They’d been at each other’s throats so long now
it was impossible to know how it started
or if it even mattered except to locate,
out of spite, that feeling of betrayal,
of having given all oneself in marriage
only to have, in the worst moments,
that same commitment used against them,
returning in love and driven away
again, like two planets crossing orbits
around some immense gravity, tonight
it was the dinner she cooked every Friday.
The table alone was lit like a stage play,
one triangular light cast upon them,
with manners like lines they interpreted
from some lost, unfinished play of O’Neill’s.
“Was that man at work today?” she asked.
he said, as if the whole story were contained
in her asking, so that all he had to say was “no.”
“Did you get my last message?”
“Yes, I did—I didn’t answer because
I knew I’d see you tonight,” she told him.
“What’s the use sending it then?”
She set the fork chattering onto her plate,
the sound of China tinny through the kitchen.
“I’m not angry, I’m just asking. What’s wrong now?”
“If you ruin this,” she said, “I swear to God.”
“Fine, fine. What do you want to talk about?”
“Let’s not talk about anything. Let’s just eat.”
“I was eating before you started asking
about my day,” he said. “I was just asking
about yours why you couldn’t answer my message,
you’d think I was accusing you of something.”
“I didn’t think you were accusing me.”
“No,” he answered, “but maybe that’s what you heard.
That’s not what I meant at all. I was asking
what you were doing you couldn’t answer my text,
even a short answer so I’d know you weren’t upset.”
“I wasn’t upset.”
“Well how could I know?”
“I swear to God—you never let a thing go.”
“Treat big problems light and small ones serious,”
he said, quoting a favorite proverb of his,
and the part of her conditioned to hear it
pushed back her chair from the table before she
realized how much she hated him saying it.
The chair legs thumped against the parquetry
and she paced to the kitchen sink, stopping there
although she might’ve wanted to go farther,
and, bracing herself, leaned over the sink.
“What do you get so mad about?” he asked.
Her gaze was in the garbage disposal.
“Stop saying that. I hate it—I really do.”
“You’re right, let’s forget it. We should eat instead.”
“It means nothing,” she said. “It means nothing.”
“It’s not even clever; it’s stupid.
The difference between big and small problems
is exactly why you treat them big and small.
If you treat any problem seriously
then it’s a big problem, that’s what the word means.
All, all you’ve done is switched the meaning.
And so what? You haven’t made any kind of sense.
You think it’s insightful but it’s annoying,
it’s annoying, and you think you’re clever.”
“I didn’t make it up; it’s an Eastern saying.
You act like I invented it or something.
What’s the big deal? I was giving up
so we could eat, which is what you wanted.”
“I want for you to stop using that saying,”
she said, “as though it solved every problem.
Words aren’t like algebra where you balance
both sides of a question and an answer.”
he said, “do you always have to attack me,
how I say it instead of what I’m saying?
If you know what I mean when I say something
why does it matter what the words themselves mean?”
“Whole civilizations have fallen,” she said,
“in ways we’ll never know why because their words
no longer mean what they meant to them,
whole planets blown up in a blink,
and we can’t say what we mean to each other
because you can’t mean what you say when you’re mad.”
“Sarah,” he said, “I’m sorry. For everything.
He waited for her to answer
from where he stood behind an upturned chair,
framed in that cone of light over the dining table.
“Okay,” she said, and let go the countertop
making for the bedroom, without a look for him,
she would not grant him that or give him reason
to answer what mood he could only guess at,
or in what state she could only guess she’d left him.
And how those thoughts not given to an image
seemed to flicker, unhinge and drop like leaves loose
already from having grown brittle at the stem,
falling effortlessly in heaps and heaps.