More and more lately she said, “You hate me,” to Joe, and she said, “Why won’t you admit it? You hate everything about me,” and Joe would say, “Shell, that’s not true. Where do you get such ideas?” He’d be looking up at her from the couch, pen poised above his legal pad, this hurt look on his face, a look that was put on, it had to be put on. If Joe loved her he would want to go out to eat more often, and would not feel weird about her putting lotion on her skin, and he would in fact want to share her beauty routines with her. Joe always said he thought she was beautiful just like she was, that she was prettier without makeup, putting on an act, of course, trying to make her feel ridiculous for valuing things other than what he valued.
What Joe wanted was for her to feel petty, not pretty, and usually she did feel petty, not pretty, and would go into the bathroom and cry while he read a book or tuned his guitar. She cried as if she was trying to hide the sound from him, letting out the occasional sob that she would immediately stifle. She knew it sounded gut-wrenching the way she did that, and she would stomp the floor with her heel so that she could tell him later that she was banging her forehead against the wall.
That always made Joe feel bad, he’d get into a funk of depression and, as it always played out, she would have to apologize for being a bitch. “It’s all right,” he always said.
“No it’s not. Why do you say it’s all right when you know it’s not? You hate me. Why won’t you admit it?”
He was trying to write a book, which made everything worse, made it seem like she was trying to stop him from progressing in life, but she, too, was trying to write a book. Joe didn’t understand things like jealousy, had no sympathy for it. Joe wanted to sit around on the weekend and write for eight hours at a stretch. At first she liked that. It was their weekend ritual, to pop a bottle of champagne, drink and talk for a while, then write for twenty minutes. When Joe’s stopwatch beeped, they would refill their glasses and go at it again. After an hour she was ready to stop, but no, Joe had to keep going. “Come on, Shell, one more time,” he’d say, and she would sit in the cozy chair beside the couch and pretend to write. She’d scribble line after line of illegible nonsense. He always read his stuff afterwards, apologizing beforehand, saying, “This really sucks,” but when he read it it always sounded perfect. It was always good, and she told him so. “Really?” he would say, and just had no idea how insufferable he was. He always asked her to read her stuff too, but she was working on a novel about her experiences as a social worker in Alaska and she wanted to save it all up, not share any of it until she was finished. She didn’t want to jinx it.
Couldn’t Joe see things? She knew Joe didn’t want to have a baby with her because of all of the times she’d made him depressed for days or weeks at a time. He said there was nothing to suggest that she wouldn’t continue to keep on doing what she was doing in the future. He didn’t like that she threw her wedding ring out the door into the grass where it could not for anything be found, not even with the child’s metal detector he borrowed from a colleague, and he did not like that she threatened to leave every two or three weeks.
He was obnoxious, that’s all there was to it, a blind bastard who didn’t give a shit about her. When she threatened to leave, he got depressed. She felt bad about it, and stopped putting in her diaphragm before they had sex, which wasn’t, normally, very often anyway, but he was never one to deny her if she took the initiative. Now they had sex three or four times a week, but one day he said, after he’d already put it in, “You have your diaphragm in, don’t you?”
“Of course not,” she said. “You could feel it if I did.”
They finished, but afterwards he asked if she was trying to get pregnant.
“Something’s been hovering around us lately, haven’t you felt it?”
“Don’t try and belittle this, I’m serious.”
“Hovering,” he repeated, and she knew that he was thinking that she was stupid. He was staring off into space as if trying to figure things out, but it was an act.
“You’ve known all this time,” she said. “Don’t tell me you can’t tell the difference when I don’t have my diaphragm in.”
Joe said she could have been so close to her period that she knew she couldn’t get pregnant. Or maybe she was trying to tune in to her body, as he’d always suggested she do, tune in and know when her ovulation window was open. What Joe didn’t say, and she was glad of this, was that the “hovering” business sounded exactly like something Fred would say. Fred was their friend from Alaska. Fred had three kids, and believed in the soul business, that souls coursed the earth looking for good people to have as parents. When the soul found them, it inserted itself into the lovemaking, and presto, was reborn. Fred had visited them the month before, during which time she and Fred made love at the Ole Miss Motel after telling Joe they were off to visit Rowan Oak. Joe said later that as soon as they returned he saw the hickey on her chest, but said nothing of it because if he was Fred, if he lived with a fat hag and had unattractive children, he’d want a piece off her too. “You know I trust you and love you and that we are like this,” he said, thinking all they’d done was make out. Joe didn’t press for details, but she told him that Fred was just using her as a way to get to him, which was true, obviously. Fred was finally admitting to himself that he was gay, and had wanted to fuck Joe for the last seventeen years, as long as she and Joe had been together. “Fred was just using me as a way to get to you,” she told him, but was afraid Fred could have made her pregnant. That’s when she started up with the hot unprotected love.
Which isn’t to say she didn’t believe souls might be hovering around them, waiting to be born into the world. As soon as Fred had mentioned that to her, she believed it, and so what anyway. It was her time. Her mother had been shitty, but she would be a great mom. She didn’t care what Joe thought. He’d even said to her, after they’d talked about babies, and he seemed to be considering it as a viable thing to do, “What if she comes out like your mother?” meaning with a short trunk and narrow shoulders. “But you’re tall and graceful,” she said, to which Joe replied, “Your father is tall.”
That was a comment for which she would never, as long as she lived, forgive him. He was a sonofabitch no matter how you turned him.
And his goddamned career was growing wings and getting ready to fly. His stories were being accepted for publication in some decent journals. When the goddamned summer came around, he went off to teach writing to high-schoolers at a prestigious university in Tennessee. He acted like it was nothing, like it was a thing anybody could do, like writing poetry, which he called a recreation, likening the art of arts to playing ping pong or taking a walk. Hadn’t she told him she’d wanted to be a poet? That she’d tried writing poetry for years, but wasn’t any good at it? He should have known better than to act like poetry was nothing.
God! He was good at every goddamn thing. He was a great driver, he played chess well, tennis, Scrabble, give him a pair of tap-dance shoes and he could tap like a devil without ever having tapped before in his life. He could play every instrument ever invented, just give it to him and he would start playing it. It was nothing to him. He was a photographer, a painter, a performance video artist. And he had these beautiful feet that were always so soft and silky, even though he did nothing to make them that way.
Here while she was all scrub scrub about her feet. Why couldn’t she be more plentiful with her lotions without getting the third degree from Joe? Why did she have to be secretive about it, like this thing she did where she would fill her socks with lotion then sleep with her socks on?
Oh, and his long muscular legs, eloquent in every way imaginable. Joe’s ass was a dollop of ambrosia, she hated to say, to think, but there it was, every time she looked at it, those concave divots that she had always wanted to have on her own body, but knew she never would.
Insuffereable! Sometimes she really wished he would be knocked down a few pegs. He didn’t appreciate his gifts. It was like he had no ego at all, was not even a person, though he obviously appreciated others. One night, while falling asleep beside him, she prayed for his downfall. In her mind she said, “God, please, if you are real, make Joe suffer. He needs to understand what it’s like for those of us who try so hard but get nowhere.” She continued to beg God nightly for a week, but nothing happened other than a few stomach aches.
Then finally, they were out on a walk. They cut through somebody’s yard to enter the graveyard where William Faulkner is buried, from the backside. It was the first time they had entered the graveyard in this manner, and just as soon as they stepped into it, Joe stopped in his tracks.
“What, what is it?”
“My leg, I don’t know.”
Joe limped with her to the nearest bench and they sat for a while. They made it home, but he was in such pain. His beautiful ankles swelled up, and she could not touch him without causing him to wince. She slept on the futon in his study, so as to give him room, and when he called her at night, she brought him a casserole bowl and held it for him as he leaned over the mattress and peed into it. That was a year ago, but they’d kept up the habit of sleeping in different beds. What a horrible ordeal that was for both of them. At first he thought he had Limes Disease, but the doctors told him it was Reactionary Arthritis. A reaction to what? he asked, but they could not tell him, even after they’d taken and analyzed numerous vials of his blood.
Thank God that was over. What a strain. It took him six months to recover to where he didn’t have to take the Darvocet pain pills, and then he continued to be delicate. He couldn’t get drunk like a normal person. When Joe got drunk, he had terrible hangovers the next day, and could hardly get out of bed. The summer came around and he drove to Tennessee for his sweet teaching gig. On the first night that he was away, Seth called. “The ice has broke,” Seth said.
She didn’t know Seth from didly but he’d found her on Facebook. They had attended the same high school. He had seen her and noticed her back then, and had thought of her often, he said, ever since. She had seen him too, way back in the day, about twenty years ago, and he hadn’t left such a great impression on her. He was the guy who wore a John Deere baseball cap, flannel shirts, and work boots. “You all right with this? You want me to hang up?” he said, and he said, “If you want me to hang up I will, just give me the word.”
He chuckled. “I’m glad,” he said, and said, “I’ve been thinking about you. Isn’t Facebook wonderful?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“It is, it’s wonderful,” he said. “Without it I never would have reconnected with you.”
“My job does this to me, reduces me to Facebook. That’s how demanding it is. What I do in one hour takes everybody else at least eight hours. I swear I hate this fucking place. Joe tells me I should complete my novel while I’m at work, that Jeffrey Eugenides wrote The Virgin Suicidesthat way, but Joe doesn’t understand.”
“It’s got to be great, your novel. What’s it about?”
“My miserable life in Alaska. Joe loved Alaska, but I should never have gone. I did it for him.”
“I always wanted to go to Alaska,” Seth said.
“You’re not missing anything. Joe always told me that the people there are super nice, that they go around with bumper stickers on their cars that say Mean People Suck, but the people there are meaner than any of the people I ever met.”
“Really? I bet there’s good fishing.”
“Yeah, the salmon is delicious.”
“Like you,” Seth said.
Seth was more forward than what was appropriate, for she was married, he knew she was married, it was right there in her profile info, married, and not only that but in many of her posts she carried on about what a wonderful husband Joe was. She uploaded great photos he had taken of her, and she sometimes took photos of the awesome plates of food he fixed for her. Seth didn’t seem to care in the least. When she said that she and her husband would be driving to Tallahassee for their summer vacation just as soon as he returned from Tennessee, Seth said, “That’s great.”
Seth called every day after that first time. They talked so long on the phone that her ear ached. When Joe returned from Tennessee, he was so happy to see her. He hugged her tight for a good thirty seconds in the yard, and kissed her on top of the head, on the forehead, on the lips. He gave her a special Piggly Wiggly shirt that he’d bought in Tennessee, and generally seemed to have a new shine all about him, one that Shell attributed to his advancing career as a writer and teacher. Together they had worked on their dreams for a long time and, as everybody knew, writing was tough business. Even small advances were significantly large accomplishments when compared with other professions. She was pleased to see him so ebullient, and there was a feeling of new beginnings between them, only the very next day, before setting out on the trip to Tallahassee, Joe said, “Shell, we’re going to have a great time together, aren’t we? I hope you please don’t turn crazy on me like you do sometimes after hanging out with other people.”
“We’ll go to the beach,” she said. “That’s our special place.”
“Okay,” Joe said. “I’m trusting you,” he said, and said, “Saint George Island, here we come!” and they high-fived.
She thought of the last time they’d gone to the beach. That was fucking great. She remembered carrying all the stuff out on the sand while he marched ahead of her in the tight fitting, European style swimming suit he’d bought that day from K-Mart. He looked like a god in the sun. And what was she? His pack mule? He laid his towel out and went stomach-down and cracked his book, but she stepped on some burrs. That really annoyed him, she could tell. He gestured for her to stop playing around and hurry on over with the beach umbrella, but she couldn’t walk with the burrs stuck in her toes, so she sat down in the sand. When he saw that, he ran over there and pulled the burrs out for her. “Ow,” she said each time he plucked one out. When he was finished he ran his tongue underneath her toes and soothed them.
It was a great day for driving, tons of sun. She wore long sleeves to keep the sun off her arms, and used a towel to protect her hands and knees. She wasn’t stupid like ninety-nine point nine percent of the women she knew. She was fully aware that the sun made women look old. The sun, in fact, was her biggest enemy. She fought it, and that was why her skin was uncommonly pale, and why she looked ten years younger than she really was.
Of course, when he saw her covering herself, he realized that the sun was burning cancer into his own arms, and said, “Damn, I forgot to bring a long sleeve shirt.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” she said.
“You thought of it. Why didn’t you mention it before we left the house?”
“I didn’t think of it.”
“You thought of it for yourself though.”
“Let’s change the subject,” she said, and stared out the windows at the bluffs seared golden by the summer sun. Soon they were approaching Tupelo, and they passed so many ramshackle houses, little roadside stands where people sold whatever they could, boiled peanuts, homemade dolls, model airplanes made out of beer cans, or their old clothes. It was all poverty everywhere you looked. These were not things she wanted to be associated with, but she knew that she’d come from what people generally call poor white trash. She was, in fact, a seventh generation Floridian and, of course, Joe always had to remind her of the fact, always acting like it was a good thing. Well, fuck him, and fuck his teasing her about her “bumpkin” feet. He thought it was real funny, didn’t he, that her toes did not even touch the ground when she stood erect in a standing position? Her feet were “padded” is why, that’s what he said, padded. And he really thought it was funny, didn’t he, that she could not squat without falling backwards onto her back. What a total jerk!
They stopped at a Dairy Queen in a little Alabama town called Grutcher. They went in and peed, and then he was asking her what he should get. He just wanted coffee was all he wanted, he said, but there were so many kinds, like this Cold Coffee Latte Blast thing that he said looked delicious in the picture. “Do you think I should get it?” he said.
It was about the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen, but what was he? Some kind of moron. “Sure,” she said.
And he ordered it. They went out to the car and he started driving again, and he sucked some of his Cold Coffee Latte Blast through a straw and said, “Oh my gosh, this is like, how can they do a thing like this? I should’ve ordered regular coffee. Can anybody really drink anything this sweet?”
“Only a fool would order it,” she said.
“Really? Why did you say I should order it then?”
“You order what you want. Don’t you know what you want?”
“But you recommended it, didn’t you?”
“I never drank one. I’m not stupid. How would I know?”
That was the first of it, the letting out of it, the not caring what he thought about any goddamned thing in the world, fuck him. He sat over there driving and pouting, but fuck him, to hell with him. She was not responsible for how he felt. He needed to realize what a sonofabitch he was anyway, he really did. He pouted for she didn’t know how long, but then seemed to be feeling better, and he told her a story about how when he was six years old he saw his brother on stage at the elementary school he attended as a child. His older brother was dancing with a bunch of the other students to some music, and Joe started screaming his brother’s name out because he was just so happy to see his brother up there being a star, dancing, kicking his legs and whirling around like a famous person.
“God, what a jerk,” she said.
“What a total jerk you were.”
“I was six, or maybe I was five. I was very young.”
That all caused him to start pouting again, the little bitch. It had felt really good to say that to him, and the closer they got to Tallahassee, the stronger she felt.
When finally they pulled off the highway and entered Tallahassee, there were just trees everywhere, it was like a jungle compared to Mississippi. Already she could breathe better. All that Spanish moss hanging down from the oaks, the flowers, the bushes, it was refreshing, refreshed her, the sights, the people, what a relief. She had grown up in Tallahassee, this was her home. He’d once tried to get her to go to Korea with him so he could teach English to Koreans. She’d gotten a passport and everything. They were set to go, but she finally said no, she wouldn’t do it, so he called the whole thing off. This, this place, Tallahassee, it was her home. She should never have gone with him to Alaska. Or, for that matter, Mississippi.
He drove her to his mother’s fancy two-story house on the outskirts of town. The house had all these angular shapes, and was very artistic as a house. His mother and her husband Ray were in Mexico at the time, which was a good thing. They had the house to themselves. They went to sleep in the upstairs bedroom, and in the morning, Joe, all hyped up about completing his novel, started typing in the sunroom that was right next to the kitchen. When she came down for coffee, “Good morning!” he shouted.
“I’m going shopping with Melinda today,” she said, and drank some coffee, hugged him goodbye, and drove to the Publix parking lot, where she called Seth. Seth said come on over. She studied the MapQuest printout she’d made the week before while at work, and drove there. The house was modest, in a modest neighborhood, but the mother had money. Seth had been in prison for two years. That was for buying cocaine from an undercover officer of the law. Since then he’d gotten his life together. That’s how she understood it, though he had nine-year-old daughter who lived with the mother—those were the basic Seth facts. She parked, went up and knocked, the door opened, there he was. She hadn’t seen him in over twenty years, but he still wore the John Deere cap that she had seen him in before. He had spruced himself up for her, she imagined, and that was why he wore the fancy jeans and cowboy boots. She could smell his cologne. It was cheap, nothing like the nice Burberry she’d bought for Joe.
The thought of cologne alone made her upset, though she loved cologne. Joe, stupid Joe, had run his hands through a neighbor’s trash pile and had brought home several colognes that he fully intended to use one day, he said. She threw that shit away, and suffered the consequences. When Joe found out, he railed her, so she bought him the Burberry. What Seth wore, actually, smelled like the colognes she’d thrown out, but this was no moment for details. Here was the man who’d been telling her she was great and beautiful and that she looked delicious. His hair was dyed gold and he obviously had veneers on his teeth and there were deep wrinkles in his forehead and he was a tad hunched in the frame such as very old men are, but all in all he wasn’t half bad. When he saw her on his stoop he said, “My oh my.”
For the next four days, Shell got up early, told Joe she was going shopping, or that she would be spending time with her mother. Instead she drove to Seth’s. On the fifth night it got late while she was at Seth’s, so stayed with him in his bed, and yes, they did everything together. It was fun, all this, it was like a movie, and now and then she thought of Joe and giggled. By now he had called all the hospitals to see if she had been checked in for being in an accident or something, that’s how he was, he worried about her. She had plenty of excuses though, the main one being that she got drunk with Melinda. He didn’t want her driving drunk, did he? She knew Joe was going out of his mind.
That morning Shell woke to the smell of breakfast. She dressed and went to the kitchen where Seth stood by the stove. The pan in front of him was filled with eggs that he was frying sunny side up. Eggs were one of the few foods she deplored, but she saw the bacon laid out on some paper towels, and said, “Oh, bacon, my favorite.”
Seth turned. “There you are,” he said, and went over to her and hugged her, still holding the spatula. She wanted to tell him that she hated eggs, but decided to save that little tidbit about herself for later. She ate one yucky egg to be polite, and said she was too full to eat the other two eggs he’d put on her plate. Other than the egg, the breakfast was delicious—bacon, and coffee, and English Muffins with Philadelphia cream cheese and strawberry preserves.
She hung around with Seth late into the morning, then drove to Joe’s mother’s house, where Joe hyperventilated upstairs in bed. He’d probably been up and about, she thought, until he heard her car pull up the drive. That’s when he probably ran up there to try and make himself look pathetic. She sat beside him on the bed and shook him, and he turned over to face her, but would not look her in the eyes. “I was too drunk to drive,” she said. “You didn’t want me driving home drunk did you?”
He was breathing so fast.
“What’s wrong with you?” she said. “Why are you hyperventilating?”
“I feel so relieved,” he said. “I’m so glad you’re back. I didn’t know what could have happened to you.”
“I told you, Silly.”
“Next time leave the phone so that you can call me to let me know you’re okay. I should have activated the TracFone, but you said we wouldn’t need it.”
“Look at me,” she said.
“I don’t know. I want to. I’m trying, but my eyes won’t do it.”
“Because you hate me,” she said.
“That’s the only reason I can think of as to why you wouldn’t look at me.”
“I don’t understand why you’re suddenly so mean to me.”
“Never mind,” he said.
“No, I heard you you sonofabitch! You just said that I was mean to you when all I have done for the last seventeen years is accommodate to your every little prince whim!”
“I’m not feeling good,” he said. “I feel as if I am dying.”
“That’s because you’re a goddamned persnickety little prince! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, saying a thing like that to me.”
“I just wanted to spend some time with you on our vacation, but you keep going shopping.”
“Oh, I wonder why?” she said. “Could it maybe be that the person I live with is a sadistic asshole? I don’t have to stand for this,” she said. “I’m going out. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
She started to leave the room, but Joe said, “Shell?”
“What?” she said.
“Could you please leave your phone?”
“So that if you need to call me you can let me know that you’re okay. I haven’t slept. I had a bad night. I might be able to call Mallory if you leave your phone. He can pick me up and we can do something. I feel as if I’m suffocating. The mold is giving me headaches.”
The phone rang. She opened the phone, looked at the number. “It’s my brother,” she said, “calling to talk about the dinner I’ll be cooking for them tonight.” She pressed green and said, “Hello,” and left the room so that she and Seth could talk in private. When she went back upstairs, Joe was doing the usual.
But she left Joe her phone, whatever. She drove to Seth’s and a few hours later Seth gets a message on his answering service. Seth played it for her on the speaker phone. It said: “Yes, uhm, this is a message for Shell. Could you please have her call me? I’d really appreciate it.”
“Aw, God, that fucking asshole,” she said.
“I guess he looked at your calls, babes.”
“He invaded my privacy, just as he always does. You have no idea what it’s like living with him. He just walks into the bathroom when the door is closed. Don’t you think closed doors ought to mean something to somebody?”
“Yeah, but you know, with phones, if he’s just trying to look for a number he’ll come across it. Did you type my name into your phone?”
“Of course I did.”
“That explains it. Close your eyes, hold out your hand.” Shell did that. Seth placed something in her palm. When she lifted her lids to the tacky thing, a steel bracelet featuring two interlocking skulls, she was genuinely delighted. Seth wore one on his own wrist, and though the bracelets were cheap, the symbolism excited her. Shell kissed Seth’s mouth whose lips were thinner than her own, what a relief—she was just so sick of her husband’s luxurious lips—and drove back to the mother’s house.
Shell really liked Joe’s mother. Lately the mother had been giving her lots of her old jewelry, just wonderful stuff that she sent through the mail, like this beautiful red pin of baked enamel, what had belonged to her own mother, or most recently a silver peace necklace that she had worn to Vietnam War protests during the sixties. The mother had left the necklace on the counter for her before driving to Mexico, along with a heartfelt note that began, “Mi Hija.” In all the emails Joe’s mother sent, she always started off by calling her “Mi Hija,” which she loved. Mi Hija. My Daughter. It was a hell of a lot more than her mother ever did for her. On her mother’s Facebook page she’d listed her brother as one of her children, but there was no mention of her. Her mother had accused her of wanting to act like she didn’t have a mother, but what about her! Her mother was a cruel bitch, had always told her that no man in his right mind would ever marry her. Her mother had wanted her to feel bad all her life, had wanted her to depend on her, that was painfully obvious, and her mother had wanted her to feel guilty, too, for not coming home from school when her little brother died of Leukemia. Her mother had once come over to their house when she and Joe lived in the shack in Tallahassee. She knocked, but Shell wouldn’t answer. Her mother knew she was home, so, out there on the porch, said, “I just wish you had died instead of Beaux.”
Joe was in the sunroom on the couch, his beautiful hair framing his face to where his brown eyes really stood out. He was looking right at her. She said, “Well, I got your message, and I really don’t appreciate having to come home like this.”
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Joe said. “Who’s Seth? Is that who you were talking to when you were pretending to talk to your brother this morning?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” she said.
“I called Quinn. He said he didn’t expect you until six.”
“You called him? What did you say?”
“I asked if you were there. That’s all.”
“Oh my God! Now I’m going to have to be worried all the while when I’m cooking them dinner tonight, I can’t believe this! I can’t believe you would do such an awful thing to me. That’s really cruel, you know.”
“Shell,” he said.
She looked at him. “What?”
“Who is Seth?”
“What, did you look at my calls? How dare you?”
“It was right there.”
“Well, why should I tell you anything? You won’t even look at me.”
“I’m looking at you now,” he said.
“I can’t believe you checked my calls,” she said.
“I’m looking at you now,” he repeated. “I’m looking right at you. I’m looking into your eyes.”
“And you called Quinn. Now I’m going to have to be like—I can’t believe this! I have to cook for them in an hour from now. It’s all going to be messed up because of you. I can’t believe you did this to me!”
“That’s a nice bracelet,” Joe said.
She held it up and looked at it. “Oh that,” she said, and said, “Yeah, I never wore it because you hate my jewelry.”
“You know I love your jewelry, I’ve always told you so.”
“Kathy sent it to me from Alaska,” she said. “It’s our little inside joke. We always used to play good cop, bad cop whenever we did a children services visit. It’s nothing you would understand.”
“Well, it looks good on you. I like it.”
“I would have worn it long ago, but I thought you would think it was cheap.”
“You know I like cheap things.”
“What did Quinn say?”
“I told you, I didn’t tell him anything. He just acted confused as to why I would be calling when you weren’t even there. I just told him that I misunderstood.”
“I can’t believe this,” she said.
“Who’s Seth? Tell me what’s going on so I know. Are you leaving me for him?”
“No,” she said, and said, “I don’t know. He contacted me on Facebook. I know him from a long time ago, from school. I never actually spoke to him back then, but I saw him.”
“Did you fuck him?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“None of my business?”
“You fucked that bitch Nicole in Alaska!”
“That’s not true.”
“Well, she said you did.”
“She lied, but I should have. That would have been better. That was when I was there alone. That was our agreement, right? That when we weren’t living together something like that might be acceptable? Just like you had an affair with Fabrício.”
“Affair? That wasn’t an affair. That was a one night stand.”
“Why don’t you tell me about this guy so that I can at least feel safe about you?”
“I don’t have to tell you shit, motherfucker!”
“Are you trying to get pregnant?”
“We took precautions. I admit that what I did was bold.”
“I don’t have to answer to you. You won’t even look me in the eyes.”
“Okay,” he said, and told her that the dinner she would cook tonight for her brother and his family would be the best, because everything she ever cooked was always the best. When she drove away, she looked in the rearview mirror and saw his face again, staring after her through the upstairs window.
Now that he knew, she just wanted to forget her whole life with him and oh, he tried plenty to share his experience with her, to tell her all about how he was suffering, but he didn’t know what it was like to live with a cruel bitch mother, did he? He did not know what it was like to lose a brother to Leukemia, did he? It was her time, goddamnit, so fuck him! Whenever he started in, saying stuff like I feel like I’m dying or This house feels like a tomb, she started enumerating for him all the things she hated about him. She hated that he would wink at her. She hated that damned wink. He did it when he wanted her to shutup. She’d be talking and he would wink. And his shins that were sharp enough to cut garlic with. He always wanted to like wrap his leg around her at night, but no woman in the world would stand for that. She hated that he’d proved to her that she was actually five foot six instead of five foot seven, taking out a tape measure and everything. Here when all the while she’d thought she was five foot seven. It really gave him some pleasure, didn’t it? Popping her bubble like that? She hated that his eyelashes were so long, and she especially hated his big lips that seemed made for kissing, these beautifully-shaped little red pillows. There were so many things about him that she hated, in fact, so many ways that she had gotten the short end of the stick in their relationship, that she could talk on and on about it without having to repeat material. Whenever he tried talking about himself, her list of stuff shut him up. Now that she was coming out of her shell, she found that she enjoyed telling him what she thought. He was a selfish bedraggled scarecrow of a man and he was going to be so lost without her. Soon he would realize what a great thing he’d had. He’d blown it. He would not be able, ever, to look in the mirror because he would know that he was a sonofabitch to end all sonofabitches.
The last day of their vacation arrived, and Joe spent the night cleaning his mother’s house. Shell had come home early, at about eight o’clock after eating a delightful dinner with Seth. She’d thought she would help Joe set the house in order, that that was something they could do together, but Joe said don’t worry about it, that he would do it. When she protested Joe said she might wash the few dishes in the sink, and the pan he’d burned some tofu in. So she washed the dishes in the sink and felt like she was helping. She scrubbed out the pan, rinsed it, but he came into the kitchen and saw the blackened scrubber. She knew what he was thinking: now my mother will come home from Mexico to find a blackened scrubber. She could have run hot water into the pan and scraped it with a spatula, she supposed, before running the scrubber into it. She’d tried to help. Nothing was good enough for him. He was a prince. She went upstairs, went through her beauty routine, and went to bed.
That morning, when he’d finally packed the car and they were good to go, he peeled out of the garage and down the driveway in reverse at the most spectacular speed. “You’re driving way too fast,” she said as he approached the stop sign cattycorner to the house. It was the same spot from where she’d seen his face staring out the window after her each time she left the house to be with Seth.
“I had to get away,” he said. “I’ll never set foot in that house again.”
He drove off extra slow and thoughtful from the stop sign and then they were on Interstate 10. He was giving her the silent treatment.
“Okay,” she said after about an hour. “I think it’s time we talk about how we are going to redefine our relationship.”
He winked at her, and said, “Oh shit, I winked, sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“You want me to shutup,” she said.
“No, when I wink it means right on, I’m acknowledging you.”
“That’s a laugh,” she said. “The only thing you acknowledge about me is that you think my pants are too tight. You say I tricked you into marrying me. You don’t like it when I put on lotion. I stomp my feet too loud on the floor when I’m just walking in the house, I wash the dishes the wrong way, you hate me, you can’t stand me.”
“Enough,” he said. “I’m not going to argue with you. The mode of the day is peace and tranquility. It’s the only way we’re going to get back to Oxford.”
“Oh, the prince speaks,” she said.
He slowed down as if he was going to turn back.
“Okay, fine,” she said, “but I want you to stop at the next McDonald’s. I’m hungry.”
“Of course,” he said, and stopped at the next McDonald’s where she bought a quarter pounder with cheese, a medium fries and a root beer. He stopped again later for her to get some lunch. He ate nothing. That night, when they were back at the house, he ate nothing. He’d started smoking again in Tallahassee after a full year of not smoking. He’d had to quit due to his Reactionary Arthritis condition, a thing that she still felt bad about because she’d prayed for him to suffer all that week and into the next one until it finally stuck him. She couldn’t say for sure if there was a connection, but still, it was freaky. Now he smoked cigarettes freely on the porch, good. In bed, the two of them on the futon in his study, he couldn’t sleep, so she gave him a hand job. She enjoyed doing this for him, she always had. His come was always tasty, it was vegetarian come, but sometimes it was a little bitter, salty, or overly sweet depending on his mood and what he’d been eating. Tonight she didn’t put her mouth on because she had sores in it from what she had done with Seth. She tasted it off her finger. It was a little watery.
He didn’t sleep. In the morning he made her coffee, and when she returned from work after five, she could tell that he hadn’t eaten anything still. The crescents below his eyes were filled with darkness. He smiled when she walked in the door, but he didn’t mean it. His smile was a mockery of happiness, his face etched with pain. His expression reminded her of a school photograph of him when he was a darling little boy, before he’d been poisoned by whatever had poisoned him and made him into such a jerk. In that picture, taken when he was in the first grade, Joe wore a slippery-looking blue turtleneck that held his face up in what would have been a proud posture if not for the humiliation and sadness brimming in his eyes, this very real child’s pain punctuated by the forced smile of his oh-so-adorable mouth. He’d been ruthlessly picked on in school, and his parents had neglected him. In the picture he looked so helpless, so pure, him with his ridiculous bowl cut. Just thinking of the picture made her feel something in her womb. How she had wanted a boy just like that, that very one, or better yet, an hija with the same qualities. Joe told her that each year at picture time they gave each kid a comb and the kids all stood in line combing their hair before taking a seat in front of the camera.
Shell would have loved to stand in a line combing her hair with other kids while waiting to take a seat in front of a camera, but unfortunately for her she was home-schooled by her cruel bitch mother, during which time the woman was free to be as big of a bitch as she wanted. Whenever the “short bus” passed the house, the faces of the mentally handicapped people staring through the glass windows at their yard, her mother would say, “See there? If you were not being home-schooled, that’s the bus you would be on.”
Joe wasn’t hungry. He said he’d tried eating, it didn’t feel right, but he cooked a pot of rice that night that came out perfect as it always came out perfect. Joe could not cook rice wrong. Joe’s rice was always right, and he acted like it was nothing, like all he did was read the instructions on the bag, but she’d seen him. Joe didn’t even measure the water out, or the rice. He just dumped the stuff in there without even looking at it hardly, and it always came out perfect.
The next day, Saturday, she was off work. On the refrigerator grate a bottle of champagne waited, a reminder of the days when they would top their flutes and write short stories to the machinations of the stopwatch Joe found one day while they’d walked up Perseverance Trail in Alaska, holding hands. For some reason Joe always found cool stuff.
“Do you want to write stories?” he asked.
“You know I don’t.”
“What do you wanna do?”
“Let’s just drink.”
They sat on the couch and drank. While they drank they decided it was time to divorce. He toasted her, saying, “Here’s to your unending happiness, Shell. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you. I want you to be happy, and to live a rich and fulfilling life that’s full of successes and joy.”
Her eyes watered up. Tears dripped down her face. She knocked glasses with him and drank and she toasted his happiness too. She loved him, she knew she loved him, goddamnit, she did, but he was not going to ever want to have a baby with her. Even if he did say now that he wanted a baby with her, it would just be another case of her bullying him into doing something he didn’t want to do, like it was with their marriage. She could not count the times he’d been out of commission for days, weeks even, just depressed in the bed as a direct result of her behavior, of her way of talking to him. Something inside her opened and she understood that this was the only way to let him go, to save him just as he had saved her from her cruel bitch mother who’d called her “retarded” on a regular basis. His biggest fear, she knew because she knew him, was that with a child between them he would have no way to protect the child whenever she “started her stuff”—horror of all horrors. This feeling of making a sacrifice, of trying to save him from what he perceived as her cruelty, was fleeting. The last tender space inside her soon would close. It would shut forever.
Strange—now that they’d decided on the divorce, no going back, she felt giggly. They talked of old times and laughed and were having fun, and none of this was about babies. There was more to life than babies. She was not so shallow as to allow a divorce because of a baby that hadn’t even been born yet. You could not pin her with the idea of a biological clock running out of seconds. Nevertheless if she thought of babies it made her mad because if she was to have one it had to be his, only his. Nobody in the world was like him. Nobody would act retarded on purpose such as he had one day when they were first going out. They’d gone to an art show at the Civic Center and he went over and sat with a group of retarded adults, acting as if he were one of them, and he rocked and smiled weirdly and made noises and all the other retarded people loved him and took him as one of them. It didn’t seem like an act at all, and she’d felt awkward being suddenly alienated this way by her date. He was at it for twenty minutes, at least. All she could do was watch him uncomfortably from the other side of the room. She even saw him drool, and when the chaperone arrived to take the retarded people to another place, he got up with them and started to leave. She’d felt a sudden panic inside that he was going to now disappear from her life. She called out to him with her heart and he’d seemed to hear because he turned to look at her, his face registering a dreamy sort of cognizance that he belonged to her, not to them. He started to leave the group, but the chaperone grabbed his arm and said, “Oh no you don’t.” He was so good at acting retarded that he fooled even the chaperone! It wasn’t funny at the time, but now she was laughing about it uncontrollably.
An hour later she hated his guts again. She said she was driving to the store to buy dental floss. He said, “All I ask is that you stop lying to me, that you give me this dignity until you are ready to leave.”
His mother’s hija agreed, but once back from the store, an hour later, he asked if she called Seth. “No,” she said. She said, “I walked all over the store, buying you ice-cream sandwiches and thinking about what I could do to make you happy. Then I looked at magazines, afraid to come home because of how crazy you are.”
“You didn’t call him?”
“Let me look at your phone,” he said, and reached for her purse.
“Why not? You just said you didn’t call him. Now’s your chance to prove it.”
“You’re not looking at my phone.”
“Goddamnit!” he said, and stood up from the couch. She was afraid. He looked angry, like he could hit her. He said, “If you can’t stop lying to me, get the fuck out of my life!”
“What, just leave? What about my job?”
“Get a motel. I told you what I wouldn’t stand for. I have to think about myself now.”
She thought of Seth. “Okay,” she said.
“I’m going to the bar,” he said.
“How long are you going to be gone?”
“As long as I want to be gone. I live here,” he said, and she followed him onto the porch, and stared at him as he walked to his car, hoping he wouldn’t do it, please, don’t do it, but he opened the door and climbed in. She watched him drive away, but it wasn’t only him driving away, it was her dream and her memories and hopes. Somehow her childhood was in there too, and the helpless horror of trying to stop time as her little brother’s condition worsened to the point of no return. And her hija.
Shell watched until he was completely out of sight then threw her clothes and jewelry into her Saturn and drove back to Florida, to Seth, whom she would marry a year later. She called her boss Sunday afternoon and said that she was a victim of domestic violence. Her boss urged her to call the police, and told her not to worry about quitting her job, that she would write her an excellent recommendation.