Brad Watson

Perfume

He’d always been stunned by his wife’s beau­ty when she slept.  Sleeping, her nat­ur­al beau­ty was unde­ni­able, entire­ly unin­flu­enced by his feel­ings, her feel­ings, their var­i­ous dif­fi­cul­ties with one anoth­er, resent­ments, by their com­plex his­to­ries, unful­filled long­ings, secrets. In repose, there was noth­ing to inter­fere with the unde­ni­able fact of her phys­i­cal love­li­ness.  You might even say angel­ic.  He would say Perfect, if he believed in per­fec­tion, or believed that any one deliv­er­ance of beau­ty, any one man­i­fes­ta­tion of it, or any one ves­sel shaped into some form of it, could be con­sid­ered ‘more’ beau­ti­ful than some oth­er deliv­er­ance, man­i­fes­ta­tion, shape.

Dinner was to be one of his few spe­cial­ties, dish­es to which he tend­ed over the years of their lives togeth­er almost like the chil­dren they nev­er had.  The chil­dren, or lack of them, was a deci­sion they nev­er dwelt on for longer than the span of an argu­ment, lacon­ic and sulky, as were all their argu­ments.  He didn’t like con­fronta­tion.  She had tried in their ear­li­er years to bring him to a boil, to get a rise.  She’d want­ed to see him at least once, she’d said, out of con­trol, shout­ing, rag­ing, kick­ing and throw­ing things, fly­ing from the house in a rage.  She’d been cru­el, more than once, in her strate­gies.  To no avail.  He would not be made some domes­tic clown.  He had defeat­ed her, in effect.  His appar­ent indif­fer­ence had become the cat­a­lyst that dis­si­pat­ed the ener­gy of her ire.  He and she would pro­duce, ele­men­tal­ly, the pure com­pound of their union, or so he had hoped.  It’s dif­fi­cult to reduce a human being to her most ele­men­tal self, and keep her there.

He was a chemist, of course.  Beyond that, he was an emo­tion­al­ly vul­ner­a­ble man who dis­guised his vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty with a mask of calm, impla­ca­bil­i­ty.  He knew that to her it seemed indif­fer­ence, but it was not.  The mask dis­played very lit­tle emo­tion­al response to things.  Occasionally it broke and he had to repair it, on the spot.  But for the most part, he kept it intact.  In order not to seem rude and offen­sive, he used his ver­bal wits to let peo­ple know when he was being humor­ous or just jol­ly.

Really, only when he looked in on his wife while she was sleep­ing did he allow him­self to feel every­thing he felt about her.  She nev­er knew how some­times, feel­ing those things, he had to steal from the bed­room and sit alone in the liv­ing room, weep­ing.

He had invit­ed a cou­ple they knew to have din­ner with them.  The spe­cial­ty he had cooked this evening was coq au vin, a sim­ple but deli­cious item on his brief menu.  And herb-and-but­ter-roast­ed new pota­toes.  Fresh aspara­gus, steamed, driz­zled with lemon.  She’d made a pud­ding for desert.  He’d decid­ed they would have a nice desert wine, a gift they’d been sav­ing, with the pud­ding.  Not some­thing they nor­mal­ly ever had, and they didn’t real­ly know what to expect of a desert wine.

The guest cou­ple — let’s call them George and Martha, as he did to him­self for fun, though it wasn’t fair to Martha, real­ly — were old friends.  His wife and George had worked togeth­er for fif­teen years at an office that made maps.  George was in charge of sales, while his wife was a car­tog­ra­ph­er.  She did not enjoy mak­ing maps.  She had stud­ied art in col­lege and had want­ed to be a painter, but over the years her ambi­tion had been reduced to pro­duc­ing small, occa­sion­al water­col­ors on index cards which she gave to friends as gar­nish to more tra­di­tion­al gifts.  Sometimes the friends appre­ci­at­ed the water­col­ors more than the gifts them­selves, but this was rare.  He was aware, as was she, that most of the peo­ple they knew regard­ed her as a map­mak­er who liked to dab­ble in lit­tle index card-size water­col­or paint­ings, as a hob­by or dis­trac­tion

Once, George had encour­aged her to paint again.  Knowing this, since she’d talked about it, had made him jeal­ous.  It had kin­dled a fear that she would grow beyond him, that her inter­ests would expand beyond their mar­riage, beyond him, and that she would be grate­ful to George for this, and that she would fall in love with him, and he would be exposed for his pet­ty pos­ses­sive­ness, and he would lose every­thing.  Which was the rea­son he tried to keep things under such care­ful con­trol, after all.  There was always the pos­si­bil­i­ty of los­ing every­thing.  It was mad­den­ing, if you let your­self dwell on it.  You had to be very care­ful not to let such a thing hap­pen.  You had to be on guard every wak­ing moment.  You even had to guard against it in your dreams.

He knew that George had affairs, and that he always had.  It was com­pul­sive, he knew.  George’s Martha was beau­ti­ful, and intel­li­gent, and com­posed, and tol­er­ant.  And all of these things, which he knew had made George fall in love with her and mar­ry her, were what drove him to fool around.  He knew that George need­ed a cer­tain amount of wild­ness in his life, an ele­ment of dan­ger and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of every­thing going out of con­trol.  Of dis­as­ter.  He knew that it made George feel alive, and that with­out it he became, like a child, irre­pres­sive­ly bored.  Even fid­gety.  He had met sev­er­al of George’s mis­tress­es, or flings.  George was not par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­creet or even con­cerned about dis­cre­tion.  As if he knew that Martha under­stood his child­ish flaws and made allowances for them, know­ing they were as ephemer­al and unim­por­tant as the whims of a child, a child’s mis­be­hav­ior. What method Martha may have devel­oped for hold­ing her own against George, he had no idea.

 

And hav­ing met sev­er­al of these women – they ranged from young col­lege stu­dents to women George’s own age, so long as they were beau­ti­ful and a lit­tle reck­less they ful­filled George’s need for a bit of the wild – is how he knew that, against the odds, that which had not hap­pened years before had for some rea­son hap­pened now.  George had the odd habit of giv­ing these women the same per­fume, which was not at all like the fra­grance that one could detect ris­ing faint­ly from the skin and pores of his wife.  It was just the slight­est bit trashy, this per­fume, though not raw or cheap-smelling.  It had just the hint about it of the for­bid­den.  The essence was trop­i­cal, sug­gest­ing the exot­ic, for­bid­den.  A sim­ple and ridicu­lous­ly trans­par­ent sym­bol­ism.  Yet the women seemed always to agree to wear it.  George had nev­er told him about this.  George had nev­er bought the per­fume in his pres­ence.  But he was extra­or­di­nar­i­ly sen­si­tive to scents, and he had met sev­er­al of George’s mis­tress­es or dal­liances, what­ev­er you’d call them, in bars, cof­fee shops, at the ten­nis court.  The women had nev­er been intro­duced as George’s mis­tress or girl­friend: just “a friend.”  And things were not said.  Many many things were not said, and very lit­tle was actu­al­ly said, and it was all tan­gen­tial and tac­it­ly eva­sive.  So he had always known they were George’s mis­tress­es.  And they had all smelled faint­ly, a lit­tle stronger on the sweat­ing ten­nis play­ers, of this same per­fume.  And when he had smelled its faint pres­ence com­ing from his wife, just the pre­vi­ous week when he’d come home and she was undress­ing and hur­ry­ing into the show­er, he had known instant­ly.  He had known.

It had puz­zled him.  Although he’d been afraid, that one time, that his wife and George would have an affair, he had deter­mined that his wife was not George’s type at all.  He was not George’s type, either, which had more than once led him to won­der if he was some sort of male ver­sion of George’s addic­tion to dal­liance.  But pos­si­bly things had changed.  Possibly his wife was hav­ing her own kind of mid­dle age cri­sis, per­haps hav­ing to do with her frus­tra­tion as an artist, resur­fac­ing upon reflec­tion that she had done lit­tle with her life.  She had not paint­ed.  She had not had chil­dren.  She was, prob­a­bly, no longer in love with him at all.  Possibly it had been her idea, not George’s.  Possibly, George’s friend­ship with him had always been intend­ed as a cov­er, some day, should some­thing between George and his wife ever ‘hap­pen.’

Even so, it made no sense they would have an affair.  It was too risky, all around.  Which had led him to believe that the risk did not real­ly mat­ter.  It wasn’t your typ­i­cal dal­liance or fling.  Which could only mean that, in these mid­dle years for both George and his wife, in spite of what­ev­er prac­ti­cal mis­giv­ings they may have had, they had fall­en in love.

He looked at Martha across the din­ner table as he poured wine into her glass.  She was indeed beau­ti­ful.  Prematurely gray, her hair had devel­oped a sil­very qual­i­ty that, com­bined with her still-youth­ful face, was strik­ing.  As if she were age­less, or would nev­er grow old.  George on the oth­er hand still enjoyed a full head of bushy brown hair, of which he was vain­ly proud, and was very fit owing to his rou­tine three days a week at the gym.  One had to stay in shape if one were to make an avo­ca­tion of seduc­tion.

In any case, they’d all lived pret­ty well, and long enough, real­ly.  None of them real­ly want­ed to become tru­ly old, and ugly, and dis­abled.  To become sick, ashamed, pitiable, bit­ter.  Disoriented, or out­right mad.

He had served everyone’s dish­es in the kitchen and tak­en them out one by one.  There was no pos­si­bil­i­ty of a mis­take, of acci­den­tal­ly serv­ing him­self one of the dish­es meant for any of them.

Asphodel first made one very sleepy, pleas­ant­ly so.  He made sure that every­one retired to the liv­ing room after desert and the desert wine, with a fin­ger or two of fine scotch, to lis­ten to music.  And one by one, they all drift­ed off to sleep.

They were all beau­ti­ful in repose, real­ly, not just his wife.  As if he had paint­ed, or sculpt­ed, them there like that. He lis­tened to the entire Schubert cd, stay­ing very still him­self, and watched them in the beau­ti­ful, vault­ed silence.

~

Brad Watson’s most recent book is a col­lec­tion, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, from W.W. Norton.  His oth­er books are Last Days of the Dog-Men and The Heaven of Mercury.  He teach­es in the MFA pro­gram at The University of Wyoming.