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.