He was never nice, yet I let him move in. This, I thought, was experience.
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Neck pricklers, irritants, the papery labels seemed glued on, and I cut them off before I wore the shirts he gave me for no reason and which for no reason he often threw away. He was the boss, of course; he could do what he wanted. He insisted we visit the murdered wife’s house, where, poking and poking with his finger at my head, he said, “Bang, bang, bang,” then told me how the banker husband shot her. He took me backstage to meet famous musicians. Rich friends he knew gave us tours of their estates, and he hinted at his own wealth’s growing. He showed off his full-deck-thick clipped wad of money and the diamond his mother once wore on her hand, “It could be yours,” he said, “if you behave.”
What a life this was!
He picked limes over lemons every time, and he liked toothpicked onions in his dry martinis. Martinis and daiquiris and old-fashioneds, scotch on the rocks, margaritas with salt. He was a drinker; this was in the eighties. I was thirty-six or thirty-seven but in surprising ways quite young.
Imagine growing up outside a village with one of everything, a dress shop, a dealership, a river. Everything named for what it was—so many Nancys and Barbaras and Judys, and most in passed-down clothes that must have itched.
I, I was skin-sensitive even then.
He said, “You think you’re so much better than me.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t,” and though I lied—and did think he was coarsely born—he was lying, too, when he made up his moneyed past and passed off the powerful as friends. They were simply clients, and he was treating. And there never was a second wife, adored, a well-born blonde named Amy. She was nowhere in his apartment; I looked. The dispossessed stood landlocked and small in his famished pile of photographs: fences, stoops, indoor fights, and no sign of Amy at all. His apartment had an over-warm, shut-in smell—too much man! Black hand towels, beige furniture, space-age lamps with saucered hoods, and sharp-edged ashtrays, surely gifts. The bookends were fashioned from golf clubs, and the books were, most of them, thrillers. No pictures of the living anywhere, not even his daughter, the one he talked of, saying, “You don’t look like her. She’s pretty.”
How can I explain what I did next? I let him move in and forgot my daughters and made myself presentable. This involved shopping and spending his money or returning what he had bought me. I returned two expensive dresses, kept the watch and ruby earrings (rubies!), exchanged the scratchy mohair sweater and the clothes with chains for decoration, the frilly perfumes. He had someone else in mind, or he pretended there was someone else, and often when we fucked, he called me Amy.
I called him nothing; he was as he was. His torso was creased from the folds of his bellies, and his unmuscled legs rasped walking. He moved slowly yet sweated; even newly ironed, the armpits of his shirts smelled sharply, and the strained seams of his worn pants advertised his ass, his hairy ass now in heavy motion, thrusting. I was dumbed to saying nothing, to calling him nothing but a cock, a very big cock. What else could you call that red trumpeting thing he slapped across my face?
My skill was spending, he said, and I sure knew how to do it. He said, “Where’s your wallet, cunt?” when we both knew where it was, at home, on my dresser, empty. He said and he said, “No one cares about you. You think you’re pretty? Look again.” Foam flecked the corners of his mouth when he spoke; his lips were fat. He drank. He said my husband was smart to trade me in and only he was so dumb as to stay on—oh! Oh, it pissed him off, seeing me, and I was greeted with presents he tossed in gritted rage. My friends wondered why I put up with it. I said, “I think I must hate my life—I must.” I did!
Even on the island, where the tree frogs chirruped tunefully, I thought about other islands I had been on, and I spoke my husband’s name out loud and sentimentally. I indulged in feeling sad. I said, “I can’t help myself” too many times until the long long distance calls I made home angered him to whining on the phone, “Babies, I miss you, I do.” He imitated me in a hideous voice, or else he shouted, “Why don’t you ever look at anything? Why don’t you see what there is to see?”
He was right, of course. I thought of the past; I compared. I considered skin—was it porous or not? Don’t ask me to describe his. I will tell you that he had slightly feminine highbrow taste. His shirts, for instance, were French cuffed and very soft. So why didn’t he think soft with me?
He was never nice, yet I let him move in. This, I thought, was experience. This was preparation for some life or this was life after a certain age: acutely felt, clearly flat. No romance.
My daughters hated him. The oldest said she would never come home. “I’ll stay at Gran’s,” she said, “and so will Cissy,” although he liked Cissy, so I sometimes arranged to get Cissy, and we went out together, the three of us. Once we went to a soda shop, and he ordered a sundae—a sundae!—he spooning off and feeding her the whip cream. Prissy, he called her, also Little Dope, Cis Miss, Stupid Puss, Sis. At least I never let him drive Cissy anywhere—I was that much a mother—yet I, who was meant to look out for the child, I drove too fast and drunkenly when I took Cissy back to her gran’s, my mother’s, that bitch’s.
Crying then, always crying, I called Cissy my baby. She was my baby, my youngest and favorite, Cissy, my favorite, turned forward, hair beaten back, the curls on her baby head whapped straw dry and stiff by the time we got there—“Home again, home again, jiggity jog”—singing all the way to Mother’s house, where my oldest daughter was somewhere inside and would not see me. Even my mother stayed behind the screen when she spoke. Mother was afraid of me, I think, when I was the one without children, outside. Because of him, I think, I lost them. I blamed him and I blamed my ex-husband, blamed my mother, everyone . . .
“Why did you let him into your house?” my mother said.
Why did I?
He pulled the plugs to lamps to turn them off. He took pictures from the walls and broke them. I was afraid of what he would do. He poked with a hanger after tags I might have buried under rings and smearing grease. The whiskey sediment in last night’s glasses, last night’s bloody plates. Violence and sickness. The dried-out, board-hard dishtowel in its contorted, twisted shape. All was fragmented, unfinished, discomposed. “Why don’t you get a fur coat?” he asked. “Call your friend what’s-it’s. She’ll know”—unlike you the unspoken parenthetical at the end of whatever he said to me. Easily cruel, the man scissored stitches to the large griefs and the small griefs, his expression seeming mean or sad.
I began to think he was lying about his daughter, the pretty girl who never came to see him; and he was hateful to the boy who called some evenings asking for his dad. “Don’t call me here again,” he said to the boy. “You little fuck, it’s none of your business.”
The times I cautioned him, “Remember, he’s your son,” he said, “What do you know about being a parent?”
What did I? My oldest daughter vowed never to visit.
My oldest daughter said, “You hate everyone,” and she was right: I did hate many people. I hated disproportionately, vociferously, indulged in wrathful scratching and saying how I hated . . . I hated my mother, my ex-husband, him. Any inconvenience—“We don’t have,” “We won’t take,” “We can’t do”—abraded old sores or made them, and I berated and insulted and slurred helpless persons and said fuck and fucking all the time. My daughters, witnessing, trailed with puzzled faces. “Will you fuck off?” I said to them—and to him.
I especially hated him and thought, If I only had his money . . . For he had money, and money gentles everything, except when it is given cruelly; then the thwart of cancellations and delays abrades. Think of a starchy collar against a sunburned neck.
A day in spring too bald yet still pastel, the wind is hard through the trees. We are touring the murdered wife’s house where the carpeting sweeps through the gaping rooms—few divisions, recessed lights, marble surfaces, money. The banker husband’s, surely; what is she but aggravation—a threatening debt, stupidly indifferent. “A bit like you,” the man said to me, “a lot like you.” He says, “So go on. So waah, waah, waah about money,” but his hands come first.
I am saying horrible things and hitting back, and we are standing in the murdered woman’s bedroom. The house belongs to no one now until the bullet holes are fixed and someone else wants to live here. We don’t!
I already owned a house but in the summer, for my sake, he rented within walking distance of the beach. The season cost as much as a car, but the house on the lane was invisibled by hedges, and I had lots of time on my own there—no children. So what did I have to complain of? That’s what he wanted to know.
At night, weepy, I wandered out of doors to such sensations as I had had once with a boy who fanned his hair for me to sleep on—soft.
The heat blows through the summer rental; the house billows or seems to, and I am glad glad glad the man is gone! I can call my girls now and talk and talk until my tongue swells, and I am tired.
Cissy on the phone scolds, “It’s always sex with you, Mother. I’m too young.”
I was thirty-six, yes, thirty-six, and he was older by eleven years exactly. He said he would die first, especially with me around, but he promised trust funds for the girls, so I stuck it out carelessly and heard time clang past.
Why didn’t I have more fun?
Once in the beginning, before the neighbors, before the cops, he met us at the zoo. Cissy, I think, suspected he was coming, or something like him, something large and wheezing and hairy. Cissy, as a child, was open arms to anybody, but when he made to speak, she cried for me to lift her.
Why didn’t I take my child to me and run?
He said from the start he was a misanthrope, but I didn’t believe him. I thought . . . I thought adult life was meant to be uncomfortable, full of anguish and embarrassment; but after a while, I felt no embarrassment. What people saw, they saw.
The real estate agent saw us rushing from the murder scene to the lawn, saw this fat man hitting me, and me hitting this fat man, and both of us screaming how we hated and swearing we would—yes, definitely, today, no more fucking around but seriously over now, no more, before we killed each other.
Think of poisonous solvents that smoke through cloth. Think of miseries, stinks. He was steak-red and fat, and we were both full of wine when the house winked in high sun, a bloody charge against my eyes.
“Some renovation,” the real estate agent had said, and it could be ours.
No thanks! I wanted to live at home again with my mother and the girls, but I didn’t know how to ask.
“What a fucking sad sack!” he said. He said horrible things, but I said worse.
The real estate agent in her locked car leaned on her horn as if, like water on the rabid, it would startle us apart. The dusty snarl of us, us on the front lawn in full sun fighting. Sun! How I cursed it! Heat chafed, itchy, cankered, and confused by the freakish rush of summer, and this man pushing me against the car, saying, “Get in, goddammit, before I kill you.”
Do it! Do it! Do it! was my heart—is still my heart when I think of him, and I think of him. I wonder at that tin-bright vision, that acidic bite of spit, that embrace, that poetry by which I live.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short story collections and three novels. She has been a finalist for both the National Book Award (Florida) and Pulitzer Prize (All Souls). Among other honors, Schutt has twice won the O. Henry Short Story Prize. She is the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts and Guggenheim Fellowships. Schutt lives and teaches in New York.