The scenes below are from a story I’ve been working on for a long, long while. It’s on my computer in a folder labeled “TO FINISH THIS FALL.” Sadly, winter is just around the corner and the end of the year just a few weeks away, and I doubt I’ll find a satisfactory ending to the story these scenes belong in. But they get me closer.
That night in bed he woke to the yowl of a cat in the street. He stared for a long time at the window gauzed in thin curtains, listening and thinking of nothing at all. Then he rolled onto his side and watched his wife in the blue light from the street lamp through the curtains. He mouthed her name, Gwen, but didn’t want to wake her — he mouthed it only to name her, like Adam in the Garden: Here is my wife.
He lay on his back and tried to recall more details of Cecily, that other woman from all those years ago, to fill in the gaps in the story, but no distinct features occurred to him. Even the color of her hair had left him — he thought it might be blonde but it could just as easily have been bronze or even auburn. He never had known the color of her eyes. He arranged his memories of that night and searched the visions until he recalled at last the pendulous weight of each breast as he uncupped them from her bra, and for a few moments he enjoyed the hazy reminiscence of her warm and soft in that trailer all those years ago, but as he recollected what had happened afterward he shuddered and could think no more. He let the memories wane and he studied his wife instead.
Gwen breathed in the indigo dark. He extended an arm with his finger outheld to stroke her cheek, but thought better of it. She seemed a hologram made from the blue night’s light reflected off the dreamy lenses of his eyes, and he worried that if he touched her she would shimmer and dissolve. Instead he touched his own shoulder to remember the weight of her head when she rested it there. He thought of what it was like when he kissed her, the press of her lips against his and the sweet scent of her breath. He closed his eyes and pictured the curve of her hip where it met her thigh, the place he liked to hold when they made love. When he opened his eyes she lay there still. She seemed a miracle to him — he lay awake an hour amazed she was there at all. He watched her as one watches a plane receding in the sky, waiting for the moment it becomes too small and disappears. But his wife remained the while, breathing steadily on. What luck he’d had. He held his breath and stilled his body and then slipped his fingers into her curled hand at her side, and she stirred and lolled her head away from him but did not wake, and he exhaled and closed his eyes again and slept.
* * *
[Val in conversation with his wife, who begins this dialogue:]
“Do you ever wonder if that girl was onto something? You ever worry you did something wrong, running out on her, might have got onto God’s bad side for it?”
“God ain’t got no bad side that I know of. No good side either. He just is.”
“I don’t know. Just seems you been more religious lately, thinking about that girl. Is that what’s going on? You feel you need more religion in your life?”
“Let me tell you about religion. You can have all the trappings and the ceremonies and the mumbo jumbo you want. You can sing you some songs or read prayers out a book or dance in the aisles or just do like them Amish, sit and stare at each other for a hour or so. You can put up pictures or tear pictures down, you can have priests and popes or no preachers at all. I believe myself a Christian but I’ll tell you, when it comes down to it, I think every religion there is boils down to this: It’s about security, about having a purpose in life, a reason to wake up in the morning. It’s about knowing the world’s the way it’s supposed to be and that if something goes wrong with that, someone’ll be there to help you through it. And darling, you are my religion.”
* * *
[Later, over beers with his friends, they discuss the state of marriage, and Val mentions how he feels lucky to have escaped the dangerous relationship this story is about. His friend Randal responds:]
“You talk like you didn’t wind up in chains anyway. You got married, you’re working a hard job, when’s the last time you had a beer with me or Jesús after a long day in the sun? You don’t ever cut loose, Val, just head straight on home ever damn night. They call it a ball and chain for a reason, and you’re the reason.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. Far as I’m concerned you have yourself as good a wife as you deserve, and I got better. Ball and chain is just an excuse to go out drinking, to pretend we got something to run from. My Gwen ain’t the chain, Randal, she’s the damned key. What I thank God for is the chance to of found her.”
This exercise comes from the website Writing Forward. Specifically, it’s a post on “People-Inspired Writing Prompts.” The prompt is supposed to “help you think about the people who have impacted your life,” and it lists seven different exercises, many of them touching on romantic relationships. I chose #2:
Too often, writers are more motivated by heartache than by joy (all those broken-hearted poems and love songs!). Write about a love that is not stained by pain, betrayal, or heartbreak — one that is happy and healthy.
The story these scenes belong in actually describes a bizarre, disturbing, possibly dangerous relationship that Val was in as a younger man; now, middle-aged and looking back over his life, he begins comparing his current wife to that other girl. A lot of my male characters do this, for some reason. The narrator in “Bathe in the Doggone Sin” spends the whole story lamenting “the one that got away,” and the male characters in at least two other, unpublished stories* do something similar with former loves. And the narrator of “How Long My Bruises Will Last” romanticizes his early marriage, while the female main character in “Consuela Throws Her TV Away” complains about her useless, borracho husband. So when I caught myself writing about this weird, frightening former relationship that Val had narrowly escaped from, I realized I didn’t want his current relationship to be so rocky. I wanted his wife to be wonderful, for him to love her unconditionally, for them both to be great friends and for her to be his source of comfort on dark, scary nights, his refuge from his past. I wanted Val’s wife to be for him what my own wife is for me.
This exercise reminded me of that. So, these passages.
* Both those stories are in print or soon will be: “Barefoot in the Guadalupe” appeared in Red Dirt Review, and “No Milk Would Come” is forthcoming in Scintilla Magazine.