It'd been her idea, the yoga classes.
"We're only in our 30s and just look at us."
He couldn't argue. They were fat and flabby, more so than ever. And yoga sounded easier than jogging. And as it turned out, there was that blonde. He looked forward to admiring her from afar. She was like a ballerina. And her loose black turtleneck and leotards gave her an air of smoldering bohemian sexuality, someone who'd love to experiment in the sack, someone so unlike Molly. He bet she'd do anything.
So, fine with the yoga classes, even if it cost 20 bucks each per session. And even if the class was too crowded, the greedy teacher packing in more and more, the room stuffed like a rush hour subway. And even if he felt like a fool, flopping around on his stupid yoga mat. And even if the teacher charged for Xeroxed instructions sheets.
"You paid a dollar for that piece of paper? It cost the asshole a dime to have it made, maybe less. For what we're paying? Really? He should just hand them out. Gratis!"
"Well, we need it. So we can practice at home." Not that they ever got around to practicing at home.
Going to class, Molly always made them late. That so annoyed Ned. It was typical of her: sign us up for this dumb thing, and then always make us late for it. He'd lock the front door, pocket the key, step toward the curb, then, "Wait! I forgot my purse!"
"You don't need your purse. I'm driving. I have my wallet. I have enough money..."
"Well, just unlock the door. I feel naked without my purse. I'll only be a minute."
"We don't have a..."
"Unlock the door, Ned! Please!" He complied, sighing loudly, shaking his bowed head, lower lip pouted.
Ned detested rolling into class late, dashing the flight of stairs to the second floor, in they huffed, the two tubbies, lugging rolled up mats, scanning the room to find a spot to squeeze into, while everyone else was already in the first or second pose. As Ned and Molly settled in, trying to be quiet about it, some annoyed glances were shot their way. "Fuck," he muttered. "I hate this."
Still, there was the blonde, a springboard to Fantasyland. He ogled her from the corner of his eye.
Ned's favorite part of class was the cool down. After 45 minutes of straining and grunting, there was the blessed cool down: 15 minutes of New Age pabulum played on a tinny boom-box, the entire class lying flat on their backs, eyes closed, thinking peaceful thoughts.
And peaceful thoughts he did think, of him and the blonde, just the two of them, no one else in the room, or the world. Just the two of them on a desert island, a pitcherful of icy martinis, her laughing at his jokes. Molly no longer laughed at, or even understood, his jokes. "I don't get it. What's funny about that? That's not funny; it's mean!"
All too soon, the 15 minutes were finished, the boom box clicked to an abrupt off. People rose, some yawning, rolling up their mats, shuffling for the door, the instructor shouting, "Remember people, tell your friends! Always room for one more!" Ned hated the bastard, hated his trimmed beard and yoga pants. Dingbat! Charlatan!
Ned and Molly trudged to the parking lot, got in his metallic-maroon Corolla, strapped themselves in. Ned put the key in the ignition, started the car, pushed the button to lower the windows. The April evening was lovely and became all the lovelier as the blonde passed in front of them. Furtively, he waved. She didn't notice; she just kept walking to her red Miata, backed out and drove off.
Molly began to say, "On the way home, we have to stop off at the..."
Ned turned to her and said, "Do me a favor, honey? Just shut. The fuck. Up. Please? Thank you!" Stunned as if she'd been slapped across the face, she couldn't believe her ears, those words coming from her husband—her "huzz-bee," as she called him in happier years. A breeze blew through the windows. Molly stared straight ahead at nothing as Ned drove them home. Her mind flashed back to when she met Ned Quack (pronounced Kwok, he insisted) almost a decade ago. Both were in their late-20s, lived in midtown Manhattan. It was a blind date. The doorman buzzed, and then sent him up. She waited anxiously, then heard the chime. Opening the door, she saw that winning smile. Ned had flowers, a dozen white roses, but they were no match for that smile. It lit up the eventide.
She wasn't Aphrodite, any more than he was Adonis. They'd always been the "fat kids." That was okay. They could still fall in love; their hearts weren't any shallower than the svelte. Cut them with a knife, and they bled. The courtship was a whirlwind. Both had their fill of New York, and being single. Both were ready to move on. Molly, an only child, had inherited the family house, so it was an easy and natural scoot upstate to Kinderhook, a formal wedding at St. Paul's Episcopal.
What a triumphant return home it was! Married, a partner at an Albany law firm! She'd never been overly popular, never had too many dates, and only one previous serious relationship. At high school dances she was the wallflower. Even at Brown, Molly spent more time with books than boys. Then along came Ned. And that smile. Now she was the small-town girl made good in the big bad city, returns, a walking, talking success story. Her childhood home, a well-maintained split-level on Pin Oak Dr., seemed new and thrilling in this incarnation.
Before the plaster started to crack, life together was as close to a dream as she'd ever known, an antidote to the recent years of sorrow after her dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died, followed a year later by her mom in a car crash. Molly threw herself into her Albany attorney role, relishing the glamour of lunching at Jack's Oyster House with co-workers, spying the Governor holding court at a corner table with journalists and newscasters.
Ned? He had his blog. No longer a head copywriter at Y&R, now the Big Dream was his political blog. He'd rub virtual elbows with the DC elite, setting them straight on this and that, while getting rich selling ad space to national firms, ones he'd befriended on Mad Ave. But the only ads he managed to snag were local businesses: the florist, an antique shop, a diner. But Molly figured, "We have no mortgage, I'm making a bundle at the firm..."
Life became routine. Then oppressive, as leaden as the upstate February sky. Molly tried to reinvigorate their marriage. Her face reddened, now, at the memory of trying to please him last Valentine's, dolled up, and in that Victoria's Secret teddy. He laughed at her and said, "What's with that getup? Desperately seeking employment in a New Orleans bordello? Ha! Ha! Ha! Molly, you look like an idiot! Ha! Ha! Ha! God, what did I ever do to deserve such a moron for a wife? Ha! Ha! Ha! Trying to look sexy? FAIL!"
She tried and tried to get him interested in some new tricks, but he resisted, got embarrassed, like a little boy. Whenever Molly attempted to talk to him about anything intimate, Ned became a clam digging itself deeper into the cold wet sand. He spent more and more time in his paneled basement office, allegedly doing research for the blog, supposedly scouring sites for topics and ideas and links. She even gave him money so he could, once in a while, hire a semi-known writer for a guest post, all in the fruitless hope of attracting a wave of traffic. Initially, comments depended upon friends, neighbors and relatives. "No comment" became the norm.
Molly knew what he was really doing down there most of the time: porn sites. She wasn't stupid, a little snooping had revealed a lot. His fascination with porn pissed her off. I'm flesh and blood, not some cold computer screen. And I'm right upstairs. Waiting...
Her thoughts carried her back to last Thanksgiving. Ned's detestable family flew in from Kansas: his dour father (he of the tedious, oft-told stories, flat as his beloved prairies, clumsily punctuated with arid pauses, each one a Gobi unto itself, devoid of any mirage), his rat-faced mother with that dead poodle of a dyed perm squatting on her head, and his alcoholic older brother who, as long as he had a drink in hand, just sat there smiling.
She'd spent the day preparing dinner, using Mrs. Quack's heirloom recipe, but in her anxiety, Molly goofed and burnt the yams, while undercooking the turkey. Instead of being a grown-up and rolling with the punch, Ned screeched at her in the kitchen like a tormented infant, "You idiot! You goddamn idiot! How could you ruin Thanksgiving dinner! For my FAMILY! You, you... moron! YOU GODDAMN IMBECILE!"
Mortified and speechless, Molly saw the in-laws occupying the living room, the room that held so many memories of her childhood, of her parents. Smirking, the old bitch nodded as if to say, "I told you so. She can't cook. Not even with my recipe to guide her.”
Molly almost left him then, almost filed divorce papers the following Monday at work. But she didn't. She was too weak and fearful to fight the undertow of inertia. Instead, she sought to find a way to make the nasty jerk happy, schemed to see if, somehow, she might unearth the smile of old, the fossil of their happy days. At the dinner table one evening, "Ned, I think we ought to see a marriage counselor." He frowned, stared at his plate for a long minute, and said, "No... I don't think so..." He got up, walked out of the room, downstairs to his office. She heard the computer hum to life.
Wherever they went—the mall, to friends' homes for the weekend, a restaurant, a gallery opening—they squabbled, like bitter competitive siblings, not like husband and wife. She hated it, but didn't seem able to prevent or control the escalations. One Saturday morning, reality struck home like a punch to the gut. As they were walking into Bagel Tyme—Ned barging ahead, not holding the door for her—a small group exited. She overheard one of them say, "Enter the Bickersons!" followed by loud chuckles and muffled guffaws. She didn't know who those people were, had never noticed them before. But they considered her marriage a commonly understood joke. How many others did as well?
Molly hoped yoga classes might prove the panacea, could help them get into decent physical and emotional shape, add discipline to their day-to-day lives, and, maybe, add some zing to their romantic life. Ned needed something to relieve tension, something to put his blog failure into proper perspective. There was more to life than a dumb blog. So what if it was a dud? They were comfortable, and the dopes around here were impressed with it, he talking it up at the dinner parties and lawn parties and cocktail parties, slathering on the puffery. How was Kinderhook to know an online failure from a success? His cover was secure. To them he seemed high-tech and happening. One geezer opined that Ned was "cutting edge."
Cutting edge! That term's soooo dated! Well, behold Kinderhook, its great claim to fame being Martin van Buren! Martin van freaking Buren!
Yoga classes proved a fiasco. If she was slightly late, moving a little slow, worn out after a day at the office, he became whiny. So what if she ran late? Or forgot her purse on the way out? And why on earth did he get so furious if she paid a lousy buck for a page of at-home yoga instructions? It's not as if he was earning the money! She hadn't committed any federal crimes. And even if she had, so what? It was his job to be her husband, her friend—not her combatant.
Ned is such an ass! And of course I see him leering at that blonde every week! How can I help but trip over that log? As if a girl like that would ever have a thing to do with a fatso!
Pulling into the driveway, gravel crunching, her jaw clenched, she batted her eyes to control the tears, but one escaped. Her stomach, a knot, pulled itself tighter. Then a switch flipped.
On the front step, she turned to him and said, in a tone that was so calm it amazed her as she spoke (it seemed to be coming from another woman altogether), "You're going to get in your car and drive to The Blue Spruce Motel. That's where you should stay tonight. From there, figure something out. Get a job. Or move back home to Kansas where mommy can feed you and change your diapers and powder your butt. Whatever. Figure it out. Tomorrow morning, at work, I'm going to get the ball rolling with divorce proceedings. I'm a divorce lawyer, so don't even try to fight me or you'll be sorry you were ever born. I've had it with you. We're done."
Now the stunned one, his jaw slack, Ned blurted, "B-but what about m-my BLOG!"
Molly entered her home, closed the door, slid the bolt. She leaned her back against the door, closed her eyes, heard Ned get back in his car, slam the door shut, fire the engine, drive away.
Alone. At last.
The next morning, she stayed in bed for long time. The coffee maker, set for six, had been on for an hour, but its aroma wasn't enticing enough to coax her out from under the covers. Right now she was savoring the serenity of solitude, occasionally opening her eyes, a little, to enjoy the day slowly creeping into her bedroom. She kicked her feet, then spread out her arms and legs like a snow angel. What luxurious luxury! The entire bed to herself! No snoring, farting, crabby Ned! Yay!
Around nine, she called the office to say she'd be late, the better to soak in a hot bath, call the locksmith, and relax a bit at Bagel Tyme before getting down to the business of divorce papers. At Bagel Tyme she sat at a rickety table with a large black coffee, a bialy with cream cheese, and a New York Times. Mmm! She watched customers come and go, all seemed as if in slow motion. Was she really free? Really? Was it as easy as this, to be rid of the poison? I should've given him the boot ages ago!
Then in walked that blonde from yoga class. Great, just great. Molly watched the woman, a study in perfection, go to the counter and place her order. Well, whatever. Molly snapped her paper, began to read the latest from Afghanistan and Pakistan. What are we going to do over there? What a tangled mess... She was several paragraphs into an article when she sensed a presence.
"Excuse me, but someone told me you're a lawyer?" said a slight voice. The blonde.
"Yes, that's true." Up until now, Molly had never considered the woman to be anything more than a minor annoyance, a reminder of her own shortcomings. "The Blonde" and her red sports car. She's never had to suffer, she's always been popular, had her pick of the litter of all the cool guys.
But now? There was something in the woman's eyes that gave Molly pause. "Please, sit down. What's your name? Sharon? I'm Molly. Well Sharon, is there a problem?"
"I don't know where to turn. I'm new to this area, I don't have any actual friends here, and I have no living family." (Huh. She's an orphan. Like me...) "I'm a freelance photographer, for newspapers and magazines. But with this economy and what's happening in publishing, well, everything's dead. It seems as if every time I turn around, I hear about another newspaper going under. I haven't had a job in six months. My savings are almost completely depleted..."
"That's okay. Go on." Molly pulled her chair forward, the better to hear this quiet voice.
"Last summer I met this woman, it was love at first sight. We got married, in Massachusetts, right away. We'd met in Provincetown, where I sublet. Anyway, she has a job here, so I relocated, and everything was great, for a while. But then… I realized what a tremendous mistake I'd made. I... I'm so... ashamed..."
Sharon pulled back the sleeve of her black sweater, for a moment, allowing a large bruise to fill in the rest of the story. Then she said, "I need help."
Molly said, "Yes, I can help you. For starters, you need a safe place. You've got to get out of there, right away. Why don't we go get some of your stuff, and we'll go to my house. I'll take care of a restraining order. I can do that, easy. I know all the good judges. Later, I guess we can begin to find a shelter, or someplace, for you. This isn't the first time something like this has happened. There's a protocol. At work, I can start a divorce, that's what I do, divorce. I don't mean to presume, but if there's violence, you should get out of your situation immediately. I'm going to start divorce proceedings for myself today! Ha! I'll do 'em both at the same time! Why not? Yours will be on the house!"
Sharon placed a hand over Molly's.
Molly thought, "Sometimes a winning smile is really a doorway to hell. And sometimes the homecoming queen is a punching bag." A slight sense of vertigo spun through her. A few days later, grim-faced Ned arrived at Pin Oak Dr. to pack his belongings into a Kansas-bound U-Haul. Ned was stunned to see Sharon in the house, but didn't comment. In fact, Molly and Ned didn't speak very much at all, no more than was absolutely necessary, didn't so much as say goodbye. As he drove into the dusk, she muttered, "Have a nice life. Not." Then she made duck noises, "Quack! Quack!"
They never met or spoke again; the divorce was handled through the mail.
Sharon stayed on through the week, sleeping on a cot in Ned's empty office. And she was still there the next week, and the next. She made herself very useful with cleaning and shopping, running the dumb errands that could swamp Molly's life. Her presence made the house hum. She even planted a victory garden in the backyard, fertilized with horse manure, and seeded with tomatoes and green beans and zucchini, of course zucchini, the easiest to grow. If all else fails, there's always zucchini! They ate well all summer and had plenty to jar for the winter.
When Sharon was first considering a garden, they asked the local postmistress if she knew where to get manure. "What kind do you want? Hereabouts we got chicken shit, we got pig shit, we got cow shit, we got horseshit. This county? It's fulla shit!" The three of them laughed.
One evening, after Sharon had been living with Molly for a month or so, they were on the sofa watching an old movie. During a commercial they made eye contact, and didn't break it. Molly leaned over, and Sharon leaned over, and Molly leaned closer, and Sharon leaned closer, and their mouths met for the first time. They held that kiss for a very long time, their breaths one.
—Follow J.D. King on Twitter: @jdking_mod