When I announced the publication of "Lift and Separate," the debut novel by my sister, Marilyn Simon Rothstein, Carolina Woman readers clamored for more. In response to the demand, I've made a special arrangement to reprint the first chapter here.
— Debra Simon, Editor & Publisher
Three days after my husband left me, I stood in the master bathroom with my best friend, Dana. "I would throw out his toothbrush," I said, "but I don't know which is his and which is mine."
Dana had arrived at my house direct from Kennedy Airport, vaulting up the stairs to find me staring stun-gun still into the bathroom mirror while squeezing a family-size tube of Colgate into one of the double sinks. I hadn't brushed my teeth in three days.
"Buy a new toothbrush," she said. Dana was in advertising. She had a retail solution for everything.
I shut my eyes and shook my head.
Dana reached for her summer bag. "I'll buy one for you."
"Please don't go anywhere. I'm so relieved that you're here. I need you here."
"Okay, Marcy, okay."
I glanced at the tub. "Harvey and I never went in the hot tub together."
"Maybe that should have told you he was unhappy." Lightly, Dana knocked her shoulder against mine. A shoulder knock from Dana always made me feel like the most popular girl at the popular table.
But I didn't feel like knocking. What was there to knock about now?
"Actually, I thought of drowning myself in the tub, but no one was around to rescue me and I didn't want to die. I just wanted to stop breathing long enough to make Harvey come home."
"News flash, Marcy. You're not the first woman to be left by a man."
"So why do I feel like the first?" I wiped a tear across my cheek–
one tear. Even my tears were alone now.
"You must stop taking this abandonment personally when it's nothing but the human condition." Dana lit a cigarette. She cranked open the window, exhaling into my stellar acre of backyard woods.
I loved that backyard. I focused on the spot where the cedar playground with three swings, a slide, a seesaw, and a fort with a canvas roof had once stood for eternity, it seemed.
When my husband, Harvey, suggested that we call someone to dismantle it, our children were grown; our youngest, Ben, our only son, was a junior in college, on a semester abroad in Florence. I found it amazing and poignant and comforting that now, no matter how much miracle, magical seed our landscaper tossed down, a portion of that spot remained forever brown.
"You're so right, Dana. My problem with Harvey isn't personal. It's universal. Harvey didn't leave me. He left every woman in the world."
"Of course I'm right. I'm only fifty-six, and I've been married three times."
Apparently, my husband's departure was not enough aggravation for me. My best friend needed to remind me that I was older than she was. "Oh, yes," I said. "And don't forget–you're not only younger than me, you wear a smaller size."
"Give me a break. You always look great."
I pulled down and straightened my sweatshirt from high school, worn over baggy sweatpants, and took another shot at eliciting husband- leaving-size sympathy from Dana.
"When I was in my twenties and I threw my lot in with Harvey, I didn't think I was starting a new life. I thought I was starting life."
"I'm telling you–you're going to be fine."
I started pacing between the granite counter and the steam shower.
"I keep thinking how well Harvey will do without me. I'll be in a nursing home clutching a walker–lime-green tennis balls on the bottom– eating soft food for dinner at noon, and my daughters will be lunching with Harvey's new wife."
"Why? She never told them to turn off the television, to clean their rooms because the cleaning lady was coming, to find a boyfriend who speaks to adults in at least two-syllable words. And Harvey. Harvey will morph into Disneyland Dad–or, in his case, Saks Fifth Avenue Dad. I can't stand thinking about it."
"Get a grip. It's all going to work out."
"You just watch. Suddenly, Harvey will start a diet. He'll join a gym or hire a trainer. He'll eat egg-white omelets. He'll pour protein powder into spinach shakes."
"Harvey can scarf all the egg-white omelets he wants–you're in good shape."
"Not after this hell. I guarantee you that the way I've been stuffing myself through this debacle, I'm going to gain two hundred pounds–mostly in my inner thighs." I was aware that I had to stop thinking up these awful scenarios, but somehow projecting ahead was less painful than dwelling in real time.
"You can stop pacing right now, because you are certain to do better than Harvey. It's not even a contest. If it's necessary, and I'm not saying it will be, you'll lift yourself up and create a whole new life."
I didn't want a whole new life. I wanted my life–in Connecticut–with my husband, an endearing family man who would do anything for our three grown-up children, a man who was smart and hardworking, a man who had built a brassiere and lingerie empire. Okay, so Harvey's corporation, Bountiful Bosom, wasn't Victoria's Secret–and that vexed Harvey to no end.
Dana was wearing white linen cuffed trousers, a wide silver belt cinched tight, and a billowy red blouse. Her hair was soft, wavy, naturally blond, and long, down her back. In fact, her hair was longer than it was when we first met, which was in front of the dairy case in a supermarket, back when yogurt sold for sixty cents and the only acceptable brand was Dannon–with its famous "fruit on the bottom."
We were about the same height, about five foot six, but Dana would traverse a tightrope in her stilettos, so she always appeared taller.
Anyone we met for the first time was surprised to hear that Dana was old enough to have a thirty-year-old son, Jeremy, who lived in Boston.
In addition, she had two daughters, twins, who were seniors at the town high school. Dana was hunting for colleges as though she were going to buy one.
I wished Dana would quit smoking. And I wished she would say something that would actually make me feel better. I'd been married longer than I'd attended school, longer than I'd known Dana. I was married in a Priscilla of Boston empire gown and a white daisy crown, before the existence of Vera Wang bridal couture, microwave popcorn, corporate greed, virtual reality, destination weddings, cable news, global warming, stay-at-home dads, and frequent-flyer points.
I was married when the smartest phone was a Princess, and the World Wide Web was science fiction. In fact, I may have been born married; I had no inclination not to be married. And what I needed in my master bathroom right now was a head-nodding, hand-wringing, soggy-eyed friend with a wholesale supply of tissues.
I sat down on the cold tile. Good thinking, Harvey. Thank you for the ultimate necessity item–a custom floor, a replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, installed by artisans, in a bathroom in Connecticut. Harvey Hammer–what a magician. He can make thousands of dollars disappear.
Dana glanced at the wristwatch her current husband, Calvin, had given to her for their anniversary. I had no idea why anyone would care what time it was. I hadn't seen a clock in days.
I hoped Dana wasn't consulting her watch because she needed to leave my house at a particular time. If Dana left, I would be alone–with a liter of Diet Coke, a Sara Lee pound cake, and a party-size bag of Cape Cod potato chips–about to undo years of struggling to live healthy.
I rubbed my bleary eyes, panicking at the thought of her departure, petrified that she would say she had to go pick up the girls at gymnastics or the dog at the vet or that she had a meeting at her advertising office miles away, on Old Cow Lick Lane. A meeting at Dana's agency would be worst of all. I could always join her to get the girls or the dog–although I had no inclination to ever leave my house again.
"Let's sit in the hot tub," I suggested, trying to be more engaging and less morose.
The empty tub was grotto-style, roomy enough for four adults.
Fully dressed, Dana and I stretched out next to each other with our legs crossed at the ankles.
Dana kicked off her shoes and rested her head on an inflatable pillow.
"Okay," she said. "Let's go through it from the beginning."
Although I had told her every detail, through face-staining tears, on the telephone, I was not going to surrender this opportunity to tell her again. I needed to go on and on about Harvey, and I had no desire to share my burden with anyone beyond Dana. I had lived in a pinch of a New England town long enough to know that gossip regarding Harvey's departure would spread like influenza in a preschool. If Harvey changed his mind and returned, as I prayed he would, I didn't want this mishap on my permanent record.
"On Monday," I began, "which was doomsday–pouring rain, crackling thunder with lightning–I called Harvey at the office to ask when he'd be home. I've done that forever. I like to have supper ready when he arrives. But this time, Harvey said he wasn't coming home. He spoke slowly, softly, as though someone close to us had died.
"I said, 'What do you mean you're not coming home?' Then, without warning, he launched into this maniacal monologue. He said that for the first time in his life, he was uncertain of everything, especially our marriage. He said he needed to think. I begged him to come home so we could think together. He blew his damn nose into the phone.
"He said, 'Marcy, I'm leaving you.' Click. Clicks are so cruel."
"Did you call him back?"
"No," I said. "I haven't done anything yet."
Dana's "what" had a stop-everything screech to it, and I was flooded with anxiety as I worried that I had made a colossal mistake. I could still call. My cell was on the vanity. But would calling Harvey make things worse? Maybe time did heal all. Or maybe time was a waste of time.
"You're tough," Dana said as she knocked into my shoulder.
"As what–a cotton ball? I didn't call him because when I raced upstairs to check his closet, I saw that all of his favorite suits were gone.
The man packed enough clothing to open a menswear store."
I needed a tissue desperately, but no way would I climb out of the tub to get one. If I stepped out, Dana might follow me and tell me that she had to leave.
"Where did he say he would be?"
"I guess he's holed up at Bountiful." Easy enough–Harvey's office had a six-foot leather couch the color of butter, as well as a stocked wet bar, a refrigerator with an ice maker, and a microwave oven.
"Maybe," Dana said weakly.
"Maybe what?" I snapped.
"Maybe he's sleeping at the office."
So now where was her optimism? "Come on, Dana. He's Harvey." Dana flicked ashes into a yellow-duck soap dish I'd bought years before, when I was happily married, or so I'd thought, and my house was vibrant with the sights and sounds of my children and their friends–Reeboks scattered on the floor, homework projects amassed on the kitchen table, hands reaching into the freezer for treats, our house phone always busy, the anything-but-sleep sleepover parties on our carpeted family room floor, the girls' field hockey team standing and cheering on my kitchen table, over-the-top holiday celebrations and birthday parties, always with a cake from Sweet Heaven Bakery. I missed the days when my life was chock-full and there were too many things to do, when I collapsed into bed dog-tired and slept through the night as though I had participated in a world-championship triathlon.
But most of all, I missed my family depending upon me.
Dana was a big ash flicker. She tended to flick ash the most when she was trying to keep her mouth shut. I was certain she was no more than several flicks away from suggesting that my once-devoted husband, the attentive father of my three fabulous children, might be having an affair. I didn't want to hear it. I didn't want the repugnant thought released into the smoke-filled air. I reached for the Febreze and sprayed in circles, up to the ceiling and down to the floor, until Dana insisted that I stop.
From her experience, Dana assumed that every man with a gold band, except her third husband, Calvin, who didn't wear a wedding ring, was a cheater. She enjoyed going on and on about cheating being easier than ever. Even an oaf with hiked trousers, no job, and the underarm scent of half-eaten food rotting in a trash can could score on the Internet. I could hear her speech coming. But I was surprised. Dana didn't voice a word about infidelity and the Internet. She said, "I'm sorry I was away when you called."
"Are you serious? I'm so proud of you. Speaking in London at an advertising conference–you're such a success. You have the career people dream of. You have the career I dreamed of."
"Yes, my friend, I am amazing," she said with her characteristic sarcasm. "But honestly, Marcy, there is nothing I do that you couldn't have done."
"Did I tell you that last spring Harvey and I went to the Jewish cemetery to choose our burial plots? We rode around looking at headstones.
How morbid is that? We agreed on one large headstone for the both of us. Harvey would be buried on the left, and I would be on the right. You know what? I think Harvey wants to be buried with me. He just doesn't want to live with me."
"We don't know that yet. He's been gone only three nights. There are men who go out for a beer longer than that."
Only? Three nights was not an "only" in my house. An afternoon would be an "only."
"He's coming back," Dana said, swiping her hand through the air as if to say this was absolutely the truth. Then she knocked my shoulder to reaffirm.
"Quit knocking my shoulder."
"We always knock shoulders."
"Harvey has never done this before. We argue, but not that much, not like when the kids were growing up. Then we had things to disagree about. Our most recent dispute concerned this floor. Should I watch Harvey order a floor that costs more than a presidential election without saying a word?"
"Not if it's as ostentatious as this one. Who puts a replica of the Sistine Chapel on a bathroom floor? And what's with that parrot downstairs?"
"The parrot is Harvey's latest acquisition–some rare breed, of course. From Africa."
"So Harvey likes expensive things. My first husband considered a water bed on the floor the height of luxury–as long as he could roll over and reach his bong."
"Our last argument, before the Sistine bathroom, was about his weight. We went to Dr. Port, the endocrinologist. He suggested that Harvey drop thirty pounds, because he's prediabetic."
"What's 'prediabetic'?" Was Dana actually lighting another cigarette?
"Prediabetic is one M&M away from a major artery exploding in your chest," I said. "One Sunday, before noon, Harvey was about to barbecue a marinated steak the size of Kansas. I took the steak, on a platter, out of his hands, refusing to give it back to him.
Harvey stomped out of the yard and drove off, probably to a fast-food window. I stopped haranguing him about his weight when I realized that if Harvey had to choose between me and a sheet cake, I'd be tossing the bakery box in the garbage on my way out of the house."
"So Harvey likes food. It's always something. What about your kids? Do the kids know?"
"Yes. Harvey phoned Elisabeth, and of course she rushed over here to be with me.
Elisabeth called Ben, then Amanda in California. They both called me. They were so sympathetic, so good to me. Made me wish I had had more children. Not with Harvey. With another man."
My lower back was beginning to hurt. I'd had enough of the tub.
I had no choice but to stand up and step out. Dana followed, fussing with her hair.
"Elisabeth came straight from her shift at the hospital. When I heard the side door slam, I ran to the staircase. I was praying, hoping, it was Harvey. I tripped on the belt of my robe and tumbled down a few steps."
I showed her the bruises on my side.
"Whoa, that's ugly," Dana said, shaking her head. "Did you put anything on it?"
"Ice," I said as I pulled up my sweatpants.
"You should take Tylenol," Dana advised, and she turned her attention to my makeup drawer. I watched as she touched up her mascara with my wand. She rifled through my compacts to find the bronze blush she favored. She passed a round brush to me.
I ran the brush through my hair. It was easier than telling Dana that I didn't care if I looked like the afflicted woman in a commercial for extra-strength head lice remover. "Do you want to know the worst part? The entire time that Elisabeth was here consoling me, Harvey's new parrot wouldn't shut up."
"The parrot speaks? What does he say?"
I imitated the irritating bird. "Harvey. Harvey. Harvey."
"What would you like him to say?"
"Dana is beautiful. Dana is beautiful," she said with a squeaky squeal–part fowl, mostly pig.
"I'm calling an animal trainer today."
"I like this shade," Dana said, displaying an open lipstick.
Maybe she would keep the parrot too. Harvey had bought the bird one week before leaving home. Damn cruel–to the bird–if you ask me. Harvey had mentioned that a parrot could live for forty to sixty years.
"Any chance you would take the parrot to your house?" I asked Dana. "Just for a while?"
"The girls will like him."
"Great. Now you're using my children to get to me?"
"Dana is beautiful. Dana is beautiful," I said.
"What did Elisabeth have to say?"
"She said she was going to talk to Harvey."
"Good. What else?"
"She said, 'Mom, I feel so bad for you. If Dad was going to leave, why couldn't he at least take the parrot?'"
If Dad was going to leave, I thought, why couldn't he at least take me?
Dana carried the dome-top cage to her car. I followed with a healthy bag of supreme veggie-blend pellets, gluten-free, with omega-3.
I hugged her good-bye. I forced a smile.
"You can survive this," she said.
Want to read more? Order "Lift and Separate," published by Lake Union Publishing, on Amazon or ask for it at an independent bookstore in the Triangle.