OLWG #4: Dig Down Deep? Maybe Not.

I’m taking the essay approach to the Online Writer’s Guild prompt today. The prompts are: 

  1. Time to excavate our relationship
  2. A twenty dollar shine on ten dollar boots
  3. It’s a handicapped spot

Ah, the dreaded, “we have to talk.” We’ve all been there. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as a twenty-dollar shine on a pair of ten-dollar boots. The time comes when all relationships need excavating in order to get reacquainted with what forged and molded them in the first place.

Couples expect, at some point, they will have to open up and reveal themselves in order to determine either how to carry on, or if it is time to come apart. It’s the unspoken understanding when we enter into a romantic relationship. But, other relationships undergo a similar journey of discovery, or at least, ought to.

Professional relationships, advisedly, don’t wander into the touchy-feely, emotional-needs-being-met realm of human interaction, but they need examining nonetheless. You can have a department full of smart, experienced, talented, hardworking souls, but if they are not getting along, their potential won’t be realized. We all can attest to the ultimately destructive power of a snarky, gossipy workplace.

Now, friendships…Well, that’s tricky. Unlike romantic or working relationships, drilling down into what makes a friendship tick is not required. You hit it off with another and the two of you get along. It’s as simple as that. Contrary to other relationships, it’s unnecessary to explain the reason why a friendship works. And, when it doesn’t work anymore, that’s that. You part company.

Depending on the emotional depth of a friendship, unearthing what lies at the heart of a platonic bond can be misconstrued as a rude intrusion of privacy. There is a point at which that level of exploration feels pushy. I suppose it’s why we differentiate one type of friendship from another. Someone is just an acquaintance, for example. A friend of a friend. Other friends are considered akin to a sibling or close relative, signifying an emotional union. These friendships may be able to tolerate, “we have to talk,” moments, but, in my experience, only to a certain extent.

What’s fascinating about true friendships is their endurance and a high level of tolerance. We give our true friends leeway; a get-out-of-jail-free card we don’t typically hand out to our lovers and co-workers. Our true friends can commit some pretty egregious errors, even betray us, before we decide to sever our ties to them. It’s like being unconcerned if an able-bodied person parks in a handicap spot. It’s wrong, but, hey, whatever. And, our true friends can go for weeks, months, even years, without contact, but once reconnected, it can feel as though no time has passed. No one ever seems to resent the lack of communication. Try that with your sweetheart and you’ll definitely be greeted with, “we have to talk.” Probably over packed boxes and a returned set of house keys. The workplace certainly has a “zero tolerance” for lack of communication. It’s usually cited as the primary cause of workplace dysfunction, or why errors were made.

This isn’t to say friendships don’t take work. They do. Friends have to navigate hurt feelings, misunderstandings and negotiate neglect, by simple virtue of the fact that all relationships need care and feeding. Friendships may have it a easier than others, but all relationships take work. It is the price we pay for being a sentient creature.


I blatantly ignored the clock this time. Sorry! I need to go back to writing these during lunch hour.

 

Jacob

JacobThe August sun made its slow and steady climb over the eastern horizon, wrapping Maribeth’s home in a warm yellow blanket, and alighting its interior in a soft amber glow. Sitting with a cup of coffee at the breakfast table, she thought back to a similar morning, so many years before, when Jacob showed up, out of the blue. Maribeth always thought it was curious that that day, when he came back, had started off so beautifully. She wondered, as she did from time to time over the years, how differently things might have turned out had Jacob stayed away.

Mornings have always been Maribeth’s favorite. Calm and quiet, she reveled in having the house to herself. Most especially when, like that morning, these many years ago, her family slept in a bit.

On that particular morning she remembered slipping out of bed, mindful of not disturbing Mitchell. These days a bulldozer knocking down the house wouldn’t wake him. But back then, she’d gently shut the door behind her and tip-toe down the hall, careful to avoid the three squeaky spots in the floor boards. She’d pause a moment to listen outside her children’s bedroom door, and when she was satisfied there wasn’t a peep from the baby or rustling of bed sheets from the twins, she’d continue her silent trip downstairs.

Once in the kitchen, she had the usual debate with herself whether to start the kettle before going out to the outhouse. She knew she would not be that long, but should that kettle start boiling before she got back, her the morning calm would be shattered. That whistle could spook a horse. Even if she left the kettle lid off, her presense in the back yard might set the goat to bleating and then the dog to barking. No one would remain asleep after that. They would come clammering downstairs, cranky from being so abruptly awakened, and then start in to pestering her with ornery demands to be fed, cajoled and otherwise seen to. Mitchell included.

She decided, as she almost always did on these solitary mornings, a trip to the outhouse could wait a bit. She instead went about preparing the morning meal. After all, waking up to the smell of brewed coffee, muffins in the oven and frying bacon would go a long way to keeping her family’s foul morning moods at bay.

Opening the ice box, Maribeth let out an exasperated sigh. Mitchell had failed to bring in eggs from the coop the evening before. So much for not disturbing the animals in the backyard. She removed the kettle from the burner, grabbed her house coat from its place on the back porch, pulled on her muck boots, and walked out the kitchen door.

Her head bowed; her thoughts lost in mild irritation with Mitchell, Maribeth was half way across the yard before she noticed someone sitting under the big oak. A man. She slowed her pace as she took in the unexpected sight. The goat was eating out of the man’s hand and the dog was sitting at his side. Maribeth froze.

It was Jacob. Greying hair and horribly thin, never mind the fact he was sitting with his back turned, Maribeth could still tell it was him.

Jacob and the animals seemed unaware of her presence and Maribeth took quick advantage, rushing back to the house. She’d wake Mitchell and then sit with the children in their room while Mitchell shooed Jacob off the property, preferably with the threat of his hunting rifle by his side. But the dog let out a woof and ran to her, and Jacob called out before she could get inside.

“Uh, heyya there, Maribeth.” Jacob paused, waiting for her to turn around and reply. Maribeth did not move from her position at the door. Nor did she turn around.

“Maribeth?” Jacob paused again, then continued. “Sorry to come calling like this, and on a Sunday morning and all, but, well…Here I am.”

Maribeth remained speechless and motionless. She raised her eyes upward, toward her bedroom window, hoping, praying her husband had awakened at hearing a man’s voice in the yard.

“Mind if I…” Jacob ventured.

Maribeth turned her head to the side and snapped, “Yes. I do.” She walked into the kitchen and slammed the door.


I started this story with a particular idea in mind, but almost as soon as I started to type, it took off in a different direction. The only constant is a woman opening a door surprised to see a familiar but unexpected man.

Then and Now, Part II

sad-couple[For previous chapter, go to Then and Now, Part I]


“Yes, she’s younger, but not younger than you,” Roger offered. “It’s not anything like that.”

Miriam thought about it for a moment. The fact that the woman was older than she caught her by surprise. She moved on.

“And….you are going to live with her. I mean, does she have a house, condo, something? Does she have children?”

“No, no kids. She wanted them, but never could. Something about being hospitalized with something for a long time when she was a teenager. Anyway, we’re working out where we’ll end up. See, uh, she’s from Canada. British Columbia, actually, so … anyway, where we’re going to live is a little complicated at the moment.”

“She’s Canadian.”

“Yep. From somewhere outside Vancouver.”

“Everything in British Columbia is somewhere outside Vancouver.”

Roger shot Miriam a quick smile. “And everything is somewhere outside of here….Mimi, I don’t know where she lives. I don’t know Canada. She said it’s outside Vancouver, so…”

Miriam fidgeted on the couch. He was right. She was being snotty. “So, OK, I assume you are going to still work. You’re not doing something crazy, I mean, more crazy than… what I mean, you’re not thinking of retiring yet?”

“I have to work, of course, I…,” he shook his head, trying to keep his cool. “I have to keep my base here. As I said, it’s complicated.”

“So, she’ll move to the city, or in town here, or wherever, with you. I mean…”

“Honest to god, Mimi, what does it matter where we live? She doesn’t have to…what’ya care if …Goddammit!”

“Goddamnit? Goddamn you! It matters because, because…it… just, does! To me! You come to me with this… news, and I find myself trying to help you, like I always seem to end up doing; helping you figure yourself out of some jam. I mean, you move to Canada, you’ll never see the boys!”

“I just said I have to keep my address, my base, here; or in the city. Not just a post office box! And I wouldn’t ever move so far away I’d never get to see the boys, you know that. You know that!”

“Yes,” Miriam sighed. Roger sat back in his chair and stared out the window. The two of them sat in silence for a minute.

She continued, “So, what did you mean by things were just going to be different? What in the hell does that even mean, Rog, ‘different’?”

“I guess…” He drifted off for a moment and then sat forward again, “I guess I am just trying to soften the blow.”

She shook her head, “How so?”

“I…I’ll still be around as much as I ever was before. I’m not going to disappear.”

“You weren’t around that much to begin with.”

“Which is why I say, it’ll be the same, but different.”

“You really, really aren’t making any sense. Really, you’re not.”

Roger and Miriam looked at each other, waiting for the other to continue. In this moment, Roger could clearly see the difference between the love he thought he felt for Miriam when they were first married, and the love he now felt so deeply for Libby. My God, he thought, it’s really not the same.

He remembered how Miriam used to fill his thoughts in those early days. He remembered the excitement, the awkwardness, the tenderness, as they moved through the discovery of each other. But no sooner had they come together, Miriam was pregnant with Jackson, and so, then, marriage, and not long after that, Mitchell. It wasn’t so much a whirlwind romance, as their friends and families called it, as it was a tsunami of one thing and then the other. Whatever the situation, it seemed perfectly wonderful at the time. He was happy in those years, or, more to the point, he didn’t recall feeling uneasy or anxious.

But now he wondered if he ever felt that deeply for Miriam. He couldn’t excuse it as the shallowness of youth. He wasn’t exactly a young man when he and Miriam married. He wondered if they should have waited for a few years to have children; she was certainly young enough at the time to wait a bit. If he hadn’t been so impatient to have a family, would everything have played out the same?

None of it seemed important to think about until he met Libby. Libby had entirely changed his outlook on his life. All he knew for certain these days, was that his love for Libby was as a profound a thing as he had ever known.

“Mimi, we should have done this years ago,” Roger heard himself finally say. “I know we talked about it once, and at the time it made more sense not to, but the truth is…the truth is, we were never going to come back together.”

Miriam started tearing up. Roger moved over next to her on the couch and took her hand in his.

“We should have done this years ago,” he repeated. Miriam shrugged.

He continued, “Look. I love my family, always will, and I’ll never leave, like disappear, gone. I’ll still be around. You are my family, you and the boys. Nothing changes that. But I haven’t been here for years now. What we had wasn’t a marriage. Not really. I mean, it worked for us back then, somehow, at least it seemed to, but we didn’t…we… look,” he paused to gather his thoughts. “It was … it was caring, and fondness, and our love for those fantastic kids of ours, but it’s not….Anyway,” he paused again. “That’s what I mean about things being the same, but different.”

Miriam’s tears were flowing freely now. Roger could think of nothing else to do but put his arm around her shoulders. She reached for one of the paper towels on the sandwich tray, wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

“Oh, God, Rog,” she wailed a little bit, “You still aren’t making any damn sense with this goddamned ‘same but different’ crap!” She was angry, but she wore a sweet smile through the tears. He was right, she thought. The time had come. Roger gave her a squeeze.

“OH…God…I am going to miss this place!” Miriam blurted. “You sure you guys don’t want it? I’ll sell it to ya cheap!” She gave a little laugh that turned into a hiccup. Roger shook his head and gave her another squeeze. Miriam’s hiccups took violent hold of her.

“I’ll get a glass of water.” Roger got up and went into the kitchen. Miriam fell over sideways on the couch to where Roger had just been sitting. She stared blankly forward; her hiccups sounding like a jumping scratch on an old record.


Miriam couldn’t help herself. She had to find out more about this woman. It seemed ridiculous, this urgent need to know, especially since she hadn’t really cared that she and Roger had been so distant in recent years, but she just had to know more about this woman, Libby.

Roger said something about meeting her through work; that she was a relatively new member of one of his project teams. Miriam started with a simple internet search of the company’s staff lists, but the name did not come up. She dug a little deeper, thinking maybe she was a sub-contractor, but the adjunct list of associates, affiliates and sub-contractors did not have anyone with the name Libby on any of their roles.

“Libby” must be short for something. She made another Google search. “The diminutive of ‘Elizabeth’.” Miriam went back to her staff search, this time looking for “Elizabeth.”

Nothing.

She hesitated, and then decided to hell with it. Posing as some sort of secretary or junior associate, Mariam called Roger’s company and asked for Libby or Elizabeth.

“No, I’m sorry ma’am, we do not have anyone by either of those names.”

“You sure? I think my boss said she’s working on one of Roger Anderson’s projects?”

The receptionist put Miriam on hold while she double checked. Crap, Miriam thought, I hope Roger wasn’t there. He’s in Shanghai, didn’t he say? Miriam waited a few agonizing minutes for the receptionist to come back on the line. “Please God, don’t ask Roger.” she whispered.

The receptionist clicked back on the line, “Again, I’m so sorry, no one here has heard of a Libby or an Elizabeth. Can I leave a message for Mr. Anderson? I’m sure he will know…”

“No, no…that’s OK. I must have misunderstood the name. Let me first go back and see if I got the name wrong, or something. So sorry to…thank you!” Miriam hung up.

What was Roger playing at?


[Go to the next chapter: Then and Now Part III ]

Then and Now, Part III

[Go to Then and Now, Part I and Part II for the story thus far.]

four flowersWhen Roger met Libby, he was at a time in his life when he thought everything would simply keep rolling along until very old age dictated slower days. At 63, he was in decent health, happy with his work, his marriage, his children. Roger felt, in all aspects of his life, content.

Traveling as much as he did, he kept company with a few colleagues whom he called his “work family.” He saw his sons as often as possible—both now young men with their own lives—and made it home when he could spend more than just a couple of days, before having to head back out to wherever in the world the company sent him.

In the early years, before work had him traveling so much, he’d make the long commute into the city. With the promotions came longer hours, and when those hours started to stretch into late evenings and very early mornings, he and Miriam decided to buy a commuter studio in the city instead of continuing to fork out money on expensive hotel bills. By then Miriam was pulling in an excellent income as a real estate broker, so money wasn’t an issue, and as a realtor, she simply could not abide throwing money away on anything that smacked of rent. Thus began the time Roger spent half the week at home, and the other half at work and the commuter studio.

Just at the time the boys reached their teens, the company presented Roger with a fantastic opportunity. It involved a lot of global travel, working on several projects at a time, which was a more frenetic pace than his current responsibilities had him running, but it was an exciting offer that signaled the company recognized Roger’s time had come for bigger things. The catch was that each assignment would be for several weeks at a time, possibly months, and he would need to be on-site for much of it.

Initially, the idea of Roger being gone so much and for such long periods of time made Roger and Miriam wonder what impact that would have on Jackson and Mitchell. They discussed the notion of the whole family moving with Roger to wherever in the world he would be assigned. “We’d live like gypsies!” Roger happily declared, which he thought a romantic idea. Miriam would take a leave from her job, they’d home school Jackson and Mitch, and in turn, the boys would get an  invaluable first-hand experience learning about different cultures and places around the world.

But as thrilling as it sounded, it quickly proved impractical, and, for that matter, something not everyone liked. When the idea of traveling with Roger was put to Jackson and Mitch, like all teens, they became very upset at the prospect of leaving their friends and put up a pretty ugly fight with their parents about it. Roger and Miriam then discovered there was no guarantee the boys would earn all the credits necessary to graduate high school if they were home-schooled. A GED is not the same as having a good GPA when it came time to apply to colleges.

Still, Roger and Miriam still tried to figure out how to make traveling with Roger work. Maybe Miriam and the boys would join Roger during summer and school breaks, or for just a semester instead of a whole year. The boys still resisted.

The more they discussed it, the more Miriam started to realize that, like her sons, she also would really miss her life at home. She had a close circle of friends, was doing very well in real estate and realized, now that she was forced to think about it, deeply cared about maintaining the life she had worked so diligently to call her own. She wouldn’t be able to maintain it if they were so often away traveling with Roger.

To further her doubts, the more she researched about what to expect when living abroad, the more she developed the fear of becoming an isolated housewife. According to what she read, the reality for a wife and kids living in different places around the world while a husband was busy with work was that of loneliness and almost total seclusion; of being constantly unfamiliar with day-to-day life in a strange place in ways that are far more complicated than that of the simple tourist.

Not willing to cop to her insecurities with Roger, she instead argued that, although he would receive a significant raise in salary, the cut in her income would mean they wouldn’t be much farther ahead. In fact, if she traveled as much as the company said Roger would be away, she might as well quit working altogether. Referrals are hard to come by as a realtor when you are not constantly working at it.

So the conversation turned, and they began to consider whether, in the long run, Roger’s long absences would actually be an issue. Roger suggested he might not even be missed, and he meant it, without even a hint of irony. Given the fact that the boys were now almost entirely independent souls, able to get themselves here and there without parental assistance, meant that both parents didn’t need to be available at all times for the day-to-day to work. And Miriam’s hours were just as long as Rogers at times. There had be several times they had been passing ships in the night, only seeing each other briefly late at night at bedtime for a few minutes of conversation before drifting off to sleep.

The decision was ultimately made that, one, Roger’s promotion was too good to refuse, and, two, it was probably best if Miriam and the boys stay put. And the more they talked about it, the more this solution seemed workable. After all, they concluded, they wouldn’t be the first family forced to live apart for long stretches of time.


 

During that first year when Roger was away, the entire family spoke on the phone at least every other day. But as one year rolled into the next, the daily phone calls turned into twice weekly calls, and then the occasional letter or postcard. With the advent of the internet, emails replaced letters, with only the occasional phone call, primarily from Roger with the quick announcement he was on his way home.

When Jackson and Mitch started college, Roger took to staying at the commuter studio almost exclusively when he was back, citing his desire to be able to see his kids, who were attending nearby universities, or because of very short turnaround times between assignments. Eventually he and Miriam only saw each other four or five times a year, and usually for just a week at a time.

Whenever anyone ventured to ask whether that put a strain on them, Roger would shrug. “It seems to work OK for us,” and he honestly believed it.

Then and Now, Part I

sad-coupleRoger and Miriam sat quietly in the living room of the home where they used to live together, at a time when life was straightforward and the outcome assumed. That was then. First,  their eldest moved out, then their youngest, then Roger. Miriam was now the only resident.

These days, when Roger wasn’t somewhere in the world managing project for the company, he stayed in the city in their commuter studio, close to his company’s headquarters. He came to the house only occasionally, which, over the past two years, was almost never. Having Roger home had come to feel to Miriam more like having a favorite cousin to stay for a short visit rather than a husband home from a long absence.

Earlier that year she brought up the subject of maybe selling the house and getting something smaller. Roger couldn’t understand why she would want to do that, so he flatly refused to discuss it. But, here they were, just a few months later, sitting together in the living room for the first time since Miriam could remember, discussing how, as Roger put it, things were going to be different from here on out.

“Well. I suppose this means you actually want to sell the place now,” Miriam finally said.

Roger turned his attention back into the room from staring absently out the big picture window that perfectly framed Miriam’s always magnificent garden.

“I honestly don’t know why you keep asking about selling the house. All I said is things are going to be different.” Roger hoped he sounded reassuring.

“Different? How so? We never see much of each other anymore as it is. I don’t understand what you expect me to…” Miriam stopped and rested her face in her hand for a moment. “Anyway, the point is, I’m the only one here anymore, and now you are… It’s too damn big for just one person.”

“What about the boys? Where will they stay? This is their home!” Roger insisted.

“The boys don’t come by so often we…I…,” Miriam corrected herself, “need to keep a place this big.”

“I thought you loved this place! I imagined you living here forever.”

Roger looked curiously forlorn, Miriam thought.

“I think of this as….” Roger was gesturing like he had discovered where “x” marked the spot, “home!”

“Then you move here and I’ll find another place!”

Roger shook his head. “No, that’s…No. That’s not what I mean. That’s not an option.”

“Well, then,” Miriam sighed, and paused for a moment before completing her thought. “As you said, things will be different, which, by the way, is a weird way of putting it.” She shrugged, “So, part of what will be different, is selling the house.”

Roger frowned. He was frustrated, but made no further argument.

“I mean, honestly Rog, we have to look at this for what it is, which is not different, as you seem to want to see it, but totally changed. And so it’s time to sell the house. I want to sell the house.”

“Yes, well,” Roger paused, leaning forward. He rubbed his face and took in a breath. “OK. Then, I guess, we do have to talk about it.”

“Among other things,” Miriam quipped.

“Yes, well, again, Mimi, that is why I’m here, so,” Roger stood up. “Coffee? I think I want a cup.”

Roger walked out of the living room into the kitchen. Miriam, not knowing what else to do, got up and followed him.

“I’ll make a couple of sandwiches, OK?” she offered.

“Sure.”

In the kitchen, they went quietly about their business, not talking. It was a familiar scene, from so many years past, when the boys were young; the two of them puttering around in the kitchen. The only thing missing were the boys, tearing in and out with their friends, or sitting at the breakfast table doing their homework, or attempting to help with a meal preparation. Separately, Roger and Miriam felt the ghosts of those days swirl around them. Facing certain finality, their mutual heartache for that time was palpable.

Miriam set the sandwiches on a tray, grabbed a couple of paper towels for napkins and asked Roger if he wanted a pickle with his sandwich.

“No, thanks. Where’s the sugar?” He was poking around in the familiar places for the sugar bowl.

“Oh, no sugar. I use agave syrup. It’s in the cupboard with the cups.”

Roger made a guess as to how much syrup to pour into her cup, placed both coffees on the tray with the sandwiches and followed Miriam back into the living room. The two of them settled back to where they had been sitting before, Roger in the reading chair Miriam bought a short while ago, and Miriam on the couch.

“Very comfortable, this,” Roger offered in an upbeat tone.

“Yeah, I’ve always wanted a reading chair there. I think it works.”

“It all works,” Roger said, giving the room a little sweep with a sandwich in his hand. “Nice arrangement.”

“Never would have been able to manage it when the boys were growing up,” Miriam smiled.

“Noooo,” said Roger rolling his eyes and returning the smile. “Not in a million years. They’d have wrecked the place!”

Miriam finished the first half of her sandwich, wiped her hands on her paper towel and took in a sharp breath.

“So!” She smiled again. Roger waited for her to continue while he ate. “At least tell me she isn’t younger than you, I mean, by a lot. Please tell me it isn’t as corny as all that.”

“You mean, as young as Travis?” Roger said.

“Davis. His name was Davis.”


[Go to Then and Now, Part II]