Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 50

  He is still there. He grows older every day.

  "Can't she take him out some place?" my daughter objects. "He's always home."

  And so is his quacking, ill-visaged, overweight nurse with her rinsed white hair and offensive scent of bath powder, whom I've ordered my wife to get rid of once and for all, even if we have to take care of him ourselves for a little while. (It might do us some good.) And the maid can go too, for all I care. (I can't feel at home when she's tiptoeing around.) "Get a German, for Christ sakes," I barked at my wife. "Import a Dane."

  "Where will I get them?"

  "How the hell should I know? Other people do."

  "I get embarrassed when my friends come over."

  (So do we.)

  "There's no need to," I tell my daughter gently.

  "I knew you'd say that," she sulks in disapproval. "I knew you wouldn't understand."

  "You ought to be ashamed of yourself for saying anything like that," my wife says to her in reproof.

  "Leave her alone."

  "She ought to be glad she's not that way."

  "She is."

  "You always take her part," my wife accuses. "The doctors said you shouldn't do that."

  "She thinks I take yours."

  "Why does she always have to bring him in?" my daughter protests. "Can't she keep him in his own room when my friends are here?"

  (We wish she would keep him out of sight also when our friends are here and have told her so. She parades him through anyway, gabbling loudly at him and pointing to our guests to show him off, or to inflict a penance on us.) "You shouldn't mind it that much," I counsel.

  "You do too."

  "He isn't that bad."

  "He makes us uncomfortable."

  (He makes me uncomfortable too.)

  "You shouldn't be," I tell her. "It wasn't the fault of any of us. It could have happened in any family."

  But it happened in mine.

  "We have another child also," I have been forced to reveal time and time again in ordinary social conversation to people I barely knew, "who's somewhat brain damaged. It was congenital," I add. "He's retarded."

  "We also have a child who's retarded or very seriously emotionally disturbed," couples who knew about us have sought me out to reveal (as though we had something I wanted to share).

  It's a club I don't want to join, and I find those clannish parents repellent. (Their suggestive intimacy makes my flesh creep and I want to shake them away from me as I would flies. I detest clannishness of every kind. It boxes me in claustrophobically. Or shuts me out. I don't like to feel boxed in.) I saw it happening to Derek long before anyone else did (boxing me in) and said nothing about it to anyone. (Later, when others began to notice things and make hesitant, fearful observations, I denied them with emphasis. I didn't want it to be true. I had nightmarish warnings. I saw the realities assembling themselves ahead of me in mapped-out phases. I still do. I felt if no one talked about it, it would not be true. I was wrong.) He sat late, stood late, walked late, ran late. Even to a father's doting eye, his coordination was poor. We thought him clumsy and cute as a newborn puppy or foal as he staggered, stumbled, and fell. There is not harmony in his movements now. He makes no effort to open his jaws wide when he tries to speak--he does not seem to associate mouth with speech. He looks like lockjaw when he tries to talk. (Tendons stretch and bulge and I wish he'd stop.) He can open his mouth wide enough, though, when he eats or laughs or just wants to make noise. Though what he's got to laugh about I don't know, except when I offer him things in play and snatch them back, and then he's just as apt to cry.

  (You can't even play normal infant's games with him anymore. I feel worthless when I try to play with him and he cries. I slink away in rejection. I am furious with myself and with him. The least he can do, it seems to me, is be decent enough to laugh when I try to play with him.) "Is having Derek for a brother," my daughter wants to know, in a manner that is somewhat demanding and somewhat abject, "going to make it harder for me to find a husband?"

  "No, of course not," we lie.

  "Why should it?" my wife flashes at her belligerently. She is shocked and outraged by the directness of the question. (And now it is I who must shield my little girl against her.) "Leave her alone," I request softly.

  My daughter turns to me for the truth. "Is it?"

  "Are you thinking of getting married?" I gamble in a pleasant rejoinder.

  "See how he tries not to answer me?"

  "You should be ashamed of yourself," my wife says to her, "for even thinking like that."

  "Leave her alone," I repeat.

  "Will people think my own children will turn out the same way?" my daughter persists.

  My wife gasps. "That's a terrible thing to say!" she rebukes her with emotion. "He's your own brother."

  "That's why I worry about it. Can't I ask?"

  "Leave her alone, for Christ sakes," I shout, and whirl upon my wife to glare at her. "I worry about the same thing."

  "She's the one who should be ashamed."

  "And you worry about it too. For Christ sakes, stop blaming her for him."

  "Stop blaming me. You're always taking her part. The doctors said you shouldn't do that."

  "I'm not."

  "He's nothing to be ashamed of."

  "If he's nothing to be ashamed of, why the hell are we always ashamed of him?"

  "We're not."

  "We are."

  "You're always blaming me for him."

  "I'm not. Like hell I am."

  "Don't yell at me," my wife says unexpectedly, with an air of indignant calm and refinement that is utterly astounding.

  I turn away from her in disgust. "Oh, Christ," I mutter. "You make me laugh."

  "And don't swear at me, either," she reacts mechanically. "I've told you that before. Especially in front of the children. I think you must enjoy humiliating me. I really think you do."

  I am incredulous. And I find myself wondering again just what in hell I am doing married to a woman like this. Even if I had no other reason for wanting a divorce, this idiot child she gave me would be enough.

  I want a divorce.

  I need a divorce. I long for it. I crave a divorce. I pray for divorce.

  Divorces seem impossible. They're so much work. It's hard to believe so many really take place. It's enough to stab the heart with envy, turn eyes dewy with pining and sentiment. People less proficient than I am manage to breeze right through their divorces without breaking stride, while I can't even get a foot out the door.

  I want one too.

  I have always wanted one. I dream of divorce. All my life I've wanted a divorce. Even before I was married I wanted a divorce. I don't think there has been a six-month period in all the years of my marriage--a six-week period--when I have not wanted to end it by divorce. I was never sure I wanted to get married. But I always knew I wanted a divorce.

  "If it doesn't work out," I kept assuring myself right up to the day of the ceremony, "I can always get a divorce."

  I can't always get a divorce.

  I don't know how it's done.

  Maybe I attach too much importance to a shirt.

  I'll have undershorts at the laundry. Will she let me come for them? Or will she burn them, hide them? Will she tell me my little boy is upset when he isn't? That she cannot live without me when she can? I know she'll tell me she's thinking of killing herself. The obstacles appear insurmountable. In the summer my winter clothes are in mothballs; in the winter, my summer suits are hanging somewhere else and my sneakers are packed away. How will I ever get them all together? I'd need weeks. I don't have time to get a divorce. There's so much packing to be done (she won't help), so much talk to go through. (How does anyone ever get it finished?) There'll be fights, discussions, more fights. (Will it never end?) Bank statements will already be in the mail. A letter will be due any day, a pinstripe suit I like has just been sent to the cleaner's. There'll be books to be boxed in corrugated food cartons from th
e supermarket, the smaller the lighter, the lighter the better. No wonder I keep finding reasons for postponing the action: the welfare of the children (a fat lot of good it's done any of them to have us stick together so long), the money, the office, my wife's health, a dinner party for the following week or a date for the theater with another couple that will have to be broken. Neither one of us will want to call; we'd rather stay married. It's so much easier to ride things out until my mood changes and I kid myself into thinking I will never really want to leave her.

  I just don't know how it's done.

  Weaklings do it. Will she forward my mail? Or will I have to telephone and talk to her about that and other things. I guess it helps to have a wife who falls in love with another man and wants a divorce first. But mine is so lacking in initiative of that kind she might never come around to it. I would still have all that packing to do. I have shelves of books from college days with handwritten notes I scribbled in the margins. I probably will never look at them again. Yet I would want to take them with me. I would have to find an apartment, furnish the apartment, make my own dinner most evenings or eat out, get some girl friends I could stand, and sooner or later get married to one of them so that I could start looking forward to a divorce again.

  I wish there were someone I could hire by the hour to go through the whole wearying procedure for me from beginning to end, even to experiencing those ritualistic qualms of guilt, concern, and remorse without which a conscience can never feel antiseptically pure again.

  I remember a pledge: when Derek reached five, I promised myself, I would go. What irony! (All I did was fuck her once, and now I am saddled with him.) It isn't his fault. Even without him, I'd still be unable to go; and even if he were normal, I would want to. I will always want to.

  I yearn to.

  I do have dreams about divorce. I want to leave my home but I'm unable to. Even when they let me. (They always let me. I don't go. I don't want them to let me.) I'm unable to get anywhere. I want to speak but I'm unable to. People leave messages for me and I am unable to get back to them. I have to take a test and I am unprepared. All term long I have been unable to find my way into the correct classroom. The lessons have proceeded without me. The term is ending. I have trouble finding my way to the correct examination room. Every building I enter is wrong. Time is passing. I will fail.

  I would not even know how to begin if I had to begin with a straight face. I don't think I'd be able to make all those necessary pompous statements without cracking a smile. I think I might actually burst out laughing. I think a man like me would have to fly way off the handle into the wildest emotional state to get it done, go mad, utterly berserk, for an hour or two and give no thought at all to mail, children, books, underwear, and pinstripe suits. Man can live without a pinstripe suit, if he has to. All it would take is enough rage to throw together a small suitcase, checkbook, passport, credit cards. Even then, there would be no guarantee.

  Not for me.

  Suppose, for example, one of the children, even Derek (perhaps especially Derek), came to the doorway to watch while I was packing. How could I go on?

  Or suppose my wife, whom I've known so many years now, simply walked into the room when I was almost finished and said: "Please don't go."

  I don't think I could (I would probably miss her.) She wants me to tell her I love her. I won't. A reason I won't is that I know she wants me to. This is one advantage I have over her that I am still able to hang on to.

  She used to make me say it. It seems a silly, awkward thing for a sapient human being to have to say--especially if it's true. It might make some sense on occasion when it's a lie. Now she cannot make me say it, and I have my revenge. She doesn't ask me to anymore. And between us now there is this continual underground struggle over something trivial and nebulous that won't abate and has lasted nearly as long as the two of us have known each other.

  "I love you."

  What funny words ever to have to say. (They become more flexible if you're allowed to add a couple of others fore and aft to round them off with some frills of humor or sarcasm that pervert the meaning. Something like: "Gee, baby, I sure do love you a lot when--"

  Complete the above statement in fifteen words or less.)

  I have not told my wife I love her, I think, since shortly after Arthur Baron first proposed Andy Kagle's job for me, and that was at night in bed and the meaning was sexual (which is not what she means. My wife does not know yet that it will be Andy Kagle's job I'm taking). It gnaws at my wife's self-esteem, tears at her pride and vanity that I do not say: "I love you."

  I relish that. I have it on her. It has nothing at all to do with love. It has more to do with hate. We hoard pillows. We have big, fluffy, soft ones now, and she steals mine when I'm asleep. Also, she sleeps better than I do, which arouses so much wrath in me that I can hardly sleep at all, and then she maintains she's been awake all night with heartburn, headache, and humanitarian concern over the well-being of others. (I'm the one who's been awake. She won't stay in her part of the house, as my son and daughter prefer to do now. She won't answer the telephone, even though the calls are mostly for her. When one does come for me, she'll wait until I've been talking for thirty seconds and then pick up the extension breathlessly to shout: "Hello?" We run out of light bulbs.) There is face to be saved in this tug-of-war, and I want to save mine. This is one victory she cannot pluck away from me. I have the advantage, because I don't care if she never says it to me (although I might begin to care if I felt she didn't).

  She wants me to say it precisely that way:

  "I love you."

  I prefer to sidle into it through methods of my own.

  "Oh, Mom!" my daughter exclaimed in the car, pulling close to her in a hug. "I just love her when she kids around this way."

  "So do I," I said, edging it in.

  There it was. But that isn't good enough. It doesn't do the trick.

  (I meant it when I did.)

  I've said it to her also the way she wants me to and will again; but I refuse to say it when she is trying to make me. I balk. I have my masculinity and self-esteem to protect against this indecent attack. I resist.

  Call it spite. Call it petty spite. But call it highly sensual and gratifying spite.

  "Would I be here with you if I didn't?" I have answered.

  "Then why don't you ever say so?"

  "I love you--there! I did."

  "You never tell me."

  "I just did."

  "But I had to ask you--no, don't smile, don't say anything, don't make a joke out of it," she laments (just as I am about to make a joke out of it). "I guess I expect too much."

  My wife not only wants me to say:

  "I love you."

  She wants me to want to say it!

  "I love you."

  "Do you?"

  "I just said so, didn't I?"

  "I had to ask you. I always have to make you say it."

  And I might consent to let her make me, out of the hospitable goodness of my heart, if I did not know there was this contest between us that I don't want to lose. I might make a deal with her on it anyway if she'd get me the pillows I want and stop snoring or breathing away indifferently in such slumbering, nasal contentment while I'm still lying awake trying to sleep.

  "Get more pillows, for God sakes. We've got more cars and television sets than we have pillows."

  We've got four pillows for our king-size bed (which is something of a mocking joke. We could move around it for years and never come in contact with each other if we didn't want to. We do not sleep entwined). And I want her to get at least four more, maybe five. She forgets. I want there to be enough for me, which means at least one or two more than there are for her. (When we do buy light bulbs, we put them in places we can't find when we need one. We run out of toilet paper. The ladies run out of sanitary napkins. The world is running out of good maids and qualified laundresses, cobblers, and tailors. The wheels are falling off this gyroscoping toy.
It hasn't stood the test of time. I can't get a maid to remember to put fresh towels in my bathrooms after she removes the old ones. I can't get my wife to serve dinner on time unless there's company.) It is very important to me where I sleep in relationship to her. I want more pillows under my head than she has so that I will be above her. I sleep almost against the headboard so that she will be below me. It is very important to me that my wife seem small. She isn't. We are nearly the same height, unless she kicks her shoes off. That was uncomfortable when we used to dance, still is when we want to kiss (we bunk foreheads and noses); and I still cannot walk with my arm around her shoulders without experiencing twinges of tendonitis. My wife just doesn't seem to fit. I want my wife's face on a line with my shoulder or lower when we sleep, make love, walk, or eat; I do not want it confronting me on a level equal to my own. (When we're out in public, though, I'm glad she's straight and handsome. She cuts a stately figure when she's all dressed up and makes a dazzling impression for me if she isn't drunk and obnoxious.) She is starting to snap her chewing gum again when she sits beside me in the car or movies. She goes back to chewing gum when she's trying to stop drinking. It drives me up the wall, nearly out of my mind with pent-up rage, some nights to see and hear her sleeping soundly in futile battles against worry, hurt, grievance, and overstimulation. (There are nights after drinking a as an innocent child while I am lying wide awake lot or thinking very hard about matters at the office that I am unable to turn off my mind for hours or even slow to a governable tempo the free-flight of disjointed ideas from all sources that go racing through my brain. I never think of anything good. I sometimes think of something good.) I want to pummel her. I want to hiss vitriol. It is there in the darkness of sleep, when no one is looking, not even ourselves, that our true rudimentary spirits emerge. Like furled and eyeless embryos, we wage war murderously over areas of quilt and corners of pillow; bumps of knee and hip are the weapons we use; mewing grunts and moans are the curses and battle cries. (We are babies, although we probably did not feel this way when we were babies.) It infuriates me that she does not even know I'm awake. I feel martyred by neglect. (Some nights I can sleep and she can't: it registers upon me that she is leaving the bed repeatedly in some state of agitation, and I doze off again more blissfully as a result of this knowledge.) I am in a turmoil of tragic insomnia, and she is lying inches away from me in a mellow stupor of oblivious tranquillity. How dare she be so insensitive to my wretchedness and distress, especially when it's all probably her fault. And I want to shake her awake roughly.