True Companion

Mara A. Cohen.  Embodied Effigies.  November 2016.  Issue 6: 21-27. Original URL:  https://effigiesmag.com/archives/issue-six/

My husband sat beside me on the couch. He’d left work early to pick me up, and our daughter was with the sitter. I wore a clingy black dress and strappy stilettos, an outfit I’d chosen to feel sexy and strong, one designed to command his attention.

I’d known my husband nearly half my life. No point wasting time with small talk. Besides, the therapist charged by the hour.

“What’s the goal here?” I began warily. “Why are we here? Do we want to have a good marriage? Do we want our daughter to grow up in a happy home and marry a good man someday?”

“There’s plenty of mistakes on both sides,” my husband replied. “And certainly, there are things that could be better. But overall we have a pretty good marriage.”

With that, a trap door opened beneath me, sending me plummeting down a dark well. “We have the worst marriage of anyone I know,” I heard my voice say from somewhere far away.

We were all surprised.

After a stunned silence, my husband was the first to speak. “Oh, come on!” he countered. “What about that couple at the school? The guy who had the a air, and now they’re getting divorced?”

“I don’t know them!” I shot back. “Of all the married couples I know, ours is the worst!"

I had, in fact, taken a mental inventory of every married couple I associated with, and each union seemed more content than ours: The bread-winning wife whose do-nothing husband couldn’t make a bed or mow the lawn? Their intertwined pinkies that day at the pier spoke volumes. The very-pregnant woman at the potluck whose movie director husband could have had his pick of starlets?

He’d gazed at her with moon eyes. I’d considered couples on their second marriages, gay couples, straight couples. My marriage was the worst of them all, so bad it was a source of shame.

The marriage I ached for was nothing extravagant. I saw examples everywhere. Like the couple I’d spotted through the passenger-side window while we were stopped at a red light on our way to the therapist’s. They looked to be in their early 70’s and were casually dressed. The man carried a bag of takeout. The sun was sinking low, and their long shadows preceded them as they ambled down the sidewalk. The woman was at least a head shorter than the man, but they’d walked along together, their strides perfectly in-sync.

Although I didn’t know them, I could imagine I did. They reminded me of my parents and my parents’ friends. I imagined their house, like the one I’d grown up in, cozy but uncluttered. Like couples everywhere, they argued. Sometimes they slammed doors and said things they regretted. But then they apologized. And then they hugged. Maybe they laughed about it later, or maybe they just forgot and moved on. Most times, though, they got along. One washed while the other dried. Sometimes they talked from the heart about things that mattered to them, and when they did, each knew the other understood. Other times they were quiet together. Most times, things between that couple were normal, ordinary. Comfortable. Easy. Picturing that couple my husband and I were nothing like, my eyes welled with tears.

Did I really need to detail the ways our marriage fell short? “I’m the last thing on your list -- your job, your mother, whatever’s on your Blackberry. It’s like you don’t see me. I’ve always excused it, but at this point in my life I feel entitled to better.”

I’d never be able to get through a statement like that at home without my husband erupting like a volcano, responding to my concerns with anger, blame or withdrawl. I struggled against habits I’d acquired during our long marriage—back-peddling, placating, equivocating, apologizing. In the relative safety of the therapist’s office, I took a running leap onto what I knew was perilously thin ice. “It’s almost easier when you’re not around—stuck at the office or away on business because you get so bellicose and domineering and physically withholding. Now my doctors check my weight and my blood pressure and then they ask, ‘How’s your marriage?’ My marriage,” I declare, my voice rising, “is literally making me sick! I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around divorce. at concept’s just not part of my world. But this is so bad for me!”

My husband had remained stone-faced throughout my litany. Arms crossed and mouth set in a tight line, he sat less than a foot away from me on the therapist’s couch, but the gulf between us felt unbridgeable. He gave no indication he wished to speak, so I continued. “After all these years, I’m on a hair-trigger, watching your moods, absorbing your sarcasm, your shouting, always wondering how I could say things differently, explain things just so—all so you’ll understand. But nothing I do, nothing I say makes any difference!”

I was really sobbing now. “I don’t want a divorce! I don’t want a divorce! But I just don’t know what to do!” My nose was running and my mascara was too, and I didn’t care. “Our daughter is growing up with this!” I wailed. “She sees it! And I tell her, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ I say, ‘My parents weren’t like this. Most marriages aren’t like this.’ And she says, ‘I know, Mommy. I know. It’s different with my friends’ parents.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. I swiped my nose with the back of my hand. My husband plucked a tissue from a box and handed it to me.

***

“May I ask you a question?” I said from the doorway.

My husband stood at the bathroom sink, a towel wrapped around his waist. He stared at the Blackberry in his hand while hot water streamed from the tap.

“Okay,” he replied, his eyes fixed on his Blackberry.
“You don’t need to answer this right away. Just think about it.”
I waited until my husband put down his Blackberry and met my eyes in the mirror.

“How do you envision your life in 10, 15 years -- a er you retire? How do you see yourself spending your time? You don’t need to answer right now,” I repeated. I wanted him to weigh his response carefully, but he plunged right in.

“I’d like to learn to sail,” he said. “Study Torah. Collect cars.”
I had not one iota of interest in any of these things, a fact he knew. Or should have.

“Oh, good to know how I fit in.” My tone was biting to cover my sadness and disappointment. “You can learn to drive a stick shift,” my husband added, but I’d already turned away.

***

Our daughter had already cleared her place and was drawing in the other room by the time he joined me at the table. He pulled out his Blackberry soon as he sat down and started scrolling through the little screen. Didn’t even acknowledge the meal I’d prepared, barely acknowledged me. It was less consideration than he’d give a stranger on the street. So I asked him to please not look at his Blackberry at the table, and he stormed at me for being critical, and things spiraled down from there. I’d pleaded for him to listen and tried to rephrase my request, but it was futile. Each time I tried to speak, he interrupted with fresh recriminations until in frustration, I shouted to be heard. I should have known better. It was all he needed to stomp off and slam a door.

I was so rattled that the half-tablet of Ambien didn’t do the trick. I needed the whole 10-milligrams before I finally drifted off to sleep.

But more than an hour before my alarm was set to go off, a chilling thought jolted me awake: Have I squandered too much time already sticking with a marriage that will never leave me anything but alone? My husband’s side of the bed was undisturbed, his pillow still fluffed. So right there in our bed, in the faint glow of dawn, I did a thing that felt taboo. I put myself through a fantasy divorce.

Knowing my husband as I did, one thing was sure. There’d be no settling things rationally, amicably. The entire enterprise would be a bloodbath. He’d lawyer-up and be as vindictive as possible. Child custody, financial assets, the whole nine yards. He’d see to it that everything would be a battle. So my first step would be to find a top-notch attorney.

I went round and round on that one. How would I get a referral? My imagination got me no further than an office with an oriental rug on the floor and a brass lamp illuminating a mahogany desk.

If it came down to it, would I be willing to give up the house we’d devoted so much money and energy to remodeling? In a heartbeat. It was just another asset to be divided. What about the furniture, the books, the art, the dishes -- all those material things we’d amassed over the years, objects of beauty and utility? None of them mattered. Not even that Japanese screen hanging opposite my bed I enjoy every morning when I open my eyes. The one thing I really wanted was a photograph of my daughter hanging at the end of the hall. She’s pictured with her legs in the air and a pair of my fanciest high- heeled shoes on her little feet. But the portrait hanging outside the bedroom of the three of us laughing? Let him keep that one—a reminder of what he’d lost.

***

I crept downstairs to the kitchen enjoy my coffee while the rest of the house was still asleep. Groggy from the sleeping pill, I craved the caffeine.

Shit, I thought when I saw the fluorescent glow of the under-cabinet lights leaking out from under the door. He's up.

I braced myself for what I might encounter on the inside—piles of mail and periodicals on every surface, assorted personal electronics devices glowing away. I knew the drill. He’d shoot a little sideways glance at me when I came in and hope that if he behaved as if everything was okay I’d forget about his tirade from the night before. I knew my part too. Don’t mention that the empty bottle of wine on the counter or the fact that he never came to bed. Just play along like all the whole sorry evening’s been forgotten or risk another fight. Shit.

“Hi,” he said over his shoulder when I opened the door. He was standing at the granite counter near the kitchen sink, focused on the glowing LED screen of his iPad, his Blackberry an arm’s length away. My morning sanctuary was bathed in the eerie glow of fluorescent lights and LEDs.

“Hi,” I replied flatly. I flipped off the fluorescent lights and turned on the overhead incandescents. I could see the display my husband had open his iPad, an application to control the giant “disk vault” containing “uncompressed audio files” of what must be his 50,000 CDs, not to mention hundreds of DVDs and Blu-Rays. Maybe thousands. From across the room, I could see he was scrolling through a list of titles illuminated on the screen.

Typical. Totally immersed in his electronics.
“How’d you sleep?” he said, his eyes glued to his iPad.

“Fine,” I replied without expression. I took out a mug, poured it 1⁄4-full with milk, and zapped it in the microwave. 

Still not looking at me, he carried his iPad to the touch panel mounted on the wall by the light switch and began pressing buttons on the display. My irritation rose with each “beep” of the touchscreen. The deep circles under my husband’s eyes looked to me like those of a junkie. I wondered if he’d slept at all. I figured he’d dived down some internet rabbit hole of wine enthusiasts or forums for Audi car owners or online shopping. Probably he’d started watching some car movie after I went upstairs. Maybe he’d spotted some minuscule blip in the picture and started fiddling with the system and firing off emails to those smelly techs about his stupid, most expensive-ever, never-functioning home A/V system. Probably could have retired on what that thing cost.

Now he’d start telling me about the system’s latest problem and expect me to stand here and listen to him go on-and-on about it, and if I said one bad thing about this idiotic stereo setup or told him that I couldn’t wait around for his stupid technicians, it would be another fight. Just go away, and let me drink my coffee!

He wasn’t going anywhere. Resigned, I poured hot coffee from my automatic coffee pot over my mug of warm milk then headed for the door.

“Hold on,” he said before I could leave. “Just listen to this.”
 

I sighed. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t feel like it. I just came in here for my coffee.”

“This’ll just be real quick,” he said.


I sighed again, resentfully.

My husband fiddled some more with the touchscreen of his iPad. Music began playing out of the speakers in the kitchen ceiling. He turned to look at me, one hand behind his back, anchored to the counter. “That’s not too loud, is it?” he asked, motioning toward our daughter’s bedroom upstairs. His prominent brow protruded over his squinting eyes, an expression I knew signaled the onset of one of his migraine headaches.

But the rhythm drifting down from the ceiling took me by surprise. Instead of some avant-garde classical piece or new jazz recording, the song was from one of the few CDs I’d contributed to my husband’s vast trove. I’d bought the entire disk just for one song, “Silver Thunderbird,” the singer’s reminiscence about his dad. But that’s not the song my husband had selected.

Sometimes I'm an angel and sometimes I'm cruel / But when it comes to love I'm just another fool

Probably, my husband was trying to demonstrate something with his speakers and after last night’s fight had picked a CD he thought I wouldn’t mind. I wrapped my fingers around my mug and wondered what was the point of this exercise.

But as the warmth of coffee seeped through me, I gradually became cognizant of the song’s refrain.

My arms are reaching out, out across this canyon/ I'm asking you to be my true companion/ True companion

My husband’s exhausted eyes met mine, and I saw his forehead was furrowed with worry. As despair eased its grip, I became aware of my heart beating in my chest.

The lyrics washed over me, and a stone caught in my throat. I imagined him toiling in the hours before dawn, harnessing the technology I deemed a distraction to convey tender emotions. My lips trembled, and I closed my eyes to hold back tears. I was grateful he’d undertaken his effort even as I hungered for the quotidian stuff that renders grand gestures unnecessary.

The two of us remained anchored to our two separate counters, him watching and me listening. My husband was the first to leave his perch. He crossed the kitchen to put his arms around me. I leaned into him then, and his cheek felt damp against mine. After a moment, he began to sway, but he stopped when I stood planted in place. I didn’t want to dance. I wanted him just to hold me while I enjoyed the song. The song he’d chosen just for me.