Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
JUST PLAY ALONG
he waves off my pathetic, repeated apologies. Clearly, she’s not here to forgive me. She’s here for Toby. She leans down to his level and asks, “Now, is there something you want to say to me, young man?”
My heart does a backward somersault, and I hate myself for it.
He shakes his head and pulls on my pants leg.
I lean over and whisper in his ear, “It’s okay, baby. This is Kay. Tell her what John Robberson told you.”
Kay squats until she’s looking Toby right in the eyes.
I’m proud of him as he maintains eye contact. His voice is clear and true. “Don’t be mad about the dog.”
The corners of Kay’s mouth pull low. “John Robberson told you to tell me that?”
“Okeydokey.” She nods her head. “You tell him I’m not mad anymore.” Her voice is thick, but only for a split second. She straightens up and says, “All right?”
Then, out of Toby’s earshot, she says, “See, it’s like when they find a monster under their bed. If you play along, talk to the monster, it goes away. I don’t think John Robberson is going to bother your boy anymore.”
The flicker of hope inside me gets blown out like a birthday candle. If she’s just playing along . . . it means nothing to her. Eric’s words echo once more: “Was it worth it?”
A fresh wave of shame crashes over me, cutting off my air. “Thank you,” I manage to say. I clear my throat. “And I’m sorry.”
Hand on the doorknob, she turns and looks me in the eye. “We’re all done here, right?”
“Right. I won’t bother you again.”
“See that you don’t.”
Eric shows up about ten minutes after Kay leaves.
“Am I glad to see you,” I say, releasing Toby so he can run to his dad.
Eric scoops him up. In a low, careful voice, he says, “Everything okay here?”
“Can we go home now?” I start to cry. “Please. I’m exhausted.”
Without taking a step toward me, he says, “I was thinking on the way here; you really need to talk to someone.”
“Talk to someone?”
“Maybe someone here. I could take you to the hospital. Just to get you stabilized.”
It takes every ounce of diplomacy I have to convince my husband to let me shower and sleep before I do anything else. Maybe because I look like I’ve had the flu for a week, he agrees. To assure him that I can think rationally about the fact that I acted so irrationally, I calmly agree to see my therapist, Anna, as soon as we get back. His jaw clenches and unclenches four times before I can tell he decides not to push it.
He’s not furious. It’s worse than that. He feels sorry for me. As if I could be any more ashamed, somehow that’s the icing on the cake. He thinks I’m fragile, which is the condition of a thing before it breaks. It’s too late for fragile.
We head back to Arizona, Eric driving the entire way without an overnight stop. I have no tears left as I sit in the passenger seat, embroiled in shame. We will not talk about this in front of Toby. That may be the only point of agreement between us right now.
hen I return from my weekly session with Anna, Toby is waiting for me in the garage. He must’ve heard the electronic door opener engage; it’s as loud as a chainsaw. He’s jumping up and down, right in the middle of my space, waving to me. It’s like coming home to a new puppy. I’ve spent the last hour crying, so it doesn’t take much to trigger more tears. I blink them away and roll down my window.
“Toby, move back to the doorway so I can park. I don’t want to run over you.”
He comes up to my window instead. “Where were you?”
“Talking to my friend Anna. But I’m here now.”
“Can I sit in the front seat?”
He rides shotgun as I pull into the garage. When the car stops, he leaps, unencumbered by a seat belt, into my arms for a hug. This makes me cry, too.
“Go get Daddy, now, okay?”
I turn off the ignition and wait behind the wheel. Eric clips Toby into his car seat and takes his place without a word to me. This does not make me cry. I’m used to this part. It’s been like this ever since we got back from Branson.
Anna says the only way I can rebuild Eric’s trust is to tell the truth. So, instead of Date Night like some couples have, we have a weekly Confession Session. Usually, he chews in silence while I tell him the truth about every lie I told, all the stuff I left out, and exactly how crazy my thinking had been. According to Anna, he’s supposed to tell me how he feels (but he hasn’t and I can’t make him tell me or even bring it up). So far, he just keeps explaining how he tried his best to talk me out of each particular incident. He listens. He doesn’t get mad. He’s tolerant.
So, once a week, we drop Toby off with the babysitter and negotiate our way through a painful, unwieldy meal in an out-of-the-way restaurant. We don’t want anyone to see us. It’s like we’re having an affair, only in reverse. We go out because we’re trying to keep these conversations as compartmentalized as possible. I refuse to have this talk at home. I don’t want to pollute our space. I don’t want to glance over in the middle of an argument and see something like the placemats we brought back from Jamaica or anything that reminds me of the good times we’ve had. Because then they’ll be tainted.
Today, Toby’s at the movies with his sitter, and we’re at a super-slick commercially successful coffee shop with no soul, in the middle of the afternoon, splitting a prepackaged fruit cup. He holds up a mushy square that used to have a color.
“What is that? Is it supposed to be pineapple?”
“No, I think it’s honeydew melon.” I smile. “Well, maybe its ancestors used to be in the honeydew family.”
He pops it into his mouth. “I can’t do this too many more times, Shel.”
“Me neither.” I sigh. “Let me just get through this last part, okay? The Branson part.”
“Can we make this the last one? What does Anna say?”
“Eric. We’ve been over this before. She says it’s important for me to say it, so there are no more lies between us.”
“No, I mean today. What did she say to you today? Does she think it’s working?”
I sigh. “She said if we keep pulling up the roots to see if the flower is growing, the flower doesn’t have a chance to grow. She means . . .”
“I get it.”
“It’s been good for me, Eric.”
“I know,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing it.”
“You don’t get anything out of it?”
“If it works, I get my wife back, right?” The corners of his lips rise. His teeth show. He’s not quite smiling, but I can tell he’s trying.
“If it’s any consolation, I should be able to get through the rest of it today. So this should be the last time.”
The corners of my lips rise. My teeth show.
“I feel like we’re accomplishing something, then.” He pushes the fruit cup away. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
I start where I left off: my meeting with Kay. As I go through the details, Eric seems to be in a better mood. He asks a few logistics questions. He’s not sulking this time. It almost feels like I’m telling a story instead of confessing my crazy. I take it step by step. Finding the mailbox. Standing on her porch in the dark. Holding Toby up for her to see. Stupidly, not saying a word to her.
Eric said, “The whole thing would’ve gone differently if you’d waited until a normal hour and talked to her.”
I stared at him. Told him the rest of it, the gun, knocking her down . . .
“Kay’s a tough old bird. I’m surprised she didn’t get up and finish you off.”
“How would you know?”
“I’m just going by what you’ve told me about her. We’ve talked about her so much, I feel like I know her.”
“It will be easier to get through this if you stop pointing out what I should’ve done differently.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
I keep going. I can’t get through it without my voice cracking and my eyes continually stinging. The humiliating ride in the back of the police car. The annoying Ernie. The mercy of Marjorie and her orange crackers. The waiting. And finally, the shock of Kay showing up. The shame of that last hope in my heart as it withered with the phrase “playing along.”
Neither of us speaks. He hands me a tissue.
“I’m so sorry, Eric.”
“You can stop apologizing now.” He hugs me. “We’re done. You said it; I heard you. I forgive you. Now you forgive yourself.”
“We have to be extra honest with each other,” I say. “No more secrets between us.”
“No more secrets.”
Oasis Verde may be a planned community, but nothing stops the Arizona sun in August. Dry heat, okay, but it is a full 110 degrees in the afternoon. Lakshmi’s been in India visiting Nikhil’s family for a month, so she’s been out of the loop. We have a lot of catching up to do, and it’s way too hot for us to meet at the park.
We decide we’ll take the boys to an indoor playground that resembles an overgrown bounce house. If we go early in the morning, the older kids won’t be there yet and the boys can run around without fear of a twelve-year-old trampling them.
We get settled in one of the brightly colored plastic booths with a clear view of the boys. Sanjay and Toby are flinging themselves face first into a four-foot pylon that resembles a punching bag. After she tells me about her trip, Lakshmi says, “Okay, your turn. What did you do while I was gone? Did you go to Branson?”
“Boy, did I.”
Lakshmi’s eyes light up. “What happened?”
Telling the whole story sends me back to the mindset we’d shared, which feels like a guilty pleasure. She wants to know every detail. I indulge her with energy in my voice, until I get to the point where Kay pulled a gun on us. Lakshmi has a stricken look on her face.
About that time, the boys start yelling, “Look at me! Momma, look at me!” and we turn to watch them swing from a rope into a pit of foam blocks.
“Okay, go on. She obviously didn’t shoot you. What happened next?” Lakshmi asks. “Did you ever find out why Toby was supposed to meet Kay?”
The guilty pleasure is now all guilt and no pleasure. I trudge through the rest of it, all the way up to Eric’s insistence that I return to therapy and our marathon of coming-clean sessions that followed.
“Wow,” she says, sitting back in the booth. “That’s a lot to take in. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay. We’re in a good place now.”
“Can you do it? Just let it go like that?”
“I have to, Lakshmi. It’s not that I don’t believe there was something . . . spiritual, or mystical, or whatever . . . It’s more like I’m just really, really clear on the cost. At the end of the day, it’s not worth it. I was risking my marriage; my family; my sanity, even . . . for what? I still can’t answer that question. So it’s not worth it, whatever it was.”
“So, for a while at least, it would help me if we didn’t discuss it.”
“Sure. That makes sense,” she says.
The air between us has changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but I appreciate that she’s trying to meet me where I am. It’s almost like we’ve been working on a project together, and now it’s over. I excuse myself and find the restroom. When I return, Lakshmi is deep in thought, watching the boys play.
“Everything okay?” I ask.
“Look at them. They’re not playing the airplane game. Or the fireman game. Is Toby still talking about John Robberson?”
“Yes, but not as much. Something changed when we were there. I haven’t brought it up.”
“Probably best,” Lakshmi agrees. “At least you’ve got some peace now.”
“Well . . .”
“You know how sometimes you lie in bed when you can’t sleep? And you replay every humiliating thing you’ve ever done? Do you do that?”
She says, “I try not to, but I know what you mean.”
“Well, the one I can’t shake is that I
the poor woman. Knocked her flat on her back. Someone’s grandmother. I could’ve broken her hip!”
“She was fine when she came to see you and Toby, wasn’t she?”
“I got the impression that if she was hurt, we would be the last ones to know it.”
“Proud. I think she was determined to do the right thing, as far as she understood it.”
“Well, that’s admirable, isn’t it?”
“For her. It makes me feel worse! I’m always going to be That Crazy Lady who came to her house and threw a fit. I wish I could talk to her now. Apologize. Tell her I’m normal again.”
Lakshmi says, “Sounds like you have a little unfinished business.”
“I’m going to finish it, then. I’ll write her a letter,” I say, feeling more certain than I have in weeks. “It worked with Eric. I need closure on this.”