“Don’t snap at me.”
“I didn’t snap.”
“It’s not my fault the stupid directions were all messed up.”
“Just- oh, stop that!”
“Stop what, dear?”
“That stupid look. You’ve got that stupid look again. Get rid of it.”
Mrs. Whitworth raised her eyebrows, a warning sign. “What look, dear?”
“You know. You look all ‘I told you so.’ I hate that look! Drives me crazy. Please, please look more pleasant?” He was getting into dangerous territory, and normally knew better, but it was hot and Mr. Whitworth was tired. Getting the ‘I told you so’ look was not helping his mood.
“Oh, really? Pleasant? I don’t look pleasant enough? I wonder why.”
Mr. Whitworth began sweating at his mistake. “Now Enid-”
“I’ll go look more pleasant out of the car.” Enid marched out, slamming the door and walking over to the trees that lined the side of the road. She stepped into the trees, looking around at the broken beer bottles and the bits of Mcdonald’s trash that lined the side of the road.
She glared up at the hot sun, hating the stupid thing. Hottest summer she’d ever experienced, and right when she and her husband had finally gotten that little cottage they’d been trying to rent for ages. They needed that cottage too, needed a break from their stupid kids and the stupid heat and their stupid lives and all the stupid people in town, predicting their divorce and then trying to act like they hadn’t been whispering about Enid every time she walked up.
It drove her crazy. Ronnie was a little slower to go mad, but eventually he’d started to snap too. First at Enid, then at the kids, then at their friends who’d gotten into little habits of mentioning ‘good lawyers’. All of their frustration at everything had sort of exploded in a four-hour-long fight while the kids were at school and he’d come home to get a tie. Enid had thrown two bowls, a bobby pin, and a fire extinguisher at him, and Ronnie had mashed her lipsticks in the blender. When the kids came home, they had to lie and say it was a ‘surprise party’, and suffered through another few hours of the neighborhood kids chasing each other around with shaving cream and hoses while their parents shot them knowing looks.
They had started calling it, a little guiltily, the “Blender Incident” and decided they badly needed a trip away for a weekend. They’d even started to get a little excited on the drive, singing along to the radio and laughing in a way they hadn’t laughed for a while. She remembered grinning at the red-headed man beside her, feeling slightly more fond of him than she had for a while.
But then the car broke down in front of a bar full of the most unpleasant, dirty-minded men Enid had ever seen. Once they started up again Enid realized she’d forgotten her purse and ran in to find the men leering at a picture of her fourteen-year-old daughter and digging through her makeup. Then Ronnie had to pee and fell in poison ivy. They took a wrong turn and Enid lost her cash through the window along the highway. More bad directions and here they were, sitting exhausted on the side of the road, in their fifth fight of the day. And she was hungry.
Enid buried her head in her lap. It was pointless.
They’d flagged down a confused pickup truck driver to help their car get started again. Enid, being more mechanical than Ronnie, was the one to emerge, grease-covered, from the underside once it was fixed. Ronnie stared at her and said she looked like she’d fallen into a vat of oil. She snapped back that at least she was manly enough to know how to fix a car, unlike him. They got into a fight right there in front of that pickup driver, who was smart enough to take a hint and drove away.
Enid and Ronnie didn’t say another word to each other the rest of the drive.
Ronnie kept his eyes straight ahead, not looking at her except in fleeting, nervous glances, like she might burn him if he stared for too long. Enid had to resist the urge to roll her eyes. She hated the tension, felt as though she were stewing in it. Throw in a pinch of anger, some regret, irritation, and you’ve got yourself a Divorced Soup. Finally she turned on the radio.
“Red” came on. Ronnie frowned and reached to switch it off. He hated Taylor Swift. Enid found her fun.
“Hey!” she said. “I like this song.”
“Oh, come on. You know I hate her.”
“Well, too bad. Just suffer through.”
Ronnie scowled. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
“I’ve suffered through ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ enough times. You can handle one song.” Why was he being such a baby?
“Hey, that’s a classic. I feel like this girl is just screaming at me. Please, I like everyone else. Madonna, Harry Styles, and that Perry girl I’ve never complained about.”
“Ronnie, it’s one d*** song!”
“Why don’t you ever listen??”
By the time they pulled into the cottage driveway, they were in a full-blown argument. Ronnie switched off the car and stormed out, stomping over to the trunk and wrestling their suitcases free.
“You know,” Enid yelled, climbing out and slamming the door behind her, “I really hate it when you do that. I’m in the middle of talking to you-”
“You’re in the middle of yelling at me-”
“-and you up and leave. It’s rude, that’s what it is. What’s even worse is that you know perfectly well I hate it. It’s like you're trying to antagonize me!”
“Well, of course not!” Ronnie yelled back, slamming the trunk shut. “Why would I deliberately antagonize you? Oh, that’s right! I forgot how fun it is getting yelled at all the d*** time! I can’t drop a tissue around here anymore, Enid!”
“Maybe if you made more of an effort-”
“Maybe if you made more of an effort!”
“What am I not doing right, huh Ronnie?” Enid screamed, her voice getting higher and higher with each word. “Am I not putting on enough makeup every day, dressing nicely enough, keeping the house clean enough? Am I not helping you cook enough? Maybe I ought to start brushing the dog’s teeth, so he’s fresh and minty for when you come home!”
She swiped the keys from his hand the way a wildcat might lash out at prey’s throat. Ronnie visibly flinched, then tried to look tough again as she stormed up to the door. She slammed it behind her. Let him stay locked out in the heat for all she cared. She was done looking at his stupid face.
But as she marched into the bedroom, her anger began to fade into something else entirely, something huge and horrible, like a black hole sucking her up from the inside. She sank to the peach-colored rug, staring at the last graying bars of sunlight through the window. Tears leaked down her cheeks and she leaned her head against the wall.
She remembered Ronnie when they met, an eager, sweet-faced boy who loved to cook and telling her the most random facts about everything. His hair was wild and red and all over the place, and in the early days she’d dream of smoothing it down with her fingers.
When they got married, things seemed like it’d be forever. It felt like it’d be forever. He made the meals and bought the groceries and helped with the dishes, and she kept the house neat and sewed blankets and came home from work, bone tired, for him to rub her back. Their children were freckly from summertime and wild-haired like their father. Gentle Violet, energetic Richie, dramatic, crazy Piper. Enid and Ronnie used to stand at the doorway to the kitchen and listen to their oldest daughter sing when she thought no one was looking, with small, secret smiles on their faces. Ronnie took Richie out for boat rides to try and curb his energy, both of them coming home mud-splattered and with a gleam in their eyes. Piper danced in plays and pretended not to like the flowers her parents bought for her every time.
It had just seemed so good.
But now all they could do was snipe at each other, and with every argument it seemed even more difficult to salvage what they had had.
Enid sat there and felt miserable for another twenty minutes before she stood with a sigh to let Ronnie in. He was standing on the porch when she opened the door, glowering with his arms crossed. It was blazing hot outside, even as night fell, and his forehead was getting shiny. Enid gave him a weak, apologetic smile.
He sighed and pushed past her without a word, dumping their stuff into the living room and disappearing into the kitchen. She heard the clattering of pots and pans. Ronnie always cooked when he was upset.
She sank to the couch and flicked on the TV with a sigh.
Enid had officially decided her marriage was over
Gone. Kablooey. No hope left.
They weren’t even arguing anymore. They moved around each other like ghosts in the cottage, drifting from the bathroom to the living room to the kitchen. Occasionally one made a comment, “Want to get Mcdonalds?” “Want to go for a walk?” “Want to watch a movie?”
They got Mcdonalds and went for a walk and watched a movie, but they never… said anything. Enid wanted to, racked her brain for something, opened her mouth, tasted the words in her throat… and closed it again. She was too scared of starting another fight to speak. During the day things seemed alright, with the sunshine in the background and Tyra Banks on TV and quiet, easy tasks they performed, together yet miles apart.
But at night there was a pit in Enid’s stomach and silent tears rolling down her face at the thought of their marriage being over. She wanted to grasp it- to hold onto it- to do something to make them happy again.
No matter what she thought, no matter what they did, no matter what she tried to say or how much time she spent with him, nothing seemed to make it possible again. They’d burned out, and it seemed stupid to pretend they hadn’t.
On their last night at the cottage Ronnie mumbled that he was going for a walk and disappeared into the humid night. Enid sat on the couch, staring at Tyra Banks screaming at Tiffany for hours till her mind went all funny and gluey and she turned off the TV with a sigh. She gazed out the window. Night had fallen and stars hung outside the window, suspended in the blue-black air. She heard the distant rumbling of cars and lights flashed occasionally through the trees. There was supposed to be a little town nearby… maybe they should have taken a look.
Enid groaned at the thought, tired of thinking of all the things she should’ve done.
Where was Ronnie? It was late- nearly 10:00. He never liked to be up late, because in the morning he could never sleep in. He had this thing about the kids making cereal… every time he heard their bowls clattering around he felt the urge to rush downstairs and fix them eggs. He hated cereal. Enid used to sneak the kids in so they could have their fix of Honey Nut Cheerios before their father woke up.
She glanced out the window again, wondering if Ronnie had brought his phone with him. She didn’t think so. She dialed it anyway, and Ronnie’s horrible, joking ringtone of a goat bleating sounded from the kitchen. Enid sat up, definitely concerned now. There were roads nearby, wasn’t there? It was dark- anyone could miss a man walking along the side of the road. Where had he said he was going anyway? It’d been hours…
Enid jumped up from the couch, grabbing her phone and a flashlight- it was too hot for a jacket. She wrenched open the cabin door and hurried outside.
She walked around the roads, up the winding path they’d driven down, then looped back around to the woods, calling his name the whole time. She skirted on the edge of the trees, thinking of Ronnie’s mortal fear of ticks. One summer she’d pulled a big one off him and he’d fainted. He wasn’t likely to have gone in there.
Her heart was pounding in her chest, and she was really beginning to get scared. What if he’d been hit by a car? What if he’d been taken to the hospital? What if, what if, what if…
A shadowy figure appeared, staring at her with surprise. Moonlight glinted off red hair. Her stupid, moronic, idiot husband. Enid was so furious she had to clench her hands into fists to restrain from hitting him. It didn’t work.
“What the HELL is wrong with you?” Enid screamed, slapping him across the arm. “Where the hell have you been for three hours? Why are you out so late? Why didn’t you call?”
“I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I- I left my phone by accident-”
“Why didn’t you come back? Why did you stay out for so long? Is wandering around in the middle of nowhere better than sitting in that cabin with me?”
“No, of course- I was- well- I got lost, okay?” he said finally, gesturing furiously as he spoke. “I got lost. Like a big idiot, I got turned around at the road up ahead and then I had no idea where I was for a while. I found that town we talked about, but nobody would lend me their phone. I had one woman actually hit me across the head when she sent me away, and then there were these three old ladies who kept on asking me about myself and about my family.” He spread his hands wide. “I have a terrible sense of direction- you know that, Enid. I’m sorry I made you worry.” He reached over, a little hesitantly, to hug her, and Enid realized she was trembling a little. “I’m okay.”
“You’re mentally brain-dead,” Enid mumbled into his coat.
“Well, yes, but other than that.”
Enid gave a little laugh and hugged him back, tight.
It was then that she realized that she didn’t want to lose him. No matter that she sometimes felt more relaxed when he was at work. No matter the number of times he clattered around in the garage at five in the morning, or when he came back with his shirts splattered with coffee or that time he’d brought home the ugliest puppy she’d ever seen, with a big stupid grin on his face. He was… hers. Enid’s. And even if she wanted to strangle him half the time, the other half he was making her laugh or hugging the kids or bringing home surprise gifts or yodelling while he cooked. She knew she wouldn’t be able to let him go that easily.
And, really, that she didn’t want to.
“Do you want to go back?” Ronnie asked when they’d finally broken apart.
She looked up at the stars and shrugged. “It’s so pretty. We can just walk around a bit.”
They meandered around the trees and the roads, in silence for a while and then eventually, slowly, talking. They talked about random things, like pretty weather girls or grilling a brisket (“Mmm,” said Ronnie dreamily.) They talked about the kids, their friends, a weird plant Enid got her foot tangled up in, travelling, books, anything. All the words they’d been keeping bottled up all week sort of exploded out of their mouths, like they weren’t afraid to be spoken anymore.
When they went back to the cabin, the magic didn’t end and they were still talking, still laughing, like they were on a first date and meeting each other for the first time- a clean slate, to start over from.
Enid smiled up at the ceiling to their room. Ronnie rolled over against her shoulder. Things weren’t quite perfect yet, she knew, but at least they were trying. And Enid, as Ronnie knew, was a fighter.
When things weren’t going her way, she was the first to step up and turn them around. She was prepared to fight for their relationship, fight for the sake of their kids and for themselves, with couples therapy and weekend trips and whatever else they needed. She’d be the great general wading into battle, with her loyal, red-headed lieutenant beside her, clutching her hand all the way.