“Remember, honey, we have a birthday party today at two,” Claire whispers into my ear as she passes me the offering plate. She’s gleaming in her Sunday best. Actually, she always looks good. Professional. But she can rock some yoga pants while jogging. Today she’s wearing a pale blue blouse and pressed khakis. She’s not big on jewelry but wears it for the Lord, although I somehow don’t think he cares. He seems to be asleep at the worst times in history.
Me? A few months ago, I’d have worn sweats or cargo shorts straight into the Pearly Gates.
“Did you bring the checkbook?” I ask, knowing full well that’s my job.
“No, you always bring the checkbook,” she reminds me. This is the only time we write checks; I suppose it stems from watching my parents’ tithe. Dad was always so proud that he balanced the checkbook every time he turned around. It’s one of those things you just do.
“Fu…” I caught myself while glancing around. “Maybe next time, huh? We’ve given plenty. They have a bowling alley for Jesus. For… for Christ’s sake.” Proud of that zinger.
“Stop. It’ll be fine,” she assures me, tearing into another cherry-flavored Tums as the choir takes their cue and begins a rather choppy and butchered version of, He Is Risen.
Claire, I, and our two kids, Steven, 9, and Sarah, 13, have been coming to Springs New Methodist for five years, never missing a service unless one of us was sick or we were on vacation. I’m not terribly religious. It’s just the thing to do as Americans, I suppose. Part of our culture, along with complaining when our conveniences inconvenience us.
We always sit in the fifth row from the back. Sarah sings in the choir, and both kids enjoy the pre-service Sunday school while we catch up with the other adults. This is my least favorite part of existence, including genocide and famine.
“Whose birthday is it?” I ask, going through a mental list of shitty kids you hope your kids don’t end up like.
“The boy with the hair on Stevie’s team.”
“Ah. Him. Awesome. Can’t wait. You get to hang out with his hot mom while I get to hear about his dad’s lawnmower.” I pick through Claire’s purse for some gum. “I’ll trade you spots. It has three speeds. The guy isn’t,” I drop my voice even lower, “fucking around, come spring.”
“Stop,” Claire shuts me up with a smile and eye roll.
I’m Mark Mitchell, an accountant at Bixell Electronics−a local company that specializes in medical devices ranging from heart monitors to CAT scan machines. This isn’t my dream job, by far, but it was in my area of expertise, and it was the only accounting job available. Plus, it keeps me out of the soul-sucking chemical plants where I could pride myself on overtime. They’re proud of that shit for some reason. I’m just there, I don’t step up or rise to any occasion. I get paid and manage to play games in the bathroom. I’ve been asked, several times, if I wanted to head the department and I just pass politely. Playing the gray man is safe and less stressful.
I’m a rather moderate employee, I’d say.
Claire and I both grew up a few cities over, about thirty miles apart but met in an English class at the community college here in Los Sierra, Texas. I bumped into her and knocked her books over, and then stupidly asked a question I already had the answer to. Diversion. I guess it worked. I’ve always been a lovable schlub. Doughy and a tad sensitive. The guy you’d want your daughter to date, for the most part.
Claire is the breadwinner of the house, holding a position in middle management at the local credit union with a promising future and plenty of opportunities to move up. She started out as a member consultant and took classes at the local community college to better her chances at advancing and securing more lucrative positions. She oversees pretty much everything at her branch. Her spirit animal must be a hawk or dragon or something iconic. Mine’s a skittish pug that nervously pees when picked up.
She really is a strong woman, comes from a long line of them. Her grandmother was a welder, and her mother was a head nurse at a children’s hospital. Both had different kinds of strength, but strength is strength, and Claire has it too. And that adorably wild head of hair. They recently buried an aunt who died of breast cancer. To see the sisters and their mom sitting around the table laughing. Strength despite heartache.
I couldn’t be more blessed, spouse-wise. She always has an answer and usually has the problem solved long before anything ever becomes a problem. I kind of do that, but it’s called anxiety. Except I never have a solution, the problems never really exist- and I take Paxil for it.
I was reluctant to ever get on that stuff. I wanted to feel, but what I was feeling was a smidge too heavy. I’ve had a rather modest and tame life. My parents were good to me, I vote, and I pay taxes. All that. But there’s just a huge weight I carry. I’ve talked about it in self-help groups, with various shrinks and Reddit “experts.” It’s a soft gnawing at my psyche. I’ve never thought of suicide or anything close to it, I believe in taking care of myself. But that weight still bears down. It used to come and go, but one night it stayed, and it never left. So, I started talking about it, and I got proactive at getting better. It started with eating better and adding more greens to my diet, but I plateaued, and the shiny new me became the new normal. That ceiling creeps down on you, and you realize you haven’t moved in years.
You have to contribute to your own life; I haven’t always understood this.
Claire and I get along great, we’re good parents, and I can say she’s my best friend. Only friend, I suppose. Our kids come first. Maybe, at times, they shouldn’t, but they always have. There’s never been fear of us losing “us” completely. There was a time when I first started getting help that she and a coworker began having late evening work sessions. Todd Greenley.
Todd Fucking Greenley.
He was a higher-up who played the old “I see you’re not yourself lately” line. I was so wrapped up in my own problems, I hadn’t noticed her. It must have sucked. I’ve forgiven her a thousand times in my head and a few in person. I know what some might think of me, and I’ll agree, but at the time, I was riddled by an all-consuming fear of loneliness. That Claire would leave me, and I’d end up not knowing if I should turn right or left. Stuck in a 28-year-old traffic jam without a destination.
I hear Todd’s name pop up every now and then, and it stops me. It stops me, and I breathe. He’s been relocated several times over but comes to town for occasional regional meetings and is at several of the posh, yet boring get-togethers. Part of me is still trying not to feel that level of rejection all over again. But, if anything, the whole experience ends up driving me. A rite of passage if you will. In a sick way, I’m thankful for it.
I had become a completely different person at the beginning of my recovery. The doctors would have me on a different pill every month, and it was just a horrible roller coaster of fear, paranoia, and stretches of dissociation. She admitted everything a year later when I started the more therapeutic process with counseling, but also admitted nothing physical happened, although it was on the table. Afterward, Todd would send her flowers, which ended up in the trash. For the most part, she was just venting. I wanted to be devastated, but I was a bit numb and had already known nothing happened. Her texts would pop up on the tablet, I just kept it from her because I realized how much I was dumping at her feet with all my shit. I actually sat outside her bank by their vehicles texting her, ending up just staring at nothing. Past everything. I eventually just drove home and tucked in the kids. Pretending to be asleep, myself, as she quietly snuck in. She eventually confessed, but nothing was resolved until we sought counseling to build trust and honesty again.
But the following year, before our couple’s counseling, was a whirlwind of doubt, mistrust, hurt, paranoia, and self-deprecation. A year of pretending I was okay, on top of my depression. A year of pretending I wasn’t married to a complete stranger. Every phone call she got haunted me. Every abrupt meeting had me walking circles in the kitchen, trying to hide it from the kids. I’d try and stay busy with this or that. Always wondering what would’ve happened if it went on any longer. Will it happen again with another face, another understanding voice?
I was letting it kill me. Between bouts of apologies for my paranoid assumptions, I was puking in the bathroom or mindlessly tinkering. I’d apologize for jumping to conclusions, and she’d sit there with that blank, patient stare. I saw my reflection in her eyes, and I cringed at what had become of me. I used to have it together, compared to this. Her one mistake crushed what little bit of self-worth I had pocketed along the way.
A really small part of me couldn’t blame her. I know that sounds terrible, but, like I said, I forgave her, and she had gotten help for herself as well. It became a team effort.
We eventually balanced out and were able to be us again. Though, over the last few years, sex just took a back burner. Life has a way of getting in its own way.
The kids are involved in everything. Looking at them, in their Sunday best, I smile. They have a lot of opportunities, a good life ahead if they stay the course. Both are very bright and full of ambition. I suppose they get that from Claire.
They are well mannered and honor roll students. Stevie leans more toward science but can handle himself very well on the soccer field. He’s funny and genuinely cares about others, sticks up for the bullied, and his concern for me and my wellbeing is humbling. Even though he never fully understood what was going on, I saw him trying so hard with open arms. He’s our baby boy who comes off as an old soul until it’s time to clean up after himself.
Sarah’s horns hold up her halo. I love her to death, but I can see her resentment for me, and I feel too guilty to blame her for any of it. She leans more toward the arts but has a knack for math.
Claire had a miscarriage a couple of years after Stevie was born. About the time I started slipping, and I couldn’t help but blame myself. I’ve played that tape over and over and over again. I still do, but I’ve learned how to turn it off.
Our schedules have been tight for so long I can honestly say we forgot how to have a good time. For the most part, we are that couple next door. The one with the homemade banana bread at every party and masters of subtle goodbyes.
And I’d like to think we still are very much us. Despite our newfound hobbies.