Oct 26, 2023, 06:24AM

Exit Letter

Even the worst week ends eventually.

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There was one week of Jules’ life that he could always point to as the bottom. Bottom of the ocean. Bottom of the well. The least optimistic he’d ever felt. August, 1981. His mother, Nina was diagnosed with lung cancer the same week that his wife Lisa had some combination of a mid-life crisis and nervous breakdown. His mom received a death sentence just as his wife was taking a cab to the airport. Lisa left a messily hand-written note on yellow legal paper.

I’m sorry. I can’t do this anymore. I’m a horrible person. I have to leave. Lisa.

Jules picked up Reva from her tennis camp. High School started in two weeks. Then he walked into the kitchen with a bag of groceries and saw the note. Before reading it, he knew it was an exit letter. For months, Lisa had been a wreck. Drinking until one a.m. Sleeping in the guest room. Singing Joni Mitchell songs. He asked her if she’d try couples counseling. She refused.

He checked to see where Reva was. She was showering before dinner. He picked up the note. Read the two lines. Folded it up and put it in his wallet. He’d figure out how to tell Reva later. He’d make up some excuse about a trip to visit Lisa’s sister, Aunt Molly.

They’d eaten dinner like any other night. He told Reva Mom needed a week away. Reva seemed okay with it. Lisa had taken an unplanned trip before. Usually for a long weekend with her friend.

Later that night, Jules was sitting with a glass of gin on the couch, watching a documentary about owls. His father called—an uncommon occurrence.

“Are you sitting down?” Phillip’s gravelly voice came through the receiver.

“Hi, Dad. Yes, I’m sitting down. It’s been a nightmare of a day. How are you?”

“Oh, bad day, huh? Well maybe this isn’t the best time to…” Phillip hesitated.

Jules checked to see if Reva could hear. He walked away from the stairs and into the kitchen. He sat down at the table where he’d found Lisa’s exit letter three hours earlier.

“Lisa left. She left a note that said nothing except she had to escape. Said she’s a horrible person and had to leave. I think she’s gone for good.”

“What a meshugener!” Philip shouted. Nina came over to find out what happened. Jules could hear his mother in the background. “Whaaaat? How could she?”

Now Jules’ parents were hysterical, shouting in Yiddish. He took about five deep breaths, finished his glass of gin and waited for them to calm down.

“You’re going to be okay, son. You’ll be okay. You’re a wonderful papa. Reva knows?” Philip reassured.

“No, dad. I just found out and I didn’t tell her yet.” Jules replied.

“Okay, okay. Good. When you have a better story for her.” Nina added.

“I’m going to tell her she flipped and went to visit Aunt Molly again.” Jules said softly and scanned the stairs for movement from above.

"Right, right. Okay.” Nina replied.

“What was it you were going to tell me?” Jules asked.

There was a long, awkward pause. He could hear his mother walking away and sort of humming. Philip cleared his throat.

“What, Dad?” Jules waited.

“Well, we got some news from the doctor today.” Philip said.

“And…” Jules asked. His parents were not avoidant. They were usually too blunt.


“And what Dad? The coughing? Is it her lungs? Cancer?”

More silence.

“Cancer! Mom has lung cancer?” Jules started shaking his head and laughing. There was no appropriate response to this double-whammy.

“Yes. It’s bad.” Philip said softly. “He said probably six months left. I’m sorry you had to hear tonight. After what you’ve been through.”

Jules told his dad he loved him and asked his father to give his mother a hug. Then he got off the phone.

He went into the bathroom and looked at his middle-aged face. No wife. Soon, no mother. He stared at his reflection for the first time in months. Half-drunk with the gin, he noticed new silver strands in his beard. His nose hair was flourishing, shooting out in silver spikes. He got the nose trimmer and began trimming the spikes. For a second he thought about using the tiny scissors or something else. He let the thought pass in a flash. No, he wasn’t going to hurt himself. Life wasn’t a movie. He finished trimming his nose hairs. He decided to take a hot shower.

He removed his clothes and looked back in the mirror. There was his newly-developed gut. He turned on the water. He stepped carefully over the tub and let the water beat down on him. He thought about Reva, unaware that her mother and grandmother would both soon be gone. He considered how much he loved her. With every ounce of himself. His girl. Growing so fast. So tall. Almost a woman. He had to be there for her if nobody else was.

He soaped himself up and washed himself off. He put on his pajamas and began walking up the stairs, trying to figure out what to say. All he could think of was “I love you.” 


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