Wednesday, June 15, 2022


                         Chapter 16

Truth be told, the phone call I received the next morning was something of a surprise. Although it raised a question or two, I welcomed Nell’s nearly-cheerful tone as she suggested that we meet for lunch. Most puzzling of all was where she asked me to meet her. It sounded as though what she had in mind was a deja-vu drenched return to 1963. That in turn had me wondering what it was that had her changing her mind so much in the last twelve hours

Nell and I were both raised in Tanner. While I was growing up in the affluent suburbs of Tanner Heights, she was coming of age in the decidedly downscale North End, not far from where Kathy’s friend Gary was raised. 

For eighteen years she and I had shared the same home town, shopped at the same stores, and frequented the same movie theaters. Yet as far as we remembered our paths had never crossed. It had taken a college blind date, and my subsequent offers to drive her home from school on weekends, to set our relationship in motion.

Both of us, however, traced our first serious commitment to a protracted two-milkshake visit in a back booth of Black’s Restaurant. It was during our freshman year of college and even in those days the cramped eatery, now approaching its seventy-fifth year in the same location, was a Tanner institution, with its unpretentious menu and casual ambiance.

It was there, just four weeks after our first awkward date, that we first talked about ourselves as a pair. After college, when we returned to Tanner to become a family, we often returned to Black’s for a meal, or sometimes simply a milkshake. Those visits had never failed to stir fond memories of the special day that had started us down the road to our future. 

Now, more than forty years later, on a hot August afternoon, I arrived at Black’s to find her waiting in a booth across the room from what we had always thought of as our booth.

This time, however, before I could take my customary place beside her, Nell was pointing to the bench seat across the table from her. “I like to look at you,” she said with an unsmiling smile. Without accepting her reason, I did as I was told.

While the waitress waited we studied our menus and ordered. A moment later we had settled into an awkward quiet, until my questions would wait no longer. “Are you going to tell me what this is about? Why are we doing lunch? And why here?”

Nell looked away, poking at the ice cubes in her water glass, letting me stew a bit. I suppose she found it rather amusing....playing head games with the one guy she knew better than he knew himself.

“You don’t like it here?” she finally asked. “I’ve always thought of it as a special place, where something very special first happened.”

“It is a special place. I agree. But I’m wondering what makes it appropriate for today’s lunch.”

“You know exactly why it’s appropriate,” she chided. “You haven’t forgotten our first time here, have you? I know it was a long time ago, but you must remember that.”

“Of course I do, like it was yesterday.”

“Then you ought to remember that was when we first started trusting each other. And you must know that everything that’s happened since then has been built on that trust. You can’t doubt that. Can you?”

“I guess not. I just never thought of it that way.”

She was so damn calm, so obviously in control. She was leading us somewhere....I could tell that. Yet there was no hint of the emotional urgency a younger Nell might have brought to the conversation. Instead, I heard only her casual coolness. Perhaps that was what had me on edge, wondering where her quiet dramatics were taking us.

“I’m not sure I had either,” she admitted. “Until the night before last. I was watching a program that.....”

“And where was that?" I interrupted. "Where were you when you watched that program?”

I had seen that mischievous grin before, though usually in a less-intimidating setting. “Never you mind,” she answered. “I saw it. That’s all you need to know for now. Except that it was enough to get me thinking.”

“About what?”

“About trust. At least in a round-about way.” Nell leaned back as her meal was set before her. Then, as the server backed away, she continued, laughing a bit at my anguished sigh. “I was watching Oprah’s new show.”

“Oprah? Now there’s a likely source of good information. Especially on something like ‘trust.’ When did you start paying attention to her?”

While I waited, she deliberately tasted her sandwich, clearly in no hurry, seeming to enjoy the sight of me growing more impatient by the second.

“The program wasn’t exactly about trust,” she said. “That’s what I meant by ‘a round-about way’.”

I set my fork down to offer my protest, “Will you spit it out, woman? Just get off the dime and tell me what the hell you’re talking about.”

Leaning low over the table she motioned for me to calm down. “We’re in the middle of a restaurant for heaven sakes. Just quiet down and I’ll tell you what this is about.” Bending closer she half whispered, “The program I was watching was about what they called ‘open marriage’.”

“Open marriage?” My surprise was loud enough to draw puzzled glances from the table across the aisle. Leaning closer, I was asking my own question. “Is that what I think it is? Some kind of hippy, new-age thing?”

“I’m not sure what you think it is.” Nell returned to her sandwich for a few seconds, before continuing. “The way they talked about it, it means that a couple is married, like we are....but he’s doing his thing and she’s doing hers.”

Wow! I leaned back against the cushioned bench seat, wondering if she was serious, or playing games. “You can’t mean that. That makes no sense. That’s sure as hell not us.”

“It’s not? Let me tell you, as soon as I heard them explaining what 'open marriage' was I realized that you were already in that place. That’s when it dawned on we were, half-way to an open marriage and I didn’t even know it.”

The waitress refilled my coffee cup while I studied Nell’s tight-lipped glare. There was nothing in her demeanor to suggest she was joking. My gut tensed again as that understanding took hold.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Just as serious as you are about going off to see the world on your own, and leaving me home alone.”

About then I was sensing the need to move beyond the constraints of our restaurant booth. There, in a roomful of diners, my natural responses were likely to be inappropriate. Still, I had to try.

“How many times have I told you I would rather not go alone. I want you there with me. If only you’d agree to go.”

“But I won’t. So instead you’re taking off alone. You’ll probably be gone for weeks at a time, or longer. Going here and there, seeing God knows what, with God knows who. That sounds to me like someone who is off ‘doing his own thing.’ Don’t you agree?”

I pushed my cup and plate aside and reached for my cap. “Look, could we go outside, out to the parking lot? I don’t want us going on like this in front of all these people.”

“Do you think it will be any different out there?”

Without answering, I was on my feet, making for the front counter to pay the bill. Minutes later, in the hot, unshaded parking lot I found Nell leaning against her car. By then I was ready with the questions her silly ‘open marriage’ talk had me asking myself. 

"If you'll recall," I began. "My going off alone was your idea.....something I had never considered until you brought it up.

“And now you're saying that when I leave....if I leave....ours will become an ‘open marriage.’ And you’ll be the one doing who knows what, with who knows who. Is that it?”

Perhaps she was expecting, or at least hoping for, my capitulation. If so, my continued talk of leaving, in the face of her ‘open marriage’ talk was bound to offend. I heard that loud and clear in the no-nonsense tone of her response.

“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I never dreamed I would have to decide about something like that. Besides, no matter what I do, or whom I do it with, you’ll be gone. I don’t suppose it will even matter to you.”

Damn, the lady would not back down. She just kept coming. By then I was off and pacing across the parking lot, returning a moment later to offer my own not-so-reasoned critique. 

“You’re talking crazy, Nell. I don’t know where you’re getting this stuff. Everything about you matters to me....what you think and what you do. You matter to me. And you know that.”

If I thought that was going to help, I was wrong. Without batting an eye she pulled herself to her full five-foot two and continued her challenge. 

“You mean I ‘matter’ so much that you’re willing to drive around all over the country, leaving me alone at home. Is that your way of showing how much I matter?”

By the time I found a suitable reply my agitated bluster had turned to quiet resignation. “I don’t know what to say,” I finally admitted. “I never dreamed my own wife would be threatening me like this.”

“Dan Padgett, I am not threatening anything or anyone. I’m just saying I don’t know what I’ll do when you drive off. I really don’t. It’s not something I’ve ever thought of, until now.”

“That is so damn silly.”

“You’re right. It is silly. But no more silly than the corner you’ve worked us into.”

Silly or not, an instant later I was startled by her touch as she reached for my hands. In fact, she was squeezing them as a she explained, “It was yesterday, when I finally realized how ‘silly’ things had become, that I realized we ought to meet here at Black’s. It felt like we needed to go back to the beginning, to see if we could get back some of that trust we found here the first time. I was hoping there was still some of that left.”

There were things to be said. I knew that. But how to say it? I needed time for that, more time than we had at that moment. So instead, I let her make her final point before we moved on.

“Anyway, I’d already decided it was time for me to come back home. If you’re about to leave, someone needs to be there with Delaney. It sounds like that is my job, at least for now. So I’ll see you there.”

With that Nell turned back to her car. As I watched her drive off I was still trying to decipher her message, to make sense of what I had just heard. Without waiting for those answers to arrive I started across the parking lot to the pickup. 

We came home that afternoon to an empty house. Delaney had told me earlier she was going to town with Antonio. While I went to my desk to reconcile the latest bank statement, Nell hurried on to the kitchen to catch up on neglected household chores ....the ones Delaney and I would have done, had we known she was about to return. 

Without that forewarning, Nell was left to grumble about how we could have made such a mess in only three days. 

Then, with her chores completed, she joined me on the sofa in the family room for what she probably hoped would be a less emotional, more productive conversation. Before that idea ever got off the ground Delaney came through the door, with Antonio in tow. Just as well, I told myself. It was time to give our already unproductive conversation a rest.


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