by Anthony D’Aries
“Is she ready?”
Jody looked like a new car—black dress and black shoes, gleaming silver necklace and silver earrings. She didn’t take off her sunglasses. She held one hand over the bottom of her phone, the way Mark’s mother used to do when she’d scold him for making too much noise.
“No, I know, I get it,” she said, turning her back to him. “It’s very sweet, J.F. But does a nine-year-old need a four-hundred-dollar electric guitar?”
Jody glanced back at Mark. He couldn’t tell if she wanted a reaction or privacy. Mark looked at his hand, which was still propping open the screen door. Jody walked to the far end of the deck, one hand on her hip. Behind him, Sam’s heels clacked against the kitchen tile.
Then she was on the deck, in a short yellow dress Mark had never seen before. She’d straightened her hair, sharp points cutting across her forehead. Her skin glowed the way it had when she was pregnant. She reached up to grab the zipper on the back of her dress. No stubble beneath her arms, no white balls of deodorant. Sam pulled her hair away from the nape of her neck and backed up toward Jody. Jody took off her sunglasses. She pressed the phone between her ear and shoulder, then slowly zipped Sam’s dress.
“I don’t know, J.F. Figure it out.” Her phone beeped. “That dress is fucking cute.”
Mark forced a smile. He felt like an old man at the park watching a teenage couple take pictures before prom. He almost asked Sam what time she’d be back.
“Have fun,” Mark said. He leaned in. Sam offered him her cheek. He pressed his lips against it.
“Don’t wait up, Mark,” Jody said.
He shut the door and turned as if he had somewhere to be, something to do. But he just stood by the living room window, watching them slip behind tinted glass and drive away.
* * *
Mark paced the house. He folded the throw blanket on the couch. He wiped the clean kitchen counter with a damp paper towel. Then he was in the hallway, in their doorway. They’d attempted to make the bedroom sexy, as they had at their apartment and the apartment before that. A red and yellow tapestry draped over the dresser. Two sconces holding unlit candles. A wooden full-length mirror turned slightly toward the bed. But eventually laundry and half-empty glasses of water and chap stick and cough drop wrappers ruined the vibe, made it look more like a squatter’s cave than a sexy bedroom.
Mark rarely remembered his dreams. And when he did, they were so dull he never told anyone about them. You couldn’t really call them dreams. “Replays” was a better word. He’d buy a black coffee and a buttered bagel from the café downtown and that night he’d dream he was buying a black coffee and a buttered bagel from the café downtown. No ex-girlfriends from high school or flying walruses, just boring Mark reliving his day. He’d wake up depressed, wondering: is that the best my mind can do?
But for the last two weeks, he’d had the same dream. He walks into a crowded bar with Sam. They approach a faceless woman. She reaches out and shakes his hand. Then she leans in and gives Sam a kiss, their tongues slipping over each other like raw meat. And that’s it. Over and over and over.
He hadn’t told Sam about the dream, but he’d wake up angry. He was short with her in the bathroom, the kitchen, wanting her to ask him what was wrong but having no idea what he’d say if she did. She seemed to interpret his mood as morning grumpiness. Or worse, she didn’t notice at all.
What did it mean that the woman in the dream was faceless? Did it mean that this scenario was simply a half-formed fear, nothing to worry about? Or did it mean that the identity of the other woman didn’t matter, that his wife would suck the tongue of any woman, at any bar? And the handshake beforehand. The confidence of that handshake. How Mark accepts the hand every time, lets the woman lift his up and down. How that up-down movement flips a switch, cements his feet to the floor, forces him to witness their kiss.
The books on Sam’s nightstand, the podcasts in her phone were laced with words and phrases like “empowerment,” “freedom from codependency” and “finding your path.” She’d told Mark she was having an “awakening.” Mark asked how long she’d been sleeping, but she didn’t find that funny. Neither did he.
The women she listened to, the women she read, all survived horrific events. Rape. Addiction. Sudden death of a partner. The word “harrowing” appeared in several of the blurbs on the back covers. Mark flipped through one of the books like it was Sam’s diary, her instruction manual. He read words like “identity” “self-actualization” and “gratitude.” The authors were middle-aged. Strong women with sharp jawlines, weathered skin, deep eyes. One of them tried to cover her alcohol-damaged face with thick makeup. Another wore earrings of heavy red beads and black lipstick. Late at night, Mark imagined his wife barhopping with these women, laughing and dancing and throwing her arms around them. A familiar smile, a brightness in her eyes he wasn’t sure he could coax from her anymore. She looked relieved to feel that expression again, as if her entire body had just exhaled.
Mark was giving her space. The implication being he always had space, that he roamed the landscape of their relationship like a bull. Recently, the news showed footage of a bull wandering the suburbs of Long Island. He’d escaped from a slaughterhouse. Just walked off the property, down the highway, and into town. He’d been trotting around culs-de-sac and across driveways for days. A big stupid animal on an island, thinking he’s free.
* * *
“I always considered my wife to be reluctantly heterosexual.”
Chris shrugged and took a bite of his tuna sandwich. He said it like he was sharing his preference for whole milk.
“What do you mean?” Mark asked.
“I mean, think about it, man. Most dudes are assholes. That’s not news. You ask any woman to tell you a time they’ve been fucked over by a guy or hurt or worse, and they’ll tell you a story. Multiple stories. You ask a guy the same question about women they’ll tell you about an ex who didn’t fuck enough or hated giving blowjobs or some other bullshit.”
Mark bit into his sandwich and most of the meat and cheese slid to the back, leaving him with a mouthful of bread.
“I know it’s kind of cliché,” Chris said, “but if you were a woman, wouldn’t you rather be with a woman than a man?”
“You’re saying that because you’re thinking like a man,” Mark said, still chewing. “You’re thinking you’d have the same brain but in a woman’s body.”
Chris nodded. “Maybe. I dunno. I just think you put a man next to a woman and most people, gay, straight, whatever, would pick the woman.”
The bells above the café door jangled and a woman struggled in the doorway with a baby carrier. Some customers glanced up from their plates with indifference or disdain. An older waitress cocked her head and offered a tight-lipped smile as if to say: It gets easier, hun. Mark was the only one who got up and held the door open. The mother exhaled a “thank you,” brushing past him to the booth in the corner.
Mark sat back down, half-listening to Chris. He thought of Marjorie. Sam had said it was bad luck to talk about names too early, but even before she was pregnant, Mark had known it’d be a girl and the name played over and over in his head. Sometimes in the shower or while driving, he’d whisper the name, test it out. He liked the way the word felt in his mouth, the way it sounded like an ingredient in a soup. Mar-jer-ree.
“Anyway,” Chris said. “How are things with Sam?”
“Ok,” Mark said. “Same, I guess. Sometimes she looks at me like I’m not even a person. Like I’m a couch she wants to throw out but can’t move on her own.”
“Ellen gives me that look, too.”
“Yeah, but Sam means it.”
Chris nodded. “Are you guys going out tonight?”
“She is. Her and Jody are on their way to the city right now.”
Chris raised his eyebrows and leaned back.
“Don’t even say anything.”
“I’m not. I’m not,” Chris said. He thought for a moment. “I had to unfollow that woman on Instagram. Too much.”
In Mark’s opinion, Jody posted too often for a forty-seven-year-old woman. Mostly videos of herself in the kitchen or the garden, sharing a recipe for a watermelon margarita or tips on how to prune cilantro. But she also posted a lot of—Mark didn’t know what they were called. Clips? Memes? Pictures of herself four years ago, overweight, in glasses and a gray sweatshirt: How It Started. Then a recent shot of her in a bikini, stretched out on a towel, her skin tan and tight, her phone at the end of her outstretched arm reflected in her sunglasses: How It’s Going. During Pride Month, she posted a long paragraph announcing that she has, for the last several years, identified as bisexual and “stands in solidarity” with the LGBTQ community. She had close to seventeen-thousand followers, which Mark suspected was some sort of marketing scam connected to the make-up tutorials she posted from time to time. Sometimes in the middle of the night, Mark would wake to Sam caught in the blue glow of her phone, her thumb hovering over an image of Jody.
Mark looked up at the muted TV in the corner. A reporter holding a microphone, standing in front of a line of trees, the headline below exclaiming, Bull Still on Loose.
* * *
Two years ago, Mark woke up, showered, got dressed, ate breakfast with Sam, placed his hand on her swollen belly, got in his car and headed to work. He followed his usual path, until he came to the first major intersection. Instead of making a left, he made a right. He took the on ramp, 84 West, and kept going. And going. And going. LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL. He kept going.
He drove the entire day and into the night. Through three states. When he stopped for gas, he had trouble breathing, his heart throbbing in his throat, but when he got back in the car and kept driving, the feeling dissipated. He stuck his hand out the window, his fingers cutting through the wind.
He parked in the back of a mostly empty campground. For two days, he kept his cell phone off. He ate most meals from the hot dog truck up the road, pissed and shat in an old outhouse in the woods. The plan was to have no plan. To act on impulse. Something he’d never done in his entire life. Methodical. Practical. Those were the words people used to describe him. Reliable.
If someone asked him now, “Why’d you do it?” he wouldn’t have an answer. Stressed. Overwhelmed. Fear of fatherhood. Mark latched onto easy answers. Quick responses he’d give to therapists for years. But honestly, for once in his life, he just wanted to do the wrong thing.
When he turned his cell phone back on, his voicemail was full. Dozens and dozens of text messages. His boss, Chris, but mostly Sam. The messages started out curious, then concerned, then frantic. I’m ok, he texted back. He hesitated for a moment, then added, on my way home.
Several hours later, he got a reply: We’re at the hospital. This is Jody.
* * *
Mark turned down Chris’s offer to grab beers. It was nearly dark by the time he got home, the late fall sky darkening earlier and earlier. The flood light flicked on as he pulled up to the garage. He shut the engine. The exhaust pipes ticked. The air grew warm. When the flood light went dark, Mark could see clear across his yard, to the tall brown weeds and wilted wild flowers at the edge of their property.
He checked his phone for any messages from Sam. Nothing. Then he checked Instagram. The first post he saw was a video of Jody at a rooftop bar. She held the phone over her head and turned slowly, scrunching her hair, scanning the crowd, the skyline beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. Lights on the bridge in the distance draped like a necklace. Jody turned the phone a little more: the back of Sam’s dress. A few strands of hair on the back of her neck slick with sweat. She was talking to someone but Mark couldn’t see who. Jody leaned in and rested her head on Sam’s shoulder.
The caption of the video was #girlsnight.
* * *
The first person Mark saw in the waiting room was Jody. She stood beside the vending machines, arms crossed. Dark circles below her red-rimmed eyes.
“How is she?” Mark asked.
Jody squinted. “Where the fuck were you? She’s been freaking out for days. She thought you were dead.”
Mark looked away.
“How is she?” Jody repeated in disbelief. “She’s losing the baby.”
Jody turned and took a seat at the far end of the waiting room. Mark stood there. He didn’t think he could move unless someone told him, explained how. Then his legs went weak and he sat on the edge of the closest seat. How long did he sit like that? Finally, the doctors brought him and Jody into the room. Sam was sleeping. Her head slumped to one side. Mark and Jody stood on opposite sides of the bed. Jody held Sam’s right hand. Mark held her left.
* * *
Mark stood on the deck in the dark. An image flashed in his head: Sam, pulling her hair to the side, exposing her neck, backing up toward Jody’s waiting hands. Not his. Jody’s. Sam hadn’t even glanced at him. It was as if he wasn’t an option. As if he couldn’t be trusted with the simplest task.
The kitchen was quiet. He took a pint of ice cream from the freezer, sat on the couch, and turned on the TV. Grainy footage from someone’s front door camera captured the bull trotting down the street. Big and slick and confident, as if it were taking a victory lap around the neighborhood. Different footage from a higher angle, maybe a security camera, showed him cutting across a strip mall parking lot. Now he looked smaller, lost, maybe scared. This is day four of the bull’s escape. Some reports called it his “escape.” Others his “rampage.” Except for a garbage can or two, the bull hadn’t destroyed anything.
The news cut to two men standing in their backyard, holding rifles.
“That thing comes anywhere near my family and I’ll shoot it dead.”
* * *
Around midnight, Mark checked his phone. No messages. He lay in the middle of the bed, arms and legs spread like a starfish. Taking up the whole bed while Sam was out used to feel luxurious, taboo, but now it frightened him. Nearly every night for fifteen years he slept next to her. What if last night was the last?
In the dark, his head felt like a lava lamp. Irrational thoughts, invented scenarios, hypothetical arguments and ultimatums oozed, contorted, folded in on themselves. How quickly little fears bloomed. Sam hadn’t taken a night to herself in years. What was the harm? Let her go. Let her have her fun.
The dream returned. The anonymous woman. The handshake. The long, deep kiss. This time, Sam and the woman both wore red dresses. Mark had horns and stood on four legs, his front right hoof grinding into the floor.
* * *
In the morning, the clothes he slept in felt like a second skin. He checked his phone. A message from Jody: Crashed in the city. Should be back later.
Should be? What did that mean?
Mark rolled to the other side of the bed. The woman on the back cover of one of Sam’s books—a German sex therapist who seemed to be everywhere these days—stared at him. Not at him—through him. She appeared slightly amused, slightly disgusted, as if he were a child interrupting a dinner party by running into the dining room with underwear on his head. The few times he’d heard her speak in video clips on the internet, he resented her all-knowing advice, the way she spoke as if every couple on the planet argued about the same things, in the same way, and really the solution was “quite simple.” But what angered Mark the most was when she articulated an insecurity he thought was solely his own. How her words playfully tapped on his secret fears like a reflex hammer. “Yes?” she’d say after one of her observations. Even during her talks to large crowds, she seemed to be speaking directly to him. It occurred to Mark that everyone in the audience probably felt that way, which was why she was so successful. The illusion of intimacy.
The first few months after Sam came home from the hospital were the hardest months of Mark’s life. She slept in the guest room and spent most of the day watching trashy reality shows, rich women yelling and crying. Mark brought her soup and sandwiches, water and tea, replacing empty dirty dishes with full ones. Some days, in the late afternoons, Sam sat in the sun in the backyard. Her head slightly tilted. Mark tried to sit with her, but each time she’d get up and walk back into the house. So, he left her alone and did the dishes, glancing at her from time to time.
Mark had read somewhere about people who survived a suicide attempt. They seemed to all have one thing in common: the moment after they jumped off the bridge or swallowed the pills, regret rushed through their bodies. Then later in the hospital, when they woke to friends and family surrounding their bed, the purest relief and gratitude pooled in their eyes. Many of the survivors described their attempt as a “turning point.” But a deceivingly simple sentence half-way through the article revealed that this sense of relief and gratitude was not usually shared by the survivor’s loved ones, especially their partners: “Husbands and wives of suicide survivors often have a much different interpretation of the event.”
The second Mark stepped into the hospital and saw Jody standing in the waiting room, he was jolted back to his real life, the life he’d forgotten he wanted, the one he’d tried to run away from. And though he tried to explain to Sam that his impulsive act only reaffirmed his love for her and their life, he couldn’t find the right words. Then the news that the baby—that Marjorie—was gone and Mark’s cheap epiphany was irrelevant.
For the last two years, they had co-existed. They’d go away for a weekend or have a long dinner at home and if the lighting was right, if they’d had enough wine, enough dessert, they’d slip into their former selves and Mark felt close to her again. But it was a fragile spell, and by the time they lay in bed, they were like survivors of a shipwreck, floating apart on jagged pieces of wood.
Mark flipped Sam’s book over and covered the therapist’s photo. The hardwood floor was cold on his bare feet. In the kitchen, he stared at the backyard while the coffee pot ticked and gurgled. A thick mist had settled over the grass. The last of the dead wet leaves shellacked to the deck. He stepped outside. The closer he got to the mist, the farther away it seemed. He couldn’t tell if he was in it or had moved through it. He reached the middle of the yard, turned around, and could no longer see the house.
* * *
It wasn’t insane for a person to stay out all night with a friend. It wasn’t insane for that person to spend the next morning with that friend. And it wasn’t insane for them to spend a weekend or even a week together. Friends do that, Mark supposed. But Sam hadn’t done it in a long, long time and she’d never done it with Jody.
Mark looked at Jody’s text again. Crashed in the city. Should be back later.
Yes, Mark wanted to reply. You should be. But something told him they wouldn’t be back. Maybe, at that very moment, they were Thelma-and-Louise’ing their way across the country. He couldn’t remember much about the movie—just two women in their car, racing toward the Grand Canyon, a pack of armed men behind them.
Mark sipped his coffee. The mist in the yard had begun to burn off.
He turned on the small TV on the kitchen counter. Live aerial footage of a forest. A line of police cars and news vans at the tree line. BREAKING: BULL SURROUNDED.
One of the trucks at the edge of the forest wasn’t a news van, but a cattle trailer. A man in jeans and a white t-shirt opened the rear gate. He held a rope in his hand, the other end tied around the neck of a cow. He led the cow down a short ramp, walked her through the line of police cars and out into the grass. The reporter said the cow’s name was “Norma” and the plan was to use her to lure the bull out of the forest.
The man in the t-shirt backed away. Norma sniffed the air, then bent to the grass, took a large mouthful, lifted her head and chewed. She looked content. Bored.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” the reporter said. “The bull has plenty of food and shelter and fresh water in the forest, and experts say he could survive out there alone for quite some time.”
The last shot was a close up of Norma’s face, her back to the forest.
* * *
Jody’s car breathed in the driveway. A warped and wavy image of the side of their house reflected in the black glass. They sat in the idling car for ten minutes, maybe more. Then Sam got out. Jeans and a sweatshirt Mark had seen Jody wear in one of her Instagram posts. Sam draped her yellow dress over her forearm. She bent into the car then stood straight and shut the door. Jody lingered in the driveway before backing out and pulling away, kicking a few pieces of gravel into the grass.
Mark opened the door. Sam seemed surprised to see him. They stared at each other. Neither one moved. Then he reached out to help with her bag and dress, but instead their hands met in an awkward handshake. In a dream, he’d lift her arm, twirl her like a flamenco dancer and they’d move in time, on instinct. But here, in the sharp sunlight, he just held on and waited for her to lead.
Anthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN Discovery Prize. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Boston Magazine, Solstice, The Literary Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. His essay, “No Man’s Land,” was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021. He directs the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.