Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fiction - Sister Hartley's Coffeepot

Part 1

As Angie Hartley listened to her husband praise her in his testimony, her anger crept up, only to get stuffed back down by the guilt.

"I need to tell you how much I love and rely on my wife." Justin Hartley said to the congregation. He gazed down at the podium as he paused to sniff back some emotion. "She is the spiritual strength of our home, and I just try to stay out of her way. I'm not sure how I managed to trick her into marrying me, but whatever I did, I'm glad it worked." A courtesy laugh rumbled through the congregation.

Angie hung a smile on her face like a mask. Justin talked like that a lot. She would protest his praise. He would laugh and accuse her of being too humble. Nothing ever changed. Angie was lonely up there on her husband's pedestal. She wanted him to rescue her, not worship her.

After Church, Justin turned on the computer to check the headlines, read discussion forums, and play Facebook games. Angie fed the children, got them out of their Church clothes, asked them about their Primary classes, organized them in a quiet Sunday activity and then left to go visiting teaching.

When she got home, the children tackled her around the knees, whining about a toy and who hit whom. Justin appeared from the direction of the computer. "Boy, are we glad to see you!"

"I know," Angie said, picking up Kaylee to protect her from an angry brother. Angie caught sight of the milk jug, still sitting on the counter where she'd left it over an hour ago. Suddenly, she wanted to cry.

Jackson started hitting Kaylee on the leg until Angie shifted and the next slap landed on Angie's stomach.

"Justin!" she called to his retreating back, "is it too much to ask for you to put the milk away?"

Justin didn't even turn around. "You know I don't notice stuff on the counter." And he disappeared into the home office, back to his computer.

He didn't notice. That was his answer every time she asked him to help clean up in the kitchen. Angie's urge to cry went up in flames of white hot rage. He would praise her in his testimony, but he would never put the milk away.

Angie needed to get out of the house before she threw a child at her husband and his computer. She dragged her entourage of fighting children to the home office and stuffed the toddler onto Justin's lap.

"I have an errand to run," she said.

"You just got home," he objected, rescuing the mouse from Kaylee.

Angie didn't reply. She got in the car and drove away, hugging her anger to her. Justin put her on a pedestal so he would never have to help her. His praise was a wall between them. Every compliment was a brick: you're better than I am; it's easier for you to be righteous because you're a woman; women are naturally more spiritual than men; you don't need help from someone as weak as I am.

She was angry enough to prove him wrong. She drove to Wal-Mart and considered the coffeepots. With one purchase, Angie could force her husband to see what was on the kitchen counter, and never spout empty praise about her righteousness again. She settled on a brown and silver coffeepot for $23.99. She picked up a can of Maxwell House, fully caffeinated. She felt guilty about buying a coffeepot on the Sabbath, but if she was going to break the Word of Wisdom, she may as well break the Sabbath too. Besides, if she waited, her guilt would have time to stifle her anger.

On the drive home, Angie glanced over at her new coffeepot. It sat on the seat next to her in total innocence, as if it were unaware of its own identity. Drinking coffee was such an innocent sin. No one could actually be tempted to drink coffee the way they could be tempted to break the law of chastity, or embezzle money. There was no lure for her in coffee, which made it a safe sin, completely under her control. She was making a point for her husband who refused to hear any of the words she'd ever spoken to him, and that was all.

At home, she sat down and read the instructions. Then she went back to the store to buy coffee filters.

Angie put the coffeepot next to the fruit bowl on the counter while she made dinner. The family ate dinner together. When they finished, Justin gathered up the plates and put them in the dishwasher. She thanked him and cleaned up the rest of the table while Justin went back to Elfquest.

A few hours later, Angie asked Justin to help put the kids to bed. He did, and then went back to his online discussion about the economic crisis in Greece.

While Justin typed arguments about the future of the eurozone, Angie washed her coffeepot, set the timer, and poured in the coffee. If she'd done it right, there should be a cup of coffee ready for her at 7:00 a.m., about the time Justin usually ate breakfast. She pushed it to the middle of the counter, daring Justin to notice it before then.

She went to bed, giddy with the hope that her coffeepot would change everything. As she stared at the dark ceiling, a lifetime of faithful Mormonism loomed over her. He's not worth it, her heritage whispered.

But what else can I do? she whispered back. And then she didn't know whether her coffeepot was an act of hope or of hopelessness.

Part 2

Part of Justin Hartley's mind focused on shaving the cleft in his chin without nicking it while the other part of his mind wondered why his home smelled like work. He rinsed his razor, and narrowed the smell down to the breakroom. Home smelled like the breakroom in the morning when he put his lunch in the fridge. Sometimes he would make himself a cup of hot chocolate before heading to his cubicle. Work stocked packets of hot chocolate for the Mormons next to the coffeepot for the non-Mormons.

The coffeepot! Justin was so surprised he forgot to close his eyes when he splashed his face. Blinking away the sting, he went to find out why his home smelled like a coffeepot. Justin strode into the kitchen demanding, "What smells like coffee? The whole house smells like Starbucks."

Angie sat at the table, sipping from a mug and looking at a magazine. "Probably it's the coffee that smells like coffee."

Justin gaped at her. "What are you doing?"

"Drinking coffee." Angie turned a page in her magazine.

"Why?" It was Monday. He wanted to go to work, get his job over with, and get back home and relax in front of the computer. Why did Angie have to complicate his home life so much? All he wanted was a happy, predictable wife, and instead he had Angie.

"I'm tired of you telling everyone how great I am. Here, I poured you a mug too."

"I don't drink coffee!"

"Woo! You're more righteous than I am! I'll get up and bear my testimony about your
superiority next fast Sunday."

"This is about what I said in my testimony yesterday?" Justin ran his hands through his hair in confusion.

"You always say that I'm better than you are. I'm tired of it. I want less praise, and more genuine support from you!"

Justin sat down. He knew if he didn't say anything, Angie would fill in the silence and maybe he could figure out what was going on.

Angie's tone switched to pleading. "I just want you to be more involved with our family. You're always on the computer, and we miss you. Don't you remember when we were first married and we did everything together? We were so happy. And then the kids were born, and then you graduated and got a job."

Angie rattled on about her feelings, which were disappointment in him, disappointment in their relationship, and disappointment about family life in general.

Justin did remember the first few years of their marriage, but he didn't remember them being happy. He remembered the pressure of trying to meet Angie's expectations, and the frustration that she always had another expectation waiting for him. His job was okay, but what he really liked about it was that he could finish it and do something else. There was no finish line to being a husband and father. It sucked up all your time and energy. Even when you were wrung dry, you didn't get a vacation; you got the promise that you could do this for eternity. Church didn't understand how to incentivize people.

Angie was winding down. She stopped and waited.

"You want me to do more?" Justin clarified.

"Well, yes," and Angie was off again, listing all the ways he could be better and do more and essentially take over the home.

Justin started to get angry. Angie was home all day with nothing else to do but nurture children and keep house. Why shouldn't she plan Family Home Evening and do the dishes?

"I don't ask you to run inventory reports," Justin interrupted.


"Inventory reports. They're boring, and I have to run an inventory report every week. I never ask you to help with them," Justin repeated.

"Why would I?"

"Of course, why would you? It isn't your job. I have boring stuff at work. I do it because it's my job. I wish I had help too. But I'm not management; I don't get a secretary to do the boring stuff. I get that housework isn't fun, Angie, but inventory reports aren't that much fun either."

Angie's eyes filled up with tears and she set down her coffee mug. Great, he was the bad guy for trying to explain his point of view. He'd like a little more love and support too. Maybe someday she could notice all the things he did rather than obsessing about the things he wasn't doing. Justin hated that feeling of inadequacy. He was so afraid it was accurate; he could never be enough or do enough or have enough. There was never, ever enough. And Angie was always waiting to rub his face in his inadequacies.

He exploded. "And I don't need you pulling some cheap, manipulative stunt like drinking coffee! What's next? You'll buy a sixpack to make me do the dishes? You'll do drugs if you think I'm not spending enough time with the kids? Come on, what's wrong with you? Is it really so bad that you're the one to suggest family prayer every evening?"

At that point Angie started to cry. Justin went cold. She was right about him. He was right about himself. He wasn't good enough and never would be.

"I'm sorry," he said.

She kept crying.

She drives me crazy, Justin thought. I love her, but she drives me crazy. Church drives me crazy. They all talk about how my family should be the biggest joy in my life, when really it's the most overwhelming job that never gets done. I don't even want to try anymore. Somehow I'm all wrong for Church and family life. I don't feel the way they say I should feel.

Still. He'd be lost without Angie, the kids, and Church. They gave him his definition as well as his limits. Justin dragged his chair over to Angie and pulled her head onto his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'll try to do better." He left it vague because he didn't really see how he could pile on one more responsibility.

Angie sniffed and calmed down. "I really do love you."

"I love you too. Can we get rid of the coffee before the kids wake up?"

Angie nodded.

He poured out the coffeepot while Angie washed the mugs. He kissed her good-bye and left for work. Nothing would change, but Angie was usually happier and apologetic after she'd had one of these outbursts. He would weather the next one too.


Karin said...

What a great piece of writing. I started at EveryDayMormonWriter and had to come here to finish. The emotions are so relatable and real. I loved it.

Beth said...

I love how everyone has this same conversation at some point in their marriage. You make it really accessible and recognizable.

I keep checking back in hopes that we will see more of the Hartley family. Please yes?

Melinda in the Jello Belt said...

Thanks, Karin and Beth. I really appreciate your comments.

Beth, I don't have any plans right now to revisit the Hartleys. You might like the novel I'm working to get published, although it doesn't specfically deal with this relationship dynamic.

Anonymous said...

Very touching and realistic. Well written.