"Do you ever think we're not going to make it?" he asks quietly, his words hanging like the top layer of a crème brûlée in the dry, central-heated air. As though a simple tap with a spoon could shatter the illusion of their fortitude and cut my mouth with their shards.
I lay silently for a moment, hoping the 300 thread-count sheets will envelop me, rendering me unable to answer. I don't want to have this conversation. Again.
"No," I lie, then think better of it. "Sometimes."
There is no crystal ball that can tell us we will still be in love in 5, 10, 50 years. I look at photos of my parents, his parents, Hollywood couples, whatever strange notions of love I can get my hands on. I see the same thing in all their eyes. Hope and love in the early days. Despair and frustration as the years take their toll.
"We don't listen to each other," he whispers through his breath. "If you keep steamrolling me every time I talk... well I'll stay 'till the kids are grown, but once they're out that door... I'll be gone."
I grow obstinate, the lines in my forehead angrily bunching together like slouchy socks that refuse to stay in place. "Well, if you already know the outcome, why don't you just leave now? Why should we waste our time -- if you're so unhappy, that is?"
We do this every so often. We get to a place where we need to stand on the ledge and see if either of us has it in us to jump. To see if way down below we can see the two people who fell off that same ledge before, landing in each others hearts. We stand there exposed, our hearts beating wildly with fear, anger and resentment thundering in our ears. I could just go to my mother's and not have to deal with this horrible conversation, I always think. I am still cute enough. I could find love again.
But I can hear his chest hairs curling in the dark. The fuzz on the sides of his ears that no one but I could love the way I do, rustles with the duvet. I can sense him growing impatient with my toddleresque argument techniques. He senses my manipulative reverse psychology and his breath steams through his nostrils like a cartoon bull that's been duped by Bugs Bunny. And I like this. I want him to be angry with me for asking, "Why don't we just split up then?" in the same see-if-I-care voice I would use to ask, "Why don't you just make the steak your way?"
And suddenly I want him to hold me and kiss me so hard his whiskers go up my nose. I want him to tell me how ridiculous this is and that he loves me the way he used to when he thought the universe had brought us together. But he's honest. He's also not one to let me have my way so easily.
Instead he just says, "I don't know."
And then we lie there quietly for a while, listening for messages in one another's breathing. In the early days we would speak without words. We could communicate without so much as a consonant leaving our lips. (That's how we got engaged.) I fight back tears. I don't want to make him so upset all the time. I don't want to nag so much, to criticize, yet I have no idea how to stop.
"I don't want to make you so unhappy all the time. I wish I didn't make you hate me so much. It's incredibly difficult to live with your anger." I am Maggie the Cat, blinking fragile tears through mascara-ed eyes, hoping he'll remember who I was before circumstances made me hard. Not willing to give up on him and his Paul Newman stare so easily. Wanting to take all the meanness he has to dish out. Wanting to fight to win back his affections. I turn my back and whimper. It's genuine, but it's also very effective in this situation.
"I still love you, you know. It's just... you have to let me talk sometimes." He rolls over and touches me softly, but at once I am the carnival game with the sledgehammer and the bell. Also very effective in this situation.
And we go back and forth trying to repair the cracks with words. The love is there. It's not quite what it used to be, but it's still there. Like my favourite French dessert, just beneath that hard surface lies something sweet, soft, delightful. The kind of delicate balance that needs a protective layer. The kind of heaven that's worth cutting the roof of your mouth on. I haven't gone off it yet.