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He should have brought something. Why couldn't he ever think of the right thing to do until it was too late?

'We've only been married four years,' he reminded her.
'Well? Would you rather divorce at thirty or sixty-five?'

Don't ask me what we should do, Ellen. Don't lay this on me, because I'll blow it.

How odd, that women are taught to dream of happily-ever-after, and men are taught to expect it.

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Working It Out            June 1, 2000

The things you need to change, you must figure out yourself

by P.J. Lambrecht

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Sam rapped once on the front screen door of his own house and felt immediately disoriented. How utterly wrong it felt to knock on his own door, to stand on his own front stoop and wait for his own wife to let him in.

'For heaven's sake, Sam, come on in!' Ellen's voice called from somewhere deep in the house. 'I'll be there in a minute.'

She sounded irritated, or maybe she thought it was silly of him to knock, too.

He stepped inside, but moved no further than the foyer. After a month in the local motel, he was already a stranger here.

Sam's never really lived in the house. He just eats and sleeps there.

Ellen had said that, on their first visit to the marriage counselor after the separation.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked around at the foyer, wondering if that table under the mirror had always been there, if the walls had always been this particular shade of cream. Everything looked alien now, disturbingly unfamiliar.

But it never felt like my house at all. Ellen decorated it, Ellen furnished it - it wasn't our house - it was Ellen's. I was just a guest there.

That had been his answer, delivered almost petulantly in that stuffy office lined with books on Making Marriage Work, while he wondered what the hell they were doing there. Sure, things had been a little strained between them lately - but a trial separation and a marriage counselor? That was the last thing you tried, when nothing else worked, right? But that was what Ellen had wanted, so Sam had sat back and waited to see what would happen to his life.

He'd spent a month of Tuesdays and Thursdays in that small, sad office with Ellen, feeling like a thirty-year-old child sent to his room. She talked and he listened, then the counselor talked and he listened, and apparently he'd been a very good boy, because today he was being allowed to go back home.

'Hello, Sam.' Suddenly Ellen was right there in front of him, the Magic Wife. Now you see her, now you don't.

She looks nice, he thought. The blue dress was new, and it matched her eyes.

He stared at her for a moment, his mind stammering while his lips remained sealed. He wondered what the proper form of greeting was in a situation like this. Had the marriage counselor covered that? Was there a little instruction booklet on How to Behave When You Return to Give Your Marriage a Second Chance? Should they shake hands? Hug? Kiss?

Ellen seemed to know what to do, but then Ellen always did. Her hands were soft as she took both of his - deceptively soft, really, considering the iron-willed woman behind them. 'Come into the living room, Sam.'

Happy to be relieved of the awful responsibility of what to do next, he followed her obediently down the hall.

And then she said over her shoulder, 'I have a welcome home present for you.'

He grimaced miserably, shriveling inside as he followed her. Damn. He should have brought something. Flowers, wine, the Hope diamond... something. Why the hell couldn't he ever think of the right thing to do until it was too late to do it?

'Well, there it is.' Ellen stopped in the doorway, her smile still tentative.

His gaze tracked her expansive gesture to a dainty-looking chair still wearing a cluster of tags. He blinked at it stupidly. 'The chair?'

Ellen nodded, beaming now. 'You've always wanted one.'

'A pink chair? I've always wanted a pink chair?'

Her mouth made one of those tight, impatient lines until she realized she was doing it and quickly forced the smile back in place.

God, we're both trying so damn hard, he thought.

'It's not pink, Sam; it's dusty rose. I would never get you a pink chair after what you said at the marriage counselor's...' Her lips folded in on one another and she blinked rapidly. 'And speaking of that, Sam, you think I would have decorated this whole damn house in pastels if I'd known how much you hated them? Why couldn't you have told me? Why did I have to learn such a stupid, simple thing in a room with a complete stranger...?' She stopped talking then, just when her voice started to get shrill.

'I don't hate pastels,' he mumbled quickly, backpedaling just as fast as he could because this wasn't going well. 'I just said they were...'

'Wimpy. You said they were wimpy. Well, that is not a wimpy pink chair. It's DUSTY ROSE!' She exhaled sharply and closed her eyes, her head shaking in tiny little movements. 'Sorry,' she whispered, then took a deep breath and looked at him. 'Sit in it, Sam. You'll like it. It's a man's chair, honest.'

Sam looked at the chair, careful to keep his face expressionless. He moved toward it slowly, walking on the eggshells of his marriage, and then sat down.

Ellen fluttered around him like a courting moth, wounding him with her sudden desperation to please. 'There! Isn't that comfortable? Now lean back, that's right, and push this button here...'

Suddenly Sam was flung backward and his feet shot up as appendages popped miraculously out of the chair. 'Dear God,' he gasped, clutching his chest.

Ellen stood over him, beaming. 'See? It's a recliner. Just like you wanted. A full-size man's chair. And you didn't think I could find one that would go in this living room.'

'Silly me,' he forced a weak smile, because the counselor said it was important to coast over the rough spots. 'But it is pink,' he added, almost sheepishly, as if it were his fault the damn chair was pink.

Her face closed like a slamming door. 'I'll get us something to drink.' The dress swirled as she turned, making a circle of blue around her legs that ignited a memory. Dancing... the first time he'd seen her she'd been dancing, and he'd fixed on the grace of her turn and the swirl of her skirt and the long line of her back, and he'd hated the man who was attached to the arm that circled her waist... He closed his eyes briefly and relaxed in the pink/dusty rose recliner, remembering.

'It's comfortable, isn't it?' she demanded from right behind him, making him jump. 'You like it, don't you?'

The ice cubes trembled in the glass when he took it from her. He considered very carefully before he spoke. 'It was a thoughtful gesture, Ellen.'

She sighed noisily and circled the chair to sit on the floral couch. Her feet were perfectly aligned on the floor and her hands were steady around her glass, but her face seemed to be sagging with an emotion that threatened to pull her down through the cushions. 'This isn't going to work, is it?' she whispered.

Sam stiffened. 'That's what you said the night you asked me to leave.'

Her smile was pained. 'I thought a separation might help.'

'Did it?'

'I don't know. Everything feels the same.' She turned her head away and Sam gazed at her profile, at the little bump in her nose that saved it from cuteness, at the tiny, barely visible mole next to her mouth that he'd kissed so many times in the beginning, a morsel on the beautiful meal of her face.

He forced himself to sip at his drink, although what he really wanted was to toss it back and pour himself another. 'We've only been apart for a month, and I've only been back for five minutes. Don't you think it's a little too soon to be drawing conclusions?'

She sighed again. 'If it isn't ever going to work, why torture ourselves trying?'

This time Sam looked away. Why, indeed? What were the stats now? One of two marriages ending in divorce? The odds were formidable, and nowadays when defeat seemed inevitable, an early surrender made sense.

'We certainly don't want to end up like your parents, do we?'

Sam winced. His parents had battled their way through 40 warlike years of marriage, just to avoid the perceived disgrace of divorce. The hell with sipping, he decided, tossing back the rest of his drink.

'They're miserable together,' Ellen insisted, buzzing at the truth like a fly at an open wound. 'All because they wasted their lives trying to make something work that was impossible right from the start.'

'We've only been married four years, Ellen,' he reminded her.

'Well? Would you rather face divorce at thirty or at sixty-five?'

He jumped up from the recliner abruptly, then stood there, confused, wondering where to go. She'd said the 'D' word. Right out loud.

It was one of those things you were never supposed to mention, because once you said 'divorce', you couldn't take it back. It was like a curse that didn't have any power unless it was spoken aloud. He suppressed a childish urge to demand that she take it back.

Ellen was just looking at him, waiting for him to say something. Ellen was always looking at him, waiting for him to say something, and Sam never knew what to say.

He plopped back into the hateful pink recliner and accidentally touched the button. The footrest shot up and flung him backward, tossing the ice cubes from his glass. They clustered on the front of his pants, then popped through his scrambling fingers onto the seat cushion. 'Damn!' he muttered, jumping up to chase the infuriatingly slippery cubes, knowing he wouldn't be fast enough.

He'd never been fast enough whenever he'd spilled something in this room. The couch still sported the faded outline where he'd spilled coffee; the shape of the pizza slice he'd dropped on the mint green carpet returned after every shampoo like stigmata... now that he thought about it, he'd left a trail of stains in Ellen's meticulous house, like a poorly trained puppy.

Was that why it was all falling apart? Could something as seemingly insignificant as spilled coffee eat away at a relationship, like tiny termites undermining the foundation of a house? Yeah, we loved each other, he'd tell the guys at the office after the divorce, but Ellen liked pastel colors and I didn't, and besides, I was always spilling stuff.

He captured the last ice cube and dropped it into his glass, then turned to face her. 'I'm really sorry about spilling the ice, Ellen.'

Ellen gaped at him for a moment, then shook her head slowly, sadly. 'This isn't about ice, Sam.'

He made a tiny noise with his mouth. Of course it wasn't about ice. He knew that. And it wasn't about spilled coffee or dropped pizza or pastel colors, either, because, dammit, those things were so small, so stupid, they couldn't possibly destroy a marriage, could they? So what the hell was it?

Ellen took a deep swallow from her glass that made his eyebrows lift. Ellen rarely drank alcohol, and never gulped. 'So what do we do now, Sam?' she asked bleakly.

He relaxed a little. He knew the answer to this one. 'It's your call, Ellen.' It's always been your call. The house you wanted, the furniture you wanted, the neighborhood you wanted, the separation you wanted, the marriage counselor you wanted... everything you ever wanted, Ellen. I thought I was always giving you everything you ever wanted.

'I don't want it to be my call. It has to be ours. That's the point, Sam.'

He felt a terrible weight pushing on his shoulders, driving him like a human nail down into that icy green carpet. Don't ask me what we should do, Ellen. Don't lay this on me. I don't want the responsibility, because I'll blow it.

'Do you want to try again?' she prodded him.

He shook his head hard. 'I don't want to try. I just want it to work.'

'Bingo,' she said softly, and her smile was very sad.

He frowned at her for a few seconds, confused. Bingo? What the hell was that supposed to mean? All he'd said was I don't want to try. I just want it to work...

He stared at her blankly, listening to snippets of past conversations flashing through his mind - What house do you want to buy, Sam? What kind of furniture do you like? Would you prefer paint or wallpaper? Pork chops or chicken? A separation or a divorce?

And his answer had always been the same. You decide, Ellen.

He blinked at her, momentarily stunned, wondering if Ellen was the only one, or if all women eventually learned that marriage was a job men never went to; only women punched in at the wedding.

He sagged back onto the wet cushion of the recliner like a man who has just been hit with a sponge two-by-four.

How odd, he thought, that women are the ones who are taught to dream of happily-ever-after, and men are the ones who are taught to expect it. It's the reward you're entitled to after working to find the right woman, and then working to court and win her; because after the wedding the living-happily-ever-after thing is supposed to kick in, and the work is supposed to be over. The responsibility is supposed to be over.

You decide, Ellen. You do it all. You make it work.

Suddenly she exhaled in a long, thin sigh that Sam recognized instantly. This was the part when she finally gave up, when she finally stopped waiting for the input that never came, and told him what she had decided all by herself.

'Well, Sam...' she started to say, and he flinched as if she were a bomb about to go off. 'I guess...'

'NO!' It startled him to hear that ear-splitting, wounded-bull bellow coming out of his own mouth. And how surprising it was to find himself out of the chair, leaning over her now, his expression panicked and desperate, his mouth open and ready to say words he hadn't thought of yet, the words that would stop her from deciding this one last thing alone.

Ellen was looking up at him, her expression faintly puzzled, faintly hopeful, waiting to see what Sam had to say.

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