From the Memoir Wonder Travels: Betrayal, Divorce, Adventure

Josh Barkan


Her few prize possessions, from her childhood, are in that box. There are boxes of letters in there, from the little correspondence she’s been able to keep. When she came to the U.S., she wrote letters regularly to her family back in Spain, but they rarely replied. And there are some love letters in there. Letters which tell her that I have always been suspicious of people who are in love who write their names on the beach, who send each other flowers, but that this is how I feel about her: that I love her completely and unconditionally. There is another letter from four years before, where I tell her I know there are things I would like to keep improving, to continue to be a better husband, but that I feel this has been the best year of our lives together, that she is realizing her dreams of being in the magazine world, and that I love her.

There are boxes of photos from our trips: on the shores of Maine and New Brunswick, and Grand Manan, where we regularly go camping, and from the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the middle of winter, from China, and Burma, and Cambodia, and Thailand, and Spain, and photos of us celebrating an after-marriage party in Spain, two years after we eloped, in which my two grandmothers and uncles and aunt and parents flew to Spain for the small get together of forty people (just her immediate family and a few of her friends). What am I supposed to do with these photos? I can’t look through them all; it’s too unbearable, and I put them back.

She will return soon, if she comes home, and I don’t feel safe. I gather my financial records together and leave a big box with my neighbors. I take my grandfather’s old Rolex, and a copy of all the computer files on our desktop, and I take all the belongings in our safety deposit box which are mine, and I get a new safety deposit box. It’s crazy, I know—what could she possibly do to me?—but it doesn’t feel crazy. It feels prudent. Smart. I’ve been told by two people to protect myself. I’ve been lied to, and I feel I know nothing about what she values anymore. An affair, the way she is disrespecting us, shatters the myth we share the same values. An affair is something I have told myself, in the past, I would never do. When she was on her long trip, I saw a beautiful woman on the subway platform, and it was the middle of winter, and my wife had been gone on her trip for four months at the time, and I was lonely, and I thought about that woman on the platform, imagining a relationship with her. But I knew I would never act on that impulse out of respect for us. And when, a couple weeks later, I saw her again, and felt the same impulse, I still didn’t act on it, even though two strangers rarely meet again in the subway of New York. What do we share anymore, after she has lied and gone back to Morocco? Once—meeting him on her trip—I can understand, a moment of impulse, of human frailty, even if she was with him for five nights. But after she has created a whole complicated lie, claiming she’s in Ibiza, when she has really gone back to see him? This is not a moment. This is premeditated. This is willful. And if she is under his sway, enamored by him, who knows where things are headed?

The night before she’s supposed to come back, I meet with her friend, downstairs, who she’s installed in the building, who has left her husband after twenty-eight years. I tell her I believe my wife has had an affair in Morocco, when she was on her long trip. I say nothing about “Ibiza” and the present. I tell her this, and I see her begin to tear up. I tell her this because I suspect she’s in contact with my wife in Morocco, and at this point I don’t mind if word leaks back to her I know what’s up, because I just want her to come home so we can talk. I tell her I don’t know how I’ll respond when my wife comes home, but that I hope to respond calmly. I tell her I’ve been thinking a lot about Gandhi, about how the best way to respond to someone is with nonviolence, for only they can judge themselves if they are to absorb what they have done. She tells me she’s seen a pop psychology show on TV, in which the host suggests in a time of confrontation one can choose to do nothing—not doing anything is a choice. She is clearly suggesting I should not act violently when she comes home.

Another friend, who I have met for coffee—the screenplay writer with the apartment where we had the coming-home party for my wife, after her trip—asks me if I feel like hitting her when she comes home or acting violently. I tell him, no. I tell him I don’t believe in that kind of violence. I tell him, we’ve never screamed at each other or fought physically before.

The day before she comes home, I call her mother in Spain, to ask if she’s returned from “Ibiza” to Madrid. Her mother says she thinks she has and that she’s staying with one of her siblings. I try to contain my emotions over the phone, and I tell her I have reason to suspect her daughter has been in a relationship with another man. Her mother says she doesn’t believe this. I tell her I have strong reasons to suspect she’s been in Morocco instead of Ibiza. Her mother is confused. I tell her if she doesn’t believe me she should talk to one of her other daughters, who has used her frequent flyer miles to purchase the ticket to Morocco, for my wife, instead of to Ibiza. I tell her mother I’m only mentioning this because I want her to pass on to her daughter the reassurance that she should just come home, that everything will be all right, and that she shouldn’t be afraid of coming home. “Are you sure you want me to tell her that?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Only tell her that if she doesn’t get on the plane.”

I just want her to come home, so we can lay everything out openly on the table. I don’t want any violence, and if she’s afraid to come home, I want her to know everything will be OK.

For a second, the thought crosses my mind that perhaps she’ll tell her family she’s flying back to America and then catch another plane to Morocco. Except for one of her sisters, she’s lied to her whole family about going to Ibiza.

But these fears are unfounded. After twelve days of complete silence, my wife calls from the airport in Madrid to say she’s flying back home. We speak for all of five seconds. When she has the will, she can contact me at any moment.

In little more than eight hours, her plane will touch down. I’ve protected myself, and now I try to distract myself. The medicine cabinet has arrived, and in an effort to prove I’ve made good progress on the renovation of the house, I spend most of the afternoon drilling holes through tiles and installing the cabinet single-handedly. I also install it because I don’t want a big, mirrored piece of glass lying on the floor at such a delicate and potentially violent time, when she comes home. I want the house to be clean. I want the apartment to be nice and calm. I want to look good, to impress her. It’s a hot, humid day in New York, July 22, and once the medicine cabinet is up, I see I’m sweating hard from the work, and in anticipation of her arrival a zit has come out. By now, she’s probably arrived at the airport—I don’t know how she’ll be coming from JFK, whether she’ll take the train, as usual, or take a cab, so I have no way of knowing exactly when she’ll get home. I know her plane has arrived because I’ve looked up the landing online. I don’t want to miss her when she walks in the door, but I need to do something about this zit, so I run up the street to a pharmacy to buy some Neutrogena pore cleanser. The turquoise cleanser looks beautiful in the new cabinet, which we will not share together, with mirrors reflecting the liquid from all sides. I clean my face. I put on an ironed, button-down shirt, which I know she’ll like, with my best pair of fashionable jeans. I take a perfumed candle, which she’s bought and that I know she likes, and I light it and put it on the coffee table. The smell of sweet incense burns slowly into the night air, as the sun goes down. I leave off the lights in the dining room, so the mood is calm and not too bright. I leave on only a lamp and the candle in the living room, by the couch, where I wait for her, seated with my legs up on the table. I’ve turned up the stereo loud, and I play a CD by Goldfrapp over and over. The driving beat of electronic sound, the high yet calm voice, the underlying powerful bass, the melancholy twinge to the entire album, sedates, numbs, mirrors my mood, and comforts me. I’m here, but I am in space. I’m present and waiting in this apartment, but I am thinking over the trajectory of our past. I am thinking about us in Spain and trips far away, and then I notice the bumpy metal texture of the coffee tabletop and the flicker of the flame in the glass candleholder. I fixate on these textures, these smells of incense, these surfaces, the nothingness of a moment—the feeling of emptiness of her expected arrival. What more is there to say except to play the funeral dirge?—the end of our marriage.

She comes in later than I expect. Her plane arrived more than two hours ago, and even with immigration, she should have been here, already. The music is loud. I don’t move from my position. I stare forward, blankly, lost in the music and in my thoughts, and in the texture of the furniture. I hear the metal front door faintly as it falls shut. I hear her put her bag down. I hear her move around. She doesn’t say hello. The music is loud and she doesn’t turn it down. She walks around the corner, from the dining room into the living room, and she catches a glimpse of me, and she turns around and goes to the bathroom. She must have jet lag. She goes to the refrigerator and pulls out a pitcher of cold water and has a drink. She’s sizing up the situation, developing her strategy, figuring out her first move. I’ve said nothing, so far. Nothing negative, nothing welcoming, nothing at all. When I’m angriest, I’m silent, she knows. I am opaque, waiting, watching her without any movement, my eyes cast forward, looking into the candle. She says, “Hello,” and decides to try to act normally, as if she’s just come home from a normal, quick trip abroad.

I don’t respond.

She sits down on the couch, at the far end from me. She leans her body away from me. She’s tan from being on the beach in Morocco. She wears a white, cotton shirt, similar to the one she wore when she first seduced me, years before. What has she worn for him? She leans back, and begins to say something trivial and normal, and I interrupt and say, “I want you to tell me the truth. I just want you to tell me the truth.” She pulls her jaw up sharply, shutting her mouth, as if thinking of protesting, and then thinks better of it, and realizes she’s caught.

“So, you already know,” she says.

I say nothing.

She tells me she stopped by on the way up and said hello to her friend in the building. She knows that I know.

The end is surprisingly swift. It’s close to ten o’clock. She tells me many of the details of how she met him in Morocco, how she went to the beach, and how he asked her about her wedding ring, and how she told him she felt disconnected from me, and how they kissed and then went up to his place. I ask for details of the first visit with him. I want to see if she can be honest with me, if she will at least honor that between us. For the most part, what she says doesn’t contradict what I’ve heard from others. She doesn’t feel passion for me anymore. She likes me, but she doesn’t love me. She gives some generic explanations, again, about how she needs her space. She cannot be more specific, or go into any detail. After fifteen years together, she cannot articulate what she is really upset about. I ask her if some of her feelings of being dominated might have more to do with her own insecurities than with anything I am doing to her. She doesn’t contradict what I am saying. There’s no point in trying to fight with her, or to deny what she feels. Whatever she feels, she feels. I ask her if she wants to see a couples therapist, or if she wants to stay together. I’ve already decided it would be difficult for us to work through her unhappiness; she is deeply, personally, unhappy, I have come to see, and much of her unhappiness doesn’t have to do with me. But I have also decided that if she is willing to work on saving our relationship, if she is committed to doing so, then we should. But she says, “We’d just end up in the same place in a couple of years.” She has lost her feelings of passion for me. She tells me she loves Abdullah. She tells me he is a “real,” practicing Muslim. She tells me he felt bad sleeping with a married woman. She tells me he is jealous of me, because I am married to her. She tells me she cried when she first slept with him. She tells me she is afraid of her future because she doesn’t know whom she’ll be with, or whether she’ll be able to have kids with someone else. She asks me nothing about myself.

Before she returns home, I was told by my Algerian friend, who’d been married to the man who’d had an affair, that I should tell her to leave when she comes home. That has been my plan. That friend has offered her own apartment as a place for my wife to stay, this evening—and she’s a friend of my wife’s, too, someone who can be neutral. But it’s too late, now, at one in the morning, to kick her out of the house. She can leave tomorrow. She can sleep on the couch this evening. We’ve talked for three hours, and I’ve waited for her to arrive for three weeks and one day, since she left, and in many ways I’ve waited for her to arrive for close to nine months, since she first went on her long trip, because she never seemed to return home. The last forty-eight hours have been the most exhausting, ever since I learned she was returning from Morocco instead of Ibiza. She pulls out some sheets, which we bought together on one of those lazy afternoon walks we used to take, and puts them on the couch. I give her a pillow to sleep on. She’s exhausted from flying and from the emotion, though she hasn’t cried too much, preferring to hold her emotions in. She lies back to sleep.

She is close to me, only four or five yards away from my bed, from our bed, where I sleep alone, as I’ve slept alone for the better part of nine months. In too metaphorical a way, it begins to lightning and thunder outside. It begins to rain. It rains hard. I don’t sleep. I listen to the sounds. And in the middle of the night, around four in the morning, I begin to cry and howl, a deep, uncontrollable, guttural howl. I howl and sob. I howl like an animal that has been eviscerated. I howl and moan, unable to stop my howling. She comes over from the couch to the bed and holds my back. I’m leaning forward in the bed, fetal style, bent forward crying. She tries to comfort me. I will not stop crying. I cry until I am exhausted, alone again; she has gone back to the couch. Our marriage is over.


Josh Barkan won the Lightship International Short Story Prize and has been a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the Paterson Fiction Prize, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction. He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his writing has appeared in Esquire. He divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia, where he teaches at the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins. His books include the novel Blind Speed and the story collections Before Hiroshima and Mexico.


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