I Don’t Like Broccoli

It started off innocently enough. There he was in the kitchen pouring himself a drink after work. It hadn’t been a particularly gruelling day. Bob from accounts had queried an expense on his recent trip, but after a couple of questions had approved it. The report was due on Thursday, but he’d done most of it on the train back, in between staring out at the passing countryside and thinking about their upcoming camping trip. Beth had settled the groceries on the sideboard and was packing away the butter and eggs. In other words, an ordinary day.

“You want a drink?” he asked. He was still wearing his coat.

“Yeah,” she said, opening the fridge. She was wearing that dress he liked. A nice plain dress that set off her figure.

“I thought I’d fry some chops. You like broccoli, don’t you?”

“No,” he said.

“What?” she asked, looking at him strangely.

“I don’t like broccoli,” he shrugged. “Did you get any tonic?”

It looked like they were out, but then he saw another bottle.

“But I always make broccoli.”

“Yeah,” he said, pouring her drink.

“And you always eat it.”

“Yeah,” he answered. It was a nice smell. He liked that fresh, tangy smell you get opening a bottle of tonic.

“But you’re telling me you don’t like it?”

“I don’t like it. No big deal,” he said, passing her the glass.

“I don’t believe this,” she said, taking the drink and leaning back on the ledge.

“What?” he asked, not really paying attention. There was a movie on the TV he wanted to watch later. An old Clint Eastwood movie he hadn’t seen in a while.

“How long have we been married?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Seven years. We’ve been married seven years. Not a week goes by without me serving broccoli, and you’re telling me you don’t like it?”

“I don’t hate it.”

“But you don’t like it.”


“Then why do you eat it?”

He could feel things slowly unravelling.

“I eat it because you cook it for me,” he said, trying to sound reasonable.

“But you don’t like it.”

“What’s the problem? There’s lots of things you do that you don’t like. Do you think I like going to work every day?”

“Don’t you?” she said.

Her tone should have been a warning.

“Let’s have the broccoli,” he said. “You know what I really like—”

“No,” she said, putting the glass down.

“No?” he asked, his heart sinking.

“I am not going to cook you something you don’t like.”

Jackson thought of himself as a reasonable man. He hardly ever raised his voice or even felt angry, partly because he’d seen his father blow his stack once too often, usually the result of some perceived slight, such as not getting his fair share of crackling at the family Christmas gathering, overseen by his equally fractious grandfather, who apparently thought the whole world was out to get him, and made sure that’s exactly what happened. In fact blowing your stack had quite a colourful history in his family, dating back to his convict ancestors, something Jackson had at an early age decided was going to end with him. And he had been quite successful in tamping down his crabby genes and learning how to smile through adversity. But Beth had her ways.

“What if I cook dinner?” he offered. He’d found that cheese sauce helped mask the gagging response broccoli typically induced in him.

“Why have you lied to me?” she asked, pulling out the big guns.

The hackles were definitely rising.

“I haven’t lied to you,” he said, trying his best conciliatory voice.

“You let me think you liked broccoli. For seven years.”

“You never asked me.” It was coming. He could feel it bubbling inside him. He tried to push it back down. Stay! Stay!

“Asked you?” she answered, incredulous.

The thing was, they were both very happy. Normally. They’d met at a party. She’d been invited by an acquaintance of his. They’d hit it off. She liked tennis. He pretended to. Actually, that might have been the clue. But the problem is, of course, that nobody actually hates tennis, do they. There’s lots to admire about grown men and women running around hitting balls. And then smashing their racquets to bits when they miss. Jackson had watched a few games, and he didn’t mind it. He wasn’t one for leaping to his feet, punching the air and shouting “Yes!” but that didn’t mean he was bored stupid by the utter bloody pointlessness of it. No. He liked it. Beth, on the other hand, was what he gradually came to understand as being a fan. All right, that was just one of the many little quirks that made her attractive. Her enthusiasm added to her cute factor. He liked that she could talk authoritatively about the different serving styles of Pat Rafter and Andre Agassi or that she was moved by Serena Williams’s dignified defeat at Wimbledon. It showed that Beth had soul, which is more than most of the bozos he was hanging around with at the time. They started seeing each other. He left the insurance place and started working in office supplies and somehow, things just kept going. He liked her, and he started to love her. She was kind, and cared for people. She remembered his birthday. She had these weird habits, like never being able to sleep on the left side of the bed, and always turning the lights off in one particular order, but so what? She was fun and they had a lot of laughs.

“Asked you?” she repeated, for effect. “I did ask you.”

“Just then—right?” he answered, wondering if it was time for another drink. “And I told you.”

“After seven years?”

“So what after seven years?”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because you didn’t ask me!” All right, that exclamation mark was a mistake. He knew as soon as he could feel his voice rising towards it that it was a mistake, but she was pushing him there. She was the one keeping it going.

“What else haven’t you told me?”

This was now getting dangerous. His first instinct was to run away. It was a good instinct that had served him well over the years. Whatever you do, don’t confront. His father had confronted so regularly that he was barely employable. Just say yes, his mother had pleaded; but no, a man needs respect; a man needs dignity!

A man needs a job, is what a man needs, his mother would shoot back.

And his father would cry—he’d seen it more than once—cry in frustration as if his soul was being crushed inside him. Never get married, his father had said to him, The worst decision a man can make.

“It’s just broccoli …”

“It’s not just broccoli!”

What else could it be? What else wasn’t he telling her? How about everything? How about he hates how she leaves the bathroom; he hates how she drops clothes all over the house; he hates how she refuses to eat food that’s even one day past its use-by date.

“It’s not going to kill you!”

“It’s out of date!”

“They put that on the label so they can sell more stuff!”

“It’s full of germs!”

What’s a man to do, as his father used to say. Often.

Is this the war between men and women he’d heard so much about? He’d seen it growing up and had wondered why they put up with it. The obvious answer was they couldn’t afford not to, but they were still at it twenty years later, happily unhappy together long after the economic imperative had passed. Was that love, he wondered, and was it to be his fate, too? Trapped with a woman who thought he was a clean freak trying to poison her?

“I love you!” he pleaded.

And he did. The day they were married was literally the happiest day of his life. To imagine that someone as beautiful, loving and caring as she was could agree to share his life was almost miraculous to him. And most of his friends as well. “Must be something wrong with her,” someone joked at his buck’s, and while they’d all laughed he now wondered if there was a truth that he was only now realising. She was mad, and at last it was coming out. Why had she married him? Looking back over the recent past he could see a pattern developing. Hints that he wasn’t earning enough, that he didn’t have enough ambition, that he was putting on weight (he’d checked, and it was true). Not exactly nagging, in fact not nagging at all. Not what you imagine nagging to be; persistent and belittling; no, not nagging. But something. Something was wrong. There was something about him that had started to annoy her, but what?

“Tell me,” she said.

Oh, why, why, why, why, why?

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me what else you’re not telling me.”

Did she think he was having an affair? No, she couldn’t. Who would he have an affair with? He couldn’t think of anything more boring. Was she having an affair? Of course not. She didn’t have the time. They were both busy, she’d just gotten a promotion—was that it? She’d started to hang out with a different crowd. Wasn’t he good enough any more? Not reading the right books on the New York Times best-seller list? He feared that day would come, that she’d realise what a schmuck he was. But why did it have to be today? When he was looking forward to sitting down to watch his favourite Clint Eastwood movie?

“How do I know what I’m not telling you? Nothing bad.

As if he had anything bad to tell anyone. He was just an ordinary guy who liked hanging out. Jeez. And she was just an ordinary gal who liked hanging out with him. Or so he thought. What did they do together? They drank, and camped. Drank while they were camping. Was that a problem? Neither his mother nor father drank, and look at how unhappy they were!

Maybe she wanted a baby. Is that what it was? One of her friends had had a baby recently, and while Beth had made some disparaging remark about dirty nappies, she didn’t seem to be overly interested. But that can be deceptive. What if she did want a baby? What if the thought had crept up on her, or was still burrowing its way through her? There was no reason for her to be ashamed. Lots of women want babies—why not? Not that he was actively interested in becoming a father—God, imagine that. Him. A father. What sort of father would he be? A terrible father, he was sure. Was there any other sort? All fathers are terrible. All fathers are like him. They just want to hang around drinking beer and watching Clint Eastwood movies. Except with the added complication of having kids crawling around their feet while they’re doing it. “Go to the park and play with your kids,” he could already hear her yelling at him, just like he’d heard his mother yelling at his father. It was all so complex. Sport. Pretending you like sport so you can have something to say to your kids. Why can’t they just drink beer? And by the time they’re old enough to drink beer, you’ve got Alzheimers, only adding to the mayhem. Not that his father had Alzheimers, worse luck, because it meant Jackson had to talk to him on those awkward Saturday afternoons when “the girls” retreated to the kitchen leaving “the boys” in the lounge room to stare into space wondering what to say. Until the football starts. Family life really was a chore. Which made him wonder why everyone is so in a hurry to get there? Isn’t your own childhood enough to put you off domestic bliss forever? What was that quote about insanity? Doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result? Like human beings have been doing since Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden.

“I can’t stand this,” she said, pushing away from the bench. “You never say anything meaningful; you just go along with whatever I say—”

“I’m trying to be agreeable,” he protested.

“I feel like I don’t know you!” she spat back.

“Because I don’t like broccoli?” he cried. “Can’t you hear how ridiculous that sounds?”

“Don’t you call me ridiculous.”

“I’m not calling you ridiculous.”

“My father used to call my mother ridiculous.”

“I am not calling you ridiculous.”

“That is a filthy, disgusting gaslighting tactic and I refuse to be put down in that way. I am the Fire Warden of my floor.”

Jackson stared at her for a moment. “What?” he asked.

“Do you want a divorce, is that what you’re saying?”

“Beeeeeth, what are you talking about?”

“You want a divorce, don’t you; that’s what this is about.”

“What what’s about?”

“This shit about the fucking broccoli!”

“I didn’t bring up the fucking broccoli! You did!”

Beth burst into tears.

“Oh, God; oh, God …” he groaned, reaching out to her. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand it was to see her cry. In fact his mother had told him that was the only real sin. To make a woman cry.

“Don’t you touch me,” she wept, bitterly pulling away.

He couldn’t believe it. How could this have happened?

“You don’t love me; you don’t love me, do you; you think I’m old.”

“No, no, I don’t!”

“How can I trust anything you say?”

“I love broccoli! Honest, I love it.”

“You’re a liar.”

Jackson felt the air punched out of him. What had he done? What evil spirit had suddenly descended on his life and sucked the very essence out of it? He was a liar. Where do you go after that?

“I’m—um—going for a walk,” he said.

She straightened and walked right past him.

Stifling a sob, he checked his keys were in his pocket and turned towards the front door.

“Do we need any milk?” he called, pausing in the doorway, only to be met with bleak and black silence.

Somehow he found himself on the street. The breeze off the ocean was refreshing. Somewhere out there was freedom. He imagined being on a yacht, sailing by the stars, the smell of the salt spray, the bang of the heel—was it heel? Hull—the bang of the hull on the wave crests as the craft sliced through the water. To be the master of your—Captain, My Captain—Wasn’t Dead Poets a great film? Poor Robin Williams, why did he have to commit suicide? When so many people loved him.

Jackson leaned on the railing and looked out across the bay. What a fuckup. What was he going to do? It was all so mad. There he was, thinking how lucky they were. Seven years. They’d been married seven years. And it had been perfect. Well, not perfect, but great. They’d had some good times, done things, made plans. They’d gone to Canada. What was it? Had he become complacent? Taken things for granted. He wasn’t going to say he was the best husband, but he wasn’t the worst. He’d never cheated on her. Had he? He wondered, wondered about those straying thoughts. But that’s not cheating, really, is it? You’d have to be hard line to regard straying thoughts as cheating. Maybe he just wasn’t serious enough. Plenty of people had told him that. “You’ve got to sharpen up,” his father had said to him the night before his wedding. “It’s not a joke, getting married, it’s a big responsibility.” As if his father knew. But maybe he did. And then, as if from some strange, other place, he heard himself say, “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stele.” What did that mean? Where did it come from? He didn’t even speak Italian. Maybe a song he’d heard that had struck some chord. L’amor sounded like love. Was this love? Was this the struggle of love? When he thought back, now, to those first months, first years of their love, it had never been easy. Moments of excitement followed by days of suspense and dread, when his whole life seemed to be in play. Had he said too much, or too little; what was she really thinking? Did she feel the same way about him as he did about her? Was there someone else? What did she want? Later, yes, it settled into something else, but never anything that you might call easy. But who wants easy? And suddenly he felt like this is how it had always been; this despair before the impenetrability of her desire. What did she want? He felt like crying; he felt like tearing his eyes out and throwing them into the sea, he felt the horror of his own helplessness, to find himself tied and bound to this impulsive, maddening three-year-old who couldn’t even think straight! And watching the couples walking arm-in-arm along the promenade, he had to employ all the self-control he could muster to stop himself running out in front of them, waving his hands and crying, “Stop! Stop! It’s not too late! Just think about it: all you’ll ever do is make one another miserable!” We’d all be much better off. Alone.

Was that the truth they’d found together?

He slipped the key back in the door and entered. The place was quiet, dark. Was she there, he wondered; in bed?

Stepping into the shadows, he heard her call.

“Jackson, is that you?” she said from down the hallway.

“Yes,” he answered, closing the door behind.

“Come in here. Come and see—it’s your favourite movie.”

“What …?” he said, looking back over his shoulder.

“Clint Eastwood! Hurry up—it’s just started.”

“Just started …?” he said, stepping into the doorway.

“Yes, come in and sit down.” She was sitting on the sofa with the patchwork quilt pulled over her, legs tucked under her.

“Oh,” he said.

“Come and sit down,” she offered, making room. “I’ve got some popcorn—we can watch it together.”

“All right. Do you want anything?”

“No,” she said, pulling him towards her. “You’re cold—where did you go?”

“Just down the beach.”

“Were there lots of people out?”

“No. A few.”

“Isn’t this cosy,” she said, looking up into his eyes.

“I love you more than anything; more than time and space,” he said, returning her gaze. “I love you forever; and beyond every moment lost in infinity. You are the length and breadth of my being, the endlessness that is my all. You are my life and my death, the bridge over the abyss I could not cross without you. You are the breath of my soul, the spirit that animates me. I love you more than the sky and stars, I love you.”

She smiled at him, and squeezed his hand.

“Why are you saying that?” she asked softly.

And as if the world suddenly released its breath, a blast of wind shook the glass door onto the balcony.

“Did you get the milk?” she asked.

Stephen Sewell is a playwright and screenwriter who turned to short stories during the lockdown and found a whole new world of storytelling

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