I’m told I should get a new husband. This one has gone dead, as they always do. No matter how much I prod him, there’s no response, no way to tell if he can feel it. His face has long since melded with the skin below my left armpit, and he’s minnow-sized, small, even for a man, as small as the day I first plucked him from his saltwater tank.
I remember still his wriggling shape, pale face like a flickering heart, rising up from the murky green among a mass of sea-brine brothers. The others sang and catcalled with shrill whistles—how are they all so loudmouthed when their mouths are so small, I wonder—but my husband’s face was eager and bright and filled with iridescent candor. When he whistled at me the sound was long and plaintive, like a breeze hooting over the neck of a wine bottle. And call me a sap, but that sound pinned my heart like a moth under glass.
I cupped him in my hand and drew him from the water, ran my finger over his teeth, allowed him to draw blood. He tasted me, wanted me. (They starve if they don’t have a wife, of course.) His mouth was his only orifice. No anus. No digestive tract. His boneless limbs curled charmingly when I held him up to the light for inspection. You can always see the emptiness of men through their translucent flesh. They remind me still of the tiny crystal bells my grandmother used to search for at flea markets.
That day we were married by the authority of the municipal ichthyologist. My husband latched himself on, and I shivered as his teeth sank in.
I would say that I hosted him tenderly, mon petit sangsue, my little parasite. At the time, I had a job at a lab in Long Island, where I worked as a physicist analyzing data from the supercollider. But it was dull, lonely work, and he was such support, such good company. He would twitch out romantic missives in Morse code. He told epic stories of his blind, oceanic birth, the brothers he would never see again, the mother he’d never know. We took many long walks after work in the evening. I’d wander shirtless on the boardwalk in the summertime, let the salt air stick to our skin. Our skin. His and mine.
When we made love, we always climaxed together. I would feel his rhythm against me, the intrepid shuddering of his spine, a burst in my bloodstream. Then he would curl into the warm-scented damp of my armpit, and we’d sleep like the dead.
I understood him, I think. The most painful part is that I understood him.
Two years after we were married, I remember sitting in a plastic chair in that icy clinic. A brisk fertility specialist thrust over our test results as though serving us legal papers. He was sterile, my husband. Shooting blanks. He cringed when the specialist explained it, bunching up against my skin like a love knot. But secretly I was relieved. I’d just been asked to come aboard the STAR Project at the lab, to investigate the primordial matter of the universe shoulder to shoulder with some of my greatest contemporaries. There would be so much time involved in raising a daughter, or two, or six. It seemed like my colleagues always started having them in spates like that, accumulated them like tchotchkes. But for me, shivering in that clinic, I realized my work was more important, that I did not want children after all.
This was the first time I failed to be forthright with my husband about something so important, and on the drive home he seemed evasive, too, like he was disguising the weight of his unhappiness. He made mindless conversation. We need to call the plumber to fix that drain in the guest bathroom. We never went to that Jean Dubuffet exhibit at the Folk Art Museum and now it’s gone. We should look into adopting a dog. At one point, he even told me he wanted to write a memoir. I reached into the armhole of my shirt and stroked his spine. You should, love, I said. You should write a memoir.
As it turned out, he was quite serious about this, and since he hadn’t the means to compose the manuscript himself, that task fell to me. All day in the lab, I could feel him trembling to the roar of the supercollider, building sentences and paragraphs in his mind, stitching together his memories and speculations, his three dozen brothers, his unknowable mother; his own father was an appendage, too, probably long since dissolved. All day, he’d fixate on that story. His story. Ours. We’d come home from work, and I’d be tired and sore-shouldered, and he’d beg me to sit at the computer and transcribe for him, to spin the story of what it was like to be born in darkness, dredged up, and married.
Meanwhile, my responsibilities with the STAR Project increased, and some nights I came home so exhausted that I could not transcribe, and some nights I snapped at him and ignored him when he nestled against me, just pressed my face into my pillow until I found an uneasy sleep.
See, I supported his endeavors, I did. I supported them and thought it was a story he needed to tell, even though my friends and colleagues probably would’ve laughed, would’ve pitied us. Five years after our visit to the fertility specialist and he still hadn’t finished the manuscript. That was partly because I could only help him with it intermittently, and partly because of his creative anxieties, which only got worse. We need to go back and revise. Those words came to haunt my dreams. The birth scene isn’t right. He would waffle for an hour over the use of a being verb, a dependent clause, a semicolon. Once, for a whole week, he agonized about whether or not he should use the word “stygian,” that it might be too overtly cyclical to evoke the River Styx in an essay about birth, or maybe not cyclical enough. I became so enraged that I stuffed him in a wool sock and ran myself a bath, held my breath underwater until I was dizzy.
Later that night, I confronted him with the facts: I can’t work on your manuscript for you. I’m a project supervisor now. There’s just too much going on.
He went sullen, twisting himself away, as if he could pluck his face from the hold of my skin.
We can come back to it. Once you’ve cleared your head. You’re taking it all too seriously, it’s just words after all.
My husband did not reply.
Do you agree?
He barely twitched. I couldn’t tell if he’d said yes or no. I didn’t ask him to clarify.
Maybe I should’ve known then. Maybe I did know and had not admitted it to myself: he was getting weaker. His Morse code was slurred, less coherent, an additional reason why transcribing had become so tedious.
My husband was deteriorating.
I had known it would happen eventually. Some of my colleagues, in fact, had multiple husband-appendages; one would go dead, and they’d get another applied, like a fresh tattoo. We all do it, they’d say. Nothing to be ashamed about. But then came the day when my husband’s eyes merged with my flesh, and his ears did, too, and when I realized I could no longer speak to him, I felt a pang of love so strong I couldn’t breathe. I would not get a new husband. I had picked this one.
Looking back, I should’ve pushed him to finish the memoir, but I didn’t. He tired so easily. Like an alligator, he went many hours without moving. Then, around Christmastime, eight years after we were married, I tapped out a question on his spine—where for lunch: J.J.’s or Fontino’s? (He didn’t eat, but I at least liked to have his input.) He gave no reply.
I waited a moment and prodded him again.
Are you angry?
And, Are you punishing me for what I said last night about your weight? You know I was just teasing you, love. You weigh nothing at all to me.
My physician confirmed that he’d gone dead, which meant he was not a husband anymore. Just a flesh-lump. A feature of my body, like a mole or a sixth toe. She said I could have him removed if he was uncomfortable or inconvenient, but I said no.
How could I cut him off? What if he’s in there still?
My physician gave a gentle smile, as one does when responding to the optimism of a child.
But I’m not one to stay still. I’m not one to mope. In fact, I’ve never worked harder than in those weeks after my husband stopped responding. I threw myself headlong into my research. I remember huddling with my team in a fluorescent-lit room, all of us sleep-starved and overcaffeinated, watching results stream in from the depths of the supercollider’s infinite atomic violence. We created quark matter, the primordial ooze of the universe, the kind of stuff produced in the pressurized cauldron of the Big Bang, the kind of stuff that emerged at the beginning of time itself. Our legacy. An origin story. Wondrous. Unsentimental. We huddled there, watching, so small and wide-eyed. Next to me, an intimate moment: a faceless lover under a colleague’s lab coat, wriggling out a breathless, congratulatory refrain.
No, I have not tried to finish my husband’s manuscript. That was his story. Besides, there simply wasn’t time, and any time I tried to read it, I’d hear in my mind the starving call of his brothers, surfacing from the greenish depths of their tank. I’d reach into the armhole of my blouse and stroke his spine. Our spine. My spine. Just attach a new one, they said. But I had picked this one.
My husband has remained inert for many years. Maybe in that time you’ve heard about my work on quark matter; it’s gotten recognition in certain circles. In fact, in a week or so, I’ll attend a banquet with my colleagues, where some prestigious committee will give me an award made of heavy glass. There I’ll stand behind an angular podium, the eager eyes of three hundred physicists upon me. Everyone will be dressed to the nines. Everyone glowing with the light of pink chandeliers and fizzy champagne. I will thank my strict mother, the tireless members of my team, my grad school advisor, my first project leader, who encouraged me to try harder, be better.
Also, I say, my husband. Thank you for the years of love and support you gave me.
Here’s the part where I remove my jacket. I want to let the crowd see him. They may find it odd; it’s my body now, not his, and really, I know there is nothing to see. They may exchange a look or two, note each other’s unsaid thoughts. It’s a bit maudlin of her. Age, I guess. But that moment will pass. To be polite, they will offer up their warm and modest applause.