The divorce papers arrive in the morning, in the mailbox, from her lawyer. One copy for her to sign, one for him. She spends the morning on the back porch in the spring sun, trying to think how to explain to him why she’s moving out. Moving away. Moving on. Clichés abound, ricocheting around the screened-in walls.
But all the youthful platitudes do seem to fit, even at her age, now that she’s finally decided to take charge of herself. It feels huge, this first real decision of her life. Seven decades in the making. Since she first phoned the lawyer, she’s been carried, or felt herself carried, on the forward crest of a wave—white-knuckled, at last, right at the front tip of her life.
She signs her copy, but before she’s thought of what to tell him, it’s 11:30. She tucks the papers in her handbag because there isn’t time to find a suitable place in the house, and they get in the car. The bag feels heavy and she swings it into her lap in the waiting room. There she waits for him to return from the scan, the same one every six months even though he’s been in remission for seven or eight years.
When the doctor, the oncologist, calls them both in afterward, he makes a point of arranging chairs for them side-by-side. The bag clunks to the floor as she sits. It leans against her shin, a pressing heat, while the oncologist explains his news: type, treatment, odds, outlook.
In the chair next to her he sags a little, hearing it. She drops her head onto his shoulder, lips pressed in a seal to keep the shame tucked behind her teeth. Into the stretching silence the oncologist offers how lucky they were to have those good, healthy years in between. How lucky to have each other. His hands spread, palms up, in front of him.
She readies herself to talk at length about the diagnosis, to hash it out as they have always wrung and choked and crushed every subject that comes into the house with them. As if discussing anything at length made a difference when he would always just decide, in the end, for both of them. But he won’t talk about it. She retreats to the sun porch in the back. The kids hogged this space for so long; now it’s hers. Until she moves out, if she’s still moving out.
When they first arrived the papers felt like a loaded pistol, quick and incisive—with power enough to split her not just from the person she was, but from the person who’d made her that way. Now there is no clean cut to make, no swift weapon to make it with.
She keeps the papers under a chair cushion on the porch. She feels them under her thighs and hears them shifting and rustling conspicuously, but playing classical on the radio helps. When he naps, which is often, she takes them out and examines the pages, as if there might be something new on them to help her decide.
She decides to stay, to carry out this route they’re on and have been on for so long. She recycles the papers and abandons the porch. The kids come back, they stay a few weeks. Her family is a tight unit she remembers and fits precisely into. The specifics of her mornings, days, evenings, and nights are prescribed by how each turns around the others. An orbit. She cooks, bathes, assists, reads aloud from the newspaper.
She decides to leave, to give him the papers from under the chair cushion and move. It proves necessary to rush the relocation, since the town becomes overnight a place where she is vilified, a hateful non-wife. Selfish, the old woman who leaves him when he needs her. The specifics of her mornings, days, evenings, and nights are stretchy and shapeless in the new one-bedroom apartment. The kids come back, they stay with him a few weeks and don’t call or take her calls.
While she is on the porch deciding, each day, what to do with the papers under the chair cushion, the hours of sun ebb. The turn to autumn makes the space shady and cooler, and the kids come back to stay a few weeks. When at last she’s decided, she rises and shuffles back into the house. They meet her in the kitchen to tell her he’s gone. She feels herself steered, borne by gentle elbows scooped under her arms, back to the chair on the porch. It rustles as she’s lowered down into it. A mug of tea is fit into her open hand, the classical radio put on at a soft volume. They leave her there to rest in the dull afternoon sun, murmuring how she needn’t worry, while they decide the arrangements for him, and for the house, and for her too. They’ll take care of everything.
Emily Everett’s short fiction has appeared recently in The Tishman Review, and was nominated for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize. Her nonfiction appears online for the Common magazine, where she is managing editor. She is a graduate of Smith College, and holds an MA in Literature from Queen Mary University of London. You can find her on Twitter at @public_emily.