“Matthew, our paper got soaked last night. I’m going down to the liquor store to get another one. You want anything?”
“No, thanks, hon. I’m gonna take a shower. Care to join me?”
“Thanks. But my mother warned me about boys like you. First thing you know you’ll be soaping me up. Then where’ll we be?”
It was a beautiful early April day in Los Angeles; just slightly brisk at eight a.m., and the smog hadn’t had a chance to roll into the hills yet. The freak rain of the night before had cleared the air and you could see the foothills rising up just east of Pasadena. Ava plodded the block and a half to the liquor store. A young Latino man was busy painting out the graffiti still wet from the night before. The security gate inside the door was just being lifted.
Ava picked up the Times and a quart of orange juice. Mr. Bhutto asked her if that would be all. Absently, she reached across the counter for a Lotto ticket.
“Okay, one of these, too. I feel lucky. Thanks, Mr. Bhutto.” She slid her change into her jacket pocket and headed home.
Actually, lucky was the furthest thing from what she felt. Ava had the unfortunate habit of hiding her most painful feelings behind a barrage of pleasantry. She couldn’t bear to let Mr. Bhutto know the truth — that she was worried about her marriage. That after a blissful four-year honeymoon she had had the sudden realization that her husband was sleeping with his secretary. That it was all too much of a cliché to be true, and yet it was. That she was sure everyone knew but her. She was embarrassed, humiliated, wounded, terrified and enraged. Worst, she was walking around as if everything was okay. Her life in the past three days had been a scene out of Night of the Living Dead. She and Matthew were mere shells of the happy couple they had been only weeks before, or, to be precise, the happy couple she had believed they were.
It had been one of those epiphanies that sneak up on you. She had called Matthew’s office to ask whether he wanted to go out for pasta, and as soon as she had heard the hesitancy in Joyce’s voice, she had known. She felt she had been living in a fog for the past few months, and it had suddenly been lifted like a curtain revealing all of the illusions and false security she had been harboring.
On the way back home the traffic began to pick up out on the freeway. It was annoying. Ava began to be aware of the exhaust fumes curling their way into her nostrils. Someone laid on the horn loudly and insistently. Pounding on their horns. Cutting in and out of the lanes. Running each other off the road. Smashing into each other. Shooting at each other. She felt consumed with anger. Idiots. Soon she, too, would have to join the crush and make her way to her office in Westwood. She jammed her key into the lock and flung open the door.
“I want a divorce!!”
Matthew ambled out of the bathroom; a towel wrapped around his slender waist, drenching the carpet with his wet feet, his mouth hanging open as he tried to focus on Ava’s words.
“I WANT A DIVORCE!! Don’t you understand plain English?”
“Ava. Sit down. Whatever is bothering you, I want you to know we can work it out. We’ve always. . .”We’ve always what? Been perfectly honest with each other? Been totally loyal to each other? What? What?” Ava’s voice was cracking. At moments like this, no amount of psychological savvy could help her. Ava fell apart.
Matthew sat down on the sofa. “Joyce”, he softly murmured.
“Yes, of course, Joyce. What did you think? Did you think I’d never find out? Did you think no one would tell me?” She hadn’t been prepared for this much pain.
“Who told you? I mean, how did you find out?”
“Does it really matter?”
“Yes, it does to me.”
“NO ONE? How did you know? I was so discreet. It was a mistake. It was just. . .”
“It was just what? Once or twice? Jesus, Matthew. Don’t you give me any credit for sensitivity? You stopped sleeping with me months ago. Then you started staying late at work. Then you started having business lunches with Joyce, and I found myself regaled with tales of what a great secretary Joyce is. How smart she is. Her witty stories. God, Matthew. Discreet?”
Ava realized that she was still holding the paper sack from the liquor store. She left it on top of the television and started toward the bedroom. She began packing a small suitcase.
“What are you doing?”
“I’ll be at my sister’s temporarily.”
Suddenly, Ava felt amazingly calm. She marveled at her ability to pack in an organized fashion. She remembered seeing a segment on the Today show where they had had a packing expert come and explain how to get the most into your suitcase with the fewest wrinkles. She packed lightweight nylon and rayon dresses, a pair of jeans and two sweaters and framed the sides of the case with her belts. Expertly, she fitted her jewelry inside her socks and her socks inside her shoes. Her heart was beating a mile a minute as she phoned Yellow Cab.
“Ava,” (Matthew was fully dressed now, his hair slicked back away from his freshly shaven face). “When you feel ready, let’s talk. Please.”
Ava did not answer. She was afraid she would cry. Then, all would be lost. Her hard resolve would soften. Who knows, she might unpack her clothes and try to smooth things over. That would be the easiest way. But she did not want to do things the easy way, this time. She turned on her heel, gripped her suitcase and walked out the front door.
It was the kind of thing Ava had always feared. Some sixth sense had informed her from the start that she and Matthew were doomed and that he would never be able to stay with her. Here he was, a high-powered entertainment lawyer, movie star looks, all the social graces, charismatic, and yet with that slightly boy-next-door-aw-shucks charm that he had imported with him from his Methodist Connecticut roots. Here she was, slightly rounder than fashionable for Los Angeles, a fledgling psychotherapist with a tiny private practice in Westwood, shy, neurotic, and insecure, hailing from the less-than-chic Jewish ghetto of the San Fernando Valley. Come to think of it, this was not sixth sense. This was a logical deduction. It was not a question of if, to Ava; it was a question of when and perhaps of with whom. Still, for the first few years, things had been inexplicably wonderful between them.
Ava sighed and rang the bell. Vanessa opened the door and her mouth formed a perfect “O”. Wordlessly, she reached out and took the suitcase from Ava’s grip while she encircled her sister’s waist with her other arm. Vanessa strained for a joke: “Darling, we’ve got to stop meeting like this”. Ava burst into tears.
Vanessa called in sick to work and Ava cancelled her appointments. The two sisters stayed at Vanessa’s apartment and painted their toenails bright vermillion. Matthew phoned several times that day to try to arrange a meeting, but Ava asked Vanessa to intercede for her. She was not ready to talk to him. She was still too raw; too vulnerable. She frankly had not sorted out her feelings at this point. She needed time to think. The two sisters made a huge bowl of popcorn and watched game shows and soap operas on TV. Finally, towards the end of the day Vanessa asked Ava what had happened. Ava stated the facts as far as she knew them with dry eyes. Vanessa listened with little comment except to exclaim softly, “Poor baby”. She hugged Ava and held her for a long moment. Ava felt as though she had survived a bloody battle. The war, of course, had only begun, but perhaps the worst siege was over. She slept heavily and dreamlessly that night on her sister’s foldout bed in the living room.
The call came at eight o’clock the next morning. Vanessa held out the receiver about six inches from her ear and mouthed the word “Matthew”, but Ava signaled with a wave of her hand that she did not want to speak with him. Vanessa suddenly looked shocked.
“Matthew, are you sure? Well, did you double check? Maybe it was a typo. You know, the paper can make mistakes about these things . . .”
Ava jerked the phone from Vanessa’s hand.
“Oh my God something’s happened. Oh my God, Matthew. What is it? Is it my mother?” She reached for her sister’s hand and took the receiver.
”What? Is this your idea of a joke? Or are you just trying to get me home so you can talk your way out of . . . You did? They did? There is? We are? I don’t believe it! Alright. I’ll see you here. Half hour. Okay. Bye”.
Ava hung up the phone and clasped her hand over her mouth. Vanessa clasped her hand over her mouth. Suddenly they both started laughing. It was just too much.
Ava spoke from behind her hand. “We won the Lotto. Twenty million dollars (give or take a few thousand). There was only one other winning ticket! Twenty for him. Twenty for us. It’s not a hoax. Vanessa–honey – We’re rich!”
Matthew arrived twenty minutes later. Ava poured him a cup of coffee, dumped in two heaping teaspoons of sugar, placed it in front of him at Vanessa’s kitchen table and waited expectantly with her hands folded in front of her. (Vanessa had slipped out discretely on the pretense of wanting a morning walk. She hadn’t gone on a morning walk in five years, so it was about time, she murmured.) There was no doubt about it. Twenty million dollars to be prorated over twenty years. One million dollars a year. That would be, what? Say, five hundred thousand dollars a year after taxes? Matthew and Ava looked at each other wordlessly for a moment. Ava held out her hand and Matthew pulled out the ticket. Ava picked up the paper and checked the ticket against the numbers on the page. No doubt about it. They matched exactly. She stared for some time. So funny. She hadn’t even picked the numbers out. She had let the computer do it for her. No birthdays. No lucky numbers. No Social Security numbers. No addresses. Just six little random numbers. Nothing fancy. Just dumb luck.
“We have a lot to talk about, Matthew”. She put the ticket on the table between them.
“What do you want to do about this?”
“About what? About the fact that we’ve won the Lotto? About the fact that you’re sleeping with your secretary? About the fact that I can’t trust you? What?”
Matthew felt the wind had been knocked out of him. “Can’t trust me? Because I made one mistake?”
“It depends. How long did this mistake take? A year? A month? Six months?”
“It just kind of happened gradually. I don’t know – probably over the last three or four months. Joyce was having a hard time. We were spending long hours at the office. That last deal at Warner was huge – You know that. I hated being away that much, but I had no choice. I know this doesn’t excuse, but . . .” Matthew’s voice trailed off.
“No, Matthew. It doesn’t excuse. But the really terrifying part to me is — How did you manage to come home
and act so casual with me. So intimate? When I asked you if anything was wrong you were so sweet and reassuring. How could you do that?”
“Because, to me, nothing really was wrong between you and me. I mean, uh — I never stopped loving you, but sometimes I just — I guess I wanted something else. That sounds horrible, I know.”
“You have no idea.” Tears were streaming down Ava’s cheeks. “Sounds like you were bored. How can you be bored with someone you love? With me?” Her voice cracked.
“Ava, you are a creature of habit. It’s one of the things I love about you. But you sleep night after night in that ratty old flannel rag. You walk around the house in baggy dungarees with no make-up. I always know beforehand what we’re eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Honey, you’re a great pal, but where’s that feisty, dynamic, unpredictable, hot-blooded Jewish princess I fell in love with?”
“She’s buried under tons of textbooks, case notes, household chores, bills, grocery runs, all the little everyday demands that are part of life. Matthew! Life cannot be a continuous stretch of heavy breathing! Not even with Joyce!” Unintentionally, his secretary’s name came out as a vocal sneer.
“Just for the record, I broke off my relationship with Joyce two weeks ago. She’s looking for another job. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.”
Ava looked at Matthew. She did believe him. Her gut instinct told her he was not lying, and his face was anguished.
“Ava, I’m so sorry. In a way, I’m relieved. I knew that sooner or later we had to have this conversation. I just didn’t know where to begin. I’m sorry I had to let you initiate it. I don’t blame you for anything. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Ava reached her hand across the table. Matthew clasped it in his. Both of their hands were cold and shaking.
Ava pulled her hand away.
“Okay, look. Let’s go and claim this ticket. Then let’s go home and try to sort all of this out.”
It was a Thursday. They went home and forged a truce. They were tentative with each other over the weekend. Ava slept in the study “to avoid confusion”. They would talk a little, then retire to their separate corners, and then talk a little more. They talked about half-forgotten childhood memories and somehow managed to find whole areas of their lives that somehow had remained untouched until then. Each seemed almost like a stranger to the other. Matthew showed Ava a ring he had made from a peach stone when he was eight years old that he had kept in his possession all these years. He didn’t know why. Ava told Matthew about the time she had stolen ten pennies from Myrtle Maloney when she was in kindergarten. She had suffered terrible guilt for it.
As it turned out, Ava and Matthew received a letter from the State Lotto Commission on Monday. It turned out that an unscrupulous State employee, an insider with access to the computer, had rigged this particular drawing. Somehow he had forged a winning ticket for himself. The drawing had been declared null and void. The system had been compromised. The State had no choice. They were very sorry for any inconvenience. Matthew handed the paper to Ava. She read it with a sense of unreality. They looked at each other and simultaneously began to laugh. They fell into each other’s arms laughing and fell to the ground laughing and laughing until they both began to cry. Then Ava snorted and they both began to laugh again. It was a million-dollar laugh. They had gambled. They thought they had lost. They had won, after all.
Copyright © 2008 · All rights reserved · Robin Munson