Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 1 – Robin

Up until last week he’d had the decency to shower and change before coming home, but on Thursday he’d gotten sloppy and came to bed smelling of another woman. Maybe he wasn’t sloppy; maybe he didn’t care. No matter. Today was the day thirty-three-year-old Robin Alisa Porter Westbrook would leave her husband of three years.

The clock on the nightstand showed six-thirty a.m. Robin had been awake for two hours, worrying over the next phase of her life. She glanced at him, resting comfortably, and considered waking him up to tell him they were done. She threw back the covers, dismissed the idea, then headed to the bathroom, with Murphy rubbing against her leg. Robin slipped on her gray sweats, a navy T-shirt, and threw on her sneakers. Outside in the morning sun, she put Murphy on his leash.  She looked out at the clear blue sky and smiled. Nice day for a new start.

There were five homes in the cul-de-sac, theirs being the smallest of the oversized Dutch colonials. When they applied for a mortgage  James had insisted on purchasing a home based on his income, not their combined salaries. He worried about getting in over their heads by buying too much house, then losing her salary when they started their family. Now she was glad she’d listened to him. Made the financial split cleaner. She never liked the house, even though she had picked it out herself, even though she had decorated it herself, even though she liked the neighbors.

With Murphy leading the way, Robin’s mind floated from her troubles to the contentment her parents enjoyed after thirty-five years of marriage. The celebration phase of marriage, her mother called it: happy to have survived hard-fought battles between them, and those surrounding them. “We’re still here, making each other laugh; respecting each other’s pain; forgiving, and loving each other.”

During the second lap Robin focused on Murphy, the golden retriever she’d inherited when she married James. She admired the way he trotted along without a care in the world, taking in the sights as they moved through the neighborhood.

On the third lap her thoughts flashed back to her wedding day, walking the long aisle on her father’s arm, looking ahead to where her husband-to-be stood. Her gut told her to run. You’re not ready. He’s not ready. Forget the two hundred guests; the sinful amount of money your parents doled out; the fear of ditching him at the altar. Run. If only she’d listened to her gut. By the time she rounded the circle James was in the driveway, loosening up for his run. Her body tensed as she slowed her pace.

“Robin, should you be running?”

“My doctor says it’s fine.”

“I’ll take Murphy. He needs to run more.”

Thirty minutes later Robin sat at the kitchen counter, still in her sweats, holding a mug of oolong tea. James kissed her cheek, then rubbed her back. Her eyes filled with water he didn’t see.

After a shower she studied her naked body in the three-way mirror. A tall girl—five feet, ten inches, always taller than the boys in her class; they’d called her a freak. Middle school had been the worst, with the girl bullies scarier than the boys.

She examined her belly from all angles: front, back, each side, looking for signs of the baby.  A ten-week baby bump. She winced as her hands grazed her breasts, future vessels of nourishment for her child.

Her fascination with pregnancy started years ago when her mother was pregnant with her sister Angel. Robin paid attention to the swelling in her mother’s belly each month and when the baby had developed enough to kick and move around, five-year-old Robin thought it was the miracle of miracles. Little Robin placed her hand on her mother’s belly and when she felt the baby move she stared at her mother, with her mouth wide open.

“What is it doing in there?”

Her parents—Rose and John—got a kick out of Robin’s attention to the baby. They called her their little preggo perv. At the time she didn’t understand why they called her that, but as long as she could rub her mother’s belly, she didn’t care. She would smile and laugh when the baby moved. She thought her mom’s big belly was a work of art.

“Learning how to be a person.”

She loved the attention her father showed her mother during the pregnancy. He was kind, and gentle, and loving, and Robin dreamed of someday having the same kind of relationship with her own husband. She loved her mother’s waddle, her glow, her joy in preparing for the new baby. She loved when Rose included her in the planning. She made pencil drawings of her mother’s belly as it changed each month.

During Rose’s last weeks of pregnancy, Robin asked how the baby had gotten in there, and how it would get out. Rose told her the truth, as much as she could tell a five-year-old. Robin cringed. But the truth didn’t diminish the magic of growing a baby, of giving life, and she wanted to experience the magic for herself.

Around ten a.m. she found James behind the desk in his study, immersed in writing, not bothering to look her way when she entered the room. Murphy lounged on the brown wool rug in front of the sofa and when he caught sight of Robin, his tail went into high gear.

“Business?”

He smiled at her. “Give me a couple of minutes.”

Robin glanced at her photo on the desk, then at his degrees on the wall—undergrad; business school; law school. The clock on the desk showed five after ten. She took a seat across from him, back straight, right leg crossed over the left, hands steadied on her lap. Too formal, or maybe exactly right—she wasn’t sure. She wore a tan sundress with brown sandals, showing off her toned legs and ankles. He looked at her and grinned.

“You look nice. I like you in dresses. You going somewhere?”

“I’m leaving you.”

He glared at her for a moment, as if she had no right, or reason, to utter those words.

“Come on, Robin. Stop playing.”

She struggled to keep her tone formal, her words precise. In the past his lawyer mind had bested her during any verbal dispute, but not today. She met his eyes and locked in.

“You’re cheating again.”

He stepped from behind the desk to the chair next to her, then turned to face her. His eyes showed pleading; she forced herself to sit tall. Don’t you fall apart now. Murphy nuzzled against her legs, then placed his head on her lap. She rubbed his coat as he whimpered; she wanted to whimper, too, but managed to stay strong. James opened his mouth to speak. No words came. He placed the palms of his hands against her face, his wedding band grazing her cheek, sending a chill through her tense body.

“Robin, please don’t leave me. I’ll do better. I promise.”

Do better. Better than what? She stood her ground, though her hands shook, her eyes no doubt reddened from the stinging tears. Her voice quivered.

“You’re an arrogant prick. Why did you marry me?”

His hands fell from her face. “Don’t be ridiculous. I love you.”

“You wanted my father’s good name to bolster your firm’s business.”

James shifted in his seat, beads of sweat now on his brow. “Let’s separate for a few weeks to give you a break.”

“No.”

“Where will you live? I’ll leave, and you can stay here.”

“I hate this house. You keep it. I’ll be with my parents until I get an apartment.”

He jumped to his feet. “What do you mean you hate our house? Why did you go through the trouble and expense to decorate it if you hated it? Is it your way of saying you hate being here with me?”

“I don’t like the house. I never liked it. It’s too pretentious. Suits you, though. You keep it. I’m filing for divorce.”

With jaws clenched, James returned to the chair behind his desk. “Why now, Robin, while you’re carrying my child?”

“What would be the point of staying?”

With nostrils flaring, he stood and slammed his fist on the desk. “You can’t take my child from me like this.”

“Not trying to. You can be as involved as you’d like to be, in everything.”

“What if I want to feel the baby move?”

“We’ll work out the details.”

The pain in James’ eyes blinded her and for a moment she forgot why she wanted to leave him. Underneath her dress, her knees shook. As she considered telling him she didn’t mean any of the things she’d said, her mother’s voice came to her, helping her get through the bullying in middle school, reminding Robin of her strength. She released his gaze, then left the room.

He followed her to the kitchen where she gathered her luggage, tote bag, and keys. “I don’t want you to go. Please, Robin, don’t go.”

She stayed silent.

“You coming back for your wedding china? You love those dishes.”

“China? Are you kidding me? I’m taking my clothes and Murphy. You pay less attention to him than you pay me.”

James kicked the cabinets; Murphy jumped. “He’s my dog. You’re not getting my dog.” His voice grew loud, and deep.

Before she responded the doorbell rang. When she answered it, the detective she’d hired handed her an envelope then left without speaking. Robin took a seat at the kitchen counter and opened the report. No surprise he’d been with other women. When she saw the lone photograph and its caption, she hyperventilated between screams: Ashley Atwater and her two-year-old son, James Christopher Westbrook, Jr.

“Robin, what’s wrong?” He stood over her shoulder and read what she’d read, then quietly put the dog outside.

“I’m sorry you found out like this. I’ve been trying to find a way to tell you I had, I have, a son.”

The child had his face and his name, the name they’d planned to give their first-born son. In one swift move she pulled the largest knife from the storage block on the counter and lunged at him. Murphy barked wildly and scratched on the patio door. His bark shifted into a low menacing growl as James grabbed Robin and forced the knife to the floor, kicking it away from where they stood. He pinned her arms to her sides and spoke softly to her.

“I don’t want to hurt you. Calm down, or you’ll hurt the baby.”

While she wrestled to free herself she tried and failed to knee him in the groin. When her body gave out he relaxed his grip and planted kisses on her face. She sobbed softly in his arms. Murphy grew quiet. James kept kissing her, whispering for her to calm down, but there was no calmness in her. Blood trickled down her legs, onto his brown boat shoes.