A smile that was not a smile
October 30, 1980
“I finally did it,” she said, her gaze glaze from too many drinks so early in the afternoon. The ice rattled in her near empty glass as she stared across the table at me.
I was preoccupied, and mumbled, “Did what?”
I was mostly concerned with finding two of the staff from the school magazine so I could dump on them the package of student literature someone else had dumped on me. I was nervous about losing it.
“You know,” she said, nudging my arm to make me look at her.
From her look, I guessed what she meant.
For over a year, she had talked about wanting to leave her husband. Love was a joke, she claimed. Lack of courage had kept her from making the move, insecurity about being on her own as a bread winner.
I think she also didn’t want the gap in her life and wanted someone else to fill it before she pulled out.
“So you finally left him?” I asked, and put the package of writing down on the table between the empty glasses and the pitcher of beer someone else had left here. Her drinks were harder alcohol.
She smile, but it was a weak smile, struggling to rid her face of an expression that did not smile at all.
“He didn’t like it,” she said. “After all, we’ve been together almost seventeen years.”
She had come back to college as a kind of escape, hoping perhaps to find a career here that would allow her to break with him more easily.
She hadn’t loved him since the first year they were married, and had remained with him only for the sake of their children, the first the cause of the wedding in the first place, the rest as uncomfortable surprises – nails to her coffin, she said.
He knew she wanted to leave, but taunted her, because he thought she couldn’t.
“He doesn’t want me really,” she said. “He just wants someone to cook for him and clean his clothes. But he made me feel guilty, saying that if I went away, the children would grow wild.
I could see their faces in her eyes, a combination of joy and outrage, scars from the lash of a whip she had come to enjoy if only for those brief spaces of relief between each stroke.
“Where are you staying?” I asked.
“My parents house, if you can believe it,” she said bitterly. “I’m 41 years old and I’ve run back to daddy’s house.”
“I’m not sure how long I can stay there either,” she mumbled. “My father calls me a fool for leaving my husband. In some ways, he’s as bad as my husband. Very conventional. He says I’m a married woman and a married woman ought to stay at her husband’s side, no matter how bad things get. But to tell you the truth, I think he’s scared of me.”
“Scared of you? Why?”
“He’s afraid of what I’ve become. Yesterday, I was studying in the kitchen and he came over and picked up one of my books. Then, he slammed it down and told me I shouldn’t be reading crap like that. He said crap like that is what made me leave my husband.”
“What stuff was that?” I asked.
She pushed over one of the text books, a book I also had from the same class with the same professor, although I was one of only two men in the class at the time.
We sat for a moment in silence, both of us at a loss for words, staring out the school pub window at the campus beyond, at the hurrying students rushing from one building to another. The sky was pregnant with rain clouds.
Then I glanced at the clock.
“I got to go,” I said, grabbing up the package of student poems. “Let me know if there is anything I can do.”
She smiled again with a smile that wasn’t a smile, her eyes full of doubt.
“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” she said.
Then I hurried off.