After his wife promised him that she meant business, after he watched her unzip her suitcase and begin filling it with pajamas, a clean pair of silk panties, some toiletries, Richard went into the kitchen and started washing dishes.
Forgetting to do dishes for two straight weeks was passive aggressive. Richard knew that, he didn't need to be told. He was taking turns cursing the water for being too hot, the glasses for being too slippery, the sponge for not retaining soap. He was plunging his hand deep into saucepans and grunting. When one of the highballs squirted out of his fist, it landed hard at the bottom of the sink, shattering on contact. Richard had made a swipe at it with his wet fingers and in doing so had stabbed himself with one of the shards bursting from the top. It was a long needle-like sliver that had entered along the nail smoothly and efficiently like an injection. The pain was searing but he kept his mouth shut. Closing his eyes he pinched hold of it with his other hand and slid it out. It had buried itself all the way to his knuckle where the wedding ring rested but didn't seem to have bothered any bones. For a few seconds Richard looked at the shiny object—the most impossible bluish-pink suds still attached—then dropped it in the trashcan.
It shocked him, but there was no blood at first. Then it struck him that what he had done was create a puncture wound. Puncture wounds, if he remembered from health class as a youth, were internal, filled with fluid and debris that needed to be forced to the surface. A process called "bleeding it" needed to occur. Richard dangled the finger over the sink and began pumping at it, rubbing and tugging on it like a tube of paste until a dark maroon blood began dripping into the sink.
For his entire life, whenever he had done something foolish, Richard would put himself through various stages of personal hell. It had always felt to him like he was the only one capable of making whatever particular mistake he had made. He was merciless with himself. No one else could be this stupid, he would insist. Lapses like that proved things that he would rather deny. If he was pretending to be one kind of man, and he would never admit to pretending, certain blunders made him break character. The real Richard would then punish himself for it, sometimes butting his head against a door or putting his elbow through a wall. Everyone would always say that he was harder on himself than anyone they had ever met. This was the worst. He was drunk again. His wife was leaving.
The only thing that had ever made him feel the slightest bit better was knowing for certain that someone else had gone through the same thing. If he knew of examples where someone else had messed up just as badly, that gave him something to measure against, and where there was comparison there was safety, community. Part of it had to do with a fear of being alone. As a child he was a hypochondriac and couldn't even bear going through illnesses without the knowledge that someone else had lived through them also. When he was six he contracted chicken pox and his mother soaked him in the same bathtub with his younger sister until they both had them all over. She felt guilty but knew the only thing that would keep Richard sane would be seeing the same red spots on someone he loved.
The sink was filling with tiny splatters of blood. The finger was swelling and Richard knew that he would have to have the ring cut from his hand. Despite everything in his power, he was crying. He hadn't cried in over a decade and he did so like someone who had forgotten how to breathe through the experience.
Richard could hear the sound of his wife rolling her suitcase toward him down the hall. "Richard," she called as if testing before entering. "Richard?" She came around the corner into the kitchen and found him bent over the sink, cradling the bloody arm against his white T-shirt.
"I'm a strong man!" Richard yelled into the sink.
"I didn't say anything," she said.
"There is precedence!" He turned toward her. His eyes were puffy and damp. His wife had seen him catch fire like this before, and the tears didn't seem to surprise her. "Remember Patrick? Patrick got a fishing hook caught in his thumb and nearly tore it off once. We had to stop everything and take him home. He ruined everything that time! And Marty. Marty's been an alcoholic for years and his wife has threatened to divorce him millions of times, but she's a good woman . . . she sticks by him. I know all kinds of people! I'm no worse!"
"You mean you're no different," she said, remaining calm. "Who taught you how to argue?"
"Everyone," said Richard. God help him, he was whimpering. "Everything."
"I feel nothing."
"It's all I have."
She said goodbye and Richard listened to the suitcase until it disappeared behind the door. The finger would need medical attention right away, he could see that. He knew where the hospital was, had been in some of the rooms before, had smelled the ointments that lingered in the hallways. He'd be arriving all by himself this time and he hoped the doctor would notice and treat him that way. Maybe he would be kind enough to walk him around other floors when he was finished. If he understood who he was dealing with, he would bring him up to see the children's ward or the ICU, somewhere, anywhere that might help him feel more at home.