COME HOME TO LOVE

Chapter 1

Susan McNeill stopped by the bakery to pick up two pieces of Black Forest cake, Richard’s favorite treat. He hadn’t been himself since retiring two months earlier. Maybe this would cheer him up a bit. She placed the pastry box on the front seat of the car and groaned when her cellphone rang for the umpteenth time that day. She answered it, put it on speaker and pulled onto the road toward home.

“It’s true,” said the voice of Jennifer Singh, her co-chair for the conference planning committee. “Siddhartha Jones is no longer with Blueback Technical Solutions so he can’t speak on behalf of the work they’re doing on mental health with their HR department.”

“Damn,” Susan muttered under her breath as she approached the solid two-story home she and Richard had built together thirty years earlier, and saw the empty garbage bin sitting on the curb. The same bin Richard had promised to take in yesterday.

“Did you hear what I said?” Jennifer’s voice was higher than usual, a sign that the stress was getting to her.

Susan parked the car in the garage and stared a moment in the rear-view mirror at the garbage can. “Yes, I heard. We can’t use Sid as the keynote speaker.” She sighed, then added. “Stay calm. We don’t have to send out the conference brochure for another couple of days and we can always put a note on the website explaining that the keynote is being confirmed. It gives us some time. We can still find a replacement.”

“Where? This is a disaster.”

Susan turned the engine off and spoke more calmly than she felt. Richard had promised he would take it in this time. What was wrong with him?  “I’ve got a list of potential speakers in my office here. If none of them are suitable, I’ll email the speakers’ bureau tonight. I’ve been working with them for years and they have pulled me out of this type of trouble before.”

“Right. Yes. That makes sense.” Jennifer’s voice was returning to normal now, so Susan continued to talk through the rest of her plan.

“We’ve both handled tight timelines before. We just need to focus on damage control. I’ll pull the board together so we can brief them in the morning. Can you start on a press release? Keep it light. Something like, ‘due to circumstances beyond our control, we have booked a new keynote.’ I’ll work on getting a replacement by the end of day tomorrow.”

“Yes. I can do that.” Jennifer sounded relieved, knowing what action to take. “I’ll send it to you by seven.”

“Great, I’ll look at it after dinner.”

“Thanks, Susan. I appreciate you talking me down from this.”

“I’ll talk to you later. Now go take a break and get something to eat. It’ll be fine.” She discontinued the call and leaned back in the driver’s seat, closing her eyes a moment. Why would Sid leave his job? She would have to ask Richard about it. He was no longer working for Blueback Tech, but he’d still be up on the scuttlebutt. Richard. She opened her eyes to see the nasty pimple of a garbage can fester on their otherwise clean street.

“He’s got to be kidding,” she mumbled as she climbed out of the car. In a moment she’d dragged the bin up the driveway and shoved it into place between the recycling and compost bins where it belonged. Then she walked back to the car to retrieve the pastry box, her purse and her laptop bag. It would be another late night and she wished, not for the first time, she hadn’t agreed to chair the mental health conference. She wished she could just retire like Richard had two months earlier. Which she could, if he had kept to his end of the bargain and worked for a few more years.

She set the box and handbag on the bench outside the front door, fished for her keys, unlocked the door and stepped into the smell of stale air. No chicken. No pine scent. He had done no cooking or cleaning, but the television was blaring from the living room and the weather reporter from the six o’clock news was confirming what she already knew. Temperatures were dropping and a storm was coming to Sunshine Bay and a storm this far south on Vancouver Island was rare.

The television grew louder as she approached the living room to find Richard snoozing on the couch, wearing the same sweatpants and tee-shirt he had worn at least three days in a row. She paused a moment, considering whether to yell at him so he would wake up and decided against it. It would just make a hard day worse.

Instead, she went to her office, set down her things and continued to the kitchen to start dinner and stopped, anger rising as she took in the sight in front of her. There on the counter was a cutting board that had been used to slice cheese and tomatoes. An oily frying pan sat on the stove, used to make a toasted cheese sandwich. On another counter, an unrinsed tomato soup can was sitting beside the sink instead of in the recycling bin in the cupboard underneath. The bowls and spoons from breakfast and lunch sat on the counter above the dishwasher. He’d even left an empty instant oatmeal package on the counter. Seriously? What had he been doing all day?

She opened the dishwasher to find dirty dishes and the soap she had poured into the dispenser, waiting for him to press the start button. Growling, she took the dishes from the counter, shoved them in, and started the machine.

All the books she’d read about men retiring — well, the one book and a few online articles — said men could have a tough time adjusting and she should be patient. One article even said that retirement wasn’t for sissies, though whether that one was talking about the retiree or their unretired spouse, she couldn’t recall. What was she supposed to do until he adjusted? Work all day to come home to a slug of a spouse who left the housework, cooking, everything, for her to do?

She pulled a pan from the cupboard and set it to heat on the stove. Why didn’t he understand she was having a frustrating month? She’d told him about the conference and the pressure she was under to mentor Jennifer. He knew Annette Taylor, the new executive director, had pushed them to hold the conference in a different venue so it could be twice as large as the last one. He also knew that Annette had then flown off to Australia for a month to deal with a family emergency, leaving her new director, Boris, to run things. The same Boris, who got the job Susan should have got. Would have got, if she hadn’t told the board president, she was planning to retire in a year which she never would have done if she’d known Richard would take an early retirement package without even consulting her.

It wasn’t fair for her to bring work problems home though. They weren’t entirely Richard’s fault. She needed to keep a lid on the emotions struggling to the surface and have patience. The last thing she wanted was to be a nag. But seriously, how hard was it to put away a garbage can, turn on a dishwasher and fry up some chicken?

Or even do something during the day? Judging by his appearance, he had done nothing in the past three days. This wasn’t healthy for him or for their marriage. She would have to talk to him again.

She opened the fridge and removed the chicken breasts she had thawed and marinated, and vegetables to make a salad. Potatoes? No. They would take too long and she had work to do tonight. Work. Despite her trying to calm down Jennifer, she wasn’t looking forward to this evening. It had been a long day and she’d much prefer to pour a glass of wine, read a book and turn in early.

She was tossing the salad when Richard shuffled into the kitchen fifteen minutes later, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Smells great. What’s for dinner?”

The calm she had been trying to maintain disintegrated.

“Chicken.” She said through clenched teeth. “The same chicken I left marinating in the fridge.”

“Oh right, I forgot, I’ve been busy,” he said. “Can I help?”

Well, he could have helped earlier, but why state the obvious? “Maybe set the table?”

She dished out the food and brought the plates to the table, then returned to get two glasses of water. Settling into her chair, she willed herself to stay calm, civilized. He picked up the remote control to the kitchen television, turned it on and dug into the meal.

“This is good,” he said, chewing on a bite of chicken.

“Thanks,” she said, reaching for the remote control to turn the volume down several decibels. “What have you been up to today?’

“Been watching a bit of TV. Reading.” He spoke hesitantly and his eyes didn’t meet hers as he spoke. He did that when he had something to hide. Sometimes that was a good thing, like the time he brought home a diamond ring for their ten-year wedding anniversary and had to hide it for three days, but by the look on his face she knew that wasn’t likely this time.

“And? You sound like you want to say something.” She watched his face turn red. She hated being right. She had an awful feeling about this.

“Planning a vacation.”

“A vacation?” From what? Netflix? Her patience was running thin.

“Rupert’s been after me to visit.”

Of course this would be about Rupert. It was always about Rupert. Rupert Cowen, his stepbrother, was like a third person in their marriage. Sometimes she wondered if she was the third person in their marriage. If Richard ever had to choose between her and Rupert, she still wasn’t sure she’d win.

“Has he?” She tried to keep her voice casual, neutral. They both knew Rupert wasn’t her favorite person this year. Not since he’d left her friend Lucy, his wife of three decades, to live in Palm Springs with a woman half his age. Was this what Richard wanted too? She looked at him more closely. He hadn’t been himself since he retired and though she had tried not to, she had often complained, despite the online advice not to. Nagging, according to Google, would just push him away. Her heart pounded harder. Had she pushed him away? Was this his way of telling her he was going to Palm Springs to live with a girl half his age? Rupert had an enormous influence on him. Wait, his lips were moving. What was he saying now? She had to pay attention.

“Yeah, he might have a project I could be part of. I thought I’d go tonight. Sounded urgent. And I would be out of your hair for a while. I know how much work you’re doing.”

“What kind of project?” Rupert always had something up his sleeve and half the time it all worked out. It was the other half of the time she worried about. The times when he had resorted to sleeping on their couch because another of his bright ideas went south.

“I don’t know. Thought I’d visit and find out.” He ran his hand through his hair, and she flinched. Running his hand through his hair was something he did when he was nervous or needed to think of something to say. He was avoiding her eyes. What was Rupert getting him into now?

“How long would you go?”

“Two weeks. There’s a last-minute deal returning on the twenty-fifth.”

“Wouldn’t your ticket cost more, ordering it so close to the time you leave?”

“No. It’s still pretty early in March, so it was cheap.”

“You already purchased the ticket? You already planned to go no matter what I said?”

He drew back, caught in the lie. When had he started lying?

“Yeah. The plane leaves here at ten and then the connecting flight from Vancouver leaves at midnight. I knew you’d be fine with it,” he said, brushing away her words and her feelings with his hand. “Think of it as one of my business trips.”

“You figured I’d be okay with it.” She noticed his eyes were wary. Good. After thirty-five years of marriage, he should know by her tone that she was close to losing it.

“Look Sue,” he put up his hands to ward off the tsunami they both knew was building inside her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would be a big deal. You’re working all day and night on this conference of yours. I barely see you.”

“What about our plans for next weekend?”

“Next weekend?”

“You were going to show me what you’re getting from your pension plan and review our financial plan at the bank.” She had it in her calendar, but he was shaking his head no and she raised her voice a little in desperation.  “You promised.”

“I haven’t got all the information yet.” He looked down at the table when he talked. Why couldn’t he meet her eye?

“Isn’t it all online?”

“No. I had to apply. The information won’t be here for a few weeks. Maybe by the time I get home?”

“Why would you retire if you weren’t sure of what you were getting?” This didn’t make sense. Her voice was wavering now. What wasn’t he telling her?

“It was the best offer I was going to get,” he said in a low voice. “They weren’t going to offer another buyout so if I wanted to try something else, I had to go now.”

“You never said anything about wanting to do something else,” she said. What did ‘something else’ mean?

“Well I do. I just need some time to think about the best options.” He was looking at her in the eye now. A determined look on his face.

“Meanwhile I’m working so we can afford to pay our bills.” Her voice was rising. “I’m working because you left your job.  Don’t you think it would be better if you stayed and helped around here? Do things like take out the garbage, do the dishes, cook the chicken I left in the fridge?” She needed to shut up. She needed to leave what she was thinking unsaid.

“I think it might be better for both of us if we take a break from each other.”

Silence filled the room and all she could hear was the clock ticking on the wall, the ugly fish wall clock he insisted they keep because it reminded him of his beloved fishing trips. Tick. Tick. Tick.

She swallowed hard to keep her dinner from coming back up. “A break? What do you mean by that? A break like Rupert took from Lucy?” Her voice was louder than she intended. Was he leaving her? It was happening more often these days. Marriages breaking up after twenty, thirty, even forty years. Like Rupert and Lucy’s marriage.

“No. It’s not like that.”

“Why can’t you stay here? Work on figuring out our next life together?”

“I just need some time alone.”

“But you won’t be alone. You’ll be with Rupert and his girlfriend and whoever she brings along. Will she bring a friend? Is that what this is about?” Her voice was close to a shriek now and he blanched.

“She’s…” he seemed to search for words.  Another lie? “She’s away for a couple weeks. She won’t even be there.”

“Well, it isn’t fair. I shouldn’t have to continue to work just because you took a buyout and then sit home while you take off to Palm bloody Springs!”

“Look.” He stretched both hands in front of him. “I’m sorry you still have to work. I’m sorry things aren’t like you planned.” She glared at him and he quickly added,” like we planned.”

“How would I know what you plan anymore? We barely speak.”

“Well now, you know. I’m looking for different work. I need some time to wrap my head around what I’ll do next. I can’t do that here.”

She glared at the soup stain on his shirt, not trusting herself to look into his eyes, and willed herself to stay silent. She could feel herself losing control. Why did it always end up being about him? When did she get to fly off to Palm Springs?  Never. She was too busy working.

“It’ll do us good if I leave for two weeks,” he continued. “I won’t be underfoot anymore.”

“Go then. Go to Rupert.” The next words were out before she could stop them, “I’m sure his floozy can find a friend for you.”

“Come on. I told you, she won’t even be there.” He ran his hand through his hair again.

“I just need some time to figure out my next move,” he said. “They don’t tell you retirement will be so boring. So final.”

“I wish I knew what that was like,” she muttered, stabbing at a piece of cucumber. “Why do you have to go to the States to think? Why can’t you do it here?”

“I told you, Rupert needs me to help him with a project, and I need a break.”

“From me, you mean.” She put the fork down. She couldn’t trust herself not to stab him.

He didn’t answer. Just looked down at his plate.

“I’ve got some work to do in the office,” she said, getting up and taking her plate and utensils with her. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

“Sue. Don’t be like this,” he called as she walked away. “It’s not like Rupert to ask me to drop everything to come.”

“What do you mean?” she said, turning to look at him.

He ran his hand through his hair again. “Nothing. It’s only two weeks.”

Two weeks with Rupert. Two weeks away from her. Two weeks could feel like a blink of an eye.

Or a never-ending waiting game.

“Have a good trip,” she choked out, then turned on her heel and walked toward the office.

“I’ll come and say goodbye before I leave,” he called after her.

But she didn’t look back. She’d be damned if she’d let him see the tears streaming down her cheeks. He could go to hell.

She entered her office and set her plate on the desk.  The pastry box with Richard’s favorite cake was still sitting there. She opened it and looked in. The scent of cherries and chocolate beckoned to her, promising to make her feel better if only she would try one bite.  She could hear Richard walking up the stairs to their bedroom. She looked at the cake again, then closed the lid and shoved the box into the wastepaper basket.