“We need to talk, honey”
“Oh,” she was worried immediately, he could tell by her tone. “What?”
“Um. I…it’s time for me to look for another job.” He leaned back against the stove, looking at the tile floor of the kitchen and scratching the back of his head.
“What? What happened?” She was surprised, shocked really.
“Nothing happened. I mean, nothing specific…I wasn’t fired or anything like that.”
“I just…” she was already going from concerned to angry, and he faltered. But, he knew he had to tell her the truth. Looking up, he tried to explain. “I need to move on. I’ve been there as long as I can take it.”
She just looked at him for a long, silent, minute, and he looked back at the floor rather than meeting her stare. Finally, she took a deep breath, started to say something, stopped, sighed, took another breath, and said with exasperation, “you can’t just keep quitting jobs like this, Eric. I mean…what are we going to do…why…?”
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, feeling the familiar hollowness of self-loathing creep into his chest.
“You know, it’s not easy for me either. Nobody likes their job…I don’t like my job, but it’s something you do. Be a grown-up for Christ’s sake.” That was it; she was angry now. Though not a practicing Christian, she’d always hated it when he’d cursed by saying “Jesus” or “Christ”, and it was a bad sign when she did it herself.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
She breathed deeply a few more times, and then started to speak again, this time more calmly. He could tell she was trying to be understanding, and it made him feel even worse. “What is it, Eric? What’s wrong…I mean, why do you have to quit? Why now?”
“I…” he hesitated. Ten minutes earlier, he’d been ready and fortified to tell her everything, to lay it all out in the name of honesty and go from there. Now he was having second thoughts; maybe there were some things you shouldn’t tell other people. This was something he’d struggled with for years and never found a good answer.
“Did something happen at work?”
“No, it’s not that. I mean, not any one thing. I…it’s just…”
“What?” she said, the forced calmness straining against the pleading tone that was creeping into her voice.
“It’s hard for me to explain, but…it’s like…I just know when I have to go on to another…when I can’t take anymore.”
“When you have to quit,” she clarified, the word “quit” edged with derision despite her efforts.
“Right. And it’s time for me to quit.” He glanced up from the spot on the floor he’d been staring at to look his wife in her eyes. He could see them getting moist, and his chest emptied. Once again, he wished he could cry himself, but instead there was just an impassive deadness and the knowledge of complete failure.
She shook her head and walked past him, unable to say anything else. Tell her, his mind told him, and he reached out for her arm.
“Wait. Please don’t walk away.”
“I just need to sit down.”
“Okay.” He followed her into the living room, and while she sat down on the sofa and tucked a leg up under her, he slumped into the chair, looking at his hands cupped together in his lap.
“You know I love you, Eric,” she said, pleading and pain in her voice hitting him like a slap.
“I know, and I love you too.” Tell her. “I wish I could be like everyone else…” Tell her. He rubbed his hands together, clenching hard. Tell her. She wasn’t saying anything else, just looking at him, waiting for an explanation. Tell her.
“Okay,” he began, taking a breath and faltering. “Okay,” he repeated, and then he just let loose: “I’ve been planning my death recently.” He didn’t look up to see her response, as he continued, “I mean, I’ve been…I’ve found myself thinking of ways I could kill myself and make it look like an accident.”
She made a sound somewhere between a choke and a scoff, and he glanced up to see her looking at the ceiling, her face beginning to twist with anger, or maybe confusion.
“I mean, I was driving along this morning, and I suddenly realized I’d been having this five minute…fantasy, I guess you could call it, about driving off the cliff near UltraMarket…how to make it look like an accident.” She was wiping her eyes, and now that he’d started, he couldn’t seem to stop talking. “It happens to me sometimes, but recently it’s been much more common, and the…fantasies…they’re getting more detailed, and sometimes I lay awake at night and—“
“Jesus Christ, Eric. Stop!” his wife yelled, startling him into silence. He looked up at her and she leaned forward over her tucked-up leg. Her mouth opened a few times, and she rolled her head back and forth in disbelief. “What are you saying…what are you telling me?”
“I…sometimes I think about…I mean, I’ve…”
“I know what you’re telling me, Eric. What I mean is, how can you tell me that? I mean, how can you just sit there and say ‘I want to kill myself’?”
“I didn’t say I want to kill myself,” he protested, feeling helpless. As usual, he was trying to explain the emotions he felt so deeply and clearly and was failing miserably.
“Oh, okay. So, you’re thinking of killing yourself. Big difference,” she scoffed sarcastically, fighting back tears.
“I…it’s like…” he didn’t know what he wanted to say.
“How can you just sit there and tell me that?” she demanded.
“I’m trying to be honest,” he said feebly.
“I said, I’m—“
“I heard you Eric. Jesus Christ! I just can’t believe you said it. I mean, shit. How would you feel if I said, ‘Say honey, I’m planning to kill myself’?”
“It’s not like that,” he protested, his voice decreasing to almost a whisper.
“Come on, Eric. What would you think if I told you I was contemplating suicide. Huh?”
“I’d understand,” he said without thinking. Then, realizing what had slipped out, he looked back up at her fearfully.
“What?” she stood up, bouncing on her feet. “What?” She slammed her fists into her thighs and literally hopped with anger and frustration. “Don’t you love me, Eric?”
“Of course I love you,” he answered desperately.
“Then how can you say that? How can you sit there and say that? You wouldn’t care if I said I was going to drive off a cliff?” She was yelling now.
“Yes, I would care. I didn’t say I wouldn’t care,” he nearly yelled back, feeling suddenly frantic.
“Well. Almost!” She flopped back onto the sofa suddenly and held her forehead with one hand. “God. I mean, Jesus, Eric.”
“You can’t just sit there and tell me that. It’s not fair,” the anger had gone from her voice suddenly, and she was pleading again.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated. It was all he could seem to say, and he could barely find the breath to get those two inadequate words out.
“I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?” her voice cracked as she started to cry, and she wiped away the tears that flowed from both eyes. “How is that supposed to make me feel?”
Eric couldn’t respond. Inside, his heart was screaming and his brain was crying in shame and frustration, but his face was a flat mask. He knew from experience that she read this as apathy on his part, and he ached to cry along with her, to show her that he was miserable as well, that his heart broke when she cried, when he saw him hurting her. He just sat there.
“Do you think you need to take more medicine?” she asked, trying to regain her composure and dry her eyes.
“No,” he answered honestly. The pills didn’t stop this kind of thing. Then he realized she’d wanted him to say “yes”, just to be agreeable and show a willingness to try, if nothing else.
“Well, what then?” she asked, throwing up a hand.
“It doesn’t work like that,” he started to explain, “the medicine, I mean.”
“I’d say it’s not working at all if you’re going…if you’re thinking about killing yourself.”
“I told you,” he said, his voice still quiet, “it doesn’t change the way I think, it just changes…it changes the effect of my thinking.”
“That makes no sense. What the hell does that mean?” she asked, shaking a hand for emphasis.
“I don’t get it,” the editor said, holding a copy of Paul’s short story on the desk in front of him. Immediately Paul regretted taking him up on the offer for some feedback on the story the Literary Review had just rejected. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“What doesn’t make sense, Professor?” Paul responded, trying not to sound defensive. Dr. Wallace was a friend of his father’s, and Paul was fairly sure that was why he was even getting the courtesy of the meeting. He figured most prospective authors just got a rejection letter with no “how” or “why”.
“Well. Why is this guy…Eric. Why is Eric so unhappy?”
Paul waited a moment, expecting there to be more to the question, but that was it. “Well, he’s depressed.” Wasn’t that obvious?
“Yes. That much is clear. The question is, why is he depressed? You know. For us to feel as an audience…for us to identify with Eric, we need to see why. There needs to be a cause for his depression. People don’t just get depressed and try to off themselves for no reason, you know.”
So many unpleasant thoughts swirled around Paul’s head so quickly that he didn’t respond. Yes, actually, they do. Have you ever been depressed? God, this guy’s a pretentious prick! How do these kinds of people always get into positions of control; he was probably born with a smile on his face.
“You know what I mean?” Dr. Wallace repeated, looking at him expectantly.
“Well…” Before Paul could decide whether or not to be honest with the guy and say, “yeah, actually I know something about depression,” or to just nod and agree, the professor continued.
“It’s just too maudlin right now, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what ‘maudlin’ means,” Paul responded flatly.
“Hey, listen. I don’t want to offend you. I’m just trying to give you some feedback. You’re writing is good,” Dr. Wallace continued, his tone raising an octave as he moved into flattery mode.
“I appreciate your feedback, sir.” And you don’t need to pad it with phony praise.
“You just need to develop the character a little more.”
“I mean, I like the relationship between the couple. I can really feel his wife’s frustration and his own pain for causing her pain. But the initial problem…it’s just not there.”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” Paul said softly. He didn’t even try to put any emotion behind his response, just wanting to take his story and get out of that office as fast as possible. Dr. Wallace looked at him, his eyes squinting in confusion or perhaps the beginnings of anger. He looked like he was going to say something else, but Paul motioned for the papers in his hand, and the professor gave them to him silently.
“Thank you again,” Paul said without feeling, rolling the papers into a tight tube and opening the office door.
“No problem. Tell your father I said hello.”
On the way home, Paul tried to calm himself down. He’d told himself there was no chance in hell his story would be published, but submitted it at his wife’s suggestion, more to please her than anything. And, if the story had merely been rejected, Paul was sure he wouldn’t be feeling so miserable now. But to stand there and listen to Dr. Wallace blither about something he obviously knew nothing about…to say that the main part of the story—the part Paul had lived with for as long as he could remember—wasn’t realistic, that was what was making him so angry.
“Damnit,” he screamed angrily, pounding his free hand onto the seat next to him. “Damnit, damnit, damnit, damnit!” He was at a stoplight, with one hand on the steering wheel, pounding the other one into the soft seat beside him.
Exhaling loudly and shaking his head, Paul turned and saw that the driver in the car next to him was watching him with an amused look. He turned back toward the light and waited for it to turn green.
“So, how did it go?” Sara asked after he’d come in and put his jacket in the closet, tossing the story onto the living room coffee-table.
“Oh…don’t ask,” he said, trying to smile and sound like he was being playful about it.
“Was it bad?” she asked, coming to give him a hug.
“Nah…it was okay,” he lied, and she seemed to take his word, looked like she wasn’t going to worry about him. “They’re not interested in that kind of fiction,” he said, shrugging, trying to seem nonchalant.
“This was the fantasy-adventure piece you were telling me about?” she asked, pushing him gently down onto the couch.
“Yeah,” he lied instinctively. Though she took a sincere interest in her husband’s writing, Sara hated fantasy-adventure pieces, and he’d started several over the years—never finishing one—which she’d never read. She read all his other pieces.
“It really doesn’t bother you that I won’t read those?” she asked again, cocking her head to one side.
“No,” he told her earnestly. “Don’t worry…I know they’re boring to you. This one isn’t much good anyway,” he said, then thought for a second, held up his hands and added “apparently.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s good for people who like that genre.” Rather than answer, Paul just shrugged. Sara smiled encouragingly and leaned down to kiss him on the lips. “Don’t get down,” she said quietly, looking into his eyes. “I’m making pizza tonight.”
The thought of his wife’s delicious home-made pizza, where even the dough was made from scratch, truly did lift his spirits for a moment. “Wow, what’s the occasion?” She stood back up and shrugged happily, and before she could answer Paul added, “maybe I should get rejected more often.” His voice dropped a little as he finished saying what had started in his mind as a joke.
Sara heard the change and leaned back down to look in his eyes again. “Hey…you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, forcing a jovial tone again and turning to look out the window over her shoulder. She didn’t move. “I’m fine,” he repeated, meeting her stare and not flinching.
“You know you can tell me anything, right?” she said as she stood up straight again, her tone serious.
His eyes shifted unconsciously to the stapled papers on the table just behind her, then back to her face. Fearing he’d hesitated too long, he quickly answered, “I know. And I love you for it.” He saw the worry disappear from her face and stifled an exhalation of relief.
“I love you, too,” she said, waiting another moment before turning to the kitchen.
Blowing a deep breath through his lips, Paul stood up and grabbed the papers from the table, rolling them into his hands again. Walking to the back of the house and into the bedroom, where he was sure Sara couldn’t hear the sound, he tore the papers into small pieces and deposited them into the bottom of the bathroom trashcan, adding a wad of toilet-paper on top for good measure.
Paul slept restlessly that night, his stomach full of tomato-onion-and-peppercorn-cheese pizza. In the many moments halfway between waking and sleep, bits and pieces of various conversations played out in his mind.
-- “How would you feel if I said, ‘Say honey, I’m planning to kill myself’?”
--“There has to be a reason for his depression.”
--“Jesus, Paul, what are you saying to me?”
--“You know you can tell me anything, right?”
The next day, after dragging himself out of bed and contemplating his tired face in the bathroom mirror like he did most work-day mornings, Paul told himself quietly, “shut up and go to work. Act your age.” Climbing into his car, he glanced at his watch and saw that he was leaving ten minutes early. With the extra time, he made a spontaneous decision and took a different, slightly-longer route to work.
He took Courtland street to Mayford, rather than Walnut to Trinity; this route took him by the library and a nursing home where he’d volunteered during his college years. More importantly, though, the detour did not take him past the UltraMarket gas station on the corner of Trinity and Holland, or the deep, hypnotic cliff just beyond it.