BY PAULETTE LIVERS
He already had the bedclothes pulled over the smooth mound of him when he said what he said every night, that he was lucky and she was beautiful. Lately she had noticed how uncomfortable her husband seemed if her eyes lingered too long on his belly.
“Still?” she said. She slipped off her underthings, laid them across a chair with the dress he’d bought for her birthday. “You still believe that.” A question, not a question. Everybody thought of him as a man of integrity. She knew him for a man who believed that believing made a thing so. “That I’m—”
“Always. More so every day.” His kindness and his lies ran along the same continuum, trading places and sliding past one another, friendly swimmers sharing a lane. She’d fallen in love with that thing about him as much as with all the other parts. He’d cobbled a unique brand of mendacious faith, and 20 years hence it could get under her skin. Fighting it was pointless. He couldn’t help himself; it was how he negotiated the world’s pervading ugliness, the soup she acknowledged as what we all end up swimming in, if we live long enough. In truth, even his lies were kind, or at least never unkind. Her years with him had rubbed her smoother, like a river does a rock. This was the tenet of her own mendacious faith: most of the time she was able to find gratitude for him, gratitude that he found her before it was too late.
But there were times, had always been times, when an awful need stirred in her—she’d felt it tonight, sharpening its ragged teeth on her collar bone—in spite of the lovely birthday, the fancy meal with sparkling cider instead of real champagne, and her in the new dress. He’d looked at her with that yearning, earnest as any madly-fallen man or boy ever had or would, and she was instantly consumed by her awful need and instantly sorry and sad for what she would do before the night was out. She would have to hurt this good man, just a little.
This need was old and familiar as her own hands. When she was little, her hands had saved her from death by boredom. During daily Mass she studied them, kneeling in a secretive crouch over hands that were supposed to be praying but instead served up foreign territory for exploration. The two palm-size maps of converging trails, the fingertips’ mesmerizing whorls; the backs of her hand were forked with blue rivers; she put her ear to the transparent skin and she could hear their tiny roaring. She entertained herself, all the way through to benediction, by choking her wrist tight enough to make the blood vessels bulge, monstrous. Her hands looked old, grotesque, even back then. The awful need seemed connected to that church pew, perhaps it had wormed into the private space housed in the little steeple of her hands, the way the Holy Spirit flew into the Virgin’s ear in that painting, only instead of God’s white dove, she got Lucifer’s black crow. The promises and warnings of Catechism class were simultaneously a worry and an inoculation, like Jonas Salk’s shot for polio. She had believed it all back then: loving God and obeying the right people could save a bad child from herself.
His eyes were closed, but he smiled, smoothed the sheet, let his hands rest across his chest, fingers splayed through gray curls. She stood by the bed, rocked a bit on her feet, remembering champagne days, the powerless swaying. Her husband’s belly rose and fell with the rhythmic purr that signaled his drift away from her. If the awful need were to be satisfied she had to do something, before his purr became a bombinating rumble that some nights threatened to bring down the ceiling plaster. She held her hands close to her face to check the progress of new knots and lines and lumps and knobs. The room was dark. She lifted one arm. Without having to see, she tapped at what swung there, a small empty hammock.
“Look at this,” she said.
“Mmmm.” Not a response but a sound that, asleep or awake, was simply absence. The air between them was so thick she thought she might choke on it, imagining black oxygen made tangible and their bedroom a sludge-filled cube requiring great, slogging, full-body paddling to cross.
“Look.” She turned on the lamp, poked him hard.
A quick soft “Aah!” He twitched, turned. A fin of light slid between the curtains, cut across his eyes gone wide then squinty, neither asleep nor awake, helpless in the stupefied and utterly exposed bewilderment that begs anyone in smacking range to have at it.
“I said, look. See what you’re married to? Nobody would fault you for slitting your wrists right now.”
He reached a finger toward the flesh of her arm, gave it a tender stroke. “Foolish woman. Get thee to bed.” His burlesque-bible voice. He found it funny when they were both naked, especially so when she went all grim on him. When they both needed to laugh, he declaimed made-up quotes in his signature voice of the prophet. She had always laughed. She wanted desperately to laugh now.
She was a fit 40 the day he asked if she would please consider spending the rest of her life with him. He’d written poems for her, stuck them in sappy cards for no occasion at all, always apologizing in advance for how appallingly bad they were. Twenty years later some of the lines were stitched into the folds of her brain. When exactly had those dear lies become intolerable?
Tonight she needed for him to look. She turned her backside to him. She needed her husband to show appropriate horror for the dimpled ass, to grieve with her the lost pair of pears suspended / from their shared stem / your strong spine.
“Take it back,” she said.
He rubbed his face. “Say what, hon?”
“Lies. Every night, you say lucky. You say beautiful. This—” She lifted the flesh of her buttocks with both hands, let it fall. “I want you to take it back, and I don’t want you lying anymore.” There were other things she ought not have to tell a grown man. That 60 is a slammed door without a crack of light. That he’d missed the sound of the key in the lock tonight, the tumblers clicking into place, between entrée and dessert. That his sweet, maddening insistence on the rightness of the world changed nothing. That a hundred-dollar meal just made them fat and flatulent. That a betrayed body is beyond the aid of a gym membership—yes, he’d given her that too. She’d been helpless, finding the certificate lurking in the pocket of the new birthday dress, helpless against a tide of rage. Her man, poor thing, better start swimming.
There had to be a word, something that could lasso this unnamed thing that was wrong with her. She’d read an essay somewhere that said naming was a kind of owning. Surely, after six decades of living, a woman had purchased with the hard currency of survival whatever defects clung to her. Why tonight—sitting across from the only person who would ever look at her and see absolutely nothing he did not love, shittiest bits included—did she suddenly feel she could not stand to be alive a single day longer? What was the fucking word? She needed to know before she did something she couldn’t undo.
Standing by the bed, she watched her husband drift toward sleep again. She ran her hands over her ass, feeling for new dents and dimples and globs. In her head, she sorted items she had come to believe were true about her assets and defects, about her aging body, about the general state of her soul or whatever thing it was that caused human beings to stare out into the black night.
- She was not beautiful, a fact she claimed to have long ago accepted; ergo neither time nor birthdays nor her body could be said to have betrayed her.
- Her doctor insisted she was insanely healthy.
- Proverbial steel-trap mind, that asset she still had; her man had the teeth marks to prove it.
- Rationalization, yes to that shortcoming. But being neither very old nor very young, she could not rely on excuses belonging to children and crones.
- Rage? She went at it headlong, savored its pleasures. Could a person be a victim of her own rage?
Who was there to ask, in the middle of the night? She put no stock in prayer, had forgotten how—if she’d ever learned. She had seen goodness and rightness in the strangest places, if only because her husband was forever pointing it out to her. Maybe what she needed was a good clobbering, a between-the-eyes wallop. She looked at her husband, who appeared to be asleep and had zero talent for harsh reckonings anyway. Then it landed, not with a blow but painless, lit and blinking in the center of her forehead like a yellow cartoon bulb, straightforward as the delivery of a cup of coffee or a note with a secret password. She sat down hard on the side of the bed.
Mean. She was just mean. Not a grand word, but serviceable, a suitcase of defects from stingy to wicked and everything in between. Her meanness was the opposite of glamorous cunning. It held not even mild foxiness, no stink of guile, no lusty hunger. Her meanness was thin, dilute, ordinary. Small. She was a vain, small woman who right now truly missed being able to get drunk. Much as she tried dressing it up as a fine hard blade making mince of good hearts, her meanness was nothing but a dull old table knife. Wielding it: her tatty old self, fumbling along, slouching toward a blood-letting.
But he was not bleeding. He was awake, and laughing. He pulled back the sheet, showed her his belly. She got in and slid over to him and she fussed that she was too hot and he said, “You’re telling me.” Together they shook the sheet up into the air and let it billow down over them. He called her beautiful several times, in several ways, in different silly voices. When he got to the pervert voice that he knew was her favorite, she laughed hard and put her hand over his mouth to make him stop.
He reached over her to turn out the light.
“Don’t forget you have a birthday too. Just you wait. You’ll soon see what I’m talking about,” she said to the velvet dark. “Come winter. Who’ll be laughing then?”
“Maybe we’ll go someplace special,” he whispered.
They lay in their silent room, thinking of places they hadn’t been, unspoiled places made for forgetting. She turned to tell him: This, this is the perfect place. But her husband had already drifted from her. She rubbed circles in the soft forest of curls, the old chest grayer than even yesterday, brushed a finger over the stiff hairs on the rim of his ear. Hobbit, she would call him, when the hairs sprang back with a vengeance, no matter his clipping and fussing.
She swallowed: no taste of blood. Neither of them bitten, not this time.
Paulette Livers is the author of the novel Cementville (Counterpoint Press), which received the Elle Magazine Lettres Prize, and was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and the Kentucky Literary Award. Among recognitions for her creative work are fellowships from the Artcroft Foundation, Aspen Writers Foundation, the Bedell Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, Ox-Bow Artist Residence, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In 2016 she was awarded a generous artist’s grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs. She has worked as a painter, illustrator, and book designer for publishers around the country. After many years of clandestine writing, she earned the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado, where she taught creative writing, worked as a speechwriter to the Chancellor, and curated the University’s reading series. The recipient of the Meyerson Prize for Fiction, Paulette’s work has been honorably-mentioned or shortlisted for the International Bridport Prize, Lamar York Prize, Hunger Mountain’s Mosher Prize for Short Fiction, Red Hen Press Short Story Award, and Writers@Work, and has appeared in many journals. Recognition has come from Center for the American West, Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Denver Women’s Press Club, Key West Literary Seminars, and Poets & Writers. She teaches at Story Studio Chicago and is Creative Director at Mighty Sword Studio, specializing in fine book design, editing, and helping writers and artists bring their work to the printed page. She is at work on her next novel. Please visit www.PauletteLivers.com.