“You aren’t…you never listen,” Liz says. We are in the middle of the argument, the place where she always begins to lose her words. Her eyes dart up and down my body like a ferret looking for open skin to bite.
“You’re pretending to listen,” she says.
“I am listening.”
“You’re taking notes,” she says. “I can tell. You get that look, and I can see you stop reaching for your pocket.”
“I’m not,” I say.
“If you take out a notebook, I’m getting a knife,” she says. We are in the kitchen, so I know she means it. I did, once, take out a notebook in the middle of an argument. It was stupid, I know. But she had just called me a snake, and I immediately thought of that time out in Bowie when the diamondback slithered out from under the trailer and I froze, there in the baking hot sun. Something about the blazing white heat, the sun stopped in the pale blue sky, and my blood feeling absolutely cold in my stomach. I wanted to remember it, and was afraid I wouldn’t. You get like that, you know. You go through a period of saying, Hey, that’s great, I’ll remember that. And mostly you do. Then you find out you’re not really remembering anything, at least not anything worthwhile. After cursing yourself for a while, you get a notebook. I was really self-conscious at first, then I figured, Hey, who gives a shit? This is my work. This is what I do. Hey, I’m the man with the notebook. Except when I’m the man with the computer. Except when I’m the husband in the middle of this week’s big one.
“I’m not taking out any notebook,” I say. “You’re paranoid.”
I shouldn’t have said the word. I know she hates the word. I’m better at word choices than that. But I couldn’t help myself. Because, see, I’m now at the point where she’s taken out the knife, has jumped across the room at me, slashed my throat, and left me bleeding on the green and white linoleum squares, the bright red blood pulsing, no, the crimson blood pulsing, that’s it, pulsing then suddenly spurting from the gaping wound in my neck, and I know she will tell the police that it was me, that I came at her, that she took the knife from me, but there will be a clue that I leave, some kind of writing in my own blood on the floor, something she won’t recognize, this will be good, something for that noir collection I heard about.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have used the word. I didn’t mean it,” I say. Apologies are usually the quickest way to get back to writing.
“You are such a liar,” says Liz. “You just want to get back to work.”
“You’re right,” I say. “I do. Can I? Can we do this later?”
“You don’t care,” she says. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about us. All you care about is your stupid writing. When was the last time you earned a dollar from this…” She falters a little, and I know she’s weighing her next word really carefully. The last time she called my work shit, I almost literally exploded. I screamed, I threw things, broke a few of her little glass figurines her mother gave her, chased her around the house. Maybe she likes it, I thought. Maybe that’s what this is all about, about getting me to beat her, throw things. I look over at the little ceramic statue of the birds sitting on top of the bookcase in the kitchen.
“Don’t you dare,” she says, catching the direction of my eyes. “Look,” she says. “I take it back.” I’m thinking I can be at my desk in about three minutes if she keeps this up. “You’re a good writer. Really you are. And I don’t care that it doesn’t pay the bills. I don’t mind working.”
Now I know she’s lying. But I can’t, at the moment, figure out where this is going. She’s got something, all right. But I don’t quite know what it is. So I stop, and I breathe, and I pretend everything’s all normal-dormal here, and I say, “You want some coffee? I could use some coffee. I’m going to make a pot. That okay? You okay with my moving over here, getting the coffee, not taking any notes, not writing anything, just, you know, coffee?”
“Sure,” she says. She pulls a chair out from the kitchen table, sits down. “Make the coffee, then come on over here and sit down,” she says. “We have to talk.”
God, are there any worse words in the English language than those four in combination? You know, you hear those words, and you know for certain that nothing brilliant, nothing fine, nothing worthy is going to happen for the next 30 minutes. You know what’s coming, maybe not mutilation, but always look-me-in-the-eyes-and-watch-me-hurt-you good. Regular old-fashioned Married Pain.
Out of the corner of my eye I see her sit there, back to the window, light streaming over her shoulder, turning that mane of gorgeous black hair into dark fire, throwing her face into shadow, making those brown eyes deeper and more mysterious. Right then I want her more than I have all year, maybe two years, maybe the whole three years of our marriage, except for right before, want to take her right on the floor, or across the table. As I count out the coffee, I give serious consideration to, maybe, say, moving over and kissing her, just, you know, taking the temperature of the situation.
But then she moves her shoulder, just a little, and her hair falls back a little, and I see that her eyes aren’t deep anymore, maybe they never were. Now they are hard, bright and determined, they are the eyes of someone who wants to score points, someone who definitely does not want to be naked next to me in bed.
I open the cupboard to get out the coffee mugs, reach up, reject the one with the smiley face as being not appropriate to the situation, reach around and bring out the two matching mugs, gray and black stripes. Soothing, I think. The coffee will be soothing. See, here we are, like a regular couple, having coffee, talking things over, not screaming. Yet.
I put the mugs on the table, reaching over to put one by her, putting one across the table, reaching out and adjusting the sugar bowl in the middle of the table. See, I’ll pour the coffee, I’ll even get her milk from the refrigerator—I think of getting out the cow pitcher, putting her milk in it, but that, I figure, is a little too blatant, a little too much we’re having a good time here, remember when we got the cow pitcher at that funny store in Vermont? Because I can tell from her eyes and the way her shoulder’s now set that she doesn’t want to remember Vermont, or if she did, she’d only remember that it rained five out of the seven days, even though I remember that we had a good time, up there, honeymoon before we got married. So, I’ll just bring the carton over to the table, very careful, very attentive, pour the milk for her. No. She’ll see that as patronizing. Hand her the carton, let her pour her own milk…
“You sitting down, or what?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m sitting. Coffee’ll be ready in a minute.”
“I can tell,” she says. She shakes her head, her hair moving back over her shoulders. Then she leans forward. “We have to talk,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “You said that.” I stand up, get the coffee, pour her cup, careful, pour mine, no mess, put the pot back, and sit down.
She, takes a breath. I can tell she’s rehearsed this. “This writers’ group thing,” she says. “You can’t do that. You don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough time. There isn’t enough time.”
I look at her. I keep my eyes on her. I think maybe doing nothing for a minute or two, or as long as I can stand not to scream, is probably a good idea.
“Time,” I say finally, not able to hold it in any longer. I’m probably a little too loud, but I don’t care. “Time? What’s time got to do with it?”
“Everything,” she says. “You’re never here. You never talk to me. We never do anything.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. “Where am I now? Am I on Mars? I’m here. We do things. Christ, I washed the fucking dishes last night.”
“Don’t swear,” she says. “That’s what you always do.” She looks at me. “Last night,” she says. “You want a medal? You didn’t even offer. I asked you; you burped.”
“Whatever I did, I washed them, didn’t I?” I say.
“You wanted sex,” she says. “I can always tell.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I say. “We’re good. Sex is good.”
“Sex is sex,” she says. “And I don’t want to talk about that now.” She looks at me. “I want to talk.”
I stop myself from shaking my head, stop myself from sighing or rolling my eyes. I am very proud that all I do is sit there, looking at her. And then I pick up the cup of coffee and take a sip. That is all.
“I want to talk,” she says. “You say you want to talk. I start to talk. Then you start to yell. And use curse words. And sit there drinking your coffee and looking at me.”
“Cut me a break,” I say. “You curse. You fuckin’ curse all the time.”
“You can scream and curse all you want,” she says. “You’re not going. It’s bad enough, you in the basement, writing these things, this stuff.”
I hear the words about not going, but I am not going there. Going and going. I think about that, wonder if the repetition would work on the page. But then I stop wondering and pay attention, because I know if I go there now, it’s all over. So I decide to ignore her. Change the subject, maybe she’ll forget.
“You like it. My stuff,” I say. “You read it.”
“Yeah, some of it. Your first story. That was the best. I always liked that story.”
She’s said that before. More than once. In fact it’s one of her favorite things to say, along about now when we’re at it. And every time she says it, I always wonder a couple of things: Is it true, what she says? For her, I mean. Is it true that she still likes my first story the best? After 20 stories, 10 published; four screenplays, two optioned; three novels, one published; poems I never show anybody but I know she’s sneaked a look at because I left the folder out one time with a hair across it and it was different when I came back, but I didn’t want to ask her. Or maybe it’s true that none of the rest has been any good. Maybe she is the muse I always thought she was and I should listen to her. Maybe I should ask her what she wants me to write. Of course, right now she doesn’t want me to write anything. So I decide to entice her.
“So come with me,” I say. “It’s a really good group this time. Real writers, I swear. You’ll like it.”
I was desperate. I need her, I really do. Well, I need somebody. I need somebody to be there for me, rub my shoulders, give in to me, let me touch her, let me put my mouth on hers, on her breasts. I am, I know, one needy sonofabitch. And I like her, all right, too. I really do. I just, you know, to tell the truth, I just don’t want to start over again. I mean, she’s number three.
“Come with me,” I say again.
“Sit around with a bunch of geeks like you, listen to them read some stupid stuff, tell each other how good they are,” she says.
“How bad, mostly,” I say. “Mostly they like to be pretty harsh, toughen you up, it’s a tough world out there.”
“Tell me about it,” she says.
“So don’t come,” I say.
“I won’t,” she says. “And you won’t either.”
“What?” I say, not threatening or anything, just not understanding. “I won’t either what?”
“Go,” she says.
“You said ‘come,’” I said. “And while you can come, may come to this particular meeting, this writer’s group, I cannot come to it, because it is a place that I will go.”
“Don’t get all Writer with me,” she says. “Don’t get all ‘English major I understand words better than my dumb wife’ with me. You know what I mean.”
“I never said you were dumb,” I say.
“You don’t have to say anything,” she says. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re always putting me down, the way you look at me. All you want me for is to keep your beer in the refrigerator and throw some food at you. The trouble with you is, you are the most selfish prick I ever knew, you don’t even know good food when you eat it, you never do the dishes, never help me with anything, expect me to sit back and tell you your word choice is wonderful or your story’s great. You know what?”
I’m breathing hard here, but I answer her, because I really want to see where this is going, now that she’s off, now that she has a full head of steam.
“What?” I say.
“You want to know the best thing you ever wrote?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I do. Especially if it’s you telling me. Again. You already told me, you know? Five minutes ago.”
She looks straight at me, those eyes of hers looking like she’s going to drill a hole in my skull. “Yeah,” she says, “I know. And you know what?”
“What?” I say.
“It’s worth repeating,” she says. “Don’t you writers like that repetition stuff?” Now she’s looking hard at me, and I wait for it, and I think I’m ready.
“The best thing you ever wrote,” she says, “was that first story you wrote, all the way back, twenty years ago. I really liked that story. You’ve never written anything as good as that story, all the stuff you write. I wonder why.”
And I try to take a breath, but immediately I am so filled with hate that I move to the place where it’s her blood on the floor and I’m wrapping her body in the shower curtain, figuring out when and how I can get her out to the garage, in the trunk, to the dump two townships over, buy the same shower curtain, send her clothes off in a trunk to some dead-end spot. Tell the neighbors about how she left in the middle of the night, two suitcases, sneaked out, didn’t tell me where she was going, call her bitch of a mother, ask her if she’s seen her, call her stupid sister, ask the same question, maybe use her credit card to buy a ticket into the city, set a trail. And I’m thinking, this is good, this could work. I know it’s an old plot, but the oldies are sometimes the best. Call it “Blood on the Floor,” about a writer, a guy with writer’s block, never written a mystery before, but he likes mysteries, has read a lot of them, thinks it might work, spends time doing hypotheticals in his head, would never really try something like that, except when all of a sudden he finds himself taking his pen out of his pocket to begin making a note about how an argument got out of hand, and instead of writing with the pen, he looks into his wife’s eyes and can’t stand the hatred anymore and holds the pen in his fist and lashes out, just meaning to scare her, but she’s lunged at him and the pen hits her jugular vein, and suddenly the floor is covered with spurt after spurt of blood, not crimson, which surprises him, but a thick red-brownish liquid, more the color of an old brick, a liquid that, when she falls to the floor, keeps gushing into her hair, pulse by pulse by pulse, with, surprisingly, no spurts, until, suddenly, it stops.