After his divorce, Steven Axelrod just wants to get rid of a wedding ring that he never much wanted anyway. But in exchange, he receives information he didn’t really want to know.
How did I figure out that Ned was sleeping with my ex-wife?
It started with the wedding ring.
I had wanted to sell my ring back to Kim England’s jewelry store where I’d bought it in the first place. Getting rid of the thing felt like an essential act: I needed to purge the totems of my marriage. The white circle on my finger was bad enough, but it was already disappearing. Soon there would be no physical evidence of my previous condition.
Tommy and I had run into Kim England at the Stop & Shop one afternoon. I stood chatting with her in the dairy aisle while Tommy investigated the gaudy packages of kids’ yogurt. Kim chatted about various things: some crazy billionaire wanted two hundred of her little golden lightship baskets for a wedding on Saturday. He couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that it would take months to make that many baskets. He just offered her double the price. When she still had to refuse, he tripled his offer. Finally he stormed out in a rage. I smiled – this was probably one of the guys who threw tantrums at the airport because they took fog personally.
The conversation ambled on. I told her I was baffled by many things, even in the diary aisle. What was the difference between one and two percent milk? Why were yogurt containers getting so tiny? Why would anyone actually buy margarine? Was “Cheese food” really cheese? Was it really food? Were brown eggs better than white eggs? Did that prejudice bode well for a diversified society? Kim shrugged; maybe it just meant that tans were fashionable. I mentioned the ring of pale flesh on my ring finger and the conversation went on from there. Kim offered to buy the wedding band back.
I had no idea that Tommy was even listening.
But he was. He had taken the divorce much harder than his sister, who seemed to cruise through life’s entanglements like a yacht through kelp. Tommy was the opposite: he got caught in the sea-weed, it wrapped around him and immobilized him and even if he made it out of the water he was picking the stuff out of his hair for days afterward. The thought that his father might sell the sacred symbol of his parents’ marriage, of their family, of his home, just for money, for forty pieces of silver, horrified him. It turned my wedding ring into some piece of junk you’d unload at a yard sale. The things that mattered most to him meant nothing to his father, that was the worst part. He was alone. He felt like an orphan. He couldn’t say all this of course. He was seven years old. So instead he stood in front of the Sponge Bob yogurt boxes and started sobbing.
I got the message.
I apologized to Kim England and hustled Tommy out of the store as fast as I could. We spent the better part of two hours, first in the car driving around the island and then at home, talking about it. I apologized a couple of dozen times. The crying chugged to a halt. Finally we compromised. I didn’t want the ring and Tommy did, so I’d just give it to him. Tommy liked that idea, but when I described the incident to Lisa a few days later, she said Tommy might lose it, as he lost everything else from his band trumpet to his math homework to his left sneaker.
“I’ll hold it for him,” she said. “Until he’s old enough to take care of it himself.”
That had seemed like a reasonable solution.
Everything had seemed startlingly reasonable, in fact — until the evening when the actual hand-off occurred. It was after the Christmas band-chorus concert. Jenny was in the chorus and Tommy was in the band, so I had to be there for the duration. These concerts were unavoidable. As the ordeals of parenthood went, they fell somewhere between orientation night and Little League games. On this occasion though, the chorus sounded pretty good, running through the usual selection of carols. The band was excruciating as usual, every instrument playing in its own key. Though the school administration was courteous enough to keep the house lights on during the performance, I couldn’t even read any more; Jenny had actually caught me at it last year, all the way from the back of the stage to the back of the auditorium.
I found Lisa in the lobby outside after the concert. She was chatting with her yoga teacher and some unknown woman from the Land Bank. Ned was hovering nearby. There was a break in the conversation and it seemed like a perfect opportunity. I dug into my pocket as I approached.
“Hey, Lisa – before I forget.” I handed her the ring. “I figure you could put it on the mantel or something, where he could see it but not actually put his hands on it. Or whatever. It’s up to you.”
“Okay” she said. She seemed off balance, tricked into silence.
I dove through the gap. “Well, okay then … see you around. Ladies,” I nodded to the two women. I ignored Ned. Twenty seconds later I was outside in the clean, biting cold of the December night, congratulating myself on handling a potentially awkward situation with skill and grace.
I should have known better.
The phone was ringing when I got home. I picked it up and Lisa started in before I could say a word.“I can’t believe you did that.”
“How could you?”
“I’m not sue what– ”
“In public that way? In front of my friends? That is so sick.”
“Lisa — ”
“Was it just to humiliate me? Well it worked. Congratulations. Throwing your wedding ring at me as if it was a piece of trash, as if our whole marriage was nothing but some — ”
“Wait a second. I didn’t throw it at you. I just — ”
“Ned thought it was childish. That’s what he said. Pathetic and childish.”
“He saw the whole thing.”
“What the hell does he have to do with — ”
“He happens to be a very shrewd judge of character.”
I sighed. She was using the ‘happens to’ formulation: it was a sarcastic invocation of coincidence that she lapsed into when she was most outraged. As if to say, “Fine, I’ll pretend that this self-evident truth is random, if you’re too stupid to see the obvious.”
I took a breath. “Look, that ring means nothing to me. I didn’t want to do the whole ring thing in the first place. That was your idea, remember? I’ve been meaning to give the ring to you and this was the first chance I got. Period.”
“Fine. Whatever. I have to go.”
She hung up.
Thinking about it later, the thing that struck me most about the conversation was Ned’s comment. It was overly emphatic, strangely partisan. In my experience there was only one reason why a man would adopt a woman’s point of view so eagerly. It wasn’t because he had suddenly discovered a mutual interest the bizarre protocols of divorce. It wasn’t because he was a chivalrous debater who liked standing up for over-matched losers, or because he believed what she was saying and felt a moral obligation to fight for the truth.
No, sorry. It was because he was fucking her. It was the only sensible explanation.
Ned was fucking my wife.
Ex-wife, sorry. I still couldn’t get my head around that one.
The breath caught in my throat like a piece of food. I forced some air down. Maybe I was wrong. Lisa always said I was impossibly cynical, so cynical I was like a credulous child. “A kid takes everything at face value,” she had explained to me once. “You always see some creepy agenda. But it all comes out to the same thing. Neither of you can deal with the real world at all. Maybe you were that kid once. Maybe that explains it.”
Maybe she was right.
Maybe Ned was just being nice.
But I had to know for sure.
But that’s another story. We’ll save it for next time.
Missed parts one and part two? Read them here:
Photo by striatic / flickr