--WHO WAS I WHEN I USED TO CALL YOUR NAME?
…I entered a contest and wrote the story below for it. There were two judges. One called the story “amazing” and gushed quite a bit. The other not so much. She didn’t say she hated it, but she had a ton of suggestions and wanted revisions. I think I like it just the way it is.
You tell me.
My wife’s face is always bruised now, even when it’s not.
At breakfast, my eyes skim the flap of newspaper dangling in front of me as I steal a glance, seeing the swollen eggplant bruise around my wife’s right eye socket, her lip pulpy and blue-black, split in three places, her lower jaw stitched and covered with sheer gauze strips like a childish yet macabre railroad track. It’s all imagination, a latent memory triggered by today’s date, yet I hate myself nonetheless because her actual face is as beautiful now as ever.
I try not to stutter or cough or choke or cry. I reach inside of me, into my chest cavity, an invisible hand stretching fingers, tightening, forming a claw, reaching for something to tether me, to make both of us normal again, the thing we once were.
My wife forces a smile. She’s still not good at faking. She’s stiff and too erect in her chair, either a puppet master or a puppet, I’ll never know which, yet she tries hard as ever, saying, “More juice, please,” while jiggling a glass in front of her across the table.
I stand and fetch a jug and pour. I lean down and kiss the potato-white scar where her hair is parted. She sighs but does not reach for me, her hand on the glass, fingers firm, gripping it like a grenade.
“You think Jess is up,” I say, “or should I wake her?” Jess is our six year old. We’ve woken earlier than usual for a Saturday, but neither my wife nor I mentions why, even though we both know why.
“Give her another five minutes,” my wife says, a trite enough answer.
I return to my seat and sit down. I think about time, how it’s absurdly consistent, always marching, marching, marching, a dutiful soldier, unavoidable, unimpeachable, the one sure thing in life that cannot be swayed. I think: A year is three-hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. I think: It’s three hundred sixty-five days. I think: A year can be torture or bliss, and for us it’s been mostly the former, a kite tail of half-truths and voids, distrust and raw reveals. I think: A year and a day ago my wife had not been raped.
It’s our wedding anniversary today, as well as the anniversary of the night It happened. It is how we used to refer to the rape in the weeks and months afterward, in bed at night, tense and unable to sleep, or else us at counseling sessions with the therapist who had a harsh German-sounding name and intense, wolf-blue eyes that always seemed to be glaring at us. Now we never speak of It, though It permeates everything, all these days later, especially this one.
The night of It and our anniversary we’d been happy, married five years, still very much lovers as well as spouses. My wife’s mother had Jess for the night. We were eating at La Coupole, my wife’s favorite French restaurant. We’d feasted and had drunk nearly an entire bottle of wine. Giddy and loose, we loitered once our meal was finished, fictionalizing the various couples and dinner guests around us, assigning them clever and absurd identities—
“He’s an Iranian spy, but his girlfriend doesn’t know it.”
“Yes, but she’s in love with his best friend…who has is also a spy, which she does know.”
Eventually the waiter needed our table and, rather rudely, he verbally shooed us away. When the check came, I felt fuzzy-headed but signed the bill and threw the waiter a look he ignored. Climbing up the parking garage steps, we paused in the stairwell for some sloppy kissing, our hands moving as feverishly over each other’s bodies as they had when we’d first started dating. When someone passed by us, we both smoothed our hair and straightened our clothes.
My wife asked, “You remembered your card, right?” because I was always forgetting my credit card.
“Of course,” I said.
“Check to be sure.”
When I pulled out my wallet and looked, I realized I’d done it again. “Damn it.”
“You goof ball.”
“Idiot, is more like it. And the worst part is I want you so bad right now. You have no idea. I’m dying.”
“You horn dog. Go get your card and I’ll wait in the car. We could do it there if you want.”
When I kissed her hard, she bit my lower lip and gave me an alluring grin.
“Be back in a jiff,” I said, tossing her the keys while I plunged up the steps.
Since that night I’ve bounded up those stairs thousands of times, sometimes in my dreams where my legs are cement-laden and the steps hover air-born and unreachable. Sometimes I’ll be at work on my computer and the smallest thing will trigger a memory and I’ll be racing up the steps only to find they are just sets of stairs leading from one formation to another, like an Escher drawing, no door anywhere, nothing to do but keep climbing.
I’d been gone for a little over fifteen minutes. The restaurant was more crowded than when we’d first arrived, a clot of people jamming the entrance. I had to muscle my way through, warding off aspersions from patiently waiting couples. When I found my waiter, he pointed me back to the host who seemed flummoxed and handed me off to a busboy. No one could locate my credit card, until finally fifteen minutes later when a black-haired, acne-faced boy held it above his head like some rare medal he’d won.
Fifteen minutes for It to happen, for my wife to be brutally attacked, for Us to be ripped asunder.
During therapy my wife was persistently apologetic, as if It was somehow her fault. She was sorry for everything—
“I’m sorry I can’t talk about it more openly.”
“I’m sorry I get angry a lot, but when I’m not angry I feel dead and wasted, like a dry sponge, and then feeling that way makes me angry all over again.”
“I’m don’t ever want to celebrate our anniversary, no reminder. Promise me we won’t. I don’t want a card or a present or anything. I know how horrible that makes me. I’m sorry.”
I did get a card, however. It was one of those with an illustration—just a simple sketch of a cord of rope knotted together in the center—where the two inside pages are left blank. On them, I’ve written down how much I love my wife, how I will always love her, how she’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my life. When I read the words over last night they sounded juvenile, something a kid in middle school would say, but they were my words, honest ones, all of them. I didn’t write about It. I ended with—I know our future is going to be great—thinking that too was an adolescent thing to say, but meaning it nonetheless.
I’ve hidden the card in the kitchen cupboard above the sink, under the stack of plates we got all those years ago as a wedding present when we’d registered at Bed, Bath and Beyond. As I sit at the table staring at my wife’s pile of scrambled eggs that resemble orange entrails, I can almost hear the card in the cupboard, ticking like a detonated time bomb.
“I should wake Jess,” I say.
My wife glances over the top of my head, perhaps staring out the window over the kitchen sink. She never looks me in the eye anymore. When she nods in the slow, uncertain way of an aged person, a blade cuts through my chest and the air smells flat and dead again.
Jess is already awake as I enter her room. She’s reading Goosebumps and seems bored by my presence.
I want to say something funny or light, like, “What are you doing up here so late, we thought you were dead,” but that and everything else that comes to mind is anything but light or funny.
“You coming down any time soon?” I ask.
“It’s Saturday. We can do something.”
“I love you, you know.” I don’t know where this comes from, or perhaps I do, and I wish I hadn’t said it but it’s out there now, the words floating and gluey, when Jess pauses for a second and looks up and wrinkles her face and then sticks her tongue out at me, as a dam breaks, tears welling in eyes at once, so that I have to leave her room and rush to the bathroom down the hall.
Though my wife says she’d like to stay in, I convince her to go to the zoo. It’s Jess’s favorite place. She loves the giraffes--their necks and stripes and snouts, their dopey-looking ears. The majority of our visit is spent where they’re corralled.
“Daddy, can we get a pet giraffe? Maybe for my birthday?”
“I don’t think that’s legal.”
“Giraffes are supposed to be out in the wild.”
“But this isn’t the wild.”
As with her mother, I’m often at a loss with Jess. It doesn’t make me feel less intelligent or insignificant so much as it makes me feel cowardly, not knowing how to tell the truth in a convincing yet lenient enough way.
My wife says her stomach has started to give her fits. She’d like to go. Jess pouts.
“We can stop at Dairy Queen on the way home,” I say, seeing the look my wife gives me, laced with equal amounts of scorn and weariness.
“Did you not hear me?” my wife asks.
“Can I get a hot fudge sundae?” Jess asks.
We skip Dairy Queen and drive straight home. Jess heads up to her room, presumably to continue pouting and reading Goosebumps.
My wife doesn’t even bother removing her coat, just slumps onto the couch.
“Could you draw the blinds for me?”
When I try pulling the drapes shut, they catch on the left-hand corner, the way they always do, and I’m again transported back to forgetting my credit card that night, the way I had forgotten it at other restaurants so many times, and then I’m in the parking lot stairwell again, climbing steps that shrink and jilt out of the way each time I try to take one, and I have to physically shake my head in order to get the image to disappear.
“What’re you doing?” my wife says.
“You look like you’ve got wasps caught in your skull.”
I think about all the things I might say, all the lies I could spew, but I don’t say any of it. Instead I say, “Maybe I do.”
“What’s that mean?”
I want to tell her I’m sorry, that I’m the one who should be sorry. Fifteen minutes or sixteen minutes or however many minutes was too many. It was me. As much as anything or anyone, I was It.
Still, I know she doesn’t want to talk about it. We quit therapy six months back. Since then the days have all been dull thunderclouds where we dance around each other and what’s brought us to this place.
It’s suddenly hard to breathe, like I’m being held underwater with a hand gripped against the bones of my throat. I suck down a full swallow of air and hold it several seconds before exhaling, before mustering, “Hey honey, what do you think about us going out for a bit?”
My wife’s head lolls as if she has no neck muscles. “We were just out.”
“No, I mean just us, you and me.”
“What about Jess? You’re not planning on leaving her, are you?”
The way she’s said that, spitting out words in a speed I’ve not heard in over a year, makes me wonder if she intentionally left out…like you left me. You’re not planning on leaving her, are you, like you left me?
But I know she didn’t mean that, didn’t think that, it’s just my discombobulated imagination taking over again.
“We can call my mother.”
“I told you. So we can have a night out for our own.”
My wife’s hands are slunk halfway down the sleeves of her black coat so that it looks as if she has no hands at all, just fingers. She brings her hands up to her face and cups her fingers across her eyes as her chest starts to buck and heave, crying softly, trying to mute the noises.
When I say, “Hey,” she flails one of her hands in the air at me.
“Just let me have a moment.”
A moment alone, is what she means. She wants to be alone, perhaps forever.
I don’t know the right thing to do. Part of me wants to force myself on the sofa beside my wife, pry her hands away from her face and make her look me in the eye for once. Another part of me wants to walk out the door and get into the car and drive, just drive for miles, heading anywhere or nowhere.
One of the last things the therapist said was a kind of warning. He said we have to fight the desire to isolate. He told us that isolation quells fear, but it also strips away courage and any hope for resiliency. “If you put your head in the sand too many times, and for long enough, you might as well expect to choke to death on that sand.”
I walk past my wife and go into the kitchen and reach into the cupboard. As I maneuver the stack, the plate on top jostles loose and flies free, exploding loudly in the sink. I stand motionless for a moment, me leaning over the counter with my left hand holding the stack of plates and my right hand clutching the card I’d placed beneath. I expect my wife to come into the kitchen or to yell, asking what’s happened, but neither of those two things happen.
And so I take the card and carefully set the plates down. I walk back out to the living room. I tap the card against my ass as I walk, swatting wasps that aren’t there.
I notice that my wife’s in the middle of the couch and that there’s really not room for me to sit on either side of her, yet I do just that, cramming in on her left.
I say the words quick, like a dire confession I’ve been holding back for some time. “Happy Anniversary. I know what you said, and I get it, I do, but it’s our anniversary and I got you this card and wrote some dumb things in it and I want you to have it.”
I peel my wife’s fingers away from where they’re still clinging to her cheeks and brow. I force her to grip the card, molding her hands over it. When she does nothing else, I take the card myself and open the envelope and hold up the cover of the card and open it to the center page and read aloud what I’ve written.
When I’m finished, I say, “It might seem crazy, but I really believe it.”
She’s just been staring the whole time, without blinking, like a blind person, and I’m not sure if she’s heard anything, if she’s even coherent, or if she’s reliving It as I’ve done so many times, but then it’s like a frond breaking through ice, her cheeks pinking, her eyes flicking alert. She leans across and buries her face against my neck, her mouth just below my ear. I hear her breathing, feel a warm broom of air sifting through my hair.
Finally she speaks. “Do you really think so?”
I take her hand. I touch her face. I say, “I can be the man you need me to be, if you’ll let me.”
“But you are. You already are.”
“I can be better. We can be. We’re just going to have to work at it together.”
She lifts her face to me, her beautiful unblemished face. He lashes flicker. Her eyes are on mine. Then she smiles, a familiar expression I recognize.
“Okay,” she says. “Let’s start.”
“That sounds perfect,” I say.