Tom Stayed, Tom Left

map Tom Stayed, Tom Left

by Amy Forstadt

Published in Issue No. 226 ~ March, 2016

Hands

Tom Stayed

This is good. It’s good.

 

There’s a little bit of wine left in my glass and Colleen has finished hers. The bottle on the coffee table is empty. We’re watching that show about the crazy family, the one where the kid is such a pain and his parents aren’t much better. “Aren’t they terrible?” Colleen murmurs, mostly to herself. She scoots closer to me on the couch and puts her hand on my hand and rests her chin on my shoulder. This is new for her and it took no small amount of therapy to get her here. She knows I need it, this sort of affection, and she’s trying so hard and for that I appreciate her. There’s no way to tell her how forced it feels. I smile in her direction then lean forward to drink the rest of my wine, taking my hand away as I do it.

Colleen and I have been married for almost twenty years. We met the first week of college. There I was: a Catholic kid from the suburbs, sheltered, dateless, and overwhelmed. I was surrounded by people who looked like me and sometimes acted like me, but weren’t anything like me. Colleen was different. She didn’t care if people knew her or not or even if they liked her or not. She just needed her one person. I was looking for a place to belong. She was looking for a person to belong to. Back then, that felt like the same thing.

Colleen grew up liberal, if slightly neglected, and seemed like she knew about everything. Books. Politics. Atheism. I loved her short shiny hair and big dark eyes. She explained things to me in a way that made me feel smart. She slept pressed against the wall so I would have more of the bed. She bought me new socks and made sure I ate. I tiptoed into Colleen’s life, unsure, and she welcomed me with, if not warmth, exactly, then with purpose and clarity. We made the world safe for each other. We were best friends. We’ve been TomandColleen for longer than we were ever Tom and Colleen.

I had an affair. Colleen knows and sort of knows and she doesn’t know a thing. She knows about my emotional involvement. She knows I lied. And lied. And lied again. She knows how distant I was, how close I was to leaving her. She knows me so well she’s forgiven me. What a relief for her. To forgive me and move on.

She sort of knows I was half in love with this other woman. She sort of knows there’s a little part of my heart now always reserved for her, for Izzy. She sort of knows she’s the consolation prize and she’s sort of okay with it, and that makes me love her more and like her less.

What she doesn’t know is that I kept seeing Izzy long after I said I wasn’t anymore. She doesn’t know how recently it ended and how much torture it was to say goodbye. She has no idea about the sex. All the sex I had with Izzy, sex like you read about, like you see in the movies, sex that you don’t think really exists until you have it like that and then how can you go back? Why do you go back? But I did. I did because I made a commitment. I’m married. That’s what I told Izzy the last time I saw her, firmly, trying to ignore the tears on her lashes and cheeks. “I’m married.”

We went on a picnic today, Colleen and me. She read somewhere once that the best picnics were spontaneous—you just threw together some stuff you already had in the fridge and went. But that’s not her style. We’ve got toilet paper to last us for months and a “just in case” kitchen cabinet overflowing with cans of tomato soup and mushrooms and peas. Colleen plans. That’s what she does. So she just “happened” to pick up extra items at the grocery store: cheese, crackers, pears, sausage, cookies, paper plates. She pretended it was just because she felt like it and I went along with it, feeling bemused and irritated all at once, which is how I feel a lot lately.

Of course, the picnic turned out to be lovely. The food was perfect. The clouds were perfect. We talked and talked, about work, friends, vacations, plans, the future. After lunch Colleen turned her face up to the sun and closed her eyes, finally relaxed. We were quiet. The park had a little playground in it and I turned when I heard a child’s laughter because it reminded me of Abe. Izzy’s son.

The kid—a little boy—was still in a baby swing, so he was probably two or three maybe. Younger than Abe, in any case. This boy still had dimpled knees and full, chubby cheeks. His dad was pushing him, probably not as carefully as his mom did, and the kid was loving it. He was smiling and shouting, “Higher Daddy, higher!” The dad was smiling too, in his baseball cap and faded college t-shirt, and then they were both laughing at the same time like they were totally in on it, this funny joke of climbing halfway up the sky and back down again.

Colleen and I don’t have kids. You can’t plan enough for a baby. Colleen didn’t know whether she should stay home or go back to work, she didn’t know if cloth diapers or disposable were better, she didn’t know what she would do if she couldn’t nurse, she didn’t know if she wanted a baby in our bed with us, she didn’t know how we’d pay for preschool, private school, birthday parties, music lessons, summer camp, college. She didn’t know, she didn’t know, she didn’t know.

I had questions too. Questions that we didn’t talk about. Was I ready for that kind of change? Would I be doing the hugging, the kissing, the pushing the swing while she worked and planned? Were the arms out and the “come here honeys” all going to be up to me? One night at dinner Colleen said, lightly, “I don’t know if I’d be a good mother anyway.” We chuckled and took another sip of our wine, then another. We didn’t talk about it much anymore after that.

The father pushing the boy on the swing got a phone call. He answered and kept pushing, but he was distracted. The swing went crooked but he didn’t notice. “What?” he asked into the phone. “No, you need to get the file from the upper file cabinet. The other one has the same label but it’s all wrong…” And the boy, now swinging higgledy-piggledy, kicking his little legs in frustration and yelled, “Daddy! No! Daddy no phone!” But the dad just talked louder. He even gave his son the “one sec” finger as he kept pushing him crookedly, like the baby could see that at all or would care if he did.

I had a vasectomy. I didn’t even tell Colleen about it until it was over. I was just so tired of not deciding. She was shocked when I told her, and angry. But I saw a silver flash of relief in her eyes, too. It lasted a fraction of a second but it was there. I saw it and then I’d seen it and then that was the end of that.

I turned over on my side, away from the boy and his dad. Colleen opened her eyes, content with her picnic and spending time with me. She noticed an ant crawling up her leg, carefully picked it off and set it down gently on a blade of grass. That’s Colleen. Sweet, gentle, patient Colleen, kind to ants and husbands and strangers. Colleen who didn’t want to be a mother and was afraid to admit it.

As for me, I go from sadness to resentment to relief, round and round with depressing regularity like a clock with only three hours. I don’t tell Colleen about it. It’s become another secret for me. Like Izzy.

The sex with Colleen doesn’t really work anymore. I don’t really work anymore. Not like I used to. If I wait a long time in between, if I go for days or weeks without jacking off in the shower or watching porn or giving in to the Izzy porn that’s on a loop in the back of my brain, sometimes I can do it then. If I give myself permission to think about someone else during—someone else’s thighs, someone else’s ass, someone else’s soft shoulders and round breasts, the way someone else used to keep her eyes open, looking at me, until the last possible minute, when she finally had to close them, her face contorted in bliss and concentration. If I think about that then I can usually finish the job with Colleen.

Because here I am and I have my life, the one I’m used to. We still have our comfortable apartment, Jack and Ed for pizza on Wednesdays, Susan and Michael for dinner out once a month, a subscription to our local theater company, two cats, the peace, the quiet, a bottle of wine every night. And each other, I remind myself. We have each other.

“Do you want to watch the next show, or are you ready for bed?” Colleen asks Her voice surprises me these days, always higher pitched and more nervous than I remember it. I have to constantly readjust, like I’m talking to an old friend I haven’t seen in a while. A friend who’s doing just a little worse than the last time I saw her.

“Sure, let’s watch the next one,” I say. The thought of going to bed and waking up tomorrow to a day that’s almost the same as this one is more than I can bear. Colleen leans over and pecks me on the shoulder. “Sounds good to me,” she says, settling back on the couch with a happy little sigh.

I try to watch TV but it becomes reduced to the elements of itself. Lights, noise, people taking steps first this way and then that, disembodied laughter trailing after them.

So instead I lean back against the couch and close my eyes. The room spins a little. Too much wine, I scold myself. Too much time and space in my head. Too much of this right choice that I’ve made.

The air changes. It becomes thicker, more concentrated. Like I need to take shorter breaths to make it last longer. Even with my eyes closed I can feel it, the atmosphere shrinking and collapsing, turning in and in and in again. Is this what a heart attack feels like? An anxiety attack? But I feel calm. Nothing hurts.

I consider opening my eyes but decide against it, because I’m sure that if I do the apartment will have sunk in on itself, the walls bloated and thick, corners curving like a fun house mirror, windows sucked heavy and shrunken until they’re just tiny holes with dim light coming through, the whole apartment noxious and glistening. Colleen laughs and it echoes in the moist and humid air, bouncing around with no good place to land.

I picture myself getting up and lurching across the floor trying to keep my balance on my own as I peer out the small foggy hole that used to be a window. I can see them out there—Izzy and Abe—two tiny figures. They blur, then parts come into sharp focus, an eye or nose or sweep of hair, then blur again. I hold up my hand in a tentative wave, do they even see me? Izzy leans closer, squints, can’t quite make me out. But Abe gets it. He waves. We all stare at each other for a moment, best we can. I imagine them walking away from me, to their lives, on their own. Maybe she meets someone new. Maybe he’s more available to her. Maybe he can see her better. I stand looking at them for one more moment, remembering, and then I lower my hand and turn away. Even in this half-drunk, half-hallucinatory state, I do it again. I make the same choice again.

I force myself to open my eyes and I do that “blinky thing” Colleen says I do, where I blink my eyes three times fast, almost like I was half asleep. But I do it to remind myself of where I am, my actual life. Our apartment looks like it always does: calm and spare, with a few of Colleen’s knick-knacks cheering up the place. “You okay?” Colleen asks. I turn to look at her. She’s got shots of gray through her dark hair now, a softer jaw, wider hips, but she’s still the same girl I met so many years ago. Still giving me room in the bed in so many beds we’ve shared, still sitting next to me on the couch, on all these couches we’ve owned. Colleen’s been next to me the whole time. I breathe deeply, coming back. “Yeah,” I say, looking right in those dark eyes of hers. I know that if I wanted to, right now, I could lean my head against her chest and feel her heart beat, listen to the comforting thump-thump of it, strong and steady and always there. “I’m okay.” She puts her hand on mine again, gentle, like a question. This time I take her hand and hold it.

 

Tom Left

 

I don’t recognize myself lately. It’s not a problem, exactly, just something I’ve noticed. I’ll walk in front of a storefront window and catch my reflection—the hip glasses, the shirt that fits just so (Izzy gets them at Goodwill. She says she has a gift. I think it’s in her DNA.), the middle-aged guy with the receding hairline and the slightly sagging neck. Then I blink and it’s me. That’s me.

Of course, I usually miss myself completely because I’m looking at Izzy. I check her out even as she’s walking next to me. Her ridiculous hair. That smile. The tiny waist. Her ass that fits so perfectly in my hand it’s like one was made for the other.

There’s someone else in the glass, too, when we pass by. Not Abe, who’s half running, half skipping ahead of us. It’s Colleen in the reflection like a ghost, wisps of her floating behind us. I don’t know if Izzy sees her, though I’m sure she knows. That’s the thing about a new relationship after an old marriage, it’s different. You’re different. You can’t just erase twenty years of being with the same person. She’s with you forever, even if you met someone else and broke her heart.

It wasn’t in the plan, leaving Colleen. I thought we’d be together forever. TomandColleen until we died. But then Izzy came into work one day and there she was. On her own, with a kid, taking care of both of them by herself. A whole person. She wasn’t going to wait for my approval, she didn’t make room for me, it wasn’t her job to make sure I was okay. When she saw me she just assumed that I could take care of myself too. We’d spend the day together working, even before the night I kissed her, back when we were just working and talking and laughing all day. Even then, I’d go home to Colleen and she’d be making dinner, setting the table, making it all just so, then serving me and sometimes asking if I minded washing dishes because she was tired but if I was tired too she’d totally do it. I’d go home to that and it all just seemed so quiet. I wanted to pound on the walls or stomp my feet or bang the pots together like a kid playing marching band. I used to wonder what he’d do, that person who was just Tom. Would he like it so quiet? Would he make dinner for himself? Would he leave the dishes until the morning sometimes? I wanted to know him. That version of me who was just me.

And of course there was Izzy. The hair and the ass. The eyes and the smile. The way she’d open her arms to hug me, the way she hesitated, surprised, when I kissed her that first night in the chilly parking lot. The way I saw that puff of her breath in the air when she turned her head the other way, thinking, deciding, and then how she stood on her tiptoes with her arms warm around my neck when she kissed me back. I can’t pretend that those things didn’t count. That would feel like lying and I don’t do that anymore.

My apartment is a shithole. Imagine a man of my age living in a musty little spot with blue carpeting and a view of a brick wall. Whether I’m single or not, just moved out or not, I shouldn’t be living there. I don’t want anything too grandiose, mind you. I’d like to own something one day. Maybe a small house with a yard big enough for a chair and a little table and a patch of grass where Abe could play. The yard wouldn’t have to be big at all. But that’s not what I’ve got. I’ve got a window that looks out over an alley in a place with blue carpet, a broken toilet, and a futon that’s practically in the kitchen. On the bright side, sometimes when it rains it smells like piss in there.

There’s days when I wonder what the hell I’m doing, who the hell I am. There’s days when I’m convinced I’ve got the opposite of what I want. The shitty apartment. A woman with a kid. An angry, childish ex-husband who regularly threatens to kill me. Birthday parties that I have to go to, early weekend mornings. Who holds a birthday party at 10 AM? Parents of five-year-olds, that’s who. And then there’s Izzy. She’s complex. She gets mad at me. She says things that are unthinking and unwarranted and, occasionally, mean-spirited. She apologizes after and does it again the next time. Once she locked herself in the bathroom. I thought that only happened on TV.

But here I am with her and Abe at the mall on a crowded Saturday. I’m not a big fan of malls and I hate crowds, especially crowds like this one full of clomping women and big-chested men, everyone jabbing on their cell phones, no-one paying attention to anything. At least it’s outside and it is a beautiful sunny day. So there’s that. I look over at Izzy and she’s squinting into the distance, strategizing her way through the mob. Abe needed jeans and underwear so we decided to make a day of it. Head to the mall, ride the trolley that goes from Bloomingdale’s to Banana Republic and back again, maybe get some lunch and sit on the grass. The fake small-town charm of it embarrasses me.

I see Izzy eyeing the red sale sign in the Nordstrom window and I know it’s all over. I know my Izzy. “Hmmm…” she says. I wait. She turns to me and Abe, who has almost the same expression on his face that I do. “Unplanned detour!” she says. “Why don’t you guys hang here for a few and I’ll go check out the sale.” Abe and I eye each other sideways. I don’t know if we’ve been alone together before. But I’m the adult so I say, “Sure, of course.”

Izzy digs in her purse and comes up with a crumpled bag of crackers. “Here.” She starts handing it to Abe, then turns and hands it to me. “You can have a little picnic.” I look around at the other people lying in the grass, their Banana Republic and Gap bags next to them. They all look tired. “Sounds fun!” I say, too loud. Izzy smiles at me over Abe’s head and mouths “thank you,” and I’m a goner with her, just like I always am.

Abe and I both watch Izzy’s retreating back, going into Nordstrom. I look down at him and he looks up at me, waiting. I shove the crackers in my pocket. “How about some ice cream?” I say. Abe grins. “Yeah! Ice cream!” He runs in front of me to Haagen Dazs and I catch up and pay. A scoop of chocolate for him and one for me too, because why the hell not. We sit on the grass and eat. The good thing about awkward silences with a five-year-old is that he doesn’t care if we talk or not, so I don’t either.

The picnic was the last straw with Colleen. She had a perfect day planned for us and then I saw it, my whole life in front of me. The picnics, the plays, the dinners, the plans, the apartment, the cats, the sex. It was all right there. Except a little worse than it had ever been before because I knew Izzy. You know how you don’t know what you’re missing until you find it? Then thinking about not having it, it’s not okay anymore, to be missing that thing? That’s what happened. I knew exactly what that picnic would be like and then I knew that it was the opposite of what I wanted.

So I looked into Colleen’s kind, open face, that face that had been so devoted to me, to us, for so long, and I said it. I had an affair. I was moving out. I watched that sweet face crumple as she heard what I was telling her.

“You….what? You’re what?” she asked, even as the realization dawned on her and she couldn’t fight it anymore, the not knowing. I told her again. She hauled off and hit me. Her aim was pretty bad so she just caught me on the side of my head but it was still a strong punch. And in that moment when her fist made contact with my head, I knew that I’d underestimated her. I stood there in our kitchen clutching the side of my head with one hand and clutching a crying Colleen with the other and I understood that I could’ve gotten to know a totally different person. One who was sharper and harder. But I was me and she was her and this was who we were together. Whatever was between us, good or bad, I had just destroyed it.

“Done!” Abe proudly holds up his empty cup at me. I snap out of it, grateful, and I take the cup and hand him a napkin. “You’ve got a little bit of chocolate there on the left side of your mouth, buddy.” I don’t feel right reaching over and getting it for him, spitting on the napkin first like I’d seen Izzy do so many times before, holding his chin in my hand while he squeezes his eyes shut with the torment of it.

Abe takes the napkin from me, very serious, and wipes at the right corner of his mouth. “Uh, no, other left.” I gesture clumsily like the world’s worst air traffic controller. But Abe’s eyes widen and I see the light bulb go on. He laughs, a full belly laugh coming out of a five-year-old body and I realize he’s never heard that dumb joke before. “Other left!” he says, between cackles and then I start laughing too. I can’t help it. “Right!” I say, “the other left!” Abe calms down and dabs at his eyes like an old man and then that gets me going and we’re both cracking up again.

We’re sitting there laughing like idiots when Izzy comes out of Nordstrom, bag in hand. “Looks like you two are having a good time,” she says and I imagine that her smile is one hell of an understatement.

“Mommy!” Abe shouts, jumping up and grabbing her around the knees, like he’s been left with a really strict teacher for hours and hours instead of spending twenty minutes having some laughs with me.

“Hi honey! You guys have fun?” Abe just peers out at me from behind her legs. She runs her fingers through his hair and turns to me. “You ready?” she asks, back to business, and I haul myself up. “Let’s get our stuff and we can get out of here.” She reaches down and grabs Abe’s hand and he falls in line beside her. They’ve been doing it for so long it’s like breathing for them. They don’t even have to think about it. But not me. I think about everything. His tiny hand in her small one, how his will keep getting bigger while hers stays the same size. How I’m here too, just some guy standing next to them. “Come on,” says Izzy and she half pulls Abe towards GapKids, leaving me there like she couldn’t care less if I came or went. Like it’s totally up to me.

I take a few quick steps and catch up to them. I look down at Abe, holding Izzy’s hand and trotting obediently between us, with lighter hair and darker eyes than his mother, but the same arch of the eyebrows, the same angle of the ears. He looks at me for a split second, then reaches up and takes my hand like he’s been doing it for a long time even though this is the first. His little hand in mine is damp and sticky and almost cracks me in two. “Swing,” he says, and it’s not a question, it’s a command. “Swing!”

So we do, Izzy and me. We say “One, two, three, swing!” and we hoist him up by his skinny arms, legs flying, red Crocs a blur as they fly up over his head. “One, two, three, swing!” We do it again, and then another time. Abe laughs, and he’s got her same smile, the one that is the happiest a person can possibly look, the one that makes all other smiles look like shadow smiles, like weaker versions of the same thing.

I knew that leaving Colleen would be hard. I knew I’d be wading through fear and regret towards something I didn’t understand. But I hoped for—no, against my better judgment, counted on—some good moments. Great ones, even. But this one? Here at the mall on an ordinary Saturday? With us making our way through all the other families and each holding the hand of a little boy, the one with the laugh so pure and bright and true? This one shines the moon.

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Amy Forstadt’s fiction has appeared in 300 Days of Sun. Her additional writing credits include Disney Online Originals, Nickelodeon, The Hub, and Animal Planet. She lives in Los Angeles with her son and two insane cats.