“Where were you last night?”
It’s not that she cared. His absence hadn’t kept her up. She’d fallen asleep as usual to the Home Shopping Network, last chance at that dragonfly brooch for only $19.95. She’d woken with the credit card in her hand, the phone dead and lifeless beside her head. It was the uncomfortable position that woke her, not Brian’s absence.
“I had a thing,” said Brian.
“A thing? You can’t come up with anything better than that?”
Brian stopped in the middle of the bedroom and looked at her lying in bed. Her sick frame and thin hair threw the circles under her eyes into sharp relief. He shivered inside, wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. Till death do us part, just fucking hurry up already and get on with it. The nagging just made the whole thing worse.
“I know I look disgusting,” Stephanie said. “Can you at least pretend?” She didn’t really care, but the passive aggressiveness was fun.
“Stephanie,” said Brian.
“Sorry to be a bother,” she said, and rolled herself over in bed, folding the covers under her chin as she did so. Brian walked into the bathroom and closed the door.
From her spot in bed Stephanie could see the sky, the morning clouds gray and thick like old soup. It was going to be another one of those days, she thought. Long and drawn out. Light rain with a 100 percent chance of terminal illness.
Brian closed the bathroom door and stripped off his shirt. He held it to his nose and inhaled deeply. The lingering smell of Jessica triggered visions of her naked body lying over the back of that hotel room chair. He’d taken her from behind, a man on a mission, a man on a vacation from sick. It’s what he needed, he thought to himself.
He worked with Jessica on the Gillette account, the affair now in its third week. It had started innocently enough-a deep meaningful chuckle during a late-night brainstorming session. “The Best Man I Can Get,” Jessica had said, and it sent them both into a laugh that ended sixteen minutes later with a cleared desk and Brian’s pants tangled in a heap around his ankles. And now this: hotel rooms, the backs of chairs, the handcuffs Jessica brought from home.
Brian leaned over the sink, looked in the mirror, and took his chin in his hands. The stubble on his face was coarse, his neck chafed and hickeyed. He ran his fingers through his ink-black hair, pulled the ends of it tall until it stood erect through the help of his own sweat. He thought of Jessica grabbing his hair tightly between her fingers, like she was pulling it from his scalp. How he’d relished the pain, the opportunity to feel anything.
Stephanie lifted herself into a sitting position, feet dangling from the edges of the bed, listening as Brian started the shower. She reached toward a battalion of orange-tinted pill bottles lined up like soldiers on the top of her dresser. Beside the pills, seven Styrofoam cups marked with the days of the week. She grabbed Thursday, poured the pills into her hand, and pushed them into her mouth.
Her feet hunted for the pair of slippers that every evening seemed to magically work themselves under the edge of the bed. Or had she moved them? She could not remember. Slippers were her favorite part of the day. The feeling of sliding her toes into the crushed-velvet confines was warm and familiar. And like that, there they were, just where she’d left them. Stephanie stood, slippers on, and walked with a shuffle to the bedroom door. Coffee, she thought, black would be best.
Brian lowered his head and let the water flow through his hair. He watched as pools collected near his feet and journeyed toward the shower drain. He glanced up, placed one hand on the wall behind the shower as the water poured over his chest. The bathroom, this shower, was the only spot in the house where he could find relief. A little time for himself before Stephanie would be on him, the endless neediness, the subtle insults. He thought again of Jessica, her healthy skin, vibrant and luxurious hair, that thing she did with her tongue. He could feel himself getting hard and pulled back from the daydream.
Stephanie poured coffee grounds into the coffee machine on the kitchen counter. The coffeemaker that was a wedding gift so many years ago. Had it really been fifteen years? Dear God, she thought. It had all seemed so innocent back then. Possibilities endless, that kind of thing. She remembered Brian and her making love in the bathroom behind the church minutes before the wedding ceremony. How she’d lifted her white dress and how he’d been worried that someone might walk in. She could do those kinds of things back then, she could be spontaneous.
Two nights ago she’d woken up and was unable to recognize Brian sleeping in bed beside her. It was Brian, technically, but in her mind it wasn’t. Perhaps it was the man she’d seen moving into 3G? She liked him. Maybe it was the long-ago college roommate finally grabbing the opportunity to silently slip into bed beside her? So confusing, this lump in the bed. She could see it breathing. Lying there facing the far wall. Should she wrap her arms around it? Take it and let go? In the morning she wished she’d taken that silent sleeping Brian/Non-Brian and let the confusion roll on. The change, even the thought of Brian as someone else, would have been nice.
Brian couldn’t stifle the erection. Gave into it like he always did. Finished himself off to the thought of Jessica on top of him, throwing her hands behind her head as he stared up at her, watching her work. Afterward, out of the shower, in front of the mirror, he confronted the crushing reality of what he’d become.
At first, in the beginning of the “sick period,” as Stephanie called it, he was there-really there. He was the guy. The kind of guy every wife wanted when the news no one expects to hear comes rolling out of life. He hadn’t wanted it to turn out like this. He was in it for the long haul back then, and here he was, the long haul upon him and failing miserably. She hadn’t made things easy. He was raw. Unrepairable.
It was hard for Brian to pinpoint the exact time everything changed. The moment he had the realization that he was becoming this person, the man standing in front of the bathroom mirror, no longer able to love, selfish and happy about it.
And Stephanie remembered a time, a time not long after the wedding and the business in the bathroom behind the church. He’d surprised her with a trip to Rome for the honeymoon, a hotel blocks from the Coliseum. They never did see the ruins, just the inside of a hotel room, the bed sheets tangled and love-made. They only left for wine and blocks of cheese they sliced on top of blue-skied tourist magazines and a book on the Pantheon. How it seemed so certain then, the happiness of it all.
She was unsure when she’d changed. It was before the sickness, or at least she felt as though it may have been. The “Goddamn-it Brian’s,” and the imperceptible pull-aways when he reached out to touch her. Small instances. Passing each other in the kitchen, her skin crawling when he moved in for a kiss. Especially during the times she did not recognize him.
She could trace the beginning of it to a rolling of her eyes. This one simple act. She remembered how it had come out of nowhere. A party with friends and Brain talking in that way he did, all hands and theatrics. And then that old tired joke where everyone laughed and how she no longer found it funny.
Stephanie stood at the kitchen counter, her stance rickety and frail. She pulled a single mug from the cupboard and poured herself a cup of fresh coffee. She thought of Brian and how he enjoyed a simple coffee with a splash of cream, and how she was no longer willing to give even that.
Brian knew she’d had an affair, just after the diagnosis when their whole life seemed in turmoil. He’d found a bag in the trunk of her car, the car she had ordered him to “just fucking get fixed,” and then added, “Do you want me to die sooner?” This bag, brown and innocent. He’d gone into the trunk to show the mechanic the problem, one of the many problems with that car, the issue with the tail-light unfixed for years.
And there, a brown shopping bag with looped handles crumpled in the back of the trunk-lingerie, pink and most definitely used. The mechanic’s comment as Brian held the garments in his hand, “Wish my wife would get a pair of those,” and how it had taken a few moments for Brian to realize to whom those actually belonged.
In front of the mirror, razor in his hand, streaks of shaving cream down his face, he thought back to how he’d not said anything. How he hadn’t wanted to upset her during that horrible time. If that was what she needed, he thought then, who was he to say otherwise.
She’d planted the underwear on purpose. Yes, if she remembered the events correctly, that was what came next. She hadn’t the strength for a real affair then and certainly not now, but the feeling of planting that lingerie, the premeditated fashion in which she’d worn it for days before stuffing it into that bag. It had given her purpose at a time when purpose was all but gone. And he’d not said a thing, and she’d rolled her eyes then too. Brian’s sappy white-collar smile when she’d asked about the fixes on the car. And how he’d stood there, his hair a tired mess. And how Stephanie had had that feeling, that push to say horrible things, that feeling of laying into the only person you had left, and how it made her feel invincible.
And there was Stephanie’s friend, Heidi. A girlfriend, a maid of honor. Heidi was there until that day over lunch. The lunch when Stephanie had filled her in on the lingerie and the business with the trunk of the car.
“You did what?” Heidi asked, in case she hadn’t heard correctly.
“I wore them for two days beforehand,” said Stephanie, smiling.
“Are you taking your medication?” said Heidi. “You’re not thinking straight.”
“You’re not the one dying.”
And so it was, the last time she’d seen Heidi. Stephanie’s calls and emails unanswered, tear-tinged evenings in front of the TV over the loss of a friend. Stephanie unable to remember the circumstances behind Heidi’s vanishing.
“You should apologize,” said Brian.
“To who? For what?” said Stephanie.
Brian pulled on his pants, he could hear Stephanie in the kitchen, the sound of her robe dragging undone across the living room floor as she walked to the couch. He took time finding a shirt, something pressed and perfect, something Jessica would enjoy.
“I have a list,” Stephanie yelled from the living room, her voice cracking toward the end.
Brian walked into the kitchen, the living room couch visible from the sink. “You have a what?” he said.
“You heard me,” she said.
Brian walked to the couch and took the list.
Stephanie knew he had given up long ago. When was it? Probably after the runaway. “The Escape,” as Brian had called it. And how they’d found her down by the river, her clothes off and shivering. The police with the questions and how she’d told them it had been Brian. The entire story of his taking her clothes and how he’d pulled over and said, “Just get out.” And how it had all been a lie. A glorious lie with all the perfect tentacles that made a good lie great. Nearly perfect this lie, were it not for her illness and the records to prove her unreliability. The dementia that came with this whole mess like a bag of hammers. A calling card for the truth. And how, with the police in the living room, blankets wrapped around her like a cocoon, she’d seen Brian crack. His face in his hands. No more gestures. No more theatrics. No more jokes. She’d won and was happy.
And now, on the couch, Brian with the list in his hand, Stephanie remembered that day and how she’d looked at the police officers, tears in her eyes. How she had turned away from Brian and pulled the blankets tight around herself. And how, seconds later, she’d forgotten exactly what it was she had been so happy about.
Chris Tarry is a Brooklyn based fiction writer and musician. His work has appeared in The Literary Review, The G.W. Review, PANK, The Drunken Boat, Opium Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. Chris is also a three-time Juno Award winner, and one of North America’s most distinguished jazz bassists. His most recent book Rest of the Story, is a collection of short fiction and jazz album rolled into one.
“Love Story” appeared in The Rat’s Nest issue of TLR (Summer, 2011)