The day his sports car burst into flames in the garage was the day Lewis left his wife. Except for the detached shed, which only had light smoke damage, the life that he’d built with his wife Sharon burned to the ground and was determined by insurance agents and public adjusters to be a “total loss.” Only bits and pieces of it were recognizable: a teddy bear, DVDs, swaths of colored cloth, some forks, a wedding dress in a vinyl garment bag melted onto a box fan.
Lewis would’ve left his wife of thirty years anyway, but it seems like the fire was the perfect way to show her they had nothing left together anymore. It was his chance to catch a piggyback ride on tragedy’s cruel message: Life’s never going to be the same, Honey.
Within a week, Lewis, a 55-year-old cardiologist, had filed for divorce and had moved in with Mindy, his new 28-year-old girlfriend. Sharon moved into unfurnished temporary housing provided by their insurance company. I met with Sharon first. She’d been able to borrow some money from her sister for a couch, loveseat, television and a floor lamp, but the rest of her place was decorated with emptiness. Just looking at her attempt at a fruit bowl gave me second-hand depression.
I hurried myself into her loveseat, started up my Excel program and said, “So, let’s get started!” Sharon began to cry—in the unabashed way that people do when they have nothing left to lose. Shit. I knew I’d said the wrong thing. If I had just lost every semblance of my former life, I wouldn’t want some young blonde girl flipping open her MacBook and pertly announcing, So, let’s get started! I softly closed my computer and stared at the pine tree branch she’d potted in a coffee can. I guessed it was her Christmas tree as it was the season. When Sharon finally pulled her hand away from her puffy face, she said, “I’m manic depressive. I’m on lithium, that’s why I’m overweight. That’s why my husband’s leaving me.”
I was about to lie and tell her she looked great when I realized she probably meant that her husband’s leaving her because she’s manic depressive. She excused herself and padded into her hall bathroom. Shortly afterward, I heard a plastic bottle being shaken, then tap water running. Her muted TV flashed an image of a preacher and captions about finding God and then something about finding a life worth living.
When I went to her husband’s girlfriend’s house, it only got worse. Lewis was a short man with an ‘80s mustache. He greeted me wearing an insipid sweater featuring Rudolph complete with a blinking red nose, which I chose to interpret as his ostentatious way of saying, See how much better I’m doing than my wife? And it was true; he was the phoenix that had risen from these particular ashes. His plumage was a TJ Maxx acrylic blend, which was being stroked by a woman my age who held a ceramic coffee mug with the photograph of the two of them on some wintery ski slope.
“I bet you’ve met my horrible ex-wife!” Lewis said. He turned to his adoring new girlfriend holding their steamy cup, gave her a bear hug, and proclaimed, “Meet Mindy, my soul mate, the love of my life!”
“Hi,” I said, then bent down to unlace my boots to the sound of them suckling. When I looked up, Lewis had his tongue in his soul mate’s ear, so I bent down again and found something else to unlace.
I’d spent the last two hours with Lewis’ “horrible ex wife,” who never said one bad word about him. Instead, she’d twisted and re-twisted her gray hair into a bun while crying and revealing the exact number of bath towels they’d had, how much her wedding dress had cost, where she and Lewis went on their honeymoon and how many monkey pod salad bowls they’d acquired while planning to spend the rest of their lives together. She had an amazing memory. I googled the price of every item she mentioned, and she was only off by a few cents. At one point, she even said, " We had 15 cloth napkins, no wait, 16."
Other than recalling that his wife did have a good memory, Lewis kept no such tabs. When he welcomed me to the table he shared with his “dream come true” (who was lighting an obnoxious pumpkin-scented candle) he said, “Well, since all my clothes were tossed out on the lawn in garbage bags by my soon-to-be-ex-wife, let’s start with my camping gear!” He turned to Mindy, put two stiff index fingers above his ears and sneered, “Ain’t I a devil, baby!?”
“Now, Sweetie, be nice! That’s not nice!” Mindy cooed, then puckered her lips for a kiss. Lewis puckered his lips back and kissed the air three times. I pulled a Cabela’s catalog out of my bag, slapped it on the table and said, " Why don’t we start with fishing." I’d picked up the catalog because the adjuster had prepped me that Lewis was an avid outdoorsman, but I had no way of knowing that he was an avid idiot who was 55 and believed (or worse, let himself believe) that a 28-year-old was the answer to his problems. How did Lewis not know that the newest love of his life had a good five years until all her problems sprung out of her like a sick joke, like a snake out of a can of peanuts? I wanted to be there for the moment Lewis looked at the supposed love of his life and thought: I opened you up and this is all I got? Lewis was a cardiologist for Christ’s sake, how did he not know that what keeps us alive functions basically like a pump, and that it’s always out with the old, in with new? How did he not know that there would always be a new “new”? But these weren’t the questions to ask if you wanted to make a buck. So, I flipped to the glossy index and inquired, “How many rods did you have?”
“I don’t know. Baby, how many rods do I have?” Lewis wink-winked at his girlfriend who was turning on the Christmas lights on her large, perfectly decorated tree. She giggled girlishly. Behind her on the wall hung some Pottery Barn-ish painted letters that spelled “Laugh,” “Love,” “Smile.” If Sharon had those words floating on her barren walls, I would have come totally undone. But all she had on her wall was a faded class schedule for Curves.
When the time came for Lewis and I to go to his storage shed so I could inventory his burnt guns, he asked Mindy if she would “come wit us, pwetty pwease, Hunnybunny?” Mindy hugged herself and said, “Honeypoo, it’s too cold,” and then I found myself in the crossfire of a long pouty-face exchange. I told them I’d be waiting in my car. Five minutes later, they walked out while hugging each other (which is hard to do) and plopped into my backseat like two giddy prom dates who had just snuck swigs out of a parent’s liquor cabinet. I pictured myself buying some kitschy painted wood letters and spelling out the words “Love” “Doesn’t” “Last” and hanging them right above the photo gallery of the two of them hugging each other in far off destinations.
“Take a right at the fork,” Lewis said then did something unseen in the backseat that caused Mindy to squeal and slap his hand in fake protest. I was beginning to hate the two of them with an intensity I thought I’d reserved for people who torture kittens.
I’m no stranger to the intimate details of other people’s lives: the dusty tubes of K-Y, the bad poetry of their charred diaries, the forays under their beds to retrieve crunchy tube socks. It’s my job to be there after the disaster and accurately denote your kinkiness, your sap. For this, you need to let me into your home, but must you drag me into your life? I don’t want to be the driver of a foreplay session between Honeypoo and Hunnybunny, who seemed to be on the verge of squeezing out each other’s blackheads. That’s not the kind of intimacy I get to bill for.
While Lewis slurped on Mindy’s neck in my backseat, I forced myself to admit that it had to be hellish to live with someone cycling between mania and depression. But, also, if you ever really loved someone, how do you call her a “fat monster” while tactlessly flaunting your new love to your inventory specialist? How is it that the only nice thing you have to say about her after thirty years is that she has a good memory? I guess, if you’re going to leave your wife for a 28-year-old, at least have the guts to leave before the shit hits the fan and the fan and her wedding dress are melted into some strange conglomeration and dragged out into her driveway by the firemen.