Alix Ohlin is the author of Inside,
Alix Ohlin, Inside
© Vintage

The Missing Person,
Alix Ohlin, The Missing Person
© Vintage

and Babylon and Other Stories.

She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Lafayette College.

Stranger Things Have Happened

posted Aug 18, 2009

Part 1 | Part 2

So the important thing to know from the start is that she was miserable. She hadn’t always been, of course—she’d gotten married in a flurry of sex and promises and she’d worn a white dress so hideously confectionary that she felt like a parody of herself, a joke told in crinoline and lace, and even that made her happy, because it was silly and she knew they’d laugh about it later. Which they did. Then they had a baby, who was beautiful and perfect, then later on became less beautiful, less perfect, in fact troubled, for a time Ritalin- and methamphetamine-addicted, but subsequently, amazingly, pulled himself together and managed, despite the rocky years, to graduate college and find a decent job at a zoo, tending to the turtles.

Which brings us to the misery, twenty-six years on. On the day she discovered she was miserable, which is to say allowed herself to feel it, Kathleen was forty-nine years old and a tenured professor of American literature at a college in suburban Philadelphia. Her husband, Terence, was fifty-two, and he too was tenured, in the same department, at the same school. Their son Steve had been clean for three years. The mortgage had been paid. Financially, emotionally, logistically, things were going pretty well. Both she and Terence were in a meeting, discussing whether or not to allow English majors to graduate without taking a course in Shakespeare. Tempers on this topic ran high, as they did on almost all topics; the professors were a testy bunch, desirous of offense. Terence, who was the chair, thought that this requirement was retrograde, absurd; everyone knew that English majors today went to marketing or advertising or law school.

“That’s true,” Kathleen said wearily. She was obligated to support her husband. At one time, she’d worked hard to stake out her own positions, to be seen as objective and fair. Once she realized, however, that no matter what she said she would always be perceived as being on Terence’s side—even if she voted against him, this was interpreted as some kind of obscure but Machiavellian strategy the two of them had cooked up together—she opted for the path of least resistance, which was to pretend, both at work and at home, that Terence was the single most brilliant person she knew.

“Now, I love Shakespeare,” Terence said. Kathleen wondered if this was true. She hadn’t seen Terence read a book, any book, for pleasure, in over ten years. What he truly loved was reality television. He liked to root for the schemers, the alliance-forgers, praising them for their cunning and amorality. Play the game, he would urge them out loud in the den, his voice tight with drama.

Nonetheless, he went on about Shakespeare. “I could happily spend the rest of my days reading the plays and sonnets over and over again. But I’m a scholar. And we’re not preparing scholars, by and large, after all,” he finished. He prided himself on forward thinking.

“Surely you aren’t saying that only literary scholars need to read Shakespeare?” Fleur Mason said. “Surely even you, Terence, are not that hostile to literature?”

Even you hung in the room’s ensuing silence. In this group there was no such thing as a passing remark; all remarks were noted, parsed, enshrined. Fleur Mason didn’t flush; she looked right at Terence, owning her words. She was young, square-shouldered, passionate. She wore ruffled skirts and lace blouses and a gold cross on a chain and seemed like someone who had spent her childhood alone in a room, writing poems about trees. She didn’t belong to today’s world, but refused, violently, to admit it.

“Surely even you, Fleur, aren’t so defensive and small-minded as to think that questioning literature’s practices is the same as being hostile to them,” Terence said smoothly. He was gearing up. It was almost five, and the other members of the department looked indiscreetly at their watches, anticipating late-afternoon blood sugar crashes, child-care crises, cocktails tragically delayed.

“Maybe this is more than we want to get into right now,” Kathleen said diplomatically, for which she received a few grateful glances. But not from Fleur and Terence; the two of them were breathing hard. Neither of them wanted to let it drop. Half an hour passed. The Shakespeare requirement was debated. No resolution was reached. Finally, after those in the department with children progressed from shuffling their papers into bags to actually standing up and moving to the door, Terence tabled the issue and adjourned the meeting, promising that next month they would communally endure the punishment of having to discuss it again.

Kathleen went back to her office, trying to wrap up a few things, but all she could think about was Fleur Mason. She felt feverishly irritated with her. It was ridiculous for her to be so difficult, so adamant. She obviously had to know that letting Terence have his way was the easiest course of action for everyone. Fleur had, in fact, always driven Kathleen crazy. She was single and thirty-seven and appeared to have little life outside of her job. She had a laugh like a demented clown; it rose too suddenly and lingered too long.

There was also the profound and unforgivable stupidity of her name.

By six-thirty everyone else had left, including Terence, who played squash with his friend Dave on Tuesday afternoons. Fleur Mason’s office had once been Kathleen’s, and she still had the key. She walked down the hall and let herself in. She stood there for a moment, energized with hate. The room smelled like dust and Yankee Candle. There were framed New Yorker cartoons with literary jokes on the walls. And there was this: Fleur kept a bird in her office. God only knew how this had started or why it was allowed but she’d moved the bird here—it was a parakeet—one semester when she was, she said, spending more time at the office than at home, and didn’t want the bird to be lonely. Now the bird was a permanent fixture, chirping all day long. At night she put a blanket over it, and the bird went to sleep. Or so she said. Kathleen lifted up the blanket and the bird was not sleeping, at least not as far as she could tell. It stared back at her with tiny, waxy, jelly-bean eyes. She opened the door of the office—there was no one around—then opened the door of the cage. She reached in and grabbed the bird in her hand, and in the instant before she threw it out into the hallway, before it confusedly took flight, its yellow wings scraping the walls, she could feel the frenzied, angry beating of its miniature heart against her palm.

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She went home and cooked shrimp scampi, which she ate while listening to Terence talk about Shakespeare and the irrelevance of canonical literature in today’s digital world. As she finished, she glanced outside and noticed a cardinal sitting on the branch of an elm tree, looking back at her. She thought of Fleur Mason’s parakeet, trapped in the hallway of the Humanities Building—or, alternately, flying around the campus, making its yellow way through a world it had never before seen. She felt remorseful, but also still corked with hate. Nothing had been exorcised from her soul.

She knew, then, that it wasn’t hate for Fleur that consumed her so feverishly, that this action of hers had been misplaced. She understood—how belatedly!—that she detested not Fleur but herself, her own life, and most particularly her husband and his relentless occupation of that life. And she had hated all of this for a very long time.

“Terry,” she said.

He cocked his head at her, bird-like, chewing. Sometimes conversation seemed like something he’d read about in a magazine, never experienced first-hand. To him, her preferable role was audience. Anything she said, any response, even agreement, was liable to piss him off, and he’d storm away from the table, never clearing or washing the dishes, to scour the cable channels for shows.

“Never mind,” she said.

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For a time she kept this knowledge to herself, shepherding it through her days, clutched to her body like a moneybelt. I hate my husband. She’d been fighting it for so long! Now she knew. It was a relief tampered only by the dread of telling him, leaving him. She could picture, so perfectly, the scene of her escape, her refuge: she’d buy a little condo, and furnish it simply but cozily, in reds and yellows, and she’d have fresh flowers and no stereo system, no flat screen TV, none of the consumer electronics Terry spent his weekends shopping for. But it was hard, it was impossible, to imagine how to get from here to there. His anger was scorching, and his speeches long-winded; she’d have to budget days, weeks, to let him get it all out.

Then, one Sunday afternoon, Steve called, and announced that he’d received a job offer in California, to be head turtlekeeper at a large municipal zoo, and he was going to be moving cross-country. Both Kathleen and Terence were happy for him, and not a little surprised that he’d managed to do so well. Terence spoke to him second, and when he got off the phone, his face was thoughtful.

“It’s weird,” he said. “It’ll just be the two of us now.”

“It’s been the two of us for a while,” Kathleen pointed out.

“I know, but now it seems like he really doesn’t need us the same way anymore. He doesn’t need—” Terence gestured to the house, the living room, the framed photographs, all the archival, institutional memory of the family—“this.”

And she knew, from the way he said that this—because she was, after all, a professor of literature, and she paid attention to the placement and nuance of words—that Terence was every bit as miserable as she was.

So she spoke, for the first time in years, with genuine affection.

“Honey,” she said, “let’s get divorced.”

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They stayed up late, making plans, more excited about this stage of their lives than anything since their honeymoon, practically. They couldn’t stop expressing surprise and joy at the revelations; the discovery of shared misery was as thrilling, in its way, as the discovery of mutual love. Terence said he wanted to take early retirement and drive a motorcycle to Central America. What a cliché, Kathleen thought, then realized that his behavior no longer implicated her, that she didn’t need to be concerned. And she told him it sounded like a great idea.

Because it was still the middle of the semester, because they wanted to sell the house and each buy new ones, because the start of a new life was something that ought to be relished, as the luxury it was, they decided not to rush it. They spent spring break with two separate realtors, looking at houses in two separate neighborhoods. They stopped eating dinner together, and sometimes Kathleen just had cereal for supper, while reading a magazine. Terence would go out for a burger with his friend Dave. Dave had never been married and started drinking at noon on Saturdays. He had false teeth and believed himself irresistible to women. What Terence saw in him was a mystery, but she no longer felt required to plumb its depths. And thank God, thank God, thank God.

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The week after spring break, Kathleen was at home grading papers when the phone rang. A man identifying himself as a police officer asked for her by name.

“What’s this about?” she said.

“I’m afraid there’s been an accident,” he said. “Your husband is at the hospital.”

“What kind of accident?”

“It’s hard to say,” he said.

“What do you mean it’s hard to say? Is he okay?”

“He’s not able to give us a statement at this time. I think you’d better come down right away.”

Read the conclusion