She put her computer to sleep and sat with her eyes closed and his words filled her like warm liquid. She contemplated the absurdity, this voice she knew only through social networking this urge to spill the contents of her heart so he could sift through the pieces. A betrayal, she thought, but how, really? Eventually she left the blinking light of her sleeping computer and walked upstairs to her sleeping husband.
They met in college. They’d hung with different crowds but had mutual friends and they’d been in literature classes together. He’d been edgy, artsy. He’d had long hair, played in a band. They’d talked briefly after a lecture, about Pynchon, or Kesey, she couldn’t remember. Several months ago they’d reconnected on a social networking website, reading one another’s random updates along with several hundred other people. One day she commented on something funny he’d said, about philosophical cats. They’d had a public back and forth before the conversation outgrew the short format and expanded to email.
At first it was fun, a battle of wits leaking personal thoughts, feelings. “Are you happy?” he asked, one morning.
She took a long time replying. She carried the question through her morning, drinking coffee with Mike while he scrolled through his Blackberry setting up sales meetings for paper packaging and planned business trips. She packed lunch for the girls who at fourteen and sixteen were becoming independent—no longer relying on her to micromanage their days. Marji straightened the house in preparation for the housecleaner and sparred with a bag in her kickboxing class alongside twenty-some other toned women wearing sweat-wicking tanks and T-shirts. Happy, she wondered—a strange word evoking sunshine and bubbles. She remembered sitting on a college campus reading Camus thinking she would change the world—and now, seventeen years later, lunch sipping cocktails, with flawless nails.
“Marji,” Liza pursed her lips when she spoke to exaggerate the red. “Come back to us.”
Marji set down the gin and tonic she was staring into and looked at the two women at the table. Liza was a successful trial lawyer and Emily ran a small boutique.
“Are we happy?” Marji asked and Liza snorted.
“Are you and Mike having problems or something?” Liza asked. “Of course I’m happy. I just ordered a new set of chairs for my dining room.”
“I’m serious? Is this it? Lunch at Ryans?”
“I’m happy,” Emily nodded earnestly. I have everything I’ve ever wanted. I don’t need anything.”
“That’s what I mean. Is that what we’re doing here?”
“I’m eating a lovely salad, and avoiding the office, that’s what I’m doing here.” Liza checked her phone.
“Is something bothering you? You’ve been distracted today…” Emily’s look was concerned.
“No. I’m fine.” Marji took a long drink of her cocktail and raised her hand for the check. “I’ll buy today. It’s my turn.”
The houses passed by in slow motion, each one more perfect than the next, cool white, or brown or brick fortresses, with shuttered windows like bars, and oceans of deep green, grasping fingers of grass, squared off in grey grids of cement, outlined in black pavement. These were the dream, the aspiration—a collection of pretty boxes, containers, systems of storage. Marji squeezed her hands on the wheel and pressed her foot on the gas, concentrating to keep from floating out of her seat, through the crack in the window, and dissipating into the anemic tufts of cloud. Concentrating to keep the car moving, and still it crawled, and the houses loomed sepia, and she crept to the curb. The cry rose in a wave and crashed through her and the sound was primal, like birth, and she gasped for breath and held the steering wheel to slow the shaking. The subsequent waves hit with less force until eventually, she had only sobs.
“What the fuck,” she mumbled when she finally caught her breath. She blew her nose and wiped her face. The tears had left her hollow and a shadow flowered inside the shell of her. She studied the house at the end of the yard in front of her, two stories of red brick, a cascade of carefully placed stones leading up to the driveway, the garage door open and leaking a collection of bikes, scooters and a shiny gold Lexus—badges of a life well lived. But now, she thought, it all looked like circus props.