The Beginning of the End of All That
I will say nothing about what I know. When John comes in, emanating winter in his wool coat and his scarf and his cheeks rosy, his nose bright, his eyes, as always, like ice. If I didn’t know it yesterday, then I will still not know it today. By the time I see my husband again, I’ll have already put it all out of my mind. And he can continue to rest assured.

What I know is what I’ve always known. What I don’t know is, who sent the note. There was no postage, so I have to assume that it was hand delivered. Someone walked it to the box. Or drove it there. We can’t see the road from the house, because the driveway is almost a quarter mile long, and when we bought this house all those years ago, one of the things I loved about it most was exactly that, our remove. Then, there was a white fence—now that’s gone—and, for me, an attraction to, a sense of fortitude in, the idea of that daily half-mile walk to pick up the mail. Also gone. Or in sending the children for it, later, when there were children. There were none. With the dogs alongside, romping. Chasing each other. Chasing a tossed ball. Yes, over the years, there has always been a dog.

You’re a romantic, John said, and that was a part of what he had found attractive about me, then. But now here we are, and time has passed, and romance doesn’t last. It hardens with knowledge, with experience, it turns to rock, then erodes to dust, then blows away when you’re not looking, leaving a hollow cave, an empty place, all dug out, where the dreams used to be. Things are as they are, not as we might wish them to be.

Dr. Valentine shakes her head. She purses her lips. Frowns. Even on the radio you can hear her frown. Cut the crap, she says. Her phrase, this is, her catchphrase. Cut the crap. I have the T-shirt and a mug and a set of Post-it notes to remind me of this. Cut the crap. If you can just do that, she says, you can do anything.

The long driveway, the mailbox, the dogs, the white fence, even the children. That’s the crap needs cutting. To get to the point, which is this: a white envelope. A yellow card, folded. Blue ink. “Your husband is a liar.” A photograph. John’s face. His hair. His hands. An entanglement of limbs. It’s hard to tell which is which. Or who is who. But what’s what is very clear.

* * *

It didn’t have to be this way. It could have turned out altogether otherwise. You make one decision and then that takes you to another and then after a while you get to be a certain age, my age, ours, and it happens. You look back and you look around and you wonder about what you’ve done. Sure, everybody knows this is so. But maybe what you didn’t expect—maybe even worse—is that you’re seeing what you didn’t do. I’m guessing that when the word gets out, no one is going to be much surprised to know what John has been up to all this time. Although they’ll love to talk to each other about it. Some will be glad to see it ruin him. Our friends have wondered, I know, it’s obvious—what can he see in a wife like me. He, so handsome, so important, so charming, so strong. And me, the sky, the greenery, the grass. I’m the background space, something for him to stand out against. You keep me grounded. His words. He used to tell me this. So be it. I am the ground upon which he walks. I’m the rock, and he’s the wind. He changes, he goes here and there, but I stay put, and I remain the same. And all the while, we both, together, age.

So no surprise then, really. They must have supposed he’s been up to something. Whatever it may be. Which I have chosen not to know.

* * *

Last night I dreamed of Henry Beale, the boy that was one of the choices I didn’t make. Because I had found John, or he had found me, and I told Henry, simply, it’s over. I handled it badly, I know that now, and maybe I knew it then too. His pale face, smooth and hard. Jaw clenching. Teeth bared, as if he might be about to bite.

No, that’s not right. The truth is, I don’t remember the moment, that exact moment, when I told him. I only recall that later, a week, maybe it was more, I saw Henry again, on the street. It was another college town that we were in then, and there was something going on, there was always something going on at that time, everybody was angry, there were marches and demonstrations, floods of students on the street, and in the midst of all that—the shouting and the music, drums and chants and the roiling crowd—I saw Henry, tall, his head above the others. His yellow hair, his blue coat, his amber eyes. I realize I couldn’t have seen their color from that far away, but I remember it this way. Mixed with other memories, I suppose, of when we were together, those three years, which seemed significant then, but now it’s a trifle, fleeting, compared with the almost forty that I’ve since been with John.

I turned away. I saw Henry see me, I saw the smile, his mouth opened and he was about to speak, but I pretended not to see and I turned away, ducked off, fled, because already there was John. I skittered through the crowd, small, I slipped away and didn’t stop, didn’t listen to hear Henry calling to me, I didn’t look back. John was there, waiting for me in the bar, and he gathered me in, his smile, his arm around me. He didn’t miss a beat. Just pulled me close and went on talking to the others who were with him, watching this, watching me, listening to him and whatever it was that he had to say. Which could have been anything.

* * *

I’ve burned the second note in the kitchen sink, the way you see people do in films. Then I ran water. Turned on the disposal. Washed my hands. I won’t say anything. I won’t do anything. I am the ground. I am the rock.

This afternoon, as I was cutting back the roses and bundling them in burlap, I thought of Henry again. I saw my own hands, and they seemed to belong to someone else. I touched my face, pulled at my hair. I watched the birds in the tree take off and swoop across the sky, the woods, the lawn. I felt Henry there.

Now it’s dark, and I’m here in the house alone. John has called to tell me he won’t be home for dinner—a meeting, he said, something, I don’t know, they had to talk about the student-something, and he said he’d be late, don’t worry about him, don’t wait up.

Alone then, in our beautiful big house, more space, more of everything, than the two of us together need. The rugs. The crystal. The wide stairs. Emily was here earlier, cleaning, but by now she’s gone and there’s a fire and candles and music and a glass of wine. The bottle on the table, within easy reach. A cascade of roses, the last of them. And an old photograph album, with shots of me as a child, a girl, a young woman, all from the years that came before I knew John. I study my face and think I see there the shadow of myself as I am now, lurking behind the features of my face as I was then. As if it’s a promise that I didn’t know I’d made.

* * *

I’ve begun to regret burning the note, destroying it. I’d like to look at it again. The stab of those words felt good somehow. I’ve always known, of course, but this is different. Someone else knows now too. And having told me, that person also knows that I know, and whoever it is, they are waiting, watching to see what I will do.

* * *

The television is a secret vice. I turn it on when John’s not here, which is more and more often lately. At first it was just sound, to keep me company. In the middle of the morning on a crushing late summer day when the sunshine and the blue sky and the cicadas and the whole damned fecundity of it all made me feel like a tiny little ball rattling around inside an empty box, so I went into the den, where it was dark and cool and the shades were pulled, the lights were off and I turned on the TV. A beer that time. Then it was a bottle of wine. Finally it is vodka, cold and clear, a knife that can be counted on to cut through the gauze, the mist, the fog. The crap.

I sit in John’s leather chair before the big screen. This is where he watches films or listens to music. All a part of the process he has said, famously, in interviews and on other screens with other people watching, rapt. John—everybody loves him. He is very much admired. His light falls far.

His collection is impressive. And the sound system is excellent. But I ignore all that and change the input mode to television—always careful to change it back so he won’t know. Not that he would be angry. He would just take it as another dent in my fender. A chip in my china. I smile at this, my teeth on the rim of my glass.

* * *

Channel 7. 11:00 a.m. Dr. Valentine’s face fills the screen, her eyes brimming, her lips pressed, a crease of pain on her beautiful clear brow. A close-up, just before the camera pulls back to reveal the set, the audience, the couple on the sofa opposite, sitting close, and an old woman limp in a wheelchair, chin on her chest. The audience, applauding madly. Whistles and hoots and Dr. Valentine with a hand up to hush them before she turns to the couple and asks them, for what seems to be at least the second time: What will you do? The man stands. He takes one step and then he’s on his knees before the old woman. He peers into her face, then turns to Dr. Valentine and smiling, tearfully, he murmurs something, too softly for the microphones to pick up. Dr. Valentine tilts her head. Cups her ear. He speaks up. She still can’t hear him. He pulls himself to his feet, turns to look at me. His face, a grimace. The right thing, he says. I’ll do the right thing. And the audience goes wild.

* * *

Last night John sat across from me at dinner, smiling as if the world were whole, and said it would just be a short trip, he’d only be gone for the weekend. I could come along, but why would I want to do that? He’d be in meetings the whole time, and the city was not an interesting one, not this time. Brutal in winter anyway, frozen solid. I’d be stuck in the room, I’d be unhappy, I’d be better off at home, and didn’t I agree? I could tell he was lying, of course. But I don’t try to imagine anymore about what might be the real story. Probably he isn’t going anywhere at all.

* * *

This morning the boy was here to plow the driveway after last night’s snow. And John was in the kitchen, impatient. Ready to go out, but waiting for the plowing to be done. I was waiting, too, in my room at the other end of the house. My poems. My scrapbooks. My flowers, my chocolates, my books. Women’s work. In a silk robe with more flowers. My hair piled up on my head in a way that has always felt glamorous to me. A cup of tea, steaming. And I wondered, what would Henry think? What would he say, to see me now—older, fatter, softer.

The truck out there, with its plow blade scraping at the asphalt. Drifts piling up on either side. The light post capped with snow. And John’s footsteps coming to me from the far end of the house. I could hear him and then he was there, in the doorway. His hand on my back, breath in my ear, lips on my cheek.

Saying, You know where to reach me. Meaning, his cell phone. And, Enjoy your solitude, darling. The smell of his cologne. Hair. Skin. I did not move as he drew away. His footsteps receding. His bag already in the car, backing out, turning around, and then, the long drive. Taillights, exhaust, and he was gone.

My solitude folded down over me.

* * *

When we brought this dog home two years ago, I was glad to have it. Company, John said. Protection, I thought, but from what? A companion, Emily assumed, with my husband traveling and me alone in the house so much of the time. She comes in once a week to clean, but that isn’t company, that’s something else, and I stay away. I’m a kept woman, I’ve joked, to friends and strangers both, but of course it’s not a joke. They never are.

Small, black and white, a mop of curly hair, the kind of dog you see on television, in a family show, or on a commercial, a movie dog, a trick dog, an all-American dog, nipping at your heels. Curled up at the foot of your bed, following you from room to room. Lifting its head to look at you as if it knows something, then tearing through the house, barking, to the front door, because someone is there, leaving a package on the porch.

* * *

At church they talk about words and deeds and the difference between them. What we say and what we do. They’ve been horrified by what’s been taking place at a truck stop out on the Interstate, not far from here. They know about it, and they talk about it, but what can anybody do? They showed photographs, but I looked away. And the woman in the next chair gave me a nudge. Come on, she said, it doesn’t do any good to pretend it isn’t there. So strident. Her hair a mess. Her fingernails chewed. I told John about this and he smiled. Why do you go there? he asked. To church, he meant. He shook his head. Lit the candles. Poured wine. Turned up the music. Smiled and reached for me. His lips at my ear, whispering: You’re safe.

* * *

Little girls. Young women. Taken from their mothers or given away by their fathers or sold by who knows who.

I drove out there to see it for myself and then sat in the parking lot. But I saw nothing. The huge trucks, steaming, sighing, like large animals. Horses snuffling in their stalls. A woman and a girl in a red car near me, arguing. A man with a limp. The neon of the sign, glowing, for everyone to see.

* * *

I’ve put the package in the trash bin; I’ve buried it under the plastic bags of garbage that Emily left out for the collectors to take away. Maybe it’s evidence, but it can’t be proof.

* * *

What John said to me, in the beginning: This will be our arrangement. It has nothing to do with you. It’s me. It’s who I am. It changes nothing between us.

We are more modern than our friends, John said. We’re not like other people.

And I’d loved that. My own rarity.

* * *

This house hums. Sometimes it sounds like voices in another room. Their conversations, their accusations, their announcements, their instructions, their questions, their judgments, their decrees.

Or whispers, mumbles, murmurs. The slurred mutterings of a drunk.

Or an announcer on the radio, on the television, volume low. I crane to catch what she’s saying, what she’s trying to tell me, but I can’t quite make it out.

I used to go from room to room, trying to find her, but I don’t bother with that anymore.

I’ve come to believe that there are many things not meant for me to know.

SUSAN TAYLOR CHEHAK is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the author of five novels, including Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Folio, Folly, Word Riot, Guernica Magazine, Amarillo Bay, and Necessary Fiction, among other places. She has taught fiction writing in the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, the University of Southern California, and the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, spends as much time as possible in Colorado, and at present divides her time between Los Angeles and Toronto.