The Man of the House
The man who is fucking my wife is a cowboy—not a cowboy in the Top Forty country music sense, but a horseback, dust-and-grit-between-his-teeth cowboy. He’s strong-jawed and quiet, capable of answering a compound question with a brusque nod or a slight grin—never anything polysyllabic. He only shaves on weekends and has the unique ability to make Old Spice smell nostalgic. The sun has given his skin a tight, leathered look, and when he smiles—which isn’t often—it stretches his face like a belt.
The man who is fucking my wife has a chest like John Wayne and can don a duster like Eastwood. He votes a straight Republican ticket and makes no apologies for it. He sees social issues as things that people need to fix for themselves. On the topic of politics, he speaks in clichés: “There’s no such thing as a free ride” or “You can’t help someone who won’t help themselves.” He has a way a making a bleeding heart woman believe things were better when we all rode horses.
The man who is fucking my wife is the American cowboy paradigm; who wears the white hat in spaghetti Westerns; whose top lip never shivers after a shot of Wild Turkey; who keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth and flips it with his tongue; who expects a full ten minutes of head before sex.
The man who is fucking my wife has a gargantuan cock, a cock that coils in his shorts and impresses a distinctive bulge when he wears blue jeans. He’s no enigma. When a woman senses this, she finds herself light-headed and tingling between the legs.
When my wife unzips his fly and reaches into his briefs, her eyes widen and she wets her lips. She looks this man in the eye and says, “My, my.”
My God, she’s beautiful, I think as Lisa enters the kitchen and places the cardboard box on the counter.
I grab the bottle of Percosets from my pocket, shake two pills into the palm of my hand, and wash them down with the tepid coffee I never finished from the morning. I had a car accident in my late-teens and developed what my doctor—Lisa calls him my “croaker”—insists is “chronic back pain.” It’s legitimate. Despite what Holly may believe, my back still bothers me. Especially when it rains.
Lisa shakes her head. She saw me. It doesn’t matter. She’s beautiful when she’s disappointed, too. It’s such a damn shame she’s cheating on me.
“Moving must be really painful, Mark.”
“More than you know.”
She sits down across from me at the kitchen table, the first large piece of furniture we brought into the house. It’s a sturdy slab of shellacked oak that came with four matching chairs: a wedding gift from my parents. The legs are wobbly and need tightening, nothing I can’t fix with an Allen wrench, but right now, I’m just trying to get the U-haul unloaded. We only moved twenty-five miles from the west side of Manchester to the sticks in Candia and thought we’d save money by moving ourselves. Big mistake. In fact, we wouldn’t be moving at all if Lisa hadn’t decided that we needed to own a house. “We’ll be earning equity instead throwing away money on rent,” she argued after the woman who was handling our home loan told us the mortgage was going to be double what we were paying in rent each month. Our apartment wasn’t that bad. I found it cozy. Sure, it was a little small and damp and the roof leaked every once in awhile, but it was comfortable. Anyway, as soon as Lisa got those sugar plum thoughts of equity dancing in her head, I knew we were going to buy. End of discussion.
The whole thing, by the way, was orchestrated by Lisa’s parents. We’ve been married four years, and according to Frank and Nora Weiss—the consummate authorities on everything—married couples own houses. End of discussion.
Three days ago we closed on this renovated farmhouse on the top of a hill with only one neighbor within a stone’s toss from us, and now we’re hauling furniture and duct-taped cardboard boxes in a twenty-four hour rush to move, and there was no one available to help us. The least Lisa could’ve done was asked her boyfriend to lend a hand.
Did I mention she’s cheating on me?
I smile at her as the painkillers spread like oil through my limbs, and the floating takes hold. Lisa looks at the bottle again then rolls her eyes. I’m sure she’s worried I’ll never finish unloading the truck now. I’ll do it, but here’s the thing that’s bothering me. Despite the fact that the moving truck is stuffed tight—you couldn’t fit an extra pencil in there—we still won’t come close to filling what I consider to be excessive space for the two of us. But Lisa wanted a big house, she wanted grandeur. She got it. Unlike our apartment, now empty and uninhabited, nothing about this house feels like home. Lisa bought a book on feng shui and plans to arrange the furniture according to some sketches she jotted in a notebook—she is trying to find the optimum flow of the chi. Great, I tell her. In the meantime, will the chi pay the mortgage?
“If you take any more of those things, we’re going to end up paying for another day of rental on the truck,” Lisa says, taking out her ponytail and letting her blonde hair spill down her back. Damn. “Is that what you want?”
I shake my head. Goddamn, damn, damn, I think while looking at her face in the sunlight, she’s gorgeous. My wife’s face is a study in balance with a sharp nose and high cheekbones. She modeled for a short time in college—some catalogues and newspaper ads—then quit because she said it made her feel cheap. After modeling, she underwent a complete image overhaul. She suddenly became a woman of the earth—no make-up or shaving her body hair. She would go days without bathing, and once she danced topless for six hours at a reggae festival in Vermont. I was—and still am—a longhair with a thick beard, and together Holly and I made the perfect neo-hippie, dope-smoking, Ralph Nader-campaigning couple.
It was stayed that way until about a year ago when equity crept into the picture.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I married outside of my league. At my wedding, after slugging back a dozen or so whiskey sours, my father put his hand on my shoulder (more to keep himself upright than a genuine paternal pat) and said, “Son, keep your eye on this one. She’s a beautiful woman, and you, unfortunately, look like me.”
I go to stand up from my seat when Lisa shrieks. One hand covers her chest as the other points toward the neighbor’s house. “Did you see that camper in the neighbors’ yard?”
I look out the kitchen window where there’s a white RV trailer plopped like a dead body on the strip of dead grass that separates our houses. “So,” I say.
“Mark,” she says, “you what this means. We’ve moved next to hicks, wood boogers, white trash. No wonder we got this house so cheap. We should’ve listened to my parents and met the neighbors before making an offer on the house. Now look at this, we’re living next to dueling goddamn banjos.”
“Just because they have a camper doesn’t mean their white trash, Lisa. Plenty of people at Dead shows had RV’s. Who cares?”
“I do,” she says and reaches in her pocketbook for her cigarettes. “My parents will never let us hear the end of it.”
“Who cares what they think?”
“I do.” Unlike my parents, who are happily divorced and living in Florida and Maine, respectively, the Weisses live fifteen minutes away in Exeter. Like it or not, they’re going to come around at some point, see this and raise hell.
Lisa stands up, her shadow pressed to the kitchen wall. I watch her shadow, the delicate curves and soft motions, and imagine her shadow splayed on another man’s kitchen wall, in a place every bit as strange. My head starts to nod back.
I snap awake. “I’m here.”
“We need to finish unloading the truck,” she says and storms out of the kitchen, one long stalk of leg in front of the next. I imagine those legs wrapped around another man’s bare back and cringe.
“Did you come in me?”
“No. I mean…I don’t think so. I mean…maybe. Yes.”
Lisa rolls off the bed and grabs a t-shirt from the floor. I turn my head and stare at the glowing red digits on the alarm clock. It is sometime after midnight. My pill bottle is blocking my full view of the minutes.
“I told you I didn’t have my diaphragm in.” Lisa takes a cigarette from a pack on her dresser.
“You could’ve stopped me.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it’s too much to ask you to pull out, Mr. Percoset.”
I flop on my back and pull the pillow over my face. The real discussion here is not about birth control. We both know that much. I take the pillow away and reach across the bed for my pills. I shake two pills from the bottle and swallow them with a coffee mug filled with water.
“That’s great, Mark. Take another pill.”
“I did,” I say. “My back hurts.”
Lisa is standing at the foot of the bed, her silhouette hovering over me. I close my eyes and wait for the drug to carry me to sleep, one limb at a time.
“I don’t want to get pregnant. I have too much to do.”
“You sound like your parents.”
Immediately, I wish I could take back my words, shove them in my big mouth and swallow them like fist-sized pills.
In the eight years I’ve known Lisa, she has worked to cultivate an image as her parents’ antithesis. Nevertheless, some of their qualities—for example, the need for the world to exist, without exception, according to their own demands and designs—could not be side-stepped or painted over. They were so ingrained they became inevitable. Lisa won’t admit to it, but she knows. It’s human to not see what’s in front of us.
She also couldn’t shake the Weiss’ Puritanical drive to work their selves into the ground. All the Weisses are that way, from her asshole, stick-up-the-ass lawyer father, to her power suit corporate mom, to her bitch-on-overdrive older sister, who has her own medical practice and married a Republican. Lisa is—in the words of her mother—“just a journalist.” They deride her job. The ostensible is everything to Weisses, and writing local news stories for thirty-five grand a year is not good or glamorous or prestigious enough. So when Lisa upped and married a long-haired college dropout who designs websites from home, the Weisses shit some serious bricks. Not only do I not fit the conservative Aryan model of a husband they had in mind for Lisa, but I am also a marquee member of a group they find to be the most reprehensible subclass of the human specie: the pot-smoking pacifist. The thought of Lisa bearing my child sends a spike of pure terror up their already stiff spines.
Lisa is still standing in the t-shirt at the foot of the bed. The cigarette smoke rises in tufts from her limp right hand as I float above myself. Suddenly, she is standing in a stranger’s bedroom. I see him in my spot, sitting up with an arm reaching around the headboard, his own cigarette dangling from his lips. The man beckons with his index finger and tells to get her “sweet ass” back in bed.
The room swarms.
“I’m sorry,” I say and lunge for the lamp on the nightstand, flicking it on. Half of Lisa rests in a shadow as she tilts her head to the side, looking at me as if she is trying to place my face in an old yearbook. Slowly, the mask of annoyance crumbles like dried dirt being wiped from the surface of a precious stone. She sits down on the edge of the bed and runs her fingers through my hair.
“I’m sorry, too,” she says and lies down with her back to me, looking out the bedroom window at the dim hint of stars. “The other day,” she says, “on the drive into work, I started thinking about that time in Wyoming, when we were in the tent and got caught in that storm. You remember?”
“I remember,” I say. “It was Montana, though. I remember because the night before we were out in Missoula and couldn’t find a restaurant that served anything vegetarian.”
It was the summer of 1998, the summer before our senior year in college. I was still straddling the fence about whether to drop out of school and go to work for a friend doing web design. Lisa and I had quit our summer jobs at a restaurant near Weirs Beach and, on a whim, took my Toyota Corolla from New Hampshire to Denver for a Phish show. Afterwards, instead of heading home, we turned north on I-25, in search of something new.
We had camped beside a small, picturesque lake in a state park in Montana. The next morning was humid, our skin damp and sticky. We made love on top of a flannel sleeping bag, stifling inside the tent’s taffeta walls. Afterwards, as I lay on top of Lisa, our sweat mixed and formed a puddle between her breasts. Suddenly, the barometric pressure seemed to drop like a metal ball down a fiberglass chute. A vicious clap of thunder shook the ground below us. Lisa screamed, and I covered her body with my own as torrential rains pelted the tent. Truth be told, I was scared shitless, having never experienced such a surly storm, but I kept my fear in check so Lisa would feel protected by me—her man.
I reach over Lisa and pop another Percoset from the bottle on the nightstand. She sighs as I turn off the lamp. I try to confront the dark for a second time.
“My parents are coming for dinner on Friday,” she says.
“You shouldn’t get me so excited. I’ll never get to sleep.”
“You have your pills.”
I say nothing, hoping to let it drop. I place my hand on Lisa’s belly. What if my sperm—right at this moment—is bull-charging an egg, ready to strike, and some other man’s sperm is already there, digging like a motherfucker? “Sorry, chump,” his sperm will say to my own. “You can turn around now.”
“Montana,” I whisper as my head starts to nod.
Let me describe a dinner scene where Frank and Nora Weiss visit Mark Fellini and his beautiful wife Lisa Weiss (she never took his last name):
Frank and Nora will arrive dressed in a well-pressed suit and a dinner dress, respectively—attire desiring to offer a clear juxtaposition of style with Mark, who will wear faded blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt. Lisa will prepare a thoughtful, if not slightly pretentious entrée—say, a baked salmon with a cucumber cream sauce—and the four of them will sit down to the sound of silverware scratching china, interspersed with terse spits of conversation. Sometime after dessert—a tiramisu from a small Italian market—Frank will level a cutting criticism on something Lisa has done incorrectly, such as not talking to the neighbors before buying a house, thus opening the flood gates for Nora to sound off in the background like a Greek chorus. Thus begins the verbal evisceration of their daughter. Meanwhile, Mark will drink too much wine that, compounded with his painkillers, will have his head swimming.
The evening will eventually end with a cold goodnight in the driveway, as Lisa and Mark will continue to drink entirely too much and say things that are sure to pare the fog of their hangover morning like a streak of heat lightning.
If you haven’t figured it out, I’m describing last night, but this could’ve been any time the Weiss’s visit.
Two bottles of Chardonnay were empty and the dinner candles had burned down to waxy nubs when Lisa started talking about her editor, some faceless Boston big dick named Ron. I have never met Ron, nor been invited to meet Ron. Ron. Ron is a wife-fucker’s name if I’ve ever heard a wife-fucker’s name. So I blurted it out, “Lisa, are you fucking Ron?”
Her eyes widened and mouth dropped open. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Ron. You know Ron. Are you and Ronny getting hot and heavy on the editor’s desk? Is Ron giving you the big Ron-bone after hours?”
“You need to lay off the pills.” She lit a cigarette off the end of the one she was smoking.
“I’m not an idiot, Lisa. I know what’s going on.”
“Clearly, you don’t.”
“Secrets. You and your goddamn secrets. When did get to be such a bitch?”
The slap hit my cheek before I saw it coming. The sound bounced off the bare walls and closed doors of the empty house then vanished like the apparition of a slap. I felt nothing. Lisa and I stared at one another, stunned. We had never had a physical confrontation. We’re both pacifists.
Lisa stared at her hand in front of her face, the shadow enlarged on the wall. Slowly, she stood from her chair, her eyes cast downward. “I’m going to bed,” she said softly.
I listened to her footsteps as she climbed the stairs, and then, finally, I felt the sting.
Merle Haggard wakes us at eight a.m., not Merle Haggard the man, rather, a recording of Merle Haggard singing “Mama Tried”—a song I recognize because The Dead used to cover it. It’s coming from outside and juiced loud. We both spring up in bed.
“What the hell is that?” Lisa asks, rubbing her eyes and turning to glance at the alarm clock.
“It sounds like Merle Haggard.”
“Why is Merle Haggard blasting in our bedroom at eight a.m. on Saturday morning?”
“I don’t know.”
Lisa stands and walks to the window. She’s wearing flannel pajama bottoms and a tight black tank top. I want nothing more than to ravage her, to ravage my wife. I swallow a Percoset while her back is to me.
“It’s the goddamn neighbors,” Lisa says. “Look at them, sitting in those lawn chairs outside that goddamn camper, listening to this tracker-pull shit. They’re already drinking beers. It’s eight in the morning! I’m going to call the cops.”
“The cops? Why the hell do you want cops around?”
“Grow up, Mark.”
Lisa turns around, and the sun catches her face. For a second, I see the girl from the tent, her face without make-up, without stress lines around her eyes. It’s a softer face, a face framed by nature. A face I know. Then, as quickly as it revealed itself, the sunlight slips and the face disappears and Lisa’s face is older again, strange with sharper features and a hint of the Weiss scowl. I pull the pillow over my head, hoping when I pull it away the woman who made love to me in a tent will have magically returned.
Magic fails me.
“This is ridiculous,” Lisa says. “If you don’t want me to call the cops, get your ass out of bed and go tell those hicks to turn down their music.”
I stand up and grab a pair of jeans from the floor. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” I say under my breath.
“Will you just be a man for once, instead of hiding behind your damn pills?”
The statement stings and Lisa knows it. She gives me a look that might someday mature into an apology, but I’m already bolting for the door.
As I walk out of the bedroom, I yell over my shoulder, “I bet Ron is man enough.”
I stop in my office, a small room below our bedroom that never receives much sunlight. I roll a joint then light up and look out the window into the thick woods in our backyard. They expand for miles. Lisa moves around upstairs, her feet slapping the hard wood floors. For a second, I contemplate grabbing the tent from the garage and running into the woods, getting lost and never returning.
Of course, I don’t do it. I do as I’m told.
Three men are lounging in lawn chairs under a green canopy in front of camper. As I draw closer, I’m reminded why marijuana is not conducive to confrontation. I’m a pacifist, and now I’m baked and numb from the painkillers and, in general, I’m more like a marshmallow cloud than an iron tank.
The man sitting in the middle yells over the music. “You want a beer?”
Before I can reply, he’s reaches in a red cooler and tosses me a can of Budweiser. I lunge forward and make an improbable shoestring catch.
“Nice grab,” the man says. He’s stocky with a thick black goatee and a good-natured gap between his front teeth. “I’m Wayne. I’m your new neighbor,” he says and extends his hand, and we shake.
“Good to meet you, Wayne. I’m Mark.” I hold up the beer and crack it open. “Thanks,” I say.
Wayne turns down the music and nudges a thin guy with a baby face to his left. “This here is Jimmy,” he says and nods at the other guy, “and that’s Hemi.”
Hemi has a robust mustache, graying at the edges. He looks a lot like Sam Elliot in a Red Sox hat.
“I hope we didn’t wake you up with the music,” Jimmy says in a high, almost feminine voice. “We forgot there were new people in that house. It’s been empty for so long. We’ve gotten used to having these Saturday brunches without worry.”
“These here brunches have become somewhat of a tradition,” Wayne says. “You’re welcome to stick around for some barbeque, Mark. Invite the little lady, if you’d like. I’ll be firing the grill around noon and cooking up some burgers and dogs.”
I smile, thank him, and don’t say anything about being a vegetarian.
Meanwhile, Hemi sits there cool, quiet and handsome. There’s something god-like in the way he watches everything, something that reminds me of a backdoor slamming. I could’ve sworn I saw him smirk when Wayne mentioned “the little lady.” I imagine him waiting for me to pass out, standing cool below our bedroom window, waiting for me to swallow my pills, and later sneaking upstairs where Lisa waits in our bathtub, surrounded by candles.
Wayne lifts his hand to forehead, shielding the sun, and looks up at our bedroom window. “There’s your little lady,” he says.
Lisa is standing at the window, her tank top clinging to her chest. I glance at Hemi, who holds his poker-face while dragging on his cigarette.
I raise my beer to Lisa then she turns and walks away without an acknowledgement.
“You got yourself a looker, Mark,” Wayne says. Jimmy nods. Hemi doesn’t flinch. He knows.
Then Jimmy spits out his beer. “Holy shit!” He points at the window.
The four of us look up as if a fighter jet buzzed overhead. Again, Lisa is at the window, only this time with her tank top lifted and her bare breasts pressed to the glass. Her eyes are closed and mouth fixed in the smallest of grins. She then pulls down her top, turns and disappears.
The four of us stand around gape-jawed and as quiet as the dirt below us. Finally, Hemi clears his throat. “Nice rack,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say and take a long pull off my beer. “I know.”
The man who is fucking my wife is mythological—the god Bulfinch forgot. From a penthouse pad, he looks down on the plights of pathetic men everywhere; men who are anxious and dog-faced; men who are self-conscious and marble-mouthed. He watches their wives while plotting a strike of sexual lightning. The other man’s paranoia is his portal, his entrance into the sad bastard’s psyche and his wife’s bed.
The man who is fucking my wife is elusive, a magician too slick to tip his tricks.
The man who is fucking my wife comes on like a chameleon, blending into everyday landscapes; he a changeling, taking on a different faces and forms.
There’s no way to defend against the man who is fucking my wife. When I fall to my knees and shake a clenched fist at the sky, he laughs with a rumble of thunder.
“Save it, little man,” he says, “you can’t fight a god with your fists.”
I’m plopped at the kitchen table with six empty bottles of Sam Adams and a full one in front of me. I haven’t taken a painkiller in six hours and plan to polish the twelve-pack. I try to be careful about mixing with excessive drinking. Despite everything, I don’t have a death wish.
A small crowd is gathered around a makeshift fire pit beside the RV. “Tequila Sunrise” pipes in the background, occasionally being drowned by spurts of laughter or an off-key sing-along. A part of me wishes I too was beside the fire, sharing a joint or a dumb joke. Instead, I watch from the kitchen of this house that is too big.
Lisa left minutes after I returned from having beers with the guys outside the RV, minutes before Wayne fired the grill. We didn’t speak before she left. Her leaving and not returning for seven, going on eight hours is another affirmation of what I’ve known all along.
I do some quick math and try to figure out how many times a man can fuck my wife in nine hours.
The answer: too many.
The side door opens then closes. Lisa stops in the hallway outside the kitchen, her shadow spreading across the floor tiles and wispy curls of smoke rising in indefinite directions.
“Where have you been?”
“Out,” she says.
“What was this morning all about? Are you having sex with the guy with the mustache? Hemi?”
Lisa walks to the kitchen cabinet—the one recently christened the “liquor” cabinet— and removes an unopened bottle of Smirnoff. She takes a tall glass from the dishwasher, a carton of orange juice from the fridge, and pours herself a drink. She sits down across from me, using one of the empty bottles as an ashtray.
“What do you want me to say, Mark? I did it for you.”
“You fucked another man for me?” Dizziness overcomes me. I reach for my pills.
“Put the pills down!” Lisa slaps the bottle out of my hand. “This is crazy. For the last time, I’m not having an affair. This is in your head, Mark. You invented this. To avoid the real issues.”
“So what are the real issues, Lisa? You leave for the entire day after showing your tits to a bunch of strange guys, and I’m supposed to think I’m the one with the problem? You think that because I take some pain medication for a sore back that I’m inventing affairs? Do you know how fucked up that is? I wish you’d just tell the truth.”
“I showed them to you.” Lisa looks down at her glass and stirs her drink with her index finger. “I’m not sleeping with anyone else,” she says. “We’ve been living in the house less than a week, but I already feel like I’m living alone. There’s a problem, but it’s not some other guy.”
I say nothing. I stare out the window at the fire, listening to the laughter looming in the dark. It occurs to me that Lisa and I have yet to laugh in our new house. We’ve yet to hear laughter bounce through these barren rooms. My eyes well up at the corners, but my face is as numb as a street sign.
Lisa’s hands appear on my shoulder. I continue to stare into the fire outside, but I can also see our reflections in the window—my long hair and straggly beard, and my beautiful wife with her hair tied in a braid. Our silver wedding bands glimmer in the glass. For a moment, we’re inside that tent, the thunder shaking the ground below us. Nowhere in the tent is their room for another man.
It’s four a.m., and we’ve yet to go to bed. The party broke up hours ago, and the cinders on the fire have nearly extinguished. Empty lawn chairs and beer cans are scattered on the damp strip of grass that separates our houses.
Lisa and I are loaded for the second night in a row, but it seems right, like we’re cleansing in alcohol, opening the pores in our skin. She looks out the window, past our reflections to where the darkness is fading. “Let’s go,” she says.
The grass is wet, and the air is cool. We stand in front of the camper. Lisa tries the handle, and the door swings open. She covers her mouth, holding back a laugh.
We can make out the shapes of the objects in front of us—a dinette table bolted to the wall, two wooden chairs, and cabinets above it. A small square window looks out at the side of our house. Lisa sits on the edge of the table and pulls me into her. I hold her head, tasting the vodka on her tongue. She reaches for my zipper.
Lisa turns to face the window square, lifts her skirt above her hips, and slides down her panties. She presses both palms flat on the table and glances at me over her shoulder, her braid tossing like a rope.
I stare out the window at our house before entering her. I close my eyes to erase the image of a man forming in the thin morning fog, standing beneath our bedroom window.