A short story from Hooked of The Breakup Girl Series
Lately, I’ve taken to sitting on the floor in my home office, in the dark. The faux leather chair in front of my computer repels me with its authority and purpose. If I sat in that chair, then I’d push the green button to power up the computer, bullied into typing. Words, words. Lines, lines. Periods, periods.
No, thank you.
Instead, I settle in the corner, next to my drafting table. I sit, and I stare at the wall. I stare at my bare toes. I stare at the bookcase packed full of the books I’ve deemed worthy for public viewing: Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, The New Yorker Anthology. My favorite novels, my Jimmy Buffett and Anne Rice, stay hidden in the closet, dog-eared and water-damaged from countless bubbly baths.
Sometimes, when I sit in the dark, I pray for my husband to take notice of my absence and come up the long stairs to talk to me. Sometimes he does. He sits on the floor, not touching me, but almost. We talk for hours about life, college, and the funny, messed-up way our daughter says please: “Pee!” He doesn’t ask to turn on the light. He allows long periods of silence. Eventually, midnight will pass us by, and his hand will search for my hand in the dark, his lips for my cheek. He’ll lead me to bed and allow me to wrap myself tight around him. Arms, arms. Back, belly. Knees, knees. Ankle, ankle.
Sometimes, when I pray he will talk to me, he does not. It doesn’t matter how long I sit there or how much I project my sighs towards the stairwell. I imagine him hiding away in the garage, carefully turning little models of cars we can’t afford around and around in his palm, contemplating whether or not he should sand the convertible down and paint it. Possibly forest green. No, lipstick red, like the one he saw on I-5. I tiptoe downstairs for a glass of water, or, more likely, a glass of wine.
“Don’t you have a paper to write?” he asks, his voice drifting from the half-open door to the garage.
“Yes,” I say, freezing mid-step.
He doesn’t respond. My feet shuffle across the linoleum. I reach up into the highest cupboard, stretching my calves, my back. My fingers wrap around the base of the bottle.
“Did you turn in the application for our health insurance?”
“No.” Tip and pour. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Sometimes I wish he would stay away from me all night—and he does. I simply sit and cry. All night. Simmering sobs that swell and diminish and swell again. Tidal.
I realize that this is not normal behavior. I doubt that the other women I know cry at night after their children go to sleep. Not my mother, not my schoolmates, not the perky anchorwomen on the morning show.
To cover my habit with something a little more sane and acceptable, I tried once to pretend as though I was meditating. I had seen an article on mediation featured on the cover of Newsweek. That makes it an acceptable activity. I gave meditation a sincere try, but my mind refused to clear. Lists of all the things I needed to do when I emerged from my mental retreat scrolled through my mind, chores flashing like neon. My back slumped and I uncrossed my legs, pulling my knees up to rest my head.
“This is much more peaceful,” I whispered to Newsweek, as my eyelashes flickered across the skin of my kneecaps.
I am seeing a counselor. I thought it would be for the best. My husband thought it would be for the best. My counselor is Tibetan. Really, from the actual country of Tibet. That means he must be wise and enlightened. His office bookcase holds golden scrolls and miniature Zen gardens, as well as such books as Phobias and Paranoia, The Modern Feminist, and Adult Children of Alcoholics and Co-Dependent Behavior. What books does he consult after I leave the office? Which interesting case study do I compare to? The titles replay over and over in my mind while he talks to me. His diagnosis is vague. He is too gentle. I’m waiting for him to tell me I’m nuts. He doesn’t say it. Instead, he tells me I need to “live in the moment.” I nod my head. My eyes are wide.
At first, it sounds like a brilliant idea, but then I wonder what happens after “the moment” has passed. The lists in my head still exist. Interest gains on my student loan debt. My daughter remains eight pounds lighter than all the other two-year-olds on the doctor’s “healthy babies” chart. I continue to drink red wine in the good goblets, even when no one else is home. If only he could just tell me that I’m crazy, we could get it out in the open and deal with it. Crazy.
“Do you think the anxiety you’re feeling is due to your past sexual assault?” he asks.
“Nope, old news.”
His face clouds.
Oh, he must have thought he had the answer. “I only wrote it down on the intake form because it specifically asked.”
“What do you think about the nightmares you mentioned?”
“I dunno. In a way, I kind of enjoy them. They’re fun.” My counselor looks alarmed. I stammer, “When I am terrified in my dreams, I suddenly remember it’s a dream and that it’s all in my head. Then I have the power to control what happens. That’s the fun part.”
“I see.” My counselor’s eyebrows push together. He consults the intake form once more. “Does your mother’s drinking bother you?”
“Um, yeah. But that’s not ever going to stop.” I look out the window and memorize the placement of the birds’ nests in the dying alder. I read all the building numbers I can see. I hear the cars in the street below and count the rumbles that grow and fade. Forty-two since I first sat down. My counselor is watching me. He doesn’t know what to say. He is waiting for me to reveal something. I don’t know what to offer, so I tell him about my attempts at meditation. He laughs out loud. I’m just not ready for sitting meditation, he says. I should try to meditate while I’m doing something, like walking. He says my mind isn’t capable of quietness right now.
“People your age often go through times of stress and ambition. It’s completely normal.”
“OK,” I say, nod my head and try to look convinced. I don’t want him to feel disappointed. This is why I fake orgasms. I hate to let people down.
We fill out the questionnaires together. The brochures pile up on the table between us. Are you Paranoid? Does Anxiety Disorder Disrupt Your Life? Do You Have ADD? Are You an Alcoholic? Do You Have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? Is Depression a Problem for You? My counselor asks me leading questions to determine if I have whichever dysfunctions the surveys diagnose. Nothing is conclusive. I score borderline on every test, except paranoia. I am clearly not paranoid. I am relieved, then my mind clicks. If I were paranoid, then it would mean I could ignore my anxieties. They wouldn’t be real. But, I’m not paranoid, according to the ten questions on the survey.
“You seem to have symptoms from many disorders, but they are really only a problem if they affect how you function in life. You’d know if they were big problems.” I bite my lip and squint my eyes. My counselor twists this hands together, then asks, “Do these symptoms affect how you function in your day-to-day life?”
I sit back and look at the ceiling. Hmmm. I’m the most responsible student I know, even with my overloaded schedule and outside commitments. My projects at work earn me high praise and opportunities to advance. My mind flashes to my daughter, always clean, happy, and well-dressed. In my home, I maintain order and cheer. I keep my husband’s clothes clean and hanging neatly in our closet. I always have dinner ready at 5:30, even when I have to pick up our daughter. Even the most stable people I know couldn’t handle the day-to-day I sustain.
“I guess I function just fine.” Everything points to it. It must be so.
I stare out the window again. The birds are building up their nests. The dying alder is having a hard time holding itself up under their weight. My counselor watches me. He pulls a box of tissues off his shelf and places them on the wobbly end table beside me. I blink at them, at him. Does he expect me to cry?
I sit in the dark again. This time, on the cold linoleum of the kitchen floor. My husband is gone. He took our daughter to visit his parents. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want any lessons from my ever-helpful mother-in-law on how to cook spaghetti or the correct way to sweep the floor. No, thank you. My husband didn’t press the issue. He simply grasped our daughter under one arm, kissed my cheek, and sped away in his sputtering Honda.
My floor is filthy. I didn’t notice until I eased myself down and my bare thighs scraped across old coffee grounds. At this point, a good sweeping would simply brush the dirt off all the coffee and wine stains. I’ll never win Housekeeper of the Year. Oh, well. I wrap my arms around my legs, and sweep my eyelashes across my knees.
Fans of Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis will love these short stories of modern love affairs crafted with thoughtful, lyrical prose.
The four short stories in HOOKED show a darker, more contemplative side of The Breakup Girl. We meet characters well entrenched in their first marriages, yet struggling still with challenges such as depression, ambition and lust.
Familiar and well-drawn, Nelson’s characters welcome us into the most intimate moments of their lives, where we witness first-hand their private triumphs and failures in a universe of different loves.