“God makes you hopeful at 19, at 20, so you have the fire to go out and reproduce; the foolishness to believe the world is a place worth being. Then at 50 you are in the deepest part of the pain— your parents start losing their shit, your KIDS are getting divorced, idiots are refusing to get the vaccine. You can’t understand what makes it all worth it. You want to run your car into a bridge abutment.”
She hadn’t looked up from her phone. She just said it: out loud. He looked over at his wife of 30 years. Her face, vaguely familiar to him as the one he fell in love with; sagging in certain spots, some lines around her mouth from the worry and the stress, not from lack of smiling. She had always smiled. Something had come over her in the last few years. The self-effacement she approached her idiosyncrasies with had turned into bitter self-criticism. She didn’t want to be around anyone anymore. Not even him. He could see she would stare at him sometimes, JUST stare. He couldn’t understand what she was thinking, maybe “not YOU again” or something like that. Or that was his own projection about how he felt about his own company. One can’t decipher sometimes.
“What do you mean? Do you really feel that way?” He put down his phone and looked directly at her. There was a note of concern in his voice she couldn’t ignore.
“What?” she said, looking up and exasperatedly smacking her hands on the table like he had interrupted her during something important (and not the other way around). “What are you talking about?”
His voice rose, tinged with panic. “The bridge abutment—Jesus, when you talk like that it scares me!”
She softened, letting her shoulders fall. Shortly after they were married, she told him about one evening when they were newly dating, about hearing a voice other than her own speak to her. They had been sitting on her worn-out college sofa holding hands, their lips raw from kissing. She was notoriously and proudly promiscuous in those days. She had never wanted to get married and was very honest about that. It didn’t stop people from catching feelings, so she was always left holding the “bad guy” moniker. This moment with him, though, she heard distinctly from somewhere far off, “You will be nice to him.” And she was, as best as she could be, all the time.
“I’m sorry.” She put down her phone. When she turned to him, the smile was there again but her eyes stayed hard. “I’m just saying.”
This is how a lot of her declarations ended, lately. She would make a naked statement about her immediate feelings and let them hang in the air, thick and acrid. His urge to fix her, to change how she felt, to help her see that it isn’t all that bad; neutered.
“It’s a pandemic. This is a tough time for everyone. Everyone is going through..”
She turned back to her phone. She had stopped listening. She didn’t want to hear about everyone. She didn’t even want to hear about him, for that matter.
In the immediacy of her silence, he felt exposed and awkward. His hair was sticking up in the back, morning bed head, and he flattened it with his palm and turned back to his phone. His eyes danced on the NY Times article he had been in the middle of; words and only words. No meaning or context. Economic downturn, environment, something along those lines. He continued to pretend to read as he thought about the time they sat in a café in Florence. Ten years ago, early evening; the kids were riding in on their Vespas for the free happy hour buffet. It was June so the sun was still set high in the sky and the heat was not unpleasant. She was wearing a white tank top, her hair was down and her shoulders were pink. They had already consumed a bottle of red wine and were talking about something that he can’t specifically remember. He must have said something that surprised her and she erupted into her specific brand of laughter that consumed the room, like the sound of a train rushing by: sudden and loud, a little too close for comfort. He had lifted his heavy and very expensive Cannon, back before phones had cameras, and snapped a picture. Her eyes were half open and her head was thrown back. It was an action shot as beautiful as Michael Jordan reaching for the basket in that Nike ad. She was an athlete when it came to joy. She showed it all over; graceful and intoxicating. You just wanted that but couldn’t parse out what THAT was. Back then, it seemed to be in endless supply for her.
“Hey.” He said, picking up his phone and pointing the camera directly at her.
She sighed out ”Yeah..” and shifted in her seat.
“Look at me.”
She looked up, and there were tears hanging on the sills of her eyes. When she noticed him holding his phone in front of his face, she smiled broadly, squeezing a tear out and letting it roll down her cheek. What he saw wasn’t the joy he had captured in the past, but her promise to be nice to him; remarkably, and in the wake of her defeat at the hands of a shockingly inferior world.