Little Habits

Submitted into Contest #205 in response to: Make your protagonist go through a rite of passage.... view prompt

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Romance

“You broke another plate? Didn’t you just break one last week?” Eleanor is exasperated. This was the 182nd plate that Nathan had broken in their 43 years of marriage.

“I’m sorry honey, it just slipped out of the drying rack,” Nathan excuses. Sometimes he agreed with his wife’s anger; sometimes, like this time, it felt unjustified and misguided.

“What have I been telling you about the drying rack for months? Plates kept on the front edge can roll out and fall!” Eleanor enunciates each word to make sure her husband understands. Nathan is not a good listener.

As usual, Nathan resorts to yelling, and as usual, he feels regret and disgust towards himself upon doing so, and as usual, he justifies his anger with his wife’s unfairness. “How do we know you didn’t accidentally nudge the plate out of place and it happened to fall later? And if the drying rack is so broken, why haven’t we gotten a new one?”

“Because, Nathan, if I got a new one, you would have gotten mad at me for spending our money on something we didn’t really need.” Eleanor does not yell; silence and passive aggression are her tools for spite.

“That was one time! You bought that expensive rug just two years after we got our last expensive rug, and more than anything, I was annoyed that you didn’t ask my input about it beforehand. And I’m sorry about the plate, I’ll help you clean it up.”

“Wow, that’s a first. You’re helping me with housework.”

Nathan takes a moment of silence to collect himself and even his tone. “Eleanor, ever since the kids left home, I have always tried to balance our chores 50-50, just like you wanted, and to be honest, I think I’ve been doing an okay job at it. You told me recently about the mental burden of planning chores beyond physically doing chores, which is why I started doing the laundry and the dishes and grocery shopping without asking you a thing.” He pauses because he doesn’t like to express love without being absolutely sure he believes what he’s saying. “I don’t want us to take another break from each other ever again. I love you, Eleanor. I’m sorry that I raised my voice.”

Eleanor stays silent a bit longer, before sighing, smiling, and saying “I love you too. Get a new dish rack soon. And let’s clean this up together.”

Before they go to bed, Eleanor hugs Nathan a bit longer than usual. “Nathan, it’s your big birthday tomorrow. Get some sleep, and if it helps, don’t worry about our whole thing tonight, okay?”

*** 

Hodac is not an official, public town, but rather a word locals use to refer to a small community of about 6,000 people in rural Utah spread across a few rural towns. One tradition unites the people of Hodac: the Senior Tightrope Fundraiser. Nearly a century ago, a well-respected member of the area lacked retirement funds, so his friends came together on his 60th birthday and said if he could cross a tightrope over the local lake for a distance of about 100 feet, they would give him $500. If he fell over, each donor would receive their money back.

The idea of receiving retirement funds from others was so well-regarded that everyone older citizen wanted to participate, which gave birth to the Senior Tightrope Fundraiser. However, its modern rendition has the money donated to charity instead if the tightrope walker falls off. Tourists love to see this rite of passage dedicated to older citizens rather than younger people and the surprising feats of courage, strength, and balance that many citizens of Hodac pull off.

Nathan is given a pole to balance with and set to the start line. As she stands behind him, Eleanor counts a crowd of 57 people lining the sides of the lake, made up of Nathan’s friends, family, and coworkers. The fund poster displays that $75,022 were on the line, which has accumulated over the past 28 years he has lived in Hodac.

Standing on the starting line, stationed on a hill on one side of the lake, Nathan’s breathing speeds up. His wife’s hands gently relax his shoulders. “Remember honey, just relax, take your deep breaths, and look straight ahead. Don’t let the crowd’s cheers or anything distract you. That’s how I finished this last year, and we’ve been practicing all year for your turn. I love you. Now off you go!”

She gives a light mock push that gets Nathan giggling. “Eleanor, you—“

Nathan tips over and crashes onto the hill, slipping a few times before getting completely soaked in a splashless fall into the lake. The crowd’s sympathetic “awwww” carries through the air, and he looks up at his wife. He expected to see sympathy, surprise, or a reassuring smile. In the next few seconds, Nathan would see all of these illustrated on Eleanor’s face. But in the first split second after his fall, Nathan only saw disdain. Contempt. Judgment.

During the celebration picnic, Nathan keeps his finest veneer of a good-humored husband, as he usually does before his very worst marital arguments.

“I want to make a toast,” Nathan starts, voice booming across the park. “Thank you, everyone, for attending and donating. I may be $0 richer than I was yesterday, but with your combined efforts, we are donating over $75,000 to Habitat for Humanity, so thank you all!” Despite his tendency to yell, Eleanor loves that his loud voice can make people laugh, inspire people, and get people to listen to him. It’s probably why nearly twice as many people attended his tightrope walk compared to hers. Eleanor squeezes his hand when he sits back down, but Nathan does not squeeze back.

*** 

“Eleanor, we need to talk.”

Eleanor stops ascending the stairs and walks back to the kitchen with him. “Well, honey, it was your big day today. Shouldn’t we shower? Can’t this wait until tomorrow?” Though he is dry, the smell of the lake still clings to Nathan’s clothes.

“I’m sorry, but it can’t. I feel like the reason I fell was because of that little push you gave me before I started. I know it was meant to be a joke, but it was strong enough to knock me over!”

“I pushed you? When?” Eleanor already found this argument unexpected, but she highly doubted she shoved him at such an important moment.

“What do you mean ‘when’? Right before I started? Right after you gave me that little pep talk?”

“Oh. Nathan, that was just a little joke. It was such a little tap. Like this.” She taps both of her hands gently on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, but I really don’t think I was the reason you messed this up.”

“Well, I disagree. I really do. But if your push wasn’t the reason, then why do you think I fell over? At the very beginning of all places?”

“Honestly? You missed a lot of our practices. We had agreed to practice every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In the time we had to practice before your tightrope walk, you missed 57 out of the 177 practices we had scheduled. If you had worked with me, maybe you would have made it!”

Nathan opens his mouth, then stops himself. When he is sure he could keep his tone and volume neutral, he starts again. “I love that you count absolutely everything. I don’t mean that sarcastically right now. I mean it’s genuinely something I find so charming and special about you. But today, it feels like you’re weaponizing this against me. Once again, you’re keeping a balance sheet. Do you know how that makes me feel? That every little mistake I make will be remembered, and I will be hated for every one of them?”

“Well, then why do you always make me out to be the villain? Maybe the best way for me to stop blaming you for your mistakes is if you just, you know, make fewer mistakes. Like the plates yesterday. I told you so many times not to put the plates near the front of the drying rack. But not only do you never listen, you had the nerve to say that I may have nudged the plates and that’s why they fell? Just like how my tiny little push was the reason you failed today instead of anything you did.”

“I thought you were alright with last night. You said to forget about it, but now you’re bringing it up again?”

“Nathan, when you make a pattern out of something, it’s hard for me to just forget it all. Each of your little annoyances scratches me slightly, and 43 years later, these scratches have developed into deep wounds.”

He realizes Eleanor is slipping away, just like she did when she first asked to take a break from their marriage. However, he was proud of himself. For the first time in a long time, he did not raise his voice in one of their many conflicts. He was becoming a better husband. Maybe everything could still work out.

“Eleanor, I’m sorry that I’ve been a bad listener. I am trying to be a better spouse for you. Always trying. But sometimes it’s hard to trust what you’re saying because I feel like you just don’t say what you’re truly feeling, or you hide it behind passive-aggressive comments, or you just try to move on from our conflicts while still building up more and more resentment. But that’s okay. I love you. Let’s work this out, okay? Let’s go back to counseling, and let’s take it day-by-day and make it work.”

She sighs. She presses her fingers to her temples, before sighing again. “I think you’re right. I don’t say what I’m truly feeling.” She braced herself for her own words. “Nathan, I don’t want to be with you anymore. Divorce, not a break. I’m sorry, but I think it will be best for both of us.”

Nathan is stunned. He sits down at the dining table and waits a minute before responding. “Eleanor, our kids have moved out. We’re getting older. I don’t know if we could, or even should, be apart. Where would either of us even go? We’ve spent most of our lives together. And it’s been nice! Sue me, but I’ve had a nice life with you. All we have is each other. That’s all we have.”

For the first time in a long time, Eleanor raises her voice. “All we have is each other? Are you serious? Nathan, I do not have you, because if I had you, you would actually listen to me and respect me. Yesterday, you mentioned that you wanted to take the mental burden of chores with me, but guess who had to be the one to nag you into practicing for your tightrope walk? And our lives are far from over. If I divorce you, I don’t know where I would go, but honestly, that sounds exciting and different and new to me for once.”

She gets silent for a moment. “I’m sorry for shouting. But Nathan, you have me and you also have yourself. You’re self-confident, and popular, and feel like you’ve lived a satisfying life. I don’t have any of those things.”

A tear rolls down his cheek. He rarely cries, but he finally realized he had failed his wife for most of her life.

“Nathan, I think many women, especially ones like me who married so early, need to undergo a rite of passage to discover themselves away from the pits of troubled relationships and mediocre marriages. And we need to undergo the rite of passage of gaining the confidence to free ourselves from these relationships in the first place. And I finally did that. For once, I’m proud of myself Nathan. For once.”

They sit silently at the table together for five minutes. Eleanor takes a deep breath. “I’m staying at my sister’s house tonight.” She grabs her car keys.

“Wait.” Eleanor turns to face him. “I just have one question. When I fell off the rope, and I saw your face, it looked like you were seriously judging me. Like you could barely stand me. Why?”

“Because I didn’t think you would make it. And you proved me right. Walking the tightrope was an important part of our retirement plan, and you failed us both.”

“Please don’t go. At least stay here tonight. We can talk about this again in the morning? We shouldn’t do all of this because of some silly tightrope tradition.”

“It’s not about the tightrope,” she says, putting on her shoes.

This was a lie. She was proud of herself for finally expressing her true feelings, but she couldn’t tell Nathan about the vow she made last year: if Nathan could not make it across the tightrope, she would divorce him. But she did not think she would follow through so quickly.

As Eleanor closes the door behind her, she gets the feeling that the cut-up person that Nathan carved out of her did mean to push him off the tightrope.

July 07, 2023 18:51

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2 comments

Tricia Shulist
15:37 Jul 11, 2023

Interesting. You seem to have grasped some of the feelings that can develop with long term relationships, and how sometimes a person is willing to accept mediocrity. But not Elenor. I like how you tempered her needing out of the relationship as a rite of passage. Thanks for this.

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Gabriel Garcia
21:20 Jul 12, 2023

This was a really good slice of life story. The characters are fleshed out and believable and the overall story feels organic. Following the previous commenter, tyou have a good sense of what feelings could emrge during a long term relatonhsip and how sometimes a person is willing to accept mediocrity. Overall a great story.

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