The separation was swift, unemotional, conducted with the perfunctory precision suggestive of two people who had done this before (they hadn’t). The aftermath, friends and family circling like vultures keen for a voyeuristic peek inside a failed marriage, proved more challenging. They studied her with pity the way one views a three-legged homeless dog in a rescue shelter commercial. They showered her with sympathetic gestures, the sequencing of which was oddly predictable: a compassionate head nod, a soothing back pat, a gentle shoulder squeeze. It bred horrifying thoughts. She wanted to punch a newborn in the gut or lift a kitten by its tail and fling it out of the window.
Friends, family and colleagues seemed to be bracing themselves for a spectacular meltdown, for her face to contort into ugly shapes, for her mouth to emit tragic sounds. They observed her sharply in social situations, as though she might blubber into the waiter’s crotch as soon as he approached with today’s specials. She was meant to be a sure bet, a tasty piece of melodrama they discussed when their shopping carts met in the cat litter aisle. She shouldn’t be eating healthily, or humming as she drove to work. She was fast becoming an anecdotal disappointment.
“It’ll hit you when you least expect it!” her colleague Margaret said over lunch in the staff room. She uttered the words with a breathless enthusiasm that seemed inappropriate for the subject matter.
“Honestly, I’m fine,” Eleanor said, glancing outside, which resembled a war zone, a battle between the high-pitched shrieks of pre-pubescent pupils and the shrill, overzealous pipes of the teacher’s whistle.
She taught Art and Art History at the local high school, the same one she attended as a teenager. Notice the tilt of Gauguin’s head, the angle of his eyes, how one side of his profile is in darkness, she told a classroom of sleepy, somewhat bored faces. She likened art to politics: there were movements, wave after wave. Artists took what they identified with and embellished it, made it their own. She enjoyed herself, even if they didn’t.
“If you keep it all in, then one day you’ll erupt.” Margaret’s words were muffled as she devoured a cream cheese bagel. “Trust me. I know about spontaneous combustion, I’m a science teacher!”
This was a theme in Margaret’s sense of humor, which could use improvement. Margaret was seeking, for example, someone to have “great chemistry with!” Eleanor had a feeling Margaret could improve the laws of attraction in her favor if she ate fewer cream cheese bagels.
“I’ll erupt? Like a volcano?”
Volcanoes reminded Eleanor of Latin class, the dashing men of Pompeii who had names like Caecilius and Quintus, and who spent their days eating grapes and listening to fair-haired ladies play the lyre. It seemed like a pleasant enough lifestyle, one she might have enjoyed emulating, except Mount Vesuvius had other plans.
“What do you miss most about him?” Margaret asked.
After Neil moved out, her mind shifted. She became giddy, deliriously light, the way she felt after consuming a second glass of wine on an empty stomach. Her limbs grew relaxed, a deliciously awake-like calm fanning through her entire body. She cooked new recipes, ones requiring quinoa or broccoli rabe or other items Neil had declared he, quote unquote, couldn’t stomach. She could do silly, distinctly non-sensible things again. She moved the spare television to the bathroom and watched back-to-back episodes of The Hills as she soaked in the tub for inordinate lengths of time. It was, quite simply, bliss.
“Aww, you can tell me,” Margaret said, mistaking Eleanor’s silence for painful pangs of nostalgia.
Eleanor groped blindly for a memory. She was struggling to remember any of Neil’s defining characteristics. He had a nasal voice. He sounded like he had a cold, always, even when he was perfectly healthy. It intrigued her during their early days of dating and then faded into something inexplicable that needn’t be dwelled upon, like crop circles.
“He was very clean,” she answered. “The house feels a lot dustier since he moved out.”
“Did you do something wrong?”
Her mother’s voice boomed through the sweat-filled room. She looked relieved, as though this question had been bothering her all class.
“What do you mean?” Eleanor whispered.
They were placing their yoga mats on the ballet bar. They were surrounded by the Lycra-clad figures of in-shape housewives.
“Did you do something that forced him into the arms of another woman?”
The question was absurd, except Eleanor liked the idea of people being forced into new relationships. She imagined a human-size magnet dragging Neil kicking and screaming towards a voluptuous woman’s bed.
“No, not at all. It was a mutual split.”
“Mutual, my foot.”
“And we’re not with other people.”
“As far as you’re aware he’s not.”
Something about her mother’s suspicious nature, her lack of delicacy was reassuring. It was one of the few guarantees in life.
“What are you going to do now?” her mother asked as they drove through the leafy suburbs.
“Open a pig farm.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I might take a trip to Singapore during Easter vacations.”
It was up there with pig farms in terms of ludicrous ideas, except the faux Singapore trip took on a life of its own. Her parents mentioned it in their round robin Christmas letter. The next issue of the local church bulletin wished Eleanor safe travels on her upcoming trip, a cheerful message that neatly segued into an article about St Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. There was no going back. She had to book the damn thing.
Sitting beneath shiny skyscrapers, she unfolded and studied an enormous map before refolding it and placing it in her handbag. Marina Bay Sands, an architectural behemoth owned by Las Vegas Sands Corp., loomed in front. She felt jetlagged, uninspired. A boy walked past carrying a Starbucks cup. She modified this thought: she felt jetlagged, uninspired, and still in America.
She thought Singapore would be more exotic: a flock of parrots in the sky, a trail of brightly colored lanterns giving the warm night air a gentle hue, a carnival of human dragons dancing their way through the narrow streets with an infectious energy. These were just some of the things she had expected when she booked her Delta flight.
Instead Singapore was clean and sterile. It resembled a city in a futuristic movie that unsubtly warns where our overreliance on technology is leading society. The female lead in this movie would prove to be a robot that fooled everyone, including Harrison Ford. It struck her that casting Harrison Ford as the male lead really showed her age.
Singapore is dull. It sort of reminds me of Neil, she was about to scribble in postcards, before realizing this sounded like a cry for help. Margaret, her parents, anyone in fact, would read the postcard and imagine her sitting alone in a noodle shop, analyzing her marriage instead of enjoying the highlights of South East Asia. Instead she wrote: Having the trip of a lifetime! Next stop: Indonesia!
She flew to Bali in search of a nebulous ideal. The ocean was clear and dense with surfers, its breeze an antidote to the blazing heat of the streets. The beaches were vast, dotted with palm-trees. She lay on the sand until she resembled an overcooked shrimp, shriveled and pink and unappetizing. She traveled inland to the foot of Bali’s highest mountain. The hotel was small enough and remote enough to label itself “boutique.” They could squeeze her in due to last minute cancellations an elderly lady told her, showing her to a room overlooking a vast and dense mass of banana trees and rice fields. It was quiet here, quixotically slow-paced, earthy. She felt a glimmer of hope, that whatever she needed—escapism, solitude, peace—would be found here.
The pool was kidney-shaped. The guests were hidden behind pairs of oversized sunglasses or raised issues of Vogue. She tried to read but grew distracted by a noise in the distance, a low and humble wail of reverence from a nearby temple. The words were indecipherable yet strangely hypnotic, steeped in tradition. The man’s voice was wise and primitive, sending a clear instruction of spirituality to the local Hindu community.
Against this musical backdrop Eleanor studied the other couples and tried to identify which ones would break up, as though an expert in dysfunctional relationships limping towards the coffin. Marrying Neil had been a mistake, a knee-jerk reaction to turning thirty-four and realizing every girl she’d grown up with was raising the next generation and perfectly content with their lives, as evidenced by various social media posts. Neil was a lawyer and a safe bet. She would never worry about infidelity, she understood implicitly on their first date between delicate sips of her martini. He confessed he was tired of Manhattan, of dating, of cocktail bars, at which point she glanced round and asked if he was tired of this date in this cocktail bar. He looked appalled and apologized repeatedly. Within a year they were engaged and moving north of the city to somewhere bigger, commensurate with their dreams of a large family, a four-wheel drive parked outside a modern house with faux-Elizabethan aspirations. It was only after their wedding she experienced the first rumble of foreboding: now what?
She’d underestimated Neil’s astuteness. He made his case with logic and reason, as though representing his client to a jury. It seemed, he said with a long pause, that she seemed more comfortable when he wasn’t there. He gave examples, the time he returned from a work trip early and she seemed annoyed he’d “interrupted” her carefully arranged girls’ night. She had been annoyed, she recalled, as had her friends, none of whom found Neil particularly interesting. She was on best behavior around him, he added, pressing his long fingers together. She admired him, he sensed, but did she love him, or adore him even? Perhaps not, perhaps she’d be happier without him?
It was early evening and growing dark and she’d unwittingly stepped on a pebble. Her big toe was bleeding. A large chunk of skin peeled off neatly, like a freshly cut vegetable. What was left was raw, ingrained with dirt. She swore vehemently and hobbled towards the closest restaurant.
An elderly man took her scarf and gave her a menu. A sporty-looking German couple, sitting at an adjacent table, waved and beckoned her over. “You were at the same hotel as us last week!” She hadn’t been in Bali last week she tried to respond, but they didn’t hear and it didn’t seem to matter. They were pointing to the extra chair and telling her to join.
Michael and Elga were friendly and full of instruction: she must trek the mountain and walk the rice fields, she must cycle through the village. They showered her with attention, they spoke with an enthusiasm she recognized, one she’d performed when thoroughly bored of Neil and thankful for any new person in sight. She allowed Michael and Elga to order for the table, and a colorful array of steaming hot dishes arrived. She ate heartily, each course tastier than the previous. She engaged in lively chatter. She’d reached her quota of alone time and soul searching. She was enjoying their conversation, even if language barriers proved problematic. Michael pointed at her bleeding toe.
“Your foot finger. It hurt?”
“My toe?” Eleanor responded, laughing.
Elga excused herself to use the bathroom while the dirty dishes were cleared away. Eleanor placed her hands on her stomach and said she was full and it was at that moment that Michael’s hand brushed against her knee. She glanced up in surprise. She felt her lips snap tightly shut, her jaw set in, but maybe it was a mistake? He was smiling at her cheerfully now, no hint of lasciviousness.
“We need gin and tonics,” he said decisively, glancing round for their waiter. “I go to bar.”
She wondered what it would be like if Neil was here too. Might he complain the food was too spicy? Would he be glued to his BlackBerry? Yes and yes. She lingered on bad memories, and it was some time before she realized the restaurant was closing. Their waiter was placing the check on the table.
“Oh no!” Eleanor laughed. “I’m paying with friends. They’re at the bar.”
The elderly man smiled softly. “There is no bar.”
A wave of panic set in. She searched the bathrooms, the kitchens, and the streets, yelling “Michael!” and “Elga!” while the waiter and chef followed her in hot pursuit. And then she returned and paid reluctantly with her Amex and a tight little grimace.
The next day she ordered a piña colada from the hotel bar. A tropical umbrella attached to a pineapple slice bobbed awkwardly in the coconut foam of her glass. She played with the paper umbrella until it broke. She talked about the incident loudly by the pool, describing the two criminals in case anyone saw them and justice could be served. Sunglasses were lowered. Eyebrows were raised. It was happy hour. A second piña colada arrived. She slurped it quickly and climbed unsteadily into the pool. With each step she was reminded of the coconut and rum and pineapple juice swirling in her stomach. She floated on her back, feeling bloated, spread like a starfish. The wave of foreboding was fleeting, seconds before it occurred. This is a disgrace, she heard someone say as she retched. A large fan of orange bile spread in each direction. It cluttered the filters. It competed with the stench of chlorine and won. Guests walked away in disgust.
Management asked her to leave. She was jeopardizing their TripAdvisor ranking. She shouted vile things. Loud expletives fluttered from her lips. The hotel staff watched her, horrified. And then she was climbing into an airport-bound cab with her hastily packed belongings. Sitting in the back seat she stared out of the window at the rice fields, at the mountain she hadn’t climbed and she recalled Margaret’s advice: If you keep it all in, then one day you’ll erupt.
The immigration officer at JFK studied her passport picture carefully before glancing back at her. The photo had been taken nine years previous, when she was sleeping with a Romanian waiter and living in a Nolita apartment with low ceilings and creaky floors, when her diet consisted of weed and pasta and large quantities of red wine, when she possessed no money but a slimmer figure and a coquettish dance in her eyes. She wondered whether he saw all of this, whether he saw a woman whose better days had passed?
Standing before him, back on U.S. soil, she didn’t know yet that her mother would soon have a heart attack, that she would live on in a reduced and frail state, that mother-daughter yoga classes would soon be out of the question. She didn’t know that her mother had been right to be suspicious, that Neil was dating an executive assistant from his law firm, that there had, in fact, been overlap. How clichéd and pathetic, Eleanor would say bitterly when she learned of this. She would no longer hum on her drive to work. Instead she would replay their conversations, clutching the wheel as her knuckles turned steadily more white, despising him for suggesting that she seemed more comfortable when he wasn’t there and maybe she would be happier without him? She didn’t know that the job she loved, her one accomplishment she was truly proud of, was about to slip from her grasp because the principal’s daughter had graduated from college. His daughter had graduated in Art History and, in a job market like this, nepotism was the surest way forward the principal reasoned.
And she didn’t know that this was when life got really interesting, that there was no room for the insipid and overindulged when each day grew steadily more grueling, each day a series of endurance tests. There was fight stirring deep within Eleanor, she just didn’t know it yet. No, she was still thinking about that horrid German couple and what a terrible vacation it had been and what a horrendous amount of money she’d drained for a miserable ten-day trip.
The immigration officer winked and snapped her passport shut. He welcomed her home and then she was walking towards the baggage carousel, walking on all ten of her foot fingers, thankful to be back.
Photo by Silvia Sala