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Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties: A Novel by Camille Pagán (1)

ONE

It’s an age-old story: woman meets man, man woos woman, woman spends her best years believing their love is the everlasting kind. The pair watches with teary eyes as their progeny take flight from their suburban nest, knowing they’ll return in times of crisis or when their laundry needs to be washed and folded.

Woman embraces aging with hair dye and ample amounts of wine. Man faces his impending mortality by convincing himself that a younger woman is the answer to his waning energy and flagging libido. Certain their sparkling future is worth the collateral damage, the May-December duo ride into the sunset as our heroine stands in the shadows, stunned by this unexpected rewrite.

Yes, mine is a tale as old as time. Beauty replaces the beast.

“I don’t understand,” I said to Adam, who was filling my favorite suitcase with the last of his clothes. “Why would you do this to us?”

“I told you, I’m not in love with you anymore.” He zipped the suitcase and hoisted it off our bed. “I don’t think I have been for a while now.”

“That’s what everyone says when they’re infatuated with someone new,” I said, resisting the urge to suggest he take an aspirin for his shoulder. It had been bothering him for months—which I now suspected was less about him hunching over his keyboard and more the consequence of him holding his lover up against the wall while they copulated—and I had just seen him wince. “It won’t last.”

“You’re not listening to me, Maggie.” He said my name like a curse, which seemed incredibly hurtful considering how often I chose not to mention I was aware he had just passed gas.

“I’ve spent decades listening to you, Adam, when maybe what I should have been doing was talking more. We can go to a therapist and try to figure out how to communicate better. We can fix this.” I was starting to sound as frantic as I felt. We were planning an anniversary trip to Rome! We had less than a decade until retirement! We swore until death did us part! He couldn’t just leave.

Except apparently he could, because he was wheeling our best suitcase toward the door. I wanted to yank it right out of his hands, but something else was starting to sink in. Unfortunately, it felt a lot like reality. “What’s her name, Adam?” I called suddenly.

His face was blank as he turned back to me.

“The woman you’re sleeping with?” I said. “The woman you’re abandoning me for? I want to know her name.”

His composed expression exploded into anger. “Does it matter?”

I sat on the edge of our bed, my eyes welling with tears. This was my reward for thirty-two years of love and companionship? “Have you been lobotomized? Of course it matters. If you’re going to trade me in like a used car, I need to know the name of your new ride.”

He shook his head, like I was the one disappointing him. Then he said, “Jillian.”

“Jillian?” I don’t know what I had been expecting. Jezebel, perhaps. But Jillian: that was the name of a sunny, blameless woman with interesting hobbies. Not one who slept with my husband. “Jillian who?”

Another blank look. “Smith,” he finally mumbled.

“Awfully generic.”

“Awfully common,” he said, the edge returning to his voice. “That’s her name.”

I exhaled, not so much a sigh as all remaining hope exiting my body. “Where did you meet her?” I asked after a moment.

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”

This was true. Three days earlier he had sat me down and announced he wasn’t happy in our marriage; he hadn’t been for some time.

I thought, Not happy? He had been bounding around like a man in his twenties for months, more energetic and alive than I had seen him in ages. He was still affectionate toward me, too. Just days earlier we had gone to dinner with Gita and Reddy, our closest couple friends. As Adam was telling us a story about a man at his health club who danced his way through his workout, he reached under the table and squeezed my thigh. My chest filled with warmth—he still had that effect on me after all these years. It was true that I had hoped for something more when we got home that night, but I didn’t take it personally when he kissed me with closed lips and promptly passed out on his side of the bed. He had been having trouble in the arousal department, but I saw no reason to take this as an indication that he was about to obliterate our union.

When I stopped Adam in the middle of his “I’m unhappy with us” speech days after that and he agreed to sleep on it for a few nights, this seemed like further evidence that his angst was owing to some sort of testosterone lull or midlife mood swing. Of course, I spent those in-between days fretting. Was he depressed? Had the grief of his father’s death a year earlier finally kicked in?

I’ll admit I mostly assumed he was listless in the way a man can become after his sexual prime goes the way of the diplodocus. But that could be addressed with, say, a skydiving excursion (though admittedly the combination of heights and potential human error made that a no-go for me) or maybe light S&M (except if our parenting was any indication, this was equally problematic, as both Adam and I struggled to exert dominance over people we loved). Never in a million years did I imagine he was planning to leave me for another woman.

Clearly this had been a miscalculation on my part. “Just answer the question,” I said.

Now he looked away from me. “At a coffee shop.”

“Where?”

“Near my work.”

“How old is she?”

He shook his head and muttered, “Thirty?”

Thirty. Thirty! “Christ on a cracker, Adam Harris. What kind of message are you sending to Jack and Zoe by dating a woman who is closer in age to them than us? Forget clichés—it’s practically a crime against nature!” I was staring at him as I said this, and damned if he didn’t flinch and turn the other way. “What about our plans? What about our vacation, and your mother moving in with us?” Adam’s mother, Rose, had recently been diagnosed with early-stage dementia, and he and I had been planning to tell her she could come live with us for at least a few years while we were still able to care for her. After all, with both of our kids finally out of the house and on their own, we had more than enough space, and Rose said she couldn’t bear the thought of being in a nursing home with a bunch of senile old folks. “What about our retirement, Adam?” I said, and now I was practically yelling. “What about forever?”

“I’m done planning, Maggie,” Adam said, still facing the wall. “I want a different life.”

And then he left.

A different life? Was this code for a lover with undappled skin and perky breasts? Whatever Adam meant, he really meant it, because a few weeks later I was served divorce papers, which I stashed behind the cache of Martha Stewart Livings in the spare bathroom, should anyone using the toilet desire more realistic reading material.

I did not need to comb through the legal documents to gather that the entire thing had been premeditated. Adam had hired a divorce lawyer before he told me he had accidentally fallen for someone, as though he had failed to uphold his marital vows by missing a step on fidelity’s ladder. He had found a rental apartment while I was still researching hotels in Rome, and had consulted with his mother’s accountant to ensure his father had left ample funds to cover her stay in an assisted living facility (affirmative). And while I couldn’t be certain, Zoe’s and Jack’s surprise seemed feigned when I called to break the news about the separation. Had Adam already told them—or had they sensed that our marriage was crumbling even as I was busy stepping over the cracks? The details were paralyzing, and I routinely found myself staring into the refrigerator or behind the wheel of my car with no knowledge of what I was doing there. (The sole silver lining of our separation was that I now had some insight into Rose’s mental state.)

Yet I spent the first few weeks after Adam’s bombshell waiting for him to wake from this nightmare he had dreamed up for us both and realize the only compassionate, logical thing to do was to come back. After all, both cheating and leaving were completely out of character for him. Adam was not just a loving and devoted if occasionally overworked husband and father; he was also the sort of person who cared deeply what others thought of him. He would not want our friends, neighbors, and family whispering about his incredibly stupid decision. And so each time there was a knock at the door, I rushed to answer. Every time the phone rang I prayed the name on the screen would be Adam Harris, who was calling to beg for my forgiveness and ask if he could come home. (How could he go from speaking with me every single day to not at all? My mind boggled.)

But when a ceaseless string of disappointments began to make it clear Adam had no plans to return, I went numb. Don’t get me wrong: I did all the things one might do following a catastrophic loss. I went days without showering, cried in inappropriate places, and couldn’t bring myself to eat a single doughnut (which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders should probably add as a criterion for clinical depression). But I did so feeling as if I were acting out a part in a movie I hated, rather than living my actual life.

“Mom, don’t worry about Dad. He’s a giant douche. You’re going to get through this,” said Jack, who sounded like he was stoned, but was nonetheless saying all the right things as I snorted back tears on the other end of the line. My baby. Unlike his older sister—who made it seem like I was interrupting her Very Important Law Job every time I called—Jack called me to check in.

And bless him, he was mostly right. I made it through the second month, then the third, and after securing a prescription for sleeping pills from my doctor—who as a physician was required to inform me they were addictive, but as a divorcée promised they would get me through my grief- and anxiety-fueled insomnia—I survived another two.

Somehow five blurry months passed, and I found myself standing near a checkout counter at the grocery store, feeling guilty about spending much of my anemic paycheck on an overpriced lump of mozzarella, a couple of hothouse tomatoes, and a bottle of cheap end-of-season rosé to replace the one I had finished the night before. I had just grabbed a plastic-wrapped cookie from a display rack when something metal slammed into my lower back.

Pain shot up my spine, and I lurched forward while moaning in what I hoped was a demure fashion. As I slowly righted myself, I saw a ridiculously fit man wheeling a shopping cart away from me. His cart, I noticed, was filled with cans of protein powder and enough organic produce to deplete my entire checking account.

The man glanced back at me briefly, confirming my suspicion that he was responsible for the ramming. “You just ran into me,” I said feebly.

He shrugged, no longer looking at me, and continued on his way.

My eyes smarted with equal parts humiliation and discomfort. When had I ceased to be a human and metamorphosed into a windowpane? Maybe people had been looking right through me for years, and I was only now realizing it. Ladies and gentlemen, the Amazing Invisible Woman has finally been spotted!

I must admit I was wearing the costume: black shirt, black pants, and bare face mapped with fine lines. And to think I had been waltzing around oblivious to my own superpower all this time.

The zinging pain in my back began to give way to a hot, uncomfortable sensation, at which point I detected the first rumblings of the seismic shift about to take place.

“Hey!” I yelled after the man. “You hurt me!”

To my right a child was staring at me, her mouth gaping open. Her mother, wearing a sheepish smile intended not for me but for our fellow shoppers, pulled the child by the arm to indicate she was to keep moving. I remembered that stage—trying to prevent a young Jack from pointing at a man in a wheelchair as my face burned, or silencing a small Zoe when she decided to identify and announce the flaws of those around her (a behavior that would regrettably follow her into adulthood).

“Please kill me if I ever act like that in public,” I heard a college-age woman mutter to her friend as they stood by the salad bar.

“Don’t get between her and her cookie,” her friend said, and they erupted in a fit of laughter.

“Pardon me?” I called. “Would you care to repeat that?”

They looked at each other and made exaggerated grimaces implying that I was cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. But I had a daughter; I knew what was wafting in the air between us, and it was more enticing than the smell of fresh muffins, fried chicken, or even a just-opened bottle of the most luscious pinot noir.

It was fear.

“Oh, girls,” I said, taking a painful step toward them. My spine still ached, and I wondered if I would end up with chronic lower back pain, which I read could be triggered by even a seemingly minor injury. I regarded the young women’s slender thighs, clad in ninety-dollar yoga pants their parents had paid for, as they inched away from me. “You’re young and full of hope. You can still pout your way out of a parking ticket and don’t have to worry that if you’re hurt in public you’ll be left to fend for yourself even as some tartlet accuses you of overreacting. But one day that will all change, and when it does you’ll see my face smiling at you from somewhere up in the sky, because I’ll probably be dead then. Here,” I said, grabbing the cookie from my groceries. I tossed it into one of the women’s baskets; to my delight, it actually landed on top of her cardboard salad container. “Enjoy it while you can.”

I didn’t stop to take in their reaction, nor that of other gawkers. No, I marched to the checkout counter and purchased my sad dinner, barely suppressing a grin all the while.

My elation was short-lived. When I pulled into the driveway of the building our family had once called home, it hit me yet again that no one was inside waiting for me; no one would call out my name as he or she or they walked through the door at any point that evening or the next morning. I was, then and what seemed would be forevermore, alone.

I let myself inside. I poured rosé into a large water glass and drew the curtains closed. Then I cried until my eyes stung, sipping my lousy pink wine between sobs. As I was walking to the bathroom to get some tissue, I caught a glimpse of myself in the oversize mirror in the dining room and did a double take. It was not that the red-nosed suburbanite staring back at me was so terribly offensive. It was just that . . . well, I hardly recognized her.

Where was the bright-eyed girl who had dreamed of a happy nuclear family and actually lived to see her dream come true?

Where was the doting mother who crawled between the mattress and box spring and let her children jump on her and scream with delight as they pretended to flatten her, even though it meant risking a ruptured disc?

Where was the wife who believed her husband meant it when he said, “So long as we both shall live”?

I wasn’t sure when the woman once known as Maggie Halfmoon had vanished, but I had a strong suspicion she had last been seen during her thirties. And that was every bit as frightening as my husband walking out the door on the life we had created together.

Because how could I possibly face the world alone if no one could see me?

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