“I love you,” he would say, but she would scowl and throw things and once broke his laptop when she slammed it down on the coffee table in anger. He would stomp off to his AA meeting and return serene and arrogant and spend hours hunched over his computer on the internet and not going to bed because it was boring, except that time when his laptop was being fixed then he stared at the wall and didn’t know what to do. Though he didn’t dare to admit to himself or say it aloud or tell his therapist, he was completely lost. His wife convinced him to move from their inner city apartment to a nice house in a nice street in a nice suburb and painted the walls peach because it was a nice colour and put lace on all the windows because it was required by law. They made love only occasionally in a straightforward and functional manner, at a time of her choosing and by carefully planned appointment. He grew his hair and put in the earring that he’d taken off ten year’s earlier and bought a dog and fantasized about the neighbour’s wife. His kids put locks on their bedroom doors and ignored him. It took longer to commute each morning to the demeaning job he hated. In the supermarket on the way home he would stand in front of the vegetables and meats in the forlorn hope that the choice was important and exciting, and that he even cared. He could barely encourage himself to go home, but had nowhere else to go.
To his great surprise he had a meaningless and flaccid affair with a secretary at work which wasn’t meaningless to his wife when she found out, especially when he couldn’t be bothered to end it immediately. Every evening when he arrived home to sleep on the sofa she had packed up more of his things in boxes in his study. Piece by bloodless, silent piece she excised any trace of him from the walls and the shelves and the drawers of their life together, and all he could do was pick through the sad and inconsequential piles of books and photos, underwear and clothes and pretend it hurt. He felt numb and distant, and the idea that he knew he should feel something more painful disturbed him more than the murky and unfocused suspicion that his life was unravelling. When she finally asked for the key and escorted him to the front door and pushed him out into the rain he was already gone. He didn’t sleep with the secretary again.
“What are you doing?” asked a friend who let him sleep on a mattress on the floor in his living room.
“Changing my life?” he answered hopefully, but in truth he had no idea what he was doing and felt like he was floating away from the world, untethered and helpless. When the friend gently suggested after a few weeks that it was probably time he moved on, he roused himself enough to quit his job, say goodbye to his bored children and move to Italy.
He wandered for a few weeks among excited and unwashed backpacking youths through the towns and cities and Roman ruins. He felt old and silly and lost. He realized immediately that he should have expected more of himself, but acknowledged the poignant discomfort of the thought as the stirring of his emotions, and accepted it gratefully. He settled in a quiet town on the coast of Liguria and rented a cheap apartment overlooking the sea. It had untreated wooden floorboards and charcoal grey and pastel painted stone walls, and a small balcony where he sat in the sun and taught himself Italian and read books. Within a few months he was tanned and thin, padding through the cobbled streets in the early morning warmth in his sandals, greeting the shopkeepers and neighbours, and sipping dark sweet espresso on sunlit terraces. He ate simple pastas and vegetables laced with rich olive oil and pesto, and swam each day in the sea before an afternoon siesta and evenings filled with laughter and animated conversation with new acquaintances in a humble local bar. When his money ran out he picked olives and fruit in the hills for coins and company, and taught English to the local schoolchildren and businessmen. After a while he caught the eye of a younger, beautiful woman. They were initially indifferent to each other, but the coolness became ease and familiarity, then warmth and comfort, then excitement and desire and love. They decided to live together.
“You seem to be going backwards,” she said to him one night two months later.
“Do I?” he replied, trying to smile and looking dubiously at the wall behind him. The next morning, inexplicably, she and her perfume and underwear were gone. Bemused more than worried he went looking for her, and found her in a bar chatting happily to her friends and flirting with a man in a blood red silk shirt and slicked back hair. (…)
© andrew wheeler