Editor’s Note: “Seller’s Market” appeared in Issue 7.1 (2014) of New South. This story was one of the first pieces I read as a New South staffer, and I remember being struck immediately by its razor-sharp voice. “Seller’s Market” remains a favorite among our editors for the way Monica Bergers expertly weaves rigid formal elements into an emotionally-laden narrative. The effect of this contrast is funny, sobering, and completely engrossing. Recently I caught up with Monica over email, and she shared a bit about her inspiration for the piece and what she’s been working on since.
Monica Bergers: I wrote “Seller’s Market” while working at a law firm specializing in real estate transactions. It was the heyday of fast-paced real estate, before the market burst. I’d failed at my last relationship, lost touch with almost every friend in town, and got the job because a friend, who had the job previously, left for the Peace Corps. Every day, it was my job to alter Deeds of Trust, prepare closing packets, and disburse funds from large lending companies. I was low in the office hierarchy, and rightfully so–arriving thirty minutes after everyone else (with the suspicion that someone had mentioned the start of the workday), copying blank sides of documents, typing deeds at a typewriter with one eye open. Somewhere in there I realized the absurdity of preparing meticulous documents for people I’d never meet, who were about to begin the epic adventure of home ownership. They saved me from abhorrent self-pity. I had no talent for office work, but I could write. While everything else seemed to fall apart, I could see some humor in the bleakness.
I’m certain this foray into dark humor paved the way for my current projects: a narrative of love between a spinster and her crabby mother, who’s dying and must impart all of her wisdom before going, and a script set in turn of the century Nebraska with ties to land ownership, betrayal, and the loyalty of one generation of family to another. It’s a good time to experiment and get comfortable with the things that scare us.
What’s gone and what’s past help
Should be past grief.
– The Winter’s Tale III.ii, 236-237
They call you Mrs. Malaprop, after the dame of all blunders, because you get excited by an audience yet you’re so often wrong. When asked if you’re serious about getting a divorce, you say Is a bear Jewish? Does the Pope shit in the woods? How often your words betray you. No one thinks you’re funny, except you. Yet you are full of child-like wisdom: wash the spray paint off a frog before it suffocates; form a gang in which only you can be leader (your crush, Darren is head of the boys); and watch Cujo because it scares you. This is what you’ve gained in the years from kindergarten to your lawyer’s office. Let anger express itself. You’ve almost mastered it.
After four long, fruitless years of marriage both of you are ready to give up the goods, sell the house, pack the photos and love notes (now tedious), stop maneuvering in a tiny bathroom, as if being in love means never having to apologize for the shits, and stop referring to one another as lovers; and when he refuses to spend another Thanksgiving with your dad and step-mom because they watch Fox News and wear shirts that say These Colors Don’t Run to Mexican restaurants, because watching your dad be funny is worse than a Groucho Marx impersonation and even you avert your eyes, because at the weddings of cousins, your dad insists on learning the “new jives”–the M.C. Hammer, the Kid-N-Play, and the Roger Rabbit, (the latter he nearly sprains his ankle on, herky-jerking backwards with fists pumping at his sides); because when it comes down to it, you‘re not as attractive as you used to be and neither is he: the goose is cooked. You are tired.
Instead of a trial separation you break up absolutely; the night of the discussion, he proposes a toast, and just like that, both of you are holding tall, cold shots of vodka, giggling absurdly, wondering aloud at how, even now, you are in total agreement–truly you never fought–and it’s not until you toss back the shots like two gamblers in Ankara that it passes razor-sharp down your throats. You hope like hell.
ADJUSTABLE RATE NOTE
THIS NOTE CONTAINS PROVISIONS ALLOWING FOR CHANGES IN INTEREST RATE AND MONTHLY PAYMENT. THIS NOTE LIMITS THE AMOUNT THE INTEREST RATE CAN CHANGE AT ANY ONE TIME AND THE MAXIMUM RATE THAT MUST BE PAID. THIS NOTE REQUIRES SATISFACTION.
June 27, 2003, Wilmington, NC
Property Address: 67A S. 3rd Street, Wilmington, NC 28401
- Know all men by these presents, that the undersigned A&L Associates, a Partnership, (hereinafter referred to as “the Divorced”), agree to dissolve said partnership at an interest rate directly proportional to nights spent alone–high–and nights spent in the curve of a new lover’s body–low. Both mistaking sex for intimacy, Joseph A. Stumpf and L. Maria Malaprop, husband and wife, referred to as ‘I’ and ‘the Divorced’, agree that selling the farm is better than living in a loveless marriage, where every wrestling move of their three cats is discussed. While Mrs. Malaprop cleans the litter box, wearing her special white gloves, Mr. Stumpf plots the improbability of setting up a gambling ring based on cat fights and the average housecat willing to fight to the death. Every dream of his, it seems, is mangled by reality. (The Divorce is his first attempt to step out of the box, to crap on the floor if he chooses. He’s determined to regain the ponytail of his youth; the secrecy of admiring the artist known as Prince without ridicule from his hard-rocking wife.)
In signing below, the Divorced lays witness to this purchase, exacting a large sum from the Lender (chosen because their bank, Wells Fargo has been robbed more than Bo Jangles chicken-n-biscuits café), and both are therefore considered, in terms outweighing logic–as sellers–‘borrowers.’
- Borrower’s Promise To Pay/ Time and Place of Payments: Principal and interest will be paid by making payments every month.
Whereas the principal sum and interest are due every _____5th____ of the month, beginning in December until neither party counts the number of months passed, special emphasis will be placed on days such as birthdays, the Fourth of July, and anniversaries of parents’ deaths. Please see Schedule A attached.
The interest rate may change if/when you realize the ways in which you betray others and hurt yourself, beginning the day of separation, when watching movies alone is a defiant act of choice, and on that date every sixth months thereafter. Beginning with the first Change Date (or date of consequent ill-plotted rebounds), your interest rate will be based on an Index. And here’s the fine print: The “Index” is the average of bank offered rates for three-month attempts at self-love, towards which goal Mr. Stumpf will seduce a bevy of women with saxophone themes from Moonlighting and Terms of Endearment that will sound more like porn music, and Ms. Malaprop will masturbate on a plastic blowup mattress, dreaming that the dildo she grasps is actually, fantastically, Mr. Stumpf’s head, as she grinds her alluring crotch into his fierce mouth. Each satisfied with their new lives, they find themselves wandering bookstores, stealing glances at Codependent No More on sale in the hardcover bargain bin.
- Note also the balloon rider attached to the Deed of Trust. It reveals the science of grieving, as Yoda says, from fear to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to the Dark Side.
The Divorced, in signing below, covenant never to tell each other how they suffer this hatred, except to briefly smile when asked how they ‘are’ as if pity, hatred, and the self are not interconnected and/or plotted like an amortization table into every foreseeable day in the future.
WITNESS THE HAND(S) AND SEAL(S) OF THE UNDERSIGNED.
Here’s the inside out; here’s what you’ve learned: in real estate, it’s a seller’s market. People like you are desperate to earn money these days, and the contracts only mock you with their pettiness. For you, who like to make lists, there is a ledger of who you can and cannot see, as part of your extraction from routine married life; also without being asked, you draw up a list of items to be a.) yours, b.) his, or c.) given to the buyers as a housewarming gift. Please see Schedule B for a legal description of both the property for sale, and the items located on that property.
Divorce, for you, has been less liberating than you’d imagined. You’re tired of being pitied for what you are–addicted to being loved, a cheater—and it’s as though only a hundred thousand dollar check will stop your morning dreams about your ex-husband. You both agree that you will settle on a listing agent. He wants that fat check as much as you do
In the real estate office, the advertisements for houses, condos, and even vacant lots are so sweet even you begin to fantasize what your life might’ve been on another street; Church Street, perhaps, a narrow bricked street with a canopy of sunlit branches that are deliciously green. You wonder even at the street’s name, the intimation of chastity, atonement, sanctuary. Here, children draw on sidewalks in pastel chalk; parents insist on setting all fireflies free at the end of the night; and bums do not have speech impediments. Driving past, you’ve actually seen a homeless man carrying a trash bag, and you felt like crying. Easing to the curb in your car, you pressed the window release, searching for something besides money to give him, and you locate an emergency bag of pork rinds stashed in the console. The bum swaggered over at the sound of you shaking them and calling out a paltry ‘howdy’ that was meant to sound unassuming. Seeing the pork rinds, the bum’s eyes were round with delight.
“Much obliged, ma’am,” he called, reaching his sticky, black-nailed hand into the bag. You pursed your lips appreciatively.
For the next five minutes–how long they seemed!–you listened to the man’s story. He used to be married, too. In Rhode Island, you actually have to stand before a judge to get a driver’s license. To get divorced, you go back to Vegas, he said (hacking), where you were married–one of those all-night chapels–and you let that bitch steal your car with the title in the glove box. Now he’s recycling soda cans for beer money. He chews with his mouth open, and from your seated position, you can see the exact number of fillings he has (one about to split), and you become dizzy with the idea of how much gas is burnt in idling there. Yours being a college town, high on the bums’ coastal list of urban living spaces, it’s not unusual to hear one singing Tom Jones as he sifts through a trash bin and then hoists his sooty bag, moving on. What tragedy he leaves in the past is seemingly as weightless as a hundred stinking cans on his back.
Sometimes you think everything you loved is gone. He loves everyone but himself; you lack the discipline to be truly happy. So you buy each other drinks when you accidentally meet in a bar. He’s sleeping at his brother’s and in the market for better. You down shots of Red Bull and ten PBRs each–some couples exercise, jogging long stretches on the river walk, puffing the hair from their sweat-driven faces, but not you two. You feel depressed together, a certain ennui arising from your inability to move forward and your fear of the past. Maybe the drinking isn’t such a great idea; after all, you don’t need a reason to hate life or wake up late. And there’s always the possibility of a hurricane taking everything. You long to tell him he was the one, always, but you decide to wait until you are dying. He decides to move in with his girlfriend. In the days that follow, you pack his things with the exquisite touch of a blind woman.
In your loneliness (even in your fantasies, you are alone), you drive around strange neighborhoods, quaint neighborhoods with nice houses, and you look at the competition, the houses represented by your real estate agency (Prudential), until you’re angry at your agent, Sandy Sewyer for taking on your house, too, when clearly it’ll never be nice. You’ve gone for interesting, eclectic, heartwarming. Sandy Sewyer brought over a Yankee candle, and when she leaves, you hurriedly blow out the flame, snap the glass lid on. The smell of baking Macintosh apples makes you feel smothered. You want to throw the candle, and all its promised 125 hours of burning time at the wall. If you had a hammer, you’d puncture every goddamn wall in the living room. But all the hammers have been taken away. You now hang your pictures with hundreds of tacks, all gently, imprecisely piercing the flesh-like chalk.
(When your agent draws up the contract, you look at it, crying (God knows why), and you let snot creep silkily from your nose.)
DEED OF TRUST
DRAWN BY CHASE HOME FINANCING, INC.
AFTER RECORDING RETURN TO: Chevy P. Bogart, P.C., 911 Queen St., Wilmington, NC 28401
Definitions: Words used in multiple sections of this document are defined below. Contrary to popular hearsay that you are ‘getting back together,’ regardless of what you may believe about yourself and your ex-lover, your ex-husband,
(A) “Security Instrument” means this document, which is dated June 27, 2003 together with all Riders (conditions, infringements, loss of spousal rights) to this document.
(B) “Borrower” means You, husband, and You, wife; defined as you are in this Marriage. Although you are selling joint property, and therefore, settling your mortgage, the debt you accrue with the aforesaid Security Instrument far outweighs any hopes you have of peace. The most you can hope for now is numbness and a pseudo rush of adrenaline as you deposit your Proceeds Check (defined below).
The Divorced refers to Mr. Richard Stumpf, who luckily kept his name, and Mrs. Malaprop, forever unlucky in love, now Ms. Malaprop, now then.
( C) “Lender.” The term here suggests debt, suggests there is a God, and that the time you convinced your cousins Grandma didn’t love them will be punished. To lend is not a transitive action, although it should be. Think always to lend as the hand of God reaching out to break a kneecap. This loan is a second chance. You, who have lost your mysticism, your left-wing agnosticism—you, unbeliever, have taken the gloves off. So, as it turns out, has God. Imagine your future life as a film noir starring yourself as Edward G. Robinson.
Proceeds from the sale of the property mentioned above will be drawn from an escrow attorney’s trust account, where the money rolls in and out quicker than illegal aliens shuttled at a meat-packing company picnic.
(D) “Trustee” is Chevy P. Bogart, real estate attorney and punster. He calls children “sport,” while grabbing their noses, and loves his wife. Sneaking down the hall to the bathroom, you hear him exclaim, “That’s nut true,” when his paralegal calls his handling of a fraudulent mortgage claim, “ballsy.” He will be the one to call in the entirety of the loan if you neglect payment. In the past, this meant hangings, rusty shivs in the ribs, draggings behind horses, calling “Uncle! Uncle, g-d damn it!” Luckily, times have changed.
(E) “Proceeds Check” is all that’s left of your marriage, divided by two.
(D) “Your Bed.” Just as the agreements and covenants herein shall survive the end of your relationship, despite your fears, so, too will your bed. Originally, the bed was an heirloom, passed from generation to generation like poverty, but now the bed has too much meaning. (‘I don’t give a rat’s fuck–just get rid of it!’ you yelled at your Mom/ Personal Assistant.) The legal description of “your bed” is attached (Please see Exhibit B).
Indeed, the phrase “Your Bed” will acquire various spiteful meanings beginning with you and him not touching, rapidly morphing into you sharing the bed with a lover and then with your furry pets, before divorce papers define your bed as not yours anymore (after all, you got the cats), but his and hers. On your plastic air mattress, you fantasize about the two of them comforting one another, because they, two drunks, are tipsy with cuckoldry and blame (the new girlfriend tells him he‘s too good to be cheated on, as if high self-esteem is a repellant for mosquitoes, ants, and certain betrayal. She combs hairdresser’s cholesterol into his hair while they watch American Idol. She loves him.) Wrapping their bodies together, crotch to crotch, they rock, legs tangled, and this is their bed, ’our’ bed, and you are not meant here.
Please seal and notarize below.
CONTRACT AND PURCHASING AGREEMENT
[Certified True Copy]
Dated this ___ 1st ___ day of June 2003.
You (the seller) make a three hundred thousand dollar deal with an up-and-coming bank (the lender), in which the buyers assume responsibility for the next thirty years at a thousand a month and a new living room carpet once their cat finds where your cat peed (obviously the carpet still looks new), and all your frivolous, tragic problems will dissipate. The payoff of your mortgage, or as you like to call it, “The Fucking Debt of Marriage,” will seem like Moses stopping the stone from crushing his mother, because like his mother, you, too, were caught by the tail of your optimism in love (some would say ignorance), and like Heston, your mortgage company would’ve repudiated you, but for the Law, and of course, Destiny. Your entire life has drawn you here like so many executed contracts, all ordered and signed in blue ink, the escrow officer’s best friend. The Deed of Trust is up, and you’re busy cleaning out the bathtub, scooping up the forgotten bottles of hotel lotion under the sink, scrubbing what’s left of you and your husband from the tile walls. It’s disgusting. The worst thing about all of it is this cleaning. Consider leaving the buyers your glow-in-the-dark bubble bath. The two of you were always too fat or too in love with comfort to climb in the tub together, and then, who wanted to see what was in the dark? You’re more practical than you used to be. Where you would’ve done anything, begged to get back together until he dragged you from the car, now you accept faxes from your joint real estate agent without feeling lonely. You won’t even have to sign the papers at the same time. The convenience of two proceeds checks, yours FedExed by Priority Mail, his never a thought in your bitter, bitter mind.
Signed and sealed.
THE LEGAL DESCRIPTION OF “YOUR BED”
BEGINNING at an iron slat in the Northern side of a 6 foot, 2 inch bed, said Beginning iron slat is located along the Northern line of said bed at intersections of Eastern and Western bronze-stained head- and footboards, both being the following courses and distances from a certain day in 1957 when the bed was purchased, the plot sectioned, the first sex had: West 180 degrees 4 feet, 9 inches, the cheap dealings of rounded-edge ply board; East and West 50 degrees 2 feet, 9 inches, at the exact intersection of headboard to bed post is Elmer’s furniture glue so located and so stressed with the momentum of two opposite and equal bodies, the friction of which causes said head- and footboard to creak; thence, from 1957 to 1971, when the bed is transferred to its second owners, the boards creaked but little, until the rock of ages, disco-stylings of 1971 and the aforementioned bed 90 degrees covered in fur blankets and matching fur pillowcases with Graceland stitched on the front; thence, 1983 to 1984, when the Northern posts were raised on cinder blocks to aid in sleeping and the relief of breath-stifling back pain; thence, 1985 and the emergence of the king-size waterbed that made making love fun again, albeit a challenge, the bed then transferring ownership to its present owner (the Divorced); thence 2000 to 2003 when the relationship was fresh, the sheets sticky, and the Elmer’s glue in high demand; thence, horizontal; thence, vertical; thence, bent over the footboard, cats hidden under the Northern and Southern iron slats; thence to the BEGINNING.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
Item 1: Raise the Red Lantern poster………………….………………………….Mrs. Malaprop
Item 2: Stainless Steel, Double-Decker Rice Steamer………………..………….Mr. Stumpf
Item 3: Kenny Chesney album (a gift from Aunt Rose)………………….…Salvation Army
Item 4: Sony Laptop (replete with Microsoft Excel and Sim City……………Mr. Stumpf
Item 5: Wicker chair w/ refurbished calico cushion………………….…………..Mr. Stumpf
Item 6: Cats………………………………………………………………………………….Mrs. Malaprop
Item 7: Elvis Come-Back Special…………………………..Vol. I, Stumpf, Vol. II, Malaprop
Item 8: Bed………………………………………………………………………………………Mr. Stumpf
Item 9: Movies (Jaws III, The Incredible Adventures of Mrs. Marple, Beetlejuice)…
This is the sound of you letting go. Metallica. You can’t get enough of their self-titled album (it‘s all dark, self-defeating, satanic–you love it). One of the guilty pleasures of singledom, you’ve discovered, is watching “Head-Bangers’ Ball” late at night. A virtual freak show of naturally wavy hair, brass knuckles, and wrestler-speak, the show writhes with the kind of pain you feel, the kind that makes you want to believe in God and Hell and strange coincidences. Take for example, the way head bangers thrash about onstage. You envy their lack of self-control and find yourself watching with clenched fist, angrily, proudly, tapping the beat on the arm of the couch. Except for your new neighbor, who’s obsessed with working out at five a.m., being asleep, you’d crank up the volume and really rock out. Instead, you bite your lip, biding your time, and think about James Hettfield’s mouth and how it fits like a scream around his microphone. That, you tell yourself, feeling satisfied at finally pinning your emotions down, that is the way you feel. Enter-fucking-Sandman. You’ve entered the hell of being alone. There’s no going back, and strangely, you’re satisfied with that.
At least one Saturday a month (to be assigned), you and the cats spend the day ‘in.’ This means you’ll be wearing one of his oversized t-shirts as a sexy moo-moo, though the cats will have none of it. Yoda says, rage turned inward, depression is–you‘re positive he said that to Han Solo–and you don’t care that it’s dysfunctional to spend all day moping around your apartment. You can’t stand yourself. Apparently, neither can the cats. When you crawl up to them on hands and knees, they tolerate you nuzzling your face into their sides (although they sigh deeply with something like disappointment); an hour later, you awake from a dream, and the cats, too, have abandoned you. Instead of feeling sad, you feel nothing. You pull out your greasy hair and gaze at the ceiling.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Your husband needs you. He despises you and needs you in the same breath. Some days he thinks of drowning himself at the pier just to rid himself of you: your convulsive laugh, your mismatched underwear, the plum-sweet smell of your hair. It is your job to hold him to his anger; lash him to the stern and watch him writhe at the sound of your voice, the sight of your flesh. To this task, you must be faithful–you must not fail. Then like Penelope, you will beat the suitors at their own game: you, who were willing to die, who like a phantom wandered the streets on Saturday nights, as if it were possible to make a widow of yourself, and, in squeezing the life out, finding atonement, you hold the deed to finding peace. Having suffered alone for many moons, you know what your husband says makes sense.
On your first post-divorce date with your ex, you and ’Leif’ (he’s exploring new avenues) eat sushi and sashimi. This is another of your ex-husbands new desires. He absolutely loves raw fish. Beyond your firm good judgment, Leif convinces you to try squid, and the fish flesh actually makes you gag. You’re fairly certain the bony chef beyond the cutting counter is laughing at you under his bowed head as you gulp your beer–burping and gagging in the same breath. Leif takes the check.
Outside, you walk along the river and talk; Leif brushes his mane with a brush he keeps in his back pocket, and you wonder if it’s too early for ice cream. You’re miserable, wondering how you got suckered into this, how your love could resemble so many Jerry Springer transgressions: the denial, the desire, the habitual molestation. You’ve become a rebound; one of those relationships that repairs itself over and over until it dies, like a man fighting retirement.. This date is a post-orgasmic fiddling with your twat–intensely good and too much at the same time. You don’t see the point of enduring your ex-husband’s company just to feel over-stimulated.
Somewhere, you lost control; somewhere between your adultery and your ex-husband’s new high, you realized you loved the son-of-a-bitch, no matter the Stetson cologne. The realization nearly crushes you.
“So what happened to us?” he asks from the silence. He leans on a wooden rail, brush erect in his back pocket, and looks at the night sky. Decidedly, he does not look at you; his tone is that of wonder as one who watches a comet. Regardless of what he may be thinking, you take this moment to fantasize about Groucho Marx tearing up your divorce papers, mustache twitching mischievously. You, like Buster Keaton, keep tripping over yourself, and you know that later, at his apartment, the two of you will lay on the couch, holding each other like sisters, nothing more. It’s too much for your heart.
You say the words plainly, wanting them out of your mouth.
“Let’s go back to your apartment and make love.”
In the river, a stick floats one way, and the water seems to move in the opposite.
After six months of divorce, getting back together looks much like PetSematary. Your ex-husband is the dead cat that rises from dirt still ruffled, neck bent at an odd angle (the mustache is new), eyes slightly darker, slightly askew, your life askew, frighteningly different, sadly the same. When you’re together, you forget what all the fuss was about, but it’s there, in the back of your mind like a word on the tip of your tongue. This is the truth about the debt you’re accruing, for better or worse. At least the two of you are richer from the sale of your property. Marriage: the one asset you had together liquefied (like prunes to diarrhea), and while it stinks, your misery finally has a price.
[Here, and for the rest of this loan package, the papers are continuously more meaningless. Tax request forms: yours and his, easement and termite appraisals, privacy notices from your bank, and Chevy Bogart’s office–all of which will pass in front of you with great speed. There will be no climax, no resolution. You will only come to the end; and after that, nothing. You’ll leave like you would a Baptist wedding, feeling slightly bored by the cake and punch, the small talk. The rest of the afternoon will be yours to drown in.]
IDENTIFICATION VERIFICATION FORM 10-08
(HOW YOU CAME TO WEAR THE SCARLET LETTER)
You don’t even want to talk about it. After all, how is it that selling your house is actually less about real estate and more about the traffic of your body? Everyone would agree, there’s more than enough of you to go around.
The appraisal reveals slight quarter-size indentations in the skull from concussion (indicative of future problems with sanity & emotional boundaries; perhaps self-inflicted?) and a clustering of cellulite in the thighs. Breasts full with the efforts of middle-age and a too-small bra; eyes voluptuous, lips inherited by Mary Martha, Irish grandmother whose heart exploded, a.k.a. insurance risk. Appraisal further shows that the property involved needs a good, deep dicking [sic] and more emotional fulfillment than stamp collecting.
When said Subject meets Bartholomew Montague at the local farmer’s market, she is buying flowers. The blooms are especially delicate; the prices cheap. Montague swoops in to bundle said Subject’s blossoms, and so begins a seemingly inconsequential dialogue.
I can’t believe how cheap these are! They’re just crazy.
Supposed to be a storm coming. [Tying the stems with string.]
So that’s why, yes. Thank you–how much do I owe you?
Six fifty. Don’t worry ’bout tax. [Takes money, gives change.]
Well. Well, well.
Certainly, Montague smoldered with an inner flame. The next weekend at the same stand, he asked her for coffee. She accepted.
Montague was handsome enough so that he could give you a piggy-back ride and not blister with sweat. He liked hotdogs with sweet relish and Red-Eyes. You were desperate to know his arms around you. Can we know what is love and what lust? One night, in the Wilmington zoo, you met covertly. He leaned you against a glass wall in the aquarium and kissed your neck–it’s clear you both watched the same television movies, maybe even read the same Harlequin romances. That night, wiping your mouth off before returning home, you remember something about an eel thrusting out of his cave, teeth spread, eyes like death. What’s long and what’s in your face should be in your mouth. After leaving your husband twice and then a third, final time with your pillow pathetically tucked under your arm, no amount of remorse could change the mind-bending satisfaction of taking charge of your own life. You severed yourself from your husband’s side; and then Montague’s flower garden went under, and he moved to Oregon. You helped him plan a garage sale, replete with a disbanded auctioneer who sold his stuff at a discount. Montague asked you to go with him, but you couldn’t bear the thought of leaving your ex-husband. Now that your lover, too, is gone, you feel like a prosthetic arm lying bent in a hospital bed.
WHAT’S KNOWN AND WHAT’S PAST SHOULD REMAIN PAST.
And now, before the checks are cut, remember the fear you felt planning the divorce, for it’s only in the remembering that you grow.
That time visiting your relatives in Omaha, you explored the Amazon Forest at the zoo, hiding in a maze of bamboo, kissing. Your husband wanted to take a photo of you, there, amid the bamboo ropes, a pale face looking out of darkness.
“Be serious,” he called, but his voice was muffled by sheets of mist. You barely heard him. Instead, you remember the time you hid under your bed for hours so you could listen to your Mom form a search party. She slapped you when you reappeared. You remember the time you stuffed your cat into the fridge so its fur would feel cold when you pulled it out; the cat never so glad to see you. You remember taking a baby turtle from a state park so you could teach it to fall down stairs. Inevitably, the world is a rough place.
The picture your husband takes is over-exposed, but he frames it and sets it on his desk.
If words were lovers, yours would be incestuous. Yours would lack essential logic and beauty, would be buck-toothed and slack-jawed. Concentrate on what you’re saying, decide what it is you want, and be single-hearted about it.
Is everyone as dishonest with their therapist as you have been? Nevertheless, she’s your biggest fan, and she lets you play out your fantasies of the Betrayer and the Betrayed, and suddenly you become a jet-setting heroine, no longer as beautiful as you used to be, yet a highly respected pharmacologist, inheritor of the family business, carved thin by a failing marriage and the trips you take to Paris on the weekends to sit alone at cafes, marveling at the formal beauty of strangers. One night, you meet Guilloume, and he lays you on his bed, then peels the clothes from your body, and tickles your clit with his mustache. He is a prince. Some therapy sessions, you are Hamlet’s mother, the creamy coquette, and you play the betrayal scene and Hamlet’s realization in a whisper, choking on lines that surprise you with their honest and terrible lyricism. What is pain, after all, but a definitive art? (Some sessions, you have only the CliffNotes of Hamlet, where everybody gets screwed.)
THE REAL TRUTH-IN-LENDING
(or “Why Stephen King Makes Sense”)
After the six-month make-up sex, after your ex discovers his anger one day in his therapist’s office, a moment of brilliance flashes in your mind (some call it the Shining) and you realize that you know he knows what you’re thinking. You, as in both of you, will not end up together. The simple truth is he can forgive you for cheating, but he can’t accept that you, with all your soulful optimism, gave up on the marriage. You couldn’t stay the course–not for better or worse, but for the endurance of terrible disappointment. Because his mother died of breast cancer. Because you couldn‘t get a job after graduate school for months. Because he was lost without your mania, and the threat of your moving on was too much. Because you couldn’t keep yourself away from hammers, petite and standard size, rubber grip for better swinging technique: they held for you a secret desire to be touched, and in so doing, to feel.
The physics of the matter is that you held on to him as though you were hanging from a cliff. You, Ms. Malaprop, were a weight of piggish proportion; a woman flattened with dread and contorted like a Dali timepiece, flying backward. Letting go of your husband was the best move you ever made, because what looks like dying is actually rebirth. After you stopped loving him, your husband crashed to the rocks below, a kite without its tail.
Remember you and your husband at the Cape Fear river walk, occupying a bench. It’s your third anniversary–already there’ve been indications of a grand mistake (in couple’s therapy, he revealed he was still in love with his dead first wife, though at the time you suspected that was his way of avoiding the hard questions)–and you want to be romantic, to eat on a private balcony at The Fisherman’s Wharf, where the waiter tucks you in with folding closet doors. None but the night sky can hear you as you hang there in mid-air, two ill-fated stars in the twilight.
Though you are hero and heroine, and therefore of immense interest to the world at large, your lives will be irreparably separate from one another’s. Eight months out, you sell the house. Oddly, neither of you have friends with which to celebrate the sale; your Mom is out of town (I.e. emotionally unavailable), and the two of you are so exhausted by the whole process that, in spite of feeling mostly worse for hanging out, you don’t want to be alone. You’ll spend enough time with each other to make the evening seem well spent: movies, milkshakes (w/ pralines), and normalcy, a feeling tossed to and fro in a disastrous sea of belief.
Instead of spooning on the couch together, watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show, you spend your last evenings reading Kerry vs. Bush debates aloud. You play Kerry, the overly-analytical one; he is W.: a selfish gesture having more to do with voter guilt from ‘02.
“You voted for me once, why don’tcha try me agin,” W. says, as if it were the easiest thing in the world. There’s a seduction to the way his eyebrows furrow like caterpillars. His hands are in his pockets as though disguising a hard on.
You can’t tell, but maybe he wants to get back together. Maybe he can’t live without your jokes and the way you’re always forgetting words. You are quite charming, after all. Always on the mend, you’ve shaved your legs. It’s unfair how good he smells. It feels like you’re meant to be together.
This, too, is a ruse, an apparition. How easily you both forget the former shape of things! If lasers ruled the world, the two of you would be trapped together, caught in the interference of light and photo image, a cheap and shifting hologram in low resolution, this inability to escape yourselves and the past. Indeed, something must change.
“This town needs an enema!” you yell, banging your fist on the podium. It’s a line you love to say, though it’s troublesome. What does a relationship enema feel like? Your small intestine tinges with the slightest of cramps.
Meanwhile W., always cool, is clipping his nails, whistling. In the background, a Brawny commercial on t.v. The cats sharpening their claws on the cardboard SuperScratcher+, the drone of your thoughts.
This is the way your life together was, this disconnect–the reason you took a lover. Ultimately, dependence is boring; how many times did you attempt to explain your blistering emptiness? You bristle, perspiration on your upper lip, thoughts in your head wanting to tumble out with careless, orgasmic rage.
“Why won’t you change? Why didn’t you love me enough to change?” you say, and even though it’ll seem like Sophie’s choice, you can’t allow yourself to cry.
“Did you hear what I just said?” you yell, trying to get his attention. He turns from the trash, bewildered. The nail clippers shine in his hand. It’s because you care too much for your ex-husband that you want to save him from himself. You, like the madman, like Jack Nicholson, are jealous and hopeful with rage. There are so many things you’d change about him, if only he loved you enough.
“I love you,” he says, brushing the nails from his shirt into the trash. He’s stepping out of character, outwitting you, making fun of you. The television underscores him with commercial after commercial advertising cleaning products. You feel dizzy, suddenly; suddenly, your eyes refuse to focus. How can he love you and not want to spend the rest of his God-given life with you? You fill up my senses, he used to say.
[Things will end the way they usually do, a few tears, relief, a hug, but you’ll never be able to return here. You’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, mainly for comfort, and this one thing, you’ve learned. Better to escape early than die in the maze, abandoned, frozen.]
In the movie version of The Shining, Kubrick used tons and tons of salt for the blizzard scenes. The hotel was a salt castle with a wooden owl on top to keep away stray seagulls. At night, under the glow of lamps, the shimmer was particularly lovely. When Olive Oyl shoves her child through the bathroom window so he can escape his father, she becomes useless, a screamer. The boy slides down the slope of salt, wincing in the darkness, feeling the sting of a cut on his hand. We watch, frightened, as husband and wife battle, secretly hoping the whiny bitch’ll eat the axe, glad it’s her, as if the continuous nagging, not the loneliness and the fear of failure, drove him insane. And while you identify with this, it’s the boy you understand best. Standing helplessly in the snow, the boy is that part of us dying to escape ourselves, a futile attempt at self-sabotage. Live the fantasy, you might say. Truly in your own drama, you’d give anything to climb out a window if it meant sanctuary from your thoughts. Maybe you’re simplifying the issues at hand, but you can’t help it.
(And here’s the funny part: as Jack splits the bathroom door open with an axe, and his child stands shivering in the snow storm, the rest of the crew are eating muffins. They were brought in fresh-baked from the local co-op. There’s one resting buoyantly on Jack’s chair.)
PHOTOGRAPH: You went as a monk and a flying nun to the movies, and later for pizza at Shakespeare’s. Someone took a photo of you sitting shoulder to shoulder in a rickety wooden booth, your arm around his neck. He looked at the camera with a deep stillness as though listening. The monk hood came down over his forehead, nearly covering his auburn hair. A knife lay across his plate; the pizza cut in half. Every time you look at his face, the way his eyes squint lightly, curiously, you remember the way it felt to lay with him in cotton sheets, his voice soft as he asked you why you thought yourself ugly as a kid, why you never let anyone in.
Perhaps most curious, though, is your own reflection. Clearly you were fearless and happy. Even your beauty didn’t scare you. Remember the time in Hot Springs when he held you, naked, in front of a mirror, and said, “This is what you are. Beautiful.” And you gazed at yourself as though for the first time. Nothing was beyond your reach.
EXHIBIT A: The Fantasy and The Remorse
All the crying, all the guilt, the mistakes you made, the ways you hurt others, the suicidal rage, the cancerous consequences, every time you wanted to crawl into a hole and disintegrate, the skin literally peeling from your body until you were nothing more than a set of teeth and a skull to identify you, the way you’d rather swallow a bottle of pills with toilet bowl cleaner than make a decision about your life–that is behind you now. You aren’t a serious ghost—haunting the past–a scary, bullshit demon that cries and drools, wringing necks with ghost-hands, shutting children into fridges, smothering snoring old women with pillows. You, at least, have a sense of humor, however new found or painfully acquired, and while you’d like to be invisible, especially standing outside your ex-husband’s house, still your pain would show. Watching him with his new girlfriend, you’d need a cigarette, you’d need an upshot, starting in the night, at your feet and working slowly up and outward, past your boots, your fine ass, and finally, when your silhouette is black against the bright windows of his house across the street, you’d flick your cigarette to the street and start walking. That’s your fantasy, at least.
But the truth is you never get your fantasy. You don’t even smoke. The most you get is a brutal loneliness in which to digest your mistakes and how funny they now are. Say it three times and you appear: adultery, adultery, adultery! Splitting up was your idea, and now you can’t even stomach the practicality of another partner. When you were married, you dreamed, literally, of sleeping with other men, and now, you dream of your ex-husband, and you are shopping, and you are talking about a Pacino movie, and you are washing hundreds of dishes and he is drying. Awakening, you wish he were near enough to touch. It’s funny how sobbing sounds like laughing. If you knew his phone number, you’d ask him what he ate for dinner, if he’d seen the new Sopranos. You’d hold the phone tight to your ear, sweating, smiling, just like falling in love. Some people do not make graceful exits, and you, unfortunately, are one of them.
Monica Bergers was born in Nebraska and raised in Arkansas by a Slovenian mother and American father. Her fiction has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and has been published in New South, Five Chapters, and on the literary podcast, BoundOff. Currently, she is at work on several projects.
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