A cheating husband is nothing new, but what happens when one woman becomes a force to be reckoned with as she takes on the other woman and fights for her marriage?
Dateline: January 1956
When a husband strays into the arms of another (usually a much younger) woman, there are two options: throw the jerk out or fight for what’s rightfully yours. Annette initially chooses the former and shows her husband, Bob, the door. With his return home unexpectedly to recover from an auto accident, she reconsiders her strategy, and decides to fight with all she’s got, but does she have enough tricks up her sleeve to get him back?
I was the girl who had made the perfect marriage, the safe marriage, one that could never fail. I thought that for so long. I just coasted along, taking my husband’s love and all my security for granted, and I nearly lost everything.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t sure of Bob. We grew up together. We shared that precious first date. We were college sweethearts. We became engaged on graduation eve, with the approval of my parents, and Bob’s widowed mother. We married a year later, after Bob got settled at his job.
Everything was perfect in those early years. Bob was a consultant engineer. He talked over his work with me, confiding, sharing his triumphs and his worries. Thrilled and proud, I did all I could to encourage him. We had fun together, too. We danced, enjoyed sports, shows, outings, visits with friends. We laughed a lot, and we loved each other passionately and completely. Life was good.
Judith, born when we were married two years, and Sandra, born three years later, added to our joy. We cut down on our social life, but I didn’t mind. I had my adorable girls, my lovely suburban home, and Bob’s love. I was completely satisfied. I wanted nothing else.
Bob worked hard, and when we were married fourteen years, he was given a junior partnership in the firm. He began staying in town two or three nights a week on business shortly after that, but I didn’t object. I supposed it was the price he had to pay for becoming an executive. We had long ago dropped the habit of discussing his work, so I knew little about his new duties. After all, I had my own job, running the house, taking part in various community projects and clubs, and raising our girls. Judy was twelve and Sandra was nine. They were darling girls, and with them for company, I wasn’t lonely on the nights Bob worked late.
Strangely, it was Judy who sounded the first alarm in my mind. “Why does Daddy stay away so many nights, Mummy?” she complained. “Doesn’t he love us any more?”
I laughed at her idiotic question. I hugged her and answered gaily, “Oh, you goose! Of course Daddy loves us, but he has to work!”
But her full little lower lip was thrust out, trembling a little. “He’s different,” she insisted. “He never plays with us any more. He doesn’t even listen when we talk to him lots of times.” Sandra joined in. “He doesn’t, Mummy. He’s mad at us, I think.”
I spanked her playfully across her round little bottom and told her to stop being silly, but the thought lingered in my mind. Had Bob been quiet and preoccupied lately? Was he pushing himself too hard at the job? I greeted him with a kiss when he came home late that night, and I studied him, my heart full of loving thoughts. He did look tired and strained. I asked him if he cared for a snack, but he replied brusquely, “Nothing, please. I’m going right up to bed.”
He seemed to drop off to sleep at once, and I lay beside him feeling faintly puzzled and disappointed. I moved a trifle, and to my surprise he spoke. “You awake, Annette?”
I murmured a soft, glad “Yes, darling,” and a rush of joy filled my heart, a thrilled expectancy claimed my senses. Now he would take me in his arms. Now the vague, uneasy feeling would be melted beneath the warmth of his love, his passion. But he only raised his head slightly. “You might pack my bags in the morning,” he said casually. “I’ve got to run up to Philadelphiaon business over the week end.”
I said, “Yes, Bob,” but my eyes stung with tears. I lay awake for a long time, trying to fight off a feeling of disappointment, of rejection.
That was the beginning. Bob changed so much he became a different person. He grew silent, moody. He was cross and irritable at times. He looked gaunt and strained. When I suggested timidly that he slow down, he stalked off without answering me. That was as unlike him as if he had struck me.
I studied myself in the mirror, wondering if I had become unattractive to him. I saw a tall blonde with a good figure, an open face with big dark eyes, even features, white teeth. I felt reassured. Maturity had not lessened my physical attractiveness. It couldn’t be that.
I tried harder, after that, to be a better wife in every way, to make Bob’s home life serene and restful. But it didn’t help. He grew steadily more nervous and jumpy. On the nights that he stayed home, he sat like a stranger in the house, reading or working until long past midnight.
One night I asked, “What are you working on, Bob?” When he didn’t answer, I repeated my question. He stared at me, then he answered irritably, “Look, Annette, I’m trying to concentrate. Why don’t you go on to bed? You wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about if I did try to tell you, so why ask questions?”
Quivering with hurt, I went up to bed. I no longer waited for Bob after that. Unutterably heartsick, wanting him, needing him, I would lie, staring into the dark, trying to figure out the change in the man I loved. Many times after he did come to bed I lay there, determined not to move, sensing that he lay beside me as fully awake as I. It was like some tense, crazy game. I was frightened, terribly frightened. I grew a little frantic, wondering what to do, wondering what was wrong. And then, one Saturday morning, I had my answer, and it was the one thing in all the world that had never even entered my mind.
The girls were visiting Bob’s sister Claire and her husband Tom for the weekend. I was fixing breakfast. Sitting at the kitchen table, Bob lit a cigarette, drew on it. He put it down in an ashtray. He glanced at the morning paper, tossed it aside. Then he fumbled another cigarette out of the pack and lit it. The first cigarette lay in the ashtray spiraling smoke.
That did it. I exclaimed, “Bob Rankin, for Pete’s sake, wake up! You’ve got one perfectly good cigarette burning already. What’s the matter with you lately? Don’t you know what you’re doing at all?” My brief flurry of exasperation was spent. I quavered, “I’m sorry, Bob. But you certainly haven’t been yourself these past weeks. What’s the trouble, dear? There must be something wrong. Can’t you tell me?”
He sat for a minute, stubbing out the cigarette, staring at it. And then he spoke. “Annette—I want a divorce,” he said.
His voice was very low. I thought I hadn’t understood him. I tried to ignore the rough hand squeezing my heart. I stammered, “You—you said—?”
His hands balled up into shiny knuckled knots of bone and muscle against the yellow daisy patterned breakfast cloth. His face went a funny, dead white. I tried to read what I saw there. Out of a lifetime of knowing and loving this man, I tried frantically to decipher his look. And then I heard his words, unmistakable this time. “I’m asking you for a divorce,” he repeated, his jaw set in a stubborn line. “I don’t want to go on. I would like a divorce.”
It was strange. I had a feeling that everything was suspended for the moment—time, my own breathing, even my thoughts. Only the words he had spoken, “I want a divorce,” danced like crazy devils in my mind. I clutched at straws. I thought, he’s sick. He doesn’t know what he is saying. I wet my lips and whispered, “You aren’t serious. You can’t mean that. Do you, Bob?”
His sullen silence frightened me more than any words could have. I cried out, “But why, Bob? Why?”
He stared at me suspiciously. “You mean you don’t know? You haven’t suspected?” he challenged. I was trembling. I stuttered, “S—suspected what, Bob?”
He flushed guiltily, but there was angry defiance in his face, too. “There is someone else,” he muttered hoarsely. “A girl. I want to marry her. I’m sorry. I thought you had guessed by now.”
I wanted to scream, No! It isn’t true! I wanted to hit Bob with my fists, to make him stop telling such horrible lies. But instead I heard my own voice whisper, “Who? Who is she?”
Bob chewed his lip. “No one you know,” he answered. “Her name is Joan Dowling. But there’s no use hashing it all over. It won’t change a thing.”
I got angry then, angry as I had never been before. My voice trembled with indignation, with outraged pride as I shrilled, “But we are going to hash it over. If you think you can sit there and calmly ask me to hand you over to some other woman, you are mistaken. You must be out of your mind. I want to know who this woman is. I want to know where you met her, and just why you suddenly think you want to throw over your wife and children for her. And I believe I have a right to know!”
Again the defiant look filled Bob’s face. “All right,” he gritted. “You asked for it.” He took a deep breath. “She works in the building with me. We got to know each other, had lunch together now and then. She’s a little thing, dark, and intense. She’s vital, alive. You feel it when she talks to you. It makes you feel more alive, too. I liked to talk over my work with her. She’s sharp, right on everything. She was always sincerely interested. I could blow off steam. She always understood, sympathized. She stimulated me. I could use that.”
He raised his voice challengingly. “I didn’t see any harm in it. We were just good friends, nothing more. But, well, one thing led to another. I began to see her at night. I didn’t tell her I was married. I told myself it wasn’t serious, that there was no reason to mention it. And she was wonderful company. She was so full of enthusiasm, she got such a bang out of things. It gave me a lift to be with her.”
I tried to cover my shock, my hurt, my jealous fury. “And how old is this remarkable creature?” I asked sarcastically.
Bob flushed. “She’s twenty-three,” he answered.
“And you’re thirty-eight,” I reminded him sharply.
“Well, I don’t feel thirty-eight when I’m with her,” he shouted angrily. “And I don’t feel like I’m playing second fiddle, either. But you wouldn’t understand, from the narrow little rut you live in. You’re so wrapped up in the kids and the house and your Ladies’ Thursday Club that you haven’t any time left over for me. When I told you I was working, night after night, you weren’t even interested enough to ask any questions. You didn’t even care if I came home or not!”
I slumped into a chair, feeling dazed. I wet my lips. “Go on,” I whispered.
Bob rolled bread crumbs nervously between his fingers. “Well,” he stammered,
“then—it just happened, I guess. Just one of those things. I took her home one night, and it hit me, all of a sudden. I was in love with Joan. And she said she had been in love with me, right from the start. I told her I was married then. She went to pieces. She cried. I felt like a heel. She talked about not seeing each other again. Joan knew I didn’t want to break up my marriage, didn’t want to hurt anyone else. But it was no good. Things had gone too far, with both of us. So we thought—well, we thought we might burn it out, without involving anyone else, without anyone knowing.” He waved his hands vaguely in the air. “You know. That’s why we—I mean—well, Joan isn’t the kind to do what she did, otherwise. There never has been anyone else for her.”
My control snapped. I could feel my face getting hot, burning with shame and an insane rage. “Are you trying to tell me that you and this Joan—that all those nights, those trips—?” I couldn’t finish it. I was too shaken, too sickened with shame and humiliation.
Bob finished it for me. He finished everything. “Yes,” he replied tonelessly. “We have been intimate. So now you know. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for things to go like this. But they have, and I want to marry Joan. Please let me go, Annette. Please give me a divorce.”
I hurled one question at him. “Have you bothered to think of your girls?”
He lowered his eyes. “Yes, I have. Plenty. But they will have you.”
I cracked completely then. Shock, anger, disgust and a terrible hurt robbed me of reason, judgment, everything except the need to strike back. “Get out of here!” I screamed. “Go to your Joan! I never want to see you again. Never!”
I went through a terrible time after Bob had gone. I cried through lonely, agonized nights. I sponged my reddened eyes each morning, so the girls would not notice. They were getting petulant, asking impatient questions. Where was Daddy? Why didn’t he come home? I invented complicated excuses, and I wondered how I would ever tell them the truth, that their daddy was never coming back.
I had other problems. Others would have to be told, would be shocked and hurt. My parents, living in Floridasince Dad’s retirement; Bob’s mother, visiting his sister Eileen, in California; his sister Claire, and her Tom, other relatives, all our friends. I longed to confide in someone, but my pride wouldn’t let me. I told everyone that Bob was on a business trip, but my heart was in my mouth for fear that someone would run into him, maybe with his Joan, and that the whole scandal would be out.
I grew jittery. I imagined people already knew. I read pity in every glance. I shunned my friends, my neighbors. A week passed, and I had no word from Bob. He had taken his bags when he left, but the house was filled with his things, reminding me of him, tearing my heart out.
Snatches of things Bob had said ran through my mind, reproaching me. “She was so sincerely interested—she understood, sympathized. She stimulated me. I could use that “I had borne his children, kept his home, worked for the sound values in marriage. I had been contented with a placid relationship between us. But Joan had offered him excitement, thrills. She had been vivid, alive, he had said. And she had flattered his ego by being interested in him and his work. “When I told you I was working, night after night, you weren’t interested enough to ask any questions. You didn’t even care if I came home or not!” he had accused me.
Was he right? Had I let myself fall into a rut, a dull, uninviting wife? The more I thought, the more miserably confused I got. And I missed Bob. In spite of my hurt and my anger, I missed him almost unbearably. I thought of the happiness we had shared, and it didn’t seem possible it could all be wiped out.
When ten days passed without a word from him, I was about ready to crack. Then that night I found Judy sitting on the kitchen floor in the dark, in her pajamas and robe, hugging Penny, our cocker, and sobbing her heart out, I was terrified. At first I couldn’t get a word out of her, but then a torrent of words spilled out. “Daddy’s dead. I know he is,” she wailed. “Maureen’s daddy was gone, and she waited and waited for him to come back, and then they told Maureen he had died and gone to heaven. And that’s what happened to my daddy. I know it is! I won’t see him ever again!”
I had to close my eyes and lean against the wall until the sick feeling passed. “Daddy will come home soon,” I promised, praying God would forgive me for the lie. I put Judy to bed again and sat in the living room trying to read. But I was too upset. Suddenly the ringing of the doorbell broke the silence in the house. When I saw the uniformed policeman on the porch, I was frightened. When he asked, “Are you Mrs. Robert Rankin, ma’am?” I could only nod mutely. He cleared his throat. He went on, “Don’t be upset, but there has been an accident. Mr. Rankin was struck by a car, but I’m sure he will be all right. He’s atMemorialHospital, being patched up.”
I think I screamed. My knees buckled. The officer was very kind. He said Bob had a head wound, and was unconscious. He added, “We got identification from his wallet. We always notify the nearest of kin at once. You being his wife, you’re the closest to him, of course.”
I forgot Joan. I forgot our separation, everything. I could only think of Bob, hurt, maybe dying. “Take me to my husband!” I cried.
I have a hazy memory of calling my neighbor to sit with the girls, of riding to the hospital in the police car, and then waiting through a tortured eternity. My first clear memory is of the doctor’s words,
“Your husband is not seriously hurt, Mrs. Rankin. We had to stitch a scalp wound, but he has a few fractures, no serious injuries, just a few cracked ribs and some torn ligaments in his back. Those will keep him in bed for about ten days, but you can take him home, and your family physician can handle that.” He smiled apologetically. “We’d prefer that you take him home,” he added. “We’re overcrowded and understaffed here, you know.” I stood there, staring at the doctor like an idiot. The terrific relief that had surged
over me when he said Bob wasn’t badly hurt was swallowed up by the big question mark he had just tossed at me. How could I have Bob brought home? He had left his home, he wouldn’t want to come back, I was sure. But what could I tell the doctor? His eyes were on my face, waiting, questioning.
My thoughts spun crazily. And then, suddenly, the police officer’s words seemed to ring in my ears. “We always notify the nearest of kin. You, being his wife, are the closest to him, of course.” A strange thing happened. It was as if a hand reached out, giving me strength and courage. I was Bob’s wife, and in spite of a thousand Joans, I was the closest to him. I thought of the words in the marriage ceremony, the solemn promise, “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” I squared my shoulders and I raised my chin. “Bring him home,” I said. “Bring him home, of course, as soon as you can.”
They let me see Bob, briefly. He was sleeping off a hypo as I stood beside his bed, seeing him for the first time since our bitter parting. I saw the bandage around his head, his closed eyes, saw his mouth twist with pain, even in his sleep, and I wanted to bend down and lay my cheek against his, to hold him close, the way you hold a hurt child. For a long time I stood there, yearning over him, loving him with all the love I had built up through a lifetime. Anger and bitterness and all the hard emotions were washed out of my heart. I reached down and touched a lock of dark hair that tumbled out of the bandage, gently, tenderly. Then I tiptoed out.
They brought him home in an ambulance the next day. As I watched the attendants carry him in on a stretcher, panic almost paralyzed me. Would he be furious because I had ordered him brought home? Would he insist on being moved again? His head was averted as they carried him past me to the downstairs den I had prepared as his sickroom. Not until the two orderlies had left did I face him. His forehead was beaded with perspiration, his face told me he was in pain. I said, “Bob, I’m terribly sorry about the accident. And I’m so very glad it wasn’t worse.”
He turned toward the wall. “Why did you have me brought here?” he asked, his voice muffled.
I answered simply. “The hospital discharged you, but you will be bedfast for some time. You will need care and attention. Where do you think you should have gone?”
There was a long silence, while my heart pounded in my throat. Then Bob sighed heavily. “Here, I guess,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He laughed wryly then. “It’s a fine situation, isn’t it?” he added.
Relief flooded over me, but I kept my voice matter of fact. “Forget it, Bob,” I urged. “Forget everything until you are well. This is still your home. I am still your wife. And incidentally, you still have two daughters. They’re dying to see you. They think you’ve been away on business until today. I’ll call them in.”
An eager look lighted his face. I called to Judy and Sandra. They came flying. They flung themselves on Bob, shrieking, “Daddy!” over and over again. Bob gathered them in his arms, hugging them to him, and then, without warning, Judy was sobbing, long, heartbroken sobs, her head on Bob’s breast. Sandra clung tightly to his hand. Her chin began to wobble. Her eyes brimmed with tears. Then she broke down too. “Daddy!” she sobbed. “Hold me. Hold me tight, Daddy. Hold me tight!”
Bob’s face was buried in Judy’s hair, but I saw the convulsive shaking of his shoulders. Bob was crying, too. I tiptoed out of the room, tears on my own face, but a faint hope in my heart. Whatever madness had claimed Bob, he still loved his girls as much as ever, I was sure of that. And an iron resolve was born in my heart. Joan wasn’t going to get Bob back. I wasn’t going to give up a lifetime of loving him, fourteen years of marriage, and parenthood twice shared between us. He was home, and he was going to stay there. Joan wasn’t going to get him back!
My determination and my hope both grew in the days that followed. Things went better than I had dared hope. Everyone accepted my explanation that Bob had had an accident on the way from the airport, as he was returning home. Friends and relatives came to call. Neighbors dropped in, and Bob’s fellow workers visited him. At first Bob was strained and nervous, but then he relaxed and seemed to look forward to company. Once he commented, “I didn’t realize we had so many good friends.” My heart warmed. Our friends, like so many other things, were values we had built up together, throughout the years. I hoped Bob was beginning to realize that, to understand that marriage was more than just excitement and thrills and passion.
The girls practically lived in Bob’s room, and he never seemed to tire of them. His reluctance at having me wait on him soon faded away. At the end of four days he was running my legs off. Within a week our relationship was so nearly normal, I could almost pretend that the break between us had never happened. Bob seemed to have taken the cue I had offered him, of forgetting everything until he was well, and I prayed, and lived one day at a time, fighting my silent fight to hold my man.
He mended rapidly, and soon he was allowed to be up for intervals each day. He was often quiet and thoughtful, but he did not seem unhappy or discontented. He was his old wonderful self with the girls, pleasant and cheerful with me, at times almost gentle. He didn’t act like a man straining to get back to another woman, and my hopes, grew.
On the twelfth day after his accident, I came into the living room to find the three of them on the couch. Bob had been reading to the girls, but now Judy was looking into his face, talking earnestly. “And so I knew you were sick,” I heard her say. “I knew you wouldn’t stay away from us so long, otherwise.” She buried her face against his shoulder, and her voice was muffled. “It was terrible, Daddy. I was so scared. Once I even thought you were dead, like Maureen’s daddy.”
I saw Bob’s face go chalky white, saw his hands clench.
“You aren’t going to leave us again, are you?” Sandra asked. “We don’t like for you to be gone. And Mummy cried real hard while you were away. . . .”
“It’s true Daddy,” Judy agreed.
I crossed the room in a flash. I grabbed Sandra by the arm. “That’s enough!” I exclaimed. “Go out in the yard and play, both of you.” Judy backed away from me, looking frightened, but she flung out stubbornly.
“Well, Sandra’s right. It’s true. You know it is. We did hear you cry, lots of times, at night.” She fled then, Sandra stumbling at her heels.
I held out my hands helplessly. “I’m sorry.” I turned my head, so Bob would not see the tears gathering in my eyes. I heard him take a deep breath. Then he spoke. “You’re sorry!” he exclaimed. “What do you think about me, Annette?”
I stood, afraid to believe the regret, the sorrow in Bob’s voice. I turned slowly, dazedly, my eyes flying to his face. His eyes met mine and he said very simply, “Annette, I’ve been a prize fool. You said that day I must be sick or out of my mind. I think now I must have been.”
A sob caught in my throat. “Oh, Bob!” I cried. But he shook his head. “Let me talk,” he said. “I want to get it off my chest.” He frowned, then said, “It all started long before I ever met Joan. I had a chip on my shoulder, a notion you had let me down, that you had let all the excitement and thrill go out of our marriage. I thought you didn’t give a hoot about anything except the house and the kids and your own affairs. It was my feeling that way that made me turn to Joan.” He closed his eyes wearily. “I got myself into a devil of a spot,” he said. “At first Joan agreed that nothing could ever come of our affair. She knew I didn’t want to break up my marriage. She seemed sophisticated enough. But after–well, she regretted what had happened. She cried a lot, got terribly depressed. I felt like a heel. She was so young. I realized then that I was the first man in her life. It ate on my conscience. I felt I had ruined her life.
“And I was sore at you. I had a long list of grievances.” He flushed. “I guess I aired some of them to Joan, because she started a buildup about my divorcing you and marrying her. I make it sound crude, I guess. But I got the notion that that was what I wanted to do. I thought you probably suspected. I knew for sure that when you did find out you would be finished with me anyhow. So that’s how it was.”
He sat with his head in his hands for a long time. Then he went on, “When I saw how shocked and hurt you were when I asked for the divorce, I almost broke down. But then you blew your top and said some pretty ugly things and that cinched it. I went through with it. Joan was out of her head with joy. She was full of plans, said I’d never be sorry. But I was sorry already. I kept seeing your face when I told you I wanted a divorce. I thought about the kids continuously. I was so mixed up I nearly went nuts. I was walking along in a daze when I was hit by that car.”
One corner of his mouth went up in a crooked smile. “I thought that was the end, and I was glad. I didn’t know where to go from there anyhow. But then you took over, Annette.” He smiled broadly. “I’ll say this, you’ve got spunk! The way you took the reins, ordered me brought home, when you knew you had me on a spot!” His face sobered. “And you’re big, Annette. I never appreciated how big you are. Taking me in, waiting on me hand and foot, never reproaching me, never reminding me. I’ve had my eyes opened to a lot of things, Annette. I thought you didn’t appreciate me, but it was the other way around. I was the blind fool. I want you to know these things, no matter what happens. I am sorrier than you will ever know. I realize now what I threw away, even if it is too late.”
A stone rolled from my heart. I reached out my hands. “It isn’t too late, Bob!” I cried. “We can start over. We—”
Bob dropped his head to his hands and groaned, “No. We can’t. I hoped we could.
I thought it all out, these past days. I was going to make a clean break with Joan,
and then beg you to forgive me, to give me another chance. So I called Joan, this morning. I tried to let her down as easy as I could. But—” He raised his head and stared at me hopelessly. “It’s no use,” he repeated hoarsely. “I can’t backtrack, Annette. I’ve got to go through with what I started. There’s no way out.”
I clutched his arm. I cried wildly, “What do you mean, Bob? She isn’t—Joan isn’t—” He dropped his eyes. “No,” he said. “Thank God, not that. But she said she can’t go on living without me. She said that if I don’t come back she—she will kill herself. She swore she would.”
My relief was so fierce that I almost had to laugh. “Oh, Bob,” I murmured. “You’re not going to fall for that old gag?”
He shot me a startled look. Giving him no chance to talk, I said, “Joan won’t kill herself. I’m not saying she isn’t in love with you, but she’s only twenty-three, Bob. You know how dramatic young people are. But you know how quickly they get over things, too. She won’t kill herself. That’s plain silly.”
An uncertain look came into Bob’s eyes.
I pressed my advantage. “You admit that you were all mixed up, that you weren’t thinking straight when you got into this affair,” I pointed out. “Well, you’ve got to think straight now, Bob. Our entire futures depend on it. You must realize you wouldn’t be doing Joan any kindness by going back to her. You couldn’t make her happy, feeling as you do. Such a one-sided marriage wouldn’t have a chance. “And she won’t harm herself, Bob, please believe me. That’s just a lot of hysterical dramatics.”
Bob stared moodily at the floor, chewing on his lip. At last he spoke. “What if you’re wrong? You don’t know Joan like I do. She’s not like most girls—she’s so intense.”
I got a little aggravated then. “Can’t you think of anyone besides Joan?” I interrupted. “There are other people involved, you know. There are two innocent little girls who love their daddy very much, and whose loving little hearts will be broken if he forsakes them. You saw how terribly they missed you, how they need you. How can you disregard your duty to them? Have you thought of the scandal, how it will affect their lives, the taunts, the tactless, unkind remarks they will have to bear? Do you realize what that might do to two sensitive girls like Judy and Sandra? Joan went into this situation with her eyes wide open. Judy and Sandra are innocent victims. Do you think you owe more to Joan than to them?”
I stopped, breathing hard. I kept my eyes on Bob’s face, praying. His expression was thoughtful, grave, but full of indecision. He frowned, bit his lip. I cried, “Bob, please! For my sake, then. For the sake of all the love, all the happiness we once shared. Stay with us, Bob, please!”
I saw his face soften. He cried, “Annette, Annette!” his voice breaking. And then he came into my arms, his face buried against my neck, sobs tearing his frame. I held him close and my heart exulted. It was over. I had won, and Joan had lost.
Bob left the house the next day for the first time since his accident. He came home with his bags, and the grim look on his face told me he had seen Joan. I touched his arm anxiously. “Is everything all right?” I faltered. He shook his head.
“It was rough,” he muttered. “I’d rather not talk about it.” He drew deeply on his cigarette. “She’s going home to her folks,” he added. “She says she can’t stay here.”
We never mentioned Joan again. We tried, we both tried hard, to take up where we had left off, but it wasn’t always easy. The girls were our big salvation, our strongest tie to normality. Summer vacation started, and they were full of plans in which both Bob and I were involved. Bit by bit the pattern of our lives began to fall back into place. In early July a wonderful week at the lake did more than anything else to close the breach between Bob and me. The past seemed to dissolve in the silver moonlight that streamed through our cottage window, as I lay in my husband’s arms, giving him my lips as eagerly as any bride. I wept with joy. We were safe, safe again at last.
I was cleaning salad greens, on the third day after our return home, when the past reached out to shatter our happiness. I heard Bob come in the front door, heard his step as he neared the kitchen. I turned, a smile of greeting on my lips. I saw Bob’s face, and the smile froze on my lips, the lettuce splashed from my grasp. Wordlessly I motioned to the girls to go outside. When the door closed on them, I faced the pale, sick-looking stranger slumped in the kitchen chair. I cried, “Bob! What’s wrong? Are you sick, darling?”
His lips twitched. He stared at me with a look of bitter accusation. “What’s wrong?” he mocked me savagely. “Everything is wrong. You were wrong. I was wrong to listen to you. Joan is dead. She killed herself, just like she said she would, do you hear me?” His voice rose hysterically. “Am I sick? That’s a laugh. Yes, I am sick. I wish I were dead, too. I’d rather be dead than to go on living knowing I am a murderer. And I am. I’m as guilty as if I had killed her with my own two hands. She warned me that day over the phone. She said she’d kill herself if I left her. But you were so smart. You knew so much about her, and what she would do. You told me she didn’t mean it, that it was a bluff.
And I believed you.God forgive me,
I believed you!”
His voice was a moan, his words white hot rivets of sound that seared into my brain. “Two weeks,” he groaned. “She’s been dead for two weeks, and I didn’t even know it. Not until an hour ago. One of the girls in the office told me. She didn’t even write to me since she left. She said she wouldn’t bother me again. Two weeks, dead, while I—while I—”
There are no words to express my feelings at that moment. Joan was dead. It hadn’t been a bluff after all, or, if it had, she had won the final victory by making good her bluff. The room reeled about me. I put my hands to my face. I swayed as I cried, “I didn’t think she would do it, Bob. Oh, you’ve got to believe me. I’m so sorry, so very, very sorry.”
Futile, futile words. Bob looked at me coldly. His mouth twisted out one bitter word. “Sorry!” Then he stumbled from the room without another glance at me. I heard his footsteps going up the stairs. The impulse to flee to my own room was almost irresistible, but that was a luxury I could not afford. I was a mother. I had to go on. I fixed supper for the girls. Somehow I made the screaming agony inside me mark time until the long evening passed and they were in bed at last. Then I went to Bob. He sat on the porch, chain smoking in the dark. I spoke his name, timidly, pleadingly. He did not turn his head. “I would like to be alone,” he said.
From then on our life was like a strange, bad dream. We went on, living in the same house, but separated by a gulf I could not bridge. Bob never mentioned Joan’s name, but her ghost stood between us like a relentless barrier. Bob moved into the guest room. He barely answered when I spoke to him. He avoided my eyes. He looked like a man suffering the torment of the damned. He would sit, silent, brooding, tight lipped, staring into space.
There were hours of torment when I doubted myself, when I wondered frantically if Bob were right. Was I the cause of Joan’s death? Had I been wrong in persuading Bob to come back to me? But I had only done what wives and mothers have done since the beginning of time. I had fought for my marriage and my home. I had a right to defend them. Joan was wrong all the way through. She had tried to steal my husband, the father of my children. When she had failed, suicide had been her retaliation. That was as wrong as everything else she had done. Wronger. To take one’s own life was a terrible sin. And her suicide wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t!
A week passed. Bob showed no sign of coming out of his depression. My nerves were ready to snap. I was sharp and irritable with the girls. I worried because I knew they were being affected by the situation between Bob and me. Claire kept calling, inviting us over, and I was running out of excuses. Bob would go nowhere, would see no one. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I went into the living room, where he sat brooding in the semi-dark. I snapped on a light. I faced him without any leadup and I blurted out, “Bob, you hate me, don’t you?”
He looked startled. He answered hesitantly, “No. I don’t hate you, Annette. It’s myself whom I hate.”
I persisted. “But you blame me?”
He sighed heavily. “No,” he replied. “I did at first. All I could think of was that you convinced me Joan wouldn’t kill herself. But later on I knew I was only shifting my own blame onto you. It’s all my fault. I knew Joan, you didn’t. I knew how impulsive she was, how—well, how unpredictable. I shouldn’t have let you persuade me. I got myself into the mess. I should have seen it through instead of trying to crawl out. Now it’s too late. Joan is dead.”
“But we’re alive!” I cried out. “What’s done is done, Bob, but life has to go on for us. We’ve Judy and Sandra to think of. We’ve made mistakes, but we have the whole future ahead of us to make a better life for ourselves and the girls. You’ve got to snap out of this, Bob, you’ve just got to!”
He turned his head away from me. “It’s no use, Annette,” he whispered. “I can’t think of anything except that Joan is dead and I killed her.”
I fled to my room. I threw myself across my bed. I started to let go of all the wild, hysterical emotion that had been building up inside me for days. And then, in the middle of my first hard, shuddering sob one sentence that Bob had said came back to me. “I knew how impulsive she was, how unpredictable.”
I sat up and wiped my eyes, breathing hard. My brain began to work, clearly, logically, for the first time in days. I crouched there for a long time, thinking, thinking. And I made up my mind. I wasn’t going to give up. It was more than a matter of saving our marriage, our happiness. A man’s soul, my husband’s soul, hung in the balance. Bob was filled with a twisted sense of guilt and remorse and shame. Unless I could free him from the false sense of guilt that hung over him, he would remain an emotionally sick man, and there would be real tragedy ahead for all of us. I had to help him. I had to. And for the first time I thought I had some slim clue as to how I might.
I squared my shoulders and went back downstairs. Bob was still in the living room, lying on the sofa. His eyes were closed, but the harsh lines of his face told me he was not asleep. I stood beside him. “Bob, may I speak to you?” I asked.
He sat up, a look of tired resignation on his face. “Go ahead,” he answered tonelessly.
I refused to let it discourage me. I plunged on. “What did you mean, when you said you knew how impulsive Joan was, how unpredictable?”
He blinked his eyes. “Well,” he floundered, “she was always—oh, well, you know, sort of high strung, emotional. I told you. She was an intense sort of a girl. And she acted impulsively. Like her coming to the city. She quit college a month before she would have graduated and left home in a huff, all because of a squabble with her sister. She realized her mistake afterward. She was blue about that, and unhappy with her job when I first met her. She said she had tried to get into the WACs, but didn’t make it. She was bitter about that. She told me afterward that if she hadn’t met me, she would have cut off her hair and disguised herself as a boy and tried to hitch her way to South America. She had an elaborate stowaway scheme worked out. I guess she’d have done it, too. Like I said, she was unpredictable.”
“She was?” I prompted softly.
Bob said, “Yes,” staring at his locked hands, seeming almost unaware of my presence. “Yes, you never knew what she might do. She was crazy about the zoo. The animals seemed to fascinate her. Once when we went there, she scared me half out of my wits. She stuck her whole arm into the grizzly bear’s cage.
The bear was right there, too. He might have torn her arm off. I bawled her out when I could talk. She just said she had to do it, to prove to herself she wasn’t afraid.”
He shook his head. “She was a strange girl,” he murmured. “Fascinating, intriguing, but strange.
She was terribly bitter because she wasn’t a man. She was sold on the idea of adventure, excitement.”
I kept my voice soft, without bitterness. “So she found them in having an affair with another woman’s husband?” I asked.
Bob flushed. “She didn’t know I was married at first,” he muttered.
“She might have guessed you were,” I countered. “Most men your age are. And you did tell her afterward, in time for her to break it off. She didn’t exactly run from you then, did she?”
“She—she was in love with me by then,” Bob stammered.
“Yes,” I replied. “In love with a man she had no right to love, who had no right to love her. And you said yourself she was willing to settle for having an affair, that you made it plain that you had no intention then of breaking up your marriage. Or wasn’t that the truth, Bob? Did you seduce her, with lies, from the start?”
A bewildered look crossed Bob’s face. He raised his hand in protest. “Oh, no, Annette,” he denied. “Whatever you think of me, don’t think that. I’m not that big a heel. It was the way I told you. I was going to break it off right then. I didn’t want to hurt her. But she said she couldn’t let me go. She said she loved me enough to—well, I told you all that before. You know I did. What’s the idea of all this?”
I sat down next to Bob. I put my hand on his arm. I said, “The idea is this, Bob.
I’m trying to show you that you are not responsible for Joan’s suicide. Think it over. Everything you have told me about the girl points to the fact that she was emotionally unstable when you met her, even before you met her. Quitting college a month before graduation, leaving home because of a huff over her sister. Then wanting to chuck everything again and join the WACs, wanting to masquerade as a man and beat her way toSouth America. All those things, Bob. It’s not a normal behavior pattern, don’t you see?”
Then later, “Bob, a well-balanced person doesn’t have to stick an arm into a cage of bears to prove he’s not afraid. Well-balanced people have sense enough to be afraid, occasionally. They’re afraid of bears. They are afraid to let themselves in for the other kind of a situation that Joan accepted so willingly. They prefer their adventure and their excitement on the safe, conventional side. I’m trying to tell you, Bob, that Joan’s entire history suggests that she might have been inevitably headed for tragedy, even if she had never met you. “She was rash, restless, dissatisfied. She wanted thrills, wanted to live dangerously. She wanted love without regard for its price. She got what she wanted. But then she changed her mind. She wanted to play it safe after all. She wanted marriage.
“I stole a look at Bob’s face. He wasn’t looking at me, but I was sure he was listening. I went on. “When she couldn’t have her way, she committed suicide. We’ll never know just why, Bob. Maybe she simply couldn’t face up to what she had done. Maybe she had a belated attack of conscience. Maybe she wanted to hurt you, to punish you. Maybe she was just trying to prove something else, like when she stuck her arm into the bear’s cage.
“But it doesn’t matter what her reason was. The fact remains that it was a completely irrational thing to do. It was the act of a disturbed mind. Suicide always is. And you can’t hold yourself accountable. If you had let yourself be forced into going back to her, not loving her, you couldn’t have fooled her for long. You couldn’t have made her happy. And Bob, when the blow-up came, she might have acted just as rashly. Can’t you see, dear? Can’t you understand that it is unfortunate, it is tragic, but it is not your fault! You must stop blaming yourself. You must start acting sensibly about this thing before you bring us all to tragedy. Then you really will have something to blame yourself for!”
I was shaking Bob’s arm, my voice had risen with the intensity of my feeling. He turned and stared at me. I sobbed, “Oh, can’t you see it, Bob?”
He looked confused. He stuttered, “I—I don’t know. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just—” He got up and began to pace the floor, his hands in his pockets, his head down. He stopped before me and challenged, “Why do you bother with me, Annette? After all I’ve put you through, why do you bother?”
I said the only thing that I could think of, the thing that was in my heart. I held out my arms and cried, “Because I love you, darling. You have made mistakes, and so have I. But it needn’t matter, unless we let it. I love you, and I want you, for all the long years that are ahead of us. Those years wouldn’t mean a thing to me without you, Bob. You are the sun, and the moon, and the stars to me, all rolled up into one, just as you have always been.”
He knelt at my feet then. He put his head down in my lap and his shoulders
shook with hard, tight sobs. I waited a minute, fighting my own tears, then I touched his dark head. “Are you all right, Bob?” I asked. He took my hand and held it against his cheek.
“Annette,” he said, “any man is all right, so long as he knows he is that to just one woman in all the world.”
We clung together then, like two tired, frightened children who were safe at home at last. Our tears mingled. Our lips met hungrily. Our kisses said all the many things we could never have put into words. A year has passed since that blessed night when love gave me courage to batter down the barrier between me and my husband. The year had its anxieties, especially those first months. Inner peace did not come to Bob at once. His shame at having been unfaithful to me, his sense of guilt for having once wanted to break up his marriage, and his regret for the unwitting part he had played in the tragedy of Joan’s death all sat heavily upon him. But love made me infinitely patient with his bad times, and slowly, surely, I saw the past fade from his eyes, saw him regain his confidence, saw him restored to himself.
Bob is a whole man today, in mind and in spirit. He is a happy man. His sister
Claire said yesterday, “Annette, what have you been doing to Bob? I’ve never seen him look so well. He was a bit on the seedy side, for a while.”
She doesn’t know about the tragedy that darkened our lives. No one does, thank
God! Only in this way, by writing my story, can I offer hope and encouragement to other wives who may some day face a like situation. This I have learned, at a bitter price. There is no such thing as a “safe” marriage. Even a good marriage can flounder. People all have weaknesses. They make mistakes, not intentionally, but they make them just the same.
Taking my husband for granted, being too sure of his love, letting the thrill and the excitement go out of our marriage was my big mistake. I sent him into the arms of another woman by doing that, and what happened to Bob can happen to any man. Don’t deceive yourself about that.
But don’t forget this, either. A good marriage is worth fighting to save. It may mean tears, and heartache, and discouragement, and despair. There may be times when there is nothing left to fight with except the grim, stubborn determination of love. But love is enough, if it is strong enough and brave enough. Love will win the fight, if anything can. I know. Love won for me.
Copyright © 1956, 2012 by BroadLit