Three vignettes about distance and togetherness. Home is not always where the heart is, and sometimes staying together means being apart
Thomas Parts with Jane
Jane likes Thomas better when he’s away. She’ll pout and tell him not to go, but once he’s gone, she breathes easier. There is pleasure in the solitude. Sometimes she drinks half a bottle of wine, and smokes cigarettes in their tiny studio apartment while listening to Björk. She might lip synch in front of the mirror, imagining she’s been abandoned by her lover, though she has not; she just enjoys the melodrama in her head. Her man will return, but for now there is no agitation, just pure peace, and room for fantasy. She knows his leave is temporary, and that he will soon be back again, filling up the vacant space on the sofa, at the table, in the bed. There will be excitement anticipating his return.
When he is away, Thomas is Jane’s ideal lover, attentive in his daily phone calls and text messages, and free from those flaws that are “typical Tom”, “always the same with Tom”, “what else would you expect from Tom.” When he’s not by her side, she sees only the things that first drew her to him, and this is bliss, because when they are together, he so quickly becomes just that fella she’s shackled to, and obliged to be present for.
Thomas must travel, the hunger for sights-yet-unseen must be sated. His late aunt left him an inheritance, so he has coin to play with. He is compelled by departures and landings, and the need to feel his feet on new soil. Before he leaves on his adventures, he imagines what the new city will look like, how its locals will sound, the temperature of the air, how the food will taste. He imagines the colour of the sky in that faraway place. These scenes always look more invigorating than the routines of home. He likes underdeveloped cities, places where people are poor, crime is high, and the sewage systems precarious. A little civil unrest adds some extra spice to his excursions. He says such places make him feel alive. When Jane asks him why he chooses Libreville over London, he says, “If you go to the amusement park, would you go on the corkscrew or the carousel?” Jane gets what he’s saying, but she prefers carousels.
The moment he arrives at his destination, he feels lonely, uncomfortable, and a little nervous. He worries that he’s packed the wrong shoes, and that his feet might blister.
His feet do not blister. Nothing too scandalous happens, the locals, who are not as wild as he hoped they might be, gawk at his freckled face, crisp polo shirts and batik bandana. His adventures are never what he imagined they would be. He returns disappointed, off-kilter, with less money in the bank, but plenty of impressive Instagram photos of exotic-looking people and places.
After a month at home with Jane, he yearns to see someplace new. He tells himself this will be the last of it. Soon, he will travel less. Perhaps he should save some money. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll consider that ring she’s been asking about. But not today.
Trina and Steve Make Babies
The children are now seven and ten. Soon, Jenny will be old enough to walk to school herself, and Tim won’t need mom to watch him from the bleachers at football practice. Soon, their children, her children, will leave, and it’ll be just Steve and her again.
At eighteen, when Trina had first met Steve, she had longed to be in his presence every minute of the day. Going camping, being alone in the moonlight with that beautiful, long-haired boy who strummed “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar, made her feel, for the first time in her life, that she could be happy. She would sway, and on occasion even dance in the woods as he serenaded her. Through him, she found the courage to break free from 9pm curfews, household chores, lectures about the evils of lipstick, saying grace before meals, out loud, and being the dutiful daughter that her uptight, Baptist parents expected.
When they graduated from college, Steve got a job at a bank. Trina began selling real estate. A few years later, they saved enough money for a wedding, then a house. Soon after, Steve’s long hair started to thin, so he eventually cut it short. He stopped taking Trina camping, or playing the guitar, and too much carbohydrate and time in front of a desk made his handsome face puffy and putty-like.
In the evenings, Trina would fix dinner, often something simple like steak, potato and peas. Some nights, sitting across the table from Steve, she would watch him chew on his steak as he read Golf Digest, and experience a wave of nausea. Or she would laugh weakly at a joke he made, then realise that she hadn’t at all found it funny. At such times, it seemed to her that they lived in different worlds, or perhaps it was just her who was trapped in another dimension. She would imagine herself standing up, making a beeline for the door, and running as far from him as she could, but then she would quickly kill the idea, reminding herself that she had no right to be so haughty. Steve was always thoughtful, patient and generous with her, pleasant enough a person to share a life with. They hardly ever argued, which was a real plus. She ought to at least be grateful she no longer had to say grace before meals, or be chastised for using lipstick. After dinner, listening to the sound of a TV sitcom streaming through the kitchen as she washed the dishes, she would wonder what she could do to make herself happy again.
She felt something close to happiness whenever she sold a house, so she started to spend more time finding, re-styling, showing, and selling other people’s homes. This meant she could be out working more often, rather than sitting across the table from Steve, with the growing awareness that something was dreadfully wrong. Sometimes, she wished she could sell her own home, along with the man in it.
With no more camping, no more music and no more dancing, they both worked harder, made more money, ate more steak, and watched more TV instead. Then they bought a larger house. Steve ran out of jokes, Trina ran out of feigned laughter, and soon they didn’t have a lot to talk about. So they decided to make two new people who they hoped would entertain them better than they did each other.
When Tim and Jenny came into their world, for a while, Steve picked up the guitar again, and Trina spun around the living room a few times to “Wheels On the Bus”. When they all went out together, Trina and Steve would hold hands and smile at each other, so the little ones could see what happiness looked like, and learn that this was a state of being they ought to aspire to.
Trina adored her children, and through them, she felt as if she could start her life all over again. Tim and Jenny presented her with new things to learn, new tasks to accomplish, new goals to work towards, and more reasons to spend less and less time with Steve. She signed them up for music lessons, judo, art classes, football, and planned trips to the zoo or museum with them. The children helped her maintain her model of “life as it should be”. They were the sweet and messy cling foil that extended the use-by date of her marriage. Their funny faces and antics kept “it’s over” out of her mind.
Lately however, Trina’s been noticing that her kids are growing up far too quickly. This worries her, and she starts to think about what her days will be like when there’s nothing left but Steve. It dawns on her that she should set a curfew for Tim. That she ought to monitor the type of clothes Jenny wears; she’ll need to make sure the boys stayed away once her girl was older. It crosses her mind to give them chores on weekends, so they’ll be home with her rather than out with friends. Perhaps she should never stop supplying them with pocket money. That way, they’ll never figure out how to live on their own, and will rely on her forever. Though she doesn’t even realise she’s made the decision, she will now do everything in her power to ensure her children stay children, so they can’t leave her, all alone, with her husband again.
Caleb and Diane in Paradise
When Caleb was twenty-seven, he realised he hated being in Glasgow – it was too grey, and he never seemed to be able to enjoy a pint without getting caught in a pub brawl – so he left to see the world. He didn’t want to spend his days behind a desk, so he took a loan from his old man, went to the Philippines, bought a three-cabin wooden boat, and sailed to a remote corner of Busuanga in the Palawan archipelago.
Busuanga is difficult to get to – at least three plane journeys and two boat rides, but a real paradise it is. Caleb’s boat moved freely from one deserted island to the next, dropping anchor as and when he wanted, in the middle of pristine waters. These islands are free from traffic, malls and high-rise buildings, but surrounded by magnificent limestone karsts that rise from the jade sea like giants. The beaches have flour-soft sand, and the sound of the palm fronds and coconut trees swaying in the breeze make sleep so much sweeter. There are coral empires underwater, and all kinds of fish, turtles, and even dolphins and whales. Cockatoos, wild cats, tarsiers, spider monkeys, and butterflies inhabit the rainforests inland.
With his boat, Caleb takes wealthy tourists – mostly older couples celebrating wedding anniversaries – on scuba diving trips around the islands. They come from England, Finland, Singapore or Sweden, but mostly Japan or Germany, to disconnect from life as they know it, and if they’re lucky, remember why they picked each other in the first place.
Caleb doesn’t like making small talk with the tourists, or thinking about how to keep them fed and awed, but he knows he has to. Or else the boat will just sit on the beach, the wood will become brittle, the engine will rust, the crew will flee, and Caleb will have to return to Glasgow, with tail between legs, watch rain trickle down the window of a cold, damp flat, and serve coffee at a Starbucks, because now he is thirty-three, with no university education or professional networks, and seafaring is his only skill.
Diane was studying psychology in Dresden, but learning about “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “relative deprivation” made her pretty blonde head spin. So she took a year off, and went to Puerto Princesa to do a dive-master course. During that time, Caleb was in Puerto Princesa purchasing a generator and some belt sanders. They met, had sex in a hostel with wafer-thin walls, then Diane agreed to live with Caleb on the boat, thinking what an adventure it would be.
She helped him take the tourists on dives. She would smile sweetly at these guests, ask them questions about themselves and pretend to listen to their answers. Caleb paid her a small sum of money for her congenial participation in his unusual maritime lifestyle, but he presumed that living with him in paradise was payment enough. He was wrong.
Diane was young and pretty, and she wanted to be seen by other young, attractive people. Most of the guests on the boat were about to get married and only had eyes for each other, or they were old, and in Diane’s twenty-five year old eyes, not as pretty as her. They did not accord her the type of attention she was accustomed to, and she felt that her youth, charms, and good looks were underappreciated in Caleb’s floating world. She started making short trips to Puerto Princessa without Caleb. “I need to use the Internet” was her very valid excuse. On one of her trips, she met a yoga instructor who looked like he was carved out of rock, so she left the boat, and Caleb, and went off to live with the yogi in his island villa.
Caleb does not blame her. He would leave too if he could. His boat, at first a means to another life, a better one, has now become his coffin. A coffin in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Alison and Joe Go to War
When Alison gets through all the items on her to-do list for the day, she feels like she’s accomplished something, she feels like a useful human being. She thinks of something that she needs to get at the strip mall, and adds this to her list. It will probably be something unnecessary like tea towels or new placemats, or a four-pack of bath soap. She likes going there at least once a day, so she gets to see the familiar faces of shopkeepers and waitresses, nod, wave, and tell herself that they are her friends, though she doesn’t know their names, and they do not know hers. Her head quietens when she sits at the supermarket café drinking her coffee, before getting into the car and driving back home. As she nibbles on a brownie and looks at other women in the cafe sipping their beverages and reading Family Circle, she feels that maybe things are just as they should be.
Her husband Joe is on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. She tries not to think about where he might be, or what he might be doing, as she drops a second lump of sugar into her cup. She doesn’t want to know how many he might have killed, or whether or not he’s been hurt. Alison’s been anxious, lonely and overwhelmed for so long, that she’s played out all the possible outcomes, and has seen how her life could surprisingly go on quite easily without Joe. She wants so much for him to be safely home with her, but she’s exhausted now from all the hoping, and is missing him a little less these days.
When Joe returns on home leave with all his limbs and appendages intact, he feels like he’s accomplished something, he feels like a useful human being. But this feeling doesn’t last, and soon the confusion sets in. He knows his wife doesn’t like what he does, but soldiering is what makes the most sense. If he dies, there’ll be some consolation. At least Alison will never need to know that he doesn’t love her anymore, not the way a man should love his woman. The kids will never know he didn’t want them, and still doesn’t. If he gets blown up by an IED, at least the pretense can end. He wishes he didn’t think this way about his family, but he does. The only time he feels right as a man is when he’s out in the desert with his squad and his M4A1, telling himself he’s doing it all for the wife and kids.
When death stalks him in the battlefield, Joe feels a nobility that makes up for the cowardice he feels back home. Without the battles abroad, he is diminished. If not for the bolthole of war, he wouldn’t have the tolerance for that world that the other guys seem to love – the one with the barbeques, the chitchat, the in-laws, the mortgage, the taxes, the “for love of country” talk, and the endless expectations. Whenever he returns to Alison and the children, he feels as if he’s sinking, disappearing into his family-man clown-suit. This thought rises above all others: “I’ve made a huge mistake. And now it’s too late.”
He had told her he loved her. He had asked her to quit her final year at law school, leave her hometown to be with him. After they were married, he feared she might wake up one day and realise she was wrong about him, so he had to make her stay. He said, “let’s have a baby”, even though he didn’t have the money or patience for parenthood. Now, he hates it all, and for this he feels ashamed. He’s failed at the one thing that’s most important for him not to fail at. He tries so hard, but he just can’t love them, not how he knows they deserve to be loved. So he goes into battle, to put off breaking their hearts.
Afterwards: Thomas and Jane Reunite
When Thomas and Jane are apart, they WhatsApp each other every day. Thomas tells Jane how he wishes she were with him: this is a lie, he quite likes not having to think about things to say to her. He tells her he misses her: this is the truth. Jane tells Thomas to be safe, and to remember to drink lots of water and use sunscreen. She tells him she misses him too.
Two days before he comes home, Jane eats only salad, so her stomach will be flat and sexy when Thomas returns and sees her naked. She gets her hair trimmed, and a bikini wax. When he comes home, they are thrilled to see each other, and they spend all of the next day making love and snuggling in bed.
Three days later, Thomas can’t stop fiddling with the TV remote, surfing channels. Jane sits next to him snacking on potato chips even though she doesn’t want to and isn’t at all hungry. Thomas picks the dead skin off the soles of his feet and leaves the epidermal crumbs on the sofa. Jane is annoyed that he does this. She takes out the vacuum cleaner and sucks up the mound of dead skin he’s left in the space between them. Thomas tells her to “turn the damn thing off”, he can’t hear the television, which he isn’t really watching.
“Are we going to sit in front of the TV all night? Let’s go out,” Jane says.
“Where to?” says Thomas. “There’s nowhere to go in this town.”
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2015