Do You Know What Your Problem Is? A Short Story

“Do you know what your problem is?”

He looks at me with pleasure as he says that. Not just pleasure – something closer to triumph. Once again, he’s about to trump me and win a point. Because my husband is the sort of man who has to win at everything.

It’s late – a few minutes after midnight. We’re in the kitchen. Remnants of a micro-waved Thai curry litter the table in the dishearteningly named ‘breakfast nook’ where we eat all our meals – though, these days, if we manage one dinner a week together, it’s an event. Job pressures, business dinners, entertaining clients at the opera (isn’t that an oxymoron?), overnight trips to Dusseldorf and Luxembourg and Clermond-Ferrard (he really gets all the ‘glam’ European destinations), not to mention all those evenings when he simply has to work late… yes, Richard really is a very busy boy. So much so that our two children often wonder out loud why their father always seems to have time for everything except them… especially as he’s recently started playing tennis with a chum every weekend morning.

Still, I can take the constant absences. And the pervasive self-absorption. And the diffidence. And the extended emotional lassitudes . And the fact that sex once a month is his idea of ongoing romantic ardour…

Yes, I can actually handle all that – all the unspoken grievances, the built-up resentments, the angry unexplained silences, the retreats to the room in the house he calls his office, the inability to connect with his so-called “loved ones”.

But what I can’t – won’t- abide are those seven damn words that he employs whenever I dare to raise a point:

“Do you know what your problem is?”

Unlike most interrogatory sentences, this one is neither speculative nor open to interpretation. Nor does it beg an answer. Because he has a long established response to that question; a response which entails listing my copious deficiencies, and my inability to live up to what he wants me to be.

Which is…?

Well, nine years and two children into this marriage, I certainly do know what he likes least about me. Especially as not a day goes by when he doesn’t somehow manage to let it be known that I am, in his eyes, inadequate… though the problem is, he can’t really be accused of nagging or berating me all the time. Rather, his way of expressing displeasure is often non-verbal and indirect in its methodology – the disappointed sigh, the disgruntled shrug, the let-down glance, the sotto voce exhalation of the word, ‘Typical’…

You see, Richard really isn’t the belligerent type. Passive-aggressivity is his preferred style – as befitting someone who can never really convey his true feelings about any situation. Until he get five glasses of wine in him… at which point he feels emboldened to articulate that one critical sentence he is capable of expressing:

“Do you know what your problem is?”

Where to begin? I’m deeply disorganized, right? I forget things. I never fill in a cheque stub. I don’t bulk-buy such minor domestic necessities like loo paper or washing powder. I have an aversion to organizing my side of the wardrobe. My shoes are never lined up in a neat row. I frequently leave the house without my wallet. I can never remember where I’ve parked the car in the big supermarket near our house. I often get off at the wrong tube station – and can definitely stand accused of perpetual absent-mindedness. Just as I also tend to leave dishes in the sink, allow dry cleaning to go uncollected for months, and overlook little matters like paying the third and final notice from those kind folk who keep our house supplied with electricity.

“Do you know what your problem is?”

Yes, I do. I live in a perpetual jumble. The French have a word for this sort of behaviour. They call it bordelique. Or in plainer English: all over the place. Guilty as charged. And God, how I’ve attempted to reform my bordelique tendencies. I’ve tried making lists. And stationing Post-It reminder notes to myself around the house. And always leaving ten minutes earlier than needed when I have to meet Richard somewhere. But somehow, I seem to find a way of somehow still being a quarter-hour late. Or to misplace the shopping list on which I’ve carefully written: Pick Up Richard’s Grape Nuts (the only breakfast cereal he’ll eat). Or to forget that the children have something called mid-term break every February.

But he knew all about my genius for chaos when we first met. I admitted it to him on our third date – when, for the third time running, not only was I late, but I also forgot the agreed spot for our rendezvous.

“What can I say?”, I heard myself telling him at the time. “I have problems when it comes to time-and-place”.

He laughed at my comment – and I liked that. Just that I liked the fact that he was never less-than-tolerant of my eccentricities… and told me that he so appreciated the way they counterbalanced his own control-freak tendencies.

Of course, I was aware of his ‘compulsive order fixation’ (to be psychobabbly about it) from the moment I started spending nights at his place. One look in his chest of drawers – where every pair of boxer shorts of socks were laid-out with military precision and also colour-coded – confirmed that.

I remember smiling at the time and thinking: “Well, he’ll bring a little organization into my life”. God, the banalities one spouts – especially to oneself – when you think yourself in love. Just as he actually told me (and this really is a direct quote): “I need your chaotic edge”.

Rule number one of delusional courtship: always believe that you can ignore those aspects of your new-found beloved which you secretly find terrifying. Because, bien sur, you’re in love… in lurve… in vino stupidus… whatever the hell you want to call it. When you’re thirty-nine years old (as I was at the time), and coming out of your third bad break-up in three years (me again), and you meet a seemingly decent, available man who makes all the right noises about wanting children, and wanting you to keep your career, and how much your work will be of equal domestic import as his work, and how right we both are for each other… especially as we have collided (his exact word) at precisely the right moment, especially as we had both experienced enough in the way of bad relationships to build on our negative experiences, blah, blah, blah… well, you so want to believe all such talk, no matter how often a little voice deep inside your skull whispers one telling word: prudence.

Granted, he always did tend towards the over-explanatory – treating every emotional situation as the opportunity for a discourse. But I bought into it. Not because I was desperate (even though I was desperate). Also because I wanted to buy into it… so wanted to believe that ‘we could make a go of it’ (another of his expressions). And also because… (and yes, I’m certain you know what confession is coming next, but here it is anyway) … because I also knew it was my last chance – the 25th Hour – before the biological clock…

Do you know what your problem is?

I remember the first time he posited that question to me. It was a year after we met. I was five months pregnant (another admission: I did deliberately get pregnant fast). We’d be cohabiting for around six weeks. And already, my idea of domestic tidiness (or lack thereof) was the cause of his ever-increasing discontentment. He didn’t say anything at first; he just let out these woe-is-me sighs, usually accompanied by an arching of the eyebrows in the direction of a less-than-benevolent God who’d landed him with someone for whom neatness was a secondary concern. Then, suddenly, he turned on me one evening after discovering (shock! horror!) that I had not cleaned the bathtub drain of assorted hairs… as he had asked me to do on several past occasions.

“Didn’t you say you’d do this yesterday?”, he asked.

“Guilty as charged”.

“You are going to deal with it?”

“Yes, eventually”.

“Eventually?”

“Like tomorrow”.

“Why not now?”, he said, his voice jumping up an octave or two.

“Because it’s nearly midnight – and I don’t clean drains at midnight”.

He let out an even more exasperated sigh. And said:

“Do you know what your problem is?”

There it was. The accusatory question, freighted with superiority, self-righteousness and disappointment.

Disappointment. That’s what so struck me about that interrogatory phrase – the build-up of disgruntlement which it represented. Not that I myself had been innocent of disaffection when it came to my husband. Around a week after that, I found myself waking up one morning at four, and looking at the lumpy figure sharing the bed next to me, and thinking:

I have made the worst decision of my life.

But what use was this realization when I was four months away from motherhood, and the new co-owner of a heavily mortgaged house, and now forty years old, and quietly terrified of the idea that, if I suddenly walked out now, the entire edifice of my life would collapse around me. That’s what I feared the most – having to traverse all that domestic debris – the landscape after battle – once I detonated my marriage. And, I suppose, that’s what kept me put at a juncture when I still could have hit the eject button. Funny, isn’t it, how fear is so allied to discontent…. how you embrace disappointment when you resist change, and instead learn to put up with…

Do you know what your problem is?

… because you begin to think that maybe he has a point… that your accumulated faults are so maddening, so counter-productive to the general domestic good, that you deserve his constant approbation.

Do you know what your problem is?

Don’t think that, over the years, I haven’t fought back, haven’t tossed his own manifold faults back into his face. But he’s brilliant in a fight. He can handle any accusation thrown at him, manipulating it to his own advantage, cutting me down to governable size, but then refusing to become triumphalist when I thrown in the towel.

That’s always been his trick – the ability to run hot-and-cold, like a schitzophrenic mixer tap… to temper the critical with moments of tendresse… to know when to pull back from the precipice, and pay attention to me and the children at the that very instant when my thoughts turn black again, and one repetitive sentence keeps echoing in my head:

I just can’t do this anymore…

But then, his antennae seems to register that I am thinking this way… that I am on the brink. And he changes his ways for a fortnight or so, suggests a weekend a deux in Brussels (how romantic!… but, at least, it’s not Frankfurt), or takes the kids off to Legoland for an entire Sunday, and leaves me temporarily feeling that this is manageable after all, and maybe I can continue to put up with the conversational lulls, the lack of interest in little matters like my work, the cursory questions about the children, the repetitive nature of his monologues about ‘the job’, the fact that… (do I really want to admit this?)… we have so little to say to each other.

Do you know what your problem is?

In all our years together, I’ve never directly answered that question. Because I’ve always known that, if I did, it would be the beginning of the end… that I would finally articulate all that I’ve been keeping in check since…

Do you know what your problem is?

So here we are again – eight years and seven months on after he first posed that question to me. And as he warms to his subject, he’s looking at me with that jubilant little smirk of his, knowing that I won’t answer… that, per usual, I’ll take it on the chin and let the matter drop. Anything for a quiet…

Do you know what your problem is?

Once again, those seven words catch me like a slap across the face. And yet, in that exact moment of impact, another moment comes to mind… that night he first took me out, and how I kept telling myself he was wonderful because I so wanted him to be wonderful… and how I found myself studying him over the table of that bad Italian restaurant where we ate, and kept thinking about the arid years of emotional dead-ends, and how, yes, he could be all right… or, if not all right, well…

He’d do.

We set ourselves up for regret, don’t we? This should never have been. But… there is the massive consolation of the children, who have papered over the way we have been such a great disappointment to each other… and, most of all, to ourselves.

Do you know what your problem is?

In my inner ear, I hear what I am about to say. And I hear it with the cold detachment of somebody whose mind is made up… who knows that there is no way she’s going to be pulled back from the precipice. This time, she’s going over the cliff.

Do you know what your problem is?

I look up at him.

“Yes”, I say. “I think I do”.

  • Lisa Sahoo

    i think you know clearly wt the problm is…sometimes we cant muster up the courage to to take a step…..but just think you r not happy now…you deserve to b happy…to get respect…..but if you r nt ready now/….its ok…one day you wil find yourself having the courage automatically…because the need of change has alrady occured inside you……one day you wil figure out how to do it