In the months before their separation, Priya had been subject to predictable dreams, textbook things.
She’d be a child again, running up slick marble stairs in sock feet and then tumbling, wildly, airborne, free of anything solid, waking suddenly in a sweat, muscles clenched in expectation of the inevitable snap of impact.
In another that repeated, her childhood dog, but bigger and shaggier, would be sleeping, its head on her stomach, only to suddenly wake in a rage, bite her, clamp her arm in its teeth, jaw locked, shaking back and forth, growling.
She told Ben these dreams sometimes. Sometimes she didn’t.
Ben never dreamt, or, as he’d been told by physicians and coaches, a college psychology professor, a few stoner friends, and even the erstwhile couples counseling therapist Priya has insisted he go with her and try, he dreamt, he had to dream, everyone did, to stay sane, to balance out brain chemicals and such, to keep from hallucinating in traffic midday, but he, he had a condition wherein he didn’t remember his dreams, ever.
He had heard various explanations for it, but it remained to him a sort of curse, a special burden, both of memory and of comprehension.
As Ben figured it, he had to work harder just to get by in life. Whatever other people got told or managed to realize through their dreams, Ben had to riddle out as he went along, piece by piece—the who and where and why of every scene.
He didn’t forget things per se, but the connections between always remained vague, the details confusing, blurred, and he felt he had to rely on a kind of puzzle-work, using the future to figure out the present and the past.
It was as if he woke up in the middle of things, events happening around and to him, but with circumstances already formed, lacking any exposition or background.
In this way, he came to feel that he was a victim of his own life.
In one of Priya’s dreams, she was dropped from the sky into a flood, where she had to learn all over again how to swim, how to dog-paddle or just tread water, to stay afloat in rocking, increasingly towering waves.
That, Ben thought when he heard it, is how it is for me, always.
In the months before their separation, Ben stopped sleeping with Priya, at least for most of the night.
He would stay up late in front of the TV, dozing in his recliner, coming to bed only after she was already asleep, often at nearly dawn, the blinds of the bedroom gone reddish pink, a sore and swollen color.
But then he found it hard to sleep and would lay awake on his back pondering things, turning things over in his mind to get a feel for their weight and contours.
Sometimes Priya made noises—whimpering, moans. Sometimes she snored. Sometimes she drooled. Sometimes she did some or all or none of these things.
She was hot. This is what he told the guy on the so-called date and party line, a California number with only standard long-distance charges.
She was a yoga instructor and could touch the soles of her feet to the crown of her head by curling up in a C-shape on her stomach, or put both feet behind her neck by curling in a sort of pretzel-shape, splayed at the crotch.
He had his dick in his hand, and he was telling this guy about the sort of head she gave, how her nose always ran, so sloppy, with such thick liquid sounds, and, yes, she would let it pop, audibly, out of her mouth and wipe her chin with the back of her wrist and—.
The phone cut to elevator music, a piano cover of an old Depeche Mode song. The guy had hung up, finished, so Ben hung up, too. He’d lost the mood.
With television, either spliced by the remote or, late at night, fading in and out with his own consciousness, Ben experienced something innate to his condition.
There was some hint here to the greater secret, and something soothing about the contained aspect of it, how here he could work a test case, solve a small-scale mystery.
He read backwards from what he was presented with: the invention of saltwater taffy, the life cycle of a tribute band. He dreamt via his thumb’s quick pulse on the remote control.
In life, the margins were always wider, and never so clean.
One day he woke up in the ladies’ room of Keefer’s Steak House with this ample, wide-boned pair of hips in his hands, gripping them hard from behind, just as one day some time before that he had found himself unable to breathe in his own marriage, found himself telling a secretary down the hall at work this fact, in those words, via e-mail, a message that went on to say how she shouldn’t wear panties to work, that it should be in her job description, along with somehow maintaining that miraculously perfect ass. He had described it like that, as a miracle, and she had written back instantly, telling him that her panties were things of beauty on their own terms, the colors of juice and wine and candy, to which he requested that she get wet and send them to him via interoffice mail in a padded manila envelope, which she did, all of which seemed, in hindsight, in the moments and months after his separation from Priya, of Priya’s separation from him, like a cause, or something resembling a precursor, a clue to the course of subsequent events.
He started again. He called one of the remaining 1-800 teaser lines, listened to the recording, two girls giggling, freshly shaved, begging for you to stick it in . . . your credit card, that is. He hung up.
For a while he half-stroked to the Spanish video channel, but it wasn’t consistent enough. If he were a TV executive there would be blocks devoted solely to erotic imagery, with no cuts to the guitarist and his lizard pants or breaks for ads about car insurance, rib tips. Not that, to be honest, he didn’t love late-night advertisements. Maybe this was an aesthetic in itself, divorced, so to speak, from any larger uniqueness of his personality, just an innocent quirk, that he loved men in eagle costumes flying through the air to deliver re-mortgages to poor families in the form of giant eggs; home appliances capable of slicing, cooking, and serving hundreds of tasty and nutritious meals; personal injury lawyers implying that you, too, had likely suffered a personal injury as the result of employer negligence, were unable to work but able to receive compensation for your loss.
Sometimes in the months before their separation, Priya would wake him up to tell him that she was going to bed, to point out to him that he was already sleeping, that it made good sense for him to just turn off the TV and join her, though sometimes, of course, she didn’t, and perhaps she stopped doing it in proportion to how long it went on, giving up or, privately, coming to take a kind of pleasure in it, relief at the new width of the bed, the new silence of the bedroom.
How exactly they stopped fucking, or when, or at least around what time the frequency cut off, so that they no longer did it in the morning before she left for the studio, nor in the evenings before dinner nor after dinner nor in the middle of the night nor on weekends when she came back from classes, salty and limber, all remained, to him, a mystery.
He could remember one failed time on the rug, and another attempt in the shower, at his initiation, halfhearted, that left them both just angry at the way things were, but he couldn’t remember when he went from standard, aimless flirting to actual, intentional pursuit of the secretary at work, or precisely when it was that he first realized—watching a show where B-list celebrities competed against each other by jumping into an ice-cube-filled pool and then jogging, in white T-shirts, down a steep road—that he was no longer sexually attracted to his wife, that the thought of it, doing it, her, bored him, frustrated him even, by being so boring, so awkward and routine.
She was still attractive physically, and he recognized this, appreciated it, both her body and, like, her face—pretty, cute—but he didn’t want to shuffle through the farce of fucking her.
And he still wanted to fuck.
He told the girl as much, on the next line, and she made a shocked sound, a gasp, and said something about wanting to get to know him first, asked what he looked like.
When he said he didn’t know, didn’t care, she gave a nervous laugh and asked where he lived, was he calling from home, was he single, married, with a girlfriend, and he, who had already paid twelve to twenty dollars for the privilege of being stalled out this far, hung up, flaccid again, with a dry mouth, shivering.
To describe yourself over the phone sex lines, Ben felt, was a particular form of humiliation. The customer should simply be spared such things, but who writes letters in complaint to such companies? I should contact my senator, he thought, but he’d reached the point where even his own jokes failed to amuse him.
He got up and went for another beer, not because he wanted it or even intended to drink more than a few sips of it, but just because he could, because the act gave him a temporary sense of purpose and, in the larger scope, reasserted his neo-bachelorhood.
Ben wasn’t much of a drinker, and the beer was something with honey and oats, microprocessed, tasting of a bakery. Michael, his friend and lawyer, had brought over two six-packs the day before, which had been an immediate bad omen, a way for Michael to segue into urging Ben to hire someone else, someone with experience in divorce.
He and Priya had been separated for half a year, but it wasn’t legal yet. The process of discovery was still ongoing, the seeming strategy of her bitch lawyer being to bleed her dry and then bleed him dry and leave them both penniless with rich lawyers, after God knows what amount of time, meanwhile him being unable to sell this place, to move somewhere cheaper, and all the while?
What was she thinking, Priya, letting herself be used by this woman? She didn’t want a fight, not his Priya, she was just, as usual, in over her head, excessively emotional, not understanding or even thinking about the consequences.
And, on a less compassionate note, how much was she forgetting, his wife, whose yoga training he’d paid for back when they were still dating, back when he paid all the rent, and that chunk of her student loans, and her credit cards, and all those necklaces or jackets or the season she said she wanted symphony tickets, or those nights at Keefer’s—.
Ben was tempted to send her a text. He knew she wouldn’t pick up the phone, but he was tempted to call her, too. Instead, he called another number. He watched a show wherein post-rehab celebrities were given a second chance at fame.
Their idiot couples therapist had suggested that his sense of disconnectedness was a defense strategy and asked clichéd questions about Ben’s childhood, his parents, in response to which Priya had volunteered some facts.
The theory went that maybe it was an act of repression, his lack of dreams, an unconscious forgetting because, if remembered, they’d just say too much.
But Ben was suspicious of the cleanliness of psychological solutions.
That was one thing Priya, for a while at least, had been all about, an absolute certainty that this equaled that, x for o. Behind every illness, a chakra; behind every character trait, a Freudian blip from childhood history.
Her allergy treatments, via chiropractics? Her Reiki sessions? The Rolfing, the whack with the magic stick? Who had paid for that, Priya? Who bought that rancid detoxifying mushroom tea, or who let it grow, ferment, reproduce, in the big plastic jugs in the refrigerator? Hell, who paid the electric bill?
Better to get bitter, to feel it all, the abandonment and insult. She took things of his, his wife, stole from him: the brand-new leather couch, a sectional, or the likewise L-shaped and practically unused Pottery Barn desk for the home office. He’d come home to find his computer and printer sitting on the dusty floor, next to a stack of old tax files, which she probably now wished she’d had the movers load up, as that bitch lawyer had filed for them anyway.
Of course she’d kidnapped almost all of the wedding presents, the photographs, things he wouldn’t mind having around for sentimental reasons (what other reason is there for big Japanese pottery vases or heavy brass bookends shaped like interlocking hearts?).
And she left things that seemed designed to hurt him in just that way, like the orange press mounted on the kitchen counter, which, sure, he picked out, but Ben had never liked any sort of fruit juice and Priya always had and though they only used the thing once or twice, for guests, it was such a presence in the kitchen and he wanted, wished, that she had taken it as a gesture, to keep it with her and remember him. Her leaving it seemed a slap, a constant insult, the hulk of the metal thing sticking out its tongue at him, making him feel worthless and left behind.
His home could use a little less practicality, some fluff, the feminine touch of throw pillows, for instance, or even the absent comforter, or those stupid monochromatic photographs of hallways that had lined the hallway, which was now empty except for six too-symbolic nails.
Priya had accused him of treating their marriage like a game, but what the hell did that mean?
What sort of game, with what stakes? How seriously does one take it, and what are the rules?
She had screamed at him, over the phone, that he had never been serious about being faithful, about being hers, but that wasn’t it at all, it was more the details, how while he thought that monogamy was a great idea, it didn’t make any sense in terms of sexual fidelity, of being shut off from options and growing more and more bored.
Neither of them enjoyed the sex anymore, and nothing was going to change that except for a break, some strange on the side, which would ultimately remind him of how and why he wanted her, make him want her again.
He thought it made sense—was healthy and logical—for them to take a little time off, mess around, not be all bound to some Ozzie and Harriet routine of clicking off their reading lights simultaneously and sleeping back to back.
Hell, she could fuck someone else, or at least flirt heavily. He liked the idea, both liked and loathed it, meaning it got a rise out of him, riled him up, made him hard and breathless. Before their marriage, when they were still dating, living together, in their hottest and happiest phase, he had liked dressing her up or down and showing her off at local bars, perching her on a bar stool in her pleated corduroy mini, her tits in a pushup bra, her blouse half unbuttoned. Priya, planting her legs at an A angle and studying the jukebox selection . . .
In one fight after she left she said that this had been abuse, that he had demanded it, but he remembered her willingness and the rush of it reflected in her eyes, both of them talking about doing it at rougher bars, riskier bars, but only doing it, of course, in good neighborhoods, the eyes of men on her legs and body, then both of them going home, feverish, tearing at each other.
He had more of a plan with the next number, felt wise to the system.
He wanted it to be quick, cheap in the sense of inexpensive. No tactics of pleasantries or transparent stalling devices.
And none of this shit, either, where the girl told him her name. Shouldn’t he, the customer, be the one to tell her what he wanted her to be called, how he wanted her to look, what he wanted her to do?
Phone sex, somehow, always turned into an exercise in being stripped of agency, inflicting flaccidity, wearing down and crushing the callers, reducing them to some therapeutic posture where they blabbered on about their wife and how they weren’t getting any and then begged for validation, hanging on the line for hundreds of dollars worth of—
Hey, baby, the voice giggled.
You fucking bitch, he said, Suck this cock, you whore.
And then he hung up. He was rock hard.
Ten dollars at most, and worth every penny.
On the TV, in pieces, through the night, was a movie about a giant snowman, a snowman who killed women, chasing them around and shooting thick slivers of ice right through them, literally nailing them to walls. The evidence just melted away, as one of the detective characters said before meeting a chilly death himself.
Ben watched some, as he surfed through, waiting for the sexy parts, like how, in the end, the monster got liquefied by a crunchy-banged blonde with a blow-dryer and a wet towel that somehow stayed wrapped around her wriggling, screaming body, her slow-pitch-softball tits. Her horror-movie tits—that should be the name for the measure of them, Ben considered.
What impressed him, overall, was how a thing can be seized and perverted. Frankly, snowmen had never, before tonight, been frightening, but they were now utterly and irredeemably so, their gnarly twig fingers and their coal-black eyes. The action and cheap humor of the climactic hairdryer-wielding end didn’t fix that, nor did the closing credits with their animated snowflakes.
Snowmen were frightening now.
Things got tainted, carried with them the mark of association.
He wanted this behind them as a couple, to be able to look at each other with clear eyes, hindsight, and be friends again, even to date, casually, starting anew, the two of them like old times at Keefer’s, a dozen roses waiting for her, some fresh shrimp or asparagus or whatever was on that short list of foods she really loved.
They should be friends, were friends, but needed to be better friends. Maybe their friendship was a little rocky right now, but it would prevail.
Priya had to insist, regardless, on being the one to leave him.
That was how she defined herself, he guessed, though maybe also, in her logic, he’d taken the initiative by having the affair— he had, as she said, or screamed, one night, called the whole thing off.
But he hadn’t, not at all. He was not going to lose his marriage over some Cuban secretary, was not willing to, not considering it, wasn’t even going to really date that woman, though they were something of an office couple and, yes, they fucked, in hotels and public places, parking spots, in ways that were hot and new and flirted with danger, that had whatever element Priya had stopped being able to provide, and that he, surely, had stopped being able to provide for her.
So why couldn’t they both just be honest about that and work on from there? Was he less of a husband in any way? Did he beat her, steal from her, kick her out on the street?
There had been lies, sure, but Ben felt strongly that lies came in different categories, valences. Not to defend lying, but, really, a miniature deception or untruth, the sort of quote-unquote lie one tells to imply that, no, he didn’t have his hand in someone in the storeroom or, for that matter, in the Keefer’s ladies’ room, which felt doubly taboo, wild, euphoric, that sort of quote-unquote lie is entirely unlike, say, lying to her about whether he had a job or not, or his savings account, or whether he had a secret wife and family somewhere else, whether he loved her.
He did love her, deeply, truly. Why couldn’t she realize that, why couldn’t she call off that bitch of a lawyer and just let the divorce get done, let them return to being friends, in new places, maybe sleeping over from time to time?
He was back on the party line, fighting to stay even semi-erect, and saying this, how that now she wasn’t there he missed her, the smallest things, her companionship, he said, or watching TV together, or the smell of her yoga mats, which was the biggest hit there in the chat rooms, eliciting a series of comparative questions about the smell, and the inquiry, illogical as it was, as to whether after all this time he still had any of her dirty panties on hand.
He listened to a man talk about his stepdaughter, her cheerleading routine, and he thought, unerotically but somehow still stroking through it, about how the day before there had been a miracle parking spot right smack in front of the building, at the gate, perfect, and extra long, easy, and Ben was tempted, as he had done in winters, winter after winter, to stand there in it, to block it off, to claim it, as he had for her, Priya, his wife, back even before she became his wife. He thought about sending her a text: Babe, you’ll never believe the parking space that’s free—right in front! He decided against it. He sent her this one instead: Let’s finish this quick. I miss dinners with you at Keefer’s.
Finish this quick indeed. He hung up on the freak with the stepdaughter, who sounded fake anyway, too many bottled phrases about hairlessness, tight pink. He didn’t need any more professionals or perverts, and anyway, he needed to piss.
It was the sort that kept restarting or ending falsely, a piss on the installment plan, all making him feel even older, and turning his mind to disease, to contemplation of the shape of his prostate and how Michael had urged a checkup that included a finger test as well a camera inserted up his urethra. He was not a young man anymore, hadn’t been young for a while, was nearly divorced.
No use thinking that it wouldn’t happen, and anyway, as he had told Michael, he was coming to terms with it, really, with being single again, and enjoying it, except for the overwhelming feeling of loss.
Back in the recliner, Ben caught a fragment of a show about surgery, facial reconstruction. There was a reenactment of a dog attack, a mauling.
When had they stopped liking the same TV shows? That seemed a more productive question.
When had they ceased to be comfortable in the same room, on the same couch? Their marriage, their relationship, wasn’t just sex, wasn’t only about sex. Why couldn’t they just be?
He dialed another number, keyed in his credit card, its expiration date, the three-digit code from the back. Ben felt that migraine intensity of boredom, a wall of it, an ache. He wasn’t ready to go again, wasn’t even mildly aroused, just wanted some—
No, no special requests, he told the operator, instantly regretting it.
Hey, honey, the voice said. Too old, a smoker, rust in her throat.
How can you stand yourself? he asked. How can you handle it, your life?
She started talking as he put the phone down, talking back, but he didn’t care, or he did, but it was part of the point.
Too pathetic, he kept thinking, about all of it, about everything.