We had only five days a month, give or take. I always tried to make them special.
One afternoon, I bought a case of champagne. Cheeses, meats, a small jar of caviar. I skipped the salon where I had an appointment for a touch-up and blow-out and rushed home, trying to beat the snow that was supposed to begin around three. It began at two. At five, I arranged everything on the dining room table. Positioned grapes on the edge of the cheese plate, two flutes by the ice bucket. Linen napkins. The whole thing. Wait, I thought. Too much. So I uncorked the bottle and poured a glass and took it with me in case he came home while I was upstairs.
The shower ran, filling the bathroom with a steam so thick my throat and lungs felt full. Like breathing cotton, pure perfume. I shaved everywhere. I exfoliated first, but then I shaved everywhere. I had finished the glass by the time I got to the bikini area so I was slow, unsure. I did the best I could.
Lotioned, radiating heat, I watched out the front window, elbows at the ledge. I imagined myself from the outside: the picture of a woman waiting. Waiting for a package, for a date, for the car of her father or husband.
The casement was old and a draft came through a place where the pieces didn’t touch. It snuck into the front of my robe: a stupid pink satin thing that I had been given at my bridal shower. It had come with a matching strappy undergarment, which I was also wearing. When I opened the box at the party the whole room squealed and laughed, already four, six mimosas in. Show us, my fool of a future sister-in-law said from the couch, her legs crossed sloppily at the knees, exposing her floral cotton underwear, the whites of her thick thighs. I held it up and blushed. For our first time, I said. It will be so special. I smiled—a huge, fake disaster of a face—and felt my hot, round cheeks pressing my eyes closed. His mother was sitting right in front of me but I was drunk, just like the rest of them. Make a baby in it, someone yelled from the back, over by the omelet station. I could see only the top of a wavy brown head, a glass raised in celebration. From your mouth to God’s ears, I’d say now, considering. Thinking back on it, the outfit could have been a gag gift. What do I know about these things.
Down the street, the headlights of a slow-moving car. Seconds later, the squealing of tires—the spin, stop, spin, stop of someone stuck. Those tires were spinning for quite a while. Though I knew it wasn’t my husband even without seeing the car. My husband would never get stuck.
When I finally saw his headlights arc into the driveway, it was a quarter after six. I had drunk another two glasses by then just so the bottle wouldn’t get flat and I may have been in and out of sleep. The key was rattling in the lock as I got up to find my heels.
“Hey,” he said as he came in, shaking off onto the hall floor. I was still trying to get into my right shoe as I went toward him, though he probably didn’t notice.
“Hi,” I said. He stood, brushing the front of his coat, running his hand over his hair. “Jesus, hurry up and close the door,” I said and tightened the belt on my robe. “It’s freezing. And all the snow is blowing in.”
“Relax,” he said. “I’m not even in the door and you’re starting.”
“Okay, okay. Go get changed. Come sit. Let’s eat quickly.”
“For God’s sake would you let me get in? Can’t I take off my coat?”
He stepped into the foyer and stamped his feet. I saw the small piles of packed snow starting to melt where they had fallen onto the hardwood floor. I hated him for his messiness and his short temper. It was a cunning hatred that had multiplied and divided and subsisted on small daily happenings and personal tics and I was infested with it. A mass of throbbing, squirming hatred. He handed me his coat and I turned to hang it up.
He sat on the couch without taking his shoes off, without changing from his uniform. He usually changed from his uniform immediately. He had taken off his gun belt, however, and it lay on the table where we keep the liquor. There was a spot for it there between the good bourbon and a cheap wine that his aunt had given us, its label a picture of a large-breasted farm girl or goddess, I couldn’t tell which.
“You’re late,” I said. I handed him a glass of champagne and sat down next to him, tucking one leg underneath me. Outside, I heard the wind killing things. Whipping snow into the beds where the crocus and daffodils had already started pushing their way out, the tips of new spring green just visible. A shame, I thought. Just something else to fix, to redo.
He raised his eyebrows at me and looked out the window.
“Why are you late?” I tilted my head and smiled, though it was a tight and uncomfortable smile and I didn’t show teeth. My feet ached in my shoes.
“Are you serious right now? It’s a goddamned Nor’easter. The roads are shit. What do you want from me?” The bubbles in his glass rose and burst, furious to escape. Mesmerizing.
The phone rang then. The landline from the bedroom we call the office. It filled the house, singing along with the wind, until it stopped. And again. The faintest strain of a siren had also begun in the spaces where the phone was silent. We watched each other listen.
“Don’t move,” I said, already up, already walking to the back of the house. My last sight of him: raising his glass to his mouth, beginning a sip.
The woman said “Hello” before I was able to. Then we both said it again at the same time.
“Hello,” I said quickly after that, not wanting to wait the beat and make the mistake of saying it in unison again. With my luck, something horrible had happened to my ailing father. Or even worse, to my healthy mother. I imagined a nurse at her station, trying to dial 9 to call out while gurneys and beds and attendings busied the polished linoleum around her. I imagined her smooth brown hair in a bun, lines around her eyes.
“My God, I don’t know why I’m doing this.” Her voice sodden, thick with drink or hysteria. Regardless, something that was better managed in private. She kept going, starting and stopping, “Is Ja— Is your— Is Officer—”
“Hon,” he said from the other room. “Who is it?” He had put on the television; I heard the murmur of the evening news.
“Go ahead,” I said to the woman. “Go ahead.” My insides then. They began to soften, to swirl. I leaned on the edge of the desk and looked at the scratch there. It had been bothering me since we got the thing.
“This was a mistake,” she said and then began to cough. Though she didn’t hang up. Any other person would have just hung up.
I waited, listening to her breathe, to the sound of the wind, to the siren swelling and swelling. And I was nervous because it was so loud. This is because I drank too much, I thought. This is because I’m in this strange situation with this strange phone call. This is because I’m ovulating. The sound was within me, at that point, and I have to tell you I was on the verge of something. A gentle panic began, licking at my stomach. My face became red and hot. Shhh, I wanted to say to myself. Look around. Everything is fine. You are home. I realized then that the siren was coming through the woman’s phone, too. It was in stereo.
I wouldn’t let myself move, as if tethered to the desk by a cord.
The siren had stopped and now blue and red lights flashed silently somewhere nearby.
“I need to speak to him. I’m sorry to call your home like this, but I need to speak to him. It is urgent.” Her voice was clear, just like that. Efficient. Polite. A teller at the bank. It is urgent you transfer funds to the new account. The baker handing you a warm bag. It is urgent that you keep these warm, three-hundred degree oven. The dental hygienist. It is urgent that you floss everyday. Every single day. And then I placed the voice. I knew it was Carol, the redhead from down the street.
Carol. A mouse of a thing, really. But attractive, I guess. In that she wasn’t fat or old or marred by housework like the rest of them. She walked her border collie past our house three times a day wearing high-heeled boots, high-heeled sandals, high-heeled something. Her Tudor was situated behind our cape, and if you stood, on tip toes, at the left edge of the back bedroom window and it was evening and her lights were on, you could see squarely into her bedroom, plain as day.
“I’m sorry,” I said, scratching at the scratch. “He’s not home right now. You’ll have to try another time.” And then, answering to no one, I took the phone a few inches from my face and yelled, “No one, hon. Be right there.” It was mean, evil.
“Of course,” she said. She sipped something. “Right. He’s mentioned how difficult you are. Anyway, no problem. I’ll get in touch with him tomorrow.”
“That’ll be fine,” I said, smiling. “Good night.” I put the phone back in its cradle and turned the lights out as I left the room.
He woke when I approached the couch and he pressed his empty glass into my leg.
“Could you? Get me another?” He sat up. “Not the champagne; it’s too sweet. I’ll have a bourbon.” It’s always something with him. Too sweet, not sweet enough. I don’t even know how I made it to the liquor and back.
He started talking when I sat down. Something something something. On and on. His lips were wet. The pulse of his heart shook the couch. It was too loud, synthesized-seeming.
The wind had become even louder outside, and I could see the sweep of snow across the windows, sticking into the small holes of the screen. Silencing. Cocooning. I imagined us then as two larvae: blind, wriggling, too small for the big pupa we had made, bouncing around inside, our soft bodies into its walls, bruising, leaking fluids, beginning to shrivel.
My head felt a little loose, like I had just forgotten something important. And my tongue was too big in my mouth. The meat of it pressed against all of my teeth. I finished what was left in my glass.
The TV flashed light though the sound was down, and when I looked away from him I saw a depiction of the solar system, however many dimpled planets, colors correlating to their colored names across the bottom of the screen. Orbits marked by twinkling white lines.
The colors reflected onto his face. From the side, it looked like there was a storm in his eyes, swirling gray. He was biting his lower lip and letting it roll out from his teeth slowly. Bite and roll, bite and roll. It looked like a bit of pink putty. Like a strip of skinned animal. He was touching me and his hand was filthy and rough and it caught on the delicate fabric of my robe; I felt the little pulls, heard the ticks of each catch as he moved. His nails: bitten and too short. Inflamed, red crescents bordered each one. It was revolting. I smelled him then, too. The day of wear in his clothes, the dark warmth coming from the creased places of him. I thought of the way he sometimes left his dirty underwear on his nightstand, how he didn’t even try to fold it to conceal whatever things should be concealed. I could have been sick if I didn’t stop thinking of it.
The Eastern Hemisphere, then, lit yellow by a cartoon sun. I imagined people in Perth, sunbathing on terraces while their water glasses sweat silently next to them, while they saw shapes from behind their closed eyelids, created by the brightness in the sky. And then, the people in the West, tucked tight into beds, or drunk at parties, standing on city rooftops, watching the whites of their exhales spiral away and then disappear.
And here he looked at me, and I noticed the unevenness of his eyebrows, the day old growth of his beard, the seam of a scar at his temple, all this humanness. And here something in me came undone, some sort of unraveling. And here I felt filled by a wrinkled white sheet, its edges frayed from being dragged, from beating in the breeze.
“You go up,” I said. “I’ll be right there.” I stood.
When he was on the seventh step, I closed the bathroom door behind me and ran the sink.
It had been three years since we remodeled the downstairs bathroom and I was still pleased by the way it had turned out. The low gleam of the oil rubbed fixtures, the gray grout. I had gotten the ideas from some decorating magazine and copied it all exactly.
Everything looked brighter, harder, sharper. My face in the mirror: reddish lips, pale, a small patch of dry skin on my left eyelid. Fuck, I said, and fingered it, picking. I pulled at my eyebrows and let the dislodged hairs fall into the sink. They spun and circled, caught up in the water, and finally went down the drain. Stop it, I said out loud, though quietly. Stop it now, you will ruin everything. I ran my hand along the edge of the mirror and smiled. I had had my nails manicured that morning and they gleamed and shone, little red jewels. I was almost overwhelmed with the urge to bite them, to break and chew and swallow. I felt like my mouth just had to move.
The mirror was a vintage medicine cabinet we had found at some farmhouse down South; I remembered waiting to pay for it, watching my husband take his wallet out of his pocket while dust swirled around us, the sun turning the trees and the blowing wheat golden. I did a bump in each nostril and wiped my face with the underside of an embroidered guest towel just before the room exploded.
He was asleep when I got up to the bed. But I climbed on top of him and kissed him with enough urgency that he eventually responded and rolled me onto my back.
“You are a pig and I will never forgive you,” I said, whispering into the black sockets of his eyes. I felt my lips brush his long lashes. I thought I could feel my tongue on the slick wet of his cornea. “You useless, brainless animal. How did I wind up like this?” I said between breaths. I asked him to handcuff me. I asked him to get his gun from the liquor table and press the barrel to my mouth or temple. “Do something, for once, you fucking waste,” I said. I said many other things, too.
My skin tingled. Each hair danced and swayed. I saw words in my head like a typewritten page.
After, we went downstairs and sat. I had wanted to light candles but forgot and the overheard lights blazed down on us. My new grays, my face pink and raw from his stubble. He was pale, thinner. He seemed to be aging right then at that table.
I had never before seen him eat like that. So wildly. He dipped a potato chip into the caviar, bit, then dipped the remainder into sour cream (the small market said they were out of crème fraîche). He piled crackers with cheese and ate them—one, two, three at a time. He gulped bourbon while his mouth was still full, his cheeks puffed and moving. He cut pâté into slices and picked them up, gelatin slipping through his fingers, sliding, coating the knuckles of his hands. The oil from artichokes rolled golden down his chin and disappeared into the shadow at his neck. He used a spoon to scoop the caviar tin clean and I let him; I didn’t correct him. I could hear the sound of the food in his mouth. His uniform shirt was still on but unbuttoned. He always has been such a good-looking man.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It killed me to watch him. I felt my eyes welling up. “I didn’t mean anything. I just got carried away.” I smashed a piece of Brie into the side of my plate and looked at the white moon it made under the tip of my nail.
I started to cry and didn’t wipe my face. I knew he had a soft spot for sadness, for victims. I sighed as I felt a tear reach my lip because I wanted him to see. He looked at me just in time, just as it crested my cupid’s bow and rolled into my mouth. Perfect, I thought. His eyes seemed all one color and I worried for a moment that he wasn’t going to react.
But then. He sat up straighter. He moved forward and opened his mouth. His elbow hit his glass and it tipped and then circled, spinning, spinning, and then righting itself. He got up and rushed past me toward the bathroom, his open belt buckle jingling as he went.
The crackle and choke of him heaving. He must have flushed as it hit the water because I didn’t hear anything after that other than the running of the toilet. I ate one grape while I waited, counting to ten in my head. It had seeds, which I crunched and swallowed, though I made a note to complain at the store. The bins should have been marked.
I drummed my fingernails on the door and cleared my throat, shards of the seeds still prickling, lodged in my tonsils or larynx or whatever it’s called back there.
“You okay?” I asked as I opened the door. He was folded in front of the toilet, his arms crossed on the open seat, head down and facing the wall away from me. “You ate too fast, I think. And you’re tired. You had a long day. But you can rest now.” I touched his shoulder and looked up toward the window.
Outside, the night had started to quiet. Light from the neighbor’s patio reflected off the snow and made my bathroom look like I had never seen it look before.
“Now all we do is wait,” I said as I sat there, patting his back then moving my hand in circles.
Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.