For the record, today didn’t start this way. I didn’t roll out of bed, stretch my arms towards the sky, and decide, “Today I am going to kill my family.”
Mara turns 40 today. We hadn’t seen each other in two months. Not atypical: my work keeps me busy and she called for a break to “make things fresh.” We’ve known each other 22 years and been married 15, so we’ve taken breaks before. I just always trusted we’d come back stronger.
I wanted to surprise her. I knew she would be on the boat. Our boat, the one I bought. I wrote a little card. I bought a birthday cake: all chocolate, not too much icing. Her favorite. I bought her candles, too: a 4 and a 0. They must not make candles for adults. Or maybe they don’t sell them where I went. I drove to the pier and boarded the boat.
Someone else was already on board. He faced the ocean with his back to me.
His hand rested on Mara’s lower back.
Her hair was cut shorter and dyed black instead of the usual blonde, but I recognized her. I never saw the guy before.
I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth to start saying something, like “Happy birthday, Mara!” or “Nice to meet you, sir” or “Well, this is a fucking surprise, isn’t it?”
They turned around. I hadn’t said anything yet, but in my nervousness I dropped the cake, icing down, on the deck. I didn’t mean to do that. I mean, I hate Mara with all my guts but I love her with all my heart and I want her to be happy and I wanted her to have the cake.
“Daddy!” Abigail ran from the inside of the boat and rushed towards me. “Daddy, Daddy, can you stay for a long time this time?” I bent to a knee and hugged her and kissed her cheek. I knew in that moment I couldn’t, but how could I look my daughter in the eyes and tell her I was leaving again? Her smile faded from her lips and her eyes darkened. Always such a smart kid. Always picking up on things. She pecked me on the cheek. I rose, still holding the candles in one hand and Mara’s card in the other.
“I, um … I guess I’ll just keep these,” I said, slipping the candles in my pocket. I handed Mara the card. “This is for you.”
She hesitated, looking apologetically at me and the ruined cake. Her fingers fumbled with the envelope, tearing it as she opened it. She laughed slightly as she read the card: Sorry, I never did print that manual. Enjoy the cake! “Thank you,” she said. “I really like it.” I half-smiled at Mara and nodded once, avoiding eye contact with the mystery man. I looked at Abigail with an expression that I hope issued an apology because the words caught in my throat. I spun on my heels and walked onto the pier.
I take the 0 candle out of my pocket. “This is what I must mean to you,” I mutter to myself, and I light it. I find myself wandering towards the gas tank.
The manual I mentioned in the card. That’s one of Mara and my oldest inside jokes. It must have started something like this. We lay under the stars on our trip to Yellowstone, or somewhere.
“I love it here,” she’d say.
“Think we can do this when we have kids?”
“No,” I’d say.
“You do want kids, right?”
“Then we’d better make a manual for the things we can’t do after kids. The All-Inclusive Manual for Life at 40.”
When we’d go to a concert, we’d give each other a knowing glance: Put this in the manual of things we can’t do when we’re 40. We’d lean in to kiss each other in the back of a taxi at 3am because we can’t do that when we’re 40.
These memories mean the world to me, but I wonder what they mean to her now. Does she cherish them, or are they all a 0? How long has that guy been around? Months? Years? Or is he new? Is he a 0?
I sit by the gas tank. Just open my fingers. I never need to know.
I wish I’d known more about the mid-30s manual. My manual, as I lived it, was to provide. Pay for grade school. Save for high school and college. Buy food, clothes, cars, the house. Put in the extra hours when the kids talk about vacations to afford this Holiday Mansion, the same boat I’m about to blow up and where Mara cheats on me. Is it cheating if she called for a break? If I missed it when she said it was over?
Just open my fingers. I never need to know.
Merely providing cost me a lot. I missed Abigail’s fifth birthday party. I missed most of Stephen’s first soccer season. It caused this. If I could do it over, I would choose to be present.
If I cannot be present, I must provide. I shut the gas tank and run from the boat. I stand frozen for what seems like hours.
The boat undocks and sets sail, a blip of something in the vast blue nothingness. This voyage marks Mara’s new beginning. Fireworks burst over the boat. Maybe I just imagine them.
As for me? The candle has melted down. The wax from my new beginning congeals in my palm. I turn my back on the pier and face the city.
I am still here. And I am ready.