February 5, 2020
Excerpt from The Buddha at My Table - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Indie Non-Fiction
By Tammy Letherer
It’s the clink of ice against glass that wakes me.
I hear my husband Dave in the kitchen, a slosh of something being poured, and I look over from where I was dozing on the sofa to see him come into the room with two fingers of amber liquid in a highball. Scotch on the rocks. I sit up. It's not his habit to have a drink alone. In fact, we don't usually have alcohol in the house. But recently, since joining a neighborhood poker group, he's begun discerning between single and double malt scotches and seems to be relishing the good ol' boy status it gives him.
He sets the drink carefully on the dining room table. I turn back to the television show I was watching before I nodded off, called House, about a misanthropic medical genius. Dr. House is growling something demeaning to a female doctor. It's his way of being adorable, and because he's brilliant and saves people's lives, he gets a pass on basic civility.
“Is your show almost done?” Dave asks. “Can you come sit at the table?”
“Why?” It’s drafty in the house and there’s a bare Christmas tree propped in the corner. The scent of pine adds to my sense of being exposed to the elements and makes me want to burrow back under the flannel throw blanket over my knees.
He doesn't answer. I get up, flip off the TV, and move to join him at the table. He has his drink and a piece of paper in front of him.
“I have to tell you something and I want you to let me get through it without interrupting me because it will be hard for me.”
I nod, but my mouth goes dry. He's been fired! And right before Christmas! But in a nano-second, that thought is rejected. Dave was a freelance writer for many years and would not be worried to be back on his own.
“Number one,” he says, looking down at his paper, “About ten years ago, when we'd been married a couple of years, I had an affair. It was someone in radio, someone I knew from being in the band, and I ended it pretty quickly.”
My heart skids. I silently repeat the words ten years ago, and I ended it. Before I can process this, Dave goes on.
“Number two: I've been using escorts on my business trips.”
No, no, no. Flashes of soulless, transactional sex assault me but I refuse to look. I stare straight ahead, not blinking, not breathing.
“You know what escorts are, don't you?” He adds this patiently, almost gently, as if I’m a child. Or maybe he’s only reacting to the incomprehension in my face. The absurdity of his question short circuits something in my brain. Do I know what escorts are? I feel myself sinking to the floor, reaching for the hardwood as it slides eerily away from me.
I’m on my knees, gripping my thighs. “I'm going to be sick,” I say, and begin peeling off my sweatshirt. Dave doesn't move and I know there's more. “Say it! Just say it!”
“Three weeks ago, when I was in Las Vegas, I met someone.”
Dizzy, I scramble on the floor in a sort of stunned crab-crawl. White-hot, blinding terror envelops me like a blanket: This must be what death feels like. Dave does nothing to help me and that's when, for a brief moment, I wonder if I ever existed.
When I come back into my body (Moments later? Minutes?) Dave is talking, saying something about moving upstairs. I don't understand. How could he move upstairs? Our tenant lives there. I hear the words committed father. What is he talking about? What about me?
His explanations are like blades pinning me to a wall: He spent twelve hours with a woman named Allison in Las Vegas. He's in love. She lives in Texas. He wants to visit her. He will ask our tenant to leave. He will move into the upstairs apartment. He would like to “wrap things up” with me in four weeks. He is going to leave the house now because he needs to call Allison. She's waiting to hear from him.
I hear him walk out the door and panic overtakes me. I get up, pacing and flailing my arms, trying to feel my hands and feet. I'm alone in the house and my children are sleeping in their beds and I can’t faint or scream or lose it. I begin to cry but it's more of a moan. I grab my phone and call my friend and neighbor Abigail. No answer. I try my college friend. No answer. My brother. No answer. I consider calling my mother but know she'll be sleeping and I can’t wake her with this. I don't know how much time passes before I finally realize another crushing truth:
I have no one to call but Dave.
“You have to come home,” I say when he finally answers. “Please come home. Don't leave me here alone.”
I wait by the front window, half-hidden behind the Christmas tree, the pine needles poking my shoulder every time I breathe. Dave needs to bring the ornaments and lights up from the basement. Dave needs to… Dave needs to… The words replay in my head until he gets back. By then I’ve found a way to frame this: Dave needs me to help him. Dave is having a crisis and it's up to me to pull him back from the ledge. I go wash my face and brush my teeth, moving like an automaton until, minutes later, we're lying beside each other in bed. It's a habit of twenty years, and disrupting it doesn't occur to me. I stare at the ugly ceiling fixture I've been wanting to replace with a small chandelier, an idea that now seems misguided and theatrical.
“What about the kids?”
Dave seems genuinely surprised as if he'd forgotten them.
“Do you want them to be from a broken family?”
He uses the word resilient. “If we're friendly, they'll be fine.”
I glimpse the role he wants me to play: Tammy will go away quietly, with a smile on her face. He makes a point of saying that he's not like my dad. He'll be a good parent. I want to remind him that the pain I feel about my father continues because he never acknowledged any wrongdoing. He left my family without looking back, never caring how I was personally affected. I want to warn Dave that he'll have to put honesty and remorse before resilience. But this seems too much to bite off just now, so I scramble for the correct words. I only need to make the right points, in the right order, to lead him out of this. I think of a TV show I saw once about divorce, where a therapist went to the couple’s house to give them a reality check on what they were about to do. They had to sit in front of photos of their kids and deliver the news. In the show, this simple role-play was upsetting enough to bring reconciliation.
Carefully, I ask, “What will you tell them?” My words are weighted but I can't tell if he catches my emphasis. I mean to say that he will tell them and they will know that this is his choosing.
He says nothing.
“Have you thought about what it will be like not living with them?”
Tears thicken his voice. “No, no, I don't want that!”
Ok, then. I can do this. I can restore his reason. I won't allow my children to be products of divorce, to feel the confusion, anger, and self-blame that I felt as a teenager. I've been handed a divine task, a chance to do things differently than my parents. To be better. Dave has always said he wants us to be extraordinary, so this is our gift. We’ll take a devastating event and rise above it. What an example we'll be.
Silently I take his hand, imagining our children here in the room with us, reminding Dave of his duty. I’ll let this sink in while I remain a loving, solid presence.
I will be our rock. And like a rock, I won’t think. I won’t feel.
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