Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daybreak (at the Bottom of a Lake)

Interstate miles evaporated behind me as the ghostly glow of Raleigh's inner belt line approached in the distance. The house I had moved into three months earlier was on the east side of town, so I would normally wait five more exits before leaving the highway. But tonight was different. I was making a stop in the northwest suburbs, for reasons that wouldn't come clear until later in the trip. My tight grip on the steering wheel began to exert a numbing effect on my fingers as vague, ill-formed thoughts bounced around my brain like numbered balls in a lottery machine. I couldn't help but feel that the evening's outcome would be every bit as random, although an unreasoned surge of optimism had spurred me on since leaving Barnes & Noble. I now saw the book and my brief vision in the parking lot as harbingers; indications that change was near. This couldn't simply be a chance aligning of the stars. Fate was calling, and I was to be its envoy.

In retrospect, it was completely irrational. Karen's obstinacy was a matter of pride, and hoping to change her decision on any matter was like betting on a crippled race horse: pointless and needlessly painful. But at some point, I had decided that her inconsistency and contradictory behavior were an encrypted code of sorts. Maybe she was trying to tell me something that was too difficult to verbalize. Perhaps Karen's rigid will was bending under the weight of her emotions, but her certitude prohibited surrender.

Whatever the case. I had grown tired of waiting.

The drive was initially nerve-wracking, as the evening's possibilities loomed like faded spectres on an obscure landscape. But as the minutes dissipated, a sense of calm gradually worked its way through my veins. The opening strains of Trevor Rabin's "Can't Look Away" swelled through my car speakers as the evening's plan approached realization. I had already acknowledged that it was underhanded and a bit cagey, not to mention precarious. I had seen a side of Karen that was clingy and vulnerable, but she wasn't stupid. She possessed an aptitude for gauging people's intentions that bordered on the paranormal. Thus, I was going in at a disadvantage.

But against hope, I somehow maintained a cool optimism. I could still prevent Karen from making another costly decision, that being a full divorce. She had already sounded the knell, but I wouldn't acknowledge its finality. I continued to believe that this was all a reaction to the pain of feeling abandoned and betrayed. I certainly had my quirks, and some had damaged the marriage considerably. When verbal threats failed to register, Karen felt she had to up the ante. It seemed a reasonable conclusion, and I moved forward under that assumption.

As traffic slowed to a halt, I looked over to the passenger seat and began studying the cover of that crucial tome: 'Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom'. Over the preceding months, I had occasionally bought books that appealed to Karen's interests. Since any attempt to call or e-mail her would likely be thwarted, I had resorted to simply leaving them in our mailbox. Admittedly, it was a peace offering of sorts; just another barren effort to ensure that the slender, tenuous threads between us would hold out for another day or two.

But in the end, the books were a prop. I was trying (in vain) to let Karen know that I was thinking about her. I wanted to acknowledge her pain and show her that I still cared. Where words had fallen flat, action would surely prevail. The entire gesture was obviously flawed and ill-conceived, but I thought restoring our marriage was simply a matter of persistence. She could only resist for so long until I wore her down, although I would never admit that my reasoning was so dense and simple-minded. More astute methods had fallen flat, and I was determined to make this attempt succeed.

Traffic gradually resumed its normal pace as I began scanning signs for the appropriate exit. Number "293-A" had a special significance, as I clearly remembered driving past it on our first date. We had eaten dinner at a Mexican cafe just off UNC's campus, and my ego and hormones had distracted me from anything but Karen's aesthetic perfection. She sat in the passenger seat, musing about some topic I had lost track of thirty minutes ago. I was simply in disbelief that someone who resembled a younger Tina Fey had started the evening by taking my hand and telling me that I was more handsome than my picture implied.

I had expected Karen to be attractive, but was flabbergasted when she initially approached me outside the restaurant. I had seen a rather stunning brunette park her Saturn a few moments earlier, and noted some similarities in her shoulder-length hair and wire-rim glasses. But I figured she had to be meeting with some other guy. This couldn't be the same woman who accepted my invitation for a date with such enthusiasm. That just wasn't in the cards.

But then she exited her car and assumed a brisk pace toward me as her high-heeled boots clicked excitedly on the pavement.


I tried to say something, but my vocal chords froze.

"I'm so sorry I'm late. My ex waited until 5 to get the kids, so I literally had to fly out the door".

My throat finally opened and attempted a meaningful exchange.

"Oh, uh...that's totally okay. I didn't think you would stand me up."

She laughed, and we embraced. Her lightly perfumed neck gave off a bewitching scent that made my heart pound like Buddy Rich on his best night. I would have been content to just hold her for that first hour, but there was conversation to be had and a meal to be eaten.

Throughout the evening, Karen never failed to intrigue me. Her stories, her witty anecdotes...even watching her spread salsa on a tortilla had me transfixed. At the date's conclusion, I looked at myself in the rear view mirror and acknowledged the inevitable. I was in love, and there was no turning back. One day, I would make Karen my wife. No matter what it took.

I eased onto the exit ramp as Cary Parkway unfolded in front of me. This part of the trip would take a mere ten minutes, so I took a quick inventory and conceived a plan for my approach. As noted, I usually left the books in our mailbox. What would distinguish this effort was the method of delivery. I would give Karen the book in person, thereby forcing her to acknowledge me. She would resent me for it, but it would likely become an opportunity for dialogue. I would apologize and ask if we could talk for a moment. She would acquiesce (albeit grudgingly) and lead me to the living room couch. As the conversation progressed, she would finally see what she was leaving behind: a husband who adored her. One who would stop at nothing to have her back. One who loved her in ways he had never loved another.

Time got away from me and I almost missed the turn onto Kildaire Farm. I thought of stopping off at a gas station to pick up some mouthwash and aftershave, but discarded the idea as a waste of time. I was focused on the task at hand, and couldn't tolerate distractions. It would only be a quarter of a mile before I hit Helmsdale Drive, and I had yet to sufficiently prepare. Simply put, this had to played off in a way that wouldn't reveal my motives. I had to give the appearance of acceptance, as though I knew our marriage was over and really just needed to talk. Otherwise, she would never open the door.

Of course, I had neglected to address Karen's keen perception, which would surely call me out like a sniper waving a flood light. However, I had convinced myself that she would forgo the usual scrutiny in favor of trust and faith. In the end, I still thought she wanted our marriage as much as I did. She simply refused to acknowledge it. She didn't think of herself as someone who was weak and co-dependent, and wanted to avoid giving that impression to me or anyone else. She had been walked on before. There wouldn't be a second time.

I came upon our two-level house and found the driveway empty. Karen was parked in the garage, my headlights roving over her green Mazda as I pulled closer and came to a halt. After cutting the engine and grabbing the book, I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. I was feeling more confident now, but for reasons I still can't justify. Amidst all of this plotting and planning, the elements of clarity and logic had somehow eluded me. And sadly, I was in too deep to realize it.

I stepped out of the car and proceeded toward the house. The walk to the front door took longer than usual, as I was taking slow, measured steps to avoid looking stressed or harried. After ascending the brick steps that led to our porch, I noticed that the bedroom light was on. The muffled drone of a newscast played in the background, which meant Karen had finished her evening clean-up ritual and was laying in bed.

I took one more deep breath, then reached forward and rang the bell.

The passing seconds felt like hours. I didn't hear her fumbling with the dead bolt, or even coming down the steps. It was odd, as the doorbell was certainly loud enough to be heard from upstairs.

I reached up and rang the bell a second time.

Again, no response.

I opened the screen door and knocked lightly.


I began rapping a little harder, hoping the dog wouldn't start barking and awaken the kids. Still no answer. But as I started to turn in defeat, a noise cut through the silence and stopped me dead in my tracks. The stairs were creaking as Karen's bare feet pattered against them. I spun around and took a deep breath as the dead bolt retracted and the door swung open.

Considering the time, I was surprised to see Karen standing there in a form-fitting red shirt and dress slacks. It looked as though she had just returned from a party, dressed in a way that was guaranteed to attract attention. I looked up at her and smiled.

"Hi. Can I talk to you for a minute?"

I certainly didn't expect her to throw her arms around me, but Karen's response was one I hadn't anticipated. She seemed...nervous.

"Um...can't we do this d-during d-daylight hours?"

Since childhood, Karen had battled a distinctive speech impediment that tended to worsen under strain. She stammered, and our first several phone conversations were difficult as a result. Certain letters and syllables gave her more trouble than others, and I didn't know if I should try finishing her sentences for her or just shut up and let the stuttering run its course. Things got smoother once she explained the problem, and I came to embrace it as a unique facet of her persona. But tonight, it was to reveal something far more insidious.

"Well...I guess so, but why can't we talk tonight?"

"B-because this isn't fair."

Obviously, something wasn't right. While normally meticulous about her appearance, her hair and make-up seemed disheveled and haphazardly applied. A tiny clump of eyeliner hung from one of her lashes, and her lipstick was obviously smeared.

"Is everything okay?"

She went silent for a few awkward seconds before answering.

"Yes. B-but this isn't fair. You can't just c-come to the house without at least c-calling first."

Now I was getting suspicious. She was hiding something, and doing a poor job of it.

"You look scared. I'm not a threat to you. I just came to talk and give you something."

As I finished my sentence, I saw a man's tennis shoe on the stairs behind her. Tilting my head a little up and to the right, I was astonished to meet the eyes of an older man. Ashen-haired and roughly ten years our senior, he seemed a little dressed-down for the occasion. A gray sweatshirt clung to his muscular frame and faded jeans hung from his waist. A neatly trimmed mustache accented his upper lip, which held a contemptuous sneer.

I felt a leaden hammer plow through my stomach. My head spun madly as I staggered backward and almost fell off the porch. Fighting back tears of rage, I found the strength to look up and challenge her.

"How could you do this to me? We're still married, for fuck's sake."

"You need to leave now. This isn't fair."

Her calm exterior was clearly masking panic. I could have exploited it, but a stark vulnerability came over me and I began to plead.

"This couldn't be happening. Please tell me this isn't happening, Karen. It's all a big misunderstanding, right? Please?"

It was pathetic. I felt completely helpless as pangs of rejection and betrayal shot through my brain. A wave of nausea came over me and I fancied the idea of vomiting all over her freshly-cleaned carpet. But there was no point. It was over, and nothing I could do would change it.

After giving myself a second to muster an ounce of composure, I reached forward and handed her the book.


She started to thank me as I turned around and walked to the car. I hastily turned my key in the ignition and threw it into reverse. Rubber squealed against asphalt as I flew out of the driveway and onto the street. I turned left and made it to the next block before erupting into sobs of hatred, pain, and anger. I started thinking back to those last few moments on the porch, and regretted not charging into the house and beating that thieving son of a bitch into unconsciousness. The legal ramifications were far from my mind, and I was too distraught to entertain reason.

But even worse, Karen had won again. I was the one leaving under a storm cloud of defeat and humiliation. For her, nothing had changed...and I hated her for it.