A fiction, but it doesn’t have to be.
Shelby had not intended to walk as far west as Montgomery and definitely not as far as the bad end of the street where the houses were in competition for states of dilapidation and disrepair. But there she was. And suddenly there it was, the Cassio house, more ramshackle and defeated than Shelby had imagined it might be after all these years. Worser for the wear, as her son used to say when he was little.
The paint was nearly peeled from the first level of the house, and it wasn’t clear if anyone still lived there. Shelby couldn’t imagine that the Cassio parents were still alive. They’d be in their nineties and they’d both smoked and drank pretty heavily. Mark Cassio, the Ryan O’Neal lookalike, had left the summer after high school. As far as Shelby knew, he’d never come back from wherever it was the road had taken him.
(Okay, yes. She had Googled him a few times. Managed to find a few Mark Cassios, but none of them looked anything like what a 60-year old Ryan O’Neal might look like and Shelby finally gave up because she felt like she was pathetic and she couldn’t imagine what she’d say to Mark Cassio after forty or so years.)
Shelby’s eye was drawn to the upholstered chair parked on the patch of lawn, and she recognized it, right down to the faded floral fabric. Oh, how Mrs. Cassio had protected that chair. Like it was on loan from the Louvre.
I gave myself to Mark Cassio on that chair,” said Shelby.
It saddened Shelby to think that this holy shrine of teen love was on its way to a dumpster. Or to an ally-oop into the back of a pick-up truck en route to a pretty desperate situation. Shelby had rocked and rolled in that chair back in the day, Kansas on the record player. Dust in the Wind. And oh how she had loved Mark Cassio. First guy to love her, first guy to dump her, although he was nice about it and said she was a girl going places and he was a guy who’d only hold her back. Shelby had found that poetic.
If she did take the chair, how the hell would she explain its presence to Pete?
“Oh, I was passing by my first boyfriend’s house and I saw this chair on the lawn, and seeing as it was the chair where I lost my virginity, I felt the undeniable pull of nostalgia for the passion of my youth.”
Things with Pete were too shaky now for that to be any kind of funny.
Shelby snapped a photograph of the old Cassio place. Just an iPhone shot, and she did it quickly in case someone saw, although why that would matter Shelby had no idea. Shelby didn’t even know why she wanted that photo except that she could imagine someday telling this story about going home to recalibrate only to discover that even the early part of her story was lost to time.
Shelby knew Pete was sorry. She also knew that what Pete was sorry about was mostly that he’d hurt Shelby, not that he’d taken up with That Debbie, whoever she was. He’d needed to chase some tail and feel sexy again. His words, not hers. Obviously, Shelby thought.
Pete suggested couples therapy. He said he wanted to rebuild what once was so right and then never ever ever talk about this thing again. Shelby had said she thought couples therapy was a good idea, but she needed to go away and lick her wounds. As a teacher, she had a full summer vacation, and Shelby would head to New Hampshire and visit her sister Marianne. Pete would stay home and take care of Huey, their aging sheepdog.
Pete checked in daily and sent funny memes and photos of Huey with butterscotch pudding on his muzzle and another with one paw up in a kind of lonesome salute. Huey says hi, he wrote. And so do I. Then a smiley face emoji.
Shelby read Pete’s daily texts and responded with exclamation marks that rang silly and forced. She felt sure Pete would read into them that she was still good old Shelby and that she’d forgive good old Pete for fucking That Debbie, whom Shelby was certain was neither good nor old.
Repartee. Banter. Exclamation marks. The broken relationship repair kit.
There are stories behind every door, every window, thought Shelby as she scanned the upper level of Mark Cassio’s old house. Stories we’ll mostly never know; different lives. She thought of her own house, the one she shared with Pete. Well, you could drive by it and not know we’re a couple inching our way out of crisis and the going is slow. That we’re determined people and we’re used to one another, and we’re back to sharing a bed, but our few attempts at sex have embarrassed us both.
“Maybe it’s too soon?” Pete asked the night before Shelby headed east for the summer, his hand on her hip, not like he owned it but more like he was asking for a test drive.
“No. It’s not too soon. It’s just weird. We’ll get used to it,” Shelby had said.
She was lying then, thinking, well, let’s just get this over with so that we’re past the first time after That Debbie stage. But now, kicking at a couple of small stones at the foot of the crumbling Cassio driveway, Shelby entertained the possibility that they actually would get used to it.
Is that big of a deal? she asked herself. I mean, what is sex, really, at this stage?
That Debbie had flattered him, Pete said. They had no history, they had no shared pain or disappointments, he explained. They didn’t talk about retirement or savings or long-term care or at what age they’d take Social Security. They just drank and screwed, Pete said. That Debbie probably wanted to feel young and hot, ever so slightly out of some guy’s league. Throw in a few steak dinners and, bam.
Shelby figured Pete was being honest. But can I ever trust him again, Shelby asked herself. Well, I’m trusting him to take care of Huey, aren’t I? That’s something. A fact a whole lot larger than it appears in the rearview mirror.
Shelby would go back to Missouri — to Pete and to their marriage. She’d already decided that. She’d stay through August and use the time to lose the bitterness. It was good to spend this time with Marianne, and it would be good to give Pete some space between his humiliation and her judgment.
It’s the story I know, Shelby said to herself. The story I’ve created over nearly 30 years, and that counts for something in this world. There aren’t so many more chances at a reasonable ending. Madonna may be capable of self-reinvention on a regular basis but even she’s starting to look exhausted by it all.
Shelby took the left at the bottom of Montgomery Street, then started the climb up past rose-trellised gardens leading to the park. She looked back once and half-smiled at the sight of that old chair still stuck on the lawn in the distance. A million years ago, all that thunder and desire, she thought to herself, as the park came into view. And, on balance, maybe not a whole lot worser for the wear.