Gwyneth sits across the table from Sam, watching him pick idly at his scrambled eggs. Preoccupied, she overcooked them this morning, and hoped he wouldn’t notice. He obviously has, sifting through them like an unhappy prospector, and it is making her nervous, so she crosses her arms over her chest to still a latent tremor, and tells him what she needs to say. Their marriage is over.
She expects there to be some finality to the moment, like a death rattle, but nothing changes, not immediately. Sam still looks disappointed, only perhaps with slightly wider eyes, her eggs are still bad, and the institution of marriage has failed them. Gwyneth’s mind briefly stumbles upon that phrase. Institutions are places for crazy people or eager schoolchildren, not healthy, functioning adults. But she and Sam’s relationship has been asthmatic for a while now.
She’s done her makeup in preparation for this, hoping to appear the put-together one, the adult, the still-desirable wife. Perhaps some part of her wishes Sam will throw himself at her feet and beg forgiveness for fucking around. She’s overdone it, though. Eyeshadow too dark, lipstick too red. Once, when she was very young, she’d gone to her aunt’s funeral- a hard, tough woman who had never worn an ounce of makeup in her life. Barely six, she’d toddled up to the open casket to see that craggy face painted in shades of pastel: rouge slathered on with a paintbrush, shining pink lipstick, blue eyeshadow. It wasn’t the image of a corpse that terrified her, but the sheer wrongness of it. She hopes she doesn’t look like that now- a cosmetician’s mistake.
“Wait, hold it a minute,” he says, then gets up abruptly. Hold what? she thinks, having relinquished the situation to him. She could get angry, she thinks, defend herself, address his cheating. But cheating implies flaunting rules, illicit activity, and he never pretended to hide it. She never pretended not to know. So it’s his chance to play the wronged party, which is easier for her, a woman poorly versed in matters of the heart. Why the heart? she wonders, and Sam heads toward the door in his too loose pajamas. Why not a liver, a lung? An organ you transplant to another in exchange for reduced immune function.
“Where are you going?” she asks as her kidney reaches the door to the hall. She tells him they have details to discuss. She’s not ready for him to disappear. Ending this isn’t like ending a magazine subscription. She’d never fallen out of love with Southern Living.
But he’s nearly gone already; she can hear him packing. Alone now in the kitchen, she sighs, proud of herself for keeping it together, for not putting it off any longer, for not letting his big blue eyes arouse pity. She shouldn’t feel nostalgia, she thinks, but she does. They had been very happy, not so long ago. She wishes she could bottle their wedding day, conceal it in a snow globe, a frozen tableau she could shake every time she wanted to liven things up, relive that brief, heady passion, the pride before the fall.
She’d heard of women marrying men for their money, but hadn’t anticipated a man would do it to her. Looking back though, leading conversation with her dead parents was her first mistake, and a bad one. She’d found Sam charming, intriguing and naughty in the safest way. After all, how adventurous could an antique dealer really be? He’d traveled a lot, and she would ply him with pampering when he’d come home, hoping it would be enough to encourage him to stay longer the next time, to value her as much as he valued her bank account. He’d been breakable to her, or rather, fixable, like those antiques he bought. Useless to some, but a treasure in the right hands. A little glue, a careful cover up, and good as new. Only she didn’t know he was being resold- another woman’s hands on that cracked porcelain. So she’d tracked his phone GPS and found out the truth- travel time to hotels, more and more time spent away, and a cavalier attitude when confronted. After too long, she’d appraised herself, and decided on divorce.
She hears the door open, and asks when she’ll see him. She hadn’t meant for him to leave right this second-not in this blizzard- but perhaps it is better that he does. Then she won’t back out on her decision. He’ll text, he says. What a dick. This marriage death knell is worth little more to him than a few words. She straightens up. She’s done it. The door closes with an annoyed slam.
She waits, munching on toast. This doesn’t feel as right as she imagined. She can’t summon what she was sure would be a feeling of righteous victory. Instead, she just feels cold. Wait, that’s the door opening again. Has Sam come back to apologize? Will he make some grand gesture? Plead his case with passion worthy of Clarence Darrow? She almost hopes he does, so she can deny it. So she can test her resolve.
No, it turns out. His car needs a jump. He’s shivering, pitiful. He needs her, as he’s always needed her, and she get up to take care of him, like she always has. Money, food, housing, he’s taken it all from her, and now the polar vortex will suck him away into swirling white. It’s hard, she thinks, losing anything, especially people. Losing a person is like losing one of a pair of earrings. You still have one, and until you throw it away, the other one won’t come back to you. But if you toss it out, you still only have one. So you have to fake it, fool the universe into thinking you’ve given something away, trick the great powers that be into believing you’ve lost something of yourself in order to regain another person. Otherwise, you’ll never get them back. But she isn’t faking it as she gives his retreating form a tight smile. She’s lost something. And she isn’t getting it back.
As Gwyneth wipes off her boots, it occurs to her that this entire process took less than a half hour. Two years bookended in less than the time it take her to clean the kitchen, and left just as sterile. This was easier than she thought it would be; she thought she might have to argue or cajole. It bothers her that he left so quickly, that he didn’t try to hold onto the marriage, that he shrugged her off like dandruff.
She goes to their bedroom and sees his absence; all the things he packed are gone, naturally, and his office looks like an unfinished construction site. Wires are sticking up from the desk like weeds. He hasn’t left a mess; when he returns for the rest of his things, it will be as though he never lived there at all. It occurs to her that divorcing him won’t be much of a punishment. It will be more like untethering him, letting him run free like a rutting tomcat, to rub his greasy fur against everyone’s legs. This makes her angry. She doesn’t want to let him go, not easily anyway. He took something from her, and she wants to take something from him, to even the score, to make him realize what he’s missing. No, not what he’s missing, but what she is withholding from him. What he had and won’t get back. She wants regret. She wants longing. She wants to smash that fucking marriage snow globe, because it never existed.
First, she texts him. No reply, as she expected. She marches to the bathroom, and removes her cadaver’s makeup, to replace it with war paint. Subtlety is her weapon here. No overt streetwalker pandering, no begging, only a power play, a slap to his gonads he’ll really remember.
She picks up her phone to track his GPS, feeling like a spy, a femme fatale in film noir, a dangerous dame dressed to kill, and that’s what she wants. To twist the knife, to injure, to get him on the table and make a Y incision. A few clicks, and she knows. He’s at a hotel. Barely a few hours since her car revived his from death, and now he’s fucking someone else.
It is surprisingly easy for her to gain a key to his room, considering she is his wife and he booked the hotel under his own name, no longer attempting even veiled secrecy. The hallway is typical of a hotel, the carpet a morass of a pattern unwelcome anywhere else, her heeled footsteps thunking against it. She reaches the door, and listens outside for a moment. Breathing, she thinks. Someone moving around. I’ll kill him, she thinks.
The mechanized whirr of a mechanical lock, and she enters, stone faced, straight-backed, Lauren Bacall who’ll just put her lips together and blow. Her mouth drops open, and the doors shuts behind her. Too late.