Clymer was sitting at the kitchen counter, waiting for the kids to get out of the tub. He would tuck them into bed, he would kiss them, and he would leave.
That was the plan, Clymer reminded himself.
Only bath time seemed to be taking an unusually long time tonight, and he didn't care that much for the way Holly was fussing at them.
"Wash with soap, I said. You call that washing — where's that washcloth?"
Maybe it would be better to leave right now, Clymer thought. Just yell down the hall and get out of there.
One of the children laughed then, moving Clymer to smile, but when the laughter stopped Clymer felt his uneasiness return.
Departing promptly after dropping off the kids had become something of an issue for Clymer in recent months. "So how's it goin'?" he would ask, but the next thing he knew she'd be crying her eyes out, complaining how hard everything was for her now, and Clymer as usual would try to comfort and reassure her and calm her down and stroke her hair and wipe her face, and before he knew it he'd be looking for his clothes behind the furniture again.
You could call it kindness, Clymer supposed, but it made everything they had gone through seem so foolish to him, like none of it had meant anything.
Sometimes it was how she couldn't meet anybody. Or every guy she met was an octopus. Or a screamer. Or a deadbeat. Or a moron, giving her grief because she wouldn't let him in the house.
"'Hey, I got my kids here,' I told this jerk."
Clymer said, "Holly, I don't need to hear this."
"But there's people out there, like just the other night even, I was out with this guy and he seemed like a really decent guy for once. So fine then, so he takes me home and we're sitting in his car and he says he can understand why probably we shouldn't have sex right away, like probably it would be better if we know each other first, but he figures I can give him a handjob. He says he has to be honest about his needs with me."
"Holly, I told you, I can't talk about these things with you. It's not my business anymore."
But she couldn't tell her sister, Holly protested, and she didn't have any single friends that she knew well enough to confide in this way. "You're really the only friend I've got now, Ray. I really don't have any other friends."
Which was a lie. Probably, Clymer thought, she just had too much time on her hands. Like she was missing something. When she was pregnant she was fine, Clymer remembered. Everyone had paid attention to her.
Story Copyright © Bill Teitelbaum
Yet the temptation to take care of her was strong in him, Clymer worried, probably because he had been good at it for so long.
Both of them had married to escape their families, and for a certain time the challenges of establishing their own home had absorbed and excited them. But once their lives together had settled into routine, Clymer found that he really didn't care for Holly that much. He cared about her, and was determined to make good on his promises to her, but she was childish without the child's redeeming curiosity, and with the second pregnancy Clymer had felt his life closing down. It was as if their marriage had taken on a kind of separate existence, Clymer would think, like a relative in a nursing home to take care of.
He began stepping out then, mostly with customers he met at the dealership, but the conditions imposed by these complicated people almost totally overwhelmed Clymer, for not one of them had a life less constrained than his own. All of them had children, that was probably the worst of it, none of them had a moment of unbudgeted time, all of them worried about their health and weight and child support, their jobs, their parents, their looks, their bills, and not one of them was that interested in enjoying herself. They had enjoyed themselves before, they said. They didn't need him for that. It gave Clymer pause, it made him think, but just when Holly had begun once again to seem possible to him, she'd sat him down one night after the kids were in bed to tell him that she had been talking to a lawyer and as painful as it was to tell him this, there really wasn't anything to talk about. She was bored, she was unhappy, she felt chumped, and she wanted out. She was sorry, she said, but also she wasn't, and for once Clymer had understood her completely.
They had been divorced now in this ludicrous way for almost two years, and as far as Clymer could tell they might have saved themselves the trouble. The real question was why they had ever married each other. They might have married anyone, as far as Clymer could see, but each time this occurred to him, it felt to Clymer as if his head was splitting open.
"They'll be out in a minute," Holly said. "You want some coffee? You look tired."
"No, I have to go."
She was the one who looked tired, though. Her eyebrows seemed lower, as if they were dragging at her forehead.
"Have a coffee. You'll tuck them in."
"I can't, Holly. I have to be someplace."
He watched her slip a fresh filter into the coffee machine.
"Holly, I have to go," I said.
"Just a second." She was spooning coffee into the filter.
"Ray, I'm counting here. Where was I?"
"Holly, listen to me. I'm going now."
"But you said you would tuck them in bed."
"But I can't tonight. I have to go someplace."
Holly was shaking her head at him. "Let me get their pajamas on."
On her way out of the kitchen she turned on the coffee machine. "You two better be clean now," she warned them. "I'm not fooling with you this time."
And the funny thing was that the whole thing had been Holly's idea in the first place. She saw it as another chance for herself, like the years had never happened to them. She wanted to laugh again, she said, to get some fun out of her stupid life. The idea of romance with new people was frightening to her, but she would be single after all. It was an adventure she had not known. She would come and go as she pleased, she said.
At least that was the idea of it. But how could she be single if she didn't even believe she wasn't married anymore? If she wasn't his wife, then what was she, she would ask.
They had been too young when they married, Clymer knew now. The marriage had challenged them but at the same time it protected them. They had always known what they had to do. That was the wonderful thing about marriage, Clymer had realized. That's what made it so terrible.
Holly was pouring him a cup of coffee. "Look, man, I have to ask you — I mean, was I ever a good wife to you?"
"Holly, we've been through this a hundred times already. I never said you weren't a good wife. But we were married a long time, Holly. We're different people now. We never really knew our minds then."
"But how am I a different person now? I'm just old now, that's all I am. I'm a house now."
"Holly, listen to me, we have to stop this. This is bullshit, Holly."
She didn't get it, though. She stood there like something broken, like she was waiting for the repair-guy to show up.
Not me, Clymer thought.
And yet he was always a little afraid to say no to her. He could never tell how it would take her. Maybe at first she would understand, but then maybe the next day or so she could become angry and bitter about something and she would knock him to the kids for it. He had seen it happen.
The kids were smart, though, Clymer reminded himself. They knew more than they let on.
Though probably the best thing, thought Clymer, would be for Holly to meet a guy with kids of his own. Somebody steady. With his head screwed on. Clymer didn't know how he would deal with that, but for Holly definitely it was the best thing he could think of.
Briefly, he wondered if there might be anyone at the showroom he could fix her up with. It seemed reasonable enough. Most of the other salesmen were divorced, too.
Only you had to ask what divorce had accomplished for them. Like Holly they all seemed angrier now than they had been when were they were married. They couldn't see out, people like that, they had no quiet.
Plus, Clymer realized with a little jolt of alarm, the more she saw of guys like that, the better probably he looked to her.
He watched her rummaging through the cabinets over the sink. "I think there's some Scotch left. You want some?" She took down the bottle and held it to the light. "I don't even know why I keep it here. You want a splash?"
Clymer watched as she topped off his coffee.
Grow up, he would scream at her in his head. This is what it was about. How did you meet people? How did you live? What made her think he knew this stuff any better than she did?
Only nothing seemed to register. It was the reason why Clymer had been wondering recently if maybe the only real answer for him might be just to leave the area, just pick up and go somewhere. He would miss the kids terribly, but when he thought the situation through he didn't see an alternative. You were better off miserable than live this way.
Should he line something up then, he wondered, or what — just go? It all seemed impossibly simple to Clymer.
But that was the great thing about selling cars, he reminded himself. He could even move to Hawaii if he wanted to.