Rachel reads the letter:
Not to be too trite, which I am fearful is the case, but hopefully not so much so that could extinguish that which we have, I cannot stop thinking about you. Your hair, the smell of your hair, the color. It is all so much verity, so much exactitude and precision. Sweet and undeniable and strange verity.
I understand you have decided not to leave your husband. And I fully respect this decision, however, I must say, from an outsider’s perspective, this appears to be a wholly wrong action on your part. I have tried to make this apparent to you, both in speech and in action, but it would also appear my rhetorical and lovemaking skills leave something to be desired. However, the invitation to come join me in my villa, though only furnished with a miserly professor’s wage, is still open.
Your husband is a lucky man. Remind him of that.
PS. This is my last most human attempt at an appeal: If you are lonely, come be with me. You still may be unhappy, but I won’t.
Rachel places the letter back into its handwritten envelope. She doesn’t let any of it sink in deep enough before she goes to check on the giant mongoloid ham speckled with pineapple rings and glazed with something pungently sweet. Her brown hair bounces joylessly as she moves past the ham collecting dust and bacteria and entropy. She drinks from the bottle before pouring the wine into a glass. It was a moderately priced Pinot Grigio and it tasted slightly reminiscent of kitchen refuse, the kind that gurgles with the flick of the garbage disposal switch. But truth be told, it wasn’t the Grigio’s fault. The lines on her face were getting darker, and deeper and showed no sign of acquiescence. She was getting older, that’s what the ham signified, also the birthday cake, littered with candied sprinkles and a few uncounted candles. But he was late. And perhaps that signified something as well. She tried not to be angry. She tried very hard to be reasonable, taking traffic and the light inclement weather in account, but the warm liquid rollicking down her throat and the thought of his secretary’s pert breasts and the callow way she rolled her tongue at the Christmas party and the imbecilic way she looks twenty-two and the way she most certainly is twenty-two, can’t be said to be helping matters.
She stands at the sink and peers at her reflection in the darkened window. It is not an accurate depiction, she supposes. It bends the light and makes the flaws less noticeable. She was officially 40 and she’d had no children, though it wasn’t as though she even wanted them. Children, she had heard, conspire with the time vortices and algorithms of change and cause the breasts to sag and the hair to lighten and eventually fall away far before it is evolutionarily necessary. Sure, it is said they keep you young, but Rachel had all too often seen that glaze of disdain in the eyes of a young mother, a rodeo clown with vomit-speckled frocks, as three terrors loudly and manically tear her limb from limb. They possibly only keep you young for the sake of extending your suffering. No, Rachel is aging well enough on her own, thank you.
She downs the glass before refilling it. There is a fire in her belly and she is steadfastly fueling it. She could feel Antony obsessing over her from far across town and it felt like a tiny wistful gnat grazing her skin every time she had finally been able to concentrate on something not related to Antony or Richard. Antony knew about Richard but, as far as she could tell, Richard knew nothing about Antony. She imagines them meeting, how Antony would look like a worm in Richard’s talon. Richard had all his hair and was large and muscular and calm and unapologetic, but there was always the tinge of apathy, like he could take or leave her. Like she could be all or nothing to him and the world would be just the same either way. Antony had become smitten far too easily and her heart would crumble a little with each time they made love. He was a weasel and was responsible and properly pronounced French foods and knew all the artists, but found no joy in any of it. Found only joy in her. And since Rachel found joy in anything but, they were entirely incompatible.
Outside, an inky rain lightly sprinkles, placing an icy sheen on the backyard caught in moonlight. She looks past her fence into the illuminated window of her neighbor and stares intently, hoping for the shadow of some human to glance past. The night feels like a temporal precipice, a dividing line between the past and future, but she supposes every night is exactly that. Still, it would be nice to see someone in that window. For whatever reason, the rain makes the backyard look fake and immaterial, it is noticeably faux to the eye, like bad special effects in a blockbuster film. She has to knock her middle knuckle against the counter to make sure she and it still exist, but there would be something tangible about actually seeing her neighbor, whom she had never met, arguing or pacing or fucking in the window across the way. But Rachel sees nothing. Not even a shadow.
She hears a car door close and she jumps. A few seconds later the front door opens and she hears someone, almost certainly Richard, climb the stairs. She is embarrassed to know that his steps have the slow sad countenance of trudge to them. She smiles. It is not a hunch, but a fact. She could decipher his mood through his footsteps and that had to mean something, right? It had to mean something about him. That, though the day is long, and their trials mundane and wrought with betrayal, they could still communicate on some level. That he could convey his contempt for the world with the pressure in his lumbering steps. He went upstairs and stayed upstairs. She slowly drinks the rest of the bottle.
There is something wrong. Well, clearly. He was a stunning oaf with a horn-rimmed sensibility, but he was never callous enough to forget her birthday. And the doorway almost certainly still smelled of meat upon his arrival. Had he found out about her and Antony? She holds the letter tight, making certain it is still in her possession, which then in turn makes her think of the countless others that she had always remembered to burn then toss. But what if one had come in the mail, which, of course, was never Antony’s M.O., but could possibly have been a birthday surprise. Or maybe Antony had contacted Richard himself, exacting revenge, but revenge for what? Besides, if there was one distinguishing factor about Antony it was his immovable cowardice, she thinks, remembering the almost childlike way he first ran his fingers up her dress.
She creeps up the stairs, hands empty, adroitly and quietly. Rachel approaches her door and the floor creaks obscenely under her feet. She places her head to the door and listens. She hears nothing. She slows her breathing and closes her eyes and what she then hears shakes her skin loose and to the floor, unraveling around her feet. Richard is sobbing. She opens the door and finds his clothes filleted open, his hairy tits and stomach protruding through his unbuttoned shirt, his boxer slit spread wide so a dark hint of his penis is visible. He sits on his side of the bed, and he is weeping. He doesn’t even budge as she enters the room, just continues, sniffling and choking.
“What the heck is wrong with you?” she asks coldly from the door. If asked later, she would defend this approach. Like a policeman who pulls a gun automatically when faced with any nonplussing circumstance.
He jolts. Quickly and resoundingly says nothing and pulls his feet up and rolls over on the bed. His subtle back fat jiggles mildly as a sign of his continued sobbing.
“It’s my birthday, you know. We have a ham to eat.”
She goes to walk away. He has displayed to her a side of himself she had never managed to bring out of him. His melted stoicism is disgustingly pooled upon the bed and she cannot stand the sight of her husband in this state. Moreover, if this were the result of him finding out about Antony, well, she did not want to stick around for what lies across the ocean he had constructed.
“Wait!” He says.
She stops and turns around, waiting for him to say something, waiting for him to break her heart and she tears up.
“I have something to tell you.”
“I am not so sure I want to hear it.” She says, beginning again to move downstairs. It is a morbid curiosity and nothing else that keeps her upstairs long enough to see his red face and his glisteningly bloodshot eyes.
He opens his mouth to speak, pauses and rethinks his approach like a timid chess player at a crowded board with a queen in hand. He places it down, an apparent check. “I have been unfaithful to you. And I am sorry.”
“The secretary!” She screams and darts at him.
He stands up and his belly takes the brunt of her blows. She only punches and slaps him because she knows it means nothing to him. He doesn’t wince once, like the noble messiah taking his punishment. She finally tilts her head downward against him, tired. He wraps his giant arm around her.
She whispers, “How could you do this to me?”
“I don’t know. I never meant for it to happen.”
“It was the secretary, wasn’t it?”
“Who was it?”
“Just some woman. I barely know her.”
The way he says this, just some woman, like they were all interchangeable to him. Like she was on some conveyer belt of cunts and he was taking his pick of them at random like chocolate-covered almonds.
“It was a mistake,” he continues, “It never should have happened, and for that I apologize.”
She remains silent. Holding him close, her head against his chest. She hears his heart beat slower and he clearly thinks he is out of the woods. He thinks everything is going to be fine and before he can move once more, she grabs the letter opener off of the nightstand and delves it deep into his thigh. He screams and she protects her face with her forearm but catches the bulk of his fist with her elbow. He then falls to the ground screaming. “You bitch. What have you done to me?”
She runs out of the house, grabbing the keys to the Camry. It is still wet, though has stopped raining. She drives westbound for blocks and blocks, not fully aware of her driving. Trapped inside insipid instances replaying like a cavalryman’s bugle on a decimated battlefield, the letter from Antony always factoring in somewhere. She imagines Richard blustering into her, this mystery woman, she imagines him drunk, though fully recognizes this hackneyed notion was built aloft some form of self-preservation. No, she has no horse left in the fight, she thinks. Take on its full reality. She imagines him seducing her, him telling her about his wife’s disgusting body, him embracing her for hours afterwards in his cloudlike arms; the whole of the magnanimity of lovemaking that makes the human experience so worth longing for. That oneness, the ache. She breathes shallow and the high beams of an oncoming squad car jolt her back to the present. She decides for the time being to stay there.
She turns left on Lancaster Parkway, wondering if Richard had called the cops to report the incidence. He would more likely drive calmly into the ER depicting how he left the letter opener in his chair and sat down upon it, Geezus Christ, I feel like a klutz, he would say in his businessman tranquility, that dazzling Ferrari-red grimace.
Who was she now, in this instance? And what would this new woman do now? She was Rachel as always, but Rachel Shifted, Rachel Realigned, Rachel on the Lam. She was the Rachel who had stabbed her husband and in a fiery moment truly wanted him dead. To want someone dead and to take actions toward that end, despite the actual results, must make her a murderer. A true flesh and blood murderer. She had crossed some line drawn in her sand, some line or flag that she had always presumed, based on her constitution, would be easily crossable, and had always feared its inevitable occurrence. So in a way, she was always a murderer. She was a killer. Rachel the Murderer on the Lam. She sees herself in the rearview mirror and her eyes look disgustingly the same. Nothing has changed. The Rubicon lies, supinely and weaving, in her rear view as well.
I should buy a beret and a trench coat and slink in and out of movie theatres pretending to be the character, in a Nouvelle Vague film, who is masquerading as an American outlaw. I will cast ominous shadows and carry a derringer. She builds and builds and decides in fact to catch a flick, remembering an old classics theatre off of Callas Way, citing a need for the heat to die down. She holds tight to the steering wheel. Where would this life of crime lead her; a white knuckled femme fatale with a penchant for killing the men who had done her wrong?
Only half-buzzed and fading she decides to get a pre-screening drink so pulls into a mom-and-pop liquor store. Inside is a young man, maybe in his twenties at the register. He reads a magazine in the empty store. As Rachel walks in, he diverts his eyes, demonstrating nakedly the palpability of his own passivity. Rachel, newly awakened to the breadth and width of her own morality, finds comfort in this. She is attempting to see the world in terms of predators and rubes; he was clearly of the latter class. She peruses the aisles, noticing that he is watching her. Even she can notice the recognizable glint of sexual attraction in his eye. She play-acts, lets his fantasies unfold as she coyly pulls a bottle of wine off of the shelf and looks through the bottle, taking in its divinity. She places it back on the shelf. She wasn’t going to a dinner party. She was a ruffian with a lust for baser instincts. She needed something hard and swig-worthy. She spies a small flask like plastic bottle of a whisky behind the counter and addresses the boy.
“That one, there.” She points.
“This one?” He asks.
“Yes. What are you reading?”
“An article on some writer.”
“Oh really, I was an English Major in school. Maybe I know of him.”
“It’s a new guy. Just released a series of short stories. They are calling him the King of Killers. Kind of outsider art thing from the article’s perspective, but it sounds good.” His look of meager indifference is fading. Let a man talk about his passions, she supposes.
“Is it the guy on the cover?”
“No, that’s someone else.”
“Do you sell that here?”
“Nah, I brought this from home.”
“Can I buy it from you, then?” He is clearly attached to the magazine and wishes not to part with it, and the eyes, looking away suddenly, convey this. However, he is also one who has not yet learned to put flags in the earth, to defend what is his.
“How much, for everything, including the drink?”
“$8.75 for the bottle, and um, look you can just have the magazine. Consider it a gift.” He pulls out a paper bag and places the bottle and the magazine in the bag and pushes it toward her.
Rachel opens her billfold and finds that she has no cash to speak of.
She splays it open for him to see and he gets an embarrassed look on his face.
She says, “sorry,” and grabs the bag and slowly walks to the door. She gets in her car and looks back at him through the window. He stares at her, as would a child just realizing that his mother has left and is never coming back. When their eyes meet, he turns around quickly and sits down in his chair behind the counter.