He knew it was over the day her laughter went. They had known each other for four years, had been married for six months, and things just weren't the same anymore. One day he said something which should have been funny, and she smiled, and she laughed, but her heart wasn't in it. He saw it in her eyes, heard it in the pitch of her voice, noticed the slight mutation in the syllables of her laugh. Something was gone.
He came into the front room one day while she was in there, curled up in a striped armchair, reading a book. "Is there something we need to talk about?" he had asked, standing there like an idiot, fists clenched as if ready for a fight. She had looked up, and there was something very vague in her reaction to him. "No," she had said simply, giving it just a moment of thought. Then she returned to the book. He stood there for a while longer until she finally closed the book, stood up, and left the room. She walked right past him, didn't say a word.
The ring chafed him after ten months. It started as an idle itch, him fiddling with it at work or after dinner while she did the dishes in silence, and then it broke into a genuine chafe. The skin stayed pink and raw no matter how he treated it. He took it off at night and in the shower. One morning he forgot to put it on. It stayed on the bedside table for a week until he remembered it, and when he slipped it past his knuckle, it suddenly felt too big.
He spent every morning of the two weeks preceding their third anniversary staring at himself in the mirror. She had already gotten up and gone to work, and he stood there at the dresser in his undershirt, staring at his reflection and considering his options. He had never considered divorce. A commitment was a commitment. His parents had been married thirty-five years. He thought of his father, unhappy for the last six years. His father was unhappy, but he was still married. He stared at himself every morning until he became a blur in his own vision. He had gotten married because he liked the idea of being with her everyday. But if she had changed since then, was she the same girl he had married? To which girl had he made the commitment?
When she got pregnant, his first thought was that she'd been having an affair. He never had proof, and they could trace conception back to the last time he'd slept with her, so it seemed possible that he was the father. For a while, he thought, sure, this could fix things, but then the baby came and nothing got fixed, not even the dog they got for their daughter when she turned four. The dog went into heat, went crazy, and ran away. At least this is what his wife said.
There was a traffic light on his way to work that always threatened to make him late. According to the posted sign, right turns were not permitted on red lights at that intersection, but he knew the sign was outdated. To the left, the road used to dip into a blind curve, but extensive construction had fixed the problem two years earlier. He should know; he'd taken the same route to work for eleven years. One day he turned on red and resolved to never heed the sign again. Eight months later, it was taken down.
Just after their sixteenth anniversary, she told him, "I think the romance is gone." "The romance!" he had replied. "What romance?" She had tilted her head and looked out the kitchen window. "That's exactly what I mean," she said. But he had thought there was something more to marriage, something like friendship that lasted long after the blinding shine of new love had dulled. He stared at his reflection in the spoons he ate his breakfasts with. How had his parents done it? How had his grandparents? His wife spoke of romance that he hadn't felt since they were newlyweds; did this make him a failure? His wife drank her tea and read the paper while he stared at himself in spoons.
Twenty years in, he began to miss the wisdom of his father. He looked for someone to show him how to cope with the silences, the vacant stares, the hollow laughter—but there was no one to guide him. His mother visited with increasing frequency, which displeased his wife, though she said nothing, and which only made him more uncomfortable in his own home. She criticized his job and his salary and her granddaughter's wardrobe, and spoke of her late husband as though he'd been a cheat.
His wife had enough tact to wait until their daughter was in college to file the papers. He stared at a bottle of mustard in the fridge that day, the cool air spilling out of the box and onto the floor, over his bare feet. Twenty-four years of marriage ought to have counted for something, he thought. He had spent more than half of his life with her. Half of his life being a husband. Almost half being a father. In the end, that's all that he was: half of something. Half of himself. He stared at the crust around the tip of the bottle and realized what he had wasted.
Six months in, he had known it was going to end. It was inevitable. He heard it. But had he seen it coming, or had it come because he had given it thought? In the empty bathroom of his bleak apartment, he stares at his reflection, his face in his hands. He pokes at himself, pulling the skin across his face as if examining it for the first time, and thinks of his father, dead and unhappy at 64. He is old. Six months in, he knows he could have ended it. He would have had his youth, another chance for something permanent. Who knows, he might have had happiness. His eyes are sallow these days, and almost always watery. If he had ended it, he imagines there would have been a light there. He picks up the razor from the edge of the sink. He acknowledges that his daughter would not have come to be if he had ended it—his daughter, whose fiancé is joining them for dinner tonight, a brave, idealistic young man he has never met before. One deep breath follows another, and he closes his eyes so he can't see himself anymore. And then, drawing the razor to his face, he starts to shave for dinner.