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Today's Story by Benjamin Wachs

She’d demanded her divorce a little too early too. Another 10, 15, years and the legal profession would have caught up with the idea that you can divorce for cause that isn’t adultery or abuse.

Life Lines

She had been good enough at math that, had she been born 30 years later, it might have led to a career.  Instead she had been born just on the cusp, just before society had crossed the line where that was possible, and she was married off early because it made her mother proud.  She’d done the bookkeeping at home because, as Roger had said, “she was good with figures.”

She’d demanded her divorce a little too early too.  Another 10, 15, years and the legal profession would have caught up with the idea that you can divorce for cause that isn’t adultery or abuse.  He’d kept all the property and paid a measly $700 a month alimony, and he’d stopped paying even that after the first year-and-a-half, because he realized he could get away with it.

She’d wanted to go back to school, but couldn’t afford it and, really, couldn’t even imagine it at her age.  It was like wanting to be a princess.  She went to work in the secretarial pool of an advertising firm, and then was promoted to a personal secretary, and then the personal secretary to the head of the accounts department, because she was good with figures.

The years she spent on the fulcrum, right on society’s tipping point, were the best of her life.  Years when, as an object of desire whose work was important to the company, she’d had the best of both worlds.  Powerful clients stopped by her desk to chat, and offered stock tips because they knew it impressed her when they were right.  She made a lot of money that way.

But then society tipped forward, and there was a lot more competition from younger women who were good with math – who had been encouraged in school – and she wasn’t quite desirable enough, anymore, and society still hasn’t tipped to the point where it’s okay to be old.  She felt her world contracting again.

It was strange to think of this contraction, because she understood that, really, anything can happen.  J.K. Rowling, as a welfare mother, can write a best-selling book and become the first billionaire author.  You can win the lottery.  There was still an infinite universe of choices and possibilities in front of her.  But the infinite was smaller than it had been when she was first married and first divorced.  It’s a simple mathematical paradox, one she’d thought about a great deal:  there are an infinite number of whole numbers, and an infinite number of even numbers.  But, by definition, the infinite amount of even numbers is only half as large as the infinite amount of whole numbers.

That was the way her life was shrinking.

She’d been laid off and rehired several times over now, each job a little less important, a little less well compensated.  Roger was retired in Florida, living well she heard, while she could only afford to live in Manhattan because she’d been in the same apartment for 40 years.

She had to fight the shrinking.  She needed to keep her possibilities open, if she were going to live.

She bought an airline ticket, an open ticket on United, one good for any flight, at any time, in the next five years.  It cost her a year of not going to any plays.  She carries it in her purse wherever she goes, because it means she can always get out.   She always has the option, at any moment, of taking a taxi to the airport and boarding any flight that’s going far away.  That’s got to be worth a few more even numbers.

If she had been born 30 years later, she thinks as she sips a tea in a coffee shop, watching the young people on their laptops and their smart phones, this would have been her world.  She smiles, in between bitter sips:  she’s glad she at least gets to sit on the outside and watch.  She can feel the warmth of the ticket rising out from her purse.

She doesn’t even see the old man on the other side of the shop, in an old hand stitched Italian suit.  He always has a flower in his button hole, and sterling silver cuff links.  He sees the same crowd from the other side, drinking the same tea, and muses that he must have been born 40 years too late, the era of etiquette having ended just when he had mastered its every curve.  He has the best posture of anyone here:  he makes a point of it.

The scent of his flower, freshly cut that afternoon, will make it over to her table just a moment before she leaves.  It makes her think of the tropics.  Someday, she thinks, she’ll get there, and have an adventure.  The thought gets her through the day, slouching.


Benjamin Wachs has written for Village Voice Media, Playboy.com, and NPR among other venues.  He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

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