There is a photograph, no more than seven years old, which sits upon the mantel above the fire. There is a young couple who are smiling wide for the unseen cameraman. The husband is playfully kissing her neck, arms squeezing her waist in a tight embrace, as she seems to giggle. The girl’s clothes still has the faint creases of a new store-bought dress and fresh lipstick, while his shirt is half tucked in and a few strands of golden hair have come loose from his pommade infused hairdo. His trousers are too loose, yet sturdily strung up by black suspenders- a wedding present. A “SOLD” sticker is plastered on a sign proudly posted in front of their new castle. A two-story castle that had 1,690 sq ft, that is. But for the beginning of their happily ever after, the couple smiled back so infatuated with love, they could never foresee a future where they might be rudely awakened from bliss.
Beside me, our six-year old daughter plays on the floor with a pile of blocks. She shifts them around on the floor, fairly uninterested in building anything, but instead keeps trying to peek out the window to look at the empty driveway. I tell her there’s nothing there and as she begins to cry a little, I hand her the doll she got for her birthday. The china doll had blue eyes and fair golden locks, just like her own, and as her father and I saw the doll glint back at us from behind a store window, we knew. No words needed, as we looked to one another for confirmation, we agreed that this was THE toy. We agreed to make sure that our daughter would always know she was loved.
I met my husband, George, in college. The year was 1951 and it was the end of April during sophomore year. It was the first really sunny day we’d had where we’d be free to lounge on the grassy hills between the dorms and the library. I was sitting with my friends, bathing in the sunlight, when a group of boys came over with newly-checked out books in their arms.
“Hellooooo ladies,” one said as he dramatically slicked back his hair with his free hand. “I can see that I have already met my future wife!”
My friend Jacqueline snaps her head upright and sneered, “oh yeah, buddy? And who would that be, exactly?”
He looked down at the ground, rubbing his foot into the concrete, feigning a bashful look. “Aww, gee, well… It all depends who wants the MARK-MASTER more, offers booking fast, hurry now!”
“I’m not sure it’s the offers that are in danger of going fast…” Jacqueline jeered and winked. “Get out of here, you’re blocking my sun!” Mark grabbed his chest in fake anguish as the other boys began to laugh at the fallen comrade, dragging him playfully away to nurse his wounds. However, one boy stayed behind. “Hey, I said get lost!”
“Well I will as soon as I get to know your name.” He pointed ambiguously to the center of the group.
“My name is Madeline, and I-”
He stopped her. “Nice to meet you, Madeline, but I actually meant her, in the bobby socks.” The ensemble of girls wearing shiny heels and silk stockings turned to look at me in expectation. The strange boy with a nice smile kept his eyes gently fixed on mine.
“I’m… Katherine.” I said, bluntly.
“Nice to meet you, Katherine. I realize it’s kinda forward, but will you let me take you out this Saturday to a movie? I feel like if I didn’t at least try to ask, you’re the kind of girl I’d always wonder ‘what if?’ about.” He had a charming charisma about him which I found so alluring. That blinding smile, blue eyes of an angel which promised you eternity, and a roll-your-sleeves up and work for the elbow grease mentality. How could a boy notice a girl like me in a crowd of more beautiful women, so why not say ‘yes’?
And that was the beginning of everything. For the girl who grew up reading fairytales and romance novels, the girl still young the world would marry the first boy who professed his love. That girl was convinced she had found the elusive ‘one’ and that life was simple after the happily ever after, but the truth is far less glamorous.
That young couple, drunk on the idea of love, would marry in a simple ceremony. It was the parents on either side and our closest friends gathered in the small quarters of the adjoining chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My mother was able to help pick out a simple wedding dress for the occasion. That afternoon as I stood draped in a silhouette of white lace, I was submerged in the euphoria of young love, and everything in the world seemed possible.
We moved into a small house in the suburbs of Kensington, New York. It was a white house with yellow shutters, and a small backyard. George worked in the city and I stayed at home. There were several young couples who were just beginning to settle down. In the summer there would be get-together barbeques on a set rotation set up by the wives. To make new friends, we decided to socialize with the neighbors. George went bowling on boy’s night while I joined the bridge club. It was there that I learned a very important life lesson- I hate bridge. Thankfully, they rarely played and instead, the busibodies chattered the hours away.
Thirteen months later, I gave birth to our first child, Charlotte. She was the ray of sun that really made our life whole. The thing about children is that they can being annoying- most of the time they are, and childbirth is a new realm of pain- but they add value to your life more than you could’ve imagined. When Charlotte was four, we decided that since she was no longer an infant, we could try again… Unfortunately things don’t always work out as planned.
There was an accident. All I remember is blood, so much blood, why was there so much blood? I never even knew they sold boxes so small. But I loved the name Peter, or Marianne if it was a girl. And we cried beneath a tree in the backyard and buried the box under a patch of roses. I thought it was quite fitting, as something so painful to hold, can also be beautiful- always blooming in your memory.
I believe a part of us died that way, in more ways than one. I felt so incredibly guilty. I wanted to talk to someone, but I couldn’t to the neighbors, and I think George just found it too painful. As much as he never admitted that it bothered him, anytime I brought up the matter he’d stay silent, or even leave the room. So we both found ways to cope. I threw myself into meaningless tasks… George into the arms of other women. Again, we both found ways to cope.
He told me at dinner. Her name was Linda. She was a nurse. There was a pang in my stomach, but I continued to pick at my meatloaf, mixing my peas in with the potatoes. I think I was more shocked of the lack of what I felt: a numbing vacuum. We finished eating in silence, complete with glassy-eyed stares. I cleared the table and washed the dishes. I went to the bedroom where I wiped away the black spilling from my eyelashes and splashed cold water on my face to erase the reddened cheeks.
I’m not a fool, though. I saw there was something broken a long time ago, but I only acknowledged the cracks after it shattered. I found myself wishing, just as I was wishing now, that I could go back to the days when life seemed easy. I was suddenly more in love with the memories we had together, than the husband who was sitting on the opposite end of the table. There was a distance and we fell out of love with each other. I knew there were a million factors as to WHY it ended, but the only fact which mattered was that it had.
In the end, there was no fighting. He said he was in love. Oddly enough, even in romance novels, I’ve never believed that you can love two people in the same way, equally, at the same time. That there is no way to choose between them. After all, if you’re in love with one person, but are enamored enough with another to the point where you are conflicted about starting over, it seems there must be something amiss in the first relationship. He said he was in love and I saw it in his eyes, and I could feel it in my heart. This should’ve been the point of absolute shock where my world is tumbling upside down and yet I felt that I knew and I found myself worried about how to care for Charlotte, and ‘what about the house?’ instead of first wondering how to salvage what was left?
We went to bed that night and fell asleep in silence. I imagined the scene of him leaving would be filled with tears and screams and broken glass in the middle of the night. But we attended one last barbeque together as a family and at 2pm, he picked up his suitcases, loaded them into his car, kissed Charlotte goodbye, and drove away.
As I look at the picture frame again, I feel the echo of that blissfully ignorant couple in the throes of young love, hoping that maybe they can continue to be that happy in the future. That white picket sign outside my house reading “SOLD” no longer brings me that same joy… My house… I suppose I can’t call it that for much longer. I pack up our suitcases in tight folded clothing. I dump the unnecessary items like shampoo- we can get that in Chicago. It will be nice to see my folks. His things were shipped off to New Jersey two weeks prior, but he still calls every evening to wish Charlotte a goodnight’s sleep. She still watches the empty driveway for his car to roll in, asking when he’ll come home again?
All I can ever say is, “Soon, honey. Soon,” as I kiss the soft tendrils resting on her forehead. I tell her this to calm her. I’ll say, “It’ll get better. It has to get better… soon.” I say this to calm myself. Finally, I’ve begun to believe it’s true.
I have Charlotte stand in front of the house one more time and snap a few polaroids. She smiles wide, without a care in the world. I plan to put that photo in a frame upon the mantel from now on. I tell her we are going to be explorers, like on a safari, going on a roadtrip to see Grandma’s house. Her eyes go wide with excitement as she pulls out a red cape from her preschool backpack. “I’m red riding hood, mama!”
I beam proudly at her and kiss her cheeks. “Yes you are! Now say goodbye to the house. It’ll be a long while before we come back, okay?”
“Bye house!” She screams and sits back in her seat. I ask if she’s sad to leave. She looks at me straight in the eyes and says, “No… we’re going on an adventure!”