"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Coming Home To An Empty House–His Wife Left Him With Nothing But Flair

On the day in question John Phillips did the usual.  He finished work late, stopped at Harry’s Bar for a beer, steered onto the Beltway, turned off at the Rt 44, exit, drove a few miles down Linder’s Lane and home.  This time, however, as he unlocked the door and called his wife, the empty house echoed loudly. The furniture was gone, the paintings had been removed from the walls, the rugs pulled up, the pots and pans removed from the kitchen; and the only sign of the television and entertainment center were ragged wires poking out of the wall and a few stray screws nearby.  In fact all that was left of anything were traces – outlines of the awful portrait of his wife’s mother, lint and dust devils caught between the uneven floor joist, stains on the floor where dog urine had drained through the carpet, dust on top of the ceiling fan, and an open carton of sour milk in the refrigerator.

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She had taken everything in one fell swoop, arranged for the movers to come early, leave before 5, and leave nothing behind.  There was a lot of common property stacked in the moving van and plenty of his own; but his wife had been unintimidated.  Possession was nine-tenths of the law, and in her case, a hundred percent.  She was a K Street lawyer, a partner in Dobbins, Mix, and Flannery, untouchable outside or inside the courtroom and well within her ethical rights and ‘so, sue me’ legal position.

Phillips had heard of such things happening, but never believed them.  Any man worth his salt would have known that something was up long before any such abandonment.  Spite, anger, resentment, and hostility are not exactly that uncommon in women, especially in a wife of twenty-five years who had plenty of time to let things build up, fester, and spill out. He would have sensed something at the breakfast table, in bed, or in the car – closed spaces are emotional hothouses, and the smell of anything going bad is hard to miss; but to his great chagrin, he didn’t. 

How could he have been so stupid, he asked himself once the surprise of the empty house had passed? And it was indeed the empty house that surprised him most.  His wife had always been something of an add-on to his life, hard to remember when or why a hook for her coat was hammered in next to his.  They had never really loved each other – or for the record he had never loved her.  It was just something that happened.  His trolley was shunted onto the wrong tracks and he ended up here in a leafy Washington suburb without really knowing how.  He had muddled along for years without eve asking the question.  It was something one just did, marriage, and once one was in it deeply – sunken costs, emotional baggage, etc.,  why bother to stir things up, let alone leave?

He had had his dalliances – letting off steam as he put it through the safety valves installed in every marriage.  Feeling trapped, closed in, put upon?  No need to cause the rafters to shake.  Just hop a plane to Ouagadougou or Cotonou for a long weekend with Fatma or Usha tacked on to ‘a business trip’ engineered thanks to his senior position at the World Bank, only one signature on the travel request other than his, first class all the way in those days, and even hot sand and desert winds were nothing given his rank and good fortune.  His wife never questioned his trips because: 1) it was part of his job; 2) she knew it was for a woman, and she didn’t care; or 3) she didn’t care about him, period.  That third was the hardest to swallow but the most likely.  After all, what was the empty house saying?

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Well, he thought to himself, it certainly was a very easy way of ending a marriage that had been on the rocks, or at least in the shoals, for some time. In a way, he had to be thankful for this quick, absolute, unequivocal exit.  A quick check of their bank accounts showed that she had been at least honest and ethical in that regard.  She had taken the furniture, the rugs, the pots and pans, and the wicked portrait of her mother, but had left their joint monies and investments untouched.  That would be for later, he assumed, but far easier to sort out than knick-knacks and memorabilia. All in all, he had come out clean.  An empty house meant he was happily on his own again. 

Of course he would have to bear up under scrutiny – Bank secretaries were more gossipy than a hundred harpies on a dead tree; but Phillips was a confident, self-assured man.  “Good riddance” would be enough to feed and quiet the ladies.  Let them figure out whether he meant it or was hiding his shame or worse.  It was perfect closure.  It all could have been a bit awkward.  While many women have left their husbands, few have done it with such panache and melodrama as his wife.  Leaving only a few bits of lint, dog stains, and the dusty outlines of a picture! How remarkable! How absolutely wonderful!

The American online, gig economy made refurbishing the house quickly and simply easy.  He wanted nothing to do with his wife’s eclectic tastes – a lamp from this period, rugs from that country, a Mallard bed, Indian miniatures, and God knows how many wall hangings, statuettes, and old silver she had bought –so he bought a bedroom set, a living room set, and a kitchen set.  Nothing could have been simpler.  The living room set, for example, came with two armchairs with accompanying end tables and reading lamps, a sofa, an ottoman, a wall-to-wall carpet, installed, a coffee table, a settee, and a large planter. The bedroom and kitchen sets were equally complete.

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Of course the living room had no soul, but Phillips wasn’t interested in soul, spirit, flair, or anything of the kind.  Neutral simplicity was his cup of tea, a kind of liberating, Carthusian monastery feel without the hard prie-dieu and narrow beds.  He could live in his house without thinking about it.  The house would be context only,  convenient space to hang his hat, cook his dinners, and get a good night’s sleep.

He often thought about his wife.  How could he not after living with her for so many years – or at least occupying the same formerly cluttered space now happily empty of her diversity.  When he thought of her it was not the good times or the bad ones; not the sex or the arguments; not the toilet seats, trash, and dirty counters, not even the nasty tiffs and slammed doors. It was her wonderful, operatic exit – a no-fault departure, a flight without rancor or consequences.  He wished he could have seen her at the doorway on her way out - the beautiful aging diva in the last scene of the last act of her last play, giving the empty rooms a last look with a smile of satisfaction, a quick turn on her elegant high heels, her scarf flipped dramatically, trailing a lingering scent of jasmine.

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He never expected it all to end this way, happy though he was at the outcome.  He always figured that he would muddle through with his little affairs, his business, his interests, and his small preoccupations.  His wife would not notice or not care.  ‘Separate but equal’ applied to marriage as well as to schools.  Divorce was always a possibility, but as sunken costs rose in value and divestiture became more and more complicated; and as routine deadened most emotional enterprise, he was certain it wouldn’t happen.  He would have been just as happy if she had suggested it, but things always seem to work out, and this predictable marriage with a very unpredictable end was just what the doctor ordered.

Phillips had little interest in his wife’s doings.  How could he after such a marvelous exit? Bits and pieces of her whereabouts reached him – San Francisco, Hong Kong, Bangor – but he pursued none of them.  He assumed that she was doing well, probably remarried, but then again maybe not; employed (she had always been a star), and certainly happier than she had been with him.  In any case, it was not his affair.  Life has a way of sorting things out and rearranging them in surprising ways.  So be it.

He continued working at the Bank, took early retirement, and moved to St Bart’s.  Nothing more to say, really, but when he thought about it, it was all because of that glorious, stupendous, dramatic exit of his wife, worthy of Sarah Bernhardt and Sunset Strip and then some.

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