all me the husband-in-law. You think you know me but you don’t. Trust me. Maybe the title sounds familiar. Something French. Or a comedy routine. “Oh yes, a husband-in-law,” you say, pretending to get it.
But you don’t.
My wife left me last year. This is when we lived in Milan. On Via Sforza, to be precise. I’d been working here for two years, which seemed a lot longer, when one day I came home and she was gone. So was my daughter, whom I’ll call Kate.
I knew what had happened the second I saw the house keys and the envelope, positioned near lipstick that neither Kate nor my wife would ever leave on the small bookshelf near the door. Envelopes are telltale when you get home to a house with no sounds.
I’ll spare you the details except to say this stuff doesn’t happen only to women. You’d think it did. Women are the ones I’ve heard it from most over the years. In Boston, it was, “Oh God, Joe left me…” In Chicago (I was only there six months) two wives walked out — one for Nepal, the other for a used car dealer with 16 outlets in San Diego. Then, in Milan, it was Jenna and Martina. Jenna worked with me and helped me, the stranger, fit in. She had a rich Italian husband — he did big trials and drugs, she said — and two kids.
One day, said Jenna, his new lover made an appointment with her. An appointment, she said. Get that! Her husband wouldn’t even come clean.
It gets strange sometimes. At least here. Milan is odd. It’s high-powered (business, cash, stocks, you name it), but non-confrontational. My British buddy Sam says that when he gets really mad in a room the room falls silent, as if he’d smashed a glass against a wall.
My wife did antiques (I should say “does,” but I can’t). I “did” my thing and she’d “do” antiques. Sell them, buy them, sell some more.
When Kate called me, she said, “Mom wants to be amicable. Can you do that?” Kate is 14. Be Amicable?
Kate goes to school here, she has friends, a life, a motorino, and a mobile phone that takes photos in the dark and can send 14 messages to 44 people simultaneously. He brain is swamped.
Can I be amicable?
I suppose so, because I’m being that. The letter said I’d stopped behaving “as a friend, as a giving husband, as a man.” It then went on to explain how Giorgio had “recovered” my wife’s life. How he did that exactly was not explained. But I do know he’s rich. I’m not.
But I’m being amicable, OK? I see Kate, informally, on weekends. We take walks around the Duomo and sometimes ride the tram together, which is what we did a lot, father and daughter, when we first arrived.
So while everything’s changed, some things just don’t. Business is business, says my wife – and by that she means we’re somehow supposed to also live as usual. Example: I was at a party the other night at the home of a work acquaintance that knows my wife a little but didn’t know what happened last month.
We agreed, through Kate, that the “amicable” side could prevail for the duration of the evening. We’re not divorced, said Kate. Just separated. You never know. But I know.
Pretty soon I’ll be asked to meet Giorgio in some neutral venue where my male options will be limited to two (they usually are): Behave graciously or punch him out. There’s a third option, to bring another woman, but that strikes me as vindictive, and female.
And I wouldn’t be good at it.
Martino greeted me warmly, saying he knew why I was late. My wife had told him. Lots of work, lots of hassles with personnel in Bern and Croatia. He could understand. My wife, meanwhile, just smiled. Giorgio wasn’t there.
There’s a moment when you say, “Ok, let’s do it,” and the moment came, before dinner, and I cornered her, sort of.
“Why?” I asked. She blushed.
“You know why,” she said.
“Look,” she said, “these things happen. You could see it…”
Which is when a speck of lint got big in my eyes and I rubbed hard. Whereupon a stranger slithered over and slipped his arm around my wife’s waist.
“And who are you?” he asked me.
That’s when it happened.
“I’m her husband-in-law,” I said.