Jan/Feb 2015  •   Fiction

Surface Tension

by Steve Vermillion

Image courtesty of the British Library's Photostream

They'd considered being honest with the therapist, just coming out with the whole story, then thought better of it. Not in their first session anyway. They agreed honesty was important of course, and something they'd definitely shoot for in the long term, something they could work up to, but best not mention the deaths, at least not right away. Just to say instead that he'd kept deserting his wife and family, that he was unavailable when they needed him most. Yes, maybe leave it at that.

The Indians, hiding behind the wooden fence bordering his backyard, had surprised him, shooting a single flaming arrow straight to his chest. Michael, now lying there on his deck, the deck he had just built, his sweater ruined, his eyes frozen, arms open wide, as if reaching for some thing in the infinite expanse of suburban sky laced with its clouds and telephone wires. Then it came to him. He began recalling, by bits and pieces, the last times he'd died. How could he have forgotten? Had they slipped his mind as easily as he had slipped from the roof last summer, landing on his head? Who does that anyway? Or that late night, downstairs in his bathrobe, investigating a noise Kathy had heard coming from the kitchen? The night he'd been shot and killed by the intruder. And now, given the wholly unexpected encounter with the Indians, he felt he was to be forgiven for what had amounted, really, to his recurring absences.

Now his marriage had begun unraveling. The sympathy he'd expected from his wife, Kathy, was just not there. Instead, she seemed to question him, as if his deaths were some passive aggressive insult to their marriage, a problem of miscommunication, crap added onto other crap for her to have to deal with. She'd been reading and lecturing to him from self help books which promised cures for complex dilemmas like Mid-Life Crisis, Getting In Touch With Your Inner Child, even Impotence. Late at night in bed, he would fall to sleep to her voice.

She'd begun implying Michael had not been dying at all, that these deaths were metaphorical, even symbolic, declaring the fate of their marriage now depended upon him knowing the difference between reality and the truth. But what kind of question was that? Weren't they the same thing? "The truth," Michael realized, only gave him a headache.

And so on Wednesday, Micheal's secretary poisoned his coffee. Arsenic, strychnine, whatever. The taste told him right away. The acrid, bitter bile rising from his rapidly dissolving esophagus had been warning enough. He felt his throat burning, and his vision began to blur when, unannounced, she sauntered back into the room, loitered a moment, and coyly asked, "Will that be all for you today?"

She really had been an efficient assistant, competent and punctual, but that phony British accent had at times worn on his last nerve. It seemed when he had been most stressed, she would lay it on even thicker. What was that about anyway? he mused as he clutched desperately, futilely at his throat, the room growing familiarly dark.

He could feel it now, that drifting inexorably toward another ending. Helpless once more, there on the floor, spasms, convulsions. Suddenly he remembered the soldier in that book whose title he'd forgotten: The guy with no arms, no legs, and no face, just a consciousness in a bed, crying out for justice, for some kind of meaning to combat all the cruelty, the unfairness. Silently shouting into a blank, echoless universe, beckoning like a diminutive black hole, his life like a some sliver of light, futily attempting to escape its fate. What was the name of that book, anyway?

The toll on Michael and Kathy's marriage was only increasing, nearing some kind of breaking point. In seemingly irretrievable ways, he could feel his wife growing permanently distant. He didn't blame her. How could he? She had been protecting herself. That was only natural. What must it be like, he'd wondered? What's it like to lose your significant other, to lose your love, your partner, lose it all, not once, but time and time again? It must be just awful, he concluded, just awful. Surely something had to be done.

That first session in the therapist's office, with her hands on her lap, fistfuls of tissues, Kathy cried. She dabbed at her tears and cried. Her crying evoked in Michael a newer, deeper understanding of her predicament, and of his children's as well. Despite what wounds, what pain and indignities he'd endured, he hadn't really given much thought to those suffered by his family, and for that he truly felt contrite.

"Hatred of one or both parents comes to mind. An aversion to intimacy, characterized by your impulsive, somewhat sociopathic behavior, has its genesis in your childhood. But you know that, don't you? Were you subject to corporal punishment?" The sleepy-eyed therapist droned on.

Michael closed his eyes and let his mind go. It had been Kathy's idea to see this guy. It did not take long though to realize Michael was not participating in the therapy, only enduring it. Therapy, for it to work, required the toothsome, wholesale kind of belief found in aboriginal myth. He believed it owed its origin to witch doctors, voodoo high priestesses, shamans, elders and Popes... singular, blind, unqualified devotion... a faith Micheal did not posses.

Michael was becoming tired, and he ached everywhere. He felt like an old man. He knew he was supposed to talk, but what was he to say? Still, there he was, in that office on the couch next to Kathy, feeling like a chastised child. And then, there it was again, distant but there, vital, coming to save him. He'd felt, then heard its call. As casually as reaching for a handkerchief, he slipped the gunmetal pistol from his pocket and before the consternation could register on their faces, before he could be restrained or the therapist could make him see things differently, he put the gun to his head and yet again, that was that.

This was definitely a new twist. The thing was though, for the first time, he'd taken control. This didn't feel like bad luck or being some kind of victim. This surely meant progress, didn't it? And so, like some ethereal reward, he could feel a soul departing from his now useless body, his disfigured marriage, and Kathy herself, that soul drifting ineluctably toward the ceiling and heavenward, ever heavenward, through the roof and high into a crisp, cloudless afternoon. This was not about the death or dying, he realized. That was never really the point. His dilemma was he'd lost control, maybe even purpose, and so kept returning. To retrieve it? To set things straight? His new idea was dying was leaving, and leaving, if you really thought about it, was simply a new beginning, starting all over when things just weren't working. He promised himself to try and remember that.

Later that night, as he sat in his recliner in the darkened living room, just in time for Jeopardy, Michael looked to his wife. She was tired, still upset over the incident at the therapist's office. She wasn't talking to him.

Alex Trebeck was on stage now. Buzzers in hand, the three contestants eager and at the ready. Michael suddenly prayed he would know the answer, shout it out, impress Kathy just like he always had, maybe distract her from her mood. But what if the subject was world capitols or chemistry, or worse, opera, any one of the fields in which he was deficient and that he loathed. Still, Michael felt it was time for something to finally go his way. Tonight might just be his night. He'd make an attempt, show her how much he cared. Show her she mattered, that his life, this life, their life, mattered to him. Get involved, stay committed, and really stick with it. But he'd missed the question. What was Alex saying? It had all gone so fast. All of it. He turned to look at Kathy's blank face in the diffuse television light. There was something he wanted, needed to say. Istanbul? No, Jesus, that would be Constantinople!

Then again, maybe what he wanted to say was "Turkey," and that he hadn't intended to leave her in the first place. Just to come out and say it like he'd known it all along. He'd never left her. He'd never leave her. Not even once. Not ever. Not really.