“Having a girlfriend is so expensive,” Robert said as he watched his girlfriend eat a piece of pizza she had paid for. It was one in a series of irritating statements he had made over the past few days. Helena had taken silent note of each of his biting remarks during this time and had decided that she might quietly strangle him with a money belt to promote a sense of ironic death. But instead of expressing these sentiments in so many words, she kept them to herself.
She took a timid bite of pizza and tried to change the subject. “I’m thinking of quitting my job.” Right when she let it slip from her mouth, she knew it was the wrong thing to say if she was hoping to get Robert to stop talking about money. And just as she expected, Robert responded to her declaration with an arched eyebrow.
“And how, may I ask, would you support yourself without a backup plan?” Robert queried.
Helena chewed for a deliberate thirty seconds in order to find the right way to deflect his concerns. “I have some money saved up,” she said pitifully. Robert was not impressed with her attempt at assuagement.
“How much?” he probed.
Helena shrugged. “Enough.”
“To last for how long?”
Helena took a sip of tap water. “Two months I suppose.”
“And then what?”
“And then I will have taken a two-month reprieve and possibly be ready to work again.”
Robert chortled. “Helena. No one is ever ‘ready’ to work. You just do it. Why are you acting like a spoiled child?”
Helena couldn’t think of how to appease him. Generally, when he got into this type of critical mindset, it was impossible to get him out of it until he had emptied every cutting insult from his system. He waved his hand in front of her.
“Helena? Can you hear me?”
She chomped into the remainder of her crust and said, “No.”
The two walked to the subway station in silence. Lately, there just hadn’t been much for them to say without it all somehow resulting in an argument. Helena couldn’t seem to pinpoint when this cancer in their relationship had developed. It had been so ongoing for the past year that she had difficulty remembering a time when they were happy.
Back at their apartment, Robert retreated into his “office,” where he would presumably sit and stare at his computer screen under the guise of “working.” He was a graphic designer, and a successful one at that. He had no issues with money, and never would. Helena, conversely, was a notorious financial mismanager, a fault that was compounded by her ever-waning ability to find adequately paying work as a writer.
Lately, there were moments when Helena questioned being a writer altogether. She saw no merit in it, only narcissism and poverty. And she was also starting to run out of things to say. With so much self-doubt in the back of her mind, Robert was merely a source of further disenchantment. He didn’t bolster her in any way, and yet, she needed him. She needed him to ignore how terribly everything else had turned out. And as long as she had him to showcase at the necessary social events and holiday get-togethers, she could perhaps justify his recent malevolence.
In truth, Helena knew that Robert was treating her the way she would treat herself. To her chagrin, she could identify with how he saw her: a pathetic nothing, a waste of a conversation. She had transmuted from the confident, outgoing girl he had fallen in love with into some insecure stranger who relied on him for everything. She didn’t know at which juncture during their two-year relationship her personality shifted, or how she could ever get back to being anything resembling an independent person with even an iota of a will.
Hours had passed and Robert still had not emerged from the office. Helena took it upon herself to prepare a simple dinner of marinara sauce with spaghetti. She took out the minimal amount of red wine left in the refrigerator (she had also taken to drinking much more frequently in the past few months) and poured herself a glass. When the spaghetti was finished, she put two plates on the table and called out Robert’s name. He didn’t respond.
After three more calls of his name, Helena began to grow somewhat uneasy. Even when he was angry with her, he had never been the type to engage in the pettiness of silent treatment. She approached his office with caution, almost unconsciously tiptoeing. The closer she got to the door, the less inclined she was to open it.
She pressed her ear against the center of the panel. She could hear the faint sound of female moaning from behind the door. Reluctantly, she opened it. Robert was sitting there masturbating with the fiendishness of an elf on crack the night before Christmas. She couldn’t believe her eyes. They hadn’t had sex in over a month because he claimed he couldn’t maintain an erection, and now, here he was displaying the virility of Hugh Hefner. And worse, it was like he wanted to get caught parading his amorousness for the porn girl on the screen. A suicide would have almost been more bearable to Helena, but the sight of his red, raw appendage was too grotesque, too much of a dig at her own inadequacy. He looked at her intently as he continued to pull and tug at himself, prompting her to run out of the room in horror.
Helena made a vow to herself never to speak of what had happened. That was exactly what Robert wanted her to do. And she couldn’t give him the satisfaction. By trying to have an “open discussion” about it, she would also have to acknowledge the other glaring faults in their relationship that she had so skillfully ignored all this time. She was not only a so-called financial bane to him, but also a sexual one. So she sat down solemnly at the table and proceeded to eat her spaghetti, drink her wine and act as though Robert wasn’t destroying her at her very core.