I come home one night well after three, woozy, stumbling up the steps, and all the lights are off save the porch, which means Caroline’s in bed, wrapped in just the sheet, the comforter in a pile on the floor. My feet feel like concrete blocks, not just from the drink, and not from the hollow thud each step makes on the porch. Going inside means telling my wife I’ve cheated.
Her lips are parted, and she’s lying flat on her back. Telling her would be a whole lot easier if the sight of her repulsed me, but it doesn’t. My guilt is stage make-up for our marriage, turning us both young, as if we were still in love. It’s not even so much the way she looks, but the memories attached to her features. The way her hair is all splayed over her pillow, now, reminds me of her sprawled on a quilt in the backyard to catch a meteor shower, of the way she drank too much shiraz and passed out before a single rock disintegrated in the atmosphere.
I wonder how we got from the quilt to here. And I’m not even sure why I did it, other than being a scumbag, the kind my wife laments when her sister Beth calls with a broken heart and tears like streams. After she hangs up the phone, monthly it seems, she tells me about these assholes and she can’t believe her sister didn’t see the signs.
From Caroline’s end of the conversation: You never even went to his place? or He wouldn’t let you look at his phone? Followed inevitably by, You should have seen this coming. Like it’s always somehow Beth’s fault, and the signs are there to be seen or interpreted if one just looks with the proper frame of mind, enough scrutiny. I picture Caroline like that, inconsolable, scanning her memory for what she didn’t or couldn’t see.
I sit in the old recliner pushed to the corner of the master bedroom, the one with threadbare arms that I’ve always wanted to throw away. The one Caroline loves because it makes her feel like her father is still around, even if it’s just the idea of his ghost sitting in the chair.
When I readjust in the recliner, its springs whine. Caroline wakes up and goes, ‘What time is it?’
I go, ‘Just after three.’
‘Are you coming to bed?’
She rolls over, pulling the sheet from under her and up to her neck, smacking her lips. It’s not strange that I’m home so late, or that I’m not already in bed. I frequently can’t sleep, or I stay out late and don’t want to wake her, so I tinker in the garage sometimes and weld little nuts, bolts, old pipe fittings, and scraps of metal together into statues. In the mornings, I place the little duck or turtle or fox or whatever on the kitchen counter with a note that says Handmade by robots, and a crudely-drawn smiley face. She accepts that quirk, and the three floating shelves lined with figurines above the headboard are both testament and accusation.
‘Love you,’ she says.
I pull my shirt over my head, and consider getting into bed, waiting until morning to tell her, but I’m afraid I still smell like a stranger and this doesn’t need to be an olfactory affront.
I wonder how this will all feel tomorrow, after she knows, and everything’s changed. This is bigger than one of those arguments that gets left behind, unacknowledged until its next iteration is spurred to life by an innocuous comment or sidelong glance. And maybe we’ll try to feel normal, but it would be an illusion. We would be two people ignoring a chasm to languish in familiarity and routine. The firmament of our relationship will ripple and settle in an unfamiliar pattern that we’ll both have to navigate separately and alone.
Last winter, we went to dinner with Greg and Eva. They’d been together just as long as we had, if not longer. Caroline would get on these kicks sometimes about trying to be a normal couple. And I’d protest that just because we don’t act like they do doesn’t mean anything is wrong, even though everything was wrong. I don’t know if the wrongness was that or something else entirely. Eventually, I’d give in, go out, try to perform the way I thought she wanted.
In a little Italian bistro downtown, before we sat, they were whispering in each other’s ears, giving neck kisses like they weren’t forty.
At the table Greg held Eva’s hand. He pulled out his phone and reached across the table to show us pictures of their kids with too big sunglasses and smears of zinc on their noses, sitting together in the same oversized beach chair. Then one with both of them in the water, faces pressed together, lined with indentations from wearing goggles all day. Then a family picture, Greg in white linen pants, Eva in a billowy sun dress. All cheek bones and tanned skin and perfect teeth.
‘The boys loved Mexico,’ Eva said.
Caroline squeezed my thigh under the table. ‘I’m jealous. It looks gorgeous.’
Greg said, ‘Next time, we’re leaving the kids here.’ And they looked at each other the way husbands and wives sometimes do. ‘You should have felt the water. It’s like taking a bath.’
‘When was the last time you guys got out of the city?’ Eva said.
It had been so long I couldn’t remember. I put the glass of wine to my lips and motioned for Caroline to answer.
‘When we went out to Nova Scotia, something like four years ago, right, honey?’
‘Sounds right.’ I cleared my throat.
‘Canada! God, I love it there. Everyone’s so polite. You guys have to go somewhere warm next time.’ Eva grabbed a roll from a wicker basket and dunked it into a ramekin of seasoned olive oil. ‘The fresh ocean air like that, picturesque sunsets. It can do wonders for your health, right, Sweetie?’
Greg nodded, winked. ‘And other things.’
I pictured Eva naked, lounging in some recliner on the balcony of a resort with a backdrop of lush banana trees, a colorful sarong cast aside like a deflated rainbow on Saltillo tile. I took a long swallow of wine, trying to wash the image down my throat.
‘We both work so much. It’s tough to find time to do anything, let alone get out of the country,’ I said.
The waiter came by balancing three plates on one arm and holding the fourth in the other. He set them down in front of each person and asked if everything looked great.
‘Fantastic.’ Eva looked between both of us, her painted eye brows raised, and said, ‘Another bottle of wine?’
I downed my glass, nodded. After the waiter was gone, Greg got to work on his spaghetti, fastidiously twirling it into the bowl of a spoon. I mashed my blackened tilapia into tiny pieces with the side of my fork. Caroline, sitting with her legs crossed under the table, had kicked off her shoe and begun running her toe up and down the side of my leg.
Eva poured half of her dressing over her salad and placed the tiny pitcher on the edge of the table. ‘Without kids, you guys shouldn’t have a problem finding time to travel. It’s not like you can’t afford it.’
‘We shouldn’t, but somebody just likes to make excuses when I try to bring it up.’
The waiter came back and circled the table, refilling everyone’s glass. Caroline took a sip, then said the wine was just giving her a headache and slid her glass to me.
‘It’s all about making time, prioritizing.’ Eva forked salad into her mouth, chewed, swallowed, dabbed at her lips with a cloth napkin. ‘With the kids, it’s so hard sometimes. Adrian, he’s got martial arts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, then soccer on Mondays and Wednesdays. And Malcolm, we’re starting piano lessons early, one day a week. It’s a logistical nightmare.’ Bite. Sip. Dab. ‘Greg, though, he’s such a sweetheart. He’ll arrange for our nanny to shuttle them around, so we can have the house to ourselves at least once a month. It’s necessary. I can’t imagine if we didn’t have kids. I’d never be able to catch my breath.’ She leaned toward Greg, and he pecked her on a cheek still inflated with half-chewed lettuce.
‘Gotta make time,’ he said.
‘I know! It’s so important,’ Caroline said. ‘Sometimes John will leave work early so he can get home before me and I’ll come home to rose petals and wine and ugh it’s perfect. He knows what I like.’
I looked at her incredulously, knowing full well I hadn’t done anything like that in years, not since our fifth anniversary at least. She leaned over, and I pecked her on the cheek, forcing myself to smile and linger, to act like Greg, which is what she wanted after all. A public guilt trip. And for whatever it was worth to her, she was right. I should have done those things, but when I tried, it felt forced, disingenuous, and would inevitably turn into some kind of argument. Either I wouldn’t say the right thing, or she’d accuse me of only doing it because she wanted me to. There was no winning in that, for either one of us.
After dinner, we stood in front of the restaurant, Eva’s arm linked with Greg’s, her head resting on his shoulder. ‘We should do this more often,’ he said.
We all agreed and said goodbye, that we’ll be seeing each other soon. Caroline and I started down the street, walking in the opposite direction. She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Let’s walk downtown. It’ll be romantic.’ Her cheeks were flushed, either from the wine or the chilly night air.
She steered me across Fifth Ave, to the other side of the street and into the heart of the city. ‘They’re so pretentious,’ she said. ‘The way they go on and on about all the vacations, their kids. It’s sickening.’
‘Then why’d you drag me out here?’
‘I didn’t drag you anywhere. We need to get out of the house and do things sometimes. It’s what people do.’
‘Unhealthy is forcing yourself to spend time with people you don’t like because you think it’s something people should do.’
‘Spending time with me is that bad?’ She quickened her pace.
‘That’s not what I said.’
‘It’s what you meant.’
‘You pick apart every word I say and look for some kind of slight that isn’t there.’
She pulled away, turned back around, and said over her shoulder, ‘Can we just enjoy the night? For once.’
‘What do you think I’ve been trying to do?’
We walked together in silence, both my hands crammed into my pockets. I listened to the sounds of the city. Car horns and engines, music beating through the walls of bars.
Eventually, she looked up at me. I mouthed, I’m sorry, and pulled her close, kissed her on the top of the head. We walked that way for a while, without talking, without acknowledging that nothing was actually resolved, and it would stay that way. It’s easier, sometimes, to pretend the problem doesn’t exist than it is to tell your partner the truth, that you’ve fallen out of love maybe, and you don’t really, deep down, want to fall back.
In the room I’ve shared with Caroline for fifteen years, she’s barely moved. The air is thick and stale, which has always made it difficult to sleep. Caroline gets cold at night, so not turning on the ceiling fan is one of those little concessions I made along the way.
I decide to take a shower to wash the stink off and give me a chance to figure out how I’ll phrase the sentence that’ll finally dismantle our marriage.
After, when I’m clean on the outside, hair still wet and turning cold, maybe I’ll go to her side of the bed, naked, and grab her hand. She’ll startle awake with that confused look in her eye while her brain makes sense of the fact that it’s still dark outside and I’m waking her up. I’ll say something and, hopefully, it will be compassionate, even if it’s a terrible thing to tell anyone. She’ll blink, process, blood draining from her face while the truth of the act becomes real, spoken between two people who will never look at each other in the same way again. She’ll pull her hand from mine, ask something like, what do you mean, and I won’t say anything to that because she’ll be reeling, her brain stalling for time to digest a chunk of red-hot iron.
Then, I’ll vomit a lot of words, some true, some partially, some just rationalizations that even I won’t believe, trying to make it hurt a little less. One thing I won’t say is I’m sorry. As much as I’ll want to because it’s a thing people say when they do something bad, I won’t.
Instead, I lock myself in the garage and rifle through bins of discarded metal scraps. I weld a tiny man on wing-nut knees looking up at the sky with his hands together in supplication and write a note that says, Handmade by robots.
SPENCER LITMAN is an emerging writer in Phoenix where he lives with his wife and two smaller versions of his wife. He is an intern with Superstition Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in JMWW Journal, Ellipsis Zine, Pithead Chapel, Eunoia Review, Riggwelter, and X-R-A-Y Lit Mag.