Living with Moira was anything but routine in the beginning. She had no frame of reference for normal. Mealtime came when she was hungry. The linen closet held her books and albums, and she danced on the lawn to the Allman Brothers when Macy’s delivered the first new couch she ever owned. Ken loved her then, feeling as if he had value only because she loved him back. He doesn’t miss that.
The changes came when Sean was born. A diaper rash meant she was a bad mother. If they were too tired for sex, the next day she’d be combing women’s magazines for a remedy. The stakes were suddenly too high for her. Everything had to be right. Things worsened after Michael’s birth.
They haven’t made love in months. They don’t even speak about it, especially not at these sessions. Tonight Ken gets there first, coming directly from his faculty meeting, and finds a place in the circle, close to the exit. Moira arrives shortly after and sits down—full lotus—leaving more room than usual between them. He pats the carpet, but instead of coming closer she wedges her shoulder bag into the space. Whatever, thinks Ken. He glances at the couple directly across from them to see if they’ve noticed. The woman, a squirrelly thing with wispy hair, sits hugging her bony knees. Her husband is behind her, his arms around her midsection, as if she may skitter away if the air current changes. Ken pretends his shoe needs tying. He has trouble disguising his contempt, not just for these two, for all of them, sitting on a therapist’s floor, like children waiting for storytime, when they already know the ending.
There was a time when Moira would have spent the ride home mimicking these Cub Scouts. The first time they tried group counseling, five years earlier, she lifted her breasts to capture the way the Italian woman straightened up in her chair whenever she disagreed with someone, holding her nose to capture the woman’s nasal whine. Ken can still smell the tension that filled that tight little room, but he remembers nothing about what they agreed to do when the sessions were over.
When the circle is complete, Brad, the squirrel’s husband, is the first to say he wants to share. The word makes Ken want to find a gun to load. Brad is a big guy with a big voice and he seems to like the sound of it, because he jumps on every opportunity to talk.
“I was the one,” Brad insists. “I went outside the marriage.”
Shit. Here we go again. Ken leans forward a bit, but he can’t see Moira’s face. He was hoping Brad and the squirrel would talk about “growing apart” or “not communicating,” the kind of self-absorbed droning that can keep the whole aimless troop of them tripping over themselves in contrition for the whole session.
“My infidelity was no one else’s fault,” the big guy whines, reaching for his wife’s hand.
Ken feels Moira shift her weight. He’s sure she’s as uncomfortable with this subject as he is. She suspects, but she has no proof. He’s careful. But it’s been a thin line. The first time he was in Jennifer’s mouth, he shuddered from the relief, but the shame shadowed him for days. Across the table in the evenings, Moira became a blur, someone lost in enemy territory. They had enjoyed each other once, at least before outcomes started to matter so much. They could laugh at things—waiting too long to get tickets for a show, losing the car keys and walking home from the boardwalk, running out of white paint for the ceiling in the den and finishing with wallpaper instead. When the condom broke, she stuffed a pillow under her sweatshirt that night and told him to run out for ice cream.
“I wish I’d talked about it,” says Brad. The squirrel starts to tear up. Ken hopes she’ll keep a lid on it or she’ll get the whole room wailing.
“Moira, what’s on your mind? You look restless,” says the therapist, a wiry type, with hand gestures that look practiced, nails perfectly manicured.
There’s no privacy in this place, thinks Ken, no reaction that isn’t slit open and picked over.
“I’m fine,” Moira tells him. Ken knows that can’t be true.
“You seem uneasy with the direction we’re going,” says the therapist, who insists they call him by his first name, which he claims is Morse, like the code. Ken is sure the name is as phony as his tan.
“I’m not,” she says.
“Do you want to say something to Brad?”
“She just told you she’s fine,” Ken says, then wishes he hadn’t. They’re ready for him.
“Ken, would you rather Moira didn’t share?”
“She can share all she wants. I just think it should be up to her.”
Morse waits for the circle to respond, his standard manipulation. Someone to Ken’s left lets out a sigh. He suspects it’s the woman who wears black all the time. It makes her blond hair shocking. She’s forever pouting, and she looks at Ken as if men are a breed she shouldn’t be expected to mix with.
“I hope I didn’t upset you, Moira,” Brad says.
I should get up and clock this guy, thinks Ken. I should kick his fat ass out the door and tell him to shut the fuck up. He remembers the dad at the little league game, the one who screamed at Sean from the stands when he didn’t tag the base. Moira hit him in the head with Michael’s baseball glove, and the little crowd of parents went wild. Later Ken toasted her with a glass of skim milk, all they had in the house. If he confronts Brad now, he can’t be sure she’ll take his side. She’s drunk the Kool-Aid.
“It’s okay,” Moira says, her voice thin. “This is just a tough subject for me.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” says Morse.
“Ken isn’t the same anymore. He’s different.”
“Of course I’m different. We’re both different. But you’re still my wife. We’re a family.” Somewhere in that statement, there’s truth for him. When she’s not with them, he feels the memory of the way she used to be. When she went to Atlanta in March, he took the boys to the supermarket, and he could swear he smelled her perfume the whole time.
The circle clams up. Someone clears his throat. A few others change position. “I don’t know if there’s anything we can say about it anymore,” she says.
That’s more like it.
But the circle is hungry for justice and Ken knows Moira is going to feel compelled to serve him up. He braces himself. “I think Ken is having an affair,” she says.
He takes a breath. The room smells artificial, like something sprayed out of a can. He wants to break the seal on one of the windows and let in some air. “I am not having an affair,” he says. “And I am not going to talk about this again.” He’s not going to leave his children, and he has no plan except to get through each day.
“Ken, please. Let her finish,” says Morse. “How does that make you feel, Moira?”
“How do you think it makes her feel?” says the redhead across the circle. She rarely speaks, only exchanges looks with her husband from time to time, as if everyone here is flunking an audition.
“Lonely,” says Moira, and the word, so unexpected, so plain, makes Ken’s chest tighten. This is something he hasn’t heard before, this simple, broken admission. She goes on about how rarely he touches her and what it feels like when the boys want to know why Ken isn’t home. “The teachers’ convention, last fall, that was the worst,” she says. Her eyes roll up as if the thought of it still hurts. “I had to take the kids to stay at my sister’s because I couldn’t think straight. It wasn’t safe. I was sure he was with someone. Sure of it.”
How idiotic it’s been to assume she wasn’t sure what he was up to. He thought he had time. For a second, he feels the urge to hold her. But just as quickly he dismisses it. It has never worked before. And it would be wrong now, absurd. He pictures Jennifer in his car, her skirt crooked, her blouse not yet buttoned, asking why they have to sneak around, why he can’t get out of his marriage. He tells her the part he knows for sure: he can’t come home to a house his sons don’t live in, a place without their books and baseball mitts on the floor, a place that doesn’t smell of them.
“Ken, you look surprised. Did you know Moira felt this way?”
“Yes, I suppose I knew,” he says.
“You knew she was lonely?”
He wants to say he didn’t know she was hurting any more than usual, but that isn’t true. Moira’s eyes are red so often, her smiles for the kids slower in coming. But she’s been hurting from the start. She’ll be hurting forever. By the time they were out of college, he’d pieced together enough to know that her childhood was a war zone. He loved her. He thought that would make her feel safe. It never did. The old enemies are always lurking.
“Yes,” he says. “I knew.”
Morse waits for Moira to speak, but she doesn’t. “Is there anything else you want to say, Moira? Do you want to ask Ken something?”
Ken knows what will come next. He knows it because the question has been ground into every part of their lives, like dirt he’ll never get out. She’s going to ask him again if he’s having an affair. She’s going to ask him for the millionth time, a relentless echo. He wants to tell her she doesn’t have to do this. He touches her hand.
“Yes,” Moira says, and pulls her hand away. “Why are we here?”
He’s thrown by this. He feels unsteady. She crosses her arms, expecting an explanation. He knows he has to get this right. He straightens, shoots a glance at Brad, as if whatever he says to Moira will have to pass muster with him too. “We’re here because we want to make this work,” he says, “because we love each other.” This has not been true for a very long time, not for him at least.
On their anniversary last May, he dreaded going out to dinner, pretended to have a toothache. He told Moira he was going to the dentist, an escape to Jennifer’s that lasted several hours. When he got back, Moira was making pasta. “You won’t have to chew much,” she said, but her look, her slumping posture, conveyed a kind of surrender. Days later in the closet he found the small gift she’d wrapped for him tucked into a winter boot that had landed on its side. She hadn’t forgotten, as he’d hoped. She’d only thought better of it.
Moira looks down at her hands, and the circle seems to shift all at once, to lean away from him. He doesn’t care what they think. He didn’t cause this. When they were first married, he slept with the girl down the street from them, the brunette from Kansas. It was nothing. Moira never suspected. They were happy then. Moira was easy to talk to. This twisted thing with Jennifer is different only because he needs it to get by.
“You don’t love me, Ken.”
He hates her talking this way in front of strangers. “That’s not true,” he says. She looks at him, her chin trembling. He sees that the truth would be kinder, but he can’t give it. He isn’t sure he knows it. “I want us to be together, just as we are.”
“The way we are isn’t working.”
No fuckin’ kidding, he thinks. “We can make it work.” He says this through his teeth, but if she knows he’s angry, she doesn’t let on.
“I can’t,” she says.
It’s as if she’s hit him. He has to stop her, give her something. “Of course, you can. You’re just upset.” Nothing in her face softens. “Think about the kids,” he says.
“I think we’ve gone as far as we can.”
Ken has trouble letting this in. The idea that she might be the one to end things is all wrong, unlike anything he knows of her. “Why can’t you?”
Moira lifts her bag onto her lap, reaches deep inside. When she removes her hand, it’s closed in a fist. She opens her palm to show him what she has. “Here’s why.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You tell me. What is this?”
He looks at the earring in her hand, doesn’t recognize it, but he assumes it’s Jennifer’s. He feels exposed, camouflage ripped away. He’s desperate to believe this changes nothing. But her face is drained of color, her mouth set tight, as if struggling to keep calm. It changes everything. “It’s an earring,” he says. “What about it?”
“It was in your car.”
Maybe he’s not reading her expression correctly. Maybe she’s desperate for a reason to believe him. “Let’s go outside,” he says, getting to his feet.
“Just answer the question,” she says.
“Moira, let’s talk about this outside.” He’ll tell her Jennifer doesn’t matter, not the way she does. He can do that; it’s such a cliché, but he knows—in a way that makes his skin clammy—that it’s the truth.
She closes the earring in her hand, sits facing forward, as if cemented to the floor. He wants to lift her up, pull her away from these assholes. “We can’t solve this here,” he says, his voice low, private. “Come on. I can explain.” They don’t belong here. They belong at home with the boys. But she won’t move. “This isn’t what you think.” The words are barely audible.
Moira has her chin up, her back stiff. Ken looks at the faces in the circle. What more can he possibly say to her here? That Jennifer makes life bearable? That he’s waited for years for Moira to notice what’s happening to them?
The therapist says, “Maybe you should—”
“Maybe you should fuck off,” Ken says. He bends over again, whispers into Moira’s ear. “How can you do this to us? Here, like this?”
Moira doesn’t move. “I haven’t done anything, Ken.” She seems to be speaking to the circle, not to him. “The earring is mine.”
His legs go weak. A fear balls up, hardens in his chest. She’s done it. She’s made up her mind. She glances at his face, and he searches for some sign that she’ll come to her senses. He touches her shoulder, but she leans away.
“Moira,” he says, but she doesn’t respond. He’s desperate to get out of there, afraid he’ll be sick. He straightens up, and the group seems to let out a breath, as if the victor is clear now. He wants to turn and shout at them, tell them they have no right to see this. He makes his way toward the exit. Near the door, there’s a long table with a heavy coffee urn and plates of the neatly stacked cookies they nibble on at the break. He pictures her standing there later, sipping coffee from Styrofoam, speaking softly to one of these ghouls, whispering maybe, tired words about what a marriage needs to be.
Outside, the moon surprises him, bright and full. Jennifer is waiting for him at her apartment, but he won’t go there. He’ll head home, let the babysitter go. He rides back to the house with the car windows open, wondering if the boys will be awake. He’s feeling crazed, panicky. He finds something metal on the radio, turns it up, but the music can’t compete with the pounding in his head. He remembers how Moira danced when they were new to each other, a performance meant for him alone. She’d drift away from him on the dance floor, then return so close he could smell her skin, sweat mixed with that girlie lotion of hers. He drives for blocks before he realizes he’s taken a wrong turn, and even after he’s back on track he misses their street, has to circle around again.
He turns the car off in the driveway, noticing there are very few lights on. The sound of the TV coming from the living room turns off and the sitter comes into the foyer to greet him, their aging golden retriever lumbering close behind. The sitter is wearing the hoodie her brother, once a student of Ken’s, got her from Rutgers before he quit. She’s tiny and it hangs on her shoulders like a tired blanket. Ken takes out two tens and tells her she can go. The dog waits only long enough for his pat on the head, then retreats.
Upstairs, Michael’s door is open. The boy won’t sleep with it closed. Ken approaches the bed, drops down on one knee. Michael has kicked the covers away and he lies with both arms stretched above his head as if reaching for a fly ball. He’s big for an eight-year-old. He’ll be tall. Everyone says so. Ken touches his hair. It’s sweaty, or maybe still damp from his shower. His eyes move under their lids, and Ken hopes that in his dream he’s the winner, the one who makes it.
He can’t remember if Michael has a game tomorrow. If he does, he’ll be pitching. The boy looks for him, counts on his being there. Always, before he steps on the mound, he turns toward Ken, who grins and gives him their secret signal—two tugs on his baseball cap—the one that means it won’t take much to sit this batter down, that he has what it takes.
Ken straightens the blanket, pulls it up closer to Michael’s chin. The boy stirs and Ken waits to see if he’ll wake up. But he turns over, burrows into his pillow. Ken finds the other pillow, the one he kicked away, and settles down on the carpet, close to the bed. He listens to the house, the attic fan turning on, the branch of the old maple scraping the window screen. His house. Except everything in it has her mark: the insignificant little sugar bowl on the sideboard, the way she held it in the shop, licking the make-believe sugar off her finger, making him crazy; the dotted-swiss curtains in the spare bedroom, the ones she raced to finish when she was pregnant with Sean. She was a frenzy of creation, maneuvering around a mountain of belly, and he would touch her skin, sense the pulsing charge of life and energy beneath.
He lifts his head slightly from the pillow. As he gets up, one foot lands on the Legos fort she spent hours finishing with Michael. “You awake, Michael?” he says.
“Yeah, sure,” he says, in that way he has of letting him know he’ll be anything his father wants him to be.
“Put some clothes on.”
Michael swings his legs out of bed but looks toward the window. “It’s dark out,” he says.
“I thought we could hang out for a while. All of us.”
“Sean’s not home. He’s staying over at Ben’s.”
“Oh, right,” he says, but this is something he should have remembered, and it scares him, because it’s as if he’s losing them already.
Michael reaches for the jeans that landed in the corner when he went to bed. “Should I get dressed?” Ken sees that he’s waiting for what to do, as if either way will be all right with him.
“That’s okay. Stay in your pjs.”
They head downstairs to the kitchen. There’s some wine left, the Stag’s Leap Moira’s brother Conor brought over on her birthday. In the back of the fridge. He’ll get that out, get some firewood from the shed. They’ll be together. The three of them. He’ll find some marshmallows. They’ll toast them. She loves shit like that.
The sound of the refrigerator door opening gets the dog’s attention, and he trots in, tail wagging. Michael sits at the table, in his usual place. There are no marshmallows, but Ken makes popcorn and at first the smell gives the room a hopeful feeling, as if something’s about to start, like when lights dim at the movies. The boy eats some of the popcorn, and Ken finds a radio station for them to listen to. He rejects the voice of Tom Petty, sodden with memories, and settles on a station playing country music. But the time passes slowly, especially for the boy.
“Does Mom know we’re waiting up for her?” Michael asks. Ken doesn’t have to look at his son’s face to know what he’ll see there. In his eyes, he’ll find the place where the world gets small and simple, the place where a man’s choices are defined.
“She’ll be here soon,” he tells him. The dog folds himself into a corner. The popcorn gets cold. Michael leans over the table, rests his head in his arms.
The clock’s ticking is intrusive. Ken can hear it even over the DJ’s rambling. She should be here by now. Ken is restless, though his body feels like heavy sand. He looks around for anything else that needs doing before she gets here. He takes down some wine glasses, dims the lights a bit, returns to the table. But no matter how he distracts himself, the idea that she may be leaving him returns. He dismisses it, gets to his feet. He wants to check the closet under the stairs, make sure her luggage is there.
An ad on the radio repeats the number of an airline offering weekend getaways to an island resort. Yes. He’ll call in the morning. This will all settle down. Moira likes to go along when the group heads for the diner after the therapy session, even when he doesn’t go with her. That’s where she is. No question. They stay late sometimes, talking, endlessly talking, picking mercilessly at the scabs so that nothing is ever entirely healed.
She’ll come home. Of course, she will. She has to come home. We’re here. We’re waiting for her.
“Home Front” was published in Halfway Down the Stairs in 2016 and is included PIECES (Bottom Dog Press, 2017)