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  Table of contents Issue Seventeen UNTIL I WAS BONE



t was like any other Saturday afternoon at Ted’s. We lounged like slobs, made pithy remarks, clad in J. Crew madras shirts, Birkenstocks, smooth shaven legs, tanned, in the center of the circular slate patio surrounded by lush jungle-like plants, two lawyers casting an air of seniority we didn't deserve, too old to be naive but too young to be wise. Our toddlers, the same age, same birthdays even, splashed in the kiddie pool six feet away. The sun reflected off aluminum chairs, blinding.

“Only my Vannah buys aluminum chairs off eBay!” Ted winked, squeezing Savannah's knee. Before I had a chance to roll my eyes, he looked over at me in acknowledgement. We had a mindful connection, were practically brothers, going all the way back to grammar school. I could finish every sentence of his, and he mine. I think we’d marry each other, I decided, if we weren’t both straight. So of course, I was thinking the same thing, shielding my eyes, fighting off a headache, groping constantly for my sunglasses.

"I couldn’t resist! And you know how I love the Vintage!” Savannah said, reaching for a carrot off the veggie tray, ending the conversation with a loud chomp.

The table was covered with a retro red and yellow lilac cloth and littered with Italian ceramic bowls full of colored chips and salsas and green speckled dips and a lit candle emitting a mystical scent, and in the center were two bottles of Chianti, one emptied. Savannah always had a way of pulling it all together. “Ted was such a sweetheart and made the spinach dip all by himself this time,” Savannah continued, but the words began to morph into incoherent fragments. I was struggling to follow. I had begun to feel a heavy delirium, the kind that settles in after a couple glasses of wine late afternoon.

“So what was it Jill Barnard said to us, Ted? Did you even ask them, yet?”

“Ask us what?” Ana asked, disgruntled, as if someone were conspiring. She was ornery, and I knew it was related to me, our brief encounter before we left the house. I was drying off from a shower, feeling relaxed, and she came at me, combative, wanting another baby. “I mean, Jeshua is three-years old now. I know the first one was rough, but come on, Jack.”

“Let’s not talk about that right now,” I had said. I could have given her something, just to hold her over, but I couldn’t do it. How could I tell her the truth, how I didn’t want any more of it—the pregnancies, babies. I just listened to her ranting. I dressed in silence. It made her madder. She was relentless, tossing clothes around the room, slamming bureau drawers, the way she did—manic, agitated. I dressed as fast as possible to avoid any approaches. But she got it all in, said how I don’t look at her anymore, and how Jeshua needs a brother or sister, and I’m your wife, and didn’t we agree, and there must be someone else, and all that crap wives use to manipulate. I wasn’t up for it. Rough wasn’t the half of it. Her pregnancy was a nightmare. It started almost to the day that she showed me the pink stick. First was the unusually severe nausea, and from that moment on, it never wavered. Next came the toxemia, the bed rest, the incessant complaining because some part of her ached. I begged her to take the Tylenol but she refused. I became angry. And then felt overwhelming guilt. Shouldn’t I want to take care of her, our baby? I worried that when the baby came out, I’d feel disgust, resentment towards him. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt like I never thought I could ever feel—nurturing, protective. But as my feelings increased towards Jeshua, they decreased for my own wife. That must be the way it happens, I decided. I wanted to believe it was normal, all part of the problem, the adjustment—temporary. My hormones were whacked out just like Ana’s. But then Ted and Savannah—and others I’d observe, young couples like us, seemed more in love after their babies. Just last week, Ted had said he couldn’t wait to have a second one and Savannah was two weeks late and was already feeling the sore breast thing. It haunted me, day after day, the doubt. Shouldn’t I want another? Isn’t that what we talked about, a sibling for Jeshua? So, what happened to make me change my mind? Was it just the pregnancy? Or was it something worse, like a disinterest in Ana? Divorce was out of the question. I was trapped. How many others felt like me but just stayed, held it together, had affairs? Now, I understood why. I sympathized with adulterers. These guys stayed for their kids, for their careers. They were resourceful, made it work. I poured another glass of wine. Even my drinking had increased. I knew it, felt myself slipping. I had an urge to say something I might regret. Savannah’s words jarred me back.

“Jill Barnard said she could get us a timeshare in Destin next month. You guys interested?” Her words floated in the air like a string of pearls let loose—delicate, unstrung. And her hair, the way it bounced on the ends when she was animated by telling a story. And her voice wasn’t so bad either. I started liking too much of Savannah. I watched her reach for her wine glass, bring it to her lips, and for some odd reason it made me think of church, Margaret Fordham. I always tried to get behind her in the line for Eucharist. She was in high school and had long golden blonde hair down to her butt, and a couple times she turned around and smiled at me and I decided she liked me back. And then when she put her lips up to Father Pishe’s chalice…Blood of Christ. Drink from it… I was entranced. She could have been an angel, decorated in colored light from the stained glass windows of St. Mark’s in Algomo Mississippi. I was convinced she was sent for me, for some higher purpose.

Savannah was looking at me now over the rim of her glass, and I realized I had been staring, so I averted my gaze, hastily, let it rest on Jeshua and Delilah. I watched as he splashed her, and she splashed him back. Then they’d both run off screaming, looking back, as if a creature had emerged from the Little Mermaid pool and was in pursuit. At some point, they had stripped off their tops and looked like feral creatures, covered in wet and mud from the over-soaked lawn.

“Shit, Ted. The soil is too damn soft! I told you! Look at those poor things! They’re a muddy mess!” Savannah was giggling like an adolescent, speaking in her cute Southern drawl, and Ted reached over and grabbed her, pulled her into him and kissed her on the mouth. They stayed like that for a moment, both smiling, content like two cats curled up on the couch. She looked smaller in the candlelight, vulnerable. I tried to remember the last time I put my mouth on Ana’s mouth or even hugged her for that matter. She was so quiet I forgot she was there, so I glanced over at her. She was staring at nothing in particular and her expression was somber, the way she looked at her father’s funeral. Admittedly, I loved Ana best then, when she was solemn, quiet, not nagging me for some small nonsense like gutters or lawns or flipping the mattress or repainting a wall. I waited for her expression to change, but it never did. She was in a sort of hypnotic trance, the kind that signaled defeat, depression, and I knew that it was only a matter of time; it was going to get worse. I also knew I’d never leave her. Jeshua rushed up to her and put his wet hands on her legs and she flinched and then hugged him. His cheek lay flat against hers and he closed his eyes and Ana closed her eyes and her face softened, but not in a jovial way. No, it was more of a look of relief, the way a mother might look after being reunited with a child after a lengthy separation. It was love, the kind I neglected to give her.

“You’re all muddy now, Ana.” I needed her to break out of whatever spell she was in. It was unnerving.

“So I am.”

“Sorry Ma Ma,” Jeshua said, staring up into his mother’s face with the intensity of a saint out to save someone. And then, just as purposefully, as if he’d shaken off whatever took hold of him, he darted off, back to his youth, to Delilah.

Ana brushed dirt from her shorts and she drank some more of her wine. She looked down at her sandals, which were splattered with mud and grass. “Darn, I think my sandals got the worst of it.”

You don’t know the worst of it, honey. The more I drank, the further I sank into an abyss, and it was here, below, a voice egged me on, tempting me to say things I’d never said before, to become the person I’d always admired but never had the courage to be. It was my tortured, dark side like in Dorian Gray, where the longing and resisting of the forbidden caused the soul to become monstrous. We all had it, I was convinced. But some, like Ted, were better at keeping it at bay.

I stayed silent. The conversation settled like a low tide as Ted droned on about lawn care, aerating the grass, fertilizers and I was half-listening, looking over at Savannah’s toes, painted a coral pink, wiggling prettily.

“That’s all you need are flip-flops from Genovese Pharmacy,” she was telling Ana, holding up her foot. Damn she was adorable.

“I wish I could wear those! I have to spend a fortune on shoes. I’ve got such bad feet,” Ana said.

I raised my eyebrows, smiled, furtively. I couldn’t resist. She was right. And I needed to feel alert, part of something. Ana caught me. She always did.

“Don’t you dare utter a word!” she said and punched me in the arm. It worked, for a moment. That was about the extent of our playful bantering, so unlike Savannah’s and Ted’s. And maybe it was my fault, and I hadn’t been treating her well. But she had gotten more difficult, surely, and she hadn’t always been this way. The Ana I married was upbeat, cultured. But at some point, after Jeshua was born, she had become a termagant wife, cussing and scolding about some small matter, never considering how I was schlepping to my job ever day, dealing with the daily bullshit, working as an associate, while Ted and a couple other friends had already made partner. Maybe it was a supportive wife that really did make the difference. And here she was, complaining, still harping on her feet. God, she was an embarrassment.

“Damn. I really do hate my feet.”

I couldn’t say I blamed her. She always had trouble with her feet, had unsightly rashes and bunions. She was forever trying a new lotion or medication. Aren’t you kind of young to have those old lady foot issues? I had asked her one time, and she kicked me in the shin, made me endure one of her harangues about how her mother and her mother's mother all had bad feet. “It's a foot curse. And people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Mister.” I remember thinking she sounded like a Reference Librarian with a chip on her shoulder. It’s my fault. I knew she was that way. I knew she majored in medieval history and had a quirky way about her, an inflated ego that prevented her from detecting her own arrogance. But I weighed it against the other—her svelteness, her intellect, her cooking, but mostly I married her because I wanted a prudent wife, and it was convenient sex, and we were of the same class, upbringing, religion etc. And, after all, like Ted reminded me when I said I might keep shopping, I wasn’t the best looking guy with my protruding chin, overbite and lazy eye, and I always had trouble keeping a girlfriend. And there was something else—her smile. Ana had the best smile. Her teeth had to be the best part of Ana and she knew it. She looked for every opportunity to laugh or show her straight white teeth. She loved to say, “I never had braces either.”

“Mother, come here right now!” Jeshua shouted. He was a duplicate of Ana—wide mouthed to fit all those nice big teeth he’d be getting, obstinate and eloquent to a fault. He had her straight brown hair, a befuddled look, he even stood like her with one hand on his hip, head cocked to the side, left foot turned slightly inward. I imagined him as a museum curator one day.

“Oh my goodness!” Savannah guffawed. “So cute I could eat him for dinner!” She stood and ran towards him, full of an energy I could no longer muster anymore. I tried to look away but it was so obvious and I was on a delay response and she was just so seductive without trying —the way her skirt stuck to her bottom, to reveal a corner of her white lacy panties.

“For Christ’s sake, Vannah! Pull your damn skirt down!” Ted shouted after her, laughing. I hated when he called her that and, now, the way he laughed, pompously, so damn confident, and why shouldn’t he be? After all, he was going to have her later. Anytime he wanted, as a matter of fact. As I watched Savannah lift Jeshua and swing him, I couldn’t deny it anymore, the envy, how I desired my best friend’s wife, imagined how Ted would take her after we left, when Delilah was tucked in, leaving the candle lit and dishes strewn about. I knew how she sounded just before, recalled the soft sighing, the crescendo, from our bedroom across the hall—the last vacation we all took in the Berkshires. The memory was cogent, more than I wanted. Shit. Not now. I was getting aroused.

“Got to go,” I jumped up, hurriedly, to avoid any notice and my knee hit the corner of the table, knocking a glass bowl to the slate below. I heard it crash as I rounded the corner into the kitchen and Ana’s disapproval. Her voice, unlike Savannah's, was abrasive like a wench. I felt a disquiet stirring in me, a loathing towards my own wife. I couldn’t dismiss it.

Maybe that was why, upon my return from the bathroom, just before the accident, I polished off the remaining bottle of Chianti.

It was dusk when it happened, that odd twilight when the earth enters into some momentary hallucinogenic zone, while the sun sinks into the ether. Reflecting back, it was as if our environment had absorbed our minds and was reflecting back our murky perception. Delilah was asleep, drunk from play, limp on Ted’s shoulder. And we were just drunk. Later I'd replay it, the initial thud, how I believed it was anything but him--a garbage pail, a bike, a toy. I was distracted, listening to Savannah. I was behind the wheel, the car was idling, and I was talking to Savannah. The window was open and she was close enough to kiss, telling me more about the grass, how they fertilized earlier this year “And now the dang grass is like a bog. You sink right in."

I’d like to sink into you, baby. Deep real deep. My eyes kept moving over her breasts. They seemed larger, and then I recalled Ted saying they were swollen. I envisioned kissing and fondling each one, kissing her long neck, making her throw her head back, plead for me. When I tried to look at Savannah straight on, I saw double. She just kept talking. It was if I had lost all inhibition, all sense of morality—Sodom and Gomorrah. At any moment, I might have reached for her. Ana was putting Jeshua in the car seat. I thought I heard him shout. He hated being restrained. He had his worse fits when we buckled him. Blood curdling cries when he was a newborn became milder bursts of anger. I heard something like Jeshua’s yelling that made me think he was in his seat. After, I’d tried to relive it, hear the sound again, but I could never do it. I heard the car door shut. I thought you put him in, she'd tell me later. Don’t you remember? I said I had to use the bathroom? How could you forget? How could you? She pummeled me so hard she almost broke my nose. I deserved it, all of it. I let her beat me to the ground, but I never confessed. I couldn’t utter the words, how I was too preoccupied with my best friend’s wife to think about our son.

The conscience will always seek a pardoning from guilt. I imagined it was anything but him. It happened suddenly just like the bad stuff does. Ana’s screams, her body coiling, her hands thrust out grotesquely, pushing me to the ground. I fell next to him, limp, felt the air exit, the Chianti I drank move up my esophagus. I vomited two feet from his blue Keds. One of his laces was untied, tickled the tip of my nose. I was that close to it. I had just tied those...make two bunny ears like this…are you watching? You’re not watching. Pay attention. Now loop it around like Daddy is doing…and don't forget to hold the bunny ear while you loop this other one around like this, see? I had to close one eye to make out what I was doing. I kissed the top of his damp head, smelled rich soil, musky and virile like the first putt of the season--the last smell of Jeshua.

And when I finally accepted the blame, I felt, for a brief moment, my flesh crawl with a choking remorse. Time accelerated and slowed, simultaneously, and I was cognizant of it, and I knew only one thing—I had changed, somehow. The old me was gone, the one who gawked at Savannah's breasts and panties and liked her toes and bouncy curls, the one who hated his wife, convinced she was the cause of all his failures. The darker regions of my subconscious ignited, burying the superficial with layer upon layer of sod. I slid down into the bog that was my psyche, my new home, and my true nature was revealed. I knew then as if Margaret Fordham had ordained it, that I was the lecherous one, and wanted nothing more, mad with a sick constant urge to claw my way down, deep down, just to get there, as far as I could, to the most fertile spaces, deep in the blackness where I belonged, to reside with the maggots and grubs, gnaw on my own flesh until I was bone.




Elizabeth Brown is a native of Connecticut and has short fiction and poetry published in HelloHorror, Literary Orphans, Sleet, Pithead Chapel, Gravel, Sleet, The Milo Review, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a novel.

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