Post Road Magazine #28

The Disappearing Wife

Simon Savelyev

I was at a cookout with my wife, Darlene. This was an annual affair hosted by one of my college buddies, Rick Jr., who had a sprawling green lawn he liked to show off every few months. I was standing around the food table with a few of the women, who were commenting on a couple across the yard. Darlene and I knew the couple from some of Rick Jr.'s previous parties. The husband's name was Shep, and his wife was Trish.

Everyone was talking about how great Trish looked. "Would you just look at her!" one of the women said. "She looks terrific."

"She's really slimmed down. And that skirt! Doesn't she look great, Vlad?" Darlene said, and touched my arm.

I agreed that she did. In the past, Trish had always looked sort of frumpy and swollen. She was young-we were all fairly young, most of us under forty-but she had never had a particularly healthy look to her. But here she was-thin, somehow taller, sun-dappled under the summer trees. Her posture was fine-lined and elegant. She held her cigarette wrist-up, like models in old magazines.

We walked over so Darlene could tell Trish in person just how beautiful she looked. While the two women fawned, Shep nudged me and said, "I know what you're thinking. What's my secret, right? Let me tell you, I had nothing to do with it. Hell, I like a little meat on my bones. But Trish-she gets an idea in her head, and there's no stopping her. She's on this new regimen. One of them deals where you have to put everything in plastic baggies and drink through straws."

"Well, she looks great," I said. I was afraid of being too complimentary, since I didn't want to imply that Trish had looked bad to begin with.

Shep popped the tab on a can of beer and let the foam run over his fingers. "Shoot. At this point I'm saying give it a rest. Take a load off. You look good, woman! Now watch some TV, for chrissakes. Eat a cheeseburger. I don't want you wasting away to nothing."

All of this put my wife into a happy mood. On the way home that afternoon, she cranked up the radio and smiled out the window. The sea breeze blew our hair in crazy circles. She turned to me and said, "Boy, Trish looked great. I'm really happy for her. Good for her, right? Don't you think?"

"Absolutely," I said. "Good for her."

That night, as we were getting ready for bed, she brought it up again. She was massaging moisturizer into her legs when she suddenly looked up and laughed. "Trish. I just can't get over it. She looked so great."

I was watching a TV program I liked, a reality show about men in the arctic. I looked at Darlene and smiled. "She looked really good. Are you coming to bed?"

"I have to brush my teeth," she said. She scooted off the bed and went to the bathroom, but I didn't hear any water running. I could tell she was looking at herself in the mirror. Finally the faucet came on, and she began scrubbing rapidly with her toothbrush. Then she spat, and over the water called out, "Hey! Maybe I should try out that diet. The one Trish was on?"

After a minute she came out of the bathroom, drying her hands. "Well? What do you think?"

The show had gone to a commercial, so I looked at her. "What are you talking about? You don't need to go on a diet."

She stood sideways to the mirror on the door and lifted her t-shirt. She sucked in her belly. Then she raised her arm to flex her biceps, and poked it with her finger. "I wish I had better arms. Don't you love it when women have strong arms? Mine are all flabby and soft."

"Your arms look beautiful," I said.

"But you have to admit they're a little thick. That's just a fact. I was born with thick arms. If there's one thing I'd change about myself, I'd have to say it's my arms. I'd like to have nice toned arms and a toned butt."

"Your arms are perfect, and your butt is perfect."

She rolled her eyes at me and then turned back to the mirror. "Well, I think I could stand to lose a few pounds, and I'm not too proud to admit it. I'd like a nice tight belly and a toned butt and strong arms." She turned to look at her backside. "I think I should do it. Imagine how great I'd look! You know it only took Trish a few months to lose all that weight?" She said, "Well? Wouldn't you like me better if I thinned out a little?"

"No," I said. "I love you just as you are. I wouldn't love you any more than I do now." But then I wondered whether I was being unduly dismissive. I'd felt that even the slightest show of uncertainty on this issue could only lead to recriminations at some later point. It'd come back to bite me. But then it occurred to me that I might be overthinking things. Maybe Darlene wasn't seeking my approval, but merely my support-just as if she'd said she wanted to change jobs or start going to church. Maybe all she wanted was some husbandly encouragement. I said, "I wouldn't love you less, though, either. If you want to go on a diet, sure, go on a diet. I think that's great. I won't love you any more or less. I'll love you the same."

At first, the diet seemed like a good thing. Darlene foreswore all processed foods and stocked the fridge with baby carrots and spring water. She filled a basket with apples and nectarines and let them ripen on the table. She bought books on dieting and exercise, on holistic approaches to nutrition and spiritual wellbeing. She bought herself a tracksuit and woke up early for walks around the neighborhood. Every night after dinner she went down to the basement and put on an exercise video, and I could hear her hopping around and grunting in the dark.

Despite all this, Darlene didn't seem to be losing any weight. I told her it would take some time, but it was heartbreaking to watch her step on the scale every morning, day after day, with no change.

She bought different books, different sneakers, a different tracksuit. She read pamphlets that promoted the consumption of nuts and seeds and raw meat, that encouraged drinking urine as part of a purification cycle. She bought protein shakes and spent hundreds of dollars on dietary supplements-seaweed extracts, hot-pepper capsules, micro-engineered fat-burners, on and on. She switched to videos on tae bo, kick-boxing, and Sudanese erotic dance.

After a while, I noticed that the fruit she bought was rotting in the basket. The baby spinach in the fridge had turned into a gelatinous green goop. I was afraid she wasn't eating enough, but she insisted she was fine, she'd eaten plenty-look at her, she was a freaking balloon.

"Well, I'm going to start packing you a lunch."

"Fine, great. Pack a lunch," she said.

"I'm serious. You need vitamins."

"Perfect. I'd love a lunch."

As time went on, Darlene grew morose. I could see she was losing hope. Every night she went downstairs to do her videos, but to no effect. Sometimes she would emerge hours later without a lick of sweat on her, and I had to wonder whether she was even exercising anymore or just watching TV in the dark. Sometimes she came back upstairs with mussed hair and a puffy face, as if she'd been sleeping.

Around this time I started smelling smoke on her, subtle but unmistakable. It was in her clothes, in her hair. I found ashes on the rim of the toilet and in the kitchen sink, spent butts floating in a bottle on the porch. One day I came home from work to find her lying on the couch in front of the TV, tapping a cigarette into a coffee mug on her belly.

I put down an armful of groceries. "Since when are we smoking in the house?"

She sighed loudly. Finally she said, "Vlad, I really don't need this right now. I have a splitting headache."

There was an empty carton of ice cream on the floor by the couch, with a salad spoon sticking out of it. "Did you go to work today?"

She didn't answer, just picked up the remote to change the channel.

"All I'm saying-"

She sat up quickly. "Jesus Christ! Will you relax?" She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. "Oh man. I think I'm coming down with something. Will you get me some aspirin, honey-baby? Please?"

"Are you okay?"

"Please, Vlad! Some aspirin. My head is about to explode."

And then, out of nowhere, she started losing weight. Just a few pounds at first, but then more substantially. I could see it when she got ready for bed at night-her body was getting leaner, more shapely. People, men, began to notice her on the street. What worried me was that this change was occurring alongside a complete abandonment of her exercise routine. She had quit her morning walks and dance videos. Every day I would pack her a lunch and cook her dinner, but usually she would just pick at her plate and leave the table early to watch television. Most nights I was just cooking for myself.

"You need to eat," I would tell her.

"I do eat," she would say, tapping a cigarette into her salad.

"You need to eat more. You're getting too thin. You don't exercise. You're leaving ashes everywhere."

"Vlad, please," she would say, covering her forehead. "My goddam head is killing me."

As summer turned to fall, things got worse. The weight started to really drop off. Her face became pallid and sunken. She was up at all hours of the night, and sleeping late. Sometimes at work I'd get a call from her boss at the cannery saying she hadn't shown up for work. I'd come home in the afternoon to find her still in bed.

Eventually, her boss had no choice but to fire her. I couldn't blame him, but I was also worried about what she would do for work. I suspected that she might decide not to take on a new job, that she would content herself by lying on the couch all day, with the shades drawn, watching TV.

But I was wrong. She got a job as a waitress the day after she was fired, at a sports bar the next town over. She worked five nights a week, and sometimes didn't come home until dawn, reeking of booze and cigarettes. When she snuck into bed on those mornings, I could feel the boniness of her body, how thin she had become, and a feeling of disgust would pass over me.

In October I got a call from Rick Jr., who was planning a party the weekend before Halloween that he wanted Darlene and me to attend. "I don't know, Ricky," I said.

"Why not?"

I couldn't think of a plausible excuse off the top of my head. Finally I said, "I'll see what Darlene wants to do."

When I told her about the party, she said, "I know just the costume!"

I explained that it wasn't a costume party, it was just a party in October, but she insisted. She went out and bought a little devil outfit for herself-red stockings and a black corset, and little red horns she could wear in her hair.

As I watched her get ready that evening, I found myself suddenly aroused. I went up behind her and started moving my hands over her body. She had become so thin I could actually feel her ribs through the corset. Lately things hadn't been going so well in the bedroom-Darlene usually had a headache or was tired or just in a foul mood. But this night, when I touched her, she turned to me with a look that was almost menacing. She pushed me back onto the bed and started sucking on my Adam's apple, feverishly unbuckling my pants.

When we got to the party, it was like one of those moments from the movies when the record suddenly zips and the phones stop ringing and all the faces slowly turn to stare.

Darlene was the only one in costume, of course, but it wasn't the costume everyone was talking about. Rick Jr. was the first to say it: "My God, you're skinny!"

Darlene smiled radiantly and allowed him to kiss the back of her hand. As more people came over to tell her how great she looked, how thin and how utterly fantastic, I could see a change coming over her. She grew expansive and sarcastic. She chain-smoked, lighting each cigarette on the ember of its predecessor. A small cadre of women formed around her, and they all seemed set on impressing her-by telling a racy story or offering some juicy bit of gossip. It was like they were suddenly all catty high-school girls again. At one point Darlene broke off the conversation and asked someone's husband to go fetch her a G&T-a G&T, she called it-and for the first time I felt a stab of jealousy. I was right there-I could have easily fetched the G&T.

Finally somebody mentioned Shep and Trish, and Darlene said, "Where are those two, anyway? I've been looking for Trish all night."

"Didn't you hear?" said one of the women. "Shep was in an accident. He was out for a walk or something when all of a sudden this bus came out of nowhere and smashed right into him."

  • "No!"

"Yeah. Supposedly he flew like thirty feet and then landed in a tree. Fractured head, broken ribs, arms, all sorts of internal damage."

"No!" Darlene's eyes were wide. She puffed on her cigarette. "When did this happen?"

"Just a month or two ago. He's lucky he didn't die. He's in a full body cast now. Poor Trish is taking care of him, nursing him back to health. She's an angel, that woman."

Later on, I had to use the bathroom. When I came out, I couldn't find Darlene. I looked around the house for her, and then went onto the back deck. I asked Rick Jr. if he'd seen her. He hadn't. I began asking random people, people I'd never met, if they'd seen my wife. They asked me what she looked like. "She's thin," I said. I tried to think of other details, but none came to mind.

I finally found her in the back yard, standing in the shadow of the boathouse with three or four men. They were all smoking and laughing, but when I came closer, they went quiet.

"Almost ready, hon?" I said. Nobody looked at me except for Darlene. Finally she came forward, dropping her cigarette and delicately grinding it into the lawn. As we walked toward the car together, my hand gripping her elbow, she looked back to the men and grinned.

  • ---

One day I noticed a charge on my credit card for an airline ticket to Las Vegas, and another for a reservation at the MGM Grand Hotel. When I asked Darlene about it, she said, "Didn't I tell you? That's my Vegas trip. Vicky and I are going next week. I'm sure I told you."

"You didn't tell me. Who's Vicky?"

"Vicky from the bar. Why do you look so mystified?"

She was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a steak-and-cheese sub. A cigarette smoldered on the rim of her Coke can.

"When is this happening?"

"Next week. What's the big deal, can't I ever go on vacation?"

I went to the refrigerator, suddenly hungry, and scanned the shelves for something to eat. "Well!" I said. "I guess you can do whatever you want!"

She frowned and said through a full mouth, "What's that supposed to mean?"

I had lost my train of thought. "How come we never have anything good to eat?"

"What are you talking about? You're looking at a goddam fridge full of food."

I closed the refrigerator and went over to the table to sit down. I felt I was being taken advantage of and should be angry, but I wasn't. I was confused, and my head hurt. I was extraordinarily hungry. "I think I'm coming down with something," I said.

Darlene leaned back in her chair and put the cigarette to her lips.

I closed my eyes and started massaging my temples. When I opened my eyes again, I found myself staring at the uneaten half of Darlene's sandwich. I leaned across the table and picked it up. "How long will you be gone?"

She smiled. A weekend, she said. Friday to Monday, tops.

It was eerie, how quickly I became accustomed to her absence, the quiet of the house. She left on Friday morning, and by the time I got home from work, it was as if she'd been gone a year. I went from room to room, displeased with the mess, and decided to do something about it. I vacuumed all the floors and then mopped. I wiped down the stove, scoured the bathroom, disinfected every surface. I did loads and loads of laundry. At night I took a bath and watched television and drank beer. In this way, the weekend passed.

Darlene never called, but this didn't particularly bother me. Not until Sunday, when I used her car to run an errand and was almost knocked over by a foul smell coming from the back seat. It was a sharp, almost painful odor, with the ammoniac punch of a dead animal. I searched around, but didn't find anything. Finally I realized the odor was coming from the trunk. When I opened it, I found bags and bags of uneaten lunches, lunches I'd made for her over the summer. There must have been forty or fifty of them, sagging with mold and rot.

That night I woke sweating, short of breath, my stomach cramped, and by morning I had the terrible sense that I'd lost Darlene forever.

I was supposed to pick her up at the airport at four o'clock, but I got there early to be safe. After her plane landed and she failed to show at baggage claim, I called her cell. She didn't pick up. I tried her hotel, but they'd never heard of her. I was suddenly seized with panic, and I had to go outside and sit on the rim of a huge potted plant, collecting my nerves.

I stayed at the airport until nine o'clock, calling her phone every twenty minutes. Finally, I left a message threatening to call the police. A bluff, but it worked. Darlene finally called back.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" she yelled. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

"Where are you?"

"Vegas! Where do you think?"

"I've been waiting at the airport for six hours."

"Well, whoop-dee fucking doo! I decided to stay another day-so shoot me! Why the hell are you calling the cops on me?"

"When are you coming home?"

"Ah, Christ." I could hear her breathing on the other end of the line. "Okay, you know what? I have to just come out and say it. I'm going to be staying out here for a little longer than expected."

"What do you mean? How long?"

"A few more days. Probably a week or two. I don't know-look, I can't talk now, Randy's looking for me."

"Who's Randy?"

"Randy's-never mind."

"No, I want to know."

"He's a guy, okay? A really famous magician."

"A magician? What are you doing with a magician?"

"Nothing. He's got this place out here, like a kind of compound. Randy's really rich, and he says he can get me a job at one of his shows."

  • "What?"

"A job."

"Doing what?"

"Like as an assistant."

  • "Assistant what? I thought you were only talking about a couple of days. What do you need a job for?"

"Look, Randy is big time! You're not listening. This guy levitates! Over buildings!"

"I don't understand. Are you moving in with this guy or what? You're my wife, right? Are you my wife or aren't you?" I waited. "Hello?"

I stood there listening for quite a while, listening but not hearing anything, because the phone had cut out. Whether it was hers or mine, I didn't know. But I felt a need to make a show of listening, of having a conversation, of being dealt a particular fate and accepting it. So I kept that phone up against my head, pretending to be the recipient of some kind of news, nodding, Yes, yes, I understand.

  • ---

I didn't want to go home. Something about its cleanliness, its newly minted order, frightened me. So instead I went to a college bar not far from my house. My wife was gone, gone with a magician in a land in which, it was said, things stayed. I just wanted to sit there and get drunk and not be seen by anyone.

The place was quiet except for a group of young men making noise at the end of the bar. I ordered a G&T and let my eyes adjust to the dark. And then I saw him, sitting at the bar just a few seats away. It was Shep, who had recently been hit by a bus.

He looked terrible. Both of his arms were in casts, propped up at shoulder height. It was unclear to me how he was physically able to drink, given this lack of mobility. He also had some kind of scaffolding connecting his head to his shoulders. He hadn't seen me, and I was tempted to slip away unnoticed, but something compelled me to stay. I went over and placed my hand gently on his back, and he glanced at me stiffly.

"Vlad," he said through his teeth, almost smiling.

"Shep." I sat down next to him. "How are you?"

"Truthfully, I've been better." He eased his face down low to the bar and stuck his tongue out to find the two mixing straws in his drink. Then he sucked down his bourbon in three long sips. He sat up again and said, "How's Darlene?"

The bartender brought me a drink, which I tipped back smoothly. "Vegas. She met a magician."

Shep didn't look at me, didn't speak.

"She says he can levitate . . . I don't know."

Shep sort of hissed through his teeth and said, "Vegas." He motioned for a couple more drinks and said, "I'm real sorry to hear that, Vlad. Real sorry. Go on and keep talking, if you want to. Or don't. Just sit there and keep quiet, if you want. You do whatever you need to right now."

And you know what? I did. I went on. I told him everything, because that was what I needed. I told how Darlene had seen Trish and decided to go on a diet, how she'd struggled and failed and then took up smoking and drinking. How she got inexplicably thinner. How her whole personality had changed, and how I'd stood by and watched it happen. I went on for a long time, and Shep sat there quietly listening.

When I finished, Shep didn't say anything. At the end of the bar, one of the college students was trying to teach his friends a trick with a brandy snifter. He tipped the glass sideways to ignite the brandy with his lighter. The glass glowed and flickered with blue flame, and for a second I thought he was going to drink it like that. Instead, he put the glass on the bar and clapped his hand over it. The fire blinked out. When he lifted his hand, the glass was stuck to it, and his friends all whooped and cheered.

Shep was still looking in the direction of the college kids when he said, "Want to hear something depressing? Trish left me, too." He glanced at me as if uncertain how I would take this. "She moved out to Los Angeles three months ago. I only tell you this because of what you just shared with me. She said . . . " He swallowed hard. "She said I couldn't satisfy her anymore. I couldn't satisfy her sexually."

The bartender came over with a fresh drink, placed it on a white napkin. For a while we were both quiet. Then Shep said, "Would you believe it if I told you she went out there to make adult movies?" He turned to face me, to see if I believed him.

I tried to make a face that said, I do believe you, yes.

Shep turned back to the bar.

I said, "I didn't know that, Shep. I had no idea. I thought with the accident and everything, I thought Trish was helping you out. Nursing you back to health."

"Ha. Not even close. She was out the door long before that happened. I'll tell you something, if you want, that I've never told anyone. Do you want to hear it?"

I didn't, but I nodded.

His voice was quiet, almost hoarse. "Would you believe it if I told you-" again he turned to face me "-if I told you I did this to myself on purpose?"

Meaning: he had ruined his body, he had thrown himself in front of a bus, on purpose. I looked down at my drink. When I looked up again, his face was wet. Even if he'd wanted to hide himself, what could he do? He had no arms, at least none that worked.

I put my hand low on his back and patted him gently, and together we watched the students at the end of the bar, who were all trying the trick with the flame now. None of them could reproduce it. The first student had become the instructor. "It creates a vacuum," he said. "That's the secret. That's what makes it stay." This didn't help anyone-the glasses kept falling, rolling off the bar. Liquor spilled everywhere. "You can't be afraid of it," he said. "You have to seal that shit up, right to your skin. That's the whole trick. Make it stick; feel it suck."

More people were coming into the bar now, in from the cold, and the place was getting noisy. Everyone jockeying for space at the stools. The flame trick becoming a real attraction. People giving advice to the students, but the students, try as they might, just not getting it. At one point, for a brief second, one boy's hand was completely enshrouded in blue flame. He looked at it and screamed, then ran off to the bathroom. Everyone laughed, and someone else took his place.

When I looked back at Shep, he was bent down over his drink, making kissing motions with his lips and tongue. "Wait, wait," I said. I reached over and took hold of the glass. Shep sat up and smiled, sort of. I lifted the liquor to his lips, eased it forward, watched it go down.

 Copyright © 2018 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved