The same Saturday I packed up and moved out, I invited my wife to this French film about divorce. On the phone, she said, "You know this proves you're crazy, don't you?" And I didn't mind that remark because it had been a full six hours since I left her and she still sounded sober. But then she made me beg, and that wasn't pretty because I was at a payphone in the lobby of my new home, a rooming house on Providence's east side, and a couple of unsavory characters were waiting to use the phone. One was a wrinkly man, no more than a bag of old bones in a t-shirt and overalls, but the other was a bearded fellow, big as a bear, wearing a steel-gray Nazi-style motorcycle helmet, which is never a good sign. I nearly ran out of quarters before I convinced Lois to drive over and pick me up.
When she's not drinking, Lois is a practicing hotshot in her daddy's downtown Providence law firm. Mostly she handles Real Estate, closings and foreclosures, much of it over the phone while she gazes out a sixteenth story window. But she understood the legal side of separation inside and out. I wanted her to see what we were looking at on the everyday side. The movie review mentioned a contentious custody battle, something I hoped to avoid.
She showed up sober and late, then didn't speak ten words to me on the ride. When I asked about the children, how they were holding up, she tapped her watch. "We've been separated less than eight hours."
I told her that I'd quit smoking, though the truth was I had sneaked a few puffs that morning. She made a snorting sound, almost a laugh, and shook her head.
Then we hit traffic, due to a construction detour, and because of all the one-way streets we ended up parking half a mile away. I left my sweater on the seat of her Volvo, mainly because I didn't want to carry it, and that was a mistake because the theater was damp and cold, and the floor was sticky, and the seats were narrow, and the men's room smelled like a sewer.
The film was grainy and hard to follow. Fuzzy subtitles kept dancing along the screen. Thirty minutes into it, I stopped caring. I wanted a cigarette. I started praying for the projector to snag or for some fool to yell, "Fire!"
Lois was antsy too, crossing and uncrossing her legs, repeatedly banging my elbow.
When the movie family sat down to dinner, I leaned in and pointed out the resemblance of their children to our own.
"I hate this movie," Lois said. "I'm going for a walk."
She stepped on my foot then shuffled out into the aisle, gripping her purse like a football. "If you're nice," she whispered, "I'll share what's in here."
She wiggled her eyebrows, but I already knew what she meant. For our tenth anniversary her father had given us an expensive silver flask, a heart-shaped thing, big as a human heart only thinner. Our names were on it, inscribed above the anniversary date. Full to the brim, the thing held six ounces.
I watched Lois climb into the dark, then I hurried up the opposite aisle. I caught up with her by the lobby doors.
"Hey," I said, "When aren't I nice? I'm always nice. I'm too nice."
Lois was grinning beneath the EXIT sign. The people in the movie were yelling at one another in French.
The lobby was narrow as a barber shop and the refreshment stand seemed far too busy for the middle of a movie. While we stood in line, I asked Lois if the subtitles bothered her eyes.
She said, "I understand enough French to know that's not what they're saying."
Someone behind us said, "It's an Americanized version."
Lois rolled her eyes at me. She had her elbows extended outward to prevent anyone from cutting in front of us. She looked like a basketball player going for a rebound.
After I ordered, the girl fizzed soda to the brim. She spilled foam into the tray, tapped her foot, fizzed some more. She was around my daughter's age, and I instantly felt sorry for her. Her lips glowed glossy pink; her hair was cropped short as a boy's. She had a smile and a shape sure to make her popular, but her head definitely wasn't in the game.
I watched her slide the cup along the counter, her anxious eyes, outlined like a raccoon's, already on the next customer.
I wondered if her parents were divorced.
"Two fifty," she said.
"Is that all we get?" Lois asked.
The girl directed a finger wave at someone who wasn't me.
"Ask her," Lois said, nudging my arm.
Lois was pretty, too. She looked sharp in suits and dresses, but casual clothes hung on her like curtains. On nights she didn't want to drink alone, she wore her nice outfits to bars where late working professionals go. Her friends called them lounges, but on the nights I had to fetch my wife from them, they looked like bars to me.
"Two fifty," the girl said again, showing me her hand as though something were written there.
I felt Lois press against my arm. "Don't pay," she said.
The foam had settled and the cup was barely two-thirds full.
"I'd like to speak to the manager," Lois said.
"No she doesn't," I said.
"It's still two fifty," the girl said.
I leaned on the glass and pointed to the cup with my chin.
"What's the deal," I said to the girl.
Her face went flat. "That's a small, okay? You ordered a small."
She glanced at Lois who was looking at me.
I said, "I know what I ordered. Where's the rest of it?"
The girl blinked like she was having a seizure. "We're out of small cups. That's a medium cup." She pointed above my head to three cups floating on a string. "It's the same thing, sir."
Lois banged her purse on the glass and started digging. She took out her wallet and her keys. I handed three dollars to the girl and she pushed the money into the register.
"Wait," Lois said. "I have two quarters."
"Now you have four," said the girl, handing Lois my change.
We sat through the rest of the film in the balcony, taking turns sipping from the flask and chasing it with soda. The movie made no sense. Words flashed faster than I could follow.
A full five minutes before the credits, the subtitles stopped completely. The music changed to a dull thumping drum solo. A split screen showed the woman in one country—France, I think—and the man, richly tanned, wearing ragged trousers and no shirt, emerging from a palm tree forest onto an endless white beach.
On the left the woman sat by a window overlooking a jagged skyline against a pasty sky; on the right the man gazed upon an emerald sea. It made no sense. All through the credits, they faced one another, smiling, while words rolled up between them.
Then the house lights came up, and people started filing out beneath us.
I smelled cigarette smoke. The stink seemed to be coming from every direction.
"Well, that was dumb," Lois said. "What the hell happened to the kids?"
She was loud, already slurring her words.
I swallowed what was left in the flask and stared at the screen.
"He's got them," I said. "They're safely hidden in the forest."
"That's crazy," Lois said. "They would have showed that."
"Poor bastard, he almost pulled it off, too." I handed Lois her silver heart. "Turns out her rich daddy's pockets were too deep and he was pals with all the judges." I tilted my head and directed what I hoped was a meaningful look. One of Lois's eyes seemed more open than the other.
I said, "That whooshing noise before the credits was a police chopper buzzing the bush."
"Ha. I think you're drunk," my wife said.