My husband calls me my love and my darling or my dahwing with a funny accent. He calls me my angel or my angel from above. He calls me my sweet September, and when I ask why, he says that it rhymes, and I say that it doesn’t. He calls me my boo and my tiful, which are separate names, though always used in that order. He calls me my double-wife, because technically he and I had been married twice, first with the common-law marriage and then with the paper one. He calls my honey, and my sugar, and my honey-lovin’ which is by far my least favorite name, and my beauty and my Valentine.
I hate these names, I say.Or, in a moment of anger, I hate these stupid freaking names.
He asks me, what do you want for your birthday?
To never hear any of these names again.
We say this every year.
My only names for him are: Tom, and, on the occasions when I’m feeling especially affectionate, Tommy.
There are really two Tommies, one much preferable to the other. In front of his family, for some reason I can’t explain, he becomes upright, tense, even robotic. He can speak to me in a manner that is terse and snappish.
Why do you do that? Are you embarrassed of me? I ask.
I didn’t do anything, he says. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
For two long years we lived with his parents, after we first moved to Kansas and bought our fixer-upper on the other side of town. We were never supposed to be at his parents’ place for so long. Those years living with Tom’s parents were not, shall we say, my favorite time. Sometimes I think his mother blames me for the reason why everything has been such a mess and why, after these eight long years, our house still isn’t done.
My mother-in-law grew up in Ecuador. She was born to a fourteen-year-old mother in poverty, shifted around from one relative to another, spent her own teenage years in a convent, came to America, learned English, became a nurse, and worked nights for many years all the while raising four kids. Sometimes it seems she likes me, but I worry she does not, overall, respect my judgment (yes she does, Tom says), and overall finds me to be a spoiled gringa, privileged and a bit lazy; if so, I can see why she would feel that way. Her name is Bertha, which in Spanish sounds beautiful, Berrta. She likes to belly dance and play accordion. She likes to talk. Now that I am no longer under her roof, we have a surprisingly good relationship, especially now that I am giving her a grandchild, news which is seemingly a bright spot in this past year, one in which she lost both her mother and her beloved uncle. Other than Tom there are no people in my little bubble, and so on sunny days I walk the ten minutes or so down the streets of Overland Park to her home, where we sit and I listen while she makes me tea, and she tells me about her life. She and Tom’s father are at the age now where they are having trouble driving, so I try to be helpful, sometimes driving them to doctor’s appointments. Still, when Bertha and I are together, and Tom is there, he seems strained, as if he feels forced to choose between the two of us. This, I understand, is an ancient plight, and a common one.
Balance is important in relationships, she once said to me, years ago, on a day when she was especially fed up with me, her hands held out in front of her, palms up, like a statue of Justice weighing the scales. Both people in a relationship need to be doing their part.
The last time Tom snapped at me over some perceived slight in front of everyone, a few months ago, we came home, and I burst into tears and then spent the night at a hotel. I was six weeks pregnant and already starting to struggle with the influx of hormones, in a way that made all emotions feel more urgent and intense. I spent that night on an uncomfortable mattress that smelled too strongly of secondhand smoke cloaked in Hawaiian Febreze, sleepless, sobbing, questioning my choices.
The next morning, Tom took me out to breakfast. We hadn’t done anything like it in a while and went to a place where we could sit outside, far away from people, a place where there never seems to be any customers, possibly because the food is not very good. I ate an omelet, queasy, feeling drained and oddly hungover. We talked about an independent film we’d like to make one day, someday, in that magical future, once we finally have it all together.
Do you see how I walk on eggshells around you when we’re with your family? I asked him. Do you see how I’m afraid to say anything?
He paused for a while and said, I’ll try harder.
Don’t try¸ I said, acutely aware of the old quote by Yoda. Just do.
In private Tom relaxes and dances for me his special little dance, which involves walking around the room in a funky way, swinging his arms. He sings me the songs—he only has a few—he’s written for me. The song are all very short. Any-thing for my every-thing. Buh buh buh. Any-thing for my every-thing. That’s the entirety of it, on repeat. Then there’s my most beautiful love, also a single musical phrase. In those insomniac hours, he holds me and hums in my ear his lullaby, go to sleep, my honey, go to sleep, my darling, maybe all your dreams-dreams be-be sweet.
He says, I’m going to write a musical around these songs.
I tell him, it will be a very bad musical.
He rarely calls me by name except when he is irritated with me. That’s not how taxes work, Amanda. Or, perhaps, Yes, Amanda, I already took the trash out. Or when I tell him of my scheme to give birth in Canada, so that our child will have free healthcare and a shot at a better life, he says simply and plaintively with a long sigh, Oh, Amanda.
I say to him, I only ever hear you say my name in frustration.
He says, that’s not true.
He asks me what I want for Valentine’s Day and I say, I want you to stop calling me by these names.
And he says, I’ll try, which we both know is a lie.
I dread the holidays, when he calls me my sugarplum and my RUM-pum-pum-pum.
Tom likes to correct me on how to pronounce words, a habit which never ceases to irritate me, even though I do it to him as well. Apparently, I mispronounce Belarus, litigious, irrevocable, and others, but I am still convinced my ways of pronouncing these words is better, they always sound better to me. In our conversations, we seem to spend a lot of time stopping to fact-check each other and ask the Internet who is right. Most of the time, he is.
Tom is almost ten years older than I am, and there are times that this decade makes itself felt. I met him fifteen years ago, when I was eighteen and he was twenty-seven, what I now appreciate is a sizable age difference. I pursued him, and he resisted me, to his credit. At the time we met, he was under the illusion that I was in my early twenties, and when he discovered the truth, was quietly horrified. We remained friends and began a relationship only five years later, after I’d moved to New York City and then back to Florida and then Los Angeles and married and divorced another man. I have lived too much and enjoyed too little.
Oh, Amanda, he says.
Do you notice how sometimes you talk to me like I’m a foolish child? I ask him.
I’ll try harder.
Sometimes he calls me my señorita, which I rather like, and el sucre de mi vida, which is the most incorrect of all his terms. He means to say sweetness but then the word should be la dulzura. Sucre might mean sugar in French, but it would be pronounced quite differently, whereas in Spanish the meaning of the word sucre is the form of currency which used to be used up until the year 2000 in Ecuador, a country which Tom is apparently a citizen of, though we never knew. Just six months ago we found out that he is citizen of Ecuador—his mother gave birth to him in the US while she was a permanent resident—apparently, Tom has been an Ecuadorian his whole life and we never knew it. Which means that our child will be a citizen of Ecuador, and that I can be as well, should I elect to obtain the citizenship, which I think I will.
I ask him, what will we do there?
I don’t know, he says. Maybe just relax.
We’ve come to speak of Ecuador as a place where we can escape from all our problems. One of our obstacles is that Tom does not speak Spanish. I do, somewhat, or at least I think I do, until while driving in the car I tune in to one of the only Spanish-speaking stations in town, la radio Maria, and while most of the time I understand what people are saying, there are times they discuss some subject—such as the various methods of dehydrating fruit—and I cannot keep up at all.
Maybe I don’t speak Spanish that well, I say to Tom. Maybe I’m like Peggy Hill.
Who is Peggy Hill? he asks. For he never watches television.
This lady who thinks she can speak Spanish. But she can’t.
Well, you speak it better than me.
That’s not saying much.
There are few things in life I find genuinely relaxing, but studying languages is one of them, though the older I get, the less I seem to retain. Many hours I have spent hunkered over a cheap particle board desk immersed in some study of a language—for school or on my own, with the various methods available—and I am always convinced I speak them all poorly, and that one day everyone will find out I don’t speak anything well at all (including English which apparently I mispronounce) and accuse me of being a kind of phony, a pseudo-intellectual, something a boy who I once loved called me when I was sixteen, an injury to my ego from which I’ve yet to recover.
Tom does not speak many languages, but he is good at math, and building things, and designing little inventions and robots. He likes to say that he is Very Logical, which is a nice way of saying he thinks he is always right about everything.
In a heated moment, I say to him, sometimes I feel like you think I’m stupid.
He is quick to reply, no, no, my love, you’re smarter than me!
So I ask him, then why do you talk to me this way?
He says, I don’t.
I say, yes you do.
He said, I’ll try harder.
At the end of the day, he comes home from work exhausted, slowly moving his body from one place to another. He is a vegetarian who does not eat many vegetables, seeming to survive mostly on noodles and pizza. I buy him vitamins. He doesn’t take them. I buy him gummy vitamins. He takes those. I try to cook him healthy foods, though I feel I should cook more. I clean. I do his laundry. Never did I ever think I would end up a housewife in Kansas, but here we are.
Technically, I suppose, I am in graduate school, as I have been for a long while. Though at times it doesn’t feel so much like the pursuit of education as it does a kind of unique and somewhat unjustifiable lifestyle choice, something akin to joining a monastic order, or perhaps a cult.
Recently my advisor e-mailed me about my graduate thesis, saying, in such a nice way, I’m wondering what more you want or need from me? For over a year now I’ve been trying to write a novella loosely based on my time in Los Angeles, my struggles as an actor, that great dangerous behemoth of a city I always loved and feared, and all the dreams which seemed to disintegrate the moment Tom and I moved away. When I got the e-mail, I figured I might as well be honest and replied: I have just had trouble moving forward with it. I really have been trying to make progress with it. I hate to make excuses for myself, though I can say truthfully that lately no matter how much I stare at my screen my focus has been shit, complete shit, merde, mierda, Scheiße, дерьмо.
I say to Tom, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about your health.
Don’t worry about me, he says. Worry about your writing.
You don’t need to tell me that!
How much work did you get done today?
Please don’t ask me that.
I’m trying to be supportive, he says.
Don’t do it like that.
I wonder to myself, how must I exhaust this poor man, for the many various obvious reasons outlined above.
I ask him, is it difficult to be with me?
To which he always says, placidly, as an incomprehensible look of serenity settles upon his features, I’m very happy with you, my love.
I am skeptical of this reply, but as I go upstairs, I hear him humming one of his songs. And I think to myself how rarely people appreciate things while they still have them, and so I try to do that now, but the feeling always seems to come with a great deal of pain.
The thing about Tom is that he is from the nineteenth century.
A gentleman, a word which feels strange to type out, without cynicism or irony. An extremely old-fashioned person, in a good way. There is nothing about him that is modern. I believe he was transported here in some sort of time machine, made to wear knock-off American Apparel, given a dilapidated car, a cheap smartphone, and a job at an Amazon warehouse.
Tom’s father is eighty-eight. His name is Bob, short for Robert. Bob got married and had children in late middle age, a pattern which seems to go back in the paternal line in this family for at least a few generations, a trend Tom seems to be keeping in step with. Bob grew up on a farm in Missouri during the Great Depression, in a plank house with little electricity and no indoor plumbing, with a well outside. A rope led from the house to the outhouse, and in the night Bob would follow the rope all the way down, as to not stumble away and get lost in the cold darkness of the surrounding prairie. Bob’s parents did not have a car, but they had horses, and Bob rode a horse down dirt roads to the local store. I enjoy asking Bob what his childhood was like—in summary, they worked hard in the dirt and ate a lot of potatoes—and about the movies he saw, whether he saw The Wizard of Oz at a theater when it first came out, I ask, what was that like? Bob, who does not talk much, gets a misty look in his eyes and says, I remember all the colors. For forty long years Bob worked for the Santa Fe railroad, and now that he is retired, he is a man of routine, eats dinner at six on the dot every evening. He’s good at Jeopardy! He has a tendency to repeat the same words and phrases over and over again.
When Bob was born, his mother was forty-seven and his father was fifty-three. Bob’s mother was born in the 1880s, and his father in the 1870s. Do you realize that your grandparents were Victorians? I say to Tom. They were truly from the Victorian era. This strikes me as a rare thing, to have a grandfather who was born just a decade or so after the end of the Civil War. In this family, the past feels uncomfortably close.
I never know how to describe Tom. He is tall, with shoulders that always seem clenched a bit too high, and a mop of black hair which seems to have gone gray too soon. He is patient, for the most part—though not quite as patient as he has a reputation for. He is masculine, in a comfortable way that has nothing to prove. Fiercely loyal, to a fault. Stubborn as a giant immovable rock; when he sets his mind to something—such as personally rehabbing a decrepit hundred-year-old house all on his own—nothing and no one can sway him from his plan. He tends to be quiet in conversation, to listen more than he speaks. He can be dignified, even somewhat proper. I’ve never heard him say a truly unkind word about anyone.
Maybe it’s this then, the reason why I’m out of touch with the current culture, with the ways and expectations of young men. Recently a good friend of mine—who lives out of state, for all my family and close friends live in other states, on the other side of the country—told me that her new boyfriend likes to slap and choke her when they have sex.
Is that something you want? I ask her, already knowing, by her tone, the answer.
She says, no, and then quickly, I mean, sure, sometimes it’s cool, with a voice that quivers slightly. She tells me this guy can’t seem to have sex anymore unless he is also simultaneously watching pornography on his laptop. In general, I dislike imagining my friends engaging in these kinds of activities, which is why when they tell me about that aspect of their lives, I tend to want to change the subject, but in this case, I find myself feeling sad and strangely fascinated. I have never met this guy, but I cannot help but wonder what must be going on with him. This all reminds me of my ex-husband, who always seemed to be wanting the next best thing, the next thrill, the next girl who wasn’t me. I wonder if my friend’s boyfriend even looks at her at all, or if he spends the entire time looking at the screen.
Tom does not watch pornography. I ask him why, and he says, it holds no interest for me.
He doesn’t like to drink alcohol, for which he says, I don’t see what the big deal is.
Has he ever even tried cigarettes? He says, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.
While we lie in bed trying to fall asleep, he calls me my bubeh, and wraps his arm around my stomach and calls it, my baby. He thinks this is cute. My bubeh and my baby.
Please, I say, please do not call our daughter a million ridiculous names.
(Soon, I am convinced he is going to die soon.)
Four days a week he works at the Amazon warehouse, ten-hour shifts, waking at five in the morning, dropping by our house to tinker on it, then coming home late in the evenings around seven or eight at night. For nearly two years now, we’ve have been renting a condominium in Overland Park, something which we thought was temporary, which has ended up, of course, not being quite so temporary. The fixer-upper we own, in the poor and traditionally underserved part of town, sits empty. The initial structure was built in 1910, and here it is generations later, gutted, uninsulated, a small forest of exposed studs, with no kitchen. It is still not officially fit to live in, but maybe perhaps somewhat better, and now when we tell people, it’s close to the finish line¸ we almost believe it.
For three cold Kansas winters, Tom and I lived in that house, with little more than thermal clothing and a kerosene heater. One of my dreams is that we can move into it before our daughter is born at the end of summer, that it will be done at last. I am still trying to hang onto hope. Lots of people would be grateful to have this house! Even in this condition! I used to say, on occasions when I would try to my hardest approach life in a slightly positive light. In these days of pandemic, now that feels especially true.
In the evening after Tom comes home, he sits in front of his computer, where he works on various projects, teaching himself how to code.
I say to him, you know, when you get off work, it’s OK to just come home and do nothing.
On his days off he wakes up early and then goes to the house and works on it all day.
I ask him, do you want me to come help you?
He says, no, that’s fine.
And if I push, he says, really, it’s OK, don’t worry about it.
Though I helped him to gut the house, I have not been of much use since then, and the truth is that Tom would probably like to be there in peace and be spared the inevitable sight of my tears. During what free time he has, he helps to care for his parents. His mother is having health problems, struggling with depression and anxiety—the grief, really, of her losses—major issues with her thyroid. Tom is worried about his mother all the time.
You’re doing so much, I say. You’re pushing yourself too hard.
I feel fine, he says.
I’m concerned you might be a workaholic.
I have a lot of work to do. I just gotta keep moving, he says.
That’s what my dad used to say.
The thing is, Amanda, nobody else is going to pay our bills.
I don’t want you to have to work so hard. I don’t want things to be this way.
Sometimes I dream of publishing a best-selling book, not for my personal glory, not this time, but so that I can tell him he never has to work again, so that I can show him the numbers, so that I can buy back the rest of his life, for his sake, and jealously guard what’s left for myself.
In the evenings, as we drift off to sleep, I say, I think you might be too good for me.
That’s not true. You could have married a rich man.
So I try to define my words. By “good” I mean “good” in the sense that we mean “goodness.” As in, this person is truly “good.” It occurs to me as I whisper this to him that we as a society rarely speak of goodness with any sincerity, not in any sort of real way, that we’ve become so jaded the concept of goodness seems artificial, or maybe naïve. I mean you are too “good.” Kind. Virtuous.
You are a very good person, my love, he says.
I have not always been such a good person. Though I suppose no one is good all the time. I tend to contemplate vast swaths of my life with a sense of embarrassment and regret. I would often like to reverse time, take all of my major life decisions, and redo them.
He calls me my sweet petunia.
I just say, why?
Tom can be passive-aggressive, can treat me as if I were delicate construct of porcelain, prone to cracking at any moment. He calls me milady and my buttercup and my sunshine. He sings, “My Only Sunshine” and “Bicycle Built for Two.”
Or his tone shifts, and he bristles at an idea. No Amanda, you should not buy stock in GameStop.
Other times, I announce to him, I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to New York for the summer, or I’m going to Paris for my birthday, or I’m just going to go live in a cabin in Polynesia until this pandemic is over. Even though technically I do not have money for these things. I reason that I can sell my father’s truck, the truck that I inherited, worth maybe—if I’m lucky—four thousand dollars, the truck which keeps watch over our house, the truck which we use to haul plywood, drywall, and hopefully one day, kitchen cabinets. I’m going to get my pilot’s license, I say. I’m going to make a documentary. I’m going to drive across America.
Tom simply says in a mild-mannered way, OK.
You would just let me do that? I ask. Travel the world without you?
And he says, Why wouldn’t I?
We were together in a relationship for nearly a decade before we got married a few months ago outside of a coffee shop, meeting up with an officiate and two witnesses and signing a piece of paper. No ceremony, no vows, and no rings. The whole thing took less than ten minutes. Afterwards, everyone else departed, and Tom and I went inside and got coffee and I suggested, let’s just tell them we got married outside just now! Maybe they’ll give it to us for free! Tom bristled and stiffened. No, he said. Please, don’t. Outside we took off our masks and drank our coffees and then Tom went back to work at Amazon, back to the brown boxes and the blue-and-white envelopes they call jiffies, the orange vests, high ceilings, and fluorescent lights, the long metal conveyor belts of packages extending on into infinity to the horizon, to the end of humanity’s days on Earth.
Later that night when he came home, I tried to be cheerful, but could not help but cry. None of this was special. Isn’t this day supposed to feel special?
Every day of our lives should be the most special day, he said.
But it just doesn’t feel real. I mean, we got married at Starbucks. At STARBUCKS!
Let’s get a copy of our marriage certificate. We’ll frame it and hang it on the wall.
Let’s not do that, I say.
(My double-wife, he calls me. I want to marry my love a THIRD time.)
Here is the greatest mystery of all: the man who cannot stand to be the center of attention, the man who cringes when people take photos of him and who will dance with me at a wedding only if I plead, is totally fine with me writing an essay about him and sharing it with strangers.
You don’t mind that I write about you? I ask.
No, he says. Not so long as you tell the truth.
After all these years of carefully parsing our finances, we share a bank account, and he pays for the bills, and I am afraid to spend his money, for I know that each dollar is a moment of his life in the warehouse he’ll never get back. Guilt, I feel such guilt, at how I contribute so little financially to the situation, while he who works so hard has so little to show for it.
He calls me, my everything.
I say, that’s too much pressure.
He calls me, my almost-everything.
Sometimes in the evenings when I see him slouched at his little desk in the corner, hunkered over his computer, I run to him and kiss him on the cheek, and he sighs. Yes, Amanda, he says, which means, I’m busy. (How Freudian is it to say that in these moments he reminds me of my father, sitting in front of his own computer, typing vigorously on the keyboard, brow furrowed in concentration? My father, who worked himself to death.) Increasingly, Tom looks tired, and somewhat anemic, as if he could use a steak and a good night’s sleep, uninterrupted.
And the truth is, on my side of the bed there is a growing indent in the shape of my body. During the past few months, I have spent days and weeks, lying there in bed, laptop open, watching various mindless sitcoms from my childhood. On the bedside table are stacks of books—novels, literary journals, and a generous number of self-help books—these piles of books rise a bit higher each month, mostly unread. I’ll confess there have been some days in the past few months I considered a success merely because I found the energy to take a shower.
I’m not equipped to be anyone’s mother, I say.
I think you will be a very good mother, my love.
Many dozens of people at Tom’s warehouse have had COVID-19. Some have died. His workplace has been considered a cluster since the beginning. A few months ago, the virus killed Tom’s uncle Ernesto, a delightful man in his eighties whose favorite past-time included dancing in bars. Earlier last year, at the start of the pandemic—just shortly before authorities formally announced the coronavirus was active in America—Tom lost his grandmother Lucretia to a strange pneumonia which may or may not have been the virus, we’ll never know for sure. Tom tells me that many of the people he works with still refuse to wear their masks correctly, they breathe with their precious little noses out and pull the masks down when speaking. Let me go yell at them, I say, and when the hell are they going to give you that vaccine? In my dreams, Tom catches the virus, and my last glimpse of him is through my smartphone—just the way we saw his uncle—where he lies in a hospital bed, connected to tubes.
Tom has been coughing a lot lately.
You should go to bed early tonight, I say.
I just have so much work to do, he says.
I hate to see you like this, I say to him. It’s my fault. I’m some kind of burden to you.
You’re not a burden.
You shouldn’t be supporting me.
You don’t cost much.
I should just go get a full-time job.
He says, I don’t want you to work. I just want you to write.
I’m doing it.
Well, that’s your work, he says. He goes back to his computer. That is your job right now.
I say, I’ll try harder.
And I try, I do, of course I do, but trying is my least favorite of all the words. I try every day, but lately it seems I have less and less to say.
A. M. Davison currently lives in Kansas, where she is enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing and Media Arts program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Davison also has an MA in Theater from UMKC and a BA in English from Florida State. In addition to nonfiction, Davison writes fiction and plays.