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, not even a loveless marriage. Donald had to leave.
Annaliese – shy and ever-grinning– didn’t seem to have much going for her apart from her age. Still, the age factor was a big one. At 63, Sallyanne simply couldn’t make herself younger. 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. 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 long enough – beginning now. 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 wanted to blurt out how maddening the desperate hunt for a female divorce lawyer had been. 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, pouring the last of 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.” 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. At 63, Sallyanne was going to live longer than him anyway. 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 light brown hair 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, some Miserable Pride thing, 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 at the 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:
A bliss in proof, and prov’d, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. The sonnet describing the way men are 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. 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 out on the coast 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 news report about Donald’s tour while she was looking for something good to read 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, and couldn’t object to the $180 it had cost her to have her hair clipped so the regrowth of silver now constituted 50 percent of her hair, what she could object to was the photograph of Donald emceeing the Honey Queen Spelling Bee and the photo labelling the “wife” as Sallyanne. The woman pictured with the Honey Queen Spelling Bee emcee was red-faced and young, well, young-ish. 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. For a moment 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 birds.
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.
That’s the first 1000 words.
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