by Blair Hurley
They returned from the dinner as if it were any other evening with people they loved to detest.
Carrie immediately stepped out of her heels and Jack thumbed through the mail on the hall table he hadn’t had time to look at before they’d hurried out for dinner. Now it was late and he was tired. He felt forty. He’d kept checking in this month before his actual birthday. Feeling forty yet? Not yet.
Carrie stretched one long leg after the other and he caught the line of her body in her sleek navy dress out of the corner of his eye, appreciated it.
“Well, that was nice,” she said.
“We made it through, anyway,” Jack said.
She laughed, disappearing ahead of him into the kitchen, going for the fridge. They’d had three courses of shrimp and scallops at the new Mediterranean place but she was always hungry. She joked that she’d been malnourished as a child, and like a stray cat, she’d never learned to self-regulate. “Did you see what she was wearing?” Carrie asked, coming up with a tub of hummus.
He got the carrots. “I was too fixated on what he was wearing. Were those polka dots?”
“Well, she had polka dots too. They matched.” They ate carrots and hummus, leaning over the counter, gazing out onto the low jumble of buildings, the outer ring of Somerville. Boston’s only two towers, the Hancock and the Pru, jutting like upside down fangs in their window. “Don’t you remember, she said she liked to sew ties for him out of her old dress fabric? And when she started talking about her new writing project—”
“Don’t start.” He was laughing, and she grinned up at him, elbows on the counter, delighted with her own wickedness.
“A series of touching aphorisms on faith and how it grows in the human heart,” she said, quoting. “She’s so cozy. Cozy is the word for her. God, I almost lost it.”
“But you can’t. They’d be crushed. You’d lose your only friends from before you met me.”
“I know.” She pursed her rose-pink lips, made a comical effort to contain herself. “I thought you were going to lose it when she started telling you why we shouldn’t get flu shots.”
“Oh my God.” He clasped his temples with both hands, remembering. “Were they really arguing that all vaccines are toxic? Really? How are these people real? I’d heard about them, but I didn’t think they actually existed.”
“Oh, they’re real.”
He caught her by the waist. “How is he your friend again? How are they still your friends?”
She laughed. “We went to Bible camp together. It’s a loyalty thing.”
When they first met, at a party in grad school, she called herself a survivor of religion. She had been raised in a strict evangelical family: girls shouldn’t wear pants strict. Harry Potter is Satanism strict. Summers at Jesus camp sweating and rolling on benches, speaking in tongues. When you felt the Holy Spirit come upon you, you were supposed to grab a buddy, someone who would both witness your being touched by the divine and make sure you didn’t bite off your tongue, and Ben had been hers. In college she broke away from the church, and her family. Now she received a strained phone call twice a year, on Christmas and Easter (not her birthday).
She told him all this shortly upon their meeting because he called himself a recovering Catholic. So too with him the weight of guilt and love mixed in every interaction with his parents. It was only recently, after his last visit home, that he had realized he’d drifted too far away to return.
While he was morose in his discovery, she was fiercely exultant in her new liberation. Now she was wearing a short skirt and making new friends, the kind she never would have made a scant year ago. She was drinking too much and that first night he drove her home. In the car they commiserated over shame and devotion and the fear of hell. Now that they were outside that small dark house of thought, they could laugh at it. She leaned her head on his shoulder and asked him to kiss her, and to make it good. He almost crashed the car satisfying her. She nodded in approval as he re-found the yellow middle line in the road and she wrote her number on the inside of his wrist. On the way home, after dropping her off, he pressed his lips to the place where she had written the damp smudgy numbers, feeling the beat of his own pulse under his skin.
“When he started in on the state of our souls, I thought I was going to start laughing,” he said, coming into the kitchen in his sweatpants. “Can you believe that?”
He was talking to an empty room. She was gone somewhere; he looked around, puzzled for a moment, until she emerged from the den, holding a glass of wine. “Checking my email,” she said.
He repeated what he had said, and her mouth twitched. That was the way she laughed sometimes. “It was a bit much.”
During the dinner he’d watched her face, loving the way he could read her expressions. He could tell she was bursting to say something, to complain, maybe, about what they were putting up with, but she kept her mouth pressed to a thin, smiling line, a friendly barrier. Ben had made a little diagram of forks and knives on the table, outlining the compound for the new chapel. He would be the lead pastor. “I want to show people the message still has relevance. So many people have felt a sickness in society, like there’s something missing in their lives,” he said. His polka-dotted tie dunked in the soup. “But we know what’s missing.”
He hadn’t finished; he’d let them fill in the blank. “God, I’m guessing,” Jack said.
“That’s exactly it,” Ben said. It was impressive, really, how earnest he was. Most people talking in this way would laugh or mock themselves. But Ben never did. Jack had flicked his eyes to Carrie, waiting for her to speak. “Will you have a buddy system for the holy rollers, the way we had?” she asked.
Now he pulled her close to him, pressing his lips to her neck, but she pulled away. “I’m exhausted. Aren’t you?”
“I suppose.” Even that response made him happy somehow. It was good to be tired after a long night out together, to lie in bed on top of each other with their bodies heavy as sacks of grain. “Next weekend let’s not plan anything. Let’s go walking around town, just you and me.”
“Isn’t that a plan?” She wriggled free from his grasp and went into the kitchen. He could hear her pulling out the big wooden cutting board, and then the hard chock-chock of her cutting something. He went to the doorway and leaned in it, watching while she pulled slices of cheese off a block, eating them as fast as she cut them.
“Can you imagine them at home together?” he said. “I’ve never seen them touch. I can just see them sitting on their little doilied couch, watching Billy Graham.”
She kept her head down, chopping a pepper to go with her cheese, the knife tap-tapping.
He didn’t know why he kept talking. Something about her quiet made him nervous. “Can you imagine them fucking? They probably think it’s sinful if you’re enjoying it.”
She was always the one who started it. They’d go to a party, and when a guest irritated her, her eyes would flash at him across the room. New fodder. His favorite part of the evening was driving home afterward, or once they were living together, coming into the foyer, sharing whatever obnoxious, egregious social errors had been made. They were not snobs, they told each other. They were the anti-snobs. They were crusaders for common sense. Enough of this easy tolerance of fratboy humor, of pseudoscience, of political dogma accepted as doctrine. Instead, shake out the rug, beat the dirt out of it.
They played all that way through their courtship, finding movies or books or especially people they found insufferable. Right wing politicians, old white men of the cloth. But also vegans, couples with new babies, people who checked their horoscopes, juice cleansers and paleos and vaccine-deniers. Over time the list of insufferable people grew. Marathoners. People who called other people “bro.” Roller skating couples. Foodies. People who canceled plans because of sports events on television. Sometimes Jack lost track of all the people they had ragged on. But he looked forward to the ritual of the return to their apartment, the removal of shoes, and then what he called the Deconstruction. Both of them laughing, delighted by their own cruelty.
She stopped chopping, letting the knife hover over the board. “I know exactly what they’re like together. They’re like my parents. Once a week, like clockwork, they gave us money for ice cream and to go to the movies. When we all got back, my father would be mowing the lawn or raking leaves or shoveling snow depending on the season, and my mother would be up in bed in her ridiculous floor-length nightgown, crying.”
He was quiet; this was something he hadn’t heard before. They had always laughed at the things her parents said and did, but this seemed too sad.
He said, “Yeesh.”
She said, “Tell me about it,” and kept chopping. He wandered out of the kitchen, looking at the oil painting she had started, an easel on a pile of canvas in the corner. It looked like a tangle of thorny branches emerging from a cold wintry plot of soil — or were they more like flames, twisting and flickering? He never knew what her paintings were of; she said she painted from memory, and wouldn’t explain further. He’d offered to sit for her; something pleased him about the idea of appearing in her art. But she said she never did portraiture.
He went back to the kitchen, planning to say something conciliatory. There was such a thing as crossing a line, after all, and maybe he’d crossed it. He knew these things cut closer for her. Their first Christmas as a married couple, he’d brought her home to his family and attended a Midnight Mass. In the morning, she was not in their cramped little guest room bed. He searched for her everywhere, tiptoeing to keep from waking the sleeping house. She was in fact not anywhere in the house. She was gone. She appeared for breakfast, sunny and helpful with the eggs. She did not talk about how hard the Mass had been to attend, but when you were married you knew these things.
But she was gone again; the board was there, with its soldierly line of sliced peppers; the sink was dripping. He pressed hard on the tap, feeling the hairs rise on his neck. It was like she had become a ghost.
What was so wrong about picking at others in secret, really? It was private; it never got beyond the door of this apartment, that high balcony where they might look out at the city and lean on the railing and howl at all the poor sad bastards so willing to believe in something, anything. He loved seeing the flush in Carrie’s cheeks as she unveiled her latest witticism. Only the old Catholic in him felt a lump of guilt, a slight tinge of dirtiness, when they imagined what other people looked like naked, or what their darkest, most tawdry secrets were when he lay in bed after their quick, vicious lovemaking.
She was his wild cruel girl. It was exciting to be around her, in collusion with her bright scornful view of the world.
On the way to dinner, Jack and Carrie had passed a billboard saying LUST WILL DRAG YOU DOWN TO HELL in giant, unadorned capital letters. Jack had mentioned it over the table as evidence of the religious fundamentalism that existed, that was thriving, in fact, right outside the city limits. “Can you believe it?” he’d asked. “I mean, come on, getting proselytized on a state highway. Jesus Christ.”
“I think he’s central to the issue, actually,” Carrie had said, and they’d both laughed. Ben lowered his head shyly and Betsy’s mouth compressed to a thin line.
“I’m sure it was meant well,” she said. “There’s a real concern out there, about the morality in this country.”
“I’m not saying everyone has to believe it,” Ben said. “Not in a literal sense. But doesn’t it make us all think a little harder about the choices we’re making? Maybe we’re not going to hell. But maybe there’s a hell of our own making.”
Carrie had made a small, strangled sound then. It was small but he heard it, and he wanted to grab her hand under the table.
Ben cleared his throat. “I worry sometimes, about the state of our souls,” he said. “There’s a lot of deceiving that we do. There are too many ways we’re deceiving ourselves.”
Wasn’t it just so condescending, Jack thought. And to safely wrap the condemnation into a ‘we.’ Just us godless heathens. He looked over at Carrie. And there was a look on her face. Something like fear. A fine trembling in her lips that only someone very close, only a husband, could see. It went across her face like a small troubled wave and then it was gone.
“We all do, honey,” said Betsy. “But there’s always time to put ourselves right.” Then the dessert arrived.
He went into the den, saying, “I hope you don’t take Ben too seriously—“ But she wasn’t there. He turned in a circle, his bewilderment growing: it was like she had learned a new trick, this disappearing act.
He came into the front room and there she was out on the balcony, a slim shadow pressed to the railing, her face turned to the city night.
He knocked on the glass door. She looked so lonely there that he wanted to grab her in his arms, but there was something inviolable about her privacy. It had always been this way. When she was alone, he was afraid to touch her, lest he create a panic, lest she hurt herself in her attempts to get away. She could be like a wounded deer.
But she was his wife. He touched her shoulder and she didn’t turn. “You’re thinking about what Ben said,” he ventured.
That made her turn. “What?”
“That snide little comment about how he worries about our souls. What an ass.” He tried to find her hand; she had them tucked under her arms.
It was cool and windy on their high perch. He knew she was cold and she would like his big warm body surrounding hers. But for some reason, he couldn’t move to wrap himself around her.
“He wasn’t worried about your soul,” she said finally. “You don’t have a soul. He was worried about mine.”
He drew back. He’d never heard her say that, so flat and blank and calm. She was looking out at the city and seemed hardly concerned by his presence at all.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
“You don’t believe in that sort of thing.”
“And you do?”
“I used to.”
“Not in the same way. And that will never leave me. I’ll always have a soul. I can poison it. I can starve it. I can pretend it’s not there. But it will never leave me.” She delivered this with a sad triumph.
He left the balcony, returned to the tight little galley kitchen, and poured himself a full brimming glass of gin. She was right, he supposed. But she had never said it this way. It sounded like she was realizing it herself.
He drank the gin slowly but steadily, looking around at the pictures on wall shelves, the bowl with its browning bananas. The air smelled of ripeness, fleshy and too sweet.
The first time he came home from college, his large family all came to the train station and greeted him exuberantly, full of questions and gossip and indignities. That morning was Sunday and everybody packed off to Mass, but he had to break away from the family for confession before he could take communion. “Haven’t you been confessing at college?” his mother asked, and then it was embarrassing, because he had to admit he hadn’t been going. He’d gone once at the very beginning of the semester, walking over a mile away to Our Lady of Sorrows, but the priests there spoke Portuguese better than English and didn’t understand when he confessed to onanism or avarice, and so he had not returned.
His mother was disappointed. But she let him go and confess now, to the priest who had heard all his sins since he was a small boy, and then he could take Communion, but the wafer tasted like ash in his mouth.
When he went back to college, he did not go back to Mass, and he did not miss it, either. He gave a little relieved shrug and shivered it off, like he had finally been caught in a long-held lie, and now it was gone.
Carrie had said once, I’ll never speak to my family with the same language again.
He went into the den, weaving just a little now. The latest painting was up on its easel, staring at him. There were eyes in the trees looking out that he had never noticed before. Lovely and blue.
On the desk, her phone glowed with a new message. At this hour? Then he knew it would be from Ben. He could pick up the phone right now and confirm it. She was such a private person, and he respected her privacy absolutely. She knew it. She didn’t password protect anything. What would Ben be saying to her? He was worried about the state of their souls. Jack and Betsy deserve to know the truth. Nostra culpa. If you don’t tell him, I will. All he had to do was go over there, and read it.
He thought, you’ve got it all wrong, Ben. I don’t have a soul. All you have to do is prevent pain.
He came out of the den in time to see her climbing the balcony railing. He remembered hearing the glass he was holding smash somewhere behind him as he ran down the hall. Then his arms were around her middle and he was holding her. Nothing else was preventing her fall. Nothing but his arms around her.
They didn’t say anything. They were silent in the rushing air around them, the windy elevation a presence, helping to hold them up.
© Blair Hurley, 2019
Blair Hurley has an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University and an M.F.A. from NYU’s Program in Fiction. Short stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, West Branch, Ninth Letter, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. Blair’s West Branch story won a 2018 Pushcart Prize, and she is the recipient of fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, and Vermont Studio Center. Her debut novel, The Devoted, was published by W.W. Norton in August 2018.
Your Instagram was read by Rudi Utter on June 5th, 2019 for Freedom & Restraint.