Somebody’s Wife

 

14.

In the first rain cold enough for fall Catherine felt the house thrum under the linoleum. Laney was pressing visas into her passport, Catherine foaming milk for coffee they wouldn’t finish. You only notice now because you’re comfortable, Laney said. This house is built of tacks and flypaper. They heard strangers below the window and when Catherine scratched her nose against the screen the sidewalk was street-lit and uneven. You can go, too, Laney said. Somewhere. Catherine stood close behind her, pig-tailing Laney’s hair and letting it fall, black-dyed, dry, Laney’s skin like milk on tea. It’s not as if I’m going to stay, Catherine said. Laney had working papers to sign, tickets to buy, bus to New York, New York to Paris to Saudi. Maybe a farm, Catherine said. Rooms will be cheap. Laney said totally. Not: I can’t see you on a farm. Catherine said she could drive Laney to the airport. You’re sweet, Laney said, but once she was on her way, she liked to be on it, you know?

 

13.

They had hugged their students goodbye. They had assisted the same classes, different classrooms and master teachers, the same donut scent all summer on the morning side of the theatre. While the students hunched around lunchtime secrets and the master teachers’ mouths cursed emails that couldn’t be sent, Catherine and Laney took their salads under a plane tree. Construction workers whistled from across the college lots. You are lovely, Laney said, and shook out a scarf. Catherine said she could see the appeal. Laney said fastening a pretty shayla was hard, hard, hard. Woman bears the burden, Catherine said, and felt better.

 

12.

Guests had arrived late to their party but even the master teachers came. Where else were they going to go, said Laney’s master teacher, round under a Hawaiian shirt, bald above a curly brim. He said in the fall they would find none of this was real. Look at this, he said—cupcakes? Blonde Nelson, whom afterward Catherine saw in silhouette, stepping backwards off the roof to be saved by the fire escape, presented Laney with a tin. Chem4, he said. While you can get it. Catherine said she would fetch paper, and brushed Laney’s hand like, hey, and Laney pinched her fingers. If you look too closely irises are only pooled color. Laney’s were green as an algae pond. Not with the others, she said, and with the others was when Catherine wanted her most. Catherine sat with her thin legs swinging over the crooked gutter and leaned back into the summer constellations toward Laney’s voice, ringed in the dark with men. I’ll only be a year in Saudi, Laney said; the man she was marrying was Lebanese. The whole world came through Lebanon. With tanks, said the director. The men’s voices surged after her. Nelson looked at Catherine; sure she was OK? Even if she had fit into Laney’s circle, Catherine would have been the girl with doctor’s orders not to drink, and by now everyone had heard that her skull crackled like knuckles though her CT showed nothing. What do you want me to do, Laney had said. I don’t want anything, Catherine had said; I just want to tell you. A cop car pulled in from Elm Street. Nelson, Catherine said.  Joints were flushed indoors. The cops had gotten noise complaints. Laney supposed she should have asked the couple downstairs. It is their roof, Catherine said. But we’re gone in two weeks, Laney said. And wasn’t it great right up to the end?

 

11.

Catherine couldn’t detect how much sunlight was subtracted every afternoon but she could tell they lost a lot each week now. Laney said they should have a party while they could, on the roof out their window. I’ll bake something Catherine said. Cupcakes! Laney said she’d get cake at the yuppy grocery, save her all that trouble. No trouble, Catherine said, and thought: don’t save me.

 

10.

Nelson was renting a kayak. Laney said Catherine should totally go. Did you see his hands, Laney said. I’d rather do something with you, Catherine said. It would be good for you, Laney said. Nelson knew the river, told Catherine how to paddle. It should be no effort. If she made a splash, she would know she was doing something wrong. He was going to live on a farm in the fall, apples, hayrides, art in a barn—Vermont. His fingers were bursting their casings. His paddle slurped the brown water. With some people don’t you feel, once you meet, that you’ve always known them? Catherine said. Nelson said the better he knew people, the more everyone was alike. She should relax into her paddle. It was her head, she said. She had forgotten: going home always takes longer. Rooming on farms didn’t seem like something he would want to do forever. Who said forever, Nelson said.

 

9.

Catherine baked Sunday scones. She had never baked for someone who wasn’t family. You’re like somebody’s wife, said Laney. You’re the one who’s going to be a wife, Catherine said. I know! Laney said. Can you believe it? She didn’t want their co-workers to know yet, but Catherine could hear all about it. Catherine wondered which was easier to misjudge: whether you liked someone or whether you had them. September was too many days off to add.

 

8.

Laney’s husband-to-be had been one of her students. English as a second language. He was stubble jawed, nicotine fingered, the same flash-bulb smile in every late night photo. He knew that Laney still saw women; it wasn’t cheating because it wasn’t really sex. So that’s what it wasn’t, Catherine said. Don’t you go funny on me, Laney said. She would have mentioned him, but for the summer she hadn’t thought it mattered.

 

7.

Laney and Nelson were going to the ice cream shop. Lucky—Catherine could come, too. Catherine explained: her head couldn’t take alcohol. Concussion. She was still unsteady. Nelson wanted the story. It would bore you, Catherine said. You know girls, Laney said—secrets.

 

6.

Their students arrived on a Sunday. In the unmown grass, after too little coffee to burn away the night before, Catherine and Laney staffed facing tables labeled with felt-tip last initials. Catherine said it looked like rain. The tall guy next to Laney said it was going to be fine. And you’re sure, Catherine said, from where you’re looking? She felt free: she’d already said anything that had to count until September. I’m Nelson, he said. He was blonde, gap-toothed when he smiled wide. Don’t let me keep you back, Laney said later. Catherine said oh she wasn’t.

 

5.

Catherine and Laney had more to buy than to move in: futon, teapot, pans. Laney said in a past life she had been a massage therapist—her old career, not literally. She put Catherine on the futon in the front room and sat close behind her, stepped her fingers down Catherine’s back and around. No, Catherine said. Don’t tense, Laney said. How do you know if you don’t try? Damp pressure—Laney’s fingers—seemed to root into her. How strange that we can’t count by touch, Catherine said. Laney asked if she was okay. I want you to forget, Catherine said, everything that I don’t know. One second, Laney said. She switched off the lights, and wide moths boomed against the screens.

 

4.

Catherine was making a list of apartment listings. You’re sweet, Laney said. But she had already put down a deposit. She would have told Catherine but she hadn’t wanted them to miss out. It was the front half of a white house, three rooms end-to-end. You could climb out the hall onto a back roof. Catherine’s vision was jumping in and out of blur; her skull felt a size too small. We’ve got to relax you, Laney said.

 

3.

The orderlies shuffled Catherine from the CT. Laney was in the grey lobby. Her motel room had a spare bed; she didn’t think Catherine should spend the night alone. I have a spare bed, Catherine said into a hum she didn’t remember—trucks, maybe, shifting low on some main highway she had not been in town long enough to find. Laney drove. American hospitals are boring, she said. Her motel room was the same as Catherine’s, the post-war rectangle. We should room together, Laney said, for the summer. Her boy lips fluttered. From Catherine’s bed, the further bed from the window, the room made occasional dives, but Catherine had a definite idea. Leveling herself out she lost the words, but she was sure: Laney was excited not by Catherine but by living with a near stranger, the risk of it and her own daring.

 

2.

Cathy woke on a Main Street bench, her head like an iron ball hot with current. There was a red siren truck and dented blue sedan and a woman with dyed black hair and porcelain cheeks, who asked if Cathy could say her name. Of course, Cathy buzzed, I’m Catherine. She noted far within herself that she hadn’t been Catherine since middle school. Could it be blackberries, the porcelain woman’s scent? Elaine, the porcelain woman said; Cathy should call her Laney. Weren’t you looking where you were going? Laney said. We need to get you to a hospital. I’m fine, Catherine said, but Laney said she wasn’t going to be responsible for that. Can you walk to my car? Laney buzzed. Catherine said of course, and, standing, found she couldn’t.

 

1.

Cathy arrived with plenty of days to find a room or someone to share a house with. She was fresh from three deliciously inconsequential last weeks at her old office, and from New York it was so easy, four diesel hours then from the bus station walking wherever you needed to, checking apartments on coffee shop Internet, the town still bursting with undergraduates, blown over with white-undersided May leaves, just as she had seen when she had answered yes, she had teaching experience, and listed productions she’d been involved with. She could fill out a page. At the four corners at the top of the town there was a noodle shop that could keep her until she had a kitchen. She had intentions, up Main Street, cat’s cradle across to Ivy and Elm. She had the light and stepped out.


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Sarah Malone's fiction has appeared in Open City, The Awl, and Wigleaf, among others, and is forthcoming in Keyhole magazine and elsewhere. She is the editor of UMass Amherst's MFA journal, Route 9, and assistant director of the Juniper Literary Festival. She blogs at sarahwrotethat.com.