After they carried his wife's body out of the two bedroom house they'd been renting all week at The Golf Club of Key West, after the police had left, James Ordway thought many things, quickly, all in a row, and imagined them as a list on a piece of paper.
He no longer would have to disappoint her. He, who'd never committed adultery in the eight years of his marriage, could fuck new women. He no longer had to glimpse her aging, sagging, naked body in the bright morning light. He no longer had to worry about how her bitter, tired and nasty behavior would affect their two sons. He no longer had to listen to her speak insecurely and incorrectly and childishly in front of people who made her nervous, in other words, just about everyone she didn't know very well (her trailer park childhood in Illinois never fully left her). He wouldn't have to look at the dark roots growing in on the top of her head, her brassy dyed hair rough and desperate looking. He could get rid of her two annoying cats, whose litter box disgusted him, and to whom he was allergic. He never again had to deal with her truly hateful and grasping sisters. And although he deeply appreciated her dinners at night, he'd never have to eat them again, which filled him with relief. Why? If he appreciated them, why did he also feel relief at not eating her regular meals? His mind wandered from the list...how relief and appreciation? That strange force of nature, ambivalence.
He supposed he was trying to cheer himself up. He was, and always had been, an optimist. Or, as Kelly had put it, in denial.
Somewhere she'd read that people who suffered depression were too realistic. They saw things too clearly. This was not James's problem. But it had been hers. She tried taking Paxil for awhile, but remarked she preferred reality, depressing or not. "And anyway," she told him, when she announced she was over taking Paxil, "I'm only unhappy because our marriage sucks. Nothing is wrong with me. I don't have a chemical problem. You're just a shitty husband."
Now, that was true, and James had always known it to be true, but he comforted himself with the fact that he wasn't the shittiest husband out there. No, that award would go to one of the husbands of Kelly's "friends", or acquaintances rather, the women she dealt with in her daily life of taking the boys to school and lessons and the playground. Perhaps Carl, her friend Gigi's husband would be the poster boy for the world's shittiest husband. Carl traveled two weeks out of the month, and when he was home, he went out every night. Gigi had confessed to Kelly she thought her husband might be having an affair. Drunkenly, one night during a ladies night out, Gigi said to Kelly that Carl and she hadn't had sex in three years.
"And so I said, what are you going to do about it?" Kelly related to James that night, smoking a cigarette on their back porch in Brooklyn. "I mean, no marriage is perfect. But three years? And she acts like it's no big deal. I said, aren't you going to see a therapist? She laughed at me. Really. Like trying to fix your marriage was some kind of joke. She doesn't feel any responsibility to even try to make it a better marriage." James had been watching ESPN when she arrived home that night, drunk and wanting to gossip. Kelly had dragged him away from a great basketball game to tell him about Gigi and Carl. At the time he thought, hypocrite. As if your marriage were so perfect.
But then there came a point, a few years ago, when their marriage seemed kind of perfect, if not only or especially in comparison to everyone else they knew. The miseries people had! No sex, no money, women still married to their own mothers not their husbands. Six hours of TV a day. Women eating two entire Entenmann's cakes in one sitting in front of Kelly, as if this were normal. Women hating their sons and loving their daughters. Eventually, Kelly stopped trying to make friends, and James couldn't really blame her. But he did anyway. He wasn't convinced that feeling better than others was the best they could do. Of course, he did nothing about it. And they had problems as well, but nothing dramatic. Kelly drank and smoked. This was their biggest problem, according to James. She rarely behaved out of control. But she'd get woozy and quiet, or worse, talkative and boring at night. James was their biggest problem, according to Kelly. His coldness. The way he just ignored his wife and kids when he didn't like what they had to say. The times where he didn't seem connected to the family at all, just like some floating big man in the house, who co-habited with the rest of them. This, according to Kelly, is what exhausted her, made her bitter and bitchy. When confronted by her, James just ignored her.
"See? See?" she said, as he stared into a magazine or walked slowly into another room. "And you wonder why I drink? You're not here. Hello! You don't even care."
Anyway, now she was dead. Now, their two boys sat watching cartoons. Will's stern face was swollen and blotchy, but he was pretty focused on the screen. Jamie, their three-year-old, didn't quite get what had happened, but it would sink in as the days went by. James walked into the narrow room, toward his sons. They'd never rented here before. Kelly had found the house online and was more or less happy with it. That was a relief for James. The last thing he wanted was her ruining another vacation by bitching the whole time about what exactly wasn't perfect about their plans. Fucking control freak.
James stood there for a moment, watching his boys watch TV. Then he went back to the front of the house, thinking he'd sit out on the front steps. He sat down and the Florida sun shone hotly on him. Two gray-haired, pink and yellow shirted golfers walked by and stared at him. Had they seen the ambulance? The police car? Probably. Maybe he should go inside and hide. Shamefully. Or respectfully. Maybe he should keep making phone calls. Turning his face toward the sun, he decided not to do anything for a moment. He decided to stay right there. It was a strange development, the Golf Club. Everyone hid in their cars or in their little, uniform houses. The quiet was eerie, really, not comforting. It was not the quiet of, say, the country. It was the quiet of a highly developed area where many of the houses were empty most of the time, being second homes, and the people who were there kept to themselves. As if hiding something.
Everyone has something to hide, thought James.
She was sick before they left. Every winter, she got a terrible sinus infection. This time, she also had a bronchial infection. He came home from work the day before they left for Florida and she was lying on the couch, a box of tissues in her lap and a pile of dirty tissues next to her. "I'm sick. Really sick. They X-rayed my lungs and I don't have pneumonia but I have a bronchial infection and a sinus infection, like always. The doctor said I can't smoke. That my lungs are a mess. I'm scared."
And here was the thing. Every year she got sick and she got scared, and she cut back on the cigarettes and booze for awhile, but as soon as she started to feel better, she went back to her old ways. A bottle of wine at night, followed by five or ten or more cigarettes. It was one thing when they first met ten years ago. Then, for whatever reason, James found it sexy. European or something. For a while now, since the kids arrived actually, he'd found it disgusting. On the plane, she ordered a glass of wine.
"I thought you were on antibiotics? You're not supposed to drink while taking antibiotics," he said to her.
"I'm not taking the antibiotics," she said. "It would ruin my vacation."
Indeed. From the first night of their arrival. she coughed and gagged up stuff, spitting it into tissue papers. Then she'd look into the tissue. God, to have to see her peering into her foul tissues! Like looking into her own asshole. The rage was so intense that he'd...walk away. Nasty, nasty woman. He noticed bottles of Advil and aspirin and all sorts of pain relievers and decongestants and cough medicine around the rental house. After a day at the beach and in town walking around—they'd had beautiful weather, divinely sunny and moist and warm but not hot, not stifling—she'd asked him to stop by Walgreen's. "My head is still killing me," she'd said, and returned with a white paper bag of more drugs and new boxes of tissue.
At night, after the kids were asleep, her eyes were glassier than usual. Now, Kelly's eyes were often a bit glassy. That happens to people who drink a bottle of wine a day. And she was flushed, but again, people who drink red wine were often flushed at night. And of course, they had spent a good part of the day in the sun, which gave them all a flush. And so. And so James thought, how was he to know.
But he did kind of know. Slowly knowing something. The idea occurred to him. The idea that Kelly was really sick, that something was really wrong.
The night before she died, he emptied the garbage pail in the upstairs bedroom where they slept. He carried it downstairs, annoyed and disgusted—why didn't she bring her foul snot-rags down to the kitchen garbage herself? Pig, he thought. The kitchen lights were on brightly and Kelly lay in the living room alcove, visible to him, coughing and lying there in front of the television, a blanket over her despite the heat—and as he dumped the tissues into the garbage, he looked down at what he dumped out.
Why? Why does one look at a loved ones snot and filth? Just normal curiosity? The desire to hate? The desire to know?
The dirty tissues, dripping black and red, sent up a strong, acrid scent as they tumbled into the kitchen garbage. Blood and...blood and what? James looked away. What else was he to do? He looked away with disgust. Shaking the foulness off with a quick shake of the head.
He had not always been disgusted by Kelly and he wasn't sure when it started, but he had been disgusted by her, with her, on and off now for some time, because they lived together, because they were growing older together.
The night before she died, they lay sleeping next to each other, not closely though, because of the king size bed. They had watched a mundane drama next to each other on the couch earlier. It ran late, and they were tired. When they went up to bed, James fell asleep immediately. Hours later, in the quiet dark of the middle of night, she woke him. Wheezing, gasping, her eyes bulging with fear. "Something's wrong, James. Something's wrong..."
"What? What...?" He was barely awake.
"I can't breathe. My heart." She started coughing so loudly. He shushed her, automatically. "Shhhh, don't wake the kids." He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep.
Then she put a hand on his shoulder, a hot, fierce hand. "You don't know what they want from me. You can't see them. You don't see anything. You don't see." Is that what she said? How could he really remember, after all that had happened since then? He carefully removed her pinching fingers from his shoulder and fell asleep.
The next morning, she appeared fine. Making coffee, and then sitting on the couch with the kids in front of the cartoons.
"Hey, do you want to go see a doctor here?"
"No," she answered right away, without looking up from the cartoons.
He went and sat next to her. She looked awful underneath her browned skin. No suntan could hide the truth of her inner life, her sickness. Her face was a mass of hanging flesh. Her hair seemed to barely cover her scalp. He smelled toothpaste and suntan lotion and something else. The something else was not a good smell and it pushed him up and away from her and back into the kitchen to get a coffee.
He had, at one point, truly loved this woman. People do change. It is not true that people don't change. The only thing is that they almost always change for the worse. Occasionally some miserable ugly person blossoms into a happier self later in life. But Kelly had not been miserable or ugly. And perhaps she had only one way to go. It's that she went that way so quickly, so effortlessly, that James barely noticed it happening. Before he could do anything, before it registered with him, Kelly had turned into a lonely, bored outcast who had no pleasure in life. Her face and body lost all joy, all hope, all generosity. Her dead spirit took over her very body.
Once, when they were in their early twenties and newly engaged, they had drinks at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Afterward, they took a carriage ride around Central Park. Their drinks had been insanely expensive, the ride seemed silly and not worth it, and yet, and yet. And yet Kelly glowed with appreciation, with gratitude. Her head slightly bowed, her eyes wet with life and wonder. She was humble and small and happy to be alive, giving off a warmth that James soaked up as he wrapped his arm around her while they walked back to their apartment. He used to soak her up. Just being next to her, just letting his body be next to her body, this was where he got his strength in the past.
And now where was he to go for strength? It had been years since he sought it from her. There had been his work and his children. And he had let himself not be strong, he had let himself be exhausted.
The night she died, he'd seen her come back from the bathroom. Half asleep, deep in the night, he saw her. She wore a thin white nightgown and her arms were glowing red, slick with damp. She coughed so loudly that he sat up, the noise had startled him so. Her naked hands were held over her mouth and as she pulled them away from her shaking face, a dark wetness dripped from her fingers to the ground. "I'm dying. I think I'm dying and I'm scared", she said.
"We'll go to the doctor in the morning," James said quietly, "you'll be fine." Had he believed that? But no, James believed in nothing anymore. He just knew what to say when something was supposed to be said.
"I'm so scared," she said, rubbing her filthy hands up and down on her gown. Her voice was not her own anymore. James reasoned, there in the middle of the night, that she wasn't making sense because he didn't recognize her voice.
"Go to sleep. Just go to sleep."
As she approached the bed, a smell so poisonous came upon him that he quickly hid his face in his pillow and curled himself on the very edge of his side of the enormous mattress. There, like that, as far away from death as he could get himself without actually leaving his wife alone in the room, he slept next to her, as whatever was left inside of her stopped existing altogether. He did not feel shame in thinking about this. But he did feel wonder. How can we live so? Die so? It barely seemed possible that their lives could be so cheap. Could it be his wife died because she didn't live? Oh God, why didn't he do something? Why did he just let her be so sick? Why did she let herself get that way?
They were not brave people, not in the face of life, and now, clearly, not in the face of death. Soon, the chill of her death would come over him, he felt it in the distance of his own body. The sun in Florida could only do so much to warm him. He would miss her in the way he would miss an arm that's been cut off. He'd be ashamed, as if something were physically wrong with him and this wrongness were obvious to the world. This would be his way to sorrow, through shame and humiliation, through the public recognition of his broken life.
The phone rang and it startled James. And, with the phone ringing (he would not answer it), he turned his head away from the street, into the house and saw his two children coming toward him, through the darkened narrow passage that was their rented home, their faces shadowed and hidden, featureless creatures, running toward him, toward where he sat outside in the sun. Fear gripped him. Why had they stopped watching TV? Oh, God, if they just would never stop watching TV, everything would be OK! They came at him, like monsters, red and burnt and huge-seeming from where he sat. He didn't want to meet them—not now, not yet.
They were just his children. But they would want to know thing he couldn't tell them. They were coming. So fast, and soon, they would be on him like animals. Crawling all over him. He was not prepared, no he was not, and it didn't matter.
About the author:
Paula Bomer grew up in South Bend, Indiana and lives in New York. She received her MA in Creative Writing at City College New York where she won the Geraldine Griffin Moore Award for a short story. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies, including The Mississippi Review, Open City, Fiction, Nerve, Global City Review, Best American Erotica 2002 and 2003 (S&S), Storyglossia and nth position.
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