Imagine what it means to be happily married. Imagine a beautiful wife. Not the model type, but a wonderful smile, a ready laugh and, most importantly, her belief that you are truly the man for her.
Add to this a plenty large house, a more than comfortable income, and children of which you can be rightly proud.
And when I say happily married, I’m not talking simply content. I’m talking about the kind of relationship by which your friends judge their own romances and intendeds, and always fall short.
Also imagine that this woman, we’ll call her "Emma" to protect her from further grief, has a fulfilling part-time job, so she isn’t at all co-dependent and is a lively, interesting conversationalist. Even after ten years of marriage.
And the sex (Everyone always asks about the sex!) is almost exhaustingly good.
Now, as healthy as this relationship sounds, it was nothing close to what I had and what I lost with one seemingly simple, but apparently very damaging question.
‘The question?’ you ask. I guess that’s the right place to start.
- - -
I suppose I was basking in the glow of having left the house the morning after a tender evening of late-night lovemaking. And who would expect to be confronted with a seer at the train station? At least not one without religious flyers. And who would expect the seer to be a little child, or at least start that way? But let me tell the story as it happened.
I was walking to the train station, just three blocks from my house. At the corner of the station, where I cross the tracks, there was a small girl, about eight years old, with a basket of flowers. Something daisy-like, but not daisies. I can’t remember what type of flower.
She said as I passed, "For a dollar, I will answer any question you might have." I smiled at her and she said, "Truly."
It was the ‘truly’ that got my attention, and feeling as good as I did and the sun shining so warmly, I thought ‘what the heck.’ So I took out a dollar and handed it to her. She pulled out one of her non-daisies and said, "Go on, ask me anything. But only one question."
As I said, I do not know why I really asked the question I asked, but I did. Once asked, and once answered, it could not be unasked. I asked, "Who is the one for me?"
Suddenly I noticed that the eight-year-old girl was actually a tiny, aged woman, with eyes that shone cold as glass. Surely, I could not have been so mistaken! She seemed to change in front of my face! I was a little taken aback, but was really trying to figure out how I could have mistaken her for a child. Was I that inattentive? She handed me the flower, or at least I think she did, since I was holding the flower when I got on the train.
She said, "Rachel Juliette Ludlow."
I was still a little stunned by her transformation, and a little disappointed that my charity had fallen into the hands of an old woman instead of the young girl for which it had been intended, that I simply furrowed my brows at her and walked across the tracks to the train stop.
The train came soon thereafter and, once I found a seat, I noticed that I was holding the non-daisy. I left it on the seat as I exited downtown.
On a lark at lunchtime, I opened the phone book and looked under Ludlow. There were five entries, only two were non-businesses and both were male names. I put the phone book down and chuckled to myself for even looking.
Later on, while I was searching for something else on the web, I typed in ‘Rachel, Ludlow,’ and was rewarded with two returns. One was for a Rachel J. Ludlow in South Carolina. The entry listed her address and her phone number. A sudden cold shiver went through me and I signed off and started working on something else, trying to get my mind off what I considered a creepy coincidence.
Maybe it wasn’t a coincidence, I thought to myself on the train ride home. Maybe this old woman used to live in South Carolina and had heard the name "Rachel Juliette Ludlow" and thought she would give me that name in response to my unexpected question. Maybe she was just playing a joke on me. Or maybe she was related to this Rachel Juliette Ludlow. Her mother perhaps, and wanted to see her happily married. Or maybe it was just a lucky guess, her giving me a fictitious name that came up on the internet. Or, more precisely, almost came up on the web. Probably, the Rachel Ludlow I located had a middle name of ‘Judy,’ ‘June,’ or ‘Jill.’ I wracked my brain for other "J" names it could be. By the time I got home I had decided that the whole episode was entertaining enough to relate to my wife after the kids had gone to bed.
A big mistake.
"Why did you ask that question?" she asked. Her usual good mood had been shattered.
I shrugged. "I don’t know," I said. I told her about "basking in the glow" of our relationship.
She shook her head at me, obviously disappointed. "I still don’t get it. What answer were you expecting?"
"I dunno," I repeated, wishing I had never brought it up. "Not a name. Certainly not a name I would find on the internet. Maybe your name. Maybe the name of someone famous. But certainly not-" She had started to cry. "What?" I asked as tenderly as I could manage.
"Forget it," she said.
"No," I said. "What?"
She stifled her tears and looked me right in the eyes. "Why did you have to ask that question, of all questions?"
"I told you," I responded, "because I already knew the answer. Because the answer is you. You are the one that’s best for me. It can’t be this Rachel Juliette Ludlow or anyone else. Because it’s you!"
This seemed to pacify her, for the moment, but after we hugged and turned on the television to see what was on, she said softly, "Hubris."
I had learned from my earlier error that evening and said nothing.
- - -
"Call her," said my friend Brian.
"No way," I said. "Not a chance."
"You have to call," he said, "or you will never know if her middle name is Juliette."
"I don’t want to know," I said. "I don’t care."
"Sure you don’t," he said, then he smiled mischievously, and added, "If you don’t, I will."
"If you do, I’ll kill you."
Later that night, as he was saying goodbye to Emma, he turned to me and said, "I will." I glared at him and awaited Emma’s expected question, but she either did not hear his comment, or was not at all curious.
I mouthed to Brian, "I’ll kill you!"
The next day at the office, Brian called me. "It’s Juliette," he said. I swore so loud that my assistant started and looked up from his work.
"You called her?" I asked, surprised, angry, and, of course, very curious.
"Uh huh," he acknowledged. "And she sounded nice." Then he added, "though a little suspicious."
"Then what what?"
"Then what did you do?"
"I said ‘thanks’ and hung up."
"I am going to kill you," I said. I did not know at the time that he was lying. He hadn’t called her; he had not even searched for her on the internet. It was his idea of a joke and, had the subject been a lesser one and the outcome happier, I would have laughed out loud when I learned the truth. But by then, since it took me over a week to learn that he was simply being mischievous, I had lost my ability to find humor in his misguided joke.
That night at dinner, while Emma was cutting up a pork chop for our three-year old, I was mulling over my options. I was not weighing the advantages of calling her, for I knew that I would, but how I should make the initial contact. I still believed that the seer’s pronouncement was simply a matter of a lucky guess or of parroting a name she had heard or been associated with in her past. But I knew that I would always wonder about Rachel if I did not meet her and, I was hoping, discover the connection between her and the seer.
It took me a second to realize that my wife had asked me a question. I glanced at her and she asked, "What are you so deep in thought about?" Then she quickly added with no attempt to hide her bitterness, "As if I didn’t know."
- - -
"Hello?" The voice was a little shriller than I had expected. I hung up the phone.
I called back a few minutes later. Still the unexpectedly shrill voice, but this time a little warier, "Hello?"
"Uh... hi," I offered weakly.
Now she was on her guard, "Who is this? What do you want?" I remember her slight hostility was unsettling, as if it were undeservedly harsh. How could she know that this call was anything but a normal phone call? And if she expected it were out of the ordinary, she seemed to make up her mind that it was an intrusion with too little evidence, I felt.
Unprepared for this conversation, though I had made this phone call many times in my head, I began to tell her the truth. "My name is Jacob Bell. I was walking to work one day-"
"Benjamin?" she gasped.
Had my heart stopped? Had my breath and voice caught in my throat? I do not know.
She asked again, "Benjamin?"
I nodded. Soon realizing that she could not hear my nod, I said, so softly she probably understood it without even hearing it, "Yes."
Benjamin is my middle name.
- - -
She had met the same seer. Or another of that ilk, since hers was first a boy, who became an old man, and had given her an iris, which withered before she got it to water.
During that phone call, I did not ascertain why she had asked the seer the same question. I actually did little more than listen to her tale. How she was walking to the post office and passed the seer and asked her question and had gotten my name as an answer. She had received her answer and flower for free. Also, unlike me, she had done nothing after hearing my name. She had shrugged it off as the rantings of an odd old man and had it not been for the fact that the man was a child at first glance, she would have thought nothing of it at all. Maybe not even remember the name the man gave her.
I also learned that she was not currently and had never been married.
I called her again the next day, as soon as I got into the office. "Perhaps, we are the brunt of someone’s joke," I offered lightly, hopefully.
"I thought the same thing all last night," she said. "But I have never been to the East Coast, nor do I know anyone on the East Coast." She was obviously fastidious in her thinking. "In fact," she continued, "I know so very few people and none that I could even imagine to play a joke such as this one." Another bad sign that I missed at the time.
We tried to find a connection, even a tenuous one, between our lives or our circumstances. There was, in our combined estimation, none.
I learned, during that conversation, that she was sure fate had brought us together. I remember thinking that it would be easier for her to believe that than I, since she was unmarried, had no children, and stood to gain more from being pushed toward me than I towards her.
- - -
I planned a trip to see Rachel over the upcoming weekend. My wife had passed this escapade off as some horrid phase I was going through and hoped that it would soon end. My friend Brian, who normally came to dinner every Friday evening and might have found a way to put an end to my folly, was away on business and not expected until the following Friday. (At which time I learned he had lied about calling Rachel.) My wife wished me goodbye that Saturday morning with such a coldness that I knew -– and yet still continued on my journey! – that our relationship would never be the same and would, in all likelihood, come to an end no matter what happened between Rachel and myself.
Rachel met me at the gate. She was a good five inches taller than I was (something I hate in a woman!), overweight by at least twenty pounds (another thing I hate in a woman!), and so plain to look at that I wondered why God had bothered to make something so bland. She was as unimpressed with me, I fear.
My opinion of her fell throughout the visit. She had these elaborate rituals for simple tasks, such as making tea, or even getting ice from the freezer. Each took many unnecessary steps, involved wiping her hands several times and, between every few steps, she would lose her train of thought, remaining motionless for moments at a time (the habit I hate most of all!). Add to this her obvious disregard for my impatience with her slowness and you can see how much discomfort that afternoon caused us both.
As we parted happily (happily that we could be away from each other!) a few short hours later, I understood why she remained unmarried.
What I could not understand, and shuddered at the thought, was why she was ‘the one for me.’
Elliot was unsympathetic. "You are a dickhead," he said thoughtfully. "Yup. That’s the word. If ever anyone was a dickhead, it’s you. That’s all there is to it."
Elliot, or as he is known in our small circle ‘Mr. Cholesterol,’ is overly-large and never one to err on the side of tact. He is also a really nice guy.
"You, my friend," he continued, "took the American Dream and flushed it down the toilet. Bet it all on one roll of the dice, and came up snake eyes."
He was right. My home life was miserable. Emma would hardly look at me. The kids seemed poisoned against me for hurting Mommy so. She had cried almost the entire time I was in South Carolina, and since she so infrequently cried, my transgression was made that much worse.
It was Friday night and Brian, Elliot and I were sitting around Elliot’s card table eating pizza. Emma had ‘requested’ that Brian and I go out for the evening. Or, more correctly, asked Brian if he wouldn’t take his ‘friend’ out of the house for a while. I had been relegated from ‘husband’ to ‘friend of a friend.’ Not a good sign.
I had already learned that Brian never called Rachel. In fact, in front of Emma he declared, "Do you think I would mess up your relationship? Had I known you were boneheaded enough to act on my little joke, I would have never made it." To make matters worse, he repeated it to Emma in almost exactly the same words. "If I knew he was boneheaded enough to act on it, I never would have made that joke." It was not a comforting moment.
"I’ve actually given it some thought," said Brian. "When Emma told me you went to Ess Cee last weekend, I tried to get my head around it. Here’s how I see it," he began. Apparently, I had become a third
person in my buddies’ psychoanalytical efforts. "You," he pointed at me, "are a loser."
Elliot cackled, spitting out a mouthful of pizza as he did. I was too far into my own misery to so much as flinch.
"Let me explain," continued Brian, almost pedantically. "We all agree that this seer of yours was the real deal. She named a woman that you never knew and disguised herself as a man and gave your name to this Rachel creature. That’s
convincing enough for me. Okay so far?"
"Go ahead," I said. I was looking for any advice at this point, even Brian’s scatter-brained efforts. Elliot simply nodded to Brian. He was enrapt.
"So if this seer is the real deal, then this Rachel creature is the one for you. If she’s the one for you and she is a loser, then you," again he pointed at me, this time with a piece of pizza in his pointing hand, "must be a loser, too."
Elliot was obviously impressed by Brian’s logic. He added, "They say for every man there’s a woman. I guess Emma is not the woman for a loser like you." They both looked at each other, obviously pleased with their tight assessment of my loser-dom.
For myself, I felt as though I were having one of these dreams where you have a loose tooth. You try to see how you can secure it, since it’s the only tooth you get in that spot, and you knock out a different tooth. Now you have a missing tooth as well as a loose tooth. So you try to secure both teeth and then you knock out a third. This continues until you have no teeth and wake up. In other words, I was merely hoping that I would soon wake up from the complete collapse of my life from one simple error.
Throughout my reverie, my two pals were still discussing my fate and any options I had.
"-throw himself at Emma’s feet and beg-"
"-see if he can make things work with Rachel creature-"
"-try to find the seer-"
I looked up. "What?"
Brian was startled by my sudden interest. "I just said," said Brian, "that maybe you should try to go back and find that seer again."
I leapt up from my chair, which fell backwards with a crash. "If I didn’t want to smash your head in right now," I exhalted, "I’d kiss you!"
Three weeks later, camped out like a bum at the train station and getting stares from all the people I used to commute with (not to mention having lost my job) I finally caught sight of the flower girl again. She had a basket of those non-daisies and was standing at the far end of the platform, precisely in the opposite corner to where I met her originally.
I hurried over to her, pulling out the dollar I had stashed in my pocket for this very moment.
"Another question?" she asked. It was the voice of an old woman, scratchy and hissing, coming from a young girl’s face. She seemed both condescending and unsurprised.
I nodded. And then froze. The question I had in my mind "Why did you do this to me?" would in no way solve my plight or get me my old life and wife back. If I asked her "What should I do?" which was my runner-up question, she might not give me the answer I sought. She could answer pretty much anything.
So, groping for a question, I handed her the dollar, accepted her flower and once again asked, "Who is the one for me?’
This time Emma couldn’t control her rage. She slapped my face (pretty hard actually) and screamed, "You asked the same fucking question?!? You waited by the station for three weeks, ignored your children, lost your job, rotted like a common vagabond, and asked the same fucking question?!?"
Suddenly she became sober. "You know," she said softly, "until this very moment I had a small piece of my heart left for you. A small piece that grew a little bit every day you waited by that station. A small piece of my heart that grew just a fraction every time one of our neighbors looked at me and shook their head, embarrassed at you for my sake. A small piece of my heart that almost warmed when I secretly watched you, from under my umbrella, as you sat by the station in the middle of the night in the pouring rain.
"I thought you were giving up everything for me. And the least I could do, I thought, was to begin to forgive you." She started to sob. Then yelled, more like screeched, a sound straight from hell, "Then
you asked the same fucking question! Not ‘How do I win her back?’ Or ‘What can I do to get things back to the way they were?’ No! You had to ask the same fucking, fucking, fucking -- Oh, I hate you!" Once more, she slapped my face. This time so hard tears came from my eyes.
"Do you want to know what she said?" I asked as calmly as I could, though shaking and on the verge of tears.
"No! I don’t give a fuck what she said!"
"You," I replied anyway. "She said your full name. Even your middle name."
She literally collapsed onto the ground, as if she were a puppet and someone had cut her strings. She was shaking and sobbing in a low, rolling moan. I sat down by her and cradled her into my arms.
"It was you all along," I said softly. "And I knew it. Yet I stupidly put it to the test. Hubris. It was pure hubris. I was so happy with you that I was willing to test fate. And fate won. You were right. Hubris. Just stupid hubris."
She returned my hug, limply, and we both cried for what seemed like hours.
- - -
Emma and I are back together. The kids once again love their Daddy and we live a normal and mostly happy life. No one uses us as the perfect couple anymore, and for good reason. While things returned mostly to normal, Emma never quite got over what she called ‘The Rachel Episode.’ But we are happy enough, and, certainly, happier than I ever deserved to be again.
- - -
Folklore says that every man and every woman has a perfect "other half." That our goal in life, the secret to any possible happiness, is finding that person. Weeding that person out from the billions of choices in hundreds of countries and settling down with her, without letting anything get in our way.
The divorce rate and the level of misery in this world prove, to many, that we are falling short of our goal. But not to me. Because who says that your perfect other, the so-called ‘one for you,’ has anything to do with happiness?
- - -
"I’ve got to know one thing," said Brian, years later, after the children had left for college and Emma was away helping arrange for a nursing home for her ailing Mother.
"What’s that?" I asked, looking at the cards in my hand and trying to figure out how many cards I needed for gin.
He took a sip of his drink and swallowed. "I’ve been thinking about this one a lot. A lot." He stared at me until I looked up from my cards. "That second time you asked the seer that question. You know, ‘Who is the one for me?’ Did she really give your wife’s name? "
I took a sip of my drink, picked up a three of clubs, discarded a seven of spades, and pointed to the two piles of cards on the table in front of us. "Your turn," I said.