The man sat at the end of a grey Formica table, struggling to light his pipe with matches from a matchbook. It took him 3 or 4 matches and a lot of huffing and puffing to get the pipe going. He sent a billowing cloud of Prince Albert down the length of the table, toward the window. He leaned back in his chair. He surveyed his kingdom straight ahead, as if there were nothing else to see. He took another drag. The air was becoming grey, the smoke and the Formica melting into each other.
Outside the brown-curtained window, dusk and fog were settling in. Like frantic little tornadoes, the fog whirled and swirled, harmlessly heralding the impending un-black darkness of nightfall.
The man took another puff, put his elbows on the table, and complained, as if from out of nowhere, having not spoken for perhaps several hours: "IT'S GETTING AWFUL DAMN DARK IN HERE."
The words themselves were as darkly oppressive as their delivery.
He said them the way a frustrated child might have announced he'd lost a red marble from a game of Chinese checkers: Defeated. Destroyed. Without a prayer in hell.
"Then why don't you turn the light on," scolded the woman sarcastically, stomping her way across the room to the light switch on the kitchen wall, perhaps 2 feet behind where the man sat.
She made her way angrily back to the business end of the room and resumed fussing and banging her way around the universe, which consisted primarily of opening 2 or 3 cans and boxes of stuff and pouring the contents into one vessel or another. Perhaps a pound of hamburger would be involved; perhaps not.
The artificial light penetrated the billowing smoke, highlighting its illusory claim to reality and the fragility of its diminishing life. It would have blasted its way through the rolling fog on the other side of the window, had that been possible.
The realms of grey inside the room and out had dissipated into something more familiar. The world outside the window had once again become infinitely more inviting. The girl down the hall longed for the day she could live on the opposite side of that window.
The ordeal was over for another evening, as the aromas of frozen and canned things began competing with the billowing clouds of Prince Albert. The food would be watery, overcooked and unseasoned, without salt and pepper, but it would be a welcome addition to the ambiance of the room, if you could in fact call it that, an ambiance. There wouldn't be enough food for the boy and the girl condemned to sit at the table eating it, but anything that shortened the unavoidable ritual would be most welcome.
The woman sat at the opposite end of the table, reading the newspaper, which she held directly above her plate, scooping food onto her fork from underneath, then around the paper and up to her mouth, her head bent down throughout, looking at nothing but the paper, saying nothing. Not infrequently, her picture would be in the paper, with an article about her being helpful in the community. Then, she would mention that her picture had been in the paper again.
The others, the man, the boy, and the girl, understood full well that conversation would otherwise be inappropriate. No one had anything to say, anyway. They just wanted out and away, except for the man, who didn't know what he wanted.
This little scenario happened on a Tuesday, precisely as it had on the preceding day, a Monday, precisely as it would happen on the following day, which would be a Wednesday.
When the woman died many years later, the man cried, not for her, not for missing her, not for regretting anything, but for wondering how he was going to sit through the night in the darkness.
The two of them had had a pact: she needed a husband, a placeholder, someone who wouldn't actually question anything she did or didn't do, someone who wouldn't pry about what was going on inside her body or her heart or her mind, someone who wouldn't bother her much; and he needed to be taken care of, to have his basic needs met, to have a living arrangement that required him to make no decisions.
He needed someone to turn the light on for him.
For as long as the two of them had danced this dance, each of them, the man and the woman, as if they had nothing to do with each other, as if no one was dancing at all, it had worked; the act in the play had worked. It gave them what they needed. It gave them what they were afraid to let go of. They had had 2 children, but this nightly annoyance provided what was by far the most intimate moments of their life together. They needed it more than they needed life itself.
A rotation of healthcare providers invaded the man's kingdom of the kitchen table. They were pleasant, upbeat, and proficient. Above all, they were seasoned at this sort of thing. They turned the kitchen light on well before the man could get his pipe going, thus cheerfully smashing whatever notions he may have entertained about pursuing a relationship with any of them, and leaving him utterly at a loss for something to complain about.
How very sad that last part was, that he was bereft of anything to complain about.