My wife is one of these people who drives on the freeway with a mattress on top of her car, held there by a single string.
I first found her in a duplex made over into apartments, on a street of duplexes in Arbutus, Maryland, on the edge of Baltimore. Red-and-white petunias were a popular choice for window boxes up and down the street, and overly frilly curtains for the windows. Parking was tight because there were no driveways, and the front lawns were tiny, some of them replaced by miniature fields of ornamental stone.
When she asked me, I told her I was unattached. She said that she was semi-detached, like a dwelling. Like a duplex, I said, and that’s when she pointed out that all along the street the duplexes had been turned into apartments: each half-a-building had one up, one down. So no, not like a duplex, she said. It was the first instance of my not being able to follow what the hell she was talking about. But then, the way she always does, she added something that made sense. She said she rented there because she was convinced the duplex building didn’t look like apartments, but just like two real homes.
She slows down because of that mattress on top of her car, by doing 70 instead of 80.
The latest thing with her is she won’t go to Taco Bell since they retired the chihuahua. (Good riddance, I say, because I can’t believe she would go there at all, though I don’t know if it’s better or worse that she only went there because of that dog.) And she won’t go to shopping malls at all, even at Christmas, because she says they’re not natural. (As if a dog selling burritos is.)
I laugh and say, I have grown richer while you have grown stranger, and it’s just a joke but she doesn’t seem to appreciate it. It’s not even true—I’ve made money but she has been just this strange all along. And in fact I’ve always known it, from the moment I fell in love with her, which was not on the stoop of her duplex but later, in the winter, after a snowstorm, when her heat went out and I found the door open—why not? she said, it isn’t like I need to keep out the cold, and besides, that way I didn’t have to get out from under the covers to let you in—that’s how I found her, curled up in a ball in the bed, trying not to move and spill the inch of heat around her edge, cold as a tit on a witch. She looked at me and said, your lips are too blue to kiss. It wasn’t true, I was as warm as could be, she was the one who was cold, she was just projecting. I felt sorry for her, saying things like that. And then she told me how she’d got there while it was still snowing and found she had locked herself out of the house, so then she was digging for the spare key in the snow, turning over flowerpots, snow blowing all around her head. It’s another reason to leave the door ajar, she said. What do you mean? I said. Because it was too-locked earlier, now it is very unlocked and I want it that way, the two will balance each other out. It made no sense at all. Then she said: but I am so glad you’re here now. And that made sense, which made it possible for me to fall in love with her at that moment. I swear to you my motives were as pure as they have ever been before or since.
Every time I close my eyes, all I see is that damn mattress. I have never been able to understand why nobody thinks to tie those things fore-and-aft. Think for one blessed moment where the wind comes from, when you’re driving forward in a straight line on a freeway.
She is, I have to say, despite anything else she is, a useful person. She has always been good to take to functions because she is still strikingly attractive and very social, more social than I, the hit of the party because she is so quirky. My friends’ wives say I am remarkably attentive to her. We look good together in public.
Your wife is a card, they say. Which one? I ask, the Queen of Diamonds? The Joker? At one of these parties she managed to find a lampshade—a small one from one of those lamps that looks like a candle, the kind you put in a window—and she set it atop her head for a joke, the old joke where you get drunk at a party and end up wearing a lampshade—except it was just a tiny lampshade wobbling on top of her big, puffy, copper or bronze hair (which one it is I don’t know, we have argued about this, all I know is it’s metallic), and she was completely sober, too. Ha ha ha, making a complete ass of herself still sitting around the dinner table with all those competing perfumes and everyone in their nicest clothes and the leg of lamb and the good cabernet.
I let her drive home. I’d had quite a bit to drink. She’s telling me in the car how she loves to be in the rocking chair. The what? She says that’s what the tractor trailer drivers call it, when you’re in the middle, some space in front and behind you but some trucks up ahead and back there—see them? Sure enough I see them, their tail lights, like a red, shifting constellation, rolling ahead, far ahead of us, sure I see them but they’re a little blurred together for me. And I look at her looking in the rearview mirror, at the trucks behind us in the distance, her face glowing in that light that comes from somewhere in cars in the dark, and she has this fragile smile on her face just thinking of it: rocking in the rocking chair, driving with the trucks.
And I wonder if she’s trying that now, with the mattress I mean. It might be good to keep a little distance with that thing on top of the car. They will probably give her a wide berth. They should. But they don’t know her like I do. They better give that woman some space.
The Queen of Hearts stole some tarts, I remember thinking. In fact, I said it out loud, there in the car. The Deuce is wild, I said. Are you drunk? she said, laughing. You only loosen up when you drink, she said, it’s too bad. It’s too bad, because if you… I tipped my seat back at that point. She’s the one who had put the lampshade on her head—but maybe she’d forgotten about that. That’s when she asked me what was the difference between eccentric and crazy. I just stared at the leather-crinkle texture of the car’s headliner, and I couldn’t tell how far it was from my face.
Then she asked me again, what’s the difference between eccentric and crazy. I told her I couldn’t say. That, evidently, was a problem, because she proceeded to tell me all about it. How crazy was dysfunctional but eccentric was just a way of coping with the world. I wasn’t about to ask which one she was, but she turned to look at me with her mouth open like a bird wanting to be fed, as if to say, ask me, ask me.
And I waited to see what was the thing she would say that would make sense. But it never came. Keep your eyes on the highway, I requested.
What are you? she said.
What do you mean? I said.
Are you one or the other? Eccentric or crazy?
What do you think? I answered. I was not about to go down that road with her, you know what I’m saying?
She said, I think you don’t think you’re either one— That’s right—but I think you’re a little strange yourself.
So, as I said, I kept waiting for the thing that made sense.
What I couldn’t figure out was why we were talking about me and not her in this context. I was sobering up. I gave her a long, close look—there have been times in my marriage when I felt I didn’t know this person at all and needed to refamiliarize myself, and this was one of them. Her eyes were clear and dark—nothing like the girl curled in the cold in her duplex apartment with the door open. For a minute I thought I loved her more this way. It scared me, frankly.
Which one are you, she said again, eccentric or crazy? In a breathy voice like a movie star or an asthmatic.
What happens if I don’t want to answer this question?
Why don’t you want to answer it?
Can we talk about something else?
Why don’t you ask me something?
What the hell would I ask you?
Isn’t there something you want to ask, something, anything?
Why are we talking in all these questions?
Why can’t you answer me?
Is this like a game? To see who slips and runs out of questions first?
Why can’t you talk to me?
Can we just drop this?
I watched her loading stuff into that little U-Haul trailer. I stood there in the driveway, with a cup of coffee in my hand—you can never get enough caffeine. I asked her, what would you do if that mattress flew off the top of your car? It’s the fantasy you always have, when you see those people on the highway with the forward half of their mattress flapping up and down. You wonder if they feel it at all, some vibration or a kind of rhythmic hesitation, caused by wind resistance. You wonder what it would look like in one of those wind tunnels, with the colored streams of wind—the turbulence.
I say to her: I repeat, what would you do if that mattress flew off your car?
She didn’t answer. It’s this thing with the questions again, I guess. Still mad about that. But at least now I’m asking her something. Isn’t that what she wanted?
I know the answer anyway, I think. She’s reached a point in her life where she’s the kind of person who wouldn’t stop and go back and get it. She’d reflexively lift her foot from the gas when she felt it happen, but then reapply her foot and just plow on.
She looked at me before she got in the car. She’d declined my offer of a moving company, out of spite. Perhaps not out of spite.
I held my hands out, palms up, supplicant. She held her hands out in turn, and opened them, as if tossing petals into the air. She shook her head, but slowly, not the little- kid no-no-no way she usually does, but looking at me the whole time, her eyes shining that dark way, and then she smiled. It was that fragile smile, that rearview-mirror smile, that rocking-chair smile.
With any luck, the string will hold. Amazingly, it seems to, when you see those people going down the road.
I hold to that, then. A disturbing image but not disastrous. Before I even close my eyes, I know what I’ll see. My wife in the car which she deserved but which I bought her, crazy mattress waving bye-bye.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Piranhas & Quicksand & Love by Sally Shivnan
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