I spotted them in the soft-drink aisle, having a grand time. The man was standing on the back of a shopping cart and had long, messy hair the color of honey. It streamed behind him as he careened down the aisle. The woman was grabbing items from the shelves and tossing them in the cart.
My husband had left me five months earlier. Grocery shopping was a task we’d done together on the weekends, and the first time I’d come here by myself, the cashier had asked, “Where’s your buddy?” I’d managed a shaky, noncommittal smile, and her own smile had faltered as she’d suddenly realized. Now I came only on weeknights and always chose a line where the cashier didn’t know me.
The fun-loving couple finished shopping at the same time I did, and they got in line behind me. “I am not going in the self-checkout line,” the man said.
“OK,” replied the woman, who’d been heading toward the self-checkout.
“That’s taking somebody’s job,” the man continued. “You never use self-checkout. That’s taking somebody’s rent money, taking away their ability to feed their family.” His voice now had a sharp tone.
“OK,” the woman said again. Her voice had taken a placating one. Gone was the playfulness I’d witnessed a few moments before.
I faced forward, willing the line to move. Ahead of me was a woman in a neat ponytail, jeans, and an eco-conscious ski jacket. Her cart contained an entire month’s worth of groceries, and on top of that she wanted to buy a gift card. I tried not to resent how long she was taking. I tried not to dislike her as her husband patiently bagged their groceries.
“There are video cameras everywhere in this store,” the man behind me said. “They’re filming us in this line right now! Maybe they’ll get the idea they need to hire more people. You never use the self-checkout line.” He was preaching to anyone in earshot, on the verge of making a scene. I recognized that tone: anger on a tight leash.
“We’re in this line now,” his partner said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear. Then she mentioned that someone named Troy might be there when they got home.
“Troy is a little shit,” the man said. “And he creeps out Laura. He’s a worthless piece of shit.”
I knew instantly what she’d done: directed his anger elsewhere. Like her, I knew how to steer the conversation away from dangerous topics. I knew what it was like for everything to be fine one minute and on shaky ground the next.
My husband did not make scenes in public. He was funny and charming, and people warmed to him instantly. If he’d been standing beside me, he would have muttered, What an asshole, and winked so only I could see.
We’d met in our twenties at a bar when he’d spilled a beer on me and apologized by taking me to dinner. I was on my way to graduate school on a scholarship. He was going to school part-time and loading semitrucks to pay his tuition.
“What are you doing with him?” one of his friends asked me when we started dating. My future husband laughed, hooked his arm around my waist, and swept me away.
The man with honey-colored hair made a joke about toilet paper. I had some on the conveyer belt. He and his partner had it among their items, too. I remained facing forward.
“You gotta have toilet paper,” he said. “And Scott brand—Scott is good.”
Ahead of me, the husband had finished bagging the month’s worth of groceries, and the woman handed the cashier her card. I breathed out. The line would move, and I would buy my groceries and return to my empty house. It wasn’t a comforting thought, but neither was continuing to stand here, pinned between the couple I’d once aspired to be and the couple somehow I knew.
As cracks started to appear in my marriage, I was sure I could repair them. My husband and I argued often over his widowed mother. He wanted her to be a constant part of our lives; I wanted boundaries but had no idea how to set them. When my resentment bubbled over, he said I didn’t value family, that my heart was cold. He complained I wasn’t good at sex and left him unfulfilled. If he got angry enough during an argument, he’d leave. Once he spent the night in his car. Another time he threw things in a bag and went to stay at his mother’s for a week. He agreed to come home only after I offered to change places with him. I lived with his mother for a week to prove I was committed to him, to her, to us.
Holidays were the hardest. I never knew what might set him off, like the time our elderly dog began having seizures on Valentine’s Day. My husband was desperate to save him, but I thought it was time to put the dog down.
“I’m done with this marriage,” he told me across the kitchen island, voice filled with disdain.
Our daughter, then in junior high school, walked into the kitchen with a Valentine card she’d made. It was addressed to both of us. The gesture tore my heart.
“Please, don’t give up on us,” I begged him after she had gone. I spoke of how we could get better at marriage, that we could grow and learn together.
“People don’t change,” he said, but he agreed to do a weekend of intense counseling in a distant city. After that, the crisis abated.
I was learning how to save us. All it took was for me to admit I was wrong, to squash any feelings I had, to become a lesser version of myself.
“You pay money for that hat?”
I pretended I didn’t hear.
I reluctantly turned around. Penetrating blue eyes assessed me. The wild hair framed a smooth, tan face. He looked like a professional skier—someone who made a living on risk and speed.
The woman with him had ordinary features and wore no makeup. Her hat, a beanie like mine, was brown, similar to her coat and hair. I met her eyes and gave her a smile, which she returned with a shy one of her own.
“I found it,” I said to the man, surprised at how confident I sounded.
“You found it?” I could tell my answer had pleased him. By then the cashier was ready for me. The checkout had two conveyor belts, and I pushed my cart around to the belt on the opposite side, relieved to be out of close proximity to the man, who now stood across from me.
That he’d noticed my hat seemed telepathic. It was only the second time I’d worn it. Handmade of wool yarn in alternating shades of green, it had fuchsia flowers stitched around it like a wreath. Wearing it felt like putting on a disguise. I never would have bought something like this. It was too exquisite, a hat made for someone else. When I’d looked at myself in the mirror before I left for the store, I had pulled the hat down as far as I could, but it had stayed perched high on my head, less like a beanie than a crown.
“Where’d you find it?” the wild-haired man asked across the line of moving groceries. His anger was gone, the rant forgotten as quickly as his playfulness had been. He adopted the role of a curious interviewer.
“On a run.” I paused to wrestle open a paper bag. I’d forgotten my reusable ones. When my husband and I had shopped together, it had been my job to remember them. “I picked it up off the sidewalk and hung it on a bush. A week later it was still there,” I said. “So I took it.”
The man gave me a nod of satisfaction and paid with a wad of twenties. I had been tested and had passed. I looked over at his partner to include her in the conversation. I wanted her to see that I saw her, but she kept her head down and focused on bagging their groceries.
I discovered the hat on a Wednesday afternoon in January along my running route. I rescued it from the sidewalk and hung it on the bare branches of a bush so the owner could find it. I pictured the owner’s joy at being reunited with the beautiful, lost garment.
The next day it snowed three inches, and when I ran after work on Monday, the hat was still there. Even from a distance I could see its vibrant colors, the intricate design. Such a shame no one had retrieved it. I decided if the hat were still there on Wednesday, I’d claim it for myself.
I woke that day as I had each day since my husband had left: alone in a new life I didn’t want. I made myself sit up and put my feet on the floor. Usually I prayed, but that morning I was thinking about the hat. I felt a glimmer of something: not hope, exactly, but maybe anticipation. I worried someone might have decided to take the hat after all. What if it were gone by the time I went running that afternoon? I considered driving by on my way to work, but I forced myself to wait, letting the universe decide if I was meant to have something that would give me joy.
On Christmas 2020 COVID canceled normal celebrations. My husband spent the day in the kitchen making a complicated meal we planned to take over to his mother’s and eat with her while social distancing. Our now-college-age daughter and I lounged in the living room, finding things to do to help the hours pass. I grabbed a camera and tried to take a selfie. She saw it, laughed, and took the camera into the kitchen to show her father. I ran after her, embarrassed. I did not want to be caught in the act of taking a vain picture that only revealed all the reasons I had no right to be vain. I scolded her, and her smile fell.
Then I said, “I’m starving. How much longer is dinner going to be?”
My husband’s face turned to stone. I’d crossed a line. He was so angry he could not speak. Our daughter could see something was wrong and took the dog for a long walk.
“Why are you so upset?” I asked him. “What did I do?”
He shook his head. His body language and the contempt in his eyes suggested I was a lost cause.
“You are not eating one bite of this meal,” he said. “Do you hear me? Not one bite.”
I stepped outside, and some neighbors who were on a walk wished me a merry Christmas. I repeated the greeting automatically, wondering why I was destined to have an unhappy holiday.
Our daughter returned. We packed up the meal, took it over to my mother-in-law’s, and watched her eat as we sat in a circle in her well-ventilated garage, warmed by space heaters. When she asked why none of us were having any, we smiled and said we’d already eaten.
My husband didn’t talk to me the rest of that day or the following. Two days later he came to me with tears in his eyes and apologized.
“It’s OK,” I said, opening my arms to him. “It’s OK.”
Not long before our thirtieth wedding anniversary, on a bright morning in June, my husband and I woke early to have coffee together before he went to work. I relished this time, looking forward to discussing how we might spend that evening. I noticed how rigidly he held his body, how his eyes didn’t meet mine when I handed him his mug.
When he spoke, his words were practiced, controlled. “I need us both to recognize that I no longer want to be in this marriage,” he said. A mask had slipped off, but everything else stayed the same. In one hand he held his coffee. The other rested on our dog beside him.
He said more, but I remember only that first sentence. I stared out the window at the soffit below the roof. A thin crack had appeared there. We’d have to repair it, or snow and ice would get in, and over time it would get bigger and bigger.
My husband left for work, and I spent the day feigning normalcy: I took the car for an oil change. I walked the dog in a park. That night I waited on the front steps as he pulled into the driveway. He climbed out of the car smiling, sat down beside me, and thanked me for greeting him. He said what an awful day it had been, and I told myself the same story I always did: That he hadn’t meant it. He’d been tired. Something else was bothering him.
The next morning he held me close as we lay in bed. I suggested more counseling. We’d just finished a long stint, and I’d believed all was well.
My husband’s eyes were tender, his face inches from mine. “I don’t want you to save us,” he whispered.
The words stopped my heart. Saving us was what I did. It was what I’d always done.
Later I called a friend of mine, a pastor. I’d never told him about the difficulties in my marriage. I could not bring myself to tell even my closest friends, but something about my husband’s resolve was different this time. I poured out my pain and confusion.
“I’m so sorry,” my friend said when I’d finished. I could hear the grief in his voice. “I’m so, so sorry.”
It’s too soon to be sorry! I wanted to shout. Just tell me what to do!
I believed marriage was holy. Divorce was failure. It meant not only that I’d failed at love, but that the things my husband had said were wrong with me were true. It meant I was the reason for his unhappiness.
“I know I can make him happy,” I said.
“You can’t make another person happy,” my friend said. His voice no longer held sympathy, but certainty. It was like hearing an indictment.
My pastor friend did not say marriage was holy. He did not say divorce was failure. He said, “Why do you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?”
I had no answer. I could not conceive of a life other than the one I had.
“What do I pray for,” I asked, “if not to save my marriage?”
“Pray for peace,” my friend said. “And grace for each other.” His voice was somber, searching. “Pray for tangible signs of God’s presence.”
The weeks that followed were strangely calm. My husband agreed not to leave and not to tell our families until I’d found a full-time job.
Each day that summer—the hottest on record in our city—I was excoriated by pain. I was alone in the yard one afternoon, pulling weeds, and a hummingbird came so close I could feel the whir of its wings against my cheek. A rare praying mantis, luminescent in neon green, attached itself to our front door for two whole weeks, and we were careful not to disturb it. After an early-morning rain slicked the patio, the grass, the coreopsis flowers I had in pots, I sank down with my back against the brick of our home and watched it slowly evaporate, crying at the mystery in all of it.
I was still bagging my groceries as the man and woman made to leave. Before they walked into the night, the man’s eyes met mine, like I’d known they would. “That’s a sick-ass, fine hat,” he said.
The woman did not look up.
I’d thought it was him I recognized, but I had seen myself in her: how readily she accepted blame, how eager she was to please. I could see it after only a few minutes in the grocery line. Why hadn’t I seen it in my decades-long marriage?
The day I decided to claim the hat, I jogged up the hill leading away from the home where we’d lived for twenty-five years. We’d agreed to postpone selling it so our daughter had a place to land while she finished college. It was my refuge, and my running route was a rare familiar routine in a life I no longer recognized.
I ran where my husband and I had walked holding hands and admiring Christmas lights when I was pregnant with our now-grown son. I ran past neighbors for whom our daughter had babysat, house-sat, and dog-sat. I ran past houses where our children had trick-or-treated. It was a life that was so precious to me, I had been prepared to do anything to keep it.
I told myself if the hat were no longer there, I would be only a little disappointed. But when I came up the small rise on the street with the bush, there, held aloft in its gray branches, was the hat, its greens and pinks like the first sign of spring after a long winter. I lifted it from the branches, careful not to snag the yarn. Behind me a door opened. In front of me someone got into a car. Had anyone seen? Did they wonder what right I had to take the hat? I tucked it inside my coat and continued running.
Upon close examination at home, there wasn’t a thing wrong with it. I slipped it on my head and walked in front of a mirror, where I saw a middle-aged woman, her skin red from the cold, her jawline no longer taut. She had fans of wrinkles radiating from her eyes, and when she smiled, those eyes were kind and warm. It would be a shame, I thought, not to make her happy.