“So how are Robyn and the baby?” Karen asked.
The same question, asked by his eldest son’s mother, Sheryl, would have come with an ulterior motive, but Karen wasn’t like that. Chris looked at her. She was still pretty, and had given Jasmin the same perfectly-shaped mouth, perky little nose and large eyes. But now Karen was a little more of a comfortably upper middle-class suburban Mom, and less the unsophisticated young woman she’d been when they first met.
She was curvier, carrying about ten or fifteen extra pounds and her hair, once almost waist-length was now in a short bob below her ears; once almost pitch-black, now colored auburn. And she wore much less make-up, blending in with the women in this small, affluent town who knew how to tastefully enhance their appearance without being showy about it.
Today Karen wore a pair of jeans and a light summer sweater with Chanel flats, her once slender figure, a little less so. Over her shoulder was a Balenciaga hobo and in her right hand, she jingled the keys to the new Audi SUV Chris had bought her just that year.
“Robyn and the baby are good,” Chris said unlocking his car, preparing to get in.
He didn’t like talking to either Karen or Sheryl about Robyn even in passing, thinking it insensitive to belabor the fact that he was engaged to her when he’d never even considered such a step with either of them. Karen in particular had to be curious about Robyn because after all, she had loved and lived with Chris for years before their break-up, had borne him two children, and yet he had never once even hinted at wanting to make her his wife.
Sheryl was married now herself, so—even though she was probably cheating on the poor bastard—she probably didn’t care as much as Karen might.
“Are you ever going to introduce us?” Karen asked, keeping her voice light. “Jas talks about her all the time, so I know she’s probably a wonderful …”
“Yeah, sometime maybe. I better go. Traffic.”
Karen sighed. “Okay. Kaden wanted to see you, but I don’t suppose you have time to stop by the house. He’s with the sitter.”
“Wish I could, but I have a conference call that I need to get home for. He’s coming with Jas this weekend, right?’
Karen nodded. “Right.”
“Good, so I’ll see him then. Tell him I said I miss him, okay?”
Kaden was only six. His younger son was the sensitive one. The one who cried when he left, who told him every single time he was on the phone, “I miss you, Daddy,” in that sweet, baby voice he was just beginning to grow out of.
“Okay, well next time maybe you can build in a little more time,” Karen said.
She was lingering by the open door of his car as he got in, and Chris sensed that there was something more she wanted to say.
“You a’ight?” he asked on a whim. “Everything cool otherwise?”
“Hector and I broke up,” Karen said suddenly. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Which shouldn’t be a huge surprise. But anyway …”
Chris paused with one leg in the car, one still resting on the pavement outside. He and Karen had never been ‘friends’. Not throughout their relationship and not now. Then, she had been too much in awe of him to become a confidante, too … grateful that he’d chosen her. Her humility, Chris had later come to think of as low self-esteem, and a general lack of confidence.
Every day that they were together, Karen seemed to have been thinking: thank you for choosing me, thank you, thank you. After a while it almost literally made him sick. Even while he cheated on her, didn’t come home, forgot important milestones, her attitude was thank you, thank you …When he’d finally gotten the guts to end it, after their son was born, it was a relief. The weight of her unjustified adoration and of his shame for treating her in a manner she did not deserve had been too heavy.
And now? Now, they were very cordial strangers, raising children together. Or rather, she was raising them and he participated when asked. Though he was trying to get better and paid all the bills, she still carried the lion’s share of the parental responsibility and never hinted to him about how hard that might be, or what impact it had on other parts of her life. So her talking about her relationship to him was something new, and something he wasn’t too sure how to handle.
“Why isn’t it a huge surprise?” Chris asked. “You’re a great woman, Karen. Any guy…”
“When a man walks into a situation like mine, where I’m being taken care of by my ex, and he knows he can’t do the same … well, it wears on a relationship. Hector saw the Audi and …” She shrugged. “He doesn’t understand, I guess. And he doesn’t believe that you would do all that when there’s nothing between us anymore. Or maybe he knows there’s nothing between us but still can’t handle y’know, who you are. Who the hell knows?”
“I’m sorry,” Chris said, because he didn’t know what else to say.
But at least this Hector guy sounded a lot better than Sheryl’s husband, who for months after they were married was content to live in a house and drive a car that Chris paid for.
“Not your fault.” Karen looked down at her shoes and then up at him again, shaking her head. “I guess I just need to find a stronger man, that’s all.”
For a moment, the silence between them was heavy.
“You know, you’re still young. You could go back to school or something. I’d take care of the tuition.”
“Back to school?” Karen laughed a short bark. “And do what? I was never that good at school to begin with. So I’d what? Be a beautician? Run a clothing boutique?”
Chris shrugged. “Whatever you want, Karen.”
Now he just wanted to get the hell away. He didn’t have time for Karen’s identity crisis right now. He had a crisis of his own brewing. Between Karen and Sheryl who between them hadn’t an ounce of ambition, and Robyn who had maybe too much, Chris wasn’t sure which was worse. All he knew was that his woman was chomping at the bit to run off to Paris for almost a year without him, and he was stuck in a middle-school parking lot trying to be a goddamn career counselor.
“Sometimes I wonder whether it would just be easier,” Karen said, her eyes meeting his.
“Whether what would be easier?” Chris put his other leg in the car, put the key in the ignition.
“For you and me to still, you know,” Karen said.
“Because then I would have a man. Or at least part of one.”