Click to listen to Paul Vidich read "Home Theater."
Tess and I clung to the conceit that we were different. Different because we were artists, because we'd fallen in love on our first date in a bar in the West Village, because we weren't like the affable, wealthier couples who moved onto the Bowery now that the neighborhood was going condo. We pioneered Bowery living after college when we were happily poor and didn't mind stepping over homeless drunks who slept in the building's vestibule. We bought used clothes at the Goodwill on Spring Street and turned poverty's necessity into deliberate fashion. I don't remember why we didn't get a TV. Certainly, Tess wanted one. Certainly, I argued we had no money. I'm sure I said that a TV would change our lives in unexpected ways, and we'd no longer go to revival houses to see old Hollywood movies. Undoubtedly, I was uncomfortable giving up something that set us apart, made us unique, that kept us different.
Tess looked at the humongous wood crate that sat in the middle of our loft. The crate was wide and long like a coffin. It was bathed in dusky light that came in the unwashed, arched windows of the cavernous space. I enjoyed her stunned look of surprise, took pleasure in theatrically lifting the cover to show off the giant flat screen TV inside, and I waited for her to smile in gratitude. She turned to me with hostility that was a new part of our marriage.
"Why do you assume I want to watch television with you."
She couldn't see, or didn't want to see, the magnitude of my sacrifice. I had humbled myself to get her back. I had taken over her daily chores: I walked our incontinent dog, Dante, folded clothes from the dryer, squared magazines on the coffee table to bring order to our clutter, turned off lights when I went from one room to the next, as Tess had learned to do from her mother. These small gestures, and now the TV, were my campaign to end her talk of separation. Other couples separated. We were different.
"How much did it cost?" Tess asked.
"Two thousand dollars," I said.
"How are you paying for that?" she asked. "Auction another poem on ebay for twelve cents. Or maybe you've saved money because you're not seeing her."
I started to unpack the crate. I didn't want to jeopardize the moment by defending against her sarcasm. "I'll pay for it," I said. "It's my gift to you."
"And you'll get rid of the garbage when it's unpacked?" she said. "All of it. The wood, the cardboard, the Styrofoam. Everything?"
The TV was a spectacular piece of technology that drew my eye in the electronics store. Brushed stainless steel framed a 4:3 aspect ratio black glass panel. I bought a Sony liquid crystal display rather than Pioneer's plasma technology because the patient salesman at J&R made a good case for the Sony, but I only had a vague clue how they worked and why one was better than the other. The salesman helped me pick out a DVD player and surround sound components and he informed me that I'd have to subscribe to cable if I wanted to watch real television. I nodded that I knew that but, of course, I hadn't considered the extra expense.
The man from Time Warner cable arrived promptly at three p.m. and helped me install the TV on the exposed brick wall opposite our bed. He was talkative, full of unwanted bonhomie but never asked how we'd lived without a TV for so long. He found cable lines deep inside the building core, which he tapped and then ran the spliced connection to the converter box he put in our bedroom. The whole job took two hours.
"How do you turn it on and off?" I asked looking at the foot long remote that reminded me of a baguette with controls. The array of unlabeled, colored buttons intimidated me. What could they all possibly do? The man demonstrated the basics: on, off, volume up and down, channel control. What more did we need? What else was there? He tested the set before he left, adjusting the volume, scrolling up and down among the channels, tweaking the contrast. I tipped him twenty bucks because he helped me hang the TV.
I was penitent that night when I climbed into bed in my underwear next to Tess, who wore a cinched bathrobe over her pajamas. I'd made buttered popcorn for us, as she requested, and I'd walked Dante one last time before we inaugurated the home theater system.
"What do you want to watch?" I asked.
"I'm looking," she said. She glanced at the movie retrospectives that the Times' TV guide listed for Bravo, AMC and Turner Classic Movies. She was a fan of Rex Harrison and Clarke Gable, two stars being showcased that night. She had forgotten the titles of Harrison's lesser known films: "Unfaithfully Yours," "The Honey Pot," "The Rake's Progress." When she was reminded she picked Clarke Gable, but she had the same uncomfortable reaction to Bravo's offering of "It Happened One Night." She decided she needed a good war movie to take her mind off my affair. She'd confronted me when she found the evidence: a credit card charge at Freeman's on a night I was supposed to be at a poetry reading in Hartford.
I pressed the red button on the baguette – renaming common objects was my verbal tic. The black screen incandesced in a riot of color. Three war-painted Apache on horse back watched a trail of dust thrown up by a tiny stage coach traveling across a vast desert landscape. Click. German panzer corps goose-stepped past saluting Nazi generals standing on a Reichstag balcony. Click. An unruly Paris mob threw fruit at a humbled aristocrat tied to a gurney below the guillotine's raised blade--
"How about a comedy?" Tess asked.
I surfed channels stopping long enough to get the point of the show, and then moved on, going from one to the next to the next. I was startled by the variety of entertainment, which of course, I'd heard about but it was one thing to live with the abstract idea of television and another to have one in your bedroom. I imagined medieval reliquaries that consoled souls with bone fragments and desiccated fingers. Here was the secular equivalent, a reliquary of dreams for people whose small lives needed distraction or hope. I jotted down this half-baked thought so I could explore it later. I collected phrases and thoughts for later use. That's how I started poems. Bits came out of nowhere: baguette, tic, reliquary.
"Stop writing," Tess said. "Something happened to the TV."
I saw that the screen was a field of snow. There was no image whatsoever. Grating static came through the five surround speakers.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"It didn't do it by itself. What button did you push?"
Had I touched a button, I wondered? There were so many buttons. I might have accidentally touched one button when I put down the controller, but which one, and what would happen if I started to randomly touch buttons to fix the problem? I stared at the sleek piece of confusing technology, intimidated and paralyzed.
"What did you do?" Tess asked.
"You must have done something," she said. "It's better now."
I looked from the baguette to the flat screen on the wall. The screen was split into a small picture-in-picture embedded in the larger image. The smaller image was in the lower right corner and it was tuned to a food channel. A lean Japanese chef demonstrated sushi cutting techniques with a cleaver. The larger picture showed a loft living room not unlike the living rooms in our building, and a middle-aged woman watched the chef instruct. She wore a chef's hat, like he did; she held a cleaver exactly as he did. She followed his instructions, chopping when he chopped, slicing when he sliced, looking from the screen to the cleaver in her hand, back and forth, trying and failing, grimacing at each mistake.
"She's wearing a Wallis dress," Tess said.
"How can you tell?"
"I can tell. It's asymmetrical." Tess sat straight up in bed like a puppeteer's hand had pulled her forward. "That's what's-her-name!"
"The woman in Apt. 4B. Of course that's her. I recognize the tortoise shell glasses."
I stared. It was our neighbor, the novelist, in her living room. Her Pomeranian was on the floor by her feet.
Tess put her hand over her mouth to hold in her laugher. She grabbed my arm to share her glee and for one moment she forgot that I was the enemy. We shared an intimate moment until the novelty wore off. I suggested there must be a crossed wire and I said I'd call the cable company. I changed the channel and another apartment came on screen. I recognized the hedge fund manager from Apt. 5A and his younger wife. They were naked on their sofa watching TV. The picture-in-picture was tuned to a porn channel. They smoked cigarettes and casually watched the x-rated show.
"Happily married couple," Tess said. "You could learn from him."
I changed the channel and we found Apt. 4A, which belonged to the husband and wife lawyer couple. Their TV was on but they talked separately on their cell phones. Our TV screen moved through the building floor by floor, apartment by apartment, peering into the lives of our neighbors. We didn't know most of them except to say 'hello' in the lobby, but we now found ourselves looking into private lives, catching them in moments so personal they'd be mortified to know we were watching. The single twenty-something actress in Apt. 2B let her cat lick her nipple. The elderly art critic in Apt. 2A ate sardines from a tin with his fingers. The newly separated, middle-aged Japanese woman in Apt. 3A chain smoked in her underwear.
Tess and I sat in bed the next morning with our coffee as we did each morning since everything came to light. We used that quiet time to talk. I got up first, walked Dante, and brewed the coffee that I served Tess, who sat against the headboard and received my offering. We talked about little things, inconsequential details and sometimes we sat and said nothing. Silence, too, is a way of communicating. On good days we listened patiently to each other's dreams in exchange for the pleasure of recounting our own. On not-so-good days she cried, or used words as an ice pick. That morning we stared at the flat screen TV on the wall opposite the foot of the bed and speculated on the gremlins nested inside.
Tess and I left our apartment at 8:30 a.m. and got on the elevator. The elevator stopped on the fifth floor and the hedge fund manager and his wife got on. They nodded shyly to acknowledge us but kept to their side of the cab and stared blankly at the elevator panel. She wore dark glasses, her combed hair was wet and fell straight and I saw a large red welt on her neck. A fight? Rough sex? Tess nudged me to stop staring. I realized that we all live with a presumption of privacy. We believe what happens in our homes stays in our homes. Each of us carries secrets that no one, not even our spouses, knows. I had an anxious moment. I wanted to write down these thoughts before they were lost, but I didn't have a notepad.
"Going on holiday?" Tess asked. The hedge fund manager's wife held a roll-on Versace luggage bag.
"No," the hedge fund manager said. "I wish. Helen has a five day business trip to Dallas. I'm alone. Chinese take-out the rest of the week."
Our neighbors got on the elevator at each floor and the new person took his or her place among those already standing together. I looked at them and could not expunge the images from the night before. I saw their grim morning faces and I thought: novelist cleaving sausage, excited naked couple, oily fingers, erect nipple, cigarette stubs overflowing an ash tray.
"What's the problem?" I asked the cable repairman.
"It's working fine," he said. "There aren't any crossed wires." He randomly accessed channels and demonstrated the fitness of the blinking cable box. I hadn't told him exactly what happened. I didn't want him to think we were voyeurs, or took pleasure in seeing our neighbors private lives, so I explained we discovered channels not listed in the guide and couldn't access regular channels. He said he'd never heard of neighbor's broadcasts, my eponymous phrase. He assured me the glitch had nothing to do with Youtube or video blogging. We had plain old digital television, he said. There were no wireless interference, no surreptitious splices, no tapped lines, no surveillance traps. He assured me, as he left, that the cable box was in perfect working order. I tipped him twenty bucks.
"There it is again," Tess said.
We sat in bed in our pajamas. I was in the middle and she hugged her edge. We'd just settled in to watch "A Bridge Too Far." Allied parachutists were raining down behind German lines when snow filled the flat panel screen and the triumphant score was replaced by static.
"Shit," I said.
I lifted the controller and moved it ninety degrees in case its wireless alignment had something to do with the problem. It didn't. I shook it in case there was a lose wire, or lose battery connection or just because I didn't know what else to do. Nothing happened. The screen was snow and the sound was static. The movie was going on without us. We'd looked forward to the seeing it all day.
"Oh, my God," Tess said.
I looked from the controller to Tess and then at the TV image. The screen had tuned itself to the living room in Apt. 5B. The picture-in-picture was tuned to a talking head report on the financial markets. The hedge fund manager sat on his sofa kissing an average looking woman who was not his wife. She unbuttoned her blouse and he undid his belt.
"Don't say anything," Tess said. "You have no standing here. Do all men cheat?"
We sat next to each other like magnets, same pole, pushed apart.
"Change the channel," she said.
The TV screen scrolled through our neighbor's living rooms. I tried to turn off the TV with the remote control but it didn't respond. It was broken, or it had acquired a mind of its own. Domestic tableaus of our neighbor's living rooms cycled past. The novelist in Apt. 4B practiced her cleaver technique on tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, pumpkin, garlic and a skinned rabbit. The lawyers in Apt. 2A threatened each other with words provided by remote accomplices dictating via cell phone. The lonely Japanese diplomat's wife sat on a tatami mat in her empty living room looking at, but not answering, her ringing telephone. Finally, I unplugged the TV.
The cable repairman listened patiently to my harangue. He assured me that this time he had most definitely fixed the problem, although he couldn't recreate it. He said he'd exchanged the cable box, replaced the conduit from the curb to the building core and then to our apartment, and he'd tested all the connections. The signal at the street was normal, normal in the core, normal as it entered our converter box. I interrogated him. I asked if he'd tested the line for phase anomaly and radio interference and drop out, and was the signal secure against WiMAX interdiction. I didn't want him to think that I'd be satisfied by his false reassurances so I'd done research. I made the repairman go through every channel and when they all seemed normal I felt some measure of safety. I asked him if the TV might have a virus, like a computer. He shrugged. I didn't tip him.
I arrived home from a poetry reading at KGB bar that evening at 9 p.m. A winter storm, which the radio had predicted would come after dark, had already become to blanket the streets. Snow fell steadily. I shook my hat when I got inside our loft's front door.
"Tess," I called.
I hung my pea coat on the clothes stand where I saw Tess's Edwardian wool coat. She'd also been out that night, somewhere she said vaguely, purposely avoiding my question.
"Tess." She wasn't in the dark living room or in the kitchen where a shaded halogen lamp glowed small. The loft was quiet.
"Denis," she cried. She thrust her head out our bedroom door, stared at me with wide, frightened eyes. Her face was blanched. "Call 911. The woman in 4B is attacking her husband. Hurry, for God's sake, hurry."
I tried to remember who lived in Apt. 4B, two floors down, west side. My first thought was the hedge fund manager's wife but they lived on the fifth floor. It wasn't the separated Japanese woman. She lived on the third floor, east side.
"It started half an hour ago with an argument over money and adultery," Tess said. "She's picked up the cleaver."
The novelist, I thought. I joined Tess in the bedroom and watched the domestic dispute unfold on our flat panel TV. The novelist and her husband stood opposite each other across the dining room table, which was laid with rice bowls and chop sticks. She held the cleaver over her head. She was a big woman but dressed well in a full sequin gown for which the cleaver was a jarring accessory. She screamed at his quiet responses, and when he demurred she sliced the air in his direction. The Pomeranian yapped off screen and drowned out the soundtrack of the Soprano's episode that played in the picture-in-picture. He ducked when she threw a rice bowl.
I diverted my attention to dial 911 on my cell phone. "Yes," I said to the operator. "It's a domestic dispute." I spoke slowly, enunciating each word, and described what I saw. The husband pointed his finger at the novelist to make a point and she whipped the cleaver toward him, nearly taking off its tip. "She has a knife," I said. "She's dangerous."
Later, after the police had come and gone, after the neighbors had assembled and retired, after the couple dissembled publicly about their misunderstanding and returned to their loft to continued their quarrel – quietly – in private, after questions about who'd called 911 were asked and not answered, it was then that the building returned to normal. Later still, Tess and were alone in our loft. I'd unplugged the TV. We sat on the edge of the bed stunned by the evening's events. Neither of us spoke.
Tess slapped me.
I absorbed the anger from her hand and I did not touch my hot cheek, or grit my teeth or give into the insult.
"We're not like them. We're not the average couple that breaks up after one has had an affair. Isn't that right? Tell me that's right."
"That's right," I said.
"Why did you do it? How could you sleep with another woman? I can't think about you in bed with another someone else. It's sick. How can we ever be close? Look what you've done to us."
"I know. I'm sorry," I said.
"You made us into those horrible people downstairs. Isn't that right?"
"We're not like them."
"We're different." She looked at me with red eyes. "Tell me we're different."
Her head slumped to her chest and she was wracked with great spasms of self-pity. I wanted to lay my hand on her shoulder but I knew she didn't want my cheap sympathy. A moment passed, and another, and another and the darkness in which we sat folded upon us timelessly. She didn't move but rest is motion also.
"I slept with a man," she said.
I waited for her to continue. "Who?" I asked.
"We met in a bar."
"What does he look like?"
She glared at me. "Why do you want to know?"
"It's what you asked me."
"Twenty-three. Dark hair. Australian. He's gone home."
I'd found the phone messages that she'd obsessively torn into unreadable scraps so I knew she'd been hiding something. I didn't think she'd take a lover to cancel mine. I stopped myself from digging for more details, as Tess had dug into me, because I knew that nothing came from knowing more except the desire to know more. I stopped. It had to stop.
Tess choked with sobs and was overcome with emotion. I put my arm on her shoulder and she lay her head on my lap. I gently brushed her hair. The inventory of our life filled the bedroom. Each object held a meaning that only we understood; found pennies, old photographs, little stones upon which we made earnest wishes. It's so easy to mock sentiment in a world that rewards cynics and favors the glib and glamorous. I saw us reflected in the TV's black glass on the wall in front of us.
"Do you think the neighbors can see you?" Tess asked. "I don't want them to see us like this."
"I don't think they can see us."
"How can you be sure?" she said. "Get rid of it."
"Monday at the store," I said. "With a refund."
"No," she said. "Tonight. On the street."
I rolled the giant TV on a dolly through our lobby to the sidewalk. Two young men were at the curb looking at the DVD player and surround speakers I'd left on my first trip down. They wore frayed hoodies under biker jackets and ignored the steady falling snow. I'd placed the components beside the curb's bagged garbage but they'd set them aside.
"Does it work?" the taller one asked nodding at the TV I unloaded.
"What's wrong with it?"
"It tunes in the neighbors," I said.
He didn't look at me as I thought he would, as someone doubting a lie, or enjoying a joke. He looked at me with a hint of astonishment. "Cool!"
He and his friend hauled their find to an old van parked at the curb. They pulled away into the snowy street to continue their prowl for discarded things. Before the night was done the snow would turn to rain and back again to snow.
I took out my address book and opened the page with her name. I had a strategy to keep her secret. Her name and phone number were listed alphabetically among my friends and colleagues. The best way to keep a secret is to make it look unimportant so it draws no attention. I ripped the page from the book. Secrets take energy. Secrets take over. I balled the page and hurled it into the stormy night. A wind gust lifted the crumbled paper, swirled it among the camouflaging snowflakes, and then it was gone.
I came upstairs. Tess was asleep.
I looked affectionately at her on the bed where she'd flung herself. She was in her clothes and wore her shoes. She hadn't bothered to cover herself with the comforter, and she lay as she had fallen, arms to each side, cheek pressed to the pillow. Her shapeless hair splayed behind her head, her face quiet, her breath shallow. She was fast asleep, beyond dreams. I saw in her face the young woman I'd fallen in love with years before who, for reasons I didn't fully understand, I'd felt a need to hurt. Why do we hurt those closest to us? I lifted the comforter from the bottom of the bed and gently covered her.
Perhaps she had not told me the whole truth. Could I believe that she'd met a young Australian, seen him twice and that his convenient return home was the end of the matter? Had she balanced the scales of betrayal with a pair of fucks and now I should believe we were similarly situated? Oh, what tangled emotions welled up in me. I wanted to know what she'd seen in him, how I compared. I knew these questions were the same questions Tess had for me, and I also knew no progress could be made if we stayed in the past. We must dream our future and live it too, or lose it.
I cried. I looked out the window at the cityscape of winking office towers made small and tentative under the vast night sky. The storm invaded the evening and dimmed the twinkling apartments. Snow fell steadily and laid a false peace on the city. I imagined the lives of others in the flickering windows scattered across my panorama, families and couples sitting in their homes hoarding their secrets, and I thought to myself: none of them made any difference to Tess and me, that we were the only two people in the world who mattered, and as for the others, the neighbors downstairs, the people glued to their TVs, to hell with them.
About the author:
Paul lives in New York City. "Home Theater" was a finalist in the 2008 Glimmer Train Contest for New Writers and was short listed for the Carve Magazine 2008 Raymond Carver Short Story Award. Paul is receiving his MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark and has attended the Wesleyan Writers conference. His stories have appeared previously in Word Riot and a variety of other online print and journals.
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