Sometimes it’s hard to keep in touch with the person you married. This is true even though you may see – even interact with! – your dearly beloved every single day of the year.
You sleep in the same bed. You share meals. You talk relentlessly about schedules and finances and kid logistics and housework and work-work and doctor’s appointments and errands and in-law relations and extended family holiday planning and old friends and new friends and the broken faucet that drips all night.
You discuss the chimney sweep who never fricking shows up, and the mysterious sticky substance that ended up all over the kitchen floor, and those goddamn phoebes who keep shitting all over the clothesline and “how the hell did all our Tupperware evaporate overnight?” and “no, we’re not ready for another pet,” and how stick season in Vermont conjures thoughts of crawling into a hole, and what it would be like to just fly off to New Zealand with the kids for a few months of worldschooling and, well…you know the drill.
You might even kiss upon every single parting and greeting. Maybe you have a sweet way of capping off those brief yet tender smooches with a, “Love you, babe” or, “Hey, how was your day?”
But…but! Do you really communicate? Do you really connect? Do you truly understand how the other is feeling on a given day, over the course of weeks, months? Raise your hand if there have been times when you feel more like roommates than people who fell madly in love back in those lazy sun-streaked days of yore when you went wild at the mere thought of each other and drove all night just so you could wake up together.
A decade or so later, you’re helping a child you made with his spelling homework, inside a house you somehow built before you realized what it meant to own anything more complicated than a futon, a halogen lamp, a bunch of books, and a beat up old Subaru. You suddenly feel a special kinship with the lyrics of that Talking Heads song you never fully understood before: “And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
Yet here you are! In your home, with your family, after another long day. The meager, wilted contents of the fridge are not promising, so it’s breakfast for dinner again. You make the best of it with some old-school Alpha Blondie on the stereo, and as the kids tear apart the couch again, you shred cheese into scrambled eggs while your husband scrubs carrots, and the whole time you’re both thinking about that tough conversation you still need to finish.
It’s kind of a funny predicament, until it’s not. Especially when it dawns on you that you’ve been trying to finish that conversation for a full week of days.
In our case, opportunities for actual connection either come very late at night or on weekends – provided I’m not at a workshop and he’s not at a gig. The late-night timing is far from ideal. We both admit to having fallen completely asleep despite willing our brains to stay alert as the other explores some deep-seated fear or forsaken life goal.
In an attempt to heed everyone’s “don’t go to bed mad” advice, we’ve struggled like champs through some of the densest marital thickets known to man, all while flat on our backs, staring blearily at the ceiling, practically slurring at each other as the barred owls hoot up a holy racket out the window. (For the record, I think that’s crazytown advice. Sometimes you just have sleep on it, people.)
Not too long ago – I think it was a Saturday, still summertime – we realized that our chances of moving the dial on a particularly difficult topic were slim to none unless we hid from our children in the closet to hash it out.
I’ll set the scene (creative license liberally applied).
Lights up on hazardously overstuffed bedroom closet, where HUSBAND and WIFE stand facing each other. Their offspring (CHILD 1 and CHILD 2), unseen offstage, are absorbed in a heavenly stretch of wholesome, Kragle-defying civil disobedience, which explains the unfamiliar quiet that has left the couple at a baffling loss for words.
WIFE: Babe, listen… I’m just trying to understand what you meant.
HUSBAND: I’m pretty sure I meant what I said.
WIFE: I’m talking about your tone. You can’t say “Fine, whatever” and then plead the Fifth.
HUSBAND: If I’m pleading anything, it’s for you to stop deflecting responsibility for shit!
WIFE: If I’m deflecting anything, it’s your obstinate perspectives on shit!
CHILD 1: Offstage. HEY, I was playing with that!
CHILD 2: Offstage. You have to SHARE!
WIFE: My point is that it felt like a cop out.
HUSBAND: You can’t be serious.
WIFE: Not a cop out generally. In that moment.
CHILD 1: Offstage. Give it BACK. You didn’t ASK.
CHILD 2: But it’s my guy!
CHILD 1: No, it’s not.
CHILD 2: Yes, it IS.
CHILD 1: Santa gave him to ME before you were even BORN so it’s MINE.
WIFE breathes through dispute. HUSBAND stonily regards closet’s limited square footage 79 percent crammed with WIFE’s belongings.
HUSBAND: I don’t want to have to be the dad anymore.
WIFE: Peering into the abyss. You don’t want to be a dad?
HUSBAND: Of course I want to be THEIR dad. I don’t want to be YOUR dad.
WIFE: Oh. Not so thoughtful pause. Wait, what?! You feel like my DAD?
CHILD 2: Offstage. I HATE you! I’ll never like you ever AGAIN!!
WIFE: That’s fucked up.
Footsteps into bedroom.
CHILD 1: Mooomm!! Where are you!?
HUSBAND: In here, Jack. What’s up?
CHILD 1: Finn took my Lego guy. Without asking. And he said “hate.”
CHILD 2 lurches into closet wailing.
WIFE: Come here, bud.
HUSBAND: Don’t call him “bud” when he’s being a little sh—
CHILD 2 emits low-grade growl.
WIFE: Let me deal with this.
HUSBAND: They need to deal with this stuff on their own.
CHILD 2: Yanking WIFE’s arm. Cooomme!
HUSBAND: You realize you’re reinforcing this if you leave with him right now.
CHILD 2 collapses on floor, complains of head wound.
WIFE: Ignoring HUSBAND. Where’s it hurt, bud? Kisses phantom wound. Better? Now, what do we do if we want to play with someone else’s toys?
CHILD 2: I asked!
CHILD 1: No, you didn’t.
CHILD 2: IYYYEE DIIIIID!!
HUSBAND: Give. Me. The Lego.
CHILD 2: Humph!
CHILD 2 begrudgingly hands over toy.
HUSBAND: Thank you. Green Ninja is out of play until you figure out a way to get along.
CHILD 2: Muuummaaaaa, cooommmme.
WIFE: Go play in Jack’s room. I’ll be right in.
CHILD 2 scowls, suspends entire weight from WIFE’s arm.
HUSBAND: Finn. Mom and I are talking. When we’re finished, she’ll come in.
CHILD 2: I need to pooop!
WIFE: Go for it. You’re a big guy.
CHILD 2: But I need your heeelllp.
WIFE: You’re SO good at pooping.
CHILD 2: I don’t want to be alooone.
WIFE: You get started. I’ll be in soon.
Children miraculously exit.
WIFE: Good Christ.
HUSBAND blinks wearily at WIFE.
WIFE: Can we please save the parenting critiques for post-bedtime?
HUSBAND: I’m ready to go to fucking SLEEP post-bedtime.
WIFE: We were talking about us.
HUSBAND contemplates a world in which talking is deemed unnecessary.
HUSBAND: Okay, I feel like we agree on things and then you go do something else.
WIFE: Like what? You’re being vague. Give examples.
HUSBAND: Jesus... Consistently early bedtimes! Dealing with dinner! Being on time! Ever! Saving energy for the occasional—
CHILD 2: I’m dooone, Mummaaaa!
WIFE: Good job, bud! To HUSBAND, venomously. Why do I even work full time? Why do I deal with BS daily? Why don’t I just blow our savings on tickets to Tuscany for that yoga retreat!?
CHILD 2: Neeed! Heelllp! Wiipiiing!!!
HUSBAND: Is this your way of telling me you want to go on a yoga retreat?
CHILD 2: Sing-songy. Wi-iipe mee-ee, Maaw-maawww…
WIFE swears, exits, makes quick work of hustling CHILD 2 through the motions using supportive, self-affirming language. Returns.
WIFE: Flying to Tuscany sounds VERY appealing right now, but no, that’s not what I’m saying.
HUSBAND: You just wiped his butt, didn’t you?
WIFE: Listen, I’m sorry I don’t cook more. I know the kids need sleep. I’m not trying to piss you off. And I’m not AT ALL trying to put you in some weird father figure role. I just don’t feel good at life right now. I feel drained and lame and OLD. I want to go back to Alaska and spend days on a glacier and piss in a crevasse in the middle of the night. I want to feel ALIVE. I want to feel joy! Not dopey, bullcrap, self-help joy, but like real heart-thrilling MOTHERFUCKING JOY!!
WIFE rubs face in agitated self-massage. Stops. Hands still on face, stares trance-like at dust motes drifting languorously in a slant of light.
WIFE: This closet SUCKS right now.
HUSBAND takes WIFE by the shoulders, pulls her in.
WIFE: Face in HUSBAND’s shirt. I just want to have fun with you. You smell good by the way.
CHILD 1: Appearing with a jagged hunk of banana bread. You okay, Mumma?
WIFE: Muffled. I’m perfect.
HUSBAND: You cut that bread with a saw, bud?
CHILD 1: Nah. Chewing with immense effort. Scissors.
CHILD 2 enters, toddler maw jammed. HUSBAND hands him Green Ninja. CHILD 2 grins goopily, tries to speak, discharges saliva-saturated bread blobs, which splat on floor, disrupting dust motes.
CHILD 1: Ew. That looks like poop.
CHILD 2: Hah-hah-hah! POOOOP!!
See what you can achieve with some quiet time to yourselves?