Story: Jack

By: Ruth Z Deming

relationship

I planned my getaway from my husband as carefully as a bank robber planning a heist. I was used to lying to Jack, my husband of twenty years, so when I said, “Let’s take separate cars to the shore, I’ve gotta to work on Saturday night,” I convinced him.

“But, Beth, you don’t tutor on Saturdays,” he said.

“Special order. He’s prepping for the SATs,” I said and left the kitchen.

If everything went well, I’d continue living in our beautiful house in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with my rose garden – the black rose is my prize – plus beds of zinnias, cosmos and black-eyed susans which shout “good cheer” to the entire neighborhood . We’d had the kitchen redone – Jack thought it might bring us together – the fifty-thousand dollar refurbishing contained pink granite-top counters upon which I prepared my klopsiki, Polish meat balls with sour cream, and my home-made pasta with marinara sauce made from pear tomatoes grown in my large fenced-in garden to protect the veggies from deer and rabbits.

I’d agreed to marriage counseling, knowing it would never work. I’ll always remember sitting in Dr. Edie Mannion’s corner office at Temple University, with a skyline view of Philadelphia, hearing my husband defend himself.

“Controlling?” he laughed. “Putting her down?”

The therapist asked him to say a couple of things he liked about me.

He paused and looked me up and down. He was a good-looking man, balding, with icy-blue eyes.

“You’ve got me in the hot seat, Doctor – Manning? – is that your name?”

“Mannion,” she said. “You’re dodging the question, Mr. Connelly.”

“Well, she used to be good in bed, but it’s been – what? – three years since she’ll let me come into her room.”

I explained that two years ago our youngest, Sean, was born. And that, frankly, I no longer loved Jack so what’s the point in sleeping with him.

“If you could fix Jack in any way,” said the doctor, “what would you do?”

“First of all, he’d stop telling me what to do. Let’s say I’m gardening and he comes home from work. ‘You missed a spot,’ he’ll say.

“He might also compliment me.”

I stood up. At forty-two I had a slender figure and wore a sleeveless polka dot dress which showed my nicely tanned arms and legs.

“Bet you anything,” I said, “he doesn’t know how to say, ‘Beth, you look beautiful!’”

“Honey,” he said. “You’re not beautiful. You still have some acne scars left on your face and your nose is too large, like an African-American’s.”

I stood up, grabbed my pocketbook and told Jack I’d wait for him outside in the car.

It was fourth of July and we were taking the chance of driving to Ocean City, New Jersey, for one day, knowing how mobbed it would be. I strapped two-year-old Sean in the car seat in the back, while Jack drove with our teenagers Carrie and Michael in the SUV, packed with our beach things.

I’ll say this about Jack. He has many good qualities. As a partner at Merrill Lynch, he’s good at investing our money and in doing research. He always finds the best way to get places. We zigzagged our way to the shore, taking little-known roads and avoiding the hordes of vehicles which finally roared into the tiny beach town as if they were giving away free gold coins.

Jack and I followed one another. “Sean,” I would say to my red-haired child, “wave to daddy. He’s right in front of us.”

We arrived at the parking lot by 10 a.m. and were waved inside. Since Jack went in first, he paid the twenty-dollar all-day fee and was told to vacate it by four p.m. or else our car would be towed.

I unstrapped Sean and kissed his soft cheek. “Mommy loves you,” I said and picked up his Sippee cup, filled with cool water. Sean gave me a wet kiss on my cheek.

“My darling boy!” I said, thinking he would no longer have a live-at-home father. Jack would get liberal visiting hours, if the judge agreed with my attorney.

“Are you sure you have a firm grasp on our son?” he asked as I headed over to his blue van.

What was there to say?

Carrie and Michael leapt out and helped unload the beach gear. Then the parade to the beach began in the broiling hot sun. We set up camp close to the ocean. Michael set up the striped umbrella, pounding it into the sand with a hammer-like contrivance, while I got the sun block out for all of us.

I stripped Sean’s shorts and shirt off and put on his bathing trunks under the umbrella. Then, as he struggled, I put the smooth, slippery Neutrogena sunscreen all over his tiny body, first kissing his chubby arms.

Michael and Carrie put the lotion on one another, as Jack and I did the same. His body was still nice, but I took no pleasure in touching it. It could have been a stranger’s shoulders and arms.

Life guards were stationed on towering chairs and seemed attentive to the bathers.

“I have a terrible story to tell you,” I said to everyone, as we huddled under the umbrella.

“Mom!” said 13-year-old Carrie. “Must you?”

“It’s a learning lesson,” I said. “I just read an article online about a wave called a ‘riptide.’”

“Riptide?” asked Michael, whose voice was starting to change.

I explained it’s an accumulation of many waves which come together and instead of being a soft wave that you can swim through, it’s literally as hard as concrete and can render you unconscious and even kill you should you meet it head-on.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “there are no riptides today. Otherwise the lifeguards wouldn’t let us in the water.”

I pointed at the red ropes that served as boundaries for where the swimmers were allowed to go.

From under our umbrella, we stared at the inviting sea. Despite the blazing sun, the waves came hard and fast. The swimmers, with a kaleidoscope of different colors, were doing the eternal dance in the water, eons old, whether in the Baltic Sea or the Sargasso or Lake Erie or here in Ocean City.

“I’m gonna look for shells,” said Carrie, in her one-piece blue and white suit. What a pretty girl, I thought. Some boy will love her and treat her well. I will not allow her to marry a jerk like her father. Once, a couple of years ago, she said to me, “Why did you marry Dad? He’s mean to you?”

I asked Jack to keep an eye on the kids while I read my Jack Reacher novel. Sean played quietly near me, digging with his blue shovel, and sifting the sand through his hands. Unable to concentrate, yet not really anxious about my departure, I went up to the boardwalk for some hot coffee for myself and ice cream cones for the kids.

Nothing like hot coffee on a hot day. Somehow the lovely rush I feel intensifies the mood and all the joyful memories of hot weather when I was a kid – picnics with my parents at the park, rides on the roller coaster at Dorney Park, hikes at Tamanend Park.

My hand began to tremble slightly as I sipped my coffee. I looked at my watch. Two p.m. Two more hours before we must move our cars. I felt in my pocket. My keys, with an Ocean City key ring, were waiting for me.

Sipping on my coffee in a paper cup, I closed my eyes and prayed that everything would go right.

Looking again at my watch – it was three o’clock – I poured the remainder of the coffee in the sand, watched the pit it made, and disposed of the cup in the huge black trash bag we always bring along.

It was time.

“Jack,” I said, “I’m going to the restroom and will take the baby with me.”

“I can watch him,” he said.

“No need,” I said and thought about kissing my husband – soon to be ex-husband – on the cheek. But my dislike of the man was so intense I couldn’t make myself do it. Rubbing sun lotion on his hairy back met the “touch” quota for the day, if not for a lifetime.

Pulling my short dress over my bathing suit, I put on my sandals, and grabbed my tan beach bag. Without a word, I picked up Sean and watched Michael and Carrie splashing in the ocean. What a traitor I was. But a necessary one. I walked on the hot surface of the sand toward the wooden stairs. At the top I turned around, looked at our striped beach umbrella and threw a kiss toward Michael and Carrie.

Sean, wave bye-bye to Michael and Carrie,” I said and refused to allow myself to become emotional.

Would I ever return to the beach?” I wondered, as I walked toward the parking lot. Sean was heavy in my arms, but I was strong, wasn’t I? Then, without even thinking, I began to run toward the parking lot, looked both ways and crossed the busy street to the lot where the sign read “Park and Pay.”

Would my car be there? I was terrified that someone had stolen it. Anything was possible to spoil my plan of escaping.

Where had I parked it? There is was, a blue Toyota Camry, four doors, with a yellow magnet on the back that read “Teach Your Children Well.”

Sean was ready to fall asleep the moment I strapped him in his car seat in the back. An assortment of tiny cars and trucks were on his cushy blue car seat.

To distract myself from the awfulness – and yes, it was awful – of what I was doing, I turned on my CD player. Allison Krauss was singing “Let Me Touch You For Awhile.”

“Not now, Allison,” I thought and clicked off the CD player, adjusted my sunglasses and drove the two hours home.

That was five years ago. Jack and I only speak when it concerns the children, who are both in college. Neither of us has remarried. The other night I went into a Starbucks in Cherry Hill and gave a laugh at what I saw. Jack was sitting by himself at a table near the window and reading the Wall Street Journal.

I ordered a strong Columbian roast and headed toward his table. He was so engrossed in his world of finance he didn’t see me coming.

“May I?” I said, nodding at the empty chair across from him.

When he looked up, with his reading glasses perched on the edge of his nose, a broad smile beamed across his face.

“Beth!” he said, rising. “Please do.”

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