You walk into your husband’s office building, past the highly-polished mahogany reception desk and equally well-maintained blonde receptionist, and manage an airy, not-a-care-in-the-world smile at Lydia, John’s latest mistress. The cheery contortion of your mouth cracks open the scab on your lip. Lydia raises a plucked eyebrow at your swollen lip and black eye and tennis racket, but she doesn’t stop you for two reasons: 1) she’s caught off-guard when unexpectedly brought face-to-face with her lover’s wife, and 2) you act as if it’s perfectly normal to walk into a place of commerce looking like a victim of a mean beating and holding a Prince Tour Pro 100T racket that you haven’t touched in almost two years. You know exactly what you’re going to do – you don’t break stride as you push open the heavy double doors and enter the cool hallway beyond. “He’s expecting me,” you say and give her a quick cutesy wave with the racket
When the swish of the heavy door against the deep pile rug ends in a click, your smile vanishes as you shake your head with contempt. That stupid bitch will screw your husband but not warn him you’re headed for his office. Dumb as a sack of hammers – now you understand just how dumb a person is to earn a description like that. John can really pick them, the women who believe his lies and follow him to the ends of the world.
You, of course, were one of those idiots once upon a time. You were a junior at UCLA majoring in Anthropology, so you can blame your naiveté on youth. You were 19 years old when you met John at your sorority party. Earlier in the afternoon you had beaten the No. 3 NCAA-ranked women’s singles tennis player (6-4, 2-6, 7-5) in a stunning upset, and were the girl of the hour. Your sisters had toasted you at dinner and well into the evening, so you were already tipsy and in just the right frame of mind for wishes to come true when the gorgeous Jonathan Ji Yeon Lee, the starting pitcher for the Bruin’s winningest baseball team in a decade, approached you and gave you that wickedly seductive grin that made you just about wet yourself. “You were magnificent today,” he said in the presence of at least fifteen other people. It sounded sexual, as he’d intended. In front of your friends, half of them almost dead with envy, you smiled archly and replied, “I’ve only heard the same about you.” You chatted for fifteen minutes before he left, alone.
The sorority was abuzz when John returned the next day with one dozen red roses and dinner reservations to The Brown Derby. It wasn’t just the fact he was a dead ringer for Takeshi Kaneshiro - he had an easy charm, honed from years of interviews with awestruck sports reporters and chatting up admiring baseball fans. As you told your friends later, when you and John were a definite item, “He had me at ‘magnificent.’”
Nineteen years old, just old enough to vote, you elected to quit school in June and start planning a December wedding. The day after you filed your drop papers, you and John celebrated his becoming the third pick of the Seattle Mariners.
Your sisters Doris and Lily flew into town and treated you to an intervention lunch, ironically enough, at The Brown Derby. The waiter had just left with your orders when Doris leaned forward and intoned, “You are making the biggest mistake of your life,” pronouncing her verdict in the same solemn voice she used when handing down sentences from the judge’s bench.
You reached over and gulped half her glass of chardonnay before snapping back, “God, Doris. That was subtle. You haven’t even met John.”
Doris raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure if I did I’d find concrete proof your plan is a bad idea.” She shook her head. “Your track record with boyfriends isn’t exactly reassuring, Gina. Remember Robert who broke up with you because he said your boobs were too small?”
“He was my first boyfriend, we were fourteen!”
“How about Brian the drug dealer?”
“That was just a little bit of pot freshman year-“
“-and let’s not forget Augustus the Asshole who stole your credit card and ruined your credit. Or Samuel. Wasn’t he engaged to your sorority sister?”
It never failed – Doris on a rampage could make you feel like a dumbshit in under a minute. You threw your napkin on the table. “John isn’t like any of those guys! You don’t know him. I do.” Though you wondered why he didn’t call you last weekend when he said he’d be out of town and you thought you caught a glimpse of him in Westwood with a crowd of people. When you looked for him halfheartedly he was gone, and you never asked him about it.
Lily had allowed Doris the first charge, but now she joined in the fray. “Gina, you’ve only known this guy for what, three months? And you want to spend the rest of your life with him? Can’t you wait a while, make it a long engagement? You’re not even twenty years old, what’s the rush?”
It was good advice, and you knew it, but Doris had pissed you off. You said, “Lily, you don’t know what I’m feeling. You’ve never been in love.”
Lily looked at you over her salad Niçoise and said nothing more, but her eyes were always the most expressive means of communication. Her hurt from your nasty comment was obvious in her wide-set stare. Your face flushed in shame as you stabbed at your Dore sole mechanically. Great - what could have been a celebratory meal, if you had countered their protests calmly and helped them realize John’s innate goodness and suitability as a mate, had turned you into either a bitchy dumbshit, or a dumbass bitch. You pushed yourself away from the table and rose. Looking down at the two faces you loved and despised, you delivered your parting shot, “I mailed out the wedding invitations yesterday. I hope you can make it.” Before sweeping out of the restaurant, you realized you’d forgotten your sweater, but there was no way in hell you were going to return for it.
Lily mailed your sweater back to you the following week, along with her and Doris’s RSVP cards, both marked, “Yes.”
They attended your wedding. And neither of them so much as coughed when the minister asked if anyone had any reason why this man and this woman should not join together blah blah blah. Lily had given you one of her bizarre yet undeniably appealing cloud paintings, an elegant flowing mass of mauve and tangerine-tinged misty and mystical shapes against a lilac sky. Doris had hugged you in the reception line and, righteous pain in the ass that she was, murmured sotto voce, “Finish your degree.” You just managed not to dig your heel into her shin.
You and John moved to Washington and bought a five-bedroom house in a gated Bellevue community, where many of your neighbors were early Microsoft employees who had made their fortunes in the eighties. You and John created a real stir around Puget Sound – the beautiful Asian-American sports couple, role models for a new generation of teens that had been stereotyped for years as nonathletic yellow nerds. You sat through countless interviews and photo shoots. You didn’t transfer to UW because you shopped and lunched and partied with the other baseball wives and girlfriends and never got around to doing the paperwork. Just as well - you found out you were pregnant in June.
Pregnancy agreed with you. You sailed through the first three months without morning sickness, and you still fit into a slinky black dress in the middle of your second trimester. After your six-month appointment, you returned home and were decorating the nursery in pink hues and flower stencils when you heard the news: John had flipped his car on the infamous Seattle Turnpike, breaking his pitching arm in two places and the back of his 24 year-old blonde companion who also happened to be the daughter of a state senator. His career was over before he had even thrown his first professional pitch.
You round the corner of the first aisle, and your step falters for a moment as two people exit a conference room. The real estate agent and a potential client stare openly. Your face heats up and your face feels as if you’ve just stepped out of a steam sauna. You know the agent, you had been at her house two weeks ago. Her husband is a computer industry executive – they live in a Tudor-style mansion in Monte Sereno. Sally, that’s her name, had celebrated her fiftieth birthday with a catered affair featuring lots of wine and elegant hors d’oeurves. The most memorable feature had not been the multi-million dollar house with the gorgeous furniture and artwork, the entertainment system with the wall-sized screen. It was the sight of Sally’s sons, flown back from East Coast colleges, standing on either side of their parents. Arms draped casually yet securely around their shoulders, as they sang “Happy birthday” to the accompaniment of their friend’s voices, faces lit by tiny flashes and the moment of familiar joy saved on dozens of cameras. Envy stabs you unexpectedly.
“Gina,” Sally says, and then her voice fails her.
You almost turn and run. But you manage a sickly smile and say, “Is John in his office?”
Sally nods mutely and points unnecessarily in the general direction, and you take off at a dead trot. Thank God he’s here, not on tour or in a meeting, because you can’t stand it. Sally’s pitying look and realization of your change in circumstances is only the first of many to come. You’re not the wife of the hotshot agent in the office anymore, you’re a beaten mess, a woman verging on the edge of social pariahdom. Sally, you know, is a hopeless gossip. The entire office will hear the news before the hour is up. You, however, can do nothing about it. Secrets always come out.
You, John and Alicia moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. John’s family owned a very profitable computer repair company, where his degree in communications was barely acknowledged. Your in-laws let you move into one of the several houses they owned in Cupertino. John stayed on the family payroll as an “Executive Assistant” until he earned his real estate license. It was the late nineties, and the Bay Area housing market was beginning to take off, the houses just about selling themselves. John’s family roots, baseball legacy, easy charm and good looks, that had once won over baseball fans and a senator’s daughter, stood him in good stead. Soon he was the top-producing agent in his office, then the region. In two years he bought a million-dollar home in the Cupertino Hills that boasted a two-million dollar view. You stood on the back deck the first night you took possession of the house. John stood behind you, arms wrapped securely around your waist. “This is our place now,” he murmured into your hair as he nuzzled the back of your ear. “Our family home. We are going to make a new life for ourselves here. Good times from now on, Gina, you hear me?”
You nodded but remained silent. While packing up the old house two weeks ago you found a pair of unfamiliar peach bikini briefs wedged behind the headboard of the guest room. You threw them in the trash with the rest of the detritus not coming with you.
When John slid his fingers under the waistline of your shorts and tugged down gently, the correct next step was to make love and “christen” the house, stake a claim on your territory. Instead, you pulled away and said something about checking on Alicia, asleep in her crib.
What else could you do, really? If John’s infidelity was going to break you apart, the time to leave was before moving from Seattle. But you were a pregnant mother with only a high school diploma – the prospect of single motherhood had scared the hell out of you. And there was your image to think of – how would it look to leave your newly maimed and unemployed husband to face surgery and rehab on his own? It wasn’t as if Trixie or Bambi – or whatever the blonde’s name was – would be there for John. You had to save face and stand by your man.
The main reason you didn’t leave him, the one you barely admitted to yourself, was you couldn’t bear the thought of facing your family and admitting you had made a huge mistake and that Lily and Doris-the-voice-of-righteousness had been right. Your headlong rush into yet another disastrous relationship had finally caught you, that your taste in men was truly self-destructive.
So you stayed, even though you had reached the latter part of “for better or worse.” Until the night you hit the playpen and the wall.
You turn the corner, and you see John standing in his office with the managing partner Eddie Harris. Your attention focuses on John immediately, and you stare at your husband, who is still incredibly handsome but slightly off. His clothes are right: button-down shirt neatly pressed and sleeves pushed back just far enough to look casual yet cool, form-fitting khaki pants complemented by tasseled loafers. It’s his face that’s wrong – the sagging cheeks and somewhat dazed look in his eyes take the edge off the usual confident, brash persona of the Realtor of the Year, Seattle’s former best hope for the World Series. This is a man whose vitality has dimmed, who has suffered a serious setback and is realizing what he has to lose. You almost feel sorry for him then you think of Alicia and square your shoulders. There’s no turning back now.
They’ve spotted you. John’s brow furrows in shock and surprise then, oh God, his face lights up with genuine happiness.
Those good times John foretold didn’t stay long. Smelling easy money, a flood of people earned their real estate licenses and jumped into the housing arena. The flow of John’s sales slowed to a stream, became a trickle. One day he returned home to inform you he’d missed his sales numbers for the quarter. He went out to the backyard. Five minutes later you happened to look out the kitchen window to see him knuckling a baseball and staring at the back fence. Suddenly he whipped his arm up, a blur of motion, and the ball shot straight at the wooden structure. You flinched and looked away just before hearing the explosive impact and hurried back to preparing dinner.
John started drinking after work. Not much – a half bottle of wine, half of a six-pack, just to take the edge off, he told you. After spending an entire day driving fussy couples to look at eight, nine houses only to have them change their mind or insist on seeing another eight listings wore his nerves down. It grew to a whole bottle, the full six-pack. His temper didn’t always recover from his day at the office.
Then one night John lost a sale to a rival, and he was pissed. “Fifteen thousand dollars just went into that poaching bitch’s pocket.” He threw his briefcase into the corner of the room, where it cowered from his ire. “Eddie was all over my ass, ‘that sale was yours to lose, and you actually lost it. How could you screw it up?’ Like I haven’t brought in millions of dollars in sales and stables of customers?”
You felt your shoulders shrink as your stomach clenched. John’s face was red and you smelled alcohol. He hadn’t come home drunk before, and your nervousness ratcheted up a notch. He was building up steam, going to shove a chair across the floor again or kick the sofa. You worried that one day inanimate objects wouldn’t suffice.
Your eyes darted across to the playpen where Alicia was pulling herself up from her nap, awakened by her father’s stormy entrance. Her eyes bleary with sleep, she looked at the angry figure standing near her mother, and her face screwed up. You put a hand on John’s elbow and tugged gently toward the kitchen. “I’m sorry, John,” you said, “let me get you something to eat, and we can talk about it.” Nervousness ran to fear – something bad was going to happen. The knowledge crept over you, nebulous but certain.
He shook off your grasp. “There’s nothing to say,” he snarled. You wanted to recoil from the vaporous fumes on his breath but forced yourself to stay still. “I’m not hungry, dammit! What I need is a drink!”
“No, you definitely don’t.”
You bit your tongue, but it was too late. The silence that followed your contradiction became heavy, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. John stared at you, and you suddenly realized that he was still in tremendous physical shape, his hands large and strong enough to crush metal cans without effort. You swallowed and started to defuse the situation the easy way: go to the kitchen and get him a damn beer.
Alicia pulled herself up. Standing precariously on wobbly feet, she opened her mouth and let forth a banshee wail that made you both jump.
John’s glare turned on his daughter. “Shut that kid up! I swear to God, I do not need to hear anyone else scream at me today!”
You moved, but John was faster. He reached the playpen three steps before you, and before your horrified eyes he lifted her by the shoulders and shook her. Alicia’s head bobbled back and forth, her scream reverberating with his shaking.
“Stop your crying! Dammit, I said stop it!”
Alicia’s shrieks became ragged. Your fear dropped away as you lunged at the two figures. “John! No!” You shoved your shoulder between John’s chest as you wrapped your arms around Alicia. She had stopped screaming, her breath rattling from her lungs. Pivoting inside John’s reach, you broke his hold on your daughter and forced him backward. You turned to scream at John get the hell away, and his fist slammed against the right side of your face.
The blow knocked you into the edge of the playpen, and your chin collided with the top metal bar. Blood filled your mouth as you instinctively curled around Alicia as you fell, your body absorbing the impact of the floor. Alicia screamed again, and distantly your consciousness noted that if she was shrieking in your ear then she was still breathing so it was a good thing.
When your vision cleared and you managed to pull yourself up to a sitting position, you saw that the haze had lifted from your husband’s eyes and been replaced by sharp realization and horror at himself.
“Jesus! Gina, I’m sorry!” He knelt before you, his face etched with lines of remorse. “I didn’t think, I didn’t…” John held your hands, “Oh God, Gina! Please forgive me, please!” You flinched, he jerked back as if you’d bitten at his hands. John kept his eyes down and dug his hands in his jacket. “I’m no good to you right now, I’m no good at all.” He fumbled for his keys. “I’m leaving now, but I promise I’ll be back. I’m not fit to be near you both.” His pain was genuine, but you felt it as if through thick cotton batting. “I’ll make this up to you, honey, I swear. I will never hurt you or the baby again. I will kill myself first.”
“No,” you croaked, and the sound of your raspy voice made you both wince. “No,” you said again, “I’ll kill you first.” You felt your facial features twist into an expression of hatred – it must have been truly scary because John backed away slowly, not daring to take his eyes away. You heard the front door click as he left the house. You walked unsteadily to the bathroom to spit out blood and look in the mirror. The skin around your right eye was beginning to swell. He’d cut your lip, too. Instead of getting ice, though, you leaned against the counter and brought your face to within inches of the cold mirror surface and studied the battered woman who peered back.
You could take whatever he dished out, might even have stayed despite him crossing the physical line. Given him another chance, believed it when he said he would never touch you again. But your daughter didn’t make that choice. And you suddenly realized that you’d made a very bad choice years ago and it was long overdue for correction.
The decision had been made. John had officially cast himself as the irrefutable villain in your relationship. You could leave without anyone blaming you.
It was the worst kind of cowardice.
You got ice for your face. You called Doris. “I need to talk to a divorce lawyer. Can you recommend someone?” And you cried. Doris let you sob for several minutes before she said, “Come over, we’ll talk. Or should I come and pick you up?” She didn’t say, “I told you so,” or “it’s about time!” So you cried harder as you grabbed up an armful of clothing for you and Alicia, shoved it into the backseat of your car. Slamming the front door helped you focus on what you had to do. You drove to Doris’s house in St. Francis Wood in San Francisco. She took one look at your face and wanted to call the police, but you pleaded with her not to contact them. “We have to report this,” she argued over your protests. You shook your head and said, “I need to get out of this.” Doris finally relented. She summoned her doctor husband Simon at UCSF,; he examined, washed and bandaged your wounds gently. He even persuaded a radiologist friend to run a MRI “off the books” to check for concussion. That night you slept like one of the dead.
John found you at Doris’s house the next day. You met him on the front step, and Doris stood just behind you in the doorway. You knew that behind the door your sister held a 9mm handgun, permit to carry, and she was a deadly accurate shot.
You told him you needed time. John didn’t get angry, didn’t yell. He nodded. “I understand.” He wiped his puffy, red-rimmed eyes, and you were shocked – John had never cried before. “Gina, please, believe me, I’m so sorry. I will never do anything so stupid again. I swear to you on my life, I will change myself completely if you give me a second chance.”
You felt yourself weaken, remembered the good times. You understood why women could take their awful men back. But then you remembered his hands on Alicia’s shoulders, the whip of her head on the slim stalk of her neck, and you shuddered and went back inside.
You stayed with Doris for two weeks. Lily came over and camped out with you for part of that time. Together, your sisters and you plotted and made your plans.
Eddie’s eyes widen as he takes in your appearance. Having been raised by an angry alcoholic stepfather, he knows the difference between running into a door and a smack in the face. Eddie’s look of horrified disbelief jumps from your bruised countenance to John, whose own expression has now turned from joyful to uncertain and wary, then back to you.
You stop in the doorway, racket low at your side and bouncing lightly against the outside of your right calf. Eddie clears his throat and says, “We’ll talk later, John…” as he sidles toward the door and angles his body to pass behind you.
You raise a hand to stop him. “Please stay, Eddie. I need a witness.” He halts, and now his eyes focus hard on John, whose face has turned a ghastly white.
When John and you first moved to the Bay Area, John’s parents sponsored your membership to the local country club, a swank affair with tennis facilities to rival the Los Angeles Tennis Center. You became the woman of the day, the court hotshot who could beat the club pro handily. Members vied to play against you, test the guns of the new girl on the block. After every win, you enjoyed the combination of overt awe and latent jealousy.
One day John came home with a grim smile on his face. “I heard you had a big victory at the club today,” he said.
His tone, overly casual, didn’t warn you. You grinned. “Three women asked me to play. I beat all of them in straight sets.”
John laid his briefcase down carefully on the kitchen table. “One of those women was a client of mine. She called me this afternoon to tell me you’d destroyed her. And she was going with a new Realtor.”
You still didn’t get it, and you laughed. “Was that Susanna? You should have seen the gaudy tennis bracelet she had on. And her racket was worth several hundred dollars. It was like watching a sixteen year-old trying to drive a race car.”
John’s smile flattened. “That sixteen year-old just gave my commission to someone else.”
You pulled back from his harsh tone. “I’m sorry, John, I didn’t know she would take her loss out on you-“
“Don’t you see?” John shook his head as if trying to reason with a rather slow-thinking child. “It’s not just me that’s affected here, it’s us. We are out five thousand dollars because you had to stroke your ego and humiliate a woman who’s almost twice your age.”
Your jaw tightened. “John, how was I supposed to know she’d be such a sore loser-“
He held up a hand. “And that’s another thing, I hear you take your game too seriously. This isn’t the NCAA circuit anymore, this is the suburban housewife league. You have to take it easy on them.”
Your hackles rose at his words. “So what are you telling me, John? That I’m not supposed to win? That I’m supposed to throw games?”
He sighed dramatically. “Do what you want, Gina. I’m just telling you that beating Mrs. Lin today cost us five K.” John rose and didn’t feel your eyes boring into the back of his head.
You returned to the club the next week and let Susanna Lin beat you in three sets. It was hard throwing the last set as she was running out of steam and couldn’t return half of your shots, so you resorted to hitting balls long. You declined her offer of a post-game drink at the clubhouse and returned home and buried your Prince racket in the back of the entryway closet where it stayed until you needed it again.
When you picked up your racket it felt like welcoming an old friend. As you drove to John’s office you pictured yourself swinging it around the room, knocking pictures off the walls and slamming trophies from the shelves, upending books and sweeping his desk clean. In his office, though, you realize how debasing it would be, to both of you, bullying John and lowering yourself to the same sort of lowlife. You do, however, stick with part of your vision. You remove the tightly wadded ball of paper from your side pocket and throw it above your head. Three pairs of eyes follow its gentle trajectory then you smash it just at the back right corner of John’s desk – an unreturnable serve. The ball flies and smacks into the window, making a satisfying thwock! It rebounds off the glass and rolls under the table. As John’s eyes stay on the spot where the paper ball disappeared, you pull out a folder of papers from your back pocket and slap them on the desk.
“You’ve been served, John. I want a divorce. My lawyer will call yours, so you’d better find one fast.”
Before you can leave John comes around his desk. You’ve forgotten how fast he moves. His arms reach for you, and his voice breaks as he says your name, “Gina.” You don’t know whether he’s going to hug you or strangle you. Your skin prickles with panic and you forget Eddie’s presence, all you see are John’s muscular hands reaching-
-your racket swings up and clips John a good one just below his left eye. His head snaps back as he stumbles against his desk. He’s going to have a hell of a black eye, a mirror of your right one. The look of stunned disbelief and anguish in his face doesn’t give you a feeling of vindication – you just feel dirty. Quickly you pivot on your heel and leave. As the door closes behind you, you hear Eddie say in a dry voice, “about your partnership review, John…”
Lydia doesn’t look up from her magazine as you rush past the reception desk. You don’t stop running until you reach your car. Pressing your back against the warm metal door, you tilt your head back to feel the sun on your face. You take a deep breath and let it out in a choking laugh.
You feel no triumph or desire to gloat over what could very well be the death knell of John’s career for a second time – there is, after all, alimony and child support to think of. But you feel lighter from the removal of a long-term burden that weighs more than just two sets of divorce papers. You hear Doris’s parting words from the previous night, the words that inspired you to return to the Cupertino house and raid the entryway closet before finding John today: “Justice will be served.”
You take another shaky breath and say, “It was not just served. It was aced.”