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The Lists

He made lists. So many lists. He even put an item on a list to make another list. He sometimes put regular activities on the list like “take a shower”. They were inconsistent. They were sometimes full of mundane and expected and already-incorporated activities. At other times, they were less discernible. Things beginning with “learn” and/or “try”. How could one evaluate if these items were completed? But, apparently, he knew as sometimes she would find them with the slash through them which indicated completion for the day.
The lists were written hurriedly so the already poor handwriting skills then were illegible to all but him. He knew what they said. He knew the importance of each list. He knew whether he’d completed the list or not. They were his yet they were to be found in various places. They were not hidden. It was okay if she found a list and took it to him to see if it was in process and thus to be kept or finished so could be tossed. “Dispose of list” was never on any list so random lists with varying dates, varying rates of completion and varying rates of importance could be found in random locations without any distinction for anyone but him to discern.
He could simply glance at each list and know if it had been completed, if he had reconsidered and decided the list had no value or if he had rediscovered a very valuable list and was glad to again hold it and study it and prepare.
Sometimes the lists were funny and charming to her. Other times they were simply part of the environment she had grown accustomed to living in. Sometimes they bothered her, irritated her and she never really knew why. Weren’t they harmless? Useless? Wasn’t this just a quirk? After all, it was silent. Nothing was asked of her. They were his. So, they shouldn’t have been a bother to her. But sometimes, for reasons she couldn’t pinpoint, they were.
She did notice that her name never appeared on the lists. Ever. She began to look for her name long ago. Silly. Perhaps the poor handwriting did not allow her to see her name. Perhaps he referred to her by other terms rather than her name. Did he say blah blah “wife” maybe? Did he use her as the object of an action as in blah blah “her?” Could that be it? That must be it.
She read through the lists after she found them here and there. And while she could not make out all of the words, she could discern the nature of each list.
The lists were task-oriented. Perhaps by not being included, she was being elevated to something that which was not a task. He did not write down other pleasantries such as “laugh”, “have fun”, “watch television”. She told herself that the lack of being on his lists put her in the part of his life that was regarded as pleasures, escapes and enrichments that he sought for gratification. Surely that was it. Her absence meant she was not a chore. She let that be the truth for many months. Until it started to erode. Until she started to notice that the lists drove him to act as described.
Then, it came to her. Could she write something on the lists? Dare she? While they were not hidden, they were truly his. They did not ask her to act in any way. It would be okay. It could be fun. Funny even. They might laugh at the sudden overlapping sections of their disconnected Venn diagram circles. She decided to do it. He wouldn’t get mad. It would be a lark.
She found an active list. There were still items to be crossed out so it was in process. She found the same blue ballpoint pen that he had used. She smiled at her silly joke and she wrote between item 3 which was completely illegible and not yet crossed out and item 4 which mentioned reading something. On the line of the yellow paper she wrote, “Kiss wife”. She did not try to mimic his handwriting. She printed in her clear and readily understood writing. Then she waited.
She went back to her weekend day. She went back to her own list which could not be written down as it was dynamic. Items appeared on her mental list and vanished sometimes upon completion and sometimes just forgotten as other events appeared that pushed the task lower or completely off the list. One day’s to-do became another day’s item of luxury. She did not have a concrete list of her own. She did not fully understand the husband’s need for lists but she respected and allowed them. They were not intrusive after all.
While moving through her mental list, her husband suddenly and without a segue of any kind, appeared before her. He was holding the modified list. The one where she had insinuated herself. He held his blue pen. Was he annoyed? Were these lists perhaps more sacred than she originally thought?
He looked up at her and back to the list. He was at the place on his list where she had printed so clearly, “Kiss wife”. He smiled at her. She exhaled with a bit of relief. She had not bumbled. He leaned over and kissed her. It took a second. It was a familiar and family type of kiss. The same type of kiss an uncle or mother might give you. Except on the mouth. But just as quick. No saliva. Just dry lips each making a smacking sound together. So fast. So concise. In the moment when she wasn’t sure what was next, he took his blue pen and crossed her added kissing item off the list. It was done. It was completed. On to the next item.
She stood there uncertain of what this meant. He was not angry and at first appeared actually charmed. He smiled. She smiled. The kiss of sorts. The end. Back to…
  • living alongside one another.
  • trying not to disturb him.
  • trying to be unobtrusive.
  • looking at him and wondering when it was okay to talk or if it would be at all that day.
  • wondering what he was doing that was so so important that she could not interrupt.
  • engaging in her own tasks to avoid getting in the way of his important tasks.
  • doing all the things that the house needed, the two children needed, that he needed to have done but didn’t put on his lists.
  • feeling less and telling herself that her want of more was actually about her own weaknesses.
What had she expected? What had she hoped? What would adding something so novel to his lists elicit? She had hoped for this:
He put the list down and looked at her. Really looked at her. He said, “I need to kiss you and kiss you properly or rather improperly”. He would say that with his witty self. He would then kiss her and linger and linger and linger. They would halt the kiss and pull apart with their foreheads still touching. Then they would simply but really talk. They would talk about being so busy about wishing to return to one another. They would hold hands, caress one another’s necks, discuss some good times. They would begin again. They would go to a place where they could talk freely about the wonder of one another. And this would be the turning point of their marriage. The point where she could leave in despair or the point at which she could stay with hope. They would forever remember when she added herself to his list and when he realized that she was there.
But, that didn’t happen.
She realized in the moment after the platonic peck, that this was actually the worst possible outcome. It was worse than ignoring it because she could’ve at least thought that perhaps that list was in fact not being utilized any longer. That he had simply not seen it. It was worse than an angry outburst because even that would’ve been a moment in time which made him engage her even if it was loud and angry. But this? This was the confirmation of all the truths that she had been trying for so many years to shun. She was in fact a task but one that he avoided. One that she had now taught him how to cross off a list. The task of attending to her existence took maybe three seconds.
After that peck, she stood in place. She looked at him. She looked at him longer than he typically tolerated without getting somewhat perplexed or annoyed. He was now using his laptop and fully engaged in the content of the screen. Did he not realize she hadn’t moved? Was she invisible or did he just not care?
She didn’t know if she regretted adding herself to the list. Previously she had considered the possibility of being different and somehow beyond the tedious nature of a list of have-to-do items. But she now knew. She didn’t rank. She wasn’t a person or a task or an event that he had to get to. She was omnipresence. She was more like an item. Less like something dynamic. Certainly not a person who required engagement. She might even be an item. She might even be an item that didn’t serve much purpose and that was less necessary than others. Less a comfortable chair and more their magazine rack that hadn’t served a purpose for many years but just was never cleared out. Maybe she should put that on her mental list of things to do. “Clear out magazine rack”. It could go right after, “Kiss husband” since that took next to no time but was a task nonetheless.
She realized that he would not notice her stare. Choice or absolute oblivion? Not sure. Which was better? Which was worse? She wouldn’t choose. She had just learned that choosing outcomes and truths that did not then manifest, was so much worse than just leaving things alone.
Leave the isolation, the silence, the worry about disturbing, the sense of being a burden yet also being burdened, the lack of touch, the lack of conversation with multi-syllabic words, the lack of questions to actually find out about one another…all of it. Leave it. If she left it, she could pretend that an untested effort would’ve yielded a welcomed outcome. The unwritten “Kiss wife” held so much more promise than the actual writing of it. Potential so much more powerful than testing out her realities. Those were always so much more disappointing.
Now what? Could she put herself on his lists with more developed expectations? Could she write, “Look at your wife. See her. Ask her what she needs”? Could she?Yes. She could. But she knew not to. It could be taken literally as was her previous list entry. She could literally be asked this and she could not even be expected to respond. That would then take the roughly 3 seconds that the kiss entry had taken before getting crossed off.
Crossed off. That suggested completion. So, was he done? Done with her? Certainly done with any type of kissing. That item had been eliminated. Was she an item? Had she already been crossed off? Maybe long ago? Maybe her presence was redundant. Maybe her absence would just be a formality. A magazine rack that was simply there.
She went back to her changing mental list of tasks. So much to do. So much to take care of. She’d feel better if she completed some of the items. She’d be quiet. She’d be efficient. Things would return to normal. No more messing around with another person’s lists. That was private. That was not hers. She was wrong. He’d actually been kind in not getting angry with her. She had so much to be thankful for and had so many fulfilling parts of her life. She was fine.

Ruth Arnold lives in a suburb of Chicago with her teen son and older son (when he’s not away to college). Ruth lost her husband 12 years ago to an unforeseen sudden death. She suffered from complicated grief for many years due to many unresolved issues with her husband, but recovered in time with grief counseling. Ruth is living with metaststic breast cancer and serves as an ambassador for a primary medication she takes. Ruth hopes her writings about grief and living with cancer can benefit others.

One comment on “The Lists

  • Josetta
    August 21, 2022 | 6:37 pm

    I make lists, too. Everywhere, too. I wonder if anyone will think so lovingly of my lists as you do his.

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