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LAce Posted Monday, April 12th, 2010
I am not a Back-Up Plan
Margot Miller

You phoned on a Sunday in late September. I felt my heart stop at the sound of your voice reaching into my chest. Hearty. Professional. Distant. Distance was good, right? But why was my heart racing?

“Hi,” I said, glued to my chair. Why was I paralyzed?

You were driving up the next day and wanted to take me to lunch. It would be good to see me.
You had said you would pick me up, which I regretted in the morning. I would have liked to have a reason to go out, to not be waiting for you, to meet more casually. You pulled up in front of my house. Of course, you knew where I lived. I opened the door as you mounted the steps to the porch.

“There you are,” You smiled warmly, arms open to embrace me. I stepped outside. I wore jeans and boots, with a nut-brown cotton top that nearly matched the boots, and my old leather jacket with a scarf thrown casually around my neck. I was prepared to walk home on my own.

I let myself be hugged and felt the rush of dopamine cascading through my brain. Yes, it was still there, the attraction to this face, this body, this scent. But it was only a friendly hug. A kiss on the cheek. Nothing intimate. Immediately I wanted to skip over this habit coming back from a dark place, to deny the distance that was there and my own hope for more. But then came an insinuation of relief. Keeping the conversation to inquiries about work, we drove to The Uptown Café and parked around the corner on a two-hour meter. The Uptown is a restaurant in an old Victorian house with a large veranda, and we took a table on the porch in the sunshine. Summer was nearly over but it was not yet cool enough to retreat inside.

“It’s great to see you,” you said as the waitress handed us the wine list and menus. You ordered a bottle of red, knowing it was what I drink.

“I’ll just have sparkling water,” I said, and you changed your order to a pint of beer. You’d gained weight and it looked like the beer was partly to blame.

I asked what had brought you to the States and you said you had extended your stay after a conference to come up and connect with old friends, including me, of course. So, this was really about work and other colleagues. I was being squeezed in, probably because I would hear eventually that you’d been here. But it didn’t matter, did it? I fought off the habit of feeling slighted.

“How is your family?” I asked.

“Well, Carla was married this year.” Carla is your daughter. “To a professional soccer player. I don’t know how it’s going to work. He’s on the road all the time. Not much of a life, if you ask me, but we can’t choose our children’s partners.” You sipped your beer. “And Ned, I just don’t know what to make of him. He’s just not showing any real interest in anything. He’s been working in computers but has little ambition. I think he’s depressed.”

“What makes you think that?”

“He’s had a couple of girlfriends who seem kind of self-destructive and I can’t figure out why he’s attracted to them. That and the apparent lack of interest in real work. A lack of motivation, or confidence really.” You seemed utterly surprised by your son’s failure to just get on with life. At his age, you said, you’d already been working for five years.

“Students in general seem a little slower getting themselves together these days,” I was trying to be supportive without prying. There was something so familiar here. Like students complaining about their parents in my office.

“And your wife?”

“She’s okay. A fighter, really. Still the old stuff with her mother. Her dad died this year, and I think she and her mother are getting on better, actually. She and Ned have always had a tough time. I try to stay out of it, let them work it out, but Ned just seems to go into his own world and Claudia feels I am not doing my bit. I think it’s for them to work out though.

“Is he at university?”

“Yes, he is, out in Vancouver, of all places, which is a long way away from home, although a lot less expensive than American universities. He gets home for holidays. But he seems to be on the American six-year plan.”

I smiled, knowingly.

“I’ve let him know though, that this is the last year. I’m cutting off the money at the end of this year, finished or not.”

Our lunch arrived, large salads, and we began eating. We talked about work again, yours, mine, nothing very important.

And then you asked, “How are you, really?”

Here it was. Was I happy? Where was I in my life? Was there a man? Was I free? Free for what exactly? I had to stop myself from answering too quickly. Could I tell you about anything in my life without seeing you withdraw, deliberately creating distance because you couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to make yourself available? I had been seduced by your voice before, seduced into wanting a witness before, believing you were the one true person to hear me.

“I’m well,” I said, “and you?” I returned the question, eyeing the added girth and the second pint of beer on the table.

“I’ve had a little trouble with an irregular heartbeat. Need to get this off.” You rested a hand on the wall of your belly. “But I’m fit otherwise,” you said.

“Do you have any retirement plans?” It was early to be thinking of retirement. I knew you were only fifty-eight, but I wanted to change the subject.

“I’ve got to work until I’m sixty-three, although I’m tired now. I feel myself getting mentally tired. To maximize the retirement funds, I’ve got to keep on ’til at least sixty-three. Claudia and I want different things, but we won’t be able to afford to do both.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“She wants to sit on the beach on the Mediterranean and I want to live in the mountains.”

“Surely you can accommodate both now and then. You’ll stay in Europe, I imagine.”

“I’d love to come back to New England.”

I glanced up. You were looking at me searchingly, I thought. Was this what this was about then? A back-up plan? I put down my fork. You went on talking about the climate and the air and how good you feel in the mountains, but how difficult it seemed.

“I’d lose half my pension if we divorced and neither of us could afford to live on only half of it. And now with the crash in the economy, it’s out of the question.”

This was something I’d heard you say the last time we’d “run into each other” when you were in the States for a conference. I felt a twinge of annoyance.

“I’m sure you’ll work something out,” I said, returning to my salad to avoid your gaze, but watching you just the same, and feeling my annoyance flash into indignation. Breathe. Just breathe.

We finished eating, talking of other things, your golf, your friends who have been good to you, the very Christian wife of one of them who would judge you if you were to divorce your wife. So it’s on your mind even though you can’t afford it. You glanced at your watch and drained your second beer. The waitress appeared as if on cue and you asked for the check.

“We’ll just make it on the meter,” you said. “I’ll drop you back home. I have a meeting at two-thirty.”

Not worth half a pension. That was tough. But not even the price of a parking ticket? Ouch.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m going to walk.”

You looked perplexed.

“I have errands to do this afternoon.” I lied to soften the blow. “It was nice to see you.”

We parted at the corner. I held out my hand and you took it, seamlessly recovering your business-man’s posture. I crossed the street as you retrieved your car with five minutes left on the meter.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Mary Hess on Monday, April 12th, 2010 at 5:52 PM
This is a very familiar feeling expressed here, elegantly told. Thank you -- I had a similar overture very recently. You ended it gracefully and I'm working on it. Well done!

Posted by Marie Shield [ ] on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 10:28 AM
Great Title Very smoothly written. She handles it so graciously and yet there is a feeing that perhaps in the past she was less graceful, more clingy. I think she’s done with him, I want her to be done. It’s good to read one of your stories again. Marie Shield

Posted by Donna Levy [ ] on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at 10:36 AM
Perfect title. Her pain was my pain throughout. Extremely well done. Love, Donna

Posted by M Bonakdar [ ] on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 at 1:28 AM
Fabulous. It makes me want to read more and find out how she got her backbone. So many women, myself included, feel like we are the back up plan and wonder what it's like to be the "one."

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