Poor Devil

They were, sadly, splitting up and leaving the house they'd shared for eight years. Who knew where a kiss would take them?

My ex-wife and I are sitting on the floor of what was once our living room. The room is empty now except for us. This place is the site of our marital decline, and we are performing a ritual cleansing on it. I've been washing the hardwood with a soapy disinfectant solution, using a soft brush and an old mop, working toward the front window, which has a view of the street. My hands smell of soap and bleach. We're trying to freshen the place up for the new owners. The terms of sale do not require this kind of scouring, but somehow we have brought ourselves here to perform it.

We're both battered from the work: Emily fell off a kitchen stool this morning while washing the upstairs windows, and I banged my head against a drainpipe when I was cleaning under the bathroom sink. When I heard her drop to the floor, I yelled upstairs to ask if she was okay, and she yelled back down to say that she was, but I didn't run up there to check.

When my wife and I were in the process of splitting up, the house itself participated. Lamps dismounted from their tables at the slightest touch; pictures plummeted from the wall, the glass in their frames shattering, whenever anyone walked past them. Destruction abounded. You couldn't touch anything in here without breaking it. The air in the living room acquired a poisonous residue from the things we had said to each other. I sometimes thought I could discern a malignant green mist, invisible to everyone else, floating just above the coffee table. We excreted malice, the two of us. The house was haunted with pain. You felt it the minute you walked in the door.

Therefore this cleaning. We both like the young couple who have bought the house, smiling, just-out-of-school types with one toddler and another child on the way. We want to give them a decent chance. During our eight years together Emily and I never had any kids ourselves, luckily—or unluckily. Who can say?

Anyway, now that we've been cleaning it, our former dwelling seems to have calmed down. The air in the living room has achieved a settled, stale quietude, as if we never lived here. The unhappiness has seeped out of it.

Emily is sitting on the floor over in the corner now, a stain in the shape of a Y on her T-shirt. She's taking a breather. I can smell her sweat, a vinegary sweetness, quite pleasant. She's drinking a beer, though it's only two in the afternoon. She's barefoot, little traces of polish on her toenails. Her pretty brown hair, always one of her best features, is pulled back by a rubber band in the sort of ponytail women sometimes make when they're housecleaning. Her face is pink from her exertions, and on her forehead she has a bruise from where she fell.

She's saying that it's strange, but the very sight of me causes her sadness—a complicated sadness, she informs me, inflecting the adjective. She's smiling when she says it, a half smile, some grudges mixed in with this late-term affability. She takes a swig of the beer. I can see that she's trying to make our troubles into a manageable comedy. I was Laurel; she was Hardy. I was Abbott; she was Costello. We failed together at the job we had been given: our marriage. But I don't think this comedic version of us will work out, even in retrospect. She tells me that one of my mistakes was that I thought I knew her, but no, in fact I never really knew her, and she can prove it. This is old ground, but I let her talk. She's not speaking to me so much as meditating aloud in the direction of the wall a few feet above my head. It's as if I've become a problem in linear algebra.

My general ignorance of her character causes her sorrow, she now admits. She wonders whether I was deluded about women in general or about her in particular. To illustrate what I don't know about her, she begins to tell me a story.

But before she can really get started, I interrupt her. "'Sorrow,'" I say. "Now there's a noun from our grandparents' generation. Nobody our age uses words like that anymore except you. Or 'weary.' You're the only person I know who has ever used that word. I'm weary, you'd say, when you didn't look weary at all, just irritable. And 'forbearance.' I don't even fucking know what forbearance is. 'Show some forbearance'—that was a line you used. Where did you find those words anyway?"

"Are you done?" she asks me. We're like a couple of tired fighters in the fifteenth round.

"What's wrong with saying 'I'm bummed'?" I ask her. "Everyone else says that. 'I'm bummed.' 'I'm down.' 'I'm depressed.' 'I'm blue.' But you—you have a gift for the … archaic." I am trying to amuse her and irritate her at the same time, so I wink.

"I wasn't depressed back then," she says. "I was sad. The two aren't the same." I scuttle over to where she is sitting and take a swig from the beer can she's been clutching. Only the beer is gone. I take a swig of air. Okay; we may be divorced, but we're still married.

Before I met her, but after she had dropped out of college, Emily moved to the Bay Area. This was quite a few summers after the Summers of Love, which she had missed—both the summers and the love. She rented a cheap basement apartment in Noe Valley, one of those places with a view of the sidewalk and of passing shoes, and during the day she worked in a department store, the Emporium, in the luggage department.

I interrupt her. "I know this," I say. "I know this entire story."

"No, you don't," Emily tells me. "Not this one." One of her co-workers was a guy named Jeffrey, a pleasant fellow most of the time, tall and handsome, though with an occasional stammer, and, as it happens, gay. He proved himself an effective salesman, one of those cheerful and witty and charming characters you buy expensive items from, big-ticket items, out of sheer delight in their company.

This co-worker, Jeffrey, befriended Emily soon after she had moved to San Francisco. An amateur guide and historian of tourist spots and dives, he showed her around the city, took her to the wharf and the Tenderloin District. He loved the city; he had had his first real taste of a possible future life there in that city, a potential hereafter of happiness. My wife-to-be and this Jeffrey rode BART over to Berkeley once and had a sidewalk vegetarian lunch—mock-duck tacos, she says—at a seedy little restaurant devoted to higher consciousness. On another day he drove her to Mount Tam in his rattly old blue VW. He'd brought sandwiches and wine and some pastry concoction he had made himself, as a picnic offering. They ate their picnic in the shade of a tree, the FM radio in his car serenading them with Glenn Gould. Why did he go to all this trouble? Emily says he was just being a friend, and then she pauses. "His boyfriend had left him a month before," she says, looking at her bare feet on the floor of our empty living room. "So he was lonely. And he was one of those gay men who have a latent hetero thing going on." How did she know this? She shrugs. She could tell by the way he looked at her sometimes. On a few rare occasions he looked at her the way a man looks at a woman.

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