“Christian Louboutin shoes have red soles,” my husband told me in the middle of a conversation I should have paid more attention to. I never suspected that a few months later he’d fall for someone who has a closetful of these exorbitant fashion statements.
It was a sweltering Sunday afternoon in July when my husband pulled out a dining-room chair and informed me that he was going to marry the wearer of the shoes—a woman twenty years younger. Our marriage of three decades undoubtedly had a few worn spots in it, but with our youngest child about to leave for college, I was thinking of a trip for just the two of us. Slowing down. Spending time not wearing shoes.
The red-soled shoes had been hovering between us for months. At the law firm Christmas party, I’d noticed a spark or two arcing off her model-thin body as the three of us stood near the edge of the dance floor. I listened to my husband ramble on about her in the car on the way home, surprised that this former Midwestern farm boy could name the designer of her couture dress and pronounce the Italian name with uncharacteristic aplomb. Later I wondered about the pair of shiny, wrapped candies that had mysteriously appeared next to his bathroom sink atop a folded piece of paper inscribed with the title of a popular song. I watched as he placed his wedding ring next to these small mysteries every night, but I didn’t want to consider it might be a shrine to his indecision.
Maybe I should talk to him about her, I’d thought more than once. But the situation never seemed urgent. My husband’s law firm had always been a demanding mistress, and while the scales of justice often tipped in favor of his time at the office, I believed he loved me—or at least the idea of our marriage. We had our shared history, our devotion to our daughters, the promise that we’d grow old together. I knew my husband. The lure of this material girl would never be strong enough to pull him away from me.
But after an office party the next spring, my husband gave her a ride home because she was too drunk to drive. So drunk he had to carry her to her bed, he told me the next morning. Her closet had dozens of pairs of shoes with red soles, he said. Normally, he’s not that observant. I was once in the car with him when we pulled up to a convenience store just as two guys hopped out of their pickup and left the engine running. They gripped sawed-off shotguns, and one had a bandana over his face. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“I thought you wanted a Coke,” my husband said.
I guess your attention is sharper when you have a sloshed young beauty in your arms. The half yard of expensive fabric in her dress and all that perfume probably heightened his senses. So he noticed the shoes.
Shoes figured into another important conversation not long before my husband told me he wanted a divorce. One of his partners was flying to Italy, he said, to buy a $3,000 pair of custom-made, hand-sewn shoes. My husband’s partners are known for their extravagances. His best friend was heard to muse whether it would be too decadent to own two Bentleys. Another has a house people call “The Plantation.” Many of my husband’s partners have cheated on their wives. For some, my husband confided to me, paying for sex while trying a case out of town was as de rigueur as their luxury watches.
Maybe my husband was trying to tell me he longed to be in their shoes. That he wished he made as much money as they did, and that I should be more excited about spending it. Maybe he regretted the early career compromises he’d made so he’d be more available to our children and me. We’d eat at home, we agreed, instead of taking clients out to expensive restaurants. We’d drive ordinary cars and wear sensible shoes.
One night in the first year of our marriage, I drank too much brandy at a party. My husband wasn’t with me, and when a friend drove me home, we pulled up to the curb in front of my apartment just in time for me to fling open the car door and vomit. Somehow one of my black suede ankle-strap pumps never made it inside with me, and in the morning while I placated my whirling head, my husband went outside to look for the shoe and found it in the gutter. I would have hated to lose that shoe—though I think the pair cost around twenty dollars at a Macy’s clearance sale. That thriftiness that saw us through our thin years never went out of style with me. I continued to flaunt it as though it were a designer label, even as our income climbed. Maybe that arrogant economy drifted into other areas of my life where I might have been more generous.
I cheated on my husband several weeks before we married. I waited until after the wedding before I shared my transgression with him and begged for his forgiveness and understanding. I doubt that I’ve ever been more confused than when I tried to explain that I loved both him and an electrically charming guy named Billy. In our freewheeling 1976 world, marriage was a malleable concept, and my husband and I agreed to an open marriage. Billy and his other girlfriend came up with a more exact formula. They exchanged vows that proclaimed them five-sevenths married—a ratio that reflected the number of nights per week Billy would spend with each of us. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that this arrangement was too crazy to be practical, that chemistry might not be the same as love, and that no matter how you did the math, it always equaled hurt feelings for someone. These matrimonial variations occurred years before my husband settled into his law career and a decade before children, long before I began to think of myself as a good person and a careful and honest observer of my actions. I wonder now if I ever gave my husband full credit for his generosity. If he really forgave me, or if his hurt lay blistering just below the surface of our relationship for thirty years.
I have other questions too. Why I held onto my miserly assessment of my husband’s powers of observation when he sometimes honed in on the details around him with shocking precision—the height of a heel, the glint in an eye, the scent of desire. Why I was just as stingy with my own perceptions and hadn’t indulged my emotions earlier and confronted him the night of the Christmas party or after the office bash. It was only after the marriage was over that I ranted about how he’d fallen prey to the same voracious desires as his partners. “If you live in France long enough,” I shouted at him in our kitchen, “you’ll be speaking French and eating snails.” I could have let him know years ago that our love was being submerged in the seductive poison of big LA law.
But confrontation wasn’t our style. And style, I now realize, is a big thing whether it has to do with shoes or behavior. It wasn’t our style to yell, to have out what was bothering us. It wasn’t our style to make demands on each other. It wasn’t our style to admit that we were hurting one another in dozens of small ways. People who knew us thought we were the perfect couple, and we liked that image as much as my husband liked the image of himself as a partner in a glamorous Los Angeles law firm. Now I see we were like the glossy photograph in a fashion magazine—Photoshopped or airbrushed until we were so slick and shiny that we bore little resemblance to our imperfect selves.
Early in our marriage, Sunday mornings were a time to linger in bed, although eventually my husband returned to his Catholic roots and preferred to go to Mass, a habit he continued throughout the years of our marriage, despite his adulterous leanings. Nowadays, while I sit alone and barefoot on my patio on Sunday mornings, I wonder if my husband and his new wife are in church, kneeling in their pew, the red soles of her Louboutins visible behind her.
fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Georgetown Review (including an honorable mention for their prize), Two Hawks Quarterly, Literary Mama, The Rattling Wall, Fiction Fix, Knee-Jerk, Chagrin River Review, Delmarva Review, New Plains Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and Sand Hill Review. She’s received fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Ragdale Foundation, and she was an Auvillar fellow in France in 2009. Her memoir, Birth Mother, was published by Shebooks in 2014.
Clemen blogs at Leaving Divorceville and
Birthmother: the blog, the
book, my life.