I bring my fingers to my face and stroke my stubbly chin. I do this to ensure that Magnolia’s words have not stripped me of my skin the way they have my conscience. She’s stopped crying beside me, I think. It happened slowly – her weeps trickled down to sniffles, and then to silence. I suspect her pillow began soaking up all her misery after a while, draining her of grief and freeing her of anguish.
With hesitation in my marrow, I turn around. Our backs have been facing one another for hours now, the covers an embankment. It helped keep the peace between us, if we didn’t have to see each other’s eyes. I still can’t see hers in this new position, as her eyes are closed and toward the wall, but it still feels like progress.
I turn toward Magnolia when I’m certain she’s asleep. I don’t want her to read in to it like she would if she was awake. I just want to pretend that everything’s alright for a moment. I just want to see how normal feels again, because I’ve forgotten.
I watch Magnolia’s stomach move up and down, her bleak breath disposing of animosity with every exhale. In the morning, she’ll be left with only a shadow of fury, serving as a reminder of all the temper she once held inside. The rest will belong to the air.
But no matter how much Magnolia breathes out her rage and sleeps off her wounds, the damage is already done. On both sides. These dimly lit hours gnaw at the bitterness wedged between my wandering wife and myself, but they alone cannot save us. The things we said weren’t meaningless, and neither were their effects.
I expect us to reconcile in the morning, like usual. By then we’ll both be blinded by the dawn’s striking light, and the possibility of a new day with a new ending. Lately, however, our lives have been a rhythm of low, resentful notes, the universe playing the same piece from the same composer with the same finale every, single, day.
I want to close my eyes. I want to drift off into nothingness, and shut off my overactive brain. I want to sink into my pillow and cradle the covers, and not have to feel guilty and regretful and angry and *tired*.
And then I want to hug Magnolia under a forgiving God and move *on*.
But if I fall asleep, nothing is going to change. Nothing is going to get better. Our backs will face each other until the moment we die, and eventually I’ll forget the color of my own wife’s eyes. I must give the universe a different piece to play.
Gradually, I push myself up from the bed, leaning over my knees and watching over Magnolia. I reach toward her arm, buried deep underneath the bedsheets, prepared to tap her awake. It’s a tactic that used to work on my mother years and years ago, when the monster in my closet was the only thing I feared.
I stop myself half way toward Magnolia. What would I even say? How would she react? With watered-down irritation? Probably.
And then I wonder why it’s me, up late at night, attempting to rearrange our low, resentful notes into something a little livelier. I wonder how Magnolia can *sleep *knowing that our lives follow a pattern of heartache.
We fought for a reason, I remind myself. My displeasure is justified. I’m giving in if I wake her. I’m telling her I was wrong and that I’ll change. But I don’t want to. I shouldn’t have to. If she’d *listen *to me for five seconds, she’d understand that. Maybe wars are needed for peace in the future. Maybe that’s all we are for now – soldiers, on opposite sides, using arguments as ammo. And maybe, after all this fighting, a resolution will find itself as ours. And we’ll be happier for it.
If I wake Magnolia, and we make up, I’m only delaying the inevitable quarrel. And what good is that? Better we fight our battles head-on, and then maybe we’ll get somewhere, grudge-free.
I retract my outstretched arm and collapse back on the bed. A small storm erupts whenever I do that – the covers make a crashing sound, and the pillows roar. Then I stop, content with my placement on the bed, settling into the waves of sheets. And the storm stops, too. Silence swiftly strangles the covers and gags the pillows before coming after me.
Usually, I give into silence and let it rock me to sleep, but my mind is still racing. I envision different futures in my head, some ideal and some a bit more plausible. The ideal ones are all without Magnolia at my side. It’s a horrible thing to admit, I know, but in the middle of the night, uncomfortable and anxious and afraid, with my wife’s back the only thing she believes me deserving to see, it’s true.
We used to really love each other, believe it or not. I used to consider her a long-lost extension of myself. But I don’t know who she is anymore, and I don’t know who I am for not knowing.
For a while, every day was pleasant and joyous with my Magnolia. We’d go dancing and see movies and talk for hours under a moonlit sky not dissimilar to the one I contemplate our marriage under now. Our words did something different than they do now. They used to heal and they used to comfort. It isn’t that way anymore.
Perhaps our most important words were spoken at our wedding day. It was a cheerful occasion. We both wore matching grins stretched across our young, sunny faces. Our hearts beat in unison, ready to become whole. In my eye, where there’s now salt, there was a sparkle.
Magnolia floated down the aisle, radiating beams of entrancing magic. She was my future dressed in white lace and tulle, and my future was beautiful. We held hands once she made it toward me, and a feeling of immortality washed over us. We slipped the rings on each other’s familiar fingers, and then we said our vows without pause. I now realize that if I had really known what I was doing, there would’ve been at least a few seconds of hesitation.
But I probably would’ve married her anyway. How was I supposed to know what would come of all this? How was I supposed to know she wouldn’t stay the same, elated woman forever?
Deep down I know that this was an unreasonable thing to expect, Magnolia staying the same forever. Everybody goes through hard times, and then that luminous façade falls right off. But Magnolia was supposed to be the exception. In my world, Magnolia was a synonym for happiness and bliss.
Our battleground is downstairs, near the kitchen. Our insults hide behind the innocent title of jokes at first, but soon the false appellation is ripped from the ridicule and violently thrown to the floor. After that, our words are naked, their meanings raw and sharp. They cut with every syllable and bruise with every letter. Sometimes, the volume of our voices set them on fire. And then we throw them. And they burn.
I’ve been crushed before, by her words. At times, they trip me at my ankles and tie my arms behind my back. They’ve killed me ten times over.
I’m not claiming that mine haven’t done the same, but I craft my arguments with a bit more elegance, stringing them together like beads on a necklace before letting them choke my dear wife.
The scars from these fights are internal, the blood taking the form of tears. And then we end up as we are now, facing lifeless walls seemingly more compassionate than our spouse.
It’s happened so often that I only ever feel slight remorse now, in the middle of the night, when it hardly even matters. During the duel, I’m numb to the hurt on my Magnolia’s face, because it’s become her everyday expression. In the moment, my mind is on how I can make my words stick.
Magnolia doesn’t hold back, either. She doesn’t stop when she sees a flash of pain across my eyes. I hear her crying in the night, sure, but I don’t think it’s for me. I don’t think it’s because she regrets the harm she’s put me through.
There’s always marriage counseling. My parents used to do that, though I didn’t know until years later. They did a good job of hiding their strife from me, but looking back on midnight memories, my mom was never facing my father when I warned her about that hidden monster in my bedroom. She was positioned as Magnolia is now, and I wonder if she, too, had a pillow stuffed with tears instead of feathers. I wonder where and how my parents hurt each other. I wonder if my father felt much more than an arm’s length away from my mother, just as I do my Magnolia.
But most of all I wonder how many more nights of wondering I can take.
Somewhere between one and three AM, sleep takes me. I wake up with Magnolia stretching by my side, reaching toward me for a hug. As we embrace, the dawn drowns us in its striking light. Magnolia’s ocean eyes sparkle with the promise of a new day with a new ending, and I’m hopeful that the birds outside will chirp a different tune.
Maddy Hoffman is a high school junior from Seattle, Washington. She’s loved writing and reading ever since she can remember, and hopes to one day become an established short story writer.