Summer 2012

Table of Contents - Vol. VIII, No. 2


Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

James Hanley


Second Choice

When he married her, the second for both, Craig never expected they would be haunted by their former spouses—his a true specter, deceased and materializing in his mind, hers a living reminder.
They’d spoken of their former mates early in their relationship. As Craig and Margaret had sat on the couch in his apartment one Sunday, he’d described his ex-wife as “mercurial, intriguingly unpredictable and obsessive. The traits were immensely appealing until marriage when the capriciousness of her moods became exhausting,” he’d explained. He was most struck by the realization that she was often at emotional extremes, yet she had the unique gift of masking the emotional wildness with a veneer of normalcy. He once joked that she had the capacity to be successful in the theater—a remark she found offensive. “Her name was Lilith,” he’d said, “an ethereal name that seemed so appropriate; when I would call her Lil or Lilly as affection or teasing, she would rebuke me, not correct me. I should have seen it, but I was deeply in love. Imbalance can be enticing. It was an empty life eventually, and of course, children were not a consideration.” In her turn, Margaret had said her ex was charming, good looking, and easily seduced. “I overlooked a lot for a long time because his wanderings weren’t deliberate, and probably not initiated. Overzealously gracious, I once half-seriously explained his behavior, as if he believed flirtation required a response out of courtesy. Besides,” she’d said with a laugh, “I married him for stud; you’ve seen my daughter.” Then she’d added plaintively, “He was a great father, still is. It was nearly enough at one time. He was also very forthright when confronted, almost childishly so, no artifice, no skill at deceit. He liked that word— forthright—not candid, or direct; his choice of words was often revealing.” After their divorce, her contact with him had been frequent and without malice, although she once admitted that the calm cordiality reflected an absence of remorse on his part, and that bothered her she said. The main link between Margaret and her former husband was their college-age daughter who would arrive at Craig and Margaret’s home unexpectedly, and became an altering influence on all their lives.

In the summer of the second year of their marriage, while in early morning lovemaking, Craig listened for movement from the other bedroom where his wife’s daughter was staying. He’d heard her earlier in a distracted moment and his hand had jumped from his wife’s thigh. “She can know,” Margaret had whispered, “it’s not like she wouldn’t expect it.”
The water ran in the hallway bathroom. Craig got up from the bed cupping his hands in front of him in an unintentioned, shy gesture.
“Are you coming back?” Margaret asked teasingly.
Craig closed the door in the master bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, he pinched the folding flesh about his waist and smirked. At forty seven, he’d developed the puffed features of his portly parents and strenuous exercise didn’t reduce the forming bands of flesh around his midsection.
Back in the bedroom, he heard his wife’s voice in the hallway and the boisterous laugh of her daughter. The bedroom was spacious, looking out over a clump of thin pines and the back end of an estate once owned by a successful playwright. Standing in the center of the room, he dressed while they chatted outside the closed door. The elegant furniture was a vestige of her divorce settlement as was the property. “This room is the hardest,” she’d once said of the bedroom the first night he’d stayed over, “how can you not be haunted in a room where the greatest intimacy occurred?” But she had recovered, and kept the rooms as they had been during her first marriage, having handed over little of the house contents to her sheepish, unfaithful former spouse in the lopsided dissolution. When they married, Craig agreed that their incongruous tastes would challenge blending his furnishings with hers, and most of his possessions were still boxed in a warehouse in the next county. On the other hand, Craig’s marriage had ended acrimoniously, the anger even apparent in the blotches from her pressed handwriting on the divorce agreement. Their relationship had been so volatile that there was rare agreement on possessions.

Craig came out of the bedroom and saw mother and her twenty-year old daughter leaning toward each other like children sharing a secret. Margaret, he noticed anew, was beautiful; her toned body, and Nordic, easily-tanned facial features gave her a striking, well-formed attractiveness, and she had transferred the same physical traits to her daughter, Lori. Craig thought their shared attractiveness was a strong bond between them. He’d once joked to Margaret that perhaps Lori was secretly glad that he was not her biological father, and her genetic blend was not tainted by uncomely features.
“We weren’t talking about you, promise,” Margaret said looking up at Craig. Her eyes were glossy with mirth and she moved her arm from around her daughter to beckon him to sit beside them on the hallway steps. He sat on the step above and over them and placed a hand on Margaret’s shoulder and the other on Lori’s. He sensed the girl’s instinctive flinch.
“So, what were you two talking about?”
They both giggled and Lori answered, “Mom lied; we were talking about you—sort of.”
Craig looked to his wife and she answered his questioning countenance, “she heard us.”

When Craig came down to breakfast later, Lori was sitting in an alcove chair facing the kitchen while her mother was putting eggs and strips of ham on plain plates. Margaret waved to Craig to sit in his usual place, which she’d dubbed the man-seat. After she finished handing out the breakfast, she sat near her daughter, and they continued talking while Craig stared out the window at the hedge that bordered the front lawn. The sun was peering over the unkempt bushes and the un-angled light moistened his eyes from the glare. After a while, Margaret stood and the robe fell from her shoulders exposing her sheer nightgown; she blushed briefly at his blatant stare and said. “Lori is staying with us for a time. You don’t mind, do you?” Lori lived in an apartment near her college in the next state and stayed briefly during holidays and summer break, alternating between relatives.
“No, of course, not.” He turned toward Lori, “for as long as you’d like.”
“Liar. It won’t be long, promise,” Lori said, tapping his arm as she walked past him.
A few days later, after Lori had gone out with a friend, Craig asked Margaret while they drank coffee, sitting on opposing chairs in the living room, “you too seem to be sharing a lot of secrets lately.”
“No secrets; she’s told me about her father’s new girlfriend. It’s apparently serious. He’s supposedly changed, no longer the benevolent philanderer,” sarcasm entering the sentence at the end.
“What does Lori think of her?”
“She likes her but won’t admit it.”
In the following weeks Margaret seemed preoccupied. Once, when Lori came back from visiting her father, Margaret stayed up, willing herself awake, strengthened by cups of coffee. Craig, having been awakened by the emptiness of the bed, started downstairs but stopped at the top step when he heard the content of their conversation. They were talking about Lori’s father and Margaret was probing. Knowing her skill at questioning, Craig realized she was gathering information about her former husband with subtle deceptiveness, learning of his life with the new woman under the pretence of interest in her daughter’s time with her father. At one point, Margaret seemed focused on the appearance and manner of the girlfriend and listened intently as Lori described the women. When Lori sought to end their conversation, citing fatigue, Margaret ignored the petition and continued questioning until her daughter pleaded to retire.
Later, Craig could feel her tossing until she finally settled down near dawn.
At breakfast, Margaret suddenly thrust a question at him, “do you think about your first wife?”
“Yes,” he said curtly, not interested in going further.
“You know you never describe her, physically, that is. I don’t know what she looked like.”

That weekend, Lori announced that she was going to spend a few days with her father.
In their bedroom, Craig asked his wife “isn’t she angry with him because the divorce was his fault, his cheating?”
“Lori doesn’t think that way. She has, always has had, a relationship with each of us, and in her mind, her father and I had a separate relationship. Only the latter dissolved. Consequently, she views the divorce as her parents’ failure—solely that—and beyond the obvious alteration in living arrangements, doesn’t change much for her, at least not emotionally, I think. Perhaps it’s how she copes, but she seems marvelously unaffected so I never tried to sway her differently.”
“So I can’t be her father’s replacement?” Craig said sardonically.
“You signed up with me. We’re not a package deal.”
“I had hoped for something with her. It separates me from a part of you as well.”
“I’m sorry you’re upset about that.”
As she got up to leave the room, Craig said, “it’s more than that; there’s a dynamic circling around the three of you that I don’t understand or feel part of.”
Margaret didn’t ask who the third was.

After Lori returned, Craig looked for times to talk to her, cautious not to overwhelm with attention. The formality in their communication began to disappear, and she would tease him at times.
After a long dinner, Craig went into the living room while Margaret cleared the dishes. Lori followed in a few minutes. “She doesn’t need my help so she asked me to entertain you. I can’t sing or dance but I can still do back flips.”
“I think she meant talk to me,” he said jovially.
“About what?” Lori sat on the couch and tucked her slender legs underneath her.
“What are your plans after college? You graduate next year, right?”
“I want to be a journalist, but my father says it’s very competitive and I don’t have credentials, which means I don’t write well enough.”
Feeling a chance to outscore, Craig responded, “observation is important, and you are a very observant young woman, as I see it. I’m sure you write well, too.”
“How do you know that? You’ve never read anything I’ve written.”
“No, but, your mother writes extremely well, and it’s likely in the genes.”
Later after Lori had gone out, Margaret grinned as he told what had happened, “It wasn’t solely an issue of false flattery; Lori is very monogamous in her affections, and you were contradicting her father, even though his remark was unkind.”
“Why wouldn’t she have asked for your opinion on her writing aptitude?”
“Because she’d have to accept it as coming from someone who knows, who is a writer. When her father says it, she can elect to dismiss the remark as baseless, but not mine. It’s a way of balancing love, of selecting from each of us in a way that doesn’t disrupt the fragility of compromise.”
“The dynamics of your family is mystifying.”

In the evening when mother and daughter went upstairs to change into sweats, Craig sat on the couch listening to their talk drift down. On the table was a photograph of the three of them in summer attire with an ocean backdrop. He thought it was an odd picture, reflecting familial harmony but taken after the divorce. “He’s still her father and there’s no lingering hostility. We’re friends,” was Margaret’s response when he inquired as to why. Craig was the stepfather—an apt term, he thought, one rung removed. At times, he felt like an understudy in long running play, thrust in place of an absent lead, out-of-pace with the other actors long familiar with the routines and dialogues, encouraged but subtly reminded of the impermanence of the role. Living in a house that was not his, with no real connection by lineage or familial history, he envisioned her family tree sketched in a diagram, each descendent joined by bold lines, but he was linked by dotted line to the side of his wife’s square on the chart, an indistinct addition, easily erasable. Her first husband merited an unalterable place having contributed to their history in Lori.

The following day, Margaret went to town to mail an article she’d written for a magazine. Craig sat outside on the porch, looking out over the gardener-tended yard; hedges were cut evenly and flowers grew in straight rows as if order were the only acceptable display. The sun was squatting on the far hill, about to roll down. Lori, dressed in loose white shorts and a sleeveless shirt, was lying on a lawn chair, her eyes closed and covered by soaked cotton balls, her skin glistening with tanning lotion. A mild breeze stirred her long hair. Craig resisted getting up and walking to where she was. At times—and that moment was one of them—he ached for affection from her, not expecting love. He knew that he could care deeply for her—perhaps because she was a part of the woman he loved, perhaps because of missing something from a childless union, perhaps because she was endearing in her own right. As if sensing his stare, she turned and looked at him, smiled, then walked toward where he was and sat down on a lower step of the porch, neither saying anything until she shivered briefly. “I’m going in,” she said. “You never address me, use my name, or...”
“I know. I feel awkward calling you by your first name. Do I call you, stepdad? Maybe because I don’t know where you fit in my life.”
“Think you’ll ever know?”
“This is an awkward time. I’m redefining my relationship with my mother now that I’m adult. My father is a moving target, and I’ve been involved with someone, who Mom says is eerily like my Dad. My feelings are jumbled right now. I’m glad you’re with my mother but I don’t share the closeness. I’m sorry.”
“Your mother said something similarly discouraging.”

In the years after the divorce, Craig had diminishing contact with his ex-wife except for Christmas cards with an inserted printed message entitled what’s going on in my life. After the papers were signed, she’d called him often, at times in a wistful mood, expressing undirected regret as if divorce was a surprise component of the life she’d constructed for herself. At other times, she could be playful almost as if, he thought, the separation was temporary. In their marriage, he was enamored of her deep moods, the strain to embellish simple emotions, eyes that would fill as readily from laughter as from sadness. As she’d often done, she’d tossed the scarring rebuke: “you gave up,” and he’d ended the conversation. Later he called her back but hung up before her voicemail started. Her phone calls became less frequent, and when he remarried, had stopped, although there were times when the phone rang briefly before he could pick up and he wondered if she was on the other end. He never realized the depth of her despair, never considered madness; he was too quick to parry against her vitriolic comments or blatant attempts to seduce without giving thought to motive. When she overdosed, he learned from the I thought you should know email from her brother. He knew her sibling never cared for him; her brother was the one she called when they fought, venting to him, exaggerating, which seemed odd to Craig—his ex-wife seemed always confident, always maddeningly certain. In those conversations with her older brother, he remembered, her voice was elevated to a childish height. In the days that followed the brother’s announcement, Craig became angry, feeling that he’d been denied the right to mourn—a right not invalidated by a divorce decree, he reasoned. The death became more—the link to the certainty of the past, the loss of a familiarity despite the discord. Margaret was quiet during those days, leaving him to sort out his reaction. After that call, he thought about his ex-wife often, mostly in the evening when distraction was most unnoticed—while watching television or reading quietly, or at times driving on a familiar path. One time, he woke from a long sleep, after a day in which he remembered buried details about his first marriage, and turned to his wife momentarily uncertain who was next to him.
A few months later, her brother called again and mentioned that the simple will had been executed and there was a box of items Lilith had wanted him to have. Craig drove to the ex-brother-in-law’s house and was met at the doorway of a small Cape house by the man standing on the front steps with the box at his feet. Gathering the covered carton, Craig placed it in the back of his car and left, neither saying a word. Once home, he took the box from the seat and placed near the curb for the following day garbage pick-up. Late that night, he went back outside and picked up the box and brought it to the garage. Sorting through the flotsam of a marriage, he found a few photographs from their early happy months, which surprised him; he remembered her tearing up the images in a rage. He also pulled out a scarf he’d bought her the first Christmas of their dating, and a copy of the divorce decree with a red line marked across the court document. He wondered about her reasoning for assembling those and other items in the box, or was it like much of what she said or did—without intent. The following day, he took the box to an isolated area where the ground had been softened by the prior days of rain. Hidden by a circle of trees he dug a small square and in a solitary funeral, stood over the container nestled in the hole, his eyes blinking, and his recollections, washed of the unpleasant memories, played in his mind until it was time to toss the churned dirt into the pit.

On a morning a few days later, Margaret was in the kitchen, dressed in gray slacks, a white blouse and pouring juice in a glass. As Craig could see when she turned toward him, that her make-up had been flawlessly applied. “Lori and I are going to meet with her father to help her buy a car. He’s paying.”
“Like old times?” he said sardonically.
“I never thought you’d have a problem about my relationship with my ex.”
“Your relationship—is that the right word? The bastard cheated. Why do you want a relationship?”
“Neither of us—you or I—can let go fully,” she said before closing the door.

One day afterwards, Craig was sitting at his desk in the back room of the first floor that he’d set up as an office. He liked the room which was largely windows on two sides and brightened without lamps until late in the day. Lori came in with a typed piece of paper in her hand. Looking up and smiling at her, he noticed she seemed tentative.
“Can I help you, honey?” The endearment slipped out and he blushed as if caught in an error.
“I need help with my resume, if you’re not busy.”
“No, I’m not; let me see your draft.”
She lifted the chair from in front of his desk and moved it beside him.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s no bother.”
“I don’t mean about disturbing you, I mean about your ex-wife.” She added, “I hate that term ex, like someone’s been crossed out.”
“Your mother never uses that term; sometimes I wish she did. Not that I want your father crossed out.”
Lori laughed, “Don’t worry, sometimes I do, and I think Mom does too at times.”
“But not always—for her, I mean.”
“No, but not that way.”
He smiled at her insightfulness.
“I made minor changes. Your draft is very good and I’m glad you came to me,” he said to change the subject.
“You’re the smart one, Mom says.”
Craig chuckled; “but not the good looking one.”

In the following week, Craig returned home after playing golf and saw suitcases lined up in front of Lori’s room.
“Where is she going?” Craig asked Margaret in the kitchen.
Margaret looked at him; “To my parents for a while.”
“Were you going to tell me or would I find out by one less plate at the table?”
“Honey, what are you so het up about?”
“You hoard her.”
Margaret gave an amused smile. “I have no idea what you mean by that.”
“I mean;” he paused. “I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
“Is this an issue between us?” she asked.
“As a child, I had a relative who sectioned the home, constructing barriers of low gates under the pretense of confining her dogs. One room was even cordoned off like a museum exhibit. I feel that way in this house. Rooms here have unwelcoming ghosts and repelling associations, except to you and Lori and maybe even your ex-husband.”
“Where is all this coming from?” Margaret asked.
“Sometimes I feel that way too,” a voice behind him said. He turned to look at Lori. “But you’re the barrier to everything getting back to the way it was before when every room was connected by linked memories. Now it’s your bedroom, your chair but it was all here before you with no trace of you, only my father. For a time I resented you taking over everything that you’d not owned or paid for. You can’t eliminate the memories; they don’t go away, chased by another presence. But the house is divided just like the divorce settlement between what it was and what it is now.”
“Lori, are you’re blaming me?”
She moved closer and hugged him. “No, I’m not. I almost love you. Maybe barrier is too strong a word, but you are at least a reminder, illogical and unkind as that may be.”
Margaret was crying, saying nothing.
Craig felt Lori ease from the embrace but held on until she placed her hands on his arms.
“Almost; I’ll take whatever part of you you can give,” he said.
Lori laughed; “you seem as if you’re talking about a side of beef.”

After Lori was gone, Craig sat outside on the porch while Margaret made coffee. When she came out she placed the steaming cup on a metal table, slid a chair alongside and grabbed his hand.
“She told you things she’s never said to me. I hope that counts.”
“That word almost,” he said, shaking his head, “seems, in my self-pitying mood, an apt word for every relationship in my life.”
“Sometimes people, even when not asked or wanted, siphon our finite affection, but only you have access to the most.” She smiled and squeezed his hand and they sat quietly until dark.

In a few years, Lori married. Craig dreaded the event, knowing that Margaret and her first husband would be center stage and he would be a parent’s guest. Sitting at a white-gowned table in the massive reception room at the hotel, he watched the newly-married couple and mother and father dance in a traditional lead to the celebration. He knew that his role in familial ceremonies would always be restricted but as the music wound down, he saw his wife quickly step away from her still-handsome former husband and walk hurriedly toward him. She grabbed Craig’s hand, pulled him up as a new song began, and pressed tightly against him. As they swayed slowly, he realized that the occasions of family were limited and brief, and that he was the majority of her life; he could also live with Lori’s unevenly divided affection and the unthreatening link between former spouses. The invasive memories of Lilith that had come unexpectedly and out of place, like the moon in a morning sky, were, if not interred, at least mummified. In a few minutes, the photographer tapped Margaret’s shoulder and whispered that it was time for pictures in an adjoining room. She stepped away from Craig, looking at him for a moment with a mock frown, and then clung to Lori as they left the ballroom. Craig lingered for a moment, staring after, and went to the bar to refill Margaret’s drink.


© James Hanley


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