A journal of narrative writing.
What She Didn’t Do

What she did: went to see a movie alone, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week. She left school and rode the bus downtown. She was fifteen years old. This was sometime in the spring and it was not warm yet, so she had a coat. A poncho, to be exact. And boots and a hat and gloves. Black tights. A sweater. Short skirt. Her hair was short then, too—mod-style. She pierced her ears because sometimes people thought she was a boy, which wasn’t very observant of them. An old woman, a clerk in a department store, peered at her and asked, “What can I do for you, young man?” which shocked her, though she didn’t protest. She was wearing jeans then. And a sweatshirt. She had been looking at toys.

A movie theater was a dangerous place, according to her mother. Nowhere for a girl to go alone, the likely refuge of men with nothing better to do with their time, men who were there for a reason and not a good one. Probably not to see a show. For example, her own father never went to movies. He watched the news on the television in the comfort of his own home and read the papers and listened to music, mostly classical, sometimes jazz. Stories were not for him unless they happened to be true. The made-up kind were for children and women, and so by that reasoning any man who was in a movie theater in the middle of the day in the middle of the week must be up to something else. And any girl who would put herself in such a vulnerable position in the company of such a man was just asking for it.

She can no longer recall what the movie was, or why she felt she had to see it. Alfie or Blowup or Fahrenheit 451. She sat in the back row, supposing that would be safer. Closer to the exit and no one could come at her from behind, though the place was mostly empty anyway. Just a few women, in fact, up near the front. Secretaries on a break or some such thing as that. Plus the man in the big coat, who sat in the same row, a few seats away.

The lights dimmed, the movie played, then somehow he was beside her. His arm was on the back of her seat. She kept her eyes on the screen. Saw flashes of color, but stopped trying to follow what was happening there. Pretty soon she was kissing him. Or he was kissing her. He kept his hands to himself. It was only his mouth, that was all. It felt good. He was gentle. He smelled nice. She never really saw his face. If they talked, she doesn’t recall what was said. Maybe he asked her name. Maybe she lied and said it was Petula because at that time she wished it was. When the movie was over, he went away and left her blinking in the light until another man came in to sweep. That one didn’t look at her twice.

* * *

This is just something she remembers, and even then only vaguely. It doesn’t mean anything to her. It says nothing about her. It was a mistake to mention it to her husband. That only added fuel to his fire, the way he already suspects she has a secret self. Sometimes she catches him looking at her with this expression of doubt. He peers at her, trying to see past what he can observe, to something else, something he can’t know but anyway is certain must be there. Like a nugget of some truth buried in the fluff of the lie that is her appearance. She’s pretty. Everybody says so. He would like to tear her open to get a good look at it, that nugget, and sometimes he does just that, but in the end there’s nothing to see.

They’ve been married for forty years, and lately it’s been getting worse. He tries to trip her up. She’s out for a walk and sees his car idling at the end of the block. He pretends he’s not himself. She walks right up and slaps the window and he turns, slowly, to look at her. Doesn’t even bother to make up a story. Doesn’t say anything at all. Just pulls away, goes home, where she’ll find him later, at his desk, trolling the internet for information because he’s working on a story that he knows nothing about.

What were you doing out there? she asks, but he brushes her off. He’s busy; he can’t be bothered. And anyway he knows she knows and she knows he knows, so what’s the point of talking about it?

He’s pretty sure she’s up to something though. He makes up a scenario: She’s off meeting a lover, maybe a man, maybe even a woman. Someone younger, many years younger, say, a student maybe. Or a colleague. Or… anybody, it doesn’t matter who.

He’s been at this sort of thing for as long as they’ve been together and at first she found it flattering that he would think she could do such a thing. That she might be attracted. That she might be attractive. I’ve seen the way they look at you. You don’t know what men are like. You don’t know what they can do.

This was at the start, when they were younger. He doesn’t say that sort of thing anymore. Because no one looks at her anymore? Or because she does know now what men can do? Still, it continues to be a game with him and a habit and she supposes he keeps it up because it makes him happy.

He calls her when she’s out to lunch with a friend or at a meeting or an appointment or running errands. He calls her to see if she’ll pick up, to see if he’s interrupting anything important. He’ll have a small request for her, something so flimsily concocted: Could you pick up this or that? What was the name of the___? When will you be home? If she doesn’t answer, he calls again. Or sends a string of texts. Her phone buzzes madly in her purse. It’s his way of saying, I know you.

* * *

This time it isn’t the usual argument, the one they often have when she gets home and maybe he’s been drinking if it’s evening or he’s been napping if it’s day. Groggy, either way.

She’s been at the vet. The dog is twelve years old and hasn’t been eating. It’s suffered other ailments along the way, too, but this time she’s had to leave it behind, overnight, for observation.

Never mind that it’s raining. Or that the garage door won’t open again, so she has to run from the driveway to the front door with her bags and it’s locked and he’s at the TV—turned up loud because his hearing is gone—so he doesn’t come until she’s banged and banged. Then he wobbles out into the hall, looming there, peering at her through the glass as if he has no idea who she is.

By the time she’s in and has shaken off her coat and toweled her hair and put the groceries away and dinner in the oven and poured a glass of wine and smoked a cigarette in the empty garage and kicked the door and fiddled with the button to no effect—by then he’s ready for her. The news is over; a game show bongs in the background. Her head throbs. The phone rings, and she takes the call. “Your dog is resting comfortably.” A reassurance from the vet’s office, from a woman who is maybe too wrapped up in the animals—the heavy girl in pink who works at the desk and seems to think they’re the ones who pay the bills.

When she hangs up and reaches for her glass, he’s there, staring at her. “Who was that?” She tells him; he doesn’t believe her. He smiles. “Clever,” he says. And, “You weren’t here when I got home.” Sniffing her, trying to kiss her, as if it were a test. Touching her hand to measure its warmth, and she knows what he’s thinking and also what he wants her to say, which is something like, “Don’t be silly,” or, “No, I never,” or, “Don’t start that again, please.” Instead she says nothing at all.

He asks about the day. Where did she go? What did she do? And when? He tries to trip her up. “But didn’t you say…?” And so on, until she stops and looks at him, lets the silence unsettle him, then turns away. She goes into the kitchen. She shuts down the oven. She pours another glass of wine. Comes back into the living room where he sits with his hands clenched and his jaw clenched, and she wants to say to him, “Yes. It’s true. I’m sorry. His name is ___. He works at ___. I met him ___ . We’ve been___.”