People tell each other things at the dinner table, don’t they? Here’s what my husband Dan told me one night. But first, the dinner was my
Marinate filets of salmon with drizzles of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Broil close to the heat until caramelized but not blackened. Midway through the broil, top with more soy sauce and oil.
This dish is delicious with my lightly cooked, long-stemmed asparagus and steamed brown rice. I would tell how these are done, but this is a story about a crack-up; cooking is just a sub-plot.
Our son Max and I were sitting at the table eating. Dan was not home from work yet. His hours were always sporadic, so we never waited. Strangely often, however, once we would begin to eat, we’d see his lights swing into the driveway. Did he have perfect timing, or did we? Either way, our time was about to end. My husband knew this, but our son and I did not.
Dan, the man I had lived with and loved for 30 years, sat across from me at the table. He had his salmon dinner that I had cooked for him and began to eat. Max finished and left the table. I chatted and ate a bit more. Then…, here’s where memory fails. The mechanics of hearing, comprehending, and making meaning and memory are obstructed once the heart accelerates and drives a pulse of panic through the body and a vibration begins to roar through the nerves. The sounds within out spoke the sounds without. Once my husband’s words were on the table, we no longer ate the food.
If you could have seen me, I think I would have appeared to be sitting still. The body is such a protective case for the beating heart, is it not? The desperate contractions and ins and outs of the heart, the blood racing through its tunnels in the body, the lungs gulping air—so much fear and life and movement within, while the skin sits still. Even the eyes hold firm, staring at this fate that is all around and must be met.
What I carried away was this: he was leaving me. In fact, he had already left. The previous night, he had called and said he was staying at the studio where his band rehearsed. I knew enough about men in bands to know that no one spends the night in the rehearsal space unless they are dead drunk or need a love shack. At the time, though, some background music smothered my suspicions. OK, I told myself. He really is at the rehearsal space, which is near his work and our home is not. But, here’s truth: never second guess yourself. You are always right the first time.
So began or so continued his pattern of lies. Dan had called from the rehearsal space, but he slept in a secret apartment he had rented a week or two earlier.
The salmon dinner was on my third night back from visiting my sister in Memphis. While I was gone, it turned out he had been calling Max to say he wasn’t coming home because he was staying with his friend Royston in the city to avoid the commute. Later Max told me that after a few of these calls, he began to wonder if there was something up between Royston and his dad!
What reason was I given for this sudden change, for the end of our extended story together? Dan told me wanted to be free. He said, “Call it a mid-life crisis.” His apartment was small, an efficiency. He mentioned the street.
I said, “Yeah, I know it well. I owned a two-story house built in 1913 just a few blocks from there.” Dan knew this was a strange truth, but he was on a trajectory that would need to be untroubled by many strange truths. He would need to be untroubled by how our son reacted when he was called in and told. Max was like me, calm on the outside, but on the inside he was probably pulsing and racing and reaching for understanding.
Max stood so very still and silent that, finally, his dad asked, “So what do you think?”
Max answered, “I don’t know what to think, but you can’t take the cats. Miles and Luna stay here!” He was 21 years old, a college student, and a man, but a young man. When the loss of family first threatened his life, he thought of his pets. What was to be their fate in the chaos of the crack-up? He was a young man, but a man nonetheless, and he showed it in that moment. A real man protects what he loves and is unfailing in his commitment.
What else about the crack-up conversation? I don’t remember. It was brief. Soon Dan was in the bathroom gathering up what he wanted that he had not already taken to his apartment. I saw him in the kitchen and then at the table. He put the rest of his salmon dinner in a Tupperware container. In a few minutes, the headlights that we had so recently seen pulling into the driveway, pulled out again. He was gone. He was gone. Three little words. Three huge words in terms of all the change they foretold.
I met Max in our hallway. He was taking a picture of his dad down from the wall. I said, “Oh, please. I’m not ready to just erase him so soon.” He put the picture back up. I would take it down myself at three in the morning a month later in a ritualized state of craziness.
A week after the crack-up, I went to stay with my dear friend Lucia. She was rescuing me as she had once before long ago when that 1913 house of mine had almost burnt to the ground. This time, here’s how she rescued me: “Tupperware. TUPPERWARE!!!” she shouted with scorn and some sad humor. “No man should get to leave his wife AND take his dinner away in Tupperware!!!” I cried and I laughed.
She was right. The night of the crack-up, I sat there drowning in all the noise inside my head and my heart. No noise came out of my mouth. No shouts. No recriminations. I think when Dan asked for a break-up hug, I even hugged him and said goodbye, as if this were a normal parting instead of the sudden, completely unexpected end of thirty years of our lives together.
I did find my voice a few minutes later in the hall with Max. After he put the picture of his dad back in its place, I finally spoke the sentence, the question, which had been rising in me since my husband first looked across the table and partially revealed his secret. “All I could think of, Max, the whole time he was breaking up with me was What Is Her Name? What Is Her Name?”