I shouldn’t have checked his answering machine. But the point was: I felt the need to and that impulse alone should be enough for someone to say, You know what? I’m sure there are healthier relationships in which to find oneself. He had taken a part time job at a bar down the beach for the summer, a job he didn’t need at a place where we never went. Sometimes on weekends, the only time we long-distance lovers could be together, he worked by choice. His mother’s voice, his sister’s. A guy from the gym and then the beep that changed everything: A woman’s voice that asked him to meet “us” at the bar. You know, her tone implied, as usual. That’s it. She sounded very casual, a woman used to calling this number and keeping him informed of plans. A woman who didn’t need to leave her name.
That’s the black and white betrayal of relationships. Things are okay, even if they’re not great, and then they are very, very bad. Cloudy but dry, and then torrential, unremitting, mold-inducing, apocalyptic, Biblical.
You’re twenty-three, still a stupid kid. You have a shitty job, an apartment that smells like the cabbage the woman next door cooks nightly, an apartment you’ve furnished from the stuff your sister gave you once she was through with her orange plaid phase. You cruise around in a light blue Chevy Citation, belting out Whitney Houston songs. A boyfriend, even one who might be cheating on you, is a necessary distraction, but it doesn’t remove the nausea you feel when you have what you consider irrefutable proof of his infidelity that he will still refute.
Fast forward thirty years (30?!?). At least as far as my husband is concerned, my competition is reduced to any track meet on some obscure television channel only we subscribe to, any new listing on letsrun.com of road race times, and a cat whose name is Enzo, but who Dennis calls Young Man. None of my husband’s attachments, by the way, inspire that seasick feeling, none inspire the cartoon image of a woman flailing wildly about as she falls blindly down a black hole.
But that doesn’t mean I am through with feeling betrayed. These days, it’s my teenagers who I catch cheating.
Valentine’s Day, for example. Sure, Beatrice remembered to buy me a little token gift. Thoughtful even though she went out specifically that morning to get it. It didn’t take the kind of forethought it required for her to take, print, and frame a picture for her boyfriend or to write all the cheesy notes she wrote him on the candy she bought him (another Reeses why I think you’re cute, etc). But in this flush of a first infatuation, she didn’t forget me. EXCEPT at dinner that night when the boyfriend’s mother (who I have never met) served her brussel sprouts. And Beatrice ate them.
“What do you mean, you ate brussel sprouts?” I say, fighting back the tears.
Since September, her father had been toting bowls of them into the house and I had been roasting them, urging our daughters to try these organic, heirloom, grown-with-dad’s-love-and-devotion pearls. But no. This is the kind of sacrifice, it appears, that she’ll only make for another family.
It was a painful reminder of Apphia and the cocktail wieners. Okay, we’re vegetarians, but we had decided that, if one of our children wanted to eat meat, we’d be fine with that. So, at a Christmas party at my sister-in-law’s, when Apphia asked to try a pig in a blanket, I said (indulgently, I thought): of course. Seven or eight pigs later, Apphia sat beside me on the couch as we got ready for the Yankee Swap.
“Mom,” she said, “I need to tell you something.”
That’s the thing about cheaters. They think clearing their conscious is preferable to preserving their loyal loved one’s equilibrium.
“I eat hot dogs all the time.”
“But how?” I said. “Where?”
These were the days before she straightened her hair so it was all ringlets. Ringlets!! “You know how I always want to buy the mac and cheese for school lunch? Well, they serve mini hot dogs, too. Sometimes, I’m too full to eat the ronis.” Ringlets AND ronis. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Justina would no sooner eat brussel sprouts and hot dogs than she would put her screen down and/or take no for an answer. Finally, I thought, someone deserving of my trust. Until, of course, I discovered the Poland Springs bottle. And then another one. And then a third. In the age of no answering machines, there are still clues left behind, and here was my youngest daughter, a child raised in a house of filtered tap water and reusable bottles, a house that refused to stock up on cases of plastic bottles destined to be strewn, mostly FULL, about the unsuspecting planet because, god forbid, you couldn’t remember if that was your bottle only a sip was missing from or your sister’s!
“We don’t use these,” I said. You and me. All of us on this particular, highly endangered, but still very green branch, of the family tree. Remember, I wanted to say, reading on my bed before you fell asleep every night? Remember how we used to set up a picnic in the wagon on the first great day of spring and eat outside? Remember Mrs. Doubtfire? Stellaluna? High ponytails? Webkinz? “Where are they coming from?”
She regarded me with the nonchalance of a serial offender before revealing the name of her source: “Kayla. She brings me one from her house every morning.”
The world tilted out from under me then. The world weighted down with its landfills, its soccer field trash receptacles overflowing with the non-biodegradable refuse of a generation who believes itself to be one gulp away from certain death by dehydration.
So there they were: the three daughters I thought I knew running around behind my back with other families, other experiences.
My love affair with the temporary bouncer didn’t survive, of course, but it didn’t have to. What choice do I have now, however, but to forgive my daughters for the ways in which they have hurt me? These days, every quiet moment in this big house seems a mark of their disloyalty. How could they pack up their Little Pet Shop toys, their mini kitchen, their costume box, and leave me here in this house so devoid of plastic and High School Musical songs? How could they do what every other mother’s children do and grow up so fast?
And, in the face of these betrayals, what else can I do but try to heal, take an art class, get a couple more cats?