A Step Outside (2004; 2,695 words)


    Chemically altered, rising outside himself and looking down, Rich admired the scene he’d created. His ruthless anger had frightened even him, and Eve curled her lip to make that ugly face she gets when tears are imminent. Rich was incapable of violence, the kind of guy who would leave the room each time Eve so much as gently swatted their daughter’s behind during her upbringing. But how could he pity this look today? She had forced him to attack her with words, just as she always had. But this time, for some reason, he hadn’t imagined hitting her. Not that he had ever done so; he just felt like it sometimes when that brother-sister thing happened––when a wife becomes a pain in the ass just like your little brother. When she had been impulsive, in other arguments and younger days, Eve had sometimes slapped Rich’s face in the movie-cliché way. Today, however, she had seen his new power in action.
    At 8:30 that Saturday morning, Rich had used Gatorade to wash down two pills––the soul-sedating variety––before sitting down at Denny’s, before setting free his placid rage and pondering its effect upon the face across from him.
    “This is not like you,” said Eve, the woman he believed must get her shit together or become his ex-wife. She sat still, across from him, holding two soggy paper napkins under her nostrils to collect the flowing water of her eyes and nose.
    “More coffee, sir?”
    “Please,” said Rich to the Denny’s girl who then sloshed more decaf into his cup and onto the saucer. “Wait. I changed my mind. Bring me some regular coffee.”
    “Think that’ll help?” asked Eve.
    Why were they still sitting here? From his detached spot––the second vantage point––they looked pathetic, but not because of some shared sadness or her early morning clothes that were really pajamas, plus sweat-jacket and slippers. The two were pathetic to him because they looked like a couple of idiots with no memory of what they had wanted in each other, why they were together. Like every other forty-something couple having breakfast anywhere in the world, after blank assumptions have decayed.
    “I don’t think you heard me,” Eve said.
    “I think you are right,” Rich answered. “I don’t listen to you any more, do I?”
    Eve continued gently. “Rich, I said Lara adores the comforter you bought for her. I didn’t know our daughter could do that without me. Could pick out a thing she loves and that I have no problem with.” She reached for another handful of napkins and sniffed. “Good job.”
    So, he thought, my gift to my daughter is to be viewed in light of your absence from the process? I’m appreciated for my lack of overt fuck-up?
    Over the days just prior, Rich’s hearing had grown increasingly selective. He could barely hear his wife anymore because nothing was new; nothing was from inside her head. For him, her blather referenced everyone but him and announced everyone’s ideas but her own. He had jammed his anger into months of silence before he attacked. After Eve thought he’d forgotten her transgressions, forgotten to get even. Before today, he had sometimes glimpsed his power, even if Eve had thought it was the “over-ripe fruit of a bad mood.” Where does she get that crap?
    Eve laid traps for him with words––words she’d learned from someone else, from Jane at the club, maybe, or from his own sister. About how Rich needs to open up, needs to relax. He had been forced to sit and listen while they assumed that he absorbed their bullshit. He’d always listened, though; that’s what Eve loved about him. “He listens to me and I love that.” He’d overheard her tell this to her best friend in the cafeteria when they were seniors in high school.
    Holy shit. They’d been together––only together––for 23 years. As far as she knew they’d been only together. As far as he knew, that’s what she believed. But even when Rich had paid for sex, his wife was in the room, not literally, but she was there. Inside his head, at least. She wasn’t inside his dick so things worked out. In his head. She was there again when he sat her down to accuse her, when he bluffed about her screwing her spiritual counselor, about the potentially diseased sex she was having with the guy. Rich had made her cry and enjoyed watching her visible guilt. For a minute anyway. She’d claimed that look of hers was incredulity. But Eve was guilty, even as she bombarded Rich with all of her borrowed opinions; at least he had narrowed his personalities down to two. She, on the other hand, represented a glee club of high-pitched voices chattering in his brain, in his sox, in his boxers at inconvenient times.
    “More coffee, sir?”
    “Yes please.” Rich slid back out of the waitress’s way and his pants made a loud, biologically ambiguous noise on the split vinyl of the booth cushion.
    “You’re a good father.” Eve looked at the bridge of his nose, never into his eyes. “But now I don’t know you, and you sure as hell don’t know me.”
    Where did she get that stunning insight? A Patsy Cline song? Her swollen lower lids were ugly.
    “That’s right,” he said. “In fact, you have been in the way for the last ten years, so I couldn’t see you.” They weren’t yelling. They never yelled in public.
    “That doesn’t make any sense. Were you drinking last night?”
    “You’re right,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
    A good plan. He’d read the book on how to keep your wife from taking your money in the divorce: tell her what she wants to hear and don’t argue about the little stuff. In fact, make her think she’s got everything coming to her, so she trusts you like in the old days and then you start taking things back. Not the words you’ve said, but actual stuff––property and cash. Tell her she gets custody of your daughter and act like you’ll pay for everything just to get on with your life. Feel the power.
    “You’re right,” he repeated. “I don’t make sense.”
    “Why are you so mad at me?” she whined. Maybe it wasn’t whining; there was a hint of the likable girl he  remembered from 1977. She pressed him again. “What has changed about me?”
    “Nothing. And that’s the problem.”
    Instead of letting him see her sob, Eve looked out the window over the asphalt parking lot, past the fat power lines and across the seven lanes of Saturday morning traffic, and back to the yellow and green sign out front. Rich went out of himself again, suspended up high to look down at her, pitying the thinning, gray hair at the part in the center of her head.
    She stood up and he faced her left ear and its two empty piercing holes as he came back down. “I’ll write you a letter. I can’t talk any more this morning,” Eve said and picked up her zippered, puce tote bag that was the size of a throw pillow, and fished for her wallet.
    “I’ll get this,” he said.
    “No, I’ll pay for my fucking pancakes,” she said, still not raising her voice. She put ten dollars under the corner of her plate. “Where do I send a letter? The office?”
    “Yes,” he said, and sat down to pick up his coffee. “That’s right.”
    She walked out, oblivious to the infuriating noise of her flapping, red bedroom slippers. Rich kept his seat, choosing not to drift above her as she drove home. He used cold coffee to wash down his fifth calm-the-hell-down pill in 14 hours.

    Later, at dusk, he punched in the security code and guided his black Mercedes through the gate, along the curved, undulating asphalt leading to the cul-de-sac called Wanda, named for the builder’s dead daughter. Eve and Rich and little Lara had lived there together until he'd packed and left for a hotel the week before. He drove on the wrong side of the road as he approached their driveway so that he could, without turning off the engine or getting out of the car, pull up to the mailbox and grab its contents.
    Phone bill: Mr. Richard Novitsky, from Verizon Wireless. A page of calls by Lara to the same three numbers, all girlfriends. Five pages of calls by Eve to her mother and sisters. But that guy’s number was there, too. Fifteen calls were to that guy Eve was screwing. Maybe screwing. Guilty. The rest of the mail was crap and he put it back in the box.
    “He’s the best analyst of any kind I’ve ever been treated by.” That’s what Eve had said in her defense. And Rich had happily acknowledged that she was an expert on the effectiveness of any given mental masseuse: she had never been without a spiritual advisor, a psychiatrist or a counseling minister since he had known her. In response to Rich’s early playful taunts, she laughed and said, “He’s screwing my brain; he’s not screwing me.” Right.
    In spite of his suspicions of her and her relationship with what she called “the larger mental health community,” Rich had then asked Eve to find a shrink for him, just in case. He’d see what was the attraction to this stuff, maybe harness the other side of himself. He had always monitored Eve’s drug intake, admonishing her to take it easy with that stuff. This time he didn’t insist that drugs were out of the question for himself, though. Maybe, with good meds, he could release his ultimate power while executing his plan.
    Sitting in the car, beside the mailbox now, he gazed over to their home. A bay window protruded from the brick façade of their five bedroom, three-story house. Time came for the second perspective. Good pills. He drifted up through the car’s moon roof to take a peek inside the house.
    Eve still had on those rotten red slippers, but now wore the pearly silk robe he’d brought back from Hong Kong. That robe was supposed to be his, but she’d stolen it just as she had stolen his baseball cap with the Washington Senators emblem. It wasn’t a logo because they didn’t have “logos” back when the Senators played in D.C., but she didn’t get that. There in the kitchen, he saw that the backs of her calves were tanned but the sides were sunburned, like she had fallen asleep by the pool again. White wine in a plastic tumbler. Pacing to and fro, sipping while the wire from her cell phone earplug dangled from her head.
    “I don’t hate you,” Rich said to the closed window from his cloudlike perch. He hovered beside the only big oak that the site engineers had seen fit to leave on their lot.
    The song changed on the car stereo and Rich swam through air back to his black leather seat, surrendering to a return trip to the Marriott at the mall. As he eased his car out of the neighborhood, his tires tripped the switch below the surface of the exit. The iron gate swung out, and he made a left turn onto the five-lane highway that used to be a tiny county road leading to the golf club. He slowed to look for the site of the ball field that once sat on the northwest corner of the intersection, but it was, of course, no longer visible. The pavement had been stacked on top of a severely higher grade when the third widening was done, and two different owners had failed to keep the opposite-corner gas station alive. Even the Koreans couldn’t make a go of it.
    Make a go of it, he thought. Make a go of it. His cell phone sounded its “Lone Ranger” ring and he swerved involuntarily onto the shoulder and back.
    “Was that you a while ago?” It was Eve.
    “I didn’t see anything,” he answered, disoriented, off guard.
    “You got the mail?”
    “No. I saw you were home so I turned around and left,” he said.
    “Until we settle this nonsense, I want you to give me the fucking house key,” she said. That was twice in one day she had said the “f” word.
    “Would you kiss the Pope’s ring with that mouth?” he said. That’s what Eve’s mother had always said when Rich even said “crap” or “pee.”
    “Come back and put my key in the mailbox. Now.”
    “Sure. Absolutely,” he said, and floated out to ride on the hood, straddling the Mercedes ornament, the better to see the ghosts of the missing landmarks of just ten years earlier. He lifted the remainder of his fifth of Booker’s bourbon in salute and placed a pill on his tongue. The remembered view was now lighted to his eyes and he saw the boys in mismatched caps on the scruffy baseball diamond, where they belonged. The fingernail moon caught his eye and held it till he pulled up to the security gate again and took his seat behind the wheel in time to open the door and puke. He then emptied the last of the pills into his palm. One, three, maybe five little pieces of peace. Open wide and toss back. The gate opened as he lifted his chin for a final whiskey swallow, washing the power down and in.
    Eve stood at the foot of the driveway, fully dressed as if to go to mass. Pretty. Rich slowed tenderly in order to avoid running down the woman who was to be his ex-wife in a year, after his plan worked. She wasn’t tapping her foot impatiently as he’d pictured, but her shape was more imposing than ever before, even with her arms folded tightly around her middle.
    “Stop, honey!” she yelled.
    Moving no faster than two miles an hour, he watched indifferently as the driver’s side mirror scraped the open lid of the mailbox before he came to a stop.
    “You better come inside till you straighten up.”
    “Good idea,” he slurred, and then rose through the roof opening again, knowing that this would upset Eve further––if she could see it––and savoring the moment of release. He looked back at himself, at the top of his own head that was balding in the back, his arms resting at his sides while overlapping melodies of the last ten songs followed him up, up to the stopping place where he stalled, maybe at the oak, maybe not, and watched her pull his melted body out of the car and onto the lawn. Her mouth was open toward the sky, making noise he assumed, but he couldn’t hear her.
    He watched his body on the ground as his gut heaved and emptied itself again.
    “So I won’t die tonight. I don’t hate you, ex-Eve,” he tried to say from his distance, but his physical self exhaled but a gurgled moan. Then his ears began to ring and he heard his wife’s voice breaking through.
    “Wake up.”
     He rejoined himself on the ground as Eve now held his head gently in her lap, and her fingers made themselves felt on his face.
    “I’m not crazy,” he said, now speaking clearly.
    He reflected on the effectiveness of his daylong exercise of power. Any plan is a good plan when you finish early and under budget. And now she has to deal with him. Coming back home had always been option number two if only their brain pieces––all of Eve’s and all of his––could fit into one house.
    “I’m not crazy,” he repeated.
    “No, you are anything but insane, Rich. I think your hyper-sanity is crying out for better medication.”
    “I think you’re onto something. I feel pretty good right now. You got any Scotch?”
    “Very funny,” said Eve, evincing a sentiment that was almost certainly original.
    While he lay still with her, Rich collected his parted selves and rested. Near the curb and against the cool, wet, deep green hybrid grass trimmed precisely that morning by the all-Mexican crew he’d found on pacos.list.com.