Margaret dropped a sweater into her husband’s bottom drawer, on top of a layer of thinner sweaters. She was closing the drawer, straightening up, when she realized she felt troubled. There had been a noise. A scraping and clattering when she’d dropped the sweater. She bent down again, pulled the drawer open all the way, flattened out her hand and pressed and patted the bottom layer of sweaters. Something hard, flat, unsteady, wobbled beneath them. She burrowed through them, clawed them up. The lamplight from the dresser top glinted off the glass of a few large framed pictures in the bottom of the drawer. Four, five ... six in all.
Margaret reached for her glass of wine. Something told her she might need it. Lifting the pictures from the drawer, running her suddenly clammy fingers over the glass of each as she set them one by one on the tightly made bed, she saw that the pictures were a succession of two happy smiles on the faces of the same two people -- her husband John and his ex-wife Serena. The smiles got more toothy in each picture until Margaret wondered desperately if these people had ever had a day in their lives where they were crabby, or just plain bored.
She sat on the bed with her wine in one hand and laid the pictures out equidistant from each other in two rows of three. They were all approximately 5-by-7´s, except for one, which was the size of a piece of notebook paper -- what, 8 by 11? This picture, enlarged, she was sure, from a candid 3-by-5, was a close-up of her husband in a straw hat and sunglasses, his gummy smile verging on a laugh, and Serena, willowy, high-cheekboned Serena, in sunglasses as well, the strings of her lavender halter top and her silky blond hair blowing out behind her like a long scarf. Serena´s smile, as well, bordered on a giggle. They´d probably just laughed at a joke from the photographer, thought Margaret, and the idea was chilling. She squinted at the photo. A few yards behind John and Serena was a long stretch of beach, glistening emerald water, and, if you looked closely, a little girl in a ruffled bikini at the water´s edge, pointing and crying.
The other pictures interested and alarmed Margaret less: John and Serena feeding each other wedding cake in a gazebo, laughing, cheeks and chins smeared with frosting; John and Serena leaning against the back of a car, the face of a scruffy white panting dog in the window between them; John and Serena in front of a Christmas tree, where a shiny blue pointed ornament appeared to be growing out of the top of Serena´s head, like a sharp horn; John and Serena sitting at a table in a restaurant, a half-eaten piece of cake between them, his hand on top of hers; and John and Serena at what appeared to be someone else´s wedding, Serena in a ruby-colored bridesmaid dress, a truly hideous sequined thing, John behind her with his arms around her waist. Typical, thought Margaret. All the crap couples do, the generic stuff that makes one pair of lives look exactly like another.
It was the big blown-up beach picture that troubled her. Why enlarge a picture to such a size? Why wouldn´t a 3-by-5 do? And what were they so excruciatingly happy about? They´d ended up divorced, after all. The sun was setting; the light in the room had dwindled to a dim purple-gray. Margaret turned on the lamp next to the bed in order to see the pictures more clearly. There was an exuberance to those smiles, an energy that crackled right out of the frame. Obviously, at the time of this picture, John and Serena were -- there was no other phrase to describe it -- incredibly in love.
Margaret crossed her legs and sat with the giant picture in her lap. She covered Serena´s face with her hand. She clenched her jaw so tightly she began to get a headache. She wasn´t sure how much time had passed when she heard the creak of the front screen door and the jingle of John´s keys. His steady step across the wood of the front hall floor. His melodious voice: "Hellooooo?"
She didn´t answer. She wanted to move, put the pictures back in the drawer. But she didn´t. She hadn´t seen John in three days, but she had no desire to run into his arms. Maybe it was the wine: she felt like a good old-fashioned confrontation.
John stood at the bedroom door loosening his tie. He was grinning, as he so often was, when she glanced up at him sharply. The corners of his eyes crinkled affectionately. Margaret stared at him. She felt small on the bed, insignificant. He´d been on a plane and she could smell it on him, that travel-weary-perspiration-newspaper-in-flight-magazine-airport-people smell. He leaned against the door jamb and exhaled.
"I am beat. Come give us some love. I missed you." He narrowed his eyes. He was nearsighted. "What´ve you got there, baby? What´s going on?"
He walked toward the bed; he was tall and lean and his graceful step always reminded Margaret of the lope of a horse. It was one of the first things she´d noticed about him.
Margaret moved away from the pictures to the edge of the bed, perching and gesturing toward the glinting frames as though she were a magician´s assistant. She shook her head. John let his jacket drop to the end of the bed and leaned in to get a better look. He tilted his head to one side and gave her a smile that said, Gimme a break, Margaret. "Where´d you find those, anyway?" he said. It sounded like an afterthought. Margaret inhaled.
"Why, John? Why did you have these pictures hidden under your sweaters?" Her head bobbed up and down, the way (she had become self-consciously aware) it did when she spoke forcefully, but she couldn’t stop herself. "Why aren´t they in a box in the basement, where all my old pictures are?"
John blinked, shook his head. The man was incapable of guile. "I don´t know. I forgot they were even there. They´ve been there since we moved in, I guess."
"But why?" Margaret shook her glass for emphasis and white wine splashed onto the rose-colored bedspread. "Damn!" she said, mustering the self-control to set the wine glass on the carpet next to the bed. She stalked into the adjoining bathroom, where she began to yank yards of toilet paper from the roll. She kept talking, aware that her tone become more and more shrill with each passing word.
"I mean, I just don´t understand. Obviously you wanted those pictures close at hand. Where you could get at them easily. Isn´t that right?" She ran water over her clutch of toilet paper and marched back to the bedroom, where she bent over the bed and vigorously rubbed at the stain with the toilet paper.
"Calm down, Margaret," said John. He was standing with his hands in his pockets, observing her behavior the way she had seen him observe the penguins at the zoo -- with a certain bemused, affectionate, and perplexed expression. "That won´t even leave a mark," he added gently.
"It´s not water, dear," Margaret said, her voice crackly. "Of course it will leave a stain! Obviously, obviously you were still in love with Serena when we moved into this house, or you´re lying to me and you´ve been sneaking longing looks at those pictures all along and you’re still in love with her! I can´t stand this! Tell me what´s going on!" She threw the wet wad of toilet paper across the room. It hit the wall next to the window, stuck for a moment like one of those Wacky Wall Walkers from the ´80s, those slimy octopi, then plummeted to the floor, leaving a wet smudge.
"Margaret," John said. He moved toward her; she moved away. He moved toward the pictures; she beat him to them and began to stack them roughly one on top of the other. She slammed the last one down so hard she broke the glass of the frame. Then she took the whole pile of them, stomped out of the bedroom through the living room, into the kitchen, onto the back porch, and tossed them in the garbage can, putting the lid back on with a vicious flourish. John was standing in the kitchen when she walked back in.
"What the hell are you doing?" he yelled, palms turned up in futility.
"I´m finishing your unfinished business!" Margaret snapped. Her voice was hoarse now and she coughed.
"This is crazy! I don’t have unfinished business! I haven’t looked at those pictures in years. And see?" He spread his arms and looked from Margaret to the back porch and back to Margaret. "See how I´m not retrieving them from the garbage? That´s because I don´t care! They can be in the garbage for all I care about them! I must have put them in the drawer when we moved in because I didn’t know where else to put them and I just forgot about them! I wasn´t hiding them from you, you nut, even if that´s what it looks like to you in your little Bizarro World! Okay?"
Margaret stared at him, leaning against the counter, her arms folded. She trusted John more than she trusted any other person, ever, but then, that wasn’t saying much. He shook his head, pressed his lips together, his hands on his hips. He stared back at her in that open-faced way of his, that way that positively screamed, I’m a good guy, an honest person. It irritated her.
"So," she said finally, after a few seconds -- or was it minutes? -- had passed, "if we get divorced one day you´ll be content to let your new wife throw my pictures in the garbage? That´s nice, John. Nice to know I´ll be remembered."
"Jesus." John sighed and rolled his eyes, unable to suppress a smile. "Up until right about now, I was thinking we´d never get divorced!"
"Ha ha," said Margaret. John shook his head, walked up to her and pressed his forehead against hers. "Blaaaahhhh!" he said in a whisper. This was the noise he made which translated: You are exasperating me and why do I put up with it? Oh yeah, because I love you.
"Stop," said Margaret. He shook his head again and she saw a flicker of hurt in his eyes, and she hated him, hated herself. He turned and walked out of the kitchen. Margaret clutched the edge of the counter with both hands.
* * *
Two days passed and Margaret avoided her husband. She could sense him lingering, hesitant, in doorways, while she loaded the dishwasher, while she went through mail. She had a tremendous urge, at moments, to tell him she had forgiven him, but how do you forgive someone for something when you don’t know exactly what they´ve done wrong? She found herself feeling weepy, and she was glad when John worked late on Friday.
On Saturday she watched John cutting the grass of the front lawn in neat rows, wearing the fishing hat Margaret had begun to harbor a mysterious contempt for. She wondered why she disliked the hat, but she could never come up with a solid reason. On the phone with her mother, she stared out the window at him, her fingers gripping the slick curtain of the bedroom window.
"I´m sure the truth is exactly what John said," her mother was saying in her soft North Carolina accent. "John has no reason to lie. The man treats you beautifully. He´s nothing like your father, that´s for sure."
"Yeah, well, Dad was a jackass," Margaret said. She liked to remind her mother of this fact every now and then, just to keep her on her toes. "Not many can top Dad, that´s for sure."
"Margaret," her mother said in a hushed, practiced tone, more out of habit than anything else.
"Well, it´s true," said Margaret. She watched John pause to pull out the front of his T-shirt and fan it back and forth. Then he took off the fishing hat, pushed back his dark sweat-drenched hair, and readjusted the hat on his head. He smiled, nodded and waved at a neighbor who was out of Margaret’s sightline. Margaret shivered, involuntarily, the way she did when she found something disagreeable. Everybody in the world, including Margaret, knew that her husband was a great guy, a stand-up guy, the guy you went to when you had a complicated problem that needed to be talked through, the guy who treated everyone, everyone, with dignity, with humanity. It was the kind of humanity where, if you went to John with your problem, he paid you such rapt attention you felt like you were the only person on earth at that moment. And sometimes, even often, Margaret felt that she couldn’t stand this about him.
"You lucked out when you met John," her mother was saying over the line. Margaret could hear "In My Life" playing in the background; her mother had just now discovered the Beatles and seemed to believe their music had opened up a whole new world to her. This irritated Margaret, too.
"Did I? How did I luck out, Mom?"
"What do you mean? He´s absolutely wonderful. He treats you beautifully."
Margaret watched a rusted-out Blue Cab crawl along the freshly paved street yards beyond her husband. The driver´s head swiveled from side to side. There was no passenger. Someone was going somewhere, someone on this street. Someone was leaving.
"And what about me, Mom? Did John luck out when he met me?"
She heard silence on the line for a moment; a millisecond, a second, maybe three. Then her mother said, "Of course he did, sweetie."
Margaret´s stomach churned as though she´d been struck with impending diarrhea. Her fingers gripped the phone. "You don´t think I deserve him, do you, Mom?"
"Of course you deserve him!"
"Then why didn´t you answer right away?"
"What do you mean?"
"What was that pause, that pause before you agreed that John lucked out when he met me?"
"I didn´t pause." Her mother sighed. "You´re stirring up trouble where there is none, Margaret."
"We´ll see about that," said Margaret. She hung up.
* * *
She avoided John for the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday. She felt worse and worse but she couldn´t bring herself to speak to him, and he gave her a wide berth. At the office on Monday, Margaret sat at her computer typing up a press release, her attention diverted constantly by the two small framed pictures of herself and John that sat next to a potted plant to the right of her computer. John and herself on the sofa, their now-deceased cat Twister between them, John smiling, Margaret scowling, Twister yawning. John and herself in a restaurant, John´s hand on top of hers, John smiling with teeth, Margaret smiling with a closed mouth. Small pictures, 3-by-5´s. Never had it occurred to Margaret to blow up one of these pictures to notebook-paper size.
"Emily?" Margaret stood up to get the attention of the co-worker who sat on the other side of her work station. Emily was the only person in the office whose opinion Margaret actually respected, the only person she looked forward, somewhat, to seeing every day. Emily glanced up at Margaret, eyebrows raised, her face grave. Emily always stared at her computer with intensity, with an expression of near-disgust, and Margaret wondered if she had trouble with her eyes or if it was just that she hated writing press releases so much. As usual, Emily was wearing too much eyeliner, and Margaret would have liked to discuss that with her, but she didn´t know how to bring it up.
"Emily, you and your boyfriend, you guys have pictures you´ve taken together, right?"
"Sure." Emily reached toward the side of the work station, unpinned a picture and held it up to Margaret. It was a picture from a Halloween party; Emily was Cleopatra and her boyfriend was the Cat in the Hat. Emily smiled for the camera; the boyfriend watched her admiringly, his eyes ablaze with affection. Or so it seemed to Margaret.
Margaret passed the picture back to Emily. "Have you ever thought of, like, having that picture enlarged? To, say, this size?" She held up a press release from the pile on her desk.
"Why?" said Emily. "Are you starting a photo-enlargement business or something?"
"No, no," Margaret said impatiently. "I´m just wondering -- why would a person take the trouble to have a picture enlarged to this size -- " she waved the paper in the air -- "when it was just a picture from a stupid vacation? Is that a normal thing to do?"
Emily shrugged. "Maybe if the vacation had special meaning or something." She stared at Margaret. "What are we talking about here?"
"Yes!" Margaret blurted. "Special meaning! Like if you were really in love with someone!"
"Margaret, what are you talking about?"
Margaret sat down again. She tapped her fingers on her desk; she glanced again at the picture of John, herself, and Twister. In the picture, her face was contorted into -- into almost a sneer. She hated having her picture taken, hated posing for a camera. "Emily?" she said.
"Yeah?" came the voice from the other side of the work station. The office was deserted except for the two of them; it was late in the day. "Am I what you would consider a good person?"
"Of course you are," said Emily. "You´re a great person." She paused. "You tell it like it is. I respect that."
Margaret sat quietly. Emily had not paused before saying "Of course you are." Or had she? Just like that Margaret could no longer remember. Could no longer hear precisely a snippet of conversation that had transpired only a moment ago. She stared at the plastic container of paper clips on her desk, and dumped them out just for the hell of it. Then she began to put them back into the container, one by one.
* * *
That night in bed, John lay asleep with his back to Margaret, one hand pressed against the wall as usual, mouth open, saliva dotting the pillow. Margaret stared up at the ceiling with her hands folded over her stomach. Every so often the headlights of a passing car would move across it lazily. Margaret thought about the other houses on this street, the other couples she and John had encountered at the village meetings he insisted they attend. She wondered how those couples slept. What position, exactly. Facing each other? Like spoons? All tangled and intertwined? At some point, John had started sleeping with his back to her. That hadn’t been the way it was at first. But Margaret couldn’t remember exactly when it had begun.
She got up and wandered to the kitchen. As usual, at night, she was haunted by the ghost of Twister, the cat she and John had adopted together, who had died after eating a mouse that had ingested poison. At least, that´s what they thought had happened; there was no other explanation the vet could come up with. Twister had been active at night, and when Margaret, an insomniac, couldn’t sleep, Twister kept her company. She felt she could still hear the tap and click of his tiny claws on the kitchen linoleum. But then, that wasn´t true; Twister had never tapped and clicked on the kitchen linoleum. He had traveled silently. She was no longer quite sure about her memories. But she knew that after Twister died, there was a void. The void was the lack of the cat´s presence, yes, but it was also the absence of conversation between herself and John that had to do with Twister. Until the cat´s death, Margaret hadn’t noticed just how much she and John talked about the cat, talked to the cat. The cat had provided a lubricant, a buffer zone, when they had nothing to say, when things were rocky between them, when they were happy and wanted to express it. "What do you think about that, Twister?" John would say. "Daddy´s being a jerk, isn´t he, Twister?" Margaret would say. "Twister loves Mommy and Daddy, doesn´t he?" they both would say. Twister was the kind of cat who would allow himself to be picked up and carried around and hugged and kissed. He had a high degree of tolerance for silly humans and their neediness.
Margaret got a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and sat at the kitchen table in the dark, peering out the window at the back porch. The porch light was on, illuminating the garbage can, whose lid sat atop a pile of white bags that extended far beyond the rim of the can. The small yard stretched out beyond it to the dilapidated one-car garage that would have to be torn down and replaced. Garbage pick-up was in the morning. Garbage pick-up. Margaret got up suddenly, flung open the back door, pulled the lid off the garbage can and, holding her breath, tossed bag after bag out of the can until, at the bottom of the receptacle, she saw jagged pieces of glass and the pile of pictures she’d thrown away. She had to bend way down into the can to reach. It was easy to spot -- the big one. The huge gold frame that held the picture with the golden sun and Serena´s golden flowing hair. Margaret grabbed it, straightened herself, and tapped the picture against the side of the can to get rid of the excess glass. One piece of glass clung to the side of the frame, a pointed sliver that extended across John and Serena´s faces.
She put the lid back on the garbage can, went inside and sat at the kitchen table with the picture. She wrestled with the sharp piece of glass and pulled it off gingerly, setting it next to the picture on the table like a knife next to a plate. Margaret stared. And stared. The faces in the picture had changed. They were no longer exuberant, glowingly happy faces radiating the ecstasy of true love. They were normal faces, posing for a picture on a beach. John even looked a little tired; she could see crow´s feet extending beyond the edges of his sunglasses, and a slight droop to his smile, toothy as it was. And Serena -- her shoulders were sunburned, her forehead lined. She leaned against John, as if for support. Margaret remembered a detail about Serena then -- Serena walked with a slight limp, due to a childhood accident where she´d been thrown from a horse and had landed in a ditch. Serena tired easily.
Margaret picked up the picture and wandered into the living room. On the end table next to the sofa sat a picture in a pewter frame of herself and John in Rome. A couple of the stray cats that littered the place were at the far right-hand side of the picture, facing off. Margaret focused on the cats; John focused on Margaret. One cat hissed; the other stared at its nemesis severely. Both John and Margaret had looks of surprise and delight on their faces, their bodies poised in expectation; John had turned to Margaret to catch her reaction. On his face was the same blazing affection -- Margaret was sure of it -- that she had seen on the face of Emily’s boyfriend in the Halloween picture. And John was wearing that damned fishing hat. Come to think of it, he´d worn it on all their trips together, earlier in their marriage. That hat, that preposterous hat. She sat down on the sofa and placed the small 3-by-5 Rome picture next to the hulking John and Serena picture. The big picture dwarfed the picture of herself and John. But while Margaret and John appeared genuinely thrilled to be together, in Rome, observing the adventures of scrappy, underfed stray cats, she could now see that John and Serena were weary, sunburned, and giving the photographer extra-large smiles to try to hide the fact that they were not as happy as they felt they should be. The little girl in the ruffled bikini in the background seemed to be pointing at the couple, crying as though dismayed at the sight of them. Margaret laughed and snorted. Why had she not seen it before?
She stood up, put the picture of John and Serena in the drawer of the end table, returned the Rome picture to its rightful spot, and walked back to the bedroom. John was now lying on his back, one hand stretched behind his head on the pillow. Margaret crawled into bed and watched him for a while. It really was disgusting the way he drooled so much. He always had white flaky gunk crusted in one corner of his mouth in the mornings. She watched his chest rise and fall for a few moments -- it seemed like a few moments, anyway, but how long was a moment? -- and then she cleared her throat.
"John," she said in a half-whisper. "John."
"What, sweetie?" He was not a terribly heavy sleeper. It had never taken all that much to wake him up.
"Tomorrow I´m taking the day off. I´m going to adopt another cat."
"I thought you weren´t ready," he mumbled. The streetlight seeping through the slits in the blinds spread across his face. His eyes were still closed. He smacked his lips together as though trying to evenly arrange the saliva in his mouth.
"I´m ready," she said. She lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling again, more lazy headlights rolling across it. John reached over and patted her stomach, then turned over on his side and fell asleep again.