Mostly I’m a contented sleeper; I fall asleep easily at night and wake happily enough in the morning. But sometimes – this morning for instance – I wake with a faint shadow of unease, apprehension, something that makes my breath catch and my heart sink a little into my stomach.
When I open my eyes, I know what this feeling is. I see an empty space beside me. I see smooth sheets and pillow; lacking the creases and hollow made by my partner’s head.
I’ve woken up alone twenty out of the last thirty mornings and I will wake up alone for the next eight too. Then my partner of twenty five years will be home – for a while. Maybe a week or two, perhaps more.
He travels because his job requires him to. Although this last month has been worse than most, he still spends about a third of the year sleeping in other beds in other countries –places where I am not.
It’s been like this for a long time. Early in our relationship I travelled – though not nearly as often or for such long periods as he does now. But since our son was a toddler, my partner’s job has taken him away from us so much that I think our son’s school believes the child is being raised by a single parent.
Mostly I don’t think too much about this. I’m accustomed to friends and family opening conversations with “where is he this week?” or “is he in the country at the moment?” I’ve even got used to our son asking the same question.
I’m used to our joint socialising being compressed into the days and nights when he’s not a) away, b) just returned and too exhausted to see people, c) leaving tomorrow and too busy to see people.
Until recently, when our son became old enough to be left “home-alone”, I was used to my own social life – not to mention my work life – being constrained almost out of existence.
I’m used to major decision-making taking a long time because if it’s big enough to require consultation, that has to be scheduled into one of the days that are not a) – c) above.
I’m used to telling our son not to speak loudly in the mornings because his dad is asleep, and having to remind him to tell his sleep-over friends the same thing. I’m used to being the one who always gets out of bed first to make sure our kid gets to school / sports / music / whatever – because Dad is too jet-lagged.
In fact, I’m so used to him not being here that I’ve learned in many ways to like it. I like the quiet of an empty house. I like not having to make conversation when I don’t feel like it. I like not having to negotiate what to eat, what to watch on TV, or to make any of the other myriad small compromises that people in relationships do to maintain peace and equilibrium. I like that when I ask the kid to do something there is no higher authority to appeal to – no-one who will contradict my authority. In fact, my son and I operate so smoothly as a unit that my partner’s presence inevitably causes friction within hours of his return.
Mostly, I even like sleeping alone. As the physically smaller partner, I spend our nights together feeling forced to the edge of the bed, endlessly trying to reclaim some of the duvet and trying to drown out the sound of his snores and farts. When he’s away I tend to sleep better and wake refreshed. But I am lonely.
When people try to sympathise with me for being a corporate widow, I laugh and tell them that absence is the secret of our long relationship. Once, I probably believed it. Now, I think we are still together because we don’t have time to discuss separating.
Because of the travel, even when my partner is here, he’s not really “here”. He is working to catch up on all the email, phone calls and other crap that can’t be done (or done properly) when he’s away. And of course, he’s organising the next trip.
We don’t do stuff together much any more. Even when we have time, we’re so used to not being together that we’ve forgotten how to be. And if it does occur to one of us that we could go out, have a date even – we struggle to think of anything to do. Separation has taken our lives in different directions and cut off the flow of shared experiences that build shared memories that build solidarity. He even looks and feels like a stranger to me most of the time.
The small nicks and grazes in our relationship that aren’t discussed, resolved, moved on from because we don’t have (or don’t make?) the time, have become huge festering wounds that would require even more time and energy to treat.
I don’t know what will happen next in this story, and I certainly don’t know how it will end. He can’t keep travelling forever; his body and mind will not allow it. But I am afraid of when he stops. In one scenario his permanent presence at home will mean he has burned-out or got sick and I will be nursing an invalid of a man I hardly know. In another scenario, he will change jobs and be able to rebuild his health and life. But whether I will still love and care for that man – I can’t tell. We have been “together” so long I can hardly imagine being without him, but apart for so long I don’t know what kind of man he has become and whether I want to spend the rest of my life with him.
So when I woke up this morning and saw the empty bed, my disquiet was part loneliness and part fear of the future.