The Far Edge of the World
I came home from the party last night with a wine-coffee headache and sat in the bedroom while Denise undressed. I felt as if I’d listened to myself too much and was appalled by how boring I’d become.
“Did I talk too much?”
Denise touched my head as she passed. She smiled but didn’t look at me. “You always talk a little too much. But so do I.”
“I dominated the conversation.”
“You’re always kind to people.”
She left the room and I sat with my head in my hands, elbows on my knees. I could imagine the other guests talking to their spouses right now in their bedrooms. They’d be laughing, expansive in their privacy. “Poor Denise! How does she put up with him?”
Good question. I work with a woman who tells me that withholding information from your spouse is just as dishonest as telling a lie. She’s talking about herself, of course, and her marriage, and her husband’s infidelities.
I told her that for most men, keeping our mouths shut is the best way to stay sane. I was talking about me, of course, and how too often I fail.
Because secrets are crucial to any relationship. Certain things you just don’t say. Like how down deep I’m afraid the plastic-helmeted patriots will knock at my door and arrest me. Do I tell Denise that in this daytime nightmare the patriots can see right through me to my essential coward core, so they’ll forego a trial, stand me up against a wall and shoot me?
No! Of course not. Because she’d ask questions I can’t answer, questions like, Who are the patriots? Questions like, Are you nuts?
And how can I tell Denise that just this morning I sat in church wanting to bite the neck of the old woman sitting in the pew ahead of me? I leaned forward over my knees to tie, re-tie my shoes so I could smell her smells, powder-lotion-shampoo-conditioner. And skin. I longed for that neck!
Some things I’ll keep to myself, thank you.
I met a man the other night at the bar. Call him Rich. Things have gone well for Rich. Let’s say he’s in love. Let’s say he’s got a good job, too, and when the sun shines on him in the morning it shines on a rare, happy man. But tonight he stopped in to have a drink with his wife’s brother, String, visiting from Hawaii, the Big Island. It’s a celebration. Rich buys String a drink and then excuses himself to go into the bathroom. He stands against the urinal, pees and reads the wall. He smiles at the things men think. He’s got a picture in his mind and he wants to get his pen out and draw it. Hell, he thinks, get crazy! So while he’s standing there peeing he draws an image of a man mounting a kneeling woman. Crude but unmistakable. Wow! Wild! He quickly puts the pen away, thinks about throwing it away in case String recognizes the drawing as having been done with this pen. Ridiculous! Nevertheless, Rich feels suddenly ashamed of himself for drawing the picture. He zips up his fly and leaves the bathroom, pen in his pocket—and his shame causes him to grin broadly, to drink heavily, and then, like a little boy, to confess the whole story to me, a stranger.
Is there any such animal as a grown-up?
I ought to tell you more about myself, my day-to-day life, my job, that sort of thing. But then I think, why bother? Let’s just say I have a job. It gives me a variety of feelings ranging from pride, to envy, to boredom, to disappointment, and it pays me money, but not enough. Okay. That’s done. Now to the important things, like how even though I have absolutely no reason to suspect her, I am sometimes convinced that Denise is getting it on with somebody who is not me.
It’s hot, and although the muggy night has passed this morning I’m still sweating as I write. Fingers to pen, forearm to desk. I like to sweat. The best moments of my life have happened while I was sweating. I like knowing what’s for breakfast. I like drapes moving slightly in the breeze. I like the sssss sound of the wind in the leaves. I like sitting outside on the lawn reading a magazine. I like throwing myself on my knees and holding Denise around her hips. Sometimes I like the thought of slapping her.
The first wet dream I ever had I was falling simultaneously through a vagina and a woman’s face, absorbed through both of them toward an infinite sky of stars. Is that odd? Only, perhaps, that I remember it. And despite my own mental health warning, I share it. Perhaps by now, I’ve little left to lose. I have never slapped Denise, nor bitten the neck of the woman ahead of me at church. I have never done most of the things I think. Denise and I make star-spangled love once every fortnight, meat and potatoes love a couple of times in between. Except for the fact that in fifteen years of this kind of activity, we’ve never been able to make a child, we are, according to experts and pollsters, normal.
Which is to say we are in pain; we’ve broken our hearts trying.
But who hasn’t? When you feel the creep of self-pity, always remember the world is full of suffering children who will never get a chance to try hard at anything. Which perhaps is the purpose of suffering children. To force adults to be adults.
Now what? Mow the lawn, of course. Fix the fences, oil the door hinges. Keep the cows in their pasture, out of the corn, out of the house. Bury bodies when they begin to smell. Wash your hands. Eat huevos rancheros for breakfast. Examine your wife’s underwear, if you need to, but always remember you might be wrong.
Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone: I moved to this state from a steamy Gulf city, hitting an April blizzard at the border and finishing the last six hours in my unheated Volkswagen with my pet turtle under my shirt to keep him alive in the cold. My turtle, believe it or not, has two heads and four front feet, two back, and the scratching of all those feet on my belly kept me awake after I’d spun off the Interstate in the storm. Kept me awake when sleep promised the sweet hereafter. The car smashed shut, no escape, I thought, How odd is this? I thought, Twenty-eight years alone in the tropics and I finally fall in love, drive two thousand miles across the plains and into the mountains to be with her, only to freeze to death with my freak turtle in a blizzard.
But I didn’t die, and my turtle didn’t die, and so far, neither have you. We’re still living, way up high, and nobody else can tell us what is balance, or what means courage, hope, faith, or love. Nobody can tell us when we are going to fall—even though we know we will.
Can you stand it?
Imagine coming home from a party with your beloved. The one you came to see through the blizzard of your youth. Your head aches and you sit on the edge of the bed and watch her undress and slip under the covers behind you. You lie down. You put your arms around her and feel her breathe, one breath, then another, until miracle of miracles, you are breathing with her. It’s your fortune, your grace, and imagine for a few unlikely moments you are keen enough to know it.
Hey, it’s happened. I was there.
David Allan Cates is the author of five novels, and a chapbook of poetry. His novels are Hunger In America, a New York Times Notable Book, X Out Of Wonderland and Freeman Walker, both Montana Book Award Honor Books, and Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home and Tom Connor’s Gift, both of which won a Gold Medals for Best Fiction in the independent Book Publishers Book awards.
Cates is the winner of the 2010 Montana Arts Council’s Innovative Artist Award and his short story, “Rubber Boy,” (Glimmer Train 70) is a distinguished story in the 2010 Best American Short Stories. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his travel articles in Outside Magazine and the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.