Playing with Fire

Playing with Fire by Barbara Neal VarmaI’m a firefighter.

That reality occurred to me on my way to work the other day as I practiced what I would say to the bank. Paul’s check had bounced, overdrawing our joint account, the same account, good God, with which I had bought the cashier’s check for the refinance of our home.

It had been four months since Paul had left, so angry and determined. Four months since I’d collapsed to the floor, too stunned to stay standing.

Our story was the classic one, only it was an eleven-year itch instead of seven and my husband’s “Marilyn” was a classmate in his quest for an engineering degree. Not to worry, though, they were just friends, just good friends. Actually, that may have been true. I don’t really know. I only know he preferred her company, her laugh; that he could share a beer with her without her scrunching up her nose at the smell, that it was her shoulder he ran to for consolation after he left. 

Weeks later, when practical financial needs crowded in on my grief, I’d suggested we refinance to reduce the mortgage bill I was now paying on my own. He said he’d help now that he was working again. I’d said thank you. After all, the house was still half his, though he no longer called it home.

The teller hadn’t wanted to immediately credit Paul’s check to my account, because it was drawn on a different bank (a symbol of his newfound freedom). But I’d asked nicely and with a note of desperation in my eyes, and since I was a good customer—a former employee, no less—it was done. Of course, it hadn’t hurt that the assistant manager— Warren, a former friend and colleague, in that order—had given me an endorsing pat on the back while I stood at the teller’s station. But then the check had bounced because Paul had not deposited the funds in time. Now, my good name and Warren ’s good authority would be in question. It was five-hundred dollars, after all.

I called the bank right at nine. Warren was happy to hear from me; there was that, at least. I explained and apologized; then asked how his job was going … gosh, we hadn’t had time to chat the other day. He said the bounced check was not a biggie, to just replace it on Monday with a better one. I laughed, relieved. We exchanged “see you laters,” and I set the phone down gently on its cradle. I leaned back in my office chair, finally daring to close my eyes and sigh. Sweet relief. Another problem quenched.

It was a small fire, all things considered. I’d put out much worse in the years I’d been married to Paul. Some caused only minor damage, like when he forgot to pay his motorcycle insurance. We even laughed about that one. “Hey, honey,” I teased, holding up the cancellation note that had just arrived in the mail. “Did you know you were riding without insurance?”

“Really?” he grinned. “Good thing I didn’t have an accident.”

Other fires were more intense: friends’ hurt feelings when one of Paul’s sarcastic quips cut too deep or when one of his mood swings flared up and resulted in a disciplinary action at work. I even paved the way for his entry into the university when the bureaucratic red tape left him tangled in frustration and unable to move academically. I strolled into the admissions department, paid a polite smile and thank you, nothing really, and picked up the paperwork. Within a few weeks, he was in and I had passed my first test toward my own PhT degree: putting husband through.

So, when he told me the other day that he’d lost a measure of trust in me, I couldn’t believe it. The man who left me to search for his soul in the arms of another women … he couldn’t trust me?

“That’s right,” he said and went on to describe a scene we had played out months before, an afternoon when we had met to discuss all the usual gooey details associated with separation. I remembered well that day, that moment. My heart was still raw from his recent and abrupt departure, a pain without ebb punctuated by the distracting fear of facing life on my own. He, in contrast, had been both proud and defensive, asserting his plans for independence. I’d asked—okay, fine, I begged him—to reconsider, to try working it out. Nope, his sights were set on adventure the hell away from here. He set out a calculator and a blank writing pad on our dining room table.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get to it.”

Feeling numb, a recent defense mechanism, I had reached into my bag and pulled out pages of detailed listings: assets and liabilities, legal responsibilities to consider, options for an absent husband. Paul stared at the growing stack in surprise, a new expression for him, but his wide eyes quickly creased with anger. I saw the transformation, so familiar; I started to cry. Distraught with the results of my mistake, I tried to convince him of an option not listed: reconciliation. “Please…” But he had stopped listening and left soon after, slamming the front door on his way out to serve as his final word.

That’s why, he said, he can’t fully trust me any more, never wants to be in that position again. “Do you know how stupid I felt when you pulled out all those papers, while I sat there with just a blank notepad?”

I didn’t answer. I just looked at his annoyed, angry face, and suddenly felt powerful, strong, and amazingly calm. I realized that I had started the fire this time – and I wasn’t about to put it out. Ever again.

Favorite Quotes:

Writing is telepathy.”
– Stephen King

Serious art is born from serious play.”
– Julia Cameron

Barbara Neal Varma is my favorite author.”
– Mom


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