It’s the weekend, and I’m alone, again. I’m in the back yard, trying to cook on the grill. I’ve never done this before. Barbeque grills fall into the same category to me as hammocks, golf paraphernalia, and dartboards. They are men’s things, Father’s Day presents.
Today I’ve read the instructions carefully. How to turn on the gas. How to ignite. I can’t decide if you’re supposed to cook with the lid on or off, so I do a little bit of both. Each time I close there’s an angry clank. Smoke billows. My lone chicken breast shrivels, as though retracting from the heat.
The neighbors are out on their deck. The sound of their young children playing in the yard brings back memories of my own children before they were grown. I can smell the burgers and hot dogs from their grill. I try to make out how many voices I hear behind the large white pines that separate our homes. It’s clearly a gathering. I hear several women’s voices. One sounds older, perhaps she’s a grandmother.
Large, cold drops of rain begin to come down as I barbeque. I can hear my neighbor, David, speak to his children.
“Do you think I’m going to be bothered by a little rain? Nooooo.” They giggle.
“Maybe we should get Daddy an umbrella.” I recognize this voice. It’s David’s wife.
There’s laughter. The back door thumps open and shut a few times as they run for cover, leaving David out in the rain. He hums to himself as he grills, eminding me of my own husband who whistles while he barbeques.
I’ve been married for thirty-three years but more like ten if you factor in absences. My husband is in the business of making movies, and it’s a business that takes him far away for far too long. Sometimes he’s gone for a year. We have a marriage of red-eye flights, long car rides, and lengthy nightly conversations about how hard it all is. We discuss the mortgage, our grown kids, the smell in the wall that won’t go away. “Could it be a squirrel?” I ask him. “A chipmunk?”
I have learned through necessity how to climb up on a ladder with a blow dryer in the winter to deal with frozen gutters. I know how to change fuses and wriggle through a dark and dank crawl space to shut off the water when a leak has sprung. I’ve raised two boys with a husband who arrives at soccer games and birthday parties in chauffeured town cars and then hurries off again to the airport. Most of my friends have traditional marriages where the husbands deal with specific domestic tasks. Dead pets come to mind. I have flushed and buried more goldfish, snakes, and guinea pigs than any woman I know.
I’ve made my own friends. The suburban town where I live is populated by pairs, like Noah’s ark. At dinner parties I’m usually seated next to someone who’s recently divorced or the never married cousin who’s visiting from out of town.
“What’s he working on?” people always ask. “Who’s in it? What’s next?” Most people find my ghost husband very fascinating, not realizing that their questions make me feel like a ghost myself.
Of course, it could be worse. At least my husband’s not a soldier deployed to the desert. He’s on a film set for god’s sake, with a phone in one hand and an ever-present unlit cigar in the other. I know he’ll be back. I remind myself that I love my new home, set high on a ridge with views of the Hudson River. I grew up in the city in various apartments just blocks away from this very river. My mother and I moved from our family apartment to a smaller apartment to a tiny apartment as she barely held on in post-divorce poverty. When the phone got shut off or when we had to wait for niceties, like new shoes, I used to daydream about better times.
Often, I feel sorry for myself and wonder how my husband can abandon me again and again. Why do I wait? The Talking Heads Song Once in a Lifetime sometimes repeats in my head. Well, how did I get here?
We were outside a New York City pub when we met. The pub had a large neon sign shaped like a harp which flickered light from above in yellow, red and green. We shook hands and I held on for a beat too long. His grip was strong, and his knuckle bones were like mountains. His palm was calloused. I grabbed onto his hand with both of mine for a second and then let go.
“Alligator hands,” were the first words I ever said to him.
Later, inside the crowded pub, he found me by the ladies’ room with a friend.
I was already pretty high and waiting in line, fingering my little amber colored glass vial filled with coke that was stuffed in my pocket.
“Why are women always waiting in pairs for the bathroom?” he asked. A simple question from a twenty-three-year-old boy. He said he’d buy me a beer, and enfolded my hand in his and steered me to a booth, shouldering through the throng. He tried to tell me about himself, but I couldn’t hear above the din and I didn’t care. He had to say it twice before I heard.
“I’m going to produce movies.”
The words sounded silly to me. He might as well have said “I’m going to be a pitcher for the Yankees” or “someday I’m going to be president.” I remember feeling embarrassed for him.
I wasn’t thinking about marriage or children at the time. I was working in a doctor’s office that was going out of business; my job was to answer phones that never rang. I worked a second job in retail on weekends in order to make my rent. I had a loser boyfriend who supplied me with coke. Young and bored, I thought I was looking for fun. But now I think there was something primal that told me that I needed this man, and that primal whisper was responding to the hands. This man will work hard. He will rescue you. Those hands. They sealed my fate.
“What’s new?” my husband asks.
Due to a time zone difference, he is at work while I’m now in bed, working on my second large glass of red wine. I’ve muted the HGTV program “Love it or List It” to take his call. The light from the television flickers from across the room, and I wonder whether I will miss the finale.
Nothing is new. We have run out of topics for these nightly, long-distance telephone conversations.
“There’s a bullfrog trapped in the window well,” I say.
The first time I heard the bullfrog’s repetitive, muffled grunts I was in the basement hunting for light bulbs. It took me a while to find the source of the sound. During a manic burst of landscaping, we had put an iron grate over the window well, placed a planter the size of a large trunk over the grate and filled the planter with soil and hydrangea bushes. Water trickled into the planter by way of a hose attached to our sprinkler system.
“He’s happy in there,” my husband says.
“I don’t think he’s happy,” I say. “I think he’s imprisoned.”
I had hoped the bullfrog would find a way out on its own, but it’s been many weeks. Like the early morning squabbling of birds outside my bedroom window, the bullfrog’s croaking has become a part of my home’s soundtrack. Sometimes, he’ll be quiet for a day or two and I’ll worry that he’s dead, but then his deep, monotonous croak returns. It’s like listening to the telltale heart. I’ve read that frogs croak to attract a mate, but I’ve also read that frogs croak when they’re stressed. I’ve gone down to the basement to assess my bullfrog’s situation. It’s obvious that the large planter has blocked the window well of sunlight. This would cause stress. I want to free him, but the planter must weigh three hundred pounds. I could never move it by myself.
“I feel guilty” I tell my husband. “He’s in there all alone.”
“He’s got water. He’s got bugs,” he says.
Here is the difference between my husband and me. He believes that we have created a pleasant, accidental terrarium; I worry that we have created a trap. While he thinks our house, our nice furniture, and our cars are what make up a good life, I’m crushing under the weight of what it’s costing us to have them. Often, at night, I chant these words in my head: I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.
The hosts of “Love it or List It,” have convened with the homeowners for the big reveal. This is the part of the show when the owners review their existing home, which has been renovated by an HGTV crew. They must decide, together, whether they will stay put or buy a new home. Will they love it or list it? There is something intoxicating about watching strangers decide if they will live with what they have or make a big change. The homeowners never get exactly what they want in the renovation. The new real estate listings they’ve viewed with the host always have compromises, too — street noise, a new school district, less charm.
I want to stay on the phone, hold onto this long-distance tether, tell my husband again how much I miss him, but our phone calls have come to feel hollow. I have evolved, over the decades, into someone who no longer needs to be rescued. For years, I have avoided any kind of ultimatum, because I was so afraid of our finances falling apart, a repeat of what happened in my family when I was a child. I had liked being able to buy my kids the sneakers that they wanted and put braces on their teeth. Now, things have changed. What I need now is a companion—a mate. But the man I have, the absent man, is the only one I want.
I say a quick goodnight and unmute the television just in time for the finale.
“We’re going to love it,” the homeowners say with rehearsed enthusiasm.
Am I, someday, going to say the words out loud that I have been chanting in my head for years? I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. Will the loneliness become more than I can bear? Will I love it or list it?
Laura Carraro is a writer who lives in New York with her husband and their rambunctious terrier. When not writing she’s in her studio making art or working with high school students as a writing tutor. She has earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her essay on the empty nest can be read in Motherwell. Her memoir, PROOF OF LOVE, is out in the world seeking representation, an excerpt from which was published in the Sonora Review.
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