When husbands go off on business trips wives' fears and fantasies come to visit

January 21, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

A JET PLANE carried my husband away this morning on one of those long business trips that always seem to be scheduled for the dead of winter.

While he was packing, I was checking the skies and my insurance cards. It is the pattern of these trips that cataclysmic weather or emergency-room visits befall us even before he has checked his bags. It is as though the universe is watching, and, as soon as he pulls away from the curb, it tests us with a power outage or a set of stitches. He gets out his suitcases, and I begin to feel vulnerable.

But there are other, less fearful, rituals to his leaving. And commiserating conversations with friends whose husbands also travel suggest that these rituals may be universal. As we talk, we write the script for "Home Alone, Too."

First, there is the fight before he goes. My friend Nan says she read somewhere that our subconscious engineers these fights to provide the emotional distance we need to overcome our fear of separation. She may be right, but I think we fight because he is going somewhere that has room service and I am stuck with fish sticks and the kids.

I usually make some pampering purchase at the mall while he is gone. We'd be bankrupt if he were gone more often. Like all women whose husbands travel, I deserve to pamper myself. As one of my friends said, he is wearing a golf shirt somewhere while she is carting dead mice out of the bathroom.

I rent movies with subtitles or couples talking instead of ones with gunfire and incendiary devices, and I don't feel selfish. I stay up late reading, and I don't worry that I am annoying. I do even less cooking, and the children and I eat fast food more than once. I back off on my policing of them, putting away my carrot and my stick. One of them usually ends up sharing my bed each night.

"I am always kind of happy when he goes," says my friend Susan. "Life is easier. The routine is less demanding, even though he is not a very demanding guy."

"The rhythm of life changes," says Nan.

Both women admitted that their relationship with their children changes when the man of the house leaves. They are more relaxed, more forgiving, more fun.

"I wonder sometimes if I don't slip into his role as the fun parent when he is gone," says Nan. "I loosen up. I slack off. I am much more likely to serve a milkshake-and-popcorn dinner."

And, just as the children did when they were toddlers, we treat our husbands badly when they return. Before the children understood their father's job, they were confused and angered by his disappearance, and it took days for him to win back their affection. Now they are blase. ("Oh," said my daughter when I heralded her father's imminent return from a trip. "I thought he was sleeping.")

Now it is the women who are edgy and resentful when they return. My husband expects me to slam doors and pout for at least a day.

But every trip and tantrum seems to be followed by a pleasant reconciliation. As Nan said, "If you can't get away together, the next best thing is a vacation from each other."

There is one more secret ritual performed when a husband leaves on business.

"I imagine myself the young widow," confesses Nan, and the other heads at the table nodded in grave appreciation for what she had said.

There is something about my husband leaving that is not quieted by my pretending that he is simply working late. I can not help but imagine that this is what it would be like the day after the funeral.

I like to think I am as cool and resourceful as Tom Hanks in "Apollo 13," but when my husband leaves, I feel exposed. The electromagnetic field around me zings and spits as though someone is poking at it with a stick. I feel as though I can not trust my footing or my instincts.

"The idea of him gone for the week is exciting," says my friend, Susan. "The idea of forever is devastating."

I am not sure why we let our minds wander from the idea of a short separation to a haunted daydream of the darker ones they portend. It is silly. It must be that these mini-separations make you a little crazy. You are lonely at night and martyred and angry during the day and not thinking straight.

But it is more than that. There is this great, big hole in your capability, a gap in your self-assurance. If you look closer, you might see that it is just his size.

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