In an ordinary suburb like so many countless others, Jimmy and Chloe set out for the mundane task of grocery shopping. They did not arrive together. They didn’t even know one another at all. Nor, did they notice one another passing by in the cereal aisle; standing side-by-side at the deli counter; reaching for bananas in the produce section; standing next to one another in neighboring check out lines; loading their groceries into their cars; or pulling out of the parking lot, before driving away in opposite directions.
Jimmy hurried home to get dinner underway, regretting that he hadn’t done his shopping earlier. Whenever his wife worked a 13-hour shift at the children’s hospital, he liked to have dinner waiting for her when she came home. She also expected him to do it – an added layer of pressure.
“You have no excuse,” she would say, reminding him that he was, after all – “only a teacher,” adding “Your job is easy. Mine is not.” In fact, he sort of agreed with her (for the most part). One thing was for sure: he certainly wouldn’t trade his hours in for hers.
After last night’s fiasco, he promised to make her a better meal tonight. And even if tonight’s dinner wasn’t ready on time, he was making something both new and vegetarian (her preference, not his. He preferred meat). He was hoping that she would at least appreciate that. And maybe, she would even agree to have sex for the first time in almost two months. Wishful thinking, he thought to himself.
As for Chloe, she wasn’t the greatest cook in the world, which was one of two reasons why she preferred not to cook (general laziness, being the other). It also explained why their modest kitchen was even more modestly stocked. On the rare occasion that she did decide to cook, it usually necessitated a trip to the grocery store. But every now and then, she surprised both herself – and her husband – by having a warm, satisfying meal waiting for him. She was hoping that this would be one of those nights. Fortunately, her kitchen “inadequacies” never seemed to bother him – at least not outwardly. For one thing, it spared him from having to eat another one of her less than savory meals. “We can go out,” he would often suggest.
Tonight, she was going to make him his favorite: her mother’s meatloaf. Maybe, for once, he wouldn’t demand sex. In her mind, a nice meal was a fair trade-off. She wished her husband could understand that sex was a painful reminder of the fertility issues that had left them childless. As much as she tried to resist it, she equated sex with failure. Even the dog she thought would replace the void of not having children did little to help her disappointment and sense of worthlessness. “I told you so,” her husband once told her. His words were like daggers. But she knew he was right.
Jimmy arrived to his cookie-cutter colonial and quickly removed the bags of organic ingredients (which he cringed at having to pay the extra money for, but knew his wife left him no other choice) from his trunk, before hurrying into the house. Despite his panicked urgency, he paused for a moment and wondered: so what if dinner wasn’t waiting on the table the second she got home? How many times was dinner waiting on the table for him when he got home? After all, she only worked three days a week. Sure, they were long hours, but three days all the same. He worked five. However, remembering how she was likely to respond if dinner wasn’t ready when she got home motivated him to hustle even more. It was a vicious cycle.
Across town, Chloe arrived at her cookie-cutter colonial and unloaded the groceries from her trunk, grabbing more bags than she could handle. Like Jimmy, she regretted not doing her shopping earlier. She desperately wanted to make sure dinner was waiting for her husband when he arrived home. In her haste, she dropped the one bag containing something breakable – a carton of eggs. Only two of them survived. Fortunately, the recipe only called for two. Relieved, she lugged all her bags inside the house in two trips, put the groceries away, then opened a bottle of Pinot Noir. She paused momentarily, wondering if alcohol would only further impair her sub-par cooking ability. She quickly dismissed that thought and poured half a glass in a compromise.
Meanwhile, Jimmy opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio, poured himself a full glass, took a healthy sip, filled it back up, pre-lit the oven, then started preparing the meal. Despite suffering a small cut on his finger while chopping carrots, it wasn’t enough to deter him. He simply wrapped his finger in a paper towel and got back to work. He was making good time.
No stranger to kitchen injuries herself, Chloe cut her finger while peeling potatoes. She ran her bleeding finger under the faucet and wrapped it in a napkin, before heading upstairs into the bathroom to slap on a Band-Aid. She came back downstairs, pre-lit the oven, and continued peeling.
Meanwhile, Jimmy placed the tenderloin into the oven, then guzzled down the remainder of his wine and set the table.
In a kitchen across town, Chloe took a baby sip of wine, before putting the meatloaf into the oven. She proceeded to set the table.
Simultaneously, Jimmy and Chloe turned on some jazz, prepared a couple of side dishes, washed the dirty dishes, put away the remaining groceries, and lit a couple of candles at the table. They then both sat down with their wine glass in hand, eagerly awaiting their spouses to come home (while paradoxically enjoying the “me time”). They took solace in knowing that they did something that would make their spouses happy – at least for one evening.
Jimmy took another large sip of wine, before realizing: I better put on the brakes before I finish off the whole bottle. I can’t give her another reason to be pissed at me if I want to have a chance tonight. Besides, to have any chance tonight, she will also need wine.
Maybe I’ll even put out tonight, Chloe thought to herself with a sly grin, feeling a slight twinge of horniness, before finishing off her glass of wine (realizing that the wine could only help). She considered pouring herself another glass, but decided to wait for dinner. She didn’t want to pass out before he got home. She rinsed out her glass, before setting it down on the table in front of her place setting.
The anticipated time of each spouse’s arrival passed by and day soon eroded into night. Phone calls led only to voicemail. Jimmy and Chloe’s first reaction was annoyance, which blossomed into mild anger, and then, finally, concern. After looking back and forth between the window and clock wore out its welcome, they turned their attention to other things as the meals they so lovingly prepared progressively turned colder.
Jimmy turned the Tigers game on, relishing the opportunity to actually watch a game for once without somebody demanding that he change the channel – or even worse, shut the TV off all together.
On a couch across town, Chloe had fallen asleep while reading a book – two things that she could always turn to escape from the depression that was always simmering beneath her calm facade. She awoke a half hour later and called her husband again. This time, it went straight to voicemail. She considered blowing out the candle, which now seemed to be only mocking her efforts. She decided that keeping it lit would keep some semblance of hope alive.
Meanwhile, Jimmy dialed his wife. The phone still rang, before finally going to voicemail. As it always did when she was late, paranoia of the worse-case scenario began to consume his thoughts. It was unlike her not to call if she was running behind. However, in the case of Chloe’s husband, this was par for the course.
Jimmy dialed again. This time, his wife finally picked up.
“Hi, sorry, I didn’t hear my phone ring. I’m having dinner with Natasha. I’ll be home in a couple of hours.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said, making no effort to mask his disappointment.
“Am I not allowed to go out?” his wife asked with characteristic disdain.
“Of course you’re allowed to go out,” he said. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then why do you sound so disappointed?”
“Had I known you were going out, I wouldn’t have prepared such a nice dinner.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know you were cooking?” she asked.
“Well, remember how I promised I would cook a nice dinner, after you bitched about what I made you yesterday?”
“No, I don’t,” she said. Jimmy knew she was lying.
“It’s just not like you to not tell me what you’re doing.”
“Do I have to tell you everything I do?” she asked.
“No, you don’t,” Jimmy replied. “But in this case, it would have been helpful. Plus, I was getting worried.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but I already had dinner plans. And I’m a big girl. I don’t need you to worry about me like I was your child.”
“It’s okay,” Jimmy said, trying to mask the disappointment in his voice. “We can eat it tomorrow.”
“If you’re trying to make me feel guilty, it isn’t working.”
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty.”
She hung up on him – a perpetual habit of hers that was progressively becoming worse. Jimmy stared at the phone in disbelief, before slamming it down on the table. He blew out the candle, then proceeded to take a chug straight from the bottle. He looked out the window into the black night, seeking answers to the one question most frequently running through his mind: What happened to us?
On the other side of town, Chloe succumbed to pouring herself another glass of wine and took a sip, desperately awaiting the sound of her husband’s car pulling into the garage. One of the few highlights of her day was greeting her husband at the door when he came home from work, with the same eagerness and devotion of a dog greeting its master. For the first time, she realized how pathetic it was. Conversely, she couldn’t remember the last time he waited at the door for her. She decided to call him again. This time, he answered.
“Where are you?” she asked
“I had to run a few errands and am on the way to the gym.”
“I made you meatloaf.”
“Thanks. But I already ate,” her husband said with casual indifference.
“What do you mean you already ate?” she asked, trying to bury the hurt and rage building up inside her.
“I picked up some fast food. I didn’t think you were cooking.”
“The one time I cook a nice meal…”
“I’m sorry. But maybe you should cook more often,” he said. The words reached her like a piercing blow.
“I can’t believe you just said that,” she responded, struggling to get the words out.
“No offense, but if you cooked more often, I would have naturally assumed that dinner would be waiting. But since you don’t, how was I to know?”
“You could have called. I could have told you.”
“Do I have to tell you every little thing I do?”
“No. But in this case, it would have been helpful to know.”
“I’m sorry. I was hungry. So I got a bite to eat. At least you have something to eat. And I can take it to work tomorrow.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What is your point?”
“Never mind,” she said.
“I’ll see you when I get home,” he said.
“Ok,” Chloe said fighting back tears, before slowly hanging up.
She decided that the time had finally come to blow out the candle, before staring at her lovingly prepared meatloaf, then putting her heads in her hands, wondering in hopeless desperation: What happened to us?
In an entirely different, but all-too-familiar universe across town, Jimmy sat at his table, cupping his head in his hands in frustration. After a few moments, they each re-lit the candle, restoring some semblance of hope. They then poured themselves the remainder of their wine, taking solace in the notion that nobody could ever say that they didn’t try.
Jimmy and Chloe then raised their glasses for an imaginary toast, before taking a long, deserving sip, before digging into their delicious, melancholy meal.
Unbeknownst to both of them – on the other side of town – Jimmy and Chloe’s respective spouses also enjoyed a meal together that night. In an ordinary suburb like so many other countless others.
R.J. Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a memoir, and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood. He has also been published in over 30 literary magazines.