By Karen Edwards
Three days had passed since my live-in boyfriend, Dana returned home from his business convention. His black carry-on suitcase sat untouched in the far corner of our bedroom.
He was “in staff meetings all day and would be home late,” he called to tell me. I had the day off work and was doing some housework. I was short a few items to make a full load of laundry, so I thought I would be helpful and unpack his suitcase. I bent over, unzipped the case, and flipped open the top lid and took out his crumpled-up clothes. When I reached into the interior zipper compartment, I expected to find dirty socks, a couple of business cards and dinner receipts but found instead a handful of condoms.
My thumb rubbed along the perforated edge on one of the 2×2 inch square, gold tone foil packets while I rotated it in my hand like it was a jig saw puzzle piece I was trying to place. The words “Trojan, magnum, lubricated” appeared in black bold font on one side.
Feeling lightheaded, I squatted down on the floor beside the suitcase and felt the space between my eyebrows pinch as my thoughts ping- ponged back and forth.
“Why would Dana have condoms? “I wondered. “I was on birth control pills. We hadn’t used condoms since we first started dating – two years ago. We stopped using them about a month after that when our STD tests were negative, when we both agreed to be monogamous, so why would he…” and that’s when it hit me.
The realization that there was someone else hit me like a full body shock. The kind of shock you feel after jumping into the deep end of a pool for the last swim of the season, after the heat of summer has gone, and the chill of the water forces you to pop up to the surface all goose bumped and gasping for air.
My legs gave out which caused me to fall backwards onto the hardwood floor, “ass over tea kettle” as my Nana would have said.
I held my hand over my mouth in disbelief as if saying any words aloud could somehow delay or deny the reality of the moment. Tears, anger, and the acute feeling that I was played for a fool sparred within me.
“Oh, shit!” I whispered. “I have to start my life all over. Again.”
Dumbfounded, I sat and stared into the space in front of me. I watched as dust particles slowly floated in and out of a sunbeam that shone through the second-floor window and cast windowpane shadows across the red oak floors.
Seven months earlier, when we decided to move in together, neither one of us wanted to move into the other’s apartment. We both worked in Manhattan. Dana didn’t want to deal with the bus, ferry, subway commute to the city from my apartment on Staten Island. I didn’t want to give up the rural runner friendly neighborhoods I’d be accustomed to, and I didn’t want to downsize to his tiny walk-up apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. So, we compromised on the location.
We made a list of our must have’s and told our realtor to focus on a rental search within Westchester County.
I considered us lucky when our realtor found us an apartment in Irvington, NY, which comprised of the entire second floor of a large two-family house nestled in a cozy town that hugged the Hudson River.
“The Metro North station is two blocks away,” our realtor said. “You can be in Grand Central in under an hour. There’s an upper level with a separate space for your cats, (he was allergic), and as you can see there’s tons of natural light and the hardwood floors run throughout. Oh, and good news, the owner agreed to rent month to month,” she added.
I recall the beauty of those hardwood floors were an added bonus for me. But after “my discovery” as I sat on the floor with his suitcase and secret exposed, I felt like I was the butt of a devious joke. I noticed the grain in the wooden plank beside me had a long jagged “U” shape which resembled a crooked jack o’lantern grin. I felt like even the floors betrayed me and mocked me for having dared to be happy again, for having dared to love again.
While I re-packed the items I removed from his suitcase, and replaced everything back where I found it, a memory of when Dana and I first met bubbled up in my mind.
He was my stepsister Jil’s platonic “plus one” at my brother Mark’s wedding in March of 1991. He was an artist, and 7 years my junior. He had an unathletic frame, thick dark wavy hair, and behind his glasses, his blue eyes conveyed a sense of arrogance, innocence, and boredom.
I was an anxious 28-year-old recent widow dressed in a shiny fuchsia full length off the shoulder bridesmaid gown. I had been too busy with wedding party duties and family guests to recognize he had an interest in me.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said when he called me two weeks after the wedding, “I got your number from Jil.” He asked me out on a date, and soon after we quickly became a couple.
An older dear friend of mine once told me that “men fall in love with their eyes, and women fall in love with their ears.” I was living proof, because I found Dana’s baritone voice intoxicating, like a smooth glass of Hennessy Cognac.
However, on the night I confronted him about the condoms, I heard a sobering defiance and denial in his voice.
“Nothing happened,” he lied.
“But you had condoms in your suitcase!” I proclaimed. “Something had to happen. I mean, there had to be some kinda buildup between two people, a dinner date, kissing, a heat of the moment – SOMETHING had to happen before you got to a point of needing AND actually buying condoms,” I argued.
“Nothing happened,” he repeated, and he offered no further details.
I stopped speaking to him. While I figured out an exit plan, I also stopped the practice of changing my clothes and washing up after spending time with my cats. “Screw him,” I thought, “hope his eyes itch like hell.”
Before month’s end, on a frigid day in February, (while Dana was at work), my family and friends helped me move out. Besides his mattress and desk, all the furniture and décor that make a house a home belonged to me. I felt a bit Grinchy when I did my final walk through the empty apartment as I too left behind only some hooks and wire on the bare walls.
After we loaded the last box into the back of the rental truck, my brother Mark told me he wrote something nasty on Dana’s drawing table in his home office. I did not verbally condone my brother’s actions, but my smile may have.
I relocated to New Jersey to be closer to my older sister, Diane. About a month after my move, Diane called to tell me she received a box in the mail from Dana. We opened the box together and starred with confusion at its contents. Inside the box were a few loose pens, pencils, an expired grocery store coupon, a used Chap Stick, and other miscellaneous items one would find in a kitchen junk drawer. There was also a handwritten note which included the line: “I thought we were going to work things out.” My sister and I just looked at each other and burst out in laughter at the absurdity of it all.
I ended up leaving my job in New York for a new career closer to my new apartment. Around that time, a loyal friend called to say she saw Dana on TV in an entertainment interview about the company he worked for. She eagerly commented that his hairline was receding. We shared a mutual appreciation for his hair follicle misfortune. I thanked her for the information and when I hung up the phone, I gave a silent nod of thanks to Karma.
A few times over the years, when my curiosity got the better of me, I Googled Dana. It is amazing what you can glean off social media. During one search I learned he and the other woman had moved to California and started a business. A few online pictures included: a selfie of her in athletic workout clothes and a close-up photo of the two of them, their heads tilted towards each other, as their smiling faces filled the frame.
Even though my brain knew he was thousands of miles away and he could no longer hurt me, the uneasiness and anxiety I felt when I first looked at his digital image froze my breath, crept my shoulders up to my earlobes and made my arm pits sweat.
I reminded myself that was all in the past. I remembered how hard I worked to leave that emotional pain behind and how I eventually dismantled the self-preservation fortress I had built around my heart and learned to trust and love again.
Another time, another search, a photo showed him and his young son lying on the couch. Father and son were in the same casual pose with their legs stretched out with one arm bent behind their heads, watching TV.
“Good for him,” I thought. I had a family of my own now too and knew the joy and pure love children bring into the world.
The last and final time I searched online, I sympathized when I read his mother’s obituary and noticed the omittance of Dana’s wife’s name listed among the “survived by” family members in his father’s obituary.
A social media page had a posted a selfie of Dana’s wife with another man. They posed together flashing wide smiles and tanned toned bodies. The caption under the photo read “me and my new man.”
This time, I did not silently thank Karma. I did not feel revenged. I felt sorry for him. Because I knew the pain of infidelity and I knew (from my own childhood) the emotional impact divorce has on a family. I paused and said a silent prayer for him and his broken family.
I never did another online search of him again. But I confess, a small part of me wondered if he shipped his ex-wife a mystery box filled with junk drawer items too.
Karen Edwards – a native New Yorker, left her corporate job years ago and rejoices everyday she is not confined to a cubicle. She is currently writing memoirs about the challenges of living in a marriage of illusion during the 1980’s AIDS crisis that claimed the life of her first husband, and the story of her mother’s life post stroke in assisted living and her final days on hospice. Karen’s works appear in the PSB Literary Journal. An amateur photographer and lifelong runner, she lives in a river town in New Jersey along with her husband, two teenage boys, two guinea pigs and a cat named Murphy.