Jennifer was in the bath. Tom was sorting out the drinks, creating a makeshift bar on a table by a side wall of the lounge. The buffet food was ready to put out just before the guests arrived. They had taken advantage of Tom’s supermarket discount card and bought cheeses, pates, salad, crusty bread, crackers and various other nibbles and snacks. It had all the makings of a good night, a chance to say hello to people properly, an opportunity to suss out any potential long-term friendships and, by default, identify anyone to be avoided. The only downside, and what a downside thought Tom, was that he and his wife were barely on speaking terms, only acknowledging each other furtively and communicating when necessary about household chores, appointments and arrangements. It was a complete change of mood from passionate, carefree newlyweds to cold, awkward slow dancers. Tom hoped that it was just a whim on Jennifer’s part, that she would get any doubts out of her system and that they could get themselves, their marriage, their shared excitement back on an even keel. But then he thought that if after such a short time as husband and wife, marriage could get this uncertain and unstable, then what would fifty years of it bring. He felt a shiver at the notion that marriage could be a prison. He had always thought of it as a paradise, of sorts, with a few risks, dangers and threats here and there, but more idyllic than some kind of isolated Alcatraz.
Jennifer liked to read in the bath, magazines or chick-lit paperbacks. But in this bath, at this moment, she was lying, enjoying the warmth, the security, that feeling of aloneness. For a time she watched the little bubbles burst around her, tiny moments of silent expiration and drifted into thinking how insignificant we all are in this vast universe. Even that was a little deep for Jennifer but she chastised herself for sounding and being selfish and then congratulated herself for clear thinking and her sense of doing the right thing. She loved Tom to bits but marriage scared her. The responsibility thing felt like a burden only a few weeks into it. She regretted hurting Tom but she had to follow the truth as she saw it. She hadn’t seen the doubts coming before the wedding, apart from the usual nerves and apprehension, but she was seeing them now. She had a few negative thoughts on the wedding day but she put them down to the effects of several flutes of champagne and the whirlwind nature of the day, too much going on and too much to take in.
She could hear Tom in the lounge moving furniture, clinking bottles and glasses. He didn’t deserve this uncertainty but Jennifer concluded that she had to try to manage her emotions. If she felt strongly enough, in her cold analysis, that they would be better off apart, then she would be compelled to get it over with quickly, minimizing the pain of separation, the family fuss, the do-gooder friends and relations who would try to reconcile them, not to mention all the legal and administrative procedures to follow. But, in her assessment, Jennifer realized that this was the selfish action of a selfish woman. Yes, she knew in her heart of hearts that they would be better off apart but she also knew that Tom felt the opposite. She assumed that he was not convinced that separation and divorce were the best options. If he had any doubts about her or their lives together, he never said so. He always made the right noises about love, commitment, loyalty and till death do us part. He was lovely, but naïve. He would find the next few days, weeks and months very unsettling and painful but it had to be done. She would not be a good wife and friend if she maintained a loving pretence. At some point, Jennifer’s discontentment would rise to the surface and erupt. She wanted to avoid that situation for his sake and for hers. “Life’s too short to do the wrong things,” she whispered to herself before slowly blowing some bubbles away from her chin. She watched them float away and knew that before long she would be moving away too.
Tom checked the ice cube tray in the freezer and then opened a can of beer. He stood looking out of the kitchen window. He wondered how many loving relationships were in progress out there in the wide world and how many were breaking down and crumbling behind closed doors. He knew that a marriage, based on a loyalty to stay together rather than on emotional and physical truth, as well as practical needs, was doomed to become pedestrian and dull, a chore of life on both sides, a drift into a humdrum existence. He took a big glug of beer. His social sciences tutor had once triggered an argument about human beings needing only food, clothing and shelter to survive but that people had complicated things by increasing their lives’ expectations about love, sex, material possessions, a leaning away from true relationships and more towards selfishness. At one point a fellow student was in full vitriolic flow about man’s inhumanity to man, his disregard for flora and fauna and all sorts of other extreme arguments. The tutor raised his hand for calm and said: ‘Well, whatever we say and whatever we do, what the hell, the world still goes round.” Tom was resigned to the fact that his short marriage was in trouble but, whatever happened and however much it screwed up his head, his world would survive the impact. He could hear Jennifer getting out of the bath. In their pre-marriage life and in the days after, she would always walk out of the bathroom naked, take Tom’s hand and lead him to bed. This time she was wrapped in a towel. It was a signal, meaningless to anyone else but a stark moment for Tom. This was going to be an interesting party, a roomful of strangers including two new strangers. Tom raised his beer can in a cheers motion to the world outside the window and then towards the bedroom before draining the can in one go. He scrunched the tin in his hand and threw it in the bin.