"Good morning!" said Mark's voice cheerily. "You sound glad to hear me!"
What did I sound like? Quick, pretend like I'm dying for conversation! "Mark! How are you? How's the visit going?" Did you get the job, is that why you're so chipper, you weasel?
"Great, Em, just great! I got to go visit my Uncle Clement and Aunt Deb yesterday, and the cousins who were in town came over, and Aunt Helen and her kids, and their kids -- it was a zoo, but it was so good to see family again."
Did you call any of them trashy sluts or gold-digging bitches, Mark? "How wonderful! Isn't Clement in Kalamazoo? So you saw a zoo in Kalamazoo?" How convenient.
He laughed. "You got it. We're going to drive up to Lansing tomorrow to see my brother. God, I'll bet it's been seven years since I saw Ben. He remarried again, did I tell you that?"
Yes, you did, as a matter of fact. You said he ditched the silly cow who'd been dragging him down since he divorced his first wife, but that he hadn't shown any better taste this time. "Oh, I think I remember! Maria, right? Isn't she the one who works for the big fertilizer company?"
"That's the one. You have a great memory for names! How are things on your end?"
"Plain old everyday," she told him, not completely untruthfully because every damn day this week had been a revelation and a shocker. "I just got done scaring the neighbor's cat away from my fish, and was about to do some deep cleaning of my office and bath."
"That damned cat. I have never been able to understand why people keep Siamese. They're all meaner than hell and the most destructive animals I've ever heard of, with the possible exception of fox terriers."
"Ben doesn't still have him, does he?" What made the occasion Mark's last visit to Ben's house was Ben's fox terrier, Maurice, who had sniffed Mark's shoes upon his arrival, and then lifted his leg and pissed on Mark's khaki's.
"No, the little turd died a couple years ago. It's time to mend fences, anyway. I've been feeling really stressed lately, Em. You know, when you get that sense of mortality, and realize what you've been missing for too much of your life?" He didn't wait for an answer, which was a relief to Emily, who didn't want to think about things she had missed, and continued, "I've been away from this area for so long, I'd forgotten how friendly the people were, how dramatic and beautiful the change of seasons, how much I missed my family. I was walking around Battle Creek this morning -- so much has changed, and yet there are little vignettes of life that I remember from when I was in grade school. Telly's Delicatessen is still there on Fourth Street -- kind of like Giammarino's, but German instead of Greek and Italian."
His parents must be in the same room with him. He's in his flattering, persuasive mode. Next step? He'll drop a hint that he wants to move back there, and then I'll know if he has a chance of getting the job. "I can't seem to work up the same kind of feeling for the foothills, myself. I like Port Laughton better than Sonora," she said. Ah, I've derailed his lecture, what will he say?
"The people are friendlier here, too. I can't remember when the last time was that I drove down the road and people waved and smiled at me as I passed by out there on the coast. It's like people are willing to take more time here than there."
That's because everyone in Port Laughton knows you, and knows that you're a shit. "Oh, I don't know. I've always found folks to be friendly here. Busy, but friendly."
"I just wonder if we shouldn't be thinking about spending our golden years somewhere that's not so busy, Emmie. Or so expensive. Real estate prices are unbelievable here. A house the size of ours would only cost about ninety thousand! If I found work here, we could sell up and buy a mansion!"
A mansion. I could live all by myself -- oops, pardon me -- almost all by myself in a big old mansion, and suddenly, once in Michigan, my critical and rude husband would encourage me to have all kinds of friends and we would never ever remember his condoms under the mattress or his reputation for sexual harassment and discrimination that led him to lose a prestigious job. But she had her answer. He'd done well at his interview, and maybe he'd even been offered the position. And he still wasn't letting her in on his plans or his secrets. Emily made geisha responses to him until he was ready to hang up, then bade him a gentle good-bye, thankful that she'd been able to evade an insincere "Love you."
I could have a mansion. There could be a regular wing's worth of rooms all for me, instead of my bed-bath-office suite. Maybe the mansion would have three stories, and I could look out from the highest window and see a vast landscape of farms and the outskirts of a little town, green for almost three months of the year, white for almost seven months of the year -- wait, that leaves all of a month for spring, and a month for fall. Oh, yes, I'm sure I'd learn to love that in no time.
She pictured in her mind's eye the perfect house. It had two bedrooms, one for her, one for a desk and a worktable to sew on, a clean bathroom with a deep tub, a small kitchen with a table that fit cozily in it. There was a vegetable garden in the back yard, and a pond for the koi. No one ground their teeth in that house, no one was called stupid, no one had to spend time worrying that everything was in order so as to keep from being criticized. Probably the house had both a lazy white cat and a frowsy mutt to argue over the pet dishes, but no other rancor was allowed. The property had a sagging old low fence with morning glories strewn across it each summer, blue and ridiculously perfect, across which neighbors could trade banana bread and tomatoes, Christmas cookies and pomegranates. And the main thing it didn't have was ...
The phone rang again. Emily sighed. Now what? She answered the call warily.
"Middi!" she shouted. "I hoped you'd call!"
Middi's voice laughed. "How could I resist, after that mysterious and intriguing e-mail? Is everything all right?"
"Yes, and no."
"Can I hear the 'yes' first?"
"Yes. I'm fine, I'm cleaning house like mad, throwing out all the junk and giving the extra stuff away. And I think I may be happy." Emily felt a tinge of embarrassment color her cheeks. Why should I be ashamed of being happy about my life?
"Well, that's promising, but still mysterious. Did your insurance company say they'd pay for the fake dwarf?"
"No, but I'm not worried about that. Like they say, it's probably just water under the bridge, and somewhere, sometime, somebody's yard will flood because of it."
"That's your father talking," Middi observed. "Karma equals spite."
Emily laughed. "I'm hoping. The 'No' part of the answer is that since I last talked to you, I found out that Mark has had an affair, has sexually harassed and discriminated against some of his female students so much he got fired from his job, things I had no idea were going on." After a space of seconds, Emily said, "Middi? Are you there?" God, don't make me have to repeat those hateful words.
"My God, Emily."
"Oh, and Mark has been in correspondence with a university in Michigan applying for a job, and they invited him to come interview with them -- I believe that's why he invented a need to go visit his parents. He didn't tell me about the job offer, either."
"I can't believe this."
"Middi, if I had five dollars for every time I've said those words in the last ten days, I could take a two-week vacation in the Bahamas and have change to spare. What I don't know is what I'm supposed to do with the information. That's why I wanted to talk to you. What would you do?" Emily could hear a muffled sound, the sound of a hand over a receiver to mute Middi's report to her father. Great. It's Middi's advice I need, not a Thunder Storm.
"Girlfriend, you don't want to know what I'd do, because you'd end up in jail. What do you want to do? Do you think he has a chance of employment in Michigan?"
"Last night I bamboozled his secretary into giving me a copy of all the papers he took with him to Michigan. He's got letters of recommendation from the university president, the mayor of Port Laughton, Dr. Meyers from the Math Department; lists of charities we've contributed to, articles he's had published in trade journals in print and online ... on paper he looks like hot shit. He called me just a little bit ago and was very cheerful, wanting me to think about moving to Michigan, so I suspect if he doesn't already have the job, he has a very good chance at it."
Emily felt as though there was a glowing, growing orb of heat and light in the middle of her head. The words she was about to say were wild animals, untamable, untrainable, capable of great harm and yet so filled with grace and power that she was in awe of them. Shivering with their impact, she said, "Middi, I don't want to move to Michigan. I don't want to be Emily Fatzer any more." I have to say them, why is it so hard? "I want to divorce Mark." There! Oh, my God, that feels so good!
"Emily, do you need to take some time before you make a decision like that?"
That's a stock response, the kind of thing everybody says to anybody who makes a big decision. "I'll have all the time I need to think about it right up until it's finalized, now won't I? Or at least until I tell Mark, which I don't want to do until he's back here. I don't want him to come flying home to scream at me -- or tell me I'm insane. But I can't imagine sharing a house with him again, or even a meal. I don't want to do that to myself any more."
"Listen to me! You have to make absolutely sure you mean what you're saying to me!"
"I'm sure, and getting surer by the second," Emily said, an eagerness boiling up from her heart. I could learn something! I could travel! I could -- have friends. My God, why have I let this happen to myself? I want to have friends! "Why are you asking me?"
"Because I don't want you getting mad at me in a couple days when you've changed your mind and I've been toasting you with champagne and celebrating, that's why!" Middi's voice grew a little distant as she told Nathan Emily's decision. Emily heard him boom, "About goddamned time."
"Okay, Emily, what do you need us to do to help you? You have a key to the house, you can pack up and head down there any time. Do you need money? How long has Mark been out of work?"
Emily grinned at Middi's take-charge attitude. "As far as I know, he's employed through the term, at least, if not all the way to the end of the fiscal year. He does -- did -- have a contract. His paychecks have been showing up on schedule, so I'm not worried about money, except for one thing: that account that has both Dad's name and mine on it. He has to withdraw all that money and close the account. Otherwise it will count as part of my assets, won't it?"
Middi whistled. "You've been thinking about this for some time, haven't you?"
"No, not really. I just know where Mark's priorities are going to lie, and I don't want him taking a penny of Dad's money. But there's one other thing I don't know how to handle -- my koi. Is there such a thing as a koi baby-sitting service until I can get my own place with my own pond?"
Laughter erupted from the other end. "There sure is! It's called the spa in our back yard! Temperature control, filtration, ledges for your plants -- kind of like a Koi Hilton!" She spoke to Nathan, "Let's bag Vegas and go home, Honey. Emily needs us!"
Yes, I do. And what a relief that I can finally, openly say so.