Can You Please Tell Me What This Is Actually About by Kate Axelrod

Can You Please Tell Me What This Is Actually About

When they fight, Laura stops recycling. It’s not as though Joe particularly cares about the environment. He takes long showers and drives when it’s just as easy to take the train or ride his bike, but she feels a particular satisfaction throwing a can of seltzer away or dumping a pile of newspapers into the trash.

When they fight in the beginning, Joe retreats. He thinks of his parents; how his father once broke a dining room chair because his mother answered the telephone during dinner, and how he had stared at his younger brother and wished they could communicate through blinks, their own kind of Morse code.

If they fight on their way somewhere, Joe walks ahead of her. He is six feet two inches, his strides naturally greater than Laura’s. Usually he slows his pace to walk alongside her, but on these days she hurries to keep up with him, breaking out in a small sweat beneath her bra.

Sometimes when they fight, Laura feels nostalgic for Noah, the last person she dated, when she had felt too uneasy to voice her displeasure and her wounds were hers alone to tend to. He didn’t notice the things that Joe does: the dip in her voice when she feels she’s been slighted or the way simple things around the house become more effortful — the opening and closing of dresser drawers or the sorting of laundry growing strenuous.

If they fight at night, Joe becomes aroused and wants to harness the aggression into something erotic. Laura consents and removes his clothing — slacks, ribbed athletic socks, a pale blue button-down shirt — but she insists on being on top and will not kiss him.

Some days when they fight, Laura panics. She goes into the bathroom and sits cross legged on the turquoise bath mat. She exhales slowly, the way she saw in a meditation video on YouTube. She texts three friends. One replies immediately and validates her outrage, then assures her it’ll all be fine. Another, hours later, explains Joe’s behavior through a lens of childhood trauma. The third sends the eye roll emoji and says, let’s get a drink?

If they fight on a weekend afternoon, Joe changes into a tee-shirt and sweatpants and double knots the laces of his running shoes. He leaves the apartment wordlessly and without his cell phone. An hour passes and Laura begins to worry. She sends him several effusive messages before seeing his phone light up on the kitchen counter.

After a while, when they fight, Laura wants to say: you know this is an argument you were supposed to have with your ex-wife right? Like four years ago — because she’s the one who left you, not me. Instead, she runs her tongue along the back of her bottom teeth, against the wire that was fixed in place when her braces were removed two decades ago.

Lately when they fight, Laura says, can you please tell me what this is actually about? Because she knows it’s not about the restaurant she chose for dinner on Saturday night, or that she forgot to move the car for street cleaning on Tuesday morning and they were fined forty-five dollars. Joe says he’s really not interested in being condescended to, but if she’s in the mood to infantilize someone, she should call her sister, who really seems to enjoy it.

Tonight, after dinner, Laura isn’t sure if they’re done fighting, but she settles into a long stretch of quiet, and gets lost in a maze of Instagram posts. She is looking at Noah’s current girlfriend, who mostly takes pictures of lattes with intricate designs; a school of fish, a crescent moon and stars, a trio of hearts. There are some photos of potted plants soaked in sunlight, a selfie in the back seat of a taxibut Laura is looking for Noah, hoping for the familiar heat of jealousy to eclipse whatever she is feeling for Joe right now; sorrow or pre-emptive loss, she isn’t sure. Later she wipes down the kitchen table where they’d had their take out. She holds an empty container of pad thai in her hands, poised above the recycling bin, and hesitates.

Soon their fights will become amorphous, less concrete, like a lingering cold that won’t go away. Joe will try to latch onto something specific — they haven’t had sex in three weeks or Laura didn’t invite him to dinner with coworkers last week — but she won’t engage. When they first started fighting and Joe withdrew, Laura would spend hours combing through the events of the last few days, reviewing their conversations for what may have set him off, but soon they’ll just sit on the couch in stony silence and Laura will open a novel, relieved at how easily she can be immersed in someone else’s life.


Can You Please Tell Me What This is Actually About


Kate Axelrod’s writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Joyland, Hobart, Literary Hub and various other publications. Her first novel, The Law of Loving Others, was published by Penguin in 2015. She is a social worker in Brooklyn.


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