Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011


by Kate Geiselman

The dime-sized hole in the knee of the counselor’s khakis was slightly frayed around the edges. It was not a fresh tear recently sustained in a fall on the icy sidewalk or clumsily snagged on the sharp corner of a metal desk; no, it had been through several washings, that much was certain. So distracted was Liz by the sight of this hole, wondering about what kind of woman would wear such tired garments to tend to the business of mending relationships, that she could barely hear her husband next to her as he wondered aloud to this stranger what had happened to her. What had he done wrong?

The answer, of course, was nothing. He never did anything wrong.

“Liz, what do you hear when Jason asks that question?”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“What do you hear when Jason asks what he has done wrong?”

Liz had to resist rolling her eyes: “He’s really saying he didn’t do anything wrong. He knows he didn’t, and so do you. Isn’t that passive aggression? Can we just move past this question and can you please tell me what you want from me now? Go ahead. I’m listening. Go ahead you fucking cow with your ratty pants and Reeboks. Tell me.”

But she didn’t say that. She just stared at the hole again, and at the pale, slightly stubbly skin of the counselor’s legs showing above her ankle socks. The office was tiny and dark, the tired Berber carpet permanently grungy in front of the sagging Herculon couch she shared with her husband of almost twenty years. The first thing she had noticed when entering the room was the box of Kleenex on the woodgrain Formica end table. She had never been to a counselor before, but here were all the trappings. Apparently it was customary, even expected, to sit here and weep. This was normal behavior when one’s relationship was in tatters, but Liz hadn’t felt normal for a very long time. She was tired of watching Jason’s hangdog expression when he asked her over and over again what had made her leave. “What do you want that you don’t have? If I was such a terrible husband, why didn’t you tell me?”

But he wasn’t a terrible husband. He ironed his own shirts, coached the soccer team, did the dishes, cooked once in awhile. He was far more patient with the kids than she. He spent weekends working around the house or in the yard, not golfing or watching football as she knew he would have preferred. He skipped his daily run once in awhile to volunteer at the homeless shelter. He was good looking and a good lover, a great date at a party. The list went on and on, and she knew it by heart. She had recited this litany of blessings to herself night after night as she lay beside him, hoping it would crowd out the crushing boredom that threatened to swallow her whole.

Some nights, this worked. Other times, a competing list invaded her thoughts. She remembered the time when her printer broke just as she had a project due, and he had refused to let her use the one at his office because it was against corporate policy. How self-righteous he had been when he found a pack of cigarettes stashed in her nightstand after she promised she had quit. His affinity for chain restaurants and love of John Grisham novels. Even his insistence that she come every time they had sex seemed like a burden on nights when she was so tired from kids and laundry and tedium she could not have mustered up an orgasm if her life depended on it. “It’s okay, honey. I know you’re tired. Let’s just skip it tonight,” he’d say, and open his paperback, denying himself pleasure because she could not summon up her own.

“It’s not his fault,” Liz finally said. “I know that.”

“So you blame yourself?” the doughy woman asked.

Liz looked the counselor in the eye for the first time since she had sat down, unable to remember her name. A pen was poised over her clipboard, waiting to check a box.

“Who else is there to blame?” she said, unable to hold the counselor’s gaze.

“That’s not really an answer, is it?”

Liz looked up. “Fuck off.”

“God, Liz, what’s wrong with you?” Jason stared at her as though he’d never seen her before. “Jesus Christ. Could you at least pretend to be here?”

But that was just the problem: she couldn’t. She was gone. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to come back.

The first time she had left was a month before. The house had started to feel cluttered and worn as it always did after the holidays. She had sat down at her desk in the kitchen, shoving aside to make room for her keyboard a basket overflowing with detritus: cafeteria lunch menus, hockey camp brochures, unmailed Christmas thank you notes, empty jewel cases, a flash drive, a folder full of medical receipts, a box of stationery, a newspaper clipping, a school district calendar, two school directories, a list of props needed for the winter play, an overdue DVD from the library, the rough draft of a homework paper, the course catalog for Woodrow High School, and countless writing instruments–only half of which were fully functional. This mountain of obligation and trivia–this pile that shifted and grew and shrank with the seasons, suddenly filled her with despair. She had stared at it for a full five minutes, paralyzed with vague dread, of what, she had no idea.

“Fuck it,” she had suddenly said to herself, shoving her chair away from the desk. She had to get out of the house for a few hours. Work was slow, her deadlines comfortably distant, and for once, the roads were clear of ice and snow. She threw on her down jacket over her jeans and ratty sweater, shoved her feet into her boots, grabbed her keys from the hook by the door, and took off in her SUV. She’d go do something productive–maybe get a wedding present for Jason’s assistant, as he’d asked her to. IKEA was an hour away; the drive and some music would do her good.

But when she got there, she quickly became overwhelmed. Even on a weekday, the place was jammed. Klatches of dyed and pressed women with designer handbags and bored looking children in tow turned over tags and exclaimed over prices, dialed their cellphones to consult girlfriends or spouses, scribbled furiously with little yellow pencils. Watching them, Liz suddenly found it hard to breathe. Weaving through the brightly colored displays, the bins of graphic throw pillows and faux living rooms, she tried to figure out from the dotted lines and numbers on the signs hanging from the rafters just how to find the exit. She needed to get away from the Stuff to Buy and the smell of Swedish meatballs.

A third wrong turn landed her in a compact, perfect mockup of an apartment in a deserted corner of the store. It was like a tiny oasis: there was no clutter, no pile of bills on the kitchen counter, no jumble of shoes by the door. She peeked into the bedroom and fought an almost unbearable urge to lie down on the crisply made bed. The miniature kitchen was sleek and efficient. Neatly graduated utensils hung from a clever, compact rack above the stove; spices were arranged alphabetically in tiny magnetic jars on a metal strip above them. She thought of her parents’ boat: the cozy galley perfectly ergonomic and fully equipped. How this had fascinated her as a little girl! How she had wanted a place like this all her own when she grew up! A sign on the coffee table in the modern but homey living room boasted that the apartment was only 500 square feet, its contents affordable and in stock! She slumped down on the couch, her purse sliding off her shoulder, and stared at this sign, tears stinging her eyes. This was it. Maybe she would just stay here. Maybe she wouldn’t go home.

When she did, it was long after dark, and Jason was frantic. “Where the hell have you been? I called you a dozen times. The kids came home to a locked house and the dog hadn’t been out since this morning….”

Liz stared blankly as he went on with the list of things she had not done, the needs she had not fulfilled, the tasks she had not completed, waiting for him to say something about her absence.

“I went to IKEA,” she said casually when he was finished, pushing past him and hanging up her coat. She could not hear what he said after her as she walked calmly up the stairs, quietly undressed, and slipped into bed.

In the weeks that followed, she left twice more. After the third time, Jason had insisted that she see a counselor.

“C’mon, Liz. You can fix this!” Jason urged when she failed to answer his question. She twirled a thread that protruded from the worn arm of the sofa, her mind filled with static. She looked again at the hole in the woman’s trousers. Everything was so worn out. It made her tired.

“What did you say, Jason?” the counselor asked. She was looking over the top of her dime-store magnifiers at him; he seemed puzzled by the sudden turn the questioning had taken.

“I said that she can fix it. I believe that. I believe in her. I really do.”

“I want you to think about what you are saying for a minute,” the counselor said patiently, sitting back in her chair and taking off her glasses.

Jason looked puzzled, his brow furrowing and his handsome face drawn. Liz looked from him back to the counselor, feeling something ease very slightly in her chest.

“What?” Jason protested. “You don’t think so? Then what are we doing here?”

The counselor waited for a few moments, letting the echo of his words fade.

“Has it occurred to you,” she said very gently, “that she is not the one to fix it?”

On the ride home, Jason was pensive. It was not a mood Liz recognized readily, and it passed quickly.

“Well, that place was a dump,” he scoffed gently.

“Yes,” Liz chuckled softly. “Yes, it was.”

“And did you get a load of those pants? Jesus. How depressing.” His face was obscured by the winter’s early darkness. Liz looked at his profile for a long time.

“I know,” she finally offered. “I know.” She slid her hand under his and squeezed it, then looked out the car window. It had started to snow again.

Read Kate Geiselman’s bio »

One comment

This piece describes perfectly the tedium and minutiae that exist in family life, coupled with the myth that only an ungrateful and bad woman would dream of escape…….

by Michele on January 12, 2012 at 1:19 am. Link