For Sheila Nevins, an overheard conversation on a train proves to be a fascinating window into marriage — and female friendships
The Amtrak from New York to Providence was much easier than taking a puddle-jumper flight. The seats were comfortable, and I decided to read John Updike’s Endpoint. Just this one trip doing something not related to work – just this one time.
I found myself sitting opposite two reasonably attractive women, somewhere in their late 40s. They were engaged in a delicious conversation about adultery — and I was transfixed. I did my “pretend-read” act, displaying deep interest in my book while intently turning the pages that could have been just as well blank.
WOMAN ONE: Yes … but frankly it wouldn’t matter to me if Chuck screwed around. We’ve been married nearly 30 years and let’s face it, sex is dull. I fake everything and it’s really not that frequent.
WOMAN TWO: How frequent?
WOMAN ONE: The truth?
WOMEN TWO: Of course, Madam Genevieve.
GENEVIEVE: Maybe once a month. Maybe once in two months. Sometimes longer. Who keeps track, Margaret? We’re stuck with each other. Isn’t that what one calls “mature love?”
MARGARET: They say the pheromones wear off and attraction goes out the window.
GENEVIEVE: What’s a phen-a-rome?
MARGARET: A pheromone, not phenarome. It’s a smell – one that attracts the sexes, like beetles and apes and a man and a woman. It makes them lusty – for a while at least.
GENEVIEVE: Well we ain’t got none, ole Chucky and I. We’ve been with each other since high school. Then it was hot and heavy and panting. Then Chuck had hair. And what about you, Ms. Margaret? Ms. Sexual Silencio?
MARGARET: Boris is just Boris.
GENEVIEVE: What does that mean?
MARGARET: Sex was never the mainstay. He’s a genius, you know. They won’t part with him at Yale. They even matched the Stanford offer.
GENEVIEVE: Boris is certainly smart. No doubt about it. Would you care if he “strayed?”
MARGARET: Boris isn’t the straying type.
GENEVIEVE: Why do you say that?
MARGARET: He’s like a lab rat. He never leaves his research lab.
GENEVIEVE: I guess like Chuck’s addiction to the Red Sox.
MARGARET: At least they’re seasonal. Labs are forever – 24/7. They never close. Boris and I have been married for 27 years in February. Oops. No, no, 28 years in March.
GENEVIEVE: Just like me and Chuck. Chuck is sweet, you could say. I love him in my own way … Margaret, I’m exhausted. Shopping wears me out. Want a coffee? It’s just two cars up.
MARGARET: Yes, yes, coffee.
GENEVIEVE: With what inside?
MARGARET: This time with cream and Sweet & Low. I’m a study in contradictions.
Genevieve gets up and moves, swaying with the train, after taking a bill out of her wallet. She disappears as the electric train door lets her pass through. It closes. Margaret takes her compact and lipstick out of her bag and powders her nose, then rubs a bright pink lipstick over her lips several times – puckering at her reflection. As for me, I am still “pretend reading” when Margaret suddenly reaches for her cell phone and dials. She checks her face in her compact mirror and watches herself as she talks.
MARGARET: (whispering into the phone) Chuck. Hi my darling. I am here with Genevieve on Amtrak. We shopped till we dropped. She went for coffee. Chuck, she has no idea. You would not believe our conversation. She said you have sex. (Pause.) You don’t, do you? (Pause.) Yes, I knew it wasn’t true. Darling, poopsie, I miss you. I get all gooey just thinking about you. Tomorrow at seven, yes. I want you badly. (Pause.) Me too. I love you too. Got to go. Adieu hot pants chili pepper.
None too soon, Genevieve returns with two cups of coffee tipping to the train’s jolts. Margaret puts away her mirror and phone.
GENEVIEVE: Darn, guess what? I forgot your Sweet & Low. Sorry, sorry.
MARGARET: No difference, I can drink it without it. I’m desperate for caffeine. I love the black blouse you bought. A bit pricey but awfully pretty. Chuck will love you in it.
GENEVIEVE: (smiling) Chuck won’t even notice, Margaret. Trust me.
MARGARET: I trust you.
And they sipped their coffee staring out the window. The conductor bellowed, “Next stop, New Haven! New Haven, next stop!” The women gathered their packages and waited for the train to come to a halt. And me? I wished John Updike were around to hear them, so he could write this all down for you to read.