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Starting Over

Divorce is not an option. It was a committment they’d made before they married and a slogan they’d quoted in the years since.

Natalie gazed at David across the glass bottom boat–watching as he laughed with the guide like the two were old friends–and wondered how he would take the news.

He had to know it was coming. It took a lot less than his medical practice and high IQ to figure out the terminal state of their marriage. This vacation to Fiji, an event to put tick number twenty on the anniversary counter, was nothing more than the obligatory shock into an already dead patient. It was time to call it.

The cough of the engine ceased. Some passengers responded with a whoop as they jumped into waist-deep waters to wade the rest of the way to shore. Natalie grabbed her beach bag and adjusted the knot on her full-body sarong. She considered taking the plunge too, but the procession of younger, leaner bodies dropping in ahead of her convinced her otherwise.

She wasn’t fat…yet. Compared to most of the local women–whom she favored in complexion and hair thickness–her frame was quite small. But year by year, cookie by cookie, she was inching her hips into larger sizes.

She resolved to address the weight issue as soon as more important changes were made, then sat back down in preparation for a more conservative exit. By the time the guide pulled the little boat as close to the gleaming shore as he could get it, Natalie and David were the last two on board.

“You’re not just paying me lip service now, Joseph?” David was saying. “Don’t get the desperate tourist’s hopes up just to turn around and ditch me.” He laughed and stepped into the water, then reached up to take Natalie’s elbow.

“No, no, Mr. David.” Joseph’s smile stretched equally wide. “Leave for me a message at the hotel a day before, and I come for you and Mrs. David. Me with my wife. It would honor us.”

“Not as much as it’ll honor us. I look forward to it.” David touched the pocket of his tacky floral shirt. “You sure you won’t take a tip for your excellent service today?”

“No, Mr. David, please. I would not think of it.”

Natalie had stood in the water just long enough for the warm waves to pool around her knees. With her bag situated, she reclaimed her elbow and faced the beach where groups of people congregated in and around a large hut with music blaring from its midst. She stepped in that direction, but David grabbed her hand and kept it while he said his final goodbyes.

“In a few days then. I can’t wait, Joseph. Bula!”

“Bula, Mr. David. Bula, Mrs. David!”

“Goodbye. Bula to you too,” Natalie said. She pretended not to notice as David twined his fingers with hers and led the way to the white beach. They still had an audience, so she may as well play her part. The gig would be up soon enough.

They reached the hut and peered inside. Natalie tried to ignore her stomach’s response to the smell of grilling fish. She watched with distracted interest as Polynesian dancers led a raucous group of English men in a dance similar to a hula. More than one was off-beat, probably because they were already red with early morning intoxication, and Natalie pitied the beautiful island girls tasked with keeping them in line.

A few tourist women looked twice at David. Though he often got such attention, Natalie wasn’t so used to it that it no longer displeased her, especially since the gray sideburns edging his smooth, tanned face made him as good-looking as ever; and he would soon be single again.

“Let’s go this way,” he said, leading her away from the crowd.

“Mr. David Howard?” The voice boomed out of a smiling face.

“Ready whenever you are, Kelahi.” David’s eyes flicked across the man’s name badge. “Did I say that right?”

“Yes, sir! Perfect pronunciation.” The large Fijian opened his arms wide like he was ready for a bear hug, then gestured to the path behind him. “Follow me.”

Curious, Natalie walked the three minutes to the other side of the tiny island without asking questions. Palms and thick vegetation hovered above and around her, making the trek a little claustrophobic. By the time they reached a wall of leaves barring their path, the sand clumped like gritty socks around her toes had begun to fall away.

Kelahi parted the wall and held a portion of it open for David and Natalie to duck through. When they appeared on the other side she sucked in a sharp breath. Thick-leaved foliage formed a sort of cave around the small clearing, and flowers of every color drooped overhead and jutted from the ground, saturating the air with their sweet fragrance. Set up in the center was a small table dressed in white linen, covered dishes, and burning candles.

“What is this, David?” Natalie crossed her arms and looked behind her. She was alarmed to see that Kelahi had already gone, taking with him knowledge of which section of the wall led to the exit.

“Happy Anniversary, my love.” David walked to the table and pulled out a chair. His look was softer and more intent than she’d remembered it could be, and it beckoned her to come closer.

Natalie shook her head slowly. This anniversary was anything but happy; and the bitter feelings, unfulfilled longings, repressed emotions, and anger wouldn’t be sated with a last-minute effort to romance her. Tears threatened to fall, and she swiped them away like the traitors they were.

“I’m divorcing you,” she said. Her voice lacked the confidence she was going for.

“I know.”

She tensed. “So why all this?”

“Because I don’t want you to.” David released his grip on the back of the chair and took a few steps in her direction. “And I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’ve already sat down with Pastor Zeke–”

“Since when do you sit down with the pastor?”

“Since the most important person in my life started making plans to walk out of it.” He came closer. “You say I don’t pay attention to you, Nat. But I do. It’s hard not to notice when my wife’s not smiling anymore.”

She began to cry, the walls around her heart crumbling despite her efforts to hold them up. She couldn’t do it anymore, this dance they’d perfected–where he stood on her feet while she carried their relationship with the strength of her love.

“It’s too late, David. I’m tired,” she said.

“I know you are. And I’m so sorry, but I’ll do anything to keep from losing you.”

He closed the distance. Natalie tried to convince herself it was her lack of energy, not the spark of hope in her heart, that kept her from moving away.

“You’ve been a rock to me all these years,” David said. “And I didn’t see it as taking you for granted, but now I know that’s exactly what it was.”

“But we’ve been through this–”

“And I didn’t listen. I’m a hard-headed idiot, Nat. One who’s begging for another chance.”

He pulled her close and brushed the tips of his fingers across her bare back. His breath on her face made her want to fall in a heap of surrender, but her mind protested the idea of such a swift defeat. He couldn’t become a present, attentive husband overnight. When it wasn’t med school it was getting the practice started. When that was accomplished it was the practice growing. Once it grew it was all about making it prestigious. Something else would be next.

Always something else.

And meek, patient Natalie would be there, left to spectate and show up only when summoned.

David broke into her thoughts. “If I have to sell the practice I will, Nat.”

He’d never said that before. She didn’t dare believe it.

“I love you.” He leaned back to look into her face. “I’ve let my work get to the point where divorce has become an option for you. It’s not worth that. Nothing is worth losing you.”

She searched his eyes, and knew deep in her heart that he meant it. “What thing did you plan with Joseph?” She didn’t know why she asked, but for some reason his answer mattered.

He smiled and smoothed her brows with his thumbs. “We’re going to go fishing and cooking with him and his wife, enjoy the simple basics for a moment. Start fresh, so to speak.”

Natalie laughed despite herself, and David’s face flooded with relief at the sound. They had been married long enough that they knew it without saying it.

Divorce was still not an option.