I jam our carry-on luggage into the slender overhead bin. The bags fit, but barely, stuffed as they are with college sweatshirts and other items picked up from our trip.
The accumulation of things.
She takes the middle seat in the last aisle. She doesn’t like to ride next to the window. Neither do I.
“Thanks for booking a flight an hour and a half in the opposite direction,” I say as I slump into the aisle seat, reluctantly anticipating passengers that will likely bump my arm as they head to the restroom during the flight.
She doesn’t take the bait. Instead, she nods her head, purses her lips, and places her warm hand on mine. “How many times do I have to tell you? It was the only flight available.”
I keep quiet through departure and take off. Once we make it over the clouds, she goes her own way, taking out her phone and reading from her IPhone Kindle.
She’s always reading some type of novel or another. She never tells me about them. I’ve stopped asking. Today I’m feeling the need to. This trip to see our eldest off to college has left me feeling older. I’m suddenly aware, with twenty five years of marriage behind us, that we are nearly fifty. How did this happen so fast?
“What are you reading today? Fifty Shades of Gray?” I ask in my best mocking tone.
She gives me a wry smile..
“No, really, what are you reading?”
She sighs. “It’s a book about a girl who grew up in the foster-care system who has a lot of emotional issues and is learning how to adapt in society.”
I regret asking. Not because I don’t care about foster children, but because I have to ask in order to get her attention. “That sounds interesting.”
She glances up at me. If I played poker against her I would lose every time. She goes back to reading, and I study her discreetly. The years have been kind to her. Her angular face is complemented by her thick brown hair. The reading glasses are an exclamation point to her dignified beauty. She is tall and slender and refined in her ivory-colored sweater. With her legs crossed, she gives off an air of silent confidence, a regal essence that has manifested within her over the years. She possesses an aura of achievement, one chiseled by motherhood, her career as an educator, and I would like to believe, her marriage to me.
But it’s hard to know if that is true.
Now that the kids are gone, things feel different. She doesn’t communicate as much as she used to. We go to parties and she is reserved and too self-aware to say the wrong thing or look foolish. She leaves that to me.
I was always the confident one. The one who suited up and went to work and knew my role was to provide for my family, encourage my kids, and run them around on weekends to give her a break. I was the one who knew to be there for her as a coach and a friend when she complained that she felt useless and disconnected. I was the one who knew to work hard for the things she wanted in our home and family.
Marriage is a lot like a marathon, it occurs to me. At the start, you are excited by the challenge. Along the way there are bursts of adrenaline helping make it to the mile markers. There are also depressive lows you have to get through on grit and moxie alone. Halfway through, even if you’re doing better than others, lapses of focus and doubt creep in. You ask yourself if you can finish. Part of you doesn’t know if you should.
Am I just feeling exhausted from the race? Used like a worn out sneaker from too many outings, too many starts and too many finishes? Or, along the way did I forget to focus on myself? There is the notion in my head that I have become less important at both work and at home.
The flight attendant arrives and asks for our drink order. She is a plain woman who looks tired from air travel and customer service.
“Two seltzers with ice please,” I say in my heavy Long Island accent.
“Seltzer?” she questions. “I’m sorry, darlin’. Do you mean soda water?”
The flight attendant is trying to be nice, but the phoniness shines through her former sorority house southern belle charm.
“You don’t know what a seltzer is? C’mon, you gotta be kidding me.” I consider changing my drink order and requesting a martini, shaken not stirred. I don’t drink martinis but maybe it would bring a smile to my wife’s expressionless face. I think better of it, not wanting to give her an excuse to cut me down.
The flight attendant walks away not, interested in my awkward small talk, leaving an awkward silence.
“Do magazines cost the same in the airport as they would in a regular store?” I ask my wife, knowing nobody reads magazines anymore.
She makes no effort to look at me, continuing to devour her story. “They should.”
Prior to marriage she sought my attention. From the first night we saw each other she fought to have me at her side. She showed up at parties just to see me. In college, she traveled long distances to watch me play baseball. When I moved out of our apartment before the wedding, she called me every day.
I wonder where that person went.
There was the night when we were kids and dating. We sat in a pizza place, and across from us was an older couple. They wore long, unhappy faces. They were silent as they ate. The man finally turned to the woman and said he loved her. She said she loved him too.
My then-girlfriend turned to me at the table, the large windows bringing in the dark, and said that she hoped we never said I love you just to break the silence or begin and end a sentence, like casting a line into the abyss, hoping to catch some feeling worth holding on to.
But cute sentiments of a blossoming young love are not meant to last. They wither and decay like everything else.
I sit back, looking into my lap, and notice a little, round pouch starting to develop in my abdomen after a weekend of southern hospitality. My diet consisted of hamburger-steak with gravy and onions, cheese grits, biscuits and an assortment of fried foods.
“I really need to lose weight,” I say while patting my stomach.
“You’re fine,” she answers, not paying attention. “You look good.”
“Are you telling me I haven’t gained weight?”
“No. I’m telling you that you look fine. You don’t look like you did over the summer,” she says with a smile, her white teeth relishing in the stinging sound bite.
She continues, going for the body blow, “I can tell, but nobody else will be able to. You’re getting older. It’s just harder to maintain.”
She swipes left on her novel.
The mean comments always stick more than the nice ones.
The flight attendant returns with our drinks. “Last but not least,” she says while trying to muster a smile. She hands me my wife’s drink. I place it on her tray, which is laid out in front of her.
“Ice?” my wife asks, finally looking over at me. “You don’t know by now that I don’t like ice in my drink?”
I stay quiet. Then I respond in defense. “Why didn’t you stop me when I placed the order?”
“How many years have we been together?” She grins mischievously, as if she is the only one in on a secret. “Besides, I wasn’t listening.” She reaches between her knees and plunges her hand into her large carry-on, locating a bag of potato chips. She places both hands together at the top and pulls.
“Didn’t I just tell you that I need to lose weight?” I say, annoyed.
“What gave you the impression these are for you?”
She pulls out a large, fully-formed chip, pops it in her mouth, and crunches, with a perfectly timed shrug of her shoulders.
“I want a divorce,” I say in a tone to mean it. The last weapon in my arsenal.
I lean back and close my eyes, the coldness between us palpable.
And then a warm hand lands on mine, followed by a gentle and comforting squeeze.
“Sounds good,” she says.
“Can I have your attention, please?” The pilot cuts in over the loudspeaker. “Folks, we are expecting some turbulence ahead- please fasten your seatbelts. The rest of the ride should be smooth sailing.”