He knew she had found a success, so he broke his sobriety pledge to celebrate with her.
He said, “I’m walking down to Ryan & Casey’s. Do you have what you need?”
She said, “I’m stopping for toilet paper. Does red wine go with risotto?”
He breathed without his wife hearing.
“Meet me at Rite Aid?” she said.
Bourbon. That had been his plan, but then Ryan & Casey’s had a new American whiskey. Colorado made all the things. He had been there, to Denver, for two bachelor parties and one wedding. The bachelor parties had been his own and his best man’s. Grab that guy had become the tagline from his party, when the woman’s brother, the man’s soon-to-be brother-in-law, fell out of a raft as white water rapids thrashed the groomsmen. Sometimes the man imagined how his life—how his wife—would be changed had her brother died.
The man had a set of keys to his wife’s car. He moved her tote off the passenger seat and drove up to the doors of Rite Aid. He watched his wife in the vestibule, looking amiss, standing and waiting before she realized she’d chosen the one nonautomatic door. Manual—that’s what he meant. He cranked up R. Kelly and rolled down the windows.
The woman was most his wife when she smiled—at least, that’s what he felt when she walked toward the car, hugging a bulk of toilet paper. The man liked seeing discomfort play across her face as she struggled with how much joy to express. The song, “Double Up,” was one they’d listened to in college, more than ten years ago, right after they first met. The man still remembered how the woman had asked him to decode rap slang: “foot patrol,” “brain,” “skeet.” He’d never decided if she was innocent or wanted to hear him be crude.
He was not as crude as his best man. The tagline at that guy’s bachelor party had been, take him to the tit-tays. The man’s friend desperately wanted to cum on a stripper’s breasts, and the man had been put in charge of finding a willing woman. “Pardon me,” the man had said, as though he were gearing up for the Grey Poupon jokes of his youth, “are your strippers willing to be ejaculated upon?” “Bro,” the best man had said. “No one says upon.”
In their apartment, the man measured ingredients for Manhattans. The Velvet Underground was playing, but “Heroin” came on and he turned that off. The song made the woman get a dreamy, crushed look in her eyes, which the man didn’t like. He didn’t like how she idolized drugs (he was more experienced than she was), or self-destruction. Her nostalgia for bad times, he could do without, too. Last winter, in a mania of cheerful tidying, the woman had thrown away all her photos, all the goldenrod and white envelopes of Kodak snapshots and negative strips she’d accumulated over her thirty years. She’d thrown out stubs from memorable movie dates, her Metro card from her trip to meet with her agent in New York, her bullhorn keychain from a childhood trip to Barnum and Bailey. The man had liked, if nothing else, that trinket. Look through one end and tootle back in time, a quarter-century ago, when the woman was a girl, five, with brown bangs, uneven, like they’d been trimmed with safety scissors. When the woman eventually changed her mind about having children, the man had hoped to show off that souvenir to those nameless swaddled bundles, their mother enjoying the circus. Instead, she’d ridded her dressers and trunks, her desktop of everything but her laptop, her drawers of her possessions and even his old billets-doux, and kept only a hospital bracelet from twelve years ago, her last overdose. He had stopped hearing her when she spoke about this; she mentioned it nearly every day.
The man shook the cocktails while the woman scanned her email.
“Would you help me reach these glasses?” he asked.
She’d agreed. He’d lifted the woman by the waist, sliding his hands under her dress, caressing her rump.
“One cherry or two?” He had warmed the entire jar in the microwave: the sugar had crystallized and formed a solid mass of blackly red syrup.
The woman cocked her head and the man dropped two maraschinos in her glass. They headed to the couch.
“Cheers,” the man said, handing the woman her glass. He had done everything right. “To your success. The first of many.”
“I think I’m about to take off,” the woman said. “It’s my time.”
“You’ll do it all.”
She laughed and extended her feet out long. She wore slippers. They looked like furry green clown shoes on the man’s lap. He didn’t mind; it was better than barefoot. He called her feet hooves.
They nursed their Manhattans through the zapping of leftover risotto. The woman’s contentment dulled: her success, the man knew, was never as remarkable as other people’s, her strife, always worse. He knew, too, how she must have first thought of her achievement—selling a story, for more money than she made teaching a one-semester class—how it put her in line with writers like John Updike or John Cheever, men bringing in paychecks for their words; how the grandiosity she indulged in soon ashamed her. On the turntable in the microwave, the herbs that had been stirred in at the end of the dish’s preparation yesterday darkened. Tarragon, the man could smell, above all else. There’d been dill, basil, parsley, chives, arugula. The man hated buying fresh herbs. They were expensive, a waste, who cared?
The woman had decided on last night’s dinner. Well. She knew how he felt.
The Manhattan didn’t taste particularly good with the risotto, but it sufficed for a toast. “To leftovers!” the man said. “And, again, your success.”
The woman put down her fork and raised her glass. “Leftovers. Why do they warrant a … uh … you know.”
“We’re not very good about eating them. This is an accomplishment.”
“I eat leftovers,” the woman said.
“All the time, for lunch.”
“Right.” The man took a sip. The drink was watery. The cherries dragged sugary tails. “We rarely eat them for dinner.”
During dinner, the woman recited a story about food waste she’d heard on public radio. One couple ate garbage, she said. Gar-bage, she repeated, drawing out the ahhhh. The man used nearly a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano to make the leftovers palatable; the woman pushed back from the table and stared at her plate.
“Do you want mine?” she said.
“Do you want me to want yours?” Just the last of his Manhattan remained. That was good.
“No, of course not. I’m full.”
“Would it help you to put it on my plate?”
The woman sounded exasperated. She pushed her dish away, at a diagonal. She set her fork and knife so far onto the plate that the utensils’ handles were in the food. After a minute, the woman said, “I might as well.”
“I don’t know why not.” The man finished the drink. He fished the cherry. “Do you have ice cream?”
The woman shook her head. She had eaten it for breakfast—he knew she knew he knew—because of her success.
The woman told the man she was going to the bedroom to read. He, he said, settling at his makeshift coffee table desk, would work. His successes paled next to the woman’s, and he wanted to catch up to then surpass then firmly and decidedly womp her. He wanted many millions of dollars, so much wealth they could afford to send every one of their someday-to-be-born children to private school, like the academy he passed on his daily commute. He imagined his life and the woman’s, their young children on vernal expeditions to white water rapids or equestrian camps, the man and his wife sitting in separate offices, at actual desks, with permanent, immovable computers. They would have no need to make resolutions about drinking; they’d have no need to drink. The man would be just enough superior to the woman that she wouldn’t be able to look back and romanticize her youth as any time of great greatness. She would see her thirty-year-old success as meager at worst, incremental at best, a step closer to her husband’s.
He worked until his eyes felt like salt. He went into their bedroom to see if the woman wanted to join him. They brushed their teeth together.
“What have you been up to?” The woman’s voice sounded like an untacked hem, a snagged start of something to be pulled.
“Work,” the man said. He flossed methodically and threw the string in the toilet. “How about you?”
“Looking … ” The woman stared at the counter. The man found himself in the mirror over the sink. “At pictures from the awards for young writers last night.”
“Oh give it up.”
Awards were in another state. Last night had been risotto.
His wife’s face clouded. He led her back to the couch; this time, she tucked her knees to her chest. He brought her a glass of water. She still wore her work clothes, the sweater dress under which he’d felt her up; at some point, the man had changed into pajamas.
He’d read that to be successful one must be comfortable, to feel confident and uninhibited in one’s skin. One writer wore yoga pants; another, no make-up, pulled back hair; another, bandanas. The man told the woman to forget about the awards; she had her successes and they were many and they were just a start, the start, hers. He told her not to be too hard on herself.
She agreed. The man was glad—and now, could he work?
She might go to sleep.
She didn’t. She went to the bedroom and took off her clothes and put on an old T-shirt that she’d bought at a concert at the Aragon Ballroom with her high school boyfriend. At the time, that boyfriend told her it was silly to spend $30 on a piece of clothing; God, she’d been depressed. The shirt was café au lait, with fuzzy brown writing and the same brown banding at the neck and around the armholes—sleeves. Now the fabric at the seams in the armpits was split, so the woman’s skin could be poked with a finger, which her husband had done over the years, to force her to laugh. She got into bed. She let her mind wade through the old, good times she had had in this shirt—that high school boyfriend, he’d been the impetus for overdose number one.
The man worked for another two hours. He would forget everything about principles and art, write a thriller. He typed noisily, like each letter were another dollar that could be gobbed onto the inevitable advance. When he came to the bedroom, the woman was asleep under the quilt. He touched her neck, her shoulder through her filmy T-shirt. She was asleep—out—K.O.’d—conked. The stripper they’d hired for his best man’s party had looked drowsy, with hooded eyes, nodding off the entire time she’d partied in their hotel suite. The man had been a trooper, calling all the escort services and exotic dance clubs until—well, he’d been a sport, encouraging his buddy not to chicken out, joining in, too, when his presence was requested.
The man felt his erection, like a handshake that grips and takes hold.
Three, two, one, he whispered. He imagined glazing his wife’s face with hard work.
She didn’t look happy. She didn’t look sad, either, in sleep, but concerned, teething on a problem. Her lips frowned.
The man went to the bathroom. Neither of them had flushed, and their floss floated on the water in the toilet bowl, like a child’s scribble. The man took out his penis and admired it in his hand. He stripped. In the mirror, he saw his shoulders. They looked awesome. Swole. He’d been hitting the pull-ups, hard. Running with dumbbells. He turned on the shower. His body was bound for success. Destined. He stood under the water and closed his eyes and signed his name on the wall.
© JoAnna Novak
[This story was selected by Rachel Wild]