By Diane Williams, from FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, FINE, a story collection out next year from McSweeney’s. Williams’s story “Living Deluxe” appeared in the June 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
It should have been nicer — our friendships, our travel, our romances secretly lived — if we weren’t so old. But still it was an interesting situation to be in.
We all but ignored the wife’s tears — which could have filled a small bottle.
And the wife was petite and well groomed and I knew why she was crying. She thought her trials were all about adultery at that time.
As the evening proceeded, the wife cheered up for some of it and her conversation was drawing us in with topics she knew we would feel comfortable talking about, because potentially our relationship could be adversarial and her husband was tending to pontificate, showing off his legal wings with paragraphs upon paragraphs.
You find yourself in a situation where you have agreed, agreed, agreed, agreed, and you realize this is not such a good agreement.
How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine — although our process of digestion — they’d served us Kartoffelpuffer and Sauerbraten — was not yet complete — when the husband said finally about his wife, “Bettie’s tired.”
To my mind — she’s hysterical, sincere, easily distracted, and not adaptable. I remember when I wanted to know even more about her.
They lived only on the ground floor — the rest was rented out. A trestle table, where you could put your gloves, stood in the long hall that had stone floor tiles set on the diagonal.
Bettie’s thumbs were as I remembered — heavy and clubbed — and she wore the eye-catching turquoise ring, circa 1890, with three pearls, that I knew she was proud of because I had given it to her.
“Bettie’s tired,” the husband repeated.
“I am tired,” Bettie said.
And there was no polite way for him to tell us, “Fuck off now.”
There’d be no more condescending talk, no fresh subjects, never likely an opportunity to privately reminisce with Bettie about the times when we were side by side, experiencing that alternating rhythm forward and back.
“Can we give you a lift home?”
“No, that’s not necessary, we drove,” we said.
I went into their bathroom to urinate before we left. I am a man, if that wasn’t clear before this, and not a drunken one, not cruel — and I was holding myself then, gently, somewhat lovingly, to relieve myself.
I washed my hands and face and looked into the mirror. My face has changed so much recently. The lines of age were drawn everywhere like the marks made by a claw, and they looked to me freshly made. Then there are those growing fleshy abutments around my jaw and under my chin.
It was rainy outside and we were significantly dampened by the time we reached our car. In addition, a smelly ailanthus tree tossed a pitcherful of storm water — as if from a sacred fount — all over my head. There were continuing showers — it was dripping, gushy.
Still it was all so charming and heartening — that is, the summer storm, and the trees, and our sky, alongside those several memories of Bettie and me.
My wife said to me en route, “Well, I suppose I’m on the wrong track, too.”
Of course, it took a long time for her to go downhill, all the way down it.
Meanwhile, we became very friendly with the DePauls — Clifford and Daisy.
They lived in an apartment crammed with blue-and-white china, for one thing. I thought Daisy usually looked pensive and sad and my wife thought that her scowl meant that she detested us.
A large oil painting of a female nude — hands together as if prayerful — had been suspended over their mantel. Their apartment was in disarray.
But there’s always a moment before it all becomes okay.