As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
We’re getting ready for bed. I’m already in my nightgown and socks, in my blue silk bathrobe with the embossed pink blooms on the sides, drinking down a mug of golden milk while he paces back and forth like he used to when he was on a conference call or just on hold. The nights have been getting longer, the days shorter, which makes more time for sleeping and less for being awake. At this point, it’s been dark out for a while.
I say something about the time and he replies, “I cannot sleep in this lifeless room, I can’t, I can’t. I won’t. You can’t make me.” Earlier, when I was making the bed, he draped an old scrappy sheet over the picture at the head of the room, redacting the only decorative thing in here. When exposed, the oil painting shows the naked backside of a plumpish pear-shaped woman who’s wading up to her knees in water, ringed by concentric ripples, her blurry front reflected into the water below. Now it’s just a square of limp drab rag, like a covered mirror after somebody’s died. This afternoon he told me the room needed a tropical fish tank, and just before that he said our kitchen table needed to be replaced by a Kotatsu; the low set table would ease our digestion, give the illusion of higher ceilings. I shift a bedside table around a little bit, but moving furniture does not really change how things are, so he stampedes through the kitchen then out the back screen door towards the pond.
Things have been going on like this for about two weeks, though he returned about a month ago. According to the certified letter that arrived in the mail a few days before his return, the “participant” had been sent on a confidential mission. It claimed there had been an incident, a collision, receptors ruptured in the cerebral cortex. It didn’t say if he’d been in a car, on a plane, in a toboggan; there was no way of knowing what he’d hit or if something had hit him.
The first two weeks home he mostly sat or lied down, looked at the wall, lost weight. When I asked if he wanted soup, he’d look at me like I was a stranger. He’d look at the bowl and think: spoon. When I asked how he felt he’d say “How I want to be is dead.” Food tasted like dirt. Water left a sour taste in his mouth. The doctors said this would pass; as the patient got stronger a new energy would come. They predicted some symptoms, did examinations, determined that the cognitive changes were unlikely to result in any future liability—so he could be sent home. In short, the symptoms were considered moderate but manageable. The letter concluded with “sincerest apologies” and a check with a bunch of zeros was enclosed for the inconvenience.
I walk out to the pond to see if I can get him to come in for bed. The pond is in the middle of our backyard, a wet surface surrounded by grass, but at night when it’s overcast like it is now, the water looks more like an abysmal hole than it does a hole that’s been filled. “Ready for sleep?” I ask the grass. The half-frozen blades hardly whisper, are silent and rigid under the weight of the frost. He’s walked around the pond and I see him there across the water, bent over, an undefined curved shape with gnarly joints. My husband with the sulking silhouette of a prehistoric bird, cawing like a siren. Calling out alarming sounds with wet resonant vowels. He’s been forgetting his tantrums in the middle of having them, which makes things easier, at least for me.
This cawing, which started just a few days ago, is just one of the radical changes. There have been the late-night walks, reckless pacing, abrupt shifts in mood. He’s started to get little drops of pee on the edges of the toilet bowl in places that look hard for pee to reach. For the first eighteen years of our marriage he sat when he peed—it gave him more time to relax, he said, an opportunity to catch up on the news. He’d wake up to the first alarm, shower, shave, put his suit on, drink a cup of coffee, grab a muffin for his commute, go to work. In the summer when I was making him dinner he’d come home and feed the trout in the pond, he considered them our pets. Pets are children for people who never had children, and we are people who never had children. He’d feed those fish like they were his to keep alive, though, unlike real children, they could fend for themselves.
About a year ago he said the work routine was making him restless, so he signed up for a covert organization with some sort of initiative. He was called to go away and perform a kind of service, which is when the accident happened. Ever since, he’s given up the suit, is always in mismatched pajamas or loungewear. His socks match less frequently than they did when he really loved me and when he loved me he used to pull me out of bed Saturday mornings, get me naked, put me outside in the grass and kiss me. I’m no longer sure what it is we talk about; I’m no longer sure what it is we’re doing.
Figuring I can try to coax him with a cold Yoo-hoo, I go inside to get the drink. When I get back out he’s sitting cross-legged next to a bowl beside the cattails with a big rainbow trout in his lap. Who knows how he got the fish out of the water. He’s always been determined when it comes to getting what he wants. In his left hand he has a pocket knife and he’s skinning the trout, which looks dead because it is a fish out of water but not because it’s dead yet. It’s somewhere in the middle of dying, based on its movements, which are subtle and conflicted.
My husband collects the takeaways of silver scales in a mixing bowl that’s all scratched up from when someone didn’t use the proper implement which anyone’s mother would have told them was a silicone spatula. Cutting away at the body, the fish makes gasping sounds in my mind though on his lap it makes no sound at all. The knife grazes around the gelled eyeball. The eyeball looks like an uncooked egg. “What are you doing?” I gently ask as I approach him, ready to present the Yoo-hoo, exploring my periphery for a sharp stick that I can stab the fish to death with later.
“I’M STARTING A LIP GLOSS COMPANY,” he shouts and pushes me away as he furiously scrapes the knife against the scales on the trout’s flat side.
Years ago we watched a documentary on cosmetics, how sparkles and sheen are manufactured from underwater animals and fish, which grow a unique kind of crystal that isn’t formed like a prism, but rather like plates. The fish are harvested for the pearlescent quality of their scales. I think this is what he is referencing, loosely, because I know my husband, that’s why he’s my husband, who’s in no shape to start any sort of company, let alone right now in the middle of the night.
“Do you want a Yoo-hoo?” I keep my distance, hold the bottle out with one hand. I slap a mosquito on my arm and my husband looks at me suspiciously. A bit of my blood comes out of the dead bug.
“I’m looking for luminescence,” he says, but the word luminescence is long and drawn out like it’s being said by a mean cartoon snake. He asks, “What are you looking for?” still cutting away. I look down at what is dying. The fish is half-living proof that when it comes down to it, pets are not the same as real children, as much as some adults might try to pretend.
“I’m looking for my husband,” I answer.
He keeps shucking. He looks like a replica of a man in a museum terrarium, I think, a reenactment, like he’s demonstrating what men once did with fish in history. This is exhausting. Leave it to the medical system to declare our living situation tolerable. I twist off the Yoo-hoo cap while walking back inside, chugging the original chocolate flavor. I brush the drink off my teeth and go to bed. I put myself in the middle of our mattress because if he decides to come in he won’t remember which side was once his anyway, which means that now both sides are mine. I sink into the mattress because it’s that foam kind of mattress that adheres to form, sprawl out as best as I can, with a leg and arm reaching towards every corner. Like a star, I sleep.
And because the days are shorter and the nights are longer I’m able to dream for a long time. I dream I’m in a gigantic basket with everyone else’s babies. They are the babies of strangers, the babies of people I used to know. I’ve got no reason to want to go anywhere else. There are all types of babies, brown babies, white babies, babies the color of sand and babies that are bald, babies with pigtails, cornrows, babies with blowouts, babies with bangs, babies in striped onesies and babies with tails, in the corner an especially solemn-looking baby wearing only a diaper and black leather biker gloves. It’s a very good dream.
In the morning I come out to the table, surprised to see, at my seat, a small hand-painted orange glass filled with freshly picked forget-me-nots. Centered on a woven placemat is a white plate, a thin omelet garnished with parsley. The folded eggs are stuffed with feta cubes, heirloom tomatoes and bright green olives that have all been chopped to approximately the same size. I wonder where he learned how to cook, when he learned to uniformly cut ingredients. I wonder how he knows where things go in our kitchen. In the past, his kitchen was for nuking cold slices of yesterday’s pizza. Now, he’s at the stove wearing an apron, frying up sweet potato hash, acting like he’s the one who designated which drawers hold what. Maybe when you hit your head hard enough you momentarily go into holding and you get a chance to steal a skillset from a dead person. Then, you return knowing what to do with a spice rack, you come back from the dead knowing how to feed your wife.
“Good morning my darling!” he says beneath wet eyes filled with the sweetness of onions, and without missing a beat a kettle is in his hand and hot water is being poured into a tea urn and he is whipping matcha powder with a bamboo tea whip, the contents foaming up frothy and green. Where is the lethargic strategist I’d once married? Where is the suit feeding the fish? Who is this even-breathed man whipping matcha with the meditative qualities of a 16th-century geisha? He kneels ancestrally, lowering his eyes, presenting me with the completed tea. I’m not going to question this.
“Tootaloo, honey bun,” he says after the tea’s been set down on the coaster, and before I can ask him where he is going or how he’s been transformed into a total dreamboat, he’s out the door, the balled-up apron abandoned on the floor.
Breakfast is next-level delicious. I sit and read a book all day at the kitchen table.
The book I read is a book about a man and his wife who were very mean to each other. As a matter of fact, they were in constant competition. So much so, each was running for president against the other. That is to say, each running for president of the local synagogue. There were conflicting opinions throughout the campaign cycle, and the community was split. The husband was growing concerned his wife might stand a chance, so during dinners he’d spent most of their conversation trying to convince her to drop out of the race. He told her he would be better for the Jewish community. He was a man, for one. For two, a more competent driver, and the synagogue was a bit of a ways away, how would the wife really do behind the wheel. Thirdly, his mother had been in the Holocaust.
“I was in the holocaust too!” she argued, but he said it didn’t count because she’d been a baby and therefore she hadn’t been there on purpose.
Before you knew it, each was trying to one up the other’s holocaust stories, screaming about why they’d each be a better president than the other. “I care about them!” she insisted. “I don’t care about them!” he argued back. They both had solid arguments. It was difficult to conclude who would make the better leader. Before too long their debate became a verbal mosh pit and they simultaneously realized that they’d both make horrible presidents, probably why they’d never had children. Each was as horrible as the other. The husband realized this, the wife realized this. There was a surprising sadness that sprung up between them, dampening the floor of the room, figuratively, though the pipes were also leaking because a few months ago the husband had thought that he could save fifty bucks and fix the plumbing himself. Their Persian carpet had endured the destruction of an empire, but it couldn’t endure the husband’s excuse for plumbing. He didn’t want to run for president anymore. She didn’t either. Once they started talking about it, it turned out neither of them believed in god to begin with. They came to the realization that they were no longer interested in running the synagogue or in participating in whatever happened there. What happened there was mostly god and paperwork, and neither the husband nor the wife liked god or paperwork. They didn’t even believe in the synagogue, they agreed, other than it being the place where they’d been married, which had clearly led them both to the sad, isolated, under-accomplished dead ends where they now stood.
Back then they’d thought maybe their aunts and uncles would give them china plates; a rich, distant cousin might get them a Cuisinart. Finding commonality in this new hatred of the temple, in themselves and in their marriage, they excitedly decided to file for divorce. They made construction paper party hats which they wore while they talked through the logistics. He was going to take sewing classes (it turned out he had a lifelong dream of becoming a tailor) and she was going to start a rural restaurant that featured 25 different preparations of yogurt-based curries. To celebrate their regained freedom, they snuck out in the night with some matches and gasoline and electricity. Walking through the woods together, cracking a few twigs under their soles along the way, finally together in every sense of the word, they set the synagogue on fire. It didn’t take much to burn it to the ground. The place was like a tinderbox, the news would announce in a headline.
“This is recreating the destruction of the temple,” the ex-wife whispered, searching for symbolism.
“This is fucking beautiful,” the ex-husband said, as he watched the flames lick the structural beams.
Among a circle of young pines, they kissed without intention, inhaling air that smelled like car-freshener. It was a kiss that stopped time. Holding hands, kissing when they felt like it, they watched the temple burn all night. By morning, a group of Jews had gathered in front of the remaining wall where they were bobbing back and forth in prayer shawls, surrounded by squads of journalists and police cars, the ground covered with geometric lumps of ash. “The newspaper will call it anti-Semitism,” the ex-wife realized looking at the barren-burned landscape like it was an otherworldly volcanic moon. “It is that,” said the ex-husband, giggling like a little girl. THE END. It was a good book, and the tea was just right and my eggs were spiced just how I liked them; a little bit of salt, a little bit of cumin.
I’m starting to get hungry again, hoping that when my husband returns home, he’ll be up for more cooking. Acclimating to improvements is something that comes quite naturally to me.
Finally, he returns. He’s been swimming with his clothes on. Pieces of wet grass stick to his pant legs, behind him, a wet trail. It’s much too cold to go swimming. Even the frogs and turtles are already hibernating, tucked away under the mud.
He curls up on the floor in a child’s pose and shivers, like an x-rayed baby in an ice-cold womb. Oh my husband, I think to myself, so sorry for him. I crawl to him and start rubbing his back slowly in small concentric circles.
“What were we like before the accident?” he asks, looking up with eyes that seem to have expanded in the absence of nostalgia. “There’s no such thing as an accident,” my mother tells my husband as I’m taking off his shirt and his pants, wrapping him in a green wool blanket. My mother, a reflex, has a way of impulsively using my mouth as her vehicle. It’s the only mouth she has now that she’s dead. She is still just as stubborn as she ever was to be heard, even though I tried my best to properly bury her. Unable to distinguish that it’s my mother who’s just spoken, my husband whimpers softly, like he’s hurt a paw.
There is no such thing as an accident. That phrase coming out of my mouth is alien. When my mother was alive she had this old-fashioned theory that everything that was happening had some kind of a reason. Her mother raised her to trust that collisions were cosmic, accidents steeped in purpose. Mine passed this onto me too, in her way, though my mother did not convince me as wholly as her mother did; in the transition from mother to mother there was a god that got lost. Even though I’m now married to this damaged man—I think that, in this way, I’m becoming more and more like my mother, like the one that came before her, and when I think about my husband, our circumstance, I guess that I too inherently believe that we’re part of some kind of godless destiny. “Itchy,” he says to the blanket and I nod, slip away to the bathroom, throw his wet things on tub floor.
I get in bed. I make my star.
I dream of angels doing surgery. They are all versions of my husband as a little boy at various stages. Some of my husbands are dressed in sequins, with lipstick, eyelash extensions and mod wigs. One is in overalls, chewing a piece of straw. There is a door in the distance but one of my husbands, the one in the yellow bib dress, is blocking it with his arms in a stubborn T. I’m stuck horizontal in some rendition of a hospital bed when I realize that one of him is going to remove my liver to make angel pate.
No, I tell a husband in a curly red wig as he takes out a razor blade, sets it down on a yellowed doily, takes a red lipstick and draws a line to mark where he’ll make the incision on my flank. Pate! Pate! Pate! says my husband to the other husbands, who join him in chanting Pate! Pate! No No No No No dream me says as another husband puts a mask over my nose and mouth, turns on the dial on the precision flow meter. Once it’s strapped to my face, there is a beep beep beep beep beep and I breathe in the gas and at once my husbands vanish and everything is beeping, dark grey and muddy, melting wax figures disappear into a muted latex landscape.
The beeping refrigerator door wakes me up. The beep means my husband didn’t shut that door. In the glow box of the fridge: a bowl of trout, a half-full carton of eggs, four olives bobbing in shallow water, an orange juice container so nearly empty only a lazy asshole would have put it back like that. The status of the orange juice container is comforting, resembling what might exist in a refrigerator belonging to a family. I get back in bed, sink into the mattress. I fan out my five points, quickly get back to another dream.
In this one there are no husbands but only me’s. None of them look like me, but I know they are all me because it’s my dream and I can recognize myself, though one of me is blonde and one of me is a miniature schnauzer and one of me is a goldfish in a fishbowl on top of a radiator. The blonde me is putting her left hand in the fishbowl and is about to pluck goldfish me out and swallow me whole. No no no no no thinks goldfish me, who is dangling above my open blonde mouth, no no no no no. I struggle to do something with my fins—useless—fins are not wings.
I go into my blonde mouth, through a slick tube that’s the inside of one of my bodies and am digested into a white snowy landscape that’s blindingly reflective of the sun, lit white hill after lit white hill. It’s not cold, there is no temperature. I’m looking for my husband in the snow, following tracks of footprints, mostly claws or hooves that cross paths and change shapes and I’m confused about what species went where. I look back—I’m not leaving tracks. I don’t have a body. Real life me tells dream me to forget about my body. I don’t need to have a body to make it through a dream, so bodiless me shuts what feel like her eyes, blacks out the whiteness and falls asleep on the hill.
When I wake up my husband isn’t in the house.
I make lunch alone.
At a point, I look out the window.
Eventually, I decide I’ve looked out the window long enough.
When night time comes he isn’t back.
I grab an apple.
Flip through a pile of mail on the countertop without reading any of it.
Take four small bites of apple.
Go back to sleep, the bed all mine again, limbs out.
Tonight there are no husbands, no mothers, no surgery, no liver pate, no me’s, no snow. In my dream, I’m just sleeping, which is the best way to dream.
In the middle of the night, he comes in, and grabs a leg of my star in his hand and shakes it until I wake up and realize that the leg is mine and that he is my husband. He has leaves in his hair and is naked, banged up and scratched by twigs, his quad muscles are flexing as if he’s been involved in an atypical rigorous activity. “You are getting strong,” I say, flicking the hard space where his warm belly used to hang, resting my hand on his lung which is inflating and deflating more quickly than usual. “Come outside with me,” he asks in a way that isn’t a question. I follow.
At least two dozen dying fish create a ring around the pond’s perimeter. The shrubbery, clumps of leaves that suggest vague mystery in the dark, are so lit up by moonlight that their greens seem plastic. It sounds like the cold absence of crickets. Someone has removed the fish from the water and placed them on the land. I know that someone is my husband because this is our pond, his pets, our fish, my husband.
At my feet, an almost-dead fish seems to have a skeletal abnormality around its eye socket that’s causing more of the eye to be exposed than is normal. Like maybe it swam into a rock and busted a socket bone. The eye is barely hanging on. It’s really relying on its own elasticity. I avert my eyes from the socket and see that in the periphery my husband has gotten hard. Looking between his thighs I remember how he used to tell me, before we got married, that he believed some people had unique genitalia.
I usually rebutted by insisting, reminding him, that any man could fit inside of me, but he didn’t like that. He always pushed that we had something different, like our organs had some sort of special memory, a design that others lacked. Looking at his usual prick, I remember this about him, how he’d once been so naïve as to think that we had some sort of pre-destined imbedded code we could rely on to unlock the right body in the future, how at a point in time he may have convinced me that, for him, I was that body.
“When you aren’t bored with yourself you are so beautiful,” he says, holding my hand. I want to hold his head and pet his tiny perfect ears and say oh my husband oh my husband, like a little girl who knows the doll she’s playing with will someday be somebody real. His hand is warm, already real, not a doll hand at all.
There are two nearly-full moons, the other directly below the first, shaking on the surface of the pond. He starts moving in to disrobe me, which I know because he has that look about him. It isn’t much of a look but it’s one I’ve come to know.
He begins by unbuttoning my shirt, and it’s a relief that I’m still so easily turned on by nothing, like my body has been preprogrammed to respond positively to neutral and fast-paced familiarity. I am getting wet as he stumbles over the buttons and I’m grateful for this obscene wetness, that at least arousal can still be so basic. The air is raunchy with the stench of pond muck. Dead fish glow in the moonlight. He undoes the final button and I tremble like a hormonal teen. “These,” he says the word slowly like it is a whole sentence, looking at my cold nipples as he removes breasts from bra, gently rubbing the right one between his thumb and his index finger.
“Finally,” he says, winking at the nipple.
The protruding eye socket of that one trout stares up at me.
“You’re too bashful for the moon now?” he asks, his prick is pointing upwards towards it as if its hole is an eye that is making some sort of valuable contact with the moon, something official, like a banker’s agreement. It’s the kind of agreement that makes that sucks all my wetness up inside of me. I start thinking about signing checks, not having proper documentation to complete authorized transactions. I slip on my shirt and adjust my bra, head back towards the house, leaving him there like an arrow frozen in space.
In the morning, he’s waiting for me at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee. I don’t drink coffee. He’s my husband and knows that I don’t drink coffee.
“We need to talk,” he says. Even after years of marriage, being told you need to be talked at is never a good sign and I know this, he knows this. Husbands and wives worldwide have always known this about needing to talk, even before they were turned into husbands or wives. I look at the door and think about exiting the room but my mother says “you do not go out that door right now young lady.” So I take a sip of coffee. He’s wearing a suit, one he used to wear to work. It’s been ironed, I guess he irons now, and it looks like he means business. His off-white shirt has French cuffs and I decide not to point out that he’s put his cufflinks on inside out. Nobody likes to be criticized after they’ve been rejected. Once upon a time my husband taught me that.
“Look,” he says, working his hands through his hair, “I am really trying here.”
I want to go but my body stays composed, because that’s the right thing to do when someone is making you be in a conversation.
“What?” I say, looking around the room, at the vase, the legs of my chair, then a box of matches on the countertop.
He says, “since the accident, it’s been hard, but I really want to make this work.”
“Huh?” I say, reaching towards the box of matches.
“It’s just so difficult,” he says, “it doesn’t help when you stonewall me.” I take out a match and consider striking it. I eye the countertop for lingering scraps of paper or a piece of mail. If I were to burn the house down, he and I would have no choice other than to run out of this room, out of this house, escape from the fire. There’d be an immediate and startling change of scene. We’d be helpless and outside watching something beautiful.
“Stonewall you? What? All I’ve been doing is reading books,” I say.
He mutters something like a whisper. It’s the kind of whisper that grown men who are unable to whisper consider a whisper. The sound carries—nowhere close to an actual whisper at all. From his suit pocket he withdraws a small, clear plastic container, and places the container in the center of my palm. I put down the match. The jar is filled with a translucent pink iridescent gel substance: lip gloss.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask, and then he is crying. He is crying just like that. A grown man crying in a suit looks like a hated father, a father hated by his children, a father hated by his wife. “I’m trying,” he says, hugging his knees in his arms in a way that makes him no longer look like my husband.
He says it again. “I’m trying.” Then he’s no longer my husband. This man’s left hand is nervously fiddling with his right wrist. This man is childishly biting his lip. I want to hold this strange head like a baby and pet it and say oh my husband oh my husband until he turns back into my husband but I know that it won’t make this man my husband. I want us to stop what we’re doing, strike matches, and set the kitchen on fire but I know that that won’t bring my husband back. “I’m really trying,” he tries again. I think about taking my nipple out as some sort of peace offering, but it’s old and tired and wants to stay in.
“I know,” I say, loosening the top button of my husband’s shirt, allowing his neck to breathe. I put the gloss on my finger and spread it across my mouth. I let him see how it looks on me, let him look at what he’s made. He looks at me like he’s really looking at something, then unwraps himself from his suit arms, takes his cufflinks out, sets them on the table, begins to look more like my husband again. When he starts unbuttoning my nightshirt I let him.
Leah Sophia Dworkin lives in New York, where she is working on a collection of short stories. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and is an assistant editor at Conjunctions. Online she goes by frumperella.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.