It’s not that he didn’t want to start over. Max could see a relatively compelling image of the next several years of his life: in this image he was more at ease, more successful, and things were lining up just right, and there were some new people in his life that made him wonder how he ever thought he was fulfilled without them. And people tend to say encouraging things like that when a big phase of your life is ending in flames. Plenty of fish in the sea. Now you can do all those things you always wanted to do but were putting off. Look on the bright side. There’s a silver lining here. And so on. They say this and pat you on the back as the ashes of your life sprinkle softly like gray snow onto your upturned face and you think to yourself how did this happen?
Well, if he was honest with himself he more or less knew how it happened. They didn’t communicate enough, that was one of the things Janie was always going on about. You’ve got to communicate Max. She’d be standing there, rageful tears sparkling in her eyes, as Max paused with a spoonful of cereal suspended over the bowl, experiencing the annoying sensation of being caught but not knowing exactly why. There was something she wanted to hear, something allegedly about him that she wanted to know, but it definitely was not whatever was going to end up coming out of his mouth. She didn’t want to hear him say Actually to be perfectly frank, Janie, we communicate too much for my taste. Could you dial it back three or four notches on the communication? So instead he would fill his mouth with shredded wheat and pensievely chew it, and Janie would go on talking, and he would nod and agree and eventually make assurances that he would do better. It was an empty promise, and he knew that, because he didn’t know what it was he needed to do better at. What he knew was that Janie found him in some obscure way inadequate. There was some mysterious process of intimacy that he was failing to understand and therefore failing to participate in.
In lieu of actual understanding, he did what Janie said. He read books. They went to therapy. It was all rather tedious. They did have more sex though, especially during the weeks when he could think of stuff to say in their therapy sessions, usually stuff about his childhood. For some inscrutable reason it seemed to make Janie love him more, hearing about how his dad was an unpredictable drunk and Max was never allowed to keep a pet longer than a month or two. Max really couldn’t see the connection: he never drank himself, and he’d decided long ago that really pets were more trouble than they were worth, so what did it matter? But he enjoyed the way Janie would take his hand and turn eyes brimming with sympathy onto him. He liked being the center of her attention when he had succeeded in pleasing her. Afterward she would be more relaxed. She would lean into his touch like a friendly cat. They would go home from the therapist’s office and have a cup of tea and sit close together on the couch while they drank it and he would listen to Janie talk about the session, and before long they would be upstairs and he would be making her come.
The problem was it wouldn’t last. The weekly sessions seemed impossibly frequent; he couldn’t always come up with personal details to share, and then he had to deal with both the therapist and Janie being vaguely disappointed. Janie would resume busying herself at home, running the vacuum several times a week and sighing heavily. He would make a point of leaving the latest intimacy-building book they were reading on the nightstand so he could be observed reading several pages when she came into the bedroom after brushing her teeth. It would generally earn him an encouraging smile, but not much else. Max watched her withdrawing from him. It seemed to him an inevitable process, like watching the surf return into the ocean, leaving his feet sunk slightly deeper into the sand than they were before. He couldn’t fight the tide.
So it was a relief, in some ways–in a lot of ways, really–to be free of that feeling. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to start over. It was just that their lives were so entwined. At this point everything they owned was mutual. It was going to take so much undoing. And this was what Max couldn’t for the life of him wrap his head around. They had a good life–a good relationship, as far as he was concerned. There was no yelling, no meanness, the sex was good and sometimes great, they had a really nice place and were both healthy and successful in their careers. Why couldn’t she just be happy? Why couldn’t it just be enough for her? Even with the persistent feeling that he was somehow letting her down, Max could’ve gone on with her. Hell even if she changed her mind now, he would help her unpack the boxes, he would pour her a glass of wine and listen to her talk about all the things that went into that decision and all the things she was going to need from him in order to make it right. But she wasn’t changing her mind. I don’t understand why you’re doing this, he’d said to her when she told him she had withdrawn half the funds from their shared bank account. That right there is the problem, she’d replied in what seemed to Max to be an intentionally enigmatic way. Just tell me how to fix it, he had said. I don’t think you can, she had told him sadly. And there it was.
He was going to stay in their apartment, which would now be his apartment. Once they had sorted out who was taking what, the place was a lot emptier. Janie had wanted a lot of their stuff that he couldn’t see much of a need for himself, so he had let her take most of it. Some of his friends thought he was being a pushover, that he would regret it, that she was the one who wanted to leave so she should have to get her own toaster, her own towels, her own table. It’s no big deal, Max said with a shrug. We have too much stuff anyway.
One thing she conspicuously did not want to take was their bed.
Doesn’t it bother you, staying here? she asked him as she cast a scrutinizing look around the apartment. Max watched her find it lacking. Why would it? he asked with genuine curiosity. Her face as she turned to him was one he had seen her wear when watching a group of ants take apart an earthworm: pitying, but remote, letting nature take its course. We found this place together, she said. It’s full of memories. I don’t know, I just think it would be…painful.
I’m not the one who is pained by our memories, he reminded her. God, do you feel anything? she demanded bitterly. He looked into her eyes; anger, disappointment. He was failing her again. Did she want him to be hurt? Did she want him to fall apart? Was it not enough that she was leaving him, he had to be devastated too?
That’s not fair, he admonished her with a frown. I love you.
The place was a lot emptier now. In some ways it was nice, it felt spacious. Minimal, his friends called it. They thought it was more true to him. But if he was honest with himself, it was empty of more than just clutter. Janie used to sing kind of a lot. And she had a very specific eye for hanging art on the walls, and arranging the houseplants (about a third of which Max got to keep). And there was just something about her; he had never been sure what her energy was going to be, whether she would be happy to see him or curiously displeased about something he wasn’t aware of doing–or failing to do. He had always been turning a corner into the unknown with her. He used to think he disliked that about her. It had stressed him. And he was relieved, really he was. And yet.
This is a little more than just fiction
Hi Thomas! Thank you for reading 🙂 What do you mean? I’m curious!
My first marriage. It had poor communication. But with kids and being young, you do what is needed to pay the bills and keep food on the table. Plus communication is difficult with a spouse. Not wanting to hurt their feelings. Sorry, TMI. Hope you are having a pleasant weekend
Not TMI at all! I think it’s really cool that you found something I wrote relatable, since you and I (and are our individual life experiences) are so very different. It’s a great review for the character. Thank you Thomas!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Which character is more like you?
I think both characters represent different aspects of myself. Depending on the relationship I’ve been in, I have played both sides of this dynamic. Writing is a bit like dreaming: even though you seem to be creating or interacting with lots of different characters, they are all, in a way, You.