By Nancy Temple
Most mornings, as Jill was straightening up the house before her daily walk, she’d peer into Mark’s study, appraise the mess and then quickly close the door, leaving it to him to create order out of its perpetual chaos—papers spilling over the desk, a mixture of student work and his own: poetry, short essays, and notes for class. Books were scattered here and there; the armchair pillows lay on the floor. She often wondered how he managed to be so productive, surrounded by such clutter; she could not concentrate on her lesson plans without first clearing her desk. Today, just as she was closing the door, she noticed something on his desk, bright and reflective in the early light that streamed in through the east-facing window. She went in, wondering if he’d forgotten his phone in his rush to get to the faculty meeting, but it was the blade of a letter opener she’d given him on their twenty-fifth anniversary, glinting in the sun. She picked it up. Mark and Jill: their names were carved into the old bone handle.
Looking around the room now, she remembered when they’d bought this, their first house, after years of apartment living. There were cobwebs in forgotten corners, cracked linoleum on the kitchen floor, a few missing balusters, but the house had character. Mark pointed out the window seat on the landing that looked out over the back yard. Jill was charmed by the fireplace with the carved owl. One wing was missing, but Mark had a friend who could fix it, and no one would ever know. They had gone outside to talk, while the agent watched from the doorway.
“It needs everything,” Mark had said, “but it’s great. Did you see the bookstore around the corner?”
“Friday night poetry readings. I know. Mark, it’s karma.”
“You mean kismet.” He hugged her. “Let’s do it.”
They moved in even before the apartment lease had expired. All that summer, clouds of dust hovered throughout the day, as Mark, balancing precariously on the ladder, pulled dark blue paper off the walls in long strips. Bits of old glue were released into the air like glitter, and Jill swept until her shoulders ached. After the wallpaper was removed, the balusters fixed, and the linoleum ripped from the subfloor, they painted the rooms in exotic hues with names like “Harvest Moon” and “Fantasia.”
The neighbor’s dog began to bark, interrupting her reverie, and then she saw how the lampshade was stained, how the walls had faded, except where pictures, removed for reasons she could not remember, left bright patches that recalled their original color, Riverbend Blue, a grayish hue. She’d never liked it; she thought it dull, depressing even, but Mark had insisted, arguing that it was his study, after all, and she’d given in. The little bust of Yeats, another of her gifts, had toppled on its shelf, and as she set it straight, she saw one of the ears had chipped.
She sat at the desk and looked at the scattered papers. A page in Mark’s scribble caught her eye; she picked it up.
After the hundredth kiss the last embrace
the final reckoning you on the forest floor
your eyes fixed past my own
silent do you seek what do you seek
and then, at the bottom of the page:
an absent god? reconciliation? an eternal grace?
The beginnings of a poem in Mark’s handwriting, but not in his style. Despite his indifference to the state of his room—and the rest of the house these days, if she were honest—his poetry was highly structured. And then she saw the photographs, partially hidden under a pile of papers. One by one, she examined them; they were pictures of Mark and a few of his students at the beach. He’d never mentioned the outing. Here he stood, in his big-brimmed summer hat, surrounded by his disciples, aspiring poets; in the next, he was bareheaded, his ponytail streaming, leading the charge to the water. She wondered who’d held the camera, and then she saw the picture of Mark laughing, glowing, with his arms around a girl she’d met, someone he’d introduced her to at a book signing. Jill had been struck by her fragile beauty: her bright red hair, unfurled, framed a face pale and delicate as that of a pre-Raphaelite heroine. Here, in the picture she held, the girl was radiant as she gazed up at Mark, her slender body leaning against his. Jill’s hand trembled. At that moment, she heard his car in the driveway, and she thought: how will I survive the rest of this day?
She pushed the pictures under the pile of papers and hurriedly left the room. She had to do something, anything. Mark found her in the kitchen, knife in hand, chopping a pepper.
“What are you doing,” he asked. “We’re meeting Fran at four o’clock.”
Without looking up, she said, “I know. I’m just…” She felt the beat of her heart in her throat.
“We’ll be late. Anyway, I want to get back before the rain.” He came close and put his hand on hers, to stop her. “Are you okay?”
She looked at him then and was startled to see his face unchanged. She knew this man. It was true that he hadn’t told her about the trip to the beach, but after all, it might have been spontaneous, something one of the students had suggested on a whim. Perhaps it was all entirely innocent. A girl, star-struck, smitten, her husband idolized; it wasn’t his fault. And the girl would not be the first to have a crush on her husband.
“I’ll get my shawl,” she said.
With a flourish, Mark brought a box wrapped in silver paper from behind his back. “I know it’s a little early, but happy birthday.”
She placed the box on the kitchen table. “I’ll wait till next week.”
“Open it now. Happy Friday or something.”
He’d brought her a bright, fluffy shawl, pink on one side, purple on the other. She held it up, looking first at the pink, then at the purple side. It was garish, not at all her style—or his, for that matter. Why had he bought this?
“Put it on. Here.” He wrapped it around her shoulders, and she looked down. Neon pink on a red shirt. It was awful.
“Maybe the purple,” she said, reversing the shawl.
“That’s it.” He gave her a thumbs up. He went to the door and turned. She was examining the shawl, noticing the loose weave. It was cheap, and she hated it. Redheads wore colors like this, oranges and pinks that clashed with their hair. She suddenly leaned over the faucet and drank.
“What?” he asked.
“Just…I don’t know.” She wiped her mouth. “A funny taste.”
“Well, come on. We’d better go.”
The route into town took them past old farms planted with corn, their long green leaves turning brown in the cool September weather. Usually, on the drive to see Fran, they played a game, speculating on the meaning of the street names: Potters Road, Bog River Lane. They liked imagining what might have happened on Revelation Drive.Today, they drove in silence. She glanced at Mark, who was driving too fast.
“Slow down, please.” She reached instinctively for his arm, and when she touched him, he shuddered.
“Don’t.” He jerked his arm away. The car swerved out of its lane for a moment.
“I know about the girl,” she said.
He pulled off the road and brought the car to a halt, facing a wall of browning corn stalks. He put his head on the steering wheel.
“How long?” she asked.
He turned to look at her with his head still on the wheel.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
He shook his head. No.
She closed her eyes. “Call Fran. Tell her—tell her whatever you want. Make some excuse. I can’t go through with it.”
“For Christ’s sake, Jill. She’s your sister—if you don’t want to go, you call her. She’ll blame me.”
“Take responsibility for this, at least.”
“All right. Shit.” He pulled his phone from his pocket and got out of the car. She watched him pacing at the edge of the corn field, still beautiful: lean, supple, fluid; he was full of grace. As he walked back to the car, she felt such heavy sorrow she thought it would sink her.
“Okay,” he said. “I told her I wasn’t feeling well.”
They drove home under darkening skies, and Jill thought the familiar landscape looked different, like a stage set upon which she and Mark were enacting a new scene. Neither spoke. We’ve forgotten our lines, she thought, and we don’t know how this ends. By the time they got home, it was raining. Jill rushed into the house, the wild shawl over her head. Going into his study, she sat at his desk, her heart pounding. She was waiting for him to come in, although she wasn’t sure what they could say to each other now, but he went upstairs. She looked at the pictures again, examined the face of the girl gazing up at Mark. The girl’s name started with a V…Veronica, Virginia. She concentrated on her breathing, counting down from ten to one, over and over, but she couldn’t quiet her heart. Spreading the pictures out like a fan, like a deck of cards across the desk, she thought: Veronica, Valerie, what difference does it make? She heard his footsteps and looked up as he appeared in the doorway. She saw that he was going to say something and knew that, after all, she didn’t want to hear it.
“It’s been a year,” he said softly, as though telling her in what was almost a whisper might make it easier for her to bear.
“A year,” she repeated. She could not understand. Last summer, they had spent a month at Lake George with Mark’s brother, helping him fix up an old cabin. The two men had tried without success to repair the bottom of an old rowboat. Jill had teased them, and they retaliated, pelting her with clumps of beach grass. She ran into the lake, laughing, and Mark followed, shouting that she could fix the boat herself if she knew so much. He swam alongside her. The light shimmered on the water, flickering. It dazzled them, and they could not stop smiling.
“We painted the cabin,” she said now.
“You called me when you lost your wallet.”
Mark sat in the chair facing her and reached across the desk, his palms up. Jill wondered briefly if he expected her to predict his future. She had no idea what was going to happen in the next day, hour, minute of his life or her own. She put her hands on his and then, noticing the network of blue veins on her aging skin, put them in her lap. Mark said, “What?”
She shook her head. “I’m going up.”
Lying next to each other in the wide bed that night, she watched the lights of passing cars moving across the ceiling. She hoped he might say the girl was too young for him, he’d end the affair—but he was quiet.
In the early morning, he was at the window, already dressed, looking out. She spoke his name. He turned and came to sit beside her, took her hand and kissed it; she grasped his in both of hers.
“Is it serious?” she asked. “Mark—a year? While we were at the lake? That whole time? Were you calling her when I wasn’t around? When you said you had a conference at school—did you see her?”
“Stop. I’m sorry.”
“And I feel terrible. I care about you, Jill. You know that.”
She lifted his hands to her cheeks. “We could see a therapist, couldn’t we? Remember when Bob had that affair? They got past it. They’re happier now than ever, aren’t they? I could call and ask who they talked to.”
But she saw he was watching the flight of a woodpecker that attacked the side of the house every autumn.
“That damned woodpecker!” he said.
With her fist, she hit him as hard as she could on his arm, and he jumped up and back.
“What the fuck?” He rubbed him arm. “I’m going to have a bruise. Jesus, Jill.”
“Oh, a bruise. You’ll have a bruise. You’re worried about a bruise. Why? Because she’ll see it next time you’re fucking her? Why don’t you tell her I get drunk and beat you up. It’s gone on for years and I refuse to go to rehab and you’re done with my shit.Tell her whatever. What’s her name, anyway? Vagina, that’s about right. Get those goddamned pictures out of my house!”
She ran down the stairs to his study. She tore the pictures, scattering them in every direction. He was in the doorway, watching. She knew he pitied her; she was out of control, childish, without dignity. That he was not provoked further enraged her. She picked up the bust of Yeats and watched it explode across the floor.
“It was a piece of shit, anyway,” she said. “Like that—stupid shawl. Did she pick it out? Of course she did.” She waved the poem she’d read earlier. “You on the forest floor. It’s crap. She can’t write, and you know it.” She swept the papers off the desk. The breeze coming in the open window lifted them, and for a moment Jill was transfixed, seeing them glide on the air current like the wings of egrets. He was watching, too, and she almost said: they look like birds, isn’t it beautiful—but her tongue tasted like acid and she could not speak. Then the papers settled to the floor.
“Did you leave the pictures where I’d find them?” With another sweep of her arm, she sent more papers into the air, and still more, and then Mark was yelling at her to stop.
“You coward!” She kicked his class notes into the corners of the room. “You took her shopping and bought her—what did you get her? A ring?”
“Then you had to get me that fucking shawl.”
He shouted “Get a hold of yourself!” and he grabbed her and pushed her into the armchair, holding her down.
“Why don’t you smother me with the pillow? Go ahead!” Then she wept.
He released her. “For Christ’s sake.”
She said, “You need to go,” and he replied, “I know.”
He went to the door and stopped. Without turning to look at her, he said, “I can’t give her up. I’ve tried.”
“Fuck off,” she said. He went upstairs.
She sat in the armchair without moving. Eventually, she heard his footsteps as he came down, and he went out. The door clicked shut behind him, and then there was the sound of his car driving away. In the heavy silence that followed, she imagined that she might have run to stop him, to promise he could have the affair if only he stayed, but she knew it was impossible. She could never share him; it would be worse than this.
In the bedroom, she lay down, her arm stretched out. In this position, she fell asleep. When she woke, the room was filled with moonlight. Her arm, still extended, was numb. Looking over at it, she saw that Mark had taken his pillow. She sat up and rubbed her arm. “His pillow, for Christ’s sake,” she said aloud. Her cell phone lay on the nightstand. She picked it up; it was four in the morning. He hadn’t called. She put the phone in her pocket and went downstairs.
She went to the kitchen and made herself a sandwich in the half dark and then took it into Mark’s study. Sitting at his desk, she ate and slowly took in the chaos in the room—his poems, class notes, student work everywhere. He hadn’t taken any of it; he’d left the mess for her to clean up. He’d always been a slob, she knew that, and now she knew he was a liar. And a cheater. She said it aloud. “Cheater.” The word gave her satisfaction; their marriage had collapsed, and it wasn’t her fault. She finished eating, and as she brushed breadcrumbs into the wastebasket, the sun rose, brightening the room.
The phone rang, startling her. It was Fran.
“I missed you guys yesterday. How’s Mark?”
“Oh, Fran,” Jill said. “He’s moved out. He’s gone.”
“Gone—what do you mean?”
“I found pictures—him and this—girl—at the beach. The way she was looking at him…” She began to circle the room as she talked.
Fran drew a deep breath. “Oh, god. No.”
Suddenly Jill saw someone behind the armchair, gray hair around a pale face, hollow eyes staring back at her from the old mirror. Was this what she looked like now?
“She’s young enough to be his daughter. It’s such a cliché.”
“Shit. Oh, you poor thing. That’s awful. Should I come over? I’m coming over.”
“Don’t.” She didn’t want anyone fussing over her, especially Fran, whose expressions of sympathy and solidarity could only make her feel worse. “I’ll be fine.”
“He’ll be back. You know these things don’t last. Remember Bob and Debbie?”
“Fran, when I asked if we could see a therapist, you know what he said? That damned woodpecker. I mean, Jesus.”
“I told you he was a jerk. Didn’t I always say that? Now he’s completely off the rails.”
“You never said that.”
“Well, anyway, if he’s chasing some—twelve-year-old child, he’s obviously gone crazy. You’re smart and pretty—”
“Pretty? Me?” Jill said. “God, no.”
“You are. And brilliant. Shit, if he doesn’t appreciate that, he can go to hell. He doesn’t deserve you.”
“My cheekbones have been drifting for years, like my boobs.”
“Cheekbones don’t drift, Jill.And anyway, so what? His ass is drifting. He needs a major butt lift. That’s a thing, you know, butt lifts.”
Jill smiled. She sat on the desk, her legs swinging, a regular rhythm. “Fran. He took his pillow. He left all his clothes, his toothbrush, his razor—but his pillow’s gone!”
Fran giggled. “I shouldn’t be laughing. But his fucking pillow—?”
“I know. He left his class notes—”
“He left his marriage!” Fran interrupted. “But he took his fucking pillow?”
Then Fran was roaring with laughter, and Jill could picture her sister’s chubby face, and how, when she laughed, her cheeks turned bright pink and her eyes narrowed into slits, and how when Fran laughed, everyone did. Now Jill chuckled, and then, as Fran gasped for breath and tried to say “his pillow—” she pictured him arriving somewhere—the girl’s place, no doubt—and opening his suitcase to find nothing but a pillow and she thought: yes, he is absolutely ridiculous, what a fool.
After she hung up, she brought boxes up from the basement and packed up the loose papers, then gathered books and put them back on the shelves without bothering to organize them; they were his, and he could deal with them in time. The shattered bust of Yeats went into the trash. She was full of energy, got the bucket from the kitchen with her cleaning supplies: sprays and rags. She dusted every surface, sponged the lamp, polished the desk and bookshelves. She wiped the baseboards, crawling on her knees around the perimeter of the room. Finally, exhausted, she leaned back against the wall and surveyed her handiwork.
His study hadn’t looked this good in a long time: the desk uncluttered, the cleaned surfaces shining. But now she looked at the rug, threadbare along its length. Observing the worn track, she thought: things get old, and we don’t notice, or perhaps we don’t care, because we’ve grown tired of them.
She stood and caught sight of herself in the mirror again. Her cheeks were flushed from exertion; her hair gleamed silver in a beam of light. Fran had said she was pretty, and she thought: yes, I look all right, better than all right. She imagined Mark walking into the room. Would he think: but she’s beautiful—how could I have been so stupid? How could I have forgotten the way we laughed and talked all night? Would he say: I’ve missed you—I’ve made a mistake—can you forgive me? But she knew that if he said anything, it would be to tell her she was independent and capable. How he’d always admired her strength, and her courage, and she’d get through this; she’d be just fine. She felt nothing but rage.
She heard the car, and then footsteps in the hallway, and realized Mark must have come back to collect his papers. He opened the door and stopped, seeing her. She shook her head and went past him, pushing him into the door frame.
He rubbed his arm. “What the fuck.”
“I’m going out.” She gestured towards the study without looking at him. “Do whatever.”
She went out through the garden and into the street and began walking. The afternoon turned to dusk, and the sky, cloudy and mottled, turned a darker blue. It began to rain heavily as she walked. Her hair and thin cotton shirt were soaked, but she was not cold and kept walking. The streetlamps suddenly illuminated the wet sidewalk. She saw an iron bench and sat to rest, watching the raindrops bounce off the curb, watching as they caught the light and burst, like shooting stars. She looked around. The streets, in the fading light, were unfamiliar, and she got up and walked on.