John was still working at the kitchen table when Robin got home. She taught ninth grade geometry at Emerson, the high school Katie attended and where John and Robin had gone.
She was thirty-eight now. Her looks had taken on a pleasing overlay of age and experience, and John still thought that any fifteen-year-old male would be lucky to have such a woman etching a trapezoid on the whiteboard before him. He knew he should tell her that more often, but figured she would shoot him down as insincere for having deemed her less than centerfold material.
"Hey," Robin sighed with a familiar flatness.
"Hey," he replied.
In every terrific romantic movie, in every great love story ever written, lovers whose hearts were fused as one never once greeted each other with a tired, emotionally detached, "Hey."
These were John and Robin's "Hey" days.
"Haven't got dinner going yet," he said. "I'm in the home stretch on this thing, I kinda lost track of the time."
"That's okay," she said as she took a jar of spaghetti sauce from the cupboard and began filling a pot with water.
They married seventeen years ago. John thought they had a marriage that worked. They had a nice house in a better part of town, they kept their bills paid, and they had a smart, mostly responsible daughter whose grades so far hovered around the B range. They weren't the most passionate couple on the block, but all the grabby-hands marriages John saw up close—the attentive husbands, the giggling wives, the cloying hints of post-cookout whoopee when all John really wanted to know was how they wanted their steaks done—had all ended in divorce.
Robin and John kept an even keel; they still laughed enough, and shared interests enough, and made love enough to make the marriage endure.
Robin wasn't convinced. She felt they had lost something, and she talked about them trying to find it again. A lot. One of the last times they went round and round about it, she said that the two of them were like co-managers of a successful business: they understood what their roles were, they came together efficiently when a crisis hit, and they kept their doors open when so many businesses around them failed.
It wasn't until bedtime that night, when John crawled into bed and recoiled at the frost radiating from his wife, that he realized she wasn't making a flattering comparison. When she compared them to business partners, he actually thought they made a breakthrough. He may have smiled and said, "Right!"
Her arms clenched tightly across her chest in bed that night, she continued her analogy with the observation that at the end of the workday, these two "managers" John admired seemed to go their separate ways, to increasingly separate lives.
But it's hard to keep a business going, John would think to himself. I'm proud that our doors are still open. That's all I'm saying.
While Robin waited for the water to boil she poured some wine and set a glass beside his computer. "Did you call your mother back?"
"John..." she scolded.
Months ago he changed his mother's incoming calls to a custom ringtone, so he knew when it was her. At first it was the "Chicken Dance," John insisting that he needed something frivolous in his head before he took on her increasingly emotionally draining calls. But Rose phoned so often that Robin and Katie threatened to kill him as that insipid polka burrowed itself into their brains, so he changed it to "Over the Rainbow."
Between the ringtone and caller ID, John didn't always pick up when he knew it was his mother. If she left a message he'd listen to it instantly, and he'd call her right back if it was even remotely urgent, but so many of her calls were just because she was lonely or she had to tell John something that she told him five times before.
He was falling behind in his work, indulging his mother every time she beckoned. It made him feel s hitty, but he felt that he needed to allocate his time better.
His mother called twice the night before, each message simply, "Call me." But he hadn't yet.