Everything was fine, overall exceptional in fact, until it wasn’t. And Roxie had to fix it.
Phillip had left for West Africa on another medical humanitarian posting–he’d said something about tending to the burn epidemic once more, all that open fire cooking that injured so many vulnerable women and children who gathered round the flames. He was a dedicated doctor, and she had early on adapted to his leave taking. He was fortunate to have married her and said so. Roxie was no clinging vine in addition to having unusual empathy for others. Phillip knew he could trust her to take care of their daughter, house and bills while away, and also suffer little from the loneliness he’d heard colleagues note of their wives.
“Oh, not Roxie. You know her–she’s more capable of entertaining herself than I am. Or she’s on some sort of field trip with Marta or working on the latest home improvement scheme. Or taking some kind of class–remember her flamenco phase?”
He laughed with delight, eyes looking in the distance as if imagining her dancing. The others understood he was perhaps luckier than they could imagine, and envy skirted their consciousness. They did wonder about her. Their wives thought she was a bit of an odd duck if one with impeccable taste. But most saw Roxie as a kind of free spirit who was as dedicated to her responsibilities as Phillip was to his.
She, on the other hand, found her husband sexier, brighter and more thoughtful than any man she’d expected to engage in a lifelong partnership. Other women could honestly agree, in private if not in public. They were like two lovely but mismatched socks that somehow looked and worked very well together.
Phillip had been gone two months last winter; this time it might be three weeks or four. Roxie knew to be flexible. Marta was so used to kissing her father goodbye as they idled at the airport curb that she’d have been alarmed if he had always stayed home.
“Dad texted yet that he got there?”
Marta had stopped by to get her tennis racket. Her friend waited at the door.
“Hmm?” Roxie looked up from the pile of mail. She waved at Ginny and studied Marta’s outfit of leggings and a blousy cotton shirt. “It’s not that warm, get a jacket. No, he hasn’t yet. Time zones, you know, immigration authorities, exhaustion.” She turned the corners of her mouth down and her eyebrows rose in a mock show of dismay. They both knew how it went per his descriptions.
“Okay, tell him I said ‘hi’. Tonight I have that group project at Ginny’s, remember? After we play tennis. And oh, I got invited for dinner before the project.”
Roxie looked from Marta’s to Ginny’s open faces and was satisfied. They were twelve. They were not the same as last year. Even their eyes were different, as if they saw things in a whole new light, or in more shadow, hard to say which. But so far, so good, she most often surmised. Marta kissed her mother on the cheek and bounded out with tennis racket and backpack.
Roxie finished sorting mail, then stowed it in cubbyholes of her desk by the sunroom. She fed the fish in the aquarium, petted Wiley the cat who was curled on the window ledge catching the last heat of day. She saw what Wiley might see, neighbors arriving home, dogs chasing kids versa across emerald lawns, skateboarders whizzing down the sidewalk. It was all so orderly. Predictable. She reached toward the ceiling, stretching.
Roxie couldn’t think what to eat now–she had planned on pizza before hearing Marta was leaving–so grabbed a banana and iced tea and took two steps at a time to the second floor.
Their bedroom was vast. High ceilings, many windows encouraging light to bathe the space. It was so accommodating there was a floral loveseat, another desk (antique one she’d refurbished), the king sized bed, a caramel-colored leather chair with footstool, a small lamp table and two dressers. She pulled several bronze sheers closed, then ate in the chair with feet up. A free night, unfolding like a dream.
Chilled tea slipped down her throat as she closed her eyes. It was nice the first nights he left, shaped by silken quietness if Marta was gone or in her room. Roxie luxuriated in their home, felt as if it expanded with Phillip’s absence. Not necessarily a good thing. But sometimes. Her breathing slowed while the rhythm of the day changed its time signature as the sun hovered above the tree line beyond. A subtle excitement infused her body and mind.
Roxie admitted she at times felt as if her real life leapt up and did a brazen little dance when she was left alone. She might actually sway about the rooms and hallways, humming away. Feelings welled up within the emptiness: relief, restlessness, curiosity, acute awareness of her senses, a desire to reach outward or inward to something else. She had a good and decent life day in, day out, a metronome life in a sense: orderly. Fruitful, too. Even Marta was all she might have ordered for a child. But when they were here, when Phillip was about, there was little time to attend to her other life.
She changed out of navy pants and white shirt, then into a loose aqua caftan and long sweater. Her long straw-colored hair was unbraided, rippling over her shoulders and down her back. She took banana peel and glass down the stairs, feet bare, quick.
In her most used desk, a bottom drawer held among other things a bundle of papers secured with a rubber band. She took it out, picked up her slim, silver-cylindered mechanical pencil and entered the sun room to settle in, tea close at hand.
They were unbound. She first fanned out the correspondence on the glass-topped coffee table before her. Which to choose? It was a group of eight letters received over the last few weeks that she hadn’t had time to address. The freedom to re-read, to study, to respond succinctly.
Roxie was a certified graphologist. She studied people’s handwriting to learn of their assets and liabilities, their public and private lives, their health and hopes. If there was one thing Phillip abhorred it was attempting to label something as exacting, even scientific, when it was all just hocus pocus to his thinking. Phillip disapproved, thought it was a waste of valuable time and attention. They had argued about it when they had become serious so long ago. She had grudgingly agreed to stop “playing around with it” then. But gradually Roxie had begun secretly taking the esoteric (he: “hogwash”) coursework, practicing the art and science of it and finally passed a difficult national certification exam.
She had not told him of it until he had discovered her triumphant notification letter folded up in a drawer of her jewelry box. Six months ago Phillip had been looking for a necklace he’d given her to adorn a dress she was wearing to a formal dinner. She forgot it was there, her little private spot not private anymore.
“You have to be kidding me!” He’d sputtered and gasped. “I can’t believe you did this!”
“But it’s not nonsense, Phillip. Graphologists are engaged in useful, meaningful ways! Police departments use us, employments agencies and human resources departments and psychologists utilize us. I could make money using my skills. I could have a career doing this!”
“Don’t say ‘us’, you’re not one of them yet, Roxanne. Some fortune telling fool. I don’t want my wife pretending this is anything but a game, an entertainment. Certainly it is not science.” His upper lip almost curled. “And you don’t need to make any money. If you really want something more to do, use that good economics degree, volunteer more, take up another hobby.”
Roxie thought he was a misaligned copy of her husband for those moments. She had never felt anything but his equal even though she’d stayed at home rather than work in some high-rise. She knew she had a worthy mind; she knew he respected her. This life had been one she chose in part because he believed her capable of so much and encouraged her to enjoy even imaginative leanings, reach beyond comfort zones, learn new things. But graphology? It was just ridiculous to him. As it seemed to be others who didn’t understand its nature and applications.
“But it helps catch criminals, it can decipher hidden talents or liabilities that make one fit for a certain job. It can help determine if one person is a better mate than another.”
“Oh, save me from your impassioned attempt at persuasion, Roxie. I’m not going to change my mind. It was one thing when you messed around with it for fun, another that you now take it this seriously. I still can’t believe you secretly finished coursework–how much did that cost? how did you manage it?–and now you expect me to praise you for it? You know better.”
She watched his forehead furrow in a deeper scowl. His gaze of clear judgment was close to intolerable. Roxie found his masculinity and beauty revolting at that moment and turned away. Left their room. As far as he was concerned his intelligence was marred by egotism–that fabulous mind of his, that command of reality– run amok. What could he be thinking, that he would call her accomplishment ridiculous?
It was a long week of separate bedrooms and by the time he’d left again, she’d determined to carry on with her passionate involvement in handwriting analysis. But he would not be the wiser as long as he felt her foolish. Their marriage didn’t feel as neat and clean after that, but they staunched the rupture with greater good will and their healthy, continued chemistry.
There was a post office box rented for her new Interpretive Analysis Enterprises (IAE). She advertised online at sites he would never look at. She offered cogent evaluations of personality types and offered input on problems with relationships based on samples of handwriting. Roxie opened a savings account in her name at a credit union. What felt at first like deception began to seem more like a tandem life that was well designed and pivotal to her happiness. One day he might come around; one day she would tell him the whole story, yes. Meanwhile, her work was starting to flourish and she found it harder to get it done without him knowing.
Marta knew about IAE and didn’t have to be told to keep it to herself–she had heard their noisy differing opinions on it. She thought her mother was cool to do this if also risky to do it. But Marta didn’t feel it was any of her business so really didn’t care.
Roxie’s eye now caught sight of handwriting that was elegant yet sharply drawn. She held it close, scanned the loops above and below each invisible line, each dotted “i”, every crossed “t”. The handwriting was rapid, almost thready. Intelligent, steady of hand but jarring–slashed “t” crossings and quickly dashed “dots” above letter “i”s. There was a compressed quality to script and a pressure that belied irritation. Roxie moved her fingertips over the inky page and then under it. There was more than irritation, there was anger as each word left progressively deeper indentations. Handwriting that was beautiful at first glance became an instrument of vehemence and displeasure.
She had seen anger before, of course, but it was the fine quality of the paper took her aback. Most used notebook paper or simple computer paper, as not many people had in their possession much, if any, stationary. This page was written with rich blue ink, a micro fine point. Roxie preferred a basic black ballpoint pen to be used as it was easier to read. She could garner different insights due to the sort of writing implement they used. Others sent inquiries written with felt tips or boldly flowing, perhaps pink or purple ink. Some sent penciled letters. The problem with that was that such writers tended to erase often (perfectionism perhaps a trait) and start over–that interrupted the natural flow of letters, spaces and so on. And if the lead was dull it could skew the entire effect.
Frowning at the aggrieved words, she held it at a distance to properly read through. Then she read it two more times.
Dear Roxanne Stannis,
You won’t recognize my name–it is an alias–but I know yours because I know about your husband. Who doesn’t, in the medical center? He’s outstanding in every way, as we all have heard. Gifted diagnostician, reassuring in manner. Generous of time and clear in every intention (more on that later). I could write a well-informed biopic of Dr. Phillip Stannis and his work at Grand Isle Medical Center and Silvertin Hospice. But if I did I would have to include the other side of Dr. Stannis.
I think you should know the rest of the story. Oh, yes, he’s a selfless workhorse and so altruistic he helps the neediest of the lot. He sacrifices precious time and money to travel to dangerous places whenever he’s called to use his skills. He’s the go-to as far as the horrific burn unit, for certain. I am not writing to cast aspersions on his medical abilities. I am not truly able to ascertain his level of expertise as doctor, to even understand some of his methods. So bear with me. This is not professional in a typical manner.
No, it is personal even if within a professional context.
Roxie put the letter down and put hand to throat. Who on earth was this? The name, Cassie Weaks–was to be an alias so it didn’t really help to study a fake signature. She felt like she was going to choke from her own anxiety. She took a long gulp of iced tea and continued.
I’ll simplify, Mrs. Stannis. He’s a dictator to the underlings. He can be boorish, blunt and critical to the point of some wanting to slap him. He finds flaws and then picks, loosening ends until they come undone. If one does the thing instructed but lags a second, then it isn’t done fast enough. His looks can scald when displeased and he doesn’t know the meaning of a genuine compliment. Never have I met anyone so difficult to please–and my parents were despotic commanders of excellence so I should find him manageable in comparison.
Is this the underside of moderate genius? I think not. He is just dismissive and unpleasant to those who have so much less power, who are at his beck and call. And for this, I loathe him.
So I just wanted you to know the rest of the story of your husband. We work so hard and he gives so little to those who are helpless to do anything but take it. We need our jobs. I think we should have trophies for putting up with him. I don’t know how you manage it–you deserve a trophy, too, or maybe you just deserve each other…
He will have no idea who I am. Because I’m just a nobody while he’s a wonder of wonders, a most valiant human being, a handsome paragon of men who deserves all and more. Right? You can have him!
Roxie felt her insides scrunch up and turn over but she peered at the words, each letter formation, the spacing, the pressure and rhythm. She studied it all; as if they were written of someone other than Phillip.
She could not imagine who this was but after twenty minutes noting all the details and adding them up, there were some things that came through: the writer, likely female from the choice of words and their formation, was completely disgruntled with her job as well as her self-image. She was run ragged by her own miserable perfectionist tendencies. Smart–perhaps smarter than her position encouraged–she was taking the upper hand and protesting rather than feel powerless one more day. Greatly offended by what she perceived as Phillip’s critical responses, she felt it as a far deeper wound than it should have been. She was a person of neediness who was not feeling fulfilled in many ways at home, not just at work. Lonely, if her lack of trust was noted correctly in how the truncated endings of words and the too-close spacing, protective of self. Perhaps even enamored of said doctor for whom she reportedly held contempt; romantically satisfied, she was not. But her anger was certain. She could even snap one of these days, create some havoc.
Roxie looked at a small stack of envelopes but one that matched her handwriting had no return address, of course. She worked on the sample an hour more. After she concluded it was a letter of complaint, one that was to distress Roxie, she determined she might have to turn it over to Phillip or the hospital’s human resources unless she could solve the mystery. She might visit his work space more often, meet for lunch if possible, check out employees he was around, sneak looks at written memos on his desk to compare handwriting. Maybe they could resolve this together–well, that might be a stretch. But maybe he would even suspect who she was.
But did Roxie believe her husband was all that? No. Not one minute. She knew him warts and all, and yet she knew he was a man of principle. Could he pressure others at times? Yes, in more subtle ways than mentioned. Was he liable to ask a lot of the staff? Yes, as he did himself. Was his brilliance difficult at random times, his ego likely to show up as annoying pride? Again, no denying she had seen that. But she could not believe he would be so unkind deliberately or even remotely unfair in his professional interchanges. He believed strongly in the his own as well as the medical code of ethics. Phillip loved his work and his patients, held staff in generally high regard. He sacrificed a great deal to care, to heal, to try to make life better for others. Roxie believed in him even if they were not always in agreement.
Even if he did think her graphology was smoke and mirrors.
So it would be worked out somehow. It might mean telling Phillip what she was up to a gain; her little business was a success so far, after all. But this one letter only served to expose the writer’s personhood, to open up her secret anger and pain, to share her misguided desires for more in her life. Roxie felt a little sad.
She stood on the back steps and looked out over the rolling lawn. The sun was setting making the puffy clouds pink and coral at the edges. Her mind roamed and recalled women she’d met who worked with him or near him. One after another was eliminated until…Anne? An RN. The night shift head nurse who had blatantly looked at him with a changing combination of admiration, desire, coyness and rage? Roxie had noticed her when she’d picked him up three times that winter due to his ancient Volvo having issues. Her coppery hair was pushed back impatiently when he asked her to do something out of the ordinary so he could finally go home. Her eyes flashing, then lingering on his face. My oh my, Anne. Well, Roxie would have to get a handwriting sample and compare. It couldn’t be that hard. She could be wrong. Work to do, for certain.
Her phone rang. She took it from her caftan pocket, put it to her ear without looking.
“Yes, sweetie? Coming home soon?”
“Oh, Roxie, how I wish, just to hold you for a good, long moment,” Phillip responded, his resonant voice laden with weariness. Tender with affection.
They checked in briefly. Hung up. Roxie wandered into the yard, admired tulips, daffodils, hyacinths in their glory. How she loved to hear Phillip’s voice when he was gone. If she wasn’t already married to the man, she would have to fall smack dab in love with him, herself.