Oct/Nov 2002  •   Fiction

More Than This

by Annette Ferran

Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever

Artwork by Tara Gilbert-Brever

Sometimes she hated her husband.

Often she adored him and couldn't believe her luck, occasionally she liked him well enough, but sometimes she hated him.

She'd taken to cursing him under her breath—fuck you—sucking up the consonants so they wouldn't sound. It was the same method she used sometimes with her mother on the phone.

"I was talking to Aunt Maisie the other day and she was saying she just couldn't see how I could stand it, having you kids living so far away but I said I'm comfortable with my children living their own lives."

fuck you

"Oh, and your cousin Tommy—now don't think this is coming from me, it's not, it's coming from Tommy—but he wants to know when you're planning on having children."

fuck you

She'd begun by cursing his habits, like the way he did the dishes, stacking them only one deep on the dishrack and leaving gaps in between so when the rack was full, there were still dishes in the sink. Or how he'd put off taking his shower, strolling around the house in his bathrobe with his cup of coffee, until he had only 10 minutes left and then would yell at her from the bathroom to please find him a pair of underwear and some socks.

Then she started cursing him for his inconsiderations, such as leaving the dog for her to walk every morning because he was late or insisting on cocooning—wrapping his arms and legs around her in bed in the early morning and nestling his face against the crook of her neck—even after he'd told him she had to get up and pee.

They left an itchy feeling, these first bouts of hate, as if she'd been bitten by mosquitos. But there was something satisfying, too. She would often give him the finger surreptitiously, quickly when he glanced away during a conversation, or more lingeringly as he left the room. It was not always for an identifiable reason. Sometimes, she just got tired of him. "Shut up!" she'd yell in her mind while he prattled on and on about his day, his life, his myriad thoughts connected to each activity, his thoughts about his thoughts. She'd known he was a talker and hadn't initially minded—she'd grown up in a family of talkers—but somehow she hadn't imagined the voice of her beloved, this man whom she'd married, would come to be so irritating to her, that her greatest wish in the world would eventually be to have a few moments of quiet.

She was not the marrying kind, and found herself, after 3 years of marriage plus 4 years of cohabitation, wondering why exactly she had agreed to get married at all. Not why she had chosen this particular man, not why they had mingled their lives together, but why she and he had decided to make a public spectacle of what was a most private of intimacies. She could think of no other human relationship involving such an overt self-declaration and not only had found the ceremony to be an embarrassment akin to that suffered in 8th grade speech class but also the wearing of the gold band out in the world to be some sort of crass display, like wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with your social definition. She did not even like wearing rings. They made her fingers tickle and itch; they got stuck or fell off, sometimes the same ring and the same finger, depending on the weather. She'd worried what she would do about this peccadillo when it came time to don the wedding ring, and still, after all this time, she hadn't gotten used to wearing it. She took it off when she went to bed, when she showered or washed dishes, when she folded clothes, brushed the dog, swept up, put away, entered the house. The closest she had come to comfort with the thing was a kind of reverse comfort: if she forgot to put it on when she went out, she felt its absence, and with the absence, guilt.

She couldn't say for certain where this thing she'd labeled hate began, but she thought it was the air conditioning. They'd ordered central air installed, from Sears, because they could afford it now and they owed it to themselves. Being financially able, they told themselves, they did not have to suffer another summer like the collected summers of years past. So the house now was a comfortable 75 degrees—comfortable, not overcooled. Not ostentatious, but useful. Still, she missed being too hot. She missed the muted heavy feeling of her skin heating up, her fingers and feet swelling, the grittiness of her neck and arms. She missed the sudden pleasures of a trickle of sweat, of an errant wind ecstatically drying the wetness of her belly. She missed the languor. In summers past they had felt they owed themselves cold beers in the middle of the afternoon or very bad movies in air-conditioned theaters or 2 AM walks through the sprinklers of the public parks. Now they came home to an interior kept at a consistent 75 degrees. Now they cooked spaghetti in July because it was no longer a hardship.

Their first night together they'd spent sitting on her front stoop drinking beer and comparing scars—This one here, see, right at my hairline, this I got when I was 12. My sister threw a bowl of macaroni and cheese at me during a fightSee this one on my knee. That's from skidding off my motorcycle coming back drunk from a party at college. They exchanged their imperfections, the wounds of their lives. Later, of course, they would share larger wounds, the wounding fears—My father doesn't really love meI think my mother might be crazy—and with them their simple trust.

She realized theirs was not an average partnership. They were too inseparable, too much like friends. Often when they called other paired acquaintances, only one would be at home, the other out pursuing individual interests. Her husband's and her interests had always been the same. Her best friend Grace would exclaim to her, "You go grocery shopping together for God's sake! Personally, I think I'd go nuts with Mike following me around the supermarket." But she knew about Grace and Mike—in the early days of their marriage they did go shopping together, and Mike would push the cart behind Grace and while she perused the toothpaste choices would call out from the other end of the aisle, teasing her, "Honey, don't we need condoms? Do you want the ribbed kind or the flavored kind this time?" But Grace and Mike had married young and they'd been married for a long time. "We'll never split up," Grace told her often. "We grew up together."

She and her husband were different. They were older, they'd had more of life before they met one another. They had more to hold them together, she thought. The possibility of complacency was less.

When they met, they were both underemployed. They were part of the working poor, they joked—adult and with jobs but perpetually broke, one paycheck away from destitution. It was not true of course. Their poverty was not a class definition but a circumstantial, temporary condition, and they were free to enjoy it. They bathed irregularly because they could. They had sex, stripping off t-shirts and worn jeans and tired underwear and then reclad themselves in the same clothes and went out to the bar, where their friends were, similarly clad and unbathed. She enjoyed the smells of him, the distinct perfumes of each of his body parts wafting off him as from a wild patch of weed-flowers. But gradually, while their attention was elsewhere, they'd become fully employed. They'd started a savings account. They owned a month's worth of new underwear each. Sometimes he'd wear the same shirt two times in a week and she'd hear a voice come out of her mouth: "Are you sure you want to wear that shirt? It looks a little wrinkled."

None of this seemed enough to justify the secret cursing.

Lately he'd been bothered by people's perception of him. When he changed in the evening, he'd stand in front of the mirror, stretching his undershirt out over his belly and asking her to judge whether he was getting fat. He'd hold the top of his head in front of her face until she swore he was not losing hair. He worried he did not have the ambition of his younger coworkers, that he had wasted his youth with beer and sex, that he should have had a PhD by now, a career instead of just a job. He became whiney. He moaned he was a disappointment, a wastrel, no good. He started in as soon as he stepped in the door at night, and he talked and talked, through dinner, the news, Seinfeld. He talked through the evening and into bed, where she pressed one ear tight to the pillow and hummed quietly to herself, trying to recapture a portion of her brain for her own thoughts.

She began to fantasize.

At first the fantasies were about him. She'd imagine their first intimate moment, the deep anxious kisses in the alcove of a storefront, the trembling, the rush of blood and weakness of limb, and then she would travel down that fantastical lane until she fell asleep and in her dreams couple with the body that had become the one lying beside her.

Soon, however, these starts were not enough. She lay awake tingling in the unpleasant way as after too much coffee, stressed, disjointed, unable to concentrate. She would begin with her husband's younger self and undress him, make him undress her, will his hands over the sensitive spots of her, but soon his face would transform into someone else's. She'd force it back but it would pop as if out of a mold and become another man's. Someone she worked with, the man who served her coffee, a boy she'd passed in the park, the bike messenger she'd idled behind. And these other males she could not stop from taking her husband's dream place.

She would lie awake deep into the night and fall asleep with the dim gray of the very early morning and jolt awake with the disturbing sense of being watched, and he would be there, her husband, morning after morning, his eyes blinking painedly, sorrowfully, into her own and he would begin, "Honey? I just, I just don't know what to do... I just, I feel so bad and it's... I can't sleep anymore." When it began, the first few mornings, she struggled herself awake and reassured him—You were sleeping. I heard you snoring. I'm sure it's not so badWhat's so bad, can you tell me?—cooing, as to a child or an animal. But soon she grew tired—Oh, for God's sake, can you not give me one moment's peace to wake up?—and he, cowed, would murmur, "sorry, sorry" and release her from the bed.

One morning she woke up alone in bed, surprised, a little nervous. She debated with herself: did she prefer the bed empty to stretch and roll and pull the comforter over her head, or did she miss his warmth and resent his bounding into the day without her? She heard him downstairs, talking to the dog, and she heard clinking noises and smelled coffee and she waited with her eyes closed, picturing the scene of domestic bliss, listening for his step on the stair, the gentle thud and tiny swish of her cup of coffee being set on the bedside table, or for the deep sweet voice calling that breakfast was ready, that the day had begun. But it did not come. Finally she trudged downstairs to find him absorbed in the newspaper, two half-full tepid cups of coffee on the counter before him, the kettle rapidly cooling on the stove, the dog pacing madly. "Oh, you're up," he said. "Do you think you could finish making the coffee?"

She invited the other men into her dreams.

Before the man who was to become her husband there had been many others, a long string of full-body infatuations. She'd line them up at night in her mind during her husband's bedtime litany of his losses and inadequacies, his pleadings for a renewal of her vows of loyalty and nonjudgment. While she murmured her reassurances, she reviewed her former lovers—the punk-rock philosopher, the poet, the pretty boy art student, the bar tender. While she soothed her husband into sleep she would choose a mate for the night—tonight, the poet: eyes like cups of coffee, head of silky curls, body smooth and hard and cool—and would fall into passionate entanglements with him, uncontrolled, unguilty, until sleep overtook her.

But in the mornings, she'd feel treacherous and crawl grumpy from bed before he awoke.

He continued to mope. He'd clammed up. Instead of his weeping lamentations, he sat quiet, as if unplugged. He slogged through the morning routine, polite but slow, thanking her for the muffin, the clean socks, the found keys. He started to take the dog out unbidden, silently leashing the bounding animal and silently returning.

She asked, "What's wrong?"

He replied, milky-eyed, "I can't tell you."

She ignored it and him because her fantasies woke up with her now and traveled with her through the day. She closed out the silence in her home with carefully choreographed daydreams. She added men she was acquainted with but did not know as lovers. She titillated herself with vision of younger men, men the age she had been before she'd become a married woman with a morose husband. She started imagining ways she could be with these young men in public without breaking her promise of fidelity.

Her husband's parents had divorced after he left home for college, hers just as she started elementary school. Her father had remarried and divorced twice more since then. That would never be her, she'd promised herself. That would never be them, her husband had assured her.

And so she imagined accidents. If her husband were run over by a bus, she would be a widow and suitable for comforting by soulful young men who would appreciate her tragedy and experience. If he got run over by a bus while walking the dog... but that was too convenient. If he got in an accident and were hospitalized, lingering in life while she declared her love and did her penance. If he were taken suddenly by illness and she were left shocked, stunned into celibacy, to be reawakened after a proper interval by a second, though inferior, love. If she, given young widowhood, made the other choice this time and remained single, free, unbound.

She took to loitering in the park after work and strolling home slowly, but even then sometimes her husband would arrive home after she did, with take-out occasionally, or with flowers. They sat in the evenings in front of the television, feeding scraps to the dog, remarking about the weather, each waiting for the other to grow sleepy and to head upstairs to bed. She would gaze at her husband at the other end of the sofa, his balding head and starched shirts, his eyes red-rimmed and little, his big hands hanging limply off his lap, and she would dream of that feeling he'd given her once: The fluttering, golden, not quite liquid feeling of falling in love.