You made a joke about the seven dwarves or the three bears or some other reference to multiple people in a bed. I probably laughed as I felt the white down duvet against my cheek and the weight on the mattress from the bodies around me. The party continued on the other side of the door, but it was getting quieter; Eliza relentlessly dialed the stereo volume knob downward out of courtesy to her neighbors who — thankfully — hadn’t called the police on us. Not yet, anyway.
Someone put the “Flashdance” soundtrack in the CD player, and I rolled around on the floor, drunk, imagining I was Jennifer Beals writhing to “What a Feeling.” I didn’t feel fat, tired, burned out or anxious about finding a job now that I was graduating, even though I was all of those things. I just danced and people cheered, and when I looked around the room for you after the song was over, you weren’t there.
I found you stretched out the wrong way across Eric and Eliza’s bed. You smiled when you felt me flop down next to you. I probably smiled back and said something about closing my eyes for a minute, just a minute, because the bed was so comfortable, and I was so tired, and my thesis was written, submitted, approved, bound and defended, and what if no one ever read another word I wrote?
Others came into the room and crawled in on either side of us until we made six. Their eyes fluttered closed, the vodka or wine or beer pushing them — us — into oblivion. That was when you made your joke, the one that was funny, the one where I probably laughed.
My head turned toward you and my eyelids raised slightly, then closed again, opened, then closed, then opened long enough to see Ginger, the lesbian poetry student with a pierced lip, kissing you, long enough to see you kissing her back. Then my eyes slammed shut, my hands moved to cradle my face and I snagged the prong of my wedding ring on the duvet cover, tugging a thread loose. My body filled with a darkness that pulled me inward, downward, the party music growing faint, the bodies around me floating away.
I never told you that I saw you kissing her, that I watched you do it without hesitation, inching closer to her instead of backing away. I watched long enough to see her curl her fist under her chin to get more comfortable, the gesture natural and her proximity to you familiar, as if she had done it before.
As if you both had done it before.
Still, I said nothing. I didn’t want to be that woman, that wife. It was probably the party, I thought, the alcohol, I reasoned.
Sometimes,you would do senseless things when you’d been drinking. Like the way you would insist on driving home after a night out, then cruise through yellow-lighted intersections faster than the speed limit allowed, all the while laying on the horn to let everyone know you were coming through, the windows down and the radio up as you laughed and hooted from the captain’s chair next to me.
Or how about when we were dating and you went out with your friends, drove Kelly home and kissed her before she could get out of the car? She pulled away and declared, “I’m not a homewrecker.” You chased her to the porch to talk about what had just happened and then you kissed her again, leaning into her, unable to stop.
The next day, you dragged me away from the front desk of the hotel where I worked and told me about it in the parking lot. I was in the middle of my shift, folding Martex brand towels and watching daytime talk shows on mute, when you arrived. You waited for me to say something. You waited, cried real tears, begged for forgiveness without concern.
You were drunk, you said. You had offered to drive her home, kissed in her the car once and then at the door, even though and because you were drunk, you said.
I nodded and felt nothing. I stared at the ground and exuded anger anyway.
Finally, I blamed her, and I forgave you.
You were drunk the first time we met, when Angie and I went to a party together at your house. I was underage and showed up empty-handed, turning down all offers for drinks because I hadn’t yet acquired the taste for beer. You danced with me in your living room, clinging to my hips as I shimmied to the music. You would apologize, back away, then grab my hips again. Your hands would slip around to the back of my pants, sometimes squeezing, sometimes not, and I gave you that look that you would come to know, the one of discomfort and growing intolerance.
At your party, I had my eye on someone else, a graduate student like you, but one who was tall, pretty and pretentious. I liked his quarter-zip sweater and dark jeans and was sitting next to him on the couch when you asked me to dance. I looked over to see if he saw your hands on my hips, but he was looking away, his attention elsewhere, but then our eyes met briefly just before I turned around and found your inviting grin. At best, he found me immature, at worst, a tease, all because I allowed you to grab me repeatedly and I didn’t say anything, didn’t do anything, to stop you.
I blamed the beer, and I forgave you.
We only fought once before we were married, but it was a fight that went on every day for an entire week, a fight that had no resolution without my absolute forgiveness. We had dated a year, had started planning a wedding before you could afford a ring, and you sat me down in my living room and finally told me you had a 9-year-old child in Minnesota whom you hadn’t seen in two years. It could no longer be both a secret and the truth.
“I love my son,” you repeated, your face red and pinched and wet with tears when I spat accusations of neglect and indifference at you. “I love my son.”
The lie bothered me because it felt like it should bother me. Everyone else was outraged, shocked, accusatory, dismissive. I accepted it with heavy shrugs, my eyes fixated on the dry and pudgy pink flesh on my always-cold hands. You had been trying to start over, to focus on your graduate program, to write without the distractions of your past. And so, of your son, you said nothing.
I didn’t want to watch you cry anymore, so I forgave you.
In New Mexico, we shared a small one-bedroom apartment, checking account, car, some professors and most of our friends. The first few months were spent living in a cave with heavy curtains of façade fabric that kept our fights secluded. There was the time you came home drunk in the middle of the night and shook me awake with no purpose, mumbling questions about food, spinning accusations into poetics, punched me in the thigh when I begged to go back to sleep and finally called your brother seeking advice of how to undo the already-did. I disconnected the jack, fed up with your family’s endless interference in our lives and the outrageous long-distance phone bills to Colorado. You picked up my coffee table and slammed it into the floor, your jagged teeth snarling shouts that I couldn’t hear because my gaze was fixated on the crack that inched its way up the sides and along the top of the lacquered wood, separating the table into two pieces, neither able to stand on just two legs.
I would have locked the bedroom door that night except it didn’t have a lock.
After that first year, our marriage was a succession of practicalities, a collection of moments where we took turns shopping for cheaper car insurance, phone companies, apartments, moments where we felt like we had achieved some kind of milestone when we no longer had to share a car, upgraded to a two-bedroom place, got a second cat, secured full-time jobs. Our marriage was a checklist of achievements on display for others to realize and remind us that we had to be together for any of those things to happen. Our disagreements evolved from volatile to trivial, ones where I expressed disappointment over how much money you spent on specialty olive oil, and you complained that I gave my parents more gifts at Christmastime than you gave to yours. Shouts became eye rolls, slapping ceased altogether. Feigning happiness was the only thing we could agree on, but we both wondered when the day would come that I would roll over and face you one winter morning in the desert and say, “This is the end, isn’t it?”
The “Flashdance” soundtrack ended. I heard car doors slamming then tires kicking up gravel as partygoers drove away. The lights turned on above and Eliza stood over us to coax you and me out of her bed and into the one she set up for us on the futon in the living room. I opened my eyes slowly to find that everyone had left. Even Ginger was gone.
Did you ever write poems for her under the guise that they were for me? Was there something in the way she looked or smelled or sounded that compelled you to turn your face to hers, your mouth to hers, to close your eyes and have a lover’s moment with her? What would our lives be now, 15 years later, if you hadn’t kissed Ginger, if I had said something that night, the next day, ever? Would you admit it if I asked you? Would you remember that it happened?
I didn’t blame Ginger.
The light turned off on the other side of the bedroom door, and the house fell silent around us. A giant cockroach scurried out of the shadows and across the floor toward the futon. You looked alarmed until I stepped on it; its body cracked and oozed beneath my bare foot. In the morning, I threw up in the bathroom, crippled and heaving from too much vodka, while you slept heavily and heedlessly on the futon, the blankets piled up high around you. For that, I couldn’t forgive you.
Melissa Grunow is the author of “Realizing River City: A Memoir” (Tumbleweed Books, 2016). An award-winning writer and Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared in “Creative Nonfiction,” “River Teeth,” “New Plains Review,” “Limestone,” “Blue Lyra Review,” “Temenos” and “Yemassee,” among many others. Visit her website at melissagrunow.com or follow her at @melgrunow.