This story is by CF and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Twenty years of togetherness is how Sarah defined her marriage to Joe. The word togetherness, part of a statement on a greeting card she bought him for their anniversary one year. “Congratulations”, it read,“We made it”, like a finishing line they had both reached and in so doing, began a new race to the next finishing line; another year of togetherness.
Give it one more year, her friends had said when she told them, We are considering divorce. Try more dates, share a hobby or self-help book, they said. Finally, try marriage therapy.
This year, as she walked the aisle of her favorite greeting card supply nestled quite conveniently within her grocery store, there was no card to convey her feelings of ambivalence and uncertainty. Her anniversary was fast approaching and with it came certain requirements. She would reserve a table at his favorite restaurant and book the babysitter for their two children. On the night of their anniversary, she would show up wearing a decent dress from her closet, hair and makeup thoughtful but not over done. She would tell Joe that she feels their relationship is over. But right now, she needed to pick a card. Maybe it should be a sympathy card, she laughs to herself; humor her well honed armor.
Sarah knew that she loved Joe. Choosing him was one of the best decisions she had made in a life otherwise full of self-sabotage. He was loving and kind, capable and courageous. With him, she could envision a path of achievement. He helped her through college, both emotionally and financially. They bought a house together and he worked tirelessly to make it the nice home she never had growing up. Despite his rigorous career goals, he acquiesced to having a child and in so doing, became an amazingly committed father. Because of his influence, she succeeded in extraordinary adventures. They climbed the Dolomites together, and reached the summits of many mountains to see the most magnificent golden sunrises. They skied vast backcountry terrain, feeling alive in the wild lands of the Rocky Mountains. All of this, the two of them had done together.
Over the years their connection with eachother became blunted by the rigors of daily responsibility. Who was going to take out the trash? Whose turn was it to go to the grocery store? Why was there a pile of dirty clothes on the bed? Why is it that I cannot reach within and find some connection to him that might keep us together, she considered.
“Excuse me” quipped a very impatient costumer suddenly looming quite close to her, interrupting her ruminations. “Are you going to buy a card?” He leaned in towards her. Sarah, quickly grabbed the greeting card closest to her, the front showing a picture of two red anthropomorphized hearts hugging eachother. She had no idea what message it held within. It would have to do. She was out of time.
One week before his wedding anniversary, Joe was busy. Joe was always busy though. A person can’t get as much done in one lifetime as he had without being busy. He had a big project due at work and his business partners would be disappointed if it wasn’t finished by Friday. He also had to stop by the jeweler’s shop to pick up the anniversary necklace he was having made.
Whenever time allowed, Joe thought upon his wife with love and admiration. She was by far the most inviolable woman he had met. He felt lucky to have her by his side in all things. Oftentimes he would remember fondly their adventures together and the disasters they narrowly escaped. More than that, he appreciated the way her contagious compassion had helped him navigate through life with more empathy. It had certainly made him a better father. He looked down at his watch, realizing the time. He was going to be late coming home again. He shook his head in defeat, feeling like he was always out of time.
On the night of their twentieth wedding anniversary, Sarah sat at the bar in the corner of the restaurant. The kids were home with a babysitter and she had arrived early to give herself time, dissociated from her children’s needs. Why was it that the children’s needs always seemed to hold an urgency that interrupted everything else? So primal they were. So immediate. Arguments between them seemed like the brink of a civil war requiring deft mediation skills. She needed space away from them to develop the words to say to Joe. How was she going to tell him that she loved him but she was not in love with him anymore? How could she explain to him that she needed more space for herself? Having children, quitting her career and getting older had made her feel sufficated. It was simple really. She needed to detach, create space and redefine herself. Obviously, she couldn’t leave the kids or herself. He was the only one left for her to leave. Where is the greeting card for that? She joked. Her smile quickly faded in deference.
She looked at her watch. He was Ten minutes late already. Had he forgotten about their date? He had confirmed it during their phone call earlier. They often spoke on the phone and were routinely aware of what the other was doing throughout the day; just not what the other was feeling. He had sounded distracted when they talked; probably work. But what if it wasn’t work? What if he was also preparing to tell her the difficult news that he wanted a divorce. They had spoken about it during their therapy session a few months prior. At the time, he was reluctant to consider it. But he promised to give it thought.
As the minutes ticked by, Sarah, sitting at this quaint Italian bar by herself, began to reimagine her life without Joe. Maybe she was enjoying a night out celebrating her new job with the Internal Medicine clinic. Having the time to focus on her career would have given her the chance to be a physician. Maybe her new boyfriend was due to join her at any minute, having flown in from a conference in Italy earlier that day. They would be sharing a penthouse apartment in the city; no need for extra rooms for children. They wouldn’t even have time or commitment for a pet. Their relationship would be loose and fluid like teenage lovers. Suddenly, she felt lonely.
Joe looked at his watch. He was late to meet her for their anniversary dinner. All would be forgiven as soon as she saw the necklace and read the greeting card, he thought as he stood in line at the grocery store, card in hand. It had taken him a long time to find the right one. It needed to be sincere, not trite. He had big news for her that was going to improve their relationship. He had thought about what the therapist had said and he had decided to choose her. He would make the changes in his career trajectory that would give him more time for her. He would tell her how much he had missed the togetherness that they once shared. Better yet, he would show her. He had bought plane tickets to Italy, scheduled babysitters for the children. They were going on another adventure together.
Across town, Sarah began rummaging in her purse for money to pay for her drink. “Will that be all?” asked the waiter, standing over her table. Her hand brushed against Joe’s greeting card. She pulled it out, opened it again and read the caption inside. You’re my main squeeze, it read. It didn’t do justice to twenty years of marriage. It was corny and trite and he deserved better. He was always so good at finding the perfect card for her; funny and sincere. This might be the last anniversary card he gets from me, she thought. She looked up at the waiter,”That will be all for now” she reponded, giving him a ten dollar bill. Feeling rushed for time, she quickly left the restaurant, failing to see Joe’s car parked out front.
With all of Joe’s love and thoughts written on the perfect card, he arrived at the restaurant. He walked around back to avoid the crowd, immediately scanning the room for Sarah’s auburn hair. This is the new beginning, he thought jubilantly. But where was she? Had she forgotten their date? Was he too late? Had she left the restaurant? He texted her. No reply. He decided to sit and wait for her. He always had time to wait for her.
Sarah finds herself back in the greeting card aisle when she should be at the restaurant. Joe is probably there already. No matter, He will have to wait. The last card was all wrong. She would try again. She wanted a different ending.