Among the least-remarked-on attractions of Shelburne Farms are the venerable dirt roads. The estate's gracious, rustic atmosphere would be severely diminished if pavement happened. I would go so far as to employ the word "desecration." Fortunately, I'm sure the Webb family — along with the nonprofit organization that stewards the property — would never approve such a dastardly step. They understand the Vermont jewel that is in their hands.
Such were my rambling travelogue musings as I circled toward the Inn at Shelburne Farms to pick up my taxi fare. Kiley, a longtime and favorite customer, had hosted a fancy-schmancy dinner for a group of out-of-state real estate colleagues. (Maybe "colleagues" is not the best description; when she called to request my services, I think she used the term "bigwigs.")
Kiley and her people met me as I pulled under the portico entrance. "I told these guys how great you are," she said, complimenting me through the passenger window. Kiley was in her usual good spirits, perhaps abetted by the fine wines that surely had flowed at the evening's dinner table. "They're going to the Inn at Essex," she told me, a fact I already knew from her summoning phone call. As a matter of course, I always get the "to" and the "from" when taking a taxi request.
"I'll take good care of them, Kiley," I said. "And you take care, girl." Shooting her a smile, I thought, Any shift where I get to interact with this delightful person is a bonus.
Four middle-aged people took up seats in my taxi: Tim, as he introduced himself, in the front; and two women and another man in the back.
We had barely gotten under way when Tim asked me, "So, Jernigan, have you been divorced? Are you happily married?"
I'm not an especially private person, but this struck me as a forward conversation starter to direct at someone you've met one minute earlier. I guess Tim sensed my hesitation, because he jumped in before I could reply.
Pivoting in his seat, he said, "I actually got a question for the three of you back there. You all have been divorced. My question is: When did you know that it was over? When was the moment you knew to pull the plug?"
Wow, that's plunging deep and intimate in this social context, I thought, while keeping my eyes glued to the winding, unpaved road. Either this guy had real boundary issues, or this was a group of business associates with a long history, one that transcended strict workplace protocol. In other words, maybe these people were friends.
The ensuing conversation quickly answered that question: These were people accustomed to being real around one another.
One of the women spoke first. "I'll tell you how I knew. I had an affair and realized I would not care if my husband found out. That realization floored me, and spurred me to take action."
The other woman chimed in. "For me, it was when our kids all left the nest, and it was just the two of us. We were both unhappy, like unhappy friends. Life should be more than that, shouldn't it?"
Tim said, "I know just what you mean. I feel like a hypocrite. I'm the guy who's always preaching that you shouldn't settle in your professional life or private life. That you should always reach for happiness. And, to be really honest, I'm sick of begging for sex. You guys know I had an affair in 1994, and my wife still won't forgive me! I mean, my God — it's been 22 years. How many times must I apologize?"
"For me it was simple," the other man offered. "I woke up one day and realized I just wasn't happy, and life is too short to live that way."
For my part, I had never felt more like the proverbial fly on the wall. And this from a guy who, after 35 years in the hacking game, feels like he could have been cast in the movie The Fly. It could be that Kiley's endorsement of me made the group feel comfortable talking freely in my presence. Or maybe their confessions resulted from what I've dubbed the "taxi bubble": The experience of being en route, neither here nor there, engenders a strange freedom and volubility.
Though I knew better than to interject myself into this private conversation, their words caused me to reflect on the nature of the marriage relationship. Though I am no expert on the subject, I was struck by how each one of them — all seemingly good and decent people — brought it down to a quest for happiness. I wondered if, perhaps, we shouldn't look to our partners to deliver to us this elusive and precious gift. Maybe we need to find it in ourselves.
Hey, I'm just saying.
My passengers' four-way conversation continued in the same vein all the way to the Inn at Essex. I eased up to the front entrance, and the three in the back exited the taxi while Tim lingered to pay the fare.
"So, I apologize if I was a little intense," he said as he handed me the money, throwing in a fat tip. "I can get that way."
"No problem whatsoever," I replied with a smile. "You were talking about life, and I can deal with it."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.