“The best way to stay married is to just shut your mouth and nod along.”
She comes home late most nights, probably at the store or to get gas after work, but she doesn’t tell him ahead of time, like these are last-minute executive decisions that don’t need to be communicated to her spouse. But they’ve been married for 26 years and she’s not going to start changing her pattern now. For his part he grins and bears it. It’s only him, after all, so he watches another episode of his favorite TV program and pretends everything is okay. They never had either children or animals, so there is no pitter patter of little feet in the background, just the white noise to which he has grown accustomed. He occasionally snoozes as well, and is awakened by the sound of her boots on the linoleum in the kitchen. There used to be a time he would pretend to be happy to see her, but that time is long gone. They have become roommates and nothing more, these two who used to be vibrant but have now faded into muted shades of gray.
He eats a lot of bologna. In fact, she often jokes that they should buy stock in Oscar Mayer, but she’s not really joking when she says that. He has grown accustomed to her criticisms couched as jokes with her trademark laugh that isn’t really a laugh. It takes a practiced ear to pick that sound apart, but he has become an expert at it. It is a fact that does not make him proud. The stacks of bologna do indeed take up an entire shelf in their refrigerator, and it is constantly replenished because it really is all he eats. The amount of money they save on random food could probably feed a small army because bologna is cheap and all that other food they might eat is not. She does not cook, and since he only eats bologna she often stops on her way home for takeout. Sometimes it’s Chinese, and others it’s Italian, but it’s never fast food so it’s never cheap. That’s where the money he saves on his bologna-only diet goes.
They haven’t had sex in a year, and he’s surprised it even happened then. He still maintains that she was drunk and let down her guard, the stiff veneer that usually creates a physically hard shell around her body. It was barely memorable regardless. Since then they’ve done the dance around each other, the one where she spends her evenings in the den, and he stays in the living room separated from her by a few feet that might as well be the Great Wall of China. He can’t recall the last time they enjoyed a movie together, or shared a genuine laugh with each other. Amazingly enough they still share the same bed — incidentally enough their marriage bed — but their sides are clearly delineated. He used to be a restless sleeper but he has trained his body to stay put on one side and not to stray across the line.
But he’s in love, even though it took him a long time to first realize what it was, and then to acknowledge that it wasn’t going to go away. He had almost forgotten because it has been so long since he actually loved the woman he married. He wonders if that happens to everyone after a while, that they lose what they had, or maybe they never had it in the first place. That is scary to him because a long time ago he thought he was in love with his wife, that she was the absolute love of his life, but this new love, this is real love, and he knows he can do nothing about it except to let it marinate in his soul while the rest of him withers and molts.
She walks in the door and he’s wide awake, not just pretending, because he wants to have a talk, at long last, but at the sight of her he shrinks in fear. He knows that her words can cut more deeply than a serrated blade, and he wants to avoid them at all cost. It is why he has lost his voice around her, what was once a melodious tenor now disused and barren. So he doesn’t tell her what is in his soul, what is deep down under the scar tissue they have built up together, what he believes will so desperately save him from drowning.
The sound of a paper sliding to the floor would shatter the silence they have grown and nurtured for so long, so he slips back into his chair and nods in her direction instead of speaking. He knows in that woebegone moment that he will let his newfound love die rather than approach his wife about what they both know already but have decided to let fade into silence instead of speak up. The volume is muted on the TV and the soft sound of static is all he can hear as she goes into the den to spend another night in solitude. The smell of Chinese food wafts in from the kitchen, turning his stomach sour just at the thought of eating it. He sighs heavily and reclines his chair like an old lover being eased into a warm bath.