©2002 Charles Benson
Additional dialogue by Winnie Holzman, 1999
Based on characters created by
Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz
"Summer, Highland Falls" ©1976 Billy Joel
For the inspiration
For guidance throughout the process
Rose and Catherine,
For the front cover visualization
The creators of Once & Again,
For touching so many of us
Summer, Highland Falls
They say that these are not the best of times
But they're the only times I've ever known
And I believe there is a time for meditation
In cathedrals of our own
Now, I have seen that sad surrender in my lover's eyes
And I can only stand apart and sympathize
For we are always what our situations hand us
It's either sadness or euphoria
So we'll argue and we'll compromise
And realize that nothing's ever changed
For all our mutual experience,
Our separate conclusions are the same
Now we are forced to recognize our inhumanity
Our reason coexists with our insanity
And though we choose between reality and madness
It's either sadness or euphoria
How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies
Perhaps we don't fulfill each others fantasies
And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives,
With our respective similarities
It's either sadness of euphoria
- Billy Joel
Rick Sammler was working at the desk in his study, paying the monthly utility bills. He scratched his forehead above his right eyebrow and said a silent prayer that the "ChangWu" restaurant/ professional building engagement would come through. Once again, money was tight at the Sammler household and the prospect of a large deposit on a future assignment would help to keep the family's sanity, economically anyway.
Rick's wife Karen silently stood at the doorway to the study and watched for one minute, then two. She slowly walked toward Rick on the carpeted floor and gingerly placed her left hand on his right shoulder. Rick jumped, surprised at the touch, and then felt his muscle tighten ever so slightly under her fingers. He began to smile and turned to look at her as she said, "Let's go somewhere."
It was such a simple phrase, one that should have rolled off the tongue easily, even joyfully, in anticipation. Instead, Karen reflected, she had been considering this phrase for nearly two weeks. When would be the right time, how should she say it? In fact, why should she say it? What was the meaning for even suggesting that she and Rick go away?
"Sure, okay. Where? Did you want to see a movie, go out to eat?" Rick inquired, underestimating the extent of Karen's "somewhere."
"I was thinking of something a little more exotic than dinner and a movie," Karen stammered, feeling as though the moment was slipping away already, that she had lost her chance. "I was thinking of going away for a few days. Just the two of us. Alone." She raised her left hand to touch Rick's cheek and nearly poked him in the eye. He grasped her hand gently and placed it on his cheek.
"That sounds great. Where do you want to go?"
"What would you have in mind?" she asked, doing her best to act casual, holding back on the amount of research she had done on Caribbean vacations, looking at accommodations and prices. "I've thought of a few places, but I want to make sure you like it too."
By now, she had both of her hands on his cheeks and was staring intently at his face. Rick repeated the gesture and stared back. Both managed to avoid looking each other directly in the eye. That would have demanded too much of them at this time. Rick broke the moment first, "Give me some ideas, and I'll give you a yea or nay."
Karen stood up, prepared for her presentation. She hesitated, and then dashed out of the study. She peeked back in with a grin, "Wait, let me get some brochures that I happened to have picked up."
"When can we go? Who will watch the kids?" Rick finally thought to ask after several hotels were considered and discarded.
"I thought of that, too. Your mother has gladly agreed to stay here for six days in February, during the school vacation." Karen responded without taking her eyes from the pile of brochures.
"Peg is coming here? For six days?" Rick was caught by surprise, stymied by Karen's choice. He loved his mother, and had rejoiced in the recent incarnation she had made of herself; her newfound happiness was infectious. He also thought that his mother could be too "out there" for Karen. "Is that such a good idea? She is not the best influence, you know. She has become a very free spirit, you know."
"Can you think of someone else?" Karen had worked so hard to over the last few weeks to bring up the idea, to research the resorts, to maintain the energy and will to follow through on her plans. Now that she had spoken of the idea out loud, now that they had begun to discuss the idea together, the burden had shifted from entirely being placed on her shoulders to being shared between herself and Rick. Karen was attempting to reconnect with her husband.
"What about your friend Naomi, doesn't she have kids about the same age?"
Karen looked up from the pile. "Would you want to take care of two extra kids during school vacation? Besides, her husband is never home, always working. Things are a bit tense at their house these days."
"I - I didn't know." Rick went back to the brochures himself and seemed to find something that interested him. He looked back up at Karen and smiled, "We wouldn't want our kids to be within the walls of a tense household, now would we?"
"Kids, your mother and I are going away for a few days," Rick announced at dinnertime. Karen was doling out green beans which eight year old Jessie promptly pushed to the side with a "yuck" face. Eli, who was twelve, looked at both his parents, back and forth, like a tennis match, and waited for the second part of the announcement.
"Can we go, too?" he finally asked.
"No, this is just for your father and I. A vacation away for the two of us. To get to know each other," Karen responded as she took the empty bowl back to the kitchen. She gently laid her hand on Rick's shoulder as she passed by him.
Rick looked at Jessie and sensed her growing confusion. "But you're already married, why do you need to get to know each other?" she asked.
Rick reached to Jessie and touched her hand. He looked at her, then at Eli. Karen came back from the kitchen and stood behind Rick as he spoke. "Well, Jess, we have been so busy lately, working hard and trying just to catch up with each other, that…" he bit his lip, "well, mommy and daddy need some time alone together sometimes…" he paused, looking for the right phrase. Eli was looking at Karen, who was about to speak, when Rick finished, "You know, it's important for us to have fun together, just the two of us." Rick looked up at Karen and smiled, looking to make sure that his response was in line with her thinking. Karen raised her eyebrows and smiled back as she walked to Jessie and placed her hands on the young girl's shoulders. She looked back at Eli, across the table.
"So you won't fight anymore?" Eli finally asked and smiled brightly, breaking the silence. Karen and Rick looked at each other hopefully.
"We can't make any guarantees to you, but, yes, that is one thing that we hope will happen: we won't fight as much." Karen squeezed Jessie's shoulders a bit and sat down. Eli and Jessie looked at each other, trying to figure out what all this means, putting together the pieces. The light finally dawned on Eli and he grinned.
"Who will watch us? When are you going? Can I stay over Coop's house?"
"That's not fair, why does Eli get to stay over his friend's house and I don't?"
"Wait, wait, wait you guys. Nobody is staying over anyone's house," Rick intervened, putting his hands out as though he were a referee in a boxing match. This was a move he used often with his kids during their daily struggles of getting along and finding their own space in the family. More often than not, these struggles ended in a tickling match, which left Jessie giggling and then gasping for breath. It was at these times that Rick and Karen could look at each other in satisfaction. They reflected on these moments at night, when the kids were asleep, and were able to agree that this was one area where they met on common ground. Rick and Karen Sammler had good kids.
Eli was naturally athletic and easily took to playing music. If he was not academically inclined, as Karen liked to say, his eyes shone bright with a curiosity of the world around him. That his curiosity for any single topic of interest could not be sustained for any substantial length of time was only just beginning to bother Karen. Rick did not seem to notice as much, but was satisfied as long as Eli could get by with the school work demanded of a 7th grader.
Jessie flowed through her life with beauty, and not just a little grace. She was an early reader and had memorized the multiplication tables during downtimes at school. Jessie started ballet classes when she was four years old and fell in love with the fluid motions of the art. Her heart seemed to soar during recitals. Karen also marveled at the girl's singing ability and how she was able to hear a song just one time and make it her own. When challenged to perform, both academically or artistically, Jessie's face shone with pride and confidence. During other times, when left on her own, or when she was in a strange environment, she retreated into herself, like a turtle inside its shell. It was at these times that Rick reached out to her and helped her feel safe and loved. There was a special bond between father and daughter that appeared almost unbreakable.
"Your grandmother will be staying with you during the February vacation," Karen stated, looking at Rick once again for his agreement on this subject.
"Cool, Peg will be watching us," Eli was practically bouncing in his seat. Jessie looked a bit unsure, as though the idea of her grandmother replacing her parents for a whole week was not such a good idea.
Rick tried to act stern with Eli, but was taken with his enthusiasm. "You may call her Grandma." He then looked at Jesse, and touched her hand. "Jess, we will only be gone for a few days, not even a whole week."
"Yes, that's right," added Karen. "We will leave here on a Monday afternoon and be back by Saturday afternoon. Only five nights."
"Yeah, and Grandma Peg will let us stay up late and eat popcorn on the living room couch and all those cereals Mom and Dad never let us eat!" Eli was teasing his parents, and they knew it, but at the same time, they knew that the rules had to be set and repeated often before they left. And not just to their children, but to Peg as well.
The day finally arrived. It was President's Day; the first day of February vacation and for Karen, the thought of sun and sand was in stark contrast to the gray, cold day she saw outside the kitchen window and into her backyard. Eli and Jessie were trying their best to gather enough snow to make a decent-sized snowman. They constantly distracted themselves from their task throwing snowballs at each other, or stuffing handfuls of snow down the back of their jackets. They laughed and teased and whined, and laughed again. Snow had not fallen in the Chicago, area where the Sammler family lived, for over two weeks and the remains of that storm were a stubborn reminder of how different the next five days would be, atmospherically speaking.
Karen had spent the morning packing, and unpacking, and packing again. Each time she went through the process, she found a few more square inches of space. She found that if she moved her underwear into one corner, and then put her bathing suits in another, she would have enough room for the extra skirt and blouse combination about which Rick had always commented so favorably. She had debated taking them at all. What message did she want to send to Rick? Was this idea of hers to go away together merely to reconnect with Rick physically, or was it a desperate attempt to reconcile, or something else altogether? She truly could not articulate her motivation. What she could say honestly to herself, though, was that she and Rick had lost each other and the loving feelings for each other they used to share. In the end, because she had the space in her suitcase, she packed the outfit.
Although Karen had taken the whole day off to prepare for the trip, Rick had gone into his office, just for the morning, he said. He wanted to close up a few more details on the ChangWu project. His firm had won the deal and he wanted to make certain as few strings as possible were left untied before he left. Rick told his partner David that he would be completely inaccessible while he was away, no matter how far technology had come along to make him potentially "reachable."
"So, are you bringing your Speedos?" David inquired with his usual smirk that indicated both a smugness of being above marriage and the commitment it brings, and also included a hint of jealousy.
"In fact, we will be swimming nude on this vacation," Rick responded, to get a reaction from his partner and friend. Rick understood David's bravado and enjoyed feeding it. Today, though, he regretted the comment as soon as he uttered it. Making such comments implied a certain affection between Rick and Karen, a certain measurement by which the outside world could assess the state of their relationship, however superficially. To make comments about swimming nude with his wife must mean that Rick and Karen very much enjoyed each other's company, but this was not always the case. Rick never discussed the state of his marriage with David too deeply; he felt both that David would not, indeed could not, understand the ups and downs of a marriage and also that the burden was his, and need not be shared with his working partner. It is not what guys do, Rick assured himself. Better to keep it to himself.
"Listen, just make sure you connect with Mr. Wu every day, for whatever reason. Just let him know that he is our top priority right now, and that we are at his service," Rick was having a difficult time breaking away. "I just about finished the elevations, he needs to know that. And you are working on the permits and finalizing some of the contracting. Things like that. Our agreement probably gives him a bit too much leverage if we don't keep to the schedule we set up, so we have to keep him happy."
"If you are so nervous, why are you going away? We haven't had an engagement like this in a long time. Is this the best time to going away?" David knew the answer to that question, but still felt the need to verbalize it.
"No, it is not the best time to be going away, but Karen felt that we needed to get away." David raised an eyebrow and Rick tried to shake it off, turning away. "And I feel that way, too. We have both been so busy with our work schedules that… that, we just don't see each other very much anymore."
"And thus the need for the nude sunbathing."
"Exactly." Rick was getting flustered. How much should he talk to David? Did he have time, even if he wanted to? "No. Not exactly. Maybe a little." David raised his other eyebrow. Although he enjoyed getting under Rick's skin, he knew that his timing at this moment might have been a little off. "I don't have Speedos. They make me look fat."
They both laughed, and were equally grateful that Rick had found a way to put an end to the conversation. Rick looked at his watch and froze.
Karen checked the clock for the tenth time in the last 15 minutes (11:05), rinsed her coffee cup and left it in the sink. There will more dishes to wash before we leave anyway, she thought. Where was Rick anyway? He was only going to be gone for a couple hours, he had told her; he was sure to be back by 11:00. Rick had not packed yet. It would take him much less time than she took, but it still needed to be done. He was going to be cutting it too close for her comfort. Maybe she could just leave his clothes out on their bed; that might save a few minutes. Karen walked through the living room and was about to climb the stairs when she heard a car pulling into their driveway. Hopefully, she looked through the little window that framed the front door.
Peg Sammler was driving her new Chevy into the Sammler driveway. As had been her outlook lately, a contented smile shone on her face. She had left her home in Kansas the previous Friday and took her time driving through the Midwest to the home of the "Chicago Sammlers," as she liked to say. She was so very proud of all that her son accomplished, but also regretted that he felt the need to move to the big city of Chicago to reach those accomplishments. Her family had gone through so much, she remarked to herself, but it was a small family, and when just one member left, an empty space was created which she found increasingly hard to fill by herself.
Instead of trying to refill the old space, Peg decided to put herself into new ones. She had begun to take classes in a variety of subjects, including pottery, gardening, and then writing and ballroom dancing. In the last couple years, her life was fuller. She was no longer Widow Sammler, poor mother of one successful son and one alcoholic son. She was Peg, lover of life. With her eyes newly opened to the world around her, Peg was determined to show those around her how life can truly be lived.
Karen quickly opened the front door, waved to Peg, and ran down the front walk to greet her. Peg waved back, "Karen, how are you?" she asked with energy. The two women did not always see eye to eye on all subjects, including child rearing, but their connection was strong. They were the two primary women in Rick Sammler's life (after Jessie, of course), and both struggled to reach deep inside him, to find out what made him tick. Karen reached Peg as she opened the trunk and reached in for her luggage.
"Here, let me help you with that." Karen took the larger suitcase and was heaving it out of the trunk. Peg assisted with the lift and then grabbed another case, only slightly smaller. They put down their loads, looked at each other for a moment, and then hugged. Karen was surprised at the sense of relief she felt with Peg's arrival. She was concerned with Peg's permissiveness with her children, letting them stay up later than Karen would have liked, or letting them eat more snacks than Karen felt was necessary.
They looked at each other again, took up their loads, and began walking toward the front door. Karen allowed herself to smile, and thought that it is a vacation week after all; let the grandmother indulge the kids a bit. She was shaken out of her reverie by the sound of Peg's voice, "Where is Rick anyway?"
"He wanted to finish up a few things at the office. He and David just won a big deal, and now he is afraid too much is being left in David's hands." The relaxed feeling left her as quickly as it came on. As she was entering the front door, she took a look down the street to see if Rick would be pulling in. He was not.
Peg noticed the worried look on her face. "Oh, you have plenty of time. Rick said the limo isn't coming till 2:00."
"I know, but he still needs to pack, and who knows what other last minute things need to be done."
From the kitchen, the sound of the back door opening, as well as the clomping of boots and the catching of breath drew Karen and Peg's attention.
"Is that Grandma?" Eli called.
"Yes dear, how is the big boy?"
"Hi Grandma!" Jessie yelled out joyfully.
"Leave all your wet clothes in the back room before you come in here, you two." Karen reminded her kids, who in their excitement naturally forgot one of winter's basic rules.
Peg dropped her bag in the living room and quickly walked to the kitchen to greet her only grandchildren. Once her own kids had grown up, these two little Sammlers were the focus of her maternal love. She took both kids inside her arms, spread as wide as she could, and hugged them tightly. Eli and Jessie hugged her back and Karen joined them all in the kitchen, smiling at the scene in front of her.
"Who wants some hot chocolate?" Peg asked to the room.
"I could use some," announced Rick as everyone turned to see him entering through the front door that had been left open.
"Where have you been? The limo is going to be here soon, and you haven't packed yet." Karen ran her fingers through her hair and went to fill the kettle with water to begin the hot chocolate. Eli jumped on the counter to get the hot chocolate packets out of the cabinet.
"Mom, I am glad to see you made it okay." Rick tried to deflect the tension.
"You can always count on me. I wouldn't miss spending five days with my most favorite grandchildren in the whole world." Peg stroked Jessie's hair as the girl thought for a moment.
"But grandma, we are your only grandchildren."
"That's alright dear. You would still be my favorite," responded Peg and she gave Jessie another quick hug.
Rick had shed his coat and hung it on a kitchen chair. "Well, I had better go pack." He looked toward Karen who was working with Eli to empty the pouches into mugs on the counter. "David wouldn't let me go. I am not sure if he understands the importance of keeping the client happy through the whole process, not just with the final product."
"I am sure he will be fine for the few days you will be gone," Peg interceded as Karen headed for the stairs. Rick followed.
As Karen got to the top, she turned her head and spoke, "I left some of your clothes on the bed."
Once in their bedroom, Karen began picking at Rick's clothes to straighten the folds, anything to hold back her anxiety.
"I am sorry for being late. I just have a bad feeling about David being able to hold onto the project."
"Well, do you want to go away or not?" Karen asked, not sure of how she would answer that question herself at this moment. She knew that she got anxious at times like this, when any surprise to the schedule could impact the whole trip. If they were this tense before the trip even began, how would they be together for five days in a row?
Rick had turned to start placing some of the clothes that were on the bed into the suitcase and then went to the closet to get some dress pants and shirts. As he walked back toward the bed, he said, "Of course I want to go. I just want to be able to relax when we are there."
"Can you?" Karen looked at him. "Relax, I mean? Did the extra time help you feel better?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, it did." He hated being interrogated, but he really had no defense this time. He had said he would be back by 11:00, and he wasn't. He really shouldn't have gone in at all, just spoken to David on the phone for some final instructions.
"Hot chocolate is ready, for anybody who wants it!" Peg called from the bottom of the stairs. Rick looked at Karen, hoping that she would understand.
"Are you having yours?" she asked.
"Uh yes," Rick looked around to gauge the amount of time necessary to finish packing. "Could you tell her I will be down in a few minutes?"
"Did you want some lunch? We have a few minutes."
"Yeah, sure, anything is fine. I will just be a minute." He touched Karen's shoulder as she turned to go downstairs. She turned back for a moment and flashed a small smile at him and left the room.
Rick continued packing and thoughts ran through his head. The small architectural firm he had founded was the measure of success he had given himself. To bring on David as a partner eased some of the burden, but not nearly enough. David was younger than he and was a terrific designer, but he did not always appreciate the relationship building that went into running a small business. They were not only designing a building for Mr. Wu, they were building a relationship with him.
If this project did not go well, it could impact the business, and Rick's measurement of himself. To lose esteem in your own eyes was bad enough, he thought, but then his family would see him as less of a success as well. He had two kids growing up in his house and they needed to eat and wear clothes, and were going to need a college education. He must be successful in order to provide for them.
So he stayed at the office a few minutes later than planned. Now he could relax, couldn't he? This trip was going to be five days of just he and his wife. The woman he had married and committed to. He should be hopping in his shoes; a wide grin should be affixed to his face. Instead, his shoulders slumped; his stomach was tied up. "Make it work," he told himself. He took a deep breath and zipped his suitcase shut.
Downstairs, Karen decided to confide in Peg as they made lunch together, and then hesitated. Karen often felt the need to talk about how she and Rick were doing, and sometimes turned to her friend Naomi and sometimes even to her colleagues at work. Naomi was having her own issues with her husband and the people at work were mostly younger or not married, and could not possibly understand what was happening. As a result, she was left to her own thoughts and often could not find a way out of the arguments in her head that spiraled to heights she could not always control. On those days, Karen crawled inside herself and had to convince herself to communicate with the world around her. Her productivity at work was minimal as she contemplated her current state.
At night, sleep would not come, and she would lay awake listening to the sound of the clock in the hallway ticking and to Rick's breathing, when he was in bed, that is. So often, he was downstairs in the study working on his drawings or drafting proposals till the early hours of the morning. If only she could just talk to him, she thought, and tell him how lonely she was feeling. Instead, she felt a wall growing between them and the possibility of having a good, productive conversation grew more difficult with each passing day.
This trip they were taking together should give them an opportunity to have some good discussions, to work things out. And get to know each other again. She smiled at the thought.
"What's so funny, dear?" Peg asked, interrupting Karen's reverie.
"Oh, I was just thinking about helping Rick pack," Karen attempted nonchalance, and knew she had failed.
"He is hard to read sometimes, isn't he?" Peg could tell that Karen wanted to talk, and also sensed that Karen may not willingly trust her with such deep thoughts. "How are you two doing these days?" Peg decided to lay it all down. "When we talk on the phone these days, he doesn't talk about you and he like he used to."
"He has been very busy at work lately, so we just haven't been able to spend too much time together." Karen looked at Peg as her hands worked making sandwiches for the kids. "Which is why we are going away," she said brightly and turned to finish the task at hand. Peg looked at Karen's back for a moment and let herself get distracted with the kids at the table.
Rick and Karen boarded the plane for their flight first to Florida with a small layover, then a shorter flight to their island destination. Their trip to the airport in the shuttle bus had been quiet, interspersed with bits of small talk. The only outward conflict occurred when tipping the young man who handled their bags at the curb of the terminal. They got over it quickly, and even gave each other a sincere excited hug as they waited in the customs line.
With their carry on baggage safely stowed above their heads, Rick and Karen took their seats in the middle column of the jumbo jet. Neither had a window into which they could gaze at the world racing underneath them tens of thousands of feet below. The plane was crowded, so they had little opportunity to switch seats during the flight.
The plane took off without event, although Karen had an anxious moment as the plane tipped its wing to find the course south. She had the aisle seat and looked up and down the aisle to feel certain that all was well. Rick took her hand and squeezed it. Karen responded with an affectionate caress of his cheek. They smiled, kissed briefly, gave each other a small smile, and then looked away.
Rick picked up a book that had been lying on his lap, a biography of Winston Churchill, and opened it to the bookmarked page. Karen snuggled closer to Rick, laid her head on his shoulder, placed her hand on the crook of his elbow and closed her eyes. Rick moved slightly to accommodate her presence and tried to read. He got through almost a full page until he realized that his concentration was too low to get anything out of the words on the page. Closing the book, he placed it back on his lap and leaned his head back. He tried to close his eyes, but could not relax. Feeling restless, Rick thought to take a trip to the bathroom to stretch his legs. He began to straighten out, but then remembered Karen was using his shoulder as a pillow.
Rick turned to look at his wife. The feeling of Karen leaning on him, being supported by him felt so familiar, and brought a small feeling of comfort to him. Already, she was asleep; she always slept easily on planes and car rides, he thought, as a way to pass the time. She had her left arm down by her side, with her right hand resting on his right arm.
"What beautiful skin," he said to himself. The sleeve of her blue blouse was bunched up to her elbow, revealing her delicate wrist and most of her smooth forearm. Rick gazed into Karen's face for a long time. He could almost see the breath going in and out of her fine, small nose. As she breathed out, her mouth almost grinned with each breath. Rick continued staring at the face of his wife. A strand of hair found its way out of place and crossed over her right eye and onto her cheek. "God, she is so beautiful." Rick instinctively went to fix the strand of hair and then stopped himself.
"What is going on here?" he asked of no one. "What is wrong with me?" Rick and Karen were a couple like most married couples, he thought. They fought at times, even gave each other the silent treatment on occasion, but this had to be the same pattern for every couple, didn't it? They had been so in love, almost immediately from their first meeting. Rick remembered fondly carrying Karen up and down stairs while she healed from a skiing accident. They could not stay away from each other, and had moved in together so soon after they met. The move had surprised Karen's mother, even disappointed her. Rick sometimes suspected that Karen moved in with him before they were married, as a way of showing her mother that the woman would not control her forever. Whatever the reason, it worked for Rick.
The intense feelings of attraction waned so very slowly over the years until these days, nothing seemed to work for them. The fights were never violent but had become more frequent. The cold shoulders seemed to last longer and longer. "But why?" Rick suddenly asked out loud. Karen started to wake, but soon settled in again. He looked around him and watched the other passengers go back to their own activities. Rick looked at Karen and with a conscious effort moved the strand of hair back in place. His thoughts drifted back to where they were in their marriage and how they got there. Rick knew he worked a lot of hours, but not nearly as many as before. Taking on David as a partner was a good idea, albeit with its own set of drawbacks. He helped put the kids to bed more, and was even able to escape the office early some days for
more of Eli's and Jessie's many activities.
Karen stirred and took her head and hand from Rick and adjusted herself in her seat, only to fall back asleep again. Rick again thought to take a walk down the aisle but realized he would have to step over Karen to get there. He attempted to move toward the other aisle but the passenger on the other side of him had a drink on his tray and gave Rick a look which could be interpreted as, "Don't even think about it." Frustrated, Rick picked up his book again and tried to read.
At the same time, Karen was dreaming. She dreamed she was standing in a field of tall grass in autumn. The grass had grown to her shoulder height and had turned a golden shade of brown. "This should be harvested," she said out loud. Karen looked around the field to see if she could find the owner of the land to suggest the grass get cut. It could dry in the warm autumn sun, then baled and sold off to a stable for horses or cows to eat. Someone should do something with this grass, she thought. Instead, it will waste away and die. Karen felt helpless for the grass and fell to her knees to cry.
From behind her, Rick put his hand on her shoulder and told her not to worry, "Something good will happen. Something good always happens."
"But how? How will it happen?" Karen pleaded.
"I don't know. We will just have to wait and see." Rick started to walk away.
"Where are you going?" She started to get up to chase after him. Her legs felt like lead and it took all her effort to stand, and she did not have the energy to move forward. She looked down for a moment, and when she looked back up, Rick was already gone and the grass had begun to wither.
A sudden bounce of turbulence woke Karen from her dream and she looked at Rick who had taken her hand. Karen wrapped both her arms around him, as best she could on an airplane seat, and started to softly cry. Rick tentatively returned the hug and held her. He looked beyond Karen and beyond the row of seats across the aisle and through the tiny window and saw the tip of the wing of the plane rushing past the endless
formation of clouds.
They arrived at their hotel at nearly 9:30 at night, hungry and tired. The lobby was sparsely furnished, almost utilitarian in its decoration. Walls met at ninety-degree angles and the chair and tables were industrial in design. Rick and Karen looked at each other in surprise.
"It didn't look like this in the brochure," Rick commented as he studied his surroundings, "I don't feel welcome here, the design is too… impersonal."
"We both decided that this was the best place for what we could afford, didn't we?" Karen was beginning to feel responsible for Rick's reactions. "We didn't come for the lobby." She began to walk to toward the registration desk, "We came for the amenities, and for the scenery outside the hotel."
"I suppose you're right," Rick agreed. He took another look around he followed Karen. When he caught up with her, he forced a smile and said, "We came for each other, didn't we?"
They patiently stood in line, stomachs growling, behind a couple who looked to be somewhere in their late fifties or early sixties. The woman wore a wide-brimmed white hat, a loud print shirt, and white pants. Her husband, so Rick and Karen supposed, wore clothes of a much quieter style. The woman had her forearms resting on the desk and her voice was rising as she spoke to the desk clerk. Rick and Karen attempted to not hear her.
"We had specifically booked that suite when my husband called two months ago." She turned to her husband. "You did request the suite, didn't you?" Before he had a chance to respond, she turned back to the clerk. "Do you have anything else for us then, something with the same view? And I want at least the same size room, if not bigger." The clerk looked up from the paperwork he was frantically going through. He, too, started to speak, but was unable. "For our troubles, is what I mean."
By this time, Rick had resumed his study of the lobby. He spied a veranda in the back of the lobby which led to a great deal of green vegetation, delicately lit for viewing and enjoying in the evening. "Finally, something which appeases the eye," he said brightly in Karen's direction, hoping to distract her. Karen stifled a yawn and turned in the direction of the veranda. She smiled as well.
"Let's try to spend some time there this week," she said, finishing her yawn and turning now to the desk clerk, trying to learn how he had reacted to this overbearing woman in front of her.
"Next? May I help you please?"
A wave of satisfaction swept over the desk clerk as the older couple started to walk away from the registration desk.
Rick heard the man say to his wife, "I thought I told you that I couldn't get that suite this week."
"You never said that."
"Yes. I did. We were trying to book the flights the same day, remember, trying to make sure we had non-stop flights? I guess the room got lost in the shuffle."
The woman was walking faster now, ignoring her husband's pleading, and the man struggled to keep up. Karen noticed that their belongings were left on the floor, by the desk.
"Excuse me, but you left your bags!" She called out. The woman turned around and huffed back at Karen.
"Dear, that is what porters are for. They know what room we are staying at."
At that moment, a porter came by with a cart and slowly began loading the baggage onto it. He and the desk clerk exchanged a glance. The porter shook his head, and raised his eyebrows in resignation. The desk clerk rubbed the thumb of his right hand over his index and middle finger, indicating money, and then pointed his thumb down. Rick read this exchange to mean bad tippers. The clerk quickly looked up at Karen and resumed his professional posture.
Compared to the older couple, Rick and Karen were a joy to serve, and the clerk volunteered a porter for them as well. Rick looked at the bags they had brought, then at Karen. "No, we can handle it." Karen gave him a look of "why not?" and reluctantly picked up one bag while Rick took the bulk. As they walked toward the elevator, Rick pointed to himself and gave Karen the bad tipper sign. She laughed slightly and pushed the up button.
As the doors of the car opened, a young couple came charging through the lobby toward the elevator and barely halted their momentum in time before toppling over Karen and Rick. The couple, which looked at each other and laughed, turned toward Karen and Rick and were barely able to mumble an apology before they broke into giggles again. They were wearing what looked like tennis outfits, but they were not carrying any equipment that indicated they had actually played tennis. Karen and Rick looked at each other, then Rick gestured toward them indicating that they enter the elevator first.
The woman pressed the door open button inside the elevator as Rick and Karen struggled with their luggage inside the car. Once the doors closed, the couple snuggled into each other in a corner. Karen saw them and consciously made an effort to slip her arm into the crook of Rick's elbow. Unaware that Karen was about to do this, Rick, at the same time, lifted his arm to put it around Karen's shoulder. Her movement forward and his movement backward caused Karen to trip over Rick's foot and she stumble over the suitcase just in front of him. Rick tried to grab her as she went down and he tripped over the suitcase as well.
The young couple burst out laughing for several seconds before bending down to help Karen and Rick stand up. By the time they were standing up straight and the red in their faces had softened to a duller hue, the elevator doors opened and again the woman held the door open button for them. With their luggage safely in the hallway of their floor, Rick and Karen looked back into the elevator to see the young couple very quickly turn a snuggle into an embrace and further into fondling. The doors slowly closed on them as their kisses turned the faces of Karen and Rick red again.
Rick looked around at the new surroundings of the hallway. It was as unimpressive as the lobby. He sighed, and heard Karen do the same. They looked at each other and tentatively hugged. Karen felt Rick's arms envelope her much smaller frame. She tried to breathe Rick inside her as she had done in the past; she tried to feel complete and connected and whole as she pulled him tighter. Somehow, the feelings did not come. Even though Rick was holding her as completely as he could, she still felt disconnected and nearly alone.
For his part, Rick knew he was going through the motions and felt almost nothing. What was he doing here? What did he expect? Magic? A miracle? He began to pull away, and felt the emptiness of when two bodies separate. Even though he did not feel connected when they embraced, he still felt the separation when they pulled apart.
Suddenly, guilt overcame him, the guilt for not having feelings for her, the guilt for misleading her and letting her think this week together would make everything all right. He looked Karen in the eye, nearly bored a hole right through her, then leaned down and kissed her with a passion which surprised both he and she. Karen responded with furtive, passionate movements of her hands on Rick's chest. As she began to explore his body, she suddenly realized where they were.
She looked up at Rick, who was shocked at her sudden movement. "What room are we in?"
Shaken awake, Rick dug into his pants pocket and pulled out the key. He dropped it, but before he had a chance to bend down to pick it up, Karen pounced on it and read the tag. "913," she read. She grabbed two bags and headed down the hallway, suppressing a grin. Rick took a deep breath and slowly picked up the remaining bags and followed her, struggling to catch up.
Compared to the lobby and the hallway, their room was gracious and inviting. It was dimly lit, with the light from the outdoor pool area and patio creating a glow in their room. Rick and Karen dropped their bags where they stood and looked around the room, then at each other. Rick reached down and took Karen's hands and looked into her eyes. He bent down to kiss her and Karen returned the kiss. She put her arms around him and held him tight, pressing her head against his chest. She was afraid to let him go, she felt that, at this moment, if she let loose her hold on him, he would fly away forever. Karen was afraid that all the time they had spent together, their whole marriage was hinging on this one moment. She held him tighter, squeezed him in fear.
Rick prepared to take a deep breath and felt Karen's hug take his breath away. He could not breathe in again. "Mama!" he joked.
Karen let him go and looked at his face. "What is it?"
"I can't breathe!" He bent down and kissed her again. Karen kissed him again. She quickly began to pull the shirt out of his pants. Rick returned the favor. While their lips were still locked together, Karen began to undo Rick's belt; Rick began to undo Karen's blouse. They broke lips and Karen started down Rick's neck with her kisses. She undid Rick's buttons but quickly realized that he was wearing a golf shirt and ran out of buttons while he had plenty of shirt left.
Meanwhile, Rick had finished with Karen's buttons, and was helping her out of it. She obliged him, and he pulled his shirt over his head, as she shook the sleeves free of her arms and quickly undid the front hook of her bra. They hugged again, feeling skin against skin, both breathing in the natural fragrance of the other. Rick took a moment to allow the feeling of Karen's breasts against his chest, then slowly ran his hands up her back, over her shoulder blades, then let his palms run over her shoulders, up her neck, and cupped her face and tilted it up to look into her eyes.
Karen's body was quivering as the cool air of the hotel circulated around her naked torso. The shivers found their way into her hips and crept lower as her blood left her head and worked its way down to where it was needed. She pulled Rick toward her and kissed him with all the passion she was feeling, taking the back of his head into her hands. She pushed her whole self toward him and let the feelings of passion envelope her.
Rick lowered his hands down to Karen's pants and worked their bodies apart just enough to unsnap her jeans. She wriggled her hips to aid his efforts and let the jeans fall to the floor, then reached down to his belt, and undid the buckle.
She thought to slide his belt off, then reconsidered. She took the buckle in her left hand and the other end in her right. She stepped out of her jeans, and began to lead Rick to the bed. Unaware of her intentions, he stood for a moment and finally allowed her to lead him. When they reached the bed, she spun him around, forcing him onto the end of the bed. He allowed himself to fall and further allowed her to take his pants and boxers and pull them off in as smooth a motion as she could manage. As always, he obliged by raising his hips and let her undress him.
As Karen worked his pants down, and then quickly removed his loafers and socks, Rick lay on the bed and let his mind float away. He closed his eyes and tried to let go of all the tensions that had been building up during the plane ride and checking into the hotel. He felt Karen moving her hands up his legs; he felt her kisses on his knees, his thighs, then higher up on his body. Rick responded by pulling her up toward him. He reached down and realized that she was still wearing her panties. With each index finger, he loosed the panties from her hips and slid them down her legs. Karen took advantage of this action and slid higher up toward Rick and sat down on his belly. She tickled his chest and looked at him. Rick smiled at her and took her hands from his chest and brought them to the side so they were resting on her thighs.
Karen returned the gaze and wanted to talk to him. There was so much she wanted to say, so much she needed to say, and so much she needed to ask him. "Do you love me? Did you ever love me? What are you thinking about? Do you want to be here?" Instead of saying any of those things, she bit he lower lip. She took his hands and gently rubbed them up and down her thighs. At this moment, as she wondered about her feelings for him, she knew how she was feeling about him now. She had not felt this kind of passion for him in a long time. The desire was physical, she knew, almost animalistic, but it was a feeling she had not experienced in a long time. She needed to feel this way, even if only briefly, because she needed to feel alive. She needed to let her body feel at this moment, and not her mind.
Rick looked up at her, through the blond hair that had fallen in front of her face and looked into her eyes. Pangs of regret, of apology, and of sadness flooded him. He stopped his hands on her thighs and squeezed. He pushed the feelings away and let the passion that he remembered and the passion that he used to feel take over his actions. He took her hands and pulled her gently down toward him.
Karen leaned down and kissed his face, then slid her body further down his until she felt him just outside her. She paused and lifted her head just enough to see Rick's face, and gave him a Cheshire smile. She pushed herself down a bit more and felt him inside her. The tension of a few moments ago washed away and she relaxed her whole body on his. She turned her head away from Rick's eyes and let a tear fall down her cheek. It fell onto Rick's cheek, and before he realized it, Karen turned her head back toward him and kissed the tear away, thankful for the darkness. She kissed him again and let her body take over.
Rick awoke in the middle of the night in a panic, confused by his surroundings. As he focused his mind and felt Karen's naked body against his, the memories of the last hours came back to him. They had not made love with that much passion in a very long time. He smiled and turned toward her. The dim glow of the lights outside formed a silhouette of her body. Rick reached over to gently stroke the curve of her waist and hip. Karen stirred slightly at his touch. Rick pulled his hand back from her and dropped it on the bed between them.
His heart suddenly turned cold with dread. Once again, he felt wrong, that he should not be here with Karen. He felt himself trapped inside a lie with her. Of course he loved her; she was his wife. "But I don't love her as my wife," he admitted to himself, "I love her because she is the mother of my children." He sighed and turned to lie on his back. "That's not enough; it can't be."
The little red light of the smoke alarm served as a focal point for his gaze. He stared at it until the sharp, clear red dot turned into a fuzzy glow. He emptied his mind as best he could and closed his eyes
until sleep returned. It was an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
Several hours later, wakefulness came to him again, but slowly this time. Karen had already showered and dressed for the day. She was quietly unpacking their luggage, hanging up clothes in the closet, refolding and then placing underwear and other items into drawers. She heard Rick stirring, and turned to him with a smile.
"Good morning, sleepyhead." She took a pair of shoes out of a suitcase and positioned them in a straight line next to a pair of Rick's tennis shoes. She walked over to the side of the bed and sat next to Rick, placing her hand on his hip. He looked up at her and put a hand on top of hers. "Are you hungry? It is too late for breakfast, but we could always order in room service, or wait a bit and have lunch downstairs. I was reading the menu and they seem to have a good lunch menu. We could start sightseeing this afternoon, or I was thinking maybe we could go horseback riding. I haven't been riding in so long; all we need to do is take a short bus ride to the stables, it is all here on the stuff they leave us," she got up to retrieve the folder of information left on the table, "and there are trails through woods or on the beach, whatever you want to do." She sat back down on the bed and flipped through the material.
Rick sat up and slid over to the side of the bed to look at the folder with Karen, covering himself with the sheet. "That sounds great, whatever you want to do." He put an arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek.
"Great. Well, why don't you take a shower, then we can have lunch and get started?" She kissed him on the mouth, and walked to the balcony, dropping the folder back on the table as she went by. She turned back to him and said, "Oh, Rick, it is so beautiful here. I am so glad we came." Karen turned back to look at the view of palm trees and then the beach area beyond. She reached her arms up and stood on her toes, stretching her limbs, then bent down and placed her palms flat on the balcony floor, breathing in the rich tropical air as she stood straight up again. She placed her hands on her hips and breathed out.
Rick watched her go through these practiced motions with admiration. "There is so much about her to love," he thought. "She is smart, beautiful, good at what she does." His thoughts wandered again to last night as Karen leaned over the balcony railing. Rick quickly got up from the bed, and ran to the shower before Karen had a chance to turn back around and see him.
After a quick lunch on the back veranda of the hotel, which gave them the same view as their room a few floors above but from a different perspective, Karen and Rick caught a shuttle bus for the stables. Karen had mostly memorized the information for the horseback riding: the costs, the rules; and they were set up with two mature, if slightly small, horses for the afternoon. Because they had both ridden before, Karen more than Rick, only a small demonstration of their skills was required for the operators of the stables to let them go off on their own. Rick needed some guidance and encouragement from Karen before he allowed his charge to pick up the pace and stretch his legs.
Soon, they were galloping toward the beach, Karen always ahead of Rick, and led their horses into the shallow water of low tide. For the second time in the last twelve hours, Karen felt free. She controlled her horse effortlessly, which allowed her to take in the rush of wind and feel of the saddle. Her hair bounced behind her and her shirt rippled on her back.
Rick struggled to keep up, but soon found himself enjoying the ride as well. His mount knew the area well and was accustomed to nervous riders. The horse held steady as Rick gained confidence.
When Karen reached the end of the beach, she guided her horse to a stop and turned around and waited just a minute for Rick to reach her. She took hold of her hair and fanned her back with it and inhaled deep breaths and let them out, rubbing her horse's neck. The ocean's warm breeze dried her sweat and that of her horse.
Rick finally caught up with her, twitching the reins nervously. He let out a big sigh of relief and grinned at Karen. "That was something, wasn't it?"
"God yes! Don't you just love it?"
"Yes I do." He sidled his horse next to hers. "Maybe not so fast, though."
"Oh, Rick, just let yourself go. Your horse knows what it is doing. Don't you girl?" Karen moved the massage down to her horse's muscular shoulder and shank.
Rick followed Karen's lead and rubbed the neck of his horse, though with a bit less enthusiasm. "What do you say about following the trail through this area over here?" she indicated the glen to their left and beyond, "It leads back to the stable. The brochure says it should take about a half hour. Did you notice the bar nearby? We could walk to it," she took his hand, "and have some refreshments."
The feeling of the run on the beach was beginning to ebb and Karen was itching to start riding again. Rick looked toward the wood, and thought of the bar at the end of the ride.
"Sure, but let's go a bit slower this time, okay?"
They rode side by side for much of the ride back to the stable, except for those parts of the trail where the only one horse could go through at a time, Karen leading the way. They rode mostly in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Karen glanced back at Rick every few minutes and wondered what was on his mind. Why did he continue to keep his distance, when she was trying so hard to bring them closer?
Upon their return to the stable, they watered and groomed the horses. Karen found great delight in this and Rick moaned his way through it. "This is part of the fun, Rick," she pleaded, "getting to know the horses a bit better."
"It feels like a one night stand to me, then," Rick replied. "We take them out for a run, get them all hot and sweaty, then feed them and comb their hair and say good bye." He stopped grooming his horse for a moment and looked over at Karen, to judge her reaction to his joke. She glanced at Rick and shook her head in the way she had for years. It was a look that acknowledged Rick's attempt at humor, but it was an attempt that Karen did not fully appreciate. Rick went back to his task, and heard Karen humming softly to herself.
They took the short walk to the bar and found a table for themselves. The bar was open air and nearly empty during the midafternoon time. A gentle breeze cooled the few patrons who had settled themselves within. Rick went to the bar and ordered a glass of white wine for Karen and a whiskey soda for himself. Music was playing quietly in the background and Rick strained to recognize it. Finally, the light dawned.
"Do you know who this is?" he asked, glad to have something to speak about, something to be excited about.
"The voice is familiar, but I can't place it." Karen began to share the enthusiasm, grateful to see Rick finally gaining some energy.
Rick mockingly assumed the tone of a lecturer, "This is Billy Joel, singing 'All You Want to Do is Dance' from his 1976 album entitled Turnstiles."
"You are kidding. This is Billy Joel? This song is a bit obscure to play in a bar, isn't it?"
"Please note the Caribbean beat, appropriate to the region where we are vacationing." Rick sat up straighter, proud of his knowledge and ability to impress. "Did you hear Eric Clapton's 'I Shot the Sheriff' playing when we walked in? It is nice way of giving us some exposure to the local flavor while keeping the tourists happy." He sipped his drink proudly.
"But I have never heard this song before."
"Sure you have, I had the record in my apartment when you moved in."
"That doesn't mean I listened to it."
"Sure you did, you remember. This album also has, let me think for a minute," he pulled the memory from the air around him, "ah, the melancholy strains of 'New York State of Mind', the gunfire piano of 'Angry Young Man,' of dreams deferred in the soulful 'James,' and my favorite Billy Joel song, maybe ever, 'Summer, Highland Falls' with its wistful lyrics of what might have been."
Rick stopped talking abruptly, suddenly aware of what he has just said. "Anyway, that is where is this song came from."
Karen stared at him, through him, but was desperate to keep the mood upbeat. "Yes, now I remember." She banged the table lightly. "Do you know who you reminded me of, just now?"
"No, who? One of your law school professors?" Rick placed his hand on Karen's, feeling its warmth, reveling in this moment of connection.
"No, but close." Karen turned her hand up so their fingers could entwine around each other. "Remember that kid from 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'? When he was going on and on about Cheap Trick tickets and describing the lead guitarist?"
"Oh yeah, yeah. That was great." Rick tried his best Spicolli. "Pizza, Mr. Hand?"
They laughed together, and Rick bent over to kiss Karen. They separated and looked into each other's eyes and smiled.
"Did I see that with you?" Rick asked.
"Of course you did. Who else would you have seen it with? We were married at the time."
"Sorry, I couldn't remember there for a minute."
Rick sat back and took another sip of his drink and looked around the bar. Karen wondered if this moment could have come and gone so fast. Is this all that connects them, aside from the children, references to movies and music from previous decades? She tried to think of their common interests, but at this time of desperation, she was coming up empty.
"What do you want to do tomorrow?"
Rick turned to her slowly, tried to read her mind. He smiled at her, and place his hand back on hers. "I don't know, did you have anything in mind?"
"We rode horses today, and that was my idea. Let's have tomorrow be yours."
Rick sat back again and considered the possibilities. There were many things he had in mind based on the material laid out for them in the hotel room. Finally, he came up with something that he would look forward and hoped that Karen would as well.
"Snorkeling," he said brightly, "Let's go snorkeling."
Karen froze. She could swim. In fact, she was quite a good swimmer, but always in a pool, where the pH was regulated and the only life forms present were other bathers and some algae that the chlorine did not kill. The idea of swimming in shallow water with small fish and starfish, potentially jellyfish, and seaweed had never appealed to her at all. She had gone swimming at various beaches in her life, but never truly enjoyed it. She forced some brightness back into her face because she had made the offer, and because she needed him to enjoy himself.
"Sure, let's go snorkeling."
Rick saw her look and tried to discern what she wanted, "We don't have to go if you don't want to. We can think of something else."
"No, let's go. It has been a long time since I have tried that sort of thing." She saw the near disappointment on his face, "Really, I look forward to it."
He touched her shoulder and said, "Thanks. It will be fun." He emphasized 'will' to assure her of his efforts. They both sipped their drinks again.
Karen suddenly said, in a voice louder than she had intended, "Hey, let's go back to the room." She tried winking and nodding her head in the general direction of the hotel, "you know, before the muscles start aching."
"Oh, sure. Gotcha." Rick winked and nodded back. "Do you want one more before we head back?"
Karen kept her exasperation to herself, "Rick, we can have one more later. Come on." She spoke in the same manner as Rick did a minute ago. "It will be fun."
On the shuttle bus ride back, Rick stared out the window, watching the trees rush past. Karen watched him and placed a hand on his arm. She noticed that Rick did not react to this gesture and continued staring out the window. She touched his cheek.
Rick held his gaze and responded with a, "hmmm?"
"Hey," she said again, weary of the effort she was making to get his attention. "Where are you?" Rick flinched.
He knew exactly what she meant. He was avoiding her, keeping his distance. He could not tell her that he wanted to be somewhere else, almost anywhere else, but not here, not with his wife. He sickened himself with the thought. This was the best vacation time they had for each other since their honeymoon. They were together, all alone. Rick told himself that he did not want to talk seriously now; it would spoil the fun. He was lying to himself and knew it.
He turned to face her as her hand fell from his face. "Right here." He smiled. "With you."
"I mean, where is your head? Come on, Rick, what is going on?" she pleaded.
Rick continued the inward lies and said, "I guess the horse riding took more out of me than I thought. I am just taking a little break here." He paused to see what affect his words were having on her, to see how he should continue. In turn, Karen continued staring at him, wanting more. She took hold of his arm and squeezed, knowing just how much pressure to apply to get his attention without hurting him.
He brightened slightly and said, "I am resting up for when we get back to the room." Then he bent down and kissed her. Karen sensed this was a forced gesture, but accepted it because it was all she knew he could offer at this moment. She leaned back and closed her eyes, keeping hold of his arm.
Once they returned to the hotel, Karen attempted to recreate the passion they shared the night before. For his part, Rick made a similar attempt, but went through the motions with much less enthusiasm. Whereas last night their movements were smooth and in tune with each other, tonight they bumped into each other and continually apologized for it. As he finished with eyes closed, Rick did not see a tear fall on Karen's cheek. He kissed her on the mouth and moved to his side of the bed. Karen pulled the sheet up to cover herself and she watched as Rick settled himself in. Finally, he looked at her and smiled.
"You hungry?" he asked.
"No, not right now" she said and sat back. She opened her mouth to say more, but could not find the words to express what she was trying to say. She realized that she did not truly know what she wanted to say: was she angry, sad, or relieved? Their lovemaking had always been passionate, although less frequent over the last few years. The passion they shared for each other outside the bedroom (or whatever room was handy, Karen wryly considered) had slowly ebbed, but physical intimacy had always been a reliable part of their relationship. It was where they could connect, however briefly and, these days, however infrequently. Karen looked over toward Rick and saw that he had closed his eyes and had begun the rhythmic breathing which signified the light sleep that he allowed himself when he wanted to escape. She wanted to scream at him or to shake him or even to punch him in the arm out of frustration.
Now, she thought as she calmed herself down, they did not have even physical intimacy. Karen had to admit to herself that she had seen this coming ever so slowly over the last few years. The busy lives of the children and the additional hours that Rick worked were a very good reason for the initial slowdown, but since he had taken on David as a partner, he was not working as much. He had lost interest in her as a person and as a wife; she knew it, but she did not know why. Yes, she asked for a lot from him. He needed to be successful for the children. His success equated into the family's success, she thought he could see that, thought Rick understood the importance of being successful. His wife and children, after all, would be proud of him. They were a reasonably happy family, and they could always enjoy the benefits of his success once they were settled. Yet, she felt resentment from him whenever she presented this argument to him. He could never articulate where this resentment came from, but Karen felt it and knew it was real.
In fact, it had been growing, especially over the last several months, maybe more. Rick had grown more easily irritated. Things that he would have normally brushed aside, such as the kids not making their beds or not helping to clean up after dinner, he now turned into a Federal case, as her mother would say. Karen tried to talk to him about why he was getting angered so easily, and his response was always the same: should we just let them leave the house a mess; what will that teach them? Karen could not argue with his logic, if only he was thinking logically, but his responses to these situations were emotional and not logical. She began to stop trying to reach him, to watch silently as he slid away from her, feeling helpless as she did so.
Karen finally took a deep breath and lay down; slowly, she closed her eyes and then dozed off. Rick stirred at her movements and rolled over to watch her for a moment. He tried to close his eyes again, but could not. He lay awake with his eyes wide open and considered the last two days: beautiful weather; beautiful hotel; a beautiful wife. Yet, he was feeling empty and unsatisfied. He continued looking at Karen and wondered why he did not feel anything. Simply, he did not love her. He had stopped loving her at some point in their relationship, but could not remember exactly when. Not that it mattered anyway. He felt miles apart from her and could not imagine building a bridge to connect him back to her again. In very small ways, he tried to connect, but the wall that had been built (that he had built around himself, he admitted) was too strong to break down.
Rick finally managed to close his eyes and tried to let his worries float away. However, his muscles ached from the horseback riding, and he was hungry. Sleep came slowly and uncomfortably.
As the setting sun darkened the hotel room of this tropical paradise, neither Karen nor Rick, in their poses of restless sleep, understood that this had been the very last time they would make love.
When Karen woke several hours later, extremely hungry and only slightly less achy than Rick, she looked at the clock, horrified. It was after 11:00 PM and the restaurant was surely closed. She shook Rick awake, "Rick, get up, the restaurant is closed."
"Huh? What?" His grogginess was hard to shake. "Why is the restaurant closed?"
"Look at the time." Karen got out of bed as she said this and realized her nakedness. She quickly ran around the corner toward the bathroom and grabbed a towel that she wrapped around her and came back into the main room and more calmly picked out some clothes. Rick watched this for a moment, and was slow to realize what was happening in front of him. He considered getting out of bed and standing tall in his nakedness to show that he did not agree with Karen's newfound modesty. This was a way, he thought, to connect with Karen in an unexpected way. She would appreciate his strength of character.
After just a moment of these thoughts, he reconsidered. Something had changed. They had changed and this proved to be an unbearable situation for him. Although not in love (and was that really true?), he was comfortable with where they were. He knew what to expect from her and she from him.
"Karen," he spoke, hoping she would slow down for just a moment, to realize along with him what was going on.
"Rick, come on, we can still get a sandwich in the bar." Karen was back in the bathroom and was speaking above running water as she frantically tried to freshen up.
"Karen, I was hoping…" Rick called from the bed.
"What's that, Rick?" Karen peered outside the bathroom and saw Rick still in bed. "Hey, they must have good burgers down there. Let's go."
"Yeah, sure. I am on my way." Rick crawled to the other side of the bed and quietly pulled a shirt and pants out of the drawer in the hotel dresser. He quickly dressed and joined Karen in the bathroom.
When they were both dressed, Karen straightened Rick's collar and kissed him on the cheek. She put an arm through one of his and led the way out of the room.
Down in the nearly empty bar, Rick ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Karen chose a chicken sandwich. Both sandwiches were big and filling and were eaten in near silence. Karen drank a glass of wine and watched Rick down three mixed drinks in quick succession. She did her best to stifle her thoughts that he was drinking too much too fast, but could not help herself when he ordered a fourth.
"Rick, we will be going to back to bed soon. Slow down."
"We are on vacation, I don't see what the problem is."
"I just want you to be in good shape for tomorrow, that's all." Karen remembered what they had scheduled for tomorrow. "Snorkeling, remember? You can't breathe underwater, when you are hung over."
"Oh yeah. Are you sure you still want to go?"
"Of course. Let's get back upstairs."
Rick finished his drink, pushed himself away from the table, and stood up. Once stable on his feet, he headed for the door.
Karen called back to him, "What is this, eat and run?"
Rick turned back around and dramatically smacked himself in the forehead. He called out to the bartender who had served them, "Can you put this on our room bill?"
The bartender waved back at them and smiled broadly, "Consider it put."
Rick looked back down at Karen and grinned, "We are put."
He headed back to the door neglecting Karen again. Furious, but resigned, Karen followed him into the lobby.
"Hey, remember me?" she asked when she caught up with him at the elevator.
"I thought you were right behind me."
"Well, I was. Not so you'd notice."
"What? I thought you wanted to go back upstairs."
"I do, but I wanted to go up with you." The elevator doors opened. Karen understood what Rick was getting at. She was not prepared to make love again, not after what happened this afternoon, and not the way he was acting now. She simply took his arm and squeezed it. Rick bent down and kissed the top of her head.
Back in their room, Rick took off his shirt, and began to undo the belt of his pants. Karen took hold of his hands, interrupting his progress, and looked up at his face.
"Read to me," she said, "Like you used to."
"Don't you want to, you know?" he asked.
"Not right now, I am too achy. Let's just take it easy for a little while."
She went to her suitcase and pulled out a copy of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. She joined Rick on the bed, handing him the book.
"Remember how we used to read to each other? Why don't we do that anymore?"
"I don't know," Rick stumbled on what to say. He focused back on the book at hand. "Let's get back to it tonight. What do we have here? A little mystery, a little gothic romance?"
Karen explained, "I saw it at the library before we left and couldn't resist picking it up. It has been years since I read this. I haven't started it yet, so let's start on page one?"
Rick sat up straight, and cleared his throat dramatically. Karen snuggled up to him and felt Rick adjust himself to accommodate her. He opened the book, flipped past the title and copyright pages, and found Chapter One. He moved again and placed an arm around her shoulder. It felt heavy on her and she tried to ignore it.
Rick began to read about Manderley and the long drive up to the dark, imposing building. He fidgeted and dropped the book on Karen's lap, complaining about his aching legs. She took the book from him and took over the reading, finding the page, the picking up where he left off. Karen had always loved to read out loud to Rick and remembered the moments they had shared. These were the times where she expressed herself a bit more dramatically than she normally would as herself. Rebecca was the sort of story into which Karen could disappear and play the romantic heroine. She reveled in the language of its author and the life of its characters.
She reached the bottom of page five and looked over at Rick; maybe they could have this one moment together. She hoped Rick was enjoying himself as much as she, but he had fallen into a light sleep. He looked pleasant enough and she could hardly blame him for dozing. They had not gotten much sleep last night she remembered with a grin, and then there was the horseback riding this afternoon. It was late enough at night to expect too much from him.
Sadly, the last two days came sweeping back into her consciousness, and then the last few months. She fought back the tears that were ready to explode from inside her being. Resignation and anger and then fear all battled inside her. Finally, Karen convinced herself that now was not the time to make a big deal of it. There was always time to talk, if not tonight, then tomorrow, or the next day. She was too tired to talk now, and Rick was already sleeping.
Carefully, Karen moved off the bed so as not to disturb Rick and moved over to an armchair in a corner of the room. She switched on a floor lamp and continued reading for a long while. Finally, she fell asleep herself and slept restlessly while images of an old mansion and the Cornwall countryside crept into her head. She dreamed of Mrs. Danvers and the first Mrs. De Winter.
Rick woke up to a gray morning and the sound of a heavy rain pelting the balcony outside their room. He got up and stretched and saw Karen sleeping on the armchair, with the book lying precariously on her knees. He stooped to pick it up and saw that she had already passed page 100 and wondered what time she fell asleep. After marking her place with a postcard, he placed the book on the table next to the chair and walked to the balcony and looked outside.
As he did on the plane flight down here, Rick looked again his sleeping wife and saw how beautiful she truly was. Then, with a sickening feeling, he realized that this was the extent of his feelings for her. Her beauty did not make him love her. It had drawn him to her initially, but it could not hold him to her. He did not feel the connection to her that he knew should exist between two loving people and he was never at ease with himself when with her. She is my wife, he thought, I should be at my best with her. Instead, a thick distance pervaded their everyday lives, and he always sensed a certain lack of balance when they were together, as though the fulcrum of their lives was off-center.
The clouds that provided the nearly torrential downpour looked endless toward the horizon. Rick stood at the balcony door and stared. "Damn."
The one word was enough to wake Karen. "Rick? What is it?" she asked sleepily and slightly alarmed.
Unable to articulate his thoughts to Karen, Rick spoke quickly, "Oh, uh, I was just thinking that we were supposed to snorkeling today."
"Oh, I'm sorry about that," she held out a hand to him. He returned his hand and took her fingers in his palm. They smiled at each other as warmly as the morning would allow them.
"Let's get some breakfast, and see what the day brings, shall we?" he offered.
The dining area was filled with chattering guests and bustling wait staff. The activity in the room was heightened perhaps because of the weather outside. The staff attempted to keep the mood light as the guests scrambled to make alternate plans over coffee and pastries. One table was more subdued than the rest, however. Karen and Rick ate quietly, both tired from the last days. They allowed the noise of the people around them to keep them focused away from each other. Both ate well and were sipping their coffee at the end of the meal as a glimmer of sun shone through the broad windows surrounding them. Almost on cue, several tables emptied of their patrons who rushed out to make the most of their day, changing their plans once again.
Clouds continued to break apart and the dining room was suddenly bright with direct sunlight and the energy of the sun reflected off the white tablecloths. Rick looked at Karen hopefully, but could not catch her attention as she stared into the distance.
"Hey," he said softly.
"Mmm?" was her response back to him without turning to look at him.
"Do you think we could try snorkeling this morning?"
Considering the way they had spent the last few days, and the fact that this morning's rain had her mind set on not snorkeling, she looked at him with little enthusiasm. "Why don't you go on your own? I think I'd like to take a long, hot shower."
"You said…" Rick began, but he could not finish the sentence. He gripped the table tightly, then released it. "Fine, I'll go." He walked away and outside the hotel.
Karen watched him go, finished her coffee, and signed for the meal. She slowly went back to the room, her head and body heavy with the image of Rick's back.
Once in the room, Karen was determined to follow through on her statement during breakfast. A long, hot shower would help her aching muscles and perhaps clear her head. She opened the balcony door to let in the clean, fresh air that the sun brought, removed the clothes she had quickly thrown on for breakfast and went in the shower. The water ran hot, almost painfully so, and rained on her tired body, pelting her skin. She washed her hair twice and scrubbed her face till all the dirt and sad memories faded away. The water was beginning to cool down when she finally shut it off. She stood naked and dripping for several minutes, letting the feeling of clean engulf her.
The sound of footsteps in the room surprised her and she grabbed the fluffy white bathrobe provided by the hotel and wrapped it around her still damp body. She tied the robe tight around and flipped her hair out from the back. Cautiously, and she wondered why she suddenly felt so nervous, she stepped out of the bathroom and saw Rick standing in a similar bathrobe near the balcony. Karen felt a sudden desire to head back into the shower. The warm, clean feeling which had until just a minute ago brought her such comfort, was irretrievably lost. She felt cold and strange seeing Rick. From the look on his face, Karen thought Rick might be feeling the same way. He began to walk toward her, his arms by his side, with a look on his face that read pain and contriteness. As he began to raise his arms to her to begin an embrace, Karen quickly moved away to the balcony where Rick was standing moments before. Rick turned to Karen, but she continued staring out the balcony window. Clouds had begun to form again, casting their room from its bright tropical hues into shades of gray.
Rick desperately tried to find some common ground. "How was your shower?" he asked finally. Karen continued staring out the balcony for one minute, then two. Rick stared at Karen's back, nearly shaking.
Breaking the heavy silence, Karen spoke without turning around, "I'm not going." She wrapped her arms tightly around her middle, hoping to prevent herself from exploding. Rick no longer knew what to say or how to act. What was she expecting of him at this moment, how could he change her mood?
"When are you snorkeling?" she asked.
Rick took a small breath, glanced around the room quickly and responded, "I canceled the snorkeling."
"Well you just said you didn't want to do it," he said, hoping that she could see the connection he was trying to make.
"So? We don't have to be together every minute." She could not turn around to face him.
Rick took a step toward Karen direction, but as she straightened her back ever so slightly, he stopped.
He nearly pleaded, "I thought the whole idea of coming here was to be together."
A long silence followed in which each played out the last few days in their heads. This vacation did not turn out as it should have. Karen's expectations were higher than Rick's. He knew the best he could do was get through it. Karen was hoping to reconnect, to find a way to love each other again, but it did not work. The gulf between them had grown so great that not even a vacation by themselves without work or children could bridge the gap.
She surprised herself by remaining so calm. It is done, she reasoned, there are no more questions.
"You don't love me anymore," she stated firmly.
Rick heard her perfectly well, and even though he was not surprised at what she just said, he was shocked that she said it out loud.
Without looking at her husband, Karen repeated, "You don't love me anymore." She forced herself to go on, "And you don't want to be married to me. So why don't you just admit it." The pressure of the week was off now, and Karen felt that she no longer had to make the effort to connect, "I'm going swimming."
Karen turned away from Rick and walked to the dresser, picked out a bathing suit that she tucked under her folded arms and left the room. Rick took one step to follow her, admitted the futility of following her and stopped.
He spun around, looking for an answer and not finding one, he looked for a distraction. He found the biography of Winston Churchill that he had brought with him and sat down in the same chair Karen had slept in and tried to read. He noticed his hands shaking and knew he had to move, to be active. When Karen was in the shower a few moments ago, he initially had the idea of joining her and had taken off his clothes in anticipation. He quickly realized, however, that the idea would not fly with her and their present moods. She finished the shower before he had time to put his clothes back on, so he had thrown a bathrobe around him.
He now took off his robe, and stood naked in the middle of the room. Rick stood alone in the hotel of their paradise vacation spot. His head hurt, and his stomach was churning. Without thinking or feeling, he dressed and headed for the bar.
Karen put on her bathing suit in the pool locker room and found herself inside the domed pool area. The dome was made of a thin translucent material, which created a diffuse lighting environment during the day, allowing the people inside the dome a sense of the weather outside without actually experiencing it. Rain had started to fall again, gently at first, then picking up the momentum it had achieved earlier in the day, generating a drumming effect that echoed lightly inside the dome.
Walking around to the deep end of the pool, Karen stood at its edge for several minutes. She closed her eyes and listened to the rain pound the dome. Opening her eyes momentarily, just to be sure she did not land on top of anyone, Karen dove in and began swimming toward the shallow end, staying underwater for as long as she could hold her breath. Breaking the surface, she heaved in a deep breath and continued swimming until she reached the other end as fast as her strokes could get her there. She rested at the side of the pool, keeping only her head above water and noticed that the temperature of both the water in the pool and the air inside the dome were regulated to be warm and humid. She felt as though she were in a cocoon. The water and concrete sides reflected the sounds of the few other people in the pool area counteracting the drumming of the rain.
Karen stretched her arms to either side and held onto the edge. She closed her eyes again and became aware that the only sensory input she was receiving was the smell of the chlorinated water and the tiny waves that splashed against her chin and perhaps fell into her mouth when she took a breath. The world was hers now; the thoughts that she held in her head were the only input her brain was receiving. Her mind floated back to the time a few years ago, when she had nearly drowned at the beach and was 'rescued' by Sam, a friend of her and Rick. "When exactly was that," she thought dreamily. Karen always attempted to downplay the incident, but Rick and Sam, and even Sam's wife Jeanine, found some delight in pointing to one of Karen's few moments of weakness.
As she sat contentedly in the pool, allowing the movement of the water to take her a few inches to the left and then to the right, Karen remembered how she felt at that time. She was not a wife or a mother, she just was. It felt wonderful at the time, those few brief moments, where Karen Sammler did not exist and neither did the rest of the world. During quiet times in the intervening years, she tried to recreate that feeling of nothingness, but had never been successful. Here she was now inside a domed pool area in the Caribbean, and that feeling came upon her again, and she had not been prepared for it. It swept over her and she felt…. Wonderful. Her mind was blank; the world around her was blank. All was nothing, yet all was beauty.
Her fingers, which had been holding her to the side of the pool, relaxed to the point where they could not hold her weight in the water, and she started to sink. Suddenly panicking, she cried out and swallowed water. Her arms flailed for a moment, but she quickly regained herself and was soon standing in the pool and coughing to get her breath. A girl, about four or five years old Karen guessed, had come over and with a look of childhood worry and asked if she was okay. Karen looked up at her and smiled that yes, she was fine. As the girl wandered back to her parents who had the relieved look of people who are willing to help, but glad they do not have to, Karen saw Jessie in her mind and nearly started to cry. Because she was in a public place, she held back and took several deep breaths instead to regain her composure.
Karen climbed out of the pool, took a towel from the pile offered by the hotel and then sat in a lounge chair. She lay back with the towel draped over her shoulders and stretched her legs. After what just happened, she did not feel comfortable enough to close her eyes, so she looked around the pool area, and noticed the young couple with whom they shared the elevator when they checked into the hotel. This couple had been all over each other in the elevator, Karen remembered, and now they were at it again, this time in the hot tub portion of the pool. Karen looked and saw that others wanted to enjoy the hot tub, but seeing the couple in action, kept walking. Karen's mind drifted back to the other night when she and Rick were together and her body began to warm up even further than the air around her warranted.
She closed her eyes and focused on the thought of her and Rick's bodies together, sharing moments of intimacy that gave her a sense of being at one with Rick. Then she remembered her last words to him in the room, and she felt cold, the water on her arms and legs causing her to shiver. She sat up and wrapped the towel more tightly around her. She began to rock in the lounge chair and looked at her feet on the concrete to regain her balance.
A voice pierced her thoughts; it was the young woman shouting, "No! Stop!"
Karen turned her head and saw the woman stand up and try to leave the hot tub. The man took her hand and held her in place. "I'm sorry, baby, really," he pleaded.
"You always say that!" and she shook her hand free and nearly leaped out of the pool to get away from her husband (or boyfriend?).
The man called to her back, "Oh, come on, you are too sensitive!"
She turned on him and pointed a finger in his direction, and then at herself. "Me? Look at yourself, you can't see where you are, what is happening around you! Why don't you just grow up!" Suddenly aware of her own surroundings, the woman began to stalk away, realized she had forgotten something, and walked back to get her room key. This gave the man the time to catch up to her. He took her arm, and turned her around.
"Look, you are the one who made ME commit to YOU. I didn't want all this, you did!"
"That gives you no right to treat me like this!"
"You know what? You're right! I don't have to treat you at all. You don't even have to exist for me." He began to walk away, and she stood and watched him. He turned around and looked at her for a second, then said, "Oh, by the way, how are you getting home?" Then he left the pool area, leaving the woman alone. She crossed her arms, trying to hide herself in this roomful of strangers.
Karen stood transfixed, horrified by what she just witnessed. Her first thought was to go back to the room to tell Rick, and she began walking toward the door and froze. But he was up there stewing, she thought. Yet, it was her room, too, and she needed to get out of this place.
Rick was not in the room, however. He had gone down to the bar shortly after Karen left the room. When he reached the entranceway to the bar, he stood for a moment and considered Karen's last words to him. She was right, of course: he did not love her. He used to, at least he thought he did, but he did not anymore.
"Oh, excuse me," said the older gentleman who had checked into the hotel with his abrasive wife. "Say, where do I know you from?"
Rick looked down at the man and put out his hand to shake with him. He replied, "The lobby of this hotel. From the other night. You checked in ahead of my wife and I."
The man shook Rick's hand. "Ah, yes. Bill Smiley. We're from Pittsburgh."
Rick smiled warmly at the friendliness of the man. "Hi. Rick Sammler. Of the Chicago Sammlers."
They began walking together into the bar. Rick had to slow his stride so Bill Smiley could keep pace with him.
The man looked at Rick inquisitively, trying to place him. "Should I know you?"
Rick laughed lightly as he gestured to a table, so they could both sit. "Not at all. It is just something I say to my mother on occasion. I am originally from Kansas, and she never got used to my moving away."
Bill had remained standing as Rick sat down. "I don't want to impose on you. I am just waiting for my wife to come down. We are having a late lunch and she generally takes much longer than I to get ready."
"Please. Sit down. I'm by myself this afternoon," Rick said and he took a deep breath.
"Oh?" Bill Smiley looked at Rick, trying to read him, making Rick feel uncomfortable.
Trying to break the tension, Rick said, "Here, let me buy you a drink." He stood up and headed for the bar. "What will you have?"
Bill smiled and drummed his fingers on the table in thought. "Before the Mrs. gets here, let's have something we don't normally have." He banged the table with palm of his hand to express the decision that had been made. "A gin and tonic."
"Gin and tonic it is," Rick stated and repeated the order to the bartender, along with his order for a whiskey and soda.
When he came back with the drinks, Bill said, "My wife says that a gin and tonic is merely a drink for the masses. It is not special enough for her."
Now it was Rick's turn, "Oh?"
They raised their glasses and clinked them in solidarity, the rattling ice adding to the cheer. Mrs. Smiley entered the bar and called for her husband from the entrance.
"Bill, I'm ready," she stated firmly.
Bill quickly sipped his drink and spilled some as he set it down a bit too harshly. "I'm right with you, dear." He looked back at Rick and nodded his head, then moved toward the entrance, slowly. Mrs. Smiley took his arm as he reached her, glared at him and walked away with Bill at her heel.
Rick watched them walk away and remembered the drink in his hand. He brought it to his lips, and then stopped before he taking any of it in. Slowly placing the drink back on the table, he thought of Karen and pictured themselves as the couple that just left the bar. He scraped his chair against the floor and stood up, nearly dreading going back to the room.
Karen was reading Rebecca again when Rick returned to the room. She had changed out of her bathing suit and into a casual shorts and shirt set. She looked up at the sound of the key in the door and waited.
Taking a deep breath, Rick entered the room and dropped the key into his front pocket. With as much casualness as she could muster, Karen placed her bookmark and closed the book. She looked up at Rick and looked straight at him. Or through him, Rick would have thought. She brightened her face, trying to break the tension, and asked, "Where have you been?"
Rick quickly answered, because he, too, was trying to keep the tension that silence can sometimes create to a minimum, "I was down at the bar."
In the time it took the words to leave Rick's mouth and reach Karen's ears, the realization that he could not have said any other words which had the potential to cause greater pain to Karen had dawned on Rick. He knew that Karen's mind was immediately full of images of his father and brother, both alcoholics who had both destroyed their own lives and those of their family. Arguments replayed in both Karen and Rick's heads about how Rick drank too much, and shouldn't he see the example caused by his family to help him see that. Rick felt his drinking was never a real problem, and he always kept his family first, that he would never let alcohol do to his family what it did to his father and brother. "How happy was your mother when you were growing up? Remember how your brother ran over that dog? It could have been a child!" He could hear Karen saying these words again in his mind and they rang in his ears.
Karen was thinking of the last few days and that Rick was drinking more and more each day. "Dammit Rick, why do you have to do that? Go drink when things get too hard?" She stared at him, waiting for him to defend himself.
"I didn't drink anything. I never got around to it."
"Then why are you back up here?"
Rick looked at Karen and stood still. He did not know what to say; he did not know what Karen wanted him to say to help smooth things over.
Karen placed the book on the table next to the chair. She placed her arms on the armrests and tightened and untightened her hands, in an attempt to compose herself. Finally, she spoke.
"Look, about what I said earlier, I…"
She could not finish the words she was about to say because she did not believe them. She had thought to say that she did not mean what she said about him not loving her; that he did not want to be married to her. She knew that Rick would then say he did love her, but she truly did not believe that he did.
Instead of making something up, Karen stayed silent. Rick said, "I know."
"Know what? What do you know?"
"I don't know. That… the way you feel." He took a step toward her, and she immediately stood up and started to back away.
"How I feel? How do you know how I feel?" She was beginning to boil, and her energy level began to rise. "How would you know how I feel? You haven't talked to me in months, in years!"
Rick was shocked by her honesty, and also at the truth. He had always chosen not to look to deeply at the rift that had been created between. He knew it existed, but also knew that if he did not bring it up, it did not have to be addressed. If he were not required to examine his own thoughts, he would let them lie.
"What, what do you want me to say?" he finally asked.
"I want you to say to me what it is you are thinking at this precise moment. What is going on in your head?"
Rick stammered, moving his mouth slightly, trying to find words that he had never articulated in his own mind, and never even considered uttering out loud. Karen took this moment to let the last few days flash across her mind again.
"Why aren't we having a great time down here? Why are you so distant?" Her voice was rising in both pitch and volume. Rick paced across the room until he was at the foot of the bed.
"Why, Rick, why?" Karen's hands ran through her hair which she splayed out in an attempt to keep from exploding.
Unable to keep the thoughts bottled any longer, Rick blurted out the words that he had been holding back. "Because you are right."
"About what, Rick? What am I right about?" She was feeling her control begin to spin away.
Quietly, "That I don't think I love you." He feebly looked for a place to sit down, merely for something to do with his body, to keep his head from feeling so tight.
Karen was incredulous. Could he not even say this with definition? Did he have to qualify this statement with an "I think"? "Say it out loud Rick. Tell me, please, I can't keep up this charade."
The bubbling inside Rick was turning into a boil. For so many years now, he had been able to contain his thoughts about Karen and how their relationship had evolved. He had loved her, at least the part of him that had "rescued her" and taken care of her and been able to see her through law school. Now she did not need him to rescue her; now, he thought, she needed him to be for her who she needed him to be. He was not prepared to completely let himself go. He wanted her to feel safe in his arms; but he knew she did not feel safe with him anymore, that merely his arms were not enough. They did not feel safe with each other.
Unfortunately, Rick had played the role of provider to his family so well; he could not articulate any of these thoughts to Karen. Because he had spent so long burying them inside, he was not aware how strong they were.
Despite the difficulty of holding her own side of the conversation, Karen spoke again, because she knew how hard this was for Rick. She had become accustomed to his inner conversations and had even taken advantage of him at times, because it just seemed easier than dragging his thoughts and feelings out of him.
"Rick, what is going on? Why aren't we having the best time down here? Alone?" she pleaded at him with her eyes.
He began to reply, "I… don't know."
This set Karen off again: "Talk to me Rick! You need to talk to me! This is way too hard!" She began flailing her arms, to keep herself grounded.
Rick felt as though he were being slapped. He had been successful in holding off this conversation in the past, but now he was faced with responding. He began to clench and unclench his fists, and paced again.
"Do you really want to know what I am thinking, Karen? Do you?"
"Yes Rick, please! I need to know!"
Finally, the boil became too much. He looked at her with her desperation, and spoke, perhaps a bit too harshly. "I don't trust you."
Karen was not prepared for this. In truth, she was not prepared for anything he might say. He had not said anything for so long, she could not fathom what he might come up with.
"You don't trust me? Is that what you said?" She was incredulous. "What is it about me you don't trust? That I am sleeping around? Embezzling from the family fortune?"
Rick held his ground and the strength he had gained from those four small words. "I don't trust that you are looking out for me," he said firmly as he looked her in the eye.
"What does that mean? I am always looking out for you and the kids. Everything I do is about us."
"But that's the whole point. It is what you do. It is almost never 'about us.'" He felt himself begin to weaken; he was not speaking for himself strongly enough. Rick looked down at the floor for a moment and composed himself and Karen watched, not sure what would come next, but she had a sudden flash that they could work through this, that with Rick finally talking to her, they could actually have a discussion.
He clenched his fists again, "Look, I did the best I could, alright? I worked hard, and spent a lot of hours away from home so we could all live in a nice house in a good neighborhood. I thought that would please you. But I never felt that you were pleased with me. Nothing I did was enough for you."
"Oh, don't start with that Rick. We have had a lot of years together to be going through this crap. If I wasn't pleased with you, it was because you were not there for me. I never got to know you, what you wanted."
Rick felt like jumping up and down in frustration. "You never wanted to know me. You were too busy telling me how to be me!"
He looked down at the floor and back up at Karen and with a firmness in his eyes which she did not recognize, said, "I don't love you… because I don't feel love for you. I don't feel a love between us. I don't…"
Karen waved her hands in front of her face to get him to stop, "Okay, Rick, I get it. You've made your point." She stared at him and tried to read his face, as she thought she had always been able to do, but she could not. She did not know him, it seemed to her. She did not know who this man was.
"So, it's that easy, is it? You just tell me all this, and expect what? Me to just roll over and accept it?"
Rick took a deep breath and began to say, "I'm sor..."
Karen put her hand up to stop him from making this trivial statement, "Don't even try to say you're sorry. You have been holding out on me for so long, Rick. You don't talk to me for years, and now finally speak, and you're sorry?"
"Yes, that is it. It is so simple. I finally speak. Are you happy? Is this what you wanted to hear?" He worked hard to keep his voice from cracking. "Is this all that you thought our life would be? Because it is not for me. I wanted more, a lot more. Sometimes, I felt as though my head could explode when I looked at you. There is just nothing there Karen. You have to know that."
"No, Rick, I don't know that! All I know is that I have been trying so hard these last few years to get to you. And now you pull this. This…, oh, shit Rick! This is not what was supposed to happen. Can't you see that? We are supposed to live happily ever after!"
Feeling fingernails digging into the palms of his hands, Rick unclenched his fists. "We can't! I can't." He suddenly felt lightheaded, and took a moment to figure out why. The wall inside his head had broken down, and his shoulders felt the burden of his thoughts, which had been buried inside him for so long, lift into the ether.
"Oh God, this is hard," he thought, and began to walk toward Karen. In his lightheadedness, he tripped over the table where Karen had placed her book. He attempted to regain his balance and save the book from falling at the same time, and managed to do neither. He put out his left hand to break his fall, but landed his pinky on the fallen book and knocked the table down on top of him, sandwiching his pinky underneath. He heard a crack
Karen nearly laughed at the scene, relieved that the tension had been broken, and then her instincts took over. She went to Rick, and suddenly saw him differently now. He was still her husband, but a gulf had been created between them, a chasm so large that she knew at this moment that no bridge could ever be built which could cross it. Rick Sammler was no longer her lover, her soulmate (if he ever was); he was now the father of her children. She bent down to him and straightened out the table.
"Dammit, Rick, what did you do?" She took his hand, gingerly, and looked at the now misshapen pinky. She looked at Rick, but his eyes were closed. His teeth were clenched in pain and he was taking deep breaths through his nose. "Let's get this looked at." She helped him up, and he took her assistance willingly. As soon as Rick was steady on his feet, Karen fell to her knees and sobbed. He held his broken pinky in the palm of his right hand and looked down at Karen helplessly.
The visit to the medical clinic took longer than Rick or Karen wanted, but the necessary forms for treating an American in a foreign land are always more cumbersome than normal. They did not speak much at the clinic, or on the way back to the hotel. While Rick convalesced on the hotel room couch, Karen walked around the grounds until darkness fell. She did not feel like eating that evening, and Rick was sound asleep when she returned. She slept alone in the bed that night.
The next day, they spent shopping for souvenirs for the kids, other family members, coworkers and friends. They attempted to enjoy each other's company, but the strain of the day before prevented any real sense of camaraderie.
The following day, the last full day of their vacation together was very quiet. Although they took their meals together, they read alone and walked alone. Rick attempted to connect with Karen physically, but she had already determined in her mind that the break was final.
The airport shuttle dropped them off Saturday afternoon and they entered by the front door. Peg had allowed Eli and Jessie to watch TV till Rick and Karen came home, to ensure they would be downstairs in the living room when their parents arrived.
The front door opened and the kids immediately ran to greet them, Jessie to Rick and Eli to Karen. Hugs and exclamations of "I missed you", "Did you have a good time?" and "Did you get me anything?" rang for several minutes. Peg watched the scene, enjoying a family moment that she had never been able to experience with her own children. Rick and Karen took out small gifts for the kids with a promise of more if they helped bring the luggage upstairs. After a brief discussion of who should carry which bag, Eli and Jessie headed upstairs. When they were halfway up, the smiles on Rick and Karen's faces began to diminish and they physically separated their bodies from each other. Without saying a word to Peg, Rick's mother immediately understood what was happening. She stared at Rick, waiting for him to speak. Karen looked at Peg, and then at Rick and announced she was going into the kitchen to make tea.
Without her gaze leaving Rick, Peg peripherally watched Karen go into the kitchen. She then noticed the splint on his finger and asked, "Rick? What happened?"
Rick shrugged his shoulders and looked beyond Peg into the kitchen. He glanced at his finger and looked back at Peg, apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mom."
Peg moved to Rick and took him in her arms. He sobbed softly and hugged her tightly. Looking up, he saw Karen in the kitchen doorway, watching, sobbing alone. This tableau held for a moment until the kids came bounding the stairs. Jessie asked, "Why are you guys crying? Aren't you happy to be home?"
Karen immediately shook herself out of her mood and ran to Jessie. "Of course we are, sweetie, we are so happy to see you, that's all." As she took Jessie in her arms, and Rick put an arm around Eli's shoulder, Karen continued, "You know what they say: it is good to get away, but it is always better to come home." She wiped a tear from her eye.
Over the next few months, Karen and Rick discussed their plans for the separation and eventual divorce. They met with lawyers and attempted the most amicable divorce possible, for the kids, they told themselves, but also for themselves. The pain of breaking up was too difficult without creating additional unnecessary pain out of spite for the other. They respected each other as individuals, but could not find a way back to the loving couple that they had once been. The break up was more difficult for Karen, Rick knew, because it was he who had initiated it, however passively. He gave in to most of her requests regarding the house and the mortgage and alimony and child support. Karen did not take advantage of Rick's nature because she knew it would reflect on whatever relationship they had left with each other.
Every night, they slept in the same bed and kept their distance. They agreed not to pursue outside relationships until all was final. Again, this was best for the kids, they told themselves. Inside, Karen hoped that Rick would come around, but Rick had already left in his own mind. He did not break her trust, out of respect for his soon to be former wife.
They had determined not to tell the children anything specific until all the details had been worked out. Although Eli and Jessie sensed that something had changed, their feelings were too vague to pinpoint the changes or even to know which questions to ask.
Every year, the Sammler family took a summer vacation to the beaches of Lake Michigan. This was the time that Rick and Karen decided to "tell the children." They were nervous in the days before the vacation, but it was one of the best weeks they shared as a family, perhaps because of the extra effort both parents made to help the kids feel comfortable. They even asked a complete stranger to take a picture of the family on the beach, something that Karen would never have allowed in previous vacations. This was another opportunity, Karen thought, for Rick to see that the family is best together.
For the last few months, as she went through the motions of planning the divorce with Rick, she always held out a slight hope that he would change his mind. He never did change his mind, and on the last night of the vacation, Rick told Karen that he could not put off the discussions any longer. They stayed up all night, talking about some of the highlights of their relationship together, laughing at the silly parts, and then growing more and more quiet as the discussion led to the final few years and months and their tropical vacation. Karen finally drifted off to their bedroom and fell into an uneasy sleep while Rick stayed downstairs in the cabin, staring at the lake, watching the tide recede before him.
Jessie woke early that morning, and Rick offered her a cup of coffee. The coffee was more of a latte, filled more with milk and sugar than actual coffee, but Jessie was thrilled to be sharing in this adult activity with her dad. Rick told her the news gently and quietly, and they hugged and cried.
As was his usual pattern, Eli slept later than everyone. When he finally came downstairs looking for breakfast, Karen took him outside to the front deck, for fear that Jessie's face would tell him more it should. Eli protested, repeating his hunger, but Karen took his hand and had him sit down on the porch swing with her. She told him as gently as she could, but Eli was a sensitive boy who had difficulty understanding why their parents could not stay together. Having heard all that he felt he could handle, he began to head down to the beach, then remembered breakfast and went back inside. Jessie met him in the kitchen and they held each other longer than they ever had before or ever would again.
For many years after this final family vacation, Karen often wondered if the friction in the relationship between herself and Eli was greater than it normally would have been because it had been she who told Eli the news, and not Rick. She never fully reconciled the idea, or convinced herself one way or the other if it were true.
Ultimately, the court agreed with Rick and Karen regarding the divorce and visitations. It was as amicable as either of their lawyers had seen, and gave them hope for the well being of the newly created family units, despite the breakdown of the primary family.
When they left the court on a sunny August day, Rick and Karen looked at each other, took a deep breath and hesitatingly shook hands. Rick turned and walked away, thinking of the details necessary to get his apartment in order, while Karen stood on the front steps of the courthouse and stared at his back. She returned to her house, in which she was now the sole adult, and wept in the bedroom until the children came back from visits to their friends. She wiped her eyes, splashed water on her face, and greeted them with a smile.
July 22, 2002
Copyright 2002 Charles Benson
E-Mail the author
Based on characters created by Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz