Stiff Upper Lip
Laura Paliani

It's Saturday night, but really it could be any night of the week, any weekend of the month, any month of the year. We're back to playing the same old game of blame-me-blame-you-you-ruin-my-life-why-do-I-date you. And it's not as though we're trying to make sure we have another one of our usual verbal jousts; we really have never had much concern for tradition (I, having stopped going home for the holidays years prior, him giving up Judaism in favor of more pagan waters).

"You know what your problem is?" he shouts, as he rocks on the balls of his feet, holding his latest read, some book by Nietzsche, dreadful. I wonder, bored almost, if something he's read has triggered his awful mood.

"What's that, Gord?" I ask, my voice deadpan, trying not to indulge him. Nothing worse than indulging a child who's in the midst of a fit. I continue to peruse the classified section, pricing out the cost of one-bedroom apartments. I secretly dream of leaving him, of getting a small apartment with plants and white curtains, an apartment that will never be covered in his boxers, his beard hair, his general filth of old coffee cups, banana peels, and candy wrappers. It's like living in a perpetual childhood, I told Sam over lunch one day. He's like a twelve-year-old who never grew up. A twelve-year old with beard hair.

Ah yes, back to the main event.

He begins to stutter; he always does this when we fight. At first I felt sorry for him, an honest to goodness pity that emotion could reduce this man to a stammering fool. But now his stuttering gets on my nerves and I want to just scream at him to, "Spit it out, already!" and in my head I've done so many times. This is what four years in an unhappy and doomed relationship will do to you. You lose faith that your partner will change, and his minutest faults are magnified by the millions, and you come to accept that you will never own a cat (he's allergic) and you'll never own a house (he wants to pursue a PHD in philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of ritual or some other banal topic), and you'll never really feel like a content, solid, driven career woman (he whines that you work too much and whinnies when you are too tired for sex). It happens, I once told him, as a result of being the only breadwinner of our partnership. Get a job and I'll give you some sex. Fair trade.

"J-j-jesus, Jan," he starts and I roll my eyes, as I am conveniently huddled behind the newspaper. A small one bedroom, bay window, good neighbourhood, close to schools, non-smoker....

"Our problem is -" Oh, here goes nothing. This is the part when he goes on ad nauseam about every single thing that is wrong with me, with us, but interestingly enough, never what's wrong with him. "- that you're cold. You are. You aren't a very caring person. All you care about is money. And when you have it, you work so damn much, you never get a chance to spend it. You're always worrying about how much money you're going to make."

Ah, yes, I think, I worry about money because you don't. Why on earth would he be concerned with such simple day-to-day issues such as money when he can just coast through life and spend mine? You know, we did have an agreement. Gord said he was going to take a couple of months off of work to pursue his writing. I am fortunate enough to have a decent paying job that can cover our living expenses. Well that couple of months turned into double and then triple that and I don't think Gord has had a stable job in over a year. The three hundred dollars he made working at Starbucks for two weeks didn't really foot the bill, if you know what I mean.

I continue to look at apartments. I mentally evaluate my net income and wonder if I can afford to get a two bedroom. One bedroom for me and the other bedroom to act as a guestroom. Or a room for the cat. An orange cat I'd name Tabby. How… unoriginal.

"A-a-are you e-e-ev-vening listening?" he asks, his voice raising.

I snap the paper down and glare at him. "Yes, I am listening to you." God, does he have to be so condescending?

He slumps back into the old gilder I acquired when I moved into the apartment. "I just wish you'd listen to me sometimes. Sometimes I feel like you don't even hear me." I briefly wonder who the so-called "woman in the relationship" is.

"I do hear you, Gord. I hear you all the time. I choose not to respond because I think it's ridiculous. You know I'm not cold, you know I don't just sit around and worry about money, you know I care about you and that I want this to work." The words come out of my mouth like I mean them; they pluck away in my brain and roll over my thick tongue.

He looks over at me, pained. Not annoyed, not irritated, but pained.

A moment of clarity: If you'd asked me two years ago if Gord was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have looked you dead in the eye and said, of course. None other. Mrs. Gordon Pewller. I am Mrs. Jan Pewller. Not now. Now, I just don't know. I don't know the way back to him, the way back to the person I was before I met him, or the person I am now, for that matter.

He is quiet. Picking away at the lint balls on his jogging pants, his head lowered. More quietly now, "Are you happy, Jan?"

I weigh the question. Do I answer truthfully and risk a full-blown fight where he refers to me using all his favourite buzzwords: preachy, high maintenance, nothing's-ever-good-enough, cold, bitch. Bitch is his favourite. He knows not to name-call with me. And he does every once and again, I suppose in an attempt to establish his alpha-male status. Whatever he may think that is.

To hell with it. "No, Gord, I am not happy." The paper snaps down for the last time. I am tired. So tired. I don't want to deal with him and his shit, I don't want to stroke his ego anymore and tell him that things will be alright. I am miserable and by default, he is also miserable. "We've been miserable for months. It's awful. I just don't see how this is going to work."

He makes some sort of noise to indicate that he is listening to me. He always makes that same noise every time I talk to him about it. The problem with Gord is that he is powerless. He needs me to survive. I don't say that out of vanity or a desire to power-trip. I say it because he literally cannot survive without my income, my cleaning, my cooking. Well, unless you consider crawling back to live in your parent's basement at twenty-seven (a very unemployed twenty-seven) and eating your mother's nightly scheduled meals-meat loaf on Monday, chicken breast and potatoes on Tuesday, steak and rice on Wednesday. Something akin to tasteless hospital food.

Problem is, I can't walk away. Every morning there is a faint, very faint glimmer of hope that today he might change. He might decide to look for a job, he might finish a chapter of a book that sells millions, my god, he might wipe up his beard hair from the sink after shaving. It hasn't happened yet. I wonder if a part of him yearns for me to change, to morph into a proverbial butterfly and somehow make this partnership better.

"You need to get a job, Gord. You need to do something. I don't want you sitting around the apartment all day and night in your friggin' pajamas. You need to get out of here and do something." I watch him now and feel sorry for him. Unwillingly I've beaten him down, weathered him, he looks old and sad. I imagine the grey hairs at the front of his head stand at attention, feet snapping together like German soldiers.

He lifts himself off the chair and scratches at his head absentmindedly. "Yeah, Jan, I know I am working on it. I just gotta," I have heard this so many times I can mouth the words with him, "work a couple of things out."

What happened to being two people who loved each other? Who were excited every time the other stepped into the room? I don't want romance and chocolates and lingerie after four years. I know love changes. I certainly didn't know it could change into this. This detachment, this agonizing comfort of being miserable together. God, all we need is a baby to seal our unhappy deal. If it weren't for my militant faithfulness in using my birth control, we'd probably have three kids by now. Ah, one big miserable family.

I feel him staring at me. I look up at him and he continues to stare. "What?" I ask, annoyed.

Intently studying my face. "You have a stiff upper lip."

"What about my upper lip?" I bark. Instinctively, my hand goes up to my mouth.

Almost smiling, he leans in for a closer look. "When you're mad. You get a stiff upper lip. Like this."

I balked. "I do not!" I shot back. "What the hell is that supposed to mean anyways? A stiff upper lip. You're an idiot, Gord."

He smirks and leaves the room, clearly amused with himself.

A stiff upper lip? What the hell is he talking about? I stomped over to the bathroom mirror and studied my reflection. Sure, I looked tired with bags under my eyes and my hair wasn't exactly tidy, and maybe I had a bit of yesterday's mascara still smudged on my face. But there was definitely nothing wrong with my upper lip.

I lean in closer. "Yup, definitely nothing wrong with my lip."

And under my breath: "Asshole."

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