The Cardboard Dress

Monday, January 10, 2011

Adelle is my wife and I ache to be with her. I know I’m the man-of-her-dreams because she tells me so in the daytime and because she shows me when it’s night. We get into a car and drive to a restaurant, where we have dinner people with people we mistook as friends.

We get out of the car and they are there waiting for us on the sidewalk.

“Charlie!” says Marcus, a man almost as handsome as he is boring.

“What?” I ask.

“It’s so good to see you again.”

He hugs me and squeezes very hard, and I am momentarily afraid that my chest will collapse under the pressure of his grip. I feel immensely afraid and I want to kill him. I hate this guy for no discernible reason other than it feels good to loathe him. He is that type. But he lets go before I slay him.

“Adelle!” That’s Marcus again. “How are you?” Marcus stares at her—this woman I love—like she is made of cheesecake.

“Wonderful!” says Adelle.

Marcus briefly looks at his own wife, Dary, and nods at her. It looks like a business transaction instead of the lover’s twitch it’s supposed to be. He turns back to Adelle and continues staring. There is a silly grin on his face, like he wants to eat her. I feel strange that I’ve never seen it before—this mouth lust—during any of those countless meals we’ve shared over the last year, the four of us: breakfast, brunch, lunch, that strange snack time halfway through to dinner, and dinner itself. Always when we were feeling crazy and insecure and fearful that we had no friends.

We’re social eaters.

There is a slight pause as Marcus admires Adelle, too short to be awkward, but then he just keeps staring at her while telling some anecdote about a blind kid that was walking a dog and not the other way around.

I want to crush him now because of the way he is looking at her. But I do nothing because I am just so sure that I am seeing things. That I am imagining them. That I am fabricating, breeding, and composing tidbits that simply don’t exist.

Adelle says I do that on occasion. That I make things up.

“Shall we eat?” says Dary.

“Yes, I’m hungry,” says Adelle.

I fake a smile, throw my arm over Marcus’s shoulder, and say, “It’s so good to see you as well. You and Dary. You are both charming-as-hell. Really, I mean it.”

We move indoors. We sit and we order. The food arrives. Someone is eating crab, someone is eating a salad that has a very fancy name, and someone is having some sort of tenderloin. I’m having soup and a dinner roll, which I’m enjoying in a simple-pleasures kind of way.

There is talk the size of marbles. It is about the weather. It is also about our pet turtles or pet hamsters or pet fish and how long we expect them to live. It is about what we want our children to be like when we have them (if a boy, I’m going to name him Truman and I want him to stutter when he is young so that he may learn to be fierce and colorful with his spirit; if a girl, I’m going to name her Maribelle and I want her to be slightly overweight and terribly funny so that people will love her first for her wit). And we talk about whether or not we’re happy. With ourselves and with each other. One wife or one husband. The same body sitting there. The same voice droning on about cornflakes and flowers.

Adelle and I look at each other, almost on cue, and smile. She tilts her head curiously. Blinks. Says that together we’re like popcorn and chocolate, different to the core but made for each other.

Then, with admirable nonchalance, Marcus brings up the notion of sharing lovers. He says you can endure life or you can mix it. Give a little, take a little. Shake things up. Stir them. As if variety were some sort of spice. As if we were meant to taste the people we fuck, like they were hamburgers

Marcus, you old shoe! is what I think at first. But as soon as I realize he is talking about us, my thoughts become considerably more vulgar and violent. I mean, you pretend to know someone but then they undress themselves at dinner and choke you.

In situations like this, Adelle tells me to slow down and breathe a little. Breathe more, breathe slowly, she says. She says if I do this breathing business, my heart will beat more efficiently and my brain will arrive at a place of peace. Apparently once that happens, reason or logic will override all else and issues will kindly resolve themselves.

I try it. In my nose, out my mouth. I count a bit, too. Napkins shaped as animals, four. In my nose, out my mouth. Purple scarves dangling on seatbacks, one. In my nose, out my mouth. Only it doesn’t work and I feel like I’m choking on my tonsils or something.

“All I’m saying,” says Marcus, “is that love is not sex and that we are human, for God’s sake.”

“I don’t see how this is at all relevant,” I say. I consider stabbing him in the neck with my spoon.

“Well,” Dary says, “I think what Marcus is asking—what we’re asking—is if you two would like to give it a go. A try. Like, a bit of love play. The four of us. We can go to our place. It’s comfortable and we have plenty of wine. We’ve known each other so long. We’re such good friends.”

“You want to have sex with us?” I ask.

Marcus cuts a piece of tenderloin and chews it. Dary says, “Well, why not?” as if she were talking about going dutch on the tab. I feel sick. Like time is cartwheeling diagonally backwards. Suddenly I feel young and stupid again.

Adelle looks at me and I shrug at her and we both swallow our wine. And the thing about wine—whether it comes in a box or a bottle—is that it is so conducive to impulse and wrong decision. Oh, but alcohol isn’t even to blame. I’m such an idiot regardless of the volume of wine I drink.

So despite all my better judgment, which has apparently been hijacked or hogtied, I say, “Sure.”

I am perplexed, not knowing if I am afraid or excited. I wonder what, really, is the difference between those things we crave and those things we wish for. I wonder whether you have to like people to enjoy them. I wonder where love and lust meet, and if there is a stop sign at their intersection.

There are strange thoughts in my head that I didn’t know I had, and I wonder where they came from: Go ahead, Marcus. Pound Adelle. Maybe she’ll leave me then. Or maybe I’ll leave her. Give us an excuse to break with our religion of monotony, this obnoxious propaganda of patience and love. And simultaneously: Touch her and die! Oh my God, I love her! I do, I do.

Now I’m choking again, on my tongue or something. Like, ghhhaaa.

Adelle will light up with fury later, when we are home. She’ll be raving and she’ll be vicious. She’ll probably clobber me with that wooden cutting board we have in the kitchen, the one that is shaped like a cat. It will be really painful, all of it. In just a second she’ll come up with a polite excuse and we’ll awkwardly exit the table and skip out on the rest of dinner. We’ll never see Marcus or Dary again. The first time they call for a repeat meal, we’ll say we’re sick and maybe next time. The next time we won’t pick up at all and they’ll decode the gesture. That will be that. But then later tonight I’ll be lying in bed, chasing after some notion of sleep, and Adelle will begin to cry. She’ll say, “Why don’t you love me anymore?” I will have to say, a thousand times over: I do, I do. And she will believe me. I’m almost sure of it. But just the headache that will cause.

I wait for my prediction to come true. She will say no. She has to. I look at her in expectation of the predictable, and she is ghostly and she is still, as if she were asleep or dead-and-dreaming.

“Sure,” she says.

Then a clusterfuck in my mind. I choke for what, the third time in as many minutes? This time it is on my soup. I spit it up into my napkin, then put a mint toothpick into my mouth. I chew on it and everything else that’s happened. I resist a subtle urge to pummel my wife, the one person who makes me feel like magic, by wearing a charming-as-hell smile and waving down the waiter. I say check like I know what I’m doing.

We pay, then parade out of the restaurant, all fake laughs and awkward glances. We get in our car, buckle, and drive to their house. Adelle tries to hold my hand on the way. I downshift to avoid it.

We are in the kitchen to start, and we are drinking wine from a bottle. It is ritzy and expensive and tastes exactly the same as the box-brand, which is what Adelle and I drink at home. She drinks red and I drink white, so when we’re sloppy and drunk and kissing and drooling all over each other, we are quiet and happy and pink.

We move to the den, which is couches and recliners and flat screens. There are lots of books. They look dusted but not read. We are drinking wine here, too. We talk a bit about logistics. Like who and where. Then we move to the bedroom. Marcus tells a joke and he and I move to mingle with our women. Then everything progresses blindly in the dark. Someone stubs their toe and someone else knocks their shin against a nightstand (this is in the fray)—Marcus chuckles and says, “Watch out for those furniture goblins!”

We all touch and it is calm and careless. Marcus kisses Adelle and I kiss Dary, and slowly we ruin each other.

Things like this don’t take very long, and soon enough there is quiet. Occasionally it is interrupted by the sound of a car passing by the window. After everyone has caught their breath and pinned their senses, Dary says, “Well it is fairly late and I am feeling particularly tired.” It is dark, but of course I know it’s her by her voice, if only because it sounds vaguely feminine and it isn’t owned by my wife.

We get up and dress. There is enough ambient light from the window (there is the moon) to silhouette the objects between me and the wall: I watch as my wife dresses—it is dark but I know her shape, the exact way her breasts have fallen with age; I watch Dary slink off to the bathroom—it is dark, but she is the only other one with tits; I watch Marcus move to the closet—it is dark, but thank god for thick shoulders and pronounced brows. I wait for everyone to disperse, and for a moment I sit and recollect what I’ve done, what others have done to me, and what Marcus has done to my wife.

I block it out and fill that confused, hateful space with blame: I think about why I had said yes in the first place, then ignore that question and address a more pressing issue: oxygen. Because what makes it mildly difficult to breathe is that Adelle said yes too. Now I’m wondering what that means about us, us two lovers like popcorn and chocolate.

We say goodbye to Dary and Marcus, and then we disperse in a beeline through the kitchen, then to the door and out of it. Adelle and I are back in our car now. I put it in reverse and plow backwards down the driveway. Again there is the fray, though this time it is in my head: Adelle, you petite little whore, why’d you say yes? Adelle, I love you, get away from me! Adelle, please die or disappear; Adelle; Adelle; Adelle; Adelle—get out of my head now before I kill you!

The drive home is thick and slow like pudding. Adelle looks at me and smiles a half-smile that says please let us forget this. Again I find myself resisting a subtle urge to hit her. As I drive just shy of recklessly, I wonder what is happening. Why I am so angry at her for doing just what I did. But reason and logic are luxuries enjoyed by those with foresight, of which I have none, so I let my rage grow and feed itself.

I have a million things to say to her and I succeed in saying nothing.

We arrive home, and I see her naked again. She is taking off her clothes very carefully. She always does this. She stands at the foot of the bed and pulls off each piece and folds it, only to throw it into the hamper. She is so strange it’s almost lovely. She’s so lovely I’m almost sick.

I go to bed dressed under the guise that while I was sober enough to drive, I am too drunk to unbuckle my belt. For the sake of the sheets I remove my shoes.

Ten minutes in the dark and she touches my back, says I am the one she loves. She says it strongly, but slowly in the vowels, like she knows that my brain is falling apart and that it may take time for me to hear her. I say nothing. I snore a bit to fool her.

Time passes slowly and in a zigzag, so I lie awake and count the ways in which my marriage has become like rice paper, sugar cubes, and sand castles. One: it is flimsy. Two: it is fickle. Three: it will dissolve if ever it gets wet. Which means I absolutely cannot cry.

Morning arrives. I say to the still-asleep body next me, “I touched another woman last night and I liked it.” I say, “I’d rather have her than you!” I say, “Marcus and I are twins now, having gone to the same place and spewed there.” I say, “I hope this ends us.” None of it is cathartic because none of it is true. Except for Marcus and me being twins now.

Later Adelle asks, “Do you have much on your mind?” It is noon but I am just eating breakfast. I am at the kitchen counter and am chewing eggs and waffles, so I wait to answer. My brain twirls in the meantime.

You are dead to me! I want you forever! Love me! Love me? Oh sure, go ahead. I’ll let you. Actually, I can’t stand to be around you. Your face makes my heart hurt. You make me choke. Forgive me for everything and I’ll forgive you. We’ll take time back. Do over. Repeat. Rollover? Mulligan. Then, a little bit later, bitch!

“Too much,” I say eventually.

I want to say something real, so I don’t.

I throw my waffle at her chest instead and it sticks. She peels it off and throws it back. It lands on the counter, so I put it on my plate and begin to eat it all over again because why waste a good thing.

“Why’d you say yes?” I ask in a fury disguised as a joke.

She stares and says, “Well, why’d you?”

Adelle loves to wrestle. It isn’t about sex. Well, sometimes it is. Sometimes we wrestle and I’ll pin her and she’ll kiss my collarbone and my entire body will go rigid. I’ll fall prey to her smell. I’ll collapse into her.

But other times we just wrestle. She says it’s about touch. She just likes the way it feels, her body all wrapped up in mine.

I’ll be sitting at the counter—I don’t know, I’ll be typing an e-mail—and she’ll poke me in the side and say, “You are soggy and weak, like refrigerated curly fries.” And I’ll say, “I will crush you with all my man powers!” To which she’ll say, “Prove it.”

We’ll maneuver to a couch or a bed and commence. I’ll charge first or she will. It’s tender but fierce and I worry about bruising her, which I do. She worries about my nose, which occasionally ends up bleeding.

It’s always been love firm enough to feel.

But now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time we battled. Has it been a week or a month or a year? This is when I begin to wonder if everything between us has died.

I imagine how I would answer her question:

Why’d you?

Why’d I what?

Say yes.

I said “Sure.”

They are the same.

There are small differences.

What are they?

I don’t know, but I’m sure there are some.

There aren’t. So why did you?

I don’t know.

That isn't a good enough answer.

I don’t know how to answer it. What do you want me to say?

Say anything.

Does it have to be true?


I do have many things to say to you.

Say them.

It’s hard to.

They’re only words.

Words kill people.


I don’t know. I heard that once.

You think I’ll die?

No, but I might.


I’ve heard that it’s possible to stop your own heart if you really want to, only by thinking on it truly. Maybe I’d do that.

I don’t believe you.

For example, I’d say, “Just stop. Slow that beating down and just stop. Please. Just quit.” And it does.


I turn soggy and fall over sideways.

But you wouldn’t do that.

I’m afraid I might, fervent and inspired as I get by those silly things I tend to say.

What things?

Oh I don’t know, silly ones. Like “It’s raining snow cones!” when in fact it’s only snowing.

Silly things are the best kind.

I think so too.

Then say them.

To whom?


But you’re in my head. You’re imaginary.

“Well go on, ” says Adelle. “Why’d you? ”

“Oh for god’s sake I was only kidding! And you’re all serious about it and off we go to fuck a few strangers,” I say.

“They aren’t strangers.”

“What do you know about them?”

“Oh, Charlie. Please. We play tennis with them. She’s the better of the two. They both prefer salmon over halibut. Remember that dinner? They said that about the fish,” says Adelle.

“See? They’re strangers. You know nothing about them.”

“Well, that isn’t even the point,” says Adelle.

“What is?” I ask.

“Is there a catastrophe here? Is that what this is?” she asks.

I nod and she frowns.

“For God’s sake, Charlie,” she says.

“What do you want me to say, Adelle?”

“I want to know what you are thinking and what you feel. Say anything! Please. Anything.”

“I have nothing!” I say.

“I know that you do!” she screams.

I say a lie. For some reason it feels good when I say it. I don’t know why.

“You ache to fuck Marcus, I know it!”

She looks startled, as if I’d poked her with a pin.

“No,” she says, her voice deflated.

I wonder what she may be feeling. Maybe she feels the same as I do (murderous fury comes to mind, although so do those simple emotions: sadness, fear). Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I would say to her: I don’t know what I was thinking. It was stupid, wasn’t it? Silly. I said yes because . .. oh I don’t even know. Maybe I wanted to see what you would say back. I wanted to see if you still loved me. If you would say to them, “No! Never! He’s mine and always will be! You can’t have him!” Is that wrong? And she would say, Jesus, Charlie, yes. What were you thinking? You could have just asked. You could have said, “Do you still love me?” And I would have told you. I would have said yes. Charlie! I would have said yes! Then we could fill our holes or patch them. We could repair ourselves.

But I refuse to speak because there is nothing scarier than being honest, and I have never been a brave man. Despite my wish to be.

She comes at me with a dinner plate, and I hear a sharp crack! as it collides with my skull. I don’t feel much. It just feels funny. I don’t know, I think maybe I should laugh about it.

“What was I supposed to say, Charlie?” she says. “For god’s sake, you had already said yes! If I hadn’t, I’d have been the prude wife that needs to live a little. I would’ve been the wife that strangled her husband for fear of losing him. I felt strange and awkward and out of time! Or something! I had no words and so I borrowed yours.”

All right, so it hurts. My jaw.

I say, “I didn’t say ‘Yes.’ I said ‘Sure.’”

She is uncontrollable and I am surprised at her fury. She is shaking me back and forth by my sleeve and collar, and I think I’m getting motion sick.

“Say something!” she yells.

I grab a large paper sack and put it over my head. I focus and slow my breaths. I rebreathe. I reevaluate my heartbeat. But all of it is fleeting and the calm escapes me. I resume my quick and shallow gasps. I want to tell her that her breathing trick is bullshit.

I am sitting on the couch. It is night, though the moon is fierce and the light filters brightly through the window. I have a box of wine on my left. I am trying to coerce it out of its cardboard dress. Adelle approaches me. Isn’t she beautiful?

She sits next to me and she touches my shoulder. “The nice thing about catastrophes,” she says, “is that they are peanuts or raisins or beans. If you address one at a time, they’re only bite-sized. They’re easier to swallow. We can love despite this, Charlie. We can.”

I want to say, Yes! I want to shout it. Only I don’t. Only I can’t. And so I discover that I am not human. At least not by her measure. I discover that I am weak. That I am flimsy. That my soul would dissolve if ever it were wet.

In the morning I take my clothes and my record collection and I disperse. Down the stairs and through the kitchen, then to the door and out of it. I walk to my car and I admire its windshield. It reflects a sky that is a thick and dreary blue.

The rain starts and I am without an umbrella, standing there on the driveway like an idiot in a waterfall wondering how he got there. Water hits my skin and I feel as if I’m melting. I turn around so I can memorize all that I’m losing. Adelle is there in the window. She’s in her pajamas. She has mascara all over her cheeks and she is smiling one of those half-smiles that are optimistic but shouldn’t be. Like Come back inside asshole and I’ll kiss you.

Saturday, January 1, 2011