She couldn’t believe she was so close to him, yet he was completely oblivious to her presence.
She wore a hat, dark glasses, a full suit; skirt, blouse, jacket, and black leather gloves. A cigarette smouldered between her fingers as she stole a furtive glance at the table behind her, which was so close that the back of his chair touched the back of hers. She knew she probably looked ridiculous to all the other passengers, dressed in costume like some sort of spy. But she didn’t care. It had taken months of waiting, planning, knowing, living with the certainty of what was really happening in her life. Now, she had proof; actual visual proof, right behind her, his chair touching hers, the sleeve of his jacket brushing against the her coat, which was slung over her chair. She wasn’t sure what she felt. Disdain, maybe; a creeping sense of horror at her own stupidity. Not shock. She had known for months, and god only knows how long it had been going on before she found out. She knew he had problems. He owed money. He gambled. He drank too much, and he frequently went missing, waving away her concerns with flimsy, vague excuses about work and business trips. But she had long ago discovered that he no longer had any work to do. A crumpled official letter of dismissal which she had found stuffed down the back of a chair in the bedroom had informed her of that. He had been dismissed from the company he worked for, and it seemed he had other work that was keeping him busy all day, and late into most nights.
He was so charming. The most prepossessing, engaging man she had ever met. That’s why she married him. Charm is a dangerous thing, she now thought, as she sat there, aghast, an objective observer of the charismatic man that had captivated her when she was only 18 years old. He was considerably older than her, a fact both of them enjoyed. He benefitted from her youth and beauty, and no doubt, her naivety, her quietude; and she, from his sophisticated nature and casual, comfortable way with people. She was beautiful, there was no doubt about
that. But there was a definite sadness to her beauty. Her mouth, her lips turning down slightly, so that even a smile had an echo of disappointment. Then there was her delicate face, her high cheekbones that people always admired, that transformed her cheeks into two little plums when she lifted her lips to smile. Her skin was perfect. Porcelain, he called it. My Porcelain Princess. And her hair was so soft, pure blonde, expensively cut and curled. But
beauty, at least in her case, did not pay the bills.
She didn’t even know at first. She just thought he enjoyed a little flutter on the ponies now and then, a gin and tonic in the evenings, a couple of whiskies, the glass chinking merrily as the ice tumbled in, such a convivial, comforting sound. She didn’t even notice as it crept up on him, on her, so slowly, so insidiously, like a panther, approaching closer and closer, with silent but terrifying steps. Until that one night, when he arrived home at three in the morning, and she was still awake, frightened, then angry. Her fear that something terrible had happened to him quickly turned to anger when she smelled him before she saw him, the liquor loud on his breath, the smoke smothering his suit and filing their tiny vestibule. They fought. His charm and easy manner was replaced with indignant rage, and he hit her. It was the first and last time. And he was Oh So Sorry, Oh So Sorry; he held her immediately afterwards and wept in her arms, full of self-loathing and regret. There were necklaces and bracelets, flowers and beautiful meals in expensive restaurants. She knew he no longer had a job, but she never once questioned how he paid for it all. It was as if she was too afraid of what the answer might be. She was just glad he loved her and still wanted her. Love. Loving. Lover. Loveable. He drew her to him like a magnet. And the harsher his tone, the later he arrived home at night, the more she endeavoured to please him, to keep him. It reminded her of something she once heard, she couldn’t remember where or who said it, but it rang so true for her: “The only man I like is the one who’ll keep me waiting…by nine-thirty, I’ll do anything for him”. If only it was just nine-thirty; all those nights she couldn’t sleep, waiting for him, or forcing herself to stay awake, willing the sound of his clumsy, drunken attempts with the front door key, until she could no longer keep her eyes open.
Already, after the first five years of their marriage, loving him had become exhausting. Her smile was always forced, she was careful not to rattle him in any way; she walked on broken glass every single day, trying not to cut her feet. As Montaigne had said, “In love, there is nothing but a frantic desire for what flees from us”. He wasn’t exactly fleeing; he was there, he still kissed her, he still held her, she still felt his love for her, even as his behaviour became stranger and more difficult to tolerate. Outwardly, to everyone else, he behaved with the utmost propriety. Divorce, separation, he would never be the sort of man to bring such disrepute upon his character. She knew too much.
And he knew it. As the months went by, he could sense that she knew something, he could see it in her eyes, he could almost smell the knowledge on her skin. Moreover, he stayed because she was convenient. She was quiet, she was gentle, she would never make a scene. And she was always going to be younger than him, and beautiful, and something he could be proud to possess. On the contrary, he was getting older, his hair had begun to thin, and his once confident gait had been replaced with a sort of tired shuffle. He often looked ashamed. His shame seeped through his fine suits, his carefully trimmed moustache. It seeped through everything. At least, she thought, he had the humanity to feel shame. She began to find things. Things he had, obviously, previously been clever and compos mentis enough to either dispose of entirely, or hide more cleverly. The official letter of dismissal from the company he worked for. Bank receipts, betting slips, phone numbers written in curled, feminine handwriting, small daintily printed cards bearing the names of women with titles such as Baroness and Lady, and equally distinguished names; LuAnn, Andre-Marie, Oleg. Names she had never heard of, never even imagined. Several times she found thick wads of cash stuffed in socks in the bottom of a drawer. She must have visited that drawer at least a dozen times in the past six months, and it was always the same; a sock, maybe even two or three, stuffed to the brim with dollar bills…fifties, hundreds, filling the socks until they bulged. He had become careless. It was almost as if he wanted her to find these things. Or maybe it was his increasing consumption of alcohol, his mind was becoming confused, he had a frazzled, hurried look in his eyes, and he had begun to swing his leg nervously as he sat, one dangling over the other, swinging, swinging, swinging. It irritated her, but of course, she said nothing.
Now she was here. Now she could see it all with her own eyes. This wasn’t what she had expected. This wasn’t a young, beautiful woman like she was. This was an older lady; plump, blatantly affluent, dressed in a fur stole with a long black plume in her hat. It reminded her of those funeral plumes on horses; how apt. This woman gazed adoringly, even a little cheekily at the man who she, his wife, had slept beside for almost six years. And she had to admit, he was a consummate actor. He looked every bit the part. Immaculate suit, hair slicked back, his hand gently caressing a pen as he looked up at this woman, a half-smile on his face. What was he writing, she thought? Surely he’s not paying the bill. No. She tried to look closer, but her dark glasses made it difficult to see. She could only surmise that it was some sort of inside joke, him pretending to sign the bill for dinner, while the older lady smiles, knowingly, and in the next moment, she will reach across and take it from him, and they will both laugh.
Business Trip. Yes, it appeared he was not lying about that. It was most certainly a Business Trip. This woman, this gilded, aged Baroness or Duchess or whatever title she possessed, just like all the others, was paying for his companionship, his charisma, his easy manner. How did he do it when he would return home to her, angry, drunk, exhausted? Were all of these women as old as the one who sat behind her now? Did he take them to bed? Would he later lie beside this moneyed, fleshy Grandmother and caress her aged skin, telling her how beautiful she looked, how soft she felt? The performance must exhaust him, as he so carefully presented himself like a rain-jewelled spider’s web laid out like lace before these ladies who gladly financed him for his company, unknowingly paid his gambling debts and bought his expensive whiskey. These older women must have looked at him as if they were gasping for air. He was their air, their oxygenator. For them, he was the younger, more beautiful possession. They could be proud to be in his company. They didn’t see what she saw. She almost wished she hadn’t come. Her stomach was filled with a feeling she had no words for; not exactly a sick feeling, more a sense of pity, of embarrassment on his behalf, and on behalf of this woman, whose coquettish, flirtatious expression smacked of idiocy.
The train moved on. She sat, motionless, horror crowding her every sinew, pore, muscle. My Husband: The Gambler; the Drunk; The Liar; The Ageing Gigolo. The Actor of Phenomenal Proportions. She, his wife, was merely a character in a narrative whose grander design she was helpless to alter. There was nothing she could do, and, at this point, she didn’t even want to try anymore. She was tired of spending her days and nights trying to become somebody who could please him. She had lost herself in the process, even thinking she was going mad, as she kept encountering piece after piece of a jigsaw she could not fit together. He had taken so much from her, but more than anything, he had taken her ability to possess a proper identity. She had doubted herself for so long, she had hoped she was just imagining things.
But there was no denying it now. The puzzle was complete. And there, as she sat in the dining car on the train from New York to Chicago, she was struck by a vicious and irrevocable moment of clarity. A moment of such irremediable lucidity, that in her head, she began to pack her bags and leave forever.