In the first year after she and Jerry retired—45 long years after they married—Prudence Murphy for the first time seriously considered divorce.
Contemplating separation after decades of what the outside world saw as a happy marriage might seem capricious. Her friends would ask: Infidelity? No, not recently. Physical abuse? No. Mental abuse? No, not in the usual sense. Are you crazy, then?
Hardly so: She had been pushing the thought aside for every one of those 45 years, making busyness take the place of marital bliss. Now that suddenly neither of them was busy, they spent much of every day with each other. Jerry, as near as she could tell, was happy as a clam. No, not a clam; the opposite: One of those modern gadgets that when prompted will indefatigably recite information of minimal interest or value. She could hardly stand it.
Jerry’s tenderness and solicitude as a lover had evaporated with conquest, and she’d realized within months of their marriage that he was no soulmate. By then, though, she was more months than that pregnant. Little Ellen soon arrived, the first of four children who would become her central focus, the joys of her life and reasons not to throw him out.
He was still a handsome hunk, which was surely why she’d fallen in love with him—and was the cause of occasional heartache over the next decades. Anticipation of pleasure was the spice that whetted his appetite and made sex savory; time and familiarity diminished his satisfaction in coupling, let alone any aspiration to satisfy her.
“In the early days of what seems a romance for the ages,” she would in due course tell Ellen and each of the other children as their hormones kicked in, “don’t let sexual compulsion overwhelm cerebral hesitation.”
She liked the polished sound of that advice, but when Jerry Junior’s turn came, she wasn’t sure he got it, so she simplified: “Groins can overwhelm brains. Think about it.”
Her husband was, in those family years, a good provider, so she didn’t even think of divorcing him until the kids were all married and out on their own – having, thanks to her ministrations, made wiser choices than she had. Jerry for all those years busied himself with season tickets to every professional and collegiate team within hours’ drives, worked out at a gym and played golf with any business acquaintance who even hinted at knowing which end of a club to hold.
She, on the other hand, finished an advanced degree by long distance while the kids were in college. By the time the youngest left home, she had gone back to work. She was promoted—to Jerry’s astonishment—several times, to a position and salary as good as his. They had a circle of other empty-nest friends with whom they shared a constant round of theater and concerts, card games or just relaxed restaurant meals. She was certain that her social life would diminish or strangle if she were single.
Another reason to stay put was that Jerry’s sexual appetite—and prowess—had diminished. She would long have been content with spooning for a time and then rolling away to sleep; now that satisfied him, too, most of the time.
Retirement, though, reinforced by age, changed everything. Jerry stopped working out as assiduously, found that nine holes of golf was more than enough walking, and complained that stadium seats made his joints ache; his passion for sports events was sublimated into larger television sets. He complained if she left him at home while going to the library to borrow or return a book. He expected company—and sit-down meals—whenever the TV screens fell silent.
He drove her crazy.
As luck had it, in the space of a few months two bridge-partner couples sold their homes and moved into Harmony Acres, a senior retirement community about which they raved. It didn’t take long for Pru to decide to join them, even if it took some persuading to get Jerry to agree.
It proved perfect: Women outnumbered men almost two to one, and there were endless clubs and committees and activities that they dominated. Inspired by some of the men, Jerry took up woodworking in a well-appointed shop, and joined others in grooming and maintaining trails through an adjacent meadow and woods. Although few of the programs were deliberately unisex, those who joined in the other genders’ activities were scarce; no one expected spouses to join each other.
Meals were another joy: Harmony Acres hired a skilled kitchen, and Pru arranged an ever-changing bouquet of dinner partners, both couples and widows or widowers. They often lingered in adjoining parlors over post-prandials late enough that by the time they got home Jerry preferred sleep to late-night television.
It was ideal—until the coronavirus pandemic began.
The elderly were universally the primary victims in the early months, so few objected when Harmony Acres’ managers decreed isolation as the necessary preventative. The dining room was closed; they began ordering take-out meals online or by telephone. Soon the distancing imperative became more severe: Those meals—as well as mail, newspapers and packages— were delivered to shelves outside their doors.
They had no face-to-face contact with any living soul except each other. She got up early and let Jerry sleep in; she insisted on afternoon naps alone in her recliner, and retired early, encouraging his revived interest in late-night television.
It nonetheless seemed like all Jerry all the time.
It was more than Pru could manage. On Monday of the third week, early enough that he was still asleep, she telephoned the lady in marketing. There were, she knew, vacancies unlikely to be filled while the pandemic lasted.
It was time for what she diplomatically described as a trial separation.