Rob looked down at the watch, then up at Ana. He could hardly believe the normalcy of her gesture. A rush of emotion overcame him. The gift reminded him of their ordinary life together. He turned away, not wishing to betray his feelings.
Michelle silently observed the exchange between her parents. She had become very attuned to their interaction lately. As her father moved away, the girl approached Ana. “This is the first time I’ve seen Daddy cry. How could you do this to him, Mama?” she hissed under her breath. She was unwilling to accept that her mother would ever want to hurt her father for some stupid man she despised that she’d never in a million years accept as her stepfather. She already had a father. She wouldn’t even speak to that dude, the girl resolved from the moment she heard of Michael.
Ana’s heart sank upon witnessing her husband’s reaction. A few days earlier, they had met with a lawyer to draft the divorce settlement. As Rob had promised, it stipulated joint custody and a fair division of their marital assets. They didn’t quibble over any of the details. All of their tension centered on the decision to divorce in the first place, not on the terms of the settlement itself. Rob’s fairness, his reliability and all of his other good qualities, which he manifested even during this period of great tension, only emphasized in Ana’s eyes the sharp contrast between her husband’s good character and her lover’s increasingly transparent selfishness.
To distract herself from her mounting anxiety, Ana turned to her son, to help him with his homework, as she usually did before dinner. She rummaged through Allen’s overcrowded backpack and removed, as if from a magician’s bottomless bag of tricks, a seemingly endless supply of crumpled papers, worksheets, graded assignments, PTA announcements, candy, smashed pop tarts and pencils and pens. After scrimmaging in that messy pile, she finally found his last homework assignment. She recalled that particular essay, whose subject was, ironically, “My Family.” The students had to select a theme—something that defined their family life—and develop it into an essay that included descriptive adjectives, illustrative examples and a main message. Ana read over the second grader’s childlike print, with its uneven characters and predictable misspellings:
“My family. By Allen B. Have you ever wondered what will happen next in life? I have come to know it is impossible because everybody gets surprised. Once on vacation, I was in Louisiana and I saw someone was celebrating there birthday. I was so excited for my birthday to come! And I said ‘too bad it’s not even my half birthday.’ Then my dad said ‘it’s your half birthday’ and he was serious. That was a good surprise for me!
But a few days ago I also had a bad surprise. My parents told me they want to divorce. They were mad at each other. That makes me sad because they are nice to me. Both love me very much. They don’t even ground me or scream at me. They only yell at each other. That’s why there getting a divorce. Lots of my friends have stepmothers or stepfathers. But I’m still sad about it. I want to keep my real parents.
I think if you’re nice to people, people will be nice to you! When you care for your friends, they will care for you. If you be nice to people, they will like you. If you share your toys with them, they will share there toys with you. I think it’s great to make friends and the only way to do that is to be nice. Being nice is an important life skill to have. Because if you don’t be nice, you will never make any friends. If you be nice, people will want to hang out with you and you will be able to learn more and more things about that person. If you be nice to people, you are a great person. I wish everybody could be nice to each other. My parents also. I wish them to get along and not fight and not get a divorce. Then there would be lots of love and happiness in our family. Being nice to each other is very important. There would be no more war and weapons if people were nice. Everything would be great in our family and in the world. We would all live peaceful, happy lives.”
Ana raised her eyes from the essay, which contained such untainted wisdom, to look at her son. With his closely cropped hair and a lopsided mustache of chocolate ice cream, the boy looked like the picture of innocence. “I’ll always love you and take care of you. We’ll do homework together after school, as usual. Nothing will change between us,” she said reassuringly. Ana then took Allen by his slim little hand, still sticky with traces of ice cream, and enfolded him in a maternal embrace. She felt his warmth and rapid heartbeat. The closeness of this somatic bond filled her with renewed hope. Maybe she could escape Michael’s grasp. Maybe her marriage was still salvageable. Maybe the damage done by her affair was not unfixable. She rushed to her husband’s office and knocked on the door.
When Rob opened it, she could hardly recognize him anymore. Her usually calm, rational husband had the feral look of a wounded animal. She glanced at his computer screen and saw pictures of women, in neat little squares. “What are you doing?” she asked him, stunned.
“You’ve made it perfectly clear to me that it’s all over between us,” Rob coolly replied. “I need to move on with my life. At first, I didn’t want you to leave me. I was devastated by your decision. But now I don’t want you to stay anymore. I’ve seen too much in you that I don’t like.”
“So what are you doing?” Ana repeated.
“I’m looking on a dating website. I don’t want to suffer anymore. I look forward to falling in love again, with someone who’ll treat me right.”
“Before I even left our house?”
“After you cheated on me and asked me for a divorce,” he emphasized.
“I thought we were getting along pretty well, under the circumstances,” she alluded to her gift.
Instead of being appeased by this reminder, Rob became flushed with anger. “You can’t hold me in reserve. I’m not some damn library book!”
Ana retreated to her room. She told herself that she should have expected that her husband would try to rebuild his life without her. But she was completely unprepared for it happening so soon. The flash of jealousy hit her hard, sneaking up on her like a fist punch from the side. I still love Rob! she belatedly realized.
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