Part one of our three-part “Summer Read” mini-novel series.
It was a fine day for a divorce. Once she had it, she would get her name back, her freedom, and half the equity in the house. A good three-in-one. Today the whole process was to be formally started.
Liz Harmon waited on the steps of their three-bedroom home for her not-soon-enough-to-be-ex-husband, Peter, to arrive.
He had gone to see a real-estate agent about selling their house. After that they had an appointment with a lawyer.
Their house, she thought. There would be no “their” any more. And soon—not soon enough—she would not be Liz Harmon anymore. She would go back to being Liz Stone, the same person she had been six years, seven months, and 45 days ago, when she had married a man who had seemed alive and exciting but had turned dull and predictable through the years, except for maybe when he managed to lure her into bed.
Peter’s dark blue Honda Civic pulled up in front of the house. He got out of the car, his face grimmer than it usually was.
“What’s wrong,” she asked anxiously. “What did the agent say?”
Peter’s usually straight body sagged as he spoke.
“There is no equity, Liz,” he said heavily.
“What are you talking about?” she demanded.
Peter walked past her and entered the house without answering.
Liz followed him into the kitchen. Peter went over to a counter, grabbed a bottle of vodka, and began pouring some of the liquid into a shot glass.
“Well,” Liz persisted. “What is going on?”
Peter took a sip.
“We’ve been living in a bubble, Liz. Housing prices have been collapsing around the country. We should have gotten divorced six months ago if we wanted to make money selling the house.”
Peter downed the rest of the shot in one motion.
“Go on,” she said, afraid to hear the rest.
Peter poured himself another shot of vodka before continuing.
“The real-estate agent said if we’re lucky we’ll get 200 for the house, but most likely no more than 190. If we sell, we won’t split 140,000 dollars between us. We’ll owe 200,000 dollars to the bank.”
“Unless,” Peter added, “we just walked away from the house, and let the bank foreclose. But that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”
“I don’t give a damn about the right thing!” Liz exploded. “I want out of the marriage!”
“We’ll walk away with nothing,” Peter said.
“I don’t care!” she shouted. “You can keep the house, Peter. I’ll just leave.”
Peter held the shot glass in his hand. He did not down it. Instead, he put it gently on the counter and came toward her.
“Liz, listen,” he implored. “Please be practical. These are tough times we’re facing. We should wait before going through with this. My job is probably secure, probably, but your work isn’t.”
“I’ll make do, Peter, I’ll make do,” she insisted.
‘Why can’t we stick it out together?” he pleaded. “We could have that baby we were planning to have.”
“Peter, you don’t have a child to save a marriage. It doesn’t work like that.”
Peter stepped back and picked up the shot glass, downing it in one gulp, without the first customary delicate sip. Liz knew that as the liquor flowed so would the emotions that Peter had learned to keep locked within him. Liz braced herself. She did not have long to wait.
“Liz,” Peter began, his voice cracking from the effort of hiding any weakness. “Can’t we try to make it work out? I still love you, Liz.”
“Peter,” she responded sharply, “I don’t love you anymore. Maybe I never did.”
“I don’t see what’s so bad about our marriage,” Peter stammered. “We have a nice house, we have—“
“Peter, I’m not happy! This marriage is empty. We have nothing between us anymore.”
“It sure doesn’t seem like that when we’re in bed,” Peter said thoughtfully, his voice calmer. “Not the way you carry on.”
Liz felt her cheeks turn red.
“Why don’t we go upstairs?” Peter suggested.
Liz shook her head no.
“Even after we agreed to a divorce we still made love,” Peter said. “Until two weeks ago. You haven’t let me touch you since then. What changed, Liz?”
She felt the color drain from her face. She did not answer. Instead she said, heatedly, “It wasn’t making love. It was sex.”
The look on his face made her regret the way she said it, if not the words themselves.
“Look, Peter,” she went on, her voice changed, reassuring and gentle now. “You’re still a great-looking guy. And you are a wizard in bed, there’s no denying that. You’ll find someone else, with no problem at all.”
“Like you did?”
She did not answer.
“Is that why you asked for a divorce?” he demanded.
“Peter, I swear, that has nothing to do with it. I asked you for a divorce more than a month ago, before I met him. It was just sheer luck, and kind of strange.”
“Who is he?”
“His name is Andrei.”
“That’s funny,” Peter said. “I remember you told me, long ago, how much you liked that name. How you used to fantasize about having a boyfriend with that name.”
“You remember that,” Liz said, amazed.
“I remember everything you’ve told me,” Peter replied. “So who is he?”
“I know this sounds crazy,” she said, “but I don’t really know. I’ve actually never met him, in person, that is.”
“What? Are you OK, Liz?”
“He went to a public lecture I gave at the university, about three weeks ago,” Liz explained. “He sent me an email afterwards. We started writing. Four, five, six emails a day. We started chatting online, too. I know him, Peter, and he knows me, even though we haven’t met yet.”
“What does he look like?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see him in the lecture hall. There were a lot of people there and he was sitting in the back. It doesn’t matter. I don’t really care what he looks like.”
“He didn’t even send you a picture? He didn’t even describe himself?”
“It’s not important,” Liz insisted. “Anyway, he says he won’t until I’m no longer married. He won’t meet me, and he won’t even speak to me on the phone.”
“Maybe that’s because he’s three feet tall and has a squeaky voice,” Peter countered.
Liz shot her not-soon-enough-to-be-ex-husband a look of contempt.
“That’s just the kind of comment I’d expect from you,” she said.
“You really don’t know anything about him, Liz.”
“You’re wrong, Peter, you’re wrong. He’s emotionally open; he shares his thoughts and feelings with me. He’s alive to beauty and to the unseen things of this world. I know him as well as I know you, Peter. Better.”
“Liz,” Peter said slowly, “this is a complete fantasy. You’re so caught up in this make-believe relationship that you can’t even see that. The reality will come crashing down all around you.” He stopped, sighed, and took a deep breath before continuing. “I understand that you’re getting something from this guy that you don’t get from me. There’s nothing I can do about that. Why don’t you just continue writing to him, and stay married to me? You’ll have your fantasy life and your real life. It’s safer that way.”
“I don’t want safe!” Liz cried. “I’ll take my chances.”
She paused and looked at him quizzically. “This doesn’t sound like you, Peter. I
t doesn’t sound like you at all.”
“I live in the real world, Liz. You live in a fantasy world. No one can do that. But I’m offering you that chance.”
He looked into her eyes.
“I love you, Liz. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything. I’ll do anything to keep you. Liz, let’s go upstairs.”
She shook her head firmly.
“Peter,” she said with finality, “we have an appointment with a divorce lawyer.”
Peter gave her a sharp look.
“I cancelled it after I spoke to the real-estate agent,” he said.
“You what?” Liz shouted, unbelieving.
“Get your own lawyer,” Peter replied coldly. “There is no ‘we’ from now on. Besides, people getting a divorce should never use the same lawyer.”
“I thought we were going to be civilized about this.”
“Not anymore,” Peter said harshly, then turned and walked out of the kitchen.
End of Part I
Rejoin “A Fine Day for a Divorce,” Part II, in the July issue of Change magazine.