When a Decades-Long Marriage Reaches a Breaking Point
Ann Pearlman on How Quickly a Life Can Crash
“How long have you been having this affair with Sakiko?”
He inhales over the phone. Then, a quiet stretch.
I am vacant in the space. In the silence.
“Not long. About a year,” he says.
I have finally asked the right question. After three years of asking, “Are you having an affair?” I have asked the right question. I am cold. Icy.
“I love her.”
I stand in our bedroom in the dark, the room half underground. Even in summer the sun is sparse. I can’t swallow away the cotton in my mouth. I twist the phone cord around my hand. My mind is racing. Races. My heart pounds. He loves her. He loves her with each beat. But I knew already. I saw her seducing him with the gagagoogoo of the student for the teacher. He needed, oh how he needed that blind adoration.
Then he adds, “I couldn’t help myself.”
“How could you forget me? Disregard me after all these years?”
“I haven’t stopped loving you. I never stopped loving you.”
“Fucking me? Fucking her? When you knew how I felt about this?”
He is off in Arizona for a week as a visiting artist. Now I know he took her with him. He asks, “What happened?”
I know he means how did I finally find out. “Sakiko’s daughter, what’s her name? Yukari? Yukari called looking for Sakiko. Thinking she was dead in the motel or something. It took me a while to get it. I am so dumb. So damn dumb. So trusting. Yukari suspected that Sakiko was with you, and she called in her very sweet voice and left a message, which Naomi played when we came home from her field hockey game.” My words are like fast water over stones. “Which Stone heard. Stone was here for the Michigan State game. Remember?”
After the game, Stone and Molly, his fiancee, and Naomi and I went out for dinner at Sze-Chuan. “What’s Dad doing in Arizona anyway?” Stone asked.
Naomi answered, “He’s working with Sakiko.”
Stone looked at me and said, “Is he having an affair or what?”
I shrugged and absent-mindedly stirred Kung Pao shrimp with my chopsticks.
“I told you they were having an affair years ago, when I saw them driving around in Dad’s car.”
“No, you didn’t. You said the Japanese were too racist for them to be having an affair.”
“Why didn’t you stop it, Mom?”
“Stop it?” And suddenly I started crying. “How?”
When Stone left to drive to Chicago, he hugged me and said, “Call us if you need to.”
“I don’t know anything yet,” I replied.
“Don’t do an O.J. or a Lorena Bobitt.”
I mustered a laugh.
Now I know. Amazing how quickly a life can crash. I grip the receiver tightly and sigh. “So, Ty, Yukari said, ‘Where’s my mama? I’ve been calling and calling and calling her hotel from here and can’t find her. For three days I’ve been calling and no mama. I’m really worried.’” I imitate Yukari’s voice, raising my own two octaves and whispering. I am vicious in my pretense at sweetness. ‘“Really really worried. Please call and let me know if you know where she is.’”
I pace in the dark room. Our bed fills it except for a narrow passage, but I can’t contain my restlessness. I want to run. “Well, I was confused because I didn’t know Sakiko was back in America, because you lied to me, you fucking bastard. You left Naomi and me painting the molding and went and picked her up at the airport and then went and fucked her, leaving the two of us to paint.”
Ty and I are building a house, which will be complete in six weeks, and living in a small apartment until it is finished.
He doesn’t disagree. His silence is my acknowledgment. How well I know this man I have lived with for thirty years. How little I know him.
I swallow and stretch the phone to the bathroom. Water. I need water. “So I was confused. I thought at first you lied to me that Sakiko was here in town. But Naomi put it together.”
“Yes. She says, ‘Mommy, maybe Sakiko’s in town. Maybe Sakiko’s in Arizona with Daddy.’ Then in the middle of the football game, sitting with my heart in my throat and my mind skittering over the field, it finally dawns on me that she’s right. Sakiko’s in Arizona with you. As soon as I got home, I tried to reach you, but you had checked out. Then I remembered. Saturday. You were going to the Grand Canyon.” I had always wanted to visit the Southwest with Ty and the kids. Now he’d done it with her. Without us.
“So did you call Yukari?” He’s fishing for Sakiko.
“Yeah. Yukari called back and said, ‘I just don’t know where my mama is. This is so unlike her. She never, never goes anywhere unless she lets us know where she is. I don’t know. My dad doesn’t know.’” I talk in her whispery voice again. All little girl and butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth. I am the complete bitch. I inhale. “Well, sweet-little-innocent-little-Miss Yukari just blew the whistle on her mom. It took me a while to get it, but I got it.”
I try to swallow away the cotton in my mouth. I gulp water. Ty is quiet, listening. I talk a mile a minute, my words racing my heart.
“I didn’t want to give her your telephone number. I wanted to talk with you first. I told Yukari I did not know exactly where you were and I would call her back when I found you. I said, ‘Oh, is Sakiko in America?’
“She said, Yes. Didn’t you know?’ and I said, ‘No, I thought she was coming in November.’ ‘Oh, no. She came October second. You didn’t know?’” I imitate Yukari’s baby voice again. ‘“I don’t like that you didn’t know my mom was in America. I don’t like that she was in Arizona and Mom hasn’t told me. I don’t like that fact that they may be sleeping in the same hotel. That’s my mom.’
“And I said, ‘Well, that’s my husband.’ And she said, ‘I’m sorry. So sorry.’”
I gasp for air. I know he’s gathering information to give Sakiko so she can protect herself. But I don’t care. I only care about myself and Naomi. “So. Yukari let me know.” I suddenly realize Sakiko wanted me to know. She knew Yukari would try to call her and then would contact me. Sakiko wanted to force the issue with Ty.“I told you they were having an affair years ago, when I saw them driving around in Dad’s car.”
“No, you didn’t. You said the Japanese were too racist for them to be having an affair.”
I sit on his side of the bed and smell him—the mixture of cologne and musk sweat that is his sweet aroma—in our sheets.
The silence is violent. I didn’t realize the force in my throat. I drink more water. Stay composed. I inhale. “You have a decision to make. Decide who you want. What you want. Let me know.” I’m not going to let him waffle. I have seen too many patients wait for years hoping to be re-chosen by their mates, to win, their self-esteem and egos whittled away to sawdust by indecision. Women trying to hold families together at all costs. And then the kids going bananas in the emotional absence of the mother. Sacrificing. Endless sacrificing. When his plane lands the next day, his decision must be made. If it isn’t, he’ll have made it. I’d be gone. I want to hang up the phone and run.
“I don’t want my life to change,” Ty says.
“I don’t want my life to change.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I asked you over and over if there was something between you and Sakiko. I made a point of asking before we started building the house.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“What are you talking about? I did.” I remember driving in Chicago before we started building. We wandered the museums, made love for hours in the afternoon, and so I felt confident to ask him once again, Do I have to worry about Sakiko? There was silence. And in the space, my confidence and buoyancy sank. “I don’t think so. You are life to me. Sakiko is art. Only art.” I heard what I wanted to hear.
“No, you didn’t.”
“I asked, ‘Is everything okay?’”
“Everything was okay.”
“I said, ‘This is the first time we are doing something which absolutely depends on both of our incomes. This is the first time that I am financially dependent on your income for my housing.’”
“The first time.” Always, I have followed Mother’s warnings and have been able to support myself and the children. Except for now. The house requires both our incomes, and my income is down because managed care requires patients to use therapists in large clinics.
“Honey. Everything was. You think I stopped loving you?”
“You disappeared for months when she was here. I was trashed.”
“I always loved you.”
“Funny way of showing it. Doing the worst possible thing you could do to me. And lying. Lying. Lying. When I loved you and you telling me I’m just thinking you’re having an affair because of my family dynamics.” I am thirsty and drink and drink and drink, finishing another glass of water. “Do you know how seriously I took that? Actually thought I’d go back into therapy and figure out why I needed to see you as my father and grandfather?” The thought of his betrayal rips my composure and I scream. “You thought I could have the house and you could have your little rich Asian fuck, is that it? It was a tradeoff, is that it?”
“I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“You fucking bastard.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Didn’t mean to hurt me? When for years you told me it was just about making art together. And I said, once, if you’re lying I’d think our whole life was a lie. That everything was false from the beginning. That you don’t know who I am. Can’t contain me. Can’t hold me in your mind.”
“You’d think our whole life is a lie? The entire thirty years?”
“I didn’t think you’d be this upset.”
Now I twist the cord around my hand, march up and down the alley in the bedroom, the hall, the bathroom, scream into the phone. “Obliterating my reality. Mind-fucking me like that? How could you?”
“I don’t want my life to change.” His voice is soft. Almost gentle pleading. I imagine his eyes closed and his upper lip twitching.
“Over and over she took precedence over me and the family. Knowing, knowing how I felt.”
“I don’t want to lose you. I love you.”
“You wouldn’t have done this to me if you loved me. And did I do anything to deserve this?”
“I don’t want a divorce. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want a divorce. I don’t want to lose Naomi.”
“Lose Naomi? You can’t lose her, she’s your daughter. She’ll always be your daughter. But my life. My life is over.”
I want to run. Get in the car and drive to the coast. Any coast. “You decide what you want to do. Let me know.” I’m not going to be my mother. I did not want to marry an obsessively unfaithful man like my father. I do not want to live with a man preoccupied by another woman for decades like Docie.
“I thought I was solving my own life. Having my freedom. Doing what I’m supposed to do. I’ve told you how tired I am. Tired of the university. Tired of my hand hurting. Tired.”
“I know just what you’re going to do. You’re going to spend the night, all night fucking. But you know what? This time, I’m going to be on the ceiling watching you, watching the two of you fuck. I’m going to be there and I’m going to stick my fist up your ass and stick my fist up her ass and grab your hearts and pull them out.”
Holy shit. Where did that come from?
From Infidelity. Used with the permission of Dzanc Books. Copyright © 2018 by Ann Pearlman.