I walk into the kitchen to find a Post-It note on my coffee cup that says I love you. I used to think it was romantic, now I just see it as a cop out—Frank’s way of sweeping anything unresolved between us under the rug. But the rug can only cover so much.
For weeks I’ve been trying to conjure up those feelings of excitement and passion that I know I used to feel for Frank. There was a day early on in our marriage, after an unusually harsh winter, that felt like spring and we were itching to get out of the house. I made bologna sandwiches and we loaded our bikes into the back of our station wagon. September by Earth, Wind, and Fire was playing on the radio and we both laughed every time Frank sang the lyrics wrong. We hadn’t even gone a mile when it started raining and we abandoned our bikes on the path and huddled together under some trees. I remember when he kissed me I could smell the Brylcreem he used in his hair. But that was Before.
Before the pregnancy that gave us our daughter, but left me with a hysterectomy from complications not long after she was born. Before I watched my sister die an agonizing death from cancer. Before his father’s dementia got so bad that he forgot everyone he ever knew. None of those things were enough to fracture our relationship, but they did weaken us a little bit more each time. The damage was slow and corrosive. Like a thread slowly unraveling. Instead of strengthening our relationship, those experiences pushed us farther apart, magnified the empty spaces between us.
I poured everything into my family. I never finished college because Morgan was born on the week of final exams during my junior year and I never went back. I had planned to go back to college and finish my degree, but my love for her consumed me. Suddenly a college degree didn’t feel important anymore. Instead, I worked part-time at restaurants and sold Pampered Chef products and Longaberger baskets to make extra money until Frank got the marketing job for a chain of grocery stores. He got promotion after promotion, he was given bonuses and awards recognizing his accomplishments and contributions. He provided a comfortable living for our family and of course I’m thankful for that, but I felt jealous of his success. There were no promotions for driving Morgan’s best friend home from every cross country practice. I never received any bonuses for taking Morgan to every house in the neighborhood to help her sell Girl Scout cookies. I was never recognized at a Christmas banquet for packing lunches and planning dinners.
I willingly made so many sacrifices, but what do I have to show for it now? Morgan is gone. She’s living with a boy she met in Spain when she spent a semester in Barcelona. They’re living out of a van they renovated themselves, they’re driving around the west coast, and sleeping in state parks. They don’t eat meat or processed foods. They don’t use cell phones or modern technology. It’s not that I’m not happy for her, but this isn’t at all the life I envisioned us having at this age. I always imagined she would stay close, maybe even buy another house in the neighborhood. I’d dreamed of her calling me every day on her way home from work to tell me about her day. I’d hoped we’d share recipes and find new restaurants on the weekends. But instead, I communicate through handwritten letters. Waiting days or weeks between each letter is torture. I want to hear her voice, I want her to miss home, to miss me.
After all these years Frank is still so self-assured, so confident, nothing seems to knock him off balance. Maybe it’s because he’s been working at the same company for twenty-six years and still getting praised for the work he does. In the eleven months since Morgan left home I’ve felt adrift, like I’ve been untied from my tether. I’m not sure how to spend my days without a child to tend to. I spent time in the spring and summer gardening, but with winter approaching, the ground is cold and the plants that were once explosions of color are brown and dormant.
So I read and I make meals that go unappreciated. I iron Frank’s shirts and dream of having a successful career of my own. I imagine myself wearing ruffled blouses and silk tops, pencil skirts and tailored pants, walking with my shoulders back and head high through a room of cubicles. I would know every coworker’s name, I would remember to ask about their kids and where they’re going on vacation in the summer. But then I blink and I’m back in my large house, alone.
I can tell Liz has been having a hard time since Morgan left home, but she won’t talk to me about it. She should be proud that she launched such an independent, bold, adventurous woman into the world. Liz was so attentive and nurturing. Watching her in the hospital that first night after Morgan was born, I had no doubt that Liz would be the very best mother she could be. I would marvel at their relationship, and truthfully, I was jealous of all the time they got to spend with each other. I often felt like an outsider around them, so I did the only thing I knew how to do—I worked. I worked to provide a good life, a comfortable life. I never wanted them to have to worry about money, not like my family did growing up. I watched my father play his guitar on sidewalks for money. I would always bring a book with me anytime I went with him so I wouldn’t have to look at the people who passed by—so I wouldn’t see the pity in their eyes.
I like going to work, I enjoy my role in the company. I’m innovative and well-liked, but now I wish I could trade that time, I wish I would’ve been a more present parent. Every bedtime that I missed because I stayed late at the office, every phone call I had to answer in the middle of dinner was a knife through me. I often felt torn between where I desperately wanted to spend my time and where I felt I needed to be so my family could have money for the things I wanted them to have. The private school for Morgan, adding the screened in porch and the pool to the back of the house, the hair and nail appointments for Liz.
It felt like being the only source of income for the family was expected of me, like I was only doing my duty as the man of the family and nothing more. My role at work was clearly defined, I knew what was expected of me and I was able to accomplish the tasks upper management set before me. But my role at home was more difficult to define, I was less confident in my ability because I didn’t know how to gauge success or failure.
We each made sacrifices for our family, but we never bonded over our sacrifices. We never talked about the toll that those sacrifices had on us. We ignored it—tried to pretend we were always fine. Maybe I should’ve told Liz that I felt left out that she got to witness all of Morgan’s milestones. Maybe there wouldn’t be so much space between us if I had been more honest with her. Liz only ever seemed to notice the space between us when times were difficult, and it made her withdraw from me further.
For months now, every time I ask her how her day was or how she’s doing she just says fine. I wish she would give me an honest response. How do I let her know that I’m genuinely interested in her day and her well-being? Ron Robertson has been one of my co-workers for almost as long as I’ve worked at this job and he says that I need to take Liz on dates again, that we should find a hobby we both enjoy, that I should buy her just because gifts. I used to do those things for Liz, I guess I didn’t realize I had stopped. Being intentional with my wife feels familiar but unpracticed, out of shape, like a quarterback trying to throw a pass for the first time in years.
I leave notes to let her know I care about her because I don’t know what to say. It’s my way of reaching out to her when I know that she’s hiding her feelings from me. I still don’t know what to say to her, but I know I still love her, so maybe I’ll start with that. I need to remind Liz of our love. There’s never been another woman for me. I know she is a great woman, I’m not sure how I let her get so far away from me. But I’m going to change all that now, I’m going to find a way to remind her of our love. Flowers. She always liked when I brought flowers home for her. I’ll start with flowers.
What should I say to Frank? Where do I begin? Did we ever really know how to share our emotions with each other? Did we just distract ourselves with achieving the next milestone? Well there are no more distractions and all the milestones have been achieved, we’re just left with each other now, and I’m not sure that’s enough for me. I’ve been thinking about divorce for a while now, sometimes I daydream about what it might be like. I imagine how freeing it would feel to not have to worry about anyone else. Jeanie Mullins got a divorce last year and moved to Palm Beach, Florida. Every day she posts new pictures to her Facebook page. Pictures from her morning run on the beach, her glass of wine on a restaurant patio at lunch, the book she’s reading in her Thursday book club. I wonder what kind of choices I would make as a single woman. What kind of house would I live in, would I buy different clothes, what kind of food would I cook if I didn’t have to think about anyone else?
I know I started out loving Frank, and I’m sure I still love him in some ways, we’ve just lost sight of each other throughout the years. When Morgan was born we still had date nights regularly, but then the babysitter we used graduated high school and went to college in another state. And then Morgan got older and our weekends started to fill in with her activities. Fridays she would ask me to take her to the roller skating rink or the movie theater. Saturdays were for cross country meets in the warmer months and debate team in the winter.
I had a crushing guilt about Morgan being an only child. I hated my body for robbing her of a chance at having a sibling. I never told Frank about that, maybe I should have. To compensate I took her to every social event I could, I said yes to every sleepover and extracurricular activity she wanted. I updated and renovated the house so her friends would want to come over. I bought her a trampoline and added a swimming pool, and it had worked. During Morgan’s high school years our house was always bustling with activity. The radio was always tuned to a pop station and MTV was always on the television. I would make pitchers of lemonade from frozen concentrate tubes and prepare trays of taco casserole. After a while her friends became my friends. They were comfortable around me, they called me by my first name and they told me things they wouldn’t tell their own parents. But now the house is empty and my presence here seems pointless, and I miss her friends almost as much as I miss Morgan.
Maybe we should sell the house, get away from the memories that torment me. Maybe I need some space, some time away from Frank to find out who I am when no one else is around. I’ll make his favorite meal and bring it up at dinner.
Liz sent me a message, she’s making flank steak for dinner tonight. She’s a terrific cook, but her flank steak is my favorite and she knows it. Maybe she’s thinking the same thing I am. Maybe she’s trying to rekindle what we’ve lost too.
I leave work early so I can stop at the store on my way home. Standing in front of the flower bouquets I try to remember the last time I bought flowers for Liz. I remember buying flowers for Morgan’s piano recitals and birthdays and graduation. Liz’s favorite flowers are tulips, and I’m overcome with guilt that I haven’t bought them for her more often. How did this happen? How did I forget that the little things like buying flowers matter? I should’ve bought them every week, I should’ve planted them in the garden beds around our house instead of the boxwoods I chose because I thought they were the most practical option.
I choose a nice bottle of wine and spend fifteen minutes in the bakery department trying to decide if I should buy a dessert for tonight. I’m not sure if Liz is planning to make one or if she would be ok with me buying one. I used to know these things, I used to know what she wanted before she asked. But it’s been a long time since I’ve known what she wants, and it seems like everything I say lately is wrong, and my words only seem to send her farther into seclusion.
But all that is going to change tonight. Tonight I’m going to begin to pursue her again, the way I should’ve been doing for years. I’m going to pull her out of her depression, I’m going to help her find joy again. We will remember when we were madly in love and we will find it again. All the way home I’ve been replaying memories from when we were dating and the first few years of our marriage. By the time I pull into the driveway I’m dizzy with anticipation and giddy with hope for our future. I’m smiling as I grab the flowers from the front seat and open the front door.
I’ve been cooking dinner for nearly three hours now. I’ve made brownies with extra chocolate chips for dessert. I roasted the potatoes in the oven with butter, garlic, and rosemary. I sauteed green beans with sliced almonds. I made a salad with strawberries and goat cheese and a poppyseed vinaigrette to go with it. The flank steak is resting, it just needs to be sliced, and my mind is made up. My thoughts have been swirling the whole time I’ve been cooking—trying to figure out the right words to tell him that I want to separate for a while. Is there a right way to tell my husband that I’m not certain I want to be married to him anymore?
I’m jealous that he still has a job where he gets to feel a sense of accomplishment. I invested years into being the best mother I could, and now she’s just gone. Our relationship has been reduced to infrequent snippets of connection through the letters we send each other in the mail. So much of my identity was tied to Morgan—her successes were my successes, her failures were my failures, and I feel lost without her. I’m grieving a loss that’s difficult to explain, a loss that I don’t know if I can explain to Frank, a loss I’m certain he doesn’t understand.
I’ve decided a separation is best. I’m going to tell him tonight. We have been strangers living in the same house for years now, there’s no sense in continuing this way. He’s a practical man, surely he will understand. I don’t know what I will do in the next phase of my life, but I know I want to be alone. Maybe I’ll volunteer at the children’s hospital, maybe I’ll go up to Maine and try to find the best clam chowder, maybe I’ll go to Montana and learn how to live off the land. Frank will be sad, but he’ll find someone else, someone more confident than I am, someone who finds joy easily. I don’t want him to not be weighed down by me and my sadness any longer. There’s so much space between Frank and I, I’m not sure that our fingertips would ever touch even if we both reached for each other. I slice the steak and rehearse what I will say to him. I’m just setting the plates on the table when the front door opens.
I see her and the meal she’s prepared for us and I know in my bones that I will spend the rest of my life showing her that I love her. I know I’ve made mistakes—that I’ve neglected to show her that I love her, but I’m going to change. I’m going to be a better man.
He has flowers and a bottle of wine in his hands when he walks through the door and I feel a deep sadness. I'm sad that we’re so disconnected. I’m sad that he feels so far away from me, even though he’s standing just across the room from me. I’m sad because he has no idea what I’m about to say.