An Accident of Desire
The whole thing started at my wife's office.
I dropped by to say hello--I happened to be in the neighborhood--but as usual
she was too busy to give me more than a nod. Okay, I didn't mind. I wouldn't
like Sandra to visit my place of employment, if I had one.
I'd been laid off for six months. When I first stopped working, every day
brought a little gift I hadn't expected: waking up at ten instead of seven,
eating lunch for breakfast (and then again at noon, if I felt like it), being
home when the mail came--I got to read the magazines before she did. I even said
yes to a few new subscriptions. But the thrills were wearing thin, and my
prospects didn't look bright.
My wife teaches French at the community college. That day I left her office
and beetled across the quadrangle in the center of the campus. I'd made it
halfway across the street that separates the campus from town, when something
caught my eye.
I noticed a woman walking briskly in the opposite direction. She had a full
head of raven-colored hair that stopped me short--it had to be Rosie Mantuso. I
worked with Rosie for nearly five years back in Chicago. She was a peach: sense
of humor, style, and these blazing brown eyes that could knock your socks off.
Of course I wasn't married then.
"Rosie," I said. Then I shouted it: "Rosie!"
The woman must not have heard. She kept walking and I set off after her. I
kept yelling her name every few seconds as I ran, until I got so winded that I
shut up. Funny how fast you get out of shape.
"Rosie!" I managed to say it as I reached her, and she turned to
give me a look.
Of course she wasn't Rosie Mantuso, no way. This woman had a face like a
hatchet, and she cut me a stare so blunt I stopped cold. She walked away and I
turned around, still trying to catch my breath. Okay, I've put on a few pounds
since I got laid off, and I'll admit I'm not the man I once was. I looked
around, watching everyone near me to see if they were laughing. But all I saw
were students moving across the quad, hunched over from the weight of their
knapsacks, their faces pale and pinched--the way they tend to be at the
community college where my wife works.
I headed back across the quad and I almost reached the spot I'd been before,
when I realized I wasn't alone--a young woman had fallen into step with me. At
first I thought she was my wife--same height, same hair color--but then I saw
her haircut, short like a boy's, and I noticed she was a little stocky. She had
on brown-rimmed glasses, and she carried an armload of books. She looked up at
me with a small smile, and of course we fell into conversation.
If she'd seen me just make a fool of myself, she didn't mention it. She said
she was a first-year nursing student. I said I was self-employed.
We reached the edge of the quad. I paused before I crossed the street, to say
good-bye to her, but she showed no sign of going anywhere. The expression on her
face was docile and plain. She smiled without showing teeth.
She crossed the street with me and we kept walking. It was only four blocks
to the apartment house. As we came up the front walk, I paused again, thinking
now she'd take off. But darned if she didn't trot right along with me, into the
foyer and up the stairs.
As I unlocked the door to our apartment, she stood beside me, waiting
patiently. At that moment I thought I probably should have offered to carry her
books, and I began to tell her so, but she interrupted. She said they weren't
Inside, this woman headed straight for my wife's favorite armchair. She
stooped to put her books down on the floor--the book on top of the pile was
called Basic Anatomy. She took off her coat and folded it over the arm of the
chair. Then she sat, crossed her legs, and looked at me.
She wore jeans and a sweater and boots that fastened with Velcro. She seemed
a no-nonsense kind of girl.
I didn't know what to say to her, but I figured I'd better offer her a drink.
I fixed one for me, too, and sat down in my armchair across from hers. We
chatted. To this day I don't remember a word we said. We made polite
conversation. Small talk.
After a while she asked to use the toilet and I showed her where it was. When
she went in there, it dawned on me: My wife would be home from work pretty soon,
and I wasn't sure she'd take to finding a stranger in the house. I headed for
the phone, to call and tell her. Then I realized she'd still be in class.
Class would be over in ten minutes, and then my wife would walk home.
What I did next made perfect sense to me at the time. I shouted through the
bathroom door--told the woman I had an errand to run, I'd be back in a few
minutes. She said okay, fine. Then I grabbed my jacket and bolted. I went out
the door, down the stairs, across the street, back toward campus. I sprinted
until I felt winded. Then I trotted. Every step I ran, I knew a little more
about how much my wife wouldn't like being surprised by a strange female in the
apartment. But I felt sure I could explain everything to her.
By the time I saw the building where my wife teaches, I could also see her: a
little figure in a blue dress, coming out the doorway. With her were three other
people--colleagues, students?--people I didn't know. As I got closer I saw they
were all talking a mile a minute.
"Sandy," I said. I had to say it twice before she heard me.
"You're here again?" she said.
"I need to talk to you. It won't take long," I said, so she came
over. Her friends waited and watched.
I told my story to my wife. I said a strange woman, a nursing student, had
followed me home and was waiting back at our apartment. I told her I'd made a
special trip to tell her--I'd wanted her to know so she wouldn't be surprised.
My wife took all this in without batting an eye. She looked at me hard. Then
she turned on her heel. Over her shoulder she said, "You expect me to
believe a fairy tale like that?"
I began to say something, but she interrupted me. "I should have
expected something like this, once you subscribed to that pathetic
Which one? I wondered, but she took off with her friends. I followed, waiting
for a chance to get a word in. They all jabbered in French. I only took Spanish
in high school, and I never got the hang of it.
They crossed the street and headed down the block, talking, talking. I came
along behind them. They stopped at a restaurant--this new place, a sidewalk
café I'd only heard about from my wife. Chez Honoré,, it's called.
My wife claimed a table and the others sat down with her. I stood on the
sidewalk outside the iron gate, waiting to be asked to join them, but also
thinking about the woman back at the apartment. Finally my wife stopped talking
long enough to look over at me. "Go back home to your floozy," she
said, in a voice that carried right across the restaurant.
What could I do?
I turned and headed home. I didn't run this time. What was the point?
I walked home, wondering if anyone would be there, thinking maybe the whole
thing was a dream--and this is no joke, it's happened before and seems to happen
often now: I find myself standing in familiar places, but nothing going on seems
familiar. Lights loom and blink out, sounds fade and blare, and there's a strong
smell of ozone in the air. I get this metallic taste in my mouth and a hum in my
head. I can't tell if any of it's real.
When I unlocked the door and came inside I saw the coat lying across the
chair. I went down the hall to the bathroom, but the door stood open. The
bathroom was empty. So was the kitchen. Finally, I opened the door to the
bedroom. There she was, curled up under our comforter, asleep in our bed.
She didn't look any better asleep than she had when she was awake--unlike my
wife. When Sandra's asleep, she takes on the look of an angel.
"Wake up," I said to this woman.
She didn't stir.
"Come on," I said. "Time to get up."
I reached for her shoulder under the covers, and then she stirred. I nearly
fell on the floor--this woman had taken off her shirt.
She blinked and looked at me. "You have to go," I said to her,
looking away, at the ceiling. "My wife will be home any second."
This wasn't strictly true--my wife was back at Chez Honoré, having a drink
with her friends--but it might be true. My wife rarely has more than one drink.
The woman didn't open her mouth--she just lay there.
"Gonow," I said to her. She sighed and pulled back the comforter.
Damned if she hadn't taken off everything.
"Get out of here!" I shouted at her. She stood up, pulling the
comforter around her, and she moved slowly toward the living room.
I grabbed her coat and her books and gave her a little shove toward the door.
She moved slowly and steadily ahead, as if she were automated or maybe
sleepwalking, and only when we were halfway down the stairs did I ask myself:
Where are her clothes?
I pushed her shoulder to keep her moving. We were coming down the front steps
of the building when my wife appeared. She marched down the street, alone,
wearing a beret I'd never seen before.
"Quick, what's your name?" I said to the woman wrapped in our
comforter. She said Mary or Marie, something that begins with an M. No--to be
honest, it was Muriel.
When my wife came closer, I said, "Sandy, this is Muriel."
My wife said, "You are beyond belief." She swept past us without
I turned to watch her go. I could hear each footstep as she climbed the
stairs and I thought, This is it--this is the end of a chapter in my life.
But I was wrong, as I've come to know very well since. It wasn't the end of a
chapter--it was the end of my life. And I saw it pass, climbing up the steps,
disappearing through the door with my sweet, the love of my life, my wife.
What could I do? I turned and followed Muriel. Swaddled in down, she led me
away, across the street, far from the apartment house, into places I never would
call home, places I had only just begun to imagine.