The Familiar Stranger
by Christina Tarabochia
A fresh start or a double-cross?
Why is he so cold and distant? Denise wonders as Craig demeans her yet again. Is it his job? The family? Or is it me? Though she’s poured her heart into her marriage, years of enduring his long hours, frequent trips, and short temper have left her with a deep sadness.
Later that morning — in the middle of church — her cell phone rings. Embarrassed, she heads to the lobby, takes the call . . . and is shocked by the news she hears. Craig’s been in an accident.
So begins their fresh start. While keeping vigil by his bedside she wills herself to make their marriage work, whatever the cost. And when Craig finally regains consciousness, he appears to want the same thing — except for one detail. He doesn’t know who she is.
Nor does he remember anything about their life, their children, or why he was parked on the side of the freeway when the accident occurred. As he struggles to recall the past, he also shows a new love for Denise characterized by tender strength and consideration. So what is she to do when ugly betrayals emerge? Is it possible to forgive a man who thoroughly violated her trust? How many more lies and secrets are yet to be discovered?
I wrapped a towel around my waist as Denise stalked into the bathroom. Avoiding her eyes, I wiped a clear spot on the steamy mirror and studied my reflection. A caged man, a Houdini, stared back at me. Bound inside a straitjacket, locked in chains, submerged in a tank, I could taste the metallic tang of the key hidden in my mouth. If I held my breath a little longer and waited for the right time to rip my shoulder from its socket, I would escape my stifling life.
“Did you wipe down the shower, Craig?”
What harm would happen if once, just once, I left droplets on the glass doors? I bit back my retort. “Of course, honey.”
“Good.” She peered into the brushed-silver mirror hanging above the white marble countertop—a bathroom that had cost me a month’s wages—and added another layer to her lipstick. “Need to hurry if we’re going to be on time.”
“I’m not going.” I said it as if I didn’t care one way or the other what she thought of my bombshell.
“What are you talking about?” Her shoulders tighten into unnatural stillness.
I rubbed the scruff of my neck and scrutinized my image. A few wrinkles around the eyes. Two slight recessions on either side of the hairline. Not bad for a guy of forty-six.
“Craig, the deacons’ meeting is right after the service, and you’ve missed the last two. Are you trying to sabotage your position?” Her reflected hazel eyes drilled into me.
For a second I thought of giving it all up, going to church with her and the kids, acting as though that was all I had planned for the day. Then the image faded and a pair of deep brown eyes replaced hers. No, I wouldn’t be setting foot in a house of worship this Sunday, or ever again.
But she wouldn’t turn away without some kind of explanation.
“Denise, every day of the week I’m looking into people’s mouths. Different teeth, different breath, same office, same chair. Same mindless, indecipherable banter. This is my one day off and I’m not going to waste it sitting in a pew with a bunch of pretenders.”
“Pretenders?” Her lipstick tube tumbled to the counter, leaving a blood-red slash against its starkness. “Sometimes I don’t understand you at all.” As she rubbed a tissue over the spot, the red smeared across the dead veins in the rock, veins that merged and parted, crossed and died, without purpose or pattern.
Had I pushed too hard? The last thing I needed this morning was an interrogation built on suspicion.
I’d planned this day for too long to blow it now.
I turned and put my arms around her. “I’m going crazy. Call it a mid-life crisis if you will, but I can’t put on a tie and sing a happy little hymn. I’m going hiking.”
Relaxing into my embrace, she fingered my jaw line. “Hiking, huh? Along the trails in Washington Park?”
Why do you always have to make a suggestion so it still seems as if I’m doing what you want? It was her fault I had to carry out my plan.
Yet I had to feign tenderness, feign caring. I tried to smile. “No, to Multnomah Falls. The weather’s supposed to be great in the gorge.”
Denise stiffened again and moved away from me, heading into the bedroom. “The Columbia Gorge is quite a long drive for a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Trailing after her, I recalled all the weekends I spent following her from one of the kids’ soccer games to her friends’ barbecues after work on Saturday. Waking the next day to the usual church service, out for lunch with another of her friends—the husband and I pretending camaraderie even though we knew nothing more about each other than our favorite football teams. Back to church for the evening meeting. Finally dropping into bed, dreading the idea of telling people to floss more, brush with softer bristles, lay off the self-whitening strips for a while, and all the other advice I dispensed only to have it ignored.
I slipped on a pair of loose jogging shorts and pulled a T-shirt over my head. “Give me today, and I’ll do whatever you want next Sunday.”
“Fine.” She sighed. “Your mind’s made up anyway. I’ll figure out something to tell everyone.”
“Say a dental emergency came up. A root canal.”
She touched the edge of the dresser and balanced on one foot while she slid on a new shoe, a beaded, red high heel. I’m sure it set me back a pretty penny. Dyed honey-blonde hair hung over her face as she leaned over to put the other shoe on, calf flexing. I was surprised at how young and attractive she looked. Apparently our physical connection still flowed deep, like the veins in the marble, but my heart sat cold and dense.
What was I doing? Maybe I could—
No. I steeled myself, kissed her forehead for the last time, and wandered down the hallway in search of the boys. I found them in the bonus room, sprawled on the couch, playing a shoot-’em-up video game. Nicolas, fifteen, had gelled his hair into a conservative style and wore a blue oxford. Twelve-year-old Jamie’s hair stuck up in blond-tipped spikes. His orange shirt, black flames blazing across the front, shouted, “Look at me!” But the shirt was a button-up, so technically it met Denise’s church dress code.
“Guys?” I cleared my throat. “Guys!”
They turned their attention from the TV screen.
“Want to skip church and go for a hike?” I held my breath.
Jamie cocked his head back. “Are you serious?”
My heart stopped for a second. I’d been so sure they wouldn’t take me up on my invitation. Asking them, and getting turned down—that was what I had counted on.
Nick paused the game and shook his head. “I’m helping with children’s church.”
Laughing, Jamie jabbed Nick’s shoulder. “What he means is that he’s helping Heather McCallister with children’s church.” He turned his attention back to me. “Mom’s letting you play hooky?”
I nodded, ignoring the insinuation that Denise arranged my days.
“Man.” He kicked at the coffee table. “I’m skateboarding with some friends at the park after lunch. But I can ditch them and come with you, if you want.”
“No, no. You do what you’ve planned.”
Nicolas unpaused the game and they went back to shooting each other.
It struck me as an odd pastime to pursue before a sermon. I stood for a moment, gazing at my boys. Almost men. Would they miss me if I weren’t around? Denise did everything for them, though I financed it all. I could still do that, fulfill my financial role, even if…
My heart thumped, sped up, grew louder, drowned out the sound effects of the guns. Blackness crept into the sides of the room, and I feared I would pass out right in front of the boys. Closing my eyes, I focused on breathing in and out slowly.
The episode passed.
I wanted one last contact with my sons as well. I squeezed the back of Jamie’s neck and pulled on Nick’s ear before I left the room.
Denise walked past me, positioning her body so we wouldn’t accidentally touch. “Boys, time to turn off the game and get into the car.”
The boys yelled their goodbyes and clattered down the stairs and out to the garage. Denise followed. A mechanical drone signaled the garage door’s opening; another, its closing.
I was left standing in the hall directly in front of the family portrait we’d ordered after Jamie’s birth. Denise’s face glowed, her arms wrapped around the baby. I stared at my image, a three-year-old Nicolas perched on my lap. No matter how intently I inspected the photo, I couldn’t read anything but satisfaction in my expression. Had I really been happy? Or had I been more willing to fake it then?
“No longer.” I rubbed sweaty palms over the front of my shirt and glanced down at the wet streaks. Without thinking, I’d put on a white shirt. Denise had to know I was wearing black shorts with a blue shirt! It was critical to the plan. Nervous energy surged through my body.
Should I call her? Say I’ve changed my shirt?
And have her think I’d completely lost my mind? I pantomimed holding a phone. “Hi, honey. I know you’ve just left the house, but I’m wearing a blue shirt now. It matches my eyes better.” Yeah, right.
A reason. All I needed was a reason. I hustled to the kitchen, smeared some ketchup—she knew I loved scrambled eggs with ketchup for breakfast—on the sleeve as if I’d wiped my mouth on my arm. Upstairs, I threw it in the hamper and found the blue shirt I needed to wear.
“The devil’s in the details.” My father’s voice echoed in my mind, vibrating like my childhood house after he slammed the door and walked away from our family for the last time.
The shower stopped and I heard Craig step out. I waited until I was sure he’d covered himself and hurried in to check my makeup. Thinking of the tension between us over the last few months had me biting at my lower lip again. Craig always thought that was so cute when we were dating, but now…
I rolled my lips in as I passed him. No sense in giving him the opportunity to ridicule me for a silly bad habit.
When he’d first started picking at me, I took everything personally. All my efforts at self-improvement came to naught. So I started talking. To Craig. To my pastor. Eventually to a counselor. I showed all my emotional cards and begged for some insight in return. Yet the tighter I pulled at him, the harder he fought.
My new tactic, besides constant prayer, was to keep it light and easy, distract with the mundane. “Did you wipe down the shower, Craig?”
He smirked, as if I were a prison warden set on micromanaging his life. “Of course, honey.” The endearment demeaned me.
“Good.” I ignored his inflection and put on a fresh coat of lipstick to cover my tooth prints. “Need to hurry if we’re going to be on time.”
He posed in front of the mirror. “I’m not going to church.”
“What are you talking about?” I’m sure my eyes asked more questions than just that one. Like, Why don’t I feel like I know you anymore? or Why do I hold my breath when you walk into a room and relax when you leave?
He launched into a tirade, sharp words filled with calm anger. My lipstick slipped through my fingers as I listened, numb. I searched his face, hoping to see some sign of the man who had stood next to me at the altar and pledged to be the spiritual leader of our home. All I perceived was a magic show, a sleight of hand, a transformation into a contained, painfully polite man. He gentled his voice and explained it all away with the phrase “midlife crisis.”
I completely agreed with his self-assessment. Midlife crisis was not just some term to cover buying a convertible—which Craig already had—but a full-on assault to the durability of our marriage. According to my therapist, Craig and I were “dealing with major communication issues.”
Yet, when he held me, my body betrayed me, practically melting onto him. Was I so desperate for his attention, his physical touch, I could ignore his uncaring behavior the instant his arms came around me? The implication rattled my dry soul. I pulled away, left the bathroom, and hunted for a pair of shoes that matched my red-and-cream suit.
Setting the heels next to the dresser, I remembered the first pair of brand-new shoes I’d bought before Craig’s graduation from dental school. I’d made do with secondhand sandals while he studied and fretted over the baby on the way. Then—like the first beams of sunshine through a wrung-out cloud—he told me to get a new pair of shoes for the commencement ceremony. Soon, he told me, all our sacrifices were going to pay off. Literally.
Tipping my head so my hair would hide the tears welling in my eyes, I slipped the shoes on. I kept looking at the floor as he kissed my forehead and left the room. Sinking onto the duvet, I couldn’t keep the tears from seeping out. When had our joint effort at marriage turned into two Clydesdales pulling in opposite directions?
From the bonus room, I heard Craig ask the boys if they’d like to go hiking with him. A new veil of tears came. Yes, it was the first weekend of summer vacation, but had he even thought to ask if I would go with him? After all, he was right. He did work hard every day except Sunday. Surely the Lord wouldn’t begrudge him one day of relaxation. A day to soothe the heat of burnout I felt flaming from him.
Was it his job? I’d seen an article once that said dentists had one of the highest rates of suicide for professionals. For Craig, I wasn’t sure if the hours, the work, or the demands of his family stressed him more. Whatever the case, he had ceased flirting with me long ago. He used to chase me around the house when the kids were little, catch me by the waist, and tickle me. As soon as the boys laughed, he’d chase after them. When was the last time we had shared a laugh as a family?
I stood, dabbing a tissue at each eyelid. One glance at my watch said my mascara fix would have to wait for a red light on the way.
Craig came out of the bonus room just as I entered the hall. His shoulders filled the doorway. Most people tended to think of dentists as little men, very precise, wearing glasses, with looming nose hair. My husband was nothing like that. He was built like a runner, a true athlete, one whose muscles bulged as he drove his arms forward and yanked his knees up. His fingers were fine and long. Adept at what he did.
One touch of his hand, and I would melt into an emotional mess again. I edged past him, praying he wouldn’t reach out. My breath came a little easier once I walked out of range.
Nicolas and Jamie turned off the game the first time I asked. They had always been good at doing what they were told. Must have gotten it from me. Sure as rain deluged our part of Oregon in November, they didn’t inherit it from their father.
Stomach clenching at the idea of leaving Craig with such little discussion about his decision, I mustered the determination to let him make his own choices and led the boys to the SUV.
Nicolas called shotgun a millisecond before Jamie, throwing himself into the front seat.
I fumbled to get the key into the ignition.
Jamie leaned forward through the gap in the front seats and punched the garage door opener clamped to the sun visor above my head. “Dad’s really not coming?”
“He needs a break.” The key slid into the slot.
“You okay with that, Mom?” Nicolas fastened his seat belt.
I patted his knee, grateful for his thoughtfulness. “Sure, I’m fine.” My hand shook as I reached for the wheel.
The Familiar Stranger$3.99 – $14.99
Compared to a usual day’s traffic, I-5 toward Portland stretched out ahead, full of empty space. A RAV4 zoomed past my Mustang, zigzagged through three lanes of traffic, and followed a ramp off toward Lake Oswego. I was in no hurry. I’d planned this day for so long, timing various routes, considering every eventuality. As long as I took care of the details, nothing could go wrong.
I drifted into the middle lane. Mentally, I drifted back to Denise and the boys, to our last family trip. We’d given Jamie his first surfboard, though Denise made him save up his own money for the wet suit. Which took way too long, until I slipped him the last twenty. Nicolas shuddered at the thought of riding the waves. He would rather sneak around the tide pools, explore the creatures hiding in the still waters.
On that first day, Jamie caught a wave. His skinny form, clad in the black wet suit, wobbled back and forth over the board. He rode it out and shouted with triumph. I liked to think his determination and talent came from me. Anything I ever put my mind to, I’d excelled at. He sure hadn’t inherited it from Denise. The only worthwhile thing she’d accomplished the whole time I’d known her was latching on to me.
I veered off the freeway at the next exit, stopped at the light, and lowered the automatic top of the convertible.
A woman in the car next to mine rubbed her full lips together. Catching me staring at her, she traced the outline of her mouth with the edge of her coffee cup.
Grinning, I winked.
She tossed her head and waved with her left hand, highlighting the unadorned ring finger. The light turned green and she accelerated across the intersection.
I’d almost forgotten about the constricting band on my own finger, one of those details I could not afford to overlook. I should have felt something then, some seizing of my heart that I could be cruel enough to leave my family. But I didn’t. I pictured my heart, a pea-sized pebble rolling around in the cavity of my chest.
Turning right, I scanned the parking lot of the corner convenience store. A man stood between the two graffitied bathroom doors on the side of the store nearest the Dumpster. I parked in the corner of the empty lot, entered the store, and meandered through the aisles, making sure the security cameras captured plenty of footage of me from different angles. There could never be any doubt I’d been in the store alone.
I bought a pack of Dentyne Ice, a bottle of water, and a bag of sunflower seeds. Denise hated when I spat the shells out on our manicured lawn. The guy behind the counter took my credit card, the one marked “See ID” instead of bearing a signature, swiped it, and gave me the receipt without glancing up. Oh, well. He might not remember me, but there would still be an official record of my purchase when the investigation began. Swinging the plastic bag at my side, I jogged to the convertible and slid into my seat.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, I knew I was choosing to put all my chips in one pot. To risk it all for a slim chance at happiness.
But, because of my brilliant planning, I was fated to win the bet.
The Familiar Stranger$3.99 – $14.99