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The Ugliest Woman in the World

by Jackie Spratt

When I was younger, my husband ran away with the ugliest woman on earth.

I’m not exaggerating. She had wispy blonde hair, goggly eyes and punky skin the colour of a frog’s underbelly. When she asked you a question, as she often did, she would stare at you with unblinking eyes until you felt like an hors d’oeuvre. Like you were a tasty roe floating on the current, and she was a musky waiting in the weeds for you to drift into reach.

What the hell?

Anyhow, when my husband first absconded, I didn’t know she was The Other Woman. Innocent as a puppy, I kept on talking to her at work and eating lunch with her and even, one time, going on an assignment with her, as if she was nothing but another co-worker who was a bit odd and awkward. I may have wondered about her sudden interest in me, but never did I connect her attention with the sudden upheaval in my home and hearth.

She was just being friendly, and I was in a space where I needed a gal friend to talk to.

Thank Christ I never talked much in those days. At least about anything that mattered. Can you imagine? If I’d been the kind of person who opened her heart to a trusted colleague? If I had unburdened myself on her? How creepy is that? I’d have been having these heart-to-hearts over beers at the President, and she’d have gone home to him with my stories. What would they have said about me? Would they have fondled my humiliation in bed? Would they have giggled in the dark, under the covers, about me?

Creepy, eh?

Anyway, I did eventually discover her secret and, predictably, he was the one who gave it to me.

He started phoning me at work, asking to meet for lunch or coffee somewhere. He wanted to talk about the break-up, how we’d divide our meager measure of the world’s goods. That sort of thing. I put him off for a while, not sure how I’d handle dealing with him face-to-face, but I relented in time and went to see him at Magg’s Coffee Hut.

He was all mystery and blah-blah about his abrupt departure from my life.

Yes, he was sorry that he hadn’t called to let me know he wouldn’t be home that night. Yes, he could see how I might have been worried out of my mind, given that he’d never done anything like that before. And yes, he imagined my Grey Cup day – our favourite sporting event of the year -- must have been a major downer, what with me being alone with all the chips, dip and beer, not knowing where the party had gone, or why.

But no, he wasn’t going to renege and come home – leaving me was part of his evolution, he said – and no, he wasn’t going to tell me exactly what had happened. Except to say that it was nothing I had done, there WAS someone else but it was only one of those stupid fling things, and he just needed space to find himself and grow.

Maybe I could visit his apartment some night and we could have sex. Would I like that?

I stopped just short of slapping his face, something I had never before done or even thought of doing. I’m a puncher, not a slapper. My instinct is the clenched fist, not the open palm. At that moment, though, I felt an urge to give him a Katherine Hepburn smack. Loud, stinging and humiliating.

I mean, we weren’t kids anymore. Sure, we’d married young, right after high school, but we’d been married for 14 years. We’d pushed each other through university, backpacked together through Europe, roughed it for a winter in the woods south of Algonquin Park and supported each other through a succession of jobs – me more than him, I guess, because I was the one with the time-sucking career, and he was the guy who could never find comfort in any of the many jobs he had sampled.

So, when he asked me if I’d like to stop over for a quickie at his dreary second-floor walk-up, I knew – just knew – that we were finished. In the biblical argot, I hardened my heart against him. I would not share him. With anyone. His evolution be damned.

Absolved, therefore, from the chore of pursuing reconciliation, I turned my attention to a more important task. I started prodding and prying to find out who the other woman was. Who wouldn’t?

I was intrigued by the idea that someone would try to snatch my little lothario. Maybe I was, even then, thinking of tracking her down and smashing her nose. So I poked at him for her name.

He stood firm at first, determined to be the gentleman lover. Then, at our third meeting to divide property and plan for the divorce, he caved. Just like that. The secret just got too big for him to hold. With a snide little smile, he squirted it out at me across the table. I think he wanted to see how I’d react.

Well, it hit me like hot piss in the face. Of all people! How could he go off with her?

Of course, I showed none of that. I gave him nothing but a condescending smile. Poor little man. Such a foolish boy. But underneath my iron lady front, I was quivering with rage and shame. Knife in the heart. Betrayed by a friend!

She was so UGLY! Good lord. What did he see in her? How on earth had she snared him? And why? Did she think him tasty? Was he so appealing she just had to have him? Or was it revenge for something I had done? Had she stalked him from the weeds, slithering through the ditch as we trotted hand-in-hand down the road, waiting for him to lag?

Maybe she had set her sights on him way back, when we first arrived in town and she met him at one of the paper’s Friday night booze ups at the Prez. Was it to spite me for something that had happened at work? I could think of nothing that would justify such revenge. Or maybe she just did it because she could. Because he was the type of man who could be taken. Because I seemed like the type of woman you could take from.

And that’s the nub of the thing, isn’t it? The shame. I was a woman who had lost her man. And not just to any woman. Not to the bimbo at the front desk or the young waitress at the bar. I had lost my man to the ugliest woman on earth. What did that say about me? I must have done something, or not done something, to deserve it.

It took the wind out of my sails for a very long time and caused no end of complications in my life.

Many years later, after the birth of a child and the flameout of a second marriage, after career bumps and grinds, innumerable moves and the death of much of my own small family, I met him again at his mother’s funeral. He hadn’t brought her with him for some reason. I don’t know why. His father muttered about the busy season at the hotel where they both worked. Indeed, to hear his father tell it, things were so frenzied at their Rocky Mountain resort that there had been some doubt whether he’d make it himself.

It seemed odd to me that two people with menial jobs – domestics almost – should be so important to the resort’s operation.

But then, he had never really been warm toward his parents. I recalled that, in the days we’d been together, he’d constantly carped about their stolid, working-class ways and their socialist values. He had aspired to finer things. Like, I suppose, washing bottles and cleaning toilets for well-heeled Americans.

In any event, he had made the effort to slip the yoke of work long enough to show up, in the flesh, just in time for the eulogizing. He even had time to say a few words in praise of the woman who had borne him, raised him and, after her fashion, loved him. Incoherent words, spoken glibly and tinged with sarcasm, but words for her nonetheless.

I studied him as he strutted back and forth behind the podium at the front of the funeral parlor.

He had put on weight, lots of it, and the pounds had settled around his waist. He had gone gray, as I had, but the colour didn’t work nearly as well for him. It sucked the life out of his pale, Celtic skin, leaving him looking as stodgy as bread pudding. The perky redhead had become a puddle of podge. And he looked unhappy. Deeply unhappy, in a way that reflected in his eyes even as he smiled and pretended he was pleased to see you. The smile could turn up his lips and crinkle his crow’s feet, but it couldn’t erase the wariness in his eyes.

The boy I’d love had become a beige little man with a flabby mid-section and sad eyes. A man who looked as if he’d been badly disappointed in life. Much as I had been in the months and years after he’d run away from me.

And I delighted in how he looked. I thought, if he had stayed with me, he wouldn’t look like that. I wouldn’t have let him go to fat He’d have stayed neat and trim and red-haired, a slip of a man who was easy on the eyes, just the way I liked him. And I would never, ever have let him become disappointed with his life. I would have jollied and cajoled him, praised him and flattered him, whatever it took to pull him back from those black moods of his. I knew him well enough to do that. Too bad I hadn’t taken the time to jolly him along when it counted, before he’d gone off with her.

Ah, well. Water under the bridge and all.

The fact was that if I’d done my wifely duty with him then – if I had fought her off and kept him safe -- I’d have never had my wonderful daughter or taken the job that now promised me a comfortable retirement or been tutored so thoroughly in the brutality of domesticity.

These were all good things in their way. All worthwhile life lessons. And they had taught me much about myself, even as they estranged me from myself.

So, on balance…

And, as I was balancing this and that aspect of my life story, he wound down his eulogy to his mother, looked around at the audience and spotted me near the back wall, where I was sitting on my own, lost in my thoughts about him. He smiled and, for a moment, he looked like the boy I had known in high school.

I was rattled by it.

Quite unexpectedly, I was staring – gaping almost -- at the warm, wise-cracking boy I had met at high school football game one long-ago October day. Colour snaps from my past started clicking through my mind and I couldn’t stop them, like a soldier’s slide show of a trip to the front. Click. A fall day by the lake, lying in the long grass at the top of the cliff, his red hair brilliant against the blue sky. Click. A July morning in the old boat, showing him how to take crappies off the hook without pulling their guts out. Click. A winter evening when he learned of his grandfather’s death, and he’d walked out of the apartment without a word, wanting to be alone with his grief, leaving me behind, unneeded. He had said not a word to me. Not a word.

I lingered on that slide. Him, hatless and coatless, head bowed, at the back of the dark parking lot, leaning on the dumpster. Me on the balcony, leaning over and looking down, wondering what had happened to him. When he had finally returned and told me, I had been stunned. We had visited his grandparents in England the summer before and he’d never shown affection for them. He would joke with me occasionally, making snide remarks about their foibles, that was all. I would never have guessed he felt so close to the old man.

I should have taken the hint then. He was not a guy who wanted to share his inner self with me. Neither was I inclined to share my inner self with him. Never thought about it much. Not sure I knew how to do it. Wasn’t even sure that I had, at that time in my life, an inner self to share. But we soldiered on together for another dozen years.

In a way, we’d been made for each other, if only for that moment. A heaven-made match of two self-absorbed kids who had teamed up to get through a difficult part of our lives. And we’d had a heck of a good time. I had no complaints on that score. We’d gone places, done things, had adventures, made friends. We had supported each other as we went back to school and, as best we could, put our lives on track.

Lots of laughs. Lots of memories.

Maybe I was being foolish, then, obsessing about the other woman and my hurt feelings during those few painful months after he went away. Maybe I should be letting all those good memories light me up a bit. It wasn’t the first time that the idea had hit me. Over the years, there had been occasions when my chronic pain had felt phony, a bit put-on. From time to time, I had suspected there was something of the drama queen about my anger.

I mean, it was all part of the whole warp and woof, wasn’t it? All part of life’s experience. If I hadn’t been with him those fourteen years, where would I have been? What would I have done? Stayed in school? Gone right to college? Continued with my boring, predictable, middle-class childhood? Or maybe, breaking out of pattern, I might have taken my pretentious, adolescent dreams to the city and shriveled there, huddling in a dreary apartment by myself, afraid to launch myself at the streets alone. Until what? Until I retreated, returned home and went back to school and went to university and had a boring, predictable, middle-class youth? I was no good at meeting people and pushing myself out into the world. Not by myself, anyway.

And him? Would he have stayed at that job in the hotel and never taken the plunge into art? Worn a suit, made his slow way up the corporate chain, slogged away at middle echelon jobs until he hit the ceiling of his high school education?

Who can say it would not have been better for him? That was, after all, where he had finally ended up, wasn’t it? Maybe he’d always known what was best for him and I had merely derailed him from getting there.

I could accept all that and be content with it. If only she wasn’t so ugly.

But that was just ego, right? He probably saw something completely different when he looked at her. Maybe it didn’t reflect on me at all. Maybe it was just him, and his particular tastes and what he needed at the time.

I watched him as he clambered off the low stage and started to make his way down the aisle toward me, stopping occasionally to shake a hand or chat with a guest. He’d been away a long time, had never made the time to get home much, so people wanted to talk to him. Offer him condolences and tell him they were thinking of him.

He touched their hands, their shoulders, scooping up their comfort and well-wishes as he approached me.

Then he was before me, and I held out my hand to him. He smiled as he grasped it between his two warm palms. And there he was, with his sad, wry grin and his hazel eyes. I shivered at his touch.

We made small talk, like old school chums, and pretended nothing important had existed between us. But as we chatted, I realized, with a bit of a shock, that I had been keeping a secret from myself for all these years. Despite the hair and the gut and the general air of seediness, he was still my boy. I was disappointed to learn that I had not moved beyond him and gone on with my life, but it also comforted me to understand the truth.

Whatever he had become, he was still my boy. He would always be my boy. That would never change. It made me feel tragic yet strong, and just a little bit smug, as if I had found my faith at last.

A rock of a faith, with permanence to it. No matter what happened in my life or his, he would always be my boy. No matter where he went or how long we were apart. No matter how much he liked her or enjoyed his new life with her. No matter how far he ran from me, I would always hold that part of him that was young and hopeful and kind.

And then it occurred to me that, maybe, I could yet have the future. Maybe it wasn’t irretrievably closed to me. We were touching and he was smiling at me. I could smile back at him, couldn’t I, and prod him with memories? Oh, yes, he was wrapped up in her right now, but what would happen if he didn’t have her? What if she left him? What if she were to disappear from his life somehow?

What then? Would he then think of earlier days, when he was young and hopeful and kind? Would he then regret his flight and come home?

Maybe.

We chatted, and he suggested, in all innocence, that I should come out west sometime to visit them. He had built a house he would like me to see, and he wanted very much that we should all be friends.

Like old times? I suggested.

Yes, he said. Like old times.

I smiled at him sweetly and said yes, I’d think about it. That it would be nice to spend some time with them. While there was time to spend and a “them” to spend it with.

And as I smiled at him I thought, maybe I could yet have the future. Maybe he was just a loaner, and it was time for him to come home.

It seemed right. It seemed so unfair that things should be allowed to go on the way they were.

After all, he was still my boy. And she was still the ugliest woman in the world.

The End

3381 words

Submitted on 2007-06-24 16:06:26

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