Readings — From the March 1987 issue

Jealousy

The girl who only because she walked arm in arm with her sweetheart looked quietly around.

—Kafka’s Diaries

He phoned his wife at her lover’s apartment. She asked him to repeat himself. He was sobbing and unintelligible. He wanted her to come home and collect her clothes. The sight of them was unbearable. She’d been conscious of his pain before then, but in a strangely general way. To her lover, she’d said, “I feel guilty for not feeling guilty.” But with her husband sobbing, she could virtually see her dresses and shoes in the bedroom closet, and she felt something strongly, a kind of urgency. She went home to collect her clothes. Her husband locked the door behind her and beat her up.

I heard her story at a literary conference. She complained that she couldn’t write it in a convincing manner. “But it really happened,” she said, laughing at herself. “It saved my marriage. You’d think I could write about that.”

She had told her husband about the other man and named him. Already, to my mind, a failed marriage. Her husband should have known her body; guessed there was another man. Smells change in erotic chemistry, especially about the ears and nostrils; elsewhere, too. Lilies fester. The drama of her love affair should certainly have reached him in how she gave herself. “Where did you learn to do that?” was a question he never asked. The man was dull. He made nothing of her luminous moods or irrational petulance. Her revulsion at the shape of his feet and his habit of scratching his head didn’t strike him as curious developments. He made nothing of his own depression and malaise. Simply didn’t know why he’d become that way. He was even cruel to his girlfriend and didn’t know why. He’d had to be told by his wife, in so many words, about her lover. The poor man’s suffering exceeded his understanding. He beat her up. “But it really happened,” she said, laughing moronically at herself.

Another woman at the conference, drawn forth by the story, said her husband accused her of sleeping with his best friend, a master carpenter. He helped build their sailboat. The accusations began at breakfast and resumed at night when her husband returned from work. He ruined her nicest dinners. He ruined her sleep. All her efforts to make them happy–and she “really tried”–were turned into ugly occasions by his suspiciousness. Marriage counseling did them no good. Her husband wouldn’t discuss “real problems.”

“Were you?” I asked.

“What?”

“Fucking his friend?”

“Yes, but that’s not the point.”

Her exasperation was fierce. She lifted her hands, fingers bent into laborious hooks.

“I cleaned. I cooked. I washed his filthy hairs out of the bathtub. Our sex life was terrific, especially toward the end.”

There was nothing anyone could say.

In the emptiness, I remembered how I used to meet a certain woman, on Sunday mornings, in the parking lot behind her church. I’d wait in my car, in the darkness of a low-hanging willow, smoking cigarettes until the service was over. Then I’d see her strike across the steamy asphalt in her high heels and dark blue churchgoing suit, a white flower in the lapel. She looked magnificent, yet my car was good enough for her; all we needed. As she talked about God, her wonderful cloud of hair bloated with a blonder light. Her breath flowed with perfume. Once, she surprised me, her voice bitter and reproachful, as if I’d done something bad. But it was her fiance, not me. She said he’d made a gruesome scene last night, shrieking at her in a crowded oyster bar, “You sucked another man’s cock.”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think. I started to kiss her, but she thrust me back, making me see how pity mixed with pain in her eyes. “Can you believe he said that to me? All those people sitting there eating oysters. Can you imagine how I felt?”

I nodded yes, yes, yes, but she wanted me to wait, listen to her, let the sacred fullness of her sorrow sink into me. She wanted me to feed on her immensely beseeching stare, her prim blue suit, the little flower in the lapel. Somehow, as I waited, I pressed her backward. She tucked up her skirt. Hot slick thighs flashed in the shady car. The pretty church danced beyond the willow. The vision of her fiance lingered, small, far away. Such suffering should matter, but in the convulsive pitch of things there is no should. “You’re greedy,” she said.

I begged her to marry me.

“You mean it, don’t you?” Her lips moved against my cheek, as if she talked to a deaf child, each word a touching pressure. “You know,” she whispered, “I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket. The cop looks at me, then just can’t seem to write it. When they start writing me tickets, ask me again.”

She saved me from myself, but why did I want her? She was only ten years older than my son. He’d have started smoking dope; maybe run away.

“Can you believe my fiance said that to me?”

Her question passed like the shadow of a bird through my heart.

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More from Leonard Michaels:

Readings From the December 1992 issue

After a Fight

Readings From the December 1987 issue

Literary Talk

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