“Don’t be ridiculous,” Angelina scoffed at Sam, her husband of sixty years. “You’re not leaving. You won’t last a day without me.”
“I can’t deal with you anymore,” he said as he walked out the door. As if she’d been the one to disappoint, to betray.
Angelina’s sagging flesh dimpled with shivers as she followed Sam into the icy morning in nothing more than her Laura Ashley slippers and flowered housecoat. She winced as it took him three tries to heft their ancient Samsonite onto their brand-spanking-new 2000 Buick’s maroon leather seat.
She bore silent, frozen witness as he slid into the driver’s seat and fiddled with the mirrors, which always drove her crazy. She hadn’t driven since the ‘70s, leaving Sam the sole driver of the car. How much adjusting could the damn mirrors possibly need? She waited for him to glance her way; but, as usual, he focused so firmly on his own agenda that he never looked up to see what was right in front of him.
As the car’s wheels squelched down the slushy driveway, a surge of panic broiled in Angelina’s guts. Run after him, her instincts screamed. Beg him to stay. As her instincts had never done her a lick of good, she ignored them.
A sudden swirl of wind buffeted the hem of her housecoat, chilling her in places she’d never felt cold before. The shock of it jolted Angelina to her senses. Here she stood practically naked, and that handsome young lawyer fellow from down the street would be jogging by any minute now. What on earth would he think of her?
A fragment of her son Vinny’s favorite poem came back to her, the poem he’d flustered her with every chance he got: “How naked go the sometime nude!” Realizing just how vulnerable she was, both to the elements and her own emotions, Angelina thought she finally understood exactly what the poet had been trying to say.
She trudged back into the house as the Buick continued its doddering descent into the street. She needed to get herself in order and concentrate on priorities: a cup of steaming hot coffee, her white cotton panties, and her trusty Playtex eighteen-hour bra. Then she would call Sam’s sister. If anyone knew what had gotten into him, it would be Gloria.
So what if Sam had taken plenty of comares in the past, Angelina reflected as she dried off from her bath and donned her daily armor. What Sicilian husband of their generation hadn’t? It was certainly no reflection on the wife. Out of all the wanna-be pinup girls clamoring for his attention, she was the one Sam had chosen to bear his name. To Angelina’s generation, that meant something. To her, it meant everything.
She’d been desolate when he’d taken his first mistress, but with a torrent of tears still streaming down her cheeks, she’d decided that if another woman was willing to do the things in the bedroom that she, Angelina, was not, she was willing to turn a blind eye, as long as Sam still showed her the respect she was due. And he always had. But this morning, when she’d searched his sock drawer and found a stash of Viagra he certainly wasn’t using with her, the shock of her anger had compelled her to confront him. She couldn’t have said what had changed; she only knew something had.
She’d never imagined Sam would react the way he had. Through all their years together, he’d never so much as hinted at leaving her. Yet he was gone, his Viagra along with him.
With shaking hands, she picked up the phone and dialed Sam’s sister. “Gloria? Come over. We need to talk.”
Two cups of coffee and a tablespoon of Maalox later, her sister-in-law let herself in without bothering to knock. “Yoo-hoo, Angie, it’s meee-ee.” Angelina wrinkled her nose as the cloying stench of Gloria’s perfume wafted into the kitchen a good ten seconds before she did. “I brought you some crushed tomatoes, the imported ones,” she said.
“Two for two dollars at Mercandetti’s. You can’t go wrong.”
Angelina plucked the bag from Gloria’s flabby arms and set it on the counter. “What do I owe?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Gloria chirped. “It all comes out in the wash eventually.” Moving into the dining room, she flung her gaudy purse over the back of one chair and herself into another, which groaned its protest. Angelina winced. The woman had to know how big her ass was. Would it kill her to sit more gently?
Angelina placed three almond paste cookies on a piece of paper towel and joined Gloria at the table. She needed to convince her to tell what she knew, and God knew the woman loved her sweets.
“I know Sam must have called you,” she said. “Did he tell you why he left?”
“He didn’t tell me a thing, swear to Gawd.” Gloria clasped one hand over her voluminous bosom. “You know Sam, so dramatic. He was blabbering a mile a minute. I barely caught any of it.”
“I don’t believe that for a second, since he doesn’t even take his morning crap without running it by you first."
“Well, he did say he was leaving,” Gloria conceded, “but he didn’t fill me in on the details.”
“Oh, so that’s why you rushed over here, hoping to get them from me so you can spread my private business all over town?”
Gloria gave a dainty sniff, arching one thickly-drawn-on eyebrow. “You’re the one who asked me to come.”
The last thing Angelina wanted to do was humble herself before Gloria, but what choice did she have? “I never thought he’d have the cogliones to leave.”
“Oh, honey,” Gloria said. “What happened?”
“He’s cheating. Again.”
Gloria devoured all three cookies in exactly six bites before responding. “Seriously? He’s eighty years old, for Heaven’s sake.”
“Tell that to the people who make those nasty sex pills. You’re lucky to be a widow. You don’t have to worry about sex anymore.”
Gloria grimaced, showcasing both her impressive chins. “Well, maybe if Sam didn’t have to keep working fifteen years after he retired, he wouldn’t be in a position to meet that kind of woman, and you wouldn’t have to worry about it either.”
“Not that it’s your business, but Sam does not have to work. It’s not like we need the money. But you know your brother; you can’t tell him a damn thing.”
Gloria rolled her eyes. “My brother’s spent money like a drunken sailor since the day he married you. Your pensions and his piddly salary can’t possibly cover the kind of bills he racks up.”
“Well, he doesn’t spend it on me, if that’s what you’re implying. I already have everything I need.”
“Oh, that’s rich!” Gloria’s bray of a laugh jangled against Angelina’s frayed nerves. “He’s still paying for the crap he bought for you twenty years ago, interest upon interest. Do you have any idea how many times me and Dom have bailed him out over the years?”
Angelina was struck silent. No, she hadn’t known. Sam had always handled their finances, and she’d kept her nose out of it.
“Did you really think Sam never told anybody about the hoops you made him jump through to get a little nookie?” Gloria mimicked her brother’s gravelly voice. “‛One outfit, one time. You want Angie to take off her nightgown, you’d better come home with jewelry. You want her to pretend she likes it, it better be diamonds.’ It’s been a family joke for years.”
Angelina felt the sting of humiliation to her very soul. She’d always thought Sam’s family had envied her, at the very least respected her, and all the time they’d been sniggering behind her back.
Gloria stood quickly. “Look, forget I said anything. Really, nobody thought anything of it. I’m sure Sam will be back when he calms down. He loves his creature comforts too much to stay away for long.”
Angelina stifled the urge to slap the smirk from Gloria’s face. “Get out, Gloria. I don’t know why I thought you might actually be helpful for once.”
“I’ve gotta run anyway. And don’t worry about paying me for the tomatoes. Dom made sure I’d never have to worry about money.”
“Take them with you. I don’t want them. You know I only use Roma tomatoes.”
“Well, excuuuuse me, Mrs. High-and-Mighty.” Gloria grabbed the bag and headed off in a huff, slamming the door behind her.
Angelina stood before her walk-in closet. She’d always viewed her collection of expensive clothing and lavish jewelry with pride, as evidence of Sam’s devotion. Now she felt nothing at all. Certainly not shame. What did she have to be ashamed of? She always kept an immaculate house and delicious meals on the table, and he always rewarded her for it. In exchange, she accommodated him in the bedroom as long as he behaved. She’d actually thought he’d been as grateful for her as she’d been for him from the start.
The handsome war hero had been a great catch – a good provider, a decent father, a fun-loving companion. This was far more than the homely, big-boned girl the boys in Little Italy called “Horsey” had ever expected to have, and she’d been determined to hold tight to him. Everyone had been shocked when Sam had chosen her, but for sixty years she’d showed them all. Or so she’d believed.
Even after the disappointment of her wedding night, Angelina had hoped love would come eventually. They’d done okay, all things considered, maybe even better than most, but love would have been nice, she thought, blinking back tears. It sure would have been nice.
Not five minutes after the bellboy closed the door behind them, Sam heaved and grunted on top of Angelina like a mindless animal, while the white satin peignoir she’d gotten for her bridal shower remained neatly folded in her unopened suitcase, and the loving words she’d expected to hear remained unsaid.
Her girlfriends had warned her sex might hurt a little at first, but she hadn’t expected to feel like her insides were being ripped to shreds, nor was she prepared for the sweat and stink and mess of it all.
There was blood afterwards, splotches of it flowering the creamy white sheets. Not even pausing to pull her panties back on, Angelina scurried to the bathroom and wetted a plush towel. Kneeling atop the bed, she scrubbed frantically at the stains, mortified at the thought of the maid seeing them.
“Nice view,” Sam said.
She had no patience for his nonsense. “C’mon, Sam. Help me out here.”
“Oh, I’ll help you out.” He draped himself over her, and took her from behind, slapping hard at her buttocks. “Giddy-up, Horsey,”
Angelina was paralyzed, both at his use of the hated nickname and what she feared he intended to do. Why had nobody told her about this? Was it some degrading secret that only other wives knew? She closed her eyes tightly and prayed for it to be over.
When she awoke in the morning, she was relieved beyond measure to find a note that Sam had gone exploring. How could she possibly face him now? Disappointment flooded through her, both for Sam, who had expected her to do those perverted things, and for herself, who hadn’t said or done a thing to stop him. She didn’t think she could ever love him now, but the time to end things was past. She and her parents would never live down the shame.
“Angie, come see what I bought you!” Sam was exuberant upon his return later that morning, carrying armloads of pastel shopping bags filled with silk dresses and frothy nightgowns, crystal bottles of French parfum, Belgian chocolates wrapped in gold foil, handbags with matching gloves soft as butter, and a sapphire-and-diamond necklace so exquisite, Angelina grew dizzy at the sight of it.
She imagined how envious everyone would be at such lavish evidence of Sam’s devotion. Maybe it was worth it, she thought. After last night, she deserved all of it and more. “No more funny stuff,” she warned, accepting his slobbery kiss as he backed her toward the unmade bed. “Just the regular way from now on.”
“It will never happen again,” he promised. And it never had.
What was happy, anyway, Angelina thought, except what everybody else thought you had that they didn’t? As it turned out, the only one who’d been fooled was herself. She had never garnered respect at all, not from Sam and not from his family. Her marriage had been a sham from the start, branding her both a laughingstock and a fool.
Furious in a way she’d never allowed herself to feel before, Angelina flung jewelry boxes and clothing alike into mounds on the carpet until the closet was empty. She collapsed atop them and sobbed until her eyes were barren of tears.
She was boiling a pot of rigatoni when Sam returned, exactly nine days and sixteen unanswered telephone messages from Gloria later. Angelina heard the front door open and close, the squeak of his La-Z-Boy, the blare of Pat Sajak and the “Wheel of Fortune.”
Did he really think he could just waltz back in like nothing had happened? Not if she had anything to say about it. Angelina marched into the den and stood above him but found herself struck dumb.
“It’s over, Angie. Never again. I swear on my mother’s grave.” Sam started crying then, talking all the while, but Angelina didn’t comprehend a word. “I shouldn’t have left,” he said, finally running out of steam.
“No, you shouldn’t have.”
There was so much else Angelina longed to say: how deeply she’d been wounded every time she’d had to pretend he was somewhere, anywhere else but with another woman; how mortified she was to find he’d been mocking her to their family and friends for years. But there was no point now. She had chosen silence on her wedding night, she realized, and had lived in the prison of that silence ever since. Besides, what was the alternative? To divorce him and start over at seventy-five years old? It might be a new millennium, but she was the same old Angelina.
Remembering the pasta on the stove, she walked back into the kitchen. Surely it was ruined by now.
“I stopped at Calabria’s for a loaf of bread,” Sam said, following behind her. “I got you six cans of the Roma tomatoes you like.”
“Thank you,” she said, shuffling slowly to the stove like the old woman she was. “That was nice.”
He shrugged. “They’re buy one, get one free, over a dollar cheaper than Mercandetti’s. You can’t go wrong.”
But you can, Angelina thought, stirring the limp, overcooked pasta. You can go wrong. And once you do, you have no hope of going back to change it. Still, she stirred and stirred and stirred.
BIO: Lisa Benwitz’s poem, “The Things You Never Did,” was published in 2003 in Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Mothers, and has since been reprinted in other Chicken Soup books as well as on its website. She is currently enrolled in a creative writing MFA program at WVU.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Angelina scoffed at Sam, her husband of sixty years. “You’re not leaving. You won’t last a day without me.”