But the no-sex plan.
Unlike Petra, who’s short, with a round face framed by a helmet of brown hair, and whose response to the separation has apparently involved increased intake of Cheetos and Chardonnay, Eleanor—Elly or El for short—is tall and slender, with long, shapely legs and small, high breasts, a strong face with a generous mouth, and a mop of curly blonde hair. Guiltily, you amend all this to concede that Petra, too, has nice legs.
After Mason’s proposal of abstinence, you do the cowardly thing and break the news to Elly by telephone while she’s at work. “What a crock,” she says, then tells you she’s too busy to talk more. Before she hangs up, you say you’ve told Petra you want to be on your own for a few days, pleading that you want to immerse yourself in the novel. She does hang up then, without another word.
Your immersion in the book is fairly shallow, given that your word-processing program crashes several times a day, requiring minutes of waiting for it to restart while you mindlessly play electronic solitaire and, respectful of Eleanor’s dietary discipline, munch on low-carb snacks. Petra’s job as a secretary for the local civic theatre and Eleanor’s as an adult education supervisor makes your avoidance strategy work for a time. Your own situation underlines the privilege of academics: you’re halfway through a year’s sabbatical leave, which gives you time to write, but also puts pressure on you to produce. How can you complain, though? You’ve often irritated your colleagues by pointing out that teaching at a university beats working for a living. And you always have the impression that Mason resents your idle life and probably feels your affair with Eleanor is a product of having too much unaccounted time on your hands.
You can’t deny that being on your own is a bit of a relief from being the badminton bird between the two women. After a few days, though, you bend to the inevitable, the inevitable being one of Petra’s distress calls. “The least you can do is help maintain the house,” she says. “The front path is covered with snow.”
So you leave the computer, still buffering, and drive over to the would-be midcentury-modern house you bought after you realized that tenure might not be beyond your reach after all. You did get tenure, but now the elusive brass ring is promotion. Petra had insisted on contributing to the down payment, and a marriage ceremony in the backyard had followed with an inevitability you’d tried not to see as grim. You had liked the place with all its imperfections, enjoyed the satisfactions and demands of home-ownership, and tried to ignore the feeling that your hope for some Dickensian revelation of special status had gradually slipped away. You told yourself that great expectations usually turned out to be wishful thinking, and that settling for reality was a sign of becoming mature.
Having shoveled the front walk and the driveway, you stand outside the house puffing slightly and regretting that your sabbatical exercise regimen has fallen short of your best intentions. You prop the snow shovel against the wall and peer in through the little window in the front door. Petra is standing inside with her head bowed; she’s wearing a long housedress and looks, well, nice. Your glimpse of her in the living room where you spent fifteen years together causes you a pang of nostalgia. Though the door is no doubt unlocked, you observe decorum and knock.
Once Petra lets you in, you say, “It’s done. Do you want the shovel in the garage?”
She waves a hand vaguely. “I’ll put it away later.”
You feel as if you have to say more. “Are you all right?”
“I miss you,” she says.
Conversations like this have all the potential of bomb disposal. Not that you’ve ever disposed of a bomb, which could only be good news for any innocent bystanders. “We were together for a long time,” you manage, several beats too late.
“Have been,” she responds. Then, after a deep breath, she adds, “I’m driving down to visit my family tomorrow.”
You shift your weight from one foot to another. “In Chicago?”
“No. Everyone’s at the cottage. It’s Emily’s birthday, and she wanted it there.”
The cottage is in a little town along the Lake Michigan shoreline. “Everyone” likely means Petra’s parents, Noel and Lydia Cliburn, and her brother Woodrow with his wife Andrea and their two daughters, six-year-old Emily and four-year-old Diane. You’d always managed to charm the two girls, who represented another element of simmering tension for Petra, given your own childless marriage. And now Eleanor, divorced mother of Bobby and Tommy, two pre-adolescent sons who also don’t seem to resent you, stands as another challenge to Petra’s emotional stability.
“Should be a pleasant gathering,” you say.
Petra looks at you for a few silent seconds, then says, “You’re invited, of course.”
“I think I need to get back to the novel,” you say.
“The novel,” she says. “Always the novel.”
Arnold Johnston's poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translations have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. His plays, and others written in collaboration with his wife, Deborah Ann Percy, have won over 300 productions and readings, and they’ve written, co-written, edited, or translated over twenty books. Arnie’s latest projects are The Infernal Now (poetry, Kelsay Books, 2022); Where We’re Going, Where We’ve Been, (poetry, FutureCycle Press, 2020); Swept Away (novel, Atmosphere Press, 2021), and Mr. Robert Monkey Returns to New York (a collaborative children's book with Debby, Brandylane Publishers, 2021). A performer-singer, Arnie has played many solo concerts and over 100 roles on stage, screen, and radio. He was chairman of the English Department (1997-2007) and taught for many years at Western Michigan University.