By Charmayne Hafen, a short story about marriage
My legs are sticking to the seat again. I squeeze my eyes shut and peel my thighs off the black vinyl. They make a sucking sound and I think of the algae eater on the side of our fish tank at home. I see its large, fleshy mouth cover a round portion of the glass. It moves along from one side to the other, cleaning and polishing its distorted picture window.
Michael stares out the windshield, miles away from here, miles away from me. His mouth is clamped shut, locked against anything conversational or intimate. The algae eater is more intimate. Does the world look as perverse to him as it does to me? How is it the sun can burst through thick white clouds? How can it color the day with that brilliance dripping over every tree, oozing over every car, and shining the casement of every building we pass?
This time together in our vehicle is dark, dreary, and foreboding. We’re on a weekend trip to save our marriage. The sky should be in silent mourning, holding back its cool breeze, waiting for the end to come.
I release the pent up air in my lungs and glance sideways.
Michael has a piece of Juicy Fruit between his teeth. His mouth moves up and down as he chews. The movement is comforting. It looks similar to the motion a mouth makes while talking. Perhaps he will speak to me and feed me a few morsels of his soul. My soul continues to starve.
My stomach rumbles and tells me the Cheerios I fed it two hours ago have dissolved and made their journey through my bloodstream.
“Let’s get something to eat,” I suggest, suddenly buoyant with the sound of my own voice. Silence can become so thick and heavy. Michael continues to stare at the highway ahead. I follow the direction of his eyes and squint to see if there’s something out there I’m missing. Sun, trees, shiny, expensive cars, a hint of smog against the blue sky….a typical weekend day in Southern California.
The question comes unexpectedly. My dazed gaze slams against it. My eyes refocus on Michael. “Where what?”
Deep furrows stack up across his forehead. “You said you wanted to get something to eat. Where do you want to go?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.” I can tell without looking that Michael is rolling his eyes. Michael doesn’t know our marriage is coming to an end. He doesn’t realize how important this trip is. His annoying little wife is going to leave him if something doesn’t change. “Sushi.”
The furrows dig deeper into Michael’s forehead. “Sushi what?”
“I want sushi for lunch.”
“Oh yes. Of course, you would want sushi; especially since I hate it. Why do you always do this?”
“Oh, now comes the puzzled look. That’s all part of it, isn’t it?”
I enunciate each word. “A part of what, Michael?”
“This game you play. You announce you’re hungry. I ask where you would like to go and you pick something that you know I hate.”
I prop my bared foot up on the dashboard and wiggle back into my seat. I’ve assumed the battle position and I’m going in for the kill. “No,” I shake my head. “I don’t know, because you don’t talk to me. You don’t tell me anything; not even what you like to eat for lunch.”
“I’m not participating in this discussion.” Michael’s knuckles turn white as he grips the steering wheel. “I already know the outcome and I refuse to make excuses for who I am, Sam. You knew I wasn’t much of a talker before you married me.”
My eyes are rolling. I wiggle my head back and forth. “That’s such a lie. You did talk to me when we were dating. The first year we were married you told me what you were thinking and how you were feeling a lot.”
“It’s easy to talk when life is sweet.”
Michael continues to stare straight ahead. I wish he would look at me. “What are you saying, Michael?” I almost hope he’ll ignore my question. He does sort of.
“You see that man on the side of the highway?”
I turn my head and look out the window in the direction Michael is pointing. A guy who looks like he could be Michael’s age carries a large, orange trash bag. He walks and stoops down, picking up pieces of trash that lay scattered along the highway. I shrug. “What about him?”
“I’m just like him.”
Now I’m wondering why I ever wanted him to speak. He’s not making sense and I’m starting to feel depressed. I let out another sigh. “The air is getting stale in here,” I reason while rolling down my window.
Michael slams the air conditioner switch off. There’s another mark against my name today. First sushi, now rolling the window down while the air is on. “You’re not like that man at all.” I’m hoping to divert his attention from my most recent offense. “That man is doing community service for some crime he’s committed. He’s probably on his way to jail.”
“I’m already there.”
I can’t read him.
The side of Michael’s face is a blank. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I prop both feet on the dash, hoping to appear unshaken. I feel a quiver start at the center of my stomach and ripple against my ribs. I really need to eat.
“My life is a prison, Samantha. I may not have committed any crime but I’m still in jail just the same. ”
He pauses. Nothing more is said. That’s it?! That’s all he’s going to say?!
“You see why I don’t talk, Sam?” This time he looks at me with a smug little grin scribbled on his face. I wish the algae eater were here to suck it off.
“Forget lunch,” I say, turning my head towards the window. “I’m not hungry.”
“Are you kidding me?!!” Michael starts to yell. The car is slowing down and he pulls over on the side of the highway. The tank is sitting on empty. “We’re out of gas! I thought you got some this morning!”
Gas. The one thing I forgot. Great! “I’m sorry, Michael. I forgot.”
“Well, this is just wonderful!”
He won’t talk to me after he calls the Uber ride. He tells the driver he has to get a container of gas from the nearest gas station which he’s already located on his cellphone. It’s only a few miles away. I wander around the embankment on the side of the road for awhile and then sit in the car with the passenger door open, waiting.
He is silent after he returns with enough gas to get us to the station. I notice his jaw clenching for miles.
Our gas tank isn’t the only thing on empty.
By the time we reached our hotel on the beach, our relationship is dry as a southern wind.
The world looks so small from the fifteenth floor of this Holiday Inn. I am right now, standing carefully on the balcony of our hotel room. This must be how the world looks to God. We’re a bunch of ants fighting over the crumbs of life. Maybe if I threw all my problems off this balcony, they would become as small as the dotted people and cars below me. Maybe they would just disintegrate from the force of the fall.
Michael is in the shower. He’s trying to cool off. Things got pretty heated after we passed the man with the orange trash bag. Then, of course, the car ran out of gas.
That was my fault. At least in Michael’s eyes. I think he sees one version of me all the time-a screwed up. I was supposed to get gas yesterday. I didn’t. Lisa called, and I got distracted from my errands. Michael could care less that Lisa was in a crisis. All he knows is that we have now missed our cruise to Catalina Island.
I still say it’s partly his fault. He didn’t check the gas gauge when we got in the car this morning. I know he was tired and grumpy. I know we were running late and that I should have gotten out of bed sooner. Still, I wasn’t the one who kept him from checking.
I suppose it doesn’t really matter anyway.
I’ve decided I’m going to leave Michael. I don’t really have any other choice. If I don’t leave, I’ll go crazy. Life is just hell when we’re together. He works at the bank all day. I talk for eight hours to cranky people who won’t pay their bills. We come home, eat dinner and stare at the T.V. until it’s time to go to bed. Then we get up and do it all over again. Nothing is fun anymore. See what I mean . . . hell?
We used to like each other. We even loved each other, I suppose. It’s hard to believe with the way things are now. We’ve joined the rest of the world and we’re fighting each other for the crumbs.
Michael used to write “I want you” on the bathroom mirror with toothpaste. We took some long showers then. Some mornings he would sit straight up in bed and grab my arm. “You!” he would say. “It’s really you. I thought you were just a dream!” I would laugh and smile at how good those words felt.
I can see the ocean from where I’m standing. It’s so grand. So is the sunset. It makes me sick to think of how this beauty is being wasted. How can I watch the sky burst into flames and feel cool, ocean air on my skin when my marriage is ending? I won’t look at the ocean. I’ll just watch cars and people from this isolated perch.
My eyes follow a stream of cars into a large parking lot.
To the right of the parking lot, the red and yellow neon lights of a Tilt-O-Whirl blink on. Then I notice the flashing white lights of a roller coaster and the bright green and purple sign for The Zipper. A carnival!
I don’t think about what I’m doing. I grab my purse just as Michael shuts the water off. “I’m going to a carnival,” I yell at the bathroom door.
“What!? What carnival?”
I don’t answer. I slam the hotel door shut and keep walking down the carpeted hallway. I smile. It feels good to leave him hanging. He deserves it after saying that nonsense about being in jail and then claming up for the rest of the trip.
I’m breathing heavily, partly because I’m walking so fast and partly because I feel so free. Exhilaration claims me like I’ve just been let out of a dark, musty closet. Maybe Michael and I are both in prison.
The air is cool and salty. My skin tingles and I walk even faster. I’m smiling at everyone I pass. Little girls, little boys hopping and skipping. Teen flocks. Young lovers. Older couples hand-in-hand. I’m still a few blocks from the carnival, but I can already smell the salty-sweet mixture of hot dogs and cotton candy. My stomach cramps and growls. We never did eat lunch today.
There crowd grows-the little kids now with sticky, cotton candy mouths and wild eyes, tired parents clutching balloons and stuffed animals, couples with hands locked together or arms around shoulders and waists.
I stop at a hot dog stand and take my place in line.
Plump, juicy links rotate slowly on a wheel at the left side of the metallic counter. Ten people wait in front of me. I feel impatient so I look around, trying to take my mind off my hunger. My eye catches a glimpse of a giant Ferris wheel off to my right. Bright red, blue, and yellow lights wink on and off, outlining the spokes of the wheel. I step out of the line and walk towards it. The hot dog can wait. I love Ferris wheels. They’ve always been my favorite ride at carnivals. When I’m at the very top, for an instant, I feel like I’m flying unleashed.
There’s another line, not as long as the hot dog truck’s, for the Ferris wheel. Dinner time is the perfect time to catch a ride. I step up.
“Can I ride with you?”
Michael is standing beside me. His hair is still wet from the shower and his face is flushed. He must have run all the way from the hotel. His light blue eyes seem even paler against his red skin. I smell the spicy musk of his aftershave. Surprisingly, every inch of me is glad he’s here. He remembered to check my favorite ride to find me.
“Yeah, I think that would work.”
We don’t look at each other. It’s like we just met and we’re both feeling shy and awkward. It’s kind of exciting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him looking at his hands or his shoes-anywhere but at me. I feel a chuckle rising in my throat. “So what made you come? I didn’t think you liked carnival’s anymore.”
Michael clears his throat. “Well, I don’t but I couldn’t see any point in sitting alone in that stuffy hotel room all night. I mean, we drove all this way. It would be stupid and a waste of time.”
Why can’t he say he wanted to be with me? Why does it have to be about wasting time or not wasting time?
The Ferris wheel stops. We climb into a bright blue carriage with a little umbrella swinging overhead. I slide to the middle of the seat and wish I could slide over a little further. I don’t want to be next to him but I don’t want to look like a child. Michael slides in next to me and rests his hands on his lap. At least he isn’t putting his arm around me. Somehow, this makes me even angrier. “Don’t forget, Sam,” I coach myself, “he’s only here so he can avoid wasting time.” The carriage lurches forward and we’re off the ground.
The cool, evening breeze is stronger and colder above the beach, the waves of the Pacific. I try to focus on the bright lights of the carnival below, on the moonlight bobbing in ripples on the waves of the ocean. I can’t distract my mind from the fact that I’m a bundle of nerves, and freezing. Goosebumps give texture to my arms and legs. I should have put something warmer on before I left. These shorts and tank top aren’t made for an evening out by the ocean, what was I thinking? Michael notices my bumps and asks if I’m cold.
No, your presence just thrills me so. Another unspoken thought. “Maybe a little. I’m all right though.” Michael’s tan arm slides across my shoulders. I’m tempted to wiggle a little closer. The warmth of his body feels uncomfortably good but my anger still feels too right to let go of just yet.
“I’m not in prison because of you, Sam.”
This catches me off guard. I lose focus of my anger. “You’re not? I thought that’s what you meant, that our marriage is like a prison.”
“No. It’s just life. There’s so much pressure.”
Our carriage is moving backward, descending to the ground. The pull of gravity, along with Michael’s words, makes me heady. My anger evaporates with the sea spray. I see myself tossing a few problems off the balcony at the hotel though I remain silent, almost holding my breath. Maybe he’ll keep talking. He does.
“I don’t like who I am anymore, Sam. All I do is work and complain about how awful everything is. And, I hate what’s happening to us. All we do is fight.” I slide closer to him and press against his side. His hand squeezes my shoulder.
“I swore things would never be this way when we first got married. I made a promise to myself that I would not live a mediocre life like my family and friends. So far, this weekend places us square in their camp.”
“We’re just living like a couple of algae eaters,” I say looking up at him.
Michael smiles. I’m wishing I had my camera so I could take a picture of his face. His smile is so beautiful and so rare anymore. “What do you mean by that?”
“We’re viewing life through our four algae-covered windows, like our fish tank. And it’s always distorted.”
He nods his head. “So how do we change the view?”
We’re at the top of the wheel again.
“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” Michael smiles, remembering the self-help book we read together months ago.
“We are products of our past but we don’t have to be prisoners of it tomorrow.”
I nod in agreement. “We change tomorrow’s view by what we’re doing right now,” I answer. “Wow. The world looks a lot different from up here, doesn’t it?”
“If we threw our problems off the side of this carriage at the top, they would seem a lot smaller.”
“You’re a strange one, Sam.” Michael is smiling again. I love his smile even more than Ferris wheels.
“I know. That’s why you’re so madly in love with me.”
Michael scratches his forehead. “Yeah, I’ll buy that.”
We ride the bumper cars and eat greasy hot dogs. Michael kisses me in the funhouse in front of a mirror that made our heads look like bloated ticks.
It’s after midnight before we make it back to the hotel room. Michael is wide awake. Hanging the tiny stuffed bear he won for me from his ear, he dances a strange male dance and manages to peel his clothes off, somewhat awkwardly, at the same time.
The only thing I can say for the rest of our little trip is that we didn’t quite make it to Catalina. Missing our cruise turned out to be the best thing that could have happened.
We’re on our way back to the real world today.
I’m driving. I’ve decided not to leave Michael. Tomorrow is Monday but I don’t think it will be the same as every other Monday. In fact, I don’t think our life will be the same. We’ve made a new vow to change our view at least once a week.
I’ve got a strong craving for sushi and Michael has agreed to try it again. He’s talking about the things pressuring him. I’m listening. Together, we’ll break down the pressures of life with a new perspective from a higher viewpoint. Things have definitely changed. We’re entering a new age, a fresh season and this time, our gas tank is full.