“Hey, I didn’t know that.”, She says. At this point I am supposed to ask what she means, take an interest in what is otherwise a rhetorical statement. I see, rather than feel, myself purse my lips. I will not rise up to her unwitting bait. That thought tumbles over and over in my mind.
Lately I have been estranged from her, we have been estranged from each other. For some reason we have grown apart. Something golden and shiny that was one of the bright pinpoints in our tiny galaxy has gone dark and cold without a whimper or a nova. Something, a grain of fine portentous sand, has slipped through our fingers.
We have been talking on and off about one of her idiosyncrasies: she feels abandoned when I sleep as we are driving. This usually happens after supper, when we go out or when have it at her mother’s house. I sleep soon after eating. I always have. I have never been able to eliminate or even delay this quirk. She hates it. She hates it enough for the first time since we met she will leave me if I keep it up. She said so.
It renders her unsafe. As a front passenger, I should be as alert as she is, watch out for danger, be a co-driver. She recounts again how she was once almost car-jacked and had I been there I would have been hurt, or worse, because of slowed down reflexes in sleep. This is a deal-breaker for her, the inability to feel secure with me in a car. Also, she finds it rude: do I sleep when I am in a taxi coming back from a night out?
She is keyed up, in that controlled way of hers, a cobra spooled and steady, for me to say that yes, I actually do. I can afford to. I am a man. The risks for me for this “crass” habit are minimal. Not so for her, a woman, since all men are black in the night. She has to be alert, sharing her taxi or Uber details with her friends as she leaves a venue, asking the drivers questions, paying attention to her surroundings. Me, no.
I mention that my sleeping when she is driving is because I feel safe around her. The irony. She says I should drive for a change. I nod like I know what she means. I could drive, but I have another quirk: I do not drive other people’s cars. Why? Why should I. I was raised to have and use my own shit, even at great inconvenience. She does not know this and today seems an inappropriate time to share this nugget.
I have retreated into myself, avoiding her and presenting a façade of camaraderie. I am a decent facsimile of myself, I hope. I feel angry and hurt that this eccentricity of hers might doom me. She seems willing to go that route. I stew in the acid broth of my negative thoughts, lulled into a dark joy at how special I feel about this injustice. Being angry feels good. Being righteously angry is intoxicating. If feels great, to use a decidedly American superlative.
And I spend the sunny afternoon feeling great, especially in the sense of big. I am the bigger person. I have tried and failed to stay awake as we are night driving. I am struggling, as one should struggle, to be happy, to make someone happy, quietly, stoically, without expectations of reward. As a martyr for our relationship, I strive to be better for her, although I lie that it is for myself, and I quietly judge her, comparing myself to her. I am better than her, I seem to say with my patient smiles and innocent questions.
She also suggests playing loud music I enjoy. Or opening the windows or talking. Talking sometimes works, when I am in an expansive mood, which is rare. I am working on making her happy and this is what I get, a dress-down because of an ingrained habit, something that in the grand scheme, however ‘grand’ is in the ephemeral nature of our lives, should not matter.
This is a speck of dust on a spotless window though which I have seen my future with her, a diamond life of joy and abundance, albeit tempered with humanity – forgiven frailty, compassion and love. And she dares wash all that away. Yet, it does matter. It matters because it gnaws at us, it exists. It sits heavily between us like a pile of fresh dog shit, letting loose its bouquet, reminding us with a condescending grin that it is there.
But, I am programmed, almost two years coded to ask her what she means. I see myself unpursing my lips, parting them quickly and watching the question fall out too willingly, “Know what?” She enjoys engaging with me, talking to me, hearing me talk. She senses I want to be taciturn. She is right. Even when she answers my mind is half away.
Some actor in a television show went to Des Moines. For a bit she struggles with its pronunciation. She googles it. As she was finding out the correct way to say Des Moines, I was away in the sitting room, looking for what I do not remember. It could be my body was a reflection of my absent mind. I walked away from her physically after I had escaped her mentally.
Or we could stop going out at night. Accurately, I could stop going with her out at night. I could stay home, out of sight and therefore unable to disappoint. The sleep fight is, when I think about it, a precipitator of my drastically reduced drinking. I imagine I will eventually stop. I hope if that happens I will also be able to stay awake. But, this is not what is driving my angst. I am chiselling away at parts of myself, contorting myself into shapes we both often ridicule.
We have often laughed at how people change and become things their partners no longer recognise and so do not any more love. I am doing the same thing I mock. This is why the pique bites with razor teeth deep into my flesh. I have become a joke unto myself.
I retreat further, curling tighter and tighter inward. She does not seem to notice. Or she does and says nothing. I stare at the pages of the book I am reading and the words are dancing shadows, devoid of meaning and message. The acid broth in my mind is bubbling and spilling over into my heart and I can feel my chest tightening. She asks whether I would like to try out the new condoms we bought and the thought of feeling her naked skin on mine repulses me.
The look on her face when we woke up in the morning, the moue-sneer of disapproval and disappointment, the way she flinched away from me when I reached out for her. These are what come to mind at her attempt at intimacy. I feel a bitterness that scares me. How can I love her as much as I do and hate her so intensely at this very moment? Not really, no. I try to smile. I fail. I go back to the book.
She goes back to her book, and alternately, her phone. She is probably going through her messages, frowning at this one, laughing quietly at that one, thinking about showing me a funny picture and thinking better of it. She does not attempt to draw me out of my cave this time. I do not know what she is really doing, only imagining. I am not looking at her, nor do I want to lest she sees through me to my righteous pain.
I come to a place in the book I am reading where the protagonist burns off his eyebrows. I tell her the way he looked with his facial hair singed off is how she looks. She pouts and turns away, mentioning how insecure she is about her eyebrows.
I laugh, cut myself short, and offer a token apology. Laughter threatens to turn me inside-out. I am not sorry for this sweet little way I have cut her, the way my words have slid between her ribs and sat between her chest like sharp rocks. Dubious satisfied glee fills me. She deserves to hurt like me.