“Remember that time…” – A short story

I don’t remember 40th birthday parties being all that interesting.

It was going to be a momentous year as each of our friends celebrated theirs.  We were of a group that had formed strong friendships at school, and they had lasted over the next 25 years, even when some had ventured further afield, and others had stayed at home.

I was one of those who had remained in place, as had my wife, and several of the neighbors.  I never had dreams of venturing any further than the next state, and except for a couple of years on transfer for the company I worked for, I had lived all my life in the city I was born.

The same could not be said for Janine, my wife, who once had a vision for herself, a career in law in either New York or Washington, and had ventured there after graduating law school, stayed a year, and then returned in circumstances that she had never talked about.  She had accepted my proposal, we had married, and that was that.

Twenty-five years on, there had always been that gap, that part of the story I’d never asked about and one I felt she would never talk about, and it was a small chink in what I wanted to believe was an almost perfect marriage.

But there was one small caveat she had requested, and that she had no desire to have children, or to be a mother, something she said she would be terrible at.  It didn’t bother me, one way or another, though as each of the others had children, there was a small part of me that was, for a while, envious.

Michael Urston was one of my close friends, lived across town, was also a lawyer, and a man of ambition.  He’s taken his law degree to Washington and converted it into a path to public office, and had attained the lofty position of Mayor for a number of years of our fair city, and then paradoxically didn’t run for re-election for reasons I never thought stood up.  But it had been his decision, part of the plan to retire at forty, and he’d achieved it.  Ursula, his wife, was prickly at the best of times and had always considered herself above all of us.  I guess being a prom queen had that effect on some people.  She liked to be the center of attention, and for some reason, she and Janine always managed to rub up against their respective wrong sides.

Something else I knew; he had a thing for Janine, as had several others in our group, and I could see, sometimes the looks that passed between them, and I was not sure how I felt about it.  There was never any indication of either talking it further, but there was a bond between them that sometimes I envied, especially lately when it seemed, to me, that we were drifting apart.

But tonight, it was going to be Janine’s fortieth birthday party, and there was going to be a dozen friends coming.  At the last minute, Janine had changed the venue to a restaurant rather than at our home, and that I suspected was because we lived in a magnificent house that all the others envied, and I was sure it was out of deference to them.  Buying the house had been her idea, and down through the years, as we moved into larger residences, she had been trying to shed the memories of where she had come from.

Neither of us had been from wealthy families, and I had no wealthy family connections.  I was from generations of motor mechanics, which was my first occupation in the family business, and Janine’s family were farmers, something she had no intention of becoming, hence the desire to become a lawyer.  And I didn’t think either of us had airs and graces despite what we owned or how we fitted into the local society.

Fred DeVilliers and Susan, his girlfriend of many years, they didn’t believe they needed a piece of paper to sanctify their relationship, were best friends also, though I knew Janine and Susan were not quite as friendly as it appeared.  That I noticed some years ago when both were having a heated discussion, one they thought no one was around to hear.  Their bone of contention had something to do with Michael, and I didn’t get to discover what it was.

As for the others, they joined in the conversation, ate the food, drank the wine, and then went home again.  Like me, they were not interested in politics, religion, or miscreant children’s stories.  Our get together was children free, and often about reminiscences of older and more carefree times.

Oh, and just to stir the pot a little, this day, I had tendered my resignation as CEO of the company.  It was a matter of principle, the board having decided to downsize, and shift a proportion of manufacturing offshore, a decision I knew I would have to implement if I stayed there.  When I vehemently disagreed, I was given the option to leave on mutually agreeable terms.  It was not something I could spring on Janine, but, equally, it was not something I was going to be able to hide from her.  Not for very long anyway.

She was running late at her office, and I agreed to meet her at the restaurant a half-hour before the other guests were due to arrive.  It was nothing unusual for one or other of us to be running late.

As it happened, I left the office, and the building, an hour after tendering my resignation.  The company didn’t want me hanging around and granted me the two weeks I’d normally have to work off before leaving, for security reasons.  I quit, therefore I had to leave, in case I had some desire to sabotage the company in some way.  I wouldn’t but it was standard practice, and it didn’t go unnoticed that I was escorted by security to my office to clear the desk, and then to my car.  They also gave me the car as a parting gesture.

After leaving the office I went home.

I took what amounted to over twenty year’s service in a cardboard box to my home office and dropped it in the corner.  Not much to show for it, other than a decent salary, annual bonuses when we made a profit, and quite a few shares, not that they were worth much now because of the board’s hesitation to embrace new technologies.

About two hours later I heard a car pull up out the front on the driveway, and two doors close.  A look out the window that overlooked the driveway showed it was Janine and Michael, who as the approached the door were in animated conversation.

I thought about letting them know I was home, but then a voice inside my head said how many men have come home during the day to surprise his wife and found her in bed with another man, or, in these rather liberated days, in bed with another woman?

And that think between them, would it be now I would discover what it was?

It made me feel rather horrible to think I could suspect her of cheating, but it momentarily took away the sting of the resignation.

The door opened and they came inside.  I could just see them from where I was standing, a spot that they would not see me, not unless they were looking.  And my heart missed a beat, they were embraced very passionately, leave me with no other conclusion than this was a middle of the day tryst.

“Come,” she said, taking him by the hand.  “I only have a couple of hours before I have to get back for a deposition.”

With that, they went up the stairs and disappeared into the bedroom, our room.

I sat down before I fell down, then having regained some composure, went over to the bar and poured myself a drink.

Two losses in one day.  A job, and a wife.  I guess it wasn’t exactly a revelation.  I knew something was amiss, and I conveniently ignored all the signs.  I thought about going up and walking in on them, but that, to me, seemed like a childish act.  After a few more drinks, I decided to wait, see if they both left, and then decide what to do.

The front door closing, and the car departing, woke me out of a reverie.  I got up and looked out, expecting to see an empty foyer, but instead saw Janine, in a dressing gown, still holding the front door handle, as if transfixed.  A beautiful memory of what had just happened, or a tinge of regret, and another secret to be kept in a head, I knew now, held so many others.

I decided to make myself known, now rather than later.

“Do you come home often during the day,” I said, standing in the doorway where she could see me.

She jumped, perhaps in fright, or in guilt, it didn’t really matter.

She turned.  “Daniel.  What are you doing here?”

“I resigned this morning.  A difference in opinion on how the company should proceed.  I was escorted out, and decided to come home.  I should have gone to a bar.”

She knew that I knew, so it would be interesting to see what she had to say.  I could see her forming the words in her head, much the same as she did in a court of law.

“It was the first time, Daniel, an impulse.  I’m not going to make an excuse.  It’s on me.  I wanted to find out what it would be like.”

And that made me feel so much better.

“Well, it’s a hell of a fortieth birthday gift, Jan, and one I guess I couldn’t give you.  I trust you didn’t grant that wish to any of the other men who may desire you?”  OK, that wasn’t exactly what I meant to say, but the words didn’t exactly match what I was thinking.

“You mean do I sleep with every man I have a desire to?”  A rather harsh tone, bordering on angry.  She was angry with me.

“You tell me what I’m supposed to think.”

“I had sex with one other man, no one else, since the day we were married.  It was a mistake, and I’m sorry.  If you hadn’t been here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Washington,” I said, almost to myself, a light bulb lighting up in my head.

The memory of a distant conversation, on a holiday, when we visited Washington, Philadelphia and New York.

“What about Washington?”  A change in her expression, slight, but I could see it.  She remembered it too.

“Remember that time, at one of those monuments, probably Jefferson’s, when you said something rather odd, and when I asked, you brushed it off as nothing important.  You were looking out over the water and said it was one of your fondest memories after, and then stopped yourself.  Michael had just married when he moved to Washington, and you were there too, for a year.  I suspect now you and he had an affair, and it ended badly as affairs do and the woman has to leave.  There’s always been that bond between you.  Not the first time Jan.  The affair never ended.”

“It did, Daniel.  Like I said, this was a mistake.  It won’t happen again.”

I stepped out of the office and walked down the passage and come out into the foyer.  Two stories high, it had been a debate whether to have a fountain in the space adjacent to the stairs or a statue.  The statue won, I lost.

Close up, I looked at the woman I’d loved from the moment I first saw her, and of the surprise when she agreed to marry me.  I had no idea then I was her second choice.

“I’d say I’m on a roll.  Lost my job, then lost my wife.  Bad luck comes in threes, so I’m going to lose something else.”  I looked around.  “This house?  I don’t think I could stay here, not now.  It would just be a reminder of everything bad that’s happened to me today.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way.  I told you it was a mistake.  I made my choice twenty odd years ago and it hasn’t changed.”

She took a step towards me, and I took one back.  The thought of being close to her now, after what she had just done, didn’t feel right.

“Look, before you do something silly, let’s sit down and talk about it.”

“No.  There’s nothing really to talk about.  I’m sure you can come up with a very convincing argument that will justify everything you’ve done, and why I’m being a fool, but the truth is, there are no words that can justify what you just did.  Yes, I could forgive you, and believe me, I want to, but there’d always be some resentment and the fact I could never trust you again, even if you promise not to.  What’s done is done.   Have a great birthday, and party, and make up some excuse for me not being there, but I’m going away for a while.  You have got everything you ever wanted Jan.  Be grateful for that.”

With that, I turned and headed for the door that led to the garage.  I wasn’t going to leave by the front door.  I expected her to say something, but she didn’t.  I expected a reaction, but there was none.  What choice did I have?

In the car, I found myself heading for the airport.  I couldn’t go to my parents, they were dead.  My sister lived on the other side of the country, and all I would get from her if I told her what happened would be an I told you so, so it was down to my brother, who had moved to the UK to get away from everyone.  I called him, and when he answered, I simply said, “I’m coming to see you for a while.”

And he replied, “It was Washington, wasn’t it?”

He’d know who she was, and who Michael was when he saw them together all those years ago.  And tried to warn me before I married her.

What was it with politicians and women?


© Charles Heath 2020-2021

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