Together Apart: Change is Never Easy (10 page)

BOOK: Together Apart: Change is Never Easy
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But this felt different. It was different. This baby wasn’t glue. This baby wasn’t duct tape over a crack in a basement foundation. This baby, Zach felt certain, was the simple reminder they needed. The baby was God (or whoever; he hadn’t decided and neither had his wife) tapping him on the shoulder:
 

This is what you should be paying attention to.

Not his stupid graphic design job. Not his flagging artistic ability, which was surely caused by a lack of ambition — which, in turn, was caused by the fact that he felt more like a graphic designer these days than a groundbreaking artist. Yes, he’d been living rather neatly inside the box. But so what? There was the woman he loved to consider, and the baby they were having together.
 

Zach walked down the sidewalk, feeling himself again for perhaps the first time since coming to Memphis. He kept his head high rather than down and focused. He looked up to inhale the blue sky. Early on, Sam used to tell him that his head was perpetually in the clouds. Not so recently. Zach had been a responsible boy, his feet on the ground and eyes on the prize. But as he made his way back home with the flowers in one hand and the box of cherry cordials in the other, he let his head float like it once did.

Zach dropped his sense of responsibility to reality. He didn’t need to see things as they were; reality would get along just fine while he was floating through the clouds, feeling stupid and optimistic and inspired. And as Zach walked and felt high, as he thought about the reminder in Sam’s belly and how exciting their future together would be, he started to feel inspired again. It wasn’t much — a memory of brushstrokes here, a palate of mental colors there — but it was something. Since they’d moved, Zach felt like art was something he had to do, like jogging. You jogged to stay fit, and you did it whenever you could shoehorn it in because it was something you had to swallow, like a pill. His art used to feel like play. He used to vanish inside his Portland studio, emerging an unknowable eon later with paint on his hands or clay bits somehow in his hair. He’d get cuts when he worked with metal and never knew how he’d gotten them. He’d look at finished pieces and barely recall their assembly. He could remember the music playing when he’d worked in a particular area of any given canvas, but was still surprised by what had occurred there. It wasn’t like that lately. Zach missed the creative fugue, where things happened as if of on their own. But right now, if he didn’t have flowers and the long, long missed chocolates to deliver, Zach thought he would be in his studio. You had to strike while the iron was hot — make hay when the sun shone, as it were. He hadn’t felt this way in a while. It was a good sign. Maybe great.

Life often burned slow. Zach knew that. He also knew that by contrast, he wanted things to happen quickly. He was patient in his own way (more patient than Sam; she could have and maybe
should
have been a great writer, but chose journalism because success took forever), but it was hard for him not to think in terms of this day, this week, this month. Yet even now, as his head lifted and he pulled back to see the bigger picture, he realized that what they’d both been recently feeling was nothing more than a bump in the road. It felt terrible while it was happening, but what would it be a year from now? Ten years from now? If he were to look back on this past year on the day of his son or daughter’s high school graduation, what would he think? He’d be 44 or so, married to Sam for nearly a quarter of a century.

 
From that vantage, how ridiculously insignificant would this year of uncertainty seem? How stupid would he feel for doubting, after an additional 18 years of better days?
 

He felt the weight of the chocolates in his hand. Over the past week — ever since Sam had told him the news — things had started to heal. Only, it wasn’t precisely
healing
, since there hadn’t been damage. Things had begun to
realign
. Sam looked at him the way she used to, with big, sparkling eyes and a white smile, set off by her perpetually tan skin. That look had always made Zach feel so good. It said that while she didn’t entirely understand her husband and his alien artist’s temperament, she was both mystified by and proud of him. And he, in turn, felt himself looking back at Sam in the way he used to, the way he’d forgotten. She was the yin to his yang. Or was it the other way around? Yang was fire, focus, masculine. Yin was soft, yielding, feminine. Zach had the fire, yet he was the one who yielded. He was the man, but Sam was focused. And even that felt playful, because she had started to mock him again in the sunny past week. He was the girl in their relationship, she had always said so. Only, she hadn’t said it much recently, because the tension was too tight for joking. It was ironic that when they were closer, they jabbed each other more.
 

A smile lit his face. Zach nodded at people as he passed, like a man in a cheery movie montage. The people didn’t respond, and seemed wary. It was fine — he had his whole life ahead of him. They both did.
 

Zach climbed the steps, traversed the hallway, and put his hand on the doorknob. He was about to pull his key from his pocket, but then he had an idea.
 

He raised his fist and knocked on the door.
 

Nobody answered.
 

But Zach knew she was in there; Sam had run out on some errands hours before but her car was downstairs so she had to be back.
 

He knocked again, bouquet raised. Then, realizing an opportunity, he dug the box of chocolates from his bag, held the box in his hand, and shoved the empty bag into his pocket. He adjusted his stance as, finally, he heard footsteps approaching and turned himself into the perfect image of a suitor come calling. Just as he was six years before.

He watched the peephole, saw it darken. Then Sam’s voice said, “Why are you knocking?”
 

“I’ve come to court you, my lady,” Zach said, grinning.
 

“OK.”
 

“Aren’t you going to let me in?” The grin grew larger.
 

“What, did you forget to take your key?”
 

“I … Sam, no. Just open the door.”
 

He heard a sigh. The doorknob rattled, and the door cracked an inch. He pushed in, using his elbows because his hands were full, and was greeted by the sight of Sam’s back. She was carrying a laundry basket. Without looking back, she went to the laundry closet and began feeding clothes into the front-loading stack.
 

“I brought you something,” he said, approaching her.
 

“OK, hang on.” More clothes went into the washer.
 

“Check it out. This is a visual.”
 

She was bent at the waist, fist full of shirts. With one hand on the washing machine door, Sam rolled her head sideways, looked at him, and said, “Nice.”
 

“That’s it?”
 

“I’m sorry?”
 

“Well, I thought you’d be more pleased.” He could hear the change in his voice and fought it. This was about
them
first, her second. Zach, as an individual, came last in this particular flowers-and-chocolates scenario. But he couldn’t help it. This was thoughtful; he wanted the appreciation and expected delight.

 
“Let me finish this laundry, OK?” Sam looked at him again, then returned to the clothes basket.
 

Zach stood in the middle of the living room, feeling like an idiot. She hadn’t failed to see. And seeing, she couldn’t possibly have failed to interpret. The bouquet was bright and large; the box of chocolates was a shiny gold. His items were clear in intention like dynamite, especially given how they had sidestepped the cherry cordials over the past year. Him bringing them back was a supreme act of vulnerability — for both of them. Those memories exposed some of their most tender parts. He might as well be displaying a portrait of them making love for the first time. And yet, despite what she saw, Sam wasn’t reacting.
 

With supreme effort, Zach fought an almost suffocating swelling of hurt. This wasn’t about him. And whatever was wrong, that wasn’t about him, either.
 

Feeling like one of history’s heroes, Zach calmly walked into the open kitchen, pulled a vase from under the counter, and filled it halfway with water. He unwrapped the flowers, dropped them in the vase’s open mouth, then fluffed them, attempting with his florally retarded eye to make them pretty. Despite his artistic ability, Zach couldn’t arrange flowers half as well as Sam. But he was doing it to kill time, to pretend that her 30 seconds of indifference hadn’t just eviscerated him. The cordials were on the table in the nook, sitting atop a pile of bills. He had to stay where he was, arranging flowers, because the next move had to be Sam’s. Seeing the precious gold box of memories sitting in such an undignified manner atop the stack of mundane paperwork hurt his heart. Their proper place was between Sam and Zach on the bed, while they laughed and felt the endorphins of happier days flood their minds.
 

Zach heard Sam close the washer and start it. He heard her close the laundry closet’s accordion door. He waited for her to come over and embrace him (
and thank me
, he thought with more rancor than was probably appropriate), instead he heard her walk down the hall and return the laundry basket to the bedroom.
 

It did make sense to return the laundry basket before coming over to greet him, since if she left it in the hallway, one of them was likely to trip over it. Sure, it was maybe a bit ungrateful to not walk over, wrap her arms around him, or note the kindness of his gesture, but Zach supposed he could understand Sam’s desire to finish the laundry — and, of course, after she’d finished, to return the laundry basket.
 

He’d been arranging the flowers for far longer than necessary. He poked them more, then pushed the vase toward the wide counter’s middle. Looking at it made Zach vaguely sad, and he was sort of wishing he hadn’t stopped to buy them.
 

He waited for Sam, but she still hadn’t returned.

With no other props to aid his nonchalance, Zach plodded toward the bedroom. Walking the hallway was like trudging through a bowl of thick stew. He had to will himself to do it, unable to believe that just a minute before he’d felt on top of the world. But again, this wasn’t about him. He hadn’t bought flowers or chocolates for thanks and praise. He’d done it for her. And
if
he’d done it for her (which he had, right?), he needed to
keep
it about her.
 

Zach made himself straighten up and breathe fully. This was hard. Being an artist meant turning inward by nature, that meant being selfish. He knew plenty of giving, generous artists (he liked to think he was one), but when you spent so much time in introspection, you couldn’t help but think of yourself and your emotions first. Worse — you’d know those emotions for what they were, having finely attuned yourself to hear and obey them. So, as Zach approached the bedroom, he felt almost heroic. Sam would never know how difficult it was to suppress his own feelings and come nearer to hers. Sometimes, he thought it’d be easier if he only watched TV, ate fast food, and never bothered with deeper thoughts.
 

He found Sam in the bedroom, folding clothes that didn’t need folding, seeing as they were clean from her dresser. She pulled out each item, then shook, assessed, folded, and dropped it into a pile. There were three on the bed, each stacked with various items: shirts, shorts, pants, even underwear.
 

“What are you doing?” he asked.
 

“Sorting. For Goodwill.”
 

“Now?” Zach forced his voice to remain neutral rather than petulant.
 

“Has to be done sometime.” Sam said it almost dismissively, without looking at him. There was almost a note of blame in her voice, as if this were something she’d repeatedly asked him to do and was now doing out of sheer frustration.

“But … I brought flowers.”
 

“Did you put them in a vase?”
 

“Yes.” Then, because he felt more was needed, he added, “The big one. They’re on the kitchen counter.”
 

“Thanks.”
 

He sat on the bed, but apparently sat too close to one of the piles because she shooed him down, irritated.
 

“What’s up, Sam?”
 

“Just trying to clear out some of our clutter.”
 

“Now?”
 

Sam looked up at him for the first time since he’d come home. Zach was shocked to realize she’d been crying. About something he’d done, or that she had realized, he felt suddenly sure.
 

“Why not? What else do we have planned?”
 

“Sam?”

“Mmm-hmm.”
 

“What’s wrong?”
 

“Nothing’s wrong.”
 

“Yes it is. What is it?”

“I’m just behind,” she said, resuming her sorting. “I can’t catch up. Too much laundry. Too many bills. Behind on some work stuff. OK?”
 

“Well,” he said, “you don’t need to do this Goodwill thing right now, right? Why don’t you take a break? Maybe chill?”
 

She turned to him again. “Do you want to do it?”
 

“Well, not really. Maybe nobody needs to.”
 

“You can do it, and I’ll ‘chill.’” She said it like it was an insulting proposition. “I’ll sit in the front room and drink tea. Maybe stare out the window, watch some birds.”
 

Zach felt himself getting irritated. He’d done a great job so far, keeping his needs from whatever this was, but now she was being insulting. He was only trying to help, and was perfectly willing to do the Goodwill sorting, even, if it absolutely must be done RIGHT NOW after not being thought of since their arrival in town. But she seemed offended by the suggestion that she relax. It was for her own good. And he’d brought her flowers and chocolates, for Christ’s sake.

BOOK: Together Apart: Change is Never Easy
10.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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