Her husbands’ best friend
If I had a choice I wouldn’t go back to the states at all. However the company insists that I come back stateside one week a year. They love me for the sales I make on the South Pacific circuit. They should leave me there, but I guess they feel the need to remind me every once in a while that I work for them. At least they bring me back to the San Francisco office. I think they know that I would quit if I had to go anywhere else stateside.
When I get back I usually look up Jack. I like Jack; he was my best friend when I was married to Helen. Of course that ended when Helen threw me over for David, but we’re still good friends.
I know that sounds strange, but it’s really quite simple. Helen and Jack were a serious item in college. It didn’t work out. Helen moved on and Jack didn’t. Jack’s a one woman man, and Helen, well, Helen isn’t. Mind you, Helen is always faithful to the man she is with, but she changes men every so often. I think they call it serial polyandry.
Jack didn’t give up. He needed to be near her on whatever terms he could get. His answer was to become her current lover’s best friend. It was sort of a package deal; you got Jack along with Helen. Jack wore better. Most of us, Helen’s ex-husbands, have lost touch with Helen, but we’re still friends with Jack.
We met at the Pagoda. Jack and I usually have lunch there. I like it; it’s yet another outdoor dim sum restaurant, but the food is a cut above the usual and the atmosphere is great if you don’t mind sharing your table with aggressive sea gulls.
I could tell that something was wrong. We chattered about old times just as we always did but it wasn’t the same. Jack was on edge, and that’s not Jack. He’s always been laid back. Finally I just said, “Okay Jack, something’s really bugging you. What is it?”
His face twisted as though he were about to cry. “I just don’t know,” he said, “I just don’t understand. I’m beginning to think that my whole life has been a lie.”
“For God’s sake, man, pull yourself together! What happened?”
Jack sat up straighter and spoke in a low soft voice, “You know that Helen and Albert have broken up, don’t you?”
I thought to myself, “Albert, Albert, Albert? Oh, yes, I did hear that she married some guy named Albert.” “No,” I said, “I didn’t know. I don’t hear much about what Helen is doing these days.”
“Oh,” he said, “I guess you wouldn’t have. Well, it’s different this time. Albert is leaving her, and he’s going to marry a woman twenty years younger than he is.”
“I don’t imagine she took that too well; Helen’s more for moving on than for being left behind.”
“No, she didn’t take it well at all. She called me and cried on my shoulder for a while.”
He paused. I waited for him to continue. He sat there for a minute, obviously trying to get himself together to say what he wanted to say. Finally he spoke in low tones, “She said she had been thinking a lot, thinking about what a good friend I had been, thinking about, oh, a lot of things. She said she thought we ought to meet, that she had a lot of things to talk over with me.”
Jack burst out, “You know. Everybody knows. I know you know. Even Helen knows. Everybody knows but nobody says anything, at least not to me. The whole world knows how I felt about Helen.” He stopped, abashed at his outburst.
“Yeah, Jack, we knew. We all knew. It didn’t matter. It was just the way things were.” I didn’t tell him that we ex-husbands used to joke about being in the Jack’s best friend club.
“I don’t know if you know what it was like. I knew I was never going to get her back but I could be her friend and be near her. I had to be careful about not crossing any lines. Even when she was between men I couldn’t approach her. In fact those were the times when we stayed apart; it was safer that way. But always there was that little hope there, deep underneath.”
I replied, “You know, Jack, I never really thought about it that way. Did you ever think about what Helen thought?”
“No. She shared her thoughts and feelings about a lot of things, but nothing about our relationship, whatever it was, and I never dared ask.”
Jack went silent for a bit, obviously gathering his strength to continue. I just waited. This was his show.
Finally he went on. “We met for dinner at a little French restaurant that was a favorite for both of us. I expected that she would be talking about Albert and how she was hurt and mistreated, that sort of thing. I fed her a line to get started, but she didn’t bite. Instead she started by thanking me for being such a good friend over the years.
“At first I was gratified; it felt good. And then she got very serious. She went on about how she knew how I felt about her and how I was important part of her life. She said that I was the center of her life, the presence that was always there regardless of what else was going on.”
“I’m not stupid. I could see what was coming. I was in a muddle of emotions, confused, excited, and apprehensive. This could be something that I had wanted for ever so long and thought would never happen, that never could happen. And then she said it. She said that we should get together again, and then she asked me to marry her.”
I said what had to be said, “Congratulations. It’s late, but may you have many happy years together.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. When she asked me I said without even thinking about it, ‘I’m sorry Helen, I can’t marry you. I don’t love you any more.'”
“I know. I can’t explain it. I didn’t know I was going to say that. I didn’t know that I was even thinking it.”
“My God, what did she say?”
“She said ‘Oh. I guess I waited too long. I’m sorry, Jack.’ We didn’t talk much after that. We went our ways and I haven’t seen her since.”
I was perplexed. What in the hell do you say to a confession like that? Finally I asked what had to be asked, how did he feel about it all.
He said he was still confused. He wasn’t sure that what he said was the truth or why he said it. He felt lost and vacant and that he desperately wanted things to go back the way they were and yet he knows they never can be.
We talked for while. Mostly Jack kept saying the same confused and confusing things over and over. He kept wondering if his whole life had been a lie. I said what was needful and let him talk himself out.
That was a while ago. Nobody’s heard from Jack since, but I do get phone calls now and then from Helen, suggesting that she come down to visit me in the South Pacific.
I never answer them.
This page was last updated October 27, 2010.