SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Halley Fehner
The summer after I told my wife she couldn’t see Lester anymore, I started thinking about Vinnie again. He was her first husband; I hadn’t thought about him in ages. Maybe it was because he was selling the house down the street, and I had to see his rotten face every day on that realty sign. He had grown out his beard, all gray and scraggly now, and we looked too much alike. I considered sabotage. When I saw a couple with a baby standing on the sidewalk looking up at the house, I imagined gesturing to Vinnie’s sign and telling them, “That guy is an asshole.” I would say it softly, so they would know I was serious. But then I thought, it’s a nice house. So I didn’t say anything, and my throat had a papery, regretful feeling.
That was the summer my wife discovered beets. She had read about their health benefits in a magazine at the doctor’s office, and suddenly those strange, dirty roots were everywhere. In pureed soup as fuchsia as a preschooler’s backpack. Disguised like bandits with tomatoes on salad. Bleeding purple juice all over a quiet bed of white rice. “Angel,” I said, which is what I called her when I really needed something. “I’m tired of peeing red. It’s not right, the crimson flow. It makes me think something’s wrong.” My wife said nothing was wrong with me. Beets had vitamins, she said.
She also told me it could be worse. Back during the bean craze of the mid-2000s—a previously unknown phenomenon to me—she had thrown beans in everything. She made refried beans, black bean chili, five-bean soup. Vinnie didn’t sell a home for four months because he had to use the bathroom before every open house. “Just imagine,” my wife said, laughing. “You walk into this beautiful home, completely empty, pristinely clean, and the whole thing smells like, well—”
“Shit,” I said.
“Like fermented beans.”
“The worst kind.” She laughed so hard that tears came out of her eyes, and I reached out to touch her elbow, but she went back to stirring the beet soup with a watery look.
Before the summer of beets, we had been having a food renaissance of sorts. My wife was training for a marathon, and all restrictions were lifted. Five days a week, she and Lester, her coworker from the bank, spent an hour after work running in Central Park. By the time she made the long commute home, it would be dark and she would be starving. Lord, the feasts we had that spring. Pasta, with alfredo sauce even, and smoothies made with ice cream instead of yogurt. I gained ten pounds trying to keep up with her eating.
My wife liked Lester because he wrote poetry and lived in Williamsburg, which of course was the trendy thing to do. She would drive across the Verrazano Bridge to go to his poetry readings on Sunday nights. He wrote, she said, mostly about the city (didn’t everyone, I said), but it was more than that. There was a pulse, a heartbeat, to his work, she said.
“That’s just poet-speak for ‘it rhymes,’” I said.
“It doesn’t rhyme,” she said. “Who said it rhymes?”
She told me about one poem he had read at the last reading. It was about the Brooklyn Bridge. As the story went, Lester decides walking home would be more poetic than taking the subway, and so he heads out from their office on 53rd Street toward downtown (this is much more impressive if you don’t know Lester can run marathons). By the time he reaches the bridge, it’s dark, and he tells himself he is going to walk across the whole bridge without looking back. Not even a glance. But like Lot’s wife, he really wants to look back, because Manhattan from the middle of the East River is something to see, especially at night. The temptation is killing him. So the poem is about this dilemma of whether or not he should turn around.
“Well, does he?”
“I don’t know,” my wife said, rather breathless. “The poem ended there.”
“See, this is what I’m saying,” I said. “This is the problem. Poetry is like foreplay, except there’s nothing after it.”
“Sam!” my wife said, her hands on her hips. Then she looked at me with her head cocked. “Sam, that was funny.”
She made me promise to go to the next reading with her. I told her no at first, but her mouth twisted in a disappointed way, and I gave in. Plus, I thought, it might do me some good to meet Lester. Maybe underneath his poetic exterior, he was just a normal guy who liked football and ate a frozen pizza for dinner whenever there wasn’t a woman there to stop him. Maybe I would feel bad for judging him based on my wife’s account. Really, though, it seemed unlikely. So then I imagined punching him in the face.
* * *
My wife was still married to Vinnie when we met. Their marriage was winding down, like a train coming into the last station on the line. Vinnie worked long hours so when they needed a new car, my wife was the one who came into the dealership. She stayed much longer than she needed to. I told her my best self-deprecating story—the one where I showered at a gym that didn’t provide towels and ended up using an entire wad of those brown paper napkins, the kind that don’t soak up a thing. She laughed openmouthed with her head back, and the sound made my throat clog. She had a striking combination of dark brown hair and blue eyes, and she was ten years younger than me, so thinking I had no chance at all, I asked her to dinner. We went out straight from the dealership.
She told me she’d been through a tough year, starting off with an unexpected pregnancy. She didn’t want children, but Vinnie wanted them even less. “Thank God,” he’d said when she miscarried. Seeking something, she started running. She ran all over the city, along the Hudson in Riverside Park, down the Staten Island Boardwalk, through Prospect Park and then out over the streets of Brooklyn. She ran until one day when she was bent over catching her breath in Flatbush, she got mugged. All she had been carrying was her subway card and a twenty. She collect-called Vinnie, but he couldn’t come because he was closing a sale.
She moved into my house three weeks after that dinner. She said she would’ve never left her marriage if not for me, which was probably true, but I soon learned not to flatter myself. Her relationships overlapped like a fanned-out deck of cards—she didn’t leave a man unless she had another one lined up. There were her college boyfriends Marty and James, followed by her post-college boyfriend Neil, followed by Vinnie, followed by me. “God almighty,” I said when she told me. “At least I know if you start showing interest in another guy, your bags are packed.”
She bit her lip, hurt. “Well, don’t marry me then, if you’re so worried about it.”
Of course I married her. What man in his right mind would tell her she needed time alone?
* * *
On the night of Lester’s poetry reading, we drove to Brooklyn. We had talked about getting dinner downtown first, but when it came down to it, her legs were sore, so we decided to take the car and eat at a Korean place in Williamsburg. It was Lester’s favorite Korean place, the kind where you sit on pillows on the floor. “This won’t be good on your legs,” I said, but she waved me off. An hour later, I had to pull her up, and she leaned against me as we walked to the reading at the bar down the street.
Lester was sitting on a bar stool, drinking something with gin in it. Unless you told me that was Lester, I would’ve never picked him out. He was younger than I had expected, younger than my wife. He had brown, curly hair, almost moppy, and wore those thick-rimmed glasses. He was thirty at most. “Kathy,” he said. He said her name like it was an elegant thing. “So good to see you.”
My wife introduced us, and then the two of them started talking about the Korean place while I ordered us beers.
“Did you get the duck?” Lester asked.
“No, I don’t think so.” My wife looked at me. “Did we get the duck?”
“Next time, you have to get the duck.” Lester put his fingers to his lips. “Like angels dancing on your taste buds.”
My wife giggled, her hand over her mouth. I looked around. “We should find a seat,” I said. My wife led us to the front row, right in the middle. There were two poets before Lester. Then Lester came on. He took the mic in a lavish motion, like the one a child makes when he is holding the empty toilet paper roll. He thanked everyone for coming, and then started with a set of poems about the subway. They were all descriptions of people he saw while riding to work. His voice was quiet and steady, like a metronome, and it kind of lulled me into a daze. The only poem I remember was about a man and woman sitting side by side both playing with their wedding bands, twisting them around. At first, Lester imagines they’re having separate guilty affairs, until the man puts his arm around the woman, and he realizes they are newlyweds, unaccustomed to wearing rings. My wife took my hand into hers and started playing with my ring.
Then Lester took a long sip of his drink, cleared his throat, and you could tell the mood was shifting. The next poem was about running. Lester talked about feet pounding, the heart thumping, the wobbly ankles, all that. Then he started talking about my wife. Innocently, at first—she was just a background character, the unnamed running partner. Then, she started to gain more prominence. In one poem, she notices a beautiful bird. In another, they run past Strawberry Fields, and she suggests a Beatles song name-off. Finally, in the poem he seemed to be building toward, the two of them run up and around the Reservoir, around and around on their way to ten miles. They talk about work, about food, about their marathon goals, and then the conversation turns serious—about life goals. My wife tries to laugh it off. She says she’s too old to have goals. But Lester pushes her. They talk back and forth for a while, and you could tell that the poem was rolling up for the big finish. Then, my wife stops running, crosses her arms, and gives Lester a grave look. She’s sweaty and trembling a little, and her mouth is open but she’s speechless. It’s that terrible look women get right before they cry.
But Lester didn’t let her cry. Instead, Lester, holding that mic in both hands, Lester, who suddenly seemed young enough to be my son, looked right at my wife and said, “And I see, more than anyone else, how beautiful she is.”
* * *
Lord knows how we got out of there. It was the last poem, so there was no grand exit; all I really remember is that I grabbed my wife’s hand and then we were at the car. We drove a dozen blocks without saying anything, my wife hugging herself like it was cold outside. “I suppose it’s very poetic to fall in love with an older woman,” I said finally.
“Hey, there now,” she said. “Don’t be mean.”
“What the hell was that?”
“He didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Of course he did. You don’t tell a woman she’s beautiful for nothing. Or at least not with her husband right there. Does he think I’m some sort of idiot?”
“It’s just a poem. It’s not reality. Plus, that’s not even the point.”
“Did you know he’d written it?”
“I knew he had written about our runs, but I didn’t know what exactly.” She looked out the window, and then said something about how I was reading too much into it.
“Do you love him?”
“Jesus. No.” She turned back to me and patted my leg. “Honey, come on. Please stop this.”
But I couldn’t stop. Did she have feelings for him? “Tell me,” I said, I deserved to know. I pressed her until she raised her arms in exasperation, then thumped them into her lap.
“You don’t believe me?”
“No, I guess I don’t.”
She leaned back in her seat, shaking her head. We were driving across the Verrazano Bridge, Manhattan a faraway burst of lights. She usually loved this part of the drive. She said that the bridge had the most underappreciated view in New York, that it only got photographed when they held the marathon. I turned on the flashers and pressed on the brake. “What are you doing?” she said, as the car slowed to a stop. Other cars flew by, honking. “Christ, Sam, are you out of your mind? You’re going to get us killed.”
“Tell me the truth,” I said.
My wife started crying. “Honey, please just drive. Please, please, please. This is dangerous.”
“Do you have feelings for him? Tell me.”
“I don’t know.” She shook with sobs. “Jesus, please just drive.”
“Look.” I suddenly felt very large, and the car very small. It was like my sense of self extended far beyond anything concrete, and I was looking down on us, these two people in a vast city. “You have a choice. We’ve got Staten Island here ahead of us.” I motioned forward. “And we’ve got Brooklyn here behind us. You can choose not to look back.”
“My God,” she said. “You do listen sometimes.” She cried even harder. A man in a pick-up yelled a string of obscenities as he drove by.
I took her hand into mine. “Angel, I want you to stop seeing him.”
She nodded, her hand over her face, squashing her nose with her palm. “Okay. Alright. Please, please, just drive before we die on this bridge.”
We drove the rest of the way home in silence. When I pulled up in front of our house, I took her hand again. She was still crying. “I’m sorry I scared you,” I said.
“That was really foolish.”
She sniffled. “It’s just—” She wiped her nose with her sleeve.
“What he said,” she said, and her voice was so small that I had to lean forward to hear her. “In the poem. Do you still see me like that?”
“Of course,” I said. I said it again and then again, of course I thought she was beautiful. But it didn’t seem to be enough. She nodded and cried a little more, and then she went into the house and took the world’s longest shower, like she was drowning herself.
* * *
You would’ve thought that getting rid of Lester would’ve made me feel better. But then Vinnie’s face went up down the street, and it felt like punishment sent from God above. VINNIE VENEZIANO, the sign said, in big bold capital letters. What a stupid name for a real estate agent.
My wife quit her marathon training. She stopped running altogether, and I tried to come up with options for her. “Maybe you could run with Judith,” I said, thinking of one of her friends who lived on the Upper West Side. She said Judith was too focused on her yoga. “What if we got a dog? You could run with a dog.” She gave a lukewarm yes, and so that Saturday, we went to the pound and brought home Lucy, a hound-terrier mix who had the good sense to favor my wife. It didn’t matter. She took the dog running a few times, and then quit that, too. I started taking the dog out around the neighborhood, walking off my marathon-diet weight. My wife started cooking with beets.
She was still too thin, even without the running. She looked like she did in a photo on top of the bookshelf, taken fifteen years ago, probably by college-boyfriend-two James, who was an art major and took a lot of photos of her. In this particular photo, she’s standing half-profile, laughing with her arms out and her hair blowing sideways like one of those windswept trees. I had taken it out of her boxes when she had moved in years ago, and had always liked it, but looking at it again made me realize how slender she was. “Were you anorexic in college?” I asked, watching her stir the beet soup.
“Why would you say that?” She slammed the lid down on the pot.
That night after Lester’s reading, I had lay down on the bed, listening to my wife shower, and tried to decide whether I’d overreacted. I thought about the time when Vinnie had found my number in the phonebook and called to curse me out. He was furious, of course, and I hadn’t been able to think of a single thing to say that was worth saying. My wife had taken the phone from me then, gone into the other room, and closed the door, so that I could only hear her when she raised her voice. “Sam is funny, and kind, and treats me like I want to be treated, which are three things I never got from you,” she had said, and I had never felt so proud and ashamed in my life.
Now, Vinnie’s face on that sign seemed smug, like he knew I was failing somehow, and I hurried the dog along so I wouldn’t have to look at him too long. I thought she must have wanted more than those three things, because those are just the basics. I thought, Lord in heaven, we are both just old men compared to Lester.
Then my wife really hit me with it. She came home early from work on my day off carrying grocery bags and looking thoughtful, and when she leaned against the counter, watching me as I unloaded the bags, I knew there was something big coming. “Are you okay?” I said, as I shoved the beets to the back of fridge.
“Honey, I was thinking.” She motioned to the couch. “Let’s sit down for a moment.”
“Oh God.” My stomach felt heavy, like I had swallowed a rock. “Don’t say it.”
“Goddamn it. It’s Lester, isn’t it?”
She frowned and crossed her arms. “It’s not about Lester. Jesus, what is wrong with you?” She shook her head, and then her face went from angry to sad so fast that I think I would have missed it had I blinked. “God, Sam, do you really think so little of me?”
I tried to explain, but it came out all jumbled, half apology and half justification. She looked down. “What were you going to tell me?” I asked.
“Maybe we should wait until dinner.”
“Please, tell me now. You’re killing me.”
She took my hand into hers. “Honey, what do you think about having a baby?”
I would have never expected it from her. We both just sat there for a moment and then I took my hand away and rubbed my beard so that it pulled all the hair in the opposite direction. It felt good. “We’re too old to have a baby,” I said.
“Well, maybe you are.” She looked somewhat hurt. “But it matters more for me, and there’s still a little time.”
“I thought you didn’t want children.”
“Yes, but I don’t know. Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like if I hadn’t miscarried back then? We would have a five-year-old by now. The kid would be in kindergarten already. Maybe it would be really smart and we would be really proud of it.”
“It wouldn’t even be my kid,” I said.
“That’s why I said it would be really smart.” She grinned and slapped my knee.
“Alright, I walked into that.” I leaned back against the couch. “But I didn’t think this was in the cards for us. Kathy, you said you didn’t want kids.”
“I know.” She picked at a piece of lint on the cushion. “But then it’ll always be just us. There will be no one for us to care for. No one for us to hope for. It’ll always the same, never any different or any better.”
I scratched my beard.
“Will you think about it, at least?” she asked.
We had a quiet dinner that evening. The night was cool for July, and we opened the windows so that every half hour we could hear the ferry coming in. My wife pushed her beet risotto around her plate even though she’d said she was hungry. We both kept looking out the window as though something was going to happen out there.
“Do you realize how old I’ll be when he or she graduates from high school?” I said. “I’ll be that old dad who everyone thinks is the grandpa.”
My wife patted my hand. “Oh, honey. You’re still very spry.”
After dinner, she went upstairs to read and I took the dog out for a walk. Lucy and I had developed a route by this time, and she dragged me along. My legs felt stiff, and my throat ached. We headed down to the waterfront and looked at the boats for a little while, then wound back into the neighborhoods. When we passed by the house Vinnie was selling, Lucy sped up out of habit, tugging at the leash. “Hey there, girl,” I said. I pulled her to a stop. We stood there and stared at Vinnie for a moment. He looked even more smug than usual. I wondered if he had grown out his beard because his face was getting fat.
Then I thought, what the heck. I walked right up to that sign, took it off the chains, put it under my foot, and snapped it clear in half. It made a delicious crack, so loud that I could feel it in my jaw. Lucy barked, and some lights went on inside the house. “Come on, girl,” I said and hurried Lucy down the street. When we reached the house, I tossed the two pieces of the sign into our trashcan on the side alley. They banged at the bottom of the bin, and I felt larger somehow, like I could convince my wife that we didn’t need a baby, and that would be the end of that.
I crept through the side door and fed the dog some treats in the kitchen. My wife was still upstairs. She didn’t hear me come up. She was in the bathroom, facing the mirror and leaning against the wall on one foot, the other one up like a flamingo. She was wearing nothing but underwear and the old T-shirt that she had worn to bed for years, so threadbare now that I could see the brown of her nipples underneath. Her arms were crossed below her breasts, and her hair was down and wild. God, she was beautiful. She was looking at herself in the mirror, not fixing her hair or brushing her teeth. Just looking. She had no idea I was even there.
And I saw her then. I mean, I really saw her. Not a wisp of a girl in a photograph or a nameless muse in a poem, but Kathy, a woman who was always outrunning her despair. And I thought, Lord almighty, I would eat beets forever, or whatever vegetable she deemed fit, I would go to poetry readings, and I would work until I was seventy to put our kid through college. I would do it all if only I could guarantee she didn’t have that face when she looked in the mirror.
Halley Fehner is a writer and interpretive planner. Her writing has appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review, The First Line, Night Picnic, Taco Bell Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Maryland with her family.