by Robert W. Cely, Jr.
All the ladies felt it. The moment each one of them stepped into the house, they knew. They knew the way women are able to without exactly knowing how, that something serious was hanging in the air.
Of course, none of them said anything. One by one they came in, greeted by Cara with a warm and inviting smile and a mutual kiss on the cheek. Almost instantly, she would know. It was like an off smell, this heaviness to the atmosphere inside the house. She would give only the slightest indication that she knew something was different; a raise of the eyebrows, a slight turn at the corners of the mouth, before smiling composure was regained.
Now it was five of them around the kitchen table. They all held cups of coffee, talking of this and that, sometimes looking out the bay window at the perfectly green lawn against the backdrop of a perfectly blue sky. A look might pass between two of them as they exchanged news about the kids or complaints about coaches and teachers, a single, guarded glance that was able to ask: Do you feel it? And the answer in just as quick a return glance: Yes, something definitely is going on. So as they continued their amiable chat, each of the women around the table – except for Cara – carried this incredible burden of trying to act normal when they knew this wasn’t normal.
Only Sylvia seemed untouched by the prevailing mood. But then again, Sylvia was well beyond such things.
Sylvia swept in last, perfectly put together as always. She managed this despite being older than all the other women by at least ten years. Perhaps its was the age, nearing sixty years, that afforded her the ease and confidence with which she carried herself. The creamy peach dress suit, sweeping blonde highlighted hair, and flawless makeup combined with the air of confidence that carried her, marked her clearly as the leader.
“Cara darling,” she said, leaning forward on her heels to deliver two quick kisses.
She continued her sweep into the house while the other women scurried to make space for her at the table. Cara hurried to fix her a drink,
“Oh dear, don’t fuss over that,” Sylvia waved as Cara poured coffee. “Don’t fuss at all. Just a half teaspoon of sugar for me and a bit of frothed milk. But make sure the milk isn’t too frothy. It makes no sense to pour pure froth into coffee. Just so it froths on the edges.”
“Just the edges,” Cara echoed.
“But don’t fuss, don’t fuss at all,” Sylvia insisted even as she demanded her coffee be made just so.
“Oh, I am sorry to be the last one to get here,” Sylvia apologized. “But the mayor last night was in such a foul mood. We were at her house well past midnight. Ah, the things that girl gets in her head are just absurd. I want to shake her sometimes. Just shake her.”
The other women laughed as Cara served the coffee.
“You didn’t have to do all that,” Sylvia said as she took the cup. “But it is just perfect. Thank you, dear.”
Sylvia took an approving sip as the other women waited for her to continue.
“And then, on top of this, I have a contractor telling me the most absurd things too. You know we have to begin building on the new place immediately, but this fool of a man starts complaining about the ground. It’s too wet, he says. Too wet? Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous? The ground is always wet. My yard is wet every morning. Who ever heard of not being able to build because the ground is too wet? It’s not like a standing pool or anything. That I could understand. But he just says it is too wet. So I had to deal with that little misfortune as well.”
All the women expressed appropriate sympathy for Sylvia’s plight. It was the way all their get-togethers began. Once the litany of Sylvia’s woes had ended, peppered generously with references to her wealth and her powerful friends, they moved on to the others.
“Enough about my little problems,” Sylvia would announce. “How are the rest of you?”
And so they would share. As women the world over will do when they gather together, they sat and talked of their problems. They talked and they listened.
But there was a certain formality to this group that set it apart from any random, impromptu social gathering. The conversation did not pop haphazardly from one woman to the next. Only one would talk as the others listened. If they made comments, it was always about the subject and the woman who had the floor. Never did any of them change the subject or try to direct the conversation to themselves or their own families. It was all done quite orderly and in turn.
Tess began the talk after Sylvia, her being the youngest. She was newly married and made no complaints about her husband. In fact, she took the time to brag about his new job in the IT department of a very promising corporation that managed hedge funds. Still, no sign of children, but she hoped that would change soon.
“How are his performance reviews so far?” Sylvia asked, sensing something in the young girl’s nervousness.
“Oh, they are very good,” the young girl managed to get out. She looked very uncomfortable under Sylvia’s gaze. She twisted a piece of auburn hair and looked pointedly into her empty coffee cup.
“And how about with you?” Sylvia asked. “Is he paying you the attention you deserve?”
Tess put on a brave smile and shrugged her shoulders.
“He gets so distracted,” she said. “He’s very smart, you see. His mind goes in so many different directions. It’s not that he’s not thoughtful or sensitive. It’s just….”
“You feel very strongly about him,” Benny, the other older woman in the group, pointed out.
Tess nodded her head.
“There’s nothing wrong with that at all,” Sylvia said. “Let’s keep an eye on him, though. Men can get so wrapped up in their work they hardly see anything else at all around them. We can’t let him lose focus on what’s important, can we? Your needs. They are real needs, Tess. Real needs.”
Tess nodded, taking the admonition. Sylvia nodded back, letting her know she would not forget and would expect to hear some progress next month.
None of the other women expressed any serious issue. Either that or they were better at hiding it than the youngest at the table. Kim felt her children were being held back by the teacher’s lack of attention. Nina complained about her neighborhood, especially the Association President who seemed to have it in for her. Benny had been fighting with her husband again, but considering her age and that it was her fourth marriage, it didn’t cause the same alarm as Tess’ problems.
“Girl, have you tried a training collar?” Sylvia wryly suggested. “Something that gives a good jolt to that stubborn thing?”
The other women laughed, even as they tried to hide it. Benny tried to scowl at Sylvia, but couldn’t help grinning also.
“I don’t think you take me seriously,” she said in mock offense.
“I only say it because I know deep down you love fighting with that old dog,” Sylvia told her.
This time, Benny laughed too. She reached out an affectionate hand to Sylvia who squeezed it in return. The laughter died quickly, though, and a heavy silence replaced it.
“Cara, Cara,” Sylvia finally sighed. “You’re so quiet and heavy over there. Tell us what’s on your mind, dear.”
Tears immediately began to form in Cara’s eyes.
“It’s Gary,” she said. “It’s just…. I don’t think he will ever change.”
“What happened?” one of the women asked.
“He was passed over for promotion,” Cara answered into her lap. Someone at the table pulled in a sharp breath.
“What’s so bad about that?” Tess asked with a fearful quiver in her voice.
None of the women wanted to answer her. It was finally Sylvia who spoke up.
“This is the third time he has been passed over,” the older woman said. “And he’s been on an Action Plan for the last three years, if I am not mistaken.”
Cara nodded. She wiped tears from her eyes and planted her palms on the table.
“I don’t think I’m being unreasonable,” she said with a steadier voice. “It’s not like I haven’t given him many chances. But I am almost thirty-five, and we have been married for ten years and still live in the same house we started out in.”
Heads began to nod around the table. The agreement seemed to encourage Cara and she let out a torrent of repressed frustration.
“I look at women who are five years younger than me, girls I used to mentor, moving into the Heights. I drive a car that is six years old, and my clothes are always out of style. And it’s not just me I worry about. The kids are suffering too. How do you think it effects them? Having a Dad that is stuck in the same job?”
“Have you talked to him about this?” Benny asked, a hand stretched out sympathetically towards her. “Does he know what’s at stake?”
“I must have said something a thousand times. He just doesn’t seem to care.”
“What does he say?” another of the women asked.
“He says he doesn’t like his job,” Cara said.
A severed head could have dropped onto the kitchen table judging from the horrified expressions on the women’s faces. A concept both bizarre and incomprehensible just invaded their consciousness. Several gasped.
“Men,” Sylvia muttered with an eye roll. “Some of the dumbest things come out of their mouths.”
“Does he at least give you attention?” Kim asked. “Is he at least satisfying and affirming your emotional needs?”
“Ha!” Cara barked a bitter laughed. “If he at least made an effort I could put up with it all. But no, it’s like I don’t even exist. He doesn’t support my hobbies. He doesn’t show any interest in what I’m doing. It’s like my troubles don’t matter to him at all. He never compliments me. And I can’t remember the last time he asked me what I want in life or if I’m happy.”
“What does he do all day?” a confused Nina asked.
“Reads, mopes around, takes walks,” Cara answered with a shake of her head. “The other day I saw him just staring off into space. Not doing anything. Just sitting in a chair and staring out the window.”
“Did you ask him what he was doing?” Tess asked with a tremor in his voice.
“He said he was just thinking,” Cara said. “And he sounded so irritated, like it was a perfectly natural thing to stare out of a window and think.”
Brows furrowed around the table and heads shook in confusion. Horror began to bloom on Tess’ face, as if she had never considered life could take such a horrible turn.
“He doesn’t do anything,” Cara continued. “He doesn’t participate in any of his clubs, or run for any office. He doesn’t want to host parties, or even go to them. When we do he either sits by himself or talks to one person all night.
“And it’s gotten worse lately. It’s like… It’s like he doesn’t care at all about his standing in the community, or about his family, or making a better life for us. It’s like… I don’t even know what to say.”
“Cara dear,” Sylvia spoke up. “My one question to you is not why you are bringing this to us, but why you waited so long?”
The other women nodded their agreement.
“The kids, I guess,” Cara shrugged, tears forming again. “They love him so much. I guess I did it for the kids.”
Sylvia reached across the table and took hold of Cara’s hand. She looked into the other woman’s eyes with deliberate intensity so the impact of her words would not be missed.
“How about doing something really good for your kids,” she suggested. “Like providing them with a father who cares for them and will nurture them.”
The agreement this time was vocal as the heads bobbed. Cara allowed a smile to creep across her face but still shook her head.
“What about Gary?” she asked. “This is his second marriage.”
“Whatever happens to Gary is Gary’s own fault,” Sylvia assured her. “Is it fair that you have to suffer, your kids suffer, because of his lack of ambition? No it’s not. And if I’m not mistaken his first marriage ended for the same reason. Now, how about put on your big-girl pants and lets do what’s right? For you and your children.”
Cara wiped away the tears and nodded resolutely. Hands floated towards her to offer touches of support. She acknowledged all of these with a nod of appreciation.
“This is why we meet, ladies,” Sylvia intoned to the gathered table. “This is what it means to be women, the caregivers and protectors of civilization. We are here to support and nurture one another. Without that, all of this falls apart.”
Sylvia lifted up her hands to indicate the house, the yard, even the weather outside. All of it, she declared, was upheld by what went on around their table.
“I put forward a motion,” Sylvia continued. “I move that Cara be granted a full separation from her current husband, Gary, and be awarded a new domestic partner. Furthermore, Gary being thus separated and without a family will be referred to the Matriarch’s Council for judgement.”
One by one the women nodded their consent. When it came to Cara she looked around one last time for support, then nodded grimly.
“The motion is passed,” Sylvia announced. “We grant you a new life.”
Any lingering doubts Cara held about releasing Gary all vanished the moment she met her new husband. He stood tall and well-groomed, short, dark hair combed neatly. She could make out the features of a chiseled physique beneath the creased, blue shirt that made his eyes stand out. Everything about him screamed success.
An awkward moment occurred when Gary arrived to gather the rest of his belongings. Since he was separated, all he owned fit in a single cardboard box. Real property belonged to families, after all.
The kids stood by, evidently torn. Cara ushered them into the arms of their new father. They resisted his embrace, staring at Gary who lingered by the front door.
“This is your father now,” she insisted. “See what a wonderful-looking dad you have.”
She jerked an irritated glance towards the door. “Gary!” she said without any trace of sympathy. “You’re just making things difficult.”
Gary nodded, the weary look in his eyes seeming to grow as he looked at his children gathered in the arms of another man. The little girl looked at him, as forlorn as he, and waved goodbye. Gary allowed himself a smile, waved back and mouthed, “I love you.”
With a last look at his children, he turned and walked away.
The day after he met with the Matriarch’s Council Gary was loaded on a bus with twenty other men declared deadbeats. Like him, they had been separated from their families and were deemed unworthy of another opportunity. Like him, he noticed they shared the same weary look he knew fell across his own features.
“Alright deadbeats!” a guard yelled at the dejected men seated on the bus. “You’ve all seen the Matriarchs, so you know why you’re here. You’ve been given many chances, been paired with women who worked real hard to make something out of you. But you failed. You. Got that? You failed, not the women. It’s all on you. Because of your failures, you have been deemed unfit for civilization. So you will no longer be a part of it. That’s what this bus is for, to take you away. So, take a last look at the city, deadbeats, it will be the last you see of her. You’re all headed to the wilds.”
“What’s going to happen to us?” a particularly fat man whined from the front of the bus. “Who’s going to take care of us?”
“You’re on your own now,” the guard answered. For a moment his gruff demeanor wavered and he looked genuinely sorry for the men.
The bus lurched forward, jarring the men before settling into a steady hum. It was silent inside, every man lost in the reverie of his own thoughts. Only the fat man made any noise, his whimpers barely stifled.
Gary stared out of the window as the pristine streets of the city rolled by. The few faces that looked up at them from the sidewalk as they passed wore expressions of disdain or pity. Idling at a light, an old woman locked eyes with Gary, her stare black and hateful.
“Deadbeat,” he heard her say before the bus rolled on.
A lump formed in his throat as he thought he might never see his children again, that they would grow up in the house of another man. The image tortured him as they moved further and further towards the edge of the city, past the gates that guarded the sanctity of civilized life from the wilds beyond.
Total night soon covered them after they passed through the gates and plunged into roads surrounded by dark forests on each side. When he saw those depths, the lump in his throat turned to a knot of fear in his stomach. But as they rode, the fear began to soften. Soon, he was surprised to notice that it had been replaced by something that strangely mirrored excitement.
Over an hour out of the city and the bus finally stopped. The back door was opened and the men ordered out. Obediently, they filed out the back, stepping down into a wide, grassy field surrounded by dark and towering trees.
“Take me back, I can do better,” the fat man pleaded one last time, grabbing the guard by the shirt.
“Get off, deadbeat,” the guard yelled. He delivered a hard shot to the man’s face, sending him sprawling to the ground.
The bus roared away, leaving the men alone in the field. Soon, the only evidence that it was ever there was the acrid smell of diesel exhaust that lingered on the air. Even that dissipated as the men milled around, confused. Darkness and cold settled in.
The fat man picked himself up and wiped the dirt from his clothes.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, lights appeared among the trees. The deadbeats drew closer to each other on instinct as torches of flame came out from the shadows and near the field. A band of men stepped from the trees, about twice the number of the men from the bus, and walked towards the huddled deadbeats.
Gary watched in fascination as the men from the forest drew closer. All were men. Some of them carried the torches that billowed fire, others hefted spears or other weapons. They all carried themselves in a way that Gary had never seen before.
He couldn’t help but think what a ridiculous contrast they presented. Gary and the deadbeats were hunched in fear, some wearing suits that were wrinkled and hung off their pale frames. They wore terror on their faces and stood in the field as if they didn’t belong, interlopers in the nation of life.
The men with the torches were their exact opposites. They stood tall and confident, unapologetic for who they were or for being there. They were dressed in what looked like skins and leather, their hair and beards long. Some aura Gary had never experienced emanated from them, something powerful and even savage.
Strength, he told himself. These men carry themselves with strength.
“Strip,” one of the men stepped forward and commanded. His long beard had been twisted into braids.
“Why,” the fat man whimpered. “These are the only clothes we have.”
“They stink of the city,” the bearded man said. “Take them off.”
With no choice but to comply, the men began to undress. Stink of the city, Gary thought to himself as he unbuttoned his shirt and threw it down. I wonder if I will ever see the city again.
Gary did see the city again.
Six months, eight months, a year later. Time, at some point, ceased to have the same meaning to him.
Gary ran up a rise in the forest and jumped up on a rock that overlooked the valley below. The city shone in the night past the valley, rising like a bright light in the dark. Tall towers, pristine and gleaming stood out against the backdrop of the wilds that surrounded it. It looked so orderly, so clean. But also…. Gary couldn’t put a name to it.
“Do you miss it?” a voice asked beside him.
It was the fat man. But the like the rest of them, he was fat no more. Lean and useful muscle, skin tanned by the sun, replaced the soft, white bulk he had come to the wilds with. Hair covered his face and his eyes gauged the world around him with the skill and confidence of a hunter. He pointed with a spear towards the distant glow of the city.
“Do you envy them?” his companion asked the same question in a different way.
“Envy?” Gary echoed with a hint of amusement. “No, I think I pity them. I was just thinking what the city looked like. I couldn’t find the word.”
“It looks dead,” the man who was once fat said. “That’s what it what it looks to me. Just dead.”
“Dead,” Gary agreed.
He was about to say something else when a horn sounded in the distance. The rising sound was followed by another, then echoed by a third.
“The hunt goes on,” Gary said, drawing a smile from his companion.
They leapt off the rock, joining the rush through the forest, thoughts of the city gone instantly from their minds.
Deep into the night they ran, the moon as their guide and companion. They followed the baying of the hounds and the clarion call of the horn peeling through the night. The city continued to shine unaware of the hunters who ran close to the cloistered walls that marked the edge of civilization, unaware of the wild ecstasy of the men who chased their quarry through avenues of starlight.
On a pristine and perfectly manicured lawn, not far inside the walls of the city, a man in smoothly pressed slacks and buttoned shirt stooped to check one of the sprinkler heads that wasn’t working. A panic rose up in him, thinking about the party that was supposed to be at his house in just two weeks, and how it would look to have a dead spot in his lawn. How his wife would shake her head at him the whole time and the people she invited politely pretend not to notice the blemish in the grass.
Frustration built up in him as he tried to will it to work. Just as he was about to curse his luck, he heard a sound that sent a chill through his body. Dogs bayed in the distance. A horn sounded somewhere in the cool night. Voices, strong and powerful, followed with their own howls, cries of joy and conquest. Some primeval delight swelled in the man when he heard the sound, and he forgot the sprinkler head. He looked up at the full moon, at the bath of starlight shining down, and a longing awakened in his soul that bubbled up from some place deep inside of him.
Some thought nagged at him in the back of his head that he should fix the sprinkler. But he countered it by asking himself why he even cared about the sprinkler, or the lawn. Why was it so damn important that the grass be perfectly green all the time? In fact, he didn’t even like his wife’s parties and it didn’t matter to him if they didn’t have it at all. He would be just fine, standing where he was, head turned to the sky, opening his soul to the magnificent dreams that inhabited the night air.