By Richard Risemberg
An odor of talc and vanilla told me that Alison had gone out even before I felt the emptiness in the apartment. Vanilla scents were a recent mania of hers. I pretend not to like it, out of old habit, though secretly I find it pleasing. Perhaps I should explain, if only to myself: I have not been good to Alison during our twenty-three years together. Though I am trying to change, it's hard to leave behind the comfort of old habits. Even habits that require deprecation of the woman I love. Because I do love her, though I have never yet mentioned it to her. I have come to admit it to myself only in recent months. It hasn't been easy. Though I am a quiet man, I am proud, and pride always leads one to be cruel.
I am also a bit of a pedant, though an amateur one, so bear with me here: something that is "proud" is something that stands above. I have seen the word used to refer to a nail that needs to be hammered down—down to the level of its fellows. Pride always refers to a feeling that you are better than those around you, those sunken into mere utility. It is no wonder that religions inevitably rail against pride, the Abrahamic ones making it the Original Sin, the one that doomed all mankind. Of course few believers actually make any effort to suppress their feelings of superiority—usually quite the opposite. So it has not been easy for me to hammer myself down and admit that I do in fact love Alison. Strange confession, is it not? Simply to admit that one loves one's wife.
Easier to confess that I have treated her badly. Those who bully are almost universally admired, except by those they bully. And sometimes even by those. Think of the Reign of Terror in France after the revolution: the champions of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" deprived their brothers and sisters of liberty, shamed them in tribunals, unburdened them of their heads, and were cheered on for years, for bloody years. There is no egalité between the jailer and the jailed, the killer and the killed. In comparison, my sins are mild: a stifling of my own affections, a rejection of hers. But that's hardly a compliment to myself: to have been less oppressive than the Jacobin hordes of old.
Well, France survived her benefactors, and our marriage has survived my coldness, at least so far. Of course there was her affair with the charming Irish author, but that was before we were married, when she openly accused me of coldness and then walked out. The author was warm, charming, attentive—and married, though he had neglected to inform her of that fact. It was, after all, in his official bio, mentioned along with a penchant for Siamese cats. He had simply needed some amusement during an extended stay in Los Angeles to promote a book and close a movie deal. I was almost happy it had happened, though it wounded my pride to have been cast off, and with cause at that. I have to admit that I would have left me, too, under the circumstances. But when he moved on to another city, and another gullible woman, he of course left Alison behind. His wife must have known of his affairs, the wife always knows. He was mentioned in the paper recently, and they are still married. I showed the article to Alison: one of my habitual cruelties. After twenty-three years her face still droops at the mention of his name. Jonny Quinn—now referred to as J. M. Quinn, to reflect his greater successes—still holds a place in her heart, though it is a tender spot that cannot bear a touch. A bruise on that diligent muscle, you might say. Quinn is heavyset now, with jowls that his graying beard fails to hide, but his wife is still what they call "a lovely woman," and perhaps indulges in affairs of her own. I hope so; I am not a naturally forgiving person. I should be kinder to him, if only in my own mind: by tearing us apart, he brought us together.
If Alison had left me back then purely in reaction to my personal qualities, I should not have been able to lure her back in with offers of comfort and security. She would have not been so vulnerable, so willing to accept a loan of my strength, such as it was. Jonny Quinn was my unwitting accomplice. Still, I wish him harm: chronic illness, a devastating review, the scorn of his grown children. Even a wart on his nose would suffice. I am not above pettiness. All pain is useful to those who wish to see others brought down. And I have been one of those. It has been my reaction to those who lavish attention on the charming Jonny Quinns of the world, at the expense of gray drudges such as myself, who keep the wheels turning.
Not "wheels" in a literal sense: I am not a mechanic and have no manual skills; were the civilization I so often deprecate to collapse I would certainly be among the first to languish and die. The wheels I grease with my vocational diligence are purely metaphorical: I am a researcher for a law firm, I have a certain gift for rummaging through piles of paper in archives, or through the digital shadows of the Internet, where I find compromising references to indiscretion or bad judgment, or even mere bad luck, which my employers then use to weight the scales of justice. We are not above hiring private detectives, and so now I have the acquaintance of persons who can, with the mere use of their eyes stealthily employed, create new data that has not heretofore seen paper or pixel, and bring it to the light of day, through me. I am not a believer, and I do not pray, but if I did, I would ask whatever entity it might be to have Jonny Quinn sued by a client of our firm, so that I could set one of our gumshoes on his trail. That is a vain wish; we don't do divorces, and Jonny Quinn's transgressions are not the sort to disturb the commercial world. Broken contracts, not broken hearts, are what we deal with. My vengeance on Jonny Quinn will remain imaginary. Only Alison has suffered from my ire.
Only dear, patient, guilty Alison…. She has been punished enough. I realized it at last as her birthday approached—she turns fifty this year.
I established a birthday tradition early on: I always present her one frivolous gift, and one practical. The "frivolous" gift is actually, and has always been, a trick I play on myself, to let me risk being seen as sentimental. I deride it frivolous, but it is really the romantic gift, a pair of elegant and often expensive earrings, a gilded coupon to a Beverly Hills salon, a bottle of rare perfume. I tell myself that these are concessions to her shallow nature, but I have come to realize now that they were a means of admonishing myself for my habitual cruelties, dull and peaceful ones though they are. The "practical" gift—a new vacuum cleaner, a kitchen appliance she has sighed over in a catalogue—these salve my pride, for they are always clunky mechanical devices that embody the masculine interpretation of domesticity. I am not "manly" to look at, being in every physical sense average or perhaps below average, but I accept the role society—sneer at it as I may—prescribes for what it names "a man": the one who calls the shots, the captain, the manager, the bully, the manipulator of materials and other men—and of women.
I look in the mirror and see an unimpressive male, of boring facial configuration and soft flesh over narrow bones, but still to all appearances a male, and I have tried to play my role. My only means were the elegant sneering I have perfected, and what I have come to think of as "punitive kindness." The favor that is not really a favor, but a vector for obligation. The Jonny Quinns of the world can capture hearts with a smile and a wisecrack; I must use stealthier methods. But now the mirror is showing me something different: not a young male in all his vigor, however unimpressive in my case, but an old man, whose role is to be wise, not cruel. And I have not studied for this role.
I find myself subject to tender feelings. I suppose I have had them all along, and fought them down. No: that is a lie: I have indeed loved Alison, and resented her for it, for having a power over me she never knew she could wield. I have wondered at times whether in fact she did understand her position, and manipulated me in some subtle way, but I do not think so. She is sincerity itself, and a good person. Everyone she knows, the people she works with, the clients she helps at the library…the universe, it seems, is united in its judgment of her sincerity. When she left me she was direct, and told me why: I was too cold, and she sought warmth. When she came back, abject in rejection, she made no excuses. In fact I had to lure her back with those frigid kindnesses that imposed a burden of emotional debt: dinners out, solicitous manners, the eventual little gifts. Long talks over books, something we both genuinely enjoyed, and still do. Perhaps Alison's goodness is why time has been kinder to her: at fifty she is still graceful as a girl, unconscious of her own appeal. She is not beautiful, something she is well aware of, but she is and always was attractive in her own quiet way. Men's heads don't turn when she passes on the sidewalk, but if they chance to deal with her, eventually they smile that comfortable smile I cannot manage, and begin to flirt. To this day: I have seen it even when she has not. She pooh-poohs me when I mention it, thinks it another of my false compliments. It has, of course, an element of duplicity: it serves to remind her of her treachery with Jonny Quinn, and of his casual betrayal of her own affections when he left. But it is also true.
So I have made a decision, though whether I'll be capable of enacting it fully I do not know. On this next birthday, Alison will receive three gifts. One will be a new laptop, for lately she has taken up the writing of her family history, in reaction to the passing of an elderly aunt whom she had doted on. One will be a ring, a narrow platinum band set with a black opal, which should complement her coloring very nicely. And one will be a confession, and a concession: I shall tell her that I love her. Pure and simple. And, if I can build up the courage in the next few weeks, I will apologize. I want her to know I knew what I was doing when I treated her coldly all those years. I can't change my nature; I will always be an unexpressive man, given to speaking in dry and abstract language, not an habitual hugger or toucher, not an easy-smiling man like Jonny Quinn. No one will ever call me the life of the party, for I have been withdrawn since childhood.
But I will try to restrain my dry sarcasms, my indirect accusations, that reptilian stare which I indeed practiced in the mirror when I was young. There is a good chance she will not believe me, will not believe that I can change, or will suspect yet another trick. There is a chance she will become angry, perhaps even leave me, which I now admit would be devastating. Nevertheless I owe her a debt of honesty after all this time. It is a matter of justice. She is my better, and I have treated her badly. Nothing can make up for that, but I must risk everything to make her happy, or at least contented, if I can. She has stayed; she has seen something in me that the mirror never showed, and I owe it to her to live up to that image of a man, and learn who I really am inside, for her.
Richard Risemberg was born to a mixed and mixed-up family in Argentina, and dragged to LA as a child to escape the fascist regime. He's spent the next few decades exploring the darker corners of the America Dream and blithering on about it with keyboard or his own big mouth.
He has published widely in the last few years, mostly short fiction in literary journals. You want to see proof? Visit Crow Tree Books and click a few links. Some of the stories may disturb your sleep; some will give you sweet dreams.