Authors: Jennifer Weiner
“Well?” Tommy’s face was expressionless, as if he didn’t really care what she decided to do. Underneath the covers, she could see a distinct bulge. It seemed that a part of him was interested, and not angry at her at all … or maybe it just liked the pinching.
Perhaps she sensed dimly that this moment was a pivot, the axis on which the rest of her life would turn … but if she had even guessed at its importance, she couldn’t remember. She’d been thinking about the wedding, not the marriage itself; the wedding, and not the rest of her life. “Come to bed,” said Tommy, throwing back the covers … and Maureen, whose hip would be a spectacular sunset of purplish red the next morning, and would fade to an ugly bluish yellow by her wedding day, had come.
* * *
“Oh, wow, Mom, cool!”
After thinking it over, she’d invited Liza for dinner, offering to sit with her grandchildren so that Liza would go out that night. She’d left the gift box on the counter, knowing her daughter would say something about it, and Liza hadn’t disappointed her. “What’s this?” she’d asked, lifting the box, running her fingers over the smooth wrapping paper, and Maureen had explained that she’d found it in the attic while looking for the Halloween stuff. “Daddy left you a birthday present!”
Maureen supposed that was what this was—her birthday was November 3. Maybe Tommy had sensed that he wouldn’t last that long, had bought this gift and had had it wrapped ahead of time. The thought made her blush. Her daughter looked at her kindly.
“Open it!” she said. “I know Daddy would have wanted you to have it.” And so, once the table was cleared and Liza’s children snuggled in front of the television set, Maureen used a letter opener to slit open the tape. The silver wrapping paper bloomed open like wings, and there, in its cardboard box, was a Ouija GPS system.
Maureen looked at the box. “Ouija?”
“Never heard of that brand. Dad probably got it on Overstock.com. You know he loved his bargains,” said Liza.
Maureen sighed. “I’ll probably never be able to figure it out.”
“Oh, no, Ma, it’s easy.” Liza already had the thing out of the box and was fiddling with it, plugging in cords, pressing buttons. “See, this just fits into the cigarette lighter … Here, come on, get the kids, I’ll show you!” She led her mother out to the car, and together they plugged in the little machine, tapped in Maureen’s address, and set it as HOME. Liza was explaining the system’s many features. “It’ll check for traffic and find you the shortest routes, tell you if there’s trolls coming up.”
Liza smiled. “Tolls. I just call ’em trolls because the kids laugh … Hey, do you want it to sound like a man or a woman when it talks to you?”
“Oh, I don’t care. A woman, I guess.” Liza punched another button. “Hang on. One … more … thing.” A minute later, a female voice, melodic but recognizably computerized, said, “Hello, Maureen. Where do you want to go today?”
“It knows my name!” Maureen tried to smile, to look happy at her new gift, but she couldn’t keep a shudder from rippling over her skin. Liza looked at her and dropped her voice. “You still miss him, don’t you?”
Maureen looked at her daughter, her rosy-cheeked, well-married girl, nodded, and said, “Every single day.”
* * *
First came Liza, then, fifteen months later, Tommy Junior, and for years Maureen felt like she had been exiled to some strange and desolate planet where the air was slightly less oxygenated than necessary, where she never got enough food or sleep, where she was always slightly out of breath. Tommy pinched her maybe once or twice a month, confining his attentions to the parts of her body that couldn’t be seen when she was dressed, concentrating on her hips and her nipples, which he’d grab and pinch and twist so cruelly that she was convinced that he meant to tear them off. Worse than the pinching was the name-calling.
Fat bitch. Dumb bunny. Cunt. Slut, tramp, fat-ass whore.
It didn’t even make any sense, Maureen would think—who would even want a fat-assed whore? She tried to make a joke of it one morning as she examined herself in the mirror, but
when she saw the bruises, the deep-purplish welts, instead of laughing she had started to cry.
It was Tommy who’d picked out the house where they moved once he’d gotten promoted, the McMansion way out in Bucks County, its yard still raw dirt when they went to see it. The town was miles and miles away from Maureen’s parents, who still lived in South Philadelphia, and from Laura, who had moved with her husband and children in Collingswood. “You get more for your money out here,” Tommy decreed, and because it was his money they’d be spending, of course the final say was his. At first she’d bundle the kids into the car and take them into the city, meeting friends at the Franklin Institute or the Please Touch Museum, inviting them over to her place for lunch or a dip in the pool they’d installed in the backyard, but after the first year that had slowed down, and after the second year it had stopped. It was just so much trouble to pile the kids in the car, with their snacks and sippy cups, the diaper bag and her purse. She always ended up forgetting something, leaving an essential package of wipes at home or losing her raincoat at the museum, and gas wasn’t cheap. Every month when the credit-card statement came, Tommy would go through it line by line, item by item.
Another sixty bucks for gas? Christ! Do you think it grows on trees?
Sometimes he’d read the bill and not say anything, and that was always worse, because the silence meant pinches would follow, later that night when the children were sleeping.
She would have made friends with her neighbors if there had been any neighbors. But the house that Tommy picked was at the end of a cul-de-sac with thick woods on both sides, and only two other houses, half built, on the block. Their nearest neighbors, the Bornsteins, moved in when their house was complete. They seemed nice, but Tommy
warned her to keep her distance. “They’re Jews,” he’d explained, “not like us,” even though Joan Bornstein looked perfectly nice and normal the few times Maureen had seen her, walking to her station wagon with a smart leather bag over one arm. She knew the other mothers from her children’s classes, from Tommy’s soccer team and Liza’s Girl Scout troop, but only as acquaintances. She’d had friends as a girl, and there’d been her sisters, of course, but somehow, over her years with Tommy, she’d become the strange one. Other women could sense something different about her, that she wasn’t like them, and she was rarely invited along when they went to grab coffee after a game or planned a girls’ night out. Her life was her house and car, and Tommy required that she keep them both scrupulously clean. Her life was folding laundry, packing lunches, washing dishes, ferrying her children where they needed to be. And most of all, her life was the dark bedroom, when she stood in front of her husband while he hissed insults in her ear and pinched her until she cried.
For years she had lived that way, like a princess pent up in a tower, seeing Laura in September for her mammogram, the rest of her family maybe twice a year, at Christmas and on the Fourth of July. Her children grew up, Liza loud and rebellious, given to tantrums and tears and the slamming of doors. Tommy was quieter, a thin, pale version of his father, with a watchful look on his face. Maureen wondered about him sometimes, wondered whether he’d inherited his father’s taste for pinching and calling names. Suddenly both of them were gone, Liza to Penn State and marriage, Tommy Junior to Oberlin and an engineering job in Ohio. Then it was her and Tommy, alone in the big house.
He would pinch her if dinner was late. He would pinch her if the steak was overcooked, if the table wasn’t set, if his favorite shirt wasn’t back from the dry cleaner when he wanted it. The pinches were bad, the names were worse, but being so alone, having no one to talk to, was hardest of all. Still, Maureen couldn’t imagine leaving. Where would she go? And once she got there, what explanation would she offer?
My husband was abusing me.
When did it start?
Oh, let’s see, 1981, it must have been. Why didn’t I say anything until now? Why did I put up with it all those years?
She had no answers for those questions. And it wasn’t that bad. That’s what she told herself. Just pinching. Just words.
Sticks and stones will break my bones
and all. She was sure there were other women living similar secret lives, maybe even nice-looking Joan Bornstein, with her little Saab and her smart leather purse.
Then Tommy had caught himself a cancer. He’d come home from the physical she’d scheduled with a look on his face that she knew meant trouble. “Tommy? What’s wrong?”
He sat down in his recliner and beckoned for his drink, the martini she knew to have ready for the moment he walked through the door. “Prostate,” he said shortly. There were circles under his eyes, and his lips looked thin. “You’ll need to take me to the hospital for the operation, and then chemo after that.” She’d nodded, not knowing whether she should comfort him or what would come next.
After he’d left for work the next day, she’d called Dr. Orloff, even though she wasn’t sure what he could tell her without Tommy’s permission. “Encourage him to have the surgery,” he told Maureen. “There’s no guarantees, but at least then he’ll have a shot.” Which begged the question: what kind of shot did she want Tommy to have?
She thought it over as she drove through her appointed rounds, from the grocery store to the drugstore to the bookstore to the dry cleaner’s. Sometimes a near-death experience changed a person … and this cancer could very well kill Tommy, even with the surgery. They might not get it all; the chemo might not work. Maureen had done her homework, surfing the Internet late at night while her husband snored and twitched and moaned and sweated beside her. Maybe he would emerge from the operating room a sweeter man. Maybe the surgeon, all unwitting, would have cut out his temper along with the tumor.
Of course that didn’t happen.
Tommy was weak when he came home—“weak as a kitten,” he said, another one of those famous Tommyisms. The first time he tried to pinch her, for some infraction she couldn’t remember, his fingers could barely exert enough force to leave a bruise. Now he’ll leave off, Maureen thought … but the next day Tommy had gone to the office, worked from noon until five, and come home with a box marked Office Supplies. In the box were four heavy binder clips, molded black wire, ugly things that reminded her of praying mantises made of metal.
, he’d say to her, clamping each clip in place, making her writhe in pain, making her feel like her skin was screaming.
Fat. Fat. Fat.
That night, after he’d fallen asleep, she’d lay in bed, bruised in half a dozen spots, each one of them its own planet of agony, and a voice had spoken up inside of her head. This voice sounded a little like her mother’s and a little like her sister Laura’s and a little bit like her own.
You know he’s going to kill you if this keeps up.
Maureen’s eyes fluttered open, then slipped shut again.
Let it be over. Let this end.
He’s going to kill you—unless you kill him first.
She had laughed out loud, shaking her head. Kill Tommy? Unthinkable. It was like pretending that you could kill … well, that you could kill God.
But he’s sick
, said the voice … and then Maureen remembered an old joke, a bad one, but one somehow appropriate to the situation.
A doctor calls a woman into his office. “Your husband is very ill. Terminally ill,” he says. “The only chance of saving his life is if he gets three home-cooked meals a day, he gets to watch sports or whatever he wants on the TV all day long, and you give him regular massages and blow jobs whenever he wants them.” The woman nods, takes notes, then walks into the waiting room, where she’s left her husband sitting. “What did the doctor say?” the husband asks, and the woman answers, “He said you’re going to die.”
* * *
“Turn left,” said the pleasant female voice of the GPS. Maureen put on her blinker, looked both ways, then turned. “Follow the road to … ” A slight hesitation. “White Horse Pike. Then bear right.”
“It’s amazing,” she murmured, and Liza, in the passenger’s seat, clapped her hands in delight. “But what if I don’t do what it says?”
“Try it,” Liza said. So Maureen drove past White Horse Pike, watching as the little virtual car on the GPS map ignored the big red arrow. The screen blanked out.
“Oh, no, I broke it!”
“Just wait,” Liza cautioned as the voice said calmly, “Recalculating.” An instant later, the map was back online, with a different route plotted, another red arrow indicating the next turn.
“Wow,” said Maureen.
“See, Ma, you can do it. You’re going to be fine.”
Maureen had spent the next week fiddling with her GPS—the GPS from Beyond the Grave, as she sometimes thought of it—and she’d pleased herself with how quickly and with what little effort she’d mastered the system. She’d plugged in all of the places she went—her hair salon, the Y, where she did Aqua Aerobics twice a week, the grocery store, of course, and the cemetery where Tom was buried. Just lately she’d taken to typing in the names of places far away, places she’d never seen. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Carmel-by-the-Sea. San Francisco. The Arcadia National Park in Maine. The voice of the Ouija, the ghost in the machine, never told her she was stupid or dreaming to think of these places, to look at the mileage and the routes; it never called her
, it would say in its cool and somehow bemused female voice. Then
. Tommy had been dead for six months and seven days, and with every moment that passed Maureen believed more and more that one of those trips might be possible. She was fifty-four, and fifty-four was a long way from dead. She could put the big house on the market, maybe move in with Laura, whose children had also left the nest. The two of them could go on road trips, as they had when they were teenagers, with the Little Playmate cooler full of ice and beer and Diet Coke in the backseat, with tote bags filled with beach towels and suntan lotion, and a boombox and a few cassette tapes, Juice Newton and Linda Rondstadt singing “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love.”