Every Friday night, Chris came home at six-thirty, took a shower and ordered Chinese food. I’d find a resting point for whatever piece I was working on and join him on the sofa. We’d watch a movie, something middle-of-the-road with Harrison Ford or maybe Julia Roberts, snuggled up together until eleven when one of us would wake the other, pick up the empty wine glasses and head into the bedroom.
Ten years is a long time for a couple in New York City to stay together and be happy in a small apartment. But it was easy.
For one thing, I had good role models. My parents were still happily married and living in Ohio. This fact was one of the first things that had intrigued Chris when we met at Columbia in the Fine Arts Department. He was a good-looking city boy with a crooked smile from a broken family and I was a nice, mid-western fresh-faced college girl. We were opposites that rounded into a perfect whole.
“Your parents are still together?” he’d asked with wonder on our first date over a couple of slices at a place on 32nd. “Pam, you have no great tragedies. You’re like a fair-haired princess from another time. Pamelot.”
I blushed at his praise and the silly nickname. “My folks say the key to a long, happy marriage is to marry your best friend,” I replied, gazing into his big warm brown eyes over the rim of my glasses.
“My best friend,” he repeated, taking my hand. “I can see a pretty artistic girl like you being my forever friend. But I don’t ever want to get married.”
I took one long look into his handsome face and knew we were home.
Six weeks later he moved into my studio apartment and the following year we graduated into our current tiny one-bedroom above Soong’s Chinese & Donuts. It was almost like being married. We listened to music late into the night, ate Chinese food, watched movies, took baths together, read poetry and made love like the best of friends. I knew I had found that one good true thing most girls never would. Chris showed me in lots of ways how lucky he felt to share his life with me. It was love with a capital L.
Chris’s childhood was different than mine. His father had traveled a lot when Chris was little. When his father was at home, he drank too much and yelled at Chris and his mother. “When I was seven my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. She put me in the back seat of our Volkswagen and drove straight from Mobile, Alabama to relatives in New Jersey. It was cold. That’s pretty much all I remember. We never looked back.”
A couple of day ago, Chris received an email message from his long-lost father. Since then he’d been distracted and cranky. When he came home earlier than usual for a Friday night and announced that we were going out for sushi instead of staying in for Chinese, I didn’t think twice.
“Get up, get up,” he said, pulling me from my studio work. “Put down your brush. Take down your long hair. Let’s get out into the world again.”
It was snowing and we pulled on our heavy boots and headed out into the world. He wore his big wool coat, hat and scarf. I wore my favorite jacket, a thrift store find, with gold buttons. The flakes were big and white like paper candy. He took my mittened hand in his gloved hand and we strolled under the streetlights, powder at our feet, the city quiet all the way to Matsuya restaurant.
“Miso soup or edamame to start?” the pretty Japanese waitress asked.
“Edamame?” Chris asked me. His voice was breathless with excitement or nervous tension. I wondered if he had finally spoken to his father. I prayed they’d had a good conversation.
“Sure,” I replied. “And a large hot sake to share?”
The waitress nodded and left. The room was packed with couples and friends seeking warm soup, laughter and shelter from the storm. We sat at the end of the sushi bar and watched the elderly Japanese chef slice an octopus tentacle with the expertise of a skilled surgeon.
“I like albacore sushi more than tuna. Don’t you?” Chris asked, keeping his eyes steady on the chef’s hands.
“Yes. Honey, you’re acting weird. Is everything okay?”
Chris turned to face me; his face was dark like an oncoming storm. He clenched his jaw and took a deep breath. The look in his eyes made my stomach lurch. Suddenly, it didn’t feel so good to be out in the world. I wanted to be snuggled up together, safe at home. The waitress leaned in between us, setting the sake and two small cups on the bar.
Chris poured mine. I poured his.
“Compai!” we said.
He sat his cup down and refilled it with sweet wine. He swallowed it back.
I took a deep breath. “Whatever it is, I love you,” I said. “It’s going to be okay.”
He put a warm hand on my thigh. “Let’s eat first,” he said, giving my flesh a comforting squeeze.
“Is it your dad? Did you talk to your dad?
“Pam, I said let’s eat first, okay?” He pulled his hand from my leg.
“Well, how am I supposed to enjoy it now? I don’t care about the sushi, Chris. You’re upset. Talk to me about it.”
Resting his elbows on the bar, he dropped his head into his hands.
“What? Did you kill somebody?” I asked, trying to lighten the moment. “I won’t tell anybody. We can enter the witness protection program.”
He shook his head back and forth. I thought he might burst into tears.
“You could change your name to Clyde. I’ll be Bonnie.”
“I slept with Shelly after the reunion last week.”
My breath caught in my chest. The room pulled away. I thought I might be sick.
“I didn’t know if I should tell you,” he said, his words falling out in a rush. “I’ve been trying to decide ever since it happened. I’m sick about it. I don’t know what happened. But then I realized I had to tell you. I mean, of course I had to.”
“Shelly, your girlfriend from high school?” I asked. Last week I’d had a cold and couldn’t go to his fifteen year high school reunion. This wasn’t happening to us. He’d told me it was boring. That none of his friends had shown up. It couldn’t be happening to us. “You said you spent the night at your mom’s because you were too drunk to drive back to the city.”
“But you were sleeping with your high school girlfriend?”
His eyes filled with tears. “She just got divorced. I don’t know what happened. We were drinking and dancing and then a group of us went out to eat. She was there, too, and it was late,” he whispered. “Honey, I’m so sorry- -“
I pushed the stool out from under me and somehow found my way through the busy restaurant and back out onto the street. The snow had stopped falling. It was cold. Cab horns blared. A bus passed, tires spinning on the ice. Couples bundled up like Eskimos crowded the newly shoveled sidewalk and I pressed through them, slipping and righting myself again. I ran until I saw the warm and inviting windows of Soong’s, put the key in the building lock and climbed the two flights of stairs to the apartment door. Inside the room was dark. I turned on a table lamp, and then opened a can of food for the cat. A few minutes later, I heard his heavy footsteps in the hall and I slid the bolt on the front door.
He turned the knob. “Pam, please, sweetheart,” he said, with a catch in his voice. “Honey, let me in so that I can explain.”
“Go away,” I cried, my legs shaking. “Go away.”
He knocked. “Pam? Please.”
I stood in the middle of our apartment and watched as the ghosts of our once-happy selves danced away. And like that, Pamelot was over.