My husband travels
It was eight minutes before the taxi arrived to take my husband to the airport. We were in the bathroom, throwing toiletries into a tartan sponge bag. ‘Here’s your glasses cloth’, I said, trying to tread carefully. ‘I’ve washed it for you. Your glasses look so much better when they are clean’.
That was it. In a last minute panic he hit the roof. ‘Shut up you sh_.’ And he stamped his foot as if he couldn’t stamp it hard enough. ‘What business is it of yours if my glasses are clean? Just stop interfering and get out of here!’ And he threw the bag to the floor as I darted out the bathroom door.
If I’d been a newly wed I’d have dissolved there and then. ‘My husband is leaving for a five-week work trip and he’s swearing at me in the bathroom!’ But I’m not a newlywed. I’ve been with my husband for long enough to know that however much he hates me telling him to clean his glasses, that we are married in a way that survives sudden flare ups in the bathroom. I have no guarantee that we won’t break up in time, but it won’t be over a glasses cleaning cloth.
We knew when we moved from Melbourne to Hobart that he’d have to travel for work. We knew this wasn’t perfect, neither for the planet or our children. A good friend even stuck her neck out and said that we were making a big mistake. But every marriage is different and I felt confident that ours would last. I’d taken various risks across my life – and this was one of them.
In the first couple of years John traveled to Melbourne for two nights most weeks. He’d arrive home tired, slightly hung over, and glad to be back. But then after a year or or his teaching load shrank and it was fortnightly. These days, three years in, it’s monthly.
Then John went global. His work trips became international rather than interstate. His sights shrank and expanded at the same time. His books were translated into Portuguese, Turkish and South Korean. He worked more and more in his temple in the bottom of the garden, and hated to be disturbed. ‘This is my office’, his look would tell me, however mild his manner. His daily to-do list, faithfully ticked off each evening, lengthened.
Just after Christmas he started muttering something about a three-week European trip. The next I heard it had mushroomed into four weeks, and then five. A week before he left I burst into tears in our bedroom – something I rarely do these days. He, I blurted out, would be attending a conference in a castle in the middle of a Swedish forest. I, meanwhile, would be toilet-training a puppy, raking autumn leaves, hovering over our son as he resisted homework, and making winter soups. He, I went on, would be wandering canals in Amsterdam while I’d be changing the vacuum cleaner bag. How, I said through salty tears, could I not envy him?
John was quiet. He didn’t console. He didn’t say, ‘I wish you were coming too’. He let me be upset and got on with his day. Unlike me he accepted the ways things were. We’d made a choice. We were living the life we wanted to live – a life that didn’t extend to shared business trips.
As always, the pain passed. Life, I came round to thinking, wouldn’t stop when John left. Alex and Emma knew this too. They sensed that John would be happier for having made this trip. Just as they knew that the three of us, left behind, would get on well. It might even be cosy without John for a while.
Slowly I allowed myself to see the upside. Housekeeping and cooking would be easier. I’d have a break from having to come up with meals that all four of us enjoyed. Plus there’d be time to do some renovating and to focus on my own work.
In two days’ time John will have been away for a month. Alex and Emma fire off regular emails to him, from which they get short but full replies. Yesterday Alex fell off his bike at the traffic lights, in the rain, and the world didn’t come to an end because I couldn’t contact John. Our puppy keeps Emma busy and happy. Emma misses John reading to her at night, and Alex misses John’s input with maths homework. However their lives are full even without John in them. And my mother – spending her first night in a nursing home tonight – asks after John whenever we speak on the phone.
And me? Without wanting to boast, I’ve enjoyed having a month off from marriage. It’s been revealing, in a good way, to live my life without my husband in the middle of it. Is this disloyal? I don’t think so. I’m almost certain he feels the same. Five weeks, which once seemed like forever, now seems about right. Perhaps he’ll even bring me home a present…