Image Credit: Nsey Benajah
One week out from Christmas, I am sitting in a narrow bathtub in my hotel room in Pine Mountain, Georgia. Mildew thrives in the poorly caulked seams between the yellowed backsplash and the tub’s dusty rim. The bathroom looks like it hasn’t been updated since the last time I was here as a kid. The Mountain Creek Inn seemed far grander then with its expansive brick-paved lobby, complimentary morning buffets, and nightly cocktails at the Vineyard Green. Now, the window that overlooks the half-empty parking lot is smeared with greasy fingerprints. The carpet beneath the heater is rust-stained and damp. My husband paces the room from end to end, a never-ending loop that encompasses the lacquered wardrobe, the rickety TV stand, and two queen-sized beds, and behind the locked bathroom door, I am thinking about another man.
“Come on.” Jason pauses in front of the door again. “Why can’t I come in?”
I unwrap the paltry bar of soap a maid has left by the sink and say, “I told you. I need some space.”
What I really need is time to think. Already, the bath water has gone cold twice in the forty minutes I have been soaking. Two separate times, I have drained half the tub before turning the tap on hot again. My limbs nearest the faucet are pink and scalded, the skin of my feet and shins gone pleasantly numb. My face is wet with a mixture of condensation and sweat, and for a moment, I wonder if I can expel this whole situation out of my system—if I can close my eyes, sink beneath the water, and exhale until I am empty of all air and emotion.
Jason’s voice comes at the door again. “Jess, you’re not holding up your end of the bargain.”
But I have given up explaining that entities such as love and desire cannot be so easily suppressed. That fealty can no longer be conjured with guilt-trips or threats. That a two-week trip up along the East Coast and back again will not make me forget about the other man.
That man is eight hundred miles away in Houston, Texas. At night, I picture him standing outside, his lawn a perfect geometric square in an aerial view of the land. I see his face as if from a distance, his gaze tilted up at the sky as we both stood the last time we were together, his hand in mine as he reminded me that I didn’t owe anything to my recently-separated husband.
Or perhaps that man has already forgotten me. Maybe, right now, he is out at a bar with his friends, sipping on cheap tequila and smiling at some other woman who is far more available than me. Perhaps he has decided to write off our last month together as a temporary period of insanity, a jumbled mess of late-night walks and wine-drunk dinners that culminated in the constant slipping off of my wedding ring.
Outside the bathroom, Jason’s body hits up against the door, the act more one of desperation than anger. He saves the fury for later.
“How are we ever supposed to make this marriage work if you don’t give it a chance?” he asks. “You promised me you’d try. You have to at least give me that.”
In the tub, I pick at the water-softened caulk until the whole strip of sealant begins to rip away from the shower liner. The joint underneath is black with over a decade of mold growth, and I rinse the grime from my fingers in the bathwater that has gone tepid once more. When Jason calls out again, I slide my head beneath the surface, and for a second, consider breathing in.
The next day, we rent bikes from a wooden stand out near the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center. It is cold up in the Georgia mountains, and we don hats, scarves, and mittens in addition to the long johns we wear beneath our jackets and pants. We ride the ten-mile trail past the historic pioneer cabin and the Ida Cason Memorial Chapel, braking on the steep slope that loops around Bluebird Lake.
It is a weekday, and the resort is mostly deserted. We stop near the garden’s entrance so I can snap an obligatory picture of my husband in front of the gates. In the frame, Jason poses astride his one-speed, studying a map of the grounds to determine where we should pedal next. If there is one thing I am willing to grant him, it is this: the status of primary navigator of our bike trip.
At our next stop, Jason explores the Robin Lake Beach food pavilion while I text the other man. I have spent the last hour composing a message in my head—a story to convey everything that can never directly be said. From the very beginning, we have spoken to one another in the language of fairy tales and riddles. We have composed myths and fables rather than risk spouting truths that may never translate to the real world. We have found other ways to say “I love you” and “I miss you” and “I want you here with me.”
I write: When traveling through unknown lands—when moving by car or boat or airplane in the opposite direction of you, when looking behind in the rearview at the white, receding sand dunes—I will continue to search each new town for signs of you.
Jason returns from the food pavilion and casts a suspicious look at my cell phone. I know that he wants to take the device from me, to scroll through each message to assure himself that I have not done the one thing he has expressly forbid. For the rest of our vacation, I am to have no contact with the other man. I am to do my utmost to forget about him, to think only about what I can do to best save my floundering marriage. This is the primary rule of our so-called “bargain.”
“Were you texting someone?” Jason asks because he refuses to say the other man’s name or address the proverbial elephant in the room.
“I thought we agreed that you’d give me some space.” I silence my phone and slide it back into my jacket pocket. “Suffocating me now isn’t the solution.”
The truth is that I have been taking every chance I get to text the other man. The majority of my messages have been sent behind the locked doors of various bathrooms: in rest stops on our drive to Georgia, leaning up against the vanity in the resort’s Virginia Hand Discovery Center, and in a narrow stall between cocktails and overcooked steaks at the Piedmont Grill. I go hours in between checking what the other man has sent back in response—usually something equally pretty and pointedly witty. I do not tell the other man what it is like for me, all the time I’ve spent soaking in tubs and lingering in public restrooms for a moment of privacy. I do not relay my fear that I will return from this misguided trip to find out that I have lost him, that he will decide this is all much too complicated for the beginning of a new relationship.
After all, what I am doing with Jason is not easy to parse out to anyone, let alone the other man. There’s no straightforward way to convey why I agreed to go on this farewell tour with my estranged husband, to explain the longstanding relationship dynamics that have led me here to Pine Mountain. There’s no simple way to distill the effect of weeks upon weeks of Jason’s incessant phone calls, emails, and texts. Of his constant reminders that I am financially and emotionally indebted to him. Of his endless apologies and forceful declarations, each new statement infused with an entitled sense of possessiveness.
As Jason has reiterated time and time again, “There are two people in this relationship. You can’t just decide to end our marriage if I don’t agree. Life doesn’t work that way.”
Perhaps if I were stronger, less prone to self-doubt, more resolute when pushed, this holiday could have turned out differently for all of us. But for the time being, I still naively believe that Jason can be made to see reason, that with the perfect setting and the right amount of face-to-face conversation, I can cut the cord on this marriage without hurting him. So I am here in Georgia, and the other man is out in Texas, and without quite knowing it, we are all trapped together on opposite ends of a slowly sinking ship.
For dinner, Jason and I drive a few miles off the resort to the Carriage and Horses Restaurant. The website describes the converted Victorian as “romantic fine dining” with a “gorgeous scenic view.” Once again, I have let Jason pick our destination, and he has chosen the restaurant for its advertised ambiance. I drink my way through my second glass of Pinot Grigio, faced with the fact that we are living in two very different realities—one of divorce papers and the legal division of assets, and another of crab cakes and votive candles for the two of us to “reconnect.”
I may never accomplish the much-needed task of convincing him to let me leave this relationship.
I wait to bring up the other side of our holiday “bargain” until Jason has had enough of his own alcohol to be open to the conversation—three glasses of the restaurant’s most expensive Malbec. At the mention of divorce, his expression turns sour, his mouth suddenly pinched. Gone is the doting, romantic husband, replaced by the spiteful, easily enraged man I have come to know more and more throughout our separation. These days, this side of Jason always lingers just beneath the surface, ready to hop off the bench and take the field at a moment’s notice.
I consider my options as he stabs his fork aggressively into his filet mignon.
“Things are going to work out between us,” he insists. “You just have to try harder. I’m going to be a better partner now. You’ll see.”
“Ok. But let’s say that they don’t,” I try again. I keep my voice congenial, placid. “I just need to know that you’ll respect my decision. That’s what we agreed on, isn’t it? When I said we’d go on this trip?”
But Jason isn’t interested in discussing hypotheticals that don’t adhere to his desired outcome. He has plans to renew our wedding vows come spring, to finally take that honeymoon to the Bahamas. He envisions the two of us drinking rum-rich Piña Coladas as we lounge on the beach, lying out on plush beach towels after rubbing each other down with sunscreen.
The longer Jason talks, the more his features smooth out again until he has returned back to the loving husband. He shakes off my words like a soaked dog stepping out of a lake, an instinctual shutter that carries on until he’s eliminated any potential threat to his imagined future.
When dessert comes, I stuff my mouth with tiramisu because I am not drunk enough to contribute to a conversation steeped in my nightmares and Jason’s fantasies.
The seven-hour drive from Pine Mountain, Georgia to Charlotte, North Carolina is punctuated by roadkill coyotes and hard bouts of rain. We listen to an upbeat playlist, but the music doesn’t seem to cheer either of us. Occasionally, Jason begins to bob his head and wave his arms beside me, trying to spark some change in the car’s atmosphere, but I keep my eyes on the highway.
Three days into our trip, I have shifted to an entirely different strategy. I alternate between showing sympathy and being openly cold and mean. I can only have so much compassion for someone who continually refuses to accept reality—who can explode with fury one moment, and then seconds later, smile and reach out to hug me. My pattern is one of malice followed by guilt-ridden tenderness when Jason breaks down in our hotel room each evening. I am at once the treasured wife, the adultress, and a therapist with a ridiculous conflict of interest, charged with comforting the same man I am desperately trying to leave.
At night, I lie awake staring at the ceiling, trying to make sense of whatever the hell it is I am doing. I wonder if, down in Houston, the other man is thinking about me—if he would be more angry or embarrassed by the way my husband cries and paws at my body when I continue to refuse him intimacy.
When we finally arrive in downtown Charlotte, we check into our hotel before heading to the Carolinas Aviation Museum. This time, I have chosen our destination. I need a tangible distraction from the doomed mission I am currently on, something to remind me of the very real dangers others have braved out in the real world.
In the dimly lit hangar, we walk by a replica of the Wright Flyer and the very real Airbus A320 that Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles successfully crash-landed on the Hudson River. A placard relays the story of the Miracle on the Hudson!, but I can’t help staring at the damage to the commercial jetliner’s body. Near the tail end of the plane, the metal belly has been gutted and torn away like so much loose, vulnerable skin. Wires hang exposed from the Airbus A320’s bowels. A head-sized hole gapes on the nose of the plane, and I marvel at how fragile even a metal body can be, no real match for the water’s forceful impact.
Near the museum’s exit, a volunteer hands me a foam model plane kit.
“You look like you could use something to brighten your day,” the older man says, glancing at Jason. “Besides, you’ll need something to keep you occupied with all this rain. It’s shaping up to be one gloomy holiday.”
I put the model airplane together in a nearby restaurant while Jason orders a basket of fries for us. As I snap the pieces into place, I think about the last night I spent with the other man, how I assured him that taking this vacation was the right decision. He didn’t know Jason like I did, didn’t understand why words said over the phone would never provide enough closure for my estranged husband. Jason needed to feel like he was the one making the decision, that he had agency in officially ending our relationship.
Now, however, I see what I stubbornly refused to acknowledge back then, much too close to the situation—that granting Jason this trip has only resulted in further heartache and my own imprisonment. If I am to leave my husband, I will never stop being the villain, the woman who promised him a future that she selfishly refused to give. So far, this trip has been composed of small moments of beauty interspersed with waves of increasingly-numbing pain: a glimpse of the sunset through an old grove of pecan trees, a bright blue morpho landing on my wrist in the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, a lone sandhill crane unfurling its wings beside Robin Beach Lake.
In the restaurant’s bathroom, I prop the foam plane up on the toilet paper dispenser, lean my back against the stall door, and text the other man.
If you think to write, fold your letter into a sturdy paper airplane that can fly over the sea, that can land atop my salt-blistered palms and speak words that have not yet been spoken to me. When I kiss the plane’s damp wings, the act will be one witnessed only by the beach, and I will kneel in the sand and mold us a new engine strong enough to lift us both off the ground.
At my parents’ house in rural Pennsylvania, we walk a gravel road that narrows to a dirt trail just south of the creek. The path leads to a ramshackle horse farm that abuts my parents’ property, and we bring small Pink Ladies as offerings. I ignore the sign the reads Private Property: No Trespassing and scale the gate that leads to the paddock. Behind me, Jason wipes his muddy palms down his jeans.
“Should we really be feeding them?”
He nods his head toward the skinny horses on the far side of the enclosure. His body language is sulky and self-conscious, his hands balled into fists and his shoulders hunched. Jason does not like getting dirty, and I know he has come on this walk solely to appease me. Here on my home turf, he begrudgingly follows my lead.
I shrug off his question and hold an apple over the fence. A mare trots over cautiously, her eyes on Jason as she approaches us. She seems to sense that he is disapproving of her presence, and she shies away just before her muzzle meets my fingertips. After several tense seconds, I toss the apple into the paddock.
“See. They didn’t want them,” Jason says as we head back.
He has his cell phone out, checking the time as we wind through the trees. It is starting to get dark, and the bag of leftover apples hangs heavy on my shoulder, a reminder of my most recent failure. I think of the mare’s breath, a series of white, heavy clouds drifting over the fence. I replay how quickly her expression went from grateful to distressed, her head lowered and her ears pinned back in nervous panic.
Inside my parents’ house, I retreat to the upstairs bathroom and run hot water to the rim of the tub. I shuck off my muddy clothes, leaving a trail of clumped dirt in my wake. Lately, I cannot help but make a mess of everything—first my marriage, then this road trip, now the linoleum.
While the tub fills, I retrieve my cell phone from its hiding spot, tucked safely between two towels in the linen closet. The terrycloth muffles the vibrations of incoming texts, and I am free to check the device away from Jason’s vigilant watch. He thinks my phone is still on top of the bookcase in my parents’ bedroom where he stashed it the other day.
“Your attention is supposed to be on us,” he reminded me. “No distractions.”
Now, I settle into the water and scroll through my texts from the other man. I read about all the things we could be doing if we were together: sitting poolside, sipping salty margaritas as he runs his fingers over my ribcage; camping somewhere far out in the Alaskan wilderness, listening to the snow fall softly against the side of the tent; back at his house in the rundown part of town, his cheap lamp knocked to the floor as we map each other’s bodies.
I hear the key inside the locked doorknob before Jason knocks or asks if he can come in. In a panic, I shove my cell phone inside the muddy sneaker I have left beside the tub.
“Jesus,” I say as Jason closes the door behind him. “You can’t just barge in.”
“And you can’t just leave me alone downstairs with your family.”
He narrows his eyes at my submerged body, his prior patience waning. Agreeing to go to the horse farm was supposed to get him back into my good graces, assure him an invitation to bath-time rituals like this. Instead, Jason’s labors have proven ineffective. I remain private and standoffish with both my body and affection. I am well aware of the man I am about to see, the one who greets me with an eerily calm, unfamiliar anger I struggle to out-maneuver.
“You know,” he continues, “I never understood baths anyway. You’re just soaking in your own filth, aren’t you? How are you ever supposed to get clean?”
My phone vibrates inside my sneaker, but Jason is too focused on the grimy film floating on the surface of the bathwater to notice the sound.
On Christmas day, I text the other man: We need to talk. Are you free tonight around one AM?
Downstairs, my family is eager to open presents, and I take my designated spot on the loveseat beside Jason. He smiles, snakes an arm around my shoulders, and pulls my side flush against his—a reminder that, at least in front of my family, we are supposed to act like we are happily married. My mom is the only person here who knows that we have separated, and even she is not aware of the other man. Status and appearances are of the utmost importance to Jason, and we have kept our private drama from the public eye for as long as we can.
The only real snag in my performance is the fact that I have forgotten to buy Jason a Christmas present. When we are alone again, I am sure he will punish me for this. He will point to my absent minded negligence as evidence that I have not fulfilled my part of the “bargain,” accuse me of being callous and mean-hearted. To his tirade, I will want to say, “If that’s how you feel, then go ahead and cut cord. Break the goddamn line. Cast me back out to sea, Jason.”
But for now, he gives my shoulder a hard, warning squeeze and we continue to pretend.
Much later, when the presents have been opened, our fight had, and everyone retired to bed, I slip outside while Jason is asleep. I retrieve my cell phone from between the towels in the linen closet and grab my car keys from the antique radio cabinet where I have hidden them earlier in the day. Over the course of our separation, I have become adept at concealing all sorts of things, at locating safe houses both within and outside my body.
I descend the stairs, walk barefoot across the kitchen, and tiptoe out the backdoor. Outside, the grass is frigid as I cross the lawn to climb into my car’s passenger seat. I let my thumb hover over the other man’s phone number as I wait for the clock to tick forward to one AM. When the time is right, I take a deep breath and press send.
“Hey,” I say when he answers after several rings. “Thanks for making the time to talk to me.”
“Sure. How are things?”
The other man’s voice sounds strange after not hearing it for over a week. I close my eyes and try to picture his face, to conjure him sitting here in the car beside me as he has so many times over the course of our budding relationship. I envision his hand wrapped around mine as my fingers trail aimlessly over the driver’s seat.
When I have found my words again, I tell him that I am holding up ok. That things are not as bad as they could be, given the situation. That Jason wants to extend our vacation, drive down to D.C. for a few days to tour the monuments and museums.
“He’s still convinced that something significant is going to change,” I say.
The other man responds with a frustrated sigh. The outcome is exactly what he predicted despite my many reassurances, and for several minutes, we are both silent, the line an exchange of embittered, static-laden breaths. I long to return to the metaphorical language of our texts. I want to tell him that everything will work out just fine between us, that I still want to be with him, but I cannot yet verbally articulate this. To do so feels far too risky and vulnerable—akin to climbing inside a flimsy wooden glider perched atop a sloping sand dune, entirely at the whim of gravity and the next strong gust of wind.
“Are you somewhere you can see the stars?” I ask him.
On the other end of the line, his body audibly shifts. There is the sound of crinkled fabric and slowly unfolding limbs, and I am reminded of the first time I saw him naked, the way he stood in the corner of his room, his arms down at his sides, defiantly confident. The sweat on his chest was the only tell in the otherwise seamless bluff.
“Sure.” A door yawns open. “What about them?”
I lean forward and crane my neck to peer up through the windshield. The glass is smeared with salt-spray from the cross-country drive, and I search for a clean spot in the thick gray film. The sky above is murky and overcast, a dark, all-encompassing mass of deep space, stars, and low-hanging clouds. I imagine that I am looking up from the porthole of a submarine one mile below the surface of the ocean, over two-thousand pounds of force pressing down on the other side of the glass.
I hope fifteen hundred miles away in Texas, the stars are bright and clear.
“Jason is going to come around,” I promise. “I just need a little more time to convince him.”
My husband doesn’t open the driver’s side door until I end the call. I don’t know how long he has been standing outside the car in the cold, watching through the window as I talk to the other man. His hair is mussed from sleeping, his body clad in a sweatshirt and too-big pajama pants. I am struck by the impression that he looks like a small child thrown into the water for the first time with no flotation device to rely on, his frantic eyes searching for something stable to grab hold of. His gaze implores me to step forward and rescue him, to offer my body as a life raft—the one vessel left afloat in a turbulent, unforgiving ocean—but I shake my head. I know his weight will drag us both to the bottom.
Jason’s expression is shocked, then panicked, and finally alarmingly vacant. I sit, absolutely still, as he slams the car door closed, then open, then closed, over and over again.
In Washington D.C., we barely talk to one another unless we have been drinking. We frequent locations where it is acceptable to consume alcohol before ten AM. We browse stunted pomegranates at the Eastern Market and flip through yellowed Steinbeck novels at Capitol Hill Books before sheltering in a nearby restaurant. Jason gulps down a Bloody Mary while I nurse a light pink greyhound. Outside, English Bulldogs and King Charles Spaniels trot by in their Burberry sweaters and designer leather collars. Their owners hide behind expensive sunglasses even though the morning is overcast, their boots spotted with snow as they trudge down the not-yet-shoveled sidewalk. I wonder if the tinted plastic makes it easier to look past all the signs of imperfection in the seemingly idyllic neighborhood: the scrawny, adolescent sugar maples planted to replace older trees that grew too big for their grates; the ugly fencing surrounding yet another demolished building; the greasy car exhaust and pee spots that have collected in the fresh snow throughout the morning.
I know all too well what it is like to exist inside an illusion, to feel the unspeakable blight lurking just beneath the surface. Though Jason still refuses to talk about the other man, something palpable has shifted in our relationship. His anger now subsists alongside a sense of grief, the death of the wife he so desperately wanted and needed me to be.
If someone is responsible for her murder, then let it be me—her suffocation necessary if I am to breathe.
For the rest of the morning, we wander the National Mall and the Smithsonian Museums, passively reading through the placards as we navigate the elaborate, winding displays. There is a stuffy, familiar smell to the Natural History Museum, one of Windex, Pine Sol, and Murphy’s Oil rubbed atop carefully maintained architecture that has nonetheless begun to decay. In the Sant Ocean Hall, I gaze up at the forty-five foot, life-sized model of a North Atlantic right whale. She hangs suspended above the rest of the exhibit, her tail mid-swing and her colossal mouth agape.
Looking at her, I am reminded of the Miracle on the Hudson!, the front end of the Airbus A320 ripped open. The whale’s skin is scarred from a life spent in the ocean, the top of her head and mouth marred with patches of shiny pink barnacles. Still, her monstrous form is far more awe-inspiring than grisly. In the dark, womb-like hall, she takes a deep breath and dives willingly into the ocean’s murky depths, an unquestionably powerful mass of muscle, cartilage, and stringy baleen.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” I ask Jason.
But when I turn around, my husband is no longer there. He is standing back at the entrance to the hall, his face turned up at the right whale, too overcome to join me beneath her shadow.
Jess E. Jelsma was born in Louisiana and grew up in Alabama and Pennsylvania. She is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her fiction, essays, and audio memoirs have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, CRAFT, Indiana Review, The Normal School, Post Road, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. More of her work can be found online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.