Ned and Claire biked home in the dark after the day of garden planting with Topping, Charlotte, Bartholomew and Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey. Ned didn't like biking in the dark; he found it hard to see potholes and objects that might be in the way. He worried about having an accident. Claire, on the other hand, didn't worry about anything. Being on a bike was like breathing. She biked everywhere. This was partly because she did not own a car, but she used that as an excuse. She really enjoyed biking. It made her feel good about her body and about her planet. She also felt that it brought her more in touch with her neighborhood, because she saw more of it when biking. As Ned worried more and more about running into things, he fell behind. Then he felt like he had to catch up. He was torn between wanting to do something with Claire, and yet wanting to go at his own pace. He felt resentments about being led into these situations by Claire's confidence. In fact, Claire's general confidence in all things made Ned a bit uncomfortable.
They arrived home and carried their bikes up the three flights of stairs to the apartment and parked them in the living room. Ned collapsed on a worn out couch while Claire headed to the kitchen for a drink of water. Although they had just biked five miles, their stomachs were full from the large meal that Aunt Josephine had made for the gardeners. Claire came back out to the living room with a glass of water in her hand. Ned wondered why she didn't offer to get him a glass of water, too. Claire collapsed in a stuffed chair that wasn't stuffed enough. “Ow,” she said as a spring poked her butt.
“Can't we get a new chair? This one is horrible,” she commented.
“What's up with you?” asked Claire.
“What do you mean?” responded Ned.
“You were quiet all day at the garden and Bartholomew's. You were crabby about where you were planting things and quiet the whole way home. And now you aren't answering my question. So, what's up?”
“Nothing's up. I just don't feel like talking.”
“You spend the whole day with your partner and your friends and you don't feel like talking? That's just weird.”
“My partner? What does that mean?” asked Ned, never having heard Claire use that term before.
“Uh, we've been living together for almost five months. At this point, it's not like I'm just a girlfriend.”
Ned wasn't sure what the difference would be between a girlfriend and a partner. “So, you’re my partner? Like a business partner? Like, you help me pay the rent and buy groceries and things like that? Cuz, last I checked, you still don't have a job. At this point, it's not like this is much of a partnership.”
Claire's heart winced but her anger did not. “What? You think of this as a business partnership? I didn't know there were conditions on me being here. Is that what you want?” Ned did not respond so Claire continued. “No, I don't have a job. But it’s not like I haven't taken care of things around here. It's not like I don't contribute. I clean the apartment and I cook and fix things. And I have paid for some things.”
“Look, I'm tired,” said Ned, “let's forget I said anything.”
Claire moved over to the couch. “I can't forget something like that. Is that why you've been quiet all day? You’re mad that I don't contribute around here?”
“It's not that you don't contribute, it's just that I needed a roommate to help cover the rent and here you are costing me more money. I'm dipping into my savings to float us here. I'm trying to save my money for other things.”
“Like what?” demanded Claire.
“Well, I've always tried to save enough money to cover four months worth of bills. That way I have a nest egg and if anything happens, like I lose my job, or I get sick or something, I have a cushion. It's the prudent thing to do.”
“What? You're saving money in order to save money? Being prudent is more important than our relationship?” asked Claire as tears came to her eyes.
“It's not that its more important...,” began Ned. He stopped. His mind raced back across time. He revisited all the times he felt that Claire was being unfair or demanding. He thought about how embarrassed he was when she was kicked out of the Earth Day Celebration and when she broke down at the spoken word event. He thought about how she kept expressing her opinion even when she knew it would be uncomfortable for him. He often had thought that Claire relied more on her gross-emotional skills than her fine-emotional skills. In a word, she was blunt – blunt as a stub. This even carried over to their love-making. Every time they made love, Claire needed it to be at a certain emotional pitch. She didn't have a sense of lingering, of spooning for hours or of having fun while being intimate. She seemed to have no imagination. It had to always be the same game, the same roles and then done.
As Claire waited for Ned to finish his sentence, she thought about all the times that Ned didn't keep up with her. This wasn't just with biking. Ned couldn't keep up in conversation, in understanding the motives behind political situations, in expressing what he wanted for food – or anything. Ned always seemed to be lagging, which in Claire's mind meant lacking. He often seemed distant, unsure and, in general, incapable. This even carried over to their love-making. Every time they had sex, Ned never seemed satisfied. He was always wanting to try something new, something different. He never seemed contented to just make love to her – to simply enjoy Claire as a partner. It was as if he needed something more to excite him.
Ned, finally continued, “...it is important. It actually is important to have money in the bank. Is it more important than our relationship? No, I don't think so, but if I had a choice between having a relationship that is penniless and the same relationship with money in the bank, I would take the relationship with money—some security. Plus, we will have to move if you don't start paying for your half of the bills.”
“I just couldn't imagine that you were this greedy,” said Claire. “Maybe if you would share what you’re thinking and feeling once in awhile I might have seen this coming.”
Ned glared at her. Claire could tell that she had stepped over a line, and she took a morsel of pleasure in this.
“Why share myself?” replied Ned. “Every time I do you don't like it. I say something and you jump all over it or you start to question me. Why can't you just let people be themselves? Like Mayor Dick. Why do you get so caught up with whatever the hell Mayor Dick is doing?”
“Because he's a...a...fucking idiot!” said Claire. “He's ruining everything by being so stupid and pigheaded. People like him will ruin the entire planet if they’re allowed to keep doing what they're doing!”
“Oh, OK, here we go! Yes, the whole big planet-is-dying thing And you are the only person who really cares.”
“Oh my god,” said Claire. “I can't believe what I'm hearing. You mean you don't see that the planet is dying? Were you ever going to tell me this or just keep going to Earth Day Celebrations with me? Maybe I was right at Topping and Charlotte's New Year's Eve party – maybe you are a Capitalist Nazi. After all, you treasure your money more than our relationship.”
Like two dead goldfish caught in the spinning whirlpool of a toilet, these two weren't going to stop until they were stuck in deep shit.
“I am not a Capitalist Nazi! I don't like money more than people, I just want to be thoughtful about my money. I want to have money so I am not dependent on others.”
“But we are all dependent on each other. Don't you get it? Everything we do affects the environment and other people. You can't make and spend your money in a vacuum. To think you do is a lie.”
“Yes, I guess I'm in denial,” Ned said sarcastically. “I'm in denial about the state of the planet, about money and about myself. After only five months you know me better than myself. Yes, you are the great all-seeing Claire.”
“Shut the fuck up!” said Claire, throwing a chair pillow at Ned.
“Oh, now don't start oppressing the masses with pillows,” taunted Ned.
Claire moved quickly and swatted at Ned with another pillow. Ned blocked it.
“Shut up, you moron,” said Claire as she kept swatting at Ned.
“Yes, sometimes it does seem like I'm a moron in your eyes,” said Ned as he parried a swat with his own pillow.
Claire hesitated and then swatted one more time, catching Ned in the face. Ned became enraged and popped off the sofa and on top of Claire, who toppled over backward into the stuffed chair.
“Get off of me!” Claire screamed.
“Not until you apologize,” said Ned pushing down on her.
“For what?” Claire asked indignantly.
“For hitting me in the face, for thinking I'm a moron and for not letting me be me.”
“What the fuck?” said Claire. “You are a moron.”
Ned pushed down harder.
“Ow, alright! I'm sorry for hitting you in the face.”
“...and for calling you a moron.”
“C'mon, Ned,” said Claire, “if you don't feel like you can be yourself, that's not my problem. Assert yourself!”
“Like this?” Ned said as he pushed down harder.
“No, you...” Claire caught herself, “...not like that. TALK TO ME! Let me know what you're thinking. Don't be so quiet all the time!”
They stared into each other's eyes.
“Ned. Get off of me,” said Claire.
Ned got off of Claire and sat back down on the sofa, holding a pillow to his chest. Claire stayed in the chair breathing heavily. They said nothing for a long time. Claire wiped tears from her eyes. Ned gritted his teeth. Eventually, the tide of anger receded and they both apologized for the least harmful of their actions.
Ned said, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to push down on you like that.”
Claire said, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hit you in the face with the pillow.”
But, of course, both of them did want to do those things, because they did them. They did want to hurt each other. For the next two weeks, they both held back from saying and doing unkind things to each other. Ned tried to talk more about his feelings and share what he was thinking. Claire tried to think more positively about Ned and go at his pace. Eventually, the facade began to crack. Unkind gestures and thoughts leaked back in here and there. A month after the incident they both were back to blaming each other for the problems in their relationship. Soon enough, all trust was gone.
If they had a guardian angel in their lives helping them with their relationship they might have realized that neither of them was to blame, that neither of them could change enough to please the other and that they couldn't change each other enough to become one. If, on that New Year's Eve that seemed so long ago, an angel had been at the party they might have realized that they were not meant for each other. If there had been such a guardian angel, they would not have spent all this time in pain and anguish trying to make something work that was never meant to be. But there was no angel at the party and they didn't learn these things, like most people, before going through them. Claire let a spooky old crow scare her into the relationship and Ned, like a whipped dog, was led by his desperate hope and propped up expectations... like most people.________________________________________
Written by Mark Granlund
Illustrated by James O'Brien