Valerie Stauffer


Because of Inertia


Takes a movie to tell me about my life. My marriage. Woody Allen explains it. Not exactly Woody himself. But there he is, big as life on the wide screen at the Majestic. Vicki and I hit the movies the second Thursday of every month, David’s Physics Society night at the River Café in Trenton.

You wouldn’t think a flick could change my life. This one is filled with fancy folks doing LA things. I’m slumped in my seat, munching hot buttered popcorn, inhaling chocolaty aromas from the guy in the next seat, when Woody says it. 

 “Two-thirds of married couples stay together only because of inertia.” 

I sit up real straight, lean forward, and poke Vicki. “He said that word, Vicki. He’s talking about inertia.”

 The people in back make “shush” noises.

 I stop caring whether the handsome lead guy ends up with the beautiful babe. I’m thinking about this inertia idea and David and me. I hear that “inertia” word about sixteen times a week. David is writing a physics book about inertial confinement. When I ask about it, he pulls at his horn-rimmed glasses. 

 “Really simple, Amy. Inertial confinement means a substance acts like it’s confined and resists the forces trying to dislodge it.” That’s David-talk for you. “But sometimes an object changes position if there’s enough outside force.”

 He actually talks like that, even when he’s telling me how to bag the garbage.

Everyone’s heard about inertia. David and I joke we’ve stayed in the same house all these years because of inertia. And always take the same summer trip to the Jersey shore. The flick reminds me that marriages just roll along for too many years. That folks stay married because of inertia, not for much else.

David and me—twenty-two years, shuffling along through life together. Not much reason to change. But every now and again, listening to him snore beside me, I think, Maybe no good reason to stay hooked.

 Not staying together? The kind of idea that’d been hiding around the back of my brain ever since the kids went off on to college and David and I hunkered down into our empty nest cliché. Is inertia all that’s binding us together?

The screen goes black. Lights go on. Vicki and I stumble out over crunchy popcorn.

“Hey, Vicki, how about coffee? Have time for me?”

“I always have time for you.” Then Vicki reminds me. “You’re the one who runs back home after our movie.” 

We’re off to the slick, chrome Glory Days Diner, infamous for its margaritas and the best- looking barflies in the county. 

Vicki pats her skin-tight black pants, slaps on another layer of cherry-red lipstick, and we step into the diner.

“What a change!” I hate to admit I haven’t been here since its days as a peeling-paint roadside joint with cracked red Naugahyde seats. David and I used to bring the kids here for the cheap and juicy burgers.

“You haven’t see Glory Days all fixed up?” Vicki gives me her look. “Yeah, I can believe it. Do you and David ever go anywhere?”

“That’s what I’ve got to talk about.” We settle into a booth of lime-green leather. 

A miniskirted gal arrives, her name-tag, “Hi, I’m Taffy,” pinned to her pointy breast. She stands above me, knowing I’ll order something definitely not au courant.

And I do. “Cup of decaf coffee, please.”

“Come on, Amy. Let’s live. I’m for chardonnay.”

“No, just coffee. I need to talk. Serious talk.”

“Give her an Irish Coffee, Taffy. Don’t worry, Amy. It’s a cappuccino with a swoosh of liquid fire.”

“Please, Vicki. Tell me. What about the inertia theory in the movie?”

“That guy in the movie? What a fruitcake loser!” Vicki’s eyes dart to another booth filled with hulking guys. “You’re the English teacher. I’m a soccer coach. What do I know about deep themes? It’s just a movie.”

“You saw the show. Two-thirds of couples stay together only because of inertia. What about that, Vicki? Truth!” Now I’ve got Vicki’s attention. She’s silent for a minute. This bleached-blond friend is judging my life. 

She takes my hand. “Are you asking, do I think you and David are living on inertia?” When I silently nod, Vicki gives a sad grin. “I gotta tell you. I don’t know what the two of you are living on—love, inertia, whatever you want to call it. But it’s about the most boring marriage ever invented.”

Wet bubbles ooze from my eyes.

 “Sorry, Amy. You asked.  Coaches say it like it is. So, you finally getting the guts to up and leave him?” 

“I’m thinking, Vicki. Seems like since the kids left, life must be more than sitting across from a guy munching Special K at breakfast and reading Micron Age in the evenings.”

 “Beyond boring,” Vicki says.

“You’ll never believe David’s idea of fun.” Suddenly, I want Vicki to hear it all. The so-called happily ever after marriage that’s mired in a rut. 

“Saturday afternoons we fool around with rosemary cuttings. David made a crazy topiary of an atom, filled it with little greens sticking out on the proton and neutron wires. It won a prize at my flower show. But who cares?”

“I could sure teach the nerd what fooling around is all about.” Vicki’s mouth turns up in a smirk.

My cheeks are hot, and I know I’m blushing. But damn it all. Vicki’s right. I’m in a rut. She’s the one living the fun life.

 “Drink up!” Vicki says. “Do you good to get drunk!” 

I want to tell her David isn’t a total nerd, but maybe he is.

“Drive me home, Vicki. David will worry if I’m late.”

“You’re leaving the guy and now you’re telling me you’ve got to make curfew.” Vicki hands me her cell phone. “Call the creep and tell him you’ll be home when you’re home.”

“Don’t talk about David like that, Vicki. He may be boring, but he worries about me.”

No answer at the house. “He’s always home from his meeting by this hour. Maybe bad traffic.” I pick up my pocketbook, ready to leave, but Vicki stays planted in the booth. 


She pats my hand. “Listen, sweetie. Not the first time some guy’s got something going on the side.” Her fingers press tight. “I trusted my Jim till one day, a friend spilled the beans that he spent his so-called business meetings in the sack with his cutie—and she wasn’t me.”

“No, Vicki. Maybe David’s boring. But no girlfriends.” 

“Grow up, Amy. You’re telling me David spends his days and nights on molecules or whatever he claims he’s doing?” Vicki giggles.

“Hey, school’s out!” Two teachers from the high school drop down into our booth.

Vicki’s face lights up. She’s had enough of me and my dull marriage.

“Bill, Todd, join us.” A quick wave in the distance. “Round of Irish coffees, Taffy. Extra lethal!”

“Hi, Amy,” Todd says. “Good to see you.”

He’s my boss in the English Department. Always ready to meet in the faculty lounge to debate Ahab’s symbolism or T.S. Eliot’s linguistic bravado.

“Yeah, guys. You’re the first to know,” Vicki announces to all of Glory Days. “Amy’s available for big-time fun.” 

I kick her under the table. “Don’t be crazy, Vicki! We were talking about the movie, not me!”

“Sorry, Amy.” But she winks at the guys.

I slide from the booth and head for the restroom. I bend over the sink, splashing water into my tired eyes. More frown lines every year. And now that I’m in specs, I look like—an English teacher. Vicki’s right. David and I are beyond boring. And where is he?

“We’ve got a plan, Amy,” Vicki says when I return. “I’m going with Bill. Todd will drop you off.”

In the restroom for two minutes and Vicki’s hooked Bill for the night. Now she’s sending me out into the moonlight with Todd. 

Vicki gathers up her jacket. “We’re off. Have fun, kids.” She gives me a smooch on the cheek, whispering, “Enjoy!” 

                                                                               * * *

Todd leads me to a battered tan Toyota. “My ex took off with the BMW, but nothing like divorce to lift the spirits.”

He helps me into the car, giving my arm a gentle squeeze. 

Todd casually throws one arm onto the top of my seat, not touching, just sort of hovering over my shoulders. 

A short drive, and then with a jolt, we’re parked in front of Todd’s gray ranch. Down the street I see the turrets of the yellow Victorian David and I have called home since he joined the physics faculty. Same old house, same old life—same old! 

“Looks dark in your place,” Todd says. 

Maybe Vicki’s right about David. His late meetings? We never check up on each other. That’s been the good thing about our marriage. Am I the naive little fool Vicki thinks I am?

“Come on in. I’ve got a new book to show you. I’ve just picked up a first-edition Leaves of Grass.” 

Inside the house, I step over newspapers and GQ magazines covering the blue shag carpeting. Between piles of books on the plaid wool sofa, I find some space. 

“Original calfskin binding, pretty good condition.” Todd hands me Leaves of Grass. He shoves the papers and books to the far end of the sofa and sits beside me. There’s not enough room for two people. I push more papers aside, but Todd’s broad shoulders stay close, too close. 

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you, Amy. I’ve got this amazing idea for a book project for the two of us.” 

“Us? Writing a book?” One of my dreams. An author! 

“Amy, you’d be great at this. My plan is a book for high school teachers.” Todd strokes his mustache, black with hints of gray. “I’d write the literary analyses of some poems, essays, stories. Your part would be chapters telling how to teach it to the delinquents we face every day.”


“Fantastic! When do we start?”

Todd bends his head close to my ear and begins reciting Whitman.

“Low hang the moon, it rose late.

  It is lagging— 

  O, I think it is heavy…”

His fingers stroke the back of my neck. His bristly mustache tickles my cheek. 

“…with love, with love.”

He hands me a glass of amber liquid. I lean back against his shoulder, enjoying the music of violins and cellos from the CD he must have put on when he poured the drinks.

“Brandy, Amy. Very relaxing. Here’s to our book.” Our glasses clink together. His arm tightens around me. I feel hard muscles through his sweater. His hand aimlessly moves up and down my arm.

Why not enjoy the evening with Todd? A whole new life here. Todd. Our book. I’d be writing my own ideas about literature and teaching. 

I snuggle against his woolly sweater and smell Todd’s musky aftershave. His breath is beer and brandy, and his wet lips roam my cheeks and neck and settle into a long, lingering kiss. It’s been forever since anyone but David.

Todd and I are wrapped together on the sofa. What if I stay a while? 

“This works better on my bed, Amy.” Hand in hand we stumble over beer cans and into his bedroom.

One look at his unmade king-size mattress with a big mirror on the wall, and I know where I am—Todd’s bachelor pad for his fun and games with the hot chicks in town.

“No, Todd.”

He whispers into my ear, “The moon’s hanging low, Amy. With love.” And there in the mirror, I see us. A seduction scene straight out of Hollywood.

Todd’s hand tightens on my arm, too hard. “You want this, Amy.” 

I pull out of his grasp. 

“I’m leaving, Todd. Thanks for the ride.” My night out’s over. 

Todd’s breathing hard, and his words have stopped sounding like Whitman poetry.

I twist and turn the loose brass knob, trying to open the door. 

“Hey, Amy, I’ll drive you home.”

“I’m just a few houses away, Todd.”

I pull hard, and a gust of cold air blows in my face. A single pale outdoor light guides the way to my familiar front door.

Before I can fit a key into the lock, the door swings open.

“Welcome home, Amy.” 

I run my fingers through my hair, wondering whether I look the mess I feel. 

“Sorry I’m late. Vicki and I got talking about the movie. I’ve got something to confess.” 

He looks hard into my eyes.

“I don’t know what got into me. I talked Vicki into taking me to that Glory Days Diner. The one that had the good burgers. I had Irish Coffee. You know—with whiskey. Actually two.” I’m rattling on with this confession. “Guess it was the movie plot. All about an LA marriage.  The couple kept talking about inertia in their marriage. But not your kind of flick at all.”

David hasn’t taken his eyes off me. Probably shocked to hear I went drinking without him.

“I’m heading for the shower, David. Been a long evening.” 

I run the shower hard and hot, soaping everywhere to wash Todd away. When I come out, I slide into my side of the bed. David must be up reading late. I watch the clock numbers flick 12:32, 12:45, 1:07. I’m glad David hasn’t come to bed. I still feel Todd on my skin.

At 1:23 I wrap myself in my pink flannel robe and search for David. He’s slumped in his leather wing chair in the den. He’s so into his tech magazine, he doesn’t look up. 

“I want to tell you something, David.”

“You mean to tell me you had a third Irish coffee?”


“No, there’s more. After the Glory Days Diner, I went driving.”


“Well…we met Todd at the diner. He wants me to do a book, David. The two of us.” I can explain this so it all makes sense. “All about teaching lit.”

“You’ve decided to do it with him?” David’s face is still buried in his magazine. 

“Todd and I talked it over.”

David doesn’t raise his eyes, but he crunches his forehead into ridges of angry lines.

“I’ve always wanted to write a book and—“

David looks up. “And…?” He’s suddenly standing, close enough to touch me, but he folds his arms and his fingers dig into his skin. “And, Amy…? What else?”

“I was at Todd’s. Just for a while. He’s my boss.”

“I know who Todd is. The biggest stud in town. And I know you were there.”

“You knew. But you didn’t say anything. Didn’t you care?”

“Not care? I was glued to the window for the hour after I came home. Worried sick till I saw you leave Todd’s. And then just sick.”

“Nothing happened. Well, you know Todd. Something could have.” I reach over to touch David, but he backs away, stiff and rigid.

Behind him on the mantel is our framed parchment topiary award and sitting alongside is the wire atom with green rosemary shoots. Rosemary—the herb of remembrance. 

“Did I ever thank you for helping me win that topiary award? We had fun doing it… together.”

David shrugs. I could be talking about groceries for supper.

On the walls hang family photos, some starting to fade. David and I look unbelievably young, standing in front of our pink Bermuda honeymoon cottage. My smile at David is raw adoration. I try to keep my eyes from the recent pictures. I have the boring-old-schoolteacher face that reflected back at me in Glory Days Diner. Do I always wear that angry frown? 

What’s behind that scowling face? Is my unhappiness bubbling out of my head and into photos? I’ve blamed David that I never got around to writing the great American novel. Or any of the books I planned. Every day I hurry off to try to teach kids to dream the dreams that I had for myself. 

Wake up, Amy! You’re a frustrated, dowdy wife who almost made the biggest mistake of her life—ready to trade a night of sex with Todd the Stud for a life of love with David.

Cold slivers of fear slice into my heart. How could I envy Vicki her empty life and her desperate need to pick up any and all guys? 

David’s eyes are filled with anger and hurt. He still cares about me enough to be angry.. 

Then I figure it out. “I could write a book on my own. What do you think?” David doesn’t answer so I say, “Would you help me? Literature isn’t your thing, but remember the way we did the topiary together? Would you be my sounding board? My partner?”

He gazes solemnly at me, then says, “I’d like that, Amy,” his voice quiet and his gray eyes softening.

I take his hand and point it toward the wall of photos. “We’ve had some good times together, haven’t we.” It’s a fact, not the question I don’t dare to ask. Am I a dull old wife who’s lost her spark? 

I want to throw my arms around David, wrap him in a passionate Hollywood embrace. I’ll fit myself into all his familiar curves. “Remember our first date when you took me to a movie? I never thought about the plot or anything. I kept wondering whether you’d kiss me later.”

“I remember that kiss.” David lets his lips turn up with the beginnings of a small smile. “I guess that’s when everything started for us.”

David puts his hands on my shoulders and presses me down onto the sofa. “Tell me about tonight’s movie, Amy. Tell me how a husband and wife can ever think their marriage is only running on inertia.”