The kitchen window looked over familiar and comforting sights. The lazy afternoon sun, peeking through the trees that crested the hill to the west, dappled the edge of the park that bordered our neighbor’s yard. I could make out a group of four—no, five—children running around the jungle gym and swing set, and while I couldn’t see the benches at the edge of the playground, I was sure there’d be at least two mothers hovering nearby.
It seemed I could still hear the swings as they creaked with our own children’s weight. Bethany, and Jamie, and then Will all took their turns as they grew up. From the kitchen table I imagined I could hear their laughter on the wind when we used to open the house up in the summer.
I walked down to the park last weekend. It was a rare afternoon when I had the lucky combination of both energy and desire. The middle swing rocked gently and invitingly in the wind. The playground had been paved over in a protective cushion of aerated asphalt, and I noted, dryly, that nothing these days seemed to be too round and soft for our children.
My gaze slid sideways from the window, crossing the table before my head turned to follow suit. I blessed the day my therapist had taught me not to fear the silence but to let it unfold conversations that started out tied up in emotional knots. Although, I thought, if they gave the trick away too early they’d never have any repeat business.
Ben’s brow creased. “I don’t…”
“No, it’s all right.” I reached over into my purse, found the cigarettes, and drew one out while my left hand pulled my lighter from my pocket. Ben narrowed his eyes but stopped when they met mine. “Spare me. You gave up that privilege 8 years ago.”
He never used to concede to that particular barb. Usually he’d remind me so very quickly that the divorce was my idea, an unspoken way of us both agreeing that rehashing old arguments was easier than whatever had brought us together to talk these days.
“You just had to tell me before I left, didn’t you?”
His eyes flicked downward for the briefest of moments, betraying the emotion his face wouldn’t reveal. Lately he’d stopped arguing over even this with me. I’d been lucky to have had two remissions. But now words like aggressive were used with clinical detachment and I was sick of the manufactured optimism it seemed like everyone suddenly wanted me to buy. “That’s not why,” he muttered, his eyes reflecting the flame of the lighter as I held it to the cigarette.
“Then,” I said slowly, “go ahead. Tell me. I’m listening.”
His green eyes flashed with a scowl. “You know, that’s your damn problem. Always fucking listening. You know that communication is a two-way street, right? You never would tell me what was on your mind until we’d have to pull it from the rubble.”
I exhaled slowly, and set the cigarette down in one of Jamie’s old middle school art class projects. It surely wasn’t supposed to be an ashtray, but had no real form or definition to speak of and held ashes well. Twenty-odd years of use had worn down whatever message Jamie had inscribed in the clay but the glaze had held up surprisingly well everywhere else.
“Ben, what’s this really all about? You didn’t come over here, telling me you cheated on me years ago, just to tread over what we know isn’t going to work. I’m too tired for …”
I stopped. My eyes met his, with a lingering trace of sadness on his face, and with a surprise I saw a tear forming at the corner of his eye.
He was dry-eyed all throughout Beth’s hospital stay when she was nine, a fact my mother had never seemed to forget. He was a man of intense passions: terrible to behold in anger and giddy to glimpse in joy. But he never cried.
“Did we mean anything? We didn’t work… obviously. But, even if only for a moment…” His words were almost whispered now.
“… did we ever build your castle?”
For our tenth wedding anniversary, we’d taken a three-week tour of Europe. The kids had been shuttled off to stay with my parents. We gave ourselves to almost a month of what Ben considered the most romantic of vacations: restaurants, museums, and bumbling our way through countries with nothing but a phrasebook and the good graces of strangers to see us by. Halfway through, at Liechtenstein’s Gutenberg Castle, he said he loved me so much he would build me a castle ten times as large. I laughed and told him I didn’t want that castle. I wanted a card castle.
We made love that night in the smallest of beds I’d ever seen in a bed and breakfast. As I got up afterward, throwing open the window to let in the cool night air, he asked me what I meant.
I laughed as I got back under the sheets and reached for the glass of wine I’d left on the stool at the head of the bed. He had his head propped up on his palm, with a half-crooked smile on his face. “But building a card castle takes patience, concentration, and attention. When you’re done you have the perfection of the ancients sitting there to behold. Geometry and pattern in all its splendor.”
Ben rolled his eyes at me. “And when it all falls down after the dog sneezes on it?”
“You’re always so stuck in the evidence, you goof.” I smacked him lightly on the chest with one hand, the other raising the wine to my mouth. “Not everything has to stand the test of time. If you can build something incredible once, then you’ve built it. Even if it’s no longer there. You’re so busy making sure you can leave your mark on your business and the rest of the outside world. But there’s more to life than what you can see and feel.”
He reached over and took the wine glass from my hand to place it on the floor. Circling my waist with his arm, he brushed my hair out of the way and nuzzled my neck with his nose. “There’s nothing wrong with what you can see and feel,” he whispered. “Plus… I don’t know if my big old hands can manage those perfect little cards.”
“That’s OK,” I murmured as we closed our eyes. “I didn’t marry you ten years ago for card castles.”
Ben had stayed to talk for a couple hours longer before the fatigue and pain started getting the better of me. Will was going to be stopping by tomorrow and I wanted to have the energy to go out to lunch with him. I took Ben’s outstretched hand to get up before he made his way to the door; the doctors had finally convinced me to accommodate the pain even if I refused to admit it was there.
The quiet sigh of the front door’s closing was followed, after a three-second pause, by a soft click to let me know that the door was truly locked. Getting the kids to remember the finicky latch had been a daily battle, one that I never had to remind him of. As the evening stillness draped over the house, I shuffled across the hall to the bedroom. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I waited until I heard Ben drive off, and wept.