He left work early and didn’t expect her to be home. But the hazy air from a fresh shower greeted him as soon as he opened the door. A pungent linen soap pierced his nostrils. He saw her straightaway at the small kitchen table in her pink bunny bathrobe, her hair wrapped in a towel. Her legs were crossed, one of which swung back and forth as she daintily chewed a salad. She was hunched over, focused intently on her phone. He quietly put down his briefcase.
Look at her, he said to himself. A sourness pierced his jaw and traveled like a current through his body. Not that she was unattractive. He raised an eyebrow. On the contrary, she was stunning and built like a brick shithouse, as the saying goes. Not that she wasn’t submissive. Also, on the contrary. She was that and more. She was every good woman for every bad man.
He met her three years ago at the ice cream shop where she worked. They married soon after. She was seventeen. He was thirty-two. She was thin, average height, with long, red tresses. And, oh, her eyes. They were light hazel—the misleading kind that seemed vacant but thoroughly searched through a man. More than just about anything, she won him with those eyes. That and her vigor. Every night, twice or thrice or more. But, he thought, everything gets old. He rubbed his bearded chin. Never thought I’d say that about sex. But it was true. Everything he adored, the vitality, the fieriness, the syrupy sweetness, now made his stomach churn. The pressures of husbandhood strangled him, even in his sleep, and he had little room for a way out. He cocked his head and sized her up a minute. Her brain was still high school. Of course, he’d married her young and never gave her the chance to be anything else. But, like every woman, she was smart about spending money. And divorce wasn’t an option. She’d use her wiles to win over an attorney and take him for everything. Everything.
Look at her, he thought. Her eyes fixated on her phone as her thumb pressed and swiped. She doesn’t even know I’m home . . . so focused on that damn phone. What’s she looking at? He moved stealthily and looked over her shoulder. She smelled cool and clean. He gazed down at the phone screen. Ahh. He rolled his eyes. Recipes. The perfect, dutiful wife making sure “her man” has dinner. He had a deucedly mischievous thought to scare the life out of her. So, he leaned down, put his lips to her ear, and, in his deepest voice, asked,
“So, what’s for dinner?”
She screamed, dropped her phone, banged her knee under the table, and knocked her salad on the floor. He squatted down and grinned, amused at her reaction. She held her knee and flashed her eyes at him. His smile dimmed like a bright day’s dusk. He saw a flicker of something in those hazels, something besides that candied expression. Something more real. Then she reverted to the same sweet little thing. He stood up.
“Charles!” she yelled. She released her knee and limped toward him.
Here comes the baby talk, he thought. A bit of food came up in his throat and he swallowed it back down.
“Oh, Charlesy-Warlsy,” she said, slathering him with facial kisses.
He jerked away from her.
Her bottom lip stuck out like a toddler’s.
“You’re a grown woman,” he said, loosening his tie. “Act like it.”
“Oh, okay,” she said. “I’ll do better.”
Julie cleaned up the salad pieces and looked at each morsel with subtle disappointment. She’d just prepared it, he thought, likely took only a few bites. A piece of wilted lettuce stuck to her pinky and she devoured it. Suddenly, an image popped in his head of her sickly and emaciated. His eyes widened. He stepped back and propped himself against a wall. I could just starve her, he thought, smirking. He contemplated it for a minute, indulged himself with the thought of shutting her up in a room and feeding her smaller and smaller portions until, eventually, she received no food at all. His own stomach floated with a delightful wickedness. When his eyes returned to the present, she was standing in front of him, smiling. He jerked back a little, then sighed. Not possible, he thought. He could already hear her cheerfully singing his praises, a la baby talk, behind the locked door, thanking him for any morsel he gave her.
“Don’t worry about the salad, Sweetie,” she said, stretching up on her tiptoes and kissing his forehead. “You look so sorry about it.”
She dumped the fixings in the compost jar, then washed her hands. As she dried them, she dropped the dishtowel then surreptitiously bent down, exposing her young, sugary backside. She turned, sly and shameless, and smiled at him. He pretended not to notice. Her cheeks flushed as she stiffly pulled the robe down. He turned toward the stairs, then looked back. Her head hung low and her body shook through hurtful tears. He liked that. Or maybe she was . . . laughing? No, he decided. She’s clearly upset.
He made his way to the bedroom and shut the door behind him. He changed into sweats and a t-shirt, then turned to the bathroom sink and splashed water on his face, dowsing away every smothery kiss and every sweetness. He stared at himself in the mirror. Not a bad looking man, really, he thought. He pulled back his brown bangs, jutted his chin, and studied both sides of his face. Little wrinkles here and there and a few blemishes. He never had blemishes before. Marriage, he reasoned. Stressful as hell. He flexed his bicep and smiled. Women at the office found him attractive, though. He ran a hand across his face and looked deep into his reflection. His smile faded. Yes, it’s true, he thought. Everything gets old. Why should he waste another day being miserable?
After some time, he descended the stairs. She was on the phone, dressed in a pair of blue jean cut-offs, a pink tank top, and crisp, white tennis shoes. Her hair was pulled up high in a pony tail. Finished with her conversation, she placed the phone in her bag and retrieved a compact mirror. She puckered her lustrous pink lips, then, clearly satisfied, clacked it closed. She caught him glimpsing at her and smiled. He grabbed his laptop from his briefcase and made himself comfortable on the plush sofa. He had work to do.
“Charlesy,” she said, skipping toward the couch.
She came from behind and wrapped her arms around his neck. He stiffened.
“I didn’t know you’d be home early today. I already made lunch plans with Monica, then to the grocery store. But . . .” she said, running her fingers through his hair and placing those pretty pink lips by his ear, “if you want me to stay home, I will. You know, you do things to me, Charlesy.”
He spotted her reflection through the window. Her body undulated in the most grotesque way. Go with Monica, he thought. Leave. His wife spent a lot of time with her “BF,” and he could never express how grateful he was to the girl. He pulled away from Julie and opened the laptop. She swiftly rose.
“Can I bring you anything while I’m out?” Julie asked.
Yeah, a gun, he thought. He sat there, solid and rigid, and flirted with the idea—how he’d shoot her, where he’d shoot her. Would he cut up her perky limbs? Or bury her in the backyard? Too messy, he thought. Too complicated.
“No, thank you,” he replied. “Have a good time.”
“Okay. See you in a few hours . . .”
She squealed and made a cheerleader move before she went out the door. He hurried to the window and watched her leave. God, he thought, even her driving’s perky. He returned to the couch and his laptop. He had work to do. His fingers rested atop a-s-d-f and j-k-l-;. But he stared at the screen, numb and tired. He couldn’t remember the last time he was genuinely happy. As a matter of fact, most of his emotions left him a long time ago . . . right after he married Julie. She was draining the life out of him. The less he shone; the more she sparkled. He chuckled. Yes, even her driving was perky. Her driving. He sat up straight. I could cut the brake line, he thought. His lips slithered into a devilish grin. He played the scenario over and over in his head like a bad action movie. She’d drive her perky self around the curves, rush her perky self through the guard rails, and plunge her perky self down a cliff. He imagined her screaming shrieks losing volume as she rushed to her fiery death.
The next thing he knew, he woke from a deep nap, his laptop closed on the coffee table in front of him. He sat there and listened to the paper bags rustling in the kitchen. She’s home, he thought. A respite no more. Her phone rang to a K-Pop snippet. He looked askance at her wiggling to the tune. She swished past the doorway to check on him. He feigned sleep and listened to the one-sided conversation.
“Yeah, that was fun,” Julie said softly. “We should do that more often. Oh, he’s asleep right now. I’ll hafta be quiet.”
She put groceries away as she spoke.
The kitchen chair moved across the floor and he heard her plop down onto it.
“Tomorrow’s perfect! Oh, God, finally. Thank you, Monica. What do you mean ‘will he come?’ I think he will when he finds out it’s the opera.”
The opera, he wondered. The opera. He quietly grabbed his laptop and searched. By God, he thought, it’s The Phantom of the Opera. His favorite. He grinned from ear to ear. Suddenly, his eyes widened and his breath left him for a second. There, he thought. He saw the opportunity. She’d look beautiful in her finest dress. He’d wear a three-piece suit, buy her flowers—her last flowers. The whole day, I’ll be a gentleman. She deserves at least that much. He’d be overly attentive, extend his arm for her, and they’d walk forward to the opera house, stopping at the crowded intersection of 4th and Maynard—the busiest, most dangerous four-way intersection in the city, maybe even the state. He couldn’t count on two hands how many pedestrians had died on that four-way in just six months. Beautiful, he thought. He’d lead her farther to the edge of the sidewalk, wait until the traffic light turned, and, while cars zoomed past, and as the crowd was caught up in their own separate universes, he’d put his hand flat on her back, kick her heel, and just push. He closed his laptop and toyed with a mournful, teary-eyed script. She lost her footing, detective. There was nothing I could do. How am I gonna live without her? He’d be absolved and free.
“Over,” he said aloud.
“What’s over?” she asked.
His shoulders jolted and he gasped. He cleared his throat.
“Oh, nothing. Just work. How was shopping?” he asked.
“Great,” she said.
She sat beside him on the sofa.
“I have a surprise for you, Charlesy.”
“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”
He stretched and yawned, and put his arm around her waist. To his surprise, she stiffened. But she quickly melted and nuzzled into him. Tonight, he thought, her last night on this earth, I’ll give her my everything.
“Monica bought us tickets to the opera tomorrow night. Some Phantom thing or other. I know you love the opera. How ‘bout we go?”
“Well,” he said, rubbing her arm, “I think that sounds just perfect. Just perfect.”
He kissed her, and she hungrily moved into him.
“No,” he said, sliding away.
He stood and scooped her up in his arms. He held her there and looked into those pretty hazel eyes, then continued,
“Not tonight. Tonight, we’re gonna do things my way.”
“Oh, Charlesy . . .”
Her sultry lips burrowed into his neck. He carried her into the bedroom and shut the door.
The next morning, they had breakfast together, and, truth be told, he enjoyed being with her. He almost—almost—had second thoughts, until he mentioned they should go play tennis together. She danced and performed a few high-kicks at the thought of it.
“I’ll wear my best skort and top!” she exclaimed.
“Great,” he said dully.
That evening, he took her to the upscale Bonté Française. She looked absolutely gorgeous in a green sequined dress. Her red hair was curled just right, and her black heels and matching bag were lovely. He was glad he’d chosen this night. She’ll die young and beautiful, he told himself. The maître d’ came to the table and told him he had a phone call at the front.
“I don’t know why they didn’t just call my cell,” he said, perturbed. “How’d anyone know I was here?”
The head waiter shrugged and smiled, then led him to the phone. When he returned, Julie was closing her purse. A glass of wine sat in front of him.
“I ordered you a glass,” she said. “You love it so much. I hope you don’t mind.”
He gave a slight shrug, kissed her, and said,
“Thank you, Beautiful.”
“Who was on the phone?” she asked.
“Don’t know. The phone was dead.”
Dead. He looked at his watch. It’s getting close to that time.
“Honey, we’d better be—”
“I’m going to the ladies’ room,” she said. “Be right back, Charlesy. Then we’ll be off to the opera-wopera. I’m so excited!”
Yes, he thought. So am I.
He hurriedly drank the wine, gestured for the check, and paid the bill. She returned, looking vibrant and eager, her eyes bright as stars. He extended his arm. She smiled, put her arm in his, and off they went.
As they walked, his stomach grew queasy. He guessed it was nerves. Won’t affect my plans at all, he told himself. If anything, it’ll help during the police interview. I’ll be sick with grief. They walked casually toward the sidewalk. Finally, they reached the intersection. The pedestrian light flashed yellow on the countdown. He released his arm, moved close to her, and crept nearer to the edge. People, as he predicted, were practically shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back. He had forever before the light to changed. Enough time, he thought. Enough time. Someone was a little too close behind him, but that didn’t matter. His head swam with dizziness, but he steadied himself. What’s wrong with me? He hurriedly put his hand on Julie’s back and moved his foot near her heel. Now, he thought.
Suddenly, someone behind him pushed hard. He tried to draw back, but the force was too great as he stood on the edge. The traffic never stopped and he felt the piercing blow of metal across his shins, his thighs, his back, his chest. The pedestrian light turned green and people scurried away from him. Others circled around him. The pain was unbearable at first. Blood pooled around him, warm and comforting.
His eyes looked wild in a frantic search for Julie. He saw her standing among the circle. Look at her, he thought. So beautiful. Someone held her hand. He followed the connection. Monica? Both women wore a wry, sinister grin. Julie put her head on the woman’s shoulder. Monica shoved me, he thought. And, for the first time in years, he really laughed, even though it was excruciating. At the irony of it all; at the Phantom; at the night sky full of stars; at the sirens drawing near. He laughed until the darkness came.
**Featured image by Athena on Pexels