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Christine Kalafus | Longreads | December 2019 | 14 minutes (3,666 words)
There’s an art to giving bad news well. Think it out carefully. Choose the appropriate moment. Most of all: Don’t screw it up and make things worse.
I sat on our kitchen counter while my son stood sipping his coffee and I told him his father had an affair. The news of the affair was old — 17 years, four houses, and one renewal of wedding vows old. But telling my son about his father’s affair was urgent, the way testing our house’s main beam for termites before moving in had been urgent.
My husband’s affair had been the first in a series of betrayals. As we began to rebuild our marriage, I became pregnant with twins. The betrayal by my usually healthy body wasn’t the pregnancy — it was the aggressive breast cancer I developed. Cancer in my right breast growing with the babies, undetected until three weeks before they were due. One day of operations: A C-section, a lumpectomy, and a tubal ligation were like a series of crashing waves. But only until the real water came, a long winter of steady downpours on top of snow, on top of everything. Our basement repeatedly flooded, as if the house wanted us out.
My eldest son knew about the cancer — he remembered my bald head, and he knew that I was cured. He may have remembered the water seeping up the finished basement walls. Of course, he remembered moving; I had a quest to restore houses to perfection. Buying, fixing, and selling one old house after another, then another, until finally, this one. Yet this wasn’t the whole story.
His father’s long-ago affair appeared in my graduate thesis from which I would read at my commencement the following month. In the moment of revealing this truth to my son, I believed three wrong things: that he had been planning to attend my graduation, that his inclusive nature would be accepting, and that I wasn’t lighting a stick of dynamite.
Once, when he was a baby, barely old enough to sit up in the grocery cart, a friend heard my voice from an aisle away. Finding me, she laughed. “I thought you were talking to an adult, but it’s the baby!” Yes, I was including an infant in a discussion on the merits of penne over rigatoni. When he was 4, he sat in the backseat of our car, squished between two infant car seats. While his younger twin brothers wailed, he said, “Don’t worry, Mama. I got this,” and popped pacifiers into their angry mouths. Now, he was 20. In the year since he dropped out of college and moved back home, we had become even closer.
We met in the kitchen every morning around 9 a.m. For him, a first cup of coffee and for me, a third cup of tea. We talked lightly about books — my love of Virginia Woolf and his of Tobias Wolff — and even more lightly about music. I told him that Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of Weezer, one of his favorite bands, had been raised a mile up the road in a decaying mansion that used to be an ashram called Yogaville. He’d grinned about it all day. But mostly, we fell easily into deep discussions about our personal renovations. I had closed a successful sewing business to write. He had left a college scholarship to cook. I sometimes doubted my decision. He never doubted his.
Meditation was a recent addition for him. Books with titles like Aligning Your Chakras and The Balanced Soul appeared under his arm when he left for work. He’d found a blanket from his infancy and spread it on the floor next to his bed. Passing by his door, always slightly ajar, I sometimes saw him sitting cross-legged on the threadbare blanket, eyes closed, palms up.
As the words “your father’s affair” left my lips, I anticipated his response. It would be Zen-like, full of alignment and balance. I imagined him saying something akin to “Well, everyone makes mistakes, right?” and shrugging. Maybe accompanied by one of his half smiles. Instead, he slammed his half-finished mug of coffee on the stone counter. I jumped. Coffee droplets shot onto the gray cabinet doors, the light gold walls, his white T-shirt.
“I can’t trust either of you!” he said and spun out of the room.
My son did not use the nearer, back staircase, the one leading up to my office with books on the floor, Gigi, our Springer spaniel sleeping among them in her favorite shaft of sun, and the hall to his bedroom. Instead, he negotiated his lanky, broad-shouldered frame through a narrow hall that led to the older staircase at the front of the house, its bowed treads too short for his size 15 feet. The slammed mug, white and porcelain, sat glued together by only a coffee-darkening crack.
Clean dishes sat a few inches away, awaiting their return to the cabinet. Back when the affair was new, I would have cleared the surface, shattering everything to the floor. Upstairs, my son tried to slam his bedroom door. But the door and jamb were out of plumb. The door boomeranged and slammed against the wall. In the water-filled sink, tight ripples appeared where a small bowl floated inside a larger one, the way my hand once cupped my son’s soft, toddler cheek.
Since my husband’s affair, I had assumed the job as our family’s architect. No one asked me to do it. I eased into the job the day my husband confessed, like stepping into wet cement. I created new blueprints, closeting the betrayals to make room for forgiveness.
My husband and I worked together. He smoothed new sheetrock, blending it with original plaster. He cut odd-angled shelves from new wood for the crooked closets. I sewed pillows, curtains, and bed skirts, and tried to make the best of everything. Within our home’s 1920s arts-and-crafts era walls, these new plans made its cramped square feet bulge even more. It worked for a while. But when the twins were 3 and our oldest 8, the house, one I thought I would never leave, became a vise. The boys were growing, that’s what I told people. What I told no one was that the elevated housing market was a convenient excuse to leave behind what was still there: my husband’s confession of infidelity in the living room.
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Unlike that first house, which had held our marriage like a silent shell somehow contains a growing bird, and the two that followed, we found a new house that spoke to me. Tucked into the northeast corner of rural Connecticut, its Cape Cod face said permanence. It’s tacked-on tractor shed converted to a kitchen said flexibility. Its lack of modern open-floor plan said affordability. Its sturdy fieldstone wall lining the perimeter of its acreage said something our other homes hadn’t: safety. The threat wasn’t physical.
We purchased the old farmhouse while I was in graduate school writing a memoir, holding a magnifying glass to the layers of my life. There is a saying: Write from your scars, not your wounds. Scars can be examined more easily with their built-in distance. Wounds are too fresh. I thought I was being so careful with my scars — the cancer, the marriage, and the house I loved turning on me. Gently, gently excising the fractures with the precision of an expert excavator. In reality, I was the demolition crew, blowing the place up. The blast had sent my son to his room, had pinned me in place on the kitchen counter, and — as if it’d had a premonition — sent the twins to visit their grandparents in southern Connecticut, and my husband to a conference in New Jersey.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard aligned words with houses: “each with its own cellar and garret.” I knew the words that sank my family low — affair, betrayal, distrust, liar — words I had once levied. But unlike in our first home, instead of closeting off the truth, I needed a new plan, and words, that would lift us all.
Everything looks brighter with a fresh coat of paint. I began the next day attacking the dining room with a gallon of dove gray. My husband had already covered the top half of the walls with a flowered wallpaper that had seduced me. Real estate agents don’t recommend wallpaper for resale value; I staked my claim with the huge, pink peonies in the center of the house. I crouched in old yoga pants, tank top already sticking to my back, and smoothed a thin plastic tarp across the rutted, wide-plank chestnut floor.
Rolling the walls, lost in the labor of it, I startled when my son said, “How much love do you need?” The question wasn’t for me. Gigi, a blur of black-and-white fur, was simultaneously jumping for joy and frantically wagging her duck-like rear end. He bent down.
“I know, I know, you need all the love.” This is what he said to her every day, a ritual that included cradling the 40-pound dog like a baby while his coffee brewed. He scooped her up and walked through the dining room into the kitchen. His bare feet moved swiftly across the tarp, like a succession of Band-Aids being removed.
I called to him in the kitchen from the far corner of the dining room, climbing the ladder. “Will you make dinner with me tonight?” So we can discuss yesterday. My left hand braced against the paper peonies, my right cut along the crown molding with a sash brush. Did I sound pleading, or worse — pathetic? A blob of dove gray landed on the wallpaper. An eternity seemed to pass. The paint blob slowly drifted from a leaf to negative space.
“I get off at five so … I guess.”
He left for work. The house has an outdoor exit from every room on the first floor. Convenient for avoiding anything, or anyone, you don’t want to face.
Midday, I spoke to my husband on the phone. “I’ve told him — he’s a little … ” Furious. And not just a little. But before I could finish my husband said quietly, “OK.”
I said I was finally painting the dining room, how I’d found the perfect shade of gray, and before we hung up, that I loved him. He told me he needed to stay in New Jersey until Thursday. Who could blame him?
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My husband had read my manuscript but hadn’t learned anything he didn’t already know. He’d been there. He knew that writing about his affair had never been my intention. He knew that when it showed up on the page, I was tortured. The time for blame, anger, and fear was long in the past, but I found that writing about the affair helped me understand myself better. He supported me. He is an uncommon man.
Five o’clock came and went. A breeze from the open door lifted an edge of the tarp, sending a ripple of air underneath. I’d just begun cleaning the paintbrushes when my phone chirped. A text: My son had locked his keys in his car.
It was a 15-minute drive over rolling, cow-dotted hills to the small city restaurant. My son and I arrived in its foyer at the same time. The front door was at my back, the kitchen, where he seared steak, at his. Walking toward me, he gave a full smile and a nod to the pretty, blond hostess and swept his eyes across the benches full of families waiting for tables. He looked over my head as he came to a stop. Extending his arm, palm open to take the keys, his sleeve inched up — that’s when I saw the tattoo. My vision tunneled. I pulled back the keys.
“Outside,” I whispered behind teeth,“now,” as if he were 10, wanting to play inside on a beautiful day, as if I were in charge.
“You have a TATTOO?” I spoke to his back, following him behind the restaurant.
A tattoo? Stupidly, I was angry. How futile. The tattoo wasn’t temporary, a race car or dinosaur, the bounty from a birthday party goody bag, but permanent. Turning to face me, he leaned a muscled shoulder against the restaurant’s brick wall, train tracks a few feet away. His forearms a map of small burns made by crackling grease, hot spit from standing in front of commercial stoves since he was 16. When my son was 1 day old, my obstetrician cradled my son’s already elegant fingers in his meaty palm, and whispered, He’s going to be tall. My son’s hands were magically unmarked, as if the doctor’s comment had the power of a mythical shield.
I reached out, touched the inside of his wrist. The tattoo was two half-dollar-size rings connected by a pair of bisecting lines. It looked like black crop circles on a pale pink field. He glanced down at his wrist, then up and away, squinting as if impatient for a train.
“It is a symbol?” I asked.
“It means ‘working together.’ It means, ‘communication,’” he said, making air quotes. “Where is Dad, anyway?”
“At a conference in New Jersey.” I stared at the tattoo. How long had it been there?
“I’m going to call him and say how disappointed I am.” Our eyes locked for the first time since yesterday morning. I let go of his wrist.
“You can’t do that. Why would you want to make him suffer? It was years ago.”
“You should have told me.” He took a vape out of his pocket and inserted it between his lips. Like everything was so casual. Nothing to see here folks, just a family deconstructing. Smoke drifted lazily from the corner of his mouth.
“I did tell you!” I hated that he vaped. I hated that he had a tattoo. I hated that I was losing it. I hated that I felt responsible for the whole mess.
“No, when it happened.”
“You were 3 years old.”
“I was a wise kid.”
“Yes, but you were 3.”
“Dad’s pissed that I’ve left school and look what he did. I don’t want to feel sympathy.”
So much for meditation. So much for chakras. But there it was — the giant, discarded scholarship in the room. More than frustrated with our son’s about-face with college, “He’s throwing his life away” had been a repeated comment. My husband couldn’t reconcile stepping off a smooth path and a future as a civil engineer to an uphill rocky one, a future that seemed, to him, directionless. I had defended our son’s choice. But unwittingly, I had given my son the necessary arrow to point straight at his father’s judgement. An iron rod of righteousness runs in both men.
“I’m staying through the dinner shift. I don’t know when I’ll be home.” He said it with satisfaction.
I said nothing. I handed my son his keys and drove back over the hills to our valley, depleted. I held three kinds of pain: my husband’s, a fusion of regret and shame; my son’s, new and raw; and mine, a once silent fury I believed had been converted into a welcoming hand, but was, in fact, a fist. Attempting to reconcile an old scar of betrayal by writing about it, I’d become someone who wounds.
Once home, I strode into the dining room to close the porch door accompanied by the cold realization that a son who had recently dropped out of college might not want to attend his mother’s graduate school ceremony. In the harsh overhead light, it was also obvious that the dove gray on the walls, a color I’d thought so perfect, was all wrong. More purple than gray, it stung like a fresh bruise.
There was no breeze, no moon. The walls and floors weren’t speaking to me; they offered no words of consolation. It was just me and my poor choices in the heart of the silent house.
At dawn, I nearly leapt out of bed. I dressed quickly. Everything I pulled on was old — T-shirt, jeans, rubber boots — and went out. My sister had once said to me, “You’re such an action person.” It was not intended as a compliment.
The sun was still below the hill, our barn and garden enveloped in a steamy haze. Two hundred years ago our barn housed cows. Until 10 months ago it housed horses. Now, it housed gardening tools. I grabbed a pair of pruning shears. Appraising the raised beds, their brick borders created from our house’s original five chimneys, I put my head down. The garden was a limitless project. Overflowing thyme, creeping rosemary, chives gone to flower; the beds made by the last owner and now mine to tend.
By midmorning, the garden looked as if it had been run over with a vacuum. Sweat ran down the insides of my tall boots, making a sucking sound when I sat on the porch step. The door opened and my son stepped outside. “I’ve got a prep shift,” he said, leaning against a porch column. I silently removed my boots, focusing on dirt that encased my ankles.
“I came home around midnight,” he continued. “But I couldn’t fall asleep until sometime around four.” I looked up from my twin circles of dirt.
This was the moment I should have said all the right things. I should have said he wasn’t the only one who hadn’t known about his father’s affair. My friends, my sister, my extended family, his father’s parents and siblings hadn’t known either. Seventeen years ago, the only people who knew were my parents, and I had only told them so they could babysit once a week for three months while his father and I went to therapy. I should have said that I kept this secret because I was protecting his father against being vilified for an aberration of character. It was true, I’d loved my husband since we were 19 years old. I had everything invested, so I wanted to forgive. But I was not a woman who always saw through peony-colored glasses. When necessary, I was eagle-eyed, not a woman to be walked upon. I should have said how his father earned back my love by staying with me — with us. He proved his devotion by being devoted.
This was what I should have said to my son.
Instead, I watched him walk slowly to his car. I worried about his leaving college, even if I never said it. I worried about his coworkers at the restaurant and the heroin use that he said was prevalent. I worried that by trying to protect the foundation of my family, my reinforcements of a closeted truth had been poorly designed. I worried about our proximity to disaster. I learned 17 years ago that I am resilient. Resilience only comes one way: by living through something awful and then living with it — living in it. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t hand my son the type of resilience I thought he needed. The ability to say this aloud felt out of reach, like attempting to build a cathedral with wet noodles.
Only when he opened the driver’s-side door, his back to me and my chance escaping, I said, “Don’t give up.” Not turning around, he paused, nodded, then slipped behind the wheel. I hadn’t said all the right things, but maybe I’d said one of them. I said it to both of us.
I was wrong to think I could leave a betrayal behind. I didn’t leave my husband’s confession in our first house — it had stowed itself in the boxes and come with us, making itself comfortable in the jumble of throw pillows on the living room sofa, between the duvet folds at the foot of our bed, in the glass that holds our son’s toothbrush. For our son, the truth we hid became a hairline crack in his foundation. He needed to test it, to poke and prod it, to prove its strength.
All houses are maps. If I construct a legend of this one, holding a magnifying glass to the layers of wallpaper and paint, its additions and subtractions, making sense of its proportions, what will it reveal other than dove gray is the wrong color for the dining room?
The house answers: Nothing is perfect.
My house — my marriage, my motherhood — will always require maintenance. Their flaws will show. Our lives together will continue to be negotiated the way a roof above negotiates with its walls below. Some cracks are irreversible. The broken sits among the whole, the dust settles, and you have to accept it — or move. And I’ve certainly done that, always rushing to blend old with new. I’ve forgiven my husband, and I thought that was easy. It was the acceptance that was difficult. To truly forgive, I had to accept there were things I could not change. Things I could not re-architect.
We will never restore the house to the way it was in 1900. The old chestnut floorboards will always have nails that must be hammered back in place to avoid ripped socks. We will never restore our marriage to a more innocent time. My husband will always have had an affair. Our oldest son will forge his own path — whether we approve or not. We may do a better job telling the whole story to our twins, when the time comes. But maybe not. We just have to accept some things as crooked. In architecture, a resilient building is one that can adapt, even in the face of disaster. It’s true, our floorboards are warped, but they still support us. In our messy way, my husband and I will love each other and our children.
And I will repaint the dining room.
* * *
Christine Kalafus has recently been published in the anthology Connecticut’s Emerging Writers, PAGE, and the New Guard which nominated her poem “Horses” for a 2019 Pushcart. “I Hear You Make Cakes,” recorded live at Laugh Boston, was selected by The Moth for their national podcast. Christine teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop in Westport, Connecticut.
Editor: Katie Kosma
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross