When he comes home he does not think it is for the purpose of touching her. They have been married forty three years, and the sense of urgency that once rang in him like the tolling of an enormous bell has long since slowed, rung softer, and finally missed connection; not enough velocity in the original pull, no one to keep it going.
It is a thin November day. The sun made a brief appearance mid-morning, and then disappeared behind cloud cover—not specific clouds carrying a specific storm, but the general gray that spreads over the whole sky and seals everything, like a water-tight tarp staked down over a beached dingy. In the car he watches the patchwork of building and sky through the scratch marks of branches. The highway seems oddly empty to him, though he does not usually drive at this time, and he realizes he has always assumed something he knew nothing about. This unsettles him a little, almost makes him turn back. He left work an hour early; just turned off his computer, took his coat off the back of his chair, and went out through the main elevator. He is not sure why.
The hours of four pm to six pm have always haunted her. They stretch in a long, deadened arc before her; the light fades, but not into an ending. There is a loss of what has come before and a dread of what is to come, all at once. Over the years, she has received all kinds of advice from whomever she admits this too. He told her to cherish the time, because soon they would have kids and there would be no time at all. This was before they found out about the little, unexplained deviation in her body—unruptured follicle syndrome—that held her captive like it was a suicide bomber inside her. The little menace, she calls it in her journals, as though it is a child. She imagines two hands clutching grenades that like her body have deadened, gone flat. If you pulled the pins nothing would happen, not even the failure.
She used to go out around four, trying to ignore the light. She would wander down fluorescently lit shopping aisles, go to the movies. A psychologist once asked whether anything “bad” had happened to her in the late afternoon. She went to a psychologist when they lived just outside Reno, when they were in their late twenties and her body and soul still felt a project. She doesn’t remember why she stopped going—maybe they moved, maybe eventually he asked her whether it was really worth the money and she said no without really knowing either way.
Her girlfriends whom she had known the longest time told her to take up hobbies—cut out coupons, watch a game show, mend something. She was always a little angry at them for this, that mindless ways to fill the time were the best placation they could think of. It was as if she went up to someone and asked, really asked, her hands clutching at the front of their trousers, her hair standing on end, “how do you do it? How do you get through the days?” and they just peeled her fingers off one by one and shrugged and said, “you spend them trying to forget them.” She was once taut with life; even the bad was laced with the good. A teenage heartbreak was just a rush of adrenaline, an opportunity for an honest appraisal of the self. She had plans for a trip to Greece and Turkey, she would live in a house with lots of plants.
For many years after they received the news and after they moved to Minnesota she took her friends advice, for lack of anything better. But now she is too tired for that, and mostly she lays in bed in the late afternoon, half-dozing, until she hears his car in the driveway.
The news is on in the kitchen, a low muttering. He puts his briefcase down at the doorway and pauses, listening to the house. It is an old house, full of squeaky floorboards and a kind of constant yawning, as though it always held the echo of wind blowing through it. He hears movement at the upstairs and looks up to see her standing at the top in old sweatpants, one of the pockets hanging out.
“What are you doing home?” she asks.
“Why is the news on in the kitchen?” he replies, not as though he is ignoring her question, but as though this is some form of answer. “Is someone else here?”
She frowns. “No. I always leave the news on.”
“Oh,” he says brusquely. “Oh. I didn’t know that.”
He looks at his shoes for a moment, and then in a sudden burst of motion he bounds up the stairs and tries to pick her up, but she is shocked and her body tenses up and makes it hard on him. He ends up lifting her half as though she is a dancer, half like an infant. The blood has rushed to his skin, and he breathes hard, holding her awkwardly on the landing. She is giggling, ashamed, the girlish insecurity that has always repulsed him still clinging to her old body.
“Come to bed with me,” he says authoritatively, as though to squash her uncertainty and regain his desire. He has always been like this: appearing the most certain when he is most unsure.
She pulls herself out of his arms, stepping down out of his embrace. “What are you doing, darling?” she asks, smoothing down her shirt.
His hands flap at his sides. The old wound inside him cuts itself down the middle. He remembers a time when they were very young, and the blows between them were still tactile, still a kind of mystery, when they had lain on the hood of his Toyota pickup just outside of Albuquerque and he had sobbed in her arms beneath the blazing sky, his body wracked with a burning sorrow that she would never desire him as much as he desired her. But she had held him, all tenderness, that night. The sorrow had still contained a question mark. Somewhere along the line he had lost the distinction between desire for her and the desire to be desired. Her yes’s were never enough, he entered and left her body still feeling as though he were an intruder, as though he were a thief who broke into houses and took nothing, did it just to wander hesitantly around the rooms of another person’s life. And when she said no, when her body turned from his hands as he gently stroked the length of her, when she said, “not tonight, hun,” or when he tried to fight her resistance with his own, not turning to her familiar body as she got into bed, laying awake for hours awaiting her touch for weeks, months, years at a time. As he stands at the top of the stairs he realizes he came home because he thought he had forgiven her, that the scar tissue was gone, but now he feels it rattling in him, loose flesh he cannot reach inside himself to rip away.
She looks at the dance of wrinkles on his forehead. He is staring down, at some space between their feet. She regrets her laughter, knows how deeply it has hurt him. She reaches out and strokes his forearm, wants to say something, does not know what to say. He pulls his arm away and walks back down the stairs. She watches the slope of his shoulders go, the little indent at the back of his neck, thinks about how she never thought she would know him with gray hair. Had known in some part of herself, a conceptual part, but had never really imagined it. She goes back to the bedroom and sits on the bed, in the imprint, still warm, that she left only minutes before. She stares out the window. A sunset has leaked through the gray, has smeared the end of the street in purple and gold. A boy has set up a ramp on the sidewalk outside his house and is riding his bike off of it, over and over again. The ramp barely lifts a foot off the ground, but he seems to never grow tired of it, pedaling at it furiously, screeching to a halt on the other end, turning the bike around, starting over. She watches him for a long time, until the sunset goes and he eventually drags the ramp onto the front lawn and leaves it and the bike in a discarded pile, rushing indoors. When the boy is gone she gets up and goes downstairs. He is at the kitchen table, drinking whiskey with fat cubes of ice.
She sits down beside him. “Have you eaten?” she asks.
He shakes his head.
“I’ll make you something.” She pauses, waiting for a response. “Would you like that, hun? I said I’ll make you something.”
He nods. “Yes, thank you.”
She gets up quickly and goes to the refrigerator. There are some cold leftovers, spaghetti in a Tupperware, the thick strands banding together. She pours olive oil from a plastic bottle into a frying pan and puts a large wedge of bunched spaghetti in, looks in the refrigerator and finds some mushrooms that she cuts and adds. The oil pops and sizzles. The news is still on low.
“Why are you home early?” she asks softly. “Did something happen at work?”
“No,” he says. There is a gentleness returning to his voice. She feels a wave of relief—this is the tenderness of the man she fell in love with, who understands her, who knows what she has gone through, surely he cannot forget, they’ve gone through it together, her body is not her own, after all, there was no way she could have known when she married him, maybe she would have spared him if she had, no, no, that’s not right, I am not that selfless, I would have taken him with me, wherever I was headed.
He watches her at the stove. She has grown thinner with age. There are two kinds of women, his father had always half-joked. The ones who grow gaunt and the ones who grow plump. You have to decide early on in life whether you want someone whose edges will cut you, or someone whose form will disappear day by day, until the woman you once married is buried. You have to choose carefully. He had not intended to pick the former. Or maybe he had, maybe that’s a lie—you think you’re choosing the good and really you are choosing the beautiful, jagged edges, bone, feather-down insecurity and all. But she moves with such kindness around the kitchen; all the familiar gestures, the urgency with which she is trying to feed him.
“Thank you,” he says to her back and she turns and smiles, her little lips spreading thin over her teeth like butter over too much bread. She brings him the food, sits down in the same spot.
“Somebody jumped off the bridge this morning,” he says as he takes a bite. “The traffic was piled up for two miles.”
“Oh, god,” she whispers. She presses her palms flat to the table and runs them along the smoothed wood.
“There were so many cop cars. Probably a dozen. And then ambulances and a fire truck. They were all just standing along the side of the bridge looking down. And all the cars were stuck.”
“I guess it’s protocol to have that many.”
“Yeah. I’m sure. But they weren’t doing anything. I mean, what could they do?” he swirls his whiskey around in his glass.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and he knows she is talking about more than the traffic.
They talk all evening, the parmesan hardening into the oil on his plate. He drinks one or two more whiskeys. At some point she says she wants a shower and they both get up and go upstairs, their feet creaking on the staircase in unison. He lies in bed while she showers, the light still on, his chest bare. He runs his fingers through the lengthening hairs, growing white. The freckles on his skin are stark now, shocking.
She comes back into the room in a towel, goes to the blinds and pulls them shut. He can smell the heat coming off her skin; lavender, honey-milk, a spice he cannot place. She stands at the foot of the bed, feeling the cold wood beneath her feet. He is half-upright against the headboard, a washed up ship, skin loose on his body. His desire hums in the air, a frequency her ears got accustomed to a long time ago and slowly forgot to hear. Somewhere inside her there is an answering call, a mild, wavering thing. Something like a child.
“Can I turn the lights off?” she asks.
“Of course,” he says.
She crosses the room and flicks off the light, walks to her side of the bed and lets the towel drop as she climbs in. They turn to face one another, their palms cupping the trowel-blade of each other’s hipbones. Their faces are close. She listens to his breathing, hears the catch of it deep in his lungs that has not always been there, that he acquired at some point during the time in which she has loved him. She pulls herself a little closer. She knows this is not exactly what he wanted—not how he had wanted it, nor was it something she would have come to on her own, but it is a conclusion across the near distance of their love that is enough, that has rolled through the years gentle and solemn, enough, enough.