The other day I drove home from work with the radio on as usual, avoiding potholes and generally disappearing into the glaze of sun off my windshield. The sky pulsed blue and dogs lifted their legs at trees. A summer evening like many others.
I made it home as usual and parked. My partner, Kate, appeared from behind the front hedge with her bike. I got out of the car to greet her.
She was happy. Even deeper than this, she was content. Earlier she’d texted me about some good news that had come her way and I’d texted back my sincere congratulations. I had felt sincerely pleased for her, but I there was something else in the soup.
“Well done!” I said to her by the car.
“Thanks!” she beamed back, hand on the bike seat.
We chatted a little more about her good news, and I got that murky quickening inside me again that means something is up. I ignored it, kept talking. But the murkiness persisted, and then out of nowhere I blurted out an unkind, careless phrase.
It was a quick cut and Kate responded just as quickly, snapping back at me. I felt the wound in her response like a physical blow. She jumped onto her bike and I sloped off into the house to nurse my injury.
Why did her responses always get me like that? I grumbled to myself. Why didn’t she understand that I hadn’t really meant what I said? She should know me better than this by now. Sometimes I just said things before thinking. My keys made a crashing sound on the counter. Blindly I reached for the fruit bowl, peeled a banana.
And just like that I had neatly transformed myself into a victim. The murky feelings I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge became about her, about our interaction. I almost sighed with relief at this alchemy because now that it was about her I could at last acknowledge it. The feelings had a story, a shape beyond me.
I rolled the story shape around, chewed my banana. The story went something like this:
Five minutes ago I said something dumb that I didn’t really mean. Then you were mean to me about it. Now I feel shitty.
Neat, right? A tidy piece of inciting action, crescendo, and resolution. And tidily not about me.
I finished the banana, did a few dishes and put away some laundry, all the while congratulating myself on understanding so clearly what had just happened. But the murkiness didn’t care about my understandings. It was still growing, building. And by the time I’d moved on to putting some shoes away and scooping out the cat box, it had become a roaring mud-thunder slinging itself every which way.
The roaring grew so insistent I finally made myself stop moving. I stood in the kitchen and asked, What is really going on here? Why do I feel so shitty when this happens with us? Of course I’d felt this way before when we argued, but I’d never asked the why. The feelings, if I’d bothered to stop and feel them, had just seemed like a given before—a natural byproduct of arguing.
Why do I feel so shitty when it happens? I insisted.
The answer arrived like a visceral pinch to my cheek: You felt shitty before you got out of the car.
I reeled. What? What? For a moment I considered denying this. No! I feel shitty because I was just misunderstood and we had a fight! This is how fighting makes you feel! But the answer was so final I could spin nothing more from it. This is how it is, I suppose, when something lands true.
I thought back to my drive home. Zoning out around the potholes, through the yellow lights. There had been something gnawing at me then. A difficult, uncomfortable ache in me before I got out of the car, before I’d said one word to Kate.
Her good news had made me grin and cheer earlier, but it had also brought up some rough stuff in me that I didn’t want to acknowledge. Why don’t I have good news? the rough script ran. Why does nothing randomly fun and just what I need ever happen to me?
The frustration and guilt and pain I was feeling consciously now that we’d argued had all been festering in me before our interaction. If I rewound a bit I could find it all sitting with me as I drove home, frozen by my refusal to feel. Waiting for an outlet so that I would.
I was no victim of my sharp, dumb words to Kate or of her response, our fight. No misunderstanding had happened to bring these murky feelings up in me. I felt what I felt from inside. My pain was an inside job.
We may feel like so little is from inside in this time of outer forces, unimaginable global events, befuddled election politics. But I believe we each build the reality we experience. Or it could be we build a dulled, distracted perception as I had before and after the fight. I was asking how to feel better about it, but what I really meant was how do I feel it at all so it can move?
It would take us a couple of days to hash through something that seemed to start so small. The words, the fight, the resulting anguish. We had to dig deeper than we ever have in our years together, and maybe this fact surprised us more than anything. That something happening so fast could have so much in it.
We are still sorting through it day by day, and we are gentler with it this week than last. I spent some time with the difficult feelings, made some space to allow them in. I’d like to say a fight like that won’t happen again because of this, and maybe I’d be right. I don’t know.
I do know a little more about my capacity to acknowledge, to feel. The space I can hold for an almost shocking openness. And, come last Friday, a few days after the fight, something arrived in the mail for me. It seems I’d overpaid my 2019 state income taxes and was due a sudden and unexpected refund.
There it was in my hands, some randomly fun good news and just what I needed.