Collapsed on a rose-colored couch, under a black and white print of children exchanging bouquets, Denise soaked her feet in saltwater and waited to be appalled by the cruelty of nature. According to the entertainment section of the newspaper she had already missed a documentary about a boy who had been born with two heads, and a countdown show featuring the One Hundred and One Most Bizarre Self-Inflicted Injuries. This left her with only the last half-hour of the The Eight-Hundred-Pound Man before she began her ritual. She rubbed the soles of her feet together in the lukewarm water and tried to muster a sob.
It seemed impossible to Denise that a man who weighed more than eight-hundred pounds could play an instrument, but as she watched he strummed a guitar on his stomach while a nurse at his side hummed along. Denise inched the volume up until she could almost make out the tune of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” The medical staff brought a hydraulic lift to the man’s bedside. Orderlies gently moved his guitar off-screen while they positioned themselves to the side of his limbs, readying straps in place before the commercial break.
Denise sat silent as a commercial for newly-solved medical mysteries played, and prayed that the man would survive the show. She had witnessed narrated reports of deaths off-screen before, and hoped this program would end with a soft-focus shot of the man walking hand in hand with a loved one through the park. She had to hope that some medical impossibility could be solved, that people like herself could be saved, or else there would be no point in believing in the promise of tomorrow.
When the program returned, the narrator gave ominous warnings about the eight-hundred-pound man’s circulation and escalating diabetes. While he addressed the audience at home, the man’s sister wept in a hallway as an emergency surgery was conducted to correct the giant’s deficient heart. At this, Denise turned the television off and hoped that angels would intercede on the man’s behalf, but feared that they wouldn’t for the sake of drama. She dried her pedicured toes with a dishtowel in front of the television, pleased that she had found her pity for the night.
A failing body is a private temple. Nightmares of television crews had visited Denise. Cameras would light in the dark of her apartment and pan across the baby magazines lying on her floor. Glossy photos of smiling children, of pregnant women in yoga wear, were illuminated for the audience at home. The steady voice of a narrator came from the ether, begging of her “Why don’t you have children?” Boom mics dangled like nooses in front of her face. In her sleep she whispered “I am trying,” before the lights engulfed her. In her quiet room she could hear the film turning on reels until she was shaken awake, suddenly alone.
When the dream had come and evaporated, she knew that television cameras would never find her. She was a medical oddity too common to consider past primetime.
But for Denise there was community in the world for the childless, and it was this sisterhood that she prepared for each night with cable shorts about plastic surgery disasters and children born allergic to water. Only when she was filled with sympathy, when tears for strangers crowded the corners of her eyes, could she join women like herself online to post updates about Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or uterine linings too thin to hold an egg.
“Soul-Cysters” was a website for women like Denise. On it they posted updates about drug treatments while their husbands slept. They wrote down all the things the men in their lives couldn’t hope to understand. They cried together, and promised to meet on a day when all their children would play in the sun and be photographed for parenting magazines. They dreamed together when fertility clinics had given up hope.
If Denise hadn’t worked at a fertility clinic, if she hadn’t seen so many women like herself flip through the pages of baby catalogues they would never use, she wouldn’t have needed the television. But the years had stripped the pity from her, leaving her to watch documentaries about conjoined twins or shark attack victims before she could log on. She understood if she couldn’t grieve, if even for herself, there was no place for her in the world.
Fox watched the sports report alone in bed while the dog he greatly envied ignored him. His dog was a cock-a-poo, the result of suburban science’s efforts to minimize everything masculine in the world. When he looked down at his dog casually licking his paws clean, he saw the great progression of dogs running wild in the forest tearing apart deer, to dogs being taught to beg for peanut butter flavored bones and mouth “I love you” by housewives, all the way down to dogs like his own who were woolly mild-mannered things afraid of laundry baskets. His dog was evidence of the hands of women shrinking the wildness of the world into cute packages they could shoo away.
At that moment he never felt closer to the dog he named Whiskey to annoy his wife. Together they lived in a home neither of them owned, and kept to themselves to avoid the tasks his wife might assign them. They had been domesticated.
Whiskey was a stop-gap measure, a stand-in until his wife had a child. That was four years ago, when the nightstand next to their bed held condoms and massage oil. Now next to the bed medical journals laid stacked under an ovulation kit that measured the hormone levels of his wife’s saliva. Fox watched Whiskey roll onto his back and grin, completely unaware that the world around him was heading south.
“Are you coming to bed?” Fox called down the hall, as he absently scratched Whiskey’s belly. Only the sound of keystrokes answered as he switched off the lamp.
Before dreaming, Fox imagined his wife having a lurid affair over the internet with a man who wouldn’t appreciate her. He saw himself coming home one day to find only the dog and a note from his wife detailing how he never supported her. On that day he would move to Montreal, and begin a new life full of afternoon flings with women who spoke broken English. In that world before sleep, he saw himself visiting museums older than America, drinking tea in French cafés where little girls mouthed, “There is nothing to fear.” He walked the streets of Montreal with the only one who understood him, off his leash. In that world they were unbound.
Down the hall, Fox’s wife Greta was exploring her own dream world, one warmed by the glow of motherhood. At her desk it occurred to her that a voice had called for her several minutes before, but by the time it came to her it was only an echo. Bent over the keyboard she had been too involved to answer. Her struggle against herself was foremost on her mind.
Taking a moment to stare down the hall toward her bedroom, she glanced to see if the light was still on but found only the indigo glow of a muted television flickering in the dark. She made a note to apologize in the morning and posted it to the side of her monitor, the yellow square adding to her solitude.
“If he only knew what it feels like to be broken,” she thought. “If he couldn’t do what he was meant to…” This was a familiar refrain; one she no longer bothered to share.
Her train of thought derailed, Greta slid her hand underneath envelopes holding electric bills and mortgage statements until she found the pencil box she kept hidden. Inside it were three cigarettes. With one in hand she quietly walked down the stairs to find matches before easing out the backdoor of her home. She lit a menthol as she sat in a folding chair on the lawn, and watched the blue glow from the bedroom above her shimmer while she reclined alone with her secret.
Fox believed she had given up smoking a year and a half ago. He also believed that she was happy, and that having a child was a financial decision. When he found her sobbing over baby clothes in department stores, he would frown and tell her how rich they were. That they should be grateful they didn’t live like African refugees or the poverty-stricken families who were advertised by charities. But for Greta, the opinion of a man who couldn’t tell a crib from a cradle offered no comfort.
Staring into the smoke trails that lifted in the breeze, she saw the great progression of her life from a child beauty queen to a Phi Beta Kappa student landing a rewarding asset manager position. She had achieved so much by twenty-eight. Only bearing a child was left to do, and her life would be complete. But her body was against her. She watched her wedding day swirl in the smoke trails above her and disappear in the night.
In the kitchen, she washed her face and hands to remove the scent of mint and tobacco; then she made her way to the bed where the men in her life lay asleep. Under the covers she watched charity ads for third world relief agencies featuring starving women with swaddled children in their arms. She envied them greatly.
Behind the glass of the waiting room’s office, Denise rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and turned the radio to a classical music station. Across from her a young couple sat on plastic furniture whispering to one another.
The young woman struggled to smile and reassured the tired-eyed man sitting next to her, explaining things Denise couldn’t hear. Realizing they were being watched, the young woman turned her attention to a childcare magazine, and her man slumped down in his seat, pulling his baseball cap down over his eyes.
Denise watched as the young man’s feet bounced against the floor like a school boy about to receive a booster shot. She had seen hundreds of men like him pass by the glass in front of her reception desk, and knew that a semen analysis was the closest a man could come to understanding how she felt. Sometimes these men would sit on their hands or pace from one end of the waiting room to the other with naked worry on their faces. Would they be able to perform? Would their count be high enough? Their number was beyond their control. If it was too low, would they still be men?
The young woman signed for the man she introduced as her husband, and Denise led them to a room down the hall with a plastic cup in hand. As the man entered the room dropped-shouldered, Denise smiled faintly at his mate.
“I’m sure everything will be fine,” she said. “These things just take time.”
“We’ve been trying for almost a year,” the young woman said, biting her bottom lip absently.
“Some people struggle for years before it happens. We had a patient last month who got pregnant after six.” Denise began to feel as if she was speaking to the door as much as to the client standing next to her checking her watch.
“You know the worst part?” the young woman asked, her hand pressed against the wall. “I hope it’s his fault. I really hope he is the reason. It sounds terrible, but if it’s him I can find someone else.” Tears inched down her soft cheeks quietly. “I’ve found matches you know, from restaurants we’ve never been to. I’ve still got the matches.” The young woman pulled matchbooks from her purse and held them up for Denise to see. “I still have them.”
Denise took a tissue out of her smock and led the woman back to the waiting room, inside hoping that the husband was the reason as well. She thought about how men don’t have the same aching for children that women do, and she envied them for that.
After a few minutes passed, the young man returned to the waiting room and sat down next to his wife. She whispered questions to him, her hands motioning for details he couldn’t supply as if he could judge the quality of his sample by holding it up to the light. Denise watched quietly as they worked out their positions on where they were together, and when the mood cooled she scheduled a follow up appointment with a polite smile. As the couple walked toward the door, she passed pamphlets to the young woman covering in-vitro fertilization and adoption services.
Denise returned to the room to retrieve the young man’s sample. She walked quickly down the hallway leading to the lab, and hoped no one would stop her to make small-talk since the fresher the sample, the higher the count.
In the lab she thumbed a label onto the plastic cup, and handed it to a lab tech named Damir who had once asked to kiss her. He had asked so earnestly and desperately that Denise was left no chance at offense. She could only stare back in confusion, hands at her side, which for a reason she would never understand made the technician cry.
“You have to know,” Damir had pleaded. “You have to know if I kiss you now, I will be free. I will cross over. I can leave this office and be with another woman. It will break the bond.” He had looked at her as if he had expected something she couldn’t imagine.
Standing in her comfortable shoes, with her simple glasses and her hair pinned back, she must have looked clinical. When the memory comes to her, Denise pictures herself dressed as a nun standing with her back against the sink listening to Damir’s confession as he stammers to make sense.
“My wife,” he continued, “I could never cheat on her. I wouldn’t know how. But I want to be free again. I just have to step across. Then I will know.”
When Damir remembers this moment, on the nights he drinks alone in his car before coming home, he imagines Denise flirting with him. She uses her beauty to torture him. She wanted a child. It was no secret. She would destroy him for a child. In memory he pushes Denise away as she struggles to kiss him, and is proud of himself. He knows he is an honest man.
The kiss never came, and that day in the cramped lab seems as impossibly distant to both of them at this moment in time as their kindergarten graduation or their first word.
“Just one,” Damir asked, as he took the sample from Denise.
“Yes. It’s still warm.”
“Maybe he is a swimmer.”
“I don’t think so,” Denise said. “We haven’t had a swimmer in seven months.”
At thirty years old, Fox felt he was too young for a mid-life crisis. But as he edged the volume of his stereo up as far as he could without causing a migraine, he had to wonder what direction his life was taking. Wearing pajama pants and a Motorhead T-shirt, sitting on the floor of his guestroom unshaven and bored, he felt much the same as he had when he was a thirteen-year-old. The only difference was that instead of his mother, the door to his room shut out the evidence of the woman he had promised to love for the rest of his life. He watched the numbers on the clock tick down to the time when Greta would return, and danced around the room with his arms in the air. His life for the next hour would be on his terms.
The decision had come early in the morning. A scratch in his throat gave birth to the idea that he was dangerously under the weather and shouldn’t show up for work. With his best raw-neck voice he phoned a personnel secretary at the management office where he worked and told her of his plight. Then he began to drink, filling the bathtub with ice cubes and cool water to keep his beer cold as if he were on spring break. Greta had gone to work and to the doctor, moving through the routines that got her what she wanted, leaving him alone to remember the pleasantness of being properly drunk in the afternoon as the rest of the world moved on completely unaware.
He had spent the morning reading yearbooks filled with people he could hardly remember. The pictures were awkward caricatures of youth with hairstyles as outdated as his record collection. He toasted his former classmates, and wondered if he called them at home to ask them what they did with their lives how many would answer with the number of children they had. This only made him drink more, until he shouted at the pages, “Go to Denmark before you die!” or “Steal a car to see how it feels!”
By four in the afternoon, the yearbooks were scattered on the bedroom floor and Fox was considering getting a tattoo of an eagle fighting a tiger. This thought dissolved in a haze as the garage door clattered open. His time was up.
Greta made her way up the stairs to find her husband on the floor next to a stereo blaring incomprehensible British metal. It was not the homecoming she had hoped for.
“You didn’t go to work today?” she asked.
“No,” Fox replied.
“How did you spend your day?”
“Spent, just spent.”
Warm water melted the ice in the bathtub as beer bottles were stacked next to the toilet. Fox gave in and lifted himself off the floor before making his way to get clean, knowing she would want to talk.
“You can’t do this anymore,” Greta said as she watched her husband’s head disappear underneath the water every time she spoke.
“No, you’re not listening. No drinking for the next three days.” Again his head played submarine.
“It was a day for drink. What can I say?”
“No. Three days. You have to give a sample,” Greta said as calmly as she could manage.
“You want my blood?” Fox asked, as he flailed his arm over the side of the tub.
“No,” Greta answered, as she tossed the only dry towel in the bathroom into his bathwater. “Not a blood sample.”
Denise ate frozen yogurt as a calm voice from her television screen catalogued all the species of roses that had disappeared from the planet during the last decade, and wondered if swimmers were quickly becoming extinct as well. A true swimmer hadn’t dropped off a sample at the fertility clinic in months. This shouldn’t have been remarkable since, like scarce varieties of tropical tea roses, they seemed to spring from the most unexpected place then disappear forever, but their absence frustrated Denise all the more. The world was drying up. Swimmers were growing extinct.
The average human sperm count is around one hundred and eighty-million sperm per sample with about half of those active. Most of the men who came to the fertility clinic were either at or below that number. Every now and then though, a man would leave a sample that was extraordinary. A man like that was referred to by the lab techs as a “swimmer.”
A swimmer could have up to four or five million sperm per sample and up to ninety percent of those would be active. Under a microscope his sperm would look like an ant colony on crystal meth. The reason men like these were deemed swimmers, though, had nothing to do with the amount of writhing sperm they left behind.
According to Damir, the term went back to Greg Louganis. Urban legend among lab techs had it that Greg Louganis had donated sperm in the early nineties in California, and that his counts were so high that from the day he left the clinic forward all men with incredible sperm counts would be known as “swimmers.”
When Damir explained the rational for the term to Denise it seemed perfectly reasonable and impossible at the same time. It made sense in that Greg Louganis was a multi-medal winning Olympic athlete. Fitness in the scientific sense is the ability to reproduce. But to Denise medals alone couldn’t be an honest indicator that a man’s Speed-O held the fertility of the Nile Valley. It also bothered her that Greg Louganis was a diver after all, and not a swimmer.
In the end she accepted the myth as truth, just as she had accepted in high school that the “Jumping Jack” was named after Jack Lalanne. Stranger things had happened, and were recreated to shock home audiences every night.
With that taste of sugar bringing on the guilt of an unused gym membership, Denise watched the last Steputis tea rose get crushed under the tracks of a Brazilian logging company’s bulldozer. With the petals of the flower only white flakes on the ground, she turned off her television and returned to the website to update strangers about the status of her womb. It was easier to share her feelings with strangers since, unlike her mother, they didn’t bother her by recommending men who were newly divorced.
On her computer screen she viewed pictures of women older than herself who were entering their third trimester. She scrolled through the photos of sloping mid-sections, and tried to post comments of encouragement. The fact that the women’s age heightened the risk of autism she kept to herself. She had gotten angry messages in the past when she volunteered the sad truths she knew too well. Instead, she wrote about how happy she was for the expectant mothers, and wished that she lived closer to Kansas, or Oregon, or Montana, or wherever else they happened to live. If she only lived closer, she posted, they could meet for coffee or shop for baby clothes together. She had to be excited for the pregnant few as it was too easy to hate them out of spite.
The women who posted all had an advantage Denise wished for desperately. They had men in their lives who could grant them children when the stars in the sky and the hormones in their bloodstreams aligned. Denise had to make do with men she met in dance clubs on the weekend or through online dating services; men who could be married, and posed more danger than promise. It was another regret she would not share with her mother, but a necessary one. To these men she was a body, one they believed to be on birth control. To Denise these men were nameless donors who had yet to succeed in changing her life for the better. The empty yogurt container mocked her efforts to stay beautiful for the nameless men who visited her when the longing became too much to bare.
Before bed, Denise prayed for her body to realign itself in the night. She prayed for the cysts on her ovaries to break loose like kidney stones and roll down her bed sheets. She prayed for the swimmers to return.
Fox surveyed his surroundings as his feelings of hopelessness grew. Sitting on a plastic cushioned couch that reminded him of the furniture in a dorm lobby, he tried to collect himself. Half-awake in the cold room, he had never felt less sexual in his life. He could hear the sound of his wife pacing just outside the door. The plastic cup mocked him.
A clock on the wall counted away the minutes, and he wondered how soon it would be before he could leave. If he left too soon would he be a joke? If he took too long would his wife shrug her shoulders at the pretty nurse who had escorted him to the room, and would they both laugh? He pictured his wife checking her watch and wondering what was taking so long, but what did she expect so early in the morning?
While the secondhand clicked at a water torture pace, Fox took in his surroundings. The walls were drab and unadorned. The floor was tile, for easy cleaning. Paper flowers collected dust on an end table next to the couch in the corner, and nothing seemed meant to inspire the lurid behavior that was required of him. A television set sat quietly on top of an entertainment system with a VCR opposite the couch, next to a door that led to a private bathroom. It was his only hope.
The selection of videos left for him did nothing to inspire confidence. They were outdated tapes of bleach blonde over-tanned women with claw like fingernails and muscle bound middle-aged men groping one another to bad dance music by swimming pools or in cheap office settings. They were tacky familiar fables he was too tired to believe in, and only made him want to run away. But escape was not an option, as it would only lead to days of explaining and arguments he couldn’t hope to win. He would have to perform if he hoped to forget.
In the dim light of the room, he closed his eyes and tried to focus. He pushed the reason for his being there out of his mind along with the presence of the cold plastic cup and the sunburned bodies playing out on the screen. He became a robot, his mind intent on the mechanics of the act as if he was working on his follow-through on the golf course or his swing in a batting cage. He was an athlete and he would win. The crowd of naked bodies disappeared from the screen as he went through the motions he knew so well. He was a winner and he repeated the fact to himself. He would score.
When he had finished, he sealed the cup the way he had been shown and put it by the dead flowers on the table. Then he left the room and walked to the parking lot without saying a word to his wife or the nurse who watched him pass through the waiting room.
In the car, he imagined his wife apologizing for the way he’d behaved. He pictured her signing up for more tests and consultations he would refuse to go to. She had what she wanted, and he hoped that that fact would set him free.
Damir’s wife Irena sat at the table of their condominium reading a gossip magazine. She had brought it home with her from the drugstore where she had gone to get a flu shot. “They gave me the shot for half-price,” she had told her husband. “I said I was pregnant. There is a discount if you are pregnant.” Damir stood in the corner and watched her disappear into the pictures of beautiful people. He saw how careful she was not to crease the pages or tear the corners. She seemed to have forgotten him so quickly. He had walked to the bathroom after dinner, and when he returned she had the magazine and he felt like a memory.
“It is a shame the way these people live,” Irena said.
“What people?” Damir asked, as he worked the cap off of a bottle of cough syrup.
“The ones who get divorced in Hollywood. The rich ones,” Irena said.
Damir put down the cough syrup bottle for a moment and placed his hands on his wife’s shoulders. “Irena, you should come to bed now before I get tired.”
“Do you think I should go on a diet?” Irena asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“This one here,” Irena said, pointing at a picture of a woman with huge sunglasses and a floppy hat, “she went on a diet and lost twenty pounds in one month. Not just water.”
“Do you think a diet would change you?” Damir asked as he drank the cough syrup slowly.
“What do you mean change me?” Irena asked as she closed the magazine on the table top. “I need to change?”
Damir shook his head slowly and drank again from the cough syrup bottle, the thick cherry flavor filling his throat and promising him sleep. “We all look for it,” he said, then walked to the bedroom alone.
Under the sheets of his bed, Damir listened to the blades of an oscillating fan in the corner skittering dust. The cough syrup failed him and again he lay in bed restless. He saw the man he was, growing older by the minute, eroding like a shoreline. He heard the echoes of women from the clinic talking about the children that would come to them, the sound of his wife ordering jewelry from the television in whispers over the phone, and the laughs of waitresses talking about the men who would deliver them happiness. Everyone in search of change.
His mind pulled him awake, backwards in time to a vision of himself smoking cigarettes in a tavern and crashing into the bodies of young women on warm summer nights. In the vision he was an eager university student who was free, powerful because he believed only in passion. The man he was left the tavern alone and walked down the sidewalk as streetlamps shut off overhead. The road ahead of him darkened while he walked toward his future.
Greta folded white undershirts next to a stack of pressed khaki pants, then arranged them on the bedspread by a neat row of rolled up dress socks and folded boxer shorts. She moved a pair of dress shoes and a pair of sneakers next to the suitcase where it sat on the floor, and checked the contents of her husband’s overnight bag to ensure that there was enough toothpaste to get him through the week. If she let Fox pack for himself she knew that he would inevitably end up with eight stained undershirts, a pair of underwear and no socks, so she took it upon herself to ensure that he had everything he would need for his time away. It wasn’t a divorce. It was a pause.
When his things were in order, she loaded his suitcase and leaned it against the bed next to his shoes and jacket. Some men go on fishing trips when the world bears down too heavily on their shoulders. Others leave without any notice and blow through their 401Ks in Las Vegas. She took comfort in the fact that at least she knew where her husband would be staying, and that their bank accounts were all in her name.
With the packing finished, Greta retouched her make-up in the guest bathroom as the sound of a football game rumbled up the stairs. Rosewater perfume wafted in the air from the nape of her neck. She would let him talk about himself. She would give him the time to change his mind.
In the living room, Fox lay on the couch pouting. He had spoken in one-word sentences since they had left the clinic. This was something Greta could almost forgive, as she knew how it felt to be examined, had he made the slightest effort to explain his feelings to her. The results from his semen analysis hadn’t even come in yet, and still he wore a look of violation whenever he turned to face her. He wanted her to know he blamed her, but couldn’t seem to bring himself to say it.
“You have everything you need,” Greta said. “I only ask that you give me a call when you get to the hotel. I’ve made your reservation.”
“Reservations,” Fox answered.
“What do you hope to gain from this? Honestly, I don’t understand how living two miles away for a week is going to bring any enlightenment.”
“I’m not looking for enlightenment. I just want to breathe.” The volume on the television grew louder as the thunder from a football game mixed with the sound of children playing in the street.
“You can breathe here, can’t you? I’m not asking for your soul. I just want you to be there for me. This is something we are doing together.”
“This is the life you want.”
“And what do you want?” Greta asked, as she counted out twenty-dollar bills from her purse and stacked them neatly in an envelope.
“I haven’t decided yet. I haven’t been given the chance.”
“That’s not true and you know it. We’ve talked about this for over a year.”
“Some day you will look back at this and smile.”
Fox raised himself off the couch and took the envelope from Greta’s hand without bothering to count the allowance she had portioned out for his escape.
“Does the hotel allow dogs?”
With that Fox walked up the stairs, carrying Whiskey in his arms. Under his breath he shared secrets with the furry mound, but Greta could only hear the sound of footsteps moving away. “He will have his way,” she thought. “This is only for a week.”
In the living room, Fox placed his hand on Greta’s shoulder and nudged their dog closer to her legs with his foot. He promised to call when he reached his retreat, five minutes away.
When he had left, Greta lit a cigarette in the living room and inhaled the taste of mint leaves and smog. Whiskey had apparently forgotten about his master and was busy chewing his way through a rubber ball. Reclined on the floor, she pondered the dried flowers on her coffee table and accepted the fact that smoking could hamper her fertility. Before the tears came, she blamed Fox’s ridiculousness for endangering the few hopes that remained inside her.
For the majority of the morning, Damir had sat alone on a metal stool in the lab drinking flat soda and considering his options. He had no gift for lying so he imagined himself an actor. When the time came, he would leave his body and play the role just as he had envisioned it. He would watch the production play out with the same casual indifference his wife showed toward her daily soap operas. It was his only hope of success. One must not seem eager for an act as dull and common as procreation, for if one does, it becomes painfully obvious that the physical collision is only desire—the emotion which seemed to distress Americans the most.
The lunch hour came and went. Through the slats of the Venetian blinds at his window, he watched cars leave the clinic parking lot and return. Women who worked in medical records returned with Styrofoam to-go boxes. Men from the geriatrics office upstairs smoked cigarettes by the entrance and drank out of plastic mugs. To work, to lunch, to work, to home; the people that surrounded him each day seemed to have no appreciation for life at all. They had whittled their time down to routines and habits. They were mechanical. He would be mechanical too.
By two-thirty in the afternoon the office was empty. Appointments were rarely made outside of lunch breaks or morning hours that could be counted as half-days off. Alone with the echoes of his shoes falling onto the waxed tile floor, Damir made his way to the waiting room to begin his performance.
He parted his hair on the other side of his brow at a water fountain in the hallway, unbuttoned his shirt collar, and admired himself in the reflection of the faucet head. The beard he had worn since his twenties was gone, revealing pallid gray skin. The eyebrows which had brushed out like worn brooms had been trimmed and dyed. “If my wife could see me now,” he thought, “she would not recognize me.” The face that stared back at him from underneath the water seemed foreign to him as well.
With a casual stride which he modeled after George Clooney, Damir ambled up to the front desk where Denise was listening quietly to Chopin while she mused over a word for revolution with seven letters.
“Denise,” he said. “If you have the time, I would like to speak with you. I have something to show you. I think you will be surprised.”
Denise pulled the ink pen from her mouth, giving up on the crossword puzzle which had frustrated her for the last hour, and walked to meet a man she didn’t recognize in the hall.
When the news came Greta was in the car before the nurse on the other end of the call finished speaking. Through the receiver Greta heard the woman desperately trying to ensure that the results she had related were understood, but Greta was deafened by her dreams. She threw her cell phone onto the backseat of her Navigator and raced down the street ignoring both stop signs and crosswalks. Later, she wouldn’t remember driving to the hotel at all.
Greta fishtailed her car into a fire lane at the side of the hotel, and moved through the lobby trying her best not to shout in ecstasy. Once in the elevator she arranged her auburn hair behind her ears, and smoothed out her dress. The numbers above the door lit up and fell dull as she ascended up toward the executive floor where she had reserved a room for her husband. She prayed that his depression had not lifted; that he was still battling a bogus flu alone.
In the hall Greta removed her shoes before knocking on the door. There was no answer at first, but as she slapped her palms against the door she could hear rumbling inside. Fox answered the door in his underwear with three days worth of stubble showing on his square jaw. His eyes flashed pink in the sunlight seeping through the hallway.
“What are you doing here?” he asked as he opened the door.
“Something wonderful has happened,” Greta answered. “You are wonderful.” With that she made her way inside.
“I am wonderful,” Fox repeated, as he made his way back to the bed to rest.
In the bathroom, Greta touched up her lipstick and searched her purse for a thermometer before discovering that in her haste she had left it at home. She took a deep breath to calm herself as the television in the next room moved from one channel to another. Watching herself pose in the mirror, she casually unbuttoned the top two buttons on her blouses and slid her panties off underneath her dress before walking barefoot across the dirty laundry that littered her way to the bed.
“Fox, I have some wonderful news,” she said, sitting on the sheets which smelled of sweat and Chinese take-out.
“Did you get a promotion?” he asked without taking his eyes of the television.
“Why would you say that?”
“You seem like the kind of person who would get one. Good things always come to you. You are the kind of person who gets what she wants.”
“I didn’t come here to talk about money. I got my test results back today, your test results.” Greta slid closer to her husband on the bed, hoping he would at least drop the remote control.
“Am I dying?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“I fell asleep to the television last night. It was on one of the music channels. When I woke up this morning I found out I had been listening to soft rock all night.”
“The thing is, and I can’t be sure of this, I think I was enjoying it.”
“You need to listen to me,” Greta said as she took the remote control from his hand, “I’m trying to tell you something.”
“I hate soft rock.”
“I’m talking about our future,” Greta said as she turned the television off. “You are amazing.”
“What did the results say about me?”
Greta placed her palms against her husband’s arms and lifted herself to straddle his body. With her eyes fixed down onto his sad child face she said, “You are my husband.”
“Your has-been,” Fox smiled with a sneer.
Greta gave a slight smile as her fingers curled against his arms. “Fox darling, you are so strong.”
Denise could hear water running from the faucet in the bathroom and feared that the bath was dangerously close to overflowing. It was a silly thing to be concerned with given her present circumstances, but as she lay naked on the bed she allowed her mind to wander over the small details that surrounded her. There were pamphlets for local attractions stacked neatly on the nightstand, and a phone book half-visible from the drawer cracked open underneath. Outside the window she could hear the sounds of car stereos and the chirp of crosswalks. The mints which had been carefully arranged on the pillows now lay on the floor by her dress.
As she came back into herself, she allowed her hands to move over the cold flesh of her stomach until they rested beneath her belly button. Rising up on her elbows, she stared at her belly under the tangerine glow cast from the lamp.
Water met water and sounded out peacefully as if there was a stream flowing in the adjoining bathroom. The man she had just laid with was moving underneath that tide from the faucet. With contentment and a little sadness, Denise watched her stomach rise and fall as the water splashed against the floor. A happy song from another language moved through the vent above her head, and she knew the man who sang it would never see her again.
In another lifetime this night would have been impossible to accept. But in this world, Denise made her peace. She had seen his results, and had taken the chance to deliver herself into a new world.
Water flowed underneath the door of the bathroom as Denise dressed to leave. As she walked down the hallway she imagined Damir, still solemn in the warm water, a swimmer.
Photo Source: The Telegraph