Hopeless, Pt 1 (Short Story)

(Today I thought I’d share the first part of a short story I’m writing! I haven’t decided how it’ll end yet, but I wanted to get some feedback on the concept so far. Hope you all enjoy!)

Jonathan woke up slowly, groaning as he rolled over to check the alarm clock to his right. 8:25am. He panicked for a moment; wasn’t he supposed to be getting to work? His boss would absolutely kill him if he showed up late for work. It wasn’t as though Jonathan routinely showed up late; in fact, he was, at least in his own opinion, one of the hardest-working and yet most underrated employees at the insurance office. He met deadlines with fervor, negotiated with clients skillfully, and was always on time—and yet, there was something about him that his boss, Mr. McIntyre, just didn’t like about him. Mr. McIntyre was always getting on his case about tasks that he let slide with other coworkers, such as where he placed his invoices, how many breaks he was taking, or whether or not he had attended the office Christmas party. Jonathan told himself that because he was such a hard worker and cared so much about his job, his boss expected more of him. His wife Maggie, however, disagreed wholeheartedly and believed that he was too soft, a pushover—easy to take advantage of. Sometimes he wondered if she was right, but he forced the thought out of his mind as much as possible. No one wants to think of themselves as a pushover.

What day was it? The man blinked his eyes and sighed with relief; it was Saturday. There was no work today, at least none in the office. The clatter in the kitchen downstairs, however, coupled with the intermittent yells and bumps and thuds of he and Maggie’s three children as they all “assisted” her with the Saturday morning breakfast, reminded him that being an insurance agent wasn’t the only job title that he carried.

Jonathan yawned and swung his feet laboriously over the edge of the bed, thinking as he slid on his slippers how grateful he was that his wife had let him sleep in this Saturday. The kids didn’t get to see him often, and so they were apt to bang, crawl, or tap on the door within minutes of their eyes opening, cajoling him to get up, get up, pleading with him for his attention, all at once. It was exhausting…why even bother sleeping when you have a house full of people eager to suck away your energy? He tried not to blame them for it; after all, they didn’t ask to be born, and they didn’t ask to have a dad that was always at work, one who always seemed shocked when he actually got to look at their faces and saw that they looked just a little bit older each day. He was filled with such resentment for the whole thing sometimes…not being able to watch them grow up, but also not being able to have time to do much else that wasn’t dedicated to filling his parental role as much as he could.

Maggie resented it too—resented him for it. She never said it, but Jonathan could tell. He could tell in the way that she pursed her lips after asking the obligatory “How was your day?” when he came home. It was as if what she really meant was “I know you’re exhausted, so there’s no point in asking, and there’s no point in me expecting that you’ll even have enough left in you to ask how my day is going.”

He could tell in the way her slim body brushed past him as though he were an inconvenient object in the realm of her household, which she alone commanded in the long hours that he spent away from it. Her kisses were no longer warm, like they used to be when they first started dating—hell, like they used to be even just a few years ago. They were perfunctory, lifeless kisses, like the kind you’d expect from your sister or your grandmother. Jonathan got shivers just thinking about it, but where would he find the time to connect with Maggie again? Didn’t she understand that the only reason he worked so hard was to make enough money to keep her and the children fed, housed, and clothed? Didn’t she realize how much he had sacrificed in order for them to start a family, how many of his own dreams were squashed by the foundation of their quaint two-story townhome in the suburbs where he and Maggie had grown up, so that they could stay close to their own families and stay comfortable in the community they’d known most of their lives? And yet, she never seemed satisfied.

Jonathan did his best to quell the resentment this morning, noting with some concern that it was something he’d been having to do more frequently these days. He stood up, his tall frame wobbling as he found his balance, and he began to walk downstairs.

Saturday morning breakfasts were something he and the family had done for ages, ever since their oldest, Lilly, had been about two years old, and normally it was something that Jonathan enjoyed. It was the most time he would usually spend with his family during a normal week, for better or for worse. As he descended the stairs, he saw his wife working at a skillet of bacon over the heat of the stovetop, with Lilly, Miranda, and the youngest, Gavin, gathered around the dining room table, the two youngest yelling and crashing toys and crayons into various surfaces. There was crap everywhere—on the floor, on the table, and even in the houseplant sitting in the corner by the patio door. He expected Maggie to reprimand them, but she seemed not to notice. She was caught in her own world, humming a tune, her jaw-length curly hair bobbing in rhythm with her head as she nodded it back and forth.

It was rare to catch a glimpse of her in this way, with the light still shining behind her eyes like that. She wasn’t thinking about parent teacher conferences, or what time the kids would need a bath, whether or not Lilly and Miranda had cleaned their rooms, or about grocery lists. She wasn’t thinking about her feelings towards her husband, and she wasn’t worrying about their future. She was just being herself, thinking the thoughts that made her unique, whatever they may be. Jonathan smiled; this was the woman he fell in love with, and sometimes, caught up in his own problems, he forgot how lucky he was to have found her.

Smiling, he descended the steps further and stepped into the kitchen. “Morning honey,” he offered, kissing her cheek. Immediately her expression changed. There’s nothing quite like it, Jonathan thought, like seeing exactly the kind of repelling effect you have on someone as it happens. There was no excuse that could explain away the reason that Maggie’s smile had wilted so suddenly. He winced and recoiled, refocusing his energy on the kids instead.

“Daddy!”

Gavin grinned widely, exposing where his two front teeth would be had they not gone missing. He flung himself onto his father’s legs, wrapping his arms around them at Jonathan’s knee.

“Hey kiddo!” The tall man swooped his son into his arms, cradling him back and forth in a wide arc that made the child giggle with delight. “What happened to your front teeth? Brawling with your sisters again, aren’t you?” He winked conspiratorially.

“They fell out almost a week ago,” Maggie supplied. “Good morning.”

“Dad, can we go to the museum today?” Miranda asked from the table. She looked up from a coloring book through large, square lenses that Jonathan found positively adorable.

“Hmmmm.” He paused. Alarm bells sounded in his head, and his muscles, loose with the rejuvenation of sleep, became tense. He wanted to say yes, they could. He wanted to be excited about the notion, but he couldn’t quite get past the blank wall of white that fogged his brain. He was certain there was something he had to do; it was a feeling he could never get past. He glanced towards his wife, who shrugged nonchalantly without taking her eyes away from the kitchen counter. She loaded several slices of bacon onto a plate beside her and turned off the stove.

“Well, I suppose we’d have to ask your mother,” Jonathan replied hesitantly.

Maggie flipped her hair out of her face and whisked the plate of bacon onto the dining room table. “Lilly, can you and your sister please clear this shit off the table? Seriously. You’ve known we were about to have breakfast almost a half hour ago.”

“But the museum,” Miranda insisted. She brushed a strand of auburn hair out of her face; it was just as curly as her mother’s, but longer and more haphazard. “If we clean off the table, can we go later?”

“We can’t go today. We have to go see Grandma and Grandpa today.”

“But the museum!” Gavin chimed in, jumping up and down. “Museum, museum!”

“Jon, could you please sit him down in his chair? I’m making plates.”

He nodded compliantly.

“Dad,” Miranda wailed, “Mom said we can’t go. Can’t we just go to Grandma and Grandpa’s some other time? It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”

“Well, that we know of,” he replied, catching a wistful stare from Maggie. “Your mother said we can’t go, so we’ll have to go some other day, okay?”

Maggie had begun setting out plates of pancakes as Jonathan finished settling Gavin into his high chair. “Nice,” she mumbled into his ear on her way up from setting down a plate. “You’re almost never here, and even so you still manage to turn me into the bad guy. Every single time.”

A while ago, this snappish behavior of his wife’s, which had replaced the love and attentiveness to him that she had once offered, would have made his heart sink into his chest like an anchor—but now, he was so accustomed to it that he numbed himself to it. The benefits of this were that he could focus his limited energy on the things that he needed to do in order to keep up in his hamster wheel of a life; the consequences, however, were that if he applied this novocaine of the senses, he was numb to all of it. The pain of his wife’s repulsion, the stress of his job, the love of his children, the appreciation of seeing the trees in full bloom in the summer, the nostalgia of watching a kid riding around the cul de sac on his bicycle. All of it.

And it was a sad way of doing things, he knew that. It was a cowardly way of doing it, really. Jonathan knew that he had a million excuses lined up that made this course of action seem reasonable…like working on his marriage, for instance. Not enough time! He could look for a new job, but that would also take time, as well as risk. Though things were maybe not ideal right now, they were stable, and that was just as important…right?

But what about the good things in life that he missed out on, due to his own fear of moving in any direction whatsoever? Even Jonathan himself had to admit that he had no excuses for this. He had no excuse for why he didn’t really feel connected to anyone in his family. He had no excuse for why the colors outside the window looked bleak on this perfect-looking sunny Saturday morning.

And so, because he had no excuses and no answers that didn’t require a serious look at his life, or a serious change, he pushed these thoughts out of his mind, as he so often did.

“Can’t we just have a nice breakfast this morning?” he mumbled to his wife. And then, a bit louder, “It looks delicious.”

Maggie said nothing, pursing her thin lips and flitting back to the kitchen to retrieve the maple syrup and a shallow bowl of powdered sugar. She set them on the table a bit more forcefully than was necessary and sat down in the chair furthest away from Jonathan, near their youngest son.

Lilly, who had already been seated nearly the entire time, finally glanced up at them through a curtain of bronze-colored hair that fell just past her shoulders.

“You guys aren’t going to fight again, are you?”

The way she said it sound nonplussed, not concerned. She’d seen it a million times, and it no longer phased her…which worried both of her parents. She was thirteen, just on the cusp of teenagedom, and she was old enough to have seen the deterioration of her parents’ marriage in a way that neither of the younger children could. Lilly was quiet, but when she spoke, she never went unnoticed. Jonathan was concerned that her passive nature bordered on depression, and occasionally, when he let his guard down, he wondered which of his many mistakes might have attributed to it. Perhaps if he had spent more time with her after she got into school…and she was going to enter high school next year. He could take no credit for her emotional preparedness for this stage in her life, and relied solely on his wife to make sure she could handle it. It was unfair of him, he knew, but what could he do?

The breakfast was a bustle of activity, with Gavin eating about half of his food and spitting out the rest of it onto his high chair tray with triumphant laughter, his hands sticky with sugar and with Maggie, whose plate was nearly untouched, attempting to keep the damage localized to only the chair. Miranda, still dead set on going to the museum, asked Lilly what her favorite thing was there to see. Lilly mumbled her answers, but a quiet smiled played on her lips as her younger sister chatted loudly, animatedly, oblivious to the tension that still hung over the room like an angry curtain.

Jonathan ate in silence, chewing his food mechanically without really tasting it. He watched his family interacting with each other, and he even smiled once or twice at their antics and outbursts, but it was as close to enjoying this precious family time as he came that morning. It was a strange feeling for him. He felt as though he was watching them all as a spectator, as if they were on a television show—he was very dissociated from it all. The sound even went in and out through static as he stared off into a chip in the paint on the wall across from him. It was unnerving, but it was also peaceful.

What Jonathan was feeling was that he didn’t belong there, at that table, with this family, and he didn’t know why.

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