“Thank goodness I’m going back to my kids and my nice quiet life,” Ana told herself as she fished for the car keys in her coat pocket. Her fingers grazed a slip of paper. It was the one upon which Michael had jotted down his name and number with rounded, almost calligraphic letters. By reflex, an image of her kids flashed before her eyes. Michelle was delicate and high-strung. Though only nine, in some ways she was as mature and independent as a teenager. By way of contrast, Allen, who was a year younger than his sister, constantly sought the warmth and protection of his mother’s love.
Ana pressed the button to unlock her car. On impulse, she crumpled up the note Michael had given her and tossed it into the trash bin. Traffic was slow, but her mind raced. Lulled by the regular, back-and-forth movements of the windshield wipers, Ana thought of her husband.
She could anticipate Rob’s every move. He would arrive home from work at about 7:30 p.m., feeling stressed and tired. By that time, she and the kids would have already eaten dinner. He’d remove his suit jacket. Then, without saying a word to her, he’d warm up his supper. At some point, Michelle would greet her father. She’d deluge him with reports about her day. Sometimes, in a honey-sweet voice that she reserved especially for such occasions, she’d ask her father’s permission for future play dates or sleepovers with her friends. Out of expediency and affection, he’d grant her wishes without even thinking twice about it. Then they’d retreat to different rooms, in a symmetrical division of labor. Rob would help Michelle with her homework while Ana would help Allen with his. After the kids went to bed, Rob would lock himself up in his office. He’d read political blogs to unwind, while Ana would take out a sketchpad to map out some of her paintings. Hardly a word, other than matters related to their children, would be exchanged between husband and wife.
The night didn’t bring them any closer. Ever since Allen was born, the couple got used to sleeping in separate bedrooms. With one notable exception, Ana recalled. About twice a week, when the kids were asleep or otherwise occupied, Rob would rap lightly on Ana’s bedroom door and peep in with an ingratiating smile. Ana knew what that meant. Since she hardly ever refused, her biweekly wifely duty would be wordlessly concluded within a matter of minutes. She’d be left feeling sad and empty as Rob, more satiated than satisfied, closed the door behind him. Aside from their children, whom they both loved, Ana felt like they had little left to bind them together anymore.
When did our marriage turn into such a sham? she wondered. It wasn’t like this from the start. In the beginning, Ana recalled, Rob also looked at her with admiration and desire, the way Michael had. When they met back in college at Michigan University, she was studying at the School of Art and Design and Rob was enrolled in the Carter School of Business. Their interests were worlds apart, yet they still managed to find common ground. They engaged in heated conversations about everything under the sun: art, religion, philosophy, and politics, even quantum physics. When they walked together, Ana recalled, Rob used to hold her hand. Now, she thought with regret, whenever they went out, her husband walked hurriedly a few steps ahead of her and the kids, like the head of a pack rather than of a family. Before, when they drove, Ana remembered, she used to place her hand upon his so affectionately that he got used to driving with only one hand. Now they hardly held hands anymore. Before, when they used to make love, she’d wrap her arms and her legs around him, grateful for the gift of his desire. Now she’d close her eyes and wait for the whole ordeal to be over. Piece by piece, so gradually that they barely noticed it, they had shed like so much dead skin each protective layer of their love.
Ana arrived at the kids’ school in rather low spirits. But she was quickly jolted out of her bad mood by Michelle, who ran to the door to greet her. “Mama, guess what?” she asked, her delicate face radiating excitement. “You know that drawing I made, of the two spiders?”
Ana tried to recall which drawing her daughter was referring to, since Michelle was even more prolific than herself when it came to artistic production. “You mean the one of the two spiders in love?” she asked her, alluding to a drawing where the spiders in question were lying practically on top of each other.
The girl’s pale blue eyes seemed to shoot daggers at her mother: “They weren’t in love, Mama!” Michelle objected to all matters related to love or, worse yet, boys, whom she considered immature and dorky. “They were just building a web together.”
Ana nodded, thinking to herself, kind of like your father and I. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate anything.”
“It means to suggest.”
Michelle’s level of enthusiasm rose again: “Well, anyways. My art teacher, Mrs. Posner, entered that drawing in the state art fair! Isn’t it great? I’m the only one she chose out of the whole class!”
Ana beamed with pride at her daughter’s accomplishment. “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you. Didn’t I tell you that you have real talent? Who knows? Maybe one day you’ll become an artist.”
“Mama, you know how hard it is to make money from art. I only want to do it for fun.”
Ana couldn’t help but feel a little stung by her daughter’s comment. It sounded too close for comfort to something her pragmatic husband would say. When the art sales went well a couple of years ago and she was able to bring in roughly 50,000 dollars annual income from her paintings, their marriage felt more balanced, if not actually warmer. Ana had more say in the way they spent their money, in their vacation plans and even in decisions regarding the children. But once the recession took a turn for the worse, art was the first luxury people dispensed with and Ana could only bring a half of her usual salary. Along with the diminished income, she sensed the power balance shift in their family. “Why don’t you get a real job? One that actually makes money rather than wasting it on art supplies,” her husband had suggested in the middle of a dispute over finances. “Because I want to devote my time to art. I never misled you about that,” Ana had replied. “Well, I’d love to devote my life to napping, but unfortunately I don’t have that luxury,” Rob rebutted. “Art isn’t exactly the same thing as sleep,” she objected. “The point is that I do things I hate so that I can make a living and support our family. Meanwhile, you sit around in your studio all day doing whatever you please!” he had snapped back. The fact that Ana enjoyed painting while Rob, a manager at Ford Motor Company, disliked his job was another source of contention between them. She’s been indoctrinated by her father, Ana concluded, still contemplating her daughter’s remark. “That’s a good idea,” she responded to Michelle’s comment attempting to sound unphased. “But there’s plenty of time to think about what you want to do with your life. The important thing is that you like it.”
“It’s not all about doing what you like, Mama,” Michelle rebutted. “It’s about survival,” she repeated word-by-word one of her father’s statements.
Ana winced at the comment. “Let’s pick up your brother,” she placed her hand upon Michelle’s shoulder, directing her towards Allen’s classroom.
Even within the boundaries of his familiar surroundings, little Allen looked confused. Ana’s eyes lit up as soon as she saw him. “Did you have a nice day at school today?” she asked him, planting a kiss upon the velvety softness of his cheek.
“What did you do?”
The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. Nothing special.”
“You don’t know? Weren’t you there, in class?” his sister interjected.
Allen’s buttons were easily pushed. “Stop it!” he objected in a whinny tone, already brought to the edge of tears by her comment. “We didn’t do any stuff today!”
“That’s all right. On some days, they review,” Ana intervened in her son’s defense. She had already retrieved his lunch box, coat and backpack, since, when left to his own devices, Allen let them find shelter on the lost and found table outside the classroom.
“You always take his side,” Michelle looked reproachfully at her mother as they made their way through the busy parking lot.
“Only when you poke it,” Ana unlocked the car doors. “Make sure you put on your seatbelts.”
“I know, Mama, I’m not stupid,” the girl protested. Then her tone changed, as she remembered something. “Know what? Our Social Studies teacher told us that the Renaissance Festival’s coming to Ann Arbor this weekend. Can we go there please?”
“It’s fine with me. But we’ll have to ask your father.”
That evening, after Rob had already eaten dinner and retreated into his office, Ana knocked lightly on his door to consult with him about their weekend plans. She overheard him talking on the phone but entered nonetheless. She was greeted by his aggressive gaze. His left hand fluttered rapidly in the air to shoo her away. Ordinarily, Ana didn’t let Rob’s dismissive behavior get to her. But on that evening, for some reason, it did. She went into the bedroom. To calm down her nerves, she turned on the radio to her favorite jazz station. The lulling, sultry sounds of a singer bemoaning lost love fit her melancholy mood. As she became lost in the chords of resonant emotions, Rob poked his head through the door. His features were distorted by a familiar smile. Ana looked at him with undisguised contempt and fluttered her hand, exactly as he had done to her. “Not now, please. I’m relaxing,” she said. Rob retreated, troubled by the lingering intuition that they had little left to hope for in their marriage.
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