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While helping his ex-wife out in renovating their old house, the protagonist reminisces about what brought them both to this place in their lives.

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I braced my legs while I gripped the jackhammer handle, turning it on; with a growl and the metallic smell of oil, it roared to life. Positioning it at a 45 degree angle, I pushed it forward underneath the tile. Bits and shards, some dull and some razor sharp, flew in every direction, a few striking me in the chest and arms. Every now and then one would ricochet off of my safety goggles; it had happened so much I’d long ago stopped flinching when one appeared in my vision.

Dust coated everything, giving the illusion of abandonment: the walls, furniture, counters, my skin, my hair. When I would lick my lips to clear away some of the sweat it tasted salty and aged. Even though I’d never done this kind of work before, at least I’d been smart enough to pull my long hair back into a tail, though it appeared greyer now than its normal auburn color.

Reaching the wall, I dragged the jackhammer back to the next row and began again. I was filled with a sense of accomplishment; only a quarter of the room to go and it had only taken me four hours to do. My lower back throbbed and pulsed, reminding me I wasn’t as young as I used to be. Then again, I smirked to myself, nobody was. Besides, she’d asked for my help, and I felt obligated to improve what used to be our house.

I released my grip on the handle and the jackhammer sputtered to a stop. After leaning the noisome and ponderous beast carefully against the wall I pried off my safety goggles and went outside. Fogged up with sweat on the inside and grit on the outside, I could no longer see through them and needed to clean them. Running them under the hose a few times, I turned off the faucet and pulled a rag out of my pocket to dry them. A faint breeze blew through the yard, chilling the sweat on my arms and face but failing to dislodge any of the dirt embedded in my every pore.

The sound of a car parking in the driveway caused me to look over my shoulder. It was just my ex-wife, returning from dropping our kids off at my parents’ house. She pulled out of the car a big soda she must have picked up from the nearby convenience store, and I grinned in appreciation.

“Thanks,” I panted after taking a big gulp of it. “How much do I owe ya?”

“Please,” she put her hand up. “It’s the least I could do.” Trying to peek over my shoulder, she inquired, “How’s it going?”

“Pretty good, got about another half-hour or so. If you need to get something out I’ll wait until you’re done.”

She smiled her thanks at me before going in. I caught myself watching her walk before I forced myself to look away. Thinking like that wouldn’t do me any good, yet I found myself revisiting and trapped in memories anyway: of nights buried between her thighs, enjoying the taste of her dampness and sweat, her hand gripping the back of my head; the juxtaposition between her creamy skin and the darkness of night as she mounted me, letting out small contented sighs; the way she bit her bottom lip when I made her climax. Before buying a house, before children, before marriage, when all we needed was each other.

I gave a small smile as I remembered the first time she’d gotten pregnant. We’d just finished and were lying next to each other cuddling, skin gleaming, chests heaving. I had just whispered I loved her and she had said it back, before pausing a few seconds and blurting out the good news. She said I got a funny look on my face, but it hadn’t been anger but terror. I’d been terrified, afraid I wouldn’t be a good father, or that I couldn’t provide for our growing family, or that I would screw up their life with my unexplained mood swings.

I never truly lost that fear (I don’t think any good parent does), just leashed it and put it aside, slavering and pulling at the chain but unable to break free. I’d been in the delivery room when our daughter was born, and for our two sons, welcoming them into the world and cutting their umbilical cords. Gently but awkwardly at first, I’d cradle them and coo at them promises that I would always be there, always keep them safe. It’s a promise that I have done my best to have kept throughout the years.

The first two years of marriage before our daughter was born seemed like ages ago, another time, another me, like half-remembered impressions from a TV show I used to watch. Before our first son was born we’d started having problems in our marriage, but we tried to shoulder our difficulties and carry on. Counseling only eased our burdens a little. Neither of us knew at the time why I couldn’t control my mood swings, going from depressed to energized and back again day to day, without rhyme or reason.

Finally snapping back from my daydreams to reality with a shake of my head, I carried my drink back to the house and stepped through the doorway. I recalled the first time I had done that, almost five years ago. The agent had led us in, talking up all the features and surrounding neighborhood. I had looked at my wife; the look on her face told me she’d already made up her mind. It was only five minutes from her work and within walking distance of an elementary school. Besides, we fought often enough that I didn’t want to have another one. I gave my consent and she clapped her hands and hugged me, though I thought it was obvious to anyone that the gesture was an unfamiliar one to both of us. I hugged her back, happy to have made her happy for once.

I couldn’t point to any one event, any disaster besides my mood swings that had caused this distance from one who should’ve been my best friend. It just slipped away, grain by grain, until I awoke one day and found myself drowning in the bottom of the hourglass. I could no more push the sand back up than she could pull it back through. There was nothing left to do but break the trap and set both of us free.

Around the time our second son was six months old, we were lying in bed one night with our baby sleeping between us, dreaming contented baby dreams. I looked at her, she looked at me, and then she finally said, “We’re not gonna make it, are we?”

Sighing, hiding the face that my stomach was in knots, I said back, “No…no, I don’t think we are.” Those were some of the hardest words I’ve ever said.

“What do we do now?” she blinked back tears.

“I don’t know,” I admitted with another sigh. “I just don’t know.” Sleep was a long time coming that night.

There was no huge fight like on TV, where I threw some clothes in a suitcase and stormed off; no hysterical woman screaming at me to get out and how she hated me and never wanted to see me again; no cops called for a domestic disturbance and hauling me away in the back of a squad car while she sobbed and sported a black eye. No clichés, no poorly written scenes, just real people in real life. We proved divorce doesn’t have to be messy.

I got another place to live, slowly moved my stuff out and in, took myself off of our joint bank account and opened a separate one. We arranged a joint meeting with a lawyer, agreed it was amicable and uncontested, and signed the paperwork. She had counseling sessions set up with the kids. At first they were upset and cried, which of course broke our hearts and made us cry, but eventually the kids learned to accept it. They liked the fact that mommy and daddy no longer fought or screamed at each other, but got along.

I missed not seeing them every day. Even when I used to work late or they had things going on, I’d at least get to tuck them in or kiss them goodnight. But, though I only thought of myself as a good father at best, I realized she was a damn good mother and provided for our children a level of compassion and understanding I’ve only now began to able to give them. Eventually I went to a psychiatrist and found out my mood swings were caused by the fact that I am bipolar. I’m now on medicine for it and I’m better, but the fact is that if I’d gone to get help years ago we might still be together. I’ve tried not to dwell on that too much.

At least I got them on each one of my weekends and could come over and see them anytime I wanted. I didn’t hate her, nor did she hate me. I never referred to her as “that bitch” and she never called me “that bastard”. Though sometimes it still ached, like a bruise that would never heal, I’ve come to peace with our decision and I believe she has too.

Grabbing the jackhammer from the wall while I sympathized with the protests my lower back was making, I started it back up again. As I watched her cleaning a few things while I worked the jackhammer from wall to wall, I couldn’t help but notice that she’d put on weight over the years. Of course, I noted bemusedly while my stomach jiggled to the constant up and down of the heavy machine, so had I. Maybe that’s why relationships fail. Both parties try so hard to hide who they really are. Once they feel comfortable, however, they stop the deception, stop striving to please, stop trying. With no barriers, most people can’t stand that much unadulterated truth. Relationships only work if you keep rebuilding some of the barriers, balancing honesty with mystery, maintaining who you are with who they think you are.

Lost in thought, it was jarring to realize I’d finished. I took the jackhammer outside so it could cool down and began sweeping and shoveling up the broken pieces. She offered to assist me but I declined, not wanting her to sully the hands that would later tuck our children in. After the clean up was over I loaded the jackhammer back into my dad’s truck. I stood cleaning my face and arms outside at the faucet when she came out, pausing in her tidying.

“So, is it over?” she asked me softly.

Looking at her, a half-smile on my lips, I said, “Yeah, it’s over.”

“Would you like to stay for dinner?”

“Nah, it’s OK. I’m gonna go home and take a shower, try to feel more human and less like a relic.” We both smiled and then stood in pregnant silence for a minute. “Listen, I’ll have that money for your next week, all right?”

“I know, no big deal. You’ll get it to me when you can. No matter what, you always take care of your responsibilities. You’re the best ex-husband a woman could have.” An old joke of ours, she smiled as I smiled back and reciprocated the feeling with just a different title. “So, you’ll pick the kids up Monday at six?”

“Yeah sure, I’ll see you then.” I gave a small wave and slid into the truck. I pulled away from the curb and started down the street, watching her and the house getting smaller and smaller in the rear view the further I drove until finally they were lost in the distance and I could no longer see them. I looked ahead and kept on driving.

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