Goldfish in a Bowl
A story about a dysfunctional marriage and choosing between two roads: a possible work fling, or the husband you've been married to for years?
A soft song plays on the radio as I drive, light flakes of snow drifting onto my windshield and falling away almost as fast as they come, as delicate as they are treacherous. How something so beautiful can be so deadly is mind-boggling, a painful reality. Stop to watch the snowfall, and it’ll slowly worsen around you until you find yourself trapped in a snowstorm you never even saw coming.
To use the words of Ernest Becker: “Mother nature is a brutal bitch.”
Eventually, I reach home, the lamp post light out front glowing off the trimmed hedges and crimson brick, the name ‘Moore’ popping in matte on the gleaming yellow mailbox. The freshly fallen snow frames the awning over our front porch and drapes over the hedges like a glaze, creating a striking image of an average, upper-middle-class house.
Home sweet home, huh?
Home is anything but sweet.
My foot gets caught as I climb out of the car, causing me to slip slightly and fall headfirst into my car door.
Once I regain my balance, I reach up to touch my head, my fingers coming away with bright drops of blood dripping from them. I grab a tissue from the Kleenex box in my car and hold it to the wound. At least my car wasn’t dented.
I slam the car door, tucking the neck of my pea coat closer to my chin, and even then, the wind seems to flow right through my 32-year-old bones. I shiver to the front door and slip my key in swiftly, practically leaping inside to escape the bitter chill.
My keys rattle as I drop them in their glass bowl by the front door, the subtleties in color, creating a collage of cerulean and agave. A couple of years ago, I had painted my house key orange, and in my exhausted state with it in the bowl, it almost looks like a floating goldfish in the sea. I’m interrupted in my thoughts by my husband clinking around in the kitchen. I can hear him grumbling softly to himself, and where a few years ago, his voice would have made me smile and unravel, now it just drains me.
Good god, I need a drink.
I walk into the room to find my husband rooting around in our cabinets. He “subtly” glances over his shoulder, his brown curls spilling onto his forehead and partially shielding his eyes from me, before slamming a box of microwaveable rice (when did we get that?) onto the counter. Old, dry rice spills off to the floor out of a small tear in the corner of the box, and I already mentally adjust my schedule to fit ‘clean up kitchen’ into my nightly routine.
“Why is the fucking pasta not in the right cabinet, Jim?”
I look at my husband through weary eyes, his face blurring together until I can almost forget it’s him standing in front of me, waving a box of cereal in my face like a flag.
“It was never in that cabinet, Oliver. It’s always been in the one on the right, above the refrigerator!”
“I was just trying to be nice and make you dinner since I know you had that big presentation for the Cynex deal. So I go looking for the pasta in the cabinet where it’s always been, and I find fucking cereal! We can’t eat this for dinner?!”
“SO MAKE THE PASTA!” I reach up into the cabinet above the refrigerator and pull out two boxes of thin spaghetti. Oliver sulkily takes the boxes from me, his slender frame rigid with tension.
He looks at me for a minute as we stand alone together in the kitchen, and I let him, let his green eyes roam my face and try to find whatever it is they’re looking for. He doesn’t seem to find it.
“I just...wanted to do something nice for you. I know that I — what happened to your head?!”
During our fight, I had completely forgotten about what had happened out in the driveway, and the reminder only sours my mood. “Nothing, I just...hit my head.”
“Hit your head? On what, an anvil?!”
I scoff, “No, just hit my head getting out of the car, is all. It’s nothing, go back to making the spaghetti. I’ll be back down in a bit.” Oliver’s face pinches, and it looks like he’s swallowing an egg, but instead of commenting, he turns around and takes a stockpot out of another cabinet.
For a second, I think about saying something. I think about spinning him back around and kissing him so hard that he forgets everything I’ve said to him. I think about taking him out to dinner to celebrate instead, fine dining and wine under romantic lighting. I think about saying I’m sorry.
The stairs creak as I walk up to our room to change.
Dylan, my longtime friend and co-worker, walks into the break room and sits next to me on the couch by the good microwave. He can’t take his eyes off the clock, even as I smile in greeting, and something in me can’t stand it.
“Short break today, Dyl Pickle?”
He shakes his head, some of his brown hair escaping from its neat comb-over, and glances at the floor, before leaning towards me conspiratorially.
“Marla has me working overtime AND during breaks! This is the last time I’m taking this, Jimmy! I’m through!” My chest feels tight at his words, and I wonder whether he’s thinking of leaving the company.
“Are you thinking of leaving the company?”
“No!” He says quickly, and his breath comes out in such a forceful burst that papers slip off the coffee table in front of us, floating to the floor. How can they manage to be so gentle in the face of such brutality? Alas, they are only pieces of paper, and have no answer for me.
“No,” Dylan says with less urgency, “But I am thinking of applying to switch departments. I heard that Marketing is looking for a new Assistant Director, that has to be a better deal than Marla “I-promise-you’ll-be-promoted” Switzer. What bullshit…” He slumps down and hangs his head between his knees. I hesitate for a second before rubbing his broad back in long, swooping motions. He practically purrs like a cat, and I press a little harder.
I almost trip on someone’s bag as I walk up the aisles of the university library, the girl huffing at me and angrily yanking her blue backpack under her chair. I feel a pang of guilt but continue to look around for an empty seat, the expansive cathedral that is the Boston College Library feeling both unbearably cavernous and suffocating.
The tension almost palpable, a haze among the students that builds as they scribble in their notebooks and annotate their textbooks. Finals are upon us, and with everything I have going on this semester, I’m feeling the pressure more than ever, which is why I’m in the library, on a Tuesday, at 8:30, in the morning, to review my notes for my class on Chaucer. As I scan the final row of tables by the windows, I see an empty seat, the table’s other occupant, a slender guy with brown curly hair, tucked somewhat into a forest green beanie. His sweatshirt says Boston College on it in loopy letters, and as I finally get to the table, I note that they don’t curl nearly as much as his eyelashes.
“Hi, do you mind if I sit here?” He takes out an earbud that I hadn’t realized he’d had in his ear.
“Huh — oh sure, of course.” His voice is pleasantly high, but not nasally. He gestures to the other seat, and I take that as my cue to sit down after hanging my coat on the back carefully. To my disappointment, he immediately puts his earbud back in, but I suppose I should be studying anyway. I open my book and try to read my handwriting, but I can’t help it as my eyes trail back up to stare at him. He sits on the other side reading as well, though his book of choice is Romeo and Juliet. His green bag (same shade as his hat) sits on the floor beside him with several pins on the front, my favorite reading “Sarcasm Academy 2008”. I can feel my ears glowing red as I think about how he might sound, saying something sarcastic or witty. I wish I could get him to speak again.
I know he can see me staring at him, as his eyes flick up now and then to meet mine. I always quickly look down at my notebook, playing with the frayed edges and staining my fingers with pen ink, but I can tell by the way his lips curl up at the corners that he’s caught on to my little game.
All too soon, my little Romeo gathers his things into his bag, and before he zips it closed, I catch a glimpse of two worn grey ballet shoes. A dancer.
He passes behind me as he leaves, and I can feel a brief but firm pressure against my upper back between my shoulder blades, then a sweeping caress as he gets too far to touch me anymore. I watch as he walks down the aisle, past the front desk, and eventually out the front doors, not once looking back.
I reach back and grab the note he had stuck to my shirt, eager to see what his handwriting looks like. On the Post-It are a name and a phone number. I can tell he was making an effort with the writing, as the lines, while clean, are a bit shaky as if he was trying to make his handwriting more beautiful than it usually is. Or was he nervous? Either option pointed to him being interested in me, and I continue to stare at the note long after the next, perplexed student takes the now-vacant seat.
His name is Oliver.
Sweat clings to his skin, dripping onto the bed from the tip of his nose. Jim looks down on me as he fucks me, his face a strange mixture of emptiness and lust. In what is too long and too short a time he finishes inside of me, his hands ceasing their grip on my thighs in one motion.
“I’ll be back.” He says as he slips off to the bathroom to brush his teeth. I watch his dick swing between his legs as he walks, simultaneously reaching into my bedside table for the single cigarette I’d borrowed from my coworker Adam. As I slip it between my lips, Jim returns to the room and tosses me a lighter with a winking fish on it (a novelty gift I’d bought for him when we first started dating).
“I wish you’d do that shit outside, babe.” But he still turns out the light and simply turns his back to the swirling smoke.
I stay there long after he’s fallen asleep. Long after even the college students from next door stumble home from the house party down the street. I’m awake to watch the sunrise, the soft oranges and pinks dancing across Jim’s peachy skin like a Monet painting. Eventually, my alarm goes off at a lower volume than I remember setting it, the blaring siren drifting through the quiet room and bouncing off the walls. The cigarette has long since turned to ash in my mouth and fallen. Despite the mess I know it’ll make I reach up with two fingers to rub at it lying on my pillow. I look at the cold, crumbling ash on my fingertips for a moment, before wiping it off on the sheets and getting up for work.
I tap and scrape my fork against my plate, glimpses of the floral pattern on the bottom peeking out occasionally from underneath gravy and mashed pea remnants. When I muster up the courage, I glance at the cat clock on the wall of the diner, and I can feel the eyes of the waitresses and patrons burning into my back like red-hot cigarettes, some judgmental, others pitying. Jim and I have been dating for three years, and this is not the first time he has been late for a date (though in his defense, he’s never forgotten completely). We’ve been coming to this same place, Mindy’s Diner, separately and together for many years, so let’s say that everyone has their own opinion on what it means that Jim isn’t here yet.
While I’m reading the drink menu for the millionth time (milkshake or virgin mojito?), I hear the entrance open, the familiar jingling bell causing my head to dart up instinctively. But it isn’t Jim, only some nameless truck driver stopping here late for a bite.
“He’ll probably get chicken and waffles and diet coke,” I say to the menu.
“Three chicken sliders for $5!” The menu shrieks back.
Time passes. I finally order a strawberry milkshake and an espresso, and when the waiter comes with them, I ask him for two straws, placing one on the other side of the table. I chug the entirety of the coffee, not even stopping to let the steam swirl in the air, before beginning to handlessly sip the thick strawberry concoction through one of the plastic straws. I start to fiddle with the wrapper, folding it into triangles over and over until I become bored with the game and toss the now crumpled ball onto the other side of the table as well.
Eventually, the bell rings again. This time I don’t look up.
The next night I manage to fall asleep almost immediately. I should have known it was too good to be true as soon as I see the circus tent in the distance flapping in the non-existent wind. Soon I’m running through the crowd swarming to get inside, sweat beading on my forehead and back, my cotton shirt clinging uncomfortably to my skin. My mind flashes back to my childhood memories of the circus, and the lights and laughter begin to take on a manic quality as I wade through the smoky tent, searching for the source of the sound. As I wander, I eventually somehow find myself back in my bedroom. The only things remaining from the circus are faint band music and a clown lying in bed where Jim had been only hours before. Grease makeup cakes its face, its red mouth beginning to drip and mix with the white like blood on fresh snow, making its yellow hair and outfit look even more nightmarish.
“You’ve missed the main event! But no worry!” The clown’s face turns grotesque, his eyes a swimming, harsh blue like the water in a motel swimming pool. “The show is only just beginning!”
The clown’s form begins to ebb and shift, its shoulders slimming and bulbous nose becoming a gentle freckled slope. I begin to recognize those green eyes, the familiarity wading through my dream consciousness until I whisper —
He grabs me forcefully by my biceps and slams me against the wall hard enough to bruise, but I don’t care. I hope he leaves a mark, fingerprints branded into my hips, thighs, neck, everywhere they can reach to remind me that he can still touch me this way.
But it’s Jim. I shy away, self-conscious.
He kisses me —
— and I kiss him back. His rough hand reaches toward me, cradling my face as he melts against me and slips his tongue inside my mouth. I can’t help but moan and lean forward further until —
My forehead cracks against the table, echoing throughout the breakroom and causing one of our administrative assistants Cindy to wince as she walks by the door. I don’t even react, only blinking like an idiot as I stare at the spot Dream Dylan’s hand had just been. My fingertips trail along my neck, landing on my lips as I desperately try to remember what they had felt like against his.
“No, what am I doing…?”
Hands latch onto my shoulders, and the light smell of Dylan’s citrus aftershave envelopes me. “I don’t know, what are you doing, Jimmy?” I jump what feels like two feet in the air, and Dylan laughs at me as I sigh in annoyance.
“I told you not to do that, Dylan. You know I don’t like it when people startle me like that!”
“Aw, I know, but relax a bit, man! I’m just trying to help you feel better. You seem a bit upset.”
“I’m not upset exactly, just...feeling overwhelmed right now. With the deal up in the air, and things with Oliver not having been the best lately…”
Dylan looks uncomfortable, his eyes pinching a bit before he clears his throat and seems to shake it away. “Say no more, Jim, I understand. Why don’t you and Oliver come over to my and Lydia’s house sometime? Give yourselves a night off and let us host you, what do you say? I know the kids would love to see you both again.”
I hesitate, but the promise of home-cooked food and Dylan’s company for the night is too enticing to pass up.
“Alright, that sounds great! When were you thinking?”
“Let’s say...this Thursday? I’ll drive you home, and we can pick up Oliver.”
“Wonderful! I’d love to stay longer, but Marla just paged me. Something about the mail accidentally dropping down the garbage chute? Anyway, I’ll catch you later, Jimmy!” I watch him leave, and I remain sitting in the empty room, staring at the door for much longer than I should.
He’s your co-worker.
He’s your friend.
I gather my food and iPad and leave the breakroom, letting the door slam shut on my way out, not caring when David pokes his head out and yells at me for the noise.
Our first year in Philadelphia has been pretty rough, the rich history and bustling nightlife doing nothing to penetrate the mounting tension in Oliver and I’s relationship. We had been doing so well for so long, but there’s something about being in a new place with new responsibilities and new routines that has our separate mental illnesses roaring. The rain lately hasn’t helped, and I watch as it drips down our front windows, the panes stretching from floor to ceiling blurry from the storm.
It’s a dreary Sunday, the last Sunday I would have before starting work in the Engineering department at a regional power company a couple of towns over. Today, Sunday, April 24th, 2016, a representative from the company would be over to speak to me about what to expect tomorrow and to answer any questions I may have about my new responsibilities. That’s why I find myself here, sitting in an armchair in the front room of our renovated Victorian, toes digging into the red paisley carpet as my stomach feels like its oozing just like the rain. My heart pounds against my ribs in the same rhythm as the grandmother clock against the wall. I am alone in the house.
I can make out cars driving up and down the street, the yellow, red, blue blobs flitting back and forth in and out of view from my place by the fireplace. It remains unlit; it’s been in need of repair for years, and we hadn’t been able to find the time to have the man over to clean it yet. The room is relatively warm, though it would undoubtedly shift to cozy if the fire had been roaring.
Eventually, I hear our doorbell ring, the bell tones startling me awake and alert from where I had been slumped on the chair; I had fallen asleep and completely missed my guest’s approach. I feel wildly unprepared as I push my red hair back off my face with one hand, running my fingers through the tangles and then attempting to straighten out the mess I made of it. I smooth out my shirt and go to answer the door, and as I swing it open, I find myself somewhat surprised. I had expected an older man, or at least someone less classically handsome than the man standing on my front porch. He smiles and extends his hand firmly.
“Hi, I’m Dylan Morris? We have a meeting today at 11:30?”
“Right, right.” I shake his hand and then open the door wider for him to enter, making sure when I close it to push in the faulty lock (also something we have yet to get repaired) extra hard. As I do this out of the corner of my eye, I can see Mr. Morris standing erectly in the front hallway, so I take mercy on him and gesture towards the open doors of my office to the immediate right of the entrance.
“Right through there, Mr. Morris. I’ll be in in a moment — would you like anything to drink? Eat?”
He nods, “Some tea would be lovely if you have any?”
“Of course, my husband loves tea; we’re always fully stocked. I’ll bring you our caddy.”
In the kitchen I turn my Keurig on, quickly boiling enough water to fill the empty kettle on the stove. I grab that, the tea caddy, and a small tin of orange-peel cookies Oliver had just bought at the store, and take them to my office. I find Mr. Morris in my office, looking at my line of bookshelves with intent curiosity, brow furrowed and shoulders set back. When he hears me enter, though, he heads back to sit opposite me at the desk.
“Is tea at lunchtime something you normally do, Mr. Moore?”
“Oh, please, call me Jim. And sometimes, but usually only when we have guests over.”
“You, meaning you and your husband?”
“Yes, Oliver. We’ve been married for just about five years now.”
Dylan glances up behind me, and I know he must be looking at Oliver and I’s wedding photo on the wall.
I start to fill his mug with hot water, but for some reason, out of nerves or simply bad cosmic luck, my hand twitches, and it spills over the side and onto my desk. I curse out of habit as Mr. Morris jumps back to avoid the water dripping off the sides and onto the floor. I grab tissues from the box on my desk and attempt to mop up the mess.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Morris. I’m not usually this, er, clumsy. I’m just nervous.”
“Jim…” It’s the first time he’s used my first name, “We wouldn’t have chosen you to fill the role is we didn’t think you were 100% capable of fulfilling its responsibilities! Have a little faith, huh? In both yourself and us?”
I smile, and look across my desk at the framed photo of Oliver and me from one Christmas a few years ago, our heads bent close, foreheads touching, the Brewer Fountain stretching up behind his head like a bunny ears photobomb. It’s always been one of my favorite photographs of us together. Eventually, Dylan clears his throat to regain my attention, and I don’t look at the picture again.
As soon as I fall asleep that night, I find myself standing next to Dylan as we look down at Oliver, not quite in disgust, but in the way you would look with subtle pity at a pathetic man who thought he would ever be something.
“Look at you, Oliver. You’re nothing.”
Oliver shivers from the floor, and I can tell that he can already feel the cold-kissed steel slipping into the warmth between his ribs.
He’s always been afraid of blades.
“I don’t want to die.”
“Oh, Oliver,” I hear myself say condescendingly, “don’t lie to me.”
I gasp awake, my shuddering breath stuttering in my chest and making me cough uncontrollably, my body covered in a cold sweat. My eyes begin to water, and before long, I’m crying. Deep, chest crushing sobs that wrack my entire body. I grope at the bed blindly in the dark, searching for any part of Oliver’s body to cling to. I don’t know why I’m reacting this way; I haven’t so much as cared if Oliver’s eaten in months. Or have I cared, but I've just been pushing it away to save myself the pain?
How selfish have I been?
When I find Oliver’s hand I bring it to my lips, kissing up and down his thin fingers and rubbing them against my cheeks. I kiss the wedding band on his ring finger, the gold beautiful against his tan skin, and as I stroke his palm, I feel a tiny raised line from the scar I had given him when we’d had sex for the first time 11 years ago. I feel it over and over again with my thumb, then my cheek, then my tongue. Feeling him now makes me remember how it felt to be near him all those years ago, and I wonder why I had ever lost that feeling in the first place.
But I do know. From all of our fights about nothing, the nights when we chose to go to sleep facing away from each other rather than talk about what was wrong, the days we wouldn’t even speak a word to each other.
I mourn for every lost moment of our relationship.
“I love you,” I whisper into his palm, cradling it against my face. The last thing I remember before succumbing to sleep is the strange taste of oranges dancing on my tongue.