Then we realize we both thought we were the one keeping Thumper.
We fight about the dog until five in the morning.
Most of Ryan’s things are packed. There are boxes all over the living room and bedroom with words like “Books” and “Bathroom Stuff” scribbled in black Sharpie. The moving truck is on its way. Ryan is in the bedroom packing shoes. I can hear each one land on the cardboard as it is chucked.
I grab a few of my things and prepare to leave. I can’t stay here for this. I can’t watch it happen. I am glad he is leaving. I really am. I keep telling myself that over and over. I keep thinking of my new freedom. But I realize that I don’t really know what it means—freedom. I don’t know anything of the practical ramifications of my actions. We have covered only the basics in terms of our preparation. We haven’t talked about what it would feel like or what our new life would look like. We’ve stuck to numbers and figures. We’ve talked about how to divide our bank account. We’ve talked about how to afford two rent payments. How to keep him on my insurance. Whether we need to file legally. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Ryan said, and I let it go. That answer was good with me. I certainly don’t want any of this in writing.
I told Ryan last night that I didn’t want to be here to see him leave. He agreed that it might be best if I left for the weekend and gave him his space to move out as he wished. “The last thing I need is you critiquing the way I pack my toothbrush,” Ryan told me. His voice was jovial, but his words were sincere. I could feel the tension and resentment underneath. The smile on his face was the sort of smile car salesmen have, pretending everybody’s having a good time when, really, you’re at war.
I pick up my deodorant and my face wash. I pick up only the most necessary pieces for my makeup bag. I grab my toothbrush and put it in my travel case, snapping the toothbrush cap over the bristles so they won’t get dirty. Ryan usually stuffs his in a plastic bag. He is right to be defensive about the way he packs toothbrushes. He does it wrong. I put all of it in my bag and zip it up. For better or worse, I am ready to go.
My plan is to drive straight to Rachel’s house. Rachel knows that things with Ryan and me aren’t going well. She has noticed how tense I’ve been. She has noticed how often I criticize him, how rarely I have anything nice to say. But I have been insisting that things were fine. I don’t know why I’ve had such a hard time admitting it to her. I think, in some ways, I hid it because I knew telling Rachel made it real. I had already told Mila about all of this. The tension, the fighting, the loss of love, the plan to separate. For some reason, in my mind, Mila could know, and that didn’t seem tantamount to carving it in stone. But with Rachel, it would be official. A witness. I can’t turn around and pretend it never happened. Maybe that’s the difference between a friend and a sister: a friend can just listen to your problems in the present, but your sister remembers and reminds you of everything in the past. Or maybe it’s not a difference between friends and sisters. Maybe it’s the difference between Mila and Rachel.
But this really is happening. The moving truck is coming. And if I am going to deal with this, I need Rachel. Rachel, who will hold my hand and tell me it is going to be OK. Rachel, who will believe in me. I have to admit to her that my marriage is failing. That I am failing. That I am not the successful and together older sister I have been pretending to be. That I am no longer the one with her shit together.
I find Ryan in the bedroom, grabbing boxes of clothes. We have already split up the furniture. We are both going to have to go shopping on our own. I now need a new TV. Ryan is going to need pots and pans. What had seemed like a whole is now two halves.
“OK,” I say. “I’m going to go and leave you to it.” Ryan has friends coming over to help. He doesn’t need me.
He doesn’t need me.
“OK,” he says, looking into the closet. Our closet. My closet. He finally looks up at me, and I can see he has been crying. He breathes in and out, trying to control himself, trying to take control of his feelings. Suddenly, my heart swells and overtakes me. I can’t leave him like this. I can’t. I can’t leave him in pain.
He does need me.
I run to him. I put my arms around him. I let him bury his face in me. I hold him as he lets it out, and then I say, “You know what? This is stupid. I’m going to stay.” This whole idea has been far-fetched and absurd. We just needed a wake-up call. And this is the wake-up call. This is what we needed to see how foolish we’ve been. Of course, we love each other! We always have. We just forgot for a little while but we are going to be OK now. We have pushed ourselves to the brink and learned our lesson. We don’t have to go through with this. It is over. We can end this strange experiment right here and go back to the way things were. Marriages aren’t all roses and sunshine. We know that. This was silly. “Forget this,” I say. “You’re not going anywhere, sweetheart. You don’t have to go anywhere.”
He is quiet for some time longer, and then he shakes his head. “No,” he says, drying his tears. “I need to leave.” I stare at him, frozen with my arms still around him. He pushes his point further. “You should go,” he says, wiping his own tears away. He is back to business.
That’s when I fall apart. I don’t melt like butter or deflate like a tire. I shatter like glass, into thousands of pieces.
My heart is truly broken. And I know that even if it mends, it will look different, feel different, beat differently.
I stand up and grab my bag. Thumper follows me to the front door. I look down at him with my hand on the knob, ready to turn it. He looks up at me, naive and full of wondering. For all he knows, he is about to go for a walk. I am not sure whom I feel worse for: Ryan, Thumper, or myself. I can’t bear it a second longer. I can’t pet him good-bye. I turn the knob and walk out the front door, shutting it behind me. I don’t stop to take a breath or get my bearings. I just get into the car, wipe my eyes, and set out for Rachel’s house. I am not strong enough to stand on my own two feet.
I need my sister.
I just need you to hear what I’m about to say and not try to talk me out of it. Don’t judge me. Or say I’m making a mistake, even if you think I am. Making a mistake, I mean. Because I probably am. But I just need you to listen and then tell me everything is going to be OK. That’s what I need, basically. I need you to tell me everything is going to be OK, even if it probably isn’t.”
“OK.” Rachel agrees immediately. She doesn’t really have a choice, does she? I mean, I’ve shown up on her doorstep unannounced at nine A.M. on a Saturday, screaming, “Don’t judge me!” So she just has to go with it. “Do you want to come in? Or—” she starts to ask me, but I don’t wait for her to finish.
“Ryan and I are splitting up.”
“Oh, my God,” she says, stunned. She stares at me for a moment and then unfreezes, opening the door wide for me to step in. I do. She’s still in her pajamas, which seems reasonable. She probably just woke up. Chances are, she was having a perfectly nice dream when I rang her doorbell.
Once I walk past her and she shuts the door behind me, she can see I’ve packed a bag. It’s all coming together for her.
She takes the bag from my shoulder and puts it down on the couch. “What did you—I mean, how did this—how did the two of you—are you OK? That’s what’s important. How are you feeling?”
I shrug. Most of the time when I shrug, it’s because I’m indifferent. And yet now, even though my shrug means a million things at once, none of them is indifference.
“Do you want to talk about why you’re splitting up?” Rachel says calmly. “Or should I just make you some . . . I don’t know. What do people eat when they are divorcing?”
“We’re not divorcing,” I say, moving past her and taking a seat on her couch.
“Oh,” she says, taking a seat beside me. “You said you were splitting up, so I just assumed . . .” She curls her feet in, sitting cross-legged and facing me. Her pajama pants are white with blue and salmon-colored stripes. Her tank top is the same salmon as the stripes on the bottom. She must have bought them as a set. My sister is exactly the person who wears the set together. I am exactly the person who cannot find a single matching pair.