If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry. ~ Anton Chekhov

 It began and ended in the kitchen. The worn yellow walls, the grease-splattered metal, the bumpy linoleum floor ~ they were the backdrop to a marriage. Though the bedroom had seen things more intimate, and the den had witnessed the casual hours of camaraderie, the kitchen was where their marriage had lived and breathed, and the kitchen alone knew their secrets.

The faucet had kept time to the years. After fixing and replacing it regularly, they realized that the drip would never stop. The pressure always built up. They had decided to live with it, alternating methods of dealing with its incessant beating. A coffee cup or glass was the best solution ~ the water dripped and silently joined its own.

She held a silver spoon, idly torturing a teabag in her stained cup. It was past midnight. A small plate of crumbs sat forlornly at his place, and the thought of him eating alone at the table saddened and repelled her. The argument started over these crumbs, led to a surly exchange about finances, and ended up in a desperate screaming match resounding the regrets and losses of the last twenty years of their lives. It was the same argument they’d always had, only the ending was different. He stopped, shook his head a little, and walked quietly upstairs. No final shout, no slammed door, but not quite a defeat. Maybe there was nothing left to say.

She slumped in the kitchen chair. This is what she did after most arguments. He would retreat upstairs to the bedroom to sleep it off; she would busy herself in the kitchen. The dishes had been washed and dried and put away, and the counter had been wiped down; only his plate was left in front of the empty chair. She would leave that for him.

A single fluorescent bulb buzzed faintly above the sink, throwing off a steadily wavering stream of white light. Snow was falling steadily outside. Tree limbs drooped in the dim distance, barely discernible behind the swirling curtain of ice crystals.

Footfalls traveled above her. He was still awake.

Had they reached, then, an impasse? Was this finally it? After everything, all the years ~ the false barrenness, the sudden happy unexpected joy of their children – not one, but two – the slow drought of their passion, the insidious hazards of their comfort ~ had it come to an end?

They were poised on the precipice of a horror so great that both recoiled at the full notion of it. Fleeting thoughts of living alone again, brief daydreams of dividing up possessions, and the heavy prospect of starting over again conspired to keep down any serious rifts. Who could get worked up enough to be bothered? When they did travel down those corridors of possibility, and the complete scenarios of how it might happen played out in their heads, it always seemed a waste to go through with it. Somehow the idea that it could all end was enough to keep it together.

And then there were the children. They were older now, but still. How to explain the years of reasons, and the reassurance that it wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t all a lie? It was just too much.

She had almost left him one day, for no other reason than it felt like the moment, but that too had passed, and when his car pulled into the driveway and she still sat at the kitchen table in her nightgown it no longer mattered.

For some time it seemed that they were on the threshold of hating each other. Every petty argument and silly fight looked to be the last. Threats were made, ultimatums thrown, and nothing ever fully resolved. They had reached points of quiet desperation, and each had entertained thoughts of the other’s passing. Nothing murderous or calculated or anything more than fleeting, but they had been there ~ a vague vista of freedom or sorrow and a worry that it might be lonely but not unbearable.

During the pregnancies, and for some years thereafter, he had been the one to take over some of the housework. He cooked and cleaned, did the laundry and the dishes, even easing up on his work hours when his time at home was proving more valuable. As the kids got older, and she felt herself less necessary – is there a colder realization? – she almost gave it all up, before getting lost in a job, in the garden, in the maddening drudge of living.

She started doing the dishes again, and other small chores around the house – small tasks that he had picked up when she was the one at work. She suddenly refused his food and his cooking, as if to say ‘I lived before you, and I will live after you’ve gone.’ A trifling of a stance, but it grounded her, reminding her that she could, if need be, be all right alone. She did it to remind herself that she was still there. Even after all the years of co-mingled sustenance, she would still be able to do it on her own.

She started taking care of things again, doing her own dishes, washing her own clothes, in the simple way she had learned, in the simple way she had done it before they married. It wasn’t much, but it was survival. In its first stages it was always survival.

The notion of a break rocked her less than she thought it would, less than it had when she was younger and more hopeful. A strange, matter-of-fact resignation dulled the first drops of pain, even as she knew this would be a deeper cut, a more resonant hurt.

They were still friends, and certainly they loved each other, and were perhaps still in love with each other. Both knew it was a choice. There was always a choice. Knowing this made it easier, if a little sadder. The thoughts of freedom, of possibility, even with all the responsibilities, were what they lived on, and though both questioned whether or not it was enough, they always came to the conclusion that, for now, it was.

‘This is how it would be if the world didn’t rock them too much’ – the paraphrased words of a forgotten novel suddenly surfaced. Would they welcome then the sudden appearance of death if it were to come?

Years ago, when the kids were still little, she realized she would have to give up her dream of a traveling companion. Even before they came, she could tell he didn’t like leaving the house. It never bothered her – she enjoyed traveling alone. All these years later though, the distant and vague ache of regret crept into consciousness, growing clearer and more pronounced as the days passed.

Though she seemed to be returning to herself as the children grew up, it was just one bit of being busy being replaced by another. She let things go in other ways, focusing on her job, on her life outside of the house. The gardens, once her pride and province, sat beneath the snowy cover, neglected and overgrown for years. At first the change had been subtle, and he trusted that she had a game-plan in mind for the landscaping. In truth, she had simply let it run wild, allowing it to grow up as it wished, mustering a few half-hearted attempts at pruning throughout the year. She was loathe to admit that in the darkest, truest part of her heart, she had done much the same with her children once they were out of the house.

At first the change had been subtle, almost imperceptible – one day a patch of unruly, unwanted seedlings from an over-zealous cup plant had taken hold, establishing its tuberous roots in a prominent and not entirely unwelcome location. She let it happen, watching the land take itself where it wanted to go. Nature herself was seeing to the pruning, ancient pine trees high in the sky cracked and swayed perilously with the heaviness, dangling their burden over the northern end of the house. The gardens lost their manicured neatness, delicate perennials giving way to the strong and stalwart, the less exciting hardiness of weed trees. The early plantings she had made in the first few years had grown and matured, and what once seemed an impossible-to-fill space was now overgrown and crowded, swallowing the house, wrapping its tendrils and applying its suckers like the tiny sprig of Boston ivy she had started in one dim corner and now overran the entire backyard exterior. It sometimes felt like it would take the whole house down.

On this winter night, she remained at the kitchen table, listening to the pine trees moaning overhead. His footsteps had stopped just before the creaking of the bed. Now there was the muffled crack of the pines, and an occasional light crash of limbs falling from the sky. The faucet sounded its metronomic cadence, the deadening march of wasted time, or a wasted life. The sly and subtle maneuverings required to make a marriage work were the very machinations that wore away the very frivolous notions that made love such a joy.

It would always be like this. She would get up the next morning as she had so many times, start the coffee, shower, and begin again. She would remind herself how lucky she was, and tamp down the unfair greediness of wanting more. He would notice the change, and gratefully accept the return to form, not realizing that he had played any part in it. She could never forgive him for that, but her own apology for her own hatred was in not saying anything.

He came back downstairs. Lifting the crumb-dusted plate, he brought it to the kitchen sink and ran a stream of water over it. The noise filled the room. There was still life here, in this room. He sat down opposite her, raising the eyes she first loved about him.

“Let’s not decide this tonight.”

She rose and went over to him, bending down and kissing him on the forehead. She pushed her chair under the table and left. He watched her go, listening to the faint familiar creaking of the stairs and the steady dripping of the kitchen faucet. The wet plate sat in the sink, another thing that could wait until tomorrow.


{See also 1:13}

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