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“You’ve been avoiding me…”
“Yes, I have…And you know why.”
“I needed you, Mabel.”
“You need to sort things out with your wife, Max”
“My wife?” He laughed bitterly “I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a marriage.”
Mabel didn’t say anything. Around them, the hospital cafeteria buzzed with activity, the lunch crowd in full swing. It was about a month since she’d dodged him in her office hallway. She’d come back from the bathroom to find him gone. Marcia her receptionist, had told her that he’d been on the phone with someone then had taken off in a hurry without saying a word. She’d not followed up with him, not even wanting to get involved further in whatever was going on. She also had tried even harder to avoid him, sometimes even ignoring his calls. He’d finally cornered her today just as she left her office for lunch and insisted on talking with her. They’d walked together, making small talk about work. He’d gotten a sandwich and she a bowl of soup. They’d selected a table away from the main traffic area. Both meals now sat, forgotten in front of them.
“You’re still married, Max. That puts me in a very difficult position.”
“I talked with her, you know.” He continued. Mabel’s breath caught. What had Iya told him? Did he know they had met?
“Yeah, you told me you and her talked.” She said, trying to sound unconcerned,
“It’s so complicated…Mabes. I want to be mad at her but at the same time I cannot be mad at her.”
Mabel wrestled with her emotions. He still talked with her as though they were an item, using the nicknames he’d formed. Under normal circumstances, this would be the point where she, the mistress, would lose her cool and accuse him of playing with her emotions, while he had no intentions of leaving his wife. But how could she? She understood perfectly why he felt conflicted. She felt conflicted.
She kept her expression neutral.
“And I’m sorry I am putting all of this on you. It’s just… you’re the only one I can really talk to about this. Anyone else would ask for explanations and I just cannot talk about it to them.”
“What makes you think I don’t want explanations?” She asked, wryly.
“I don’t know. You should want explanations. You, of all people, should be demanding explanations. But you are not.”
“No, I’m not.” She mused softly, playing with the plastic wrapping of the cracker she’d gotten with her soup.
“She loves him. This man she’s having affair with. She loves him. They’ve known each other since her time at Cornell and it’s his family’s company she works for. You may have heard of them, the Roths… they’re a rich Jewish family here in Chicago. They were in a relationship back then and they broke up. He married someone else and she married me even though she loves him.”
He sounded so broken. So lost. She wanted to gather him close and hold him tight.
“I was in a bit of denial. I didn’t want to believe she would betray me like that. But then I began to notice things I had missed when I assumed that all was well between us and we were just busy with work. The distance, the emotional distance that had developed between us. Looking further back, I realize that this distance had been there since we reunited. She was with me but she was only halfway there. It wasn’t like we were before in Buea. Even knowing this, knowing that she lied to me, I still can’t be completely angry with her because she had some pretty tough choices to make herself. She’s been through so much.”
He paused, seeming to catch himself. She understood that he didn’t want to sound too sympathetic of Iya when talking to her. She didn’t say anything.
“We should get a divorce. That is the only logical resolution at this point. I won’t try to hold on to her if she doesn’t want to be with me. But even that is complicated. Someone from our village, some nurse who works here saw us – me and you, that is – together and somehow put two and two together. She’s been talking to people in our community here and the assumption is that I am cheating on Iya. If we divorced now, I will end up with the reputation of a cheat. But I don’t want to come out and say she cheated first, that’s none of their business and it will open a whole new can of worms. But at the same time, when my parents hear about this, they will be so disappointed. Seeing their oldest son as a successful professional who is also married and settled is a dream they’ve had for ever. I’m supposed to be setting the good example for my little brother and sister. I don’t want my family or hers for that matter to have to deal with that mess.”
“But you won’t stay with her either.” Mabel pointed out calmly.
“No, I can’t. She doesn’t love me. I will not remain in a marriage just to keep up appearances. I want more than that. I want better than that. I’d rather be alone than have to settle for that.”
He ran his palm over his face as though wiping away the thought of being stuck in a dead marriage.
“My parents didn’t have a grand love story or anything but they liked each other,” he continued. “They wanted to be with each other. You could tell by the way they interacted with each other, how they functioned as a unit. They created a family life that really laid a foundation for me and my siblings. We were happy. I could easily tell which of my friends had parents who had resigned themselves to their marriage. I always promised myself I would never settle for anything less than what my parents had , if not for myself then at least for my children.”
They sat in silence for a couple of minutes. Then Mabel spoke.
“If you are worried about your parents, you should call them yourself and tell them this. You don’t have to go into details on why you and Iya are no longer able to stay together but tell them what you just told me. Tell them what you want from your marriage and that what you and Iya have will not give you that, after all. They are your parents and they will understand or at the very least accept it, if they care about you. Let Iya decide how she breaks the news to her folks. This is her mess too and she has a role in fixing it. The only people you, maybe, owe explanations to are your direct family. Nobody else’s opinion on your marriage counts. Let them talk if they want.”
“You don’t understand, Mabel. Iya and I…. We…. Let’s just say there are a lot of people looking up to us. People we’re going to disappoint by divorcing, especially with talk about cheating.”
Mabel sighed deeply.
“I know, Max. But you know you’re not going to stay in the marriage and try to make it work. People will talk, no matter what. You can’t possibly factor that into this decision. Yes, they are going to be disappointed, but that is life. They will get over it. Besides, people have lives to live and their own problems you think they are going to stay focused on what issues you and Iya have? It will be a scandal for a couple of months, whispers will continue for a year or two maybe, but they will get over it, eventually. Yours is not the first nor will it be the last scandal. Things do not always work out, and we all have to go on to find other ways to stay inspired. You’re doing what is best for you, for both of you, what will leave you both happier. She’s going to be with someone she loves and who hopefully loves her back. And you…”
Mabel paused, then fell silent.
What about him? She thought to herself. In all this talk about the end of his marriage, he hadn’t mentioned what the next steps would be for him…and certainly nothing about their relationship. There was a time when she would have let herself believe he loved her and that if things ended with Iya, it would mean they could be together but that hope had been crushed the day she had sat there and listened to him rhapsodize about Iya with his boss. Now that he knew for certain that things were over, would she still be the one he turned to? And would whatever relationship they now had last longer than however long it took for him to grieve?
“You’re right.” He said, completely oblivious to her inner turmoil. “I should talk to them. The sooner this ends the sooner everyone can get the hell over it, the sooner I can carry on with my life and Iya with hers. “
“And me, Max? What about me? Where do I fit into this plan?”
Mabel hated the note of desperation she could hear in her voice but she needed to know if she also needed to get the hell over things and carry on with her life. Her heart sank, her fears confirmed when she saw Max look at her, his eyes widening ever so slightly, as though he had only just then realized that the woman sitting opposite him was not his therapist but his lover for the past year. His mouth opened but no words came out.
Mabel pushed back from the table and picked up the tray containing her untouched bowl of soup. Without a word, she walked over to the trash receptacle and dumped the food out. She placed the tray on the shelf carrying stacks of dirty trays, sanitized her hands and then left the cafeteria.