Paradise on Earth

Everyone knew that June and Bill bickered, but no one knew it as well as June and Bill.  The couple tended to (more or less) behave themselves in public, but they had been married almost fifty years and those who knew them well knew an evening in their company would mean listening to some kind of spat.  It could start with how well the meat was done or the price of gas or the quality of the movie they had seen the night before.  They seldom fought about anything substantial in public, but in private the topics for disagreement proliferated, until there was almost nothing on which they could agree.

It worsened in retirement.  June had retired two years ago, but Bill had only been at home for a year.  He played golf when the weather was good, and she took classes at the craft guild, but they were still together too much.  They argued about meals – when and where and what to eat.  They argued about which movies to watch and whether to replace the couch in the family room.  They almost never traveled, other than to see family, as the couple could never agree on where to go.  June’s white head (she was Irish and had gone white very young) would start wagging whenever Bill produced an idea for a new tree to plant or what kind of car to buy.  When June started with her suggestions, Bill would take off his thick glasses as if he couldn’t even bear to look at her while she expressed her stupid plan.  And so it went. June would start:

“That rose hedge is getting pretty old and ragged – maybe we should pull them out and put in some boxwoods or something.”

“You were the one who insisted on roses in the first place – and we’re not going to be here that much longer.  That’s a lot of work, which I’m not doing, and it would cost a fortune to have the landscape company do it.”

They even had differences as to family.  Bill loved his son Teddy’s wife Gina; June had reservations.  June adored Jeff’s wife Leona while Bill found her gooey sweet and hard to tolerate for more than a few hours.  They had no grandchildren – yet.  June couldn’t wait to be a Nana; Bill could not imagine how anyone could bring children into the current world situation.  So when it was time for family phone calls, Bill talked to Gina and June talked to Leona.  June told her boys that they would make great fathers; Bill told them not to rush into anything.

The biggest landmine, however, and the one that absolutely booby-trapped their retirement, was over where they should live.  They still lived in the house where they had brought up two sons; it had eight rooms and was in the middle of a suburb that had transitioned over the past decade to younger families.  The property was hard to keep up, and the New England climate did not make enough time for golf and proved for hazardous for June, who had never been great behind the wheel but had gotten into two minor accidents over the winter while doing unnecessary (Bill’s word) errands. 

They both agreed that they should move south.  June wanted the beach and was holding out for Florida or the Georgia coast.  While it would be hot in the summer, there would never be ice in the winter and she loved to walk on the beach.  Bill was adamant about the Carolina mountains, with little danger of hurricanes, more moderate temperatures in the summer, verdant golf courses, and, and less distance to the boys who were in New York and Pennsylvania.  Since they could never agree, they never moved.  They had trapped themselves in the house of bickering.

Of the two unhappy people, Bill was the least introspective.  His solution was to keep himself busy elsewhere and he always felt an exhalation of relief where he walked into the country club to have his second cup of coffee and illicit donut before he hit the links and exerted himself so he would deserve two beers with lunch.  The two beers also ensured at least at short nap in the afternoon, all of which kept him out of harm’s way.

June, however, spent countless hours pondering the situation.  Her friends assumed that she didn’t divorce Bill because of the financial considerations.  This was not true.  She was  not the least bit afraid of living on her own in more modest accommodations, but she was attached to Bill.  She knew that, at the moment, it was a negative kind of attachment, but she never gave up hope that this could change.  Bill, however, bristled the moment she started a conversation with “There is something I think we should talk about.”  He bristled for good reason, she admitted.  Such talks usually ended up with insults and days of icy silence.  They had tried marriage counseling when the children were teens, but both hated it.  Their attitude on this was the same: no one knew as much about the situation as they did and no one could appreciate what their spouse put them through. 

Then, one day in the supermarket, June was in line behind a woman who had a tee-shirt inscribed with the quote: “There is nothing more terrible than giving people paradise on earth”  – ascribed to one K. Capek.  June went home to look up “K. Capek” (long-dead Czech writer)  and the quote, which apparently came from a play about a world where robots do all the work, but eventually turn on their masters.  June was not much interested in the play, but she was interested in thinking about what would happen if she gave Bill everything he could possibly want.  What she couldn’t be sure of whether such a plan would be “more terrible” for him or for her.

She had tried being nice to Bill before, but it had never lasted long.  If, when she made his favorite dessert (Boston cream pie), he accused her of tempting him when he was trying to cut down on sugar, she would lose all momentum.  But this was different.  She decided to give it three weeks.  She had read somewhere that 21 days was what it took to install a new habit.  June was not trying to create a new habit for herself (she could only embark on this if she knew it would not go on forever), but if Bill would only get in the habit of being grateful and realize that it was not necessarily “paradise” to get everything that he wanted.

She decided to start with dinner.  There was nothing Bill coveted more than stuffed chicken with roasted potatoes.  June went to the store and got the ingredients, as well as the raspberry sorbet her husband loved.  She set the table and prepared to be disappointed, reminding herself that this was only an initial foray into new territory.

As June might have predicted, the meal was not an unqualified success.

“Oh,” said Bill.  “This is nice but I had the chicken club for lunch.”

Ordinarily June might have responded with “How the hell was I supposed to know that?” or “Well, don’t eat it then.”  If she was mad enough she might have taken his plate away and told him to warm up some pizza.  But this time she just said, “That’s too bad, but I’m sure you like chicken enough to have it twice.  And I bet you didn’t have roasted potatoes for lunch!”

Bill looked confused, but visibly enjoyed his dinner and sorbet.  After dinner, he wandered into the den and turned on the end of a baseball game, leaving June with the dishes.  He was quite shocked when she showed up in the den twenty minutes later, drying her hands and asking who was ahead.  She sat and knit while he cheered and cursed at the game, and when it was over June said good night and went to bed without asking him to turn down the volume.  Nevertheless, when she crawled into bed a few minutes later, she did not hear the television.

This went on for a few days, with Bill looking more and more puzzled.  Finally, he seemed to have decided to test her.

“I think we should go to North Carolina and look at houses in the mountains.  Maybe Robbinsville or Cherokee – somewhere out there.”  Bill braced himself as if he were about to get gut punched.

“When do you want to go?  Shall I make a hotel reservation?  Do you know of a realtor?”

Bill released his gut and looked rather unsure about what to say next..  “Let me ask around,” he said.

Two weeks later, they were in North Carolina.  Sara, a perky real estate agent with a deep southern accent was showing them houses of all kinds, and they spent hours exploring various towns and housing developments.  June actually started getting excited, and could picture herself living somewhere with a view of the Smokies.  She calculated how far it would be to visit her sons and yet-to-be-born grandchildren and seemed, on the whole,  more excited than Bill, who had to be convinced to visit yet another house for sale.  Finally they narrowed it down to three possibilities and were scheduled to re-visit all three the next day.

That night, Bill asked her over a fish and chips dinner whether she had really changed her mind and wanted to live in the mountains, because he was thinking that the winters still might be pretty bad and he couldn’t imagine her driving those hills in icy conditions.

“Sara said it only gets icy a few times a year and that you just stay home until it melts,” June said.  “It’s gotta be better than New Hampshire.”

“Still, I’ve been thinking that maybe we also ought to look at the beach.  Take a trip to Florida.”  Bill spoke quietly and June just asked if he still wanted to look at those three houses again.  He agreed reluctantly.  June was quietly satisfied, although she had to admit she sort of liked the Smokies, and a few days later they went home without buying anything.  June continued with her sugar-coated assault, which seemed to be working nicely.

When they got home, Bill didn’t seem eager to get to Florida.  He didn’t seem to be eager about anything.  While he used to badger June to go to the parties at the Country Club, she was the one who insisted they attend the Cinco de Maio celebration the club bar was holding.  June just supposed that it was taking him some time to realize that he didn’t really know what he wanted.  She was pleased, and it got easier and easier to play the good wife.  She actually started to enjoy giving him what he wanted most of the time; she even suggested that she might take up golf again – a sport she had never been good at and had forsaken when the boys were born.

“There’s a good pro at the club, isn’t there – what’s his name?  Tim?  Maybe I’ll take some lessons so you won’t be embarrassed to go out with me.”  June sounded eager because she was eager.  It was lovely to have given up the bickering and she was feeling less tense.  Bill, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly looking more relaxed.

About a month after they had been home from their trip, Bill came home from the club in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, which was unusual, as Tuesday was when the senior men’s league played.  He got a beer out of the fridge, and asked June to sit down with him.  June had been in the middle of making pineapple upside-down cake – another of Bill’s favorites.  She wiped her hands and joined him at the table.

“You know,” Bill started and then faltered.  “I have been thinking seriously about this moving business.” 

June was convinced that he was going to tell her that he decided that they would retire at the beach, but Bill had stopped talking and was gazing into the top of his beer glass as if he expected an image to appear there.  “And???” she asked

“Well, now that we are thinking about it seriously, I realize that this is not the way I want to spend the rest of my life.  Face it, until recently we didn’t get along and I always thought I’d have to limp along and make the best of it.  But I’ve realized that even when we get along it’s not so great.  OK, but dull.  Not exciting.”

“Well, I can fight with you if you want,” offered up a fairly perplexed June.

“No, no.  The point is that I’ve realized that there’s someone I’d rather be with.  I’m so sorry, but these last few months have given me some space to think about it.  I’ve been fond of Clair for years, but this has made me realize that I want to make a life with her.

Clair, at least as old as June, was the fairly plump and garish receptionist at the club.  She wore skirts that were too short, had been through three husbands that June knew of, and was someone June would never have considered to be a rival.  June just sat there, mired in her new habit of pleasing her husband.  Then she realized that she was perplexed, but not unhappy.

“Go ahead,” she said.  “No problem.  I’m moving to Florida.”