Susan Isaacs

After All These Years

Excerpt from After All These Years

After nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, Richie Meyers, my husband, told me to call him Rick. Then he started slicking back his hair with thirty-five-dollar-a-jar English pomade.

Okay, I admit I was annoyed. But in all fairness, wasn’t Richie entitled to a life crisis? He was just two years from fifty. His jaw wasn’t so much chiseled from granite anymore as sculpted from mashed potatoes. His hairline and his gums were receding at about the same rate. And when his shirt was off, he’d eye his chest hair in disbelief, as if some practical joker had plunked a gray toupee between his pectorals.

Well, I could empathize. At eleven months younger than Richie, I didn’t exactly qualify as a spring chicken. Still, unless a man’s taste ran to prepubescent milkmaids with braids, I would probably be considered somewhere between attractive and downright pretty. Shiny dark hair. Clear skin. Even features. Hazel eyes with green specks that I liked to think of as glints of emerald. Plus one hell of a set of eyelashes. And not a bad body either, although in the fight between gravity and me, gravity was winning; no matter how many abdominal crunches I did, I would never again be tempted to include getting my panties ripped off in broad daylight as a detail of a sexual fantasy.

Like Richie, I wasn’t so crazy about growing old, especially since I had at last come to appreciate the unlikelihood of immortality. A person who can laugh in the face of eternal nothingness is a schmuck. So my heart went out to him. And I made a sincere effort to call him Rick. But after all those years of “Richie,” I’d slip up every so often-like in bed. I cried out, “Oh, God! Don’t stop, Rich . . . Rick.” But by then he was shriveling, and seconds later, it looked as if he’d Scotch-taped a shrimp to his pubic area.

The signs were there, all right. I just didn’t read them. That’s how come I was surprised when, on the bright blue June morning after our silver anniversary party, which we’d celebrated on what our real estate broker had called the Great Lawn behind our house, in a white tent festooned with creamy roses and thousands of twinkly white lights, Richie told me he was leaving me for his senior vice-president, for-his voice softened, then melted-Jessica.

Jessica Stevenson had been one of the two hundred guests the night before. In fact, Richie had fox-trotted with her to a Cole Porter medley that had included “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” Yes, Jessica was a younger woman. But not obnoxiously so. Richie wasn’t one of those fiftyish guys who run off with twenty-two-year-old Lufthansa stewardesses. At thirty-eight, Jessica was a mere nine years younger than I. Unfortunately, she had luminous aquamarine eyes and was learning Japanese for the fun of it.

At what turned out to be the final party of my marriage, I kept waiting for Richie to say: “Look at you, Rosie! As beautiful as the day we were married!” He didn’t. In the humid night air, the pleated, Grecian-style white silk gown that had caressed my curves in the fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman clung to my bosom and legs with crazed malice.

Jessica, naturally, did not look as if she’d wrapped herself in a wet sheet. No. She glowed in a gold lam‚ off-the-shoulder bodysuit tucked into a transparent cream chiffon skirt that hung, petal-like, in soft panels; her top was divided from her bottom by a four-inch-wide gold leather belt. It goes without saying she had a slender waist-although to be perfectly candid, her bosom was nothing Richie would normally have written home about; she was fairly flat, except for those overenthusiastic nipples men go crazy for, the kind that look like the erasers on number two pencils.

I had actually blown her a kiss as I raced by, searching for the caterer to tell him that a guest, Richie’s banker’s girlfriend, had converted to vegan vegetarianism the previous weekend. Jessica, in awesomely high-heeled gold sandals, was standing with a couple of the other Data Associates executives, laughing, squeezing a wedge of lime into her drink. She waved back with her usual energy: Rosie! Hello! With her gold bodysuit and the bronze highlights in her dark-gold hair, she looked shimmery, magical, almost like a mermaid.

But that Richie would actually leave me for her? Please! He and I had a history. We’d met in the late sixties, for God’s sake, when we were both teaching at Forest Hills High School in Queens. We had made a life together. A rich life-long before all the money. We had children. So yes, I was surprised. Okay, stunned.

Across our bedroom, Richie’s black-olive eyes were overflowing. He gulped noisy mouthfuls of air and was so choked up I could barely hear him. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, Rosie.” As he wiped his tears away with the heel of his hand, he turned crying into a manly act. “What gets me”-his chest heaved-“is that”-he sobbed, unable to hold anything back-“it sounds so damn trite.”

“Please, Richie, tell me.”

“For the first time in years, I feel truly alive.”

The late-morning air was hot, sugary with honeysuckle, a reminder that lovely, sweaty summer sex was just weeks away. But, as the song goes, not for me. In spite of the season, I shivered and pulled the blanket tight around my shoulders. Sure, I was cold, but I suppose I also had the subconscious hope that all bundled up, lower lip quivering, I’d be an irresistible package.

I wasn’t.

Richie was. With his combed-back steel-gray hair, his rich-man’s tan, his hand-tailored white slacks and crisp white shirt and white lizard loafers, he looked like an ex-husband who had outgrown his wife. But his face was wet. His tears were real. “Rosie, I’m so sorry.”

I couldn’t think of a comeback. I just cried. He shifted his weight from one loafer to the other, and then back again. The confrontation was either horribly distressing or it was running longer than he’d expected and he had a lunch date. “Richie,” I sobbed, “you’ll get over her!” As fast as I could, I changed it to “Rick, please! I love you so much!” but by then it was much too late.

That summer, I went through all the scorned-first-wife stages. Hysteria. Paralysis. Denial: Of course Richie will give up a worldly, successful, fertile, size-six financial whiz-bang for a suburban high school English teacher. Despair: spending my nights zonked on the Xanax I’d conned my gynecologist into prescribing, regretting it was not general anesthesia.

I was utterly alone. Husband gone. Kids grown and off on their own. And our beagle, Irving, died the first week in August. I wandered through the house, weeping, remembering Richie’s body heat, the children’s warmth, Irving’s cold and loving nose.

At least wandering was exercise. When Richie hit it big, he did not believe that less was more. More was more. One day we were in our Cape Cod, with its original, early sixties all-avocado kitchen, its off-the-track storm windows, its cockeyed basketball hoop over its one-car garage. The next, we were two and a half miles north, right on Long Island Sound in Great Gatsby country, in a Georgian-style house so stately it actually had a name. Gulls' Haven.

Admittedly, a nocturnal wanderer in a New York Shakespeare Festival T-shirt, pointlessly sexy black panties, and Pan Am socks left over from our last first-class flight to London (before Richie got even richer and we started taking the Concorde) given to rambles through a deserted house clutching a wad of damp Kleenex wasn’t the picture “Gulls' Haven” ought to have evoked. But it was the truth. That’s how it was on that fateful night.

Fateful? To tell you the truth, that night didn’t seem any more or less ominous than any other. When we’d moved, Richie had ditched the digital radio-alarm on his night table for a brass carriage clock, so I’ll never know the precise time I woke up or, more important, what wakened me. But it was around three-thirty. I realized I wouldn’t get any more sleep because I was scared to take any more Xanax. My luck, the next pill could be the one to put me in what the doctors would diagnose as a persistent vegetative state. Richie, driven by guilt, would pay for the best custodial care, so I’d spend the last three decades of my life cosmically desolate and unable to read, a prisoner in the solitary confinement of my own body.

I wandered some more. When Richie had taken the hike that last week in June, he’d made the twenty-six-mile trip west into Manhattan with just an overnight bag. How could a guy want to leave nearly his whole life behind? But I was past sniffling in front of the closets full of his custom-tailored suits, touching the toes of his handmade shoes. I was able to get past them, and past his bathroom too, all rich green marble and chunky gold fixtures; we’d made love in his stall shower the first night we’d moved in.