For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Diane challenged me with "I'm tired of being what you want me to be" and I challenged runaway sentence with "No artist should feel guilty. If you start a painting and you don't like it, you don't finish it- Truman Capote".
Her shoe made an incredibly loud sound when it hit the floor. She was sitting on our bed, looking down, her auburn hair in her face. Her ankle was across her other knee, and she was flexing and stretching her bare foot , rubbing the bottom with her knuckle. I couldn't see her expression clearly, but it looked and sounded like a grimace. Her other foot, still teetering in a strappy shoe, was on the floor. She switched legs and undid the other one, letting it fall next to its mate. For such a delicate looking construction, they made a thunk that sounded more like a work boot when they hit our bedroom floor. She rubbed the other foot the same way. I couldn't help peeking, like a naughty schoolboy, to see if I could glimpse her underwear.
"You did really well tonight," I said, unknotting my tie. I fired up the TV, which was playing ESPN silently, and started scanning the crawl for the West Coast baseball scores. She was sitting, looking down at her feet, her hair hanging loose. Her bright red toenails stood out clearly against the brown wood. I hung my tie, then slid my jacket off and onto a hanger. We had attended a charity event, awkward small talk and conversation about vacation homes amid the swells at a private golf club. It was one of those things where you had to be seen- the money people had to know you were still around.
She stood up, stretching her back out, gesturing towards the back of her neck. I knew what that meant, stepping behind her to guide the tiny black zipper down to the small of her back. She peeled the dress down off of her shoulders, then stepped out of it, placing it on its own hanger. I looked at her up and down, the black silk slip clinging to her curves, the deeper black of her bra and panties showing clearly. She looked great for someone with three kids, but that wasn't even it. She looked great, period.
I know she hates nights like this. It was all artifice and fake snobbery. She compared herself to trophy wives half her age, feeling like she had to measure up to their impossible thinness. There was hardly anyone, outside of the serving staff, our age. Nobody was up nights with a vomiting child, no one who understood the helpless crying heartbreak of the only girl not invited to the sleepover. It wasn't our friends, but it was our circle, professionally speaking. If I was going to come to them asking for funding or exploring a partnership, I had to be a face they knew. So it was into the uncomfortable clothes, and out in the night to talk to people you didn't like for reasons you didn't really understand.
She slipped the silk up and over her head, folding it carefully and placing it on a chair. Without speaking, she took my jacket down and placed it on the chair. I guess it probably is time to get those cleaned. She reached her arms back and undid her bra. I watched the tiny, sad shift as gravity took its toll on her breasts. She slid her underwear off, then walked naked to our dresser, pulling out a pair of cotton pants with bears on them, along with a t shirt from a 5K she ran while four months pregnant. I wanted to tell her she was beautiful, that I was proud of her, that I was sure she did my fledgling company good tonight, but everything I wanted to say sounded patronizing and wrong in my head.
"I know this isn't your kind of thing," I said. I noticed that Seattle had won, and I paused, waiting for the screen to flip. My pitcher, however, had not gotten the win, so the game didn't help my fantasy baseball team. Damn, I thought. Another chance to gain ground lost. I watched her tug the pants on, then pull the shirt down over herself. It was enormous and billowy on her post baby form. I wanted to touch her, but I was afraid to. There were times when she didn't want anything but silence, and I felt like this was one of those times. Maybe.
"But I appreciate the fact that you did it," I continued, unable to bear the silence. She walked across the room and into the bathroom, shutting the door firmly behind her. I unbuttoned my shirt, watching the highlights play silently. A Boston outfielder went high against a wall, turning a Toronto double into an out, then the screen cut to the same outfielder slugging a ball where no one could catch it, high and deep into the left field stands. They showed the score, Boston pulling out a 7-3 win, then switched to a New York game, the big city titans slamming hits all over the place against a parade of helpless Kansas City pitchers. Starting a business felt like that sometimes- no matter what pitch you throw, someone is slamming it back at you twice as fast.
I heard the water run, and then the swish swish sound of tooth brushing. What was she thinking? I know she recognized the utility of these affairs, but I also knew how much she hated doing them. I felt guilty about it, hating how I pulled her away from her preferred Sunday night, sweatpants and thick socks and a book of poetry, into this world of illusion and makeup and the appearance of achievement. I wanted to ask her what was wrong, but I would get "nothing", and that meant everything. I took my shirt off, and then my pants and socks, climbing into my own sleep attire. It made me think of the heedless nights we spent as newlyweds, climbing into bed naked and clinging to each other for warmth as we both climbed the corporate ladder. We were now more like ships in the night, passing only enough information to keep from colliding in the dark.
She came out, her face scrubbed of makeup and devoid of expression. I followed her lead, performing my ablutions into the silence of an empty room. Somewhere else in the house, a child rolled over and a bed creaked in response. I heard the whispering thud of one of our cats moving in response to the sudden noise. I should feel pride, putting in all this effort to sustain this little family, this tiny nugget of home in a sea of other people's problems. I washed my own face, and brushed my own teeth. I came out to the flashing shadows of ESPN playing over my wife's form. She had pulled the blanket up tight, which I knew meant she was done with me, with all of us, for the night. Nothing short of tears would get her up now.
I watched the screen, a coach tearfully resigning after a recruiting scandal. There was a touch of cruelty to it, the baying press corps demanding answers. You never know how hard it is to be someone else, what challenges they faced, what secret reasons they had for their misdeeds. My wife was curled up tight, on her left side, facing away from the door, away from my side of the bed. I wanted to tell her I appreciated her efforts in putting up with this nonsense, but I knew what she would say. Probably a simple, "I know," or a curt, "Go to sleep," or an aggressive, "So what? I still have to go to the stupid things." I looked down at her as the changing images bathed her in different colors of light. I didn't say anything, listening for the relaxing shift of her breathing that meant she was asleep.
"I'm sorry," I wanted to say to her sleeping form. I'm sorry I took the quiet girl with the funky glasses and took her away into a world where she didn't belong. I'm sorry I made you into someone you're not. I'm sorry my world casts a shadow into yours. I'm sorry that I made you fake it. I'm sorry that, like a coach trying to recruit a player, you have to say things you know aren't true. I know she signed up for it, I know she promised that whatever came with it, she'd swallow it as long as it meant she would be with me. I know she said that when she said she'd marry me.
I pulled the covers back, turned off the TV, and climbed into bed. I laid down on my left side, looking at the nape of her neck and the curve of her hip under the blanket. "I wonder if you meant it," I whispered to myself.