THURSDAY: The Message Is Understood


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“There isn’t any more iced tea.”

He stands in front of the open refrigerator door, as if by staring at the shelf he could magically make the pitcher appear, full to the brim. A statement of fact, but what he really is saying is please make some iced tea. The message is understood.

“Then make some,” I want to answer, but instead I fill the pitcher with hot water, suspend five tea bags like mountain climbers dangling from thread ropes, and set it to steep on the counter.

This is how we ask each other to do things: no commands, just statements of fact that are interpreted by the other into requests for action. Even our decision to marry was not a clear-cut question-and-answer affair.

“My rent is going up next month,” I had said. “And I’m hardly there anymore.” I don’t want to live without you.

“I don’t have much closet space,” he had answered. I don’t know if I can handle the responsibility of marriage. What if I fail?

“You know, a house payment would be less than what we both pay in rent.” Give us a chance. Together we can do it.

“I suppose it would be the practical solution. After all, other people manage.” There are happy marriages in this world. Maybe ours will be one, too.

It has been two years now since we joined bodies, hearts, finances; two years of learning to hear what has not yet been spoken, of answering needs never admitted. The dialogue of marriage is a conversation on two levels: no demands, but expectations that the other will understand what should be done, what desires are awaiting fulfillment, what messages are sent without being spoken.

“The gas tank is empty,” I say — my turn now.

He shakes his head but takes the keys, knowing how I hate to pump gas first thing in the morning. He will do this for me, the same way I will brew his morning coffee, because he hates to do anything before the caffeine enters his bloodstream.

This is how we settle small matters. But greater decisions take more time, more oblique references, more indirect observations.

“This is a beautiful cradle.”

The auction was last fall, the contents of an old home now on the block — possessions of several generations given to strangers.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely next to the fireplace?” By next Christmas, our child could be sleeping peacefully under a handmade quilt, while we string decorations on the tree.

“But our furniture is all chrome and glass,” he had objected. “It wouldn’t fit.” A baby would mean a disruption in our lives, however welcome it would be. I don’t know if I can handle that.

“Our furniture seems so cold. Maybe we need to change our style,” I answered, stroking the carved wood. Maybe we need to change our life.

We bought the cradle, but the chrome and glass furniture stayed — an uneasy alliance of style and desire, hopes and fears. Sometimes, when I dust, I set it swaying gently. Sometimes, when he lights the fire, I see him staring into its empty centre.

While he is gone — filling the gas tank, checking the tires — the refrigerator stops humming and instead begins to rattle, like a toy shaken by an angry toddler. An apartment-size model, it was old when we bought it, and now it is dying — on a hot July afternoon, with the freezer compartment full after last month’s trip to the butcher shop.

By the time he comes back, I have the newspaper spread out before me, studying the ads on major appliances.

“The refrigerator is broken,” I say.

Twenty minutes and many melted ice cubes later, his response: “It can’t be fixed. We need to buy a new one.”

He comes over to the table to see the ads, but I have already turned the page. Pictures of baby furniture, baby clothes, baby toys lay spread out before us, and over the sound of melting ice, I hear my biological clock ticking.

“We have to buy a refrigerator,” and gently, he takes the paper from my hands. I know what you want but I just don’t know if I’m ready.

At the store, we are overwhelmed with choices: side-by-side or freezer-on-top. Icemaker or door dispensers. Smoky black or pristine white. Too many options, too many decisions. He sees installment payments depleting the cheque book. I visualize children’s drawings and school notes decorating the front.

“This looks like a good buy,” I say. There is a shelf just the right size for baby bottles.

He looks at it doubtfully, reading the energy information, gauging the dimensions and mentally comparing it with the one we have.

“It’s much bigger than our old refrigerator.” Right now, there’s just the two of us.

“It doesn’t pay to buy one too small. We have to think of the future.” A future with children in it. Isn’t that what you want?

He stands for a moment, thinking. Then, “Yes, we do,” and he pays the bill. The message is understood.

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