My marriage ended on a Monday.
I walked into my house at one a.m., having just completed a sixteen-hour round research trip to Indiana in twenty-four hours. I was trying to write my first book while raising a four-year-old and a two-year old, with little childcare, and the care I did have was cobbled together Rube Goldberg–style from friends and a part-time day care program at a church. I opened the back door and stepped over the usual pile of shoes and coats into the kitchen. I flipped on the light and saw a trash bag on the floor, spilling the detritus of my life: Go-GURT wrappers, tissues, plastic plates, Goldfish crackers, damp napkins, orange peels, dried chunks of cheese, and a broken toy from a fast food chain.
This had happened so many times before. My husband emptied the trash and set the full bag on the bench in the breakfast nook. He’d take it out in the morning, he’d tell himself. Much like the myth of leaving the dishes to soak so he could wash them the next day. Perhaps the greatest trick a husband has ever played was convincing himself (and his wife) that he’d get to a chore the next day.
I imagined the bag sitting there as he watched Star Trek, slowly wobbling on the edge of the bench, until, with a wet slap, it hit the floor. Maybe he never heard it. He’d never really had to pay attention like that—to the left-behind crumbs, the sticky spots on the floor. But to me, an older daughter of eight children and now a mother, those small messes were the only things I saw.
I had spent the eleven years of our marriage trying to get him to see that the dishwasher drain didn’t clean itself and the socks didn’t crawl out of the laundry and find their own mates and put themselves in his drawer. I wanted him to notice. I wanted him to see these small labors.
Sometimes I calmly requested Please just take the trash outside. Other times, I refused to clean it up. Sometimes I raged. Often, he would be irritated and say he forgot and put off the chore again. Once, in the first year of our marriage, I’d let the bag sit for an entire week before the smell of rotting garbage filled the kitchen. I was the first one who blinked in that game of chicken, hauling it out and then cleaning up the wet mark the bag had left on the wooden bench. The stain remains there.
Once, in a fight, my husband said that each chore was simply a chore and just that. He was criticizing my propensity to talk not just about the one trash bag on the floor but all the trash bags that had ever fallen. These were minor things, he argued. Just trash. Not such a big deal. It’s easy to see chores as a one-off when they are not the bulk of your life. When your work and leisure aren’t woven among the laundry, the dishes, the vacuuming, and the grocery shopping. When you aren’t wondering whether there is enough dish soap or if you have enough potatoes for dinner. Standing there in the kitchen that early Monday morning, I was exhausted. Marriage, it seemed, was this: the eternal return of trash on my floor.
Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return argues that all events in time and space occur over and over and will continue to occur infinitely—as in marriage. People grow and change, yes. But not that much. In marriage, you have the same arguments over and over. As long as you both shall live. My husband was right. I could never just see a pile of trash. I saw all the past piles, and on that morning I saw all the future piles, too. I saw an eternity of trash piles. This is my life. This will always be my life. The moment I’d said “I do,” I’d entered a time continuum, where trash on the floor would always happen. And I would always be cleaning it up. And nothing I could do, no amount of couples therapy or list making, could stop the inevitable tumble and wet splat.
Looking at the mess, I began to do the mental math—what did I have the energy for? Wiping the floor or fighting? Add those factors together, solve for trash on the floor. That morning, the solution was to pick it up.
Later, I went to bed and dreamed I was drowning. I woke up three hours later, at five a.m., to my two-year-old son patting my cheeks. My son vehemently believed five a.m. was the appropriate time to wake up. Most mornings I would sit with him watching Curious George, drinking coffee, and reading the news on my phone, while he snuggled into the corner of the couch with his little blankie rubbing against his cheeks.
That morning, my body vibrated with exhaustion, but I didn’t have time for coffee and Curious George. The house cleaner (a lovely woman from my church who’d offered to help me when she’d asked me how I was doing, and I broke out into sobs) was coming that day, and I had to clean up all the mess that had accumulated while I was gone.
The truth about accepting help is that it requires asking for it and coordinating it and paying for it, emotionally and financially. Financially, I took on extra freelance work to pay for housecleaning because it wasn’t in the budget. Emotionally, I dealt with my husband’s heavy sighs when he’d walk into a professionally cleaned home, and his angry silences that would fill the space between us until I’d explained I’d sold a little article to pay for it. It didn’t come out of the shared checking account. Sometimes my husband would say, “If you want help just ask,” and I would wave my arms around me like someone drowning. “Just look!” I’d say. “This is all a cry for help.” But truthfully, I didn’t want help. I was grateful for it, sure. What I wanted was an equal partner.
My husband came downstairs at seven-fifty to pack his lunch and leave for work.
“There was trash all over the floor,” I said.
He rolled his eyes.
“The point is, there was a large pile of trash I had to wade through when I came home.”
“You are welcome for watching the kids.”
There are moments where couples teeter on the edge of a fight. Just one look, one word, will push you over into the chasm of fury. I let us rest on that edge that morning. My world already felt so fragile. Donald Trump had been elected ten months before. I had not voted for him, but my husband had. It was the end of August now and we were in couples therapy every week, where we discussed his attitude toward my career (bad, he didn’t like it and wanted me to just write mystery novels), and my attitude toward his attitude (bad, I didn’t like it and I wanted him to just vacuum the rug for once, and never in my life had I written a mystery novel), and all the things I had lost in the marriage.
And I was losing things. The entire time we’d been together, I seemed to slough off items—mugs, chambray shirts, small books, larger books. We’d been married for so long, eleven years at that point, that I had just assumed it was me. This was just who I was. He’d often refer to my absent-mindedness, joking that I’d mislay my head if it wasn’t attached to my neck. But that spring, while cleaning out the house for a garage sale, in the musty basement crawl space behind the worthless china my mean grandma had bequeathed me and the boxes of wedding decorations, I’d found everything I had lost.
I was in purge mode, occasionally shouting to my kids not to fight over who got to play with the little mop I’d bought to teach them about cleaning but that they were using to sword fight, when I reached for a box and opened it up. Inside was everything I thought I had lost. Mugs, shirts, and books. For the entirety of my marriage, my husband had been taking things of mine he didn’t like and hiding them in this box in the basement.
The legend of Bluebeard tells the story of a man who weds women, murders them, and hides their bodies in a room. His most recent wife, newly wed and brought to live in his castle, is given the keys and told she can explore everywhere in her new home except one room. When Bluebeard leaves to go on a trip, her curiosity takes over and she opens the door to the forbidden room and sees, there on the floor, the bodies of the wives who have come before her. She drops the key, which becomes stained with their blood, and she cannot wash it off. Bluebeard returns and sees the blood on the key and knows that she knows the truth. In some versions of the story, the bride is saved from death by her siblings. In others, she dies but is restored to life. And in others, she is murdered and joins the collection of bodies. It’s similar to the story of the Garden of Eden. A woman given everything is told to not do one thing, not to eat of the forbidden fruit. She does, and she learns the truth about life and death. Knowing, those stories tell us, is worse than blissful ignorance.
Opening that box felt like opening the door to Bluebeard’s room. Inside of it were dead versions of myself. A mug that read write like a motherf***er, two chambray button-up shirts that I had loved to wear while nursing, my copy of Madame Bovary, a mug with the faces of famous Democrats on them, a little book of conversation starters that I’d bought when we were dating as a way to get him to open up. What would you do with a million dollars? If you could have one superpower what would it be? What would you do if you discovered the person you love has been hiding your things away for your entire marriage?
Copyright © 2024 by Lyz Lenz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.