How To Remain Safe During A Conversation If You’re Somebody’s Wife - Uncharted

How To Remain Safe During A Conversation If You’re Somebody’s Wife

By Debbie Urbanski

“Don’t leave me home alone today,” she says.

“You’re home alone every day. You work at home,” he points out. His name is Johnny or, more informally, Jon. Hers is Katherine, or Katie, or Kat. They sit in the neutrally decorated living room of their colonial-style house. The most striking aspect of the house is its symmetry.  

“Today is different,” says Katie.

“Tell me what’s different about today?”

“Something is going to happen.”

“Something always happens.”

“Something bad,” she says. He sits upon the gray striped futon, she on the textured taupe couch. Beside the futon are the fireplace tools: a poker, a brush, a shovel, tongs. Beside the couch is a three-drawer end table constructed out of a pale laminate. On top of the end table is a water glass, half full. Katie reaches for the water glass. Her fingertips, when viewed through the clear liquid, look foreign and metamorphic.

“Kat, you’re safe. You’re so safe. Whatever you’re feeling is temporary and I promise it will pass.” Between the couch and the futon is the fireplace. In the fireplace is a compact and appropriate social fire. “Did you forget to take your meds today, honey?” 

“That’s none of your business, Jon.”

“In particular, I’m wondering about your new meds. The pills that might be, in your doctor’s words, agitating.”

“I believe my doctor said energizing.”

“Actually, she said increased hostility and confusion. I was taking notes.” 

“This is a fact I’m experiencing, not a feeling—something bad is going to happen today.”

“Let’s keep our voices low and calm, dear.”

“No!” Katie raises her voice. She thumps the water glass onto the end table without a sip. “What a cliché you are this morning. Oh, the crazy wife, mental illness as individual horror show, medication as genre plot device. Something bad is going to happen here whether I swallow my uncoated white pills or not.” Katie looks around the room which has, during this conversation, become decidedly less familiar. On the cluttered fireplace mantel, an oversized wooden M—for Most? Monsoon? Music? Melody? Museum Beatle?—stands alongside a collection of historical pewter vases and ceramic birds. Neither she nor Jon has ever collected vases or birds. A chalk sign beside the fireplace: GATHER, written in someone else’s cursive. The bird collection includes a red cardinal figurine on a gray branch, a blue jay on a brown branch, and a brown owl on a brown branch. The fire flares, snapping, whenever Katie looks away. She’s stating the obvious when she tells Jon it may be too late: already their house has changed. She lists some of the changes.

“The widening ceilings,” she says. “Plus, the cavernous doorways. Or should I say carnivorous? The photographs of another family on our walls. An increase in rippling.”

“Let’s try the paced breathing exercises together. In for 4, hold for 7, out for 8. Then in for 4 again, hold for 7, out for 8. 4, 7, 8. Ready?”

“As for the other houses on the block, overall, there has been a substantial decrease in emergency egresses.”

Jon removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Should we call Dr. M—?”

“So she can tell me this is all in my head?”

“So she can adjust your medication.” He puts his glasses back on. “I liked you better on the old meds, to be honest.”

“You have a piece of food stuck in your teeth.” The blue skin of a fruit, or maybe it is some other kind of skin, has wedged between his upper right lateral incisor and his upper right canine.

Johnny rubs his tongue vigorously across his front teeth. “Gone?” he asks. 

“Gone,” Katie lies. She changes the position of her legs. A car approaches their house, pauses, sputters off. The sound of the engine fading. 

“We were discussing—” Jon begins.

“You preferred the meds that made me sleep all the time.”

“The ones that made you laugh things off, yes. And sleep.” 

“I don’t have to sleep anymore.”

“How early did you get up today?”

“Irrelevant. Sleep, or medications, or healthy eating, or self-care, or a warm bubble bath are not going to change the reality of our situation. Something bad is going to happen. Or is already happening.”

“You’re starting to repeat yourself, dear.”

“And you’re once again assuming your reality is the correct one and mine never is. Listen, bad things are about to happen all the time, especially now. They’re probably already happening only you aren’t seeing them.”

“What am I supposed to tell you . . .” Jon pulls an index card from his pants pocket, a card he is always supposed to carry with him. He begins to read, using a soothing voice with relaxed vocal cords. “What you’re feeling is scary but not dangerous. This too will pass. Remember this is not your permanent state of being. There is no perfect action, so relax.” He looks up. “Is this helping?

“We need to find a place without closets,” Katie says. 

“A feeling isn’t reality. Focus on your breathing. Breathe with me. Where was I. Okay, your breathing—”

“A room with very few doorways.”

“Are you refusing to practice your breathing?”

“To be precise, less than one doorway. The upstairs bathroom?” 

He returns the index card to his pocket. “You’re sounding crazy, dear.”

“Stop dragging my mental health into this story.”

“It appears to me that your mental health has already overtaken this story.”

“A cliché interpretation,” Katie says, disappointed.

“You’ve said that already.”

”Oh, I’m so real, oh, everything I see in front of me must be real and everything she sees must not be real,” she says.

“Are you pretending to be me?”

“I was pretending to be you.” She looks carefully around the room again, paying closer attention to the walls, which are now a cream color, smudged with gray fingerprints and smelling of antiseptic soap.“We should leave the city immediately. Or we can hide in the basement root cellar. I’m not sure which is the correct decision. Either way we should bring our tent.”

“Our tent?”

“Is there another tent you had in mind?” 

Jon rubs the fingers of his right hand across the skin of his left hand. The skin, particularly around his knuckles, is cracked and dry. “Listen, I’m already late. The Monday management meeting—are you going to be okay? You have Dr. M—’s number.”

“Which is useless.” 

“She wants to help.”

“As she can’t pick up the phone.”

“What are you talking about?” 

“Go ahead. Call her.”

He sighs, dials the psychiatrist. “She’s always picked up the phone,” he says. A minute passes. “She’ll pick up the phone!” Two minutes. Three.

“What a surprise. She’s not picking up,” says Katie. 

“So she’s not at her office this early in the morning. I’ll call her cell.” He taps his phone again and waits. He puts his phone away.

“So she slept in,” he says. “Or she’s sick. She’s with another patient.”

“You have quite the imagination.”

“She’s out running errands.”

“I don’t think we should go outside anymore.”

Jon squats beside the fireplace and uses the poker to shift around the scorched logs. Sparks ascend the chimney. “How exactly do you plan on picking up the kids this afternoon? Thomas at 3, Lila at, what, 4:30?” He is losing patience.

“Something bad is about to happen or is happening,” she says.   

“I did not fucking sign up for this!” An explosion of agitation in his voice. “I’ll get the water and your pills. Then I need to leave. One of us has to work.”

“It’s going to happen.”

Jon stomps into the kitchen. He yanks open drawers, twists on the faucet. In the living room, Katie closes the windows and pulls down the blinds, which are light-blocking. Jon reenters the living room with a fresh glass of water and a tiny orange pill bowl. 

“It’s certainly gotten dark,” he says, setting the orange bowl and the new water glass on the end table.

“Yet again stating the obvious,” she says.

“What would you rather I say?”

“I’m getting very tired of you! I didn’t mean that.” 

“Yeah, well I’m getting—” Jon glances toward the front door. “What’s that?”

She hears the sound outside too. She says, “I don’t hear any sounds.” 

“Listen. Wait—there.” Scraping: nails against wood, wood against glass.

“You’re making things up.”

“Somebody’s out there.”

“Why would there be a sound?”

“Or several people.”

She sits quietly on the textured couch, her hands in her lap. The people in the photographs are staring at her face. “I know,” she says. “Maybe you should go outside and examine the noise.”

“You said I shouldn’t go outside.”

“I changed my mind. I think you should go outside now. That would really prove something. That would really prove me wrong.”

The scraping intensifies. A multitude of scrapings. Footfalls running up and down the driveway. Something with claws prowls across the roof. “God damn those noises. What am I, in your head or something?” Jon stands near the window and taps his phone. “I’m calling the cops.” 

“They won’t answer.”

The police don’t answer.

“I’m checking the local news,” he says.

“I bet we’ll both feel better once the bad thing finishes happening.”

 “Okay, there’s no news.”

“We won’t have to worry anymore that something bad is going to happen.”

“There’s no—”

“It will have happened and then we can move on with our lives, what’s left of our lives.”

Jon throws his phone onto the floor in disgust, walks over to the window, and shoves up the blinds. Somebody (or something) has covered the window glass with a thick layer of organic material like soil or decay. He goes around the room lifting all the blinds. Someone (or something) has done that to every window.

“I’m going outside,” Jon says.

Katie sits very still again with her hands in her lap, her nails digging into her skin, using shallow breaths. Jon moves toward the front door. He moves his hand onto the doorknob.

“Wait,” says Katie. “Don’t.”

His hand jerks back. “You just told me to go outside.”

“I changed my mind again.”

“I won’t be long.” 

“You aren’t coming back.”

“My little drama queen,” he says with emotion and exits through the front door. The wind is blowing things around outside, a storm of grass clippings and plastic patio furniture. Katie locks the door behind him. She does not unlock the door when, an hour later, he pounds on the door asking to be let in. She does not let him back in. He has a key to the front door. He unlocks the door and leaves his key on the foyer table in a wooden bowl. The bowl was supposed to be carved by hand but it’s probably not.

“I’m back,” he says.

“No you’re not,” Katie says. They are standing in the living room again and he is moving across the room toward her acting like the air between them is thick and difficult to walk through. Katie steps backward. “This isn’t you. You aren’t you.”

“Come on. It’s me.”

“Your nose is different, for starters.”

“You’ve known me for how many years?”

“And your eyes—”

“My eyes were never blue.”

“They used to be blue.”

“I knew you were going to say that. My eyes were always this color!”

“What color then?”

“Come on, the color of my eyes.”

“That isn’t even your shirt.”

“What a silly conversation we’re having! I want to show you something outside.”

“Literally, I don’t recognize your shirt.”

“Come on outside with me.”

She takes another step backward. “You were wearing a blue t-shirt when you went outside, and now this.”

His current shirt is short-sleeved, fitted, pearl buttons, patterned with a red wash of discoid cells. He runs his fingernail across the collar of his shirt. “You gave this shirt to me on my birthday,” he says.

“I would never have given you that kind of shirt. Remind me, when is your birthday again?”

“It’s the date of my birthday. The date on my driver’s license. Here. Look. It’s June 13. What a nice shirt. Thank you for the comfortable shirt.”

“I suppose you’re going to try and convince me those are your shoes as well.”

“Conversation time is over. Come outside with me now.”

“You even smell different. You smell fungal. You used to smell like aftershave. Don’t come any closer.”

He steps closer to her. “How would you like me to smell?”

“Like yourself.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He takes another step closer. He takes another step closer to her then reaches around her, she’s against the wall by this point, to pull open one of the front windows. He does not pull the window open far, a few inches, a crack. That’s as far as the window will go anyway. A strong unyielding wind accelerates through the house. The fire flares up, the birds on the mantle are alive and thrashing. They are flapping their ceramic wings frantically while, at the same time, their claws are anchored to the recreations of branches and snowy logs. Jon laughs with delight, his hair a mess. The birds are struggling instead of flying, emitting screeches of frustration.

Katie slams the window shut. She locks the window. The birds quiet, the fire settles down.

“Party pooper,” says Jon, disappointed.

Katie exhales slowly. By the end of her exhalation, she has a plan. Her plan is neither complicated nor all that interesting; she’s going for survival, not flash.

“That was so exciting,” she says.

“Do you like excitement?” says Jon.

She nods.

“Because it’s certainly exciting out there. It’s different but—”

“You’ve convinced me. I’ll come outside with you.” Her plan is to not go outside with him.  

“Great! I mean, that’s so great.”

“But I need you to go first so I know it’s safe.”

He stares at her for a long time. Not at her eyes but at her mouth, her chin. She stares back at his nose, his chin. He must see something solid and trustworthy in her that isn’t there. She will always wonder what he saw.

He nods and walks outside. He waits for her on the front stoop, arms at his side, palms open, in the middle of the wind, grinning in his blood cell shirt. She does not follow him. Instead, she shuts and locks the door. He knocks, politely at first, as if there’s been a mistake. She doesn’t unlock the door. He pounds on the door with his fist, his head. She sits on the comfortable couch in the living room, her hands on her knees. He threatens to kick the door in. He doesn’t kick the door in. Or, rather, he tries and fails. That’s the last thing he says to her.

After that, an absence of voices, of the human sort, at least. The wind throws dirty rhizomes against the covered windows. Thud thud thud. She tosses each collectible into the fire. The birds break into many pieces. Their wings fall off. They tumble off the branches and skitter around the fireplace until she hits them repeatedly with the fire poker so they remain still. Enough, she thinks. She flips the frames to face the wall. The fire sputters out.

It turns out she was right all along. Her therapist had once told her the worry of an event can be worse than the event itself. Jon once told her to solve a problem, you have to imagine a checkbox and what would need to happen to check off the box. Her mother once talked to her about the accumulation of positives, which don’t just happen. Her neighbor told her all solutions have cons and she had to figure out how to deal with the cons. Her other therapist from the skills group said holding onto rage is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. She underlined that particular piece of advice.

“Why are you so angry?” this therapist had asked Katie.

“Maybe I’m just angry,” Katie told him.

“People are angry for a reason,” the therapist said as if she couldn’t be angry unless he understood why.

“Sometimes you have to apologize for what you didn’t do,” her mother once told her.

“I know you have a problem listening to my feelings,” said Jon.

Once, in a dream, her father-in-law, Jon’s father, paid a stranger to take her into a private room and rape her. In the dream, Jon let this happen. He sat in the other room in a folding chair, chatting with his dad, playing gin, waiting.

Oh my, does that little piece of the puzzle not belong here, she wonders. All those people judging her story, does it make narrative sense, are her behaviors warranted, is she crazy or not, did she forget about her children, because they were mentioned previously in her story then oh, look they aren’t mentioned any longer because she struck out any further mentions of them—oh, she wonders, should I have brought up my anger earlier? Is it out of place here toward the end? Is it improper? Is it out of proportion? Can I not be angry for what happened to me in a dream?

No no no no, be a character, she coaches herself softly, gently. Be reasonable. Be descriptive. Make sense. Make sense. Make sense. Indirect light enters the room through the edges of the windows in the narrow space between the blinds and the window casings, sharp rectangular shapes, bright on the blank wall. The fireplace smells of old ash. The surface of the couch is worn. The striped futon has been in the living room for more than a decade. The problem being this futon would not break so she was unable to justify a replacement.

What else, she wonders. On the floor the colorful wool rug sheds like an animal, and there is an occasional knock at the front door. It sounds like someone pretending to be a different person when knocking. Everything is fine. She will not be tricked. The sky is gone. That is a literally true statement. Katie had listened to the pieces of the sky hit the valley of the roof. Only in the evening does she pretend otherwise or else she wouldn’t fall asleep. She sleeps on the floor. When she gets up off the floor, tiny wool hairs cling colorfully to her clothing.

 “The narrative, find the narrative,” she whispers, granted difficult to do when one is by one’s self in the living room with the blinds closed, the windows masked, unable to leave the house, without a sky. Find it anyway. Here’s a hint: it does not look like a golden thread.

About the Author

Debbie Urbanski's stories have been published in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Sun, The Kenyon Review, Nature, Terraform, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, The Best American Experimental Writing, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her writing has also been named notable stories/essays of the year for The Best American Mysteries, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Best American Essays anthologies, as well as being long-listed for the Otherwise Award (formerly the Tiptree Award). Her first novel, What Comes After The End, will be published by Pantheon Books in 2022.

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