Aaron, my husband, pulls into Smith’s parking lot and I take in a deep breath, preparing myself for what I’m about to do. He parks our silver Pacifica and I turn to place my purse in the back seat, taking my time covering it with a jacket, making this an obvious gesture so he’ll realize I’m not the one paying for groceries; this shopping trip is on his nickel. A pang of anxiety hits me as we enter the store but I push the feeling aside. I can do this, I reassure myself. Aaron begins placing items into the cart and I contemplate how I should begin adding things without receiving one of his stern looks. I wait for an opportunity to present itself, and finally one comes when he picks up a package of chocolate-frosted cupcakes. My voice is barely audible as I point to a loaf of Grandma Sycamore bread and remind him that we only have a few slices of bread left at home. This is a safe item to begin with because we both enjoy toast for breakfast and it only costs $1.89.
Making our way past fresh fruits and vegetables, I notice watermelons have arrived from the farms and yearn to have one. Aaron doesn’t like watermelon so I keep my desire hidden. He doesn’t mind if I eat watermelon, if that’s what I like, but he certainly wouldn’t be willing to purchase one. In the meat department, boneless, skinless, chicken breasts are on sale. If I were shopping with my own money this evening I’d load up with several pounds of chicken to freeze for lfor foater. But tonight is different. Tonight, I’m beginning a quiet, furtive, effort to reduce Aaron’s hoarding by increasing his purchases of household necessities. I don’t know how much money he has in his wallet, so I look for his approval as I place a package of chicken in the cart. Since there’s no furrowing of his brow I’m relieved, and let out a slow, soundless, sigh.
I dawdle through the laundry detergent aisle and breathe in the irresistible fragrances of lavender, fresh rain and spring bouquet. Aaron reaches for a medium-sized bottle of Arm & Hammer detergent and I don’t mention that, per ounce, the larger bottle is a better price or that the store brand is cheaper. I’m just happy he’s buying it, one less item for me to pay for later. Seizing the moment, I suggest we buy liquid fabric softener.
“I don’t use liquid fabric softener,” Aaron says, “I prefer dryer sheets.”
“I like liquid softener,” I say, hoping the trembling in my voice isn’t noticeable, “but I can use dryer sheets.” Unwanted tears glisten in my eyes so I turn and pretend to examine the assorted stain sprays opposite us. I shouldn’t be doing this. If he figures out what I’m up to, he’ll be angry. How can I possibly explain my actions away? I push these unwanted thoughts aside, garnering enough courage to drop a few more low-priced items into the cart, each time glancing in my husband’s direction for signs of displeasure. I keep these glances quick and casual. Lingering, questioning glances might arouse his suspicion.
After making our final selections we head to the checkout stand. I feel awkward and vulnerable standing in line without my credit card in hand. My heart pounds hard as items are loaded onto the conveyor belt. Staccato beeps scream at me as groceries pass over the scanner. I can’t muster the courage to search Aaron’s eyes to discern his thoughts. When he doesn’t reach for his wallet, my pulse quickens as though my heart is competing with my racing mind. Oh, no! What if he senses my apprehension? Is the trembling in my body noticeable? To ease the stress I move toward the exit and stare at posters on the wall, looking but not seeing, my whole being paralyzed with fear as I listen for his footsteps. Aaron pays the cashier and joins me at the exit.
Silence stabs at me on our walk to the car. Shuddering, I slow my pace, allowing Aaron to move ahead. The silence heightens my fear and I can’t bear it any longer. I pop in one of his favorite CD’s. The relaxing sound of Musetta’s Waltz wraps its soft melody around us and fills the awkward space of unspoken thoughts. I wonder whether to thank him for the groceries; if I do, I might draw too much attention to the situation. Deciding to say nothing I focus on controlling my panicked breathing.
On our drive home, I contemplate giving up this silly game of human chess. Maybe I should just let him win. Life is pleasant, even enjoyable, when I do what I am supposed to do: take care of Aaron.
I know he is a broken man. I knew that from the start. When we were dating I tried to end the relationship but then he went up into the mountains, found a broken beer bottle and lost control of himself. Afterwards he arrived on my doorstep with his face and hands cut and bleeding. I opened my door to him and treated his wounds.
“I don’t know what happened,” he cried softly. “I went to my favorite spot by the river to pray, to find comfort. Evil spirits took over my body. I don’t know how I managed to get away. I feel safe now. I feel safe when I’m with you.”
Maternal instincts are strong emotions, strong enough to eliminate the red flags that were waving in front of me, strong enough to sacrifice my happiness for his. As a youth, I witnessed my mother’s kindness as she took foster children, refugees and foreign exchanges students into our home. Her example taught me the importance of being a true Christian. God wanted me to care for this lost and lonely soul, or so I believed. My love for Aaron grew that day as I cradled him in my arms and rocked him as a mother rocks a weeping child. I knew from church teachings, and discussions with Aaron, that evil spirits are real‒as real as Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Back then I believed Aaron when he shared stories from his past, about how his brother really died. Randy hadn’t committed suicide. When Aaron heard the shot ring out from the basement, he ran downstairs. He was the first one to the scene. The gun lay too far from Randy’s body to have been a suicide. The investigator had it wrong‒an evil spirit shot his brother. All my life I’ve been taught that Satan couldn’t physically harm us, but Aaron bore such strong testimony, his story had to be true. When I embraced Aaron, gazed into his pleading, tear-filled eyes, I silently vowed to protect him from the evil spirits. I chose to care for this broken child of God. But I was only nineteen at the time. I was naïve. How could I have understood the enormity of that promise?
I was popular in college, dated more than studied. I was attractive, outgoing, and friendly. My thin brown hair had been, and still is, my nemesis‒curly in all the wrong places, exposing my high forehead. But my figure, which my mom referred to as a ballerina figure, made up for those imperfections. Aaron knew he’d have to fight off other suitors and so he wooed me. No. He wowed me by showering me with gifts, clothes, dozens of roses, diamond earrings, meals at posh restaurants, and romantic dates to the ballet, theater and opera; all the while rising above the ranks of mundane college men—boys really—who thought dating to be an ideal time to test a woman’s cooking skill and tolerance for televised football. The red flags slowly moved into the background, barely visible.
But that was a long time ago. We pass a church, festooned with yellow and white garlands leading to its doors, as we return home from Smith’s. I figure a wedding must be underway and think back to my own special day. It was on a warm June day in 1982, gowned in flowing white, that I accepted the covenants of marriage for time and all eternity in the Salt Lake temple. My childhood dreams had come to fruition. Across from me, the man I thought I loved—who I believed to be a worthy priesthood holder—smiled and ducked his head. Aaron wasn’t at all comfortable as the focal point; but he’d covenanted to be my husband and I was as happy as any bride could be‒thrilled to be Mrs. Aaron Stallard!
But my joy was short lived. After consummating our marriage on our wedding night, I stepped into the elegant dressing room of our honeymoon suite to change into my new silk nightgown. When I returned a few minutes later, Aaron was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in his shirt and slacks, his head buried between his hands, crying.
“I’ve made a terrible mistake.” He said, shaking his head side to side.
“What is it darling?” I knelt beside him on the bed, my mind racing as I wrapped my arms around his muscular shoulders, “What’s upsetting you?”
“We need to annul our marriage.” He finally answered.
What is he saying? We had a rocky courtship but I thought that was all behind us once we got engaged. Why did he marry me if he was just going to have it annulled? How could this be happening? Tears, blackened with mascara, streamed down my cheeks and onto my cream-colored nightgown as I tried to make sense of the situation.
“I can’t support us.” He continued, his body shaking uncontrollably. “I don’t know why I went through with the marriage when I had the prompting not to. Oh, what have I done, what have I done! I should’ve listened to the spirit. I’m so sorry, Elli, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…”
The idea of an annulment was ridiculous. He can’t be serious. He’s just scared, that’s all, as most men must be when they take on the heavy responsibility of being providers, protectors and leaders in their homes. I kissed his hands, then his cheek, and finally his lips. ‘It’s going to be fine,” I promised him. “We’ll get through this. You’re just anxious. We’ll be fine. You’re not alone, we’re in this together.”
Aaron claims he doesn’t like to play games. He’s right in the sense that he doesn’t play board games or even sports. But he plays games all right. He plays human poker and human chess. He’s been playing me for thirty years. Sometimes he plays the hand of victim like he did when we were dating. Sometimes he’s the romantic when he takes me out on a date. Sometimes he plays a comedian and I giggle at his outlandish remarks. But at other times he plays his Ace of Spades, intimidating me with his towering, bodyguard physique and icy cold stare.
It isn’t Aaron’s six foot tall height, two hundred pounds of muscle, barrel chest or bald head that people find threatening; it’s the way he sets his jaw when he’s provoked, his nervous energy, his quick temper, his social awkwardness that keeps them at a distance. Somehow I saw past his menacing aura when we’d first met and now I’ve learned to live with it, reading his every gesture, every glare, like a deaf person reads sign language. But when Aaron wants something he’s as cunning as the devil, and I often misinterpret his premeditated schemes. Only once or twice have I chanced to see him smirking while playing out his hand. He shrewdly keeps his cards close to the vest‒gives away nothing. He generates the unwritten rules of his games and, up until recently, I’ve not tried to fight against them. I’ve never dared to delve into his deep, dark secrets, never looked inside his wallet or inspected his separate bank account statements. I’m not privy to the mail being delivered to his personal post office box. I know nothing of the websites he views so early in the morning.
I don’t much care for Aaron’s games, his unwritten rules. They’ve forced me into servitude as provider, protector and caretaker of our home and family. Barring minor donations, Aaron doesn’t contribute to rent, food, clothing, utilities, or any other expenses the children and I have. Those expenditures are mine; they’ve been my burden for the last twenty-two years of our thirty-year marriage. Aaron pays for his own needs and nothing more. And Aaron needs stuff‒lots and lots of stuff.
And so, five months ago, I began my own version of human chess when I started opening my eyes to the bizarre life we live. It’s a dangerous game I play. Though Aaron has never physically assaulted me, I can’t say with certainty he won’t harm me in the future; something about him scares me. He’s a hoarder and hoarders guard their loot; even the mere suggestion an item from his spoils ought to be discarded is met with fury. Since I dare not outright threaten the sanctity of his belongings, I play my hand the naughty way: surreptitiously. When Aaron leaves for work, I peek inside crammed drawers, behind closed doors, in the shed, within storage units. I’m naughty because I’m documenting my findings. I’m naughty because I covertly toss old magazines and sneak beloved kitchen gadgets, even though they chop, slice and dice onto eBay. As I remove trinkets and treasures from within the bowels of our home, terror mingled with glee haunts and excites me. I’m naughty to have such feelings. I’m naughty because I’m crossing well-established boundaries, cautiously putting Aaron’s rules to the test, tweaking them without permission.
I’m not sure how angry Aaron will become if he finds things missing. I don’t know what will happen if I’m caught. My own game frightens me. Tonight was just one small ploy, one small nudge in getting Aaron to provide for our family. Now I wait for Aaron’s reaction‒for his counterattack. Our ride home is quiet, peaceful, but I don’t know his thoughts. Maybe he didn’t notice my stealthy feat; but then again, maybe he’s just biding his time, examining the battlefront, preparing to advance his position.
At home we put groceries away without our usual playful bantering of unimportant events from the day. This signals me that something is amiss. In my mind I replay the shopping ruse, hunting for mistakes in my performance. Does Aaron know what I’m up to? Is he on to my tactical maneuver already? It’s hard to tell this soon into the opening of this match. He might just be tired. Since the end of the day is upon us we stray from our usual bedtime routine and skip cuddling up to watch a Netflix movie. Instead we climb into bed and turn out the lights.
Aaron falls into a deep sleep and snores beside me. Sleep eludes me as I lay awake churning the details of today’s experiment around and around in my head. I feel both elated and hurt: elated because Aaron spent $28 dollars on me and hurt because this is a big deal. It makes me wonder how many pawns I’ll need to sacrifice to save the queen.