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My Sudden Torment

“What are you going to do today?”

It was a simple question. It begged for a simple response, something positive, something short, along the lines of how one might answer — at least in polite society — the similarly innocuous query, “How are you?”

But this was not polite society. This was my bedroom. And I wasn’t even wearing pants; it doesn’t get more casual than that. Not that it mattered. My mind doesn’t do “simple” in any setting. The question David asked me, however innocently, had triggered an exceptionally complex, Rube Goldberg–style machine in my brain, whose sole purpose is to elevate the level of cortisol in my blood.

“What am I going to do today? What are you going to do today?” I whipped my head around from the closet doorway to lay my glare at the source of my sudden torment: my poor husband who had, a moment before, been safely browsing the headlines on his phone from the comfort of our bed.

David had the look of a man who’d made it halfway across the meadow before noticing the DANGER: MINEFIELD signs posted all around him. “Sorry,” I said, wincing when I remembered that he’d repeatedly asked me to stop saying sorry so much. “Sorry for saying sorry. Shit, I can’t…just, you know,” I said.

David’s face relaxed and he raised his brows at me, the signal that he was ready for an explanation. Countless times he’s told me there is never any subtext in his questions. That I should know his “What are you going to do today?” was not some kind of test; he wasn’t waiting for me to answer so he could pounce with, “Why are you going to spend your time on that and not this other thing that’s way more important?” David wouldn’t do that. But I’d think it, and I’d assume he was thinking it, too, no matter how many times he told me he was not.

I took a deep breath and sat beside him on the bed. Remembering a communication technique I learned as a teenager (the time my parents put the whole family through the 12-step program for codependents), I was careful with the phrasing of what I said next.

“When you ask me something like, ‘What are you going to do today?’ I start freaking out in my head because, well, first of all, I have no idea, and that scares me. But, mostly, it’s because whatever it is I’m going to do, I’m worried it’s not going to be what I’m supposed to be doing. So I got defensive and snapped at you, but really I was just frustrated with myself.”

David laughed, and this time it was he who apologized. “I’m not trying to diminish what you feel, love, it’s just that — come here,” he opened his arms and I joined him on the bed.

“It’s okay, you can laugh,” I said. “I know I’m being ridiculous. But it doesn’t change how I feel. I have a hundred things I could be doing, but I don’t know what I should be doing.”

“I never think of what I’m supposed to do, I think of what I want to do,” David said.

“Yeah, but you have to have priorities,” I argued. “I could sit and read all day, but then I won’t be able to pay my bills. And it’s not like I dread the work. It’s not like I have to scrub toilets. I enjoy doing all the things on my to-do list, so I feel bad even complaining. But it’s, like, if I start working on one project, I feel guilty about all the other ones I’m not working on. I’m having difficulty prioritizing my shit. It’s all equally important to me.”

I stopped short of saying that I sometimes longed for the straightforwardness of my old day-job. There’s a sort of liberation that comes with limitations. That’s why David insists on taking just one lens when he goes on a photography excursion. Instead of fussing over lens choices, he’s free to think only about the composition of his shot.

As a freelancer, I shift from one project to another and often juggle several at once. I find the constant challenge to be both exciting and rewarding, but it can also be terrifying, and never more so than when I’m struggling to decide what to do next.

David made his way toward the shower while I got dressed and reflected on this pressure I felt for what I’m “supposed to” be doing. According to whom? I mused. Whose intentions am I so eager to act out? My parents’? The Universe’s? Another way to phrase “supposed to” is “meant to,” as in expected to, as in destined. But I don’t believe in destiny. Luck, sure, but fate? I reject the notion of having — as the people at my father’s universal spirit center would put it — a “calling.” Then again, if there was no right thing for me to spend my time doing that day, why was I so worried about choosing the wrong one?

I found David in the bathroom. He’d finished washing but was still standing as he does, thinking about the day ahead as scalding hot water leaves a long red streak on his back. “Leave the water running, I’m going to hop in after you.” David adjusted the temperature for me and grabbed the towel I held up for him as I took his place in the shower.

As the warm water flowed around my neck and down my shoulders, I remembered what that one psychologist said, the one I stopped seeing because I couldn’t tolerate her bedazzled jeans: my daily decisions aren’t good or bad, they aren’t right or wrong. They just are. Choosing whether to spend five hours responding to email or updating my website was not a moral dilemma. It was a matter of priorities. But what if my priorities are wrong? I rolled my eyes at myself and chuckled. Now I knew how David felt.

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