“Marriage and Dementia. I know it’s a crude metaphor, but in both cases, you do sort of forget who you were before.” At the grocery, I knock on a cantaloupe and bring it to my nose. I have the cell phone pinned between my ear and shoulder, talking to my sister, who moved to LA to launch her acting career. So far, her only break has been as a receptionist in a plastic surgeon’s office.
“Obviously Lorraine isn’t with you,” she says.
“Nope. She has to work at three o’clock. She’s probably trying to figure out how to change her clothes without taking anything off.”
“Nothing. Never mind,” I say.
“What did I tell you when you broke up with Dolores?” Maggie says.
Pick just one thing she told me when I broke up with Dolores? I take a stab at it. “Um, home isn’t home until you’ve lost something there?”
“No, but that’s totally true.”
“The clitoris is not the only holy grail.”
“I’m kidding. I know what you told me. You told me not to marry a Gemini. And marry one I did not! Lorraine is a Sagittarius,” I say.
“I told you not to expect so much—that modern people can’t be happy in marriage.”
I haven’t seen this much of Lorraine’s skin since I caught a glimpse of her calf in May . . . my hands are afraid to touch her.
I don’t say anything because I’ve spotted a tiny American flag at the discount table across from the greeting cards. I put my cantaloupe in the cart and wheel it over to the table. I pick up the little stick and twirl it between my fingers. Independence Day and flags both make me feel unworthy, but Lorraine will love the gesture. She can put it in the hanging pot with the pansies.
“It’s not an indictment,” Maggie says to the silence. “It’s a fact, so don’t get defensive. It’s cultural. We’ve just lost our need for it. Especially if you’re not having children.” I flinch automatically at the C word.
“What did our parents do to us?” I say. Perhaps I’ve caught her on a bad traffic day. I picture her on a bright California highway, cars swishing by and sunlight slicing through the trees.
“Do you have big sunglasses on right now?”
“I hurt your feelings. You always do that when I hurt your feelings.”
“Change the subject to something completely stupid.”
“I’m just holding the line is all,” I say, “because that’s what I got.” I edge my cart past a substantial woman. The woman tries, a second too late, to reach for her toddler, who has his hands wrapped around a can in the middle of a canned soup display. The boy yanks hard and dozens of cans spill forth and roll about frantically on the linoleum, as if they’re assembling for a meeting to discuss next steps and escape routes.
“I better go,” I say. I move the phone around to hear my sister above the clanking.
“You can throw a pebble into the water and a thing happens,” she says, “but it’s not like the pebble and the water made an agreement.”
My sister has always been abstract.
“So, it’s not the life you chose,” she says. “Join the club. You’re part of the sandwich generation now. You’re only pissed because you got stuck with the crappy half of the sandwich.” With this, she hangs up.
Inspired by the chaos, the boy in aisle four picks up a can of cream of mushroom mid-roll and chucks it into the remaining cans on the shelf. His mom glares at me like I offered her son coffee or heroin.
“What are you looking at me for? What did I do?” I say.
“This is what happens when you walk around a supermarket glued to your cell phone.” She bends over to pick up a can of tomato basil and her breasts bend over with her, settling like enormous clumps of dough just beneath her chin.
“Look,” I say, “Your kid just blew up Mount Vesuvius, and it’s my fault?”
The woman squinches her bright red face at me from this compromised position and stands abruptly to arrange body parts, tucking things in and pulling things up. She adjusts her purse and reaches for the little boy’s shoulder. He offers a rote little cry. “You’re the problem with this country is what you are,” she says.
Suddenly enraged, I pick up a can of chicken noodle and shake it at her like a weapon.
“Are you threatening me?” she says.
“Do the world a favor,” I say, “and don’t have any more kids.”
Abandoning their cart, they round the corner of aisle four, the boy mechanical in his bawling, like a Weed Eater.
Our house, at one time, functioned like a regular porn operation. We did it everywhere—under the snapdragons that grew to an ungodly height in the backyard, on the recumbent bike in the garage. I still have scars from the mesh seat scratching the hell out of my back as I pedaled away to ecstasy. The only place Lorraine and I haven’t done it is in the shower and that is why, on this night, I choose to enter. I figure I have the element of surprise on my side. Ever since the fireworks abated, a pitiful tenderness has sprung up in me. Momentarily gone is the fear of mortality, which has situated itself between us like a broken hip.
“I’m coming in,” I tell her. “It’s all right if I come in?”
My wife gasps and sputters like a failing engine. My confidence wilts in the steam. She takes her time. “All right,” she says. From upon the shower curtain, the faces of scowling pansies seem to rebuke me for my boldness, but even they cannot dissuade. I gracelessly enter the side opposite the spout, regretting that there’s no romantic way to step into a bathtub.
I haven’t seen this much of Lorraine’s skin since I caught a glimpse of her calf in May. Shampoo suds billow forth from her hair like dollops of beer froth; her eyes squint against the water that trickles down her nose. My hands are afraid to touch her. She looks rubbery and unwell. My fingers move of their own accord, though, unhinged from impulse as if conducting a symphony that only they can hear, and, in one stunning bit of choreography, they just settle themselves right on the top of her head. I can’t bring myself to move them. She doesn’t move them. We stand there. I refuse to blink or look away. My wife’s pores seem larger than normal, as if she’s pixilated. Finally, I just pet her head a little, the same as if I were ruffling the fur of a small hamster or ferret. I think we’re both surprised to see I have an erection. “I’m sorry,” I say, too loudly. I lean in to kiss her. My mouth lands greedily, also separate from my bidding, above her left eye.
When the deed is done, when the spool is unwound, the hot water starts to run cold, and she tussles my hair playfully.
“Who knew,” she says, “that sadness could be such an aphrodisiac? Then again,” she says, “I guess it’s all chemical anyway. Hand me my towel, will you?”
“We could still decide different,” I say.
“About Mom, you mean?”
“We could look for a bigger place.”
“There’s still a little time yet,” she says.
“I mean about kids.”
“Until there isn’t,” she says.
A possible version of our life settles in me then, as acute as a gunshot. At its center, the shedding of ideas, like clothes. I wrap the towel around Lorraine’s shoulders and pull her to my chest.
Danielle Vermette is a writer and actor based in Portland, Oregon. She is an MFA student in Portland State University’s fiction program and has been an Imago Theatre company member since 1999. Currently she’s employed at Oregon Health and Science University’s Division of Abdominal Organ Transplantation.