The window was drafty. It needed to be replaced, and I could feel the cold chill of December seeping into the apartment. As if on cue, I heard the heat click on, roiling through the baseboards.
I pulled my husband’s old gray hoodie tighter around my body. On me, the sweatshirt was hugely oversized, more like wearing a blankety dress than a zip up hoodie. But it was warm and thick and it reminded me that he was still here, if not literally here right at this moment, but that he’d come home eventually.
Outside, the scene was nothing short of lovely. Sparkly fresh snow blanketed the lawn. It was still perfect, not yet defaced with human footprints or the pawprints of a squirrel. Yesterday, the trees that lined the road were dead and bare, but today they were cloaked with white snow, and suddenly they were beautiful. It was the quintessential New England winter scene, so much so that it could’ve been a painting.
I didn’t know when he’d be back. He told me no later than eight o’clock, but it almost always ended up being later than he said. They got caught up in this store, or they ate dinner at some restaurant, or they went to some other place, and it took longer than he thought it would. I hoped that he’d be home before midnight. The idea of him out late at night with another woman made me queasy.
They were just friends. They met at work. She’s a nice girl. He’s not attracted to her, or so he told me. It was friendship, nothing more. Just someone to hang out with, to get out of the house, to have time away from quarantine and unemployment. I wanted to believe him, in fact, I wanted nothing more than to believe his words and feel okay, but nothing he said seemed to take away the feeling deep in my gut that I was being replaced. I pictured them walking around the mall holding hands, gazing into each other’s eyes over a candlelit dinner.
In a way, I thought as I stared at the snow, I was trapped. If I told him no, you can’t see her anymore, it makes me uncomfortable, and even though I’m a fully grown woman I’m still insecure, I’m still scared that you like her more, or that you think she’s prettier or smarter or funnier or just has more to offer you than I do and that you’re secretly falling in love with her but don’t have the heart to tell me. If I said all that, I become the villain. I become the mean, controlling wife, and then resentment builds, and our marriage will crumble overnight. I refuse to let that happen, so I try. I try to be okay being left at home alone while my husband spends quality time with a girl who isn’t me. I keep hoping that if it gets easier to pretend that it’s okay, actually being okay can’t be too far behind. And I want him to be happy, of course. I want him to have friends. I just wish that this one particular friend didn’t make me feel like he was leaving me so slowly that I wouldn’t even know it was happening until he was gone.
I turned from the window, rubbing my hands together for warmth. I checked the thermostat in the bedroom and turned the heat up, giving myself permission to not care about conserving our heating oil today. I’m starting to believe that true adulthood is when you can accept the inevitability of bills and household expenses. We would always need more oil, so why not use it? Besides, it didn’t matter. It felt like the cold was coming from inside of me. The word frigid came to mind.
In the kitchen, I heat up some water on the stove and empty a packet of Swiss Miss hot cocoa into a coffee mug. While the water heated up, I held my cold hands over the pot, warming them up with the steam that began to rise from the water as it went from warm to hot. Just before the water started to boil, I clicked the burner off and slowly poured the steaming hot water into the mug that I’d prepared with hot chocolate mix. I used a spoon to slowly stir in the powder, making sure it all blended and melted in so that there wouldn’t be a chunk of chocolate powder caked to the bottom of the mug at the end.
Once I was satisfied, I wandered back over to the window. As I tentatively took the first sip, testing it to see how hot it was, I kept my eyes on the driveway and on the road, hoping to see his car coming up the street and then turning in. I tried to be passive about it, but what was the point? I wanted him to come home.
Our relationship had always been special because there was never anyone else. In our entire seven year relationship, I’d never seen him look at another girl, and if he did, he had the common sense to be discreet about it. And truly, I didn’t care if he did. We’re human, it’s natural to notice an attractive person, and I tend to believe that anyone who says otherwise is either a liar or an idiot. But that’s what made this other girl, this new friend, so unsettling to me – he’d never had many female friends, and the ones he did have were usually his friends’ wives or girlfriends.
This was different. That’s what I reminded myself. This was a different situation now, and I needed to adjust, I needed to put on my big girl pants and deal with it. I needed to not be one of those horrible insecure women who doesn’t let their male significant other have friends who aren’t men. I so desperately wanted to be the cool wife, but if I thought about it too much or too intently, I lost the ability to do anything, to eat or sleep or think clearly.
I watched a snow plow drive past the house, and then another. It was the first snow of the winter, and the snow had stopped overnight, but the plows were still out, moving snow around or salting the roads. To give myself something to do, I put on a pair of jeans, my snow boots, and gloves, and I went outside to throw salt on our stairs. I took my time, making sure each step was fully, evenly covered. The cold air felt surprisingly refreshing, and I was pleased with myself for remembering to put salt down before the stairs become too icy. At least now no one would trip.
I kicked the snow off my boots and headed back inside, satisfied with a job well done, even though it was a small, unimportant chore that no one else would notice. The apartment, which had felt cold and drafty a half hour ago, now felt warm and cozy. Perspective is a funny thing.
As I picked up my hot chocolate, which was now the perfect temperature, I felt tiny bit of pride in my ability to be patient and wait for it to cool and not burn my tongue. I wondered the same things that I had been wondering for weeks – did he like her as a person more than he liked me? Is she more fun to be around? Did he have a better time with her than he did with me? Does he wish she was his wife instead? Does he wish that he was single so that he could date or fuck her? Does he think she’s prettier than me? Does he really want to come home to me at night?
And, the deeper, scarier questions – is he still in love with me? Am I still the most important person in his life, or has she taken my place?
The thought of losing him like this chokes me up. I can’t breathe. I put my mug down on the coffee table and sit down on the couch. I rest my face in my hands, trying to block out all of the questions I’m asking myself, questions that I don’t ask because I’m afraid of the answer.
I won’t let myself cry again. I’ve done enough crying in the past week for one lifetime. I’m genuinely surprised that I can still produce tears at this point. I turn on the TV for background noise, to make me feel less alone. I check my phone, but I don’t have any new texts or missed calls.
I curl up in my usual corner of the couch, pulling a throw blanket around me. I try to focus on Grey’s Anatomy, but instead I can’t help but think about what I want. What would help, what would make me feel better about the situation. What would make it easier for me. These are questions that I’ve struggled to answer, and saying I don’t know makes me feel wishy washy and difficult.
I think of how happy it’d make me for him to tell me he loved me first, instead of letting me say it all the time. For him to come into the room and open his arms to me for a hug like he used to. For him to cuddle up next to me early in the morning before we got out of bed, instead of rolling away like he wanted to be as far away from me as possible. For him to want to spend time with me, instead of away from me. To feel not merely tolerated, but loved.
During moments like this, it’s impossible not to think about everything that’s happened in my life up till now, what shaped me and got me here. All of the things I should’ve or could’ve said or done that could’ve made me a different, better person. A more desirable person.
And of course, women have always been pitted against each other. We’re taught early on that our fellow women are our competitors, not our allies. It’s natural to want to be the best, funniest, prettiest. It’s also natural for me to want my husband, the person I’m married to, the person who I sleep next to every night, to prefer me. To want to be first, not second or third or last on his subconscious list of people and things he cares about.
Outside, it’s starting to get dark. I look out the window from my spot on the couch, and the sky is a stunning array of pink and orange. I think about snapping a photo from my phone, but I know it wouldn’t do it justice. There’s something about the beauty of a sunset that my iPhone can’t capture.
I long for something to do to keep myself occupied during these times when he’s gone with her. I do the things I normally do, read or play a video game or watch something on TV, but I yearn for a project to let myself sink into, something to consume my mind so that it doesn’t have time to come up for air. I wish that I was even a little bit talented at art or music. I start to think about doing things that would be considered crazy for me, like dyeing my hair purple or getting my nose pierced.
I sit and watch the sun go down. The vibrant sky becomes dark blue. The best part of living in a rural area is that you can see the stars every night. It wasn’t the same when I lived in the city. There was always light and noise.
I take a long, hot shower. I know hot water isn’t good for my hair or skin, but I do it anyway. I take my time, washing my hair twice, using conditioner, shaving my legs and armpits, washing my body with my favorite scented shower gel. It’s as close to luxury as I’m going to get right now.
When I’m done, I turn off the water and wrap myself in one of our biggest, fluffiest towels. I put on clean underwear, pajama pants, a t-shirt, and my husband’s hoodie. I comb out my hair, which has gotten way too long, and I put moisturizer on my face. I examine myself in the mirror. I’m told that I’ve aged well or not at all. One time someone told me that I look the exact same as I did in high school. I’m not sure if it was a real compliment or they were just being nice, but it sure felt good to hear, because I don’t see myself that way. Sometimes I still get carded at the liquor store. But I have gray-silver hairs coming in, and I can see new lines forming on my face that weren’t there a few years ago.
As I’m finishing up in the bathroom, I hear a car pull into the driveway. I take a quick peek out the window. It’s him, and I smile a real smile, not a forced one, because I’m relieved. I’m always so relieved to see him because I feel like one day he won’t come back.
It’s freezing out, and despite my earlier efforts with the salt, the front step has frozen into a block of ice. My hair is still wet, and I know that it’ll freeze as soon as I step outside. I throw on my boots again, not bothering to tie them. I zip up my husband’s hoodie and step outside onto the ice to greet him.