This is a short story in very rough draft. I wrote the bones of it a long time ago and just made some major changes. Feel free to let me know what you think.
You can see it coming, as it always does, in the slowly diminishing high-water mark of the glass, as inexorable as the tide. There’s no letting go, now, no stopping it. She drains the glass and pushes it away, her smile sparkling. Not tonight, maybe, not yet. You stack the silverware on the dishes and carry them back into the kitchen.
“Adam! Let’s have another glass. The red,” she calls absently from the other room.
“That was a terrific dinner,” you say. “What was that on the chicken?”
“Onion crumbs,” she says absently, as you come back into the living room with the open bottle. She’s playing with her bangs, unfashionably long now. “Do you think I should cut my hair?”
“I don’t know. It looked good short.” She probably needs to dye it again; she hasn’t touched it this last three weeks and there are dark brown roots showing under the blonde.
“Fuck it.” She pours herself another glass as you sit. “You wouldn’t notice either way.”
“Of course I would notice,” you say. But is that true? You just noticed the roots, after all. But it’s the right thing to say.
“Like you noticed when I first had it cut short?”
“That’s not fair, Evelyn. I had a lot… going on at work.”
“Oh. I guess I didn’t have anything important going on then, either,” she says.
“I didn’t mean that.” You pour yourself a glass. Might as well. The wine tastes somehow bitter. Is this the right bottle? You pick it up and examine the label. You were sure this was a new bottle, but it’s old, from the desolate outlands in the back of the refrigerator that you try not to look at too often. There are things back there—ancient cheeses, mysterious leftovers, culinary experiments—better left untouched, unseen.
“I don’t think you appreciate…” she trails off. You let it go.
You look at the clock on the wall. Six fifteen. Not late enough for anything distracting to be on television, too early to go to bed. You look back at her as she takesanother sip of the wine. She doesn’t seem to notice the bitterness; she’s looking over the rim of the glass, in your direction, but is really looking through you: her eyes are full of all the blue, abstract distance of the horizon.
“When I finish school, should we move?” she asks.
“To where?” you ask. Why would you want to move? Where could there possibly be to move to?
“I don’t know, anywhere. Somewhere sunny.”
“I have a good job here. I like my work.”
“You like your work. You like your work,” she says, rolling her eyes. “You sell shoes. Orthopedic shoes. Two months ago you hated that job.”
“It’s… been interesting lately. Absorbing.”
“Bullshit,” she says, bored by the conversation already. “Is there anything on TV?”
“Too early… Really, though, I think I could do pretty well at this job. You know they were talking about promotions today.”
“You have a degree in communications. From the best communications school in the nation. And shoes are absorbing?” She kicks her long legs over the arm of the chair and pours herself another glass. Her hands are trembling slightly.
“You just enjoy being at work more than you enjoy being here.”
You shake your head, fiercely. “That’s unfair. Come on. I’ve had to pick up extra hours, a couple unexpected bills lately.” You realize as soon as you say this that you’ve made a mistake.
“Oh,” she says. “Unexpected bills. Is that what we’re calling it now?”
“Evelyn—” you start, but she cuts you off.
“You know, I’ve had some unexpected bills lately.” She waves the glass at you, wine sloshing in it. “I had so many goddamn unexpected bills, I had to take the semester off, so don’t let me hear you bitch and moan about it.”
There is a long pause. The curtains lift under a breeze that you can’t feel, and then fall back. The curtains are so faded you can barely tell they were once covered in a ludicrous pattern of smiling crabs and frolicking seahorses. She bought them, in some lost thrift store, a long time ago: they were hideous twin-size sheets and she smiled at them and said These will be stupendously ugly curtains. And she was right. You used to smile whenever you saw them. Now they just seem like an insult. One more object with a meaningless story that serves only to remind you of how things were once. How could that story, told so many times, return to life again and be what it was? Was that even the point?
“We could move,” you say at last. “We could go to the coast. My mom has a house there we could rent. There would be work.”
She tosses back the rest of the wine and set the empty glass down, squarely. She swings her legs down off the chair and plants them firmly on the floor. “You don’t want to talk about it.”
“I am talking about it. If you want to move, let’s move.”
She snorts and tosses her head. “Horseshit!” She almost begins to raise her voice, but doesn’t seem to have the energy. “So careful, so very careful of my delicate feelings.Whatever you want, Evelyn,” she says, mimicking your voice squeakily, “Let’s talk, let’s talk, let’s talk.” She reaches for the bottle and you reach for it as well, not sure exactly what your aim is but sure you don’t want her to drink any more. Her hand makes contact with its neck glancingly as your knees collide with the edge of the table. The bottle dances crazily for a moment and falls, spraying wine across the blue tablecloth. She grabs it and sets it upright.
“Whoops,” she says, flatly. You stand, quickly, and have to put a hand on the table to steady it before you knock your own glass over. The puddle of wine starts dripping onto her jeans as you walk into the kitchen and grab soda water and a cloth. When you come back into the living room she’s scrubbing furiously at her jeans with her napkin. The splatter has soaked into her thigh and is running down her leg. “Look at this fucking mess,” she says, disgustedly. She throws the napkin across the table. “I’m going to go put this shit in the wash. Try not to ruin the tablecloth.”
“What, like I did this? You knocked it over.”
“Whatever. Take some responsibility. Jesus.” She walks out, muttering under her breath.
You pour soda on the spreading puddle and scrub it, but aside from staining your hands an ugly burgundy it just spreads. ”This is a loss. It’s a complete loss. God damn it,” you say.
“Surprise,” Evelyn says from the other room.
You grab the tablecloth whole and wad it up, then take it into the kitchen and thrust it into the garbage. She’s standing at the sink, with her jeans in one hand. Still pretty as a picture, even in that ratty shirt. Her panties are yellow lace, and normally the sight of her long legs and heart-shaped ass would have had you thinking right away about putting an arm around her waist, drawing her into you, and doing… something. But she’s staring out the window over the sink now, pensive, and looking at her face you don’t feel anything. She just looks old. Used up somehow. You wonder what you look like. Worse, probably. Sometimes it’s like she’s the one draining your energy away—but if that’s so, why doesn’t she look invigorated? Something else must be in the house, between you, that’s taking both your lives. But if there was something like that, how could you fight it? How could you even speak its name?
“Do you ever think about what it would have been like if we had kept it?” you say. It’s not a question.
“Why should I when you never have?” she says, taking you aback. What does that even mean? Before you can collect yourself, she speaks again. “Fuck you, Adam.”
Taking the garbage from the can, you walk outside. It’s a spread-out neighborhood, and the light from your porch stops at the end of the driveway. Everything else is shrouded in a winter darkness. You shove the garbage into the can and pause. Something about standing there, at the edge of the paltry yellow light, staring into a quiet unknown, reminds you of standing on the beach near the house you grew up.
The first time you were old enough to walk alone through the empty, weedy lots between your childhood home and the beach, it was mid-twilight, a buckled sheet of gray cloud unfurled across the sky. When you reached the top of the last dune, you looked down across the sand and there were a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand starfish scattered there. They were laid and abandoned on the beach by the tide that was even then rolling out. You never found out what brought them there, or how; what unknown current or strange migration would leave the countless spiny bodies to slowly suffocate under the leaden sky. You went down to them, walking, then running, as the surf fled. Back and forth, armful after armful, you flung them back into the sea, but your efforts were never enough. With each unmeasured moment the ocean receded, farther and farther, until there were so many of them beached and dying, far more than you could ever carry, and the tide was not turning yet, no, not yet.