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Exquisite Naiveté

by Wayne Scheer

Ralph watched his wife, Amanda, console a tearful friend whose live-in boyfriend had just left her. He sat in silent awe, feeling like an anthropologist witnessing a sacred ritual.  

Amanda was an outspoken woman with a problem-solving mind.  Mention a problem, like squirrels getting into the bird feeder, and she'd rattle off twelve different ways it could be solved before you finished your sentence. Now here was Carrie, a close friend with a real problem. Ralph witnessed his wife change her approach totally.  Offering no advice, she just hugged Carrie and agreed Larry was a cold-hearted bastard.

Ralph sipped coffee and watched the rain pound the kitchen windows. He knew he should have excused himself and gone to another room, but the situation intrigued him. Then it happened.  Carrie, obviously feeling better and ready to go, turned to him and asked, "What do you think is Larry's problem?"

His eyes darted to the back door leading to his vegetable garden, but the darkened skies mocked his escape. "Well," he said. "I don't know." He looked to Amanda. Her eyes flashed silent approval.

But Carrie wouldn't let him stutter back to anonymity. Amanda tried to save him. "Don't worry about Larry," she said. "He's not important enough to worry about. Think about yourself."

"Thank you," Carrie said, and she held out her hands to Ralph. "Don't be afraid to hurt my feelings, Ralph. I need a man's perspective."

He knew there were more things wrong with that sentence than the ones he had been reading in his freshmen students' term papers. As a professor, Ralph offered his opinion with authority and self-assurance. Now he felt like the conductor of a train who saw a car on the tracks ahead of him. He pulled on the breaks, but nothing could stop the inevitable.

"Well," he said. "Maybe it's not totally Larry's fault. Maybe…" He looked to his wife and saw her close her eyes, preparing for the crash.  

"What do you mean?" asked Carrie, her eyes refilling with tears. She crossed her arms, elbows pointing out, and sat straight-backed on the edge of her chair.

"Well, you, uh..."

"Carrie," Amanda said, her eyes narrowing as she glanced at her husband, "Do you want something to eat?"  

"No, thanks, Amanda. I really need to go." But instead of getting up, she returned to Ralph. "What do you mean it's not Larry's fault?"

"Well," he said, "Larry told you from the start he wasn't interested in marriage and you kind of pushed him to move in and…"

"I pushed him? Believe me, your friend Larry doesn't get pushed so easily. If he didn't want to…"

Ralph heard a sigh of exasperation come from the kitchen where Amanda had poured coffee into two cups. "Carrie," Amanda called.  "Help me finish this coffee, will you? Ralph, don't you have some papers to grade?"

"Uh, yeah” He hugged Carrie. "Sorry."

Carrie smiled and shook her head. "It's all right."

From his office, he could hear whispered conversation and muted sobs. About twenty minutes later, good-byes were exchanged.  Soon Amanda opened the door to his office.

"What was that about?" she said.

"What?" he asked, stalling for time.

"She was feeling better. She was ready to move on." Ralph knew when his wife talked in short, staccato sentences he was in trouble.  "What possessed you to defend Larry?"

"I wasn't defending him. I just said it's not totally his fault." He looked up from the papers he had been trying to grade. "You and I even talked about how needy Carrie is and how incredibly patient Larry had been."

He watched Amanda wet her lips with the tip of her tongue. Another sign. This meant she was trying to find the words to explain something so simply that even he would understand.

"Of course it's not totally Larry's fault, but Carrie didn't need to hear that today. They just broke up.  She needs reassurance."

He knew she was right.

"But she asked me to be honest."

So startled by his exquisite naiveté, Amanda went silent. After a long pause, she said, "Sometimes it's hard to understand how you get through a day without being strangled."

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