Lots of people do. It’s not a big deal. She takes medicine to help her sleep and for anxiety. Since she left her last job, she suffers from spells when she doesn’t want to be around people. Not anyone, not even me. And it hasn’t been getting better. She goes into her home office and shuts the door and I can hear noises from the other side of it—slammed drawers, and the squeak of her office chair’s wheels on its rubber mat, sounds that are harder to identify—and she won’t come out for hours, for dinner or her favorite TV shows.
Last week, we went to a birthday party for my friend Robbie. My wife likes him, too, but she met him at her old job and she knew a lot of people from that office would be there. She didn’t want to go, but I convinced her it would look worse if she made me go alone. She pumped by hand like a stress ball the whole time we were there. And she’s got strong hands; the way she ground my knuckles against bone when we were talking to her former boss really hurt. She was still pumping away as we walked back to the garage where we were parked. “Wait here,” she said, and trotted across the street to the garage. She could have been hit, not crossing anywhere near a sidewalk, and of course I couldn’t wait there and leave her by herself in the garage. So when it was safe, I followed her.
I followed a sound that I thought was someone playing a pan-flute, badly, and found my wife in a corner of the garage, squatting down and holding her knees with her arms. “I told you I didn’t want to come to this,” she said and looked up at me, exhausted from emotional effort.
“We’re leaving now,” I reassured her. “Let me take you home.” She got up and I tried to ignore the scorched trash and broken concrete that surrounded her. When we got into the car, I tried to catch her eye in the rear-view mirror.
“I’m taking you home,” I said. “It’s going to be fine.” But her pupils were as big as dinner plates.
“I think we should make you an appointment with the doctor,” I said, and all I thought was maybe that she had had a seizure. It’s not like epilepsy is a blessing, but with medicine, it can be kept under control. Neither one of us makes a lot of money, but we have good insurance. Thank God for that. Her doctor gave her a referral to a specialist at the women’s health clinic and by the end of the week, there were two new slim tan bottles on the edge of our sink. She set alarms on her phone to remember to take her pills at the same time every day, which seemed really responsible to me. I used to have pretty bad allergies when I was a kid, my head gone cottony when I was around cats, dogs, grass and sunlight. They gave me a serum to dose myself with at the same time every day, but I could never remember. In the end, meditation cured my allergies. That and moving away from my mother, who rattled my cage harder than anything. Once she was out of the picture, it was easier for me to take control of my life. But not everyone is able to do that, to meditate to a place beyond their body. So my wife taking medicine, that’s something I totally understood.
Of course, no system is flawless. I got to making dinner Thursday night, and then my mother called. She wanted to talk about Christmas and when we were coming to visit. It felt like a conversation we’d already had a hundred times. Going to see my mother was really a chore, for my wife and me, and we try to make our visits as short as civility allows, and my mother pushes back, trying to get us to stay through the weekend for lower rates. It’s constant. Talking to her was bringing on my allergies so I stepped into the backyard for fresh air, and without thinking, I picked up something that was leaning against our backdoor. It looked like a stuffed animal, a rabbit or maybe a small bear, but missing a head. I scooped it up and turned it toward me while I told my mother that my wife didn’t have vacations days like I did. It wasn’t a stuffed animal; it was a real rabbit. Its head had been removed and what remained was a bloody hole with burned-black edges. I dropped it back in the grass and stepped quickly inside the kitchen again. “I can’t talk about this right now,” I told my mother and hung up. Twenty minutes later I was still trying to catch my breath so I could concentrate on cooking. Long story short, we were scheduled to eat dinner closer to eight o’clock than at six, which usually wouldn’t be a problem. But the medicine, my wife wasn’t supposed to take it on an empty stomach. She wanted to eat a bag of chips so that her stomach wouldn’t be empty but then she’d lose her appetite for the dinner I’d spent all night making, so I said no, she and the medicine could wait. I suggested she sit on the couch and count her breaths, which always put me in this hypnagogic state that was almost meditation, and I thought she’d be fine.
I brought dinner, a new curry recipe I’d got from a work friend, to the table and we were eating it and my wife even seemed to be enjoying it, and then it happened. First, she put her fork down on her napkin and just held it there.
“What?” I asked. “You’d don’t like it?” This wouldn’t be the first time that had happened.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at me, but I could tell she was counting her breaths. At least I think she was. She was saying words to herself, and I thought maybe they were numbers. “What?” I asked her again, and she still didn’t answer. She finally let go of the fork, and then she jerked the napkin beneath it and help it across her mouth. At the same time, she stood up so abruptly she knocked her chair over backwards and sprinted for the downstairs bathroom. I thought, I’ve made her sick, and I felt terrible as I ran after her to apologize.
I got there a little late to see my wife’s transformation, but I heard the whistling before I saw her, the same woodwind blurt I heard in the parking lot near the holiday party. I stopped before I got into the bathroom to try to understand what I was seeing. Where my wife had stood was a hole, a black gulf maybe the size of a pizza. It was depthless; I couldn’t see behind it. The whistle slipped to a lower register and then something, a lightning bolt or a burst of pure sound shot past me and blew all the pictures off the wall behind me. I thought, maybe the curry was too hot. But a beat later, I realized it wasn’t the curry; it was what had her taking medicine. And then I got out of the way, because the whistle downshifted again, like a motorcycle approaching a turn, and another bolt came out and blew the bathroom door of its hinges.
I’m not going to lie. I was terrified, and I just barely dodged a third bolt when I decided to run for the front door. More bolts followed me, and I ran to my car to escape. When I cranked the key in the ignition, I looked at the void that was my wife, and the light from my headlights disappeared into her and didn’t illuminate anything. I drove away.
I came back later, after a glass of wine at our favorite chic downtown bar because I was worried about her. I turned the key in the lock cautiously and stepped into the apartment, careful to find her before she found me. She’d cleaned up the whole place. The couch was back in front of the TV, the cushions flipped over to hide where they were torn. The dishes were soaking in the kitchen, and she’d re-shelved the books, some of which were charred in their spines. I pulled on the bathroom door, and it fell forward on me till I leaned it back against the popped hinges. I climbed upstairs to look for my wife and found her lying in bed in the dark. In the gloom, I could make out her normal size and shape. I crawled into bed beside her and thought she was sleeping, but the longer I lay there, I could feel the small tremors her crying made.
The next morning, she was up before I was, and when I came downstairs, she was sitting at the table with half a grapefruit on a plate in front of her. A couple times a year, she’d start a new routine to get her life in order, and her eating grapefruit at the table was always a sign she’d begun a new one. She’d started my coffee already, which is something she never does. When I took my first sip, its gritty bitterness reminded me why I didn’t want her to make my coffee. “I’m sorry,” she said, but she wasn’t talking about the coffee.
I sat opposite her at the table, and she told me the whole story, how the first time this happened, she was at work and totally lost it after a comment from her boss. She made it to the bathroom before the transformation happened, but this time, instead of crying in a stall like she usually did, she blew a hole in the cabin door and set fire to a stack of replacement paper towels. That’s when she knew she couldn’t go back there, why she hadn’t wanted to go to Robbie’s birthday party, because she knew how her old boss set her off.
“I can try,” I said, and thought through what I could do, “to be more predictable about when we eat.” That seemed to be it, the phone call from my mother that had triggered the whole thing. And I hadn’t even been able to tell my wife what we’d decided, my mother and I. I’d added an extra weekend before the start of our trip home just to get her off the phone. I was fuming over it all over again, just thinking about it. “It won’t happen again.” My wife swallowed a pill for acne with a spoonful of grapefruit pulp and I went upstairs and quietly poured my coffee down the sink in the master bathroom.
There were modest side-effects from the pills, like my wife couldn’t talk as clearly after she took a pill. She said it made her tongue feel heavy. Sometimes when we were in bed, she’d snore and sounded like cockroaches were eating the wood under our bed, but louder. I wanted to wake her up, but I was worried about what might happen, if she’d wake up angry or scared, and which would be worse. And then she’d twitch and the snores would stop. It wasn’t ideal, but it was easier to deal with than the looks of disbelief on the faces of the maintenance guys when I tried to convince them that re-hanging the bathroom door wasn’t a weird request. I just had to brass it out and wait for them to back down.
But by the week before Christmas, the repairs were finished; new hinges glowed in the lintel, and the bathroom door had never opened or closed so smoothly. We were packing for the trip to see my mother, and my wife was doing this funny thing she does, this impersonation of my mother where she adds this nervous flutter to her voice. My mother, you can never hear this flutter, but you know if you push her, it’s there. And that’s why you don’t push her. She was in the bedroom, and I was in the master bathroom when she started. And while my wife talked, I took the pills she’d take with us to my mother’s and I dumped half of them into the toilet, replaced them with her acne medicine. What’s the worst that could happen, she’d have too-clear skin? I knew there was a chance that when she transformed, my wife might come for me instead of my mother. But based on past experience, I liked my chances.
When the time to visit my mother came around, the lines at the airport were predictably terrible. You couldn’t expect anything else around the holidays, but it gave me flop sweats a little to see the serpentine lines of people dragging their luggage forward a few steps at a time. My wife stopped us before we could even take our spot.
“It’s time for me to take my medicine,” she said.
“Do you have something to eat with it? I don’t want you to have an upset stomach,” I said, and she smiled at me and pulled a baggie filled with sunflower seeds out of her pocketbook. “I’ll be right here,” I said, and went to lean against a wall while she went to the bathroom. The TSA agents wore handguns on their hips; I didn’t think they’d stand a chance against my wife, but I really didn’t know. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around, it was my wife.
“Are we ready for this?” she asked and tugged me toward the security line. It wasn’t just the wait and being wanded down. It was this whole trip, spending eight days with my mom. I was almost happy when we were delayed on the ground because that meant less time in her company. But of course, we deplaned eventually, and there was my mom on the other side of the security barriers. She leaned in close to give us a big hug, and I wanted to sneeze. My wife says her signature scent is potpourri.
“Hi, mom,” I said, and my wife said, “Happy holidays, Ellen,” and my mom wrinkled her nose. My mom’s name is Helene, pronounced AY-leen, but my wife insists on calling her Ellen. There was a time when I think my mom thought there was some sort of misunderstanding or that there was something wrong with my wife’s hearing, but I think we’re past that now.
“We’re going to see a lot of traffic because you were delayed,” my mother said. “Do you want maybe to get dinner in the city, before we spend all that time on the highway?” Her voice was winkled at the bravery it took to survive rush hour traffic.
“I could eat,” my wife said as we loaded our bags into my mom’s car.
“It’s settled, then,” my mom said and drove us to a small Italian neighborhood near the airport. This was a part of every trip, and I figured we might as well get it over with at the start of the trip instead of waiting. The restaurant strived for homeliness against its hangar-sized dimensions by turning up the chintz factor, with red and white check tablecloths and candles melted into the necks of bottles of Lambrusco, even though light came from institutional chandeliers high overhead. The whole place had a kind of yeasty smell from the half-loaves of sourdough that were brought to every table.
We were just settled at our tables, having placed drink orders and been told about the specials when my wife excused herself to go to the bathroom. My mom leaned across the table with a look of serious concern and addressed me. “Is she quite all right?”
This comment was no doubt inspired by the fact that at our last visit, I’d been forced to admit that my wife suffered from constipation when my mom pondered why my wife never joined us at breakfast. “She’s fine,” I said, and tried to turn my attention back to the menu.
“She seems different,” my mom mused. “Vacant, even.” I looked over the top of my menu at my mother. I was sure she was fishing for trouble, but I wondered, too, if she saw something different in my wife’s demeanor. “Have you thought any more about having kids?” she asked, and I clapped my menu closed. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but, well, until I had you, my life felt so incomplete.” She drew a breath. “I was unhappy, and wondered what I was meant for. And then all that changed. I’m just saying, your wife, she seems unsatisfied. And an unsatisfied wife is the biggest problem a husband can face.”
“Thank you for your concern,” I said as icily as I could. “She’s fine. She had a rough patch at work, but she’s past that now and definitely on the mend.” I needed to change the subject before I accidentally gave her something else to latch onto. “How is the calamari here? Have you ever had it?” Of course I knew she had, because my mom had opinions on every varietal of seafood appetizer, and she promptly launched into her answer, which I knew I could safely ignore. Soon, my wife was back from the bathroom, and when the waitress asked us if we wanted any appetizers, I told her, “Nothing for me.”
The rest of the meal went as expected—heavy, cheesy pastas drowning in sauce and washed down with glasses of Chianti. My wife fell asleep in the back seat of my mom’s car on the way home, and she snored louder than a hive of bees, but my mom didn’t say anything about it. When we were parked in my mom’s driveway, I had to lean over the backseat and shake my wife’s shoulder to wake her up. She opened her eyes like she’d never seen me before, and asked “Where am I?”
“My mom’s,” I said, and I could see the muscles tighten around her eyes. “That’s right,” she said, and wiped spittle from the edges of her mouth. She threw a hand behind my head, just like a little kid who wants to be carried from the car to the house. I tried to lift my wife, but she pulled me close and kissed me on the mouth. “I love you,” she said, and my mom called to us from the doorway to her house.
“I can’t be standing here all night, heating the outdoors,” she said, and my wife released the back of my neck and pulled herself forward enough to stand, and then followed me into the house.
In my mother’s spare bedroom, the mattress had a deep and inexplicable crease in the center, and all night you’d be rolling into that chasm. I was exhausted, and didn’t even brush my teeth before climbing into bed. I didn’t put on my pajamas, just let my pants drop around my ankles and pulled my shirt over my neck to let it drop on top of the pants. That’s how tired I was. But of course, my wife had a nap after dinner and now she was feeling kittenish, and before I had fallen asleep, she’d managed to take her pills and change into a nightgown and slide into bed so that she was facing me at the mattress’ deepest spot.
“How’s it going?” she asked, and her eyes and teeth sparkled in the starlight that filtered in from outside.
“My mother thinks we should have a kid,” I said. “She said you seem vacant, like you need something to focus on.”
“Ellen is crazy,” she said, and grabbed hold of my dick with her cold hand. “Do you ever think about coming back here. To live.”
“My mom would love that,” I said, and she smiled at me and pumped me under the covers.
“That’s what you think.” She kept pumping, but after a while, I had to stop her. “It’s just too weird,” I said. “I’m too tired.”
“We’re here for such a long time,” my wife said. “Promise you won’t be tired and a prude the whole time.”
“I promise,” I said, and she let herself out of the bed. “I’m going to maybe read for a while. I’m nowhere near ready to sleep.” I’m pretty sure I said something after that, but I was asleep before I could process it.
The next morning, I got up early and left my wife behind in bed, still sleeping. Soon enough, the alarm on her phone would wake her to take her medicine, and I wanted to let her sleep till then. I crept silently downstairs to the kitchen, but of course my mom was already up, in her fuzzy robe that could have come from a Beatrix Potter book. “There’s coffee in the carafe,” she said, “and I’ve already set out a mug for you.” Emblazoned on it were big red letters that said “A Mother’s Work is Never Done,” and running beneath, in smaller black letters, laundry, dishes, dinner, etc. I poured a cup of coffee and sat opposite where she was bent over the paper, working on the crossword. She wrote in a word with a pen and looked up at me.
“How are things at work?” she asked and leaned back to watch me over her bifocals.
“They’re fine,” I said, already playing that game of deciding how little I could tell her and still keep the conversation going and on safe topics. “We’re using a new software suite to keep track of outflow, and it took a little getting used to. For everyone. But I think I’ve got the hang of it now.”
“I suppose that’s what it’s like, working now,” she said. My mom kept a stall at a flea market five days a week when I was growing up, and she’d sell anything—ramen noodles, rabbits, books and second-hand clothes. Wherever she saw an opportunity, she’d go after it. My wife called her a junk-preneur, “A new software suite comes in, and all the little technocrats gather around the electronic god to take their new marching orders.” She looked back down at the crossword, wrote in another word.
“I’m not sure that’s how you use the word technocrat,” I said, but I wasn’t even sure I was right. I just had the instinct to push back against what she was saying, to defend myself.
“You used to be so brilliant,” my mother said, looking at some spot above my head so intently I wanted to look and see if there was a picture of a younger me on the wall there. “You had such focus. You could do anything, I was sure of it. And I’m not saying that just because I am your mother.”
“And you think having a child is the way to improve my focus?” I asked, incredulous.
“I said your wife needs a child,” my mom said, and sipped her coffee. “I never thought the two of you were right for each other.”
“You want to know why I had focus?” I asked, and swallowed some too hot coffee, “because you were always pushing me. You never left me alone.”
“And look at you now,” she said. “I bet you couldn’t finish a crossword puzzle today, let alone some of the things you used to do. Do you remember that crown of sonnets you wrote me for my fortieth birthday?”
“Do you even hear yourself?” I asked. “Do you know embarrassing that is?”
There was a whistle coming from upstairs, where the guest bedroom where my wife was. At first it sounded, if you didn’t know what you were listening for, like the rush of plumbing. “What is she doing up there?” my mom said, and looked dismissively at the ceiling as the tone changed, got lower, came closer. “If she’s flooded my bathroom, I swear to God,” my mom said, and put down the paper. She walked past me to the base of the stairs. “Is everything all right up there, sweetie?” she sing-songed to my wife.
“I forgot to pack cotton swabs,” my wife called down. “Can I look for some in your bathroom?”
“Of course, sweetheart. Beneath the sink in my bathroom.” My mom came back over to sit with me. “Now what have we got planned for today.” She took up the newspaper again and shook it out to find the entertainment section.
“There’s some strong movies showing at the cinema, that might be something you’d enjoy.”
I wasn’t sure which movies my mother meant and wasn’t inclined to ask her, but at least when I was reading the paper, she gave me some space, so I was still reading it when my wife came downstairs, wearing a Christmas sweater and her Mary Janes, ready to go out into the world. I pulled myself together, and we borrowed my mom’s car to drive around the town.
I tried to drive toward town in a new way, but it was maybe a ten-minute feint before we were back on the usual path we took when we were visiting my mother. There was an older black man who ran a coffee and pretzel cart in the park, and we stopped there first to fill up, and then my wife and I took our food and drink to the parking lot at the city art museum. I drank my coffee and my wife her cocoa, spilling warm salt crystals from the pretzels into our laps and the seats of my mom’s car. When we were finished, we held hands walking across the street to the museum.
This was my favorite place in the whole city, maybe because I’d never gone there without my wife. Instead, we’d found it together on her first visit, and the mural of Hercules fighting the many-headed hydra, twenty-thousand tiles brought all the way from Greece and inlaid on the floor of the portico, or the partial bronze helmets, the sketches for Degas’ dancers. They all seemed so foreign to my experience of this town, hopelessly out of place, but somehow they’d been here all along. We loved it, and walked through the halls marveling at the strangeness of what we found there: a room for fabric arts where what looked like a neon green spider’s web hung from the ceiling and almost snared us, or a room of scrolls in the Far East wing. It was amazing.
We walked around for forty-five minutes, checking in on our old favorites and finding new ones before we sat, my wife and I, on a bench in front of a giant landscape of the Hudson River School, and she took my hand. “I don’t know if you can tell,” she said, staring straight ahead into the landscape, “but I think the medicine is really working.” I kept my eyes facing forward, looking at the tall trees and the way they stood before the sweeping red-brown rock bluffs. “I haven’t felt this good in a long time,” she said. I squeezed her hand. “I have something to tell you,” she said. “I don’t know how she does it, but I think your mom is onto me.” I looked at my wife.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She turned away from the painting to look at me. “I think I’m pregnant. I mean, I know I’m pregnant. I’m pregnant.”
“Wow,” I said. I was floored. I wanted her to be happy. I was happy for her, and my heart grew as big as it ever did looking at landscapes, taking in all the possibilities of what she was telling me. A baby, a child. Everything that meant. But what if my mother was right? She knew about about my wife, but what if she had also been right about me, that I was meant for more, for someone else? And my wife, she wasn’t getting better because of the medicine but because she wasn’t taking it. And what kind of mother could she be, a great sucking void that whistled and clanked like old pipes. What could I say? “That’s amazing,” I said. “I’m so happy.”
“I don’t know if being pregnant is the reason, or if it’s the new medicine. But I want it all the time,” my wife purred. She pumped my hand and pulled me up from the bench, and then led me to another chamber deeper inside the museum. She parted the threads guarding a cobwebbed, half-lit alcove under a white marble staircase, and lifted her skirt to her waist. She wasn’t wearing underwear, and she pulled me by the lapels of my coat toward her and kissed my face. We made love, quietly but with great violence under the stairs and when we finished, we left the museum. I had a split lip, and one strap of my wife’s dress was torn.
“It looks like the two of you have been in a fight with a street gang,” my mom said when she saw us. “Please, go upstairs and change your clothes before dinner. If you keep hands off of each other, we’ll eat in thirty minutes.” She turned her disappointed back on us and stalked into the kitchen.
The alarm to remind my wife to take her medicine rang out on her phone. “Perfect timing,” she said, and tugged at my sleeve.
“You go upstairs,” I said. “I need to talk to my mom.” I followed my mom into the kitchen. “Why can’t you accept that we’re happy? Maybe you haven’t ever been happy yourself,” I said, “but surely you’ve seen other people being happy sometime in your life.”
My mom turned around to face me, wiping her hands on the apron tied around her waist. “She’s sick,” my mom said, looking at me with tears in the corner of her eyes. “Surely you can see that, can’t you? I went upstairs today to tidy up while the two of you were screwing like teenagers. There’s a whole row of pills lined up alongside the sink, and not one of them is birth control. It’s frightening.” She wrung the apron between her hands.
“It’s medicine, mom.” I tried to placate. I wasn’t ready to tell her we were pregnant. “She was just telling me today, she hasn’t felt this good in years, felt so much like herself.” I heard a rumble from upstairs, and my mom looked up at the ceiling with disappointment.
“That girl is going to destroy my plumbing. I know she is,” my mom said, and turned back to a pot on the stove, reached for a heavy spoon and used it to stir the potatoes she was boiling. “She’ll leave you with nothing but sorrow, and you don’t even see it.” She kept her face turned from me, but I didn’t need to see it. I heard the whistling from upstairs, the loud rush of bolts of sound that erupted from my wife. “If, heaven forbid you did have a child, and something happened to her, where would you be then?” she asked. “You shouldn’t expect me to always be here to take care of you.”
She turned to face me and I could tell she didn’t like the look on my face. She kept looking from the ceiling and the chaos we both heard up there and I smiled. I didn’t mean to make her angry, but I couldn’t stop smiling. It wouldn’t be long now, and I’d finally have the time to think about what I wanted.