I pull the car into the driveway and keep the engine on. My hand hovers over the key and I try to screw up my courage, knowing I'll never do it. Just go, the little voice says, just drive and drive and drive and never look back. Start again somewhere fresh and new and untainted. I cut the engine and slump in the seat, telling myself I enjoy the heat. Making sure no one's watching, I take out a flask and treat myself to a quick drink. To brace myself, I think. After a few seconds, I stop pretending to enjoy the heat and get out of the car and make my way to the door.
Through the inch-thick wood, I hear the hard thunk of a bottle hitting the floor followed by a giggle. I close my eyes as I turn the key and open the door. She's sprawled on one of the two folding chairs we've set out by the poker table that makes up the majority of our furniture in the house. In her hand is a mug lifted from some Goodwill somewhere. As she sees me walk in she raises her mug in salute, sloshing cheap whisky onto her hand. The electricity was cut off last week, leaving the house more unbearable than outside. I feel a drop of sweat trickle along my spine.
"Hey, sugar cookie," she says in a mock-Southern accent, chortling at her own non-joke. As she brings down the mug, more of the drink sloshes over the side, hitting her blue dress. "Shit!" she yells as it begins to soak through the fabric. Leaping from the chair, she grabs clumsily at a half roll of paper towels and tries to blot her mess before collapsing back into the chair. Before sitting down in the free chair, I sigh, making sure it's just loud enough for her to hear.
I try not to look at the whisky or the mug, or even at her, instead focusing on the ever-growing cobweb of cracking plaster on the kitchen wall. I go through the check list, my brain coming up with an instant counterargument. Drinking is bad for you. But I want to drink. I need to drink. It brings out the worst in you. No, being uptight and denying myself anything brings out the worst in me. Do you really want to be drunk and sweating and feeling like shit at 3 PM on a Wednesday? It's not like it matters; what am I going to do if I'm sober? You're strong, you don't need this. No I'm not, yes I do. Besides, what does it matter? My eyes close so I can focus on the back-and-forth.
"So, uh, do you want any?" she asks. Like that, the debate ends. It's one thing to deny oneself, another to be rude, especially to one's wife.
"Sure." I grab the nearest clean-ish looking mug from the floor and hold it out to her. She waits for a second before picking up the bottle and pouring. The weight of the drink in the mug is reassuringly familiar.
We raise our vessels in a toast. "Nostrovia," I say. "Bottoms up" she answers. The mugs give a sharp clink when they meet. Every time I hear that sound, I have a moment of terror, thinking that the mugs have broken. We push our heads back and drink, the whisky tasting like cleansing fire.
The sun's no longer up, but its thick and miserable heat sticks on through the night, nesting in plants and bugs and walls and all of the air, and maybe a little in her as well. My shirt clings to me, and I can make out the contours of her body through the soaking blue dress. With the heat outside of me and the liquor inside, my mind is dull as I put a happy, thoughtless hand on her bare knee. There's only a thin, sharp voice in the back of my head, telling me not to ruin it, this is a good night, don't touch it or it might fracture. She's talking about something or other, I don't know, I've been wandering in and out of the conversation for a while now. She's perfectly happy to talk to herself. I decide to tune back in, for the hell of it.
"-this guy here in the parking lot and he says 'Hey I'm Bill or Ted' or something, I don't really remember, 'We live two houses down from you. You're Laura, right?' And I'm like, I didn't know this shit! Now I feel like an asshole 'cause this guy knows all this about me and I hardly leave the house, like ever. I mean, when was the las- no, you know what? It was never. We've never had people over here. We live like hermits or something, and for what?"
She pauses for a moment, and I realize I'm supposed to answer. Her and her obsession with people, with being the center. I wonder if she's ever thought about it, about how people can find out, how they can find out, and about having to move, to create wholly new lives. Like pulling a scab, but for months on end.
"I mean, do you really think you're that good of a hostess? To have people over for this?"
"What do you mean 'do you think?'" I feel her tense up. "Of course I would. I'd make a great hostess. I'm great with people. What the fuck kind of a question is that?"
"Mmm-hmmm," I agree. I feel what's coming, and I try not to look her in the eye or even at her blue dress. The thin voice in the back of my head has already abandoned ship.
"No, don't 'Mmm-hmmm' me. What do you mean 'do you think you'd make a good hostess?'" She gently pushes my hand from her knee.
"I just mean… Shit, I don't know what I mean. I just wasn't sure if you're ready- if we're ready for people."
"What, because I'll embarrass you or something? Not smart enough for the friends you don't have?"
"Jesus, honey, can we j-"
"No! No. W- you always do this. I say something or do something or suggest changing in some fucking way and then you make some catty little remark about it, like I won't notice. Like I'm too stupid to get it or you're so above me. You think I don't notice? Fuck you. Maybe I haven't read as many Cliff Note's for famous books, but I can recognize a sack of shit when I see one."
I pinch the bridge of my nose. "Okay, fine. Whatever. You're right. I'm sorry, that was a shitty thing to say, and I shouldn't have said it, okay?"
"Sure," she says in a sullen tone. We go back to quietly drinking, neither acknowledging the other. I focus on the cobweb crack on the kitchen wall. From her side of the table, I hear the sound of her rummaging through her purse, followed by the sliding of paper against paper. I already know what's about to happen as I look to her. Sure enough, there's the cigarette dangling from her mouth as she searches for a lighter. A grunt of triumph later, and she's fiddling with the dollar lighter from the Gas Tree.
"C'mon, don't be like that," I say. She looks up from the cigarette. "It's hotter than Hell already." She turns her attention back to the lighter.
"I haven't smoked all day. I deserve a cigarette. To celebrate," she answers, lips barely parted. The end of the cigarette glows a dull orange, and there's a crinkling sound as she draws the first breath. She purses her lips and blows out a stream of dry, toxic smoke. A thin plume traces its way up from the cigarette. I take another drink, only to have the taste choked out by another puff of blue-grey smoke. She taps the end cigarette into a glass ashtray, depositing a little load of ash.
"C'mon. Seriously, I feel like shit; I have a headache, I'm tired and the last thing I want is to watch you choke down another pack of cigarettes." She doesn't even turn her head. "You have any idea how bad those are for you? For me? I mean, obviously you don't or el-"
Her head rolls back as she screws her eyes shut. She raises her voice to the ceiling. "I know I know I know I know I fuckin' know, okay? I know it's bad for me and all of those numbers you throw at me. I've had a crap day too, and I need this." She lifts her head and looks at me. "What I don't need is you yelling at me about how 'bad' smoking is. This house is bad. This town is bad. This whole fucking situation is bad. Smoking? Smoking's pretty far down on the list of 'bad' things, far as I'm concerned!"
"Yeah, I'm sure you had a really tough day, getting drunk before god damn noon."
She stubs out the cigarette on the hardwood floor, missing the ashtray by a good four inches. Before I can comment, she starts to shout. "Why? What the hell else am I gonna do? You just wanna stay locked up in here scared that anyone's gonna find out about us! And thanks to your dumb ass, we don't even have TV any more! What the hell else am I gonna do besides get drunk and try not think about what a crap provider you are!"
My reply comes in a cool, calm voice. "No. No, you're right. The reason I didn't want to have people over is because I was afraid you'd embarrass me. But I was wrong; we don't need people over for you to be a fucking embarrassment. Not just me, but to yourself!" I don't even realize what I'm saying until it's already out. A speech I had mouthed silently to myself in imagined arguments, never meant to be spoken aloud.
She lunges forward and grabs the glass ashtray. Before I can even get out a word she flings it at me. I don't even see it move; one second it's in her hand, the next there's a blossom of pain in my right shoulder. The glass falls to the floor, where it breaks neatly into a hundred little pieces. For a moment, everything is still.
I jump up, upsetting the chair in the process. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" I shout. I've never shouted before in an argument; I always try to be the calm voice, the voice of reason, the guy who's above it all. Not to be outdone she leaps to her feet. Then begins the mixed shouting. Neither of us can understand the other, or even ourselves. Are we even yelling in English anymore, or is it just some gibberish language designed to expel rage?
In the back of my brain stem, something boils over and I shove her. She staggers back a foot or so, looking surprised. Then her expression changes to something ugly and she punches me as hard as she can in my right shoulder. "Fucker!" she yells. A bright pain shoots through my body and I cry out. She rears back and looks expectantly at me, waiting for the inevitable counter-counter-blow or at least some kind of response. There's a terrible silence in the air as we both wait for my next move. And with that, the red hot anger dissipates, leaving something cold and hard in its place.
"Fuck this," I say and turn to the door. I grab the keys from the nail on the hallway wall and head out into the warm, still night, suddenly alive with the sound of a million insects. The door I slam behind me gives only a hollow imitation of a slam as I head to the car.
I open the car door and give it a much more satisfyingly full slam and turn on the engine. For a fraction of a second, I pause, wondering if she'll come after me, and what I'll do then. The moment passes and I pull out of the driveway at what feels like 80 miles an hour and gun it down the street that heads straight west for what we decided was at least forever. I roll down the window and give a hollow whoop of triumph, mostly because it seems appropriate. I then settle into a silence, not even the radio on, just me and the wind whipping through the window. But I drive and drive and drive, and I don't look back.
I drive through the night until the first streams of the sun's light begin to make their way over the treetops. By some miracle, I don't get pulled over, nor do I kill anyone or even run myself off the road. I pull into a rest stop and get out of the car, stretching in the first light of morning. Outside, the air isn't somehow crisp like I imagined it would be. Instead, it's the same still and muggy as well. No matter, I'm free, I tell myself, off to a new land, beautiful and deep, desirable and bright. Free from the stupid fucking harpy, free from the crap house, free from worry, free from care. I force a laugh, telling myself that will drive off this anxiety. It doesn't.
As I stand, waiting to be sated, I feel the first effects of last night's drinking start to kick in. My joints ache and my head is starting to feel like it's being kicked from the inside. I get back in the car and get back on the highway, looking for a motel to stay for the day. I glance at the wedding band on my right hand and decide that there's no time like the present. I pull it off and am about to throw it out the window of the speeding car when I remember just how much rings are worth. Into the glove compartment it goes.
A few miles down the road, I check into a dilapidated place called the Sleep Tite Suites. When I get to my room, I close the blinds and turn the air conditioning up full blast. After drinking from the bathroom sink for something like a minute, I get under the slightly plastic-feeling sheets of the bed and almost immediately fall asleep.
I wake up, only to find that it's still before noon. I feel rested enough, and my hangover's a bit better, although the pain in my joints is worse than before. I decide to pick up the complimentary continental breakfast from the lobby. The only choices remaining are a cellophane-wrapped muffin and an underripe banana ("Should'a gotten here earlier, I guess," the clerk offers by way of an apology). I choose the muffin and read the ingredients label to occupy myself. About halfway through, I stop reading the ingredients.
Once I'm finished, I get back in the car and head out again, getting more distance between me and that god damned house.
It's been two days of driving now, and the aching hasn't gone away. I look at myself in the bathroom mirror (this time of the Village Inn of Redsfield) and see myself about ten years older. There are bags under my eyes and my face is crisscrossed with tiny wrinkles. I feel like shit, too. Inside my head there's a low constant buzzing, and I'm starting to feel nauseous. Seeing a doctor crosses my mind, but I'm not really sure if I'm like other people. Inside-wise, that is. And the last thing I want is to be found out. Besides, I'm pretty sure I just need a drink.
The clerk has told me that there's a nice little liquor store just down the way. I walk there in a half hour and walk back to my room with a plastic bottle of gin. I flop onto the bed and turn on the TV, flipping through the channels until settling on a show about a boy and his monkey. The bottle's cap comes off with a satisfying snap as the plastic anchors holding it down come apart.
I remember when we used to do this, just sitting side by side with a bottle between us, watching TV or sometimes just the outdoors. When the bottle got low, our fingers would become intertwined. Her mouth would always taste sweet and mellow like damp grass, even with the gin and the old food taste and even with the cigarettes. God damn, I think, where did those good times go? How did it get to be like this?
Then I remember those times were never good. Even then we fought constantly, over dishes or money or anything else we could use as an excuse. Maybe we just hadn't known each other long enough; her quirks still lovable instead of aggravating. Maybe I was less insufferable then, too. I tip the plastic jug to my lips and start to drink as the case of the week begins to unfold on TV.
In the morning, I wake to a sensation of dampness on the bed. I look to my feet and see the gin lying on its side, soaking through my clothing and the mattress. "Nnnmmm…dammit," I groan as I begin to sit up. Little by little, my other senses begin to awake. The soft humming of the muted TV set. The sharp smell of gin cutting the slightly moldy smell of the room. The roofing tar taste in my mouth. And, of course, the pounding in my joints. I run a tongue over teeth which feel like sandpaper. Midway through, I stop and go back a tooth or two. Bottom row. Right canine. Even with a gentle probe, it starts to wobble. I put a hand to my mouth and feel it between my fingers. Without even a tug, it comes out. I let it fall into my palm and stare at it.
Nothing for it, then. The only way forward is forward, I tell myself. I'm never going back to her. To that house. I just want a fresh start somewhere far away, so far I'll never remember her or think of her again. I get in the car and drive west for the rest of the day. Along the way, I lose another tooth.
The next morning, I wake up and barely make it to the bathroom before I vomit. Two more teeth are dislodged and bob in the toilet. I study it for a moment before flushing it down. Amongst the yellows and greens, there are swirls of dark red. I don't remember eating anything red-looking the past few days.
As I rinse out my mouth, I remember the times when we would both wake up hung over. By silent agreement, we wouldn't talk or plan or anything. Just go to the kitchen and sit and eat pickle spears. I remember a composite of all of those mornings, her with her short brown hair jutting out in a dozen different places. Wearing just an oversize t-shirt as she squinted at me from across the table, even then still so beautiful in some way.
But still, I get in the car and keep driving. This time, though, there a lots of stops at gas stations and rest stops and empty parking lots. I vomit twice, each time colored with more and more red, leaving a coppery taste in my mouth. A couple of times, I sit in the car and tell myself to keep going. Just a little further. I listen and I don't turn back.
That night, I find myself covered in rashes. Each arm ringed at the armpit, each leg ringed at the crotch, and a nice huge one in a thin line going along my collar bone and looping around the back of my neck. Like a splotchy necklace, I laugh to myself.
Then I remember her laughs. Her laughs from before, when they were honest and full of light rather than spiteful or sarcastic. They were gorgeous, from her shrill ticklish shrieks to her open laughs of happiness. Even her unladylike snorts at a really good joke seem beautiful. I go to bed with her laughter ringing in my mind.
The following morning, I wake up and find that the rashes have split the skin, the edges curling upwards like little scrolls. I gently touch one with a finger and wince as the pain shoots through me.
I sit on the bed and try not to think about what this means. I go through the check list, my brain coming up with an instant counterargument. She's a horrible person. How much of that is my fault? Besides, I am too. You deserve better. No, I don't. She brings out the worst in you. She brings out the real me. She's the only one who understands me, even if she doesn't. You'll just be as miserable as you were before if you go back. No, this time will be different. Probably. Don't go back. I can't live without her.
I get in the car and drive and drive and drive.
For three straight days I drive, stopping only for gas and food and the occasional drink. As I drive, I feel the wounds start to close up. By the end of the second day, I angle the rear view mirror towards my face and notice that the wrinkles have started to fade slightly. The bottom right canine is back in its proper place as well.
When I pull into the driveway, the sun has just fallen below the horizon. I don't feel much of anything except for tired. Outside there are crickets and cicadas and God knows what else chirping, looking for mates. I grab the ring from the glove compartment. It doesn't feel right to put it back on yet, so I slip it into my front pocket. I jog to the door and fumble with the keys. Before I can find the right one, the door opens and she's standing there in front of me.
"Hey," she says, a slight smile on a face now lined with minute wrinkles. For a split second between her lips, I can see a dark gap were a tooth used to be.
"Hi. Can I come in?" I give an awkward wave. Without a word, she opens the door and lets me through. I sit down in one of the two chairs in the house. She takes her seat opposite me. A candle on the table illuminates us both.
"I…" I flap my mouth silently, trying to think of the right things to say, knowing she already knows them, but wanting to say them, as much for my own benefit as for hers. Ours. "I really missed you, I guess."
She gives a weak smile and under the neckline of her shirt I catch a glimpse of a healing rash running over her collar bone. "I… yeah, I missed you too."
There's promises that some would want to be made, lines to be drawn, so that we never do this again. But what's the point? Promises were made to be broken, lines to be crossed. I take her hand in mine and gently kiss her knuckle. My mouth makes its way up her hand, her arm, her neck, her face. Then we're kissing and I taste wet grass again as the night wraps around us both.
We lay naked on the mattress, only a thin bedsheet between us and the rest of the world. Even before the night was up, we both knew that the truce would never hold, that peace was at best temporary. But maybe the good will outweigh the bad this time; maybe we'll somehow come out ahead or at least less behind. Her face, against the pillow, looks younger already; the wrinkles are gone, and so is the rash. I run over my teeth with my tongue, just to be sure all of the teeth are back. They are.
A square of light falls on her bare leg, and I can make out the tattoo. I trace the letters lightly with the tip of my finger, and she shifts slightly. Just like mine, it reads "Mr. and Mrs. Love, from Little Misters® by Dr. Wondertainment." What a sick joke. I don't remember a time when we weren't with one another. There's a paper we had once, long since gone, that listed all of us, telling the reader to find us all. Christ, I think, why would you ever want to do that?
The heat is everywhere in the silent, still house, and my arms are slick with sweat. I look out the window and know that I have to get out into that cool night air. I leave the mattress slowly, trying not to wake her. I open the back door and walk naked into the moonlight. As soon as I cross the threshold, I realize that it's worse out here with the cicadas and crickets. Still, I linger outside for a moment, hoping for a breeze, one strong enough to carry me far away.