Last night, I saw you, with the wifey. In the restaurant where I wait tables. You didn’t see me, and neither did she, but that’s normal because I wear a uniform that matches the walls, as if I’m meant by design to blend in, be furniture. That restaurant isn’t fancy, hardly a place where you’d want to bring your date—not if you plan on getting laid afterwards. But for you two, it was a delicious joke you shared along with your popcorn shrimp appetizer. A little moment of kitsch, like going to ride the Ferris wheel at the town fair.
I thought it was an extraordinary coincidence. A sign from the stars. Surely you had no idea I’d be here—and I hadn’t planned on seeing you. I panicked when I saw you two walk in, her first, because you held the door for her like a gentleman. My palms went clammy instantly, and I wiped them on the sides of my polyester shirt. In my cowardice, I even prayed that Lizzie the hostess wouldn’t sit you in my section, but then again, I knew she would. The place was empty that night, and everyone there knew I needed the tips because I could only work weekends, no school nights. She was being nice to me because she, like everyone there, felt sorry for me, the youngest, least skilled waitress in the place.
But there you were, so I pulled myself together and went to give you menus, and even when I rattled off the specials (I didn’t once screw up or give myself away in any way, of which I’m still proud), you didn’t glance away from your wife’s face and look at me. You both looked so flushed and happy, like you were popping in for a greasy snack after rolling in bed all afternoon. You only had eyes for each other.
It would have been just another ordinary night—you eat, you pay, you tip, and you leave, to go back to bed, maybe. But then a miracle happened, a miracle that sent my whole world spinning off its orbit. A true sign from above.
After I cleared away your plates and put in the order for your dessert (cherry pie with ice cream—two spoons, of course), I found myself overwhelmed, needing a moment alone. I raced to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall to catch my breath—okay, to slip my hand inside the elastic waist of my uniform pants and touch myself. But no matter how furiously I rubbed myself through my panties, it just wasn’t happening—I hovered on the brink, frustration growing and threatening to crest into something uglier. That’s when I heard the door open, and froze. If anyone caught me hiding out in the bathroom, I might get in trouble. I pulled my legs up onto the toilet seat so they couldn’t see me.
Your wifey’s sneakered feet shuffled past. I couldn’t have missed these sneakers, hot pink edged in fluorescent yellow, the kind rich ladies wear to their workouts and to run weekend errands. My own work sneakers were once plain white but turned gray, a generic brand, bought on sale. I stared at their toes the whole time she was there, in the stall next to mine. She knelt on the floor, ignoring the scattered bits of tissue, black yoga pants strained at her hips, and the unmistakable sounds of retching followed almost immediately.
I’ll never know whether she was making herself puke, like those girls at school. It’s not important. I remember watching her get up, and then one foot came off the floor, and the toilet flushed. The door of the stall clacked open; the rush of tap water followed, and after it, the cacophony of the hand dryer. At last, the door squeaked softly closed behind her. I burst out of the stall, a mess of relief and giddiness, and then I saw it. The miracle.
Sitting there, on the edge of the sink, in a little puddle of soapy water, was her engagement ring. Old looking, an antique or heirloom—I imagined your mother giving it to you, passed down from some great-great-grandmother, to be given to the woman of your heart someday. A big emerald glimmered darkly in a setting of tiny diamonds and platinum leaves.
And she left it in the bathroom of a shitty chain restaurant, thoughtlessly slid it off her soapy finger and plunked it down on the cracked porcelain like it was a cheap bit of costume jewelry. That’s when I knew. I knew she didn’t deserve you. And I knew I could—would—take you away from her, no matter what it took. A higher being was on my side, and he sent me the ring as an omen.
I snatched it off the sink and put it in a place where no one would find it, even if—when—she noticed and raised a stink, and in case the manager wanted to search all of us.
But I knew it wouldn’t happen.
Fate was on my side.
Byron let me sleep in this morning.
There. That way, it sounds nicer than “my husband snuck out of the house while I was still asleep.” Because that’s exactly what happened and what’s been happening every day of the week so far, and we’re at Thursday.
This morning, the balmy September sun finally gave way to rain, and with the bedroom windows facing north, it’s still kind of dark when I wake up. It could have been just dawn breaking, around seven a.m. Except Byron’s side of the bed is empty and there are no footsteps downstairs in the kitchen, no water running in the bathroom.
I get up, grab the imitation ring from the nightstand, and put it on the ring finger of my left hand, where it settles into the groove it has made in the skin. He just presented me with it one day, and I didn’t press the issue further. He never actually told me whether the stones were real. I decided to let it go and never asked.
It’s ten thirty. I run my fingers through my hair, which is tangled and matted with sweat, and eye the digital clock in mild dismay. Yesterday it was ten ten. The day before, on Monday, it was nine fifty. Byron gets up at seven every morning like clockwork—to go running in good weather and to hit the gym at the college in bad. If he goes running, he comes back to take a shower before changing to go to work.
September has been beautiful this year, dry and sun filled. He hasn’t gone running once, as far as I can tell.
At the start, I’d get up at six fifty and have breakfast ready for him: French toast and cheese omelet, with a glass of orange juice and coffee with cream. Now I’m wondering if he ate all that fatty food to be polite, because these days his breakfast is an energy bar. And I guess I can’t complain—I see other men his age at university events when he takes me. By forty, they have paunches and double chins while Byron, at forty-seven, has the body of someone half his age. He’s also one of the lucky ones who has his hair, all of it—except with age, the points of the M of his hairline have sharpened a little, and the blond color has grown bleak with gray hairs. When I met him, it was easier to forget the twenty-year age difference.
And that name. The name caught my attention even before he did, took me back to high school English lit where the teacher made us pick poems apart to the bare bones. I hated it—it ruined their beauty, made the magic evaporate.
Ironically, the original Byron never had a romance that wasn’t thoroughly dysfunctional—ranging from mildly unhealthy to downright unhinged. Back when he was courting me, it didn’t raise any red flags.
Then again, neither did the first wife.
I make my way downstairs and start the espresso machine. Byron is particular about his coffee beans while I could drink any swill from a filter—the way he puts it. The truth is I find the fancy espresso too bitter, too sour, like sandpaper on the palate. But today I’m feeling especially foggy so the caffeine buzz seems worth the tongue torture. And those exotic beans do deliver the buzz—can’t complain about that.
While the machine hisses, I get my laptop from the little office Byron set up for me upstairs, the one I almost never use. Whenever I can, I sit outside or down in the living room in front of the giant bay window, basking in the natural light. That’s what I do now, pulling up my pajama-clad legs and balancing the sleek Mac on my knee. I check both my email accounts, the personal one and the one I use for writing-related contacts, even though no one ever emails me on either. My friends, the few who still keep in touch, prefer to text, and the last batch of queries I sent dates back months. Some agents still have my manuscript but let’s face it—it’s not going to happen.
The cliché should make me sad. I admit I cringed a little all these months ago when I first wrote my bio for emailing literary agents. Back then, I was full of optimism and hope, with Byron leaning over my shoulder to peek at the screen and then kissing my temple and working his way down to my neck. Here’s what it says, in clunky third person that’s apparently industry standard: Claire Westcott has a degree in English and creative writing from Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in the campus newspaper as well as several small literary publications. Presently, Claire writes full-time. She lives with her husband, a professor of literature at Mansfield Liberal Arts College in Ohio.
This is a fancy way of saying I’m one of those women. Those girls my evolved, progressive classmates at Ohio State sneered at: the boring white women who married a man who can support them while they write their irrelevant little stories. I know I’m not exactly in the zeitgeist, but Byron loved to tease me about it, calling himself the Leonard to my future Virginia Woolf, a man destined to fade in his famous writer wife’s shadow.
I didn’t remind him how that story ended. I wasn’t thinking about it at all in happier times.
Now, as I open the second inbox, it dings, a sound that now fills me with dread rather than anticipation. Looks like one of my queries has netted a response, months later. I scan the form letter shallowly when the ding repeats itself. Two in one day? But the ding is from my personal inbox this time.
There’s no subject line, and the address is gibberish. I really shouldn’t click on it—it’s probably a virus—but my hands are faster than my mind today. As I rush to hit the Back button, the image downloads, and my hand freezes over the touch pad. It knocks the wind out of me. I stare at it, my eyes drinking in every pixel, but there is no explanation.
I’m looking at a close-up of the emerald in my ring. My replacement ring? The real thing? But it’s…impossible.
Then I see the name of the sender, and it takes everything I have not to slam the laptop shut and hurl it away from me, as far as possible, like it’s a venomous spider nestled in my lap.
Colleen may have died but she never left.
The fact that we live in her house is hard to forget. Just like the fact that we live off her sizable savings, which went to her husband when she died since she had no other family. Byron never directly said so, but I know that’s how he’s able to support his future Virginia Woolf while maintaining our lifestyle, all on his generous but not exactly millionaire’s salary at the college.
I haven’t worked in two years but I get new clothes every season, and every eight weeks, I get my roots bleached and carefully toned to a perfect wheat blond and then streaked with corn-silk highlights. I drive an hour to the good salon in Columbus while everyone I know goes to the local place, run by a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo who charges about a third of what the Columbus place does. Sadly, she’s also a firm believer in wedge cuts for anyone over twenty-two.
So I drive and sit in that chair for hours, holding my head straight and smiling while my hair is pulled and tugged and slathered with chemicals, and then I hand over the family credit card. Another three hundred of Colleen’s dollars, plus tip, changes hands invisibly. No crass cash.
I try to convince myself there’s no reason to feel guilty. It’s not like he left her for a younger woman or threw her out on the street or dumped her with three kids and no alimony, or any such sordid story, all too common in this town. She died. He grieved but then moved on. Selling that monolith of a house, in such a market, would have been insane. So would moving away from a perfectly good job with the prospect of tenure looming on the horizon. Byron repeated that to me hundreds of times. Everything makes sense.
Rationally, that is. What I feel is anything but.
Some days, after a not-so-great day in the Westcott household, I drive to the local mall and buy things I don’t need, hideous clothes I’ll never wear, tacky pink makeup. I tell myself it’s my petty revenge against Byron, but really it’s my revenge against Colleen, as if wasting some of her money can make up for the thousand little humiliations I suffer.
Eventually, I know the savings will run out, and I don’t plan to make Byron support me forever. My novel is pretty much dead in the water. The next novel, the one I’m supposed to be writing while my husband is at work, is clearly never happening. So now I’m looking for work—starting to. I’ve set up profiles on the big job-search sites and made a separate email address. I haven’t sent out any CVs yet.
That’s what I was going to do when I got the email from Colleen.
That, of course, is utterly insane. Every part of it: that Colleen is alive, that Colleen has my ring, and that Colleen just sent me an email from a dummy address. If that email wasn’t sitting right there in my inbox, I’d think I was going out of my mind.
I put my laptop aside carefully and get up. There’s no sun flooding in through the bay window today. The glass is speckled with rain, droplets and silvery streaks. I peer through them with mistrust, convinced—my skin crawling with the feeling—that someone on the other side is watching me, observing me like a fish in an aquarium.
Then I go back to the kitchen where the cup of coffee sits under the little tap of the machine, still steaming, but just barely. I’ve lost all taste for coffee. Adrenaline woke me up better than espresso could, and the thought of gulping down that gritty, bitter nonsense makes me shudder. I dump it in the sink and then go have a shower. I wash my hair, blow-dry it with the round brush, and put on makeup—the good stuff for special occasions, the expensive foundation and mascara, hoping that, if I look like me, I’ll feel like me. Tough. I feel like the same jittery mess, but with makeup on.
From here, I decide to tackle it head-on. There are ways of figuring out where an email came from. IP address and such. I can google it. At least I could try. To get my real, rightful ring back, of course. Only to get my ring back from whoever stole it.
Not because I think it could actually be…her.
With a decisive intake of breath, I sit on the living room couch, back straight, knees together like I’m in elementary school, and open my laptop. I don’t look at the email…yet. I google how to find out where an email comes from and spend another ten minutes blinking helplessly at walls of text studded with unfamiliar terms.
Okay, then. I’ll just do it step by step, figuring it out as I go. I click on my inbox, realize it’s the wrong one—still open on my form rejection. I just didn’t connect…
With an impatient sigh, I click the red cross, and the writerly inbox disappears. I’m looking at my personal email now.
A message from Byron sits at the top, dated back three weeks. Below it, one from my sister, from three months ago. I’d promised myself I’d reply. I really did. But then I dreaded it, put it off, then forgot, and then gave up altogether because it would just be even more awkward after all this time. Below that, a couple of generic messages from those discount sites for Columbus that I keep track of, as if we really needed 48 percent off a meal at a restaurant chain or a knockoff Apple Watch for $199. Byron hates those sites, despises the very idea.
Frustrated, I scroll through the emails. They’re going back six months now, seven, ten. Back to the top—nothing. I check the other folders. Nothing. Nothing in Trash or Spam.
It’s gone like it was never there.
A little laugh bubbles out of me. Clearly, I’m going crazy. Ha ha. Imagining emails that never were.
My thoughts churn. I should have taken a screenshot, I should have saved the image—should have, should have, should have. How do I retrieve a lost email? Google has plenty of answers but they all apply only to emails that ostensibly existed.
Remembering that I have a phone, I run to get it from the charger in the bedroom. No new notifications. I write a quick text to Byron, who should be on his lunch hour by now: Bon appetit! Love, xoxoxoxo and a couple of emojis. It’s cheesy but right now all I want is to hear from him, even if it’s just a two-word text.
It’s better than asking, Hey, by the way, are you absolutely sure your first wife is dead?
Are you absolutely sure your first wife is dead?
Once you’ve been inside our house, the question doesn’t sound as crazy.
Here’s what I know about Colleen Westcott.
Her favorite color was lilac—because the entire first floor is painted pale lilac with gray accents. Why change it? Byron would say if I asked him. It’s tasteful and makes the rooms look airier. As if the rooms, with their twelve-foot ceilings and lingering echoes in the corners, needed to feel any bigger.
She liked to cook—hence, the state-of-the-art equipped kitchen and a full set of Le Creuset cookware stashed away in its cream-colored cabinets. When I saw how much these things cost, on a trip to Williams Sonoma, I choked on my iced coffee. She was definitely the cook because I’ve yet to see Byron use the kitchen to make anything more complex than cereal or, on the odd occasion, pasta with canned sauce. The Le Creuset dishes gather sticky dust on their once-shiny enameled lids.
She was the coffee enthusiast too, because her books on coffee—heavy, glossy photo volumes—are stacked on a shelf in the dining room, right next to her cookbook collection. If the cookbooks are to be believed, she was fond of Mediterranean cuisine with an occasional foray into the Middle East. All the books are inscribed with her name on the flyleaf in silver, needle-thin Sharpie. She wrote in cursive. She must have had an elegant hand because…
…because the worst part. The paintings.
Colleen was a painter, an accomplished one as far as painters in the twenty-first century go. She taught at the same liberal arts college where Byron still teaches, something no one fails to remind me every time I go to a function with my husband. Did you know Colleen used to teach in the Fine Arts Department? Students loved her. And what do you do?
Claire is a writer, Byron would say, stepping in pointedly.
Really, now? Makes sense—our Byron always goes for the artsy types, doesn’t he?
But back to the paintings.
Colleen’s famous paintings—landscapes, faces, strange blurred figures, all big giant things in smeared colors—are everywhere. Yes, I guess I am an “artsy type” but I’m a writer, raised on printed words, and for the life of me, I just don’t understand the appeal. I’m not going to say, “A three-year-old could have painted that mess”—oh no, since my husband is a lecturer at a liberal arts college, I know better than that—but when it’s not even a beautiful mess, what’s the point?
Perhaps I’m just bitter. Perhaps in another context, I would have stood in front of one of those paintings in a trendy gallery in Cleveland or Columbus, tilted my head, and tried to see a deeper meaning. Noted how the colors seemed to flow together while at the same time were perfect in their integrity. Noticed the rich texture and thickness of the glossy paint.
But when I see them on the walls of my house, all I can see is Colleen.
Her paints, her easel, her kit of pricey, soft brushes made of real fur or hair or I don’t know what—all has been moved to the storage room in the basement, reverently and with reluctance. The room she used as a studio is now my office.
But it’s the paintings themselves. They’re all over the house. Over the staircase, her sketches (études—I read in an art book once they’re called études) hang behind glass, in tasteful, skinny frames of dark mahogany. Banal things in reddish-brown chalk that remind me of rust or dried blood. Some buckets piled up in the grass, next to a barely sketched-out shed. The faceless silhouette of a woman, naked and unselfconscious, her doughy thighs and rounded belly on proud display (not Colleen herself—she was wiry, thin not from workouts but thanks to a fast metabolism). A sketch of Byron’s profile in the middle of an expanse of pristine untouched paper. I’ve inspected that sketch many times, noting all the little discrepancies between the drawing and real-life Byron yet never able to quite pinpoint why it looked so different from the face I see every day.
In the dining room: a quaint beach, almost monochrome in sienna and ochre. Someplace on Lake Erie? The hastily smeared copse of trees, the shabby little boat moored to a root, it doesn’t look like something from the Caribbean—not that Colleen and Byron were the type to go sunning in an all-inclusive resort with the kinds of people Colleen would have probably found as bland and boring as my university classmates found me. They went to Peru for their honeymoon, which Byron reluctantly admitted to me when I pressed him about the origins of a mask that hung in the hallway upstairs. But as far as I know, Colleen didn’t paint Peru. Found the subject matter too predictable, maybe.
And then the living room. That giant sprawling canvas of the house itself. The house sits in the middle of a murky sfumato like an island lost at sea. The whole thing is in tones of burgundy, raw and rusty, and it makes the house appear sinister. Maybe she painted it that way to make a nice flashy contrast with the lilac walls and cream-colored couch. But Colleen was above painting decorative things. Colleen made true art, whatever that means.
All that without counting the other paintings, smaller ones, scattered throughout the hallways and in the kitchen and upstairs and in Byron’s office. So far, in the two years we’ve been married, I have only succeeded in getting rid of the one in the bedroom. I was going to find something else to put up in its place but abandoned the idea—whatever I chose, it would inevitably fall short by comparison.
The paintings are worth something, which is unusual, I suppose, in an era when hardly anyone bothers to spend money on unique art—let alone serious money. I looked it up furtively, erasing my search history afterward; that hideous bedroom one could keep our bills paid for months. But my attempts to suggest we sell even one have hit a wall.
It all frustrates me to no end, and then I get angry at Byron, and then I feel guilty and down on myself for being angry, for being resentful and petty. What else is it but pettiness, to feel jealous of a dead woman?
When I met Byron, that undercurrent of tragedy drew me like a magnet; when I learned the truth, I was only more enthralled. Anyone else may have been apprehensive and chosen to fall back and keep her options open: surely a reasonably pretty girl in her early twenties can do better than a guy almost twice her age, with a dead wife you just know he will never truly get over. But instead, it made me love him even more.
Boys my age knew nothing of true loss and pain and grief—they smacked gum and swiped their phone screens, scrolling through profile after profile on the latest dating app, always in search of the next bigger, flashier thing. For them, everything and everyone was replaceable, and replaceable things have no value. Or maybe it was the writer in me who became drawn to so much raw feeling concentrated in one person. I still can’t be sure.
Maybe if she’d had the courtesy to divorce him or to run off with some long-haired hipster from one of her college workshops, he’d at least be able to let go. But Colleen had to go and die. And who can blame Byron for going off the rails a little when his first wife committed suicide?
When Byron told me, I did the only thing anyone of my generation would do: I looked it up online. I found an obituary. Colleen, as it turned out, painted under her maiden name—truth be told, I don’t know whether she ever legally changed it to Westcott.
Colleen May, esteemed artist, passed away on April 11, 2010. She leaves behind grieving colleagues and friends as well as her husband, Byron Westcott.
There was no mention that she killed herself. But there was a photo of Byron and Colleen together, made grainy by the newsprint. Not a posed wedding photo like you’d expect—they didn’t have posed wedding photos. In it, they were standing, him with his arm around her shoulders. Behind her, I could make out, even despite the bad quality of the image, the unmistakable wild streaks of paint on canvas. This was her gallery show. I didn’t know which one.
I’ve reread this obituary more than a few times since, peering into the photo, trying to suss out any details lost between the lines, in the sparse words. To glimpse something of the life they had, the connection between them. As a result, I could recite it from memory by now.
But today, my fingertips are drumming on the touch pad of my laptop as if of their own free will, my nerves on edge. That simple text is no longer enough, and I know better than to casually bring up Colleen’s death with my husband.
The ringing of my phone makes my head snap up. Disoriented, I race around the house in circles before remembering I left it on the kitchen counter, next to the emptied cup of coffee.
Luckily, I don’t miss the call. When I see Byron’s photo on the screen, my heart jumps. He never calls me during his lunch break anymore.
I wince just a tiny bit. I can’t ever picture him referring to Colleen, offhandedly, as “babe.” Although of course they must have had the same silly little names all couples have for each other. Even though the thought poisons me, slowly, one cell at a time, hollowing out my bones like radium.
“Hi.” I ask him how his day is going. The answer is the same as the one he gives me every day when he comes home.
Today, though, something is different.
“You know what? I was thinking. It’s horrible outside. So do you want to come and meet me after I’m done? We can go catch a movie and then get dinner at some greasy spoon.”
In my head, I’m making up excuses. But my mouth says, “Okay. Sure.”
“It’s been a while.”
“Yeah.” I’m not sure what he’s referring to. A lot of things have been a while. A week since he last said bye to me before leaving for work. Two weeks, three days since we had sex. About a month since we did anything together outside the house.
“How’s the book going?”
“It’s going,” I lie. “I wrote some pages.”
“Good. Then we both earned it.”
Did we? Really?
“I love you,” he says out of nowhere. I’m so startled I let a couple of seconds tick by before I say it back.
He gives a soft chuckle. “I’ll see you at six.”
I know it’s just a movie and dinner but at least it gives me something to think about instead of obsessing over some email I may or may not have imagined.
I abandon my laptop and go upstairs where I pick out a dress, then layer on some more makeup to be sure to cover the subtle but creeping dark circles under my eyes. The circles appeared sometime last spring after a particularly nasty bout of insomnia. I got a prescription to treat the insomnia itself but the circles never quite faded. Instead, they’ve been getting just a little bit darker, a little bit hollower, every single morning.
It’s one of those changes that creeps up on you until you wake up one morning, at thirty or thirty-five, and realize that a little bit of your beauty got away from you. But I see it. Is this when it starts? Twenty-seven? I read that your cells start dying faster than they renew at twenty-five. Is that all there is then—is it downhill from here?
It’s laughable, the fact that my husband teaches droves of artsy nineteen-year-olds every day, and yet the person I feel most threatened by is his dead first wife.
Sort-of-dead first wife, who sends me emails from the other side.
My sharp, hollow laugh echoes through the bathroom, and I snap back to reality. And the reality is I smeared half a tube of high-end concealer under my eyes, like two giant half-moons. Reverse raccoon. I bought that tube during one of my rampages at the mall. It’s soft as whipped cream, like rubbing pure silk into your skin, and it costs a fortune. I wipe off the excess with a cotton pad and stamp down the rest with a little makeup sponge.
Hours later, I’m finally made-up, my hair straightened, in my car, and driving to the college. The place where my husband works couldn’t be any more different from the college I went to—not just the exorbitant tuition but the place itself. When you hear “elite university,” the image that pops into your head is Gothic spires and mossy stone walls, arched windows, and, of course, ivy. Lots of ivy everywhere. At least that’s what pops into my head.
The people who founded this institution had a starkly different idea. There are lots of geometric shapes, lots of tinted glass that gleams on sunny days like remnants of an alien spaceship. On a day like today, the buildings meld with the gray sky. In lieu of cozy winding paths, the entire territory is shot through with arrow-straight lanes, contemporary sculptures scattered on fluorescent-green buzz-cut lawns.
When Byron’s colleagues were within earshot, I always expressed polite admiration of the things but Byron saw right through it and never stopped poking fun at me. Oh look, he’d taunt in my ear as we walked past one or another concrete masterpiece, it’s that wonderfully expressive cubist take on Venus de Milo.
I could never conceal my loathing of contemporary sculpture. It’s as if whoever conceived of all this was outright rejecting all things traditional, casting them aside with palpable disdain.
Rain has been dripping steadily all afternoon but a group of students still holds court on benches that surround yet another hideous lump of metal that passes for art. They follow me with curious looks as I hurry by. And I get it—I stick out, and not in a good way. With my dress and blond hair, I’m normal, hopelessly conventional, and to them, I must be the human equivalent of an impressionist landscape painting. Passé, pastel, and ultimately boring.
Truth is I knew lots of people just like them at Ohio State. They, too, kept anyone who didn’t fit their definition of cool at arm’s length, considering them a natural inferior. After a while, I observed that the ones who take the most pains to set themselves apart, with strange haircuts and bits of metal in their faces, are the most creatively bankrupt; they were always the ones in the workshops who fed off the others’ ideas, soaking up the imagination nature hadn’t given them.
I ignore their looks. At least I have to give Byron credit: I just don’t see him striking up an affair with one of them, some girl with green hair and tattoos on her neck.
The Language Arts Department is tucked away in the back of the campus. It’s the least interesting building, as if the architects were running out of ideas and saved all the good ones for the departments that matter: fine arts and visual arts. The way I see it, the Language Arts Department is better off this way. The plain façade has trees surrounding it, maples that are turning red and yellow and orange, leaves shivering with raindrops. It feels warm and familiar somehow.
The door is heavy, and I struggle with my umbrella. A spray of cold drops dots my skirt. A girl rushes past me in a huff, all but shoving me out of her way. The door clatters closed behind her, leaving me in the warm, dry silence of the department. Fittingly, it feels like a library. Not an interesting, old library with moldings and arched doorways, but still.
I check my phone—six fifteen, no new texts or emails. The department is quiet at this hour so I go straight to my husband’s office. I pass through a short labyrinth of halls to find myself in front of his door.
It’s shut. I knock and then jiggle the handle to no result. Confused, I raise my hand to knock again but reconsider.
Instead, I take two more turns through the maze and find the Student Services desk, where a bored student is perched behind Plexiglas, ready to help with any pressing language arts matters. Today is a different one from last time, no longer the girl with the dreads and painful-looking barbell through the bridge of her nose. This one has mousy hair in a weird bobbed style, and a lip ring she keeps playing with. She’s reading a book. Not on her phone or another device—a real, big, old-looking book. I can’t tell what it is because the cover is lovingly wrapped in brown paper to preserve it.
“Excuse me.” I almost feel bad to pull her out of it, back into boring reality. “Is Dr. Westcott here?”
“He’s only in until six,” she says on autopilot. I notice that her bangs are too short and look uneven, like she cut them herself. “Office hours are over but you can make an appointment.”
Appointment. Add that to the ever-growing list of indignities I’ve suffered on my husband’s account. Does anybody here even know he’s married? “I’m supposed to meet him after work. I’m his wife,” I say, pettily emphasizing the last sentence. “Claire. Westcott.”
Not only does she look up from the tome, she puts it down altogether. “Oh. Sorry. I had no idea he had a wife.”
My mouth opens in a silent O of humiliation. Excuse me? I’m about to blurt but then steps echo behind me, loud, hurrying, and the girl is now looking past me, over my shoulder. I turn to follow her gaze, and there he is, hurrying toward me. Byron. His hair looks mussed, droplets of rain still peppering it like tiny beads.
I know it’s silly to get flustered at some obnoxious coed, because after all, I’m the one married to him. I’m the one with the ring (replacement ring, but still). But as soon as he comes close, I get on tiptoe and kiss him, throwing my arms around his neck. His body stiffens a little, and he meets the kiss—although his is much more chaste and less Bacall and Bogart.
“Honey,” he whispers in my ear, “please. I’m at work.”
You weren’t in your office, I want to say. What were you doing outside? But that would make me look insecure in front of the coed, whose pointed stare I can feel on the back of my head. It’s probably my own fault because of the public display of affection.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say instead, even though I’m not that late and not that sorry. “Let’s go?”
For the next little while, it’s like old times. He holds his umbrella over my head as we run to his car; he puts on the jazz violinist I like. He already bought the tickets to a special screening of a classic black-and-white movie at the indie theater in Columbus where we used to go in the beginning. We’re nearly alone in the cinema, rows and rows of those old-fashioned maroon velour seats all to ourselves, and we huddle over the bucket of popcorn, the warm buttery smell wafting in our faces. I let myself have more than I normally would, even though after three bites my fingertips are slick with grease. I can feel it pooling in my belly, coating my insides. We mouth along with the dialogue we know by heart.
When we emerge, it’s late, and the rain has stopped. The street is gleaming with reflected streetlights, and spare drops still fall on my arms and into my hair, out of nowhere.
“A bite to eat?” he asks. I want to say I’m full from the popcorn—I certainly should be—but for the first time in weeks I realize with surprise I actually have an appetite. Not just an appetite—a hunger for life I thought was hopelessly in the past. I want to throw the diet to the four winds and stuff my face, and then I want to stay up late and open a bottle of wine and make love till three in the morning, to hell with having to get up. So I agree, and he starts down the side street.
When I remember what exactly is just a block from here, from this theater, it’s too late. The greasy spoon’s front is lit up green and yellow, just like before. The popcorn churns in my belly.
“This?” I say, trying to sound casual. “Really?”
“I don’t want anything pretentious tonight. I just want a damn hamburger, and this place makes great ones.” His eyes gleam, his grin is impish, and for a moment, I let myself imagine that maybe, just maybe, he forgot and forgave. That the ancestral ring, gone from the family forever because of me, is not such a big deal. He’ll never be able to give it to his daughter now—not that he’s likely to ever have a daughter anyway, the way things are going with my stubborn uterus.
“I just— It’s kind of heavy, isn’t it?” I know how painfully transparent my attempt is but I go ahead anyway. “I’m in the mood for something fresher.”
“So get a Cobb salad,” he says, shrugging. His eyebrow twitches, etching a deep, dark line on his forehead. “Claire, please don’t start your killjoy routine right now. We’re having such a good night.”
I draw a breath of damp air, all my words dead on my tongue. If I say I’m sorry now, that’ll only make it worse. The only thing to do is to carry on like nothing happened, like I messed up a line in a play. The worst thing I can do is acknowledge it. The show must go on.
The smell, the light, the color scheme—everything conspires to make me queasy but I grin right through my nausea. As soon as the girl comes up to us, I order a bourbon, before she has a chance to open her mouth and try to sell us the specials. Byron gets a Jack and Coke.
“Really going for the trashy concept today, huh?” I say, working hard not to sound spiteful.
His grin almost makes me forgive him. “What? I’ve been Mr. PhD in Literature all week. Do you know how hard it is not to lose face in front of all these cool, hip types who come to my lectures? If I slip up, they’ll never respect me.”
What I don’t need right now is to be reminded of all the cool, hip types, especially like the one with the pretentious vintage tome. I bet she wasn’t even really reading it, just showing off.
“And you could also use some greasy French fries, if you ask me. You’re all bones.”
Self-conscious, I hug my shoulders to realize he’s right. I did lose some weight; it always goes from my face and upper body first so I can’t always tell by how my jeans fit. My already nonexistent tits dwindle to nothing but my sharp-boned facial structure becomes more refined. I turn heads either way, and I know it. He would know it too, if he ever paid attention. He’s the least jealous guy I’ve ever been with, and I used to think it was a good thing.
He has never criticized my appearance either: thin, not so thin, makeup, no makeup, inch-long brown roots—he’s never made so much as one ambiguous remark. Now that I think about it, this is the first time he seems to have noticed my body in a very long while.
He waves the waitress over and orders us some fries to share, a hamburger for himself. To spite him, I do get the Cobb salad, even though the salad in this place is beyond disgusting.
The fries arrive almost immediately, the basket sitting between us, filling the emptiness with a savory smell so thick I feel myself getting fat by just breathing. I gulp my bourbon. Then catch myself twisting the replacement ring nervously around my finger. Byron reaches over and puts his hand on top of mine, like he does whenever I have one of my little neurotic tics.
Any second, I half expect him to bring up the ring. At certain moments, he tilts his head just so, licks his lips, and I think, There it is, on the tip of his tongue, and any moment now it’ll slip out and ruin everything. It would be so easy. But I know he won’t. Of course he won’t.
I finish the bourbon and get another one just as the food arrives. I’ll have puffy eyes and the mother of all headaches tomorrow but who cares? I gulp from drink number two, staring wistfully at Byron’s plate—not a chance I’m touching mine. The mound of wilted oily lettuce shreds, the grayish boiled egg, the pale, watery tomato slices—it’s enough to make me want to hurl.
I know I must say something to break the infected silence punctuated only by the sound of Byron chewing, his jaws working with determination.
I polish off the rest of the bourbon. “We should try again,” I blurt. “Seriously this time.”
He doesn’t stop eating. He only gives me a look over the handful of hamburger. That look.
“Interesting how you mostly want to when you’re hammered. You realize you’ll need to lay off the wine for nine months?”
That’s a lie, so blatant I should be insulted. It’s not that I’m wishy-washy in my desire to have a baby. It’s just that my infertility fitted so neatly with Byron’s disinterest in raising children.
“You said,” I start, words jumping over one another in a hurry to get out, “you said, as you got older, you started to think about it. To want to leave something behind.”
“Thinking about it isn’t the same,” he says, lowering the burger. Meat, brown and pink, crumbling, a mess of ketchup and mayo spilling over onto his plate. “And besides…Claire, you know how much it’ll cost. Not just the IVF. Everything. Clothes, schools. Our savings won’t last forever, the way we’re going. We’d have to make serious cutbacks.”
I pretend to think. I have a solution but he won’t want to hear of it, of course. Nor will he want to give up his gourmet coffee and Scotch.
“I know,” I say acidly. “Trust me—I know. It’s so much better to leave behind a Great American Novel than another human being with your genes. But that’s not working out so great, as you know.”
“You don’t have to go there.” He wipes his hands on a napkin and then balls it up and tosses it into his plate. Byron’s own rejected novels, from a time when I was probably in kindergarten, are still gathering dust in some drawer. We never talk about them. Just like we no longer talk about mine, the big shiny novel that sits like a brick on my hard drive and will probably never leave it.
Byron sighs. “So that’s it, then? You want a baby to give your life meaning?” His mouth twists with disdain. “How about— Have you been looking for a job, Claire?”
I sit up straight. It feels like I’ve been slapped. My head is spinning, ringing hollowly. Although it could be the bourbon.
“I have to go,” I say in carefully measured syllables. I get up, pull my dress around my thighs, and storm to the bathroom. Not until the door swings closed behind me does it hit me—this is it, this exact dingy, dirty washroom, where it happened. The ring.
I slam the door of the stall and make sure the latch is turned. Hastily, I pull off reams and reams of brittle toilet paper, throw it on the floor, position my knees on top of it so my skin doesn’t make contact with the disgusting tiles. Then I lean over the toilet and, without hesitation, stick two fingers down my throat.
And watch it all come back up, this whole wretched day.
Your wife didn’t even notice her keys were gone.
I wish I could say I’m such a meticulous planner that I masterminded the whole thing. But no. My plan had been much simpler but just as effective. Once again, luck was on my side.
She was at the public library near campus, where she goes every Friday, waiting for you to be finished at work. As usual, before she goes browsing, she stakes her claim on her favorite chair next to the window—see? I do know her. And you. Maybe better than you know yourselves.
She puts her coat and her purse on the armchair, coat thrown over purse as if it will fool anyone. Thinking the sort of people who go to the library are surely above swiping a wallet. I am above it, even though God knows I could use the money. And she—she throws her trendy bag with the glittery logo around like it’s nothing.
But I wasn’t going to risk ruining everything over a few bucks and a cute purse. I waited for her to disappear in the reference book section and then simply came up and rummaged through the purse like it was my own.
She has a mess in there, your wife. Lipsticks in three different colors, empty lip balm, gum wrappers, loose change clanging around the bottom. I couldn’t resist—I pocketed a lipstick, an unassuming shade of pink not so different from the color of her lips. That tube just looked so sad in there, and she’ll never notice. I opened her wallet. She had a bunch of credit cards, crumpled receipts stuffed in the cash compartment, but no photos. I rifled through the receipts and put them back as carelessly as she had, taking mental notes. It was tempting but I didn’t touch the cards. The time would come for everything; I just had to be patient.
But I did take her house keys and put them in my coat pocket. While she flipped through this or that coffee-table book, I ran to the quaint little shoe-repair place across the street and had copies made. Within fifteen minutes, the house keys were back in your wife’s purse, and she never knew a thing.
Getting into your house—well, that was another matter altogether. I waited for two more weeks, biding my time to be sure I hadn’t messed up, that she really didn’t notice anything. Once I felt safe, I could go ahead.
I skipped class that day, the day I knew for sure she’d be out of the house. I drove out to where you live. It’s such a generic McMansion; I’m surprised at you. How can a spirit like yours feel at home there, be happy there? I’ve heard you speak. Your mind can soar into the stratosphere and bring along everyone who’s listening.
I pictured you living in a beautiful Victorian that looks like it might be haunted or, maybe, in a historic ranch, tending to your own horses in your free time. Is it dumb of me to still have idols in our day and age, to imagine a life for them that transcends the boring trappings of domesticity?
It’s a beautiful house, sure. It projects the right things: money, stability, respectability—the usual garbage I know you don’t really care about. It’s so impersonal. None of it is you.
When we’re together, we will sell it and move. To another city, or another state, because why not? We’ll go someplace where you’ll be inspired, a place worthy of you, a place that will nourish this great mind of yours so you can finally fulfil your true potential.
As for me, I don’t dare suggest I’ll be your muse—I can’t be so presumptuous—but at least I’ll do everything in my power to make sure the domestic sphere doesn’t distract you from your work. I’ll make you breakfast in the morning and then fuck you on the kitchen counter.
That first visit was just that, a visit. Reconnoitering. I didn’t take or touch anything—I swear. Well, I did touch some things but I put them back the same way you and your wife left them. And, all right, I admit that I lingered longer than necessary in front of your bookshelves. I always wanted to know which books you keep at home. Which ones mean so much to you that you picked them out of millions and millions of titles and brought them into your inner sanctum, granting them the coveted spot on your personal shelf. You like obscure British novels from the fifties and sixties; you’re a John Fowles fan. I could tell because you have more than one edition of all his books. Other things weren’t as surprising: Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Hilary Mantel, and, endearingly, a whole shelf at the very bottom filled with Swedish crime novels, mass-market paperback editions that look like they came from an airport.
I picked up a heavy, beautiful tome from the center of the shelf where you put your most precious possessions on display. The gilded spine spoke to me: the magus. I sat cross-legged on the floor and leafed through the pages, breathing their heady smell, my fingertips alight with their texture. I slipped my hand into my underwear, touched myself, and marked it—just the corners of the title page, christened by my wetness. When you next pick it up, you won’t notice a thing but your subconscious will rear its head like a wolf scenting fresh blood. And when I’m ready to show myself to you, then you’ll know me on a primal level. Your body and your blood will know that I’m yours.
I have now been able to fill in the blanks in my picture of you. I know your favorite coffee, your brand of cereal, your alcohol of choice, the DVDs on your shelf. I know your drawers are organized, and your wife’s closet somewhat chaotic. I know her shoes are one size smaller than mine, her bra size is 34B (statistically average), and that she has more thong panties than regular ones—surprising, because she looks like such a prude.
Isn’t it magic when you finally meet that person, the one you’re meant to be with? It’s as if they know everything about you instinctively, and all their wants and needs and likes and dislikes align with yours. And that’s when you know fate brought you together and you’re meant to be.
In time, it will happen. For now, it’s almost as if I already live here, with the two of you. Immaterial for now but growing closer, realer, more solid every day. Like becoming a ghost in reverse.