Eye for an Eye
by J. Rubino
When Maggie says his name over the phone and then pauses, his stomach churns. It's an inescapable gut reaction that causes his teeth to clench. It's the silence that's the real terror, that moment before his intuition becomes reality.
"I know you're fucking Kathy," she says.
He can tell that she's been drinking again. Her F was strung out a little too long. And there was a special emphasis on the throated click of the 'ck to give it a threat. Over the past year Maggie's drinking has descended even further than he would have ever believed. With each bout comes a viciousness; she has opened seemingly harmless conversations and then taunted him into fighting, never satisfied until he's condensed with anger and frustration.
Yet now, it's more than that. Even over the phone he feels the powerful combination of grief and drunkenness.
"What are you talking about?" he asks. But, of course, he knows exactly what Maggie is accusing. What really takes him by surprise is that the affair was finished. He hasn't seen Kathy for more than six months.
"I've read her letter."
Kathy had written him a single letter in their two years together. It was buried beneath a pile of old school papers, pictures and other letters in a cardboard box sitting on the top shelf of his closet. That meant that Maggie had searched through all his boxes and suitcases? Yet, she is suddenly reading an exact passage: I want to taste you Kathy wrote and Maggie now repeats. Then there is a mixture of words and noises that he can't understand.
Twenty minutes later, he's in their apartment. It's confusing to be there—leaving work, driving unfocused through New Orleans, passing a group of students partying outside Tulane, up Carrollton Street under the oaks, and then pounding on the door for Maggie to release the double-lock. It's as if he wakes up and there they are across from each other at their dining room table. Maggie's face is puffy and streaked with tears and her skin, normally pale, looks like a death mask. Her hands flex into fists over and over again.
She erupts into a barrage of insults. Her small, compact body rocks in the chair, balling up energy deep inside and then releasing like a coiled spring into the words that she hurls at him. Then it changes and Maggie can hardly speak, the tears coming so thick she can't see clearly. "Please talk to me. Help me understand." Her voice is childlike, stuttered between sobs. He offers nothing in reply.
After a moment of silence she stares at him, the blue in her eyes never more clear, and asks the one question he doesn't want to hear.
"Yes or no. Did you fuck her?"
"No," he answers.
"Look me in the eyes and tell me you didn't fuck her."
He holds Maggie's gaze squarely and thinks about all her pain. He thinks about how it's been over six months since anything has happened. He thinks about how Maggie is a drunk and it's disgusting. He thinks about how much he loves her. And how he doesn't want to live with her anymore. He knows to answer her question truthfully would destroy this relationship and though he desires that freedom, there's only a heavy stagnation. The affair is over. It means nothing to him now and to admit to it will accomplish nothing.
"We did not have sex," he says calmly. "There was a strong, momentary attraction but we both turned away from it."
Maggie studies him. He doesn't know what she's trying to read on his face, but there can't be anything there. All emotion is drained from him. He has emptied himself before her—right now but also over the last two years of their relationship. There is nothing on his face because he has ceased to care about anything for so long.
In a quick wordless motion, Maggie grabs the candlestick holder off the table and hurls it at him.
He can't remember if it's his or hers. Never actually holding any candles, its tarnished silver plating, all patchy and uneven, has stood in the center of their dining room table since the day they moved in together. It's part of all the junk that became his life; it exists but in a peripheral world which means nothing to him until he sees its shape flying towards his head.
He ducks. As his head dips level with the tabletop, the bottom edge of the holder grazes his left eyelid like a feather drawing a tickling line across his skin. Passing, it hits the plaster wall and takes out a half-inch-deep divot the size of a quarter.
He stares at the wall and then touches his eyelid. Not even a scratch.
Maggie begins apologizing. She keeps repeating "I'm sorry" over and over. She drops off her chair—huddling in a tight ball on the carpet, her cries are actually wails.
His finger rubs that same spot on his eyelid expecting to find pain or blood or something and he wishes that the candlestick holder had hit him. He wishes it had taken half his face with it. At least that would be justice because even now he knows he will not tell Maggie the truth. He will not get out of his chair and try to comfort her. He stays away and watches. Somehow, without any intention, this is suddenly who he is.
Copyright©2004 J. Rubino