LIFE WITH THIS MAN
by Jody Sperling
The promotion to senior management has given them more money, disposable income, but also taken him further from her and their boys: physically, he travels twice as often, and mentally, when he is with them, his mind is on the job. At dinner, he’ll hide his phone in his lap, browsing emails while chewing roast chicken and rice. He’ll ask the boys how their day was, but ignore their answers. The time he needs to adjust, she wants to give him, and—or is it but—she fears he’ll choose drink again.
It takes the average person two years at any job, she read somewhere, to fully understand his role and to perform to the level at which he is an asset to his company. She has been a mother for five years in September and feels she has a lifetime of learning left just to achieve competency at parenting. Perhaps the stakes raise when the product grew from your own body.
On the days when he works from home she can, often does, shout to him through the wall that separates the livingroom from his office: updates about her mood, the weather, questions, summons. She feels entitled to these interruptions. Or she eavesdrops on his videoconferences. His coworkers use familial jargon. “What is the DNA of your region?” and “We can grandfather senior employees into the new pay plan.” These terms are tacit acknowledgment of the truly important work. She sometimes can’t help joking that she would trade places with her husband for a week.
He responds cynically: “You couldn’t do my job,” he’ll say. He will pause: always pause. “Okay. You could do my job, but you’d hate it as much as I do. And believe me, babe, I’d be plenty happy taking the boys on daytrips to the zoo.”
It will improve. When he first started for the company he worked twelve hour days, even fifteen hours. He told her then, “This was a mistake. I can’t do it.” In those first months she found his anxiety endearing.
There was a period of time, as he adjusted to his first promotion, when he couldn’t hear a casual word spoken about his misery. She might tell him he’d learn to separate his mind from the job after hours, but always tears seemed on the verge of spilling from his wet eyes. “No amount of money could make this kind of soul-sucking job worthwhile,” he would say, and she would draw in close enough for his breath to warm her face. “You don’t understand. This is killing my dreams,” he would say, and she would wrap him in a hug and bury her nose in his neck.
He is a dreamer in the sense that he can see where his ambitions lead, the day when his real work is celebrated. This vision of his future-self both adds to and reduces his stress. He wakes before sunrise, before his family, before his phone will ring, before his team clocks in for work. He writes his stories, his novels, his essays and on occasion a poem or two. By the time the highways of the Midwest are choked with traffic he has finished an hour and a half of writing and is ready to open his email for the day’s onslaught.
Since the most recent promotion, though, he has told her more times than she can count he can’t see the point in writing. She hesitates to comfort or offer insight at those moments. He has a history of certain behaviors emerging when he’s in a quitting mood. These are the times when his frustration might push him too far. There’s a novel shopping for an agent, stories sitting in some literary journal’s queue, a second novel in draft that has already been rejected once. She checks his email obsessively in these high-stress times, praying for not yet another rejection.
When weighted by stress, his motions are jerky, full of lurch and stutter. She has asked if he would benefit from muscle relaxers. There are leftovers from the last baby. Marks of her episiotomy linger pale like exclamation marks, reminding her of all her children have required.
He jokes that a beer would be more to his liking. She is learning to read his eyes when he remarks on alcohol, as if she can see through them back to the memory he’s evoking. There were a handful of nights in the beginning of their marriage when they’d split a six-pack and gotten giggly together, touchy, passionate. Most of the time he’d beg her to run to the grocery store for more beer, “just one more,” and he’d go to bed soupy-eyed and stumbling. She doesn’t like to dwell on the reasons he decided to share his every password with her, how trust can be reduced to keystrokes. He doesn’t carry cash. These were his ideas.
She still has trouble sleeping when he travels for work. Though she tells him it’s because she is scared of burglars and the nameless sounds at night, she knows he knows her restlessness is the product of an overactive imagination. In bed alone, she’ll close her eyes and images of him weaving across double yellows on deserted midnight highways will play across her mind.
The pea plants have pushed through. Elsewhere in the garden thyme has greened and begins its campaign to overtake an entire raised bed. She thought she had pulled its every root when she transplanted it to the terracotta pot several months ago, but thyme, she learns, the heartiest of plants, much like plants designated as weeds, survives most attacks. Like so much of life, it is what lies beneath the surface that is so hard to kill.
Then there are strawberries, which need a kind of love she has yet to master. She moved some sixteen plants that had been placed in fence boxes last summer. The idea for the strawberries had been good, but it turned out they were too sheltered from water. Even in the heaviest rain, their soil remained dry. She didn’t know she had let them dry to death, but now in their new location she discovers they are beyond resuscitation. Could she have recognized the moment before it was too late? The guilt of responding too late haunts her.
She will buy new plants, and by the time she and her husband are ready to move to a larger house where their boys can have separate rooms, where there will be a basement for the litter box and the dog won’t have to use a shower as his kennel her strawberries will thrive. The new owner will inherit her labors and harvest enough berries for a gallon of preserves.
Her husband likes to tell the boys stories about car accidents, plane crashes, armed robberies, burning buildings, cancer, heart attacks, all manner of fatalities. It is a strange nuance of male bonding she can’t comprehend. They all find these outcomes humorous. But she worries the common thread, that he is the imagined victim of all these outcomes: bones broken, bullet in the brain, skin melting, carcinomas spreading, ruptured ventricles. When the boys drift off to play by themselves, she tells her husband if he ever kills himself she will file his novel away never to shop it again. It is a book five years in the making. “What if it’s the next Confederacy of Dunces?” he says. She says, “Then I guess no one will have the pleasure of reading a truly great work of art.” It is truly great. She remembers reading the fourth chapter of the draft when he had finally defined his voice and the scope of the project, losing herself in his characters, believing them real, hoping for them, aching for them, seeing the pleasure in his face when she could say in all earnestness that she liked it. “But you don’t have to worry because you won’t kill yourself.” His work will bear fruit and he will be rewarded for it in time, but she knows he struggles to believe.
He is not suicidal. Death to him seems a relief, but he has too many dreams, too much ambition for death to hold sway. She can’t imagine a world in which his desire to escape the pressures of life outweighs the idea of his future self.
She thought she would have hated living with a narcissist, but seven years with this man has revealed a side of her she seldom saw. Feeling needed is the surprise reward of living with a self-absorbed spouse. Her husband believes so strongly in his superiority that when he fails to rise to his own expectations a wave of petulance crashes against the berm of his ego. He needs her to be his foundation during these storms of doubt, and she needs to be needed.
The new job has called upon her deepest resources. Her husband might drown in the added responsibility. When he is home—he travels most weeks for three nights at a go—he stumbles from his office at the end of the day, six or seven at night most times, and there is a bleary look of defeat etched on his face.
“I had to just pick a random stopping point,” he’ll say.
“It will get better,” she’ll say. She’ll say this not as a platitude, but as a sincere commitment. “It will get better.” When she says it he both knows it to be true and bristles against it. She has always been right before.
She’s been invoking a phrase of late when her husband collapses defeated on the couch: “You’ll make it. I know you will. I’ve seen our future.”
How he wants to believe her! It is almost funny. It is funny. The flesh on his arms and neck dimples. The hair stands on edge. His lips tighten. He says, “I hope so.”
His need endears her to him.
Sometimes, when he asks her for the hundredth time in a single day, “Do you love me?” she thinks she might wheel around and slap his face.
“Stop it! Stop asking me that!”
How can she love him any better? Behind his question is an accusation. He’s telling her she’s not loving him hard enough, well enough, deeply.
No one can love another person as much as she loves him.
And she wonders at times what life might have been like with another man: never the specifics. It is a kind of mental exercise in reassurance. She could never tolerate the smell of another man. Her husband’s musk was made for her. She read an article somewhere that detailed the complex neurological pathways scent markers travel. Science is still in the early stages of discovery regarding olfactory process, but it has already proven women first identify their future mates by smell. Every person has a unique scent-marker produced by various hormones in the body, a kind of fingerprint for the nose. When a woman finds her ideal mate, his smell registers in her brain, firing the same neuron response as memory retrieval. Strangely, the article concluded, many modern women pair off with men whose smell they cannot remember. She was not surprised to learn that successful marriages could be accurately predicted based on scent recognition, and she even joked about starting a new dating website: SmellForever.com.
She often told her husband how much she loved his smell. He doubted her sincerity. Hygiene was not one of his strong suits. He was given to skipping days at a time between teethbrushings, and he never wore deodorant—not until this recent promotion.
In fact, it was when, returning from a recent work trip, he said he felt his new job was estranging him from himself that she really began to worry. They could endure anything so long as they had eachother. What if he stopped being himself and she no longer had him to have her? “Give it six months,” she said. “If it hasn’t gotten better by then we’ll figure something else out.”
She browses NP Dodge’s web-listing for her dream house. There are always minor flaws in the layout. A house will be almost perfect except for its lacking a wraparound porch, or it will be so close but have too many north-facing windows. She wants five acres within twenty-six minutes of Omaha city limits. Bennington would be ideal but for the wealthy who had recently fled there. East of Fremont or near Fort Calhoun would be good too unless a strong wind pushed Cargill fumes—its processed soybean fuel—their way.
If her husband can’t adapt and learn to thrive in his new job, she’ll have to kiss her dream house goodbye. Saying goodbye to the house of her dreams would be hard, but not so hard as losing her husband. He is a good man. She’s certain of that.
A listing catches her eye. She clicks the link and flips through the thirty attached photos. The house is within their price-range, the upper limit. Its porch is a work of majesty. Between the yard and a sprawling expanse of acres is a stand of pines. At the time of day when the photos were taken the pines blanket the yard in cool shade. She can almost taste the lemonade in its glass, feel the wood of a handmade Adirondack chair at her back as she imagines looking out at her boys playing in that yard: at last, something perfect.
The children are with her mother. She will run to Mulhall’s and buy her strawberry plants, some flower seeds, peppers, tomatoes, tubers. There is nothing like watching a garden sprout from seed. She depends upon it thriving. Then, she will go to the Goodwill in search of dress shirts for her husband. He needs at least five decent collared shirts for work meetings.
She browses the books first. From time to time she’ll find a gem. The feeling of giving her husband a great book is one she covets. She discovered Robert Boswell for him: Crooked Hearts. He held that book in his hands years ago on a cool night when they were lying in bed. She simply handed it to him. “For your birthday.”
“We agreed you wouldn’t give me anything.”
“I know you’re sorry about what happened, but it didn’t seem right not getting you anything.”
“Baby. I almost destroyed our family.”
She held his gaze. Alcohol had almost cost him his job. She wonders now if he wishes it would have. She had said, “You’ll like this, I think. He was one of Wallace’s teachers.”
There is no Boswell at the Goodwill, no Miller or Goodman, no Thompson or Bolaño. She drifts toward the rack of men’s shirts.
A simple blue oxford catches her eye. She lifts it from the rack. It looks to be just his size. She holds the collar to her face. Its soft fabric glances her lip. This is not the shirt. She runs her fingers along the cottons and silks. There are other shirts she likes: a buttercream plaid, one of slate gray, and several in muted shades of red and white. Some she pulls close to her face. Others she knows will not suit her husband. Then she finds a green and white striped shirt near the end of the rack. She slips it from its hanger. What a fine piece of craftsmanship it is. The brand is unfamiliar to her. Its cut is long in the arms and drape, wide across the chest and narrow through the waist. She presses the collar to her face and inhales. Time eases, drips, drip, drip. A world of possibility opens before her. She must have this shirt.
After paying, she follows her feet out of the store and into the parking lot. Her car is languid hot. She has always enjoyed a sunbaked cab after time spent in air-conditioned buildings. The stillness of trapped heat calms her. She starts the engine, easing on the gas, pulling through the parking space and out of the lot. Her husband will adjust to his new job. She feels profoundly confident he will, and yet, it no longer seems to matter, though she can’t say quite why, if he doesn’t. He might buckle under the pressure of his responsibilities, find a bar and buy a beer, and if he does, she will gather her courage and do what she must do.
About the Author:
Jody J. Sperling lives in Omaha, Nebraska with Ashley, Silas, Edmund, and Tobias. His work has been featured in Red Rock Review, The Moth Magazine, Litro, Midwestern Gothic, Blue Earth Reivew, and elsewhere.