“So typical!” she thought after having gotten the message about his running late:
“Traffic. B there in 5. Smiley face.”
The part about the smiley face was written out. In the very moment of reading his message, she was not tickled by his charm at all. The joke felt stale and smart-Alec-y, and it was probably aimed at her expense:
Well! He remembered that but not that I despise tardiness. “So disrespectful!” she muttered to herself.
She’d already parked the car and taken the stairs. A lanky man going the opposite way in the staircase overheard her. Behind his bifocals, he blinked rapidly and hugged the wall a little more. A tourist! She, for a brief moment, considered covering it up: by pretending to be on her cell phone or improvising a tune to which the overheard words could belong. But she was too annoyed. She clammed up until alone again, on the next flight of stairs.
What irritated her the most, it seemed, was that after all these years, he hadn’t changed at all. She had. She had had to! He’d altered the course of their lives with a single request to end to their marriage four years ago. She moved herself across the country, as if her shame would lessen with no mutual witnesses around. She’d gotten tired to wrench her guts out in front of friends. Their sympathy was too short of a consolation anyway, with nothing on the other side of it — but an even more agitated loneliness.
In a new city, she could blame all the hardships on her relocation. That way the divorce would come secondary; and on the list of common fears — moving, death, break-ups, public speaking — some of hers would be at least on the same plank. Divorce or departure. Departure or divorce. They became interchangeable causes for every new obstacle for a while. But eventually, each claimed its own time of day. Departure took the daylight, while nights were consumed by the consequences of the divorce. She started going to bed earlier.
When things weren’t well, she’d text-message the ex. It was a habit of the fingers — not of the heart. She took him bouncing between her little devastations and the recently increasing occurrences of her gratitude. No matter her original intention though, they always ended up bickering. Recycling became their long-distance pattern. But it seemed to her — and she knew she wasn’t alone in this — they both found comfort in that repetition, how ever painful the results.
“Fuck that, D! What do YOU want?” her stepbrother Tommy, with whom she’d grown close through all of this, would say. The man never slept; and when she called in the midst of her own insomnia, she’d often catch him painting at sunrise in New York, never having gone to bed at all.
Tommy was adamant that no good would come from her constant contact with the ex. “All you’re doing is delaying the pain, man. He won’t change. It’s all about you!”
But that was exactly was she feared. It was easier to fish for an apology — or at least a recognition — in her interactions with the ex: some sort of an acknowledgement of all that former goodness of hers that he had taken for granted, by ending it. It was as if she’d wanted him to love and lose again (someone else, of course, because even she wasn’t dumb enough to go in for seconds), just so he could learn to miss her. It was the only route to getting even that she had known.
The ex and she continued fighting. For weeks afterward, she’d wait for an apology. There would be substantial silence (in which she began to see glimpses of a lighter life, a better self). After a timeout though, his messages would come in flurries, a few days in a row: Some woman wore her perfume on the subway. He’d found an old photo in his college notebook. A mutual friend had asked about her. He missed her legs, her hair… By what right?!
In the beginning, she did respond reflexively, as if flattered by the contact. But when his tone turned whiny — he “missed her”, “wanted her” — she got irritated fast: Who’s fault was that, exactly?! And when he began insinuating at his lust, she would get struck with guilt toward his new woman. The pattern grew old, like the baby blanket from her own childhood which she’d been saving for her firstborn. The firstborn took its time happening while the blanket became a reminder of yet another one of her inadequacies. She began to feel hard of forgiveness. There was no way around it: He’d made a mistake; and she, still picking up the pieces on the receiving end, failed to let go.
“I mean: Do you even want him back?” Tommy sounded flabbergasted. He seemed so different from her! Stronger.
But Tommy was different: He belonged to a separate genetic line of bold spirits: artists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists, marine biologists, heros. At family gatherings, they all came in with colorful stories about the world in which neither habit nor fear seemingly played any role. Her people were hospital administrators and medical assistants, for as long as she remembered. Being concerned with records of pain, causes and possible treatments was their daily bread.