Mage’s breakdown at the gun shop was a low point from which she steadily rose above over several years. She moved on with her life before her next descent. Metaphorically speaking, she walked into this new low point at a slow and steady pace. Tracing the origin of her path is not a precise science, but I’ll start from the Saturday morning when she told her husband, Henry, that two children were enough.
The morning autumn sunlight illuminated the den of their home. Henry talked on the cordless phone, pacing between the wall that had a designer love seat and the wall that was essentially one giant bookcase.
As a book lover I was envious of the shelf space, but also frustrated that it was wasted on books that were never read. Each one being picked by an interior designer to help boost their chances of getting their six-thousand-square-foot suburban home featured in a national magazine.
Mage entered the room and, before anything else, noticed that the overhead lights were on.
Henry always turned on the lights of any room he entered, no matter the time of day, and always forgot to turn them off when he left. The den in particular was a room that would have the light on throughout the entire night, despite every one of them being asleep.
She hated this habit, and his constant assurances that he was working on it did not provide the relief they had when they were first married.
Henry continued his pacing, despite acknowledging her presence with an irritated glance. Mage figured he must be talking to a client and not someone at the office. He was usually good at ending a conversation when it wasn’t a client.
He preferred talking on the cordless phone, which, like the lights, he maintained an irreversible habit. He always forgot to take care of it when he was done with it. He had lobbied for the charger to be in the den, but the interior designer said it went better in the kitchen.
She waved for his attention, and he held up a finger while he performed the intricate ritual of ending a call with someone who holds your career in its balance.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute. After you put the phone back on the charger.”
He rolled his eyes and walked out of the room. As he stepped into the hallway, she added, “And turn off the lights when you leave the room.”
He returned and slouched on the love seat. A contrast to how upright he had stood when pacing a few moments ago. He looked her in the eyes with a face that said he would not be listening and then repeated his original question.
Mage crossed her arms and exhaled. Many things were “up,” most of which had to do about their latest renovation plans, but they’d have time to talk about them later. Instead, she remained focused on the immediate task. “I need to go into the office.”
“Today?” He leaned forward in his seat, but still wasn’t sitting straight.
“But it’s Saturday. What about taking the kids to the pumpkin patch?”
“You’ll be fine with John and Julie.”
“I know I’ll be fine.” There was a noticeable bite in his response. “I was fine at their dance recital, I was fine at the tee ball games, the soccer games, the swim lessons, the—”
“Henry, you don’t understand.” She unfolded her arms quickly, revealing a pair of fists that she holstered at her side.
Henry was unafraid and stood up in a smooth, controlled motion. “Exactly, I don’t. You don’t need to work.”
“Yes, I do.” She turned her back to him. The decision was made. She was going into the office, and he would take the kids to the pumpkin patch.
“I make enough for us. Just quit your job.”
She had almost left the room, but turned around and said, “We’ve been over this before, it’s not about money.”
“Then, what’s it about?” His hands were open, and his palms were up, as if he were going to catch and cradle her response.
He was vulnerable. Somewhere in the back of her head, she crushed the tiny whisper of her father. This wasn’t going to be an attack. She would explain. “These people are like family to me.”
A little hurt entered Henry’s voice. “But we’re your actual family.”
“I know that, but the other family needs me a little more right now.”
Henry stared her down before confronting her. “You keep doing this, how are we going to have another child?”
This was what she had been hoping to avoid, but now it was teetering to unavoidable. “You’re making this into something it’s not.”
“Dammit, Mage, we said… No, we agreed…. we were going to have three children.”
“But that was before we had any kids. One more is just going to be too hard.”
He turned his back to her in disgust. “How would you know? I’m the only one who spends time with them.”
Mage stepped back into the room. “I’m trying to find a way to get more time.” She wasn’t exaggerating or saying it just to calm him down. She had exhausted all logical solutions, because all of them meant having to choose one family over the other. But she hadn’t stopped looking.
Henry raised his voice, but didn’t yell. “Quitting. Quitting is how you get more time.”
She matched his volume, and a note of distress crept into her voice. “Well, I might not have to. They may do it for me?”
Henry soaked in her response. The tone. The words. He took a breath, allowing both him and Mage to get a handle on the situation. He asked, “What are you talking about?”
“The company’s looking for a buyer. If the acquiring company is bigger and in a better financial position, we could all lose our jobs.”
“How much time do you think you’ll have?”
“I think if we can show something significant in the next twelve months—”
“Twelve months?! Why is this your problem? We’ll be fine.” He was imagining twelve more months of her breaking promises to him and the kids.
“Because I’m not the one with everything riding on it. Everyone else, Mary, Tommy, Dawn. They all need their jobs. Hell, Tommy’s got kids in college now. If he loses his job, they’ll probably have to drop out.” She held back from saying that she couldn’t let that happen, because it didn’t need to be said.
Henry returned to the love seat. “That can’t be right? I thought Tommy’s kids were in middle school.”
“The oldest was when we were married.”
“Damn, time went fast.”
“So, I need to help them. They didn’t abandon me when I needed them, and I won’t abandon them when they need me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
The truth was that it was confidential, and not even her friends knew. She had won this argument, and now she could gain a little extra ground in one of the longer-standing disagreements she had with him.
She said, “I shouldn’t need to tell you. You should just understand that when I tell you I need to go into work that I actually need to go into work. Just like you should know to turn off the lights when you leave a room and put the phone back on the charger when you’re done using it.”
“Fine, I’ll work on it. What size pumpkin do you want us to pick out for you?”
“One that will look good in the window and can be seen from the road.”