Sighing deeply, I opened the chest that contained all of our Christmas decorations. They looked pitiful to me as I saw them all there, tangled and in a heap. They were put away in haste last year because Jack and I got into an argument over the tree being there for too long. He hadn’t given me any inclination that he was annoyed with the tree being there, it was only the 28th, but I could feel the energy shift as he walked through the door that evening.
I could hear him kick my shoes out of the way as he entered the house, grumbling as he went. I cursed myself for not moving them earlier. Wincing, I stood up and went to the kitchen to check on dinner, though there wasn’t anything to check on. I opened the oven to see the casserole baking, still needing no assistance from me. I loitered in the kitchen, getting plates out, though there was still another half an hour before we’d be eating.
I was hyper aware of the sound of his footsteps coming back down the stairs, and I could tell by the pace that he was in a mood. I took a deep breath to steady myself, hoping I was wrong. Hoping every hair standing up on my neck was wrong. I immediately missed him, the him that he used to be. The him that he was when he had awareness of how his behavior affected me.
We had many conversations in the past about how his tone of voice could be piercing. He told me I was too sensitive. I told him that his reactivity made me feel like I needed to walk on eggshells. He said I was silly and there was no need. But his behavior when he was irritated told me that was exactly what I needed to do. Not just that, but I needed to anticipate his moods, his wants, his needs, his reactions. And I was responsible for all of them. If I didn’t anticipate them, I was accused of being selfish, of not making him happy, of not being a team player. And I would get punished. Do not underestimate the power of passive-aggressive behavior.
I could hear him banging around in the living room, the mini fridge opening and closing. Great, just what we needed, to add alcohol to the negativity. Trying to convince myself, again, that I was wrong, that my intuition was off. I put on a smile and joined him. “Hey! I thought I heard you! How was work?”
“Fine,” he grumbled, shutting the mini fridge with less force than I expected.
“What’s wrong?” I asked in the hopes that I could become his ally instead of his enemy.
“Didn’t grab Heineken for me like I asked I guess?”
Fuck. I wasn’t sure if I should just admit that I forgot, though I was already scolding myself for it, or make something up. I went with a lie. “I went to a couple stores and they didn’t have any, so I just thought I’d run out later because I wanted to come back to get dinner on.”
“Why didn’t you go earlier? Or let me know. The one thing I was looking forward to was a nice cold beer at the end of my day, and now I can’t even have that.”
“I’m sorry, Jack, I can run out right now.” I was already reaching for my keys before he cut me off.
“Seriously, don’t worry about it. I should have known not to count on it. It’s just really frustrating when I ask you to do something so simple and you don’t do it. It just seems like you don’t give a shit. I know it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you, but it just shows me that you don’t want to prioritize me.”
I wanted to argue, because it was fucking beer. Get it your Goddamn self. But I also wanted to argue because I shouldn’t feel the need to lie, or cower, or be ashamed because I forgot something. Like humans do. But I knew this was just an opportunity to vent. A reason to be annoyed. A focus for the emotions he had been holding onto all day. I was hoping the evening would still be salvageable. I was hoping I would catch a glimpse of the man I yearned for. The understanding one, the kind one, the one who respected me.
I wondered how the fuck I let it get to this point. How in anyone’s right mind this would be tolerable. But it was such a slow slope back into this behavior that I almost didn’t notice it until I was back to this exact spot. He would snap out of it, treat me well, apologize, make excuses, sure, but he would come back to me. The one who made me feel seen, feel loved, feel invincible. And I wouldn’t notice him slipping away until I was already screaming internally.
I could hear my voice; it was unrecognizable. It was pitiful. “I’m really sorry. I don’t mind running out. I hear what you’re saying. I hope that you don’t let it ruin our night.”
“I’m not ruining anything. I’m just disappointed. I’m allowed to have emotions, too.”
I frowned and shook my head. The confusing part of the conversation had begun. “I never said you weren’t. And I apologized.”
“Ya, I guess I'm just kind of sick of apologies, and would actually just like to know I can rely on you when I ask you to do something so simple.
He scoffed. “And what about the tree?”
“What do you mean?” I could feel my heart begin to race accompanied by an adrenaline rush through my body. What did I forget? What did I do wrong? Fight or flight?
“I told you I wanted the Christmas tree stripped and out before our New Year party.”
My face contorted in confusion. “I know, it’s still days away.”
“Ya, days! You don’t want to get a jump on it? You’re just going to leave it to the last minute and then I’m going to end up doing it after work one day because you ‘forgot’ or ‘ran out of time’.”
“What are you talking about?” I regretted the edge in my voice. It was only going to fuel him.
“You know how you are, Claire.”
“Ya, I do. And I know that if I said I’d get it done, I will.”
“Like you got me beer today? Like you sent that letter last month that I asked you to send? Like calling the vet like I had to remind you to do three times?”
He had me there. I did forget to do all of those things. But it didn’t mean it was a character trait. I scolded myself again, and could feel my face getting hot. Half of the time I was so wound up worried I was forgetting something, that I would end up forgetting. It didn’t matter how much I tried to avoid confrontation, or avoid upsetting him, he would snap, or talk me into circles. I would get so confused that I would walk away from the conversation assuming I was a complete idiot, only to replay it later and realize I had been manipulated. It was such a trap. Such a cycle. I wondered how much damage this was doing to me long term. I had spent so much time trying to master the system Jack had, but having the rules changing at the drop of a hat made it feel like I was in a video game that was constantly upping the difficulty.
I finally snapped at that point, feeling the build up in my body. “Jesus Christ, Jack. Well, if I’m so terrible, if I’m that much of a fucking moron, then why are you with me?”
“Oh, here we go,” he said, throwing his hands in the air. Though, I could feel the energy shift again; this is what he wanted. He was baiting me so that he felt justified to release his anger. I walked right into the trap. Again. “I tell you that I’m disappointed because you aren’t prioritizing things I’m asking you to do, and here you are turning it around on me. You are making me the bad guy yet again. I’m supposed to feel sorry for you because you can’t remember to do a few simple things for me. Real nice, Claire.”
I had already dragged the Christmas box out and was snatching ornaments from the tree, bits of tinsel coming with it, and haphazardly throwing them in. “I feel like I can’t make one fucking mistake in this house without you pouncing on me. It’s like you ask me to do more than necessary because you’re hoping I fail.”
“Listen, if you can’t handle these simple things, then just tell me. I just thought since you’re my wife, you’d want to help me out, especially considering how busy I’ve been. I thought you’d want to work as a team. I thought you’d actually be interested in supporting me.”
His continued use of the word “simple” didn’t go unnoticed. So condescending. There was so much to unpack. But there was no point. I was giving him more ammunition by fighting.
That was when I clammed up. Then of course he tried to bait me by attacking other aspects of my life, including my family, my school, my job, the amount of money I spent. I felt tiny. Like he was the great white, and I was the remora, praying he would toss me some scraps to sustain me. Because all the while, I was still just hoping he would realize how hurtful this was. I wanted him to see how much I needed him to snap out of it and hold me.
Not until later, when he was craving my body. And I gave it to him, to keep the peace. I pretended he was who I needed. Who he used to be. But I couldn’t shake the feeling of utter shame from my skin as he moved inside me.
I snapped back, out of that memory. I untangled the ornaments as I went, and discarded the old tinsel while I was at it. No tinsel this year. I didn’t want any of it this year. The tree, the ornaments, the music, the husband. I was exhausted. It hadn’t gotten worse, but my tolerance was thinner. I had started going to therapy, against Jack’s wishes. He said it was a waste of time, a waste of money, and that I was just going to have my head filled with nonsense.
The longer I went, the more awareness I gained. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was appalled. I was torn. And yet I was still in this marriage. I was still here. I was still invested. I was still begging a broken man to love me in a healthy way.
I hated myself. For so many reasons. For allowing myself to get into this position. Me. A strong-willed, smart, educated, witty, kind, loving, self-assured human being. How did I become such a shell? When did keeping the peace evolve into pieces of me that I bartered away? And for staying. For staying for so long. I knew he was good, underneath. I knew he was damaged, and hurt, and life just kept putting more and more pressure on him. But understanding him didn’t make his behavior appropriate. It didn’t make it right. It didn’t mean I should tolerate such treatment. And yet, I was. It was such a progressive experience, giving in once, then again. The manipulations were so discreet, masked in logic so that it created questioning of myself. He wasn’t hitting me. He wasn’t cheating on me. And he loved me. He did. I found myself saying “if only” several times a day. If only he could see. If only he understood. If only he could acknowledge his mental health. If only he could see how this breaks me. If only I was enough to help him heal. If only my love was enough for him to want to.
But it wasn’t on me. His behavior, his reactions, his opinion of me. It all came from an unhealthy place. Through a filter that I had no control over. I had to either decide that I was what he told me I was, or who I knew I was, his approval notwithstanding. Because I would never be able to force awareness on him. And me shouting at him that I’m a good person did nothing. It didn’t fit his narrative of me to warrant justification of his behavior.
Yet it all came back down to this commitment I had made with him. What did divorce even mean? What did it look like? I am a woman of my word, when I make a vow, I mean it. I said forever, and I meant forever. But as I grew, and recognized what I was doing to myself, I realized the vows were already broken. It killed me. The last thing I wanted to do was walk away, but he refused to work on it with me. Or even admit there was a problem. Not consistently. Only in early mornings, when the brain was still foggy from pleasure, or moments when he thought he pushed me too hard. But those words were nothing but a rope to pull me back, a noose disguised as a safety net.
I jumped at Jack’s cheerful voice. “Hey! That looks great! Can I help?”
Trying to shake off the resentment, I nodded and handed him the next ornament. He kissed me on the cheek as he took it. “Thanks, baby!” He hung it on the tree and turned back. “I was thinking we could order Pho tonight. I know how much you love it.”
I could feel the anxiety sliding off me. I really wanted to enjoy this good mood, though I knew it was temporary. I wondered if he would notice that I was distant? Or if he would accuse me of always assuming the worst in him. I couldn’t even own my emotions without him claiming and renaming them.
“Why are they all tangled up?”
I calmed my voice. “Remember last year? When we argued about the Christmas tree still being up?”
He smiled sheepishly. “Ugh, yes I do. I’m sorry. Work was insane that week, and I was in such a shitty mood.”
Well that makes all the microaggressions tolerable then, thanks. “I remember.”
“It’s different this year, though.”
“Ya?” I had no idea where he was going with this. It hadn’t gotten better. And not much had changed. Just his cycle of lashing out wasn’t landing on the same exact number on the calendar this year around. Though I’d noticed a pattern with special days like birthdays, weddings, holidays, they all seemed to put him more on edge.
“Ya!” he reassured me. “I mean, we’ve been fighting a lot less. You’ve been really trying to prioritize me, I’ve noticed that for sure.”
It pissed me off that I felt a sense of pride at his words. I wanted his acknowledgement. I wanted his praise. And I fucking hated that. I felt like a child. “Thanks,” I choked out, hoping he didn’t catch the annoyance in my voice.
Jack put on some Christmas music, and we finished decorating the tree. We were waiting for the Pho to be delivered, and I started relaxing into the old routine of light-hearted Jack. We were laughing before I knew it and dancing around the living room. I remembered why I had such a hard time untangling myself from this man. He truly knew how to charm me. And beneath the childhood trauma, the gaslighting, the manipulation he used to protect himself, he was a vulnerable, kind, hilarious, generous man. I wanted to stay in this moment forever. And I actually started convincing myself that things could change, that it could be this way. I allowed hope.
We flopped down on the couch together laughing, and he kissed me. It was familiar, and comforting. There was such an inexplicable draw toward this man, call it chemistry, energy, mechanics, but whatever it was, it always seemed to be the hardest to shake. How I felt in his presence, how important it felt to be in his presence. His hand reached underneath my sweater and I closed my eyes, melting into his arms. His mouth moved to my ear and he whispered, “Let’s make a baby.”
I stiffened. “What?”
“Let’s make a baby,” he repeated.
I knew instinctively that I had two options, agree with him, or ruin the night. I stupidly thought there was a third option, rationality, but as usual, my mind was wrong. “A baby?”
“Ya,” he said, pulling back smiling. “We’ve talked about having kids before.”
“Sure, but not seriously. You said you wanted to focus on your career, being a lawyer is so demanding.”
“I mean, sure, but once you’re done with medical school, we can hire a nanny.”
I knew the look on my face was not what he was hoping for. “We’re talking about having a baby so we can hire a nanny to take care of it? I’m still in school for two more years, plus I’m working. There’s no way we have time for kids right now.”
“I didn’t say ‘kids’, I said ‘a baby’.”
“Those turn into kids.”
He grunted his annoyance and sat up. I adjusted my sweater to cover myself, suddenly feeling overexposed.
“I mean,” I started, trying not to rock the boat, “we can talk about having a baby, but I’m not ready to make one right this second.”
“You used to be spontaneous.”
My anger flared. How dare he? Seeking out an insecurity, making a dig, during what should be a mature conversation about bringing another human being into the world. And with our marriage in the state it was, there was no way in hell I’d be on board for something so permanent.
And then it hit me. There was no fucking way I would bring a child into this mess. So why was I allowing myself to live in it? And with him so oblivious to the fact that it was a mess at all. Everything in our lives suited him, why would he change? Throwing a tantrum got him everything he wanted. Why wouldn’t he defend those behaviors, those patterns? They allowed him to create the exact life he wanted. But still he wasn’t happy. So why was that good enough for either of us?
“I’m not going to be offended that I’m not spontaneous about such an important decision. I’m in med school, you just got going at that firm, and no nanny would want to live in this house right now.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
I could feel myself falling out of my own grasp. What used to keep me in line didn’t matter anymore. I had nothing to lose at this point. So why not say what I wanted to say? “It means, our house is fucking toxic. You manipulate situations, you do your best to trigger guilt in me, you belittle me, you treat me like shit. You don’t think that would make someone feel a little uncomfortable?”
“Oh, now I treat you like shit?”
“Yes,” I laughed. “Yes.” It felt good to say it. It felt empowering. “You have somehow managed to convince me that I’m less than what I am. That your way is the only way. That I’m completely irrational half the time.”
“Don’t put that on me. I can’t make you feel any way.”
“You’re right, but you’d think that my husband would want to build me up and encourage me. Not point out every single thing I do as a negative, set me up for failure, test me.”
“And what about all the shit I do for you?” His volume was rising. “Take care of the bills while you’re in med school, put a roof over your head, groceries in the fridge, insurance on the car you drive.”
I matched him. “I did all those things for you when you were in law school. I won’t feel guilty over something that you happily agreed to reciprocate.”
“Oh, so that shit doesn’t matter now because you did them for me years ago?”
“No, I just mean…” I stopped myself. Fuck he so good at steering the conversation into something I felt I needed to defend. This argument was about how he treated me. Not my lack of appreciation. Because I did appreciate it. And resented it. “Listen, you’re not going to ever fully understand how your behavior affects me. And I sure as shit won’t bring a baby into this rollercoaster of a relationship. I don’t want our child to be walking on eggshells wondering if they forgot to put their shoes away properly, or bring their water glass downstairs in the morning, or have them hear their name and panic wondering if they did something wrong.”
“Oh for fuck sake’s Claire! Everyone is too fucking sensitive these days. What? We aren’t supposed to punish kids anymore? We aren’t supposed to have standards for them? We can’t teach them right from wrong because someone’s feelings might get hurt?” He dismissed me with his hand and walked over to the mini fridge. “Fucking ridiculous.”
For some reason, I found an attempt to keep the peace fall out of my mouth instead of telling him how I really felt. But here I was, trying to braid that last string of hope into something stronger to hold onto. For whatever reason. “Listen, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Maybe if we do some couples therapy, or you could go on your own like I do. Maybe if we heal our own traumas, we would have a better relationship and be better parents in the future.”
Jack took a long swig of beer. “You go do whatever you want, Claire. But if you think I treat you like shit, you’re wrong. Everything I do is for you. If you can’t see that then maybe you need to find someone else to be perfect for you.”
“I’ve never asked for perfection. I’ve asked for kindness, and respect.”
“Well, you’re not going to get those things all the time, Claire, sorry.” His apology was sarcastic. It pierced. His words were clear. “I am the way I am Claire. You either love me, or you don’t.”
“Your behavior isn’t who you are. And I don’t believe that your defense mechanisms are a personality trait. You feel out of control on the inside, so you grasp for control on the outside.”
He chuckled darkly. “Says your therapist.”
“Sure.” He chugged the rest of his beer. “This is who I am, take it or leave it. If you think you’re so hard done by, and you can’t deal with real life, and a real relationship, no one is stopping you from leaving.”
“So you have no desire to improve? To do self work? To feel balanced, calm, happy?” I could feel the panic rising up. I was reaching. Hoping. It made no sense to me why someone wouldn’t want to work on themselves. And if their partner in life was begging them to gain awareness, how that would be something so easily dismissed?
“We don’t live in a fucking cartoon, Claire. People are going to be angry sometimes, and say things they don’t mean, in a tone you might not like. That’s just how it is.”
The doorbell rang. Pho.
Jack disappeared for a minute. When he returned, he put the bags on the coffee table and turned around. “Here’s your food. I’ve lost my appetite.”