Tuesday, March 29, 2005
WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE
by Milton Trachtenburg
The warm, summer sun shined through the still-closed curtains, its strong rays cutting a diagonal across the king-size bed. Robert tried to hold on to the last moments of sleep, his back to the insistent sun. He heard kitchen sounds, bacon frying, water splashing in the sink, the refrigerator door closing, penetrating his tranquil slumber. He moaned softly, and rolled into a tight ball, pulling the covers over his head. He tried to ward off the beginning of another day. The smell of fresh coffee brewing permeated the air and served as a siren's call demanding that he get up to face the day.
"Wake up and smell the coffee!" Joanne, began every workday by calling up the stairs and waking Robert.
Robert tried without success to hold onto the beautiful and pliant young thing he had created in his dream, pursued and was in the process of thoroughly enjoying. The nubile young dream-love was replaced by the reality of the of his wife's strong high-pitched voice calling him from the kitchen. He recalled his first meeting with Joanne, eighteen years earlier. He thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. Hell,he thought, she's not bad for thirty-three and two kids, but she sure isn't sixteen.
"C'mon, Robert, you don't want to be late for work, do you?"
Work, he thought. As a matter of fact, I do want to be late for work. It's a nowhere job, nothing salary, nonsense work. "I'm coming," he mumbled, his tongue still coated with sleep moss. "Be up in a minute." Sadly, he said a last goodbye to the nubile, young thing and stuck one foot tentatively out from under the covers. He imagined what it might be like waking up next to Miss No Name instead of his workaholic wife who was out the door as he came down the stairs. "Breakfast," he muttered disgustedly. He thought, what's so important about breakfast? Just once, it might be nice to spend a little time playing in bed.
"Coffee's on!" came the insistent voice from below.
Rolling out of bed and stumbling into the bathroom, Robert resisting coming fully awake. He peered at his bleary image in the medicine cabinet mirror, trying mightily to overlook the increasing jowl line where his once-firm jaw resided. "Gotta cut back on the eating," he said resolutely, knowing he didn't mean a word of it. Removing his pajamas, and avoiding looking at his ever-increasing paunch, he tried unsuccessfully to remember himself as a slim, firm kid who was every girl's dream date in high school. He admitted only to himself that his social prospects were bleak in high school.
He turned to enter the shower and disgustedly pulled at Joanne's pantyhose draped over the top of the shower door. One of these days, I'm going to get tired of being assaulted by her damned pantyhose and make her eat them! he thought. Opening the bathroom door, he threw his pajamas on the bedroom floor then reached into the shower, carefully adjusting the water. He thought of fussy Goldilocks as he did so. "Not too hot, not too cold. Ah, just right!" For a brief moment, he thought about ravishing Goldilocks in the shower, but his reverie was interrupted. "Yow!" he screamed as the water turned from hot to boiling. "Can't you learn to leave the water the hell alone for five minutes while I shower?" he screamed. He finished showering, mumbling curses under his breath as he toweled himself dry.
Robert cut himself shaving -- twice -- and covered the bleeding cuts with scraps of toilet paper. His anger toward Joanne continued to build as he dressed. The middle buttons of his tailored shirt barely closed over his increasing girth. Maybe if I didn't have so many things to worry about, I wouldn't eat so much, he thought. He finished dressing and, with resignation, began a slow descent down the carpeted stairs. The smell of coffee, toast and bacon permeated the air, and for a moment, Robert was overcome by his appetite and almost forgot that he was angry at Joanne. He thought of all of the breakfasts she had made for him over the years.
As Robert entered the kitchen, Joanne said, "Hey, Rob, wake up and smell the coffee."
"Smells the same as every other morning."
Joanne reacted as though she'd been struck. It's over, she thought. She felt as though something inside her had realigned, and, although she couldn't immediately identify what was happening, she felt that her marriage might be ending. However, if anyone had asked her whether she loved her husband, her knee-jerk reaction would have still been to say, "Of course!" Over time, something special had eroded. She had not yet begun to define it consciously, but it had finally shifted the fabric of her being.
Joanne stood still, a spatula in her hand. The eggs she had been frying began scorching. Robert, without noticing any change in his wife of fourteen years, simply stated, "Hey! The eggs!"
Joanne paid no attention and continued staring into space, lost in her own thoughts. "C'mon, what's with you today?"
"With me?" Joanne asked, caught in a warp between two worlds. Automatically, she reached over and turned off the stove. Too many years of responsibility had accumulated for her to become irresponsible at this late date. Without thinking, she took the pan and scraped the eggs into the sink and pushed them into the garbage disposal with the spatula.
"You've wasted perfectly good eggs," Robert intoned, with parental indignation.
"Yes, I've wasted perfectly good eggs," Joanne replied, more to herself than to Robert. She put the pan and spatula in the sink, turned off the stove, wiped her hands on a towel and walked out of the room without a word, leaving Robert standing in the middle of the kitchen, completely dumfounded.
"Well, what do you expect me to do now?" Robert asked, in part sarcastic and part with a new sense of fear creeping into his being. In all of the years that they had been together, Joanne had never acted like this, and Robert did not know what to make of it. Joanne didn't answer, but continued walking out of the room and up the stairs. Robert began fumbling angrily with the toast and bacon. He had never buttered a piece of toast in his life, and when he tried, it tore into several pieces, with the butter spread mostly on the dish. He took the bacon out of the pan and couldn't understand why it was so greasy. When Joanne served it to him it was dry and crisp, just the way he liked it. Maybe she's got, whatchamacallit, PMS.
When Joanne reached their bedroom, she was shaking almost uncontrollably. She had known for some time that her marriage was not perfect, but then again, whose was? she thought. Nothing is ever going to be different. This last thought passed so swiftly that she barely took cognizance of it.
Joanne studied herself in the bedroom mirror. The face that stared back at her was an attractive face, a face with smooth skin, a spray of freckles across a pert nose, serious grey eyes, and just traces of delicate wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Not at all bad for thirty-three she thought. She pictured her friends, most of whom looked ten years older than she. And not a single grey hair, though Lord knows, I've had enough aggravation to earn a goodly number.
The bright blue numbers on the clock showed 8:10. Joanne panicked for an instant, thinking the kids had missed the school bus. She caught herself and realized that, first of all, the kids were responsible enough to remember the bus without any reminder from her and secondly, they were away in camp for the summer. She had to concentrate to picture them as thirteen and eleven-year-olds. Robert, Jr., had the good fortune to have been blessed with his father's good looks and her good sense, although Rob always claimed that his son was an exact duplicate of himself at the same age. Erica, looked like Joanne's grandmother, and was so bright and talented that sometimes Joanne was frightened for her.
Joanne thought for a moment about how her daughter had spontaneously developed interests in writing and painting without any encouragement. Robert had told her that she better concentrate on something in school that could make her a living. "After all," he intoned, "this is the '90's, and you can't expect a man to take care of you all your life." Even though she was only eleven, Erica looked at her father with her dark, brooding eyes, and Joanne could see that even though she seemed to be agreeing with him, she would pick her own destiny. For a moment, Joanne reminisced about her own more limited life choices. She shiverred involuntarily.
Joanne picked up her appointment book from the nightstand. Briefly, she contemplated the cover with the bright red lettering, BRICKMAN REALTY, INC., noting that her first appointment wasn't until 10:00 o'clock. She had begun her career as a real estate salesperson when the kids were preschoolers. In the early years, she worked only part-time, making her schedule fit with Rob's. She rarely used baby sitters because Rob believed, that it was a mother's job to raise young children. "After all," he would say, "my mother stayed home full-time to take care of me, and I turned out all right, didn't I?" As always, Joanne compromised. Her first major compromise came when Rob wanted to get married when she was nineteen. Unlike most of her friends, Joanne, didn't have to get married. Although she and Rob began sleeping together when she was seventeen and he was nineteen, she always made him use protection until she got up the nerve to go to the local clinic and get fitted for a diaphragm. Joanne didn't want any little mistakes she would have to spend a lifetime caring for.
Joanne became pregnant four months after she and Rob were married after her sophomore year in college. She was wearing her diaphragm, but . . . After recovering from the initial shock, she joked about the poor state of American made products, and Rob retorted with his own comment about the best planned lays. Joanne's major regret was that she was forced to leave college shortly before Robert, Jr. was born. She lost her merit scholarship, and although she went back to school sporadically to take courses that interested her, she never completed her degree. She never blamed Rob, but always felt that she avoided finishing her education to placate him. Rob never went to college but built a career as an industrial salesman. He denigrated formal education as something that fills airheads with extra helium. He spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about the college educated young know-nothings who were promoted over him.
Joanne removed her nightgown, folded it, and placed it at the bottom of the bed. Without thinking, Joanne made the bed. She noted Rob's pajamas in a bundle on the floor where he often would leave them. She picked them up, folded them neatly and set them next to her nightgown. Everything in its place, she thought. She padded into the bathroom, turned on the shower, stood under the hot water and began crying. Joanne was never one to show her feelings, but this time cried uncontrollably for almost five minutes, the sound of the shower drowning out her sobs.
When she felt more in control, Joanne finished showering, and went back into the bedroom without drying herself. She stood dripping in the middle of the room, creating an increasingly large, dark water stain on the light blue carpet. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror on the closet door. For six years, she asked Rob to hang it. Finally, she got so fed up, she hired someone to do it.
Joanne examined her body critically, as if seeing herself for the first time. Thirty-three years, two kids, one miscarriage, and hard work had done little to age her still-trim body. She noted a little thickening at her waist, and her breasts sagged just slightly, but, overall, she was pleased with what she was seeing. She took pride in how she cared for herself, and resisted giving in to her abominable sweet tooth. Rob complained constantly about how old she was getting, but she failed to see what it was he was complaining about. "Girl," she said, "I don't think I'll kick you out of bed just yet. You've got a few more dances in you."
Joanne failed to notice that Rob had come into the room and was watching as she studied herself in the mirror. She stretched, and did a pirouette, remembering the movement from long-ago dance lessons. "Oh," she exclaimed as she nearly bumped into Rob as she turned. She self-consciously reached for her nightgown and held it in front of her. Joanne had never been modest with Rob, and it startled him when she covered herself. He was already confused by her actions this morning, and this last affront was more than he could handle.
"What the hell is it with you today?" Rob yelled, his face inches from Joanne's. "What did I do? Did I cheat on you? Did I spend my pay on booze? Did I beat you? Well?"
Joanne just stood still for a moment, looking at Rob and, perhaps, seeing him for the first time. "No, Rob, no, no, and no. I . . . I don't know how to say this, but . . ."
"You're having an affair. That's what it is, isn't it? One of those real estate 'magnets' who makes all kinds of money? I'm not good enough any more, is that it?" Rob's lower lip was quivering and he was near tears.
Yeah, Joanne thought, one of those real estate 'magnets' who I got stuck on. She tried not to laugh at her own joke but found herself smiling.
"I don't think it's very funny!" Rob sputtered, holding back tears.
"Oh, Rob, come on. I'm not having an affair. I've never been with another man. You know that." Joanne realized that this was not the time to talk about her feelings. She knew that Rob wouldn't hear her.
Rob reached for Joanne, but she pulled back, saying, "Rob, I'm all wet. You don't want to get your suit wet when you have to leave for work."
"Yeah, OK," he replied, like a disappointed child, "but put down the nightgown and let me look at my little girl." Joanne complied, feeling very cold inside. She felt that she had accidentally walked naked onto the stage of a peep show, and that dozens of strangers were grasping at her body.
"Turn around," he said, his voice beginning to sound excited. She felt nothing inside as she followed his instructions. "Getting a little heavy in the back there, aren't you?" Rob said as he patted her on the rump. Joanne remained frozen.
"Well, I'm off to work. Maybe by tonight, you'll be back to yourself," Rob said, as if everything which had happened in the past half-hour had not occurred.
After she heard the front door close, even though she had just showered, Joanne went back into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. She soaped herself until she had worn the soap bar down.
She dressed quickly in a business suit, picked up her appointment book and prepared to leave for her first appointment. As she walked down the stairs, the smell of coffee reminded her that she had not had breakfast and she had forgotten to turn off the coffee maker. No, she reminded herself, Rob forgot to turn off the coffee maker.
She checked her watch and saw there was time for a quick cup of coffee. She breathed the aroma of fresh brewed coffee and remembered how she and Rob used to love to sit in the kitchen in their first apartment and enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning. She always woke up a half-hour before he did and made his breakfast. Just like his mother did, she thought. She was so young then. She enjoyed being maternal toward Rob, and loved taking care of him in every way. Now that she had kids of her own, she realized that the difference between her kids and her husband was that the kids were growing up.
Joanne thought about her life, and had to admit it wasn't all that bad. Maybe if times were different, she thought, I would just keep my mouth shut and count my blessings. For a few moments, she thought about her parents' marriage, Dear dad was just like Rob. Mom took care of him all his life and never complained. Joanne thought about her mother, now alone and most of the time lost in her memories, though only fifty-five. Her dad was dead two years now. She remembered when she told him that she was going to marry Rob, he said, "Rob is a lucky boy to get someone like you to take care of him." She remembered how proud she felt that her father believed she was so capable.
What do I want? she asked herself.
The more that Joanne thought about her situation, the more confused she became. Everything she had learned as a child told her that her marriage was the way it was supposed to be. She was doing her duty, her husband was doing his. Yes, there was increasing tension between them, but they could work it out; they always did.
What's really bothering me? She couldn't come up with an answer. Joanne had always been sensible and never rushed into major decisions. This one was the most important in her life, and she wasn't about to pack a bag and leave for Reno, or wherever it is that people go to get quick divorces.
Joanne finished her coffee and washed the cup and saucer. She remembered to turn off the coffee machine and turn on the answering machine. Like my life, she thought, turn-offs and turn-ons. She gathered her jacket and briefcase and headed out to the car.
Rob had a terrible day. He couldn't stop worrying about Joanne's unexpected changes. He had always taken for granted that Joanne was managing his home, and therefore, gave little thought to his wife or children while he was at work. What is wrong with her? He was completely puzzled by her behavior. I know I didn't say anything to upset her. Just one more worry to add to my worry folder, he thought.
Rob never was very contemplative. He had always found that if he ignored a problem long enough, either someone else would take care of it or it would go away. He had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach that something was different. Rob recalled the good times with Joanne, how she had always taken care of him the way she was supposed to. He never questioned his love for her, therefore decided that they would have to get this problem, whatever it was, straightened out. It's time to assert myself and get things back to normal. I'll talk to her right after dinner. He was glad that the kids were away at camp so they would have time to have a real talk.
Rob came home at his usual time - 5:45. As he walked in the door he became aware that there was something different. He couldn't smell dinner cooking or coffee brewing. On those few occasions when Joanne had been tied up at work, she called him at the office. For an instant, Rob panicked. "Joanne?" he called. The empty house echoed slightly. "Damn it! Where are you?" Rob laughed at his last remark, almost expecting an answer even though Joanne was not there.
All of Rob's plans to confront Joanne dissolved and his new worry was what to do for supper. To say that Rob was helpless in the kitchen was an understatement. "I'm hungry," he whined. Not knowing what else to do, Rob went into the living room and sat in his favorite chair to wait for Joanne. As minutes, then hours, passed, his worry became near-panic. He thought of all of the terrible things that could have befallen her. I couldn't manage a house and two children without her!
After her last appointment of the day, Joanne began her regular journey home. However, when she passed a little diner called THE COFFEE CUP, she turned her car into the parking lot. Funny, she thought, I never noticed this place before. Briefly, she considered calling Rob but decided not to.
She looked around the almost empty diner and felt as if she had stepped back in time to her childhood. The chrome trim and backless red stools at the counter allowed her to recall Sunday lunches after church with her father. She hadn't been in a place like this in over twenty years. Dad always ordered the same thing. It had become a family joke. After carefully considering the menu for about five minutes, dad would say, "I think I'll have the homemade meatloaf and the Idaho potatoes whipped with butter with the savory brown gravy." And, as if it were an afterthought, despite the fact that it came with the dinner, "And . . . I think I'll have an order of the fresh green beans." Dad always ordered word-for-word what was on the menu, even adding 'the' to the beginning of each item as if the waitress might not have served him if he changed a single word from the menu. I was always so embarrassed when dad did that. She wondered whether he might have asked for a glass of 'the' water had he been thirsty. She was always careful to order something different each Sunday and never preceded anything with 'the.' Joanne realized how much she missed Sunday dinners with her father. They had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember, but when she turned thirteen, they stopped. She couldn't recall exactly why they stopped, but she remembered that one Sunday her father simply said that maybe they should go straight home after church. She remembered feeling a sense of relief along with a vague sense of disappointment. During the last couple of years of their weekly ritual, Joanne recalled, her father had said barely a word to her.
Joanne remembered her father's affection toward her until she was about nine or ten. Joanne would always curl up in her father's lap and enjoy his musty odor. "You're getting too big for this kind of stuff, princess," her father said one day. "No I'm not, daddy. I'll always be your little girl." "Well, not so little anymore," he answered. Their relationship became increasingly distant after that day.
Joanne thought of her father as she remembered him toward the end of his life. He would be a voice from the wilderness, offering slightly off-base advice from another room. Joanne could recall just one more hug from her father. That was on her wedding day when he told her that her husband was a lucky boy. She thought for a moment that he was going to cry. That would have been a first; she never knew her father to show emotion. "Not manly," he would say, gruffly.
And mom, thought Joanne, now there's the invisible woman. Even though she still saw her mother at least once a week, she knew almost nothing about her. She could picture her only as my mother and dad's widow, with no real identity of her own. She was as invisible as a servant in her own home. Joanne jolted. Damn, that's me! she thought. She was the kids' mother, Rob's wife, a saleswoman, a homemaker, but who the hell was Joanne?
"Cup of fresh brewed coffee?" The voice brought her back to the present.
That's my line, she thought, grinning.
"I say somethin' funny?" the waitress asked, looking worried.
"Oh, no! It's just that I say something like that to my husband every morning. You know, `Wake up and smell the coffee!'" Tears began running down Joanne's face. She quickly wiped her eyes and nose. "Sentimental me," she muttered. "Yes, think I will have a cup of 'the' fresh brewed coffee," she smiled as she remembered her father and felt pleasure from this small remembrance.
When the waitress brought her coffee to the table, Joanne breathed in its aroma. "Smells good, Mm, tastes great! Maybe I could do commercials for you." She and the waitress laughed.
Joanne's thoughts turned to Rob's comment about the coffee that morning. It isn't only the coffee. Lately, everything about our marriage reeks of sameness,the same meals, same conversation, even sex on the same night of the week.
Joanne looked at her feelings from a fresh perspective. It's over, she said to herself. She found herself momentarily overwhelmed by fear. When Joanne thought about what she had wanted in a marriage, she had to admit that for the most part, she got what she had bargained for. She began to realize that she had changed and Rob hadn't. No, that's not fair. He changed, too, just not into what she wanted him to be.
Joanne ordered a second and then a third cup of coffee. She ordered meatloaf, whipped potatoes, and green beans. She smiled as she ordered, intentionally omitting any reference to 'the' or 'savory.' She enjoyed the meal immensely. At the same time, she gained a greater appreciation of her dad. Maybe there's something to be said for repetition. She thought about her morning ritual with Rob, "Wake up and smell the coffee!"
"Will there be anything else?" The waitress looked at Joanne and waited.
"No . . . yes, as a matter of fact there will be. I'd like something sinfully sweet. This is a special occasion. I'm celebrating my thirteenth birthday! How's about . . . can you make me a sundae with everything on it? You know, nuts, goo, fruits - the works!" The waitress looked at her, shook her head and shuffled off to the kitchen. She emerged a few minutes later with a dish piled high with every imaginable sweet and a long spoon.
"Don't mind me," laughed Joanne, "I'm just cheating and it feels great!"
"Yeah, honey," smiled the waitress. "I know just how you feel. Beats pickin' up a man and it won't getcha pregnant."
By the time Joanne finished the sinful sweet and another cup of coffee, she felt stuffed. She had a whipped cream and chocolate stain on the front of her blouse and felt like a kid who had just raided the refrigerator, and the freezer. When she looked at her watch and realized that it was almost 9:00 P.M. Joanne panicked for a moment.
What about Rob's supper, she thought. He can certainly find some way to take care of himself for one meal. He's thirty-five years old!
But he's used to having me do everything for him.
Well, now, that's going to have to change, isn't it?
Joanne left a five dollar tip for the waitress and felt both guilty and opulent. Now that was the best dinner I've had in a long time. She loosened her belt and let out a sigh of satisfaction as she got into her car.
Joanne looked at her watch as she approached her front door. It was nearly nine-thirty. She had never stayed out this late without calling. She remembered the few occasions when she had stayed out beyond her curfew as a teen. The inquisition board consisting of mom, dad, and gram, before gram died when Joanne was eighteen. They'd sit in the living room waiting, no conversation, no expression that she could read. Joanne was certain that they knew the minute she walked in the door exactly what she had been doing. She remembered the first time she had allowed a boy to touch her breast, she believed they could all see the mark of his hand right through her clothes. They didn't say anything, but they knew, of that she was certain. When she got to her room she examined herself carefully in the mirror. She saw nothing out of the ordinary, but they knew.
Then she thought, come to think of it, they never accused her of anything. They just sat there and it was enough to keep her from getting into real trouble.
Joanne reminisced about the first time she and Rob had attempted to have sex. It was after her Junior Prom and every girl in her class bragged about how her romantic evening was going to end. She and Rob planned their first sexual experience for weeks before the prom, both feeling that it was a proper move in their relationship. Although Rob had bragged about his numerous conquests, Joanne sensed that he had no better idea what to do than she did. Rob was nineteen, so Joanne thought it best to allow him to keep up his facade. She knew how sensitive Rob was and she knew he needed his man about town image. They had been going together for about a year and knew that someday they were going to be married, so by the standards of their generation, the liberated seventies, sex was OK. They went to a disreputable motel on the outskirts of the city, a place, she saw as having no purpose other than sexual liaisons. She recalled the absolute pain and mortification Rob felt when he ejaculated as he was putting on a condom. It was one of the few times she could recall seeing Rob cry. She just held him and reassured him that it was only their nervousness because it was her first time. Afterward, Joanne was relieved that she was still a virgin - at least she thought she was. She wasn't certain if intent counted. The church told her it did. In any case, when she got home and had to pass the inquisition board, she was red as a beet. She could feel the heat of her embarrassment from her hair to soles of her feet.
Later that night, Joanne's mother came into her room and asked, "Did you have fun with Rob at the prom?" It was then that she knew that her family had no idea what went on in her life and really didn't want to know. They preferred the illusions of their own needs to reality. The next weekend, Joanne and Rob had their first successful experience with sex. Joanne had to admit that it really wasn't anything to get excited about. For her, it still wasn't. At least, not most of the time.
As Joanne entered the foyer, she realized she had been standing on the front step for fifteen minutes. "What a strange day," she said.
"What's that?" said Rob, waking from a restless sleep on the living room chair.
"I'm home." Joanne paused. She felt almost the way she did that first night they tried to have sex. She didn't know what to say or do next. Apparently, neither did Rob. Joanne stood and Rob sat, immobile and indecisive.
"I'm hungry," Rob said plaintively, breaking the tension growing between them.
"You're hungry," Joanne responded , more a statement of fact than a question. "I'm hungry, too, Rob."
"Well, why don't you make dinner, and we'll eat, OK?" Rob looked at Joanne expectantly.
"I already ate," Joanne snapped, impatiently.
"But I thought . . ."
"Rob, I just can't go on like this. We talk but we don't communicate." Joanne paused and waited for Rob to respond, but he sat, silent, and simply looked confused. "Let me try again. Rob, I'm just not happy."
Joanne had as little experience with real communication as Rob and knew that she wasn't getting through to him. I have to try, she told herself. I owe that much to both of us.
"Let me fix you something to eat. We'll talk after. OK?" Joanne threw her coat over the couch and went into the kitchen and began searching for ingredients to make dinner for her husband.
He really needs me.
No, he really needs a mommy to take care of him.
And whose fault is that? She stood, shocked by this new revelation.
Joanne thought about Rob's life. How he had worked hard and made a good career without formal education. And, with no help or guidance from anyone. At the same time, he was helpless as a baby at home. He couldn't butter toast, or pick up after himself, or . . . She stopped in the middle of her thought and wondered if it was too late for him. Or, for her.
Joanne had taken care of Rob all of their years together. I took over right where his mother left off. She thought about her own mother, now a lost soul because she didn't have anybody to take care of.
The smell of bacon and eggs brought Joanne out of her reverie. She hadn't recalled making this meal, but it struck her that it was the same meal she had begun preparing for breakfast. The coffee smells great, too. She buttered the fresh, warm toast, and called into the living room; "Hey, Rob, wake up and smell the coffee!"
Rob came into the room cautiously, as if any move on his part would trigger off another explosion. He looked at the meal sitting at his place waiting for him. Joanne poured him a cup of coffee and put two spoons of sugar into it and stirred it gently. "This is more like it," Rob exclaimed, forgetting the problems of the day.
Joanne sat quietly while Rob consumed his meal. She chewed absentmindedly on a piece of bacon although she certainly wasn't hungry.
"That was really good for a change," Rob said as he wiped his mouth with his napkin. Without thinking, Joanne began gathering his dishes and putting them in the dishwasher.
When Joanne turned back to the table, Rob was gone. Joanne heard his footsteps climbing the stairs. She finished filling the dishwasher, turned it on, and followed Rob upstairs.
"Hey, it's nice to see you up here early for a change. Wanna play?" Rob looked at Joanne expectantly. Often in the past their arguments ended with a romp in bed. Rob looked forward to making up after arguments. Joanne was at her most passionate then.
"Rob, we have to talk." Joanne sat on the edge of the bed and watched Rob as he undressed.
"Let's talk after, babe. OK?"
"No, Rob this is too important." Rob stood there, a comic figure with his pants around his ankles and his broadening belly sticking out over his shorts. Joanne looked at him and smiled. "Finish changing and we'll talk."
Rob removed the rest of his clothes and lay on his back on the bed. Joanne continued to sit in her business suit. Rob felt silly and vulnerable but was unable to move. "Joanne, get undressed and just lay with me. We'll talk - like we used to when we were kids." Joanne just looked at him and made no move. "Joanne, I love you. I don't know what's happening and I'm scared." Rob began sobbing.
"Rob! I haven't seen you cry since that time . . ."
"Yeah, since the night of your Junior Prom. I was such a big man with the ladies that I couldn't get past putting on a rubber! I was so scared that you'd know I was a . . ."
"Rob, I knew. And I thought it was so cute how you had to pretend." Joanne began crying too. "You know, this is the first time you ever really came out and told me."
Joanne began undressing. She carefully hung her suit in the closet and put her blouse and underwear in the hamper. She began reaching for Rob's things, scattered on the floor and the chair as usual, but stopped herself. She sat cross-legged on the bed facing Rob. He stared at her, fearful of what was coming next.
"I'm not very good at this," Joanne began. "I've been thinking all day how to say this. Things just aren't right. And they have to change. I feel like . . . well like a servant around here. I don't get the feeling that you really care about me. As long as I do what you need done around here, everything is OK. I cook and clean and take care of the kids, and work full-time too. And all I hear from you is how fat I'm getting or how lousy my cooking is. Maybe I just need a little recognition or appreciation from you. When the kids are around, it isn't as noticeable because I expect to have to clean up after them and cook for them because they're kids.
"And I'm not doing my part? Is that it? I mean, I work like a dog and see those snot-nosed college kids get the promotions while I do most of the work. What do you want from me? And if you think you're such a pleasure to live with. try being Ms. Perfect's husband sometime." Rob was surprised by his outburst. Joanne looked shocked.
"What do you mean, Ms. Perfect?" Joanne answered when she had a moment to absorb what Rob had said. This certainly didn't fit her image of herself.
"You know," said Rob, "everything you do is right and I sometimes feel like a helpless kid around you."
Rob lay still, covering his face with his hands. Neither Rob nor Joanne was used to communicating with the other. Back when they were teens, and best friends, they talked about everything, but after they married, they learned to live together with a minimum of real communication. Rob thought about how they could talk for hours, especially when they lay together in bed. He remembered back to the time early in their relationship when all they did was talk and hold each other. I told Joanne I would wait forever for her, Rob thought, and sometimes I feel like I'm still waiting.
"I never knew you felt like that," Joanne said. "Why didn't you ever say something? How could I know?"
"When?" asked Rob, anger creeping into his voice. "You were always doing something every minute. If you weren't taking care of the kids, or the house, or cooking, it was working or reading or something."
"And maybe I should have just been there at your beck and call, Prince Charming?" Joanne retorted, her own anger beginning to rise. "If I didn't cook and clean and take care of the kids, who would have? You?"
"Well, I didn't know how - at least not good enough to please you. Remember, I used to get up and make breakfast, but you would always complain that the coffee was too strong or the eggs weren't the way you liked them." Rob looked at Joanne and was surprised to see that she was really paying attention to him instead of moving around the room doing fifty different things.
Joanne smiled. "You know Rob, I came home all ready to give you a laundry list of all of my complaints, and you have a list as long as mine. Why did we stop talking to each other?" She reached out and placed her hand on his stomach.
"And we never . . . touch anymore," Rob added, figuring that if he was going to get out his complaints, he might as well go for all of them!
"Yeah," said Joanne, "that's on my list, too. How can you expect me to be close to you and make love to you when all you do is criticize me and tell me I'm getting old or fat. I mean . . ."
"Joanne, you know I think you're the prettiest girl in the world. I always did and always will." Rob reached out and pulled Joanne down next to him and she didn't resist.
"Well, lately, you've had a funny way of showing it. Telling me my ass is fat and I'm not as young as I used to be. How can you expect me to feel good about myself - or about you, if you do things like that all the time? And, I never criticize you that way."
But you could," Rob answered, tentatively.
Joanne looked at Rob and understood. He wasn't criticizing her. He was really criticizing himself. She remembered how proud he used to be of his body, and looking at him now she realized that time had taken more of a toll on Rob than on her. Funny that she had never really noticed the changes in him. Maybe I never looked at him as a person before. He was a boyfriend, a husband, a father, but never Rob.
"I don't want to lose my marriage," said Rob, suddenly and earnestly. "All day today I thought that you were going to tell me it was over, especially when you didn't come home after work."
Joanne leaned over him and studied his face carefully. "Rob, it crossed my mind. And not just today. I asked myself what was marriage for. The kids are growing, we have our jobs, we have a house. Is that all it is? And I decided that if that was all there was, I want out."
Rob remained silent a moment and then said, "I agree. I never knew why I was so angry all the time. I always looked for someone to blame it on, and you were the only one there. I don't want to live like this anymore either."
Both remained silent. Then, as couples who have known each other for a long time often do, both blurted out, "What now?" This set them both into a burst of laughter.
"Well," they said in unison, "we can give up, or we can work it out." They hugged each other and began playfully touching in ways which they hadn't done since . . . well since before they were married.
"Maybe we can start working on what we have right here and right now," Rob said.
"That hasn't been so great lately, either. Maybe we have to, um, communicate?" Joanne began tracing patterns on Rob's chest with her finger. "Rob, tell me what you like?"
"We never asked each other that before. Not in bed, and not anywhere else, either." Rob felt the anger drifting out of him. With suddenness, it became comforting to Rob to know that at least for tomorrow, Joanne's pantyhose would be hanging over the shower door. What would I do if they weren't there? he thought.
"Just tell me what to do," Rob said. "I really want to know."
"That and that and . . ." Joanne said.
Much later, Rob and Joanne fell asleep in each other's arms. The last thing Joanne remembered was Rob saying something about talking like this more often and she answering that it was all she ever really wanted.
"Honey, wake up and smell the coffee!" Joanne rolled over luxuriously, smelled the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, noticed the bright sunlight streaming through the bedroom curtains and then bolted upright in bed. That's my line, she thought. Maybe life's a bore only when you allow it to be.