A Fresh Start
Kimberly Garrett Brown
I called for Monica a few times when I woke up. No answer. Her electric toothbrush and cosmetic organizer were missing from the counter. Had they been there last night? I couldn’t remember. The whole previous evening felt off-kilter.
Around six, Ken from my development team popped into my office to invite me to join the team at O’Malley’s for a drink. We’d just gotten the news that we lost the Anderson & Associates account, worth six million dollars. So even though I promised I’d be home by six-thirty, I went. They needed me.
I tried to lighten the mood, but we all knew I would have to lay off one of the six people huddled around me. There’s nothing worse than sending a man home to tell his wife he lost his job. But what choice did I have? We couldn’t sustain everyone’s salary without that account. One scotch turned in to four. I left the bar around eight-thirty.
As I drove home, I reassured myself that going out with the team had been the right decision even though I knew Monica would be upset. But when I walked in the kitchen from the garage, she greeted me with a martini. I dropped my briefcase, along with the stress of the day at the door. I gladly accepted the glass. Everything was okay.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said, leaning forward to kiss her.
“It’s okay,” she said, turning away. My lips barely grazed her cheek.
I rifled through the stack of mail on the desk. A flicker of light caught my eye. In the center of the kitchen table, between two brass candelabras, sat a crystal vase filled with long-stemmed red roses. It looked so much better than the wooden bowl of plastic green apples that Monica insisted added warmth to the kitchen.
“There’s nothing inviting about plastic fruit,” I’d argued.
“Real fruit rots when there’s no one here,” she’d replied.
The kitchen was her space. Who was I to judge?
“The table looks amazing,” I said as I tossed the mail back on the desk next to where Monica had moved the wooden bowl of fake apples.
“I thought we should have a nice quiet dinner at home.” She arranged endive like flower petals on a salad plate.
I eased behind her, wrapping my arms around her waist. “You smell wonderful.”
She wiggled out of my arms. “I need to finish this.”
I sat at the head of the kitchen table, untied my tie, and tossed it in the adjacent chair. My body longed for sleep, but watching Monica’s green dress move up and down over her hips kept me awake.
“I wasn’t expecting all of this,” I said.
Monica placed the salad plate in front of me. “I know. I have a night of surprises.”
I ran my hand along her thigh. “I can hardly wait.”
She edged away, picking up my tie off the chair.
I picked a few pieces of blue cheese off the top of the salad. I had skipped lunch to go over the budget with my controller. The meeting took twice as long as it should have. He felt the need to explain every detail as if I were a moron. The planning session lasted until five. I meant to grab an energy bar from the sundry shop in the lobby but never got the chance.
Monica came back to the table carrying two wine glasses and a 2008 bottle of Barnet Cabernet Sauvignon. She handed me the bottle and a wine key.
“This must really be a special occasion if you’re breaking out the good stuff,” I said.
“We only have one left.”
I poured wine into her glass. “That seemed to go pretty quickly. Didn’t we buy a case when we were out in Napa?”
“Yes. Two years ago.”
“It’s been that long?” I asked.
She looked away as she sipped her wine. “Yes.”
I still remember that afternoon in Napa. We had been running late for our appointment at the Barnet Winery on Spring Mountain. It annoyed me that Monica made me stop at a little market along the way. She bought a loaf of French bread, apples, and cheese. I waited impatiently in the car.
We toured the entire winery, which was really a barn, in ten minutes. I spent more time batting away fruit flies than walking. We chatted with the wine maker and then the marketing director, a young woman from Texas, took us up to the rooftop patio to taste wine. We bought a case to ship home and a bottle to drink with lunch. We sat at a table on the edge of the terrace, enjoying the view of the mountains.
“This is as good as it gets,” I said.
“Aren’t you glad we stopped for food?” Monica asked as she handed me a piece of apple with cheese.
“I need to listen to you more,” I said, wishing I could freeze the moment.
That was the last time I felt completely relaxed. Now, I needed ten days to really unwind, but rarely felt I could take that much time away from the office. We usually just added a few days to my business trips. Lately Monica hasn’t wanted to go, not even to Scottsdale, one of her favorite places.
The crunch of the lettuce echoed in the kitchen as we ate our salads. I tried to think of something to say to spark a conversation. Her dull eyes and pressed lips made it clear something was stewing. But I wasn’t in the mood for one of our heated discussions about my long work hours.
Monica cleared the table once we finished our salads. She rinsed the dishes and placed them in the dishwasher, a habit she developed after the girls moved away. I used to try to get her to leave the dishes until the next morning, but she insisted a clean kitchen set the tone for the day. Every morning should be a fresh start, she said.
Monica set a plate in front of me. “I’m sorry the lamb chops are overdone,” she said. A cloud of steam hovered above the red potatoes and the three spears of grilled asparagus.
“I’m sure they’re fine.” I emptied the rest of the wine into her glass.
“I’ll get another bottle,” she said.
“No. Come join me.”
“It’ll just take a minute.” She disappeared into the dining room.
“Grab a Newton,” I called after her.
When she brought the wine back, tears glistened in her eyes. I wanted to ask what was wrong.
“Let me do things in my own time,” she had said on more than one occasion whenever I tried too quickly to get to the bottom line. So I knew she’d tell me about it when she was ready.
As she sat down, I proposed a toast. “To the most beautiful woman in the world,” I said.
“Santé,” she said.
The center of the lamb chop was brown, much more done than the medium rare I preferred. It probably would have been perfect if I had come home closer to six-thirty like I promised.
I picked up her hand and held it in mine. “I’m really sorry for being so late tonight. The team had a crushing blow. I couldn’t leave them.”
Monica pulled her hand away. “It’s fine.”
I felt horrible. “Hey, what do you think about going away for the weekend? We could rent a condo on the coast.”
She took another sip of wine before responding. “I don’t want to spend tonight planning.”
“Come on, Monica. If we don’t talk about it now, six months will go by and we still won’t have anything planned.”
“Let’s just enjoy tonight.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket. “I’m putting a note in my calendar.”
I scrolled through the month. October was already pretty booked. The third weekend in November looked open, but I knew Monica wouldn’t want to go away the weekend before Thanksgiving. She usually spent that time getting the house ready for the girls to come home. When I looked up, Monica was staring at me. She had that you-and-that-damn-phone expression on her face. I set it down next to my plate.
We ate the rest of our dinner in silence. My mind ran through my to-do list for the weekend. After my run, I needed to get my car washed, and then swing by the office to pick up a file I left on my desk. I didn’t know what she had planned for Saturday night, but I didn’t feel like doing anything. I’d be perfectly content to sit on the sofa and watch television.
Monica grabbed the bottle of wine from the middle of the table and refilled my glass. She wasn’t wearing her ring. Never in twenty-six years of marriage had she taken it off other than to clean it. I wondered if she had lost it. Or if it was a hint. She’d mentioned a while back she wanted a new ring for her fiftieth birthday.
I offered to clear the table.
“I got it,” she said as she stacked her plate on top of mine. “I made an apple pie for dessert.”
“What’s gotten into you tonight?”
“A need for authenticity.”
I wasn’t sure if her response was bait. It wasn’t usual for her to say something vague in order to draw me into a debate or argument about the amount of time I spend at work. But I’d already been through enough for one day. I had no desire to spend the little energy I had arguing with her.
The smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and butter wafted up from the plate. Crystallized sugar on the crust of the apple pie stuck to my teeth as I took my first bite. Nothing like a piece of homemade apple pie to make you feel better. I could have eaten the whole thing, but I wanted to make love before exhaustion got the best of me.
When Monica got up to clear the table again, I grabbed her hand. “I’d really like to go upstairs,” I said.
She looked over her shoulder at the dishes on the counter.
“Come on, babe.”
I stood up and pulled her into a kiss. I hadn’t expected the reluctance. I decided she would be less distracted if we weren’t standing in the middle of a mess, so I led her up the stairs to our bedroom.
As I unzipped her dress, she seemed tired and not nearly as interested as I was.
“If you’re too tired, we can want until the morning, “ I said.
Something wasn’t right, but the smell of her hair nestled close to my face, the feel of my fingertips against her soft coppery skin propelled me on.
* * *
I glanced around the bedroom floor. All of our clothes from the night before were gone.
The trail was full of other weekend warriors. But as usual, I had so much on my mind that it was easy to tone out the other runners. Though I preferred the solitude of the early morning, I didn’t have time during the week and slept too late on the weekends.
Monica still wasn’t home when I got back. An envelope was taped to the refrigerator door. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, sat down at the kitchen table and opened it
Writing this letter is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Though I will always love you, I can no longer pretend our marriage isn´t over. I’ve spent too many nights sitting by the window watching for the glow of your headlight, wondering if I would ever be as important to you as your career. I resented your ambitious and over time my loneliness turned to bitterness. I tried to pacify myself by taking classes, working out at the gym, volunteering at local charities and hanging out with girlfriends. Those things helped when the girls were young. They made me to feel more connected, but now I need someone.
I tried to make myself available whenever you were free. I wanted to believe we could still fix our marriage, but you were never interested in talking about real issues. You were convinced our marriage would get better once work settled down. Then there would be time to focus on our home life. But there was always something or someone who needed your attention. There’s always another goal to accomplish. And that’s never going to change.
For years, I blamed you. But it isn’t entirely your fault. I was intoxicated with our life. I desperately wanted to hang on to all the stuff. I thought changing you would make me feel more content. I didn’t value myself enough to focus on my own goals. And if I don´t leave now, I risk losing myself forever.
Please know that in spite of everything, I will never regret the years we spent together.
Take care of yourself.
I read the letter again. Had something happened that I completely missed? I tried Monica’s cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. I tried both of the girls, but got their voice mail.
I scanned the kitchen for a trace of last night. But everything was in its place, as if nothing had changed. I read the letter once more and then flung it across the table. It landed in the wooden bowl in the center of table. A hint of tartness drifted through the air. I picked up one of the apples. It was real, a detail I hadn’t noticed last night when I tossed the mail on the desk. It hadn’t seemed important. I examined the apple in my hand. How many other little details had I missed?
Monica’s words came back to me.
Real fruit rots when there’s no one here.