not wife

The Not-Wife

by K. A. Hough

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.
-Frederick Buechner

I pull the key from the ignition, replace my hands on the steering wheel, sit and stare at the windscreen. Tucked in, safe, away from the damp that arrived with spring.

Fog in the city. Fog in the hinterland. Fog in the head.

I close my eyes, see my husband’s face, open them, rub my hands up and down my skirt, beg the universe to vaporise me. When it doesn’t, I unfasten the seatbelt, lock the Toyota, and walk towards automatic doors into the psychologist’s office.

‘Hello, can I help you?’ says a redhead wearing a ring through her nose and too much blue mascara.

I’m the not-wife. Here to see the shrink. Against my will.

I turn my wedding ring on my finger. ‘I’m here to see Doctor Woods.’

The girl – she can be no more than sixteen – pushes some keys on her keyboard, smiles. ‘Take a seat. She won’t be long,’ she says.

Happy Ever After my arse.

What it looks like today: Got up, forgot breakfast, ushered kids out the door, rushed the school drop-off, got slammed at worked, arrived late to school pick-up, sped to spouse’s clinic, left kids, leadfooted it to therapy.

Next up: cook dinner, feed kids, do kids’ homework to avoid arguments, drink wine, collapse in bed.

I lick my lips. The Pepper Jack calls to me from the cellar.

*

One night I couldn’t sleep. How do those couples that make it to their fiftieth wedding anniversary do it? I shuffled to the bathroom and slumped on the toilet like a teenager after one too many vodka shots. Breathe. Hold. Relax. Who was it that said, This Too Shall Pass?

Did I ever love him?

Was our colour still green?

I could no longer tell.

The bathroom mirror reflected vacant, bloodshot eyes. With no answers I sobbed over the cracked sink.

‘Are you okay?’ My husband had noticed the light coming from under the door.

‘I’ve been so unhappy for so long,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, fiddling with his wedding band, studying his feet on the stained toilet mat.

*

I sit cross-legged on a blue sofa and watch the redhead mimic the lyrics to Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine.

The writing was on the wall – in permanent ink.

How did we miss it?

I’ve seen psychologists before. I asked my husband to come with me. He said he would, but he never did.

Maybe we were never right for each other.

‘I’ve never found therapy very helpful,’ I said to him last night.

He didn’t look up from his book. ‘Maybe this time will be different,’ he said.

I slouch in my chair pretending I cannot be seen. I stare ahead at a white wall spattered with scenes of the sea.

Maybe this time will be different.

*

At the traffic lights opposite the day care centre a tanned girl with a blonde ponytail and glow-in-the-dark teeth performed to Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night in her Barina. I, uncoordinated, on the wrong side of thirty, pretended not to watch.

I fingered over-plucked eyebrows and frowned. The boys looked at each other, brows furrowed, tongues poked pink. Parrots. They burst into laughter when I rolled my eyes, smiled in the rear-view mirror, and the lights changed from red to green.

Yellow still meant CAUTION. Yellow became our colour. Fire, the shade that saw my husband work later and later, the boys none the wiser. We failed to figure out our next move and unbeknownst to me I plotted to change the course of our lives.

*

I flip through the pages of Women’s Health magazine, chew a mint, picture my husband in the shower, in the backyard, under the covers in bed beside me.

Lewis Carroll hijacks my pre-frontal cortex. I think that’s the part where memories are stored but I can’t remember anything from the psychology unit I took at uni.

I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.

I think I hear my name. Not-Wife? There you are. The doctor will see you now.

I blink. Hard. Replace the magazine on the coffee table. The redhead nods and I follow her. She opens a door for me and edges away. I hope it’s not an omen. Her slinking back to her desk. I don’t know why it would be, but the fog. It’s messing with my mind.

*

The night before I had sex with the builder, I told my husband, ‘I love you.’

‘Good,’ he said.

‘Why don’t you say it back?’ I said.

He grinned, grabbed a pillow and hit me over the head with it.

‘You know,’ he said.

What did I know? I wanted to ask him.

My eyes followed his arse, perfection in Bonds briefs, as he walked to the bathroom, shut the door and turned on the shower.

I had hoped for more than yellow.

What I wanted was for him to be crazy about me.

Crazy, though, was an adjective he’d assigned to me, not a feeling he felt.

*

‘Hello. Please come in. I’m Doctor Woods. How can I help you today?’ A woman with a long brown ponytail and matching brown glasses speaks. She looks like she’s come from the set of The Bold and the Beautiful.

‘I don’t know if you can,’ I say.

I sit on a one-seater. Soft leather. I sink. Down, down, down. I want to curl my feet up under me, ask the doctor to close the door behind her, read Freud, doze.

She smiles with her eyes. ‘Let’s begin,’ she says.

My heart thuds against my ribcage, my mind scrambles for the exit. I want to run but I smile.

I’m screwed.

*

It could never have lasted. The builder had his life. I had mine. Still, I wanted to be everywhere he was.

‘Do you want to grab some ice cream?’ he said, his biceps glistening with sweat.

I drew breath, looked at my feet. ‘I’d like that,’ I said.

He lifted the corner of his singlet to wipe his forehead. Stepped off a ladder into my path.

The sun glowed almost red and something left me I wasn’t sure would return.

I justified losing myself in him by believing it was all I could do to stop myself from walking away from my marriage.

*

‘Tell me why you’re here,’ the doctor says. She holds a pen and shows off brilliant white teeth. I remind myself to ask for the number of her dentist, knowing I can’t afford it.

‘Where would you like me to start?’ I say.

‘Start from the beginning,’ she says.

Tears escape using my crows’ feet to form channels down my cheeks. Before I have a chance to wipe them away, they reach my blouse and vanish, like they never existed.

The beginning.

I force myself to look back.

*

The builder was nobody but he made me feel like somebody.

I stop-started. A smile, fingers through my hair, a wave of the hand, more ice-cream: On-off on-off on-off. I flicked hot and cold like a toddler with tea lights. Until I didn’t. The day my husband forgot Date Night and didn’t call to say he was working late, I flicked red and stayed.

STOP.

Red, the colour of ochre – dull, earthy, messy when smashed on pavement.

I wondered what it felt like to die.

I caught my reflection in a shop window after leaving the hotel room. My silhouette mute, I hadn’t decided whether to tell my husband or not.

No part of me escaped the strangeness I felt. It was the same feeling I’d had when my first boyfriend told me he loved me and I’d lied and said it back.

Is omitting the truth lying when you’re already living a lie?

The double negative means the two lies cancel each other out.

Right?

*

When the boys were little, they would compete for my love.

‘Mummy I love you more than the earth and more than the sky and more than the stars and more than the planets,’ one had said.

‘I love you more than Sesame Street and Playschool and Disneyland and Tonka trucks,’ the other had chimed in.

Maybe I always had the wrong idea about what love is but I know it involves adoration and tenderness and touch and play and attention and effort and time – if only a splash of each.

I blow into a tissue the doctor hands me across the desk.

‘We had something once,’ I say.

She pushes the tissue box toward me.

‘We haven’t had what we had for years. It hasn’t been what it should be. He looks through me like I’m not here,’ I say. ‘After a while I stopped paying attention.’

*

‘I have something to tell you,’ I said.

‘Go on,’ my husband said. He closed his book, folded his hands on his lap and looked at me.

Red lights pulsed behind my eyelids. I swallowed cement.

‘I slept with someone,’ I said.

Silence hinted at his disbelief. Anxiety pricked my skin like a leather jacket worn two sizes too small, its broken zipper stuck in the up position. He sat at the oak table across from me, stared at the wall. Pale, mute, he didn’t move for the rest of the evening.

I am a bad person.

The stone bird that normally lives in my chest beat her wings, then settled in to roost in my stomach. I lowered my head, pushed aside a plate of Moroccan chicken and greens. Cool, limp hands fell into my lap.

My passion. My blunder.

*

‘What do you mean by that?’ says the doctor.

I sit on my hands. Hope to stop the shaking. Hope to warm them like milk in a pot on a cool night.

‘We disconnected, neglected what we had. He buried himself in work. I hid behind dirty nappies and breastfeeds. We lost each other. I don’t know when. It was a long time ago,’ I say.

The doctor nods, smiles, pens notes into an exercise book.

I take a breath, count to ten, let it out.

‘What else can you tell me?’ she says.

Her smile fades. There’s a tiny frown line between her eyebrows. I decide she gets work done. No one looks that good at work.

‘The boys grew up and we grew apart,’ I say. ‘He started working longer hours. I should have questioned things.’

I pull my hands from under my skirt. Study my fingers, note my chipped nails and replace them under my skirt.

What was I supposed to do? I want to ask her while she scribbles.

‘The truth is,’ I say, ‘I didn’t want to know. I thought if I ignored it, ignored us, that things would get better.’

Idiot.

I wiggle my toes, feel my cheeks burn and before I can stop myself, blurt out the real reason I’m here.

*

Black storm clouds and heavy rain set in. The quiet brought me undone. I imagined the papers might read, TEACHER, MOTHER, CHEATER DIES CURBSIDE. C.O.D: ASPHYXIATION.

Then from across the table, ‘Maybe this had to happen,’ my husband said.

I froze at the sink, my hands covered with suds. When I turned to face him, he looked into my eyes and searched. His pain a frown, vacant eyes, cold chicken.

I should have tried harder.

‘Maybe we’ll be all right,’ I said.

‘Maybe,’ he said.

The colour green had long disappeared. The builder had satisfied my every risky craving. It was a one-time-thing and I hadn’t wanted it to end.

*

‘I slept with the builder,’ I say.

The words roll off my tongue like raindrops off a palm leaf in a downpour.

‘The builder,’ the doctor says, ‘got it. We’ll come back to that. But first, tell me how it should be?’

We’ll come back to that? Who is this woman?

The doctor picks the puzzle on my face. I imagine I look like a five-year-old who’s been asked to explain the stages of photosynthesis. I let her talk, dumfounded.

‘You said ‘it hasn’t been what it should be’. What did you mean by that? How should it be?’ She elaborates because I obviously look as stupid as I feel.

I open my mouth to speak, manage to squeak, then close it again.

‘You said you lost one another.’ She repeats my words.

I recoil into the lounge, feel the hairs on my arms shoot up.

‘Yeah,’ I say.

She waits for me to continue.

I take a deep breath and release it between pursed lips.

‘Do you want to be found?’ she says.

I’m not convinced I do.

*

‘Are you scared?’ I asked my husband that night in bed.

He drew me to his chest and we stared at the ceiling.

‘Of losing you…. yes,’ he said.

Nothing.

I reached under the doona, pinched behind my knee. Feel. Again, harder.

Still nothing.

I am not in love.

‘What do you want?’ he said.

I smoothed my face with my hands, adjusted the Not-Wife mask I’d donned before the builder took me in his mouth. I inhaled, teased the skin around my eyes to make sure my disguise didn’t give me away, touched my husband’s arm. It glowed red under the bedside lamp.

Not this.

*

‘I don’t know,’ I say. The doctor nods, wordless, probably wondering to whom she can refer me so she doesn’t have to see me again.

I want to run with the mad ones. I want fire. I just don’t want to burn.

I hear my girlfriend Cat. We had a conversation about men and relationships and affairs a fortnight ago.

‘Stop beating yourself up woman,’ she said. ‘It’s in the past.’

She was home on a layover and stopped by the house to talk wedding plans. She made me bridesmaid and I abused my position to blow off steam.

‘You’re missing the point,’ I said.

Crystal hit the stone bench top and gin and tonic spilled into hollows of pink and grey rock.

‘Which is?’ Cat said, pushing an olive into a Maybellined mouth.

‘I’m still lying,’ I said, draping a Chux over the mess I’d made.

WhatdoIdo?

*

Yulumba was my nightly companion. I figured if I was going to end up old and alone living in a cardboard box on the side of the road, I should prepare myself. I started with half a glass. I ate when the boys ate, sat, read alongside them while they built Lego. I left my husband’s dinner in the oven to eat when it suited him.

Alone.

I questioned my relationship.

Q: Were we ever okay? A: For a while. Q: Is this all there is? A: What? Red?

The boys tucked into bed, I drank my third glass. Then a fourth. I carried a bottle from the pantry, placed it on one of six purple rings that stained the boys’ bookshelf.

My husband popped his head in to say goodnight and I’d be sitting on the floor pretending to read Kafka while the boys sought sleep, wondering if the fog would ever lift.

*

‘I think you do know,’ says the doctor.

Queasy, I shift in my seat, study my shoes. Time to buy new flats. If I leave now I’ll catch Myer before they close.

‘Maybe.’ I don’t know what to say so I look her in the eye and lie. It’s easier this way.

‘I want you to go home and write a list of pros and cons. The pluses and minuses of staying versus leaving,’ she says.

It seems like a reasonable thing to ask. Logical. Sensible. Rational.

The fog persists.

‘Okay,’ I say.

She stands, smiles, tells me it was nice to meet me. Asks me to come back in a week. I nod, smile, pay the receptionist an exorbitant fee.

I am neither here nor there.

*

Moonshine struck head-level on the wall behind me. I lost myself in nonfiction. My husband climbed into bed beside me on a rare night when I happened to be sober.

‘I’ve made an appointment with the psychologist,’ I said.

‘Good,’ he said and turned out the bedside lamp.

I dog-eared page ten of Mars and Venus Together Forever. Late to the John Gray fan club, I held out hope it wasn’t too late for my marriage.

‘Night,’ I said.

No kiss. No cuddle. No hope?

Five minutes later my husband was snoring and I got up and walked to the ensuite. I stood in the doorway between bedroom and bathroom and looked at the space where we made two humans. It looked bigger than it used to. Lonelier.

My cheeks suddenly wet, I clasped my hands together. I didn’t know what I was doing but convinced myself God wouldn’t mind. It felt unnatural, my hands in front of me, palms together. I closed my eyes to make it more authentic and apologised behind heavy lids.

‘Sorry,’ I said, barely audible. ‘I was lonely.’

I tiptoed back to bed and waited. For what, I didn’t know.

*

Jack Gilbert in Failing and Flying said, everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. It's the same when love comes to an end, or the marriage fails and people say they knew it was a mistake, that everybody said it would never work.

Psychology had me question whether my marriage was simply coming to the end of its triumph or whether deep diving into the joint savings account for weekly shrink appointments meant it’d failed.

‘Did you write the list?’ says the doctor.

I fumble in my bag, pull out a folded piece of A4 and hand it to her.

‘And?’ she says.

I shrug my shoulders and hope she keeps talking. She doesn’t.

‘We play our parts,’ I say, ‘but it’s too little too late.’

Nothing can convince me to take off my mask. It is permanently affixed to my face.

*

‘I love you,’ I whispered to my husband.

From him, ‘Me too.’

Lacklustre.

I took him in my hands anyway, kissed his mouth with red lips.

‘I’m tired,’ he said and rolled away from me.

But we both knew differently.

How did we let this happen?

I went downstairs into the kitchen, switched on the radio and Coldplay belted out A Rush of Blood to the Head.

Shitshitshit.

Tears streamed thick and fast from my eyes to my neck to my chest. I leaned over the kitchen sink, lowered my head and sobbed.

Blame it all upon / A rush of blood to the head.

*

Our colour is green. Grass green. The colour of rebirth. Of new life. Of not-spouses.

My sessions with Doctor Woods over, I try to be gloomy but find I can’t.

Cat sits on the bar stool beside me in the kitchenette, removes paper from champagne flutes, moans about her wedding planner.

‘Shouldn’t I be upset?’ I say.

‘Honey, you’ve been upset as long as I’ve known you,’ she says.

I put my head on her shoulder and cry. For time wasted, for the price of rent, or because I am no longer his wife, I don’t know.

Who am I outside of my marriage?

I don’t know but decide she matters.

The two-bedroom unit is five minutes from the old place and two minutes from the Indian restaurant.

My Not-Husband sees the boys whenever he likes.

Fingers and faces covered in paprika, Cat and I demolish naan and dahl she has brought with her. We follow dinner with a bottle of Veuve. A housewarming gift I give to myself.

Cat leaves and I read in bed by candlelight.

Alone.

Even the fog has fled.

I tell myself it gets easier. That the first night is the hardest. I inhale and exhale and look out the window into a starless sky cradling a crescent moon.

About the Author

K. A. Hough

K. A. Hough is a Gold Coast based writer. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in English and Writing at UNE (NSW), where she is a Vice-Chancellor's Scholar. In 2015 she was awarded the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B. Smith Memorial Prize and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She had a story shortlisted in the Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction 2018. Her essay on gendered mental illness was published in Feminartsy in July. Her memoir is being published with Verity LA in 2019. She is writing her first novel.