The hiss of the shower gives me an angry, revengeful erection. It triggers outrage, and bestows stamina: it tells me to spoil her, fill her so that no other man will want her, to put a small, dark beast inside her, so that she will double over, rendered completely and utterly unable to move, incapable of accomplishing the simplest of deeds, so her only action will be the selfish writhing I cause; and as I go to work, she will remain that way, powerless to move, let alone perform for Albert. —When she steps from the shower, my penis points like the crippling stinger I want it to be, filled with venom, a phlegm of anger. She doesn’t smile, I do not smile, and I silently direct her to the floor, and before my wife is dry and the steam dissipates, I deliver my toxin. Though it may be unfashionable, that is how I think of this gesture. She closes her eyes. I stand, and then sit on the rim of the tub and feel the ooze of regret smother my heart. My fantasies are vulgar and stupid. Sorrowful, I turn the shower on and get inside. I feel feeble.
I am sorry for what I’ve done, but it has to be this way. I cannot think of a better way to remove her lust for Albert but to destroy the emotion itself—to show her that making love and rape are the same action. I want to be the thief that robs what she covets most dearly, and that is Albert. And since I cannot murder him, nor does the act of talking to him deter them (since I have confronted him twice) I foul her, every morning. —But not nearly as ghastly as he does! In their email exchanges, she delights in the perversions he describes to her; he repeats pertinacious desires, outrages to which my wife stridently condones with “yes, tell me more!” followed by a heart-shaped emoticon—<3
The shower runs out of hot water before I finish rinsing and the chill of the water makes my teeth chatter. When I step out of the shower, I see through the bathroom window the dying apple trees sway slightly. We live in the middle of an ancient apple orchard—the trees have long-since stopped producing, but our children love it here, my wife loves it here, too, and I grudgingly continue to live in this house. Albert lives in a house outside the orchard; he is an internist with a good reputation in town; he is a handsome man, while I am not. My wife is not a beautiful woman, but she is strong, and, though she has had a number of my children, indistinguishable except by gender, my wife “still has it where it counts,” as I once said of her before I found out that she was cheating and began to foul her, before I began to wish she didn’t have it where it counted and began to calculate whether I could change her with another child, which I daily endeavor to cast within her. Perhaps when she is pregnant, the imprint of our once happiness will emerge, and our recent lives will be erased and the memory of joyous memories will surface from my malignant seed. But she takes me remorselessly; sex is harmless; I am harmless.
This situation is my fault: While I was away, on a business trip three months ago, I fell in love with a Polish actress—or she wanted to be an actress, but her too-squared jaw and her epicene chest had kept her from getting the roles that she needed to be noticed. We drank nightly while I was there, in a darkened corners of the mirrorless hotel bar, one of the only places you could get away from the overwhelming smell of rosemary that permeated the Lans Noemann Hotel. She didn’t seem to have anyone else there to keep her company. I declined many offers to dine with potential clients in order to spend a little more time discussing the Polish actress’s desires and her strange life in Poland and then in the United States. Before the week was over, when we both were to return to our homes, she to her long-time boyfriend and me to my wife and children, I told her in a teary-eye passion that I loved her, that I would give myself a scar to stay with her here in this hotel, that my little heart had forgotten what it meant to be in love, that my wife—my “where it counts,” once-child-bride, who was three-months along with our first child when we married—my wife no longer knew how to excite me. We were in her room. As I delved for a kiss, the Polish actress slipped my arms and told me to go home, meaning go back to my own hotel room, and told me that tomorrow I would go back to the apple orchard, to where my children and wife were, and that she would go back to her boyfriend—soon-to-be husband, because they were engaged—and this trifling week would cease to mean anything. She stood up, and I tried to tackle her; she fled behind the artificial silk curtains, giggling, her smile revealing broken and red-wine stained teeth. —I knew nothing of who she was; I was lonesome and desired her for who I imagined she could be. As she came out from behind the curtain into the sore-orange brightness of the hotel lamp, I suddenly saw how much older she was—a crone, a Polish crone—the gray in her hair, the slight curve in her spine, the age in her eyes; for the briefest moment her eye sockets appeared empty! But love can see pass that, couldn’t it? In a final act, I removed my clothes and offered myself to her and her smile faded from her face, her eyelids clasped shut as if in prayer, and carefully she stepped toward the door and blindly ordered me to leave. The door flew open as if by a wind. —What would a passerby have seen? —The next day I insisted on buying her breakfast. The morning light did her wonders. She didn’t balk as I took her tray and paid for her fruit and coffee. I followed her to a table of her choosing, near the rear of the room, near one of the men who had asked me repeatedly to lunch to discuss business. I was unshaven and unwashed; he didn’t look at me. I was a rodent. The Polish actress didn’t speak to me; she didn’t even touch her food. And I only spoke two words—“sorry” and “please.” She sat there as if she were being punished as I slowly ate my breakfast, and then I ate hers. I imagined the fire that would engulf the orchard when I returned. I thought only of the breaking, snapping trees flying up in flame-wisps and how happy I would be to see the horror on my wife’s face as her beloved orchard disintegrated and my children’s would be free, as I would be free, and we would walk from the ashes and we would seek a new happiness, each one of us. That freedom was what the Polish actress meant to me now. She stood to leave. I stood and tried to kiss her cheek, and the she left the dining hall. The man who had so desperately want to lunch and talk business now took notice and recognized me. He reached up with his right hand—a hand covered in a swarthy fur—and asked if I were eating alone. “Go to hell,” I said.
A conversation about my love for the Polish actress ruined my life the night I returned to the orchard. I had to tell my wife, I had to start my new life as soon as possible. My wife threatened to leave me; I told her to go; she wandered the orchard for hours and when she returned I was happily playing with the children. Rancor would be her freedom—I wouldn’t see it at first. That night she glumly went to bed and I slept beside her, breathing in the orchard’s air, which is both earthy and fresh, re-imagining my first glimpse of the Polish actress’s eyes, haunting twin green spheres. —Three months later one of my daughters told me that where I had failed my wife had succeeded, that she had seen Albert’s finger dither up the inside of her mother’s leg. I explain that he was an internist and that was his business, but knew it to be otherwise.
When I look out the window beside my desk, I can see factory chimneys that no longer smoke engage the sky over the steep ridge of apple trees. Over that ridge the land swoops toward a basin, where a muddy brook cuts through a stand of maple, oak, and pine, and beyond those trees is the town, and within that town are the dismal little shops and restaurants and offices, one of which belongs to the internist. —My wife is not here and I flick through the internet looking for pictures of the Polish actress while my children climb apple trees—brittle, ancient trees, that when the older kids climb too high break, expressing a distracting dry thack followed by whoop and gasping chords of surprised children. I wish they would break every one, splitting the trees like some god long-thought dead, destroying our orchard through the misguided fingers and small dense bodies. —I cannot find her anywhere! No pictures, no information whatsoever. No records of her. And the phone number I have for her doesn’t work. I’m adrift. I’m beginning to doubt my interactions with her. Did I hallucinate the entire thing? I do not doubt my confession to my wife was real, nor do I disbelieve that she is the internist’s lover. It horrifies me that my confession set her free, and it has imprisoned me; that what I had felt in the hotel has become abject through the almost-constant re-imagining of the debasement, and I cower within my heart, presently a gamboling knuckle of meat within my chest, shrunken and molding. A mis-cured ham. I need to return to the hotel, to find courage again. Perhaps the hotel has her address on file. —Through the open window, I hear my wife call to the children to get out of the apple trees, and they obey her, they descend from the branches and walk toward to her and she hugs each one, and they comment that she smells funny, and she tells them it is a new perfume she tested while she was in town, but when she walks into the house, I smell that it is not a perfume at all but the antiseptic scent of a doctor’s office—she has tried to come home all the more sterile! —We do not smile at one another as she escorts the children inside, but the children grin at me, and tell me that they are sorry for breaking the trees, that they were only having fun, and I pat their dusty shoulders and tell them it’s okay, that the trees are old and it’s probably not a good idea to climb them, that they are likely to hurt themselves or one of their brothers or sisters. Secretly I wish I could deploy them like lumberjacks! When will I burn this place down? —My wife smiles at them and then sternly glances in my direction. Perhaps she senses that I’m not telling the truth, and then she shakes her arm so that a bracelet descends out of her sleeve and down her arm. Encircling her wrist is a medical alert bracelet. At first I want to laugh at this tasteless adornment, but then I realize that it’s meant as protection and as an escalation of her affair. The number of the internist is surely engraved on it, and Albert is now the person a stranger should call if anything were to happen to her, and I start to indulge in murderous thoughts, knowing that I do not have the strength for the deed itself. The bracelet is to protect her from me.
Where do I see these events going, I ask myself as I pick up the broken branches from around our house and mound them in a clearing. I mindlessly continue to make love to her in the mornings before I go to work, before I exit the orchard and leave her behind to tend to the children. I drive out off our property knowing that nothing about our lives is fashionable or contemporary, that we live outside of time somehow—I go to work, where I sit alone in my office and see no one; my wife stays home; we have children. It is as if we are living out some limbo. I twitch with anguish, my wife indulges in a tawdry affair, our children know but blithely stay silent—I think they like Albert who sends them comic books and candy through their mother.
As we make love one morning in standard missionary position atop our bed, our sheets an unmoving slate beneath us, she tells me in a plaintive voice that when she started seeing Albert it was for revenge, but now she loves him; I tell her I know and thrust with reproach; she tells me nothing I do can will make her stop seeing him, that she will soon invite him to the apple orchard to stay, “we have room.” I place a pillow between her face and mine, and finish my deed. Screwing her is not working—it might as well be how we greet the other in the morning. Should I begin to make plans to return to the hotel?
I refuse to go to work today. I drive to town to visit the little museum. There is no one there except an elderly man volunteering at the front desk—not even his eyes move when I enter the building, and for a moment I wonder if he’s dead, but he clicks his teeth as I come closer. The only thing worth seeing is the child-size sarcophagus and within it the purple-faced child mummy resting behind glass. The sun-bleached sign, speckled with the fingerprints of visiting children, reads that the boy in this sarcophagus was less than fifteen years old, and that it is believed he died from a fall. —I think of the person I once was and hate to think that the child I had been made decisions for me, that a child lead me to this point. I meditate on the mummified young man who never had to clean up his mistakes. —It has been nearly four months since that week in the hotel with the Polish actress. Do I still desire her? Do I still desire her freedom? A woman with a short, low jaw and dirty blonde hair appears in the room. Her nose is stopped up and she breaks the meditative silence with her sniffling. I stare at her; I clear my throat. She leaves, but I think she passes gas before doing so and I sit unhappily in a cloacal flume. —All my children wear medical alert bracelets now. —Efforts to remove from my wife her lust for Albert are failing. I fill her with my septic seed and she returns cleansed in the good internist’s perversions. She is joyous when she returns, and I fester with malice. Our children are more healthy than ever, not a sick one in the bunch.
When I get home from the museum, I do not speak; I do not explain why I’m home, though my wife asks repeatedly. She comes close to demanding to know why. I instead go upstairs and take a nap. Nocturnally, I’ve dreamed the Polish actress and re-imagined her into something utterly different from whom she really is. But as I dreamed her that day, she was once again the square-jawed, flat-chested woman I met at the hotel. She didn’t speak or rebuke my presence, but she kept a torpid distant, shaded, languid, etiolated, flickering: the luscious palimpsest character of my imagination wiped out. —When I wake, I hear the sound of saws and the crack of falling trees. From an upstairs window, I watch as my wife and children saw down a row of apple trees, leaving behind nub-raw stumps that do not ooze sap, but are dry wounds. My wife has bought tender seedlings, needle-like and frail. As my eldest sons cut down the trees and move them to a pile of dead branches, my wife and youngest daughters dig shallow holes and plant the seedlings, and then water them. They drive stakes into the ground between each young tree and ligature the trees upright to the stakes with twine. —I call the hotel. The clerk laughs when I ask about the Polish actress and then refuses to give me her address. He refuses to say whether or not she even stayed there. I ask him if he had a record of my stay. The bureaucratic little shit won’t even tell me if I had been there. The complete absence of a life makes me question whether I spent that delightful week with a frigid phantom. If she had been a haint, would she have told me? Do ghosts go about informing those they haunt their true nature? —I dress, descend the steps and sneak out the house. I hurriedly climb the ridge of apple trees, not looking back and walk with my nerves aching and a foretaste of anguish washing over me as I stagger through the dead orchard-grass, until I reach the rim of the woods and then enter. Vulgar visions fill my quaking brain; I lurch through the matted leaves of the woods, totter over downed logs, wobble across creek rocks, and ascend the hill that leads up to town. Enthusiastically, I break the vines that border the street, and there before me is the little empty town, and I see the smokeless chimneys, and the shimmery street signs, and the shingle Albert has hung for himself outside his squat house where he has his practice. I’m astounded by how close this wooded path gets you to the internist’s house! —Still dazed, wondering briefly how much time elapsed during my march through the woods, I steady myself before the mandrill stare of aged woman eyeing me from her stoop, for I’m sure I appear psychotic, if not, surely manic, certainly abominable. My breathing is labored and I’m dizzily sweating. Her black nugget eyes never letting me out of sight. I grouse at her as I pass.
Upon entering the inky light of internist’s office, the outline of a little boy playing with a red ball in the floor emerges. He looks up at me and recognizes me: “Daddy, have you come to be cured?” I hear the dull jangle of his medical alert bracelet before I pass out.
When I wake, Albert stands over me with his arms crossed and my son is kneeling beside me, fanning a comic book in my face. Albert immediately begins speaking, describing the civil or uncivil ways we would resolve the issues. His bid is for civil resolution. He acts out a rehearsed scorn. The internist’s attitude, his un-nodding head, his determined smile, and my son’s empty face studying the two of us, one man standing, one man supine, removes from my heart whatever strength I had had on the eve of my endeavor to confront Albert again. “She’s planting apple trees,” I say, feeling the fibers of the carpet scratch at my neck as I speak. “I know,” Albert says. He thinks it’s a good idea. He circles me and goes into his office.
Albert feeds me cake and I eat every restorative morsel on the plate as he and my son look on. My son brings some coffee in a blue-black mug and I drink it down. I hug him. My son! On the walls Albert has hung prints of human anatomy, detailing the sinews and fibers, the muscles and entrails of each of us. I ask Albert if he’d seen the little boy in the sarcophagus. He hasn’t. I tell him that it’s very interesting. He doesn’t nod his head. I suspect that the little boy in the sarcophagus would hold very little interest for Albert. What could it tell him about life and death he didn’t already know? —“Why don’t you leave?” Albert asked, meaning leave my family. “You are in love with someone else, aren’t you?” —I tell him that I was in love with someone else, but didn’t know how to find her, and that I had begun to doubt her existence. I tell him (my enemy) that I am afraid to leave my family, afraid to leave my wife. “Afraid.” —Near-imperceptibly, he shakes his head.
Albert is man of sound judgment. I tell him that I think the Polish actress was a haint. He squints. His internist instinct keeps him from balking, but I can see he thinks I’m crazy. My son asks who the Polish actress is. Albert looks on and does not speak. —“I mean she haunts me,” I say, but there’s no changing his mind. He knows what I really mean. “I mean would she really tell me if she was?” Albert doesn’t speak to my theory. He instead turns the subject back to my wife. He thinks she is “remarkable.” Gripping my son’s hand, I tell Albert that he cannot break up my family. He remains calm; I had already lost, even before I left the house this afternoon. —Albert escorts us to the door. He tells me things will be better soon, that things will change, that soon we all wont have such “feelings” for what is happening. The tone of his internist-voice makes this all seem possible. And though I would still like to cave his skull in with a hammer, my mood is somewhat lightened.
My son guides me to the path his mother takes through the woods, back to the orchard. The path was of course clear, well-trod, free of vines and logs; it crosses the creek at a narrow, and when I leap across it I feel a surge of delight. —What was I going to do? When I had returned from the hotel, I’d felt ripe with love, and used the ripeness, that fullness of confidence, to severe the bonds of my life, but perhaps it was rancor, too, that I felt for being jilted by the Polish actress or whoever or whatever she was and that rancor was not my freedom but my prison? —“Do you like Albert?” I ask my son as we enter the orchard. He says he did, and then he climbs through a cleft in one of the oldest trees.
When we arrive home, a strange car is in the driveway. My wife and children have finished planting the new apple trees. A ring of new growth, apple trees tied to one another, surrounds the house; it blocks entrance. I twang the twine and the seedlings shift as if in a mis-directed wind. From the front door, a man and a woman appear, and then a passel of children, all of whom I recognize as my own, but the man is Albert. Every last one of them, including Albert, are braceletted, the blood-red caduceus glinting in the springtime sun. My eldest son comes over and lifts the twine slightly and the son who had walked me home slips between the ties. I know I am to stay out. This is Albert’s change. —They smile as my son works his way through the twine and walks back toward the house. “Good luck,” my children call to me, peacefully. They bless me. And then say my name, my real name, not “daddy.”