Best of the Net 2008  

His Wife

“What time will you be home?”

Even as she asked the question she knew it would have been better left unasked but it was so normal, so reasonable, the kind of question wives asked husbands as they left for work in the morning. What was wrong with asking? Why did he get that look on his face? The question helped her to identify herself as a wife, someone who cared about someone else, someone who was there when needed, someone to give comfort, someone who . . . just someone, she thought. Someone with definite things to do. And so she found herself asking it every morning, even though she knew he didn’t like it.

“Six, honey,” he said and gave her that one-two grin that was gone so fast it scared her.

She leaned towards him for a kiss, which she feared he would otherwise forget to give her. If she were still in bed when he left, which she often was, if she were still sleeping or pretending to be as a way of forestalling the work she had to do, and he did not kiss her, the morning was incomplete. With a beginning like that her connection to him felt frayed; he might forget all about her during the day.

“I’ll think about you,” she said as she accompanied him a few feet out their door towards the elevator.

The elevator came, and she retreated with tiny geisha steps, as he said a muted hello to whoever was there, and was gone. She’d make something nice for dinner; that would make him happy. She closed the door and went purposefully to the refrigerator, which was full of half-eaten meals that she’d wrapped or put in plastic storage containers. A few bad smells told her it was probably time to throw some of them away. It seemed such a waste though; he might get hungry later on and want the very thing she had just thrown out. She stared for another few seconds, closed the refrigerator, and opened the cabinet that contained her collection of cookbooks. It was always a struggle to decide whether to cook fish or chicken or meat or pasta. She kept meaning to plan in advance because sometimes she just ran out of ideas, despite all her books.

He never asked her what she was going to do, just as he never asked her, when he came home, what she’d done. True, there was little for her to say. He was out in the world. He could tell her some peculiar incident that happened on the job, some eccentric piece of behavior he’d observed, a joke, a funny story or even a sad story, that was OK too, something tragic he’d witnessed or heard about, it didn’t matter. The news she could impart in exchange tended to be so small, so local, so female, she was loath to put any of it into words: the ophthalmologist or anesthesiologist or oncologist she’d interviewed, the trouble she had transcribing the tape, the dullness of the article she spent the morning hours writing or editing, who she met in the elevator, what was for sale in the specialty food shop, the two men arguing over a parking space. She had so little real interest in any of it herself, how could she hope to make it interesting to him; she felt cut down when his eyes glazed over with boredom. Instead she plied him with questions, even when she could see he wanted to be quiet, that he’d been questioned by people all day and looked forward now to being still, to eating a nice meal, to sipping a glass of wine, to reading his mail, to working on his collection, to going to bed after a nice shower. A wife asked her husband questions. A husband told his wife what had happened in his world. Why was that so bad? Sometimes they made love though lately it seemed to her that she had become an abstraction to him. She thought that maybe she had become that to herself.

She had an article to finish writing for Ophthalmology Today but as soon as she sat down at her desk, she thought she had better straighten up things in the apartment. It was comforting to align magazines on the coffee table, to center a bowl of apples on the kitchen table, though she drew the line at altering the actual arrangement of furniture or rehanging one of their posters. He was the one with the taste, the eye for color and design. She approved, she appreciated, but the one time she had dared to change the placement of the chairs in the living room, he had looked skeptical and asked her why she had done such a thing.

Of course he knew better. She saw that the arrangement was perfect the way he had set it originally. When she helped move things back she noticed a scratch on the floor, and knew she should never have repositioned the chairs. If he saw the scratch his shoulders would sag a little but he’d get down on his knees with some oil or other and work at the scratch until it was gone. She felt lucky one of them was good at things like that, but guilty too that after a day at work he had to detour from the peaceful evening he’d planned for himself to correct one of her errors. Better to leave things as they were. She would never get into trouble that way.

Scintillating scotoma is migraine without the pain, according to the doctor she quoted in the article. Is? Or are? She tapped her pen on her two front teeth. Her husband would be at work by now. She liked to think of exactly what he was doing at a particular moment of the day and imagined him now reaching deep into his briefcase, grunting with the effort. That was funny. On impulse, she rooted around in one of the storage drawers of her desk and found an old picture of them taken on the roof of the building he’d lived in when they met. A friend of hers who had love affairs with rock musicians, and whose independence and lack of sentimentality she envied, had taken this picture.

He looked slightly uncomfortable in the photograph, a half smile that she realized now was meant to conceal his teeth, which he’d had capped just before they got married, though she’d never suggested he should and in fact liked his former crooked teeth. She wore her usual expression when photographed, chin down, eyes peering up and a lopsided grin she secretly used to think made her look elfin and charming and perhaps it did, once. Her prettiness did not much matter to him, he said; he loved her for other things. She swelled with pride at that, even though she was a bit at sea as to what those other things were.

How had it happened, she wondered, as she let the photo of their younger selves slide out of sight beneath their last year’s tax returns, that she had lost her beauty and he, who had been shy and self-effacing, and to whom looks were unimportant, had become handsome in middle age? It didn’t seem fair.

It was almost noon when she began making her telephone calls. Mostly they were answered by secretaries or machines or by a friend who had only a second to talk before being called to a meeting. She tried her husband who did not like to talk on the phone but his office mate told her he’d just gone to lunch. She put the phone down and walked to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and closed it, then went back to the bedroom. She thought of making the bed but decided to lie down for a minute first and think about what to make for dinner.

It was 2:00 when the telephone rang.

“Did I wake you?” her husband asked.

“No.” She cleared her throat. “I haven’t talked since you left this morning.” She got off the bed and went to the window, pressing her forehead on the cold glass. She had the beginnings of a headache.

“You called me?”

Across the street a line of homeless men was shuffling into the side door of the church. “Did you . . . did you want chicken tonight?” She heard him exhale and pause before he spoke.

“Sure. Chicken. Anything else?”

“Uh. . . .”

“Honey, I have to go.”

She held the phone after the connection went dead, looked at the clock on top of the church steeple, then punched in another number. She hadn’t meant to call, had sworn to herself that last time was the last time. The machine on his cell phone picked up after six rings, which was his way. “Has the fabric come in?” she asked and waited for him to interrupt the recording and tell her it had. “I’ll be over at four,” she said and still he didn’t interrupt. “Is that OK?” she said and said it again until the machine clicked off.

I don’t have to go, she thought, but dialed the number again. “It’s me,” she said. She’d never had to identify herself by name; it had always been enough just to ask about the fabric. “Are you there?” That question was definitely off script and she wasn’t surprised not to get an answer. “I’m coming down,” she said in a friendly tone and even added a laugh. “Hope you’ll be there with the fabric!”

Now that she had an appointment—or at least an errand and a destination—there seemed no time to do everything she needed to. She had to make the bed, write up a shopping list, go to the cash machine, take the subway down to Houston Street by four, make the buy, then shop for dinner, chicken she decided, race home, and cook it in time for her husband’s arrival. She did not want to be in the position of having to explain where she’d been if he got home before she did.

Feeling full of purpose, she turned off her computer, dressed quickly in worn jeans and two sweaters, drew her hair back in a ponytail, and raced out the door. There was an old man waiting for the elevator.

“Where does the day go?” she wondered aloud.

When she got out of the subway, she took the route she usually took, halfway there lighting a joint and smoking it as she walked. She loved that about this neighborhood, that she could light up and walk down the streets smoking a joint and no one gave her a second look. She flicked the butt end into the street as she turned onto his block: the barber shop with the vines obscuring the window, the palm reader, the health food store with that funny smell, the Czechoslovak novelty store with the nesting eggs, the side entrance to a Montessori school. But when she got to his building, it wasn’t there, in its place a wall of plywood nine feet high and nothing behind it but rubble.

Wait. Wait. How could his building simply not be here? She looked back down the block to check the familiar storefronts. Everything was as it should be. She stood a few feet back from the sheets of plywood, her attention focused now on the posters plastered on it—dance clubs and private lessons in kung fu and blown-up photos of teenagers with pierced faces—as if they contained clues as to what had happened.

How could they just tear down a building? Didn’t there have to be some notice? Shouldn’t he at least have given me some warning? He must have notified his regular customers. But of course he had no way of getting in touch with her; he didn’t even know her name. Oh well, she thought. No matter. Time to stop buying. His location, the fact that he had a telephone number and kept regular business hours was certainly an attractive arrangement but her only regret now was that the decision to stop had been made for her instead of her giving it up of her own accord, which she had been meaning to do.

There was a nice breeze coming from the river as she started to walk. She laughed to herself: I guess I came all this way for nothing. She looked at her watch but she’d forgotten to put it on. That’s fine. That’s OK. She didn’t have that much to do. It’s not like it was habit forming. She always felt a mixture of guilt and relief that she was not on crack or cocaine or anything that actually changed a person’s life. She would never have been able to explain to her husband the outlay of cash if the drugs had cost her that kind of money anyway. The price of an ounce of marijuana had gone up in recent years, certainly, but a couple of hundred dollars here and there was not something he was about to question.

What did she know about him, anyway? Why wouldn’t he disappear? All she knew—and this only by the evidence of his extreme muscular development and the stack of barbells in the corner of his living room—was that he lifted weights. It was no doubt handy to present an intimidating physical presence considering the desperate straits of some of the people with whom he probably did business. Not that she had ever observed any trouble when she visited; his other customers seemed to be people like her, uptowners in downtown outfits who wanted a clean safe place to buy their drugs.

Because she’d turned left at the corner instead of right, went south instead of north, she soon found herself on an unfamiliar street. The joint she’d smoked had left her feeling very lightheaded and really she wasn’t actually lost at all because she knew that all she had to do to be found was get to some large intersection and be embraced by the safety of a taxi going home.

I just need to focus on something and I’ll be fine. She stopped to look in a store window that featured large hats with wide brims and feathers. Who would wear such things, she wondered. Another store window had a display of women’s shoes with punishingly narrow toes and reed-thin high heels. The store next to it sold antique linens, which she quite admired—they suggested an entirely different kind of life from the one she led—but she drifted back to shoes.

“Would you like to try them?” The man stood in the doorway of the store, heavily made up around the eyes, a silver cross hanging from one ear. He had very hairy muscular arms and seemed angry. She went into the store and sat down. Which, he asked, and she pointed to the ones in the window. Size, he asked, and she told him. He walked through a curtain and disappeared into the back. She smelled incense, which she hated because it always seemed to be used to cover something foul.

What was I just thinking? Chicken. Oh yes, chicken. Chicken and. . . . The shopping list was in her pocket but actually no, she couldn’t find it. That’s funny, she thought, the list wasn’t there. Chicken, she remembered, and something else, something to go with it. . . . She unwrapped a piece of gum and started to chew. I wonder what the others are doing now, she thought. I can’t be the only one who he didn’t know by name.

The man returned, holding the shoebox out in front of him. She slid her shoe off and he slipped the new one onto her foot. He still seemed angry and she was actually a bit frightened of him. He’d closed the door of the store when she’d come in and now was holding her ankle in his palm as he slid the shoe onto her foot. His touch sent a tiny shiver up her leg.

“Now you look like you mean business,” the man said. His words seemed to suggest hidden meanings but she could not quite make out what they were. She bent over to look at her foot. It seemed not even to belong to her, arched at such an extreme angle that she doubted she could stand, her heel cradled gently in the man’s hand. What am I doing here? She let the gum fall out of her mouth and let herself cry for a minute, trying not to make any sounds. The man remained very still and continued to cradle her heel in his palm. When she had stopped crying, he removed the shoe and slipped her old one on her foot.

And now she stands at the sink watching the water run over the pale flesh of the chicken. The marijuana has worn off and she feels a little tired. She has been rinsing the chicken for several minutes because the cool water feels so nice on her hands and wrists. Her husband’s key turns in the lock. Frightened, she straightens up and turns off the water, then turns it back on again.

“I’m making dinner!” she calls out to him, and waits for him to come in and kiss her.

-Barry Jay Kaplan (Apple Valley Review)