Tonight, I sat at my desk in the front bedroom, facing North Carolina Avenue. This busy southeast D.C. neighborhood somehow seems busier on autumn evenings. From my perch I watch the neighbor’s walk home from the metro or Capitol Hill. And every once in a while, I laugh at the man I share this brownstone with, when he stands in the window with take-out above his head like Lloyd Dobler’s radio. We were made for each other. We are both hopeless nerds. Every night, whether it’s take-out night, cereal at the counter, or our gourmet feasts we don’t finish until the inappropriately late hour of 10:00 PM, the front door opens, the dog jumps up from her bed at my feet, and runs towards him. I am chopped liver when that Tall Drink of Water walks in the door. Her jingle-jangly tags reveal her presence long before he sees her. He told me once that when he sees me sitting in the window, hears those dog tags run towards him, and catches a whiff of the baby’s fabric softener from our always running dryer, that he knows we are where we were always meant to be. There’s this routine to our life that is somehow never the same. Ever.
Sometimes I forget how different things were just a short time ago. Basking in the glow of the life we fought for, with contentment flooding every nook and cranny, I sit back at a comfortable distance and wonder how I ever contemplated staying tied up in a corner, living half a life. But there’s a fine line between what keeps us safe and what holds us back. A safety net sounds comforting, until you get yourself tangled up inside that net, desperate for freedom. I ached back then, deep down in my bones, to be untangled from the restraints around my wrists, legs, and heart. The longer I took to make the decision, the harder it became and the more entangled I had become.
Aaron stood in front of me, pointing in that annoying way he did, and told me that I would never cut the ties. He said it in that tone – the one he filled to the brim with steaming hot judgement and derision. He used to say that I would never have the guts to jump headlong into the fear. He said that when I would get closer and closer to walking out the door. The closer I got to leaving the safety of the life we made by accident, the meaner he got. It’s his default. He finds my weak spot. I back down. I find his weak spot and kick it real hard. That’s my default. And by the way, I kick it hard. I mean hard. He becomes distant. We live separately, together. I say I’m leaving. And we start it all over again.
Two weeks ago, we fought like it was the end of the world. He stood at the stove, cooking me dinner, his back to me. When I walked in the door from work, he’d already had the Christmas music on. When I sit alone after we fight, I wonder how I can possibly find fault with a man that cooks me dinner after he works all day, and listens to Christmas music in the middle of July. Who does that? I don’t remember now what he made for dinner that night. It doesn’t matter, I couldn’t taste it anyway. When I walked in the door from work, I dropped my stuff in a heap behind the couch. He hated it when I did that. Just like I hated the way he left his crap in the hallway after a business trip. I’m forever stubbing my toes on his luggage. My stuff in a heap, I reached for the couch to steady myself as I slipped off my heels. I rounded the corner to his hand outstretched with a glass of red wine.
An open bottle of 667 Pinot Noir sat on the counter – my favorite. I kissed him in that way – you know what I’m talking about, right? Familiar and distant all at once. In less than ten- minutes we went from mindless conversation about the day, to World War XV. It doesn’t matter now what started the fight. It never does, because it’s always the same underlying theme. My best friend says, no matter how many times I bitch about him, that I can put lipstick on a pig but it’s still a pig. I try to put some pretty makeup on us after we fight. But we’re still a disaster underneath it all.
I need this. He can’t give it. He wants that, I won’t back down until I get what I want. For years it has been the same argument. It’s the same argument dressed up in different clothes. Sometimes we both put on pearls and a pretty dress and make it look real pretty like, though. Two nights ago, in between the silences in our house all day, we stood in the kitchen of his boss’ house, his arm around me, polite conversation filling the hot, humid night. We looked good. Really good. But we aren’t good. We hadn’t talked for more than two-hours before we got there. We walked in the door like sunshine and light. Like laughing babies, apple pie and baseball. We are perfect dammit. Have I mentioned we look good? He doesn’t leave my side for very long on those nights. These couples around us that have been married for at least a decade, and sometimes two or more, think it’s because we adore each other so much. His boss’ wife hugged me as I walked out the door that night. She whispered quietly, tipsy from wine, inhibitions out the window, longing for the attention she thinks I have, “I wish James looked at me like that.” I took her hand in mine and said, with the only truth I’ve ever spoken to her, “No you don’t.” I’m certain it will be the last time I ever see her.
See, Aaron and I? We aren’t made for each other – we just don’t know how to function without each other. Yet. The night of World War XV (or was it XVI), Aaron’s exact words were, as I sat on the couch opposite of him, my head in my hands, “What exactly do you think you’re going to do without me? Where are you going to go?” His emphasis on “you,” is a not so subtle dig. He is pretty certain I can’t make it out there in that great big world, without him. Usually, those moments are followed by slightly disguised reminders of the house we live in (his), the dinners he cooks, and the safe way he is always there no matter what. He likes to think that the way we fight is just who we are. Kind of like Lucy and Ricky. Except he’s not Cuban and we aren’t married. Also, I don’t actually want this life we’ve made. Lucy seemed cool with what they had going on there. I should be thankful for this life he’s given me, right? That’s what he wants me to think anyway. I am, after all, that orphan of a girl, not quite anyone’s, who needed the big, safe arms he opened when I was stupid, in my early 20’s, and lost and confused. But between WW XV (or XVI), and dinner at his boss’ house, something clicked, once and for all.
Five years ago, on a hot, sultry night, when the dance of Spanish Moss in the oak tree in Aaron’s front yard, reminded me of what I’m made of (piss, vinegar, and truth – like every good southern woman) I packed up my life in duffel bags and boxes. I wrote Aaron a note, and left it on the coffee table, where he was sure to see it next to his beloved remote control. My Dearest Aaron – I know you don’t think I can do this without you. You may be right. But there was a time when I thought I could do anything. So I think I’ll go try that. I love you for all that you have been and done. But it’s time for us to try this thing out on our own. I can’t wait to hear where life takes you. I am forever grateful, and forever tied to you through these years. With love & gratitude, Annie
I hear from Aaron every so often. He married a sweet girl from Texas. She is nothing like me. Good news for him. They are rocking the shit out of their white-picket, 2.5 kids, and a dog, in the suburbs of Raleigh, life. Meanwhile, I’m still not brushing my hair most of the time and I don’t like pearls or lipstick. I quit my job on a regular old Tuesday. I haven’t worn heels since. Every once in a while, I call in sick to work, pack up the dog, and the baby, and wander along the Mount Vernon Trail like that’s my job. Those are the best days.
But on normal days, I wake up early, write the words that flow from my heart, pack up the kid at 7:00, and head off to the metro where I go to work at this tiny coffee place that caters to condescending millennials. I shove plates with muffins across a counter and smile as I hand them their fair-trade, coconut milk, triple-grande-latte. I smile because they think they know. But they don’t know. Someday, when they cut themselves out of the net, they’ll know. Every so often, my sweet nerdy man shows up at work in the middle of the day. He usually orders some weird Gen X thing (like coffee). When he stands with his back to me and fills his cup with cream and sugar, I wait there for the moment he turns around. Folks, there’s nothing like the moment when he turns. It flips me upside down and inside out, every time. There in that crowded room, when he searches for me, that old life was worth the work to find this one. He winks. I smile. And I’m forever grateful that I grabbed the scissors and cut myself free.