57. The Game

57. The Game

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Happily Ever After

The Game

Let your love be stronger than your hate or anger.
Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break.

~H.G. Wells

“Do you still love me?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Ralph looked away.

It was a game we played again and again throughout our thirty years of married life. But today, something in his voice alarmed me. His eyes were not laughing when he said, “I don’t know.” This was not the way we played the game.

He was supposed to say, “Oh, I don’t know” in a mocking way and then ask, “Do you still love me?”

And I would answer, with a deliberately provocative move toward him, “Mmm, let me see,” then shrug regretfully and say, “I guess I don’t.”

Then, his brows arching mischievously he’d announce, “So what... I don’t love you either. I guess I’ll find another.” And with head high and chest out he’d march away.

“Don’t you dare find another!” I’d shake my fist and run after him. He’d turn with a start, and colliding he’d reclaim my lips in a most persuasive way and declare, “Mmm, I guess I was wrong. I guess I still love you after all.”

That was the way we always played the game. But today Ralph remained uncomfortably still after uttering the words “I don’t know.”

Suddenly feeling as hollow as my voice sounded, I drew a deep breath, and forbidding myself to tremble, I repeated the question. “Do you still love me?” The words now seemed strange on my tongue.

And after an endless moment Ralph answered in a low, raspy voice. “I guess I don’t.”

A crow flashed black across the sky, its shadow skimming the earth. I was frozen into limbo where decisions and actions were impossible, where feelings were impossible. A defensive mechanism I supposed, a reflex taking over. Like a nothing I stumbled through nothingness. Pull yourself together and tell the kids, an inner voice roused my unconscious mind. What would they say?

I stood by the window with my back to John when he came into the room. “Your father and I are getting divorced.”

I felt rather than saw Johnny’s shocked movement. “Why?”

“Your father doesn’t love me anymore, and I can’t live without love. I mean I can’t live with someone who... I mean....” Oh God, I mustn’t cry. “Do you know what I mean?” I turned around.

There were lines of concern about John’s eyes, masking his youth. He came toward me and put his arms around me. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ll always be here for you.” His understanding and kind words barely registered on my numbed mind.

Peter masked his emotions with a deceptive calmness. He was a master at this. My defenses began to subside, puzzling over the feelings he was hiding.

Bobbie stiffened and didn’t know what to say. I understood. She was very close to her dad. Yet her inability to show compassion threatened to shatter my last shreds of control.

Chris, our oldest, seemed not surprised. After all, divorce was the norm in today’s life.

But it wasn’t the norm for us. We were going to grow old together, Ralph and I. It was part of the game we always played, two old hopeless fools still in love.

Severely bent over and barely able to walk or talk, Ralph would call in a quavering voice, “Schatzi, where are you? Come here, I need a woman!” With my glasses at the tip of my nose I’d cast my eyes downward in a pretense of embarrassment and cackle, “You old devil you.” Then with outstretched arms we’d shuffle towards each other in excited anticipation. But almost blind, we’d pass right by and take forever to come together, two old toothless clowns afflicted with tremors, and Ralph with a twitch. But in the end we’d always succeed. We’d lie side by side exhausted and spent, and deliriously happy we’d vow, “That’s how it will be in the very end.”

How long had it been since we pledged our love in this way? Lately, there was never time. Could it be that my involvement with Karen, my deceased sister’s runaway child, took so much effort that I had neglected to realize Ralph’s needs?

Or was Ralph merely going through male menopause?

I had waited to tell Karen last of the impending divorce. What would she say? I feared how it might affect her. Even though she was almost eighteen, she still needed a stable home.

“Huh? Don’t worry! I’ll stay with you.” Perhaps it was the tone of unexpected casualness in her words, simple and plain, that dragged me out of my cocoon.

Karen, who for so long had been our confused, lost, tormented soul, in the hour of my greatest pain was the one who hauled me out of the depth of my despair. And I began to perceive a life without Ralph as possible.

Not long after, however, on a day in October when the valley was filled with unexpected thunder, Ralph came home early. “If you still want to see that counselor,” he said, “I’ll come along. Perhaps you were right. Perhaps we should give it another try.”

Mystified by the unexpected, I asked, “What made you change your mind?”

And Ralph answered in a somber tone. “Yesterday, I went to look at an apartment.” He paused and turned his back to me. “A very nice apartment, but all of a sudden it struck me,” he turned to face me again, “you wouldn’t be there when I would come home.”

I gasped a sigh of relief, and while collecting the fragments of my heart I began to envision the possibility of, once again, playing the game.

 

~Christa Holder Ocker
Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul

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