Being Mrs. Culpepper

Chapter 8 – Marriage Woes

In January of 1998 Sasha Rose Culpepper came into the world the mirror image of her mother. Brandon decided he would name his first-born daughter and promised Trey he could name the next girl. Two years later, John Jacob Culpepper II — Robin’s father’s namesake — entered the world the spitting image of Trey, who believed he’d lost out on naming a sister. 

The following year Zoey Kristina Culpepper arrived, a little bundle of surprise who showed herself after two hours of labor. Fifteen-year-old Trey beamed with pride when his parents agreed to use the name he’d selected for his baby sister.

In no time the entire family, especially Grandma Rose, spoiled the newcomer. With three younger siblings, Trey quickly learned to be an attentive and patient big brother; Robin and Brandon appreciated his help.

Despite the challenges of raising four children and working on careers, life in the Culpepper household passed without difficulty.

Three years later, on a Saturday evening in May, eighteen-year-old Trey called out for Murphy. He hadn’t seen the dog since dinner ended two hours before. A few minutes into the search Trey found Murphy at the foot of his bed, warm but not breathing. He lowered himself to the floor, chest heaving, legs spread wide, and pulled Murphy into his embrace. He wailed.

The family came running. Robin sat on the floor behind her son and held him, while he held Murphy. Brandon fell in behind his wife and held her while she held their son. Three-year-old Zoey leaned against Trey’s shoulder, giving his forehead a “there, there” pat. Four-year-old JJ rested his body against his mother’s shoulder. Six-year-old Sasha put her arms around her father’s neck. They all cried, together.

Trey asked his parents if he could bury Murphy in the backyard; with their home sitting outside the city limits, they gave the okay. After Trey retrieved a shovel from the storage shed Brandon placed his arm on Trey’s shoulder.

“Son, let me dig for you.”

Trey shook his head. “My dog, I’ll do the digging.” He turned to Robin and asked her to pick the spot. Brandon went inside.

“How about near the big oak tree? Murphy loved to hang out in the shade and wait for squirrels to dart his way.”

Ten minutes into the digging a hard rain fell. Trey continued shoveling.

Brandon stepped back outside to get him. “Come on, Trey, we’ll finish when the rain stops.”

With Robin and the other children watching from the enclosed porch, Trey dropped the shovel and took a closed-fist swing at his dad. Brandon took two steps back, then gave his son grace. Robin grabbed a jacket, threw it over her head, and rushed outside. She grabbed her boy by his trembling shoulders and spoke in a soft, steady voice.

“Trey come inside. You’ll get sick out here.”

Brandon went inside the house. A series of thunderous roars shook the night air. Trey threw his arms around Robin’s neck and whispered in her ear, “He’s cheating on you, like he did with my mama.”

Robin lowered her head. “Come on, let’s go in.”

After taking a shower Trey sat at his drawing table where he made a sketch of Murphy and him playing fetch with a Frisbee. He called Amber— his first serious girlfriend, also a senior — to talk over the day’s events. The two of them have been friends since freshman year and began dating about eight months ago. Privately, he referred to her as the light inside his darkness. Her no nonsense approach to life steadied him; her smile gave him hope. With the bedroom door half open, JJ bolted into the room and threw himself against his big brother’s leg.

“Make me fly, Trey.”

“I gotta play with JJ. I’ll call you later.”

“Stay strong, TreyTrey. I love you.”

“Love you back.”

He raised JJ over his shoulders then held him up by the belly while JJ flapped his arms. Trey tossed him on the bed; JJ jumped around until he wore himself out.

By nine p.m. the house had quieted down. Trey pictured Sasha in her room reading.  She rarely fell asleep before ten. Zoey should be knocked out, and Robin — he prayed she’d be all right.

Brandon entered Trey’s room, gathered JJ from the bed, and carried him upstairs to the room he shared with Zoey. A few minutes later he returned, standing next to Trey, an uncomfortable closeness. Outside, rain continued to fall, a slow and steady rain.

“Put your drawing away.”

Trey jumped at the sound of his father’s voice, dropped his pencils, and turned to face him. Father and son were the same height and weight, with Trey having more bulk from lifting for football. Still, he shrank in his father’s presence.

“You lost your damn mind over a dog?”

He stared at his dad’s muddy shoes, then glanced at his stern face. “No, sir. I’m sorry, Dad.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Trey’s chair shifted forward under the force of his father’s shove.

“I’m mad at you, for hurting Mom.”

Brandon’s eyes darted wildly around the room. “Mom? You think I hurt Mom?”

“Yeah, with that woman in your office. Her son is in my class. He talks.”

Trey remained seated while his dad turned and paced the room. Then with fists clenched, eyes enraged, and teeth gritted, he abruptly stood and faced his father.

“Yesterday after school he got in my face. He said my mom wasn’t woman enough to keep you home so you slept with his mother. I slammed him to the ground.”

Trey wiped his nose with the tail of his shirt; his rage filled eyes stayed on his dad. Brandon widened his stance.

“I left school and went to your office at the other house to tell you what happened and there you were, in a lip-lock with his mother. Your hands were all over her, and her hand…”

The pacing stopped. “You tell Mom?”

“Not yet.”

Brandon collapsed on the bed, flat on his back, as Trey continued.

“What happened with Mom and James came close to killing her. You trying to finish the job?” His voice and body shook. “She is the best thing to happen to us after Mama and you treat her like dog shit. How does that woman’s son even know what you do with his mother?”

Brandon walked toward the dresser, staring at the photos of Brittany and Robin. “I loved Brittany, and I love Robin. All of you. I’ll talk to Mom. We’ll work it out.”

When he reached out to hug Trey, Trey backed away.

“You have other kids outside of this house?”

Brandon froze in his tracks. “No other kids.”

With Brandon following his gaze, Trey looked outside and saw that the rain had stopped.

“Come on son, let’s take care of Murphy.”

They finished the digging, with Trey wishing he could bury the parts of his father he hated.

Upstairs, Robin watched from her window as they worked on Murphy’s final resting place. She gnawed on her nails, telling herself he’d lasted longer than James; she told herself it had taken Brandon seven years to scratch his itch, but she knew better. He’d been at it for at least five years. She’d chosen to ignore the signs, to avoid choking on a bitter dose of truth.

The nights he’d slept at the other house to finish paperwork and get an early start the next morning. The nights he’d come home, unable to look her in the eyes, hesitant to touch her. The rumors spread by co-workers about her husband and some woman hanging out in a dank bar.

She wondered why she’d chosen to marry men who were so much alike. What is wrong with me? Another divorce, another failure. They had four kids to raise, and despite his short-comings as a husband, Brandon had been a good father— not great, but better than most. Their home was in her name and there was no mortgage. With her income plus child support, she’d make it work if she had to.

Her cell phone rang. She sat at her desk and took the call from her boss, discussing the arrival of a team from London. Robin had point on the meetings. They discussed meeting agendas and after-hours entertainment.

“How many on the team?”

“The team of twelve arrives sometime tomorrow afternoon, for a six week stay.  We have to get the new division up and running by end of year.”

“And who is the team lead?”

“Software engineer Antonio Esposito. You’ll work closely with him during their stay. Any problem with after-hours dinners, entertaining?”

“No problem. We’ll make it a productive and fun visit.”

Brandon entered the room, then stepped into the hall until the call ended. She turned and faced him, her voice flat, her face without expression.

“Why did Trey take a swing at you?”

“He found out I hurt you.”

He sat on the sofa next to the desk and did a quick scan of the room for potential weapons. The letter opener on her desk. He hoped she loved the children more than she hated him and wouldn’t put them through the trauma of a physical altercation ending with him in jail. He shuttered inside of himself. Trey. He’d knock out his own father to defend his mother.  And Brandon would let him.

“I’ve been involved with another woman. Trey found out from her son, at school. He swung on me for hurting you, and for what he remembers about Brittany.”

Her left leg shook wildly, as if under attack by tremors; although her eyes stayed on the letter opener, she made no move toward it. The palpable rage on her face forced Brandon’s eyes to her hands, scanning again for weapons. He stood and took three steps back.

“If you want a divorce, say so. I don’t need to go through this again, not with four children.” Her voice raised. “I get why you kept your house, why Brittany left you. Get out. I’m done.”

She turned away from him. “Trey stays here, with me.”

With his back to the door, he left the room. Before going downstairs Brandon checked on Zoey and JJ, asleep in their room. In Sasha’s room he found her weeping in Trey’s arms.  The innocence on her face, the wounded look on Trey’s, weakened Brandon. His knees buckled. When Sasha’s eyes connected with Brandon’s she pulled away from Trey, arms raised toward her father, screams as loud as her small lungs could carry. Brandon lifted her and held her close while she sobbed into the whole of him, pounding her tiny fists on his chest.

“Daddy don’t leave us. Make Mommy take it back. Be good, Daddy, and make Mommy take it back!”

Trey put his fist through the wall, then stormed out of the room. Thirty minutes later Brandon returned to Robin’s bedroom, where she was stretched out on the sofa, puffy cheeks partially covered by her forearm.

“How is she?”

“Sleeping, after two stories and my promise to be here when she wakes up.”

He knelt on the floor in front of her. “I love you, Robin. I love my family, and I don’t want to leave. My running around has nothing to do with you. It’s my struggle to work out. Please don’t ask me to go.”

She leaned away from him. “Work out how?”

He didn’t say.

“You in love with her?”

“No.”

“You want a life with someone else?”

“No.”

Sadness and relief overcame him, as if he needed her to rescue him, from himself. She didn’t ask him to leave.

Brandon looked around the breakfast table at his family, asking himself how he could be so stupid.

“Mom,” asked Sasha, “Did you take back your meanness?” 

Robin eyed Brandon. “Yes.”

“Daddy will you be good this time?”

“Yes, Sasha. I will be.”

At the office Brandon had a talk with the woman about having her work at another construction firm. She said she wouldn’t leave her job and if he fired her, she’d make a fuss. He didn’t fire her.

 

Trey drove himself to the doctor for his swollen hand. He brought home pain pills, more than he needed for a sprained hand. He took more than prescribed, hoping to rid himself of all pain.

 

 Robin took nerve pills but couldn’t sleep. Daddy don’t leave us. Make Mommy take it back. Be good, Daddy, and make Mommy take it back! Sasha’s anguish-filled words were on continuous play in Robin’s head, forcing her to remember a similar time from her own childhood.