by Sharon Frame Gay
“Look,” he says, cupping my chin between his hands like he always does. “This happens all the time, Sarah. Some people call it a Starter Marriage, a Mulligan, a Do-over.” He wipes the single tear that pushes its way down my cheek with his thumb, and I think to myself, No. It’s called heartbreak.
James wheels around the apartment, fetching things that belong to him, gifts I have given him, favorite items, dropping them into an old U Haul box. I follow from room to room like a disciple, inhaling his scent, his cologne, committing it to memory, like learning a sad song.
“Why?” I manage to stammer. “Am I not pretty enough? Is it because I cry at those beer commercials with the horses and dogs? I bet it’s my nose. I know you hate the bump in it, and maybe I can get it fixed. Or, maybe because I never liked your alcoholic brother and his bitch of a wife?” I pelt him with words, then, listing my flaws, tossing them like a ping pong ball, hoping he will volley back, give me something to understand, to at least chew on after he’s gone. I am instantly ashamed of myself, draw my arms across my body, hunch over.
He stops abruptly, blowing out through his lips and running his hands through his hair. “Look, it’s nothing in particular. Your nose is fine. You’re pretty and smart and everything great. It’s, well, it’s something I can’t put my finger on. It just is.”
“Just is?” I marvel sarcastically. “Like the way you like mocha lattes, then all of a sudden one day you don’t like them at all?”
He brightens. “Exactly!”
I sit down hard on the sofa, watching his back as he roams through the apartment. “Do you want this lamp?” he asks. I shake my head. “Do you want some of our wedding pictures?” I venture, and he says no, he doesn’t need any. “Not even one fucking picture?” and my chin trembles, my hands shake a little. He stops, turns towards me, feeling guilty. “Okay, pick out one you think I’ll like, and send it my office.” I nod, knowing that I never will, imagining it going straight to the waste basket, or burned in an ash tray. I pick at the threads of the sofa, furious, hurt.
I feel panic rising, and stand up, pacing, angry and sad and confused and scared, all at the same time. He was enough for me. I was able to look down the corridor of time, year after year, see him standing there when we grew old, his ancient hand reaching out for mine, his eyes, the same brilliant hazel, same boyish grin. Now, I will have to imagine a ghost, a vapor trail, leaving our tiny apartment and disappearing down the street along with the phantom children he never gave me. In my heartache, I blurt out “Well, can we still be friends at least?”
He grins with relief, reaches down and plants a kiss on the top of my head. “Yes! Friends! That would be great! I still want us to be friends. Always!” I see the wheels turning behind his eyes as he pictures us meeting on sidewalks in the springtime, light rain falling on our clothes, our hair, hugging each other in the middle of the crowd, old friends who stop for a moment to chat, then move on before we are wet with regret.
He takes a step away, then turns back, his smile broad. “Friends it is!” A moment’s silence, then the sound of words testing the waters, hitting the shore like diver birds, crashing upon the rocks. “I think you’ll like Emily. Maybe someday you two can meet.”
There’s no air, I simply think to myself. I cannot breathe. Don’t let him see you cry. Don’t let him know that you never suspected that there was an Emily. Take your last bit of oxygen and get back to the couch.
I am curled in a fetal position under a blanket when he lets himself out, leaving his key on the table with a tinny ping, a last curtain call, as his footsteps fade away down the hall.
Through the haze of tears, I see the empty space where my wedding ring used to be on my finger. The skin is indented, an angry red, slightly bruised.
I realize then that it hadn’t fit in a very long time.
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Sharon Frame Gay
Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, playing by the side of the road. She is an internationally published writer, her work found in many anthologies and online. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee.
6 thoughts on “Starter Marriage”
Written in the difficult present tense, but, withal, a very successful account of a devastatingly painful experience, one ending with a terrible twist of the knife,
Ouch indeed. Very well written, powerful, sad
Powerful and beautifully written.
This story packs a punch with its present-tense description of the dissolution scene and the final image of the ring.
In its present form, the guy is portrayed as a real jerk from the point of view of the woman. I wonder if there is more to explore.
Well written. Nice and easy to read with some lines that catch in my heart. Love the last one especially!
A good piece but now I have to find something uplifting.