If you don’t do that, get out and stretch the legs, I mean, you’re just asking for trouble. Begging for it. And in those places–the park, the mall, any of the nearby restaurants–I move happily and anonymously about. Oh sure, I see the occasional coworker, but a wave of the hand and a “hey there” usually do the trick. Sometimes there’s a few minutes of shoptalk or gossip, but I try to keep that noon hour reserved mostly for ol” number one. I think it’s added years to my life. I really do. I don’t often socialize with my office mates, either, not anymore. I used to, when I first started out there, but that whole after- hours scene has really cooled down for me. See, I’m married. Yep, got myself hitched about two years ago now and it’s great, it really is, but marriage takes up a lot of time and energy if you do it right. That’s what they tell me, anyway. A solid marriage is a real commitment. And I plunged in feetfirst, believe you me. I really did. Once I met her, “woman of my dreams’ and all that, well, it just didn’t make sense to do anything but go for it.
See, I was quite the bachelor in my day. Oh yeah. Not that I had a series of amorous exploits or anything like that, some big Casanova deal going, but I had my fair share of adventures. A lady or two picked up in a local club, some moments from my student life that might be better off relived. Or forgotten. A couple hearts broken, no doubt, trampled and left in the ditch along the roadside of love. You know the one I’m talking about–that little ravine there that collects corsages and condoms and discarded socks. Yes, a few of my exes landed squarely in that wretched place. One even ended her life, I’m sorry to say. Committed suicide, and in a rather unpleasant way, too. Stepped in front of a bus, an oncoming bus, and was hit straight on, meaning that she just had time to turn fully toward the driver, probably got her hands in the air–that classic pose, you know the one, like Cary Grant in that movie at Mount Rushmore, like that–before it hit her and dragged her halfway down the next city block. It was a woman driver in the bus, a female driver. Not that that had anything to do with it, the accident; I just felt I should point it out. Get the facts straight. No, it was her fault completely, from all reports. My ex-girlfriend’s. Several onlookers saw the whole thing, witnessed it, and each story was remarkably consistent. She had stood there–Patsy was her name, she was called “Patsy” –and waited patiently for the uptown express, watched several other buses pass, in fact, before moving quickly and purposefully out in front of the No. 6. No doubt about it, Patsy had killed herself and that was that. Not that it had anything to do with me, God no. I mean, not really. Yes, we had fought earlier that week–an attempt at reconciliation had ended in a brutal shouting match in the International House of Pancakes–and several phone calls between us had been equally painful, but I feel in no way responsible for what happened to her. It was simply her time. Or she had simply made time, I guess, is more like it. I suppose when you kill yourself, it has more to do with setting up an appointment with Destiny than Destiny showing up unannounced. No, Patsy had thoughtfully called ahead and Destiny had penciled her in. The fact that she had chosen the uptown 6–the bus that she would ride to my apartment, the one that runs near the river rather than out past the station and then back over–simply added a layer of irony to the proceedings. A fairly healthy layer, actually. Or, as my dad whispered in my ear at the viewing, “This is why I take cabs.”
But that’s the past, right? And the past is called that for a reason. Because it is behind us, which is good enough for me. No, I try to live in the present. Live in it, work in it, be in it. I-am-present. And presently, what’s bothering me is this. It’s, well, how can I put this? Delicately, I suppose. That’s the only way to do it, I will put it delicately. It’s that thing, that skin thing on my wife’s body, that is what’s bothering me. Haunting me, really. That growth. Now, it’s a fine time to bring this up, some physical complaint about my partner, I know that, but I swear I never saw it when we first met, back when we were going out. I’m sure that I didn’t. I had no idea that it even existed then, back in our courting days. Not that I didn’t see the woman naked; of course I did, on many occasions. But it was often dark, at night, in the heat of passionate embrace. Plus, I wasn’t giving the woman an examination, for God’s sake–the once-over, as my parents’ generation might affectionately call it–so I don’t feel that I can be held responsible for missing it in the beginning.
Hell, it may not have even been there, now that I think about it. It might’ve sprouted recently like some new-forming island, erupting from the deep to settle and flourish on her shoulder there. Well, not technically her shoulder, but that fleshy stretch that runs from said shoulder to the side of her neck. Right there. I mean, come to think of it, the number of times I saw her in sleeveless shirts and swimsuits, her wedding dress even, it seems unfathomable that I could’ve missed this outcropping, this mound of darkened cells that brings me such distress.
Pitiful, you say? Insipid and facile, not to mention shallow? I agree. I completely agree with you that it isn’t rational or loving or even very grown-up, but that doesn’t alter the fact that it bugs the shit out of me. Almost pathologically so. That wart cluster on my wife’s flesh is slowly, methodically killing me. It really is.
I first noticed it last summer, right around the Fourth, I guess, as we were getting ready for a little holiday blowout that my company throws every year up at the lake. You know, that lake just outside the city limits that still has a few trees surrounding it. Not really the country, but as close as we come to it around here. Anyway, we were getting ourselves together for that and I was coming out of my closet–I remember this quite distinctly–and I spotted the offending flap from across the room. I mean, spotted it like a drifting sailor notices land appearing on the vast horizon.
“Hey, what’s that?”
“What?” she says, twirling around like a spider has just dropped onto her forearm from above.
“That. Right there.”
‘stop it, what?”
“Honey, that. Right there on your . . .”
“Where?” She jerks about again, backing toward me and swinging her head over to get a look. Straining.
“It’s right there . . .”
To be fair, the little clump rests just out of her eyeshot. It would take a courageous twist to the right, then a glance back into a mirror to get a look at where I’m pointing. Which she does.
“Yeah, that. There. What is it?”
“I’ve always had that.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“Yes, I have. Of course I have. Since I was a kid.”
“Come on, seriously.”
“I think I know my own body.”
‘sure, of course, but . . . that has not always been . . .”
“It has! Stop it now, we have to get ready.”
And with that she pulls on this flimsy tank top–some kind of silky Anne Klein thing that is no doubt expensive and made by unfortunate people in another country somewhere and an essential wardrobe item for today’s woman–but it’s got no arms on it. Or ‘sleeves’–whatever you call them. None. I’m fighting my bare feet into a pair of driving moccasins when I realize this and casually try to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand.
‘did you get your hair styled or something?”
“No reason. It just seems . . .”
“I dunno. It’s lying on your shoulders differently, maybe that’s it.”
“That’s what? What’re you going on about?”
“I’m just asking.”
She stops suddenly, really studying me for the first time all morning. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Umm, no reason. No, it’s fine.”
“I like this shirt.”
“Well, that’s good.”
“Fine, I’ll change.” I can see where this thing is going and there is absolutely no chance of winning, none, and so it’s back to the walk-in I go. I call out from deep in the ‘short sleeve” section, just down from ‘sweatshirts’ and ‘sportswear.” “What about a light yellow stripe?”
“That’s OK, if it’s the canary one. Or just white, and then throw a sweater over your shoulders.”
I obey and pull down a newer Ralph Lauren when an idea hits me. Straight on, like a piano dropping from the sky in one of those old silent movies–I shall teach by example. Yes indeed. I shuffle over to the “long sleeves’ area and grab a Nautica off the rack. Button it down in record time and toss a cranberry pullover on for good measure. I’m set. I walk back out into our bedroom to face my wife as she’s finishing her eye makeup. Applying a bit of mascara. And, of course, she’s still in the tank top. I’m about to speak but she beats me to it, one eye fluttering as she brushes that little ebony wand across it.
“Aren’t you gonna be hot?”
“No, it’s by the water.”
“Yeah, but it’s a lake. An inland lake.”
“Right, but . . .”
“It’s not like we’re going to the ocean or something.”
“I know that . . .”
“Whatever. Do what you want.”
I look at her shoulder again, that god-awful blemish standing at attention and practically winking at me. The strap of her top keeps catching the edge of it, sometimes even snagging it and getting itself hooked there on the craggy tip. OK, no barbecue for me, I guess. I’m about to throw up.
“Aren’t you going to grab a cardigan or anything? A little jacket?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You sure? There’s gonna be fireworks. We’ll be out late . . .”
“I said no, now come on, let’s go. We still need to put the deviled eggs in the car, plus the lawn chairs.”
“Right, right. OK. I just thought that . . .”
And that’s when she catches me. Staring at it.
“It bothers you, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I do a complete reversal here, right on the spot, acting as if I don’t know what she’s talking about. It’s an old tactic–medieval, I think–that is so obvious and silly that most women fall for it, or simply let it go in utter exasperation. At the moment, I use it as my only viable option.
“Yes, you do, of course you do! You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about! Why you haven’t said anything about it before now I don’t get, but whatever . . .”
“Honey, what? Why’re you acting all . . . ?”
“Just don’t. Don’t do that.”
“I’m not . . .”
“It bugs you so much, fine, I’ll wear a . . . it’s just a mole, for God’s sake!”
Now how do I play this? Do I acknowledge what we’re talking about, or continue playing dumb because that’s more believable–guys are usually at their finest when playing dumb. Trust me on that tiny bit of information.
“It doesn’t bother me, not at all. I just asked what it was.”
“Please, it totally bothers you.”
“Uh-uh. Nope. Come on, let’s go.” I even make a little move toward the door to prove how open I am to her bringing her “little friend” to the party with us, but she’s not buying it. “I’ll go get the chairs out of the garage.”
“Well, just get one because I’m not going.”
“Honey, please, come on . . .”
“I’m not,” and with that the tank is pulled over her head and off. She smirks as she throws it onto the bed, turning to me in her faded pink brassiere.
‘sweetie, I wasn’t . . .”
I stare long and hard at her chest for a moment–not her best feature–trying to gather my thoughts. I lose myself in her cleavage, mostly because it allows me to avoid her eyes while absently noticing that both breasts have dropped another quarter inch or so since the last time I studied them–the right one perhaps slightly more than the other. I also spot that dusky birthmark just outside the ring of her left nipple (which I always thought looked like the state of Ohio but never said a word about it to her). A flash suddenly goes through my head of freshman English back at Pepperdine, where some teaching assistant forced us to read that Nathaniel Hawthorne guy. A short story of his that had to do with some flaw in an otherwise lovely woman, but I can’t remember any of the specifics about it for the life of me. Not with her glaring at me, anyway. The missus.
“If that’s what you want, then fine.”
“It’s what you want!”
“No, it isn’t.” I see the broken bottle of an argument at our feet and try to step gingerly around it. “It was just a question.”
“I’m not lying!” And I don’t feel as if I am, not really. Not at this specific moment, at least. “Honestly, I’m not.”
“Just go without me, I’m tired now.”
“Well, OK, if you want me to . . .”
‘see, I knew you didn’t want me to come!”
“Jesus, please, I don’t wanna do this right now! I asked you one thing, one, and you get all nuts on me here . . .”
“Go, then, I don’t care! Just GO!!” And with that she swings around and marches off to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Slams it so hard that an actual cracking sound is made when the latch catches on the jam. With her gone for a moment, I can freely roll my eyes and check my hair before walking over to make the obvious and required plea for her to forgive me and join me at the event. I do it, that little dance near the wall–calling out her name a few times and then promising her the world. Thankfully, she’s pretty angry with me and stays put. Mission accomplished.
The drive out to the park at the north end of the lake affords me some time to run through these events and review my behavior. Was I out of line? Could I have behaved differently? Well, of course I could’ve, but what’s done is done. The whole episode is already receding into the past for me and you know how I feel about that. The past. Before I can get too lost in “who’s to blame?” or ‘should I call and circle back?” I see the hand-painted signs and balloons that mark the route to a makeshift parking area. Twenty minutes later I’m on the front lines of our annual volleyball game and I don’t give that earlier ordeal another thought.
It’s been several years now since the events I’ve just described and I’m happy to say that my wife and I are still together. She is essentially a good woman, and despite a rough patch or two, our married life has been pretty much OK. “Clear sailing,” as my uncle used to say (a man who never sailed a day in his life). Never again have I mentioned the offending mark on my wife’s body, to her or to anyone else. I also refrain from suggesting more appropriate clothing choices, concealing makeup, or cosmetic surgery. On occasion, I even run my fingers across it, very casually, to let her know that I do not fear the thing or worry about it in the slightest.
But sometimes, some days when I’m walking through the mall or out near one of my other personal spots at lunch, I have a vision. I do. A rather elaborate dream where I find myself holding her down, pinning my own wife down on the wooden floor of our bedroom at, say, midnight, catching her groggy and off guard as I plunge a potato peeler or something else suitably sharp into the offending mound and tear it from her body. It’s only a fantasy, of course, but it has the color and fury of vivid reality in my head. Her, fighting and clawing me as I push her face into the parquet, a handful of nightgown in my fist as I work that kitchen tool deep into her shoulder. Burrowing in. Finally, yes, finally freeing her and myself of that thing. That imagined creature that has come so deliberately between us.
I would never do this, of course, and it’s important for you to understand that. I could never act on such an impulse, heavens no, but these are my thoughts and they can’t always be controlled because I am not perfect, as mentioned before. I am just not perfect. All I know is that occasionally now, more than once in a while, I’m overtaken by an image or flash from the above scenario and I’ll completely lose track of time–find myself down by the old band shell or God knows where, nearly two in the afternoon. Drifting. Just drifting.
Am I concerned about this behavior? Frightened, even? Yes, I am, yes. Obviously so. But in my defense I must say this: When I do have one of those ‘moments,” I mean an all-out episode like I’ve been having of late, I always return to my work with the snap and vigor of a man reborn.
Copyright ” 2004 by Neil LaBute. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.