Addition and Subtraction 

At first she liked the cold. The raw air made her feel frisky and alive. Bundling up emboldened her, her puffy L.L. Bean coat some sort of arctic superhero outfit. Some days she even wondered if she could be like the Antarctic adventurer she recently read about — a dude lugging a sled loaded with all he needed to survive across 900 miles of white, frozen nothingness. She discovered she liked the ritual of layering, after all those years of relinquishing.

Weather aside, New Hampshire was a far cry from Goose Creek — there were hills for one, and geese, and real creeks of clear snowmelt trickling through dairy farms, past fields and houses straight out of Currier and Ives. Nashua was close enough to Boston, but still a small town with small stores selling shovels, birdseed, wool socks, dish detergent. Practical items, not trendy overpriced home goods like all those stores in Mt. Pleasant and Charleston. But god, it was cold, and barely October.

She hadn't planned on reversing the migration pattern of most sane middle- to post-middle aged folks who flee the cold to thaw out in Southern coastal climates. She was just looking to escape Charleston's unbearable August, and found a house swap near the beloved New England mountains where she used to be a 4-H camp counselor, and then the swap morphed, bit-by-bit, into a prolonged arrangement.

When Sarah first considered taking the school district's early retirement offer, she imagined traveling, finally seeing Old Faithful and touring the national parks, maybe renting one of those shiny tin can RV things. She'd explore and hike during the day, unfold a camp chair in the evening, listen to crickets and This American Life, sip pinot and watch the sunset from who knows where. No tests to grade, no lessons to prep or anxious, clueless parents to call back and appease. After 28 years teaching middle school math, she needed a different equation. Life was no longer adding up the way she once imagined it would. Not after Michael left.

The worst part, the part she couldn't quit berating her self over, was that she didn't see it coming. Not really, anyway. Sure there were subtle hints, but nothing far from the typical passive aggressive blaséness of their normal lives. Damn him, or maybe damn her — she didn't know anymore. Didn't care. Or tried to convince herself she didn't.

Michael had been so stalwart through the chemo, reheating the taco casseroles and quinoa bowls the Laing faculty and parents brought by. He cried when she rang the "victory" bell at Roper after her final infusion session. Then it was over. The gnawing fear and nausea dissipated, as did Michael's gentle attention. Her hair grew back (weirdly cardboard-colored and curly) and her stamina returned, as did old routines — her leaving for work at 7:15, smack in the middle of Rudy Mancke's spot during Morning Edition; him complaining about how bored he was at Wild Dunes.

"You're a goddamn greens keeper with a Ph.D., what do you expect," she said, only half regretting it.

As they slipped more or less back into a post-cancer life of relief and low expectations, something more than her left breast seemed missing. Even so, she never imagined her husband of 19 years — an underemployed Latin scholar (they'd met in grad school, he taught at Charleston Southern until budget cuts gutted the Classics department) who limped along in his "career," dissatisfied but never dissatisfied enough to do anything about it — would actually do something like fucking cheat on her. That required a level of initiative and planning she didn't think he could muster. Only the messages she found on his phone made it clear there was more than mustering going on.

When her phone buzzed and Michael's name popped up on the screen, Sarah walked out to her porch. She took a deep breath and exhaled, long and full, watching her breath cloud up. The cold made her eyes water, and that, plus the fact that her once perfect vision was getting blurrier by the day, made the trees across the field look like an out-of-focus kaleidoscope. The leaves of the elms and maples around her bungalow had been less than showstopping this fall, and were now, like her, past their prime. But the colors still astonished her. A far cry from the subtle goldenrod and sweetgrass of a Lowcountry autumn.

"The whole apartment complex was flooded," he started in. "The developer is condemning it, so I was, well ... I was wondering if I could, you know, come stay for a few days. Like in your extra room if you have one, you know. Or your couch. Just for a bit. I've sent my CV to a few of those small New England colleges, you know, and a boarding school in Vermont. Up there they still teach Latin, you know. So I thought, maybe..."

Silence from her end. She'd forgotten how annoying his "you knows" were.

Yes, she fucking knew. She knew how pitiful and nervous — no, weak — he sounded. She knew she hadn't seen him or even heard from him much in three full years, which was plenty fine by her. She knew she was happy in her new life back up near the White Mountains, land of apple stands and "Live Free or Die" license tags. She knew she was just fine without a man in her life, not counting Tony, a kind, saggy-jowled co-worker at the hospital where she volunteered, whom she beat handily in Scrabble most Tuesday nights, except when she went easy on him. She knew the constant flooding around Michael's Mt. Pleasant apartment was bad, even before this last Cat 3 hurricane. She knew it was crappy new construction — all plywood cabinets and squat ceilings — which, she also knew, seemed like real estate karmic justice.

She knew she shouldn't, she couldn't, say yes.

"Well, Michael," she said, taking another long breath. "Maybe I'll think about it ... you know."

And then a few days later, it came to her. The possibilities. How if he did come, she could exact an almost imperceptible retaliation. A slow-drip infusion that would make him miserable and perhaps finally kill her last lurking cells of hostility and humiliation that sometimes still woke her in the deep, cold night. "Et tu, Brute?" A statement, not a question.

Just seeing her happy and settled in a century-old house with plaster walls and a wood stove and friends and cows nearby, would, she knew, be painful for Michael, given the skewed zero-sum way he understood the world. And she could, with quiet, calculating joy, inflict other cruelties. Sarah, the mathematician who conquered the unauthorized division and multiplication going rogue in her body, could once and for all, finish the subtraction she needed to do.

Or not. "Sure, Michael, you lame ass, come sleep on my lumpy couch to your heart's content," she could say, and see if maybe, maybe, he had changed. If he'd learned to close the half-n-half carton before putting it back in the fridge. If his teeth were still yellowing and his jeans sadly baggy. If he were still a master of the pun, pointed out constellations on a starlit night, hummed Roy Orbison in the shower. If what her father always said about forgiveness being the ultimate revenge might be true.

Either way, the ball was in her court; this was her chance to tally up the score the way she wanted it. Live free or die, right? What, besides more pride and maybe a night or two of sleep, did she have to lose, she thought as she finally texted Michael back. "Key under fern on back porch. Park on street, not in the drive," and paused just a second before hitting send.

Stephanie Hunt - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Stephanie Hunt

Stephanie Hunt writes for numerous local, regional, and national publications, rides bikes wherever possible, and believes if we did more reading, writing, and riding, most everything would be okay.

click to enlarge Baird Hoffmire - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Baird Hoffmire

When he's not daydreaming of global peace, ending world hunger, or fighting crime as a caped crusader, Baird Hoffmire is an illustrator, animator, graphic designer, and exhibiting artist.


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