Fiction · 10/27/2010

One Out Of Two

When my wife wakes, her hair a mass of tangles and her breath smelling like lighter fluid, she tells me I should consider cutting and pasting.

In the last many months she’s been speaking riddles, many of them barbed. She’s been stealing people’s mail and piling it up in her underwear drawer. Last week she went up to the attic and found her old roller skates and started circling the cul de sac. When I asked why, she said, “My past is yesterday.”

Jenny comes over one afternoon while my wife is in the backyard beating the pulp out of a tetherball she paid a workman to install. Jenny has been my wife’s divorced friend for a dozen years. She’s pretty, with elfin facial features and taffy blue eyes. Jenny likes competitions and wears clothes that are two sizes too tight.

She wants to know how I’m dealing with all this. She tells me that I’m strong and brave and puts her hand on top of mine in a motherly way, yet her fingers start to move over my skin, rubbing and tugging. I should feel flattered but I draw my hand back across the table and get up for another cup of coffee.

She tells me it’s not so bad, being on your own. “Look around,” she says, “everyone’s doing it. One out of two.”

From the sink window I have a different view of the yard. My wife has plopped down in between two overgrown geraniums while she’s busy plucking split ends. The activity always makes her look cross-eyed and I remember how when we first started dating she’d goof all the time, sending her eyes orbiting in different directions. “My mom told me if I crossed my eyes too long, they’d stay that way,” I said. “Yeah,” my soon-to-be mate said, “but you’ve got to get your own facts if you’re ever going to make it anywhere.” Remembering the scene and our stiff, teeth-bumping first kiss, I feel my stomach twist and coil and I realize that I’m sweating hard and trembling too much.

When I come back to the table Jenny says, “I can see how much pain you’re in. Everyone can. But there are places that specialize in this sort of thing. You don’t have to feel trapped, or guilty.”

I’ve been told that before. I’ve read books and been online for days and days and I know as much about Alzheimer’s as the doctors who treat it unsuccessfully. What I don’t know is how you’re supposed to sever a love that saved you from yourself, a love that helped make you a better man.

Jenny fingers her throat. She favors big, colorful rings. She says, “I’m parched,” and waits for an answer from me, but I don’t give one.

Years ago it was me, the one on the verge of destruction. Her name was Shawna. She knew a relative of Picasso. She painted and sculpted, so I got suddenly interested in the arts myself, very quickly in fact, interested enough to consider chucking my marriage and starting anew with this blonde Aussie. But Shawna did the dumping. Didn’t I know I was married, she asked? Afterward I drank lakes of Scotch and lost my job. I couldn’t stand the sun on my skin or the sight of food. The night my wife found me with a fifth of Glenn Livet and a noose in my lap, I was ready to be done with it all, but she took me to bed and rocked me like an infant. “Shh,” she whispered. “It’s okay. We all make mistakes. The important thing is we’re here, together.”

I looked at her, carefully, avidly, as one might examine unearthed treasure. She was the same woman I’d met and fallen in love with, but now I noticed: stray strands of gray hair; a new set of wrinkles creasing the right cheek; faint, downy blonde hairs like sideburns on her jaw; how her eyes had softened, still shiny but paler, having gone from navy to lavender. Yes, she had changed physically, yet her loyalty had never wavered.

Ashamed and confused, I shook my head. “I don’t get it. Why stay with me?”

She didn’t hesitate. “I made a promise — for better or worse.”

I held her hand tight so that the points of her wedding ring gently stabbed my finger where my pulse thrummed. My mouth was dry. It tasted like rocks and sand.

“I guess I expected you to leave me.”

“Is that what you want?”

It was a fair question, one I would have said yes to only a few weeks earlier. Now I realized how foolish I’d been, chasing after love when the real thing was right here all along.

“No,” I said, and there was no burn because, for once, my answer was the truth. “Actually, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“For better or worse?” she asked, her face open yet serious, not quite ready to smile.

“I promise. For better or worse.”

Now I glance over at Jenny. She’s made herself a drink, a martini, and she’s got one of the black olives that looks like an ogre’s eye in between her lips and she’s puffing through the seed hole. “Everyone has needs,” Jenny says, shifting in her chair, scooting closer. “Especially men. I know because I used to be a masseuse.”

She gets up, I guess to show me her massage skills, and doesn’t bother stopping when my wife presses her face flat against the window, looking at Jenny and I, but not really comprehending.

Jenny gives her a wave and my wife giggles through the glass and I say, “That’s enough.”

After I’ve sent Jenny home, I make my wife come sit with me on the sofa. She looks wild yet defeated, like an ostrich with its leg caught in a bear trap.

I take up a position behind her, kneading her skin along the shoulders. Her muscles are hard but I’m careful not to overdo the pressure. I use my thumbs and knuckles. I scissor soft karate chops across her blades and work her neck. When she moans a little, I get another flashback of a different time. I ask if she likes it, if I’m doing it right, and she says, “This is perfect. Please don’t ever stop.”

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Len Kuntz lives on a lake in rural Washington State with his wife, son, an eagle and three pesky beavers. His writing appears widely in print and online at such places as Vis a Tergo, Bananafish, Camroc Press Review and also at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.