Dumped After Decades
Short story by Michael Botur
First, Donald convinced Sallyanne she should sleep on the couch, for her own benefit. Then he convinced her she should pay him an allowance to forestall a post-divorce settlement which would surely humiliate her. Finally, Donald began appearing around town with Annaliese – the Ukrainian accountant from Toastmasters– and it was then Sallyanne understood nothing would keep Donald in a marriage with her. Donald had to be free.
At 63, Sallyanne couldn’t make herself as young as the skinny, grinning Ukrainian. The 55 year old Donald and his 44 year old lover were spotted at the races wearing matching hats with feathers in them, eating each other’s necks with miniature bottles of Lindauer in one hand. They were seen at Vinaigrette, eating Kobe beef. They were seen in a sauna together, her feet on his thighs. It wasn’t covert, secretive, or undercover. It wasn’t an affair, really. Donald’s marriage to Sallyanne had hit 33 years. Longer than some people’s entire lives. Longer than trees, countries. He deserved a change. A new wife wasn’t that different from a new suit or car, Sallyanne had to concede. Donald had won the Toastmasters Supreme Speaker Award in 1999, 2004 and 2012 and in recent years had become so assured of winning Toastmasters competitions that he was made an honorary fellow. It was this newfound celebrity which inspired Donald to tell Sallyanne after a month without communication that he was filing for divorce, soon as they’d been legally separated for a sufficient duration. This, he declared to Sallyanne in a text message. He hadn’t been to the house since Christmas, when Donald had drunk too much of the brandy Sallyanne had ordered, hoping it would melt his animosity. Donald had gulped his orange liquor and commented on the breasts of the weather presenter while chinking glasses with their son Christopher, who kept looking at his Mum to see if she was going to stand up for herself. Why bother? Donald was part Hoapili Tahitian royalty, with eyes the colour of chocolate cake and an oil slick of black hair. Dyeing her roots and giving him the biggest portion of chicken wasn’t enough.
It was 3am on a weeknight when she looked at the calendar, worked out Donald had been away more nights than he’d been home this month, stood over the sink, rubbed Olivani on her finger, wriggled her wedding ring until it fell unexpectedly down the plughole, and gave a final sniff.
Jeremy was secretary of the Literary Society, though with his earrings and tattoos and degree fresh from university, he insisted he was only holding the secretary position ironically. Sallyanne met with him in the interest of trying to decide whether writing would be a therapeutic outlet for her, but Jeremy was fascinated to hear she was being divorced and insisted they talk over drinks. In the café, he poured bourbon into his long black and quoted Rimbaud and tried to convince Sallyanne she should be valued more. She asked him why he was drinking at 10 in the morning. He told her his mum had died this month last year and it was pointless living with pain. Either end the pain or end the life, those are my options, he said, winking, and sucked on his alcohol. They talked about her oversized house, the politics of the literary society, the maddening hunt for an empathetic female divorce lawyer. She wanted to roll video of Donald on his knees grovelling back in the 80s when no theatre company hired him for 18 months. She wanted acknowledgement that, in her job as a medical transcriptionist, she’d endured 50 hours of work some weeks early on in their relationship to give her 23 year old paramour some spending money. Instead of venting at Jeremy, the two talked literature. Jeremy brought her up to speed about what books the circle had been studying then reached his bourbon-smelling fingers across the table and asked permission to caress a strand of her hair.
As they were preparing to leave, a girl in a leather jacket hopped off the back of a moped, strolled into the cafe and served her with papers, pointing the rolled-up envelope at her head like a pistol.
‘It’s okay,’ Jeremy told her, wobbling as he stood, shaking drops from his hip flask into his mouth, ‘You’re free now.’
There were text messages with son Christopher, who said he didn’t want to “stir shit up.” Then finally there was a congratulatory phone call from Donald, who spent the phone call talking about how “kickass” the cellphone reception was in Bali. A new outlook had come with a new lexicon, apparently. Donald explained the two of them breaking up was actually a blessing for her. Plus it would be cruel of her to deny Donald the right to make the most of his life, to kiss on exotic beaches, to emcee public events, the right to red carpet and brandy and Viagra and steaks of fine wagyu. The sun would set over Denpasar, but he wouldn’t let it set over his life. Donald reminded Sallyanne of the trophies he’d won. The word ‘trophy’ pricked Sallyanne and she heard Annaliese’s voice implore Donald to end the call and come dance salsa. ‘Thank you for phoning,’ Sallyanne told the man who’d ruined her life. She invited him to send her the bill for the call, drank a cup of tea, stroked her silver streaks in the mirror, got irritated with her fringe and hacked it til it rained into the basin. She read the newspaper, looking for some sort of lighthearted girl power column, something to make miserable people proud, something Bridget Jonesy, maybe just some reassuring statistics about the number of divorced couples who reunite, and then she was kidnapped by sleep.
Sallyanne sipped her morning tea and stared out the window at her front yard. Too expansive. Ostentatious, really. More than she deserved. Wide as the superking bed she had to cram with pillows in a man-shape so it didn’t feel like a barren plateau.
When she tipped her tea leaves into the sink, it bubbled back up and oozed stench. A blockage down there. She began dialling a plumber then hung up. Deep breath. You can do this, Sal. On her knees in vile water, Sallyanne struggled to unfasten the u-pipe. There was a smelly lump of fat in there with a wedding ring on it.
Sallyanne poured a glass of Chablis and opened up the internet thingamajig to find a plumber. Facebook distracted her instead. On Donald’s profile was a status update. He’d tagged Annaliese before some quotation:
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. The sonnet describing the way men are, apparently, misled down a route of lust, ‘past reason,’ ‘mad in pursuit.’ The sonnet he’d recited from memory at the front of the church in 1989 when he’d bent the words to make her think his mad love for her was a compliment. He’d given the sonnet to Annaliese now, apparently. Donald the film buff, inspired by playboys he once aped in front of the TV screen back when Sallyanne had bought him the largest rear-projection television she could find. Donald the imitator. Donald, who could travel with a show for two months then be out of work for three. Donald with the black, expressive actor’s eyebrows. Donald with irises that soaked up all the colour.
Donald’s nationwide speaking tour saw him opening the Agricultural and Pastoral show where truckloads of champagne were carted in for motivational orators under cavernous white tents. Annaliese was there at every hilarious speech, always stage left, always instigating the applause with frantic hummingbird hands, a microphone with a headpiece clipped around her face, her cheeks pinned back, white teeth exposed, ready with a bouquet of lilies to thank Donald for his inspiring words. Sallyanne stumbled upon the report about Donald’s tour while she was having a second stab at finding inspiration in the paper.
She couldn’t stop reading and re-reading Donald’s puff piece. While she couldn’t object to Donald shedding a little ballast to enable him to ascend, what she could object to was the photograph of Donald emceeing the Honey Queen Spelling Bee and the photo labelling the “wife” of the emcee as Sallyanne. The woman pictured with the Honey Queen Spelling Bee emcee was ripe and free of liver spots and jowls. Sallyanne was nothing of the sort, and didn’t wish the public to be misled, and she marched into the newspaper editor’s office and demanded a correction.
Cooper Stevens gulped nervously before asking Sallyanne her maiden name so the words could be corrected. Sallyanne was stumped. Maiden?
At 63, with silver seeping into her scalp and a saggy lizard-throat, Maiden seemed a joke. Sallyanne finally remembered she’d once answered to Lebedoff, back when she took a single theatre paper during the diploma she had to undergo to qualify as a medical transcriber, a single theatre paper in which a young dark stud had asked her to write an essay for him. She gave the name Lebedoff to Cooper Stevens and he told her since the man who wrote Living With Llamas had got blood disease from a tick bite, there happened to be a spot for a fresh columnist if she could produce 500 quality words each week. Although she wanted to pause the earth’s rotation, think about it for a few years, she found herself straightening out her dress, shaking Cooper’s hand to agree that yes, she knew how to type and yes, she could produce 500 words each week and yes, she was available right now for a head-and-shoulder profile photo since she’d put on her best pearls and cardigan for this morning’s confrontation. Yes, Sallyanne Lebedoff, not Hoapili, would supply 500 words each week in a column about middle-aged singledom to be named – unless anyone objected – Dumped After Decades.
Sallyanne pushed a $200 cheque into Jeremy’s fingers and begged him to teach her how to write. He emailed her that night.
There are only two rules in writing, my dear: First, write what you know – the slippery u-pipe, the ring in the sink, the chest that refuses to sob. The overstuffed pantry with nobody to eat the croutons and canelloni. The shepherd’s pie with a single serve scooped from the corner, remnants tossed to the sparrows.
Second: write what you’re only just beginning to know: anticipation. Waking in the morning, not knowing who you’ll go to bed with. Excited breath. Adrenaline. Strangers eyeing you on the street. Risk.
Sallyanne Blu-tacked Jeremy’s advice on the wall in her office, emptied some Baileys liqueur into her coffee mug and began typing.
Once Dumped After Decades became talked-about and clipped and photocopied and stuck on the noticeboard of the library, Sallyanne was quickly accepted into the literary society. The society was an octagon of frail women nervously clutching bundles of library books they were afraid to criticise. The only male was young Jeremy, who worked by day as the archivist at the council. Jeremy sat through each monthly meeting scratching his bushy beard and fiddling with the flask tucked inside his tweed jacket. Jeremy wrote the group’s electronic newsletter since he was the only person who knew much about computers and filled half of the newsletter with Dumped After Decades, lovingly copied and pasted.
At first, the meetings – in the kitchen of the public library – were half-consumed with just getting the bloody radiator to work and ensuring everybody had a hot water bottle to sit on. Jeremy interviewed Sallyanne three times in five months for the newsletter because the others in the group simply had no news and Jeremy said excerpts from his novel could only be reproduced once he was dead. Dumped After Decades was talked about firstly on radio, then in essays which examined the politics which the column represented, and then hits to the Dumped After Decades page on the paper’s website climbed exponentially and the column was quickly syndicated nationwide, after a difficult phone call in which Cooper Stevens explained that syndicated meant Everybody bloody adores your writing, Sallyanne.
When winter thinned to let a little blue in the sky, Jeremy sent her an email which had nothing to do with the Literary Society. It was written in the form of an acrostic poem. Each letter of Sallyanne’s name, justified in the left hand margin, began a word reinforcing Jeremy’s message: he was besotted with her.
S for the lode of silver in her hair,
A for her anhedonic selfless self-care.
L for the lost years she has forsaken,
L for the new Lease of Life she has taken.
Jeremy loved Iris Murdoch, Susan Sontag, Alice Munro. He loved all older women, he explained, and promised in his email he would hara-kiri himself any day at her behest.
He signed the email, Yours, eternally, and added a postscript.
Ps. I looked it up. Hoapili translates as ‘attached to the bosom.’
Jeremy lived just three kilometres away, in a boarding house near the council archives building, yet he wrote to her every day. Grab the first words that come to you, because that’s your undiluted voice, he instructed her. Margaret Atwood had been a guest lecturer for one of his university papers. He knew what he was talking about. You may not be a strong public speaker, but Donald Hoapili, that privileged simpleton, will never have an adoring audience of 200,000. You are loved in nursing homes. You are loved in the high offices of lonely executives. You are loved by the lonely.
Jeremy’s throbbing young lust didn’t stir anything in her except the desire to Skype her son, who was up at midnight packing rock climbing gear into a hiking bag. He had cartoons on in the background but agreed to pause the TV. Christopher sucked his pipe and nodded at his mum’s complaints before finally interrupting her. ‘Listen to all the shit you just told me about him. I love the old man to bits but he doesn’t sound like much of a loss. You got rid of him. That’s good.’
‘But he’s taken everything!’ Her eyes weren’t wet but her face was melting.
‘He got you that sweet gig in the paper, though.’
She sucked the snot back into her nose and changed the subject, asking her son if he ever had a kid in his class at school named Jeremy who wore a trench coat.
Christopher rummaged in his frontal cortex and responded Yeah, I think so. I heard he turned out kinda skeezy. How come?
Donald phoned Sallyanne to congratulate her on the success and fame her column had achieved. He compared it to his own success – receiving a Golden Glottis award at Toastmasters.
Although Dumped After Decades was doing well, Donald had some advice for Sallyanne which, because it was coming from a man synonymous with success, Sallyanne would be wise to heed. She roamed the big empty halls with the cordless phone pressed against her ear. With four bedrooms and a good acre of lawn, Sallyanne simply would not be able to keep up with the property taxes and rates on her own, Donald explained, unless she relinquished her half of the property. Even with her pension it would be a struggle. Donald mentioned her pension three times within the phone call and finally Sallyanne’s lack of income pricked her. They were offering her up to $350 per hour for urgent transcription of medical notes (she had 36 years of experience, a foot pedal and the best transcription software, after all) but Sallyanne would have happily spent that $350 for the privilege of being left alone to chop up pony poo and mulch it into her rose bed. She hadn’t said yes to transcription work in a while. Was there money in her newspaper columns? Donald suggested no. Donald would have to phone off shortly, he said, as there was a regatta launching for which Donald had generously agreed to crack the bottle of Dom Perignon over the bow of the lead superyacht, following which he would bless it with a traditional Tahitian prayer. Long story short: Sallyanne’s house –where the hysterically laughing family had once thrown snowballs of fondant icing at one another when they didn’t have any snow on Christmas day – would have to be sold, and although the title had always been in Sallyanne’s name because Donald had bad credit from all those failed years on London’s west end, Sallyanne agreed the decent thing to do would be to give Donald half. He’d been her rock for over 30 years, as he put it.
Later, her laptop warbled in the night. She sat up and asked the blackness, ‘Donald?’
She pulled her robe tightly around her breasts, tiptoed to her office where she found an incoming Skype call from a Jeremy. He was so drunk he was holding both sides of his monitor to keep his face in front of the camera.
Fogging the camera eye with whiskey breath, Jeremy began reading a piece he’d written. ‘Jus, jus, jusbear with me,’ he said, and steadied himself before beginning to share a portion of his novel. The novel described a heroine reaching “magnificent classical maturity, the maturity of marble which takes tens of years to sculpt, hard flesh, novel peaks, smile lines, hair with streaks of silver, a muscular back, forearms with undersides soft as cream and a noble face with a constellation of dots etched by the sun, one dot for every time her creator has returned to acknowledge her beauty.” She asked him which Shakespeare play the serene lyrics derived from. Jeremy shook his head and laughed. ‘No hackneyed old fuggoff Shakespeare bullshit,’ he slurred, ‘Jus me and you.’
Donald put out his self-help book Successful at Success and drove to libraries north, south, east and west to launch it. He also appeared at several petrol stations, where sales were pretty good. The media release he put out came with a photo of Donald with Annaliese clutched against him, the two grinning so hard their shone with drool. Cooper Stevens, terrified of being yelled at again over how to describe Annaliese’s relationship to Donald, phoned Sallyanne as she was packing the house up. In a week she’d begin house-sitting for some Canadians who spent eight months of the year in Japan. She wouldn’t be in her house when it was auctioned.
Cooper asked if she was okay with him running Donald’s story and ran it by her. She helped Cooper correct the description of Annaliese from “Mr Hoapili’s assistant and bride, who hails from Russia” to “Mr Hoapili’s assistant and bride, who hails from Ukraine.”
‘It woulda really stung, when he didn’t get that DJ gig,’ Cooper mentioned casually over the phone as Sallyanne bundled forks and plates into a box to give to the Salvation Army.
DJ gig? She asked him go back and repeat. Cooper explained that Donald took it really hard when he auditioned to host that slot on 107.7FM which Donald wanted to call Breakfast with the Toastmaster. The Dutch multimedia company that owned Cooper’s newspaper also owned the station, so word had trickled down to Cooper. Anyone would’ve been depressed if they went through a three hour audition then were told they were unfortunately too old for the target audience, Cooper explained. Sure, sure, no one was denying Donald had a voice for radio. It’s just that everything’s about billboards these days, Cooper had heard, and if they put some unheard-of D-lister on a billboard they would lose listeners on a daily basis.
Cooper couldn’t believe Donald hadn’t mentioned the shame he’d been carrying.
‘Sallyanne? You still there? Hello?’
Housesitting was a satisfying way to make a little income until her pension came in. Housesitting had taken Sallyanne to an alpaca farm, a dude ranch, and she’d also endured a week looking after a medicinal cannabis crop, turning the hoses on every night and off every morning, even though she felt like bacteria were wriggling all over her skin the whole time she was there.
Sallyanne was getting urgent transcription jobs coming through every day. She considered going home and sitting alone in front of her computer but didn’t care about the money badly enough. They offered her $350 if she could get the work done in 48 hours; $400 if overnight. The job she’d had for decades felt like old cold bath water now. She asked her writing circle what she should do. They began chattering all at once and Jeremy ordered the old ladies to shut the hell up. He kneeled in front of his queen, wobbling drunkenly. He squeezed her hand. After nearly 40 years of obeisance, she didn’t have to feel guilty about declining people. Although she would love the money, she was happier moving around alpaca poo now that she had a great compost hookup. Her legs moved freely in the short shorts she was finally allowed to wear without being told she was “tarting up the place.” Her light, buttery skin appreciated the tickle of the breeze creeping up her inner thighs.
One winter dawn, Sallyanne chased a stray alpaca calf onto the highway in her nightie. She ran faster than she realised she could, her legs unencumbered with pants or shorts. A Ford truck was slowing to see if she needed help when she finally managed to wrap her arms around the calf’s neck as it bleated and kicked. The wind lifted the flaps of her nightie and showed a black muff peeking out of the margins of the knickers. The Ford driver raised his cap and pretended to look away. While the two of them tied the beast onto the tray of his truck for transportation back to its pen, his eyes burned their brand on her skin. He left her his business card and reminded her three times that he knew a great place if she fancied a glass of wine sometime. His mates would be soooo stoked if he could prove he met THE Sallyanne from that thingy in the paper. He snapped a selfie with her on his muddy cellphone. She let him kiss her hand and give her a lift back to her driveway.
Every male who breathed a little hope into her gave Sallyanne material for her columns. She wrote about excitement, anticipation, dread, arousal, remorse, relief. She couldn’t figure out what to do with all the emails filling her inbox; the paper paid for an assistant. She was offered international syndication, which would pay EUR1000 a week. She drove three hours to the big smoke for a meeting in a high-rise to talk the deal over with a pair of nice young women all the way from Den Haag. The deal outlined in the inch-thick contractual agreement reminded her of Donald’s papers pointed at her temple like a gunbarrel. The international syndication contract required her to write every single week “About your identity as a strong, confident mature woman who was unfairly dumped.” Sallyanne asked for a toilet break, braced herself against the mirror and stared at herself, trying to remember who she really was. She returned to the table and told them she wasn’t strong, confident, nor mature, and she was never unfairly dumped, and recused herself.
At tonight’s book circle, Sallyanne is going to tell her people that she is coming down to earth. She’s hit her apogee. The orbit is over.
She has to soothe her boy first, though. Alcohol is melting through Jeremy’s organs like acid. Part of his stomach bulges through his trench coat. His last newsletter editorial has given a code people can use to read his novel on his website after he dies. She tries to choose a part of Jeremy to squeeze – his bony shoulder? His knobbly thigh? – and settles on his hands. She leans in and says to Jeremy, ‘What’s your novel about, anyway?’
Jeremy takes a belt of whiskey from his hip flask and coughs red goo on his sleeve and leans down conspiratorially behind the tea trolley. ‘It’s about a buttkicking heroine who spends her life… .’ He pauses to take another drink and shudders. ‘Spends her life taking care of other people. Never stops to look in the mirror. Realise how amazing she is.’
Everybody has been talking about that nice Nigerian chappie’s new novel, but they’ve paused to listen to Jeremy’s words – words which could be his last, considering the way Jeremy rolls off his seat and shambles towards the toilet, slurring a farewell to everybody, telling them it’s been a pleasure.
Sallyanne grabs the tail of his coat and pulls him back. She hasn’t raised her voice despite everything she’s been through in the past 12 months, and she’s sick to death of this silliness. ‘YOUNG MAN, YOU WILL SIT IN THE CORNER UNTIL NINE O’CLOCK, AFTER WHICH I WILL TAKE YOU TO BED.’
She snatches his hip flask out of his hands, bins it then smooths her dress out. Everyone is speechless. They look to Sallyanne to see if they can keep going.