Petaluma

by M. Rachel Thomas

My husband and I bought our house a year ago. It has hardwood floors and arches that remind us of the Los Angeles bungalows of our twenties. There are two huge shade trees, both fruitless mulberries, one in the front and one in the back.

The house has two bedrooms, which is the perfect size for the couple I wish we were in this moment: the child-free couple who spends their free time cooking elaborate meals together, drinking too much wine, staying up late watching movies, reading books in the bathtub, and having sex on every surface of the house. In other words, the couple we used to be.

Instead, we are one of many couples struggling to raise two small children and work fulltime without childcare. That’s thirty hours each day of work and childcare to split between two people. There’s little time for things like eating, exercise, or showers, let alone elaborate meals, books in the bathtub, or sex.

Instead, I’m sitting alone on my couch in the dark on a Wednesday night, and I think my husband has gone to bed but I can’t be sure, because he doesn’t always say goodnight these days, just retreats into the darkness, as I have, to steal a few minutes of solitude after he puts the kids to bed and before he himself falls asleep.

My bedroom is down the hall from the kids’ room. It has a window that looks out across the backyard—the unkempt lawn, the young fruit trees, the vegetable garden, and the patio strewn with toddler bikes, plastic tubs, and art supplies, the lights we painstakingly hung from the tree in anticipation of the barbecues and birthday parties we would host. I can also see my husband’s room, the small outbuilding, once an office, that he moved into a few weeks after the official shelter-in-place order—which is to say, after 336 hours of work and 294 hours of childcare—when we found ourselves having a serious conversation about divorce over several glasses of wine and an accumulation of exhaustion and claustrophobia.

Since then, things have gotten better and worse. At the outset, the pandemic was a hardship we were both committed to overcoming. Now, it’s more like a permanent, less good alternate reality. In this new, less good alternate reality, there are many things I resent about my husband, and the tone I sometimes take with him makes me shudder.

Beyond the fruitless mulberries, the neighborhood recoils as politely as possible. Playgrounds remain closed to our depressed three-year-old. On the sidewalks, neighbors step into driveways to allow each other ample room to pass. In the grocery store, people with face masks scrupulously maintain social distance as R.E.M. plays over the speakers: Shiny happy people holding hands. Shiny happy people holding hands. Shiny happy people holding hands.

Published on July 20, 2020

2020-07-20T17:27:37+00:00