The ‘Try-On’ Wife

After 15 years, they were breaking up. And it was Christmastime.

I stood in the spacious bedroom of the brick Mc Mansion, admiring my surroundings. The expensive furniture. The adjoining ‘master bath’ with every imaginable luxury, all in marble. The carefully-matched carpets and silk drapes — not too girly, but elegant, sober and respectable.

Just the kind of place that a successful St. Louis businessman might lay his head every night. And well he might, it seemed. He had earned every penny, as they say.

Drew would continue to sleep there, too. It was my sister who was moving out.

She was nineteen when she began working for Drew as a secretary. He was five years older, a fledgling builder in a real estate market poised on the brink of expansion. A year later, they’d moved in together, and proceeded to build a spectacularly successful business.

Megan is very pretty – slender, blonde, sweet-natured, she takes after my mother’s side of the family. I take after our dad – dark-haired, solid, hard-working. Mom tried to warn her about living together, but Megan wouldn’t hear a word of it.

Truth be told, we laughed about this in private. Bitter laughter, really. After all, our parents divorced when we were kids, so neither of them really had the right to say anything about our life choices.

As for Dad, he knew better. Never said a word.

After all, our parents divorced when we were kids, so neither of them really had the right to say anything about our life choices.

I stood at the window, looking at Megan’s brand-new Volvo SUV outside, gleaming in the winter sunlight. This was Megan’s ‘consolation prize,’ for her non-divorce.

“Pretty nice, right?” she asked, her voice heavy with the unaccustomed irony. She was packing, her matching Coach luggage overflowing with the loot of her 15-year relationship.  A dozen expensive handbags lay on her bed.

I picked one up, a $2000 beauty – all creamy beige luxury.

Megan snorted. “That was for Christmas last year. About the same time he started dating Gabriella.” She turned away from me then, but I thought I saw a tear gleaming in her eye.

I sighed.

Gabriella was pregnant. That happens pretty fast when you’re 23 years old, especially if you’ve been having sex regularly with some else’s boyfriend. Like Megan, Gabriella is a delicate blond.  Unlike my sister, Gabriella hasn’t been on the Pill for 15 years.

Gabriella was pregnant. That happens pretty fast when you’re 23 years old, especially if you’ve been having sex regularly with some else’s boyfriend.

So, Drew and Gabriella will be married in a local mega-church next Saturday. Gabriella is barely showing, so her dewy youth will be resplendent in her strapless gown – a feast for the eyes of the 500 invited guests.  Their wedding photos would be taken against ‘a stunning backdrop of brilliantly-lighted holiday trees,’ too.

We knew this because Drew had inadvertently forwarded Gabriella’s breathless e-mail to my sister, in the chaos which had immediately ensued after his own email announcing his upcoming nuptials to his live-in girlfriend, my hapless sister.

This was uncharacteristic of the careful, business-like Drew. But he was so giddy with joy these days that Drew was making mistakes. This morning on the way out, he’d forgotten himself for a moment with Megan.

Would it be okay, he’d asked, if Gabriella’s gown could be delivered to the Mc Mansion that day?

My sister, normally the accommodating type, had drawn the line there.

No, she told Drew. Not until she moved out.

“Can you believe they’re going to use my dressing room as a nursery?” Megan said suddenly. I stood in the doorway of her pearwood-lined, ultimate luxury statement. The hushed lighting softly illuminated  the thick carpet, now heaped with a messy pile of designer shoes.

To be honest, I was awash in a sea of gut-wrenching emotions, myself. Rage at Drew for his callousness. Pity for Megan in her helplessness. Indignation at how this was how it had to be.

And something else, too. Something even more uncomfortable.

On the way over in her Volvo, Megan had said something uncharacteristically big-sister like.

“You don’t think this can happen to you, right?” she’d said, backing out of my condo driveway.

I was taken aback. Far more street-wise, I’d made sure I got my degree in finance. At 29, I had a good job and a stable relationship with Brendan. We were talking about moving in together, in fact. Though now obviously wasn’t the right time to discuss this with Megan.

“I was a ‘try-on’ wife, you know,” she’d continued quietly, as the beautiful car swept through the suburban streets decorated for Christmas. “Drew is a conservative guy. He wasn’t sure he could handle a wife and kids, so he used me to see whether he could do that.”

“And now he is. All ready, that is,” I replied bitterly. I hated conservative rich guys. Brendan wasn’t like that. He was a regular guy, proudly wearing his scruffy beard to his night job in a cubicle – answering IT questions for idiot baby-boomers.

I hated conservative rich guys. Brendan wasn’t like that. He was a regular guy, proudly wearing his scruffy beard to his night job in a cubicle – answering IT questions for idiot baby-boomers.

“I thought about leaving him when I was your age,” she said simply. “I really wanted kids. And he didn’t.”

That sure has changed,” I snapped. Drew was positively glowing with pride when he’d stopped by the Mc Mansion.

How could a man change so much? It wouldn’t have been so bad for Megan now if she did have kids. At least she would have something, now, besides a pile of luxury goods.

“You know,” Megan said quietly, “I know three other women who this has happened to.”

Three other women stupid enough to become a rich man’s plaything, I thought. As if reading my thoughts, she smiled sadly and looked at me.

They didn’t even get a Volvo. Two of them had to pay for the movers themselves. All of them are in their mid-thirties…”

“You can have kids until you’re fifty now,” I said stoutly. “You have time.”

Megan had smiled sadly. “I’m thirty-six years old. The chances that I will find a man who wants kids in the next couple of years are pretty slim.”

“So, you don’t need a man,” I retorted. “You can get pregnant without one.”

Megan didn’t say anything. We drove in silence for a few minutes. When she finally spoke, her voice was choked with emotion.

Listen to me. I am in no shape to have kids on my own. I’ve been on the Pill for 15 years. It would take me months of hormone therapy to get pregnant now. I am a secretary looking for a job in a bad economy. A secretary that’s moving back in with her divorced mother. Get real. This sucks.”

“I am a 37-year old secretary looking for a job in a bad economy. A secretary that’s moving back in with her divorced mother. Get real. This sucks.”

“I know it does,” I said soothingly, trying to head her off at the pass. “You’re just upset now.”

No,” Megan replied sharply. “This is about you, too. Don’t tell me you’re not thinking of moving in with Brendan.”

“Brendan’s different,” I said shortly. The conversation was going in the wrong direction for me.

“You think so?”

“I know so.”

“You don’t know.”

“Mind your own business.”

Her breath drew in sharply at the rebuke. I was instantly apologetic.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s just that I don’t want to talk about Brendan now.”

She’d sighed, then, and said no more, as we pulled into the driveway of the Mc Mansion. The front door was beautifully decorated, by Megan, of course, who never failed to make a fuss over the holidays.

Five stressful hours later, my sister burst into the library, where I was packing books.

“You think you can’t get him unless you let him move in with you, right?” Megan said suddenly, her arms full of linens.

“No,” I said reflexively. Though, of course she was right.

“And you think you’re better than me because you went to college, too.”

“No!” I replied heatedly. But Megan was too far gone to listen. She dropped the linens on the polished wooden floor. Her face was red.

“You think that because you and Brendan are ‘equals’ that none of this can happen to you. You think I’m just a dumb blond who got used by a rich guy. You think your college degree will protect you.

“Well, let me tell you something, little sister. Your job can disappear like that. Your man can, too. And you will be just like me. Middle-aged. Alone. No kids. Nothing.”

Mascaraed tears were coursing down her face, but Megan didn’t care. She wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand.

“You think you’re above all this, right? Smarter than me?”

I didn’t quite know what to say. Of course, she was right. I gulped, and took the plunge.

“So what should I do? Wait until he asks me to marry him? We’ve been together for a year…”

“… and if he hasn’t asked, then he’s not gonna just because you are living together! TRUST ME! I KNOW THIS!”

I looked at Megan, surrounded by the detritus of her life. It was true. The tears came to me, unbidden.

“What the hell am I SUPPOSED TO DO?” I shouted suddenly.

The question hung in the air between us.

Megan shook her head slowly. She sighed heavily.

“Listen, I know exactly how you feel. You think somehow your love will be different. That everything will work out. And you keep taking the Pill, because it’s the responsible thing to do. And you work, and you hope. ..

You think somehow your love will be different. That everything will work out. And you keep taking the Pill, because it’s the responsible thing to do. And you work, and you hope…

“Well, lemme tell you. It’s NO GOOD. And Brendan is no different than Drew. They get married when they get to a point when they feel like they can support a family. IF they get to that point,” she looked at me meaningfully.

“Brendan works for a living!” I said hotly.

“Yes. But does he earn enough to support you and a baby?”

“No, but I’m not expecting him to.”

“So, you think that you’ll do it all, right? You’ll get pregnant when Brendan comes around to the idea. You’ll take the hormones. Endure the pregnancy. Have the baby. Then you’ll go out and support the baby – and maybe Brendan too, right?”

I knew she was right. But I really didn’t want to admit it. I stood there glaring at her defiantly, tears coursing down my own cheeks.

“Listen,” she began, more kindly. “I know you’re scared. You’re at a make-or-break point with Brendan now, right?”

“Y-yes,” I said, miserably.

“You think it’s time to get to the next stage, right?”

“He does, too,” I said helplessly. “It’s his idea. He says we can save money. And be together.”

“Right. This way he doesn’t have to worry about you going out on him. And his rent bill goes down by half.”

I looked down, ashamed.  Brendan had said almost these exact words.

“Plus, you’ll probably do his laundry, right?” she laughed humorlessly. “Look, I’m not saying Brendan is a bad guy. I’m saying he’s a baby. And he doesn’t want to step up to the plate.”

“H-his parents are divorced, too,” I mumbled.

Megan let out a sudden peal of laughter.  Shocked, I gaped at her.

Everybody’s parents are divorced!” she exclaimed, her eyes twinkling with merriment. “That’s no excuse for not growing up.”

Later, as we drove slowly through the dark, snowy streets, Christmas lights sparkling at every door, I found myself wondering aloud how many unhappy couples lived behind the facades of these Mc Mansions.

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As we drove slowly through the dark, snowy streets, Christmas lights sparkling at every door, I found myself wondering aloud how many unhappy couples lived behind the facades of these Mc Mansions.

“Who knows?” Megan shrugged, carelessly.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked, curious.

“Now?” she echoed, sighing. “I’m going back to Mom’s. Back to where I started when I was nineteen years old. And I’m going to Mass.”

“Ch-church?!” I spluttered, taken aback. “W-why?”

“Because I want to. I’ve started going to a Latin Mass, downtown.”

“In downtown St Louis?” This was not normal for my suburban sister. I would’ve bet she could count the number of times she’d been downtown by herself on one hand. “Why there?”

“Because it’s beautiful,” she sighed. “And right now, I need some beauty in my life.”

I thought about that. I could understand how she was feeling.  The ugliness of the strip-malled road we had turned onto suddenly seemed oppressive.

“Why don’t you come with me?” she said quietly. “We could go, for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Bring Mom, too.”

Maybe I will. Though Brendan probably won’t want to come.

But maybe I will, anyway.

PHOTO CREDITS: AMY PROCTOR and ROSEANNE SULLIVAN


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