When Husband comes home, he parks on the street in front of the house. Even though the garage is empty and clean, even though he and Wife share the one car, even though the driveway is free of Daughter’s toys, he parks on the street beneath the electric glow of the pole light. Twenty feet ahead, another pool of artificial light illuminates Neighbor’s driveway; and twenty feet after that, another driveway; and twenty feet after that, and so forth.
From the street, through their big bay window, Husband observes Wife sitting at the dining room table, reading, steam hovering over a blue mug, the one with the peacock painted on it, her favorite. Husband turns the ignition key and the engine hum dies. The radio still plays, some high-pitched and a bit nasal vocal gymnasticking over deep bass. Wife’s hair is thrown to one side and she fingers a silver chain Husband gave her last Christmas. She brings the cup to her mouth, lips pucker and wait, eyes move down the last line of the page, sip.
Husband takes a deep breath. The car windows fog and the image of the bay window and Wife’s puckered lips grows faint. The radio cuts off and he sits for a moment in silence. He could stay in the car a few more minutes, or even make a few rounds in the neighborhood, perhaps stop by the grocery store or hardware store and get something; they always need something. Instead, he shuts the car door behind him, the slam echoes.
Their home is “cozy,” the realtor had said. A new build to look like an old build with a craftsman-style exterior and a blue front door. Calypso blue, to be exact. A swatch right between Intense Teal and Dynamic. Why not Adriatic Sea, Husband had said. Or Moscow Midnight. No, Wife said. Calypso. You get to keep your couch. The door will be Calypso blue. Wife also planted flowers along the walkway—roses and white tulips and shorter yellow ones Husband doesn’t know the name of—and hedges in front of the porch. She antiqued furniture. A lot of work to chip paint, knick boards, scuff chairs, all in an effort to make it look like no work at all. It makes it “homey” she said. And it has been: the modest backyard with the big tree and swing for Daughter, the quiet street, the updated kitchen, the oversized washer and dryer, the formal dining room/Daughter’s play room. They’ve been a family here.
Inside, Parmesan and tomatoes and Wife’s favorite French vanilla candle marinate the air. Dry logs crackle in the fireplace and Husband wonders how Wife lit them without him.
Wife, still at the dining room table, looks up and smiles, places her bookmark in the crease.
Hello Husband, she says, I’m so glad you’re home. Long day? I wish that office wouldn’t keep you so late. How was the drive home? Daughter is at a sleepover tonight so we have the house to ourselves. How long has it been since we’ve had a night alone? Too long. Lasagna’s in the oven and I’ve opened some wine. We’ll have a quiet meal with no thrown food or broken plates. No screams. We’ll eat like grownups. I’ll get tipsy on the wine. We’ll spend the rest of the night in bed. Or wherever you’d like. How long has it been since I’ve gotten my hands on you? Too long. It gets cold in the winter, Husband.
They sit next to each other on the couch, the bronze couch from Husband’s old apartment, the one thing he refused to relinquish when he and Wife got married. He’d bought the couch at a discount store, his first piece of furniture not completely secondhand, the first item paid for via credit card. His first debt, now the only item he owns debt free, the only decision paid off. It is not a couch Wife would have chosen; it has too many pillows and the cushions are overstuffed, always rolling the sitter to the middle. There is no support. One can easily get lost in that couch, sinking, almost imperceptibly, an inch at a time. But still, when they bought their home Wife didn’t object to keeping it; Daughter was three months out and money needed to be saved.
She’s talking still, but Husband isn’t listening. Husband is tired. He is tired of commutes and dance recitals. He’s tired of pretending he wants to be home at night, of crafting excuses to work late. He likes to work late. He likes the cold silence of his office, the metal desk, the whiskey in the drawer, Chinese takeout on paper plates, Coworker pushed up against him with hands in his hair and lips wet and sucking on his neck.
He’s tired of quickly aging Daughter and more quickly aging Wife. He’s tired of chatter: schools, money, second and third babies. So much domesticity. He’s tired of being married. It was the only honorable thing to do, he said when Coworker asked, her fingers popping buttons on his shirt, letting him run a hand up her thigh because this is an honorable man.
The fire snaps, and Wife’s head is on his shoulder, her hands small and smooth in his own.
Wife, he says, I’ve been cold, too, and I can’t stand it anymore. I’m dissolving. I must tell you, Wife, I must tell you. This whole shim-sham of a life. I want to be free, from your suffocation, your incessant incessance. I go to work and think of you here all day, polishing this prison to my tastes and thinking of me, thinking of us, raising Daughter and wanting more. Always wanting more. Needing all the time, all my time.
Wife listens to him speak, a smile on her face. She doesn’t say a word, but just sits, smiling.
Wife, I must tell you I’ve been having an affair, a wonderful affair. Coworker adores me, expects nothing from me, pities me in our sad state. That’s why I work late, that’s why this winter is already so cold, that’s why I am leaving.
He expects tears. A yell. An outburst. A slap. Or, extreme silence. A quiet acceptance. Either far end of the spectrum. Instead, Wife smiles. A wider smile. Then, laughter. At first, a slow low chuckle, sweet as Daughter’s giggle. Wife’s shoulders shake. She puts a hand to her chest and the other to her mouth. Her head rolls back, the chain around her neck bounces and glints like camera flashes.
Did you hear me? Husband asks. Wife? Wife, I am leaving you. I am leaving Daughter. Now. Do you understand? What is wrong with you? Why are you laughing?
Hilarity grows to a bellow, a roar, a resounding guffaw, and tears slide from the corners of Wife’s eyes. She laughs so hard her stomach aches and she loses her breath. She clutches her sides and curls to the coffee table, body seizing in silence, half-empty glass of wine spilling over her book, the bowl fracturing. Her face and neck and chest flush red, then blue, then purple.
It starts at the back of her neck: a thin stretch mark glowing just below her hairline and above the top nub of spine. Her head jerks back again in a new surge of laughter, and the mark grows, circling her throat like a thick, white choker. Husband launches from his seat and hovers over her, inspecting the mark. He circles the couch for a better view, murmuring Oh nos and Oh mys and one stern Fuck as he goes. With each sound and shriek, Wife’s skin twitches and twists, the mark growing until the skin separates with a soft, sucking pop. Husband tries to pinch the skin back together, working it like putty, but it continues to separate. Wife’s head lolls like a ragdoll, side to side. The thin fissure gapes to a small chasm, and Husband sees pink muscle beneath. With a Velcro-like rip, the muscles tear, exposing white bone.
Wife’s head hangs, still twitching and hysterical, to the right. Husband reaches to set her right again, but pulls his hand back as there’s another tear and a quick crack, the breaking of the neck bone. He puts a hand to her cheek, her cheek wet with tears, and lifts. Wife grabs his hand, clutches onto him, her head straight back now exposing the dark tunnel of her windpipe. Considering the dark exposure, Husband thinks of a drive he took with Wife through the mountains once, weaving through valleys and disappearing into impossibly narrow and dimly lit tunnels beneath the peaks. There was snow on the ground. Maybe? Or perhaps it was in the spring, colors blanketing the mountainsides. He shakes his head; they were so young.
Wrapping his arms around her and cradling the back of her head like a newborn, Husband hugs tight. But her spasms of laughter are so violent, Husband and Wife fall in a heap of arms and legs and nearly severed head and sparkling chain.
They roll on the floor, and Wife’s head knocks against the couch, renting the last inch of pale skin. Wife’s head oscillates between knifelike shrieks and deep, vibrating cackles. It rolls from her body, past the staircase, through the dining room, and rests with a dense tap against the kitchen island.
Her body turns onto its back, and Husband stands over it. Wife’s arms clench the body’s sides, and the knees pull up and kick like an overturned bug. In the kitchen, smoke drifts through the cracks of the oven, and the smell of burnt cheese and tomato floats through the first floor. A smoke detector begins its beep. Unremitting. Still, Wife’s head laughs.
Husband, uncertain whether to tend to the body, the head, the smoke detector or the lasagna first, kneels next to Wife’s body and takes her hand. Wife’s skin is warm, and her hand clenches his, the other smacking her right knee. Expecting dead weight, he jerks upward hard, but Wife’s body lifts easily and he nearly tumbles backward. When did she become so narrow? So wispy? Slight in the shoulders, a breath of waist, slender legs, acute hip. She’d always had a lightness, an airy disposition he’d only ever seen in her, a trait passed to Daughter. From him, Daughter would have sharp collarbones and a pointed nose, his dark hair, but because of Wife she’d walk on her toes and move like water, as if she was dancing. But this new buoyancy is not in character, not some personality trait; it’s chemical, some internal evacuation, like there’s not enough mass for gravity to work on, an airiness that is emptiness.
With a hand around Wife’s waist and her arm on his shoulders, he guides the body back onto the couch, and for a moment the neck tilts toward him as if to lay its missing head on his shoulder. Once seated, the hands dive, searching, into the couch.
In the kitchen, Husband cuts off the oven and yanks open the door, smoke and heat watering his eyes, revealing the almost black remains of Wife’s grandmother’s seven-cheese beef and sausage lasagna. He drops the dish on the counter—the heat burns through the thin dishrags leaving his hands pinked and blistered—and the glass cracks. Only the center remains un-scorched. Ignoring his hands and Wife’s head chortling from the floor and her body rustling in the couch in the living room, Husband grabs a nearby plate and spoons out the small unburned middle section.
Wife’s head peaks around one side of the island, eyes focused, pupils shrunk to apple seeds. There are cobwebs in her hair. Husband leans on the island, fork in hand, and blows on the steaming plate. The lasagna burned, he says and wonders if he could boot Wife’s head back to the living room in one kick. Hot, needle-like prickles flare across his palms and then cool to a pleasant warmth. He pushes the top layer off and dives into the edible pieces beneath. He smacks loudly, intentionally. When he’s finished eating, he leaves the plate and fork on the counter and squats in front of Wife’s head, wipes the last bits of marinara sauce from his mouth. Wife’s lashes, creamy skin, green eyes, and pink lips on the floor. Husband hesitates to touch it.
For a few minutes, he considers leaving her head there. Husband knows nothing of limb reattachment, will be of no use once head and body reoccupy the same space. And Wife’s body is still mobile; it thuds and bangs in the next room. Certainly, it will make its way to the kitchen and reclaim the head. But Wife’s eyes snap to him beneath squinted lids, shining bright as fresh kiwi, and he reaches out, grabs a fistful of hair and lifts, relieved when Wife’s head continues to laugh instead of wincing in pain at the tugging of her scalp.
Holding the head straight out in front of him, Husband reenters the living room. Things pile around the couch: seven 18×24 impressionist nude paintings Wife’s instructor had told her had promise; postcards from Ireland, all signed, “Thinking of you, B—”; a locket of Daughter’s hair; an unglazed vase; the black satin boots with a bow on the ankles Wife had asked for two birthdays ago; the pleather black sling backs she got instead; wine bottles; books on postpartum depression; two wedding dresses; gardening tools; Calypso blue paint cans; acrylic paint; oil paint; photographs from a vacation in Madrid; shards of broken wedding china; and her body keeps pulling, objects still piling. The silver necklace, slipped from Wife’s neck at separation, lies beneath the coffee table. Husband thinks about picking it out at the store last year, hiding it in a sock for weeks, thinking it was kind of sweet to leave it in the sock instead of wrapping it. He wonders if Wife thought it was sweet, too.
Wife, he says, I’m going to go now.
Her body, arms shoulder deep in the couch cushions, stills and turns, then reaches out and pulls the head to her, settling it into the nook of her arm. Her hand pushes back her dark hair, strokes her temple, runs her middle finger over her brow bone and in between giggles, Wife moans.
He will leave the house. He will start his car and not hesitate in the street, but go straight to Coworker’s and she will be waiting for him. Her porchlight will be lit, and the soft white bulb will make her front door look more green than the Moscow Midnight it actually is. They won’t linger long before making their way to Coworker’s bedroom, and for that time, Husband won’t think about Wife sitting on his discount couch holding her head. He won’t think about Daughter coming home the next morning. He’ll keep them out of his mind until he unpacks his last box at Coworker’s, and cleans out his car, and pulls a silver chain from in between the seats.
Are you, are you going to be all right? Husband asks.
Wife’s laughter slows at the question and her brows wrinkle. All right? Wife says, laughter ceasing. Oh yes, Husband, don’t you worry. We’ll be all right.