The suitcase I drag down the attic stairs belonged to my grandmother, so it’s one of those old-time deals that already weighs about fifty pounds even without a stitch of clothing in it. I have a photograph of my grandmother with this suitcase. She’s standing on the tarmac about to get on an airplane—this was a long time ago, right, when you walked up the stairs onto the plane—that’s going to take her to New York and then on to Switzerland, to visit her lifelong pen pal that she started writing when she was in third grade or something. So she’s standing on the windy tarmac, all smiles despite the fact she looks like she’s about to be blown off her feet, with this giant suitcase next to her. She’s not holding it, cause this is the kind of suitcase that even if you just stop for a couple seconds, to have your picture taken, you want to put it down. That’s how heavy it is, and when I drag it down the attic stairs it goes ka-thunk ka-thunk ka-thunk and I can hear the cats scatter.
The cats. I’ll have to leave them. When a woman walks out on her husband she can’t take her cats along. How would that look? I’m leaving you, but hold on a minute while I wrangle these cats into the car. That’s no kind of exit to make. So maybe I’ll come back for them. Maybe in a couple months, when I’m settled some place else, I’ll show up in the middle of the day, while he’s at work, and I’ll use my key (because he wouldn’t change the lock . . . it wouldn’t even occur to him) and then I’ll gather the cats up, one at a time, in a heavy blanket so they don’t scratch me to death when they see I’m putting them in the car.
By the time I have the suitcase mostly packed (the essentials—your basic toiletries, the book from the beside table, underwear and socks and the kind of clothes one would travel in, nothing fancy) it’s 4:30 and he’ll be rolling in in about fifteen, twenty minutes. By that time I’ll have everything straightened and I’ll be standing at the door putting on my coat, just slipping my arms into the sleeves as he walks in, so I’m ready to pick up the suitcase and go at just that moment, so I don’t have to run back and go to the bathroom or put on my shoes or anything.
His face. It’ll go blank first, like somebody’s asked him a question in a foreign language. The smile he’s worn through the door will sink into his face like cream into coffee. Then, after the blank look, his eyes will narrow, first at the suitcase and then at me. This will only last a moment. The wheels in his head will be turning. At this moment I might feel a little sorry for him. What did I do to deserve this? he’ll be thinking. I come home from a normal day of work, thinking everything is A-OK, and here’s my wife in the front hall with her suitcase packed and her coat on. But he won’t say any of this. Instead, he’ll swallow really hard, so hard it’s like he’s trying to get down a pill the size of his fist. Right now he’ll be thinking that he can’t cry, but he’ll want to. He’ll be thinking about all the things he should have done differently, how he should have treated me better, how that girl he liked wasn’t worth all this.
I wish I had a pen pal in Switzerland. When is it too late to have a lifelong pen pal? Does it count if you start when you’re twenty-five? Thirty-five? What if you pretended you were ten? What if you wrote a ten-year-old girl in Switzerland—found her somehow, you know, through the Internet or something—and you pretended you were in third grade and your whole life was in front of you and you had all these dreams? Would that be a rotten thing to do? How disappointed would she be when you got off the plane with your big blue suitcase and instead of being ten you were a grown woman? Would she hate you? Or would she just be surprised, and then she’d get over it, and you could still go stay at her Swiss house and eat Swiss cheese sandwiches and curl up to sleep in a cozy Swiss sleeping bag?
I make the bed. It seems right that I should make the bed, that I should do the dishes, that everything should be just so. I shouldn’t leave the house in ruins. It’s better if everything is perfect, so he can watch it go to hell once I’m gone. I shake the pillows snug into their pillowcases, imagining how long it will be before the sheets are washed again, how long he’ll sleep alone on dirty sheets, how that girl he liked (it was five years ago, for Christsakes! he’ll think as he falls asleep on his dirty sheets, as if that makes a difference, as if having cancer for five years is better than having it for one) is with someone else now and now he’s got nobody, not her, not me, only two disillusioned cats. Which I’ll be coming back for.
I reach the front hall just in time. I’m opening the closet for my coat when I hear his car outside, the squawk of the brakes, the sigh of the motor, the familiar sounds of his homecoming. I’ve got my coat on and my keys in my hand, and I pick up the giant suitcase, which must weigh, no joke, fifty pounds. I don’t know how she got this thing all the way to Switzerland, my grandmother. I see the doorknob turn and it’s in slow motion—really, it is—like a movie when the murderer figures out you’re hiding behind the shower curtain and he’s coming for you, finally, and you’ve got nothing but a bottle of shampoo to defend yourself.
He steps into the hall and takes everything in. His eyes linger on the suitcase, which I’m struggling to keep from dropping. His heart, his pathetic little heart, is crumbling.
“Jesus, Tina,” he says. “Not again.”
“There’s no ‘not again’ about it,” I say. My arm is about to fall off. “This is it.”
“Honey.” He puts his hand on my cheek. “Honey, really. Aren’t you tired of dragging that thing around?”
“I love you,” he says. “You know that. I know you know that.”
He says: “Come on. There you go. That’s my girl.”
He says: “How ’bout we get a pizza?”