I watched him working at his computer. I couldn’t see what was on the screen but I could see the light reflected in his eyes. He was entranced like always, which was a good thing, I guess. I sat across from him with my elbows on our small wooden table and waited to see if he’d look up and give me a smile. He didn’t, but I enjoyed listening to him tap the keys, and tried to hear some rhythm or repeating pattern to it. It made me happy.
I didn’t always pay this much attention to his work. Well, it really didn’t happen in front of me until very recently. In the past, he’d head out pretty early and consistently most days and we wouldn’t connect again until much later in the day, sometimes at night if he had something to do after work. He had his sphere or domain and I had mine, and I must say that he never brought his work or day’s travails home with him, so our lives were separate and distinct. But once we saw one another we were back on the same page, though. He’d ask me about my day and I’d listen to whatever he chose to share about his as he dumped his keys by the door and then threw his work clothes on our bed and put on a t-shirt and sweats. Then we’d eat and maybe watch something on his laptop. I usually just fell asleep against him. It was a routine that was comfortable but also very, very rewarding. Our relationship worked.
Things started changing after he shifted to working from home.
One of the first things I noticed almost immediately was that he was home all day but not necessarily present, if that makes any sense? He came up with a new routine pretty quickly, which started with sitting at the counter in the kitchen and then moving to our table where he’d put his laptop, and then stay on and off the most of the day talking at it. I’m all for routines, mind you, but I was disappointed, as I’d had my own which I’d followed for as long as I can remember, and I thought he’d merge his new one with mine.
Instead, we spent the start of each day eating in the kitchen, but barely together, and then we’d part when he went to his table, leaving me to consider following my routine as if he wasn’t in the room. We shared a small one-bedroom apartment and I’d spent most of my days doing things in the living and eating area once he’d left for work, so suddenly I felt as though he’d somehow superseded or taken over my space. I knew he had to be there but it was still really strange to be so close to him and yet so far. I’d do my thing, whether working or relaxing or just taking a nap. He didn’t bother me in those moments, which bothered me.
Overhearing what he said made it worse. I had never known him to raise his voice in anger except in matters of life and death, like the time I was so caught up in something that I almost walked in front of a moving car, and he yelled in a tone that was pure hatred, but hatred of what could have happened, not of me. And he saved my life that evening. Otherwise, we never spoke in anything but the most honest and loving tones.
He was different on his computer, at times talking loudly and what seemed to be angrily, but who knows? The changes in tone and volume were upsetting to me in themselves, and it reminded me of the sounds predators made when on the hunt. He probed and parried with his voice at other voices s if they were more his prey than fellow participants. His demeanor would continue after he’d get up and pour himself a coffee or juice between sessions, the conversations continuing but only his part as a commentator or judge. He spoke into the air as if he had to tell it something that it didn’t want to hear.
I tried to insert myself into these moments more than once, if only to save him from himself, but he’d have none of me and either ignore what I said, or playfully push me away. In those fleeting moments he was back to his regular self, however, so I guess I was partially successful in asserting our connection. But they never lasted, and I began to realize that his behavior during the day was an entirely new dimension to his personality. Or maybe it was old. It certainly wasn’t the personality we shared.
When he was his daytime self I would retreat to whatever it was that I was doing and try to ignore him, which was incredibly difficult because I care and, like I said, we shared a pretty intimate living space.
He also smelled different. I’m particularly sensitive to odors and he had this smell about him at the end of the day when he came home and, well, it was just him. Kind of musky and tired and so very, very human. He smelled of honesty and vulnerability. I would love just nestling against his cheek and drawing him in deeply, his arm around my shoulders as he asked me about my day, his words washing over me as I bathed in his presence. But now that we were spending entire days together, he wasn’t the same. He was guarded and anxious and he smelled bitter, like a car that had just avoided an accident. I found it uncomfortable to be the same room with him sometimes, but I couldn’t say anything.
The days passed and our routine morphed in odd little ways.
I found myself trying to avoid him sometimes, going to the furthest opposite corner of the living room to do my thing or to the bedroom instead. He was fine with my absence, or the absence of my desire for his attention, and when we reconnected sporadically during the day he’d act as if he were terribly curious about what I’d been doing. Yet he knew full well what I’d been up to while he worked. This made me want to avoid him more often, if only to interject some mystery into our relationship, but there was only so much I could even contemplate doing that would be different; after all, we were stuck in the same spaces and I wasn’t really one to invent entirely new activities unless an opportunity presented itself.
One of his new routines was to spontaneously decide he needed a break and want to go for a stroll together. We’d traditionally tried to spend some time outside together in the mornings and again every evening, and I’d been so happy with that arrangement. Rain or shine we’d spend time just taking in the the moments, all of the sights and smells and sounds, encountering others and interacting with them. We never talked much during those times but we were together nevertheless. But now, he’d grab me and we’d go out because he wanted to, sometimes a few times in a given hour, and it felt entirely different, as if I was just coming along for the ride or as an excuse for his behavior. Many times he’d be on a call, talking into the space in front of him instead of sharing the space with me, and then turn around and ask me to go outside with him. I began dreading the possibility of those requests and I tried to show him with my body language that I wasn’t interested. But he didn’t care.
Even sleeping together felt different, somehow distant also. He tossed and turned a lot more, which made it difficult for me to stay in any one position for much of the night. I don’t know if he was troubled by what he had done during the day or something else, but I could sense his agitation even when he was unconscious. When he moved, I felt as though I was in his way.
It became clear to me after a while that we had no capacity for trying to resolve these issues. We’d never really had any differences to speak of, not when we had our established and mostly independent routines. Now that we were together pretty much all the time, it revealed that we had never consciously tried to shape our time together, so it had evolved on its own. We evolved on our own and now that we had to consciously develop it, we lacked the language to do so. Or maybe we lacked the will.
I knew from my friends that many of them were experiencing similar challenges. They were learning more about their partners and didn’t like much of what they discovered. They also noted that few of their partners evidenced much if any interest in learning more about them. We were expected to remain unchanged, somehow, or unquestionably adaptable as our partners went their own ways.
Who knows where this will go, but I’ve begun to ask myself if it’s even possible for a dog to divorce her owner.
[This story is from the forthcoming collection Strange In Place]