A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 3

Just to be doing something, I went around the house and opened all the windows, then turned on the small fan in the living room. There was no breeze coming from outside, but the movement from the fan helped lighten the air a bit. For a brief moment it seemed the added life might be enough to bring Mary and Matt home. But the feeling quickly faded.

For the second time, I wandered into the extra bedroom where I kept my computer. My work table, printer, keyboard, and monitor were the only things in the house that hadn�t been dusted while I was away. Mary never disturbed the area � for privacy�s sake, and because there were occasionally bits and pieces of typesetting projects in progress I didn�t want moved.

At the time I had no jobs pending, other than a small newsletter I banged out once every three or four months for a retirement complex. But even that was up in the air, because they always waited until the last minute to give me the various odds and ends they wanted to go in. What I had so far was a folder containing the lead article, which was about their upcoming health fair, and a poorly framed photo of several residents drinking juice out of small paper cups taken at the fair the year before. Another short piece, typed on an old manual typewriter, extolled the virtues of walking. Also, on a pink sheet of paper smelling of perfume, the volunteer in charge of the library had written down a list of new large-print arrivals.

I turned on the monitor and computer. After a brief crackle of static the screen came to life. As the machine booted, I watched the lines of type moving up the screen, one by one declaring the readiness of various drivers and modules. It was almost as if by flipping a switch, I had awakened an electronic version of Frankenstein�s monster. And, in every sense of the word, I felt it was too late � to stop the beast, to work, to plan for the future, to find a single spark of hope.

The evening dragged on. I ate a bowl of cereal. The phone never rang, and no car entered the driveway. Looking around for something to do, I finally turned on the television. Appalled by the obscene silliness of game shows, I flipped through the channels until I found a man and woman cooking some sort of seafood concoction. They were talking cheerfully while the camera zoomed in over an expensive frying pan full of tiny clams bubbling in a repulsive-looking white sauce. The pan was as big as a garbage can lid, which seemed appropriate.

Late that night, when Mary and Matt finally came home, they found me asleep on the couch. As tired as I was after the horrible week I�d spent, there was no way I could have used our bed. In fact I was getting ready to leave again to find another motel room when I sat down on the couch to relace one of my shoes. The next thing I knew, Mary was standing over me, and then I heard Matt�s voice coming from the kitchen. Quietly, trying his best not to disturb me, he asked his mother if he could have a glass of chocolate milk. Hearing him made me feel like I was returning from the dead.

Mary said yes. But I swear she was speaking to me. Matt opened the refrigerator. I opened my heart. Mary looked at me, her tired brown eyes full of tears, then joined Matt in the kitchen. I listened to the two of them talking. Matt wanted to know if I was sick. When Mary said I wasn�t, and that I was just very tired, he asked if he could come in and see me. She said he could, but only for a minute or two, and then he would have to get ready for bed.

I had no way of knowing what Mary had told Matt about my absence. By the way he was acting, she must have said I was working. He wasn�t aloof or reproachful, only subdued, having absorbed much of his mother�s concern during the preceding few days.

I sat up to make room for him on the couch, but he remained standing. I wanted to hug him, or to rub his head with my hand, but he was so earnest and thoughtful that I didn�t. He seemed to have forgotten the glass of chocolate milk in his hand, so I asked him if it tasted good. He said it did, and held out his glass. I took it from him, had a small drink, then gave it back. He smiled. I said, �That�s really cold, isn�t it?� To which he replied, �We keep the milk in back.� And of course he was right. We did keep the milk in back. It stayed colder that way. Sometimes, if the refrigerator hadn�t been opened for a few hours, there was even ice in the milk. But that didn�t happen very often, because Matt was always hungry or thirsty, and I had a habit of picking at the leftovers.

Matt�s remark, uttered so innocently, made it sound as if the subject of milk and where it was kept in the refrigerator was new to both of us. It served as an opened door, a door I was afraid to enter. For him, forgiveness wasn�t an issue. My presence was what mattered. I was his father, and that meant I was supposed to be there. But until I could speak with his mother, until I could apologize for what I�d done, and unless my apology was accepted, I would forever remain outside, looking in.

Who knows what passes through a child�s mind? To a certain extent, children are protected by nature. The less they are exposed to adult problems, the fewer their points of cruel reference, the more innocent and happy they are. In that way they are blessed. Mary and I didn�t fight, not in the traditional sense, so at least he didn�t have to endure that. Our fighting was on another level. It was a struggle of me against myself, and of Mary against what that struggle was doing to both of us. I only hoped the undercurrent of despair brought on by my inability to straighten myself out wasn�t going to affect Matt�s outlook in the long run. So far, it doesn�t seem to have, but there may be no way of knowing for sure until much later, when it�s too late. That�s my fear � that one day my dark side will awaken in our son, and he will find himself imprisoned, as I have been.

Too late � this is exactly the kind of talk Mary hates. In her mind, it�s never too late to do anything. She�s like my father in that way. All problems have solutions. If no solution presents itself, then she simply breaks the problem into smaller pieces and solves it a step at a time, without losing touch with the big picture. The sad part is, she eventually had to acknowledge the fact that our divorce was needed if we were to remain friends � a lousy solution, but a solution nonetheless. Technically, she agreed to our separation on the grounds that it might help me � while I thought it would help her, and save Matt a lot of grief as he was growing up. Which is another way of saying we were both sorry and confused, and that we didn�t know what else to do.

Mary and I did sleep together that night. Or, rather, we shared the same bed, which seemed simultaneously so large and so small that I felt lost on the one hand and afraid to breathe on the other. The only words she�d said to me since I�d been home had come after Matt was asleep. They were, �You�d better come to bed.� That was all she had strength for. And so we stared at the ceiling, and at the walls, and at the insides of our eyelids, all the while trying to discern the future, which was advancing on us steadily with every tick of the clock. It was frightening, because to me it now seemed the future was really just the past in disguise, and that it was waiting for the right moment to reveal itself in order to do the most damage.

By dawn the house had cooled down considerably, and with it my hope for what lay ahead. Without looking my way, Mary slid out of bed and went into the bathroom. Momentarily the toilet flushed and the shower went on. It was just before six. I got up, dressed, and went to the kitchen to make coffee. I was trying hard to think of what we normally did in the morning, of the routine we followed, but without much success. I looked at the calendar, then remembered that it was Mary�s Friday off. Matt was still asleep, and, after going to bed so late, would be for hours.

The coffee going, I thought of slipping quietly into the bathroom, taking off my clothes, and joining Mary in the shower. But I didn�t. I couldn�t. As nice as it would have been. To surrender, without saying a word. To give in completely. To scrub each other�s cares away, and let them run down the drain. To this day, I wonder what Mary would have done. She might have slapped me, or scorned me, or drowned us both in tears. Or I might have opened the shower door and found someone else, a stranger shocked by the invasion of her privacy. And while I felt guilty for thinking of it, the childish man in me seemed to be saying, �Go ahead. This is where it all begins. This is how we are healed.�

Mary stayed in the shower a long time. The newspaper boy tossed the latest installment of lies and gossip onto our front porch. I went out to pick it up. In the myrtle bush growing by the railing, I noticed a brown spider sitting in its web, soaking up the first soft rays of early morning sun. It had stripes on its legs, and in every way the tiny, eight-legged creature was perfect, as was its web, which was dry, because it was sheltered from dew by the overhang of the house.

Inside, I unfolded the paper and put it on the kitchen table, then poured myself a cup of coffee. The shower was still running. I sat down and paged through the first section, without really reading anything, glancing instead at the headlines and looking at the pictures. Men in suits, mostly. Women dressed for business and politics. As it happened, most of the men and women were standing behind microphones and talking, or sitting at tables and talking, or walking and talking, while onlookers jockeyed for position on all sides. They had furrowed brows and strained smiles, and were trying to stay ahead of the game, or to appear that they�d already won. I thought of the ice cream woman I�d met in Jake�s Mill, and realized how useless she was to people in the news game. Living one of the greatest stories of all time. Peace. Anonymity. Blackberries. And how the so-called winners scoff at people like her, when in reality most of them can�t carry on a decent conversation, or survive without a script.

By the time the shower went off, I had finished my first cup of coffee and given up on the newspaper. I wanted desperately to sit down with Mary, but I didn�t know if she�d be willing, or if she had finally reached her limit. I had wanted to apologize the night before, but it just wasn�t possible. The wall around Mary was impenetrable. It could only happen when she was ready, and not before. I think anger would have been easier, or at least more efficient. But Mary isn�t like that. She gets quiet, not angry.

With Matt in the house, I knew we couldn�t afford to wait. And yet wait we did. The entire day passed without us speaking to each other. Mary spoke to Matt, I spoke to Matt, Matt spoke to us, but we didn�t speak to each other. Even this was an improvement. At least we were able to get used to being in the same room again.

We lived like this for two more days. Mary went to work. I looked after Matt and did a couple of typesetting jobs. He and I cooked together, and made a spaghetti sauce Mary seemed to enjoy. Then at night we all went to bed, and Mary and I fell asleep under the strain.

During that time, Matt told me about some of the things they did while I was gone. They went to see three movies � a record for one week, and more than we usually saw in a year. They ate out on several occasions � nothing fancy, just the kind of places Matt liked, with lots of light, and waitresses who don�t mind serving kids. He had become an expert on milkshakes. With great enthusiasm, he compared them in categories of flavor, texture, color, size, temperature, and taste. Milkshakes presented in large metal cans were far and away the best. He was impressed by the proper equipment, and was anxious to set up shop at home.

As was obvious, Mary had spent most of her spare time cleaning the house. Matt told me she had vacuumed a lot, and spent one whole afternoon rubbing fingerprints off the kitchen cabinets and all of the light switches. This meant that on that day, at least, Mary had stayed home from work � which surprised me, because calling in sick was something she never did. Little by little, I found out Matt had spent one night at a friend�s house, and that on another night that same friend had stayed at our house. Thankfully, he never asked me about where I had been or what I had been doing. Or maybe he sensed that this was off-limits. In either case, I did my best to steer our conversation around the subject. I have no idea what I would have told him.

On the third night, after Matt was in bed, Mary asked me if I would like to come outside for awhile and sit with her in the backyard. We took out our lawn chairs and settled down in a dark corner, away from the light coming from the house. The air was still, and the neighborhood fairly quiet. Every now and then, a door would open and close, or a car would pass by on the street in front of the house. Once, we heard a man clear his throat and cough.

For several minutes, we just sat and looked up at the stars. Then Mary�s chair gave a light, metallic creak as she changed to a more comfortable position. Very quietly, she said, �It�s hard to believe.�

Without looking at her, I said, �I know.� I could feel my heart beating. The beauty of the night, its great size and solemnity, made me feel small and ashamed � as if anything I could say, or think, or do, would be firmly rejected for its insignificance.

We listened and waited. �I don�t want to fight,� Mary said finally. �I refuse to fight.� She sounded weary, rather than determined or defiant � not unlike some of her patients in the hospital, I thought, who have been there for a long time, undergoing treatments and tests.

I told her I didn�t want to fight, either. I said, �There�s nothing to fight about. It�s all my fault.�

She raised her voice a little. �Do you know what?� she said. �I�m tired of you saying that. Okay? You say it all the time. It�s always your fault. I�m sick of it. My God. There�s hardly a day you don�t say it. It�s my fault. You know? God, we�re married. We live together.�

The dam was breaking. �I just want to apologize,� I said. �It makes me ill. I hate doing this. I feel like a criminal. I am a criminal. I don�t have the right. That�s what I�m saying. I left you, and I left Matt. And now you�re crying.�

Mary let out a bitter little laugh. �You make it sound so dramatic.�

�It is dramatic,� I said. �It was wrong. You don�t deserve it.�

She didn�t answer.

�Well?� I said. �It�s true. Isn�t it?�

She exhaled slowly, leaned back, and stared straight up into the dark. She didn�t try to wipe away her tears.

Neither of us spoke. In a very real sense, there was nothing for us to say, because we�d been over it all so many times before. Mary would either accept my apology and go on, or we would throw in the towel. Or not accept it. The apology didn�t really matter. She knew that what we were doing, we were really doing for Matt. We were trying to make it so he wouldn�t be hurt. Mary wanted my happiness, but when it came right down to it, Matt�s was more important. Which was true. I�ve always felt that way. She knew that, too. It might sound ridiculous, but for me, my happiness was never at stake. I didn�t believe in it. I didn�t think it was possible. And while Mary claimed it was, I don�t think she really believed it. She wanted to help, but she didn�t know how.

�Mary,� I said. �I�m sorry. Okay? I know you don�t want to hear it. But I have to say it. Just let me say it.�

�Okay,� she said. �All right. You�re sorry.�

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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