A Box Marked Fragile
For the longest time you pretend your husband isn’t dying, as if he’s just terribly tired or perhaps a quadriplegic. You wake in the morning, roll over, smile into his eyes. You kiss his cheek and his skin is a raw steak pressed to your lips. He is always perspiring and cold. You say good morning honey and his mouth, so dry, it is all he can do to rasp wasps from his throat and watch them swarm about the room shifting only his eyes.
You offer him breakfast, his favourite, eggs florentine. And you laugh as his wasp-watching eyes glance down at the tube that exits his arm like a root. You say oh, you’re eating intravenously today? Well, okay, no matter, enjoy, my love!
And you cook the eggs florentine because it is all your hands know on a Sunday morning.
You take longer to cook than before. Is arthritis finally happening? You flex your wrists in hope of a twinge but you’re oiled and your hinges move smooth as syrup from the bottle. You watch the eggs in the pan, their yolks hardening by the tick of the clock, their translucence turns yellow, the membrane stiffens, rigor mortis sets in and you know what it is to kill. You finally scoop the corpses from their chamber and eggs look so much more picturesque when their carcasses are hardened with death.
You’ve forgotten the spinach, it’s wilting like elderly skin, and you find yourself hungry for flesh. You’ve set the English muffins on the windowsill to cook. It’s mild outside this morning and the prepubescent sun is peering through the glass. You consider undressing for it. Showing it what a body is and seducing it, come back to bed. But your husband is upstairs, and you’ve never been able to keep quiet when the day reaches its climax.
Outside on the lawn, your pile is smaller. At least three of the objects have been taken overnight. His golf bag, you notice with glee, and his briefcase, and one bag of his clothing. It once turned your lawn into a junkyard, but now just a few things remain, scattered as if they’ve fallen from the sky. All there is left to be taken is his croquet set, a porcelain fish, a laptop satchel, and a bag of undergarments.
You check on the muffins with the back of your hand but they are doughy and raw and you remember not to sigh in relief. The microwave dings, the hollandaise is warmed, and you smile at its call. Wonder what it would be to make love to a microwave. The same monotonous rotation each night. Pressing his buttons without reciprocation. And when he was finished he would stop without a thought to your wanting. DING. Time’s up. The beeping stops and you frown at the stairs, what if he pressed his pager at the same time as the microwave’s song? He could be dying right now, and he is, but he could be dead.
You run for the stairs, and standing at the bottom, the incline seems impossible. You can see his door. The light filtering through the cracks in the jamb like a leak. You feel gravity and the air is sodden and you can’t lift your leg to the first step and then all of them.
But you love your husband, remember? You do. Take the banister, drag it down to lever yourself, the first, second, third steps are the hardest. You reach the landing, press your face to his door, feel your own breath ricocheting back into your mouth like the door is alive and exhaling into your waiting lips, and you wonder what it would be to have a door as a lover. His wood always hard for you, consistent in his to and fro, but he’s not much for changing positions.
You open your lover, slow as a secret, and when you see his chest rise, fall, rise, a calm lake lapping shores, you feel dread and then you remember to smile.
Your eggs are nearly ready, honey, you announce to the still. You giggle. His face is crayoned, wax and grey. His breath is rattling like the last pill in a bottle and his dialysis machine hums its only lullaby.
Want me to bring it up to you? Breakfast in bed? The machine begins to gargle his fluids and you pet its control panel. Good boy.
Then you stroke the machine, run your fingertips over its cables, dance your hand all the way to the power outlet where you grip the plug and close your eyes.
You breathe and time passes and you open your eyes and the plug remains hugged tight to its outlet, post-coital or pre-coital or coital. You look back up at your dying husband. Ha! You say to his begging eyes, he looks at you like God and you feel powerful and you laugh. I really got you that time, didn’t I? You really thought I was going to do it that time.
There is a knock at the door and you start at the sound. It is a sound that is not you and is not the machine that keeps him alive and it feels like being stuck by a splinter. You say who would come knocking on a Sunday, my love? A Sunday morning, at that? Did you invite friends over?
He closes his eyes and you prise them open again. Stare into them and remember the day you stared into them in hatred. The day you’d met.
He was tall. His shoulders broad, arms thick, his smile wide. He’d pulled over when you were roadside and broken down and late for work and dating someone else. He’d said what’s up, sweetheart? You need a hand? He set his hands on his hips like he was some kind of superman and said, Want a hand?
You held up your hands. Smiled. I already have two of my own, thanks. Clenched teeth, wished him away. But he didn’t.
You thumbed your phone in your pocket and watched his face. It looked as if he were wearing makeup to hide something horrible. The leery smile a clumsy disguise. You watched him finger the warmth of your engine, stroke its insides with long bones.
I said I don’t need any help, you felt your skin prickling with heat. Acupuncture from the inside, you shrugged your jacket from your shoulders and realised, to your own disgrace, that you were jutting your chest like some kind of crude pigeon. You watched his hands work the car’s organs and you wiped a layer of sweat from your plumage. He was looking, now. And you were ready, now.
He slammed the hood and brushed you with static as he made his way to the driver’s seat. He twisted the key in the ignition. A bark, and then a cackle, and then nothing. He climbed out of the comatose car and shrugged. Said I’m an accountant.
And then you unbuttoned his jeans.
They’re around his ankles now, his underwear, that is, you never bother to dress him anymore. It’s like sterilising a junkyard, you explained to him the morning you decided to forego daywear for good. Pointless. Anyhow, haven’t I always told you I like you best in the nude? You’d laughed, kissed his meaty lips, now you’re always ready for me.
You haven’t slept with your husband in a long time but you see his nakedness each day when you strip the only layer left and redress him in another, identical pair. You stare at his nudity and shake your head at him, shrunken in shame. I want you, you whisper and he grunts a sound that could be wanting or warning and so you take him between your palms and try to start a fire the way you learnt in girl scouts.
The knock at the door is persistent. A beat more reliable than the heart. More dependable than a clock. A beat that you trust to be forever, so constant as his machine’s steady beep, beep, beep. The two tones fall in time and you let your robe fall open. His eyes are on the ceiling and you reach out, press his chin with the pad of your thumb, lever his head down to let him stare at your body and he closes his eyes.
You climb atop him, straddle his pointless legs. But as hard as you try, he’s not. And so you dismount in disappoint and slam the door closed behind you.
The door knocker continues and the English muffins are still fresh, sensitive, their skin hasn’t developed a crust. And so you knot your robe and twist the knob and open the door to a delivery boy.
He hands you a box marked fragile and you wonder what it would be to fall in unrequited love with a cardboard box. To break past his tough exterior to find nothing but emptiness within. You keep putting things into him, your love, your words, but those are not the things he is looking for and he remains empty and cold and flimsy to the touch.
Inside the box is your husband’s new bed remote. You caress the tape that holds the package closed and the boy watches your fingers tease the slit. You smile and let the fabric drop from one shoulder, the top of your breast bare and bared. You’re defiantly unabashed and his confidence is older than him because he doesn’t look away, embarrassed, no, instead he tugs on the satin with his gaze, disrobes you with dextrous eyes.
You tug him inside by his FedEx logo and it all happens as quickly as that first time roadside. His khakis are a puddle and you’re shoving him onto the couch. The noose around his ankles trips him and he falls, helpless, and you can pretend he is your husband. He’s younger than you first thought, there’s still fat that hasn’t fled his cheeks, but his lips have purpose and his fingers deliver, probing you like a parcel with too much enthusiasm for someone of his profession.
But when you drag his underwear down and let his youth free, the thought of having it inside of you feels like Botox and so you cinch your robe and stand.
Go, you tell him, you should go.
What, and now he is just a teenager being told he can’t.
Go, you say, go.
You see the indecision. He knows he could and your robe is no armour. You have a whistle in your purse on the counter that you bought when it happened to a friend, but even as you handed over the dollar you knew you could never use it. So phallic in shape and when a man runs a rough hand up your thigh, pinches your insides in the dark, the only way to scream for help is to blow.
He climbs to his feet, sullen, dresses himself as if he’s waiting for the traffic light to change. Do you, he frowns, do you want my number?
You chuckle and say, my husband’s upstairs, as you close the door.
The English muffins are warm on the sill in the sun but they are still tender to the touch, their bodies soft, you prod the centre and your finger makes a hole and you wonder what it would be to marry a carbohydrate.
Wholesome, substantial. And boy oh boy can he fill you up.
The stairs are easier now. You step in time to the machine’s beep. Your breakfast is nearly ready, honey you call as you approach his open casket. And your husband is lying still, his eyes wide and knowing.
So then you stroke a finger down the edge of his clay face and you say, oh but he reminded me so much of you.
Diana Clarke is an expat New Zealander who is living and writing in Lafayette, Indiana. She doesn’t tweet.