[Issue 3/November 2012]
Today We Are Still Married
By Alex Miller
We’d wrecked the house again. Lisa promised to help straighten up before the party but bailed at the last minute—not that I blamed her. Not that I didn’t deserve it.
I scrubbed dishes as she emerged from the bedroom. Congealed marinara clung to the plates like a new skin. Half-portions of uneaten fish—the ones we’d never bothered to feed to the garbage disposal—turned to jelly at the bottom of the sink.
“She’s a slut,” Lisa said. “You can’t know how much I hate your slut.”
My slut was Hillary, a girlfriend from college maybe a decade ago. My wife was angry because she knew I’d rather be fucking Hillary. She suspected, anyway. And I’d invited Hillary to the party.
It was for my old college friends, the people who used to be closer to me than my family but, for all the usual reasons, I’d lost touch with over the years. People like Hillary. Most of these friendships had devolved into infrequent e-mails, but in Hillary’s case, the emails weren’t quite so infrequent. And as the party drew close they had begun arriving several times a day. Lisa had discovered these messages. Lisa did not like what she saw. None of the content was blatantly incriminating, but it didn’t exonerate me, either. This led to a series of increasingly hostile questions on her part and feeble excuses on mine.
So I did what I had to do. I told her that after the party I’d never speak to Hillary again. Lisa wanted me to tell Hillary to get lost, but I negotiated, told her I didn’t want to create drama, didn’t want to make things awkward for the rest of the guys who expected her to be at the party.
“After this weekend it’s over,” I said, washing a plate on autopilot, keeping my voice gentle to avoid setting her off. “No more emails, no more anything. This is the end.”
Maybe I’d stop talking to Hillary, or maybe I’d take it underground. Hushmail accounts, secret Facebook profiles—a second life of espionage and excitement. Once you take that first step toward being a creep, the rest is easy.
I should point out that I didn’t have some skeezy plan to hook up with Hillary at the party. I just wanted to see her again. I knew that seeing each other could change us, could breath life into the thing between us that had died.
Anyway Lisa retreated to the bedroom. I turned back to the dishes. And vacuumed the carpets, cleaned toothpaste spots off the bathroom mirrors, washed a month’s worth of laundry I’d picked off the floors, threw away a library of decomposing newspapers and fitted the guest beds with new sheets. I cleaned and I cleaned, but it didn’t make my wife hate me any less.
Pretty soon the guys arrived. Bill and Danny—who went by Daniel now—came in the rental car they’d picked up at the airport. Kendrick drove in from Cleveland, appearing within five minutes of the others.
It was weird at first. We greeted each other more enthusiastically than was absolutely necessary, hoping a few easy laughs at the outset would carry the conversation for the rest of the night, would take us back to that easy friendship we’d had once but lost.
Lisa came to my rescue, asking them about their jobs and families, simple questions I was too nervous to think of. We huddled around the kitchen table, Danny with his Scotch, Kendrick with his dark beer, and through the cigarette haze they could have been the same young men I’d lived with during the best years of my life.
The doorbell rang, and it had to be Hillary. I let the other guys answer it. I sat at the kitchen table with my wife, held her hand, noticed how small she was, how dark and pretty. We listened, stone faced, to the salutations in the foyer.
“How are you?”
“You look great!”
“It’s been forever.”
Lisa’s hand tightened around mine.
Then Hillary stepped into the kitchen and obliterated the decade-long gulf that yawned between us. She was the same girl I’d fucked in college, and she was someone else, someone older, sophisticated. One thing that hadn’t changed was her hair, still dangerously blond. It glowed with the platinum radiance I remembered, making Lisa smaller and darker by comparison.
Danny mixed a drink for Hillary, and we continued from where we’d left off talking about the old days. I couldn’t stop looking at her, couldn’t stop remembering. Seeing her again made me think about what we’d had, and why I’d thrown it away, the flimsiness of my reasoning. I hadn’t wanted to be tied down, didn’t want to think about the future. All I’d wanted was the freedom to fuck whomever I wanted. Some things never change.
At the table, Lisa told a story about something funny from a TV show. The punch line had a long setup, which she repeated in excruciating detail. But none of us really understood the joke, so when she got to the end we laughed only out of nervous politeness.
Hillary glanced at me. She rolled her eyes toward my wife, silently mouthed, “What the hell?” I smiled like the Mona Lisa.
Suddenly Lisa scooted her chair back from the table.
“Excuse me I don’t feel well,” she said, bolting for our bedroom. After a moment I followed her.
I found her in the bathroom, knees on the cold tile, hunched over the toilet. Her body heaved. She tried to puke but nothing came out. I sat on the floor beside her, ran my hand down her back. We stayed there awhile, saying nothing. Later she rinsed her mouth at the sink and then climbed into bed. When I sat beside her she told me to go back to the party.
“I don’t want to leave you like this,” I said.
“It’s OK, I mean it, it’s OK,” she said, eyelids drooping. “You haven’t seen them in forever. Have a good time. I trust you.”
Back in the kitchen Daniel talked about movies. I took a seat at the table and listened, just sat back and enjoyed their voices. I remembered how Daniel used to keep me up at night talking about directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Now he dropped names like Goddard and Truffaut.
What I remember about that night is how we talked about nothing. We hadn’t seen each other in forever, and God only knew when we’d see each other again. But instead of sharing anything personal we talked about sports and music and YouTube videos. Anyway we kept at it for hours, talking and drinking. I’d look around the room and see them, and seeing them made me happy. And then I’d look at Hillary. And she’d look back at me. Like we shared a secret. Like something unspoken existed between us. Something the long years had failed to starve.
Eventually I saw Kendrick yawn, and then I yawned, and I told my friends it was time for me to turn in. I shook hands with all the guys, showed them to their rooms, made plans to watch a football game the next day at the university.
I found Hillary outside on the deck. Alone. I joined her, careful to shut the sliding glass door behind me. We leaned against the railing, maybe a foot of space between us. The moon had set, so it must be starlight I remember reflected in the lake’s choppy surface. The wind felt cold, but I didn’t mind.
“Getting late,” I said, for no particular reason.
“So here we are,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how I’ve missed you.”
She moved close. I felt the soft pressure of her chest against mine. This was it. This was the moment we’d been building toward. Every email we’d exchanged had taken us here. Her voice on the phone last week, all the times I’d jacked off to her memory—the whole trajectory of our lives had carried us irrevocably to this place, to this lake beneath these stars.
It would be easy, I thought, the simplest thing in the world. I looked at her, and the more I looked the easier it became.
A decision had to be made. In my mind I walked a tightrope. Ice-skated a tightrope. I could have fallen in one of two ways, and then I did fall, and not for any reason. I didn’t have an argument or strategy or justification. I just fell.
“This can’t happen,” I said.
She kissed my neck with lips too soft to be real. I smelled her hair, and it made me remember. Her hair smelled like I was nineteen.
“She’ll hear us,” I said.
“We’ll be quiet. Like that time at my parents’ house. God, we were awful.”
“I’m not awful anymore.”
“Sure you are. You’ve just forgotten how.”
She reached for me. I pulled away. And that was the end of it. I left her alone on the deck, and part of me regretted leaving and part of me didn’t.
I found Lisa in the bathroom again, this time throwing up for real. I took my place beside her, held her hair while it all came pouring out. Her stomach kept at it for a long time, heaving, emptying itself of the offending matter. Then I helped her clean up. We went to bed. I dreamed about the old days.
In the morning Lisa slept late. I made breakfast for my friends. I told them to go on to the game without me, apologized, explained my wife felt under the weather. They tried to talk me into going, all but Hillary. I promised to meet them in town for dinner.
The house looked like it had been bombed. I started cleaning immediately. I expected to be at it all day again, but after I emptied the ashtrays, threw away the bottles and put the glasses in the dishwasher I was mostly done. I laid out new towels in the guest bathroom, then wandered around the house looking for more things to put right.
Lisa came out of the bedroom. She said she felt a thousand times better. I was glad to see her but wanted to be alone.
“I’m going for a swim,” I said.
Outside on the dock I spotted about a dozen boards that needed to be replaced. I stepped gingerly on the rough planks, wary for splinters. Sunlight blinded me. It came at me from the sky and water. The heat felt good on my shoulders, and I knew the lake would be cold.
When I dove in I stayed under for a while, eyes open, observing shadowy forms in the depths. I imagined black dirt leeching from my pores, an oily sheen of filth sloughed off by clean water. When my lungs couldn’t take the strain I surfaced. Lisa stood on the dock in her bikini.
“Need some company?” she asked, bronze and glowing, too vivid for this world, seeming to vibrate like a color negative brought to life.
Her cannonball sent billions of droplets soaring skyward where sunlight transformed them to diamonds. We treaded water, regarded each other. She splashed me by skimming her hand over the surface. We laughed and swam in circles, sometimes diving deep, revolving around each other like satellites.
She fingered a glistening bikini strap, arched an eyebrow. We stripped, throwing our wet bathing suits on the dock. I swam to her. She kissed me. The water was ice but her body felt warm.
I remember how we floated on our backs, arms extended, hand in hand—not beside each other but in a straight line, like a hinged pair of paper dolls. A moment. A lifetime. The weight of two lives made buoyant by the thinnest film of surface tension.
“It will always be this way,” I said, holding on, suspended between water and light.
Bio: Alex Miller is a journalist in Hawaii. His novella, “Osama bin Laden is Dead,” is slated for publication in March 2013 by Vagabondage Press. Alex tweets @Mannerism77