Nell and I had been a pair for a very long time, having made our way together through the highs and lows that marriage produces. Of course there had been occasional obstacles....detours that neither of us had enjoyed. Yet through it all we had moved ahead together, confident in our ability to deal with whatever came our way.
On that Sunday night, as I prepared to join her in bed, questions of that togetherness had captured my attention. Slipping under the covers it dawned on me that my last fifteen minutes, spent watching the end of a National Geographic special, were effectively a blank. The awful possibilities of Global Warming and the future of our planet had been swept aside by thoughts, both exhilarating and distressing, of my scheduled departure the next morning.
‘Exhilarating’ because my long-dreamed dream was about to become reality. ‘Distressing’ because Nell would not be with me. More than that, after weeks of loud and contentious debate, including her not-so-subtle talk of ‘open marriage,’ we had yet to determine what my leaving meant for our relationship.
For the first time in our shared history we faced the prospect of traveling different paths, if only for a while. From the perceived security of our individual defenses we had clashed over my wanderlust, and the likelihood of an approaching separation. Again and again we had retreated into our personal rationalizations, seldom pausing to imagine where our divergent ways might be taking us.
More than once I had explained what I called Plan B....me going off on my own without Nell....a sad possibility that she herself had first suggested.
Yet try as I might those moments had never led us to a practical discussion of what my leaving would mean for her life, or mine. There I was, planning to leave the next morning, and still neither of us had proposed a serious conversation about the impact, profane and practical, of my absence. Time was running out. It had to be done now.
“We have to talk,” I said as I stretched out in bed, pulling the covers over me.
“About what?” Nell did not bother to look up from her book.
About then it seemed like my task would have been easier if she at least acknowledged my presence there beside her. “I’m leaving in the morning. You’ve seen me packing, getting stuff ready. I know you don’t want to talk about it. But there are things we need to sort out before I go?”
“Just things, I guess. Like paying bills. Keeping the check register up to date. Stuff like that. Things I usually do.”
It was a bit awkward, coming up with a list on the spur of the moment. There were other things I did in the course of my days, things she ought to know about. But how could I explain that to someone who was showing no interest in knowing? Then I remembered. “You’ll have to see that Delaney gets settled into school. That has to be done.”
“I suppose I can manage all that.” She closed her book and set it on the bedside night stand. Fluffing her pillow she rolled on to her side, facing away from me, then said over her shoulder, “I suppose an extra ten minutes a day ought to cover all that.”
A part of me wanted to end the matter right there. Why go any further when Nell could not get past the same old arguments and nasty little jabs? There were important things that needed to be addressed and there she was still fighting yesterday’s war. How could that help anything?
“Honey, we have to talk about this. It’s important. I can’t very well leave home until I know we’ve got it sorted out.”
Though I did not notice it at first, I had finally managed to get Nell’s attention. I took it to be a good sign when she rolled over to face me. For just a moment I thought I saw the hint of a smile, until I realized it was her hard, mocking grin.
“Did you say ‘home’?,” she asked. When she pushed herself up on her elbow, her sarcastic glare had me looking away.
“You said you’re leaving ‘home.’ Didn’t you?” she asked in a most unfriendly voice. “Am I supposed to believe that you even know what the word means? Don’t you be pretending like that with me, because I know better. That’s the real problem, isn’t it? What I call ‘home’ is a foreign concept to you.”
It had taken only seconds, and a few hard edged words, for Nell to bring my stumbling entreaty to an abrupt halt. In a sentence or two she had turned my plea for understanding into a defensive retreat.
My God, I knew she was unhappy about my leaving. But how could she be doubting my allegiance to home and all that it meant to me?
Having made her point she again turned her back on me, apparently ready to end the matter. Although I was not ready for that, I had no idea how to continue. I pushed the covers back and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. There, with my head cradled in my hands, I revisited the wisdom of leaving while Nell remained so angry and uncompromising.
Finally, without turning back to her I asked over my shoulder, “How can you say I don’t know about ‘home’?”
It seemed to me a fair question. For the life of me I could not understand why she had chosen the notion of ‘home,’ the one thing I was sure we had always agreed on, as the centerpiece of her complaint....the high ground on which to make her stand? That was patently unfair.
“We’ve had lots of homes,” I continued, not sure if she was even listening. “And I’ve loved every one of them. Any place that’s included you and me together has always felt like home.”
There, in the soft light of my night-stand lamp, I was talking to myself, making my case for the home I had always valued. Meanwhile, it seemed that Nell had checked out, preferring sleep to my stumbling rationale. Or so I thought, until I heard her stern, startling and very unexpected response.
“That’s exactly what I mean,” she grumbled. “You don’t understand at all. You just make up some warm and fuzzy idea that you call ‘home’ and expect me to be happy with that.”
I turned to face her, though she had not stirred at all. I was effectively talking to the back of her head when I asked, “What does that mean....that I’ve made up what I call home? Home is what it is. It’s not something I have to make up. It’s a place where I’ve always wanted to be. And I’ve always wanted to be there with you. Nothing about that has ever been ‘made up.’ Not a bit of it.”
Finally Nell seemed ready to make her return. She rolled onto her back, looking not at me, but at the ceiling. “It’s the same old thing.” I could hear the weary exasperation in her words. “Your idea of home is so narrow. It’s about you and me, and nothing more.
“Of course that part is important,” she continued. “But that’s not all there is. There’s more. Home is about family, about Kathy and Delaney, and friends, and church. It’s about our house and our gardens. It’s about all the things we enjoy. When I talk about home, that’s what I’m thinking about.”
By then I was of two minds....glad she was still talking to me, yet wishing she had something new to say. We had covered that ground so many times before, that place where our individual life-views collided....where compromise seemed out of reach. I knew at once my reply was not likely to expand whatever ‘common ground’ there was, but it needed saying.
“Nell, what you’re talking about is your church and your gardens. You know that. What I’m talking about is us, you and me, and the things we do together. Actually in my mind it includes even more than that. I’d like it to include things we’ve never done before, and places we’ve never been. I can’t understand why that doesn’t excite you at least a little bit. Especially knowing that ‘home’ can be wherever we are.”
“But we could see those places you’re talking about without selling our home,” Nell countered. “Just to go living in a stupid box-on-wheels. Why couldn’t we just take our trips, be gone a few weeks, then come home, like other people do?”
“You just can’t understand, can you?” How many times had I voiced that same sad complaint? ”Why should we be tied down like that? It would be like dragging an anchor everywhere we went.”
Pulling the covers up under her chin Nell appeared to signal her surrender, as if there was no reason to carry on. “I suppose you’re right,” she said softly. “I guess that’s what I’ve become....an anchor, holding you back. So you just go off and do your thing, in your own home, without having to drag that anchor, the one that looks like me, behind you.
“I guess that’s how it will have to be,” she concluded. “Me in my home, you in yours. It’s kind of sad to realize that one home isn’t enough anymore. So you go on. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll be doing here, but this is where I’ll be.”
Rolling back on her side, her terse parting marked the end of a most unproductive conversation. “If I’m not up when you leave in the morning, you have a nice trip.”