“Honey, what do you say we act a little crazy, try something new tonight.”
Beth tucked a leg beneath her on the slick wood bench. It was Friday, dinnertime, which meant they were at O’Malley’s.
Tom thought his wife sounded excited, like something other than Friday dinner might be at stake here—a luxury vacation or a new car or something. Her right hand, pressed tight between the bench and the back of her thigh, was not visible to him, and this he found oddly disconcerting.
“Be sure to ask about the specials, okay?”
They looked briefly at each other and all Tom saw was prettiness.
“Will do,” he said, leaning in to examine the oversized menu he was holding. His head was down but he smiled, feeling it in the corners of his eyes. He loved the woman sitting across from him, had loved her thirty-two years straight through.
He was enjoying the feel of the room, the same as he’d enjoyed it every week for the last year or so. It was five o’clock: the after-work crowd had yet to push in, but with the bartenders and waitresses setting up for the night ahead, the perfect amount of noise was circulating. Their table, the same one they’d sat at the week before, smelled faintly of pine cleaner, and all around, the same reddish amber color: the paneled walls, the hardwoods, the bar, even the IPA he was working on. He felt completely unbothered, wrapping a big hand around his pint glass, closing up the spaces between his fingers.
He watched quietly as Beth rifled through her purse for something, the veins on the back of her hand rippling. Her fingernails were painted a light pink and he saw where the polish was starting to chip around the tips. Observing her hands moving hurriedly like this, a scene from the week before entered his head:
“Where the hell is it coming from?” Beth, crouching before their open fridge, had yanked the vegetable crisper from its track and was waving it behind her and in his general direction.
“Empty! There’s nothing in here, and it still smells completely foul!”
Her head was tilted at a funny angle, the back of it framed between two wire shelves as she continued to hunt for the source of the obnoxious smell that had invaded the fridge a few days earlier. It really was strange—even after removing every last item, the stench persisted.
“Maybe some baking soda? Isn’t that what they say to use for things like this?”
He’d wanted to help, but this clearly wasn’t the sort of input she valued. She stood up and turned around, facing him, visibly exasperated. Her hair was loose and curling in at the sides and for the briefest of moments he was confused: Did we just make love?
“Tom, no, that’d only mask the problem. What if it’s molding somewhere? Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a piece of food decaying in that vent in the back or something.”
The gravity she was giving the situation touched him in a particular way. He felt the same as he did on returning home from work to a well-made bed (she folded the sheet over just like they did in hotel rooms), the same as he did on pulling open his top dresser drawer to find three neatly aligned rows of socks. He felt moved by his wife’s concern for the state of their home, for their daily existence, for his wellbeing. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the full range of qualities Beth brought to their relationship; certainly he valued her wit, her humor and imagination, everything else. It was just that—and he sometimes felt vaguely guilty about this—it felt supremely nice to be taken care of, looked after. Every so often, when he sensed that this particular feeling was crowding out other important feelings, he consoled himself with the recognition that he never took anything she did for him for granted.
Beth’s head was back in the fridge. “Seriously, I don’t understand what the problem is!” Even muffled by the sound of the fan, an edge in his wife’s voice alarmed Tom, making him mildly uneasy. But she’d relaxed soon after and his uneasiness had passed.
In the end, she’d gone the baking soda route; it had smelled fine since.
“So Tom, we should probably talk about it, you know.”
He tightened his hand around the glass.
“Yes, I suppose we should,” he said.
For a second he lost his position, thrown spinning into a world without warm walls and ponytail waitresses. It made him think of home again—about how it was at home sometimes, how bad it felt to talk about certain things there. Often at home, hearing the worst news made him feel like his entire body was expanding with the sourness of it, as though he were very literally fat. He’d last felt this way four days earlier when their son Patrick had called. Expecting the usual refresher conversation—school, work, the controversial White Sox trade—he was unprepared for words that reached through the phone to hang like toxic paint fumes in the air around him. Scott and I are getting married.
Their son had been openly gay for years now, talking about his “dating life” in a breezy manner and with just enough frequency so that Tom could feel like the all-accepting, Democratic father he’d always just assumed he was. But this—marriage—was a different ballgame, a real clincher, he’d realized as he stood on the porch, the fatness creeping down into fingers that seemed to swallow the phone at his ear. He’d looked inside at Beth who was leaning flimsily against the kitchen counter.
But he noticed the familiar line of water pitchers on the counter behind his wife and the salt and pepper shakers square in the center of the table and he was sucked pleasantly back in. Then their waitress, Rachel, with the long hair that always looked slightly damp, came by with silverware and napkins, arranging everything, and it was as if he weighed nothing.
With this, he was ready for what he knew was coming. Sufficiently backed. They both were, he thought, meeting his wife’s eyes.
When he thought about it, as he did routinely (hard not to; it had become a verifiable phenomena), the significance of such complete and total preparedness was not lost on him. It was incredible, really, the effect these surroundings had on him, that he could be on the verge of another “difficult discussion” and at the same time in possession of an almost prayer-like sense of calm. It was this calm that had carried him through several such talks in the last year: the ones about their daughter’s inability to settle on a boyfriend who didn’t cheat, steal, or compound her credit card debt, the ones about the sickening toll the shit-economy was having on his painting business, and then the one, the hardest one of all, about the possibility of his wife’s illness returning.
“Yes, well to be honest, I don’t really know where to start,” said Beth, resting her elbows on the table so that her breasts pressed together, the cleavage just visible from beneath her thin shirt.
“Patrick did mention something about having the ceremony at our place, in the backyard, so we could maybe start there. I don’t know, we’ll need to tidy up—get the garden in order, the hedges trimmed, that sort of thing.”
“Yes, the hedges,” Tom heard himself say, his eyes lingering on the graceful dip at Beth’s neckline. Rachel returned with water glasses, setting them down carefully, almost daintily, as though they were raw eggs that might otherwise leak and spew all over.
“Are you two ready to order?” she said, looking at Beth, then at him. And she had really looked, not just glanced but looked, he thought, who knew he’d ultimately leave the ordering up to his wife. For, as long as they were here, Beth could do anything, beautifully.
“I believe we’re close,” he said. “But could you tell us, are there any specials today?”
“Oh, of course, I’m sorry I didn’t automatically—you always order off the menu, so I just assumed. Anyway, today for an entrée we have tortellini stuffed with Italian cheese and tossed in a gorgonzola cream sauce with mushrooms. That’s nine dollars and comes with a side salad and a complimentary pint. Oh, and you can add chicken to that for an additional three dollars,” said Rachel, and the escalating way Tom was feeling reminded him of those Internet videos where flowers bloomed in fast-motion, daisies and tulips rapidly loosening to Bach or Stravinsky or some other giant. “Then, our special salad includes mixed greens, grilled shrimp wrapped with pancetta and sage, roasted peppers, and gorgonzola dressing, and that’s twelve dollars. And for dessert, we have Key Lime Pie, made in-house with fresh key lime juice and a light graham cracker crust,” Rachel finished, standing there waiting with all the strength in the world. Tom felt this strength, felt it rise up from within this incredible amber forest, and he leaned into it.
He shifted his attention from Rachel back to his wife—the delicate creases around her eyes, her graying hair, her pale freckled arms—and he wanted to spread his strength, and the strength of his love, around: He wanted for Patrick the classiest ceremony. He wanted the tastiest food, the liveliest entertainment, the most beautiful flowers. He wanted the best photographer, the perfect weather.
“Ohh, let’s see. I think we’ll start with the onion rings, then have that delicious sounding tortellini and the pie for dessert,” said Beth. “Anything else Tom?”
“I think that sounds just fine.”
“Alrighty. Shouldn’t be long for those rings,” said Rachel, and Tom knew to trust.
Five minutes later, he was salivating at the smell of fried batter. Beth was talking about the guest list, rattling off names of relatives and friends, situating everyone in imagined chairs. As he watched her lips move, he wondered if being here made it easier for her too.
“That all sounds great, honey,” said Tom, thinking for a few moments about ways to compliment someone on everything at once.
He kept his eyes on Beth’s mouth as the steaming entree was set precisely between them. They each took a bite and Tom couldn’t believe how good it was. He helped himself to more, really shoveling it in but all the while staring at the mouth of his wife as it alternated between chewing and planning. Her lipstick had started to look strange to him—skeletal, with most of the color visible only around the edges of her lips.
He was several bites into the meal when something about the experience changed for him. Or stopped. The rich dinner was no longer filling his mouth with supremely good flavors but with a taste markedly less brilliant—the difference between “Red” and “Romantic Pink” on a Benjamin Moore paint swatch. The shift alarmed him, and he stared at the plate of pasta and took another bite, wanting to be sure. And as he broke the soft noodles with his teeth, the sharp kick of the sauce permeated, which, sure enough, produced the same “markedly less” sensation in his mouth. He looked up at Beth, who, still eating, seemed perfectly pleased, and with some effort he swallowed his food.
As the bolus snaked down his digestive tract, it carried with it all manner of terrible. Tom felt like his whole body, upper to lower, segment by segment, was going bad. Utterly, almost comically, rancid. And suddenly, just like that, he was seeing the woman seated across from him as he saw her at home sometimes, only worse: not just weak, but able. At the same time, his surroundings had become cold and foreign, no longer snug, protective. He tried to climb back in, but the flowers had already begun blooming in reverse and he only half succeeded. Still, it was enough to get him reasonably back on track, and since he needed to attribute something “not her” to the shift, he chose convenience—damnit Patrick, how did this happen?—which might have worked had he not looked again at his wife, whose sex had become so sprawling he knew it was no longer he alone containing it.