“So how did the dinner go?”
It was nearly 11PM, well after my bedtime. I had to be up early the next morning to drop Noah and Abby off for their first days of Kindergarten and second grade, then I would put on my community college-instructor hat and begin a new semester of teaching political science. I’d hoped to be in bed by 10:00, but Monty had flown to D.C that morning for work, where he was having dinner with long-lost ex-girlfriend, Evelyn. She’d called last week out of the blue, saying she had something important to talk to him about. Monty had promised to call me as soon as the dinner was over, but by 10:45 my phone still had not buzzed. Finally, I gave in and called him.
“The dinner is still going,” Monty said, his voice distant and smothered.
“Still?” I said. “Are you eating a seven-course Italian meal or something?”
His laugh came out in a jumpy, quiet, burst. “No, we just have a lot to talk about.”
I clutched my phone, which had grown slick in my palm, and took a slow, measured breath, trying not to sound panicked and crazy. “She’s sitting across from you right now, isn’t she?”
“Yeah. Look, can I call you tomorrow? I know you need a good-night’s sleep.”
Yes, I did need to sleep, but how would doing so even be possible? As soon as I closed my eyes, I’d be haunted by images of Monty and Evelyn, sipping wine in a candle-lit restaurant, traipsing down memory lane while they shared dessert, their fingers grazing each other as they passed the plate of tiramisu back and forth.
“Lucy? You still there?”
“Yeah,” I answered, but it came out in a sigh.
“We’ll talk tomorrow?”
“Love you,” he told me, as if saying it by rote.
I didn’t want to say it back, not when I doubted it would even register. “Goodnight, Monty.”
He called the next morning to wish Noah good luck on his first day of Kindergarten. We were driving to school, Noah in his car seat, pressing my phone to his ear and telling Monty, “No, I’m not newvous.”
“Let me talk to Daddy!” Abby insisted, and she reached across from her booster seat and pried the phone from Noah’s little fingers.
“He called to talk to me!” Noah yelled, instantly bursting into tears. “Mommy! Abby stole the phone!”
My head was foggy from a restless night of tossing and turning, and now it was pounding. I pulled over, unbuckled my seat belt, and leaned over the driver’s seat. “Abby! Give me the phone!” But before she could, I snatched it from her. Then she started to cry too.
“Great,” I said into the phone. “Two crying children. Perfect way to start the school year.”
“Sorry,” he answered. “Put me on speaker and I’ll try to calm them both down.”
“In a minute,” I snipped. “How late did you go last night?”
“I don’t know… it was…” he sighed. “I don’t know. I have a lot to tell you, but not over the phone, okay? And certainly not right now.”
“Are you saying I have to wait until after you get back to hear about your dinner?”
“Luce!” His exasperation was more out of shock I think, then anger. “Let me calm down the kids, okay? We can deal with the rest later.”
Abby and Noah were both wailing and school was starting soon. I had no choice. “Fine. I’m putting you on speaker.”
I held up the phone with one hand and steered with the other, while Monty managed to say some magic words to get our children to stop crying. I didn’t say goodbye when we pulled into the school parking lot. I just clicked the end button, shuffled my kids inside, tried not to let myself cry as I left Noah in his classroom, and forced my head on straight so I could go teach my classes.
“We’re obviously going to have a lot to talk about this term,” I later told my students, who had gathered for their first session of American Government and Politics. “As Iowa is a swing-state, I’m assuming you all represent a variety of political beliefs, ranging from left to right, and one goal is to keep the conversation civil.”
“But civil is boring,” said a guy wearing a Make America Great Again baseball cap. He’d chosen to sit in the middle seat in the front row.
“That may be true,” I responded, leaning against my podium, wishing I’d worn a thicker heal. I felt small. “But lots of people share that attitude, and it has gotten us where we are now, with made-up controversies dominating the news cycle and reality TV stars posing as potential presidents.”
Baseball cap guy threw back his shoulders, puffing out his chest. “You just insulted my candidate. How is that civil? And I thought instructors were supposed to be neutral.”
He kind of had a point, but my inability to remain neutral was my Achilles heel, especially when it came to teaching politics. And as the week went on, I wouldn’t improve, growing more and more anxious as Monty refused to fill me about his dinner with Evelyn. It left me with the sense that, like Trump and Putin, if Evelyn was going to say great things about Monty, he’d say great things about her too. Things I defiantly didn’t want to hear.
“I promise to explain everything as soon as I get home,” Monty had told me during another phone conversation later that week. But he wasn’t getting home until Wednesday. Meanwhile we tried to stay civil and I caught myself wishing that civil was actually boring.