” I said in a voice loud enough for her to hear. She hunched her shoulders ever so slightly. I laughed out loud.
He heard my laugh and glared straight at me. I raised my glass to toast him, and then in two large gulps, downed the last third of a pint of excellent ale.
When the brunette was out of earshot, my good friend said, “I didn’t know you were having problems with your fireplace, nor with the chimney, for that matter.”
I smiled broadly and looked at my friend. “I’m not. But, she’ll never know for sure, and when she tells him about our conversation and he tries to set her straight, she will never be certain if he is telling the truth or telling a lie.” We both laughed. “And, no matter what the current status of their relationship is or is likely to become, they are bound together. At least until he completes his construction project.”
For the moment, the freedom he sought belonged to me. At last my world began to spin on its new axis, and I could feel some positive aspects of this unwanted life altering change. With lifted spirits, I stood and shrugged into my jacket. “I feel better than I have in a long while,” I said. “Let’s get out of this place.”