Best of the Net 2007  

How to Leave

Stare at the waitress as she walks by. She’s all legs under a black mini skirt. Dark hair piled on top of her head. Compare the size of your right thigh to your left as your husband checks his voice mail. Pull crumpled sticky notes from your purse and toss them under the table. Pretend they’re not yours.

“My sciatica is acting up,” he says.

“What do you think about dessert?” you ask.

The waitress arrives with two steaming plates and smiles. You’re relieved her bottom teeth are crooked, that her parents couldn’t afford braces. He ties a white dinner napkin around his neck and dives in. You ponder poverty in India, the price of gas, and the long thread of cheese hanging from his chin. Gulp red wine, and stir the lumps out of your mashed potatoes. Watch as he uses the back of his hand to wipe his chin and you’re suddenly not hungry. Order one, two after-dinner brandies.

“Mom’s coming for dinner on Friday,” you say.

“You told me,” he says.

In the car on the way home, he hums along with the radio but you don’t recognize the song. Is it Dylan or Lennon? Begin to ask him who it is, but don’t. Gaze out the window as the snow falls against the dark sky.

Sneak into bed wearing an old turtleneck and the pair of paint-stained sweat pants you retrieved from the bottom of the Goodwill bag. He puts his book down, turns off the light, slips his hand under your top, and draws figure eights on your stomach with his index finger. His tongue, wet and irritating, is in your ear. Close your eyes. Try to breathe. Imagine the computer whiz down the street who mows his lawn shirtless, Clinton giving his first inaugural speech. Nothing. “I have an early meeting,” you say and turn away. He groans, pulls you to him, and presses his chest against your back. He tucks his arm between your breasts; it’s heavy, distracting. Stretch the blanket up to your chin and hope the feeling goes away.

Toss and turn until four when you slink out of bed. Search for studio apartments on the Internet. The price of a one-way ticket to Madrid. Consider taking a break, a breather. Your synapses have taken a vacation, why not you? Google the cute gynecologist who offered to buy you coffee at your last appointment. Get 3,789 hits. Curl up on the floor with your legs tucked under you. Cry.

At his office party, the room is full of male accountants who loosen their ties after one drink, and their wives who wear pearls and think volunteering is a full time gig. A large man with freckles the size of raisins bumps into you and spills red wine on your pants. Swear at him under your breath. He runs across the room to his wife, and points at you; they whisper, heads tilted together, behind cupped hands. Smile and move discreetly to the buffet table. “I love the quiche,” you say to the boss’s wife. She asks if you want the recipe. Say no.

Saunter to the bar. Smile at the single accountants as they tell jokes. The guy next to you takes off his jacket, swings it over his right shoulder, and pushes his glasses up on his nose. He looks like Clark Kent. You want to introduce yourself as Lois Lane, and ask him where the nearest phone booth is. A man who resembles your husband comes over and rests the palm of his hand on the small of your back. Squirm. Take one step away from him and tell the one about the rabbi, the priest, and the redhead, the only joke your father knew. Clark Kent laughs, turns to you, and introduces himself as your husband’s new intern.

He comes home from work complaining about his boss or is it the car? Corner him by the front door. Listen to the rain tap against the metal roof. Take a deep breath. You’ve rehearsed all day.

“I need a change,” you say.

“What kind of change?” he asks.

“The quit our jobs, sell the house, retire in Tahiti, and spend all the money kind of change.”

He rubs his hand through his hair. His coat is wet, dripping on the imported Italian tile, and he’s still holding his briefcase. Accuse him of not caring, not listening. “Can I at least take off my coat?” he says and follows you to the living room. He suggests a movie, a night out. Call him detached. Oh, no, that’s you. He calls you crazy. Storm out of the room, hands waving in the air. Retreat to the bedroom where you watch reruns on the black and white TV he found at a garage sale two summers ago. After three consecutive hours of bad sitcoms, he comes into the room, slides into bed, and murmurs he’s sorry, that he doesn’t need a change. Whisper you have other plans as he falls asleep.

Friday. Your mom arrives for dinner, carrying a loaf of French bread and wearing a green beret. “Cute, Mom,” you say. “Moi?” she asks. Mix three Manhattans straight up with extra cherries. Sit at the kitchen table while he makes lasagna, her favorite. They talk, argue, and laugh like old friends. You practice tying a knot in a cherry stem, the only essential skill you have. Your mother reaches across the table, holds your hand, and tells stories about your father. How bad his driving was, how he couldn’t tell a joke, and how he cried for days when Marilyn Monroe died. “I can’t believe he’s been gone for two years,” she says. Pull your chair closer to her and tell the one about the rabbi, the priest, and the redhead. He stands behind you with a dish towel draped over his shoulder, hands caressing the back of your neck. Look up at him and wonder who he is.

The next day you stay in bed until you hear the bottom of the car scrape against the driveway as he leaves to run errands. Wander to the bathroom. Begin to remove strand after strand of grey hair. Give up after ten; there are just too many. Consider dying your hair blonde or changing your name to Samantha or Lola. Something exotic. On the bathroom counter, he keeps his Rogaine, and an assortment of body lotions with names like Citrus Mint, Papaya Musk, and Hydrating Magnolia. Take the bottles and hide them behind the towels on the bottom shelf of the linen closet.

Shuffle to the kitchen like your thirteen-year-old blind terrier, Marley. Make a pot of coffee and a list of the pros and cons of being with him. Pros: He fills the windshield wiper fluid, reminds you to get your teeth cleaned every six months, and your mother loves him.

Cons: He’s vain, a homebody, and chews with his mouth open.

And then there’s that feeling. It’s one half detachment, one half run, get out. Feel guilty, deceitful, and smothered like chicken in a casserole dish.

The phone rings and it’s your mom calling to thank you for dinner. ”That Gary is something else.”

“Hmmm,” you say.

“When am I going to get some grandchildren?”

Don’t admit you dislike kids because they’re short and noisy. But the truth is you’re afraid if you picked one up, you might drop it on its head or worse. If it cried too much, you’d give it away to that nice couple down the street, the ones who leave their Christmas tree up till spring. Instead laugh and tell her how lucky she is to have you.

“Where’s Gary?” she asks.

Twist the phone cord around your finger, and peek through the blinds at the world outside. It’s snowing, but not sticking. Feel like a kid who runs outside to make a snow angel, and finds there’s only mud to roll around in. “Errands,” you say.

“Tell him next time I want something ethnic.”

He walks in from running errands with a newspaper under his arm and takes his shoes off by the front door. Contemplate ripping off your clothes and throwing him down on the kitchen floor that’s covered with dog hair. Instead give him a hug. Rub your hand up and down his back until you find the edge of his boxer shorts. Trace the elastic with your finger tips. Listen to the hum of the refrigerator. Lean your head into his shoulder and glance down at his feet. His socks match and have no holes like yours. For some reason your big toe is always on display. Wait for something warm and sugary to happen. Nothing.

“What do you want for dinner?” he asks and grabs you by the waist. The kitchen is suddenly smaller, closing in on you. You want to jump out the window, but you can’t. It’s painted shut.

“I’ll go to the store,” you offer. He wants to go, too. Tell him no. Grab your purse, forget your jacket. Outside, it’s cold and damp. Race from the porch to the car. Turn the heater on and wait for it to purr. He runs out of the house to the car; you roll down the window. “Peanuts,” he says and hands you a sticky note. His breath smells like peppermint. Pull away as he says good-bye. Add peanuts to your list of cons. You hate the sound of shells cracking open in the other room, the tiny pieces of red skin that stick to his teeth. He will only eat the kind grown in Virginia and shared this with you on your first date. Did you think it was strange then? No. You thought it was quirky and slept with him. Wonder if the black jeans you wore that night still fit.

Take the back way to the grocery store. Linger in the frozen food aisle. Mint chocolate chip or vanilla? Get both. Thirty minutes later, you have ice cream, a can of WD-40, and baked beans. The line at the check- out extends as far back as the canned meat. At the register, the manager greets you by your first name. Smooth your tongue over your top lip as he scans your items. You like his dark curly hair. He puts your groceries in plastic instead of paper, hands you the change and an extra weekly circular. Ask him for a pen and write your phone number on a dollar bill. Hesitate. Slip it back into your wallet. The old woman behind you with fake eyelashes pushes the front of her cart into your hip and says, “My butter is getting soft.”

In the car, spot Gary’s sticky note on the passenger’s seat. Hide the evidence in your purse. He meets you at the door, takes the bags, and puts everything away in alphabetical order. The Ben and Jerry’s goes behind the Aunt Jemima waffles. The baked beans in front of the cinnamon raisin cereal. Take a pint of ice cream, and go to bed while he watches TV in the living room, volume turned down, dog curled at his feet. Close the door to block out the silence.

Hours later he walks into the bedroom, and sits on the edge of the bed and says, “Things aren’t right.”

“Should we go to a movie?” you ask.

He’s hurt. Grab his hand. Hold on tight. The bottom of your foot is itchy. “Moving won’t help,” he says. Scratch the itch with your big toe. He plays with the ends of your hair. Pray for the mattress to swallow you, whole. Blurt out: “I’m unhappy.” But don’t tell him you want to leave. Go. Close the book on this chapter. His reaction is calm, cool, rehearsed as he pulls a card, like a magician, from his back pocket. Wish for a rabbit but he hands you the card. It’s smooth, glossy, and “Marriage Fitness for Couples” is printed in red block letters. “It’s a good idea,” you say and leave the room. Call yourself a coward.

Dr. So-and-So is young with pale eyes and sooty lashes, and wears gold barrettes in her hair. You admit you feel disconnected, detached. He clasps his hands behind his head, crosses his left leg over his right, and nods in agreement. While she recommends you spend more time together, you watch the clock. “Schedule a date night,” she says. He shakes his head and smiles at you. The session ends five minutes early. Feel relieved.

It’s Saturday night. “Dinner and dancing,” you say. Wear tight jeans and a black blouse, no bra. You want seafood. He wants Mexican.

“You know I don’t like dancing,” he says.

“What do you like?” you ask.

Sit at the stop sign down the street from your house as cars of happy couples pass by. They have reservations. After twenty minutes, decide on fast food and bowling. Spend seventy-five cents on a pair of false teeth from the gumball machine. Drink lite beer. Shake your hips. Wink at him over your shoulder. Feign connectedness. Roll the ball like your eighty-five- year-old mother-in-law and get two strikes in a row. He’s annoyed because he has to add up the scores.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask.

“You’re drunk,” he says.

Tell him he’s no fun. Drive home in silence.

It’s been days since you’ve spoken to each other. He sleeps on the couch. You leave for work early. After the third day, call a truce. Wave a pair of white socks at him while he reads the newspaper. He laughs and pulls you onto his lap. Suggest a romantic dinner with fish sticks and broccoli. At the table you sit across from him as he tells you about his day, his exercise routine. Interject a “hmmm” in all the right places. Offer nothing. Your tank is empty. He talks until you yawn, stretch, and kiss him on the cheek. He follows you to the bedroom.

“I’m tired,” you say.

“I know,” he says and takes the dog for a walk.

At your next appointment with Dr. So-and-So she says, “It may get worse before it gets better.”

Three a.m. You’re rearranging the pantry. Put the kidney beans where the sugar is, the raisins where the peanuts are kept. The freezer is next. Move the fish sticks to the door where he keeps his decaffeinated coffee. Drink espresso until the sun comes up.

Leave for work before he wakes up. The phone rings as you put on your coat. It’s your mom calling to remind you about the time your dad backed the car into the garage door.

“Remember, I came home and he was painting it,” she says.

“With the wrong color,” you add.

You picture her, alone, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea in front of her, and promise you’ll stop by to see her later. Think about Gary and the last time you missed him. You can’t remember.

That night he cooks. Complain the pasta is not al dente. How he never cleans the bathroom. Make fun of the way he pronounces soder instead of soda. He tells you that you are never happy, never satisfied. You know.

Stand in the hallway while he works in the office. Stare at the photos hanging on the wall. You’re at the beach, his arms around you, the sun in your eyes. Walk in and pick up a stack of papers. Put them down and pretend to look for something in the closet. “What’s wrong?” he asks. The words spill out and over. Pace the room. Nose runs. Eyes swell. Press your hands against your face. Tell him how it’s you, not him. End with I’m sorry. He watches you with legs crossed, stroking the dog behind his ears.

The next morning you find him in the backyard, standing in the wet grass, socks no shoes, and he asks how long you have known. You don’t have an answer.

Give him the house, the dog. Take the espresso machine, the juicer. Promise yourself you’ll give up caffeine. Slowly. Learn to cook Vietnamese. Chinese. Ethiopian. Spend more time with your mom, taking long walks in the snow. Men of all shapes and sizes find you attractive and ask you out. Say no. After six months you bump into Gary at the video store. Hug in the foreign film aisle. His lips graze the side of your cheek, and his aftershave smells like lemon meringue pie. Take his hand, ask about the dog, the house. He tells you how he’s painted the living room blue, that he’s training for a marathon. Insert a “hmmm” in all the right places. Nod. Smile. Realize that it really is you, not him.

-Kerri Quinn (Apple Valley Review)