Sarah Bregel | Longreads | November 2017 | 11 minutes (2,671 words)
I am peering out the screen door at the front entrance of my house. Anxious, I glance up and down the tree-lined street and then move to the back door to do the same. The dog follows my every move. I stop and stare at him, circle the dining room table twice, and start over. I’m practically panting, the same as he does when he chases his tail then flops on the carpet from exhaustion.
I’m listening for footsteps, to hear the gate click. I’m waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of my husband jogging up the road, dripping with sweat. For a brief moment I wonder if he has thrown himself into oncoming traffic.
I cannot stop pacing, cannot stop bobbing my head. It is heavy, a block of cement, weighing me down. I cannot eat, but I can drink wine. I have had the better part of a bottle already. I finish my glass, then fill it with water and chug it down three times, preparing for the worst come morning.
Our two small kids are downstairs watching TV. They’ve been planted there like eyes growing on the skins of potatoes for hours, and I have no plans to call to them and demand they shut it off. I can’t look at their faces for fear they might see through me. Later, I will dry my swollen eyes long enough to read bedtime stories and lay with them a while. I will say “Goodnight, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” I’ll close the door almost all the way then whisper through the crack, “There’s no bugs,” and slip out.
Marshall and I found a bench on the sidewalk, old and abandoned. We brought it home, where I sprayed it with Simple Green until it was almost white, then tied two blue-patterned cushions to it. Seven years of marriage and our home is coming together in bits and pieces like the bench, or the curtains I sewed even though I can’t really sew. At the same time, it is all falling apart, in monstrous, heavy clumps. An avalanche. A tidal wave. I don’t know how much is left to rebuild.
Before Marshall fled the house tonight, before I began pacing, before I drank the wine, we sat on the porch. He stared at me, waiting for signs of life. I sat hunched on the new bench, staring at the floorboards. It had been days since we’d spoken to one another, except for me saying, “I’m having trouble being in this house with you,” and “I can’t talk. You won’t like what I have to say.” So we stayed silent instead.
I’m waiting desperately to catch a glimpse of my husband jogging up the road, dripping with sweat. For a brief moment I wonder if he has thrown himself into oncoming traffic.
But tonight he sat on the rocking chair next to the bench. The breeze that blew between us was warm. And I thought about how it couldn’t have been a more perfect summer night if it weren’t for this rot between us. He stared at me until I had to look at him.
There is no right or easy or good way to say that maybe you don’t want to be married. So I spit out tiny fragments of sentences followed by quiet sobs and shallow breaths that rattled in my chest. I talked about being a better parent when I’m alone, about disappointment, about resentments that have been coming and going then jolting me so hard that I know, at least in that moment, I’ve given up.
“No,” he said. “I still love you.” He began to cry.
“Stop looking at me that way,” I begged him. “It will make me take it all back, and I’m not sure I should.”
“I’m going for a run,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do.” I wondered how he could just get up and go. He hasn’t gone running in months, and I am so queasy. My legs are putty. I can barely pace from the front door to the back.
It is Father’s Day, and Marshall has slept on the couch in the basement for the fourth night in a row. This morning, I pulled two new books out from under the bed and handed them to my daughter. “Go give these to Daddy, okay?” I feigned a smile. She dragged her brother downstairs to deliver the gifts. I couldn’t bring myself to write him a card or look him in the eye. I stayed in bed wondering how we would get through this day, again, without speaking.
In the kitchen, we spoke to one another through our children. “Can we go to the pool?” my daughter asks and I said “Sure. Well, it’s Father’s Day, so I guess ask Daddy.” And she turned to look at him. He nodded, too distraught to put words together. I am a much better faker than he is, which is not often a good thing, but sometimes when you’re a mother contemplating the fate of her family’s lives, it is. So I smiled wide at her, squeezed her shoulders, and exclaimed “I’ll get the towels!”
At the pool, I wear sunglasses even in the water. We take turns swimming with the kids and when it’s my turn to sit in a lounge chair, I pull out a magazine from a stack I shoved in the pool bag so no one will notice that I’m a mean, depressed mother who is thinking of leaving her husband on Father’s Day. I bury my nose in article after article and wipe tears from under my sunglasses before glancing up to wave to my daughter who is proudly doing cannonballs and my son who is wearing a floaty vest and kicking his tiny legs so hard and fast. They are both strong, joyful, oblivious.
I turn the pages of Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day like I’m reading the best, most invigorating novel I’ve ever read in my life. I read ads and how-tos like I’m reading Erica Jong or Lidia Yuknavich so that I can fool everyone near me into thinking I’m entrenched instead of hiding. Then I turn the page and read about a mother who saved her children from their burning home, who crawled through fiery ashes then passed out by the front door until someone driving by pulled her into the yard when she was out of oxygen. She’d used it all up, saving her babies.
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All around me there are families wading in the water, mothers holding babies to their breasts. They are holding their lives together, but whether it is firmly or not, I don’t know. It all looks the same from the outside. I wonder how it is possible to even save yourself, too, when you’re the air, filling everyone up and up until you’re gasping. But you don’t have a choice.
He sleeps downstairs on the couch again. From the bed, I stare at the stack of books on my nightstand, all of them by women authors. I’ve been rereading my old favorites — stories about heartache, separation, renewal. Even when I was young, I looked up to women who started over, who weren’t afraid of losing everything. Women who saw the crack and didn’t ignore it, let it fester until they couldn’t see themselves anymore, but tore it wide open. It’s why Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong have never been out of reach. It’s why I quoted her at my own wedding. I imagined I could be so brave if I ever needed to be, even if it meant being alone.
There is no right or easy or good way to say that maybe you don’t want to be married. So I spit out tiny fragments of sentences followed by quiet sobs and shallow breaths that rattled in my chest.
I take a pill to make me fall asleep.
In the morning, I hear him downstairs, doing everything I’ve been asking him to do and more. The dishes are done before I am dressed. He is helping make breakfast. He is making sure the kids brush their teeth before he goes to work. I’m not sure if he’s trying to prove a point or just being nice, but I don’t care. We smile at each other and even hug, because we’re both too sad and this day already is like being sawed in half. He doesn’t waste time and leaves for work much earlier than usual. For once, he is home when he says he will be.
We tell the kids I have too much work to do, that I’m going to stay at their grandmother’s house and probably spend the night. This is the only plan we have so far. To lie to the kids a little bit until we figure out what’s true enough to tell them. I pack a small bag — underwear, something to sleep in, my computer. Every time I put something in I want to vomit a little more. My body is railing against me; don’t go. But I go anyway. After five kisses, at least, per child, I run to the car and speed away before I change my mind.
When I get to my mother’s house, just five minutes up the road, I want to lock myself in my old childhood bedroom in the attic and sob into pillows, but I don’t. It’s too depressing. Too juvenile. Instead, I sit at the computer and type emails to half a dozen of my editors. I have to start planning now, so I ask them to send more work, any work, my way. I say things like “my schedule has opened up” and “I have a bit more availability now, so please keep me in mind for future assignments.” Then I go into my mother’s basement and roll out a pink yoga mat that she uses for physical therapy. I perform a long, boring practice and hate every minute of it. It does nothing to calm my mind the way yoga is supposed to do. I need bottles of wine, prescription drugs. I need to go back home, or build a new one.
Perhaps this is the worst part, I think. This limbo, this not knowing what to do or where to go. There are too many questions and I don’t even really care about the answers. Because it is too hard and unlike any breakup or breakdown I’ve ever had before. And I don’t think there is any good or smart or easy way to tear apart your family. There is no room for regret.
I wish there were something definitive, like an affair. I wish he would throw things or scream at me or even hit me, just once. I wish he would be a bad husband in a more upfront way, do something to make leaving easier, to make me feel anything but selfish for being unhappy.
I sit at my mother’s bright red kitchen table. I can’t look at her or answer her questions about what’s going on or what we plan to do. So I let her talk while I look at the floor. I wipe at the tears rolling down my cheeks and then finally mutter, “I have to go home.”
“Okay,” she says, and places a piece of cold salmon wrapped in tin foil in my hand for dinner.
I am sprawled out on the couch, crying into the dog’s black fur when my family walks in the door. I am spent, exhausted, confused. The kids yell “Mommy’s here!” They hug me like I’ve been gone for weeks. They are dragging me out of the smoke, breathing fresh air into my charred lungs, but it’s not their job to save me. Marshall looks at me and smiles. He doesn’t know why I came back, but he’s relieved.
When the kids are sleeping, we sit and stare at each other again, this time from different chairs in the living room. I say that deep down, I think it makes sense to separate, but I don’t want to because it’s too horrible. I say I won’t let myself be unhappy for years upon years either. If something, or everything doesn’t change, I have to end it and we have to find a way to go on living. I make him promise that he won’t fall apart completely, that he will be there for the kids. He puts his head in his hands and nods. “I know, I know,” he says.
“Maybe we can go back to therapy?” I suggest, and he likes this idea. I say that I’m not sure it will help because I’ve already told him everything I know. I’ve already cried and begged for a marriage that works and for fleeting moments, when I’ve unloaded all I can, it does. But then he forgets to call again. And I’m slamming the oven door, putting his cold dinner back in, and taking the kids up to bed alone. I’m screaming into the phone when his voicemail picks up, but never leaving a message. He looks at his phone instead of looking at my face, a tiny act that is not meant to cut me. But it does. And then, without my even noticing, everything falls back into its misplaced place. It always reverts, and part of me knows it will keep reverting until it’s so ingrained that all I can remember about my life is how to be someone’s angry wife.
Perhaps this is the worst part, I think. This limbo, this not knowing what to do or where to go. There are too many questions and I don’t even really care about the answers.
“Yes, I want to,” he says, pleading with me with his eyes. I email a therapist the following day. One who helped friends of mine work on their marriage, then navigate their separation when their marriage couldn’t be saved. I write the story of our lives in my email, or at least my half of the story. She writes back the next day that she is booked up but will squeeze us in because it sounds like we’re in a “really bad place.” I want to ask her what a good place looks or feels like. I thank her and say “We’ll take it.”
I realize I have two kinds of heroes now. There is the fierce one who smelled the smoke and got out before the flames engulfed everything. And there is the one who stayed, held her breath, crawled across ashes, then passed out in the doorway. She gave it everything and more, saving everyone else before herself. I am opening windows, sounding the alarm, waiting for the smoke to clear. And wondering: if it doesn’t, which hero will I be?
The following week, we make a triangle — Marshall, the new therapist, and me. Within seconds, the therapist places a box of tissues in my lap, and the loneliness spills out of me. Then the loneliness spills out of Marshall. We talk about how we got here — two babies, and so many days that were so long they felt like weeks. The losses each of us have experienced, the parts of our souls that had to fall away as we folded ourselves into partners and parents, into new people we weren’t sure we even liked. It was necessary. It was survival.
Maybe we’ll always need adjustments and repairs, like an old car that needs a lot of maintenance. Diligent oil changes, tightening gears. Grease. Maybe this is just what choosing not to give up looks like. Or maybe it’s all so much harder than it should be. Maybe I’d be better off turning off the engine and leaving it by the side of the road, going on foot, carrying my own weight. I have no way of knowing. I’m not sure I’m ready to know.
I steer away from the office, another appointment scheduled. I’m in the driver’s seat and when he reaches for my hand, I don’t pull away. I let it linger, quietly, until we are home. Tonight, there is fuel in the tank. We are gentle with one another, running smoother. We smile before getting out of the car and closing the garage. At the back door I breathe in all the summer air I can, and turn the key.
* * *
Sarah Bregel is a mother, writer, feminist, and deep-breather based in Baltimore, Maryland. She has contributed to The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Vice, Vox, The Huffington Post, Babble, Today, The Daily Dot, Scary Mommy, The Establishment, Parents, Fit Pregnancy, The Baltimore Sun, and more.
Editor: Sari Botton