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He Said, She Says
by Jean Majury
        When Paul left "to think things through," Linda told Daisy and Dolly, their caramel-colored chow dogs, "It's just temporary."  To their friends and neighbors, she said nothing.   Friends accepted her vague excuses for Paul's sudden absence.   But neighbors were different.  They were 24/7 fixtures in her environment.  Linda knew eventually they would ask where Paul was.  When they did, she could provide his professional address, but not where he resided emotionally.  

 Planting, transplanting, fertilizing, pruning, mulching, and manicuring were the neighbors’ obsession.  Any hint of marital discord riddled them with angst.   A possible divorce and subsequent house sale might bring new owners with unpredictable horticultural habits which could threaten their cherished, exclusive, garden community.

Any day Linda expected a conversation about bulb-eating squirrels or leaf-sucking aphids to evolve into a question about Paul.   Perhaps if she hinted at some Don Quixote mission upon which he had embarked, it would hold the neighbors at bay.

           On a Saturday, four weeks after Paul's departure, Linda’s feared expectation materialized in the form of Alex Fisher, who lived a block away.  He stopped her as she was walking the dogs.  "Old coffee grounds are great for the soil,” he said.  Leaning on his spade, he added,“Starbuck's gives them out free."
           "I’ll have to get some," said Linda.

Alex moved away from Starbucks’ generosity and on to what Linda suspected was the real reason behind his conversation.    "Paul's been gone almost a month now.   When is he due back?"

"I'm not sure.  It depends on how much he's accomplished."

"Well, next time you talk to him, tell him his old golfing buddy misses him."

"I will," said Linda.

Before he could sneak in another question, Linda yanked on Daisy and Dolly's leashes and rushed them away.   The dogs, who had been sitting on their haunches listening to the conversation, kept turning around to look back at Alex.
When Linda returned to the custom home an architect had designed for Paul and her eighteen years earlier, she brought the dogs inside.  After unleashing them, she sat down in the middle of an enormous burgundy leather sectional.  Its cozy half circle complemented the social lifestyle she and Paul had enjoyed
Daisy and Dolly took up their usual position at Linda's feet.  She bent down to ruffle their thick coats. When she lifted her head, the mask she had worn for Alex's benefit cracked and she burst into tears.  The dogs' ears quivered at the unfamiliar sound.  A few seconds later they began to whimper and whine.  When Linda continued crying, the dogs jumped up on the sectional.  Sitting on each side of her, they flanked her like bookends.

After she regained her composure, Linda got up and walked from the living room to the study.  The dogs followed her.   Before they could enter behind her, she gently closed the door.  She didn't want them to hear what she had to say to Paul.  She picked up the phone and punched in his office number.  

The second Paul got on the line, an unintended, self-pitying cry escaped from her mouth.   "People keep asking about you,” she said.   “Daisy, Dolly and I are very lonely without you."

"Couldn’t get back to you sooner, Linda.  Wasn't ready.  Needed time.  More time to think things through.  You gave me that time.  I appreciate it.”   Paul’s hurried words came to a brief halt.  After a gasp for air, he said, "I've made a decision.  Divorce is best for us."

Linda realized the time she had given Paul, to which he referred three times, had worked against her.   No wonder he appreciated it.

Before she could respond to his dreadful announcement, Paul added, “Linda, I've contacted Fred Steiner."


"We know he’s an excellent lawyer.  If the divorce is uncontested, he'll handle it for both of us.  At a minimal fee.   It's the most cost-effective approach.  Fred's discrete.  He'll save us embarrassment.”

What embarrassment was Paul talking about?   Fred was Linda’s friend as well as Paul’s.   In fact, she and the dogs often passed his Georgian home on their neighborhood walks.   Fred’s front lawn, like his hair, never had a blade of grass or flower out of place. 

 Raising objections, pursuing another course of action, suggesting alternatives, did not occur to Linda.   It was as if Paul had posted a "Do Not Enter" sign which blocked her ability to reason and analyze.

Interpreting her silence as assent, Paul said, "Fred will be in contact with you.  Soon."  

Linda let out a long sigh.  Daisy and Dolly must have been listening outside the door for they pushed it open and rushed into the study.  They butted their large lion heads against her legs as if to remind her of something.   Distracted by their presence and confused by Paul’s words, Linda didn’t ask him how he could destroy their marriage and her future in a phone call.   Instead she said, "What about the dogs?"

 "The dogs?"

"Yes, the dogs,” she said.  “Have you forgotten Daisy and Dolly already?"

As if he were giving away a pair of cuff links, Paul said, "Oh, you keep them.  You spend the most time with them.” 

Linda looked down at Daisy and Dolly and read hurt in their dark almond eyes.  She decided their presence made it impossible to continue such a personal conversation.   Without a goodbye, Linda placed the receiver back on its hook.  

A quick swivel in the desk chair brought Linda around to face the dogs.  “Paul's not coming back,” she said in a soft, family-counselor voice.  “We'll work things out for the best, you'll see.  Remember, he loves you both very much."  She twirled the thick ruff surrounding their necks with her fingers.  Her touch seemed to sooth and comforts them for they wagged their tails.

A week after Paul’s announcement, Linda ran into Alex again.  He was talking to another neighbor when she approached.  After a perfunctory "Hello," he said, "What's the latest on Paul?"

 Linda pointed at a purple peony.  "Gorgeous flower.  Marvelous color."

Alex lifted his eyebrows.  "Is something wrong with Paul?"

 Annoyed by his inquisitor expression, she blurted out, "Yes, there is something wrong.  Paul's not coming back.  He's decided to divorce me."

"Not coming back?  Divorce?"  Alex moved toward her and thumped her shoulder with his fist.  The gesture struck Linda as more angry than sympathetic. 

"Perhaps I should give Paul a call.  What's his number?"

Linda’s voice strangled with the answer.  “His work number is in the Yellow Pages under Accountants." 
Alex tapped his finger against his skull.  “I should have thought of that.” 

Linda’s pulled on the dogs' leashes and moved away.

"Sorry,” said Alex, affecting a sheepish grin.  "It's just that I'd hate to lose touch with Paul.  He's a great guy."

"Paul's wrecked my life and the dogs, but I agree with you, he's a great guy."

The dogs sensed Linda’s resentment and let out a series of loud barks.  Their sudden high decibels caught Alex off guard. He stumbled backwards, almost falling.   When he recovered his balance, Linda and the dogs were gone.

During the following weeks, Linda witnessed friends and neighbors, married couples around her age and Paul's, exclude her from the gatherings of which she and Paul were once a part. 

She asked Betty Anderson, a neighborhood friend, why she had not been invited to the annual summer barbecue.  Betty blinked her eyes a few times as if she could bat the question away.   Linda pressed her for an answer. 

"I'm sorry," Betty said, squeezing Linda's arm gently, "but we thought it might be uncomfortable for you to come alone."

 "We've been friends for years.   Why would I be uncomfortable?"

 "Well, we didn't ask poor Paul either," Betty said.

 Linda stared at her, stunned over the "poor Paul” reference.   Betty didn’t meet her gaze.  Instead, she fixated on the dogs.   "Please don’t let them piddle on the mums, Linda."
Daisy and Dolly, sensitive to the reprimand, leaped away from the vibrant yellow flowers.  Once again Linda and the dogs walked away from a neighbor’s rejection.

Ever the conscientious lawyer, Fred had telephoned Linda a few times.  In their most recent conversation, he had suggested bringing the divorce papers to her home for review.  "It will be more convenient," he said.  Paul had used those same words when he had spoken to her about a divorce.

Daisy and Dolly were inside the house, lounging by the fireplace, when Fred arrived.  They watched as Linda and he sat down on the sectional.

 "Paul is a generous person," Fred began. "He's decided to give you the house.  And the dogs."   

 Linda looked at Fred and realized she didn't like him anymore.   The fifteen-hundred-dollar suits he wore to camouflage his stocky frame were not the reason.  Nor was his overly-confident manner.  It was because he had become Paul's proxy. 

Like a punch press pounding out product, Fred recited what Paul wished to retain.  Linda interrupted him. "What kind of visitation does Paul want with Daisy and Dolly?"

“What do you mean?" Fred’s brow and mouth lifted.

 "He's given me custody of the dogs,” said Linda.  “Does he want daily, weekly or monthly visits?”

 Hearing their names, the dogs rose up from their resting place.   Their toenails clicked like castanets on the wooden floor as they moved to sit by Linda’s feet.  

"The dogs haven't seen Paul since he left,” continued Linda, bending down to pet their furry crowns.

 “They feel abandoned.  Any time he wants visitation, tell him to just give me a call."

Fred snickered before pulling out a handkerchief to stifle the sound.

"What's so funny, Fred?"

"I guess just when you think you've heard it all, there's something new."

 "What do you mean?"  Linda felt embarrassed without knowing why.

 "You're talking about Paul having visitation with the dogs as if they’re children."  When Linda didn't respond, Fred said, "Of course, people become much attached to animals, I understand that."

"We've had Daisy and Dolly for since they were pups.  I don't regard them as animals so much as friends.  More loyal than most friends, actually."

 Fred cleared his throat and read the balance of the proposed settlement.   When he finished, he said, "Other than working out the dog arrangements, are the terms generally agreeable?"

 "Do I have a choice?"

 “Not if you're smart.  Against my advice, Paul's giving you 60 percent of the assets.  Highly unusual considering your situation."

"My situation?"

"Yes.  You've always been employable.  Yet you haven't worked outside the home for the past eight years.”  A hint of disapproval etched Fred’s face.   “You’ve made no financial contribution to the marriage during that period."

Linda pulled the silver clasp from her long pony tail and threw it on the floor.  "I worked inside the home, Fred.  Didn't Paul tell you that?  We did a lot of entertaining.  You and your wife enjoyed some of that.  I was the cook, housekeeper, decorator, you name it.”

Her voice rose in irritation as she continued.  “I was the dogs' main caregiver.   I kept up my appearance.  And the garden's, I might add.”  She wagged an accusatory finger at Fred.  “This allowed Paul to concentrate on his career and, with my help, enjoy success." 

 In reaction to Linda’s gesture and strong words, Daisy and Dolly howled and tried to climb up the pants of Fred's expensive suit.  He pushed them aside.  "It might be best if you put the dogs elsewhere," he said.
Linda walked over to the French doors leading to the patio and opened them.  Once the dogs bounded outside, Fred continued.  "You understand, I'm speaking strictly in terms of actual dollar contributions to the marriage.”

 In the legal world in which Fred lived, Linda was Paul's undeserving beneficiary.  He acted as if Paul, not she and the dogs, was the wronged party.  His disinterest in what Paul's abandonment had done to the three of them depressed Linda.  She felt powerless.

 Daisy and Dolly's barking interrupted her thoughts.  They had returned to the French doors and were peering inside.  Fred stood up and brushed his suit. 

 "Take a few days to go over the papers, Linda.  Call my paralegal when you're ready to sign them.  She'll set up an appointment."  Fred glanced at the dogs. "At my office," he added.

The dogs stopped barking the minute Fred left.

            That night Ellen and Ted Vento, a couple with whom Paul and she had often played bridge, stopped Linda as she and the dogs passed their home.  Alex must have told them about the divorce because they expressed their regrets.  Linda was touched by their sincerity until Ted said, "Paul's one talented golfer.  We played better when he was part of our foursome.   Plus, there was that sense of humor of his.”

 "Oh, it was delicious,” Ellen said.  Her smile faded with Linda’s frown.

 In the awkward silence which followed, the unleashed dogs dashed into a bed of petunias.

  "Get out of there," yelled Ted, clapping his hands together.   Daisy and Dolly cowered from his command before backing off.  

Linda quickly re-leashed them.  She apologized and walked on.   When she and the dogs were barely thirty feet away, Ted's voice carried through the quiet night.  "She’ll probably have to sell the house."  Ellen said, "Let's hope when she does, the buyers don't have dogs like hers."

           At first Linda thought she had imagined the laughter that trailed their words.   When Daisy and Dolly halted and bared their teeth, she realized she had not.  

 As they walked home, Linda saw the neighborhood in a different light.  Instead of offering her the support and friendship she had previously enjoyed and which she desperately needed now, her neighbors had put up barriers, fences of separation, between them.  Her initial sadness over this discovery was replaced by a deep, searing resentment. 

Three days later she met Fred at his office.   "There's one small addition to the agreement," he began.   "Paul believes you and the dogs shouldn't be burdened with visits he might have to postpone or cancel.   He feels a clean break is necessary.  The language you'll soon be reading indicates that."

Linda's hands turned into balls of fury.  She pounded them on Fred's wide mahogany desk.  "What's happened to Paul?  Does he think a clean break is best for Daisy and Dolly or best for him?" 

Fred nervously fingered his Armani tie.

"Doesn't he care anything about the dogs?"  Linda’s question ended on a pitch of despair.

The lawyer in Fred took over.  In a soft as butter voice, he said, "Of course he cares, but he doesn't want the dogs to be traumatized if he's prevented from showing up.  He thinks this way is best.  Not for him, you understand, but for them."

Fred’s transparently false statements further enraged Linda.  She fingered the glittering crystal paperweight on his desk and considered shoving it down his throat.  He must have read her intention, for he buzzed his paralegal.  She joined them within seconds.  Her presence served as a buffer.  In short order, Linda signed the papers, stuffed the copies into her large purse, and left.

That night, after two glasses of merlot, Linda brought the dogs inside for another talk.  She had decided the truth without embellishment was best.  "Paul is gone from your lives and mine,” she told them.  “He doesn't want visitation with you.   Or me."  The dogs bowed their heads and began licking their paws.

During the following weeks Linda made several decisions.   She achieved the most important one, selling the house, quickly.  She had no intention of remaining in the house or in the neighborhood.

The buyers were anxious to take up residence. With that in mind, Linda quickly arranged a six-month lease on a rental home with a large fenced yard for Daisy and Dolly.  In short order, she had her possessions moved into it.

Around 10:30 in the evening, a mere ten hours before she was to turn over the keys to the new owners at the real estate agent’s office, Linda paid a last visit to her former home.  She opened the side gate and guided the dogs into the back.  She spoke to them for a short time before going inside.

The past resurfaced as Linda walked through the home.   Each room held a precious memory.   Her tour ended in the bedroom Paul and she had shared for so many years.  The intimacy and pleasure of their relationship engulfed her.  She remembered how much they had wanted children.  When their many attempts failed, Linda had persuaded Paul to take on Daisy and Dolly. 

Alone in the bedroom, the windows closed,  Linda’s anguished sobs found no outlet, just as  her frustration over the divorce had found no voice with Paul.  She stared at the bare walls.  They held no hidden message.   Finally, she gritted her teeth and decided she must do what Paul was doing.  She must forge a new and separate identity.  For too long she had been his appendage. 

A car alarm in the distance pulled Linda back to the present.  She glanced at her watch.  It was after midnight.  She left the empty bedroom and walked out of the house.  For the last time, she locked the door behind her.

She went to the backyard to retrieve Daisy and Dolly.  There she found the gate ajar, but the dogs were where she had first left them, resting under the Maple tree.  "Time to go," she said.   They slowly rose and moved to her side.  She noticed they were panting heavily and their powerful bodies were awash with sweat. “What have you been up to?” she asked.  The dogs didn’t look up at her, but kept their heads down until they reached the car.  Once Linda opened the door, they jumped up and climbed onto the back seat.  Each took up a position on either side and pressed their nose against the window glass.

In seconds Linda started the car and pressed a button opening the back windows.   The dogs poked their heads out of the wide spaces and sniffed the night air.  Quickly and quietly Linda drove away from the neighborhood under a moonless sky.

The next morning Fred Steiner opened his front door and picked up the morning newspaper from the stoop.  When he stood up, he did his usual survey of his front garden.  A battlefield greeted him.   The  satin-smooth swath of rich, green grass and lavish beds of colorful flowers were gone.   In their place was an ugly array of ditches, furrows, and holes.  Huge chunks of grass and fractured flower stems and petals were scattered about like war debris. 

Alex Fisher also opened his front door that morning to a surprise.  His gorgeous peonies and other perennials, torn and mutilated, were now a mockery of their former beauty.

Betty Anderson, the Ventos and other neighbors discovered similar destructive visits had been paid to their "garden community" properties.