My husband walks in the front door and puts my son’s lunchbox on the counter. There are dishes piled everywhere, breakfast yet to be cleaned up, lunch plates piled on top of breakfast. He knocks over a glass of milk, and it spills over the counter and on to the floor. He walks into his study, walks back through the kitchen, hangs up his coat, checks on the dog.
I am cleaning the kitchen and I know if I clean up the milk, I’ll be angry about it.
I have a theory I call the boxcar theory. I’m not sure where I came up with the boxcar label. I do watch box cars a lot. The history of Chicago is crossed, connected and covered with train tracks. The ones the trains still use mostly head through town and no longer to the stockyards and steel plants once on the city’s south side.
I hear the rhythm of the cars’ wheels as I lie in bed at night. I count them as they go by when I am taking my children to hockey practice. I notice the graffiti as they rumble past the grocery store parking lot. The city’s words scrawled on the edges of the cars at the tops and the bottoms, where it’s easiest to hit them when lying on your belly with a can of spray paint.
I think of boxcars when people don’t respect something because it looks like hell. That’s the boxcar theory.
I’ve got a broken-down, worn-out kitchen, and now it’s covered in the entire process of blueberry pancakes, peanut butter and jelly sandwich remains, applesauce containers, dirty dishes and what difference does a little spilt milk make?
It makes me angry. So with an effort toward being polite, I tell my husband he spilled milk in the kitchen. Maybe he didn’t realize he knocked the milk over when he put the lunchbox on the counter.
He rages into the kitchen and lets loose. Now it’s about the look I gave him when he spilled it. Based on the looks I get from my 8-year old, I am realizing I am pretty good at throwing out looks, so I probably did tell him I was pissed he spilled the milk without saying anything. I don’t remember the look. I didn’t see it
The fight rewinds to weeks ago when I got mad at him for some other random kitchen incident. He makes a flourish out of trying to help with the dishes and when I reach around him to unload the dishwasher, he storms upstairs.
I like to name our fights. I find humor in the irony of naming fights that are never really about what we were fighting over, the shower curtain fight, the mushroom fight, the Adlai Stevenson fight. Labeling them helps me catalogue, helps me remember things I don’t want to forget.
My husband likes to tease me at dinner parties about naming our fights, but I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t do it to be cute. I didn’t like fighting about the Monopoly shower curtain. The Adali Stevenson fight? Well I probably don’t even have to name that one, because I’ll never forget.
I feel as though we are going back to one of those places my friend Donna calls a valley. She tells me marriages are like everything else, they cycle in peaks and valleys. Sometimes I worry that too much of my marriage has been spent in a valley. Maybe I’m just good at cataloguing valleys. Maybe I need to celebrate the mountains more.
We’ve been in the mountains, my husband and me, for months now, ever since his business stalled on its track. To borrow a line from Springsteen’s song “The River”: “lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy.” The good thing about no work? My husband is home and participating in our lives.
He is making blueberry pancakes for breakfast. He is at the dinner table, and we are talking about our days. Even if I’m not so sure either one of us is all that interested, at least we’re talking, communicating. And that carries us from the dining room to the bedroom, and it’s been really great, for awhile.I could name this one the spilled milk fight.
My husband is asleep now, upstairs, afraid, sad and knowing what I know. The dog is dying. And that is worth crying about.
Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. She can be reached at email@example.com.