This story was written for the January 2016 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month!
Miranda Saunders kept lists. That’s how her messy life managed to stay in some semblance of order. She had lists for shopping, chores, birthdays, and errands. Her most important list started out as “Ten Reasons to Stay,” and through the years it had become “Ten Reasons to Leave.”
She brought the list with her when she went to see Dr. Jasmine Gooding. This was back in the days when Dr. Jasmine was a practicing psychologist, and Miranda was one of her last clients before retirement.
“So, I don’t know why I don’t just pick up and go,” she told Dr. Jasmine. “I mean, I’ve got it all written out right here. Irrefutable proof.”
Dr. Jasmine wasn’t interested in the list. “Tell me about you,” she said.
“I really work with life,” Miranda said. “It’s like this: when I close my eyes, I can see these images of the way things should be. Then, when I open them, I try to bring everything so that it fits what I see.”
“And does that work?” asked Dr. Jasmine.
“Oh, yes!” said Miranda, who went on to describe her kitchen renovation project. “And now we have the perfect kitchen!”
“And how does this visualization technique fit with your feelings towards your husband?” Dr. Jasmine asked.
Miranda fidgeted and began to talk about her garden.
“I have a homework assignment for you,” Dr. Jasmine said as they reached the end of Miranda’s hour. “This week, try keeping one less list. And the lists that you do have? Try not looking at them.”
“Oh, I could never do that!” Miranda replied.
As she was walking home, though, she realized that she didn’t have to look at them. When she closed her eyes, she could see them all. Surely it didn’t count if she only saw them with her eyes closed.
She sat on a bench and thought through her most important list.
10. He’s getting older.
9. I don’t feel the same when I look at him anymore.
8. He never holds me in the mornings since he started getting up early to exercise.
7. All the little things: not doing dishes, needing to be reminded to take the garbage out, and worst of all, putting the recycling in with the garbage.
It’s not petty, is it?
She thought maybe it was. Never mind. The other items were more significant.
6. Forgetting things that I said to him, years ago.
5. I want more romance.
4. We never go out.
3. We keep having the same conversations.
2. I want to feel loved.
Number one, she always left as a blank. She knew that if she wrote it–if she admitted those words to herself–she would begin the process of truly leaving.
When she got home, he was sitting at the computer, like usual.
“How was your appointment?” he asked. “Did you solve the problems of the world?”
She laughed. “Not even!”
He poured her a cup of tea. “Your own problems, then?”
“It’s not like that,” she replied. “I talked. She asked questions. She gave me homework.”
He chuckled. “What homework did she give you?”
“Do fewer lists.”
“Ah!” he said. “A not-doing homework!”
And he turned back to his computer game.
By the time the next week arrived, Miranda had focused so much of her attention on not looking at her most important list that it seemed that each item–even the invisible unspoken one–was burned into the synapses of her mind.
“So it didn’t go so well?” Dr. Jasmine asked when Miranda arrived looking tense.
“It’s getting worse,” Miranda said. “Not keeping lists, and not looking at the ones I do have, made me focus on them all the more. I really need you to look at this one with me.”
And she showed Dr. Jasmine her most important list.
“Are you thinking of leaving, then?” Dr. Jasmine asked.
“I don’t know,” Miranda said. “Some days I don’t want to. I like our house. It’s nearly perfect. But I want the rest of our lives to be that perfect, too.”
“How would you know if it was time to leave?” Dr. Jasmine asked.
Miranda waved the list. “When I get to number one, that’s when I leave.”
“Number one is blank.”
“That’s because I’m not there yet.”
Miranda took the list back and crossed out number seven. In its place she wrote:
7. He still harps on about arguments he had with friends years ago.
“I’d like to show you something,” Dr. Jasmine said. They walked out onto the balcony. Dr. Jasmine gestured towards the view of the mountains behind the bay.
“Mount McAlister. Mount Finley. Mount Fryda.” Miranda rattled off the names of the peaks.
“Look with no names,” said Dr. Jasmine.
For just a moment, Miranda saw this backbone of her planet, exposed to the sun, and she looked with no names–for just an instant, with no thoughts. She simply looked, and she saw.
When they came inside, Dr. Jasmine showed her a painting of the same view.
“Which is more beautiful?” Dr. Jasmine asked.
“Oh, they both have beauty!” said Miranda. “The painting is more ideal, isn’t it?”
She looked out the open door. “But that. That really exists.”
When the hour was up, Miranda asked what her homework was.
“Can you look with no names?” Dr. Jasmine said. “At least once, each day. When you look at your husband, can you put aside your list and look with no names?”
Miranda didn’t think she could do it. But at breakfast one morning, as her husband dished up the eggs, she saw his back and she didn’t see that now it stooped more than it had when they were young; she didn’t see that he had put on an old shirt, rather than the new one she bought him; she didn’t see that he was still wearing his muddy walking shoes. She simply saw. He stood before her, not as her husband, but as a man. A person. A fellow being.
The moment didn’t last. But it was there. She had felt it, and in that moment, he stood before her as if he were new, not the same old one she’d been with for two-thirds of her life.
She still had her list when she went back to Dr. Jasmine the following week. It was as if she had forgotten all about that moment at breakfast.
“How did it go?” Dr. Jasmine asked. “Were you successful in looking?”
For fifteen minutes, Miranda rattled off her litany of annoyances, while Dr. Jasmine sat with a quiet smile.
And then Dr. Jasmine stood and asked, “What is more real? Our descriptions or that which is being described?”
“That which is described, of course!” replied Miranda.
“Then what have you been sharing with me?” Dr. Jasmine asked. She gestured again towards the mountains.
“Tell me what it was like when you were successful at looking. Who did you see?”
“I saw a man,” replied Miranda.
“What did you feel?”
“That I had never seen him before,” Miranda said, softly.
“How does your list fit into this?”
“The last item on my list,” Miranda said. “Can I tell you what it is?”
Dr. Jasmine nodded. “If you are ready to.”
“The list is how I count down to see if I’m ready to leave. Nothing matters on it. I can see that now. It’s all petty. It’s all interchangeable. Except for the last item on the list, which I have never even written or even spoken.”
“Do you want to speak it now?”
Miranda did. “The last item is: I don’t love him any more.”
“And do you find that is true?” Dr. Jasmine asked.
“I don’t know,” said Miranda. “I can truly say that I don’t love him at this moment. But I don’t know that I ever did. So it isn’t true that I don’t love him anymore. In that moment when I saw him, I loved him. Like I love those mountains, when I simply see them. But what if I have never seen him before? What if before I only saw the picture in my mind, and how he fit, or didn’t fit? What if I was just naming mountains?”
“And what do you find, now that you’ve gotten to the bottom of your list? Have you counted down to the reason that you need to leave him?”
“I don’t truly know,” said Miranda.
Miranda moved through the next week as if time were suspended. She had no lists. She stopped counting reasons. She stopped naming. Whenever she remembered, she looked. She felt different inside: softer, perhaps. More tentative.
One morning, when Jack brought her a cup of tea, his own eyes twinkled. She patted the couch beside her, and they sat together. As he told her a story he had told many times before, she heard his voice as if for the first time, noticing that it carried warmth, even as it recounted old words she’d heard a hundred times.