Totoro’s Sad

By Mara Cohen



I jump at the sound of my husband’s voice, am doubly startled when I turn to encounter the unblinking eyes of our daughter’s puppet peeking around the kitchen doorway. “Totoro’s sad,” Puppet says.
My heart, bruised and swollen shut, relaxes slightly at what I assume is my husband’s gesture of reconciliation after a weekend when the prospect of divorce had been broached by each of us, more than once. I cross the kitchen and step into the hallway where I find him, his eyes moist with tears.

Two contradictory impulses grip me: comfort my mate and brace myself against his anger. This is the schism carved by two decades of living with behavior I can’t explain, let alone understand. I wrap my arms around him, a natural, instinctive action that feels perilous. It’s a relief when he doesn’t pull away, doesn’t accuse me of fakery or shouting that my gesture comes “too late.” I exhale. My body relaxes. This is what’s right, to stand here in the hallway holding my beloved and have him hold me. This is marriage, so natural. This is what I always expect.

That’s when it comes, that thing I also expect, brace for. The thing I ought to have been ready for but still wasn’t. The thing this time is only a look — not a slap, not cruel words, not even a biting tone. Merely a look. But this look lands like a blow because it comes from my husband, with whom I’m most vulnerable, and inside our home that should be my safe refuge. I see it the moment it happens: He glances down. The sadness slides away. He raises his eyes, stony with contempt.

Angry at me. Angry at his vulnerability. Angry at some phantom he sees when he looks in my direction. A moment ago our connection felt warm and real but so does this hopelessness and sadness, this chill of betrayal. It’s crazy-making to live with this Jeckyll and Hyde, crazy I can’t trust my own husband, crazy I can’t trust my own impulses and feelings, crazy I’m left paralyzed. Bewildered. But what action is to be taken in response to a look that leaves no visible bruises or broken bones, just injuries on the inside that never have a chance to heal?

I back away, around to the other side of the kitchen island, place my palms on the cool granite counter and try to breathe. My mind drifts back to the couple’s therapist we saw — one of many — back when we hadn’t even been married a year.

“This just doesn’t seem like my definition of marriage,” I’d confessed through tears.

My husband passed me a box of tissues.

“Maybe you should change your definition of marriage,” the therapist replied.

It is one of many things about myself I’ve tried to change over the past two decades so that he won’t see me as his enemy, so that he’ll understand me, so that our marriage will be one I can live with. Thrive in. Maybe what needs changing is for me to let go of the wish and the hope that this marriage will ever be anything other than what it is.
I have no ill-will for the person standing in the kitchen doorway with our daughter’s puppet on his hand and a scowl on his face. I’m sorry for the suffering he feels now and for the suffering he endured long before we ever met. Maybe it was then that his emotions became so stunted he now requires the aid of a child’s toy to express them.

It’s a realization that makes me all the more frightened and sad and hopeless because a grown man who needs a puppet to act out his feelings can’t have much capacity for remorse or empathy. Can he? Could he?

I should stop wondering about questions like these, stop wasting time. Time I accept the loss of the marriage I didn’t have — the marriage I expected and that I deserved. Two decades too long, but the only place to start is where I am. The display on the microwave tells me it’s 7:00 am, two hours until the attorney arrives at work, and someone will be there to pick up the phone.


MARA COHEN is a writer and public speaker working on a memoir. Her personal essays have been published in Alimentum, BioStories, Embodied Effigies, Entropy, The Hairpin, Jewrotica, Mothers Always Write and Pentimento and are posted on her website, She holds a doctorate in political science and served on the faculty of Loyola Marymount University's Urban Studies Program. A senior fellow at the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles and active in several local civic and community organizations, Cohen's scholarship has appeared in peer-reviewed publications including Urban Affairs Review, Political Research Quarterly, PS: Political Science & Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Sociological Forum. Outlets including The Los Angeles Daily News, La Opinion, New American Media, Los Angeles Business Journal and National Civic Review have featured her commentaries and op-eds.

2 responses to “Totoro’s Sad”

  1. Dee says:

    This is an honest tale of a gentle woman having to deal with an angry confused person who took a marriage vow to honor and to protect

    He apparently has made a mess out of his life and the gentle and brilliant woman he married !! Shame on u

  2. June says:

    20 years. It’s amazing to me that any 2 people can live together for so long in this anguish. I’m sorry. I’m hoping there have been redeeming times. My parents lived like this together for 73 years. My mother said they had 15 good years. Who knows.
    This is beautifully written. So much capacity for expression and feeling. I’d like to read more of her writings.

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