Sam had made up her mind to leave a while ago but couldn’t quite follow through with it. She didn’t remember when the idea first sprouted in the unkempt, weedy garden of her mind, but it grew and its roots reached deep down inside her cerebellum.
Then, two days earlier, the washing machine broke down, spewing water all over the laundry room floor. Sam figured the final rasp and release of its foamy tears was a sign of surrender. It had given up. She admitted to herself that she, too, had broken down underneath the load of her life. Even the little things started to pile on top of each other like the mound of dirty, half-washed laundry. Maybe it was time for her to surrender, too.
Sam woke in a cold sweat to the infant hours of dawn, her thin, cotton tank top clinging to her damp chest. A loud snore erupted from Carl and she looked over at him warily. His back was turned to her. She knew today was the day. She rocked out of bed, the springs of the mattress groaning in relief.
Everything changed three years ago when they found out. Carl no longer made love to her; sex became almost a clinical act. He no longer kissed her or whispered the words that made her feel wanted. He didn’t cup her breasts in his hands with that tender wonder, as if it was his first time seeing and touching them. He stopped interlocking his hands with hers as they moved against each other’s naked flesh.
When they were well into the second year of their marriage and had no children to show for it, they agreed to see a specialist. A few expensive sessions and several exhausting tests later, it was Carl who was issued the dreaded infertility card. There was nothing she could do, the specialist said. Their only options were artificial insemination. Or adoption. Carl wouldn’t hear of it. He brushed it off at first, but Sam knew the diagnosis had devastated him. Like getting stripped of his manhood. He refused to see another specialist. Out of stubborn pride, he charged at her each night like a desperate man set to prove something—burying his shame and anger inside her—hoping his frantic attempts would stir some life within her womb. Another year went by and he gave up trying altogether.
Instead, he picked fights with her almost every night. His words hurt deep, but she knew he didn’t mean any of it. He didn’t let on how much the news of his infertility had torn him apart. Anger was his way of dealing with it. The angrier he was, the more he was hurting. He was also trying to get her to shoulder some of the responsibility and shame—it couldn’t all be on him. Sam figured she could take it.
She wanted to prove to herself she was stronger and more patient than her mother in the wake of difficulties. That she could stay and take everything; clean up the messes and fold away the problems. Her mother had decided to run away from them. She had tossed them all away and gone in search of a better life that she didn’t have to work so hard at all the time. Sam never forgave her mother for leaving them when she was barely ten years old and her sister only five. Leaving them with a father who worked too hard and tried his best, but who died thinking he hadn’t done enough for his two motherless girls. Sam wanted to prove she wasn’t anything like her. She would never leave her children.
Turning away from the bed, Sam wrapped her arms around her body and tip-toed to the closet. In the grayish-purple light, her eyes made out the rectangular shape of the old suitcase that had once belonged to her run-away mother. It was the only memento Sam had taken from her mother’s apartment after she died; an appropriate reminder of her. So it wasn’t entirely her fault, Sam reasoned, because running away was in her genes. She pulled out the suitcase from the bottom of the closet and unzipped it, peeling back the limp flap. It had seen too many places and traveled too many miles. The pink of the flowers on the worn fabric was fading away.
Sam stood up and grabbed her clothes from the rack, slipping them off of the hangers as quietly as she could and dropping them into the suitcase without even bothering to fold them. She was tired of folding. She stuffed as much of her other belongings as she could in the suitcase, stripping the tiny bedroom of her existence before the sponge of sky fully soaked up the flooding sunlight.
Carl was still asleep and unaware. Sam figured it was best not to leave him a letter. What would she even say?
She walked out of the bedroom, waddling as she carried the heavy suitcase. Somehow its overstuffed front upset her and she couldn’t figure out why, but after staring at it for a couple of seconds, she realized that it reminded her of a pregnant belly. Great, even her mother’s suitcase was mocking her. She left it in the hall and headed for the bathroom. She got dressed and ready, filling her makeup bag with the cosmetics and toiletry that decorated the small bathroom’s sink and shower caddy.
She found an unopened pregnancy test pushed all the way to the back of one of the drawers. Wrapping the box in toilet paper, she tossed it in the trash. Sam remembered all the times she sat down on that same toilet to pee on the damn things. She remembered her anxiety waiting, praying for those double lines to appear. She remembered all the times those little pink sticks broke her heart.
Once she finished cleaning out the bathroom, it looked almost empty without the colorful clutter of the bottles and containers. She was only leaving behind her wedding ring, which she placed in a small jewelry dish on the sink.
Before leaving the bathroom, Sam faced the silent judgment of the mirror and allowed its tiny frame to hold her reflection for a minute. She recalled something Carl had said to her once.
“Your face has this sort of lost look and it’s one of the first things I fell in love with. Like you were asking me to guide you. I liked that, being depended on. I want you to count on me.”
It was hard to count on a man who had stopped counting on himself.
Why did not being able to have children together have to change everything between them? Why did something that didn’t even exist have the power to ruin a five-year marriage? Why not hold on to what they already had? Why wasn’t that enough?
Even back when they were still dating, Carl often talked about wanting to have kids. He was a traditional man, having grown up in a big Catholic family. How embarrassing for Carl to be the only one unable to have children out of his four older siblings. All four of them had given the Mechson family an abundance of grandchildren and Mrs. Mechson never failed to grill Carl and Samantha about it during family get-togethers.
When they attended Carl’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving last year, from the minute they sat down at the dinner table, Mrs. Mechson started her usual lament of how long she had waited for her youngest son to give her grandchildren and how she would be long gone before that ever happened. Apparently her ten grandchildren who sat clamoring at the dinner table weren’t quite enough, Sam thought bitterly.
Carl pretended he didn’t hear her or would strike up conversation with his favorite sister, Beth. But when his mother didn’t get the hint and kept going, his patience ran out. He put his fork down and returned his mother’s steady gaze over the candlelight. Sam held her breath. Carl was going to tell everyone the truth. She bowed her head to avoid their eyes.
“We’re just not ready yet, Ma, leave it alone,” Carl said.
Sam couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t he just tell them and end this torture? She understood it was a hard thing to admit to himself let alone tell his family, but to lie and act as if he wasn’t ready to have kids would only motivate his mother to keep badgering them. She turned her face to peek up at Carl. He didn’t look at her.
“Not ready? Well that’s preposterous, of course you’re ready,” his mother said in a shrill voice. “You and Samantha need to have children while you’re still young, not when you’re older. That’s when you won’t be ready.”
Carl didn’t reply and went back to cutting up his cold turkey and stuffing his mouth with food so he wouldn’t have to talk. Wanda Mechson gave up for the time being and returned her attention to her own plate.
After dinner, Sam pulled Carl into the guest bedroom and confronted him about his lie.
“You really think lying to your family will make this problem go away? You need to tell them the truth! I can’t sit through another family get-together with your mother drilling us about why we won’t have kids. You have to tell her we can’t!”
“Don’t do this right now, Sam! I don’t want to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving. I’ll call Mom later this week to explain everything, okay?” Carl said.
“And if you don’t, I will.”
“Don’t make threats, Samantha!”
“I’m not threatening you, Carl. I know how hard this is for you, for both of us, but we can’t keep lying to your family. They’re going to find out eventually.”
“I know, but let’s go out there and pretend we’re happy. They’ll find out soon enough we’re far from it.”
That stung. Why couldn’t he see how hard she was trying?
Later that same night, in the dark privacy of their own bedroom and during a rare moment of intimacy, Carl placed his head on Sam’s lap while she sat up in bed, attempting to read. He looked like a child himself. Like countless times before, he told her about the son he wanted to have with her. A son they could name Nathan, after his grandfather. And if it turned out to be a girl, then Sophia, after Sam’s Nana. He wanted several children, of course, but he’d be grateful for just one. His unborn children lived and grew inside his head and he existed there with them, achingly.
“I want to teach Nathan—or Sophia—to drive and read maps. I want them to be mine, of my blood and bones. It may sound selfish, but I don’t want to adopt someone else’s child and it would kill me to have another man’s sperm grow a baby inside you,” he said with a voice lowered by the weight of shame. “I would feel so useless, like I had no right to that child.”
“You know that’s not true, Carl,” Sam whispered, stroking his tangled hair. Perhaps if she worked through the tangles of his hair, she could do the same with his heart. “It doesn’t matter how we have children. We can still name them what we want, raise them how we want, and love and spoil them as much as we want. They would be ours because we would raise them with our love.”
“You just don’t get it, Sam,” he sighed and left her lap for his own pillow. A few minutes later, he fell asleep. Sam sat there a while longer and stared into the dark, regretting her words. She placed her book back in her lap just to fill the empty space where Carl’s head had been. She fell asleep with it in her arms.
Even though Sam knew how strongly Carl felt, she kept hinting at their other options. A child was a child, genetics played a small part. But she knew that wasn’t true and so did Carl. The following week, almost out of spite, Carl started making excuses and putting off the call to his mother, claiming he wasn’t ready. It turned into yet another thing they fought about.
His family did find out a month later, though. On Christmas Eve, Carl got drunk and announced it to everyone during dinner after Mrs. Mechson made yet another remark. Carl’s brother Ian was telling everyone how much fun Abigail, his youngest, had making Christmas cookies and hot cocoa with Grandma earlier that day.
“It’s really a shame Carl’s children won’t get to do any of those things with me.”
With all the pressure from Sam to tell his family the truth, his mother’s comment was too much for Carl to handle. And the alcohol further fueled him.
“We can’t have kids, Ma! We’ve been trying for two years and we just can’t. Happy?”
They all looked at Sam with accusing eyes until Carl, red-faced and slurring, yelled at them that it was his problem and not hers.
“I’m the one shooting blanks. And yes, we’ve already undergone every test and treatment under the sun, so don’t bother giving any suggestions!” Carl shouted. After some more yelling over Mrs. Mechson’s loud sobs, everyone left their cold, half-eaten plates and withdrew to separate corners in his parents’ huge house.
Half an hour later, Carl packed their bags and wanted to leave without saying goodbye to anyone. Standing in the silent entryway and blocking the door, Sam begged him to at least say goodbye to his parents and not make things worse than they were. But Carl, still intoxicated, shouted that they could all go to hell, forcing her to actually push him out of the door before he caused another scene.
Following that fiasco, their relationship with Carl’s family became strained and distant. After a while, they stopped attending family gatherings altogether. Sam could tell it killed Carl to see his siblings with their children and the way his parents doted on them, especially now that he could no longer pretend they were putting off having kids by choice. On top of that, he couldn’t take his mother’s looks of pity. And neither could she. In some ways, it was worse than her nagging.
“I’d rather die than have anyone pity me,” he said when she suggested he call his mother.
“Well, how about your dad?”
“He’s worse than Ma, if that’s even possible. Treats me like I’m disabled or something.”
She stopped insisting after that.
They tried to come to terms with their loneliness, but it proved more and more difficult with each passing year.
Sam could no longer stay and watch Carl blame and isolate himself over something he couldn’t control. That neither of them could control. She couldn’t take the fights they had on a regular basis, or worse, the stretched-out silences. She had come to terms with not having children or considering other options, why couldn’t he? What was he trying to prove? It was like he no longer considered Sam part of his life; she was just there, fading into the walls. Carl’s almost obsessive desire for children of his “own flesh and blood” had created such a rift between them that nothing could fill. He was the one pushing her out the door.
Before leaving, Sam sat at the small kitchen table and went through the contents of her purse to make sure she had everything. She took out a crumpled bank receipt from the inside pocket of her purse and was grateful she hadn’t touched the ten grand in her savings account. Sam was also fortunate she was collecting unemployment; otherwise, she would have spent half her savings by now. She was laid off five months ago from her copyeditor job when the company decided to do a major downsize. Carl’s accounting salary had been enough to sustain them both while she searched for a new job.
She would be on her own now. The thought sent her into a panic, but she tried to convince herself that she had things under control. That she was prepared.
Ten thousand dollars would be enough to start over somewhere—she didn’t know where yet—and rent a small apartment. Then she could resume her job hunt and fill out more applications. Meanwhile, she would be staying downtown with her sister Amy until she found a place of her own. When she called to tell her the news and ask if she could stay with her for a while, Amy didn’t seem surprised. “So, you had to stay in that marriage for an additional three years just to prove to yourself it wasn’t going to work? Well, there you have it.” Her younger sister wasn’t one to mince words. “But I’m proud of you for coming to your senses. Of course you can stay with me.”
The most crucial step was leaving and Sam was taking it. Perhaps she had been planning for this day longer than she thought. Deep down, she had known it was inevitable. Her wallet, passport, and birth and marriage certificates were safely tucked inside her overstuffed purse. At some point, she would need to consider filing for divorce.
A dull thump from the bedroom startled Sam out of her thoughts. It was 7:45 on a Sunday morning and Carl usually liked to sleep in until almost noon on Sundays. Why was he up so early? Maybe he had seen her packing. Shit. She could explain why she was dressed. She was simply going out to run errands.
But the suitcase…
Sam made out Carl’s sluggish form shuffling out of the dark bedroom in wilted slippers. His puffy eyes narrowed when he saw her sitting at the kitchen table, fully dressed.
“Today’s Sunday, right?” he said, pushing a fist against his mouth to hold back a yawn.
“Yeah, it is. I’m surprised you’re up this early,” her voice almost cracked.
“You woke me up, what the hell were you rummaging around in the closet for at the ass crack of dawn?” he asked, looking around the room, expecting to find something. His eyes landed on the suitcase and he froze. He looked up at her, questioningly. Then back at the suitcase. Again at her, accusingly.
“Well, the washing machine is broken, so I figured I’d take our clothes to the laundromat,” she mumbled. “I thought I would stick them all in my old suitcase to make it easier to carry.”
She held her breath, waiting for the inevitable onslaught.
“We’ve dirtied that many clothes since Friday? It looks like you emptied our closet.”
She was shocked. Carl knew she was leaving. He knew she had only taken her clothes. During their many fights, she sometimes threatened that she would pack her suitcase and leave for good. She was doing just that today and he knew it. Why was he going along with her bullshit story about the laundromat?
“Well, it just seems like a lot when you have to carry it all from the house to wash. And I can’t actually take them all in one batch, so it will most likely be two trips,” she said, going along with the charade. A pause, then she added, “Need anything else while I’m out?”
“No, I’m good. But you could have made some coffee,” he said, heading towards the kitchen sink. He turned on the faucet and put his index finger underneath the running water, waiting for it to warm up.
“I’m sorry, Carl.” She went over to him. He stood still, his back facing her, waiting to see what she was going to do.
She slowly put her arms around his torso and rested her head against his strong, curved back. She clenched her jaw to keep from crying. This was the closest they had been in months.
Carl turned off the faucet.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, petting her clasped hands with a hot palm.
“Face me for a second,” she said in a hoarse voice.
He turned in the circle of her arms and looked down at her, his eyes giving him away. He definitely knew she was leaving. Sam kissed him.
Leaning into the kiss, he held both sides of her face and kissed her hard. His hands moved down to her waist and she could feel him harden against her. Before she knew what was happening, their clothes were flying off. With their lips still locked, Carl picked her up and carried her over to the kitchen table. Placing her gently on the cold, wooden surface, he cupped her breasts with his hands and kissed her neck. She let out a moan and pushed him into her.
Right before she climaxed, he interlocked his hands in hers like he used to.
Panting, they sank to the kitchen linoleum, still holding on to each other.
“I’m sorry for not making coffee,” she said once she caught her breath, hoping he knew what she was actually apologizing for.
“It’s okay,” he replied. “Sam –”
Before Carl could say anything else, Sam wiggled out of his embrace and stood up. Grabbing her clothes off the floor, she put them on in a hurried panic and cursed herself for letting her guard down. She shouldn’t have let that happen, but at the same time, she felt that she needed it. It was selfish, but at least it was some form of goodbye.
“I have to go now, Carl,” she said, hopping on one foot to pull on her last sock. “We’ll talk later.”
Carl nodded and got up to search for his own clothes. He looked so small in his nakedness and she hated herself for doing this to him. After what had just happened between them, she knew that whatever he said next would convince her to stay. And maybe things would be better for a little while. But she knew it wouldn’t last. She was teetering underneath that fragile leave-stay threshold. She had to make it just past that.
Sam pulled away from the kitchen and from Carl for the last time, picking up her suitcase and purse.
“There’s eggs in the fridge.”