She texted him again. Her secret friend. It was getting harder and harder for Ellie to go to bed at a decent time ever since she met him online. How quickly they hit it off still surprised her, despite the fact that the butterflies that have taken up residence in her belly fluttered every time her phone sent a notification.
She grabbed for the phone in a flurry and nearly knocked off the romance novel she was reading earlier.
Ellie chuckled quietly to herself at the irony. She was desperate to hide her online affair, her own budding romance story, while at the same time desperate for it to grow. He’d texted back. It didn’t matter the time zone; it didn't matter he was on another continent. All that mattered was they’d connected and in her heart, she knew to trust what she felt for him. They exchanged a few more messages and when she finally placed her phone on her nightstand, she drifted off into sleep. A small smile on her lips as thoughts of him permeated her every thought.
When her alarm vibrated on the nightstand the next morning, her blurry, tired eyes perked up. Friday. “Thank God it’s Friday! Should be an easy day at work.” Ellie heard the “Bling” again.
“Good morning my beautiful princess!” This was his usual greeting just as her alarm went off every morning.
Ellie smiled. Until he entered her life just two weeks ago while playing video games, she couldn’t remember the last time someone had called her beautiful. “Good afternoon handsome. Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“Nah, I’d rather text with you.”
She knew the nine-hour time difference and the fact that he worked nights helped them stay connected, but at the same time, he needed his sleep. “Get some sleep.”
“I will once I know you’re safe at work.”
“Okay. I’ll leave in thirty.”
Ellie giggled when he sent his bitmoji expressing his love for her. She sent hers in return and continued getting ready for work.
When she checked the time again, she applied her last swipe of mascara and headed downstairs to make her daily breakfast of avocado toast. She looked over at where the Christmas tree should have been set up by now. As quickly and as quietly as she could, she crept into her husband’s bedroom--the room he'd slept in for the last eleven years of their thirteen-year marriage. Quiet so she wouldn’t wake him up and have to make forced small talk, she turned on the baby monitor so he could hear their three kids, if necessary. She looked in his general direction in the darkened room and let out a disappointing sigh. Why couldn’t her husband say all the things Ricky texted her? Why was she falling in love with a man she could never have? Why was she still married to a man who doesn’t want her, one she’d fallen out of love with over the last several years?
She closed the door and locked up the house. She sent one more message to Ricky, “Leaving the house, I’ll text you from work.” She checked her phone. Damn. It was early. Only a quarter to five. She used to leave a quarter after five. Ellie didn’t need any other sign her marriage was already over. Thoughts of how Ricky made her feel warmed her in the chilly December air.
Every day, for years, Ellie dreaded coming home. She never knew if she would come home to Jeckle or Hyde. Would she be in trouble again for something most people would see as something trivial and stupid? She couldn’t fathom what ludicrous thought would set him off today when she came home. She kept her distance from him when she returned most of the time. Dinner prep, he ate with the kids at the little table they had for them. It still baffled Ellie why she wasn’t allowed to purchase a damn dining table. But, today was Friday and it promised to be a good day at work. She had more time to stay up and message Ricky.
“Mrs. Cartwright?” Ellie was smiling with her students as they came in from recess. But, the look on her office manager’s face told a story. A sad one. Ellie knew instantly what had happened. During her recess break, she’d missed a call from her sister. Susan never called her at work.
“Mrs. Cartwright, I’ll watch your students. Your sister is on the phone in the office, she’s crying”
Holy shit. “Okay, thanks.”
Shaking like one of the leaves still clinging to the tree outside her classroom, Ellie made her way to the office and picked up the phone.
“Susan?” Her sister’s uncontrollable sobbing said all she needed to hear, but she wasn’t ready to hear it, to accept it. “Take a deep breath, calm down. What happened?”
“What?” She had to sit before she collapsed and joined in the sobbing with her younger sister.
“Daddy’s dead! He’s gone!”
Stay calm. Your sister needs you right now. “We’ll get through this. Tell me what happened.”
Susan told her of the low oxygen levels, his Covid diagnosis two days before, and his stubborn pride to not call for help. Living up in the mountains only made medical attention harder to access quickly. Susan had called the sheriff to do a wellness check, and that’s when their dad was found. He’d passed away during the night in his bed.
When the sisters hung up, Ellie broke down crying in the front office. She cried in her principal’s arms, and both office personnel held her and she just wept. When her principal brought her into her office for more privacy, she’d given Ellie time to call her husband to pick her up. Fat chance! I have the van with all the car seats. He can’t leave the house with them in a virtual school. I don’t want him to pick me up anyway. He’ll probably see this as my fault.
When her principal left her to her thoughts and phone calls, Ellie still made the effort to call him. It rang and rang and eventually went to voicemail. She’d left her pathetic message. “Hi, Susan called today. My dad died this morning. Laura is driving me home.”
A single tear fell down her cheek as she pulled up the app she used to message Ricky. She needed him and her instinct told her he’d be there for her. She sent her message. Immediately, he responded. But not with a text. He’d called her through the app. “Oh baby, I’m so sorry about your dad. I wish I could just hold you in my arms while you cry.” So she cried on the phone.
By the time she’d ended the call with Ricky, she was in a slightly better place. Laura drove her home, only to find her husband waiting at the garage door for her. They exchanged their obligatory pleasantries. “What did you tell the kids?”
“Just that something sad happened at Mama’s work and you were coming home early.”
“Okay, I’ll be upstairs.” Ellie headed up and just lay on top of her covers, and sobbed. She cried for the three kids downstairs who were denied knowing their Opa. She cried for the marriage she knew was over. She cried for the loss of her dad. She cried for how her life was about to get a lot more complicated before it became easier. She was buried in mourning, in her sorrow. She managed a phone call with Susan, her aunt, and her mom. She’d sent a group text to her mom’s side of the family. Eventually, with red puffy eyes, she headed downstairs, hoping for light and solace with her children. They were all getting ready for bed. Her husband was going to put them to bed early so they could talk.
When she’d given them their kiss good night and tucked them in, she headed downstairs to her husband’s bedroom, leaving the sanctity of her own. On her nightstand was her phone the very one she and Ricky exchanged messages throughout her afternoon. At least someone is checking on my emotional state.
Ellie sat on her husband’s couch. He paused his video game and faced her. “How are you?” She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could get a single word out, he continued. “You know, you’re not the only one suffering here. You went upstairs without coming up with a plan for us. Dinner? Bedtime? What to tell the kids?”
“What did you tell them?”
“Nothing! We didn’t come up with a plan! You are so selfish!”
My dad just died. Unexpectedly. At 66. You didn’t even like him. Can’t you just be a comforting husband, for once?
“I see,” was all she could muster.
“I’m not going to treat you like a goddamn fucking princess just because your dad died. We still have our problems.”
Ellie was seething. All her sorrow turned to anger. She’d been wanting out for a while now, and this is where she found her voice--a rare occurrence since she hated yelling and found nothing positive really came out of it. “I know we do. Do you think I wanted my dad to die? You think this is convenient for me, to use this to get out of our fights?”
Although the silence was deafening and lasted a mere few seconds, it stretched out long enough for Ellie. “Fuck you! I’m going to the mountains tomorrow with Susan to get Dad’s Living Trust. She knows where it is. We need sister time.” She headed upstairs, and for the first time since they’ve owned their house, she locked her bedroom door.
Ellie drove them up the mountain as Susan was the more emotional sister. They laughed and cried, and found out more about their dad than they thought they would. Once home, Ellie spent time with her kids.
Sunday came and went.
Emails and texts were exchanged with various family members. Numerous messages were shared with Ricky, who was always checking in with her feelings and well-being. Monday afforded Ellie another day with Susan. They headed to the bank for their dad’s safety deposit box. They took inventory and laughed some more through their shared tears. All the while Ellie was messaging Ricky who was by her side the entire time. She’d messaged her husband, more out of courtesy at this point, but again, no response.
By the time Ellie was home that afternoon, she felt the tension eroding the home they’d attempted to build together for their children. The kids were playing in the living room, and he just stood there, stone-faced, arms crossed in front of him. “Who’s Ricky?”
Ellie glanced at the kids. “Can I put my stuff down first?”
She did, and they headed to his room.
“Who’s Ricky?” He asked again.
Ellie just pasted a smug smile on her face. “I see you read my emails.”
“Yes, all of them. Ellie, these are very graphic! Who the hell is Ricky?”
She gave her husband the Gamertag Ricky uses to play since he’d played with him once before.
“Oh my God, Ellie, you went outside of our marriage!”
“Yes, I did, online. I want out. I can’t do this anymore.”
“What are you saying?”
“We’ve been trying since before we were married to save our marriage. You don’t even share a room with your wife! How did we even have kids if we barely have sex? The only thing you want to do with me is playing video games. This past summer, I told you I didn’t want to play video games and wanted to focus on my writing.”
“But you never gave gaming a fair chance! That could be our shared hobby.”
“A chance? I played with you for the last twenty years! You guilted me into playing again this summer. I was only online to practice so you wouldn’t criticize my gameplay! I never went in looking for someone else.”
“Ellie, you went outside our marriage.”
“I realize that.”
“Do you think he actually returns the feelings you have for him? He left you in an email to smoke with his friend! Is he really in Germany? Have you met him in real life?”
“Of course, he’s in Germany, and no, I haven’t met him. His smoking with his friend doesn’t matter to me. We were just having fun in the beginning.”
Ellie could see his frustration with her but she didn’t care. Despite the circumstances, she was ready to walk out. She was already mentally packing a bag to head to Susan’s. “He’s no good for you. He’s a gamer. We need to work this out.”
She just stared at her husband, shocked he didn’t see himself. “You’re a gamer. At least Ricky can put down the games and comfort me when Dad died. He’s shown me he cares, repeatedly.”
“Email him and tell him it’s over. You’re a married woman.”
Barely audible, fighting back tears, all she could reply was, “I can’t do that.”
“You love him.”
Ellie only nodded. “I told you I want out.”
“To be with him?”
“No! This was a long time coming and you know it. How many times did you threaten divorce? At least three times just this year alone! I can’t keep doing this. Ricky’s timing was off. Dad dying had nothing to do with this decision. I’ve wanted out. You were right. In June, you said you suspected I wanted out but was too scared to do it. Turns out, I’m no longer scared.”
“We can work on this.”
“No. We’ve done this for years.”
He sighed as he left the room.
When he left to put the kids to bed, Ellie sat there. She contemplated how to make her husband finally see just how unhappy she’d been. She wanted out of her marriage for a long time. Ricky entering her life as her dad left hers, at least physically, was just bad timing. It didn’t change the fact that when her eldest daughter patted her hand and said, “It’s okay Mom, just do what Dad says next time” she felt like the worst mother in the world. As hard as she worked with her students, as much as she’d accomplished professionally, Ellie would only ever show an emotionally battered and distant woman; only show the tears she tried to hide from her children, her family, her colleagues. She knew for her own sanity and self-worth, for her children’s future relationships, they all needed to be in a healthy, loving relationship.
“Is that it? Your house is empty?” Susan asked Ellie after moving in the last box to her new apartment.
“It’s just about empty. We have the junk folks picking up the last table neither of us wanted next week so I’ll empty the rest of the freezer then. He already moved all his stuff yesterday. Can you believe it? I have my own apartment for the first time in my life! Granted I’ve been here with the kids for a week, but this is my last box.”
“It’s weird. You’ve been with Terrance since high school. I never thought you’d split up.”
Ellie let her jaw drop as she gaped at Susan. “What are you talking about? I told you for years he’s threatened divorce.”
“I know you’ve been unhappy for a long time, and you’ve not attended any family gatherings. Was it because of him?”
“Of course it was! He said they were a bad influence on the kids and I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to him. Obviously, I am now. I have my own place and the kids have a huge bedroom here. Our house sale is final next week, and I have a new address, a new life. Granted he’ll visit twice a week and on Saturdays, but still. I’m on my own and loving it!”
“But, I know you. You’re still going to be civil for the kids.”
“You got it,” Ellie winked at her.
Susan looked over at Ellie as if trying to figure her older sister out. “How are you and Ricky doing? Is he excited you finally moved out?”
“Absolutely! We can call any time we want now, and cam every day. He’s planning on visiting this summer.”
“August, right? When will you tell the kids about him?”
“Soon. We have to finish the divorce filing first. That’s where my comfort is. He’s been very supportive and encouraging.” Ellie knew she sounded like a lovesick fool, but she could be herself with Susan, who knew how much she and Ricky loved each other. Susan knew he was planning on moving to the United States to be with her and the kids. He asked about how school was every day. He reminded her of who had a project coming up, and what to do if her appliances in the kitchen acted up. He was eager to take on the role of stepdad, and husband. He’d already promised a ring as soon the divorce was final.
Ellie’s stepdad approved of him. Her mom had already spoken with him. Her cousin was already following him on a language app, which he’d been using to improve his already great English.
For the first time, Ellie felt truly at peace and happy in a relationship. She felt loved, respected, and desired. She started each day with a new message and ended every evening kissing him on camera. She felt her self-worth returning. Her children were thriving and adapting to their new responsibilities in their apartment.
“That’s great! Hey, where should I put this last box? The dining table?”
Ellie smiled and gestured at the floor. “No, tonight I want to celebrate my new freedom with the kids and eat at my new table. It’s a new beginning and we should start new traditions, right here on Monterey Street.”