None of the characters in this story has sex before the age of 18. They therefore do not resemble any actual persons living or dead.
A serious disclaimer: This story was inspired by something a friend of my wife learned from a pile of old letters. During World War II, when her father was separated from home by military service, he cheated on her mother. Their marriage was not allowed to be a casualty of war, and endured quite happily for the next fifty years.
I wanted to explore how other dislocations to normal life may test the fidelity of otherwise decent husbands and wives. The Motion Picture Production Code ended in 1968, but there are still readers on this site who demand adulterers die a horrible death in the last reel. I ask them to please click somewhere else.
“She’s the most adult person I’ve ever met,” said my mother, “more mature than I am, and I’m twice her age. Don’t make her regret choosing to marry you.”
Mom cut short my smart-ass reply. “Fred, shut up and listen carefully. You may think you’re marrying her because she’s good looking, or she’s smart, or she’s good in bed, or just because she puts up with you. Marion has the most important quality in the world. You can call it good judgment, or wisdom, or the ability to foresee consequences.
Don’t just listen to what she says. Ask her before she says anything, before you make any stupid moves on your own. You know those old cartoons where a devil pops up on one shoulder and says, ‘do it!’, while an angel pops up on the other and says, ‘don’t you dare’? I want you to figure out how to have a little Marion pop up on your shoulder without asking and say, ‘Oh, Fred. You really think that’s a good idea?’”
Marion had said just those words earlier that day and I resented Mom’s easy mimicry of her voice. But I always remembered what Mom told me that day. Somehow the image of a miniature Marion perched on my shoulder stuck in my mind. Often when confronted with a dilemma I would ask myself, “What would Marion say?” and imagine her cool low voice whispering in my ear. Unfortunately the little Marion didn’t pop up on her own; it only worked when I thought to ask her opinion. Nonetheless I managed to live the first twenty three years of our marriage as something close to a grown-up. We had two kids, lots of friends, good jobs and all in all, a good and satisfying life.
Marion and I had only one memorable argument. She wanted pine shutters in our first little apartment and thought we could save money by getting them unfinished at Home Depot. I came home to find the things stacked up in our bedroom. “We only have to make them about a sixteenth of an inch narrower on each side,” she said. I was reasonably handy but no Norm Abrams, and I didn’t have the New Yankee Workshop available to plane the damn things down. I let her make all the important decisions, so why couldn’t she at least have asked my advice? Marion got very huffy and wrecked a few of the shutters with saws, files and sandpaper. When she finally got two to fit into the window frame, she stank up the apartment with polyurethane, then realized she forgot to allow room for the hinges. She botched the countersinking, burst into tears and threw the shutters in the trash outside.
I know it doesn’t sound like a very impressive argument, but it’s the one time I can remember when Marion didn’t act like an adult. Truth is, we talked things out very well and hardly raised our voices to each other. Most of the big issues with most couples weren’t a problem for us. We both came from families of modest means, so saving money came naturally and neither of us enjoyed pointless consumption. We bought all our cars and our second house with cash, although housing was not too expensive here at the fringes of the Rust Belt. Our children were told we wouldn’t spend more for a private college than it would cost to go to the state university, so it was up to them to get scholarships.
Our sex lives were about average for a couple our age, or perhaps a bit better. Spontaneity, of course, ended with our first child. Marion had a healthy libido and was pretty easy to bring to orgasm. Her adulthood extended to the bedroom, so there was no frivolity or playfulness, just a purposeful trajectory towards sexual satisfaction. I really didn’t mind. After all, my favorite flavor of ice cream has always been vanilla.
The one near-tragedy in our lives was our son’s period of mental illness. He started acting up around the age of ten, to the point of being expelled from school. This went on for two years and two periods of hospitalization. Finally, despite the best efforts of all the mental health professionals, he got better on his own. He made up for the lost school and is now as well adjusted as any other college student. One thing surprised all the doctors: Marion and I never disagreed about what to do, when to fire the current child psychiatrist and look for another.
Just after our daughter started college we had two serious problems. It was 2008 and the financial crisis caught up with my place of work. I was laid off with a generous severance package but no prospect of another job. Much, much worse was Marion’s breast cancer. It was fortunately of a type well understood and not considered life-threatening. It meant she had to take six months off her job, undergo several operations and four rounds of chemotherapy. Her company paid her medical insurance throughout, and I had COBRA benefits from my job, but there was no money coming in for other expenses.
I’ve become convinced there is something genetic in the way different people cope with pain, death and disease. I’m not at all brave, but Marion faced her illness with her usual adult calm. She reminded me of a neighbor who was the happiest, most well-adjusted gentleman you could imagine, a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. I was shocked to learn at his funeral that he was taken captive by the Japanese, survived the Bataan Death March, was nearly drowned when his POW transport got torpedoed, and was barely alive when he was finally liberated. I now get a trifle impatient when an ordinary person describes himself as a “survivor” of some ordinary problem in life.
Marion didn’t need constant nursing, just a lot of sleep and relief from all the side-effects of her treatment. She urged me to find things to do outside the house. I started getting a bit flabby, so I volunteered to help my younger brother at his farm about half an hour out of town. All the hard physical work put me in better shape than I’ve ever been, without the idiocy of exercising for no purpose. This was at a time when Marion was retaining water, losing hair and itching all over her body. I got used to how she looked, as much as I could, and told myself it wasn’t any worse or more permanent than pregnancy.
I only spent a limited amount of time online. I quickly got bored with the Internet, which I saw as a magazine with an infinite number of pages and no editor. At least it was useful for finding more interesting ways to pass my time. I found out that an arts foundation financed a weekly series of classic movies at one of the downtown theaters. It was only five dollars and gave me something to talk about when I got back home. I was surprised at how many other fans of old movies showed up each week at 1 PM. Many of them were retired and a lot were housewives, but I was far from the only unemployed man in his forties.
The second of these showings ended prematurely when the projectionist discovered a reel of film was missing. The lights came on and one of the organizers got up front to apologize. He said of course we’d get our money back, but since almost everyone had seen All About Eve before, they would just leave out the missing reel and continue showing the rest. That started a big ruckus among those who thought this a sacrilege. The woman next to me said, “Excuse me, I’m just going to leave. I don’t have patience for such stupid arguments.” I said I agreed. I didn’t want to spend the rest of the film trying to remember the parts left out.
She said she was now too early to pick her daughter up from elementary school. I took the opportunity to introduce myself and suggest we get a cup of coffee. She hesitated a moment and then smiled, shook my hand and gave her name as Vera. I didn’t notice much about her appearance, but her voice was sexy, a wonderfully moderated alto.
We each explained why we had the free time for old movies in the middle of the day. I told of being laid off and my wife having unspecified medical issues. Vera said she was trained as a nurse but hadn’t practiced since she got married. She had just gotten a divorce and was debating what to do next. Her ex-husband was a successful businessman who was willing to spend anything necessary for her daughter’s well-being. If she found a part-time job which gave her enough time for her daughter, she’d consider going back to work.
That seems very nice of your ex, I said, then started to hedge. No, she said, he wasn’t a bad man at all. His problem was addiction to his job. What little time he could spare for his family he tried to give their daughter. In the end it wasn’t enough to keep the marriage going. “I’m sorry for him, because I don’t think he’s getting much pleasure from anything in life. He certainly wasn’t unfaithful to me. He spent all his energy screwing customers and competitors. He’s still in love with me, but he admits it’s not doing either one of us any good.”
“Vera, did you say your married name is Magnussen?”
“Yes. My ex-husband’s name is Ronald Magnussen.”
.... There is more of this story ...