Fiction · 02/19/2020

The Truth About Knowing

I.

Femke knows it’s not sex. They’re still enjoying each other’s bodies, and he never smells of anything but himself. She trusts her nose, her hunter’s sense. It’s not sex.

“What’s wrong?”

The question, posed in a casual tone, comes from her daughter, Luna, not from him. Eight years old and already observing her mother observing the man in their house. Femke and Luna sit opposite each other at the dinner table and survey Noud in the living room as though he were an animal in the zoo. He left the table immediately after the pasta with pesto, Luna’s favorite, and is getting his stuff together inefficiently, walking back and forth. Phone, scarf, wallet, envelope — its contents unknown.

Femke clears her throat.

“Nothing. There’s nothing wrong.”

Her daughter makes a face that says, Don’t insult me. At what age can children detect a lie? Femke pushes her chair back and stacks up the dirty plates. She regrets dismissing the only witness to whatever it is she may be seeing.

Noud’s story: He’s helping a fellow engineer at the Dutch Department of Water Management go through a divorce. They meet in grand cafés and hotel bars where businessmen congregate to negotiate deals. They drink whiskey and commiserate. Male bonding, Noud calls it.

Femke runs hot water from the faucet and dumps the cutlery into the sink. Clattering. Distraction. There’s something in his manner that troubles her, has been troubling her for weeks. The way he doesn’t quite look at her, like now, as he shrugs into his coat and tells her goodbye. His unintended blinks.

“What time will you be back?”

“Not too late. Midnight?”

Right there, in the pause before the hour. A space for illicitness, wild ventures, a life obscured. Infidelities aren’t the only transgressions wearing masks.

Is she reading too much into it? Detectives are perceptive because they are motivated. If she stopped watching, the signs would disappear.

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II.

After the dishes are in the machine, her ex-husband drops by to pick up Luna. It’s Papa-weekend. The habitual move happens without tension, because Luna marvels at having two rooms; for her it’s a doubling, not a split. Femke’s marriage was of the kind that fell apart amicably.

“Bye, Mom.”

“Have fun. Don’t forget your gloves. Love you.”

Spring is late this year. Holland has been choked with cold and stormy weather for weeks.

Alone, Femke picks up her detective novel, a library book. She reads and pays close attention, only looking up from the pages to glance at the clock. It’s not enough to know what it is not.

Watch for quivers or redness in the face.

Play along and bait.

Wait for mental exhaustion.

She continues reading and stays awake in bed, so she can judge Noud’s words again when he gets home, their phrasing and tone. Femke cannot tell whether his voice carries a shadow of regret or an echo of triumph.

Ask open-ended questions.

“How’s he doing?”

The answer comes from the bathroom, “Miserable. Lonely. You remember what a divorce is like.”

Be unexpected.

“Why don’t you invite him for dinner tomorrow?”

A pause as he walks into the bedroom. He undresses.

“Being with a couple is the last thing he needs.”

The words are said with his back to her. Noud flips off the light and climbs into bed, the large bed that used to be only hers and could easily become only hers again. In the dark Femke stares at the huddled shape burrowed beside her under the covers. Once he falls asleep, she listens to his snores and imagines she can hear his secrets in the way he struggles for air.

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III.

They make love in the morning in a way that deserves the word love. It’s not a continuous thing, his affected manner. Continuous things are hard to ignore and tend to spin out of control. His odd behavior comes and goes. Often comes as the week draws to a close and usually goes in the morning.

With Luna gone, Femke feels liberated, unobserved in her observations. She eats facing Noud, both of them reading their phones and sipping coffee. She takes her time to study the man in her house, him, his clothes, what he says, what he avoids mentioning. They’ve been together for over three years and lived together for almost one.

“What’s wrong?”

This time it’s Noud who asks the question.

He’s a slim man in his late forties, fit in a frequent-runner way. Like other beautiful people, he must have studied his reflection when young, memorizing his facial expressions and the effect they have on others. During breakfast he sends her at least five different smiles, which she labels and stores in her mind. Unease. Reassurance. Appreciation. Wonder. Obligation.

It requires concentration and silence to properly see. To distinguish indicators from imaginary clues.

Be systematic, logical.

Then again, if you stare at anything for too long, it breaks apart into unrecognizable fragments.

The egg yolk runs off her knife like yellow blood. When she licks the blade, Noud smiles. Amusement.

She used to enjoy being smart, applying her smartness to improve herself, get ahead. As the guest-screener for a popular talk show, she’s a good judge of character.

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IV.

The first time his debt is over three thousand Euros. The first time she catches him, that is, about a month after she became aware of her suspicions. She opens his credit card statement and there it is, on paper. Did she open his mail by accident? It isn’t like her to do such things.

She imagines what she will say to him and tries to reserve judgment. She loves Noud, she truly does. This is a call for help. How relieved she is, though, to realize that the mortgage is in her name.

Luna stalls going to bed that night, as though she feels that the house will be damaged by grown-up matters when she does. A knot in her hair needs urgent untangling. One more sweet-dream cuddle, please. Oh, these soft little arms — do they know how they are needed?

As soon as Femke is alone with Noud, she shows him the statement.

There’s no point in denying anything. The paper details the expenses, what Noud has spent in which casinos and when. His excuses are classical. He needs the thrill, deserves the relief. His life isn’t going well, he isn’t doing what he wants, he’s speeding toward a place he has no desire to be, he has never, ever enjoyed himself. Not once.

They talk it over maturely, without bitterness. They both hold back, which, Femke supposes, is a good thing. She can see a boy shaped by deprivation.

Noud agrees it has to stop. Gambling can become an addiction, yes. It’s a progressive illness. He surrenders his credit cards to her and makes promises she wants to believe.

Then they fuck and he cries and she cradles his head against her chest.

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V.

Life goes on. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Noud and another trip to the library for Femke. This is where you go when you need advice and can’t ask anyone you actually know. It’s part of their deal, not to tell friends and family, not to tell Luna. It’s for the best.

The books disagree. The books say that addicts should not feel ashamed of their behavior.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step to overcoming it.

The books also say that addicts may lack love, understanding, or encouragement.

“Thank you for making the salad, Noud. It’s really delicious.”

Femke winks at Luna at the dinner table, hoping her daughter will chime in with praise of her own, which is unlikely. Luna hates olives and under normal circumstances, Femke would be annoyed with Noud for forgetting this. Or she would tell Luna to dump her olives onto Mama’s plate. Not now. Circumstances are no longer normal.

“Can we go look at the swans tomorrow?”

Femke showed Luna a nest on the lake the other day, and now the girl is obsessed. Addicted.

“I doubt the chicks will be out of their eggs, sweetheart.”

“Can’t we just go and see?”

Curiosity is a good thing. Right? Always.

“Sure. Maybe Noud would like to come, too.”

Does Luna hear the false note in her mother’s voice? Is that why she picks up her iPad and leaves the room, as if the space isn’t big enough for all the denials sitting between them like petulant kids?

Alone with Noud, Femke observes, deeply sees, and absorbs what is there, the flecks of energy in rays and waves casted back from every surface. From his eyes. What does addiction look like? She doesn’t want to study him, not really. She didn’t want to do it the first time either, when her suspicions remained unnamed for so long, because she hoped she could ignore them that way.

Noud doesn’t do anything to feed her suspicions and yet they grow like mold. Every night, Femke checks her bank balance. Although he doesn’t have access to her account, she doesn’t feel safe. What makes you survive in the wild, without physical strength, is paranoia.

At night, his hands are on her body. They could be the hands of a pianist, tapered fingers, wide spread. She loves seeing them slide down her legs and tries not to picture them on the green felt.

She dreams that she observes Noud through a telescope, watches how he moves through life without her. At a distance, he looks sure of himself and young, so young — she must be looking into his past, searching for clues that may predict his future.

A week later they’re at the zoo.

“Look, she’s eating out of my hand.”

Noud sits on the stone rim of a reptile confinement, one arm stretched down to feed Evi. She is eighty-seven years old and weighs over two hundred kilos. She loves lettuce, which is provided by the zoo in a bucket.

“Luna, what about you? Come closer.”

Luna doesn’t answer. She merely looks at her mother, then Noud, trying to measure the significance of what’s going on. Her worry startles Femke like a spotlight on her face. A man feeding a giant tortoise shouldn’t be a cause for alarm so it must be something else. There’s an edge to his gentleness.

The days lengthen into summer without anyone’s involvement. Sun floods the house, bringing shadows along. No holiday this year they’ve decided, not until the credit card debts are paid. Femke is relieved when Luna goes camping with her father for three weeks. Then feels guilty for her relief. How she misses those soft little arms.

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VI.

The second time she catches Noud, he has sold his share in a sailboat he once bought with friends. Standing accused, he flails like a fox in a metal-jawed trap.

“You checked my cookies?”

It had been a long shot. But yes, she’d logged on to his computer after he went to bed. No browsing history or bookmarked sites but plenty of cookies. As she copied the names and addresses, arming herself with evidence, she no longer recognized herself.

Noud barks. What does she want from him? It’s his life, his freedom, his money. They aren’t married.

After his initial indignation, he softens. He wants to be a better person. And he will be a better person if only she gives him another chance. He talks and talks as though feeling safe in his transparency. Doesn’t she agree he has it in him to be better?

Noud, apparently, believes integrity to be magical. By expressing his good intentions he will make them happen.

Their argument moves from the living room to the bedroom and back into the open, the hallway, and out onto the driveway. Accusations and recriminations. Her whispered shouts and his fists against the car’s roof.

“If you drive off now…”

She doesn’t finish her threat and goes back inside. He joins her there, and she agrees he has it in him to be better, but only after he agrees she will control his finances from here on out, also his private accounts. Or else.

She isn’t vengeful. She wants security. When they arrive at an arrangement, she believes she has won.

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VII.

Life goes on again, the days shortening from summer into fall. She is caught in what could be called a situation, unable to talk to anyone without betraying the man in her house and feeling shamed by proxy. She loves a man who loves to lose.

When Luna tells her mother that Papa will pick her up on Thursday, instead of the usual Friday, Femke is worried.

“Is there a reason why you’re spending more time with him?”

Luna rolls her eyes.

Self-help books overflow with advice on how to rebuild trust, but none of them tell you what should be done when your distrust shifts to other people in your household.

One day after work, Noud complains of a headache.

“I’m going to lie down for a while.”

His step is wary. Doesn’t match the way he is dressed, all neat and crisp and sharp. He disappears into his study and closes the door.

Femke stands in the hallway and listens, waiting for the soft creak of the daybed. Instead, she hears the computer sing its wakeup tune. Fingers on the plastic keyboard.

“What’s wrong?”

Luna’s silhouette is edged in the door frame separating the girl’s bedroom from the rest of the house. When is the last time they watched a movie together? The girl has taken on a kind of maturity, as though the world has already shown her its dark, unapologetic nature.

“Nothing.”

Femke escapes into the living room, away from the child’s observing eyes.

When you know something, she tells herself, it’s impossible not to act; if you don’t act, you don’t really know anything at all, you merely have a suspicion; acting on a suspicion is as bad as gambling.

Her misgivings, however, roam the house like a masked face, a clown laughing at the joke that is her. He has no money, so how can he gamble?

Only when Femke checks Luna’s college fund (intact) and hides her mother’s jewelry, does she understand the truth about knowing.

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VIII.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

He’s on to her being on to him, has spied the eyes that watch him. His affections don’t come and go anymore: They’re here to stay. He suggests a holiday, the three of them, the snowy Alps. Surprises her with tickets to a Beckett play. Buys her a vintage poster of Amarcord. Doesn’t wait for a special occasion to hand it to her.

Their days together end and start over, like replays of sitcoms that were barely funny the first time around.

“I love the way your hair looks today. What did you do different?”

“I’ve tinged it with gray.”

It’s not in her nature to be sarcastic.

Femke searches the house for the person she was before, before her knowing, but this woman has left no trace, as though the knowledge, unconfirmed in its formal disguise as suspicion, has always been there as a self-defining fact.

She once promised herself that three times would mean game over. Is that why she plays dumb?

Luna stops asking what’s wrong and stays in her bedroom. Her thick books seem to run in a series that goes on forever.

Femke is intrigued to learn that knowledge alone does not cure her. Does Noud know that these are their last days? He could, if he read the signs. Should, if he wants to stop whatever they have from coming to an end.

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IX.

On a day that resembles any other, Femke and Noud celebrate their fourth anniversary. When she returns home from work, he’s wearing a new tailored suit and asks her to dress up.

“I’ve arranged a sitter for Luna. We have reservations.”

Femke remembers Noud used to be romantic like this. Perhaps he is recovering, rehabilitating. She smiles, then unsmiles — she knows.

They take a taxi, so they can drink, and get out in front of a posh restaurant she knows from TV. He offers her his arm.

“It’s time you start trusting me again.”

They walk between the tables past decorative ferns. Her hand grazes their leaves, and the faint whisper of foliage brings up the fleeting image of a faraway forest.

She eats the black truffle dashi and blueberry oysters, the sweet garlic chanterelles. It all tastes fabulous. How could it not? Until he drops the bomb over champagne.

“I did it. I struck it big.”

Their future swings shut in her face.

“How? You have no — “

“My uncle. Not a huge inheritance, but I spent it well.”

A grilled tuna steak in bergamot-scallion sauce appears before her on an exquisite black plate.

“You’re gambling again.”

“No. Not gambling. Stock market.”

She slices into the tuna and takes a tentative bite. Millions of people trade stocks every day. It’s a socially acceptable addiction that can be realistically profitable.

He talks while she chews and thinks.

“I know what I’m doing. I am good at this.”

She pictures the clichés of a bigger house, a holiday on a yacht, a car for when Luna turns eighteen. Is an addiction still a flaw when it becomes beneficial? Why can she not accept Noud for who he is?

“I’m winning. And I promise: no more secrets.”

Don’t come between a hippo and the water, they say. It makes the beast livid and lethal. On that note, she’ll later tell her friends, don’t come between a man and his false promises.

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X.

After two months, in one of those cherished moments of unforced honesty, Luna will ask her mother what went wrong with the man in their house, and Femke will sit down with her on the sofa and gaze into her eyes.

“There’s a limit to the ignorance you can accept from yourself.”

Luna, nine by then, will nod knowingly.

“At least there’s that.”

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Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and currently roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2018). Her short prose appeared in TriQuarterly, Tin House, Electric Literature, Prairie Schooner, and previously in Necessary Fiction. Online she can be found at www.clairepolders.com.