The Husbands and the Wives
You husbands have gone on a vacation to the Northern coast together without your wives. To shake out cobwebs, to have fun, to spend the money you frittered the years away earning. The men’s trip is only a few days long, but you agree with each other on its necessity, the necessity in particular of the silence of men — silence that in your daily lives is punctured by the wives’ chatter of discount sales, their gossip about minor faux pas of acquaintances, their latest news about their condominium boards and charity directorships.
The other husbands are your mirror, and some days all you want is to look into it. Though you would never say so aloud, you find relief when you are able to locate handsomeness in the other husbands’ craggy age. Those days, the good days, you think of yourselves as a grove of coastal cypresses: tall and strong despite the beating of the winds and rains and the corrosive salt air. Things forged by hard elements into grace.
Over the past two days you husbands have fished the mouth of the choppy green Pacific and christened the soles of your new cross-trainers with coastal dust and eaten steak, rare, and though you wouldn’t admit it, you are tiring of the company of other men. You miss the wives, how their talk filigrees the air, how it would brighten the dull greens, browns and grays of this winter seascape.
You crave that brightness, and you need it on your worst days, which are many. On those days the reflections of the other husbands invert. You see the stoop of their shoulders, the raw calves marbled with veins. Receding hair wisping on spotted scalps, idle hands falling slack. Then you know your unyielding silence isn’t strength but a deep seam of weakness — “constipation,” one ex-wife called it. Those bad days you look around at this world and see that it isn’t made in your image anymore and maybe never was, and your sun has almost sunk into that pit beneath the horizon.
Those dark days, you grip the wives hard. You plunder their flesh when they’ll allow and lose yourself in their perfumes, their plumages and the plump of their bodies. You’re a hungry parasite. When the wives turn their faces toward you they remind you of flowers opening to the sun, and you take on the strength of that huge bright star, feel large once again, and burning, and by the standards of any earthly creature, eternal.
But at night, in bed, the wives’ faces close, turn away inside themselves while they churn with secret dreams. Then the fear returns. You feel yourself not robust cypresses but sickly inland apple trees, beset with necrosis. Common apples are called malus domestica: bad domestic. You don’t even have to remember grade school Latin to know that. And how you’re thinking about yourself now, how you belittle yourself — there is a word for it: scold. But who is scolding you? Not the wives, but you, in the voice of the ex-wives, the ones who say constipated, the ones whose tired sighs and creaking voices do not leave no matter how far away their bodies have travelled; the voice of the ex-wives, which now are really your own voices, in your own old heads.
And lying awake, thinking your ex-wives’ thoughts, you husbands hear the new wives murmuring from their dreams. The murmurs are prophecies of your deaths, and you can only catch a word here and there: cancer, heart attack, stroke. The wives’ hearts knock out the numbers of years, months, days, hours, until your inevitable end.
You press your ear to their warm skin, try to count the beats and discern the exact date. But feeling the scratch of your whiskers on their cheeks or breasts the wives draw a deep breath, murmur “not now,” and roll out of your reach. Then it is only you and the silence and the whisper inside.
Never mind. Don’t think of it. Right now you are not with the wives, so it does not matter. And it is not night-time, you are not dreaming, you are awake, the butter-white sunshine rouging your face. Your feet find the way up the craggy bluff steps that ascend from the beach. The wind grips you, but you are strong and it cannot tear you away.
On arrival at the top, the arid, grassy flat high over the ocean, you find you are tired in all of you. Tired not just of walking, but of the husbands, of yourself, all the way down to the sticky marrow of your bones.
But maybe this fatigue isn’t so bad, you think. When the time comes, maybe this tiredness is what will allow you to bend your trunk horizontal down to the earth, will permit your hands to unclasp your wives. And then at last you will relinquish your roughness and your softness, your need and your fear, your silence.
Emily Dezurick-Badran is a writer, artist, librarian, and roller derby player living in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Tin House Online, and elsewhere. She’s working on a novel.