Dear Wife – Kimberly Belle

  1. I hit my blinker and merge onto the Muskogee Turnpike, and for the first time in seven long years, I take a breath. A real, full-body breath that blows up my lungs like a beach ball. So much breath that it burns. It tastes like freedom. Four hours on the road, two hundred and eighty-three miles of space between us, and it’s nowhere near enough. I still hear the clink of your keys when you toss them on the table, still tense at the thud of your shoes when you come closer to the kitchen. Still feel the fear slithering, snake-like, just under the surface of my skin. You have three moods lately: offensive, enraged or violent. That moment when you come around that corner and I see which one it is always inches bile up my throat. It’s the worst part of my day. I tell myself, no more. No more tiptoeing around your temper, no more dodging your blows. Those days, like Arkansas, are in my rearview mirror. For early afternoon on a Wednesday, the highway is busy, dusty semis rumbling by on both sides, and I hold my hands at ten and two and keep the tires between the lines. Oklahoma is crisscrossed with turnpikes like this one, four-lane highways dotted with cameras for speeding and toll violations.

    It’s too soon still for one of them to be clocking every black sedan with Arkansas plates that whizzes by, but I’m also not giving them any reason to. I use my blinkers and hold my speed well under the limit, even though what I’d really like to do is haul ass. I hit the button for the windows, letting the highway air wash away the smell of you, of home. At sixty-four miles an hour, the wind is brutal, hot and steamy and oppressive. It reeks of pasture and exhaust, of nature and chemicals, none of it pleasant. It whips up a whirlwind in the car, blowing my hair and my clothes and the map on the passenger’s seat, rocking it in the air like a paper plane. I reach down, shimmy out of a shoe and smack it to the seat as a paperweight. You’re serious about holding on to me, which means I need to hold on to that map. It may be old-school, but at least a map can’t be traced. Not that you’d have already discovered the number for the burner phone charging in the cup holder, but still. Better to not take any chances. I took the phone out of the package but haven’t powered it up—not yet. Not until I get where I’m going. I haven’t made it this far into my new life only to be hauled back into the old one. So far, this state looks exactly like the one I left behind—fields and farms and endless belts of faded asphalt.

    Sounds the same, too. Local radio stations offer one of two choices, country music or preachers. I listen to a deep voice glorifying the power of forgiveness, but it’s a subject I can no longer get behind. I toggle up the dial, stopping on a Miranda Lambert anthem that’s much more my speed these days—gunpowder and lead—and give a hard twist to the volume dial. For the record, I never wanted this. Running away. Leaving everything and everyone behind. I try not to think about all the things I’ll miss, all the faces I’ll miss, even if they won’t miss mine. Part of the planning was putting some space between me and people I love most, not letting them in on the truth. It’s the one thing I can’t blame you for—the way I drove a wedge into those friendships all by myself so you wouldn’t go after them, too. There’s only one person who knows I’m gone, and everyone else… It’ll be days, maybe weeks until they wonder where I am. You’re smart, so I have to be smarter. Cunning, so I have to be more cunning. Not exactly a skill I possessed when we walked down the aisle all those years ago, when I was so squishy in love. I looked into those eyes of yours and promised till death would we part, and I meant every word.

    Divorce was never an option—until it was. But the first time I mentioned the word, you shoved me to the floor, jammed a gun into my mouth and dared me to say it again. Divorce. Divorce divorce divorce divorce. I never said the word out loud again, though I will admit it’s been an awful lot on my mind. I picture you walking through the door at home, looking for me. I see you going from room to room, hollering and cursing and finally, calling my cell. I see you following its muffled rings into the kitchen, scowling when you realize they’re coming from the cabinet under the sink. I see you wrenching open the doors and dumping out the trash and digging through sludgy coffee grounds and the remains of last night’s stir-fry until you find my old iPhone, and I smile. I smile so damn hard my cheeks try to tear in two. I wasn’t always this vindictive, but you weren’t always this mean. When we met, you were charming, warming up my car on cold mornings or grilling up the most perfect strip steak for my birthday. You can still be sweet and charming when you want to be. You’re like the cocaine they slip the dogs that patrol the cars at the border; you gave me just enough of what I craved to keep me searching for more. That’s part of what took me so long to leave.

    The other part was the gun. So no, I didn’t want to do this, but I did plan for it. Oh, how I planned for this day. My first day of freedom. JEFFREY When I pull into the driveway after four days on the road, I spot three things all at once. First, the garbage bins are helter-skelter in front of the garage door two days after pickup, rather than where they belong, lined up neatly along the inside right wall. The living room curtains are drawn against the last of the afternoon light, which means they’ve probably been like that since last night, or maybe all the nights I’ve been gone. And despite the low-lying sun, the porch lights are on— correction: one of them is on. The left-side bulb is dead, its glass smoky and dark, making it seem like the people who live here couldn’t be bothered with changing it, which is inaccurate. Only one of us couldn’t be bothered, and her name is Sabine. I stop. Shake it off. No more complaining—it’s a promise I’ve made to myself. No more fighting. I grab my suitcase from the trunk and head inside.

    “Sabine?” I stand completely still, listening for sounds upstairs. A shower, a hair dryer, music or TV, but there’s nothing. Only silence. I toss my keys on the table next to a pile of mail three inches thick. “Sabine, you here?” I head farther into the house. I think back to our phone conversation earlier this morning, trying to recall if she told me she’d be home late. Even on the best days, her schedule is a moving target, and Sabine doesn’t always remember to update our shared calendar. She’d prattled on for ten endless minutes about the open house she’d just held for her latest listing, some newly constructed monstrosity on the north side of town. She went on and on about the generous millwork and slate-tile roof, the pocket doors and oak-plank flooring and a whole bunch of other features I couldn’t give a crap about because I was rushing through the Atlanta airport to make a tight connection, and it’s quite possible that by then I wasn’t really listening. Sabine’s rambling is something I found adorable when we first started dating, but lately sparks an urge to chuck my phone into the Arkansas River, just to cut off one of her eternal, run-on sentences. When I got to my gate and saw my plane was already boarding, I hung up. I peek out the window into the garage. Sabine’s black Mercedes isn’t there. Looks like I beat her home. I head into the kitchen, which is a disaster.

    A pile of dirty dishes crawling up the sink and onto the countertop. A week’s worth of newspapers spread across the table like a card trick. Dead, drooping roses marinating in a vase of murky green water. Sabine knows how much I hate coming home to a dirty kitchen. I pick up this morning’s cereal bowl, where the dregs of her breakfast have fused to the porcelain like nuclear waste, putrefied and solid. I fill it with water at the sink and fume. The trash bins, the kitchen, not leaving me a note telling me where she is—it’s all punishment for something. Sabine’s passive-aggressive way of telling me she’s still pissed. I don’t even remember what we were arguing about. Something trivial, probably, like all the arguments seem to be these days. Crumbs on the couch, hairs in the drain, who forgot to pick up the dry cleaning or drank the last of the orange juice. Stupid stuff. Shit that shouldn’t matter, but in that hot, quicksilver moment, somehow always does. I slide my cell phone from my pocket and scroll through our messages, dispatches of a mundane married life. Did you remember to pay the light bill? The microwave is on the fritz again.

    I’m placing an order for office supplies, need anything? I land on the last one to me and bingo, it’s the message I’m looking for. Showing tonight. Be home by 9. I spend the next half hour righting Sabine’s mess. What doesn’t go into the dishwasher I pitch in the trash, then toss the bags into the garbage bins I line up. And then I haul my suitcase upstairs. The bed is unmade, Sabine’s side of the closet a pigsty. I try to ignore the chaos she left everywhere: kicked-off shoes and shirts with inside-out sleeves, shoved on lopsided hangers. Nothing like the neat, exacting lines on my side. How difficult is it to put things back where they belong? To line the clothes up by color? Ten minutes later I’m in shorts and a T-shirt, sneakers pounding up the path in an angry sprint west along the river. The truth is, I am perfectly aware I’m not the easiest person to live with. Sabine has told me more times than I’d care to admit. I can’t help that I like things the way I like them—the cars washed, the house clean, dinner hot and waiting when I get home from work. Sabine is a great cook when she wants to be, when her job isn’t sucking up most of her day, which lately seems like all the time. I can’t remember the last night I came home to one of her home-cooked meals, the ones that take all day to prepare.

    Once upon a time, she would serve them to me in an apron and nothing else. I’ve spent a lot of hours thinking about how to bring us back to the way we used to be. Easy. Sexy. Surprising. Before my job dead-ended at a human resources company that sells buggy, overpriced software nobody wants to buy. Before Sabine got her broker’s license, which I used to laugh off as a hobby. Now, on a good month, her salary is more than double mine. I’d tell her to quit, but honestly, we’ve gotten used to the money. It’s like moving into a house with extra closet space—you always use it up. In our case, the money made us cocky, and we sank far too much of it into our house, a split-level eyesore with too-tiny windows and crumbling siding. The inside was even worse. Cheap paneling and shaggy carpet on the floors, climbing the walls, creeping up the staircase. “You have got to be shitting me,” I said as she led me through the cramped, musty rooms. It looked like a seventies porn set.

    It looked like the destitute version of Hugh Hefner would be coming around the corner in his tattered bathrobe any second. No way were we going to live here. But then she took me to the back porch and I got a load of the view, a sweeping panorama of the Arkansas River. She’d already done the math: a thirty-year mortgage based on the estimated value after a head-to-toe renovation, an amount that made my eyes bulge. We bought it on the spot. So now we’re proud owners of a beautiful Craftsman-style bungalow on the river, even though as children of Pine Bluff, a working-class town wedged between farms and factories, we should have known better. The house is on the wrong side of town, a castle compared to the split-level shacks on either side of the street, and no renovation, no matter how extensive, could change the fact that there aren’t many people in town who can afford to buy the thing. Not that we’ll ever be able to sell. Our house doesn’t just overlook the river, it is on the river, the ropy currents so close they swell up the back steps every time there’s a sudden rain. But the point is, Sabine’s job, which began as a fun little way to provide some extra income, is now a necessity. My cell phone buzzes against my hip, and I slow to a stop on the trail. I check the screen, and my gut burns with irritation when I see it’s not Sabine but her sister. I pick up, my breath coming in sharp, sweat-humid puffs. “Hello, Ingrid.” My greeting is cool and formal, because my relationship with Ingrid is cool and formal.

    All those things I admire about my wife—her golden chestnut hair, her thin thighs and tiny waist, the way her skin smells of vanilla and sugar—are glaring deficiencies in her twin. Ingrid is shorter, sturdier, less polished. The wallflower to Sabine’s prom queen. The heifer to her blue-ribbon cow. Ingrid has never resented Sabine for being the prettier sister, but she sure as hell blames the rest of us for noticing. “I’m trying to reach Sabine,” Ingrid says, her Midwestern twang testy with hurry. “Have you talked to her today?” A speedboat roars by on the river, and I wait for it to pass. “I’m fine, Ingrid, thank you. And yes, though it was a quick conversation because I’ve been in Florida all week for a conference. I just got home, and she’s got a showing. Have you tried her cell?” Ingrid makes a sound low in her throat, the kind of sound that comes right before an eye roll. “Of course I’ve tried her cell, at least a million times. When’s the last time you talked to her?” “About an hour ago.” The lie is instant and automatic. Ingrid might already know I hung up on her sister this morning and she might not, but one thing is certain: she’s not going to hear it from me.

    “Sabine said she’d be home by nine, so you might want to try her then. Either way, I’ll make sure to tell her you called.” And with that I hit End, dial up the music on my headphones to deafening and take off running into the setting sun. BETH The District at River Bend is an uninspired apartment community on the banks of Tulsa’s Arkansas River, the kind that’s generically appealing and instantly familiar. Tan stone, beige siding, indistinguishable buildings of three and four stories clustered around an amoeba-shaped pool. There are a million complexes like it, in a million cities and towns across America, which is exactly why I chose this one. I pull into an empty spot by the main building, grab my bag—along with the clothes on my back, my only earthly possessions—and head to the door. People barely out of college are scattered around the massive indoor space, clutching paper coffee cups or ticking away on their MacBooks. Everybody ignores me, which is an unexpected but welcome development. I make a mental note that a complex like this one would be a good place to hide. In the land of self-absorbed millennials, anybody over thirty might as well be invisible. I spot a sign for the leasing office and head down the hallway. The woman perched behind the sleek glass desk is one of them. Young. Blonde.

    Pretty. The kind with a carefully curated Instagram feed of duck-face selfies and hand-on-hip glamour shots. I pause at the edge of her desk, and she looks up with a blinding smile. “Hi, there. Are you looking for a home in the premier apartment community in Tulsa? Because if so, you’ve come to the right place.” Good Lord. Her Midwestern drawl, her Kardashian whine, her unnaturally white teeth. This girl can’t be for real. “Um, right. So I was looking at the one-bedroom units on your website and—” “Omigosh! Then this is your lucky day. I literally just learned there’s a Vogue unit available starting next week. How does eight hundred square feet and a balcony overlooking the pool sound?” I hike my bag higher on a shoulder. “Sounds great, but I was hoping to find something that’s available a little sooner.” “Like, how much sooner?” “Like, immediately.” Her collegiate smile falls off her face.

    “Oh. Well, I have a couple of one-bedroom units available now, but they’re all smaller, and they don’t offer that same stunning view.” I shrug. “I’m okay with that.” She motions to one of the upholstered chairs behind me. “Then have a seat, and I’ll see about getting you into one of our Alpha units. When were you thinking of moving in?” I sink onto the chair, dragging my bag into my lap. “Today, if possible.” Her eyes go wide, and she shakes her head. “It’s not. Possible, I mean. The application process takes a good twenty-four hours, at least.” My heart gives an ominous thud. “Application process?” I know about the application process. I’ve already scoured the website, and know exactly what it takes to get into this place.

    I also know that this is where things can get sticky. The woman nods. “I’ll need two month’s worth of pay stubs, either that or proof of salary on your bank statements, a government-issued ID like a driver’s license or passport, and your social security number. The background check is pretty standard, but it takes a day or two depending on what time of day I submit.” I have all the items she requested, right here in an envelope in my bag, but as soon as this woman plugs them into her computer, one little click of her mouse will propel all my information into the ether. Background checks mean paper trails, clues, visibility. Once you spot me in the system, and you will, I’ll have only a few precious hours before you show up here, looking for me. She checks the time on her cell. “If we hurry, I could get everything through the system by close of business tomorrow.” By then I’ll be long gone. I push the envelope across the desk. “Then let’s hurry. I start my new job in two days, and I’d really like to be settled before then.” She flips through the packet of papers. Her fingers pause on my bank statement, and the air in the room thickens into a soupy sludge.

    Apartment complexes require a minimum salary of three times the rent, which is why I added a couple of zeros to that statement in lieu of proof of salary. Part of the preparations for Day One included learning Photoshop. It’s not the amount she’s focused on, but my former address. “Arkansas, huh? So what brings you to town?” I relax in the chair. “I got a job at QuikTrip.” It’s a lie, but judging by the way her face brightens, she buys it. “A friend of mine works there. She loves it. Great benefits. Way better than this place, though if you ever repeat that I’ll deny ever saying it.” She grins like we’re in on the same joke, and so do I. I gesture to the packet in her hand. “I don’t have pay stubs yet, which is why I’ve included a copy of my contract.” Forged, but still. It looks real enough.

    As long as her friend doesn’t work in human resources, nobody but me and the Pine Bluff Public Library printer will ever know it’s a fake. I give her time to flip through the rest of the documents, which are real. My real driver’s license. My real social security number. My real address—scratch that, former address. This entire plan rests on her accepting the papers in her hands, on me laying this decoy trail, then disappearing. She looks up with a wide smile. “It’s not often that I get a prospective tenant with a record this spotless. Unless the system catches something I’ve missed, this is going to be a piece of cake.” I can’t tell if her words are a question or a warning. I smile like I assume they’re neither. She drops the papers on her desk and reaches for the mouse. “Let’s get you in the system, then, why don’t we?” You and I met at a McDonald’s, under the haze of deep-fried potatoes and a brain-splitting migraine. The headache is what lured me there, actually, what gave my body a desperate craving for a Happy Meal. A magical, medicinal combination of starch and salt and fructose that works better than any pill I’ve ever poked down, the only thing that will loosen the vise clamping down on my skull and settle my churning stomach.

    But good, so there I sat in my sunglasses, nibbling french fries while tiny monsters pounded nail after nail into my brain, when you leaned into the space between our tables. “What’d you get?” I didn’t respond. Speaking was excruciating and besides, I had no clue what you were talking about. You pointed to the box by my elbow. “Don’t those things come with a toy? What is it?” I pushed my sunglasses onto my head and peered inside. “It’s a plastic yellow car.” I pulled it out and showed it to you. “That’s a Hot Wheels.” I settled it on the edge of my tray. “A what?” “Pretty sure that one’s a Dodge Charger. Every boy on the planet has had a Hot Wheels at some point in their lives. My nephew has about a billion of them.” You were distractingly gorgeous, the kind of gorgeous that didn’t belong in a fast-food joint, chatting up a stranger about kids and their toys. Tall and dark and broad-boned, with thick lashes and a strong, square chin. Italian, I remember thinking, or maybe Greek, some long-lost relative with stubborn genes.

    I held the car across the aisle. “Take it. Give it to your nephew.” Your lips sneaked into a smile, and maybe it was the carbs finally hitting my bloodstream, but you aimed it at me that day, and the pain lifted just a little. Three days later, I was in love. So now, when I push through the glass door to the restaurant, I am of course thinking of you. Different state, different McDonald’s, but still. It feels fitting, almost poetic. You and I ending in the same spot we began. The smell hits me, french fries and sizzling meat, and it prompts a wave of nausea, a faint throbbing somewhere deep in my skull, even though I haven’t had a migraine in months. I guess it’s true what they say, that scent is the greatest memory trigger, so I shouldn’t be surprised that one whiff of McDonald’s can summon the beginnings of a migraine. I swallow a preventative Excedrin with a bottle of water I purchase at the register. For a fast-food restaurant at the mouth of a major interstate, the place is pretty deserted. I weave through the mostly empty tables, taking note of the customers scattered around the dining area. A mother flipping through a magazine while her kids pelt each other with chicken nuggets, a pimply teenager watching a YouTube video on his phone, an elderly couple slurping brown sludge up their straws.

    Not one of them looks up as I pass. I select a table by the window with a view of the parking lot. A row of pickup trucks glitter in the late afternoon sun, competing for most obnoxious. Supersized tires with spit-shined rims, roll bars and gun racks, wavy flag decals on the rear window. People of God, guns and Trump, according to the bumper stickers, a common Midwestern stereotype that I’ve found to be one hundred percent true. Another stereotype: the lone woman in sunglasses, sitting at a fast-food restaurant with no food is up to no good. I consider buying a dollar meal as cover, but I’m too nervous to eat. I check my watch and try not to fidget. Three minutes to five. This Nick guy better not be late. He is a crucial part of my plan, and I don’t have time to wait around. You’ll be getting home from work in an hour. You’ll walk through the door and expect to find me in the kitchen, waiting for you with dinner, with the endless fetching of newspapers and remote controls and beer, with sex—though whether your desire will be fueled by passion or fury is always a toss-up. The thought makes me hot and twitchy, my muscles itching with an immediate, intense need to race to my car and flee. An hour from now, a couple hundred miles from here, you’ll be looking for me.

    “How will I know you?” I asked Nick two days ago during our one and only phone call, made from the customer service phone at Walmart, after I lied and said my car battery was dead. Nick and I have never actually met. We’ve not exchanged photographs or even the most basic of physical descriptions. I didn’t know he existed until a week ago. Nick laughed. “What do you suggest I do, carry a rose between my teeth? Don’t worry. You’ll know me.”

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Updated: 20 May 2020 — 23:13

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