Tender Speech


“When two people part it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches.”

In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

I still think that my husband knew at the airport. Maybe he was thinking about Paris five years earlier, remembering how I’d call late at night from my dorm room at the Sorbonne around the time he would be leaving work in the States. Back then, I couldn’t wait to talk to him. But even that summer had its sour moments—wet leaves would get swept into loose piles in the boulevards and when the lovers drew close on the Left Bank it would leave me cold and hopeful for something of my own that was then only loosely defined. My loneliness was a persistent thing even then. I was incurable in my desperate need to understand my own heart. There was a consistent need to examine, examine, and examine. I would sometimes watch planes from the top of the Pompidou Center and try to make out what distance was doing to us both.

But even at the moment he proposed a year later, it felt more like a relief or a confirmation of something I could analyze and formally present to others around me rather than to simply celebrate the idea of fully being with someone I was really devoted to. That is, my brain was involved in the answer, the yes, I will marry you rather than my heart, which should have been bouncing around like a superball in a glass arena. The trouble? I was twenty-three-years old and thought it was okay not to feel myself consumed with passion, or dizzy with happiness like a new fiancé should be. Of course, all this is easy enough to evaluate and dissect after so much time has passed. At the time, I was already thinking about the wedding day logistics. I was thinking about my last name changing. I was thinking of wedding dates, locations, and the word wife and how it would soon apply to me. I wasn’t really focusing on the most important thing, the deceptively simple question of whether or not this person was really the one for me.

Fast forward a few years and the fights (predictably common, domestic) have snowballed and I find myself a woman unswitched, out of love, and what’s worse, out of reasons. How did it all begin? Can I pinpoint the beginning of the end?

I can. It was at the Denver International Airport, around July 31st, 2010. I was at baggage claim, just returned from a month-long writer’s conference in Mexico.

When you see someone you are supposed to love and realize you no longer love this person it is like walking into your closet and finding it empty. You wonder if you are crazy. You try flipping the switch on and off, but nothing. Are you even in the right house? You start to ask yourself things like this.

Well, I finally accepted that I was in the right place. I could recall the architecture, the scaffolding that had done a rough job at holding us up for so many years was still visible, but I could hear the wind in the bones of it, there was something hollow to it. I barely knew how to get from room to room, but there I was. In this empty house I’d never imagined, vacant closets, and no laughter.

Getting off the plane I think I’ll be honest with him.

I take an escalator to baggage claim recalling my first grade teacher telling the class honesty is the best policy, but isn’t this different? Surely that rule doesn’t apply to everything, not when honesty is just plain, shitty honesty. We are all just going to hurt each other thinking that way, I tell myself.

Thought One: This isn’t happening, is it?

Thought Two:   How hard would it be to just pretend?

Thought Three:  Pretending is what got me here in the first place….

In this scene I am in the airport holding a red suitcase, and my red backpack is strapped to me. Everything feels heavier now and I try to remember what I bought that weighs so much. My thoughts are more disconnected than usual. I know he will be there any minute, and I want to say something that isn’t a lie. I imagine myself an actress running into his arms, bursting like I ought to be after not having seen him for a month, but the freakish truth was that I didn’t feel like doing any of it. I was already rehearsing the I-Can’t-Do-This-Anymore- speech without knowing I was rehearsing it.

Still, I wondered if acting in love would make me be in love.

I was desperate to go back and correct the architecture, to re-do the scaffolding, and get the place furnished, like it was supposed to be. Right then, I really wanted to remember how to get around that house, how to get the light back on, but that’s only because I was scared to death. I knew I needed to turn the key in, but could I do that?

I spot him near the escalators searching the crowd. I remembered how I’d wanted to run hard at him, to pronounce the word Love, to be dramatic, but my feet aren’t moving. Instead of warm, I feel cold. So cold I realize I’m shivering.

Our eyes lock, and I don’t move. I realize I would be a terrible actress. Then I remember something and realize that maybe I wouldn’t fail at acting after all. I swallow hard and prepare for speech. I realize I’ve been holding onto my suitcase and standing with my backpack on the whole time, just waiting to be found, totally petrified by the prospect of what the next hour may bring. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. He walks faster.

I say something like it’s just so good to see you because I think that’s not totally a lie, but the neon word LIES goes off in my brain. I close my eyes to block out the image, but it’s still there—big and blinding LIES.

What are you doing?

I hug him, hoping he didn’t see the word, too. We back away from each other and our eyes meet. At this point I say nothing, which I know is wrong and unthinkable, but I keep imagining myself a shore, and he is a shore and an ocean is crashing against both of us. Nothing is sticking; everything is in flux. Language is somewhere in that water I want to stop and the only way to find words is for the water to leave me with the right shells and the shells are language. I think, Let there be an I missed you on the sand, a love, or at least an it’s been way too long. Let me find something here. But everything is blank. The beach and my mouth are failures. My husband is a beige coast. The water in my brain rushes in and out. I see myself see myself.  I wait and try, but the water leaves me with nothing.

When he asks if he can carry something, I reply no, it’s fine. I tell him I am used to the weight by now. I tell him it makes me strong.

See how fine everything is?

By this point it’s really late at night and we’ve left the airport and are now driving around, lost in Denver. Words like separation and divorce start making appearances in our conversation. I tell him I didn’t want to have to say I don’t love him anymore, because that’s cruel. It’s too cruel. And yeah, I stopped caring and no I didn’t miss him while I was gone, and maybe I should have emailed more, but I cannot be the one to say I don’t love you anymore.

But that’s it, isn’t it?

Yes, I whisper.

Everything gets very quiet and I start to notice how many streetlights are out.

The outcome starts to feel inevitable after being so honest. I wonder if he’d been anticipating this ending all along. Did he look at me and see logistics, endless rows and columns? Did he see lines brackets, and numbers where my body was? Where the fireworks were supposed to be? Had he known I was some insolvable problem all along, doomed to be laid away?

In the quiet, I let him make some wrong turns. It’s late, past midnight now, and we are still in that unfamiliar city. As he drives the wrong way, I stare at my reflection in the window and the decision covers me like a mask. I start pinning labels on my forehead. I’d thought I was lonely before, but now I’m really lonely. Sometimes I can hear him crying. I tell him where to turn to get us home, and he seems grateful. I look down at my hands and think they look like they are holding onto each other. I want to open my hands, but I can’t. They keep holding on.

Why won’t my hands open?

When we get to the apartment, he drives around looking for a parking space. The space we eventually find is far away. The car stops, and I sit there clutching a tissue, the sounds of my husband’s sobs still ringing in my ear. I wonder how anyone could want me this much. I wonder how it’s possible I don’t want someone who wants me this much. I watch him turn the car off and touch his eyes and he asks me if I am getting out. My hands finally come apart and on cue, I answer him.


Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.

Tasha Cotter's work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming in Salt Hill Journal, Booth, Contrary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her fiction was recently nominated for a storySouth Million Writers award, and she regularly blogs for Contrary Magazine. You can find her online at www.tashacotter.com. More from this author →