Two Weeks After
When I drive up, he turns away and leans inside the open window of his Camaro. The hatchback and passenger seat are filled completely with bags and boxes. I always hated this car. The bright red color, the most typical color for a sports car, the long heavy doors, how he worried about dents every time I opened them. Sitting in it was no better—the long passenger seat and shallow floor made me precarious, perched high and long.
His father bought the car as a reward for getting into medical school. So inappropriate, and so unfair, since his three younger brothers never got anything like it. His father wanted them all to be doctors—as if there isn't a single other worthy profession. Ironically, of his four boys, none of them became doctors. His daughter-in-law is one, but I don’t count.
“Hey,” he says, reluctantly diverting his attention from the car. I have exited my car, and I stand awkwardly by his.
He thrusts a sweater into my hands, then the small electric heater: “Here."
I am confused for a second before I realize he is cleaning out the old house. I recognize my medical school sweater, the splotch of white paint forever marking it as mine. I wore it through that first winter when we were doing so many renovations to that one-hundred-year-old house, our first house, back when we were happy. The heater return is a mystery, especially since it’s May in Philadelphia. Maybe he is remembering nights we spent huddled together in the cold master bedroom, the orange light of the electric heater glowing in the corner.
He told me to meet him early because he wanted to talk. But we don’t talk. He wants me to go inside the storage units with him and see if there is anything I want. So we walk inside the storage facility, silent and single file. He punches the up button.
It’s strange to ride the elevator with him now. I don’t know where to stand or put my hands. First I shove my hands deep into pockets, then I remove them and tuck stray brown strands of hair behind my ear. I glance furtively at his profile: Black hair looking shaggy and slept on, that maroon hoodie he always wears when he hasn’t showered.
When we arrive at the unit, he fumbles with the padlock, trying out two keys from a bulky jumble before he finds the correct one. We wander aimlessly. There are too many joint possessions: The Christmas decorations, the furniture his mom gave us for when we move into the new house, the boxes of music CDs. I am torn between two emotions: Wanting to hold onto every single memory here and wanting to be rid of these memories.
“So, I had a problem last month with the storage unit fee. I tried to pay it with my business account, but the check bounced.”
He continues talking. I have tuned out. I know where this is going. It is strange to hear him talk about “my business,” since I didn’t even know this business existed two weeks ago. There are two storage units holding his possessions, which had to come out of the old house for real estate showings. One unit has a few pieces of furniture and joint possessions, but the bulk of it is his. He has too many things he doesn’t organize or get rid of—boxes of tools, tool bits rolling loose, jumbled wires shoved on top, old computer parts, old stereo speakers—virtually everything he has ever owned. It comes to $345 a month for three months. It’s not cheap, but I consider it a bargain to avoid more arguments and get his stuff out of my life. He says he will give me the cash. I won’t count on it. At the register, I don’t even blink when he plops a large roll of bubble wrap down to add to my tab.
Back outside, we wait for his mom. We are taking her to dinner, to tell her about the baby. It’s her first grandchild, and she doesn’t know yet that I am pregnant.
Maybe we will talk now, I think, then I realize that the storage unit fee was the thing he wanted to talk about. We are standing around the parking lot, in between our cars. He leans into his car window again, this time pulling out a nail clipper. He starts clipping his nails, asking me: “How’s the baby?” and pointing with the nail clipper to my belly.
Ten Days After
I get a text from him at 11 PM. “For tomorrow, I will let you hang out with your dad.”
It is an interesting choice of words. It means he is not coming to my second prenatal visit. I gave him the option of coming. To avoid going in the same car, I also told him that I was visiting my dad afterward. Partly, I just have trouble sharing these intimacies with him anymore. What sort of conversation can we make? Everything is a minefield: Friend’s lives, family member’s lives, our own daily activities. Talking about these things just highlights the fact that we aren’t sharing them as a couple.
The other part is that I no longer trust him to even drive me.
An old friend had told me on the phone late one night: “Meliss, you have to be careful. He is in a bad place right now. You cannot assume that he won’t just suddenly veer off the road and drive you both into a tree.”
Even if her fears are exaggerated, she is dead on about one thing: It wouldn’t be half as crazy as some of the things he has done.
I remember our trip to New Zealand just a few months before, the trip on which I conceived the baby, though I didn’t know it yet. We were there for our friend Sean’s wedding, and they were taking us on a tour around the country. At dinner one night, he conversed with Sean.
“You want to climb a mountain?” he asked, shaking his head and laughing. “Sean, how difficult is this hike?”
Sean paused. “It’s not very difficult. Remember that hike we did in High Point State Park? It’s similar to that, just longer."
He was laughing, shaking his head at Sean. “That was a hill, Sean. A small hill in New Jersey. This is a mountain in New Zealand. I doubt they are similar. Isn’t this the mountain in The Lord of the Rings?”
As I listened, a familiar dread pooled in my stomach. I knew that no matter what he said, Sean would do the hike anyway. He would ignore my fear of heights and my asthma, and claim bravado for soldiering on despite his asthma, though he knows his asthma is much less severe than mine.
Oh, I could refuse, and sit it out. But I would be left alone while the three of them spent the day together, sharing their physical conquest of the mountain and telling stories about it the rest of the week. So I agreed to climb the mountain. I lied to myself and thought that surely he would stop at any point along the hike and stay behind with me if I needed him to. Instead, when the peak became steep and we were left to scramble on hands and knees up loose gravel, without any railings or posts, he refused to turn back, even though I begged him, and now when I think about it it’s myself I hate. He was fevered, driven by some internal need I couldn’t understand, unable to be the companion I needed and scaring me with his selfishness.
Finding out I was pregnant didn’t change him. My announcement, white stick in hand, made him nervous and edgy, a deer in headlights. I tried to get him excited about the pregnancy. It was ridiculous, having to get a thirty-something-year-old married man excited about his planned first baby. I started reading about the milestones week to week, reminding myself of things I hadn’t thought of since medical school.
I read from my smartphone while he drove: “This week, your baby is the size of a blueberry. The three-chambered heart forms and limb buds appear.”
My voice trailed off. He kept his eyes on the road. He would take his eyes off to plug in his phone charger, to plug in his music, to fiddle with the LED lights. When I talked to him about the baby, he kept his eyes on the road.
One day, I put a blueberry on the dashboard on our way somewhere.
“The size of a blueberry,” I told him.
He ate the berry reflexively, and then laughed. I thought again what I thought every time I saw him laugh lately—that I hadn’t seen him laugh in so long, and rarely with me. For the last few years, it seemed he was always laughing with other people.
It didn't used to be this way. In medical school, we were happy. We spent a lot of time together, sitting by each other in every class, having most lunches and dinners together. We enjoyed the domesticity of things like pumpkin carving and planting vegetables. After graduation, we lived over an hour apart, but made sure we spent at least once a week together. Eating out was our favorite activity. Since we were so busy and only had a few hours together each week, we didn’t want to waste them with cooking and cleaning up. We wanted every moment to count.
It was after we bought the house together that things started to change. I found him stressful to live with—a hoarder who filled the basement to capacity with disorganized heaps of tools, wires, and electronics, with so much left over that it spilled into every room in the house. It wasn't just the clutter itself that was difficult to live with, it was his attitude about it. He couldn't laugh at himself. He became unreasonably angry anytime I tried to organize or even move his stuff. I had to stop doing his laundry because he went on thirty-minute angry tirades over my inability to fold it to his specifications. I thought I was marrying a messy man, and I thought he would be grateful when I did these things for him. I had no idea what I had really gotten into.
There were other things. Gradually, he went from someone who was fifteen minutes late for everything, to someone who was forty minutes late for everything, to someone who couldn't even commit to get-togethers at all. He would cancel at the last minute, or tell me he was too busy. Our lives became only seeing each other during family functions and holidays. He would make time for those, keeping up appearances. The alone time with me was what suffered.
I reread his text: “For tomorrow, I will let you hang out with your dad.”
I am already in bed with my book, my soft pajama pants riding up my legs, my T-shirt stretched over my growing belly. I wonder if he purposely sent the text at a time when he knew I would be sleepy in that defenseless way that people are, a time when you may mumble “I love you” without thinking.
More likely, he just forgot about the appointment until the last minute, his inability to plan ahead all-pervasive. Friends and family had offered to go to prenatal appointments with me, but at 11 PM the night before, it's too late to take their offers now. It means I will be alone for my appointment. Being alone is something I have gotten very used to.
Eight Days After
I need instant results. I know the health center does rapid HIV tests. I spend over two hours in the waiting room, feeling conspicuous, catching up on e-mails on my smartphone and playing word games. I shuffle in and out of little rooms in a daze, handing in urine cups and getting blood taken.
I used to work here in residency just six years ago. I recognize the doctor, a fifty-something rumpled woman with a perky attitude that belies her job. She gave a lecture at my residency once, Excel slides with black-and-white drawings of vaginas and anonymous pictures of penises with various rashes and ulcers. I wonder if she recognizes me. If she does, she keeps quiet. Working in an STD clinic for years does that to you, makes you jaded and unsurprised.
I text the woman and ask her to get tested. The woman—I don't know what to call her. She had mentioned her name when she called me a few days ago, but I didn't pay attention. I didn't realize at that moment the significance she would have in my life. I consider texting, "By the way, thanks," because I do feel grateful. If she hadn't bothered to tell me, who knows how long it would be before I found out about the affair. However, I have no idea what her motives were.
Then, I text him. I sit and fiddle with my ticket—a blue ticket stub from Staples. I have to laugh. This is what they hand you when you check in at the STD clinic—a ticket stub that looks like something you get at the county fair to claim your free cotton candy. They call your number instead of your name, for “anonymity.” Still sitting in the waiting room, my laughter is noted by two other patients, who eye me suspiciously. It is the first eye contact I have gotten today.
The return texts come in while I wait: "I will get tested, but for what it's worth, I got tested six months ago and I have been faithful (funny choice of words) ever since." I have to laugh again. At least she has a sense of humor. I am sure she is feeling similarly duped, though she doesn't know that he told me she stayed with him even after she found out he was married. It was the pregnancy news that made her break it off.
Another text: "Can I use Dr. H_____?" comes in. I know he doesn't want to sit in the health center like I am, risking being seen, having people look at him and judge him. Even now, he is still worried about appearances. I remember when I stopped my birth control, but we hadn't yet committed to having a baby. We sat in the car in the parking lot of the drugstore.
“Okay, who’s going in to buy the condoms?” I asked, and he looked down at the steering wheel, silent.
He was always silent when he knew you wouldn’t like the answer. Then he offered reasons: He never wore his wedding ring, so people would look at him judgmentally. He didn’t know what kind I would prefer. He was ashamed, but I didn’t understand then what he was ashamed of. Now I realize he was having an affair, probably using condoms with her, maybe even buying them from the same store. It wasn’t the pimply-faced clerk whose judgment he was avoiding—it was his own.
My number is called again, and I am ushered into another office for my quick HIV result—negative. I have to return next week for the rest of the results. As I walk outside, I pass the other patients in line. They probably think I am staff. I am dressed in more expensive clothes; I have a good haircut and good teeth. Most of the patients here are either sex workers or poor uninsured who haven’t even gotten Medicaid. I don’t seem to fit in.
Yet, eight days ago I found out something that made me acutely aware of the fact that my elite undergraduate degree, my medical degree, my standing as a doctor—none of these things elevates me above the human condition. Anyone can be the victim of a tornado or a cancer. Even the most careful person, a person who tries to always do right, can end up here: Pregnant, essentially single, at an STD clinic praying to God that my husband didn't give me HIV so that my baby won't be born into one of the worst situations imaginable.
Six Days After
I meet the inspector at the old house. Life goes on; I still have to sell the house. After the inspector leaves, I walk through, looking with entirely different eyes. The inspector was checking for basic working parts and safety code violations. My job, in contrast, is to find and pack up my remaining things. A few months ago, we had moved in with my mom to make it easier to stage the house for selling. I had left some belongings here, waiting until closer to closing time before making the final arrangements.
This task requires now having to categorize things as “mine” and “his.” I am stepping through his mess. The house had been neat for real estate showings. But three days ago, I kicked him out of my mom's house and he moved in here. It's temporary, until the settlement goes through in a month. The house is already a pigsty. Detritus litters every flat surface, and bags and boxes cover the floor. The disarray has no logic; I am as likely to find underwear in the dining room as I am to find drill bits in the bathroom. It has always been this way with him, and it's so nice to be able to step over the clutter and deal only with my things. The rest, like his life, he will have to figure out on his own.
He drives up as I am lugging the last suitcase to the front door. I see he is angry. I want to just leave with my suitcase.
Instead I hear myself ask him: "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." His standard reply.
"Look, you are clearly upset, just tell me what is going on," I say.
“No one asks me why,” he tells me. “And you don’t want to even try to keep us together. You are already doing things to cut me out of your life.”
The day before, I had asked him to sign a document that would take his name off the purchase agreement for the new house. My name is the only name on the mortgage anyway, and I would be paying it on my own regardless of our status as a couple. I have already hired a divorce lawyer and learned every legal detail regarding buying and selling a house in a marriage and in a divorce. I haven’t decided about the divorce, but I need to make a lot of financial decisions in the next two months and I want to be aware of all the legal ramifications.
My practical approach always angered him, yet it’s what supported him the past few years. It’s how we were able to afford every car we own, our house, the vacations. What always stunned him was my speed and decisiveness. The way I could cut through wheat and chaff with a few quick swipes of the scythe. I have always been like that, but now, I feel like I really have no choice. I have to think about the baby. After discovering all his deceptions, the lies about his affair and his employment and schooling for eight years, I have no idea if I can trust him with anything.
This begins a two-hour conversation. We end up sitting on the couch, him holding my hand in an awkward attempt at intimacy.
“Your sister must want to kill me, huh?” he asks.
Everyone asks me about my sister’s reaction. She is the oldest, the most protective, and the most outspoken.
“Actually, she was sad. She really liked you. She was sad to have to tell the kids.”
I remember how I used to feel a little jealous watching him play checkers with my nephew. After just twenty minutes with AJ, he had already managed to get him to talk more than I had in two years. Now, thinking about it, it occurs to me with a jolt that his ease at charming my nephew is akin to his ease with store clerks and strangers, and also his ease at lying to me about his affairs and employment. He is good at pretending.
He doesn’t respond to my comment about my sister. I can’t tell if he is gratified that at least someone will miss him, or sad that he has broken the relationship beyond repair. My brother-in-law had even started calling and texting him directly last year, confiding in him things he didn’t confide in me. Everyone has been stunned.
The conversation exhausts me. I stand, stretch my legs, rest my hands on my belly, which is just beginning to pop out. He wanders through his piles, lightly touching a box or wire here or there, his face lighting up when he sees something he likes. He is a room away from me now, his face in profile—unable to look away from his stuff even now, I imagine. Everything about him is familiar: The straight black hair, the baby face, the slight beer gut, the flat feet making all his shoes misshapen. There are other things not visible that I know: The odd birthmark nestled in that notch below his neck, the way his penis curves slightly to the side when it's erect. He is so familiar, and yet, I don't know him at all.
In the end, he kisses me on the cheek, he talks about the baby with baby talk, he asks me what I am doing later today. He pretends everything is normal.
I tell him: "I cannot be romantically involved with you right now.”
“I know,” he tells me.
“And I don't think that will ever change,” I add.
“I know,” he says. But I can tell he still thinks he can win me back.
Four Days After
We have a brunch already planned with his brothers and the girlfriends today, to celebrate a birthday. We decide to still go, to tell them about the baby. They don't even know about the baby yet. I want to tell his family the other thing as well, that we are separating. He surprised me by agreeing to tell our friends and family, without argument, about our separation. I need the emotional support of my friends and family, and I can’t get that if no one knows what is happening. I wait for him to pick me up.
He comes to the door looking disheveled. I have my keys in my hand, ready to go.
"The hot water was off at the house," he tells me. "I was going to get a shower here."
My mouth hangs open. Four days ago, I find out the most unimaginable things that he has done. Two days ago, I kick him out. Incredibly, he thinks it's okay to still shower here just to avoid a cold shower. I guess it's my fault, agreeing to go to the brunch together. It feels too much like old times.
“Fine,” I tell him, holding the screen door open, letting him into my mother’s house, the house where I grew up.
I sit at my desk in the bedroom while he showers, feeling nervous about him being near my stuff. How strange to think how I trusted him unquestioningly for years with my possessions and my body, and now, everything has changed. After his shower, he wraps a towel around himself and wanders in. He walks over to my bureau and stares at the picture frames I have turned down. I was careful to turn them all down, but he stares and stares, then hangs his head.
"You are taking down our pictures," he tells me.
I counter: "I am packing up. I have to get ready to move," yet we both know that is not the real reason.
I had been waking in the middle of the night the past three nights, and I couldn't sleep with the pictures of him and me staring at me.
He finally wanders to the other room to get dressed. I hang back a bit, not wanting to watch him dress but feeling that nervousness about him being near my stuff. Now that I know what a liar he is, it feels like a stranger is wandering around in my mom’s house, someone with unpredictable actions and unfathomable motives. He notices a bag of my clothes on the floor.
"What's that?" he asks me.
"Just some clothes I am giving away," I tell him.
The bag has been sitting there for three months in the same spot, yet this is the first time he has noticed it. He peers inside and gets angry.
"You always get rid of the outfits I like seeing you in," he tells his pregnant wife whom he has cheated on for the past year.
I am stunned, unable to answer. This is a new side of him emerging. Days one, two, and three were apologetic, remorseful days. Day four he is angry. He must have worried about this moment of truth for years. He must have imagined incessantly what would happen if I found out. He must have worked it from every angle, imagined every possible reaction I might have. Now I realize I am not acting in any of the ways he imagined.
He would probably prefer that I yell and scream and get angry. He wants to have arguments and discussions. But I’m not angry. Days one, two, and three, I listened, shocked and sad. Day four I am determined. I am making decisions. I am busy. I am acting off script—his script.
We get into the car, and I look at his profile—sullen. It bothers me that he thinks he has any right to anger. So, I decide to start asking questions.
“Did you always use condoms?"
I am truly not expecting a “no” reply, I just want to ask the question to stun him back into stark reality.
However, he tells me "No,” and it is a cold bucket of water to the face.
“So you jeopardized my health, and the health of the baby? Unbelievable.”
I had been so stunned to find out all the lies he had been telling me over a span of eight years, I was moving in slow motion, physically and mentally. I realize I hadn't yet thought through everything. He tries to make some arguments to justify his side, then he stops, probably recognizing how feeble they sound now.
We get to the restaurant early and sit at the bar. He is charming with the bartender.
“What is angostura bitters? Is that a liqueur? I can’t keep track of all these new cocktail ingredients,” he laughs.
She is attractive, of course, in a way that I will never be: Racerback tank revealing multiple tattoos, hair with a shock of bright pink in the center. The revelation that I am at risk for STDs while pregnant, mixed with his casual flirtatiousness, brings me near tears. I try to compose myself for when everyone else arrives. I can see the bartender notices my state, sees the way he is acting, and without knowing anything comes to the correct conclusion: This guy is an asshole. She addresses me the rest of the time.
The brunch with his family is surreal. They are chatting about the recent race some of them have run and someone's new haircut. He is chatting and animated as usual. It seems like old times. It makes me realize that I could just slip right back into it if I wanted. I could forgive him, stay with him, and my life wouldn't change much. I could continue to have the same vacations with family, continue to have the same social functions. If I were scared, I could choose to keep my life along the same path it has been travelling.
In the middle of brunch, we break the news about the baby. We allow everyone to be happy about that for a while.
While things are winding down, I turn to him, ask him quietly: “Should we tell them here, or bring them back to a quieter place?”
We had discussed this beforehand, and we weren't sure whether the restaurant would be private enough to break the news that we are separating. I see his face and I realize he didn't expect me to truly go through with it.
“Whatever you want,” he tells me through clenched teeth.
The Day Before
I go to work on twenty minutes of sleep. I don’t say anything to anyone here. What would I say? I do my work just fine, yet feel like a zombie. I considered taking a sick day, but the thought of free time makes me panicked. What would I do with my unoccupied mind?
He calls. We meet again. This time we sit in the house we are selling, for privacy. The car ride there is surreal. He is making the usual comments about billboards, people walking by.
“Look at that guy, he looks like he is on drugs,” he tells me, gesturing to a pedestrian stumbling unsteadily along the sidewalk. He laughs, shakes his head.
I don’t answer. It feels like even opening my mouth to talk might make me vomit. Instead, I watch him. He drives carefully, his awareness fully focused on the road. How does he do that? I am afraid to drive these days, afraid my distracted mind might drive me into a pole by mistake.
My mind is in overdrive, and my thoughts ramble as he drives us. I think, he is so good at acting, so good at putting on a face. I am so bad at it. I am a doctor, whose job it is to tell the truth, even when it is painful. It is a job that requires a high level of integrity. I am also a writer, a nonfiction writer. Each time I try to write fiction, I find my story weaves its way around to something that actually happened to me. I find lying difficult. Because I am so honest, people sometimes mistakenly label me as rude or unfeeling. The truth is this: I am brutally honest with myself and everyone else because it is the only way I know how to be. The irony is unmistakable; I am married to a pathological liar.
We arrive at our old home for our second long talk in two days. We sit on the couch we bought together, on one of our IKEA days. We used to enjoy wandering the showroom for hours, imagining home decorating ideas. I remember how happy I was then to look at living rooms and kitchens laid out on the showroom floor and imagine us living there. After two years of trips back and forth, the things we talked about doing to our house—the furniture we wanted to buy, the renovations—never happened. He always put up road blocks anytime I tried to realize our dreams. I guess he enjoyed imagining possibilities more than actually making them happen.
“When I found out I failed that board exam, that was a big turning point for me,” he tells me, referring to eight years ago when he failed, and I passed, our board exam at the end of medical school. “I had never failed anything in my life.”
This was the moment he started lying to everyone. We knew he failed the exam, he couldn’t hide that, but he claimed he retook it and passed and was on his way to residency just a year delayed. He never did any of those things. He started with just a few lies, hoping that he would do all the things he lied about—he would eventually retake and pass the exam, he would eventually start his residency. Every time he tried to accomplish these things, however, he felt stuck, either literally frozen in place on the day of the exam, unable to leave his apartment, or stuck in his mind.
The conversation takes a strange turn as he tries to figure out what went wrong with him. He enlists me to help psychoanalyze himself. I watch him, prattling on about himself and all his decisions the past eight years.
I don’t know this man, this man who is open and honest about everything. For years I struggled to get him to communicate even the simplest things, like what time he would be home for dinner. Now he is spilling out truth after truth, answering questions without hesitation. It occurs to me that lying for years was stressful for him. It must be cathartic to finally be honest. From his perspective, he thinks the hard part is over. He has no idea.
He sleeps with me tonight, for the first time in months, in my old childhood bedroom back at my mom’s house. I wake after a couple of hours, unable to fall back to sleep. He is sleeping heavy, exhausted sleep, and tries to cling to me while I disentangle my limbs and sit up. I sit for hours, thinking, watching him sleep.
I realize it has been years since I watched him sleep, the last time probably in our first two years of dating. Back then I was awed by love, his love and my love and the fact that we were in love. I wanted to drink him in, every scar and foible and quirk. Now I watch him sleeping and I am frightened, frightened by love, by his love and my love and the fact that I was so in love that I ignored signs for years that things were getting bad. I tried to keep our relationship together with that same stubborn tenacity I had used to get into Harvard, to get into medical school, to get through rough hand-to-mouth years of research jobs after graduation.
Eventually, the morning sunrise starts to filter into the window, the same window I looked out of as a child. It reminds me of all the nights and mornings I peered out of that window wishing for my adult life to start. I was impatient to explore the world, be independent, make my own decisions rather than have them made for me.
Looking through that window now, I remember the person I used to be before I met him. I had nearly forgotten after over a decade of making compromises on everything for the relationship, from the car I drive to the food I eat. After a few years of happiness together, everything had become a struggle. I open my palm in front of me and imagine sand pouring through it, falling to the ground. I have always scoffed at therapists who talk about symbolic exercises, but this morning at this moment in my life, it seems appropriate. I watch the sand fall through my fingers. I let it go.
Day one is the phone call from her. The details are unimportant to anyone except me. A woman, a confession. It was thirty days after I had found out I was pregnant.
“I didn’t know he was married,” she tells me. “Dating,” she calls it.
It sounds so silly. Married people in their thirties don’t date. College students date. Twenty-somethings date. Dating implies a pickup in a non-shared car, a trip to somewhere like a carnival, some frivolous place that married people don’t go to anymore until the children. I haven’t dated in six years, since we started living together.
“Do you have my number?” she asks at the end, like she’s worried about me.
It almost makes me smile. I am vaguely aware of my own reactions—I guess I am too numb yet for anger, I think. But I am also thinking, why be angry at this woman?
Day one is the phone confrontation with him.
“I guess we have a lot to talk about,” he tells me.
I have never heard him like this, clear and direct. None of the usual evasiveness. The cat is out of the bag. As usual, he is too far away for a face-to-face. He wants me to wait the three hours until he can drive back to meet with me.
“I can’t wait,” I tell him.
I make him tell me the story over the phone. There were many lies, so much more than just an affair. Lies about passing his board exam, attending residency, doing a research job. None of it was true. He even eventually had a business I didn’t know about. He had started living a double life, and the affair came later, when the lies became so entangled he had no one he could truly talk to and he became lonely.
I stop the car while he talks, smooth a piece of paper from my work bag onto the dash, and start jotting down notes. I don’t trust myself in my current state of mind to remember everything he is telling me. Plus, the writing calms me, helps me to focus on something other than the harsh reality of what is happening. Later, when I try to read the notes, they are a jumbled mess of phrases that don’t make much sense—my mind sputtering.
Day one is a litany of physical ailments. I’m not hungry, but I eat for the baby. It all tastes like cardboard. I am frequently nauseous. My bowels are loose. My stomach is a churning knot.
I have to write notes because I can’t focus my mind. It keeps spinning with scenes, bits of conversations we had, random memories from years before brought to the forefront of my mind and reprocessed with my new information. That day he told me he was going on that conference, where did he really go? Who was he with? I replay our last few months of sex, looking for the signs I missed or misinterpreted. That night, I can’t sleep. I get exhausted catnaps all night—one hour here, two hours there. I wake up in the middle of what little sleep I get with thoughts about the past.
Day one is in slow motion. I drive aimlessly through the city. The pedestrians walk slowly, talk slowly. Their lips move so slowly I can read their words without sound. There are sixty-second seconds, one-thousand-minute hours. In one hour the clock reads the same time again and again.
I drive around city blocks, the same ones over and over, my cell on the passenger seat. I have never been afraid of my phone until now. Each beep makes my stomach lurch. I answer, talk to my friend, tell her what happened. It already feels like I have told this story a thousand times, yet it is the first time. My reaction time is slowed. She asks a question, I replay it in my mind, process it, then open my mouth to speak. My lips are slow. My arm reaching for the phone is a stranger’s arm. I look at my face in the rear view, expecting—what?—yet it looks the same as it always has.
Day One is not “Day One” at first. After a few days pass, and the numbness of shock wears off, it becomes “Day One” in my mind, and I make it a joke. I start calling it Day One with my friends and family. I want them to laugh with me to soften the seriousness of the situation.
“Day One, you get it?” I tell them. “Like D-Day, the storming of the beaches of Normandy, like Operation Z, the day they attacked Pearl Harbor. Day One, the day that I found out the big truth!”
I am trying to get through it with humor, and I feel responsible for helping my friends and family get through it, too. I am trying to make them stop worrying about me.
Talking about Day One is also my way of getting over it. It is me trying to laugh at an unfunny situation, to rob it of its sting. Day One is the day my life forever changed with one phone call. Before that phone call, I was married, in a twelve-year relationship, pregnant with our first child. I was selling our old house and buying our new house in the new neighborhood we wanted to raise our child in. Before Day One, I was using the pronouns ours and we. It is tragic, but I am refusing to be the tear-eyed, weak-kneed victim. Making the joke helps bolster me.
I call it Day One for another reason. I thought Day One was not only tragic but also unforgettable, something that would forever remain burned into my memory banks, vivid in every detail. Yet two weeks out, I have already forgotten some things. I have forgotten what his voice sounded like when he told me the truth. I have forgotten the expression on his face when I saw him the first time after that phone call. By day fifteen, I am already sleeping through the night most nights. I am hungry and no longer having stomach upset. The world is back to real time. My mind is not spinning. The countdown happened, “Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen, …one!” Yet unlike a typical countdown, it wasn’t over after I reached One. The days keep coming.
Melissa Rosato is a family physician living in Philadelphia with her son Benjamin. She writes mostly nonfiction, but also fiction and poetry. Her nonfiction essay “This Story” was accepted for publication by the journal Intima, and she once even published a poem many moons ago. She grew up in South Philadelphia and enjoys being back in the neighborhood.
Photo by Madeline Stoll for her project using projection