|Image via Wikimedia Commons|
The children screamed and rhymed as the merry-go-round spun, each taking a turn (or not) at jumping down and pumping their legs around the dusty track when the group had fallen below some arbitrary but important minimum speed. The less adventurous pumped back and forth on the swings or clambered around the jungle gym. At the edges, in the shade, parents watched (or didn’t watch) from benches.
Mark sat next to Lauren, watching a girl hop down from the merry-go-round and wind the group up. Mark, in dark jeans and gold-swirled shirt, sat with his arms folded and his ankle resting over a knee. He twirled the pointed toe of his dark cowboy boot in time to his daughter’s circuits on the merry-go-round. Lauren sat with an elbow propped on the back of the bench and rested her head on a wrist. Her legs curled behind her on the bench and she watched the playground through dark sunglasses, though an observer would be hard-pressed to know whether her eyes were on her kids or Mark.
“I know you were sleeping with her,” Lauren said.
His toe stopped circling.
“It’s not like I planned it, Lauren,” Mark said. “Besides, I broke it off months ago.”
“Was she worth it?”
He gave a little shrug. “No, not really.”
“I really thought we had something, Mark.” She reached with a red-lacquered nail and picked at invisible lint on her white shorts. “There was a time when you found any excuse you could to be near me. We talked about all those things we wanted to do, the places we wanted to go, and what life would be like once the kids were in college.
“And then it all changed one day, like you flipped a switch. You know how I could tell? Any jackass can buy affection with flowers, but you weren’t like that. You understood that it’s touch, skin on skin, that shows others how we feel. The way your arm would brush against mine as we’d pass in the hall or your hip would bump mine when getting coffee. You stopped touching me, and I knew it was over.”
Mark looked away and rubbed at the stubble on his chin. His daughter leapt back on the merry-go-round, and shimmied along a handlebar to the center. Lauren put a hand on his arm; he turned to look at it.
“Yeah, I’m sorry.” He swallowed. “I got involved with Ivy, and I don’t know why. I started leading this double life. I felt like everyone would find out unless I kept it together. I was like an actor playing me, if that makes any sense. She wanted me to leave it all behind, the kids, the house, the job. Just run away to some island and open up a dive shop. Charter out to tourists during the day and margaritas on the beach every night. For a whole night, I considered it. Give my life a big adios and hit the reset button with Ivy. Then the sun came up and I called it all off. Everything’s a mess now, I know, but I’m going to clean it up.”
Lauren’s hand squeezed. Mark noticed she had stopped wearing her wedding ring.
“It’s not too late for us.”
Mark said, “It is. It has to be. The divorce papers are signed and the decree goes out next week. I need time to get my head straight, my family straight.”
“Let me help you.”
He took Lauren’s hand off his arm and held it between them. “I can’t be with you.”
“But you could be with Ivy, couldn’t you?”
“It was almost you. Be glad it wasn’t,” he said.
She shook her head, large hoop earrings glinting in the patchy shade. “What made you choose her over me?”
“Honestly? The first thing I noticed about you was your hair. Long, luscious, the way you flipped it back over your shoulder when it got in your way. That flip was just about the sexiest thing I had ever seen. Totally natural, graceful, but with this attitude. It was like you refused to get that short mommy-friendly haircut all the other women get by their second kid. You didn’t surrender, and I admired that.
“And then you cut your hair.”
Lauren snatched her hand back and turned away. Mark stared at her for a moment, then went back to watching the kids.
“You’re unbelievable,” Lauren said. “You deserve everything you’re going through.”
She got up and walked away, her hand rubbing at the back of her short-cropped haircut. She shouted at her boys and headed for the parking lot.
“I love you too, Lauren.”