A Flash of Gold
Anger knotted tightly in my chest, a prickly and familiar sensation.
"If you have a problem," I said, forcing my voice into an unnatural calm, "I wish you would communicate."
He folded his newspaper up slowly and looked at me, his mouth twisted, and for a helpless moment I was fixed on those sculpted lips. "You don't want to hear what I say, so..." His hands lifted in an exaggerated gesture. "What more can I do?"
"You sulk and snap and flay me with sarcasm, and that's not communicating," I said shortly, standing up restlessly and then walking around the recliner to close the curtains. I needed a moment of relief from his dark sardonic gaze, so different from that melting, sweet expression I used to see. I hadn't been able to make eye contact with him in months – not real eye contact. It was too intimate; he could take me apart, and not only that, but he would. When had it changed? When had it gone so downhill? I couldn't remember what life was like without this canopy of tension blanketing the whole house, the car, the garage, the backyard, the bathroom, of course the bedroom. I took a breath and felt that coiled ball of anger simmer in my chest. It was always there now. It was more constant than he was.
"Flay with sarcasm – you have a way with words, hon." He knew me so well, knew what goaded me and ticked me off and threatened to make that ball of anger explode. Once the thought that he knew me better than anyone in the world made me feel safe, loved – a laughable notion now, but back then it had been my dream. We used to sit in the garden at night, no wine or fancy food or anything, but just some ice cream and a blanket, and we'd talk about what we thought and how we felt and where we wanted to go. I guess I just handed him ammunition all those nights. I might as well have opened my chest and let him carve out my heart. Maybe that's why every cutting word didn't just hurt, it slashed into my bones and stayed there.
"You - no." My hands shook as I tugged on the curtain cords, and I had to close my eyes for a moment. "I'm not going there, not to middle-school insults."
"Isn't that mature of you. You always do the right thing, my dear. In fact, I'd say you're the perfect human being and I should be just like you," he mocked, cruelly echoing one of my weekend piano students who'd actually said that to me. We'd laughed over it then, but I winced hearing it now. Perfect! After I had confided in him all my insecurities (my body, my corporate career, my music, my car) and my fears (disappointing my parents, not being good at something, the thought that God might leave me, lighting matches). And I had heard his own doubts and worries and pains and we had embraced each others' imperfections, once. How could he say I was perfect, how could he assume that? Disbelieving, I turned around to face him. Even in this moment, I couldn't help but notice the familiar contours of his laugh lines and how his black hair curled sweetly over his ears. I used to play with those curls absently as we watched TV, and only after a while would I notice that his ears were turning red and he was giving me that particular look that meant we would be missing the second half of the soccer match. How, how had it gone so wrong? What was the argument that had stoked this permanent ember in my chest? Was there a starting point? I couldn't remember, couldn't think.
"I've figured it out," he said abruptly. "The mistake I made." He paused.
"Mistake. Go ahead, tell me what your mistake was."
"Marrying the perfect woman."
My lips went cold, and for a moment that biting, flaming ball in my chest was doused completely and replaced by ice and fear. "A mistake," I repeated, numbly.
"I like how you don't deny the perfect woman part," he said, laughing briefly without any humor. "Mistake, yeah. That's what I said."
"How could - you - no," I choked, blinking back the rush of tears to my eyes. My hands clenched and unclenched, and then hung uselessly. "You think - you think that?"
For a moment I glimpsed uncertainty, or something akin to that, but then I just saw weariness. "You can't say you haven't thought that," he said tiredly. "God, we fight all the time - we can't even - life isn't normal like this."
A mistake? Had marrying him been a mistake? What - what had we done wrong? What had I done wrong? We'd met at a mutual friend's dinner party, a couple years after college, and he was with a serious girlfriend at the time while I was single. Actually, the girlfriend and I had gone to the same university and so we were chatting when he came up with a drink for her. I thought he was cute right away, but mostly the three of us just talked and laughed and had a good time. I went over for a barbecue a couple months later because I kept in touch, but they broke up a scarce two months after that. I thought my own friendship with them might be over, since I didn't know either of them that well and it would be awkward, but I ran into him again on a bus back from work and we shared the commute for the next three years till I switched jobs. We only dated after a year of being friends, and that too slowly and casually, and then even when it got serious, we talked about our futures and met each others' families and everything. I thought that's how it was usually done; our story was unexceptional, it was time-tested, it should have worked. And I loved him to distraction. Oh, we had our own careers, our own hobbies, we gave each other space - but with him was miles better than without him. I couldn't stop thinking about him; I never, ever failed to get butterflies in my stomach when he called. We had our arguments, but they'd never been debilitating. Where had the butterflies gone?
"Say something," he suddenly said, and I realized I had been frozen for more than a minute. "You usually have plenty to say, God knows."
I snapped. "You!" I felt the tight ball in my body unwind with alarming force. "What is it with you? You never used to be so - so arrogant, so superior, so sarcastic! You keep jibing at me for being perfect? Come off it! You know I'm not even close -"
"Oh, I know it," he said, acerbic. "I just didn't think you did."
"You're so far off the truth it's incredible," I said, trembling all over now. I had brown skin, but if my complexion permitted, I would be scarlet. "You never tell me what's bothering you, I have to sit here and fill the silence and talk -"
"This is the first time you're yelling at me, you know that? You sit there and control yourself and ask reasonable questions and treat me like I'm a spoiled twelve-year-old for feeling -"
"Feeling what, exactly?" I shouted.
"For feeling like I don't belong in my own house!"
The silence stretched out, thick and sluggish like molasses. I shook my head and decided to sit down again because my legs wouldn't hold me. The old recliner creaked arthritically. "You've provoked me now, haven't you," I said, not shouting any more. "You did every time, you know that? I've never felt so abused, vulnerable, and angry as I have in the past months, and that's a damn fact, and I'm tired of being angry."
"If you're angry, why don't you show it?" he said, his voice neutral, and he leaned back so his face was in shadows.
"I control it because I'm afraid to make things worse," I replied, and suddenly I realized that the burning heat in my chest had evaporated with my outburst. My limbs shook. I was so tired, so tired of fighting. "Obviously I can't win either way."
He was silent.
"Do you," I whispered finally, broken, "do you really think it was a mistake?" Fear, overwhelming now. I can't be alone, I can't live without him, I love him - and that last surprised me, somehow, like a flash of gold in a pan full of mud.
He put his head in his hands. "I don't know," he said quietly.
A car passed outside, the headlights momentarily penetrating the curtains and illuminating the bulge of his knuckles and the veins crisscrossing his large hands that covered his face. My fingers were exceptionally long for a short woman (I was sure it was thanks to piano) and though my palm was much smaller than his, the tips of our fingers met when we pressed our hands together. I heard a baby cry in the distance.
"I'm not perfect," I said quietly. "I ache with my mistakes and I wonder every day why we're not like we used to be." These words, they did not come easily. I had to force them out, one by one. I was always frustrated by his lack of communication, but I realized that I hadn't been communicating either, not truthfully at least. I used to tell him, "It frustrates me when I come home from work and see that you've been back for an hour but haven't vacuumed or cleaned the bedroom or done any laundry. Do you see my point? What do you think?" That wasn't enough, though. It wasn't what I really thought. I should have told him it was about my fears all over again, fear that he didn't have the same priorities I did, that he didn't care about making our home look nice, that he had fun relaxing without me there. He felt like he didn't belong in a house with me? That was exactly what I was so afraid of, and I made it happen.
He lifted his head and looked at me with bloodshot dark eyes. "I can't remember what happened or when, but I know that I can't go on like this."
Under his gaze I felt raw, exposed, vulnerable again. "Then what -," My voice cracked, and I cleared it. "What do we do now?"
He exhaled and ran his hands through his hair. I wanted to do that with my own hands so badly that it surprised me again. How long had it been since I had looked at him, really looked? He was tired, with dark circles under his eyes and new lines on his forehead that had not been there before. "You ask me these questions as though you expect I have the answers."
I fiddled with a loose thread on the seat cover. I felt tears spring to my eyes again, but they wouldn't fall. My throat felt as though I had a rock stuck in there. I didn't expect answers, but I wanted him to give way; I wanted him to say he loved me and wanted the marriage to work and he missed me. But the silence continued, and the tears started rolling, leaving acidic tracks on my cheeks. I wasn't going to hear it from him. He was too sick of it all, too tired, too discouraged. He thought – and this made the tears fall faster – he thought there was no hope for us. I could tell. There is hope, I wanted to scream, because I love you and that's enough – but it wasn't enough, it was never enough, was it? Maybe he was right. Maybe we had been through too much to patch it up. Maybe our marriage was a mistake; maybe we were incompatible in ways that we couldn't have discovered before.
No. I didn't believe that, wouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't.
I had glimpsed the truth, and it might be as impossible and improbable as finding that one flake of gold in the pan, but I believed it and I knew it was true. And maybe, just maybe, it was my turn to communicate it.
"We're not over," I said quietly.
His head jerked up and he looked at me warily. "What?"
"I said, we're not over. I don't believe that our marriage was a mistake. I can't believe it and I won't believe it and I don't believe it." My voice was rising, and suddenly I felt a strange new feeling inside of my chest, a warm fizzing feeling that was so opposite to my tight hot ball of anger that I didn't recognize it at first. Confidence. "I am not perfect and you are not perfect, but we know each other better than anyone else in the world and -"
"And that led to us being able to wound each other in ways that no one else in the world could think of," he interrupted, leaning forward now so that the lamp lit his long face with an orange glow. I could see in his eyes that he'd been captured by that same possibility I had glimpsed earlier. His statement wasn't combative; he posed it as a slight question.
"I never thought you could hurt me, but you did, and I - I never thought I could hurt you either, but..."
"You did, and I did too. How do we know that won't happen again? Because frankly, I can't live in this kind of tense, angry limbo any more. It's just painful in every way."
"I can't either." I faltered, but that confidence in my own love suddenly buoyed me forward. "I think - I think we didn't know how much we could hurt each other. I thought you'd always be there, even if I had a bad day..."
"You had a lot of bad days."
"It wasn't just me," I snapped, momentarily distracted.
"Yeah, well..." Suddenly he smiled, and it left me breathless, even though it was a tiny quirk of the lips and not a full smile. "Maybe you're right about that."
"So what I mean is," I said, pursuing my precious line of thought, "is that we didn't treat each other like we - I mean we didn't maintain each other. No, that's not it..."
"I get it. You - you're right." He kneaded his eyes and then looked at me. "Go on."
"You want me to talk more?" I said, remembering the hurt of many previous conversations where he'd accused me of liking the sound of my own voice.
"Yes. I - yes."
His slight stammer convinced me to go on; it showed me he remembered those words too. Maybe, maybe if we remembered the words, we could begin to mend the injuries. "I think," I began, my voice lower now. I lowered my head and looked at my hands, which were knitted in my lap, each finger twined with another. "I love you, and I - I can't lose you. You bring meaning to my life." I almost whispered that last, because it sounded so cheesy, so false, but - oh, words were so imperfect.
"I can't have been doing that for the past few months," he said wryly, and I dared to look up again. For the first time in a long time, we made eye contact - fully - and while I didn't see any melting sweetness, I didn't see that cynical critical look either. I couldn't look away, even though I didn't see exactly what I was looking for.
"I don't mean you give meaning to my life in a cheesy way," I blurted, unable to move my eyes from his. "I mean that you challenge me and show me you care and..." I gulped over the words you love me but plowed on nonetheless, determined to dig through the inadequacies of language and my own fears. "And all this despite my flaws and my issues and my problems. I - need you - but more than that I want you with me and that's why I hate fighting with you but can't seem to stop, because I'm so afraid..."
He was moving over to the recliner now, and he crouched down on his knees before me. I looked down at him stupidly.
"Afraid that you'll leave me," he said softly, taking my hands in his. "Afraid you'll judge me, afraid you'll think less of me. But still I can't help telling you my problems and issues and flaws, because I need you to love me like I am and you might be the only person who does. Is that it?"
I nodded, my eyes full, my hands in his, the warmth of his chest against my legs overwhelming. I felt some definite flutters in my stomach area, a feeling so alien that it took me a moment to realize the butterflies were back with a vengeance.
"I love you too," he said, and then he kissed my hands and I felt the shock reverberate through me, and then he reached up and pulled my face down to his and kissed me softly on the mouth. Almost immediately he pulled back, but that kiss...
Let me tell you. It was better than our first kiss outside my apartment door. It was better than the kiss he gave me after I said I would watch all episodes of Star Trek with him even though I hated science fiction. It was better than the kiss we shared on our wedding night. It was better than the kiss on the beach in Mexico during our honeymoon. It was better than anything I'd ever felt before, because this - this was a promise and a reconciliation and our hope. This – what we had – was worth searching through the mud.
"Does this mean," I said seductively, touching his curls and sweeping them behind his ear, dazed that I was able to do so, "that you'll vacuum more often?"
He looked at me (really looked, eye-to-eye, soul-to-soul), his forehead against mine, and started laughing.