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Room to breathe, space to eat

He came to the door of the bathroom still brushing his teeth. "What's for breakfast?" he asked, between thick, white bubbles.

"What do you want?" It was the same dialogue they had every morning.

"How about eggs benedict?"

"Are you kidding? If you think I'm going to wrestle with Hollandaise at this hourHow about French toast and fried apples?"

"Sold." He disappeared into the bathroom and she could hear him gargling musically, the way he did every day.

Emily Evans sighed. It was all so predictable. She could almost gauge the exact minute of every movement, every response. She hated to admit it, but all the mystery had disappeared from every phase of their marriage. All the little surprises, the little gossips that had them laughing together, the happy little times when they found themselves alone and could do exactly as they pleased.

She knew the exact day, the exact hour, the exact minute it had all changed. It was the day Andy came home sporting a new Seiko watch, loaded down with boxes of trivia from his desk, and after dumping it on the kitchen table, he spread his arms wide and shouted, "Here I am, girl. Home for good. Start packing. Florida, here we come!"

She remembered laughing and hugging him but even then, for just a minute, she remembered a niggling doubt _ something that was growing, day by day, into what she knew was going to be a showdown.

She needed some time to herself.

It happened sooner than she thought. He was sopping up the syrup on his last piece of French toast when he looked up at her.

"Think I'll go outside and do some pruning on the grapefruit trees." He got up and pushed his chair in. "By the way, just so I have something to look forward to, what's for lunch?"

That did it.

"Sit right back down there, Andrew Evans. You and I have some serious talking to do."

He looked surprised. "Why, what did I do?"

She gave herself a minute to gather her forces. "Andrew, some things around here have to change. I don't know who said it, but it was a wise woman who told her husband, "I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch!' "

He looked surprised and a little hurt. "Butbut, Emmy, I'm retired now"

"I know that, Andy, but there's just too much togetherness. It's spoiling things. Why, I used to look forward to you coming home every day _ you always had some funny little thing to tell me about someone at the office."

"I know, and I miss that too, but now that I'm retired"

"And I miss my lunches and my bridge games with the girls. And I'd like to go shopping by myself once in awhile or even just sit here at the kitchen table with a sandwich and a magazine."

"You mean you don't want me around?"

"Oh, Andy, I don't mean that at all. At least, not the way it sounds, but I just wish I didn't have to worry about lunch every day" She hated the hurt look in his eyes.

"What do you suggest?"

"Well, maybe if you'd have lunch out a few days a week, it might break things up a bit. Why don't you call Charlie and see if he can meet you downtown?"

"No." He got up from his chair slowly. "Charlie's gone to California to visit his kids." He turned and moved toward the kitchen door.

"Andy"

But he didn't turn around. She heard him in the bedroom moving around and then the front door opening.

"See you at dinner," she called after him. "We're having lamb stew." It was his favorite.

He smiled a bit sadly. "I'll be home."

She closed the front door gently, then went back into the kitchen and poured herself another cup of coffee. Oh, it was heaven. A few hours all for herself. Should she go shopping? Try to arrange a bridge game? Cut out that dress she'd been trying to get to for the last three months? In the end, she did none of these. Instead, she cleaned a closet or two, had lunch standing by the refrigerator and was surprised, when she looked at the clock, to discover it was almost 3:30. He's taking a long lunch, she told herself. Good!

He came home about 4, looking tired.

"Did you have a good lunch?" She told herself she had no reason to feel guilty.

"So-so." He didn't elaborate. But he didn't seem very hungry at dinner, even though they both admitted it was the best lamb stew ever.

The next morning she was surprised when, about 10, he got up from his easy chair, threw down the morning paper, and announced he was on his way.

"On your way? Where to?"

"Why, to lunch, of course."

"You're going out again today?"

"That's what you wanted, isn't it?"

"Well," she stammered, "I didn't mean every day. I thought maybe today we could"

But he cut her off. "No, I think it's better this way."

It went on exactly like that for more than a week.

She began to get worried. When she asked him what he had for lunch, he'd answer, "A hamburger," or a "hot melt" or something like that. And when she asked him if he'd seen anyone he knew, he'd answer, "No one in particular." He never had any other information. Had he met another woman? She began to spend her alone-time worrying. It wasn't what she had in mind at all.

Finally, after he refused her offer to fix his lunch for the third time, she decided she had to do something. But what? How could she accuse him of something if she wasn't sure? There was only one way, and that was to follow the old fool and catch him in the act. And, if what she feared was true, she was going to lay him out in lavender!

The next day, after he left the house, she changed quickly into a blouse and skirt, and making sure she walked at least a block behind, followed him the short distance to town. As they approached the business section, she was surprised when he turned into Hal's Eatery, a small fast-food restaurant that catered to students and truck drivers. What on earth is he doing here, she wondered? Can't be very classy. Probably some bleached blond divorced hussy. She steeled herself as she marched after him and pulled open the door. He wasn't going to get away with it.

The place was half full. Quickly, she took stock of its occupants. Mostly students with a few retireds sandwiched in. But Andy and the bleached blond weren't among them. Had he seen her? Was he hiding now, maybe in the men's room? If so, she'd wait him out. She ordered a cup of coffee.

Ten minutes passed. Had he seen her and sneaked out the back door? She began to feel weak and a little sick. Was her marriage of 35 years coming apart? And all because of her stupid insistence on some time to herself? What had she been thinking of? There wasn't another man in the world as good as Andy, not for her, anyway.

The place was beginning to fill up. More frequently the counter man shouted, "One on a bun," or "Two looking at you," and in a few minutes, a voice from the rear would call, "Ready."

But, wait a minute. That voice from the rear. She knew it, knew it well. She jumped from her seat, dashed behind the counter and entered a small, steamy kitchen.

"Andrew Evans!" she yelled at the broad back in the big white apron.

He turned, surprise and confusion fighting for space.

"Hi, Emmy," He grinned sheepishly. Then he turned and put six hamburgers on the grill.

"Explain yourself, Andrew Evans."

He kept careful watch over the hamburgers. "The first day I came here for lunch, the cook got mad and quit. They were in a heck of a mess _ more crowded than usual _ so I offered to help. They liked me and asked me to stay. I didn't tell you _ but I was going to _ thought you'd think it beneath me, a retired accountant working in a kitchen. But I like doing it"

"Oh, Andrew" She blinked back tears.

"You'll have to admit it solved our problem. Not only that, I'm saving the money I make for that trip to Yellowstone next summer." He flipped the hamburgers deftly.

She watched him. He was good at it.

"Andrew, could you fix me one on a bun, please?"

"Hey," he said slyly, looking at her sideways, "remember, I married you for better or worse _ but not for lunch!"

Evelyn deVlaming is a freelance writer who lives in

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