“Yeah. I look at them now. I never used to look at them. I was looking at one of them, and I just . . . I realized that I don’t think of you the way I think of them.”
I let it sink in. Thumper gets off the bed and walks over to me. Can he sense what’s happening? He sits at the door by my feet and looks at Ryan. My heart starts to crack. This might all end in me losing Thumper.
“So what does this mean?” I ask quietly, gently. By saying the words out loud, I have changed our fate. I have set us in motion. I am ripping us out of this comfortable prison once and for all. I am going to solve this problem. I have a lot of other problems, and I know this is going to cause a whole new set of problems, but living with someone I don’t like isn’t going to be one of them. Not anymore.
Ryan steps toward me, and he holds me. I want it to feel better than it does. His voice is just as quiet and calm as mine. “This can’t be the end, Lauren. This is just a rough patch or something.”
“But,” I say, looking up at him, finally ready to say the last of what had been in my heart for so long, “I can’t stand you.”
It feels like such a sweet and visceral release, and yet the minute it comes out of my mouth, I wish I never said it. I wish I was the sort of person who doesn’t need her pain to be heard. I want to be the type of person who can keep it to herself and spare the feelings of others. But I’m not that person. My anger has to take flight. It has to be set free and allowed to bounce off the walls and into the ears of the person it could hurt the most.
Ryan and I sink to the floor. We rest our backs against the wall, our knees bent in front of us, our arms crossed, our posture perfectly matched. We have spent enough years together to know how to work in sync, even if we don’t want to. Thumper sits at my feet, his belly warming them. I want to love Ryan the way I love Thumper. I want to love him and protect him and believe in him and be ready to jump in front of a bus for him, the way I would for my dog. But they are two completely different types of love, aren’t they? They shouldn’t even have the same name. The kind that Ryan and I had, it runs out.
Eventually, Ryan speaks. “I have no idea what we are going to do,” he says, still sitting with me, his back now slouched, his posture truly defeated, his gaze directed firmly at the wayward nail in our hardwood floor.
“Me, neither,” I say, looking at him and remembering how much I used to melt when I smelled him. He is so close to me that I quietly sniff the air, seeing if I can inhale him, if I can feel that bliss again. I think maybe if I can breathe deeply enough, his scent will flow through my nose and flood my heart. Maybe it will infect me again. Maybe I can be happy again if I just smell hard enough. But it doesn’t work. I feel nothing.
Ryan starts laughing. He actually manages to laugh. “I don’t know why I’m laughing,” he says, as he gains his composure. “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
And then his voice breaks, and the tears fall from his eyes, and he truly looks at me for maybe the first time in a year. He repeats himself, slowly and deliberately. “This is the saddest moment of my life.”
I think, for a moment, that we might cry together. That this might be the beginning of our healing. But as I go to put my head on his shoulder, Ryan stands up.
“I’m going to call the landlord,” he says. “We need hot water.”
I wrote down ‘couple’s counseling,’ ‘living separately,’ and ‘open marriage,’” I say, sitting at our dining-room table. I have a piece of paper in front of me. Ryan has a piece of paper in front of him. I am not open to the idea of open marriage. I am just spitballing. But I know, I am positive, that an open marriage is not on the table.
“Open marriage?” Ryan asks. He is intrigued.
“Ignore that last one,” I say. “I just . . . I didn’t have any other ideas.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Ryan says, and the minute he says it, I hate him. Of course, he would say that. Of course, that would be the one he jumped on. Leave it to Ryan to ignore that I said “couple’s counseling” but jump at the chance to screw someone else.
“Just . . .” I say, annoyed. “Just say what you wrote down.”
“OK.” Ryan looks down at his paper. “I wrote ‘date again’ and ‘trial separation.’”
“I don’t know what those mean,” I say.
“Well, the first one is kind of like your thing about living apart. We would just try to see if maybe we lived in different places and we just went on a few dates and saw each other less, maybe that would work. Maybe take some pressure off. Make it more exciting to see each other.”
“OK, and the second one?”
“We break up for a little while.”
“You mean, like, we’re done?”
“Well, I mean,” he starts to explain, “I move out, or you move out, and we see how we do on our own, without each other.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t know. Maybe some time apart would make us . . . you know, ready to try again.”
“How long would we do this? Like, a few months?”
“I was thinking longer.”
“Like, how long?”
“I don’t know, Lauren. Jesus,” Ryan says, losing his patience at all of my questions. It’s been a few weeks since we told each other we didn’t love each other anymore. We’ve been tiptoeing around each other. This is the beginning of pulling the Band-Aid off. A very large, very sticky Band-Aid.
“I’m just asking you to clarify your suggestion,” I say. “I don’t think you need to act like this is the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Like, a year. Like, we take a year apart.”
“And we sleep with other people?”
“Yeah,” Ryan says, as if I’m an idiot. “I think that’s kind of the point.”
Ryan has made it clear that he no longer thinks of me the way he thinks about other women. It hurts. And yet when I try to break down why it hurts, I don’t have an answer. I don’t really think of him in that way, either.
“Let’s talk about this later,” I say, getting up from the table.
“I’m ready to talk about this now,” Ryan says. “Don’t walk away.”
“I’m asking you nicely,” I say, my tone slow and pointed, “if we can please discuss this later.”
“Fine,” Ryan says, getting up from the table and throwing his sheet of paper into the air. “I’m getting out of here.”
I don’t ask him where he is going. He leaves often enough now that I know his answer will be harmless. I resent him so much for being predictable. He’ll go to a bar and get a drink. He’ll go to the movies. He’ll call his friends to play basketball. I don’t care. He’ll come back when he feels like it, and when he does, the air in the house will be sharpened and tightened, so much that I will feel I can barely breathe.
I lie on the couch for hours, contemplating a year without my husband. It feels freeing and terrifying. I think about him sleeping with another woman, but the thought quickly transforms into the thought of me sleeping with another man. I don’t know who this man is, but I can see his hands on me. I can feel his lips on me. I can imagine the way he will look at me, the way he will make me feel like the only woman in the room, the most important woman in the world. I imagine his slim body and his dark hair. I imagine his deep voice. I imagine being nervous, a type of nervous I haven’t been in years.
When Ryan finally does come home, I tell him I think he is right. We should take a year apart.
Ryan sighs loudly, and his shoulders slump. He tries to speak, but his voice catches. I walk over to him and wrap my arms around his shoulders. I start crying. Once again, finally, we are on the same team. We wallow in it for a while. We let ourselves feel the relief we have given each other. That’s what it feels like, ultimately: immense relief. Like cold water on a burn.
When we disengage, Ryan offers to move out. He says I can keep the house for the year. I take him up on it. I don’t argue. He’s offering me a gift. I’m going to take it. We sit quietly next to each other on the sofa, holding hands, not looking at each other for what feels like hours. It feels so good to stop fighting.