The Old Economy Husband

A Short Story

It was that summer, the summer we were fifty and the little Cuban boy went home to no mother, not the first West Nile-virus summer but the second, the Hillary and Survivor summer, you know that summer, the summer the women were manhandled in Central Park and the kids lined up for Harry Potter, the summer we were fifty, all of us, fifty and holding, the ones a little older and the ones a little younger, fifty and holding, like thirty and holding only fifty, and it was summer and the ones who were rich were and the ones who weren't weren't, but we were all fifty, every one of us, and holding.

We were in the city that summer because we couldn't afford a vacation and we couldn't afford a beach house, because our oven died and it was vintage 1929 or something and connected to the dishwasher in some complicated way having to do with converted residential hotels—in other words irreplaceable—and one thing led to another and now we had $20,000 worth of European-made appliances on order. It was the summer we renovated the kitchen.

"Will you call the Miele place in the morning?" I asked Richard. "Will you remember to? Because I can't face it. Will you?" Our contractor was useless. Also he was in Brazil.

"I'll do it," Richard said. "I said I would."

"Because you have to sweetie, okay?" What was I, deaf? He said he would.

One minute I was disgusted with myself for owning a fancy dishwasher I couldn't even pronounce—Meal? Mee-lay? May-lay?—and the next I was in a rage over the incompetence of the people responsible for getting it to me. Those were the two ways I was.

Everything that used to be in the kitchen was spread out all over the living room. One thing about a renovation was you saw all the stuff you never used with sickening clarity: the useless, stupid juice glasses and the dust-encrusted early-eighties cappuccino maker and the rusted flour sifter and the grimy oven mitts from the Caribbean vacations—cartons of junk you dragged guiltily down the hall to the recycling room for the building staff to pick over. The bathroom was now the acting kitchen, and a lot of stuff that used to be in the living room, specifically the dining room, was in my office.

We ate dinner there, in front of the TV. It was summer, so pickings were slim. We were watching a biography of the actress Jane Seymour—Dr. Quinn, with the hair. How her first husband left her and her life was terrible, then she had a baby, then her life was terrible again, then she had another baby. Like that. Terrible, baby, terrible, baby, commercial, baby, baby, with some husbands thrown in and a castle and the hair.

Richard carried our dirty dinner dishes to the bathroom—it was his week to cook, and like a champ he'd brought in takeout burritos—and reappeared with dessert, from somewhere, on plates: pie. He kissed the top of my head. "Do you know that you're my fave?" he said. He said it a lot lately, probably picking up those voodoo vibes of double-dose Zoloft, of Tylenol PM addiction, of night-sweaty breakdown. Those crazy fifty-year-old women! He said, "You're my fave" instead of "I love you," instead of "Take whatever hormone you want, just don't get cancer," instead of "I'm sorry I already had children in my first marriage and didn't want any in my second and you didn't get to be a mother." Fine. He wasn't exactly sorry, but it was fine anyway. He was my fave too. That was me, married to the one man who made me feel like my fiercest, most clear-hearted twelve-year-old self and not to any of the men who made me feel that other way, that euphorically grandiose, desperately insecure, wildly libidinous twenty-five-year-old way.

We ate the pie.

Dr. Quinn was looking back, saying it was all worth it. I picked up the pie plates, headed for the bathroom, and considered walking straight out the door and shoving everything down the compactor. Throwing out was definitely doing it for me lately. I made a few mistakes: our income-tax files from 1990 to 1995, a set of Berlitz tapes (French), the zip-in lining to Richard's raincoat. But why tell him now, when it was only July and he wouldn't need the lining until November? If I were a mother, my kids could be grown and gone by now. Or they could be triplets about to turn three. Or murdered or run over or autistic or kidnapped or cancer-riddled and bald or schizophrenic or in prison or nanny-shaken or searching for their real mother or late getting home from school. At least I'd been spared that—that's what I told myself, because I knew I'd never survive any of those, not a chance.

It was my first summer on earth as an orphan. Wasn't that every kid's fantasy? Well, it had been mine. I loved the Hayley Mills "Biography." The Parent Trap was a great movie. My mother had died in the spring. I was used to my father's being dead—he'd been dead for three years, and I'd barely known him. Now I was fifty, not a mother, not a daughter, and the kitchen was in the living room and I didn't know how I was supposed to behave.

We went to bed, Richard instantly asleep and making those putt-putt noises. I bounced around violently a few times, blew softly into his ear, huffed off to the living-room sofa for a read, and came back to bed with my book; by then he'd quieted down. I fell asleep with the book open. At some point Richard woke, bookmarked my page, turned out the light, and nuzzled my lips with my bite guard until I put it in.

He was long and lanky, my husband, as straight-arrow decent as Jimmy Stewart. Not neurotic or tricky, not the least bit mean. He'd never taken a drug, not even pot. "Are you sure you're even an American?" I asked him. He never got pissed off at me, just came home with that open look on his face, now and then passing on stories about his temper—losing it with the poky old people in the supermarket checkout line, with the virago in the laundry room who took his still-wet clothes out of the dryer, with the punk who threatened him on a street corner. When he cupped my head with his hand while we made love, I was startled all over again at the largeness of it, at what a man's hand can be, and I liked it, those big fingers twined in my hair. I really liked it a lot, that largeness. I just kept forgetting how much I liked it—I had sexual-memory malaise, like one of those eccentrically damaged Oliver Sacks people who couldn't remember a conversation beyond five minutes ago. The Woman Who Couldn't Retain the Memory of Pleasure. Doesn't every marriage contain its own evil twin? Maybe I was ours. Melee, My Lai, malaise.

In the morning Richard made the coffee in the bathroom, and we asked each other how we had slept, and we read the Times.

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