Excerpted from “What If We Were Somewhere Else,” originally published by Euphony, Spring 2019, Vol 19 No. 2
In our home there were sounds. One of the sounds was like a balloon slowly deflating, a sound of almost nothing, of air being displaced, and I am not sure if we knew it was the canary in the coal mine of our marriage, which we were not paying very much attention to. So, we did not worry about it in particular, we only complained about the unplaceable noise. We checked the fridge and all of the other major appliances, we checked the HVAC system, we poked around outside the house and found nothing, but we kept hearing the slow, gentle whooshing punctuated occasionally by a squeak. Or the call of a suffocating bird.
We are paying the mortgage, and so I think we have some right to get whatever this is fixed, Jimmy, my husband, and I said to one another. We fiddled with the thermostat and took a flashlight to the crawlspace, and we called our insurance company, who kept wanting to know if we were opening a claim and we kept saying that we weren’t sure, we weren’t sure what was wrong—we were just trying to understand if we were covered.
We didn’t know why it was so complicated. We were married to one another, and we were also married to work, and we were married to our ideas, our ridiculous ideas—so caught up in the way laundry was folded or aspirational grocery lists. Most nights the produce rotted as we hit the booze. If we were drunk enough, we didn’t hear anything, until finally that balloon must have released the final wheeze all at once, sputtering around like a firecracker through our house.
COULD YOU PLEASE, I’d written with Sharpie on a bright-lime sticky on a Tuesday before I left for work—the last day Jimmy slept in our bed—CALL A PLUMBER BECAUSE IT MIGHT BE THE PLUMBING? I didn’t know it was the last day then. I didn’t know until I came home and his own note was pasted on the countertop.
went to my moms
It wasn’t like him to leave a note. Usually he texted.
We had met, Jimmy and I, just over a decade ago. We were both working in an office, and he was a contract employee, and when his contract ended, he asked me out. It was surprising. We had barely spoken; he was on a different team. We went on two dates, and the balloon filled up so quickly I thought it would pop. It was like a sharp intake of helium sucking the oxygen out of our bodies, like we already loved one another so much we couldn’t breathe and we were only gasping hearts and guts. We were giddy and high and operating on an upper frequency.
We married on our fifth date—we made an impulsive drive to Blackhawk, Colorado, a casino town in the upper foothills of the Rockies. We both wore jeans, which was what we’d been wearing when we decided to get in Jimmy’s car and go. Afterward, we rented a room at a hotel and then lay on the bed naked and wondered just exactly what we’d done.
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We decided to sell our respective townhouses and get a place together. We decided we’d really make a go of it. We knew we were being reckless, but we didn’t care. The first year of our marriage was in fact highly administrative, working backward through everything we hadn’t done, like announcing our nuptials and getting to know one another in the day-to-day.
What we couldn’t explain to people was how much grace our hasty commitment had given us. I wondered if this was what it was like in arranged marriages—we were already hitched, so we didn’t have the luxury of enumerating deal-breakers because the deal was already done. In our first year, especially, we had to practice acceptance, constant continuous acceptance.
We thought it was a good foundation. At least I did.
And really, for how little we knew when we began, we took a long time to let out that last breath, for the balloon to finally deflate.
The night of Jimmy’s note, our life had changed enough that I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight for him, so I didn’t call or text or email. I ordered a pizza and cracked a bottle of wine. I was sure he was not actually at his mom’s, and I realized it was certainly not about the plumbing.
On our first date, I’d gone back to his place and we’d had sex on top of his messy bed and he kept saying to me, Open your eyes, and I did. He was inside of me and we kept our gazes locked.
I’m not sure if it was worse to sign the separation papers, or if it was worse to sign the severance papers at my job. We hide from our marriages inside of work, or we hide from our work inside of our marriages, and then when both are gone, it’s like those dreams we had in elementary school, naked on the playground.
Naked on the playground would have been better—at least in those dreams, we aren’t thinking about sagging breasts or a failing ass or getting foreclosed on. In those dreams, it’s only children, sure, cruel in their moments, but it’s not the same cruelty that comes with the full exposure of adulthood.
The last day at the office, after Dave, our COO, let me go, I went into the supply closet to get a box for my things and he followed me in. I’d been sweating at my desk while I collected my thoughts, but the closet was arctic. Reams of white paper like glaciers, piles of sticky notes like tundra flowers in bloom, a case of AA batteries ready to light up as bright as the aurora borealis, and the foot of an easel sticking out like a narwhal’s horn.
“It’s not easy for any of us, Kate,” Dave said. “I had to fire Michael. Worst day of my career.” Michael was his stepson.
“Michael stole our lunches,” I said. All of the boxes in the supply closet were either too big or too small. “Yes, I am telling you, your kid was the lunch thief. I caught him once. You probably didn’t know.” Actually, I hadn’t caught him. Heather had, and Heather had told me.
“He was? That’s not why he was let go. It’s revenue. It’s the markets. We can’t control the markets, though I wish I could,” said Dave.
I was freezing, and I wondered if I really wanted anything in my desk, and I wondered why Dave thought I cared about the worst day of his career. I had always liked Michael. I had hired him, and I hadn’t said anything about the lunches because I figured if that was his definition of rebellious bad behavior, he was probably fine. It occurred to me Dave did the firings because Dave was secure.
I abandoned the search for the box. “I think I’m going to just go home,” I said. “There’s nothing personal in my desk or on my laptop.”
“I can be a reference for you,” Dave said, shivering too. “No, thanks,” I said.
My job search was going okay. I wasn’t working that hard on it. I had a little money from the severance, and I had a little money from the divorce settlement. The settlement money I didn’t really want, and I hadn’t asked for it, but I took it anyway. It was a surprise and I wanted to be open to surprises, even though the realization that my now ex-husband Jimmy had a large savings account he had hid from me stung. We weren’t hurting financially and I wasn’t a big spender anyway, so it was hard to believe his secret account had been anything other than a kind of a go-bag.
After we sold the house, I had a new apartment. I liked my place. It was small and compact, and it was mine. I bought bright fuchsia towels, because I could. I hung up my art prints, and rearranged my furniture, a mix of IKEA and vintage. Jimmy had always said my furniture was like a college kid’s: cheap stuff paired with hand-me-downs from a grandma. He liked things to match. He had said we were professionals and we should have a more professional-looking home. I said he was welcome to redecorate any time he felt like it.
“What If We Were Somewhere Else”
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After the first rush of nestling into my new space and shopping, I neglected the laundry, and I ate ice cream for dinner.
I know. Ice cream for dinner is a single-lady divorcée cliché. Well, it’s a lot better than making something in the microwave.
It was hard to shake the job, and it was hard to shake the divorce. It wasn’t that I missed Jimmy or my work so much, it was that I had spent so much time in the swirl of the marriage crumbling and the swirl of the office with the weird wind in it, right in the center, where the hot half and the cold half came together. The physical office was just a suite badly in need of air-balancing, but now that I was at home all the time, I kept thinking about how every day when I’d walk in, I would flash on how tornadoes are made, the convergence of warm and cool air. I knew logically, at least after I looked it up, that a tornado has to be anchored to the ground and tethered to a cloud to really form, to do its damage with windspeed and lightning and hail and gravel flinging everywhere—I knew this was not happening in my office, but still! People get so casual, they get comfortable, and they overlook danger. They think it won’t happen to them.
My friends asked me if I knew Jimmy was going to file, and I said, Oh, yeah. Long time coming. Beat me to it.
But I had no idea. And actually, he didn’t just file, he had me served. After the note on the kitchen counter, it took only another three days for a courier to show. I knew something was up, re: went to my moms, but I didn’t expect that. We’d always been nicer than that.
So, just like a tornado. Out of nowhere. I’m the cloud and he’s the dirt. I overlooked the danger, too. Once it’s going, watch out. I think I thought I was on the outside, or that I didn’t understand what was forming. I thought we were tracking down a wheezing balloon, but really, I was in the middle of a storm and hadn’t noticed. The eye, they call it. It’s characterized by light winds and clear skies.
The whooshing sound we had heard, those winds. An exhale of atmospheric gas. It seemed like Jimmy must have known all along.
Open your eyes.
Also, with ice cream, it’s the fancy flavors that get popular, like cookie dough or pints referencing jam bands. I like regular vanilla or chocolate. Strawberry is okay. I can handle a chunk of something mixed in on occasion, if I’m feeling adventurous, but generally I like my ice cream simple. I like my ice cream to reflect my vision for my life.
If there was ever a tornado flavor, I wouldn’t try it.
Wendy J. Fox is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel ”If the Ice Had Held” and the recent short-story collection ”What If We Were Somewhere Else,” which won the Colorado Book Award for literary fiction. She has written for The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Self, Business Insider, and Ms., and her work has appeared in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.