By Melanie Unruh
Featured art: The Herwigs by Edouard Antonin Vysekal
I like to practice what I’m going to say in therapy each week. The opening line is always the most important part because it has to be something attention-grabbing that still makes me sound stable.
I slept pretty well this week, except for Tuesday, when I stayed up all night watching a marathon of The Wonder Years. They played the one where Kevin touched Winnie’s boob.
It’s been six months, eighteen days, nineteen hours, and six minutes—give or take—since I last saw James.
This week I only made twelve lists.
My cat bears a striking resemblance to my therapist, but this isn’t because of their matching whiskers so much as the fact that they both make the same frowning concerned face when I tell them about my life. Boots and Dr. Andrews, who has tried without success, to get me to call her Maggie, are not formally acquainted.
Ways That Boots and Dr. Andrews Might Interact
* Boots will get a hairball and Dr. Andrews will put olive oil on his nose
* Dr. Andrews will have me bring in something sacred from home and I’ll arrive with Boots peeping out of my purse
* Boots will ask Dr. Andrews whether he really has a relationship with the sly tabby who always comes to the front window
* The two of them will meet for tea and prickly-pear cookies to discuss how they see my therapy going (neither of them will use the word well)
I thought that I started seeing Dr. Andrews—the first name I came across in the phone book—because my husband left. It never occurred to me that she wouldn’t always want to talk about the reason that brought me to her, that sometimes she wants to talk about all these other things that don’t seem connected to anything.
My neighbor Anna is coming over today. I actually tried talking to her about the trouble with James a few times, but I would always end up crying. I decided it would be better to have a stranger, someone I pay to see me cry, listen to me. I like Anna well enough, but only in small doses. James never did like her. When we first moved into this complex, Desert Rose Apartments, she was the first person we met. She brought over homemade blueberry muffins and used the word “y’all.” James told me that he thought she was “weird” but when I asked him why, he couldn’t explain. Now she is here and James is gone. This morning she and I are going to have coffee together. I don’t really drink it, but when she’s coming down, I get out the coffeemaker that James and I bought at the dollar store and try to remember the ratio of grounds to water. 3 to 1? 1 to 2? 2 to 1?
We sit on my sofa, which looks like it’s made out of jeans, or “dungarees” as my grandmother used to say, with our hot coffee. It looks like we’ve got mugs of tar, but at least it smells good. I chose a 4 to 1 ratio. If there’s a real difference, I can’t taste it and Anna doesn’t tell me.
She has a smile like the Cheshire cat, like it’s going to keep going around her head until the sides of her mouth meet in the back. She grins at me and I picture her floating over me, anchored in place by that wide half moon of teeth.
Anna glances around at my apartment. “The place looks good, Grace. Did you do something different?”
She is a lot older than me, probably in her mid-fifties, but it’s hard to know for sure because she dyes her chin-length hair dark brown. I think I’ve seen a few gray hairs on my head, but I’m going to ignore them as long as possible. Hair dye smells like rat poison and makes you tear up worse than if you’re chopping onions. And I heard that if you try to pluck a gray hair, two will grow back in its place.
“The curtains are new,” I say. “Boots tore up the old ones and they wouldn’t keep out the light anymore.”
Her smile evaporates like I’ve said something sad. But I haven’t. The curtains were from an old sale at Target and I never even really liked them. Polka dots aren’t my thing.
“How’s work?” Anna asks.
“Good. Starting the busy season now.”
I’m an assistant to a wedding planner, and it’s pretty hectic, especially at this time of year.
My Job Responsibilities
* Set up meetings with florists, caterers, boutiques, and reception halls
* Order Geraldine’s lunch every day by 11:45
* Help brides pick out the design for their wedding binders (lilacs, clouds, pink hearts, or leopard print)
* Begin calls with “Thank you for calling Save the Date! How maywe make you smile today?”
* End calls with “Thank you for choosing Save the Date to help plan your special day!”
* Be perky. Never appear unhappy to a bride or anyone who comes in with her
Now that it’s mid-April, there is a constant flow of people in and out of our doors. A second girl helps me with the phones. I screw on my cheerful face and congratulate everyone, oohing and aahing at their oversized marquis and square-cut diamonds. My wedding ring is still there, a dull gleam of white gold on my finger. I’ve decided that it’s better to keep wearing it because if I don’t, a lot of these women will ask me if I’ve ever been married. It makes following the rules easier. There are very specific words we are not allowed to use at work.
Forbidden Words at Save the Date
* Cold feet
I try not to use these words anymore, even outside of work. Right now it seems like a really good idea. My coworkers don’t know about me and James. Sometimes they ask me how he is and I say fine, like he’s still driving around town in his brown UPS truck and matching outfit, like he always did for four years. Sometimes I almost believe it’s true, and that he’ll be coming home with Chinese takeout, which we will eat in bed, saving the fortune cookies for after sex.
I stare dully at Anna, without hearing what she’s saying. She hasn’t paused long enough to even try the coffee I’ve made her. She seems so happy all the time, talking with her hands like she’s sculpting things out of the air. I wonder how seriously she takes fortune cookies.
James never kept his fortunes. He would read them and then set them aside without another thought. He said that he already knew what his life was about, so why put that much stock in a cryptic message from a cookie, of all things? Once he got a fortune that made him really angry: It doesn’t matter. Who is without a flaw? He threw the cookie across the room and crumpled the fortune. I told him he was overreacting, but he didn’t want to listen to me after that. His dislike of fortune cookies didn’t stop me from opening and saving my own. I keep mine in my sock drawer and now I’ll pull them out sometimes, and throw them overhead like confetti.
Memorable Fortunes I’ve Received
* Excitement and intrigue follow you closely wherever you go!
* Don’t ask, don’t say. Everything lies in silence.
* You will step on the soil of many countries.
* You broke my cookie.
* We cannot change the direction of the wind, but we can adjust our sails.
I keep telling Dr. Andrews that I don’t feel married or its opposite. She says that I’m right, because I am neither right now. My husband of nearly five years is gone, but he is still my husband. He has not sent The Papers yet. I can’t even send him a letter because I wouldn’t know where to mail it. So I wait for him.
I’ve seen it on TV, people being “served.” Sometimes I worry they’ll come for me at work. A man dressed in tweed will wah-wah-wah at me like the adults from Peanuts and then hand me a brown envelope and even if I don’t cry, the woman I’ve been waiting on, who’s just been asking me whether calla lilies are still fashionable, will burst into tears. I will end up comforting her, telling her that at least half of all marriages will succeed.
Anna’s still talking and I’m still not listening. Instead I’m gazing at the pile of objects in the corner. I’ve made a sort of nest of the things James left behind, like a pile of Christmas gifts, only they’re not wrapped and there’s no tree.
What James Didn’t Take With Him
* His ice cream maker
* Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life
* Three neckties—one red, one blue, one green with blue stripes
* The trilby hat I bought him one Christmas (during his Justin Timberlake phase)
* His ski equipment
Would someone really leave all of that if he weren’t coming back? For now, it’s in that pile, which I know seems a little weird—that’s probably why I haven’t told Dr. Andrews about it. But really it’s just easier for me to keep an eye on all of it this way. So that when he returns I can say, Look! Here are all your things! Who else would keep them just so for you?
Anna’s tone shifts and I startle, realizing I haven’t heard most of what she’s been saying since she arrived. She takes a long, slender package wrapped in gold paper from her purse and hands it to me.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Open it,” she says.
For a moment, I think that somehow James has put together a ruse, that The Papers are going to be inside, rolled up like a diploma. I don’t want to open it.
“Go on,” she says, nudging me.
I peel back the layers of paper and underneath is something that looks like a large, flesh-colored pickle. On the outside of the plastic sheath it’s come in, it says The Vibe.
My face flushes. I’ve never owned something like this, but now I recognize what it is.
“Now’s not the time to be neglecting your own needs.” She chuckles and pats me on the back. I manage to thank her. She says something about batteries before she leaves.
The first thing I say to Dr. Andrews at our next visit is, If another woman gives you a sex toy, does that mean she’s hitting on you?
She wants to know if that’s what it means to me.
What It Means to Me if Anna Is Hitting on Me
* I am attractive
* I look lonely
* I seem gay
* Anna is gay (?)
* People think I am single
* Anna sees me
* People see me
I tell Dr. Andrews that I don’t know; that’s why I asked her.
She says not necessarily, and I change the subject back to my “marriage.”
I met James on the bank of the Rio Grande when I was twenty-four. Back then I used to try to write poetry and that’s what I was doing there that day as I sat in the rocky dirt on a beach towel staring into the water. I imagined the rest of the river’s course through the city, stretching on for miles like some kind of bronze-colored arm. I jotted that line down and immediately scribbled it out.
A man called out to me and I started. When I looked up to find him standing just a few feet behind me, he was so handsome that I was sure he had been addressing someone else. I turned back to crossing out lines in my notebook. He moved between me and the river and cleared his throat. He wanted to know, was this the Rio Grande? This brown trickling stream? I told him it was. I thought that would be all he wanted, but he kept asking me questions. How long had I been here? Did I like Albuquerque? What did people do around here for fun? What did I do around here for fun?
I stared up at him, at his dark eyes and skin so pale that I was mesmerized by the raised blue outlines of all his veins. He talked to me for hours. Later that night, when I finally saw myself in a mirror and found that I had ink stains all over my face, I thought they made me look veiny too. What was that expression—kindred spirits? Yes, that was us. I was the first person he met in Albuquerque. He was the first person I remember wanting to talk to in a long time. It had been two years since my high school sweetheart Todd had dumped me, saying that we’d been together too long and that my “line of work” put too much pressure on him to commit. Six months later I heard he married a Chili’s waitress. As soon as I saw James, I knew he would never do any such thing.
When the sun had almost gone, dipping behind the yellow leaves of the bosque, James pulled me to my feet. He didn’t let go of my hand. I hadn’t been on a real date in years, but he insisted on taking me to dinner.
A lot of what we did was at his insistence, and I liked that.
An envelope comes from James, but it is in the mail, not handed to me by the Peanuts man. This feels like a relief, because it probably isn’t official then. He’s testing me. The return address is in Albany.
So he is far away. I think I knew this.
But why would he go to upstate New York? He is from New Orleans, and we met and made our life together here in Albuquerque. I can’t understand what’s in New York or why he would choose to go there.
I think The Papers will be yellow—not icterine or lemon, more of a maize—God, I’ve been in wedding planning too long! I tear open the envelope and inside it is a single off-white sheet, a photocopy that lists the name of a clinic, not a lawyer, at the top. Test results. There is no name attached to this test. The patient is listed as a number: 00934. Next to that, in my husband’s tight, lopsided handwriting, he has written that’s me and drawn an arrow to the number. This paper says that James is HIV positive.
I turn it over, shake the envelope, but there is nothing else. No note. No instructions. That’s me. Literally the only words I’ve had from him in six months, twenty-nine days, sixteen hours, and twenty-two minutes.
I go online. I mean to search HIV, but instead I end up looking at information about vibrators. Invented in the 1880s. Autoeroticism. Hamilton Beach—those people who made my blender!?—made the first electric vibrator. Some important talk about them on Sex and the City. Many different kinds now, all with funny names like eggs, bullets, butterflies, and rabbits. Further down, an article about the “dangers of sex toys.” It says sex toys can be toxic, that there can be chemicals in them that give you cancer.
What if James has HIV and I end up with cancer while I wait for him? I stuff the vibrator inside a plastic grocery bag and throw it in the dumpster out back. I never bought batteries. It’s never even been out of the package.
Anna stops by on her way to work. She’s all smiles when she asks me how I like my present. I tell her I’m not gay and I don’t want cancer. She opens her eyes really wide and says Oh, Graaaaaace, all dramatic, but I close the door before she can try to defend what she did.
I have more important things to do, anyway.
I call the number listed on James’s test results. A woman answers and I ask her how accurate their HIV tests are. She says, “Beg pardon?” and I realize I’ve never understood what that expression means. I tell her that my husband has had an HIV test done there, and I want to know if it should really be something to worry about or if false tests or mix-ups can happen.
She tells me the tests are “extremely accurate” and gives me the names and numbers of several local support groups who might “better assist me.” I don’t tell her that I’m not “local,” that I live in New Mexico and that my husband is in New York, invisible way up there, in a state with a shape so foreign and intricate, I can’t trace it with my eyes closed.
Lucy, the other girl at work who answers the phones, tells me I look tired. Something else that I forgot we’re not allowed to say here, although really that’s more for the brides, so maybe we’re allowed to say it to each other. Maybe that means if no clients are around I can tell Lucy what’s going on with me and James. That we are sep——ed, that we are probably headed for di— —ce, that I don’t want to think that he ch——ed on me when he was still my husband in the everyday sense because that might mean . . .
I tell her that I’m going down the street to buy us strawberry banana smoothies. I think Lucy likes me. If she didn’t, she does now. On the bench outside the shop, I suck pink juice through each of the red straws. They don’t fill them as much anymore, I’ll say when I get back and she pouts that hers isn’t full.
What am I supposed to do with all this new information? I decide to cancel my appointment with Dr. Andrews this week. Sometimes I don’t believe her when she says she doesn’t judge. She’s neutral because she doesn’t hit on me, abandon me, or tell me to censor my words. But she does take in what I say, put notes in my file, recommend proactive responses. Write a letter to James, even if you can’t send it. Call someone in your family and tell them that you and James have separated. Let’s not rule out the possibility of medication, at least to get you through the hardest parts of this.
Every Thursday evening for the past five months I have sat on her green sofa for an hour and let her stare at me with those beady blue eyes while I told her private things I don’t tell anyone else. But right now I just want to be alone.
What I Might Have Said In Therapy This Week
* I yelled at Anna
* James is in New York and has a disease
* Sex toys can give you cancer
* I almost broke the rules at work
* I might have a disease
The new curtains aren’t any better than the old ones. The sun is still coming in, making jagged coronas of light on the wall behind the couch. I left a message on the machine at work this morning at 6:53 a.m., saying that I was sick and would not be coming in. My boss Geraldine has had Lucy leave me four mes- sages anyway, begging me to come in—The O’Malley wedding is tomorrow and the Lopez wedding is on Friday! Do I want to ruin other people’s special day?
Maybe I do.
A crinkling noise interrupts my thoughts. I get up off the couch and find Boots in front of the door batting around a folded slip of paper. I sit and stroke his coarse black and white fur as I open up the paper. It’s a note from Anna. She says she’s sorry if she did anything to offend me and she hopes that I am not mad.
People I Am Mad At (and Why)
* Anna (for hoping that I’m not mad)
* Dr. Andrews (for looking at me like I’m as transparent as Saran Wrap)
* Lucy (for calling me because she’s too incompetent to do the job alone)
* Boots (for making me overthink those damn curtains)
* James for . . . I don’t even know anymore
Just sitting here isn’t helping. Isn’t Dr. Andrews always telling me to be “proactive?” But I can’t think right now. Last night there was a Roseannemarathon on TV and I just never went to bed. Now I lie back on the sofa, letting the heat of the midmorning sun pool on my face.
James is stroking my cheek. He is wearing the Timberlake hat again and he pops fortune cookies into my mouth like I’m a baby bird. I don’t know what the fortunes say because I’m eating the cookies whole, without cracking them open. I’m trying to ask him something, but my mouth is too full and he won’t stop. I’m trying to ask him—I’m trying to ask him—I’m trying to ask him—
I wake up to Boots licking my ear. He’s sitting on my chest and it almost feels like the weight of a lover. The clock says it’s 2:37 p.m. I don’t want to get up, not now, not ever. But I have to.
Time to make a plan. I wish MacGyver was on TV right now—he always has the best plans. I put on jeans and a pink button-down blouse and go see Geraldine. I tell her that I have a family emergency, that my sister in Albany is having liver failure. She agrees to give me time to go, although her face turns purple like she’s either going to die or fire me. I’ll find out which when I get back, I guess. I leave a message for Dr. Andrews, saying that I’m too swamped at work right now to come in, but I will make an appointment soon, maybe even next week. I buy Anna an angel food cake, her favorite, and take it to her apartment. I tell her I’m sorry. I don’t know if I mean that, but right now I need her help. I ask her to look after Boots because I have to go see a friend in New York who’s in a coma because she fell off her horse. Anna hugs me and says of course she’ll help.
I go online again. Buy a plane ticket, do some research. It turns out that Albany has a population of 94,172 people. Albuquerque has 845,913 people. So it would actually be harder to look for my husband here at home than it would be in a city I’ve never been to.
I haven’t flown in years, not since James and I went to Acapulco for our honeymoon. There is a buzzing inside of me as I board the plane, but I don’t think it’s the same kind as the last time. Before, it felt good, like I was humming at the same frequency as James, like no one else could ever feel what we were feeling. But this time, it started in my head and has worked its way down my arms into my fingertips like someone is running the length of my nerves with a chainsaw. I clasp my hands together, but I cannot stop it in my head.
Our first drinks in Acapulco came with little paper umbrellas tucked in them. James stuck his behind his ear so it looked like he had something pink blooming out of the side of his head. He said that in Mexico a honeymoon was called a luna de miel—literally, a moon of honey. I twirled my own umbrella in my margarita, listening to him translate all the things that we were going to see on this trip: ocean, starfish, cathedral, cliff divers, bedroom. Luna de miel, I repeated, smiling. He took my face in his hands and kissed me. When he pulled back, he said that he loved my sweet innocence, that he hoped being married to him wouldn’t change me. We got the check and went back to our room.
The next night, I drank too many margaritas and James had to put me to bed early. Before I passed out, I told him not to stay in, that he should go do something fun. So he and Miguel, the concierge—or whatever they’re called in Mexico—went to a club, some place called Picante. When he told me about it, I said that we should go back there, but he said it had actually been pretty lame. Not somewhere he’d want to take me. Possibly dangerous. Later, he said he thought he’d eaten some bad shellfish, and so we mostly stayed in our room the rest of the trip.
Even now, my honeymoon is still my favorite memory.
I go to the clinic first. There is broken glass all over the parking lot and there is only a white indentation where the blue “T” in “STD” used to be above the door. Why would James even think of a place like this? When I finally make myself go inside, the secretary is bigger than I imagined when I talked to her on the phone. She looks like a beached, overfed starfish with her blond spikes of hair and her great mounded back that looks like it’s fused to her swivel chair.
I tell her that I need to speak with someone about HIV testing. She bangs a clipboard down on the counter. “You’ll need to fill out these forms,” she says. “The last page is two-sided.” I want to tell her that I don’t need a test, that I just need to find out about someone who’s already had one. But instead, I sit and quietly do the paperwork. Maybe once I’m in an exam room, away from this surly woman, if I tell someone who I am, they’ll have to tell me where James is.
I swing my legs as I sit at the end of an exam table, waiting. The word how tumbles around my head like it’s on the permanent press setting for the dryer. James couldn’t have gotten it from me. I’ve only ever been with Todd and him. But how could he have gotten it?
Ways James Could Have Been Infected
* His car accident last year (didn’t they give him some blood?)
* Someone conducting biological warfare through the mail
* He’s had it his entire life and only just found out
* He had sex with someone else who gave it to him
A man in a white lab coat comes into the room. He tries to make small talk with me about the weather. I say it’s my first time in Albany and then ask him if he’s recently tested a man named James Cole. He says that he doesn’t know and that even if he did, he’s not permitted to say. He hands me a white stick that looks like a home pregnancy test and asks me to use it to “swab” the insides of my mouth. When I’m done, he puts the end of the stick inside a vial.
I tell him I don’t really want to know if I have HIV or not. All I want is to find my husband. Is there any way he can help me?
I am on the street holding a hot dog doused in relish and ketchup. My stomach feels cut off from the rest of my body, so I don’t even know why I bought this thing. The condiments make it look infected.
My test was positive. What a funny word, positive.
Things I Am Positive About
* My ability to find him in the next three days
* That all of this is a mistake or even a dream
* The power of lists
* That if James and I are together, we can heal each other
I stay at a cheap motel with water stains on the ceiling. No marathons on the little TV, but I’m still up most of the night. In the morning, I have the sleepy-eyed man at the front desk direct me to an Internet café. I sit on a tall stool, sipping lukewarm hot chocolate while I scan an online directory for James. I still have his old cell phone number but he’s never answered when I’ve called. Now it’s just an automated recording, some robot-sounding woman saying Please leave your message after the tone. So maybe it’s still him, and maybe it isn’t. At this point I’m looking for an address anyway. The directory lists four James Coles in Albany. There are age ranges for each man stamped underneath their addresses: 50-54, 44-48, 50-54, 30-34. I don’t know how they know these things, but I’ll take it. I write the last address on my napkin and run out the door.
I get off the bus about a mile from his apartment. The temperature is steadily dropping, and now the wind feels like icy fingers tickling my legs. I thought to bring a jacket, but now I’m annoyed that I’ve paired it with a knee-length skirt. James always did like my legs. I can’t say I’m trying to make a first impression exactly because he’s my husband, but in a way, that’s what it’s like. It’s now been seven months, two days, twenty hours, and four minutes since we’ve seen each other. I just want him to hold me. As I walk the rest of the way, I try to think of the first thing I’m going to say to him. Just like in therapy, the first line has to be the best.
Possible First Lines to James
* Why did you leave?
* I love you
* Did you give me HIV?
* What do we do now?
The night James left, I worked late. Geraldine and the caterer had gotten into an argument, so we were stuck with the task of filling hundreds of little tulle bags with Jordan almonds for a wedding that was less than twenty-four hours away. I came home after eight to find a half-packed suitcase open on our bed.
“Oh, hey. I thought you were going to be there all night,” James said, laughing as he emerged from the bathroom. His arms were loaded with soap, shaving cream, shampoo, mouthwash. “So it turns out I have to go to this training event for work.”
I sighed. “Again?”
“I know, it’s just . . . Corporate has changed a lot of policies and procedures and they want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Don’t worry, I think this will be the last one.” He stepped around me and dumped the toiletries into the suitcase. He pulled a few dress shirts from the closet, folding them quickly on top of his other belongings. The zipper on the suitcase bulged as he struggled to close it. He grabbed a jacket off the dresser and picked up the suitcase.
I stood between him and the door. “I love you.”
James kept his eyes fixed on the carpet. “I love you too,” he said, giving me a quick peck on the mouth and then brushing past me, down the hall and out the door.
I watched the clock for days.
I’m no good at asking questions, but now what I really want to know is who it was. I don’t know how to say it out loud, but I know there was someone. I know that he liked my “sweet innocence” because I never asked him questions, even when he would come home when I was already in bed, smelling like someone who wasn’t me. As he stood there packing that night, I never asked him why his job would really bother to send him to another city or when he would return. I never asked.
His cement stoop cools against the back of my legs as dusk approaches. Then he appears, coming down the street at a leisurely pace, coat open, no scarf or hat. He will get sick, I think, if he’s not careful, and then I am laughing and crying at the same time. But he hasn’t noticed me yet. He’s looking up into the sky as he walks, his eyes following the moonrise. No trace of honey hangs there tonight. There’s an innocence to his face, which I know in a moment will turn to surprise, to shame.
Melanie Unruh is a New Mexico-based writer of YA novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in and is forthcoming from The Boiler, Cutthroat, Post Road, New Ohio Review, Two Hawks Quarterly, and Philadelphia Stories, among others. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received notable mention in Best American Essays. She co-founded Plume: A Writer’s Companion, a community for women and non-binary writers, as well as Plume: A Writer’s Podcast.
Originally published in NOR 9 Spring 2011