In a recent conversation, Karen had asked him about his career plans: “What happens if you don’t find a decent job in French this spring?”
“I’ll probably get into real estate or some kind of some kind of business with flexible hours,” Michael had an instant reply in reserve.
“Must you always have a backup plan for everything?” Karen didn’t know whether she should be impressed with or apprehensive about her fiancée’s resilience.
“Hey, I was born with a backup diaper,” he replied with a cocky smile.
Although not one prone to worrying, that morning Michael felt slightly on edge. Karen and he were supposed to celebrate the two-year anniversary of their first date. He knew exactly what to expect. Karen insisted upon observing certain rituals on special occasions, which also included their birthdays, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. She’d hide little gifts for him all over the house. He found ties, love notes and chocolates inside the kitchen cabinets, in the laundry hamper, under his pillow and in his desk drawers. Although Karen considered this gesture thoughtful and romantic, it made Michael feel like she was marking her territory. Then they’d have dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in town, ordering only hors d’oeuvres since the entrées, which ran about fifty dollars a plate not counting drinks and dessert, were prohibitively expensive. Last but not least, they’d engage in a ritual that he later regretted having invented: writing down a list of their favorite moments together that year.
“What are you thinking about?” Karen quizzed him, lying on her side, her head propped upon her hand.
“Oh, nothing. I was just going over today’s activities.”
Karen’s eyes lit up. “Great minds think alike! I was thinking we could take a nice little walk in the park, you know, to enjoy the foliage. Then maybe we could go shopping for some new clothes for me. I’ve lost so much weight lately that pretty much nothing fits me anymore. And tonight we’ll go to our restaurant.”
“Sounds good,” Michael responded without much enthusiasm.
“Did you have something else in mind?” Karen picked up on his indifference.
“Nope.” He looked at his fiancée’s stringy hair, her pursed lips curled into an air of forced agreeability, her sturdy, block-like body strengthened without being feminized by the frequent workouts. She’s as familiar to me as an old shoe, Michael told himself, as he gallantly opened the car door for Karen.
Driving to Huron Park, a well-manicured nature reserve where they had walked and jogged together before, Michael hesitated. Should I tell her about Ana or shouldn’t I? Wouldn’t it be callous of me to tell her about it on our anniversary? But wouldn’t it be even worse to continue deceiving her? At any rate, he exculpated himself, the situation I’ve created doesn’t allow for other-regarding action. With one swift, curved motion, he parked the car close to the playground.
“Go for it!” Karen nodded approvingly towards the swings, knowing full well how much her fiancé enjoyed being a big kid.
Michael gazed at the two lonely swings. A week earlier he had been there with Ana. The image of her long dark hair blowing in the wind as they sat in adjacent swings, daring each other to pump higher and higher, flashed before his eyes. These pleasant recollections were accompanied by a vague sense of frustration, however. The woman he was pursuing was still partly out of reach. “I don’t really feel like swinging today,” he said to Karen, walking mechanically to a familiar spot.
“Where are you going?” she followed him to the sand box. “I knew you were a kid at heart, but let’s not exaggerate. Have you regressed to being a toddler now?”
Michael stood exactly where he and Ana had laid down. His skin sensed the tactile impression of her delicate body covering his own as their mouths devoured each other. He recalled Ana’s objection to their public displays of affection, “Did you see that guy parked in the truck watching us make out?” as well as his own characteristically cavalier response, “That’s alright, we’ll charge him for the peep show. You need the extra cash anyway.”
“A penny for your thoughts!” Karen said, beginning to feel ignored.
“I was going over what I’ll put on the list of my favorite moments.”
“Me too. But don’t tell me yet, okay? Let’s save it for tonight.”
“Okay,” he agreed, wondering what kind of surprise he’d deliver to Karen. In his current state of indecision, he was likely to surprise his own self.
“Beautiful leaves,” Karen commented after a few minutes, growing uncomfortable with the silence that was settling between them.
Michael looked up at the sunlit trees. Shades of yellow, green, burgundy and brown sparkled between the cheerful patches of blue sky and the dark outlines of trees. “We must be having an Indian summer this fall,” he commented.
“Yes, but nothing beats good old sunny Phoenix,” Karen reminded him. She felt increasingly uneasy about the fact that Michael no longer mentioned their upcoming move. In her own mind, Phoenix and their marriage had become practically synonymous. If only they moved to Arizona that summer, they’d begin their lives from a clean slate, settling into the peaceful domestic existence she had wanted for so long.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Michael took her comment as his cue. “I’m thinking of giving the Midwest another chance.”
Michael had rehearsed his answer in advance: “Well, I did some research. Get this! As it turns out, there are only two decent prep schools in Phoenix. Plus even those pay only about three-fourths the salary of the top prep schools in the Detroit area. There’s no way in hell I’m going let them screw me over like this. Do you know what’s the highest paying prep school in the nation?”
Karen didn’t know, nor did she care to find out. She struggled to come to terms with this abrupt change in the plans. “No,” she replied, disheartened.
“It’s Grosse Point Academy, right here in Detroit!” Michael exclaimed. “It’s one of the best private schools in the country, rivaling top notch places like Exeter.”
“I didn’t realize that you were so pretentious,” Karen replied pursing her lips, to register her disappointment.
“I’m not at all!” Michael objected. “I just want a nice, cushy job that doesn’t stiff me on the salary,” he said, picking up the pace.
She walked faster, to keep up with him. “But what about the disgusting Midwest weather. These endless winters?”
“When I’m ready to retire, I’ll be looking into sunnier places. But for now, my top priority’s finding a decent job.”
Karen walked in silence by Michael’s side. She didn’t how to respond to his announcement. Everything he said about his employment plans sounded perfectly reasonable. But his argument struck her as disingenuous, coming from a man who had repeatedly told her that his career ambition consisted of living life as an extended vacation in a warm climate. Why the emphasis on work all of a sudden? And why in Detroit of all places? Despite her misgivings, Karen tried to control her response. If I’m too pushy, he might become even more stubborn about staying here, she reminded herself. Yet she couldn’t help but see his change of heart as a bad sign. Staying in Michigan meant dwelling in an emotional limbo; a state of ambiguity that she sometimes experienced as a form of psychological torture. “Okay, if you say so... I thought that moving to Phoenix was important to you.”
He didn’t know what to say in response. The tension between them vibrated in the crisp autumn air. “There’s something I need to tell you. I’m in love with another woman,” Michael would have liked to blurt out at the moment when they passed by the bench where he and Ana had made out a few days earlier. He recalled vividly how his girlfriend had straddled him while exploring the crevices of his ear with the tip of her tongue, heating him from within with her humid touch.
“We don’t even hold hands anymore,” Karen commented with a note of reproach. Michael took her hand into his, to prove her wrong. But this gesture seemed empty to them both as her hand lay limply in his.
That evening, during dinner, the couple made an effort to sound more upbeat.
“I’d love to go skiing with you in Colorado during winter break,” Karen remarked. Making plans for the future gave her a sense of security, as if it could somehow endow their precarious relationship with a sense of continuity.
“But you don’t even know how to ski,” Michael objected, absentmindedly twirling the stem of his wine glass between his thumb and index finger. He had planned to stick around the Detroit area during the holidays, to see Ana whenever he pleased.
“I’ll ski on my behind if I have to,” Karen retorted.
“My parents might be coming here for Christmas,” Michael announced, hoping to dissuade her.
“That’s great,” she mustered some enthusiasm. “I’d love to see them again.”
“The last time you saw them you hardly said a word to them,” he pointed out.
“I didn’t want to intrude. It looked like you guys were having a great time together.”
Michael recalled that on Thanksgiving, when his parents, whom he irreverently called “the tag team of Bob and Betsy,” had visited him from Utah, the three of them behaved like overgrown kids. They laughed and competed for each other’s attention, while Karen sat quietly and observed, like a schoolteacher anxiously watching over a group of rowdy children during recess. As soon as his fiancée stepped into the kitchen to bring back another dish, his mother whispered something about Karen being cold and insipid. Michael kindly shared with her this bit of information as soon as they found themselves alone. The truth of the matter was that his mother didn’t target Karen in particular. She democratically criticized everyone she met. But Michael didn’t want his fiancée to establish a bond with his parents, or with anyone else for that matter. In his mind, loyalty was a zero sum game. Any allegiance Karen formed with someone else would take away from her absolute loyalty to him. “Sure, but I thought you were offended by what they said about you behind your back,” he reminded her, taking a bite out of the scallops, which the waitress had brought to their table.
Karen scooted around with a fork the leaves of her dry salad. She had remained faithful to her diet. “Well, it takes some time to get used to one’s future in-laws,” she took advantage of this opportunity to emphasize their engagement and upcoming marriage.
Michael felt a bit of scallop get stuck in the back of his throat. He washed it down quickly with a few gulps of water. “I thought we were going to see how we get along living together first, before discussing marriage plans again,” he found a tactful way of introducing doubt into Karen’s mind.
“What have we been doing this entire month?” she demanded, her tone betraying irritation.
“A month? What can one tell in a month? I was thinking more like a year or so before reaching a final decision,” Michael tried to buy himself more time, looking over the menu at the list of desserts. “What do you say we order some chocolate mousse and raspberry sorbet? We can split them half and half.”
Karen could hardly believe that Michael was in the mood for sorbet when their whole future was on the line. “What do you mean wait another year? Haven’t we been waiting two already?”
“We didn’t live together the whole time.”
“So what? What does that have to do with anything?”
“I want to sample the goods before making a purchase,” he replied with a smile.
“Sample the goods?” Karen repeated his phrase with an air of indignation. She removed the napkin from her lap and threw it on the table, announcing dryly: “I’m going to the restroom.” She then quickly left the table, to hide from him the fact that she had already burst into tears. When she returned a few minutes later, Michael once again felt the urge to tell her about Ana, to put an end to their sham engagement.
But before he got a chance to utter a word, Karen opened her purse and took out a piece of paper. “Here’s the list of my favorite moments this year,” she forced a smile. Despite her anger and resentment, she’d be damned if she let their anniversary date go down the tubes.
Michael unfolded the sheet of paper and read:
1. The day you proposed.
2. The day we got back together.
3. The day we moved in together.
4. Last year’s anniversary, when you took me to Phoenix and we looked around for houses. I could already picture us living there.
5. Last year’s New Year celebration, when we went dancing and made love on the patio of that cute little restaurant.
6. The first time we went to the gym together, when you coached me on how to use the exercise machines. It changed my whole outlook on life.
7. Spending time with you and your parents last Thanksgiving and Christmas (Yes, I really mean it! By the way, does this one count as two?)
8. Worst day of my life: the day we broke up.
9. Worst time of my life: the weeks we were apart.
10. My overall comment: I know in my heart that you’re the only man for me and that I’ll be so happy being your wife.
Wow, this woman really loves me, Michael observed. Perhaps my list will give her an inkling about how I feel, he calculated. “Thanks, Baby. I’m really touched by what you wrote.” He reached into his pocket for a piece of paper upon which he had quickly scribbled his own thoughts. “Here’s my list,” he extended it to Karen.
She began reading, her heart pounding with nervousness:
1. The day you began taking care of yourself, dieting and exercising, to improve your health and boost your self-confidence.
2. Going clothes shopping two weeks ago to buy you nice outfits that make you feel better about yourself.
3. My overall comment: work on yourself. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be. Independently of me, follow your dreams.
Looking over Michael’s note, Karen was struck by its brevity. She recalled that the previous year they had both enumerated all ten points. Obviously, I’ve lost some ground because of our stupid temporary break-up, she told herself. Yet she was still left with the disconcerting impression that she was reading something written by a life coach rather than her future husband. Michael’s tone seemed impersonal and instructional rather than sentimental and intimate, as she would have preferred. Her powerful defense mechanisms kicked into gear. He’s focusing on me this year. He realizes how much I need his support to improve my life. Rereading Michael’s list in this new light, Karen felt touched by its message.
In turn, seeing emotion reflected upon her features, Michael congratulated himself for having tactfully driven home the point that their paths in life would soon diverge.
“You’re so wonderful. I feel so lucky to be marrying a man like you. Someone who cares so much about me that he’s willing to help me with improving myself,” Karen declared, with genuine gratitude.
“No problem,” Michael replied, momentarily disheartened by the fact that when faced with the reality of his fiancée’s clinginess, he lacked the balls to deliver the bad news. Each time he tried to pull away, Karen reined him in with her unconditional love. But then he saw the upside of the picture. Michael coolly contrasted his girlfriend and his fiancée, the way an economist might conduct a comparative cost-benefit analysis. While Ana was impetuous, high-maintenance and volatile, Karen was reliable, low-maintenance and forgiving. His fiancée’s eagerness to do everything possible to please him flattered him, nursing his voracious ego. The diet, the exercise, the new clothes, the cooking, even the pathetic attempts at steamy sex, everything this woman does, she does it for me, Michael thought complacently, viewing Karen, no matter what happened, as forever belonging to him.
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