catt-liu-1625
Photo by Catt Liu

It’s not that he’s always late, she thought. It’s that he never really seems in a hurry to get home—even when traffic’s bad.

The blue porcelain bowl was wet in her hands, and she dropped it into the strainer. She’d been home a half hour already and had wondered where the time had gone.

You hang up your coat, check your voice mails, and then open the fridge to decide what to eat for dinner. Some nights it’s stir fry, and sometimes it’s just pasta because all you have to do is dump some spaghetti sauce in a pan on low, and wait for the noodles to boil—maybe throw spinach in there to make sure there are vegetables.

She hadn’t gotten that far yet. And he hadn’t come home or called to say that traffic was bad or that he was working out at the gym across the street from his office before he came home. Sometimes, he said that’s what he was doing.

Pasta? Tonight? God. If he said anything, I could tell him he should get home sooner to help me. Our commutes have been the same distance for a couple of years now. Maybe he should be the one to throw something on the stove. They had pasta only three nights before, and she didn’t want to hear him complain or even wonder if he was withholding a groan about the recycled menu from last week. She decided on tuna.

Tuna. What a female food, she mused, as she pulled down the two cans of fish-in-water from the pantry shelf. For some reason, tuna is a woman’s food. Most men hate it, she continued, this time broadcasting her thoughts aloud to the empty home. Maybe they’re afraid to admit they like it. They are afraid. They are afraid to say they like the scent of it, because that’s always their chief complaint. All of the jokes spring from that one thing.

In the refrigerator, the jar of dill pickles sat on the lowest rack on the inside of the door between the upside down barbecue sauce and key lime juice. She grabbed the green jar and the mustard to make the tuna salad. The phone rang. The screen lit up, blinking Mark’s name and the photo of him she’d taken on their last date at the new café down the street.

When she answered, he explained that he was going to be only twenty minutes longer, and that she shouldn’t wait to eat.

“I had to wrap something up, babe — End of the quarter kind of stuff.”

“I’ll wait,” she volunteered. “It’s no trouble. The eggs are still boiling anyway, so by the time they cool and I can handle them, you’ll be home.”

“Boiling eggs? What are we having?”

“Tuna.”

“Oh.”

She could hear it. The disappointment could be detected from the first solid note of response diving into the wavering of last-minute conversational etiquette.

“Well, I can pick something up if you want or haven’t gotten too far along. There’s one of those obnoxious skinny kids dancing and waving a five-dollar pizza sign on the side of the road right now. I could just pull off and pick one up.”

“No. Never mind. I’ll eat it. It’s just what I wanted. You get whatever. I’ll see you when you get home.”

She hung up before he said “I love you,” and turned to face the stove. The two eggs bobbed in the little saucepan. Steam billowed from the pot and fogged the microwave window.

Traffic may be bad and the tollway could be worse today. Maybe one of the accidents had been worse than usual and instead of two smashed cars, there were three piled up, one having collided first with a semi full of fuel. For a moment, she imagined blockbuster explosions and cars with crumbled fenders and bumpers torn off and strewn across the  highway.

But the quarter, according to his work folders kept in the home office bookshelf, began two months ago. She had seen that when she was looking for her cell phone charger around that time, and she had asked him if he was stressed out about meeting deadlines because he had seemed particularly defensive and moody. He had always been fairly non-combative, so it surprised her to find him responding to her so tersely—particularly when he claimed that she had been “digging in his stuff” that day in the office.

He hadn’t been nervous about meeting any goals then, but she hadn’t pieced together that his defensiveness wasn’t related as much to her messing up his “stuff” as much as it was about her possibly discovering what was buried inside it. It was Chelsea, actually, who had been sequestered into their shared office. Her promises of fidelity, all her favorite things about him written on their company sticky notes, and sloppily hidden receipts from their lunch dates. That was all jammed in the same drawer where Mark shoved all his old baseball cards he refused to sell but wouldn’t display. He knew that it enraged his wife to see the contents of that drawer still stuffed with a goldmine of collector’s items,  and that she’d quit asking him to make a decision about what to do with them two years ago.

The rattling pot shook as she began to divide her evening into sections: eating, exercising, cleaning, and then sleeping. She didn’t notice the rattling for a minute or two because she began to fixate on how to clean that office, which had become more his than hers recently. His folders and meeting posters were scattered all over the place, stacked high and leaning like paper towers or a game of Jenga. Scalding water spilled onto the stove rings as the eggs boiled, sizzling and calling her attention to dinner. She drained the pot in the sink, but she wasn’t paying attention and knocked the blue dish from its upright position in the strainer.

She was glad she caught it, because the then, she could break it.

This has been edited since its original posting.