No, Thank You
My wife holds her mouth a certain way when I don't pay full attention to something she said: lips parted, jaw unhinged, bottom teeth standing out like white-helmeted soldiers. These troops mass at the border between impatience and anger as Lynn waits for my response. Breakfast is over, the last of the coffee poured, I am half-listening, half-reading the newspaper. More the second than the first.
"Mmm-hmm," I say in cadence, another version of is-that-so and oh-really. Then I glance up and see her mouth and scramble to rewind the conversation. Before I have a chance to speak, Lynn does.
"Did you?" She says it without moving her teeth. A ventriloquist would be proud.
When Lynn poses a curt, two-word question, my marital DefCon counter clicks up a notch. Which means my answer must not be passive, nor can it be an excuse for my distraction. There can be no 'sorry, this article about (whatever the headline is in front of me) is fascinating.' I close the newspaper, halve it again, and place it on the unread sections of the Sunday Times. Detaching from news demonstrates my laser focus, and paper-folding buys a few more seconds to remember the words I ignored.
"Him?" I say, somehow recalling the last pronoun she spoke.
I find Lynn's conversations endearing, the way she strings together disparate facts and opinions. I love how her mind works, jumping from one subject to another and another, linking them like a gymnast does floor exercises. I smile at her sequiturs when I unravel the logic. And I often question the who or what of her discourse, just so I can keep up.
"My brother," she says. Not just the soldiers' shiny, white heads, their entire torsos are showing.
The range of disagreements between Lynn and her brother are manifold, but the issue at hand is with me, not him. If I'm not careful, she will turn taciturn and advance to tactical kitchen cleaning in an already spotless room. I must deescalate before she unleashes household chemicals.
"I was just thinking about Frank. You never shared the latest batch of pictures from Lilly," I respond, scrounging for any clue to what I said or didn't say, did or didn't do to Frank, Lilly, his wife, or their children. Lilly is a chronic documentarian, her smart phone ever-present. Be it soccer practice, piano recital or playing with toys on the floor, each day brings a score of snaps of two unsmiling boys. The location may change, but the looks on boys' faces don't: the little one mugs or sticks out his tongue, the big one looks up defiantly with his not-again-Mom scowl.
Lynn hesitates a moment. She seems to weigh my request to see the photos, as if doing so might sidetrack this standoff. Then her eyes spark and Lynn reaches for her phone. It's never where she thinks it is.
She's on her feet, cat-quick. Slow-motion replay would reveal limberness a yoga master would envy: her petite, five-foot frame unfolding from the seated position without benefit of a table-push or chair-scoot; her body somehow conforming to the minuscule, angled space between furniture. Lynn's up, off to find her phone.
Her eagerness to leave the battlefield worries me. No doubt Lilly's photos will prove my complicity in whatever crime I've perpetrated. Phone found, Lynn returns, thrusting the screen in front of me: a slideshow set to music. There are a dozen different camera angles for the sequence, the little one's face, not mugging this time, blowing out candles.
My moment of panic is displaced by confusion to the evidence presented. Where was my wrongdoing? I had read and signed the birthday card, watched while my wife held up the gift–a T-shirt–and even took the parcel to the post office in plenty of time to arrive for the occasion. And I remember performing these participatory actions with relish. You should have seen how vigorously I agreed with the appropriateness of the T-shirt and said how much the birthday boy loves Spider-Man. No gaffes here.
"Fun," I exclaim.
Lynn's jaw drops a bit further as she waits. Her silence means no other hints are forthcoming. I smell oven cleaner in my future, but for the life of me I cannot fathom my faux pas. Perhaps the clue was in the room where the birthday party took place; was there an associated household task I promised to do but neglected to fulfill? None come to mind. Perhaps another birthday is looming for which my action is required.
I go through the near-term events calendar in my head: upcoming birthdays include her brother, her father, my nephew, plus Mother's Day. No, I already have my relatives covered and Lynn likes to do hers. Think, man: Valentine's Day is long gone, we don't do Easter, so that accounts for everything on the calendar since my birthday.
My birthday. Damn. Thank-you notes.
Lynn has been brought up to write thank-yous. For her family, it's an autonomic response like saying 'bless you' after a sneeze or having dessert with every meal. What space and time are to relativity, so are gifts and thank-you notes to Lynn and her relations. So, by virtue of our marriage bands, it's a task to which I'm bound.
Thank-you notes were never part of my family tradition, we expressed our appreciation verbally. In those interim years, between leaving home and marrying Lynn, gratitude was voiced to and from my parents and sister during any random chat or phone call that followed a giftable event. Post-Internet, thank-yous were equally permissible by email. And texting probably would have worked too, but Lynn and I were married before smart phones came along. To this day, I feel odd penning a note to those in my clan, wondering what happens when they find the smallish envelope in their mailbox. Is there a pang of obligation to return the gesture? Do they long for the good old days when the message was conveyed in conversation? Bless them, they haven't changed. Much to the chagrin of my wife.
According to Lynn, no more than a week can go by before these handwritten notes will be in the mail. And like clockwork, thank-yous for my birthday gifts had been posted before the leftover cake had been eaten. All except one: Lynn's brother sent my present two-weeks late and it's been seven days since Amazon delivered the gift-wrapped book. My response is overdue.
"This can't be about Frank's thank-you note," my poker face precedes the lie, "I mailed that yesterday."
I'm torn between admitting negligence and ending the skirmish here and now. And as the soldiers retreat, I realize there is nothing to fight about. Lynn has won the war. What was once done only to appease my wife has become an opportunity to express my sincerity. When appreciation is made tangible it feels good. The right words aren't as important as the time spent stringing them together. It's knowing that the envelope will arrive amid junk mail and bills, be plucked from the pack and opened first.
It's a nice tradition, to spend a few minutes thanking someone who went out of their way to make or buy a gift. Yet the irony isn't lost on me: it takes more time to write and mail a thank-you note than it does to shop Amazon and press the 1-click button.
Back at the breakfast table, Lynn sidles back into her chair and picks up the Sunday Styles section.
"What do you need to do today?" she asks.
"Nothing much," I reply, making a plan to sneak stationery from the house, "It's a nice day for a walk."
About the Author: DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon, where it's probably raining. Luckily, water is beer’s primary ingredient. His stories and non-fiction appear in 40 publications, including Confingo, Page & Spine, Zetetic and Wild Musette. You can find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.