I thought I heard someone being murdered. What can I say — that’s what I heard. I woke my husband up.
“Get up,” I said. “Someone’s being murdered.”
“Carly, please,” Ted said, turning over. “Come on, please.” He said it sort of like a moan, like he might be asking for something else in another context.
“Please get up,” I said, “or I’ll call 911.”
He moaned again. He sat up in bed, his hair smashed against his forehead. I pulled the covers off of him. He was naked, and his penis was soft and worm-like. I almost told him that, but I didn’t. That’s where we were in our marriage — I said too much aloud. “You say every single thought that enters your brain,” Ted accused, but that wasn’t true at all. I had so many thoughts that went unsaid! They multiplied and sat untouched, a pile of something wasted. This, too, was marriage.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Why do you look so creepy?”
I hadn’t slept well all night and now I was sitting at the edge of the bed trying to remain very still, listening. Also, lately, I’d been working on my posture, so I was very cognizant of trying to keep my back straight. It was around two am.
“Look through the window,” I said. “Try to see what’s happening.” The window in our bedroom looked down on Ventura Blvd. We lived in the Valley, which I hated, out-loud, every chance I got.
“Why don’t you look,” he said. “I can tell you nothing’s happening.”
Just then, another sound. The sound was large enough to fill the room — not a scream, but a metallic bashing of some kind. Instead of feeling scared, I only felt vindicated.
“Murder!” I shouted.
“Stop,” Ted said. He swiped his hand in my direction, as though trying to mute me. Still, I could tell he was taking me seriously all of the sudden, he sat up straighter too.
“Put on some shorts,” I said, still looking at his flaccid penis.
“Shh,” he said, “I’m trying to listen.”
And that’s when we heard the unmistakable word: help.
I was already holding my iPhone. I’d been playing a game on it when I heard the noise, where you line up rows of dinosaurs of the same color and make them disappear. I’d been playing it late into the night for a few weeks now. It relaxed me. It quieted my mind.
“I’ll call 911,” I said. “Should I?”
Ted shushed me.
“I’ll call,” I said again, louder and higher-pitched. I was holding the phone away from my body, as though it might turn on me.
“Just relax,” Ted said. “We’re not calling 911. It’s probably nothing.” Ted hated to overreact. Rather, he hated to be caught after having over-reacted. It had something to do with his father, I think, one of those stoic types who sat in his car for too long in the driveway while the rest of his family waited for him inside. Still, Ted’s father also loved show tunes and fancy calligraphy pens. People are complicated.
Ted pulled on running shorts and a t-shirt. “I’m going out there,” he said.
“Should I come?” I asked. Ted didn’t answer. “I’m coming,” I said. Here’s another thing about marriage: so many questions go unanswered. They hang in the air, only occasionally drawing attention to themselves, sort of like wind chimes.
Anyway, I didn’t want to be left behind, alone in the apartment. This wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood, and alit in the wash of bright streetlamps, young boys often skateboarded so late and so loudly, we’d have to knock on their parents’ doors so they might corral them. Sometimes, I liked the sound of their skateboards echoing against the asphalt over and over until they finally mastered a trick, or even when they didn’t — I liked the sound of their repeated trying. When I lay awake, playing my dinosaur game while Ted slept, his soft measured breathing filling the room, I felt like it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to go outside and join them. I guess I’m saying the Valley wasn’t all bad, but in the summer, with the sun at its highest point and the grass brown and dead, it did a decent job of trying to convince you. Ted and I had talked about moving for years now.
“Just relax,” Ted would say, when I brought it up too many times.
Now, we stood together on the sidewalk, Ted in his running shorts and t-shirt, and me in a nightgown that was actually just a very long flannel shirt I only called a nightgown. The night was warm, but Ted liked the bedroom very cold. There was a thin white, wisp of a moon.
We looked around for the source of the noise. Across the street, we saw a couple sitting on the curb outside of their car, a red Honda Civic.
“Help,” the man was saying, to nobody really, or at least not to the girl, who right then was refusing to look at him. They were young — younger than Ted and I, wading somewhere in the shallow end of their twenties. The girl was crying. I can call her a girl, I think, in my thirties. Aren’t I owed that?
“Are you okay?” Ted asked.
The man got up and started pacing around the car. The girl was still sitting on the curb, telling the man he was a motherfucker. I couldn’t hear him apologize, but he had apologetic posture — his head bowed, his palms open.
“I guess they’re just fighting,” Ted said.
“I guess,” I said. He must have heard the disappointment in my voice, because he took my hand and we approached them.
“Can you guys please be quiet?” he asked. “My wife thought you were being murdered.”
I thought the girl might say something coy like “my heart is being murdered.” I might have laughed, had she said that.
“Fuck off,” the girl said, instead, “this is a private conversation.” Her hair was dyed blonde and in the yellowish glow of the streetlamp, I could see the dark seam of her true hair color.
“Fuck off!?” Ted repeated, in a lower version of the girl’s nasal tone. “Fuck off? You fuck off! You’re loud and it’s two am. We could call the police.”
“Do it,” she said. “Go ahead and do it.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said, “she’s just upset.”
“Well so is my husband!” I shouted. It felt good to be on the same team.
It reminded me of when we were young — when Ted and I worked together at a bar, in a plain room with too many pool tables. I was always watching people bump their knees and elbows. “Fuck,” they’d say, “what the fuck.” Ted was the bar-back, perpetually wiping the bar down and filling the glasses with ice. I bartended with a female friend. I was perpetually handing people their drinks while she was perpetually throwing her hair back, exposing the paleness of her throat. All the men flirted with her. I never spilled. My hands were very steady. Regardless, we were forced to share the tips, and we could never decide who was benefiting more: me or her. Ted did not share the tips.
“We’re living the dream,” my friend would say, half-ironic. We loved irony, and we thought we’d mastered it. This would be after the bar closed, while we were splitting our tips on the rooftop, the moon washing over our crumpled dollar bills, over George Washington’s smug little face. I was always strapped for cash
“Are we living the dream?” I’d ask, “Or are we stagnating in a hell of our own making?”
Ted took me home one night, and revealed that he had another job — as an accountant — and that he only worked the bar at night for fun. I’d never heard of someone doing a job they didn’t have to do, and that alone made him exotic.
The girl stood up and approached us. She had those mascara raccoon eyes, and I saw now that she was holding a tire iron. When I stepped closer to the car, half-lit beneath the streetlamp, I saw that she had been bashing it in. The passenger door looked like it were made of paper, beginning to crumple.
She sneered — I can only call it a sneer — at the two of us, and gently tapped the tire iron against her open palm.
“We’ll call the police!” my husband said. “Don’t come near us with that thing.”
I almost laughed out loud. What an overreaction! We weren’t in danger. I’m not sure how I knew it, but I was sure. While the girl’s anger was fierce and singular, it wasn’t directed at us. There was something in her face — a determination — she could hardly draw her eyes from the man. Still, she swung the tire iron again indiscriminately.
“Stop!” Ted yelled, and took a dramatic step in front of me, as though to shield me. “Don’t move another inch,” he told her. I laughed, more like a bark — I couldn’t help it.
Ted turned to look at me, and I saw a brief flash of confusion move over his face. I would think about the confusion on Ted’s face for a long time after. It seemed to represent something to me, maybe on the girl’s behalf, about how the world is filled with people having the wrong impression of you.
The girl turned on her boyfriend, but it was only the car she started torturing again, and a few apartment lights went on and soon after we heard sirens. A neighbor’s dog howled along with the sirens, almost in tune.
Back in our bedroom, my husband said, “I’ve never done anything that crazy.”
“Hit a car with a tire iron?”
“No,” he said, “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never been in a situation like that. Where someone wanted to kill me. Have you?”
The room was cold again, and I moved closer to him. It was odd, having this conversation. It felt like going back to the beginning, when you still might say something to shock the other person.
“Once I went to France with a woman,” I said. “Did you know that?”
“With a friend?” He looked confused.
“No,” I said. “Not with a friend. And not Paris, either, but one of those country-sides with the squares and squares of perfect farmland, where you just drink wine and have sex all day.”
I thought about it. This woman had loved me. She used to come into the bar and watch me hand off drinks, as though I were giving a performance. She had taken me to France as a means of convincing me that I could love her too, and for a little while, I believed her. Now, I wondered if I had just been terribly confused. I was in my twenties for what felt like forever. She was older than me and held many strong opinions. I’ve always been unusually susceptible to persuasion.
“That can’t be true,” he said. “Really?”
He smacked his hands against his thighs like he got a kick out of it. “How did you never tell me that?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. I hadn’t wanted it to be a wasted thing, or a question that hung in the air.
The woman hated me by the end. She called me filthy, terrible names outside of a picturesque bakery with red awnings and rows of baguettes in the window. I stood there and let her, like I were the car and she were the tire iron. I remembering thinking it was strange that there were so many young children around, watching. I remember, too, that she had a look in her eyes like she wanted to kill me. I’d never seen anything like it. I had gone home with a busboy the previous night. I’d let him bend me over in a coat closet. (I was still terribly confused).
I would meet Ted one year later, at the perfect time probably, when I was still going home with men and asking them what they thought about me — letting them tell me things I should have already known about myself. “You’re funny,” they’d say, “and isn’t this apartment awful? Wouldn’t you like to get a better job and move?”
“I like this apartment,” Ted said, when I brought him there. “I like you.”
“Tell me why,” I remembered saying, waiting for him to tell me something I didn’t already know about myself.
“Because you’re so different than me,” he said, and now I think that’s the basis of marriage: a study in opposition. I came to know myself in relation to Ted — isn’t that the point of love?
The woman who had taken me to France was married now, to another woman. I knew from Facebook. I wondered if thoughts between them ever went unsaid, or if they told each other everything — every confession a tiny loss of its own.
“Would you murder someone for me?” I asked Ted suddenly, which reminded me of an old game we used to play, in the beginning of things, when we used to wake each other up with our hands in the dark, as if they had a mind of their own. Would you cross a desert for me, would you swim an ocean, would you rob a bank, would you kill a person? Yes, we’d say, over and over — yes, yes, yes, yes, until the word “yes” lost its meaning and was merely a noise, like a moan or an exclamation.
But Ted was already drifting back to sleep. He had to wake up early; he had to go to work.
“Please,” he said, before he was lost to the world.