Caroline watched her husband place their dead cat in a shopping bag.
“We’ll need a rite of passage,” he said.
She was too shocked to reply. Bert went out the front door with the cat, and when he returned hours later, empty handed, she hadn’t moved from the chair by the window.
The next afternoon he brought a gray cardboard box home from the crematorium, and that weekend, buried the ashes in the backyard. By then, Caroline had recovered sufficiently to deliver a eulogy.
Their friends stood in a semi-circle around the small grave and shared stories about Jimmy, who with 21 cat years would have outlived them all, had he been human.
“He could roll over on command,” Caroline reminded them, “and snap up flies in mid-air.”
The mourners trooped inside the house, chatting and laughing. Bert served chilled white wine in their best stemware.
“Jimmy was like your child,” Ariana murmured. She had rented a room from them a few years before. “You gave him a wonderful life.”
“I know you think we’re nuts,” Caroline said.
“Yes, I do. You and Bert haven’t had a vacation together in years.”
“Jimmy was too ill to be left alone.”
“I’d have been happy to take care of him for you.”
“It was too much to ask of anyone.”
“Or you couldn’t trust anyone?”
Ariana’s cheeks were flushed from the wine. Frizzy tendrils escaped her braids. She’d been a messy but endearing tenant. Too endearing, Caroline had worried, whenever she came home late at night to find her husband and housemate so deep in conversation that they didn’t hear the door open and shut.
Ariana hugged Caroline goodbye. The younger woman’s arms were wiry and strong and Caroline, feeling frumpy, patted her back.
When she lived with them, Ariana worked in the large sunny room at the opposite end of the hall from their bedroom, constructing mobiles from dried kelp, hanger wire, worn-out stockings discarded by Caroline and cat hair discarded by Jimmy. She’d had a show in a coffeeshop owned by a friend, but nothing sold. One of her mobiles still hung in a corner of the room, which was now Caroline’s art studio. Caroline worked in pastels and pencils. She had a degree in fine arts. She didn’t especially like the piece but wouldn’t offend Ariana who felt they were her family now and occasionally visited.
Without the cat, the house seemed empty as a mausoleum.
And just like that, as sudden as death itself, the drawing and pastels, the gardening and knitting Caroline thought would fill her days after retiring from teaching no longer interested her. She was alone most of the time, rattling about the house in a kind of daze. Her friends were busy with grandchildren and golf, or they were traveling. And Bert was busy saving the environment. He loved his work and might never give it up.
Who am I now, she wondered.
She examined herself in the bedroom mirror. She’d always been plump and Bert, lean, like Jack Sprat and his wife, they’d joke. She frowned at the jiggly folds under her arms. Bert never gained an ounce, no matter what he ate, maybe because he bicycled over two hills to the law office five days a week. He’d long been a passionate cyclist. Before they met, he had bicycled all over Europe. He’d been everywhere, and, aside from their honeymoon in Ensenada, she’d never left the country.
Bert seemed distracted at dinner.
“Slay any dragons today?” she asked.
“The usual,” he shrugged. Then waggled his brows. “And you, my pet?”
“Me? I entertained a dozen lovers after lunch.”
“What a woman,” he laughed.
“Seriously, Bertie, I’ve not been myself.”
“What do you mean?” He looked at her closely.
“Since we lost Jimmy, I’ve felt, well, devoid of purpose. Empty.”
“Unfulfilled, perhaps. I need a radical change.”
He lowered his wine glass carefully.
She sat back in her chair and waited for him to ask what exactly she’d like to change, but he dropped the cue.
“I’d like to travel. Not just travel, but live in another culture, learn another language.”
“And here I’m thinking you wanted to be a fan dancer,” Bert said.
“I mean it,” she said a little sharply. “The mortgage is paid, there’s nothing to hold us here anymore. I know you’ve been everywhere already, but you didn’t stay, you just passed through.”
He looked at her fondly. “It’s a great idea, sweets. Only not right now. I’m too involved in my work.”
“I don’t mean right now. We can start planning.”
“Change is good,” he offered. “Let’s put living abroad on the table.”
“Yes, lets.” Caroline beamed. “The first thing I’ll do is join a gym.”
“What? Will we be back packing around the world?”
“I don’t want to be old and fat, that’s all. Old I can’t help, but fat I can.”
“So far as I’m concerned, you’re in beautiful shape.”
That’s what he always said. Or: the more of you there is to love.
Caroline signed up at a women’s fitness center in Noe Valley recommended by Ariana. She had always hated exercise. But Ariana said the machines were “playful.” Caroline did like the machines. They were giant toys that stretched and stressed her muscles. After two months of working out, she had not lost any weight but looked and felt better. She could climb to the second floor of their home without getting short of breath.
“What say we bring your bike out of storage?” Bert suggested.
On a brisk spring morning they drove to Marin and parked near the head of a paved trail that wound through flat marshy land to Sausalito and back.
Caroline sailed along, feeling she could ride all day and pleased that her legs did not tire. They stopped for a picnic lunch near a lagoon.
“I’m not even winded,” she said.
“You can do anything you want, Wonder Woman.”
“Flatterer,” she scoffed. But she was elated. “What about a bicycling trip through Holland?” she asked. “I could handle that.”
“You might surprise yourself. I see buns of steel in your future.”
“Where else could we go?”
“Is there something you really want to see?”
She nodded. “The Gehry museum in Bilbao, for starters. Barcelona. Granada. Screw the bikes. Let’s rent a car.”
He laughed and began packing up their picnic. “Vamanos, amiga.”
At the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, they noticed a larger than usual number of highway patrol squad cars. The drive back across the bridge was sluggish for mid-afternoon, southbound. Bert flipped the radio on.
There had been another terrorist attack, they learned. Hundreds injured or killed on commuter trains in a Madrid suburb.
“We should go to Spain,” he said. “We can’t let them stop us.”
That night she held on to Bert in their big bed. He was a restless sleeper. She moved with him, even while asleep, and dreamed they were swimming in dark turbulent waters far from shore, but whether to or from danger she couldn’t tell.
Caroline began collecting travel brochures and Internet articles. She put them in the cardboard box that had held Jimmy’s ashes and kept that on the sideboard in the dining room with TRAVEL printed in large letters on the side. But they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. She would have to find something fulfilling to do now, not later.
She didn’t miss the teaching job, whose regulations and paperwork had frustrated her on a daily basis. But she did miss the children. All those children, year after year, were the reason she had never needed one of her own. She decided to volunteer in an after-school childcare center not far from their home.
The director ushered her in, evidently relieved. He had only one aide two days a week, he explained.
“What would you like me to do?”
Chester had a radiant smile. He was a tall, graying African American, stooped and bookish yet built like a basketball player. She found herself standing on tiptoe to talk with him. She could tell the children adored him and worried she wouldn’t fit in. But the children were glad of the extra attention.
Bert was working late on a project that week and she hadn’t seen much of him. They made a date to go out Friday night to a new sushi restaurant. He bicycled up at seven, just as she and Chester were locking the doors.
“Why Chester, what a surprise,” Bert said. “Long time no see.”
Chester peered at him, perplexed, and Bert removed the helmet and held out his hand. Chester shook it vigorously.
“Now isn’t that something, man. I never guessed there was a connection.”
“How do you know each other?” Caroline asked.
“A Green Party thing,” Chester said.
“We were on a committee together. Care to join us for sushi, Chester?”
Chester demurred with thanks and went on his way.
Bert walked beside her, pushing his bike and whistling an aria from Norma.
“I love this city,” Caroline exulted.
The next night Bert grilled wild salmon filets for dinner and tossed fresh greens with sliced pear and bits of Emmenthaler.
He raised his glass. “Here’s to the good life, good friends, safe adventures, fulfilling work, happy trails. Did I leave anything out?”
“Delicious food,” Caroline added.
“Here’s to eating our way around the world.”
“And we can always come home,” she said.
She looked around the kitchen. The walls and shelves displayed a collection of antique utensils, grinders, blades, bread boxes. They’d dug up milk and whiskey bottles from their own cellar and had invented and told each other stories about these artifacts.
He nodded absently and she wondered if he had been humoring her all along. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Bertie, this is all about me, isn’t it? What would you choose to do, honestly, if you knew your days were numbered. I mean we’re not getting any younger.”
“Sweet Caroline,” he began to sing the Neil Diamond song, then stopped and took a deep breath and regarded her steadily.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know how to tell you.”
“Just tell me,” she said uneasily.
“I’ve already been through what you’re going through, let’s call it, midlife crisis, okay?” He fell silent.
“We’ve never had secrets. What is it?”
“I’ve not told you because,” he floundered. “Because I thought mine was a passing fancy.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” She thought about all the twenty somethings at the gym. “Oh my god, are you seeing another woman? Is that what’s missing in your life?”
“I’m not seeing another woman,” he said flatly.
“OK, then what, a man?”
“Yes,” he said.
She stared at him. “That was a joke, right?”
“No,” he said.
They’d been married almost thirty years. He was her best friend, he kept reminding her, and she, his. He insisted he wasn’t gay; he was bisexual. And what did that mean? He still desired her.
“Don’t touch me,” she told him. “Just don’t ever touch me again.”
How could this have happened? When? For how long?
He had “stumbled” on some Internet chat rooms, he explained, and at first, out of curiosity, simply looked at homoerotic photographs online.
“How can you stumble on a chat room?” she demanded.
“I don’t remember. It was two years ago.”
“What!” she shrieked.
“It’s not what you think. These men are my friends.”
“Men? You said man.”
“They’re my friends,” he repeated patiently. “They are like me, middle-aged straights with families, men who somehow made the same voyage at the same time. In a way it’s like crossing over into another culture, don’t you see? It’s my mid-life crisis adventure.”
She shuddered and put her face in her hands and wept. When she had recovered a little, she saw that Bert’s eyes were red and his cheeks damp.
“Will you ever forgive me, my darling?” he murmured.
“Go fuck yourself,” she snapped, and went upstairs to her private studio and slammed the door.
Carolyn slept on a futon in the studio. She didn’t want to sleep in their bedroom. Even if she were to throw him out of the house, she couldn’t bear to get back into that bed. She didn’t come downstairs until after Bert left for work and managed to avoid him evenings as well. Or he avoided her, as he didn’t come home till late at night. She found messages to her in his careful handwriting pinned to the refrigerator door with magnets.
“Caroline, I will give you as much space as you need. I love you. As ever, B.”
“Darling C, we must talk. Shall we make a date? Your call. Yours, B.”
She shuddered at “darling.” The glibness, the falseness of it.
Caroline fled the house with its messages and memories, the archive of their marriage. Its very walls oppressed her. She walked up and down the streets, miles every day, unmoored.
When had she last felt so wounded? Long, long ago, pre-Bert, when she was wild and indiscriminate and men she fell helplessly in love with tossed her aside.
She did not fall in love with Bert, she slid imperceptibly into love, resisting at first, disbelieving. His voice over the phone, a pitch perfect tenor, had implied great charm and beauty and attracted her before they ever met. She was the shop steward for the teacher’s local and needed legal advice, so it was business to begin with, and she saw at once he would never do as Prince Charming with that bulbous nose and pocked skin. He did have lovely thick hair, though, flame red then, streaked with gray now, and a sensuous lower lip. And he could make her laugh. She desperately needed to laugh. He had wooed her patiently, persistently, and despite her resistance, love took root and bloomed. It was a gentle radiant passion. She’d been sure he was a keeper. He’s a compassionate, sensitive man, she’d bragged to friends. Unselfish, giving. A satyr in the sack.
She had been deluded. He was selfish and lecherous. He’d hurt her irreparably, there was no way to fix what he’d willfully broken.
She went to the gym and through the familiar regimen like an automaton. In the steam room she looked at her body in dismay. The drooping breasts and bulges of fat. And she wept again, tears mingling with sweat.
She went to the childcare center and, in the moment that she and Chester exchanged glances, knew without anyone having said a word about it, that he had been or still was one of Bert’s “men.” Does he have a wife, too, she wondered.
“I’m sorry,” she told him. “I can’t do this.”
“I understand,” he said awkwardly. “But I hope you’ll reconsider some day. You’re really very good. The children like you.”
“I’ll go somewhere else.”
He held out his hand. “Good luck to you, Caroline.”
She stared at the large and shapely hand, then turned and hurried away without saying goodbye to him or the children.
She knew she ought to talk to someone, besides herself, but couldn’t bear to explain to their friends of many years what had happened. Hi, this is Caroline. Bert’s come out and I’m a basket case.
When Ariana phoned to ask her out to lunch, she put her off with some excuse.
“Caroline, I know what’s going down.”
Caroline was silent.
“You can talk to me about it.”
“Says who? Your buddy Bert?”
“How long have you known?”
“Twenty-four hours, I swear, that’s all. I didn’t have a clue. C’mon, you can’t do this by yourself.”
Caroline assented grudgingly.
Ariana was certified to teach sex therapy. This was an improvement, Caroline thought, over her previous day jobs, though it hardly qualified her to help in the present situation.
When she first lived with them, Ariana’s part-time filing job barely covered the rent. Bert had offered her a typing position in his law firm, but that didn’t pan out because she was dyslexic. She was also quite attractive, slender and large breasted with a round porcelain doll face. She had so many boyfriends Caroline lost count. One of them convinced her she could find lucrative work in the local pornographic film industry. Eventually Ariana made enough money to rent her own studio apartment and go back to school.
Ariana closed her laptop when Caroline arrived.
“You look exhausted,” she said.
“I’m not myself,” Caroline admitted. “I look like a hag.”
“A fag hag,” Caroline added bitterly. Ariana cringed, but Caroline ignored her. She tore the paper from her straw into little pieces. “The worst part is that I can’t stand to be at home. I actually hate the house. I could sell it in a heartbeat and move to Outer Mongolia.”
“No.” Ariana was shocked. “You don’t mean that.”
“Yes I do. It’s just a pile of sticks. Think about it. The next big quake could flatten it, anyway.”
“You’re grieving,” Ariana said. “It’s really hit you hard.”
“Like a sledgehammer. I never saw it coming.”
“I was surprised, too. At first. Then I thought, huh, in some ways, maybe it’s no surprise. Like you see things in one way because that’s the expectation, and you’ve got blinders on.”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“Meaning, if you look at Bert objectively, he could be, how shall I say this, taken for gay. There’s something about him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Caroline spluttered.
“And to think I used to worry that Bert was interested in you.”
“Maybe he was. He says he’s bi.”
“Oh crap, you’re a big help.”
“He really does love you.”
“You mean, he says he does.”
“I believe that he does. Haven’t you ever loved two people at the same time? Two men?”
“I’m a one-at-a-timer. I’d thought Bert was, too.”
“You might try to put yourself in his head. I’ve been there and I get it. Kind of like Dr. Zhivago, you know? He really loved Laura and also what’s her name, his wife. He really did.”
“Dr. Zhivago was a moral idiot.”
“That’s so judgmental, Caroline.”
Caroline shrugged. “Sorry. I’ll get myself a latte,” she said and went over to the counter, wishing she’d never come. She did regret she’d snapped at the girl. Bert used to say she was the daughter they’d never had, thank god.
When she returned, Ariana had recovered. Even when serious, she was relentlessly cheerful.
“I know it’s been a horrible shock. And I’m partly to blame.”
“Do you have any idea what Bert and I used to talk about when you weren’t home?”
“Oh we’d talk about art and politics and how was your day. But mostly he was interested in my relationships. How did I juggle them? And when I started working in the Biz, he was fascinated. ‘Tell me all about your adventures in the skin trade,’ he’d say.”
“You’re telling me this why?”
“Why? I’m saying he was always someone else. He was more than the Bert you thought you knew. Or even that he knew himself. Or maybe you did know in a way. You always said he was ‘insatiable.’”
Caroline realized she had slumped in her chair and sat up straight.
“None of that helps, Ariana. It still sucks. I can’t bear to be near him.”
“So why don’t you ask him to leave?”
“I should, I suppose.”
“He asked me if he could crash at my place, if he had to leave.”
Caroline was taken aback. “Why wouldn’t he stay with one of those men?”
“He doesn’t want to commit. To anyone but you, that is.”
“You tell your pal he’s not going to have his cake and eat it.”
“You need to tell him that yourself,” Ariana said gently. Suddenly her eyes teared up. “I love you both. And I can’t tell you how unhappy this makes me.”
“Oh for crying out loud, Ari.”
“I mean you’ve had the model relationship for years, something I could only dream about.”
“No hope for the wicked, dear.”
Ariana collected herself. “Sorry. That wasn’t what I meant to say.” She fumbled in her purse and pulled out a sheet of paper with an Internet page printed on it. “Here, this is a support group for spouses of men or women who come out after years of marriage. You’d be surprised how many.”
“For crap’s sake, you know I loathe that sort of thing.”
“Yes, I know.” She snapped the laptop open. “Look, here it is. I’ve already signed on. You can lurk and no one knows. It’s an anonymous chat group. Don’t close your mind to it. It could do you some good.” She hesitated. “Not to feel totally alone. You’re not.”
Caroline looked at the screen. She read:
“I was a young mother with three children all under the age of 8. I had been out of the workforce for 10 years. Discovering my husband was gay was devastating.”
She folded the sheet and put it in her purse.
“Enough about me,” she said briskly. “What’s going on with you?”
At home, Caroline tried to sign on to the support site as Pissed or Pissed Off, but those names had been taken. Next, she typed Steelbuns and was embarrassed when this logged her onto the message board.
So intent was she on reading messages that she didn’t hear the tapping at first, then turned to see the door ajar and Bert peering in.
“Excuse me, Caroline. I knocked several times.”
She stared at him. He seemed to have shrunk. His hair was disheveled and there were new shadows beneath his eyes. She supposed she didn’t look much improved herself.
“Can we talk now?” he pleaded.
She nodded and rose heavily from the chair. “Downstairs,” she said. “I’ll need a stiff drink.”
Bert mixed a pitcher of vodka martinis, while Caroline thumbed through the Chronicle, ignoring him. He put the pitcher, stemware and a dish of green olives on the table and sat opposite her and poured out two stiff ones.
“To,” he hesitated. “To us.”
She drank without comment.
“If I could have foreseen where this would lead,” he began, but she waved that off.
“Once you took the first step, everything was over.”
“I don’t see why. People make a mistake, they’re forgiven. It happens all the time.”
“A mistake? What if I had half a dozen lovers and neglected to tell you for two years? Male or female. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking, maybe this doesn’t count.” He held up a hand to still her protest. “I know that sounds crazy. I was scrambling to justify what was happening because it was no longer an experiment, it had become my modus vivendi, you see. So I thought, it’s not cheating when I’m with men, they’re my friends, it’s like something,” he fumbled. “Like an ideal of male friendship. Something classical.”
“Oh really?” she said icily. “As in Greek classical?”
“Yes,” he said wearily. “Look, I’m not trying to excuse myself. I’ve been in a state of shock myself all week. I was living in a dream. And the dream was that you could somehow accept this. Some women do. Like Paul and Jane Bowles, for instance. I even imagined…”
“Stop right there. Forget it. I’m not into women. And you know I’m a one-man woman, one at a time anyway.”
“I know you are. I also know you weren’t always.”
“Well, I for one am not regressing,” she snapped. Then thought about what he’d said. “Oh, I see. I get it. You never were the wild child, that was me. You were totally straight arrow. Oh my god, it’s all happening to you now.”
Bert’s face lit up. “Yes, yes. Exactly.”
She glared at him. “You’re happy about this?”
“No, no.” He frowned. But the corners of his lips twitched. “I’ve been miserable. You just always, Caroline, you know, you always could tickle my funny bone somehow.”
“I suppose,” she sighed. She hefted the pitcher and refilled their glasses. Alcohol was smoothing the rough edges.
“I’m sure you know I had lunch with Ariana today.”
“Yes,” he admitted, squinting into his drink.
“I’d bet anything you found that website for her.”
He shrugged and looked away.
“I do understand that this is not an uncommon situation,” she said coolly. “That doesn’t make it tolerable. You’ve been cheating on me, massively. I almost wish you’d cheated with a woman. Or six women.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been homophobic. But it’s really deeply disturbing.”
“My being with men doesn’t diminish you in any way as a woman. You are still very desirable. You’re an earth goddess.”
“Phff, what malarkey,” she snorted.
“But you are.”
“What really gets me is you are not who I thought you were.”
“I changed,” he said, quietly.
“You changed everything. You destroyed our marriage.”
He flushed. His nose turned red and he looked like a sad clown.
“Caroline, are you saying you no longer love me? Just like that? Is that possible?”
“Damn straight, it’s possible,” she snapped. “You’ll pardon the expression.”
He didn’t smile. She went on in a gentler key.
“I can see loving you like a friend again. But I’ll never love you like a wife. I can’t stand to be your wife.”
They were quiet for long moments.
“There should be some ritual to get us through this,” Bert said hoarsely.
“That would be a divorce,” she said.
“I don’t want a divorce.”
“I do.” She folded her arms, lifted her chin.
“There ought to be a rite of passage,” he persisted. “I mean the kind where friends and family come over with hot casseroles and booze and stand around and tell funny stories.”
“About our late lamented union?”
“Yes,” he said ruefully. “Except it would be like one of those wakes where the corpse jumps up and joins the party.”
They regarded each other, bemused and sorrowing.
“Do you want me to move out?” he asked.
“Yes. No. I don’t know.”
She looked around the room. How would they divide their possessions?
“Maybe I should,” he said.
She stared at the box from the crematorium. TRAVEL it said.
“Maybe I should?”
“What? Why?” He seemed astonished.
She’d surprised herself as well.
“I think I should get away for a while,” she told him, and went over to the sideboard and got the box. “Bilboa, remember?”
“Yes, by myself.” She spilled the contents out onto the table.
“Caroline, that is so brave. I’m really very proud…”
“Hogwash,” she cut him off.
She began to sort and rearrange the brochures. The text blurred. Blah blah blah, she read, and the glossy photos seemed unreal.
“I’ll miss you,” he said.
She didn’t believe it. He would glide into his new life free as a bird.
Rosen’s fiction has appeared in over two dozen literary journals (such as The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Spank the Carp). Her fiction collection, What They Don’t Know, was independently published in 2015. She also publishes a hybrid literary journal and chapbook series at http://www.echapbook.com and co-edits the Sonoma County Literary Update (www.socolitupdate.com). See http://www.joannerosen.us for more information.