We’d been sparring a bit all day. Not that it was so unusual, the sparring. Once the sunrise-hued haze had worn off our courtship, the almost forgotten roles of big brother and little sister were revealed, having lain dormant just a few layers within. To think a ten-year gap between us would never be used as a shovel to dig up the very roots our personalities had grown from had been naïve, ingenuous, even.
So we’d been sparring. Nothing to write home about, mind you. Just little squabbles and bickers either made under the breath, with arms crossed, or, more theatrically, with head turned, whispered into the air itself, gestures that collectively made up the vocabulary of our intimate language much better than any words could ever do.
So, yes, the sparring. It had happened on and off, as it had the day before, and as it invariably would the day after. Little tiffs long-marrieds engage in, if only to make sure they still have a partner to play with in the ring.
The ice creams I’d bought for the little boys were too big, much too big, and this close to supper, too! The small trinkets you’d purchased for them on a whim were ridiculously expensive, given their cheap makeup—just look at this plastic and how quickly it will break—just look!
And yet, amidst the sparring and the bickering, the fallings-out and the squabbling, there were also moments of fallings-in, of leaning against one another, of letting the big brother/little sister sink back under the layers, in order to allow the husband and wife to re-emerge. And it was then, hand cupped in hand, that we watched as the small boys we’d created also squabbled, bickered, sparred, and then leaned in.
So overall, it was a good day, a normal day.
And then I suggested a little detour, just a small one, to show the boys where I’d once lived, another lifetime ago, a single mother with two young kids. Perhaps we’d even drive by my older children’s former school, to remind my little ones there’d been a time in which Mommy’s family had yet to grow from three to six.
“It’ll be fun,” I said to you. “I just want to show the boys the old school, and the home their big brother and sister lived in with me. They’ll like it!”
And with that, the big brother leapt on stage, pushing the husband-you back into the shadows. “Gee, I wonder why you’d want to drive by your old neighbourhood?” you said. “Could it be you want to relive your life before you met me?”
In your voice I could hear the teasing, the jocularity. Without even turning towards you, I could tell you were merely being playful, trying to draw me into the tease.
“I wanna see the old school,” said one little boy.
“I wanna see the old house,” said the other. “Where’s the old house?”
And so I drove, hands in proper position on the steering wheel, fingers locked tightly. Why did you not see how white my knuckles were becoming? Why did you not see?
“Tell me I’m wrong,” you said, your words still light, a big brother trying to provoke his much younger sister. “Tell me you don’t want to relive those golden years as a single mom with no husband to bicker with!”
I said nothing. I kept driving, white knuckles and half-breaths. I kept driving, but then I became confused and almost passed by the school without saying a thing. The point of this detour was now lost on me. The point of almost anything was now equally lost.
In the passenger side, there was teasing, but a low tide type of teasing, barely there. In the backseat, there was yelping and asking and more yelping, but that too, faded like water flowing away.
I kept driving until I saw it. There. The old house, that snug little semi in which I’d stuffed my former self and my elder two children into for so many years. The old house, the last place where most of my days were spent with my mood’s weight spread evenly between two pans, the balance scale not arbitrarily jerking from up to down, from high to low. It was there that I last felt such steadiness, taken for granted as much as good health invariably seems to be until it’s gone. There the house stood, right there, just a hundred feet away.
What I didn’t expect were the waves, but yet they still came, washing away the big brother and the little sister with their briny grief. That’s when I stopped the car and cried. That’s when I cried and I sobbed and I sobbed and I cried, oblivious to the little boys in the back seat who had merely wanted to see where Mommy used to live and did not appreciate this sudden eruption.
“Honey?” A pat on the shoulder from the passenger seat, and then, more gently, a soft rub on the back. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. I was only joking.”
But the waves kept coming, the high tide, with its sorrow and its sadness, it just kept coming. Yet so did the gentle rubbing and the gentle words. Yet so did the loving.
I tried to compose myself, but the best I could do was guard my eyes from that snug little semi, just a hundred feet away.
More rubbing, more gentle words, more loving. Then seatbelts unbuckled, drivers switched, and that long ride back to Now, to a spacious corner house in another town, filled with drafty old rooms and multiple children. And all through that long ride back to Now, there was still yelping from the backseat, still a husband/big brother/husband sitting next to me, and still flashes of surprising tenderness, melting like snow on my tongue.
My eyes remained guarded during that long ride back, back to a mood that in the Now remains unpredictable, unreliable, a riptide in what I had come to assume (goddammit) would be a sea of relative calm.
So I kept my head turned, but not for the benefit of whispers. This time, the air around my lips stayed empty, for what words could ever explain this grief of brine to a man who can switch from sparring partner to teaser to lover in three easy steps, all the while remaining under sunny skies? How to explain to someone whose scale does not move up and down, whose mood does not resemble those whirling carousel horses each yelping boy adores? How to explain what’s irrevocably lost when to you I’m still here, right here, my flesh still whole?
Yet even with head turned and eyes guarded, I could still sense that moment when the snug little semi had been just a hundred feet away. A hundred feet—the distance between then and now, between whole and broken, the length of a universe.