November 1, 2019
By Helen Valenta
When Martin tells Irene all about the new guy at work, she perks up, because Martin has so few friends. Martin can’t stop talking about him: how smart he is, how funny he is, can they have him over to dinner? So Irene gets out the recipe for linguini with clam sauce; you can’t fail with this one: it’s full of cream.
When she comes home they are already in Martin’s study. She is wearing her tightest black dress and when she opens the door, her arms full of red gladiolas, she sees only the back of his head. There is a ponytail attached to it, like something a horse might wear on a festive occasion and even though he’s sitting she can see how tall he is. Oh no, she thinks, because if there’s one thing she’s a sucker for, it’s a man with height. When he turns to look at her, his eyes are shy and then he looks away. The room, because it contains him, is no longer just a room. It is suffused with golden light, the color of his eyes. She looks over at Martin but he’s gone, a ghost is sitting in his chair. She never noticed how short he was before.
At dinner Irene is relieved to find there is no crisis; nice as his eyes are, attractive as the ponytail is, she doesn’t like Will; he barely speaks. He keeps his head down, like a deer lost in the woods. She wants to like him, for Martin’s sake, Martin is a dear sweet, short husband. She thinks back to when he proposed. It was spring and everything around them was green, everything full of hope and light and things struggling to be born. So when he asked her to marry him, the word no seemed like an affront to the life around them. She didn’t want to be the one to put out that light in his eyes.
Will doesn’t look at her, he doesn’t speak to her. He addresses his one full complete sentence, about how good the dinner is, to Martin. Thanks, Martin says, as if he made it himself. Dinner is reduced to hand motions, the passing of dishes, the drinking of alcohol and finally, at the end, drunk as they are, to Martin throwing a salt shaker at Will. At this, Will finally laughs, and it is something worth waiting for. A Grand Canyon of a smile. Crooked smile. Entrancing. What with his height and his teeth and his silence Irene feels she is losing her hold on the universe.
Will becomes a frequent visitor. When he comes over they sequester themselves in Martin’s study and take things apart. Once Irene comes in to see a perfectly good telephone disemboweled on Martin’s desk. “Don’t worry, honey,” Martin says. “I’ll put it back together.”
But he doesn’t; Martin doesn’t pay much attention to things around him, to things falling apart, how you have to take the time to put them back together. Martin and Will are both engineers. Irene is no slouch in the intelligence department but she doesn’t give it the same importance that Martin and Will do; for her, it’s like wearing a hat; sometimes you feel like wearing one, sometimes it’s too damn hot.
In the study, Martin and Will sit in a cloud of smoke, a cloud that excludes her. She wishes she smoked. Will and Martin are good at smoking, although Irene thinks Will is more creative; on hot nights he puts his pack in the freezer. Then again, Martin smokes in the shower. Irene spends a lot of time vacillating in her opinion of who is superior.
One night Martin says, “Good news—Will’s coming on vacation with us.” Irene looks at Will in surprise but he’s looking at the floor again. She realizes he must dislike her. But everyone likes me, she thinks. She is forty-two and used to the attentions of men. She wears the tightest possible clothing. In fact, most days, morning or night, you can find her in a short black skirt, tight blouse, and high-heeled boots. Her eyeliner is thick, her lips are pale. It’s the sixties all over again.
They go on what Martin considers to be the only vacation worth taking - a week of fishing. They eat the same thing every night; the bass that Will and Martin have caught on a little boat that leaves the horizon where Irene waits. They dine under a curtain of mosquitoes until Irene can’t take it anymore and she lies in bed listening to them laugh outdoors.
Will and Irene are alone together once during that week; they run out of beer and since Martin only drinks scotch and doesn’t give a damn if there is no beer left in the whole county, Will and Irene drive to the only place around for miles that has beer, a tavern out on route 6.
“You can’t miss it,” Martin says. Obviously he has forgotten that when it comes to giving directions to Irene you might as well discuss Kierkegaard with a kindergartner. The kindergartner will smile at you but her eyes will be plastered to the jungle gym in the playground. “Just keep going north till you see a red sign that says Tavern.”
It takes a half-hour through dark county roads with no signage to get there and Will never says a word. Not even when it would have been appropriate, say when she went south instead of north. Irene chats the whole way, isn’t it hot, look at that sunset, all the time glancing over at Will, who has pressed himself into the passenger door.
When they get back to their rustic north woods cabin Will goes straight to his room and collapses. He’s probably dreaming of deer running through silent woods, Irene thinks, drinking a warm beer from a tin can.
Then they are back in the city and it starts up again; Martin and Will in the study, smoking, analyzing, whatever. Sometimes Irene puts on even tighter clothing to meet a girlfriend. She goes into the study before she leaves to see their reaction but Martin only looks up. Will, not at all.
One night when the three of them are dining, Martin gets a call from a relative. He takes the phone to his study and closes the door.
Will and Irene drink as if they are dying of thirst. Glass after glass. When Irene looks up from her drink, Will is looking at her as if he’s never seen a person before and then there it is, her planet meeting an asteroid. She can’t stop looking at him, can’t believe he wants her there, wants to hold her there. Brown eyes look into brown. She’s never seen eyes before. Don’t look away, his say.
The next night Irene tries on a dress, picturing herself through Will’s eyes. Her hair is up, then it’s down. She puts on earrings, takes them off. She can’t stop smiling at herself. She is a person Will likes. And he doesn’t like anyone.
They sit next to each other at dinner and Martin beams at them, his beautiful wife and his new friend. He doesn’t notice the way Irene leans into Will and the way Will stares at her when he thinks no one is looking.
When she stands up to go to the bathroom it’s all over; the pretense, the marriage, the lonely nights. The room explodes and falls away. Only Irene and Will hear the blast and when they next look around there is nothing there but rubble.
Martin is still sending her letters even though it’s been two years. He gets her address from her mother, who’s always had a soft spot for him. If her mother had any idea what those letters said she would never have given him the address. They lie like coiled snakes in the box. Cunt, one of them snarls, and she pulls her hand back, but she takes the letter, reads every word, she deserves it. Without discussing it the three of them have divided up the city; their apartments form the points of an isosceles triangle. Irene no longer eats at the Turkish restaurant with the tiny cups of dark coffee. I am a dead man, Martin writes. She calls Will sometimes but he is quiet on the other line. “Will,” she says but then stops.
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