by Barry Head
Fantastic for forty-two, Charley marvels, sitting on the edge of the bed watching her peel her sports bra over her auburn torrent of hair. Is this how he looks at her too? When they’re done fucking and she’s getting dressed to come home from her girls’ lunch? Does he lie naked on his back, hands behind his head, taut torso leading to muscled thighs with his goddamned prick, spent, lolling smugly in its pillowed thicket?
Okay, so I’ve lost muscle tone. Okay, so we only do it once every two weeks or so. But we sleep entwined. We’ve got to be touching. Our bodies—the rhythms of our lives are like the two halves of a figure eight, the double sides of a single-sided Möbius strip. I was thinking it was enough, that we were both moving, calm and on schedule, into our middle years. The thrill of the chase traded in for the reliable comfort of the familiar. No dangers. No disappointments. No rejections—more than sufficient. Now it’s a mirage. Damn if those breasts aren’t still sculpted desire!
“You make me self-conscious, honey,” Karla says, stepping out of her sweatpants.
“Don’t be. I like it.”
“What can I say? You’re still an eyeful.”
“For your eyes only. And when you stop staring, I’ll start worrying that you’re roving.”
She walked to him and held his head tenderly up against her belly, the opening move of their ritual that required him to cup her ass cheeks and tickle the pucker in between before tonguing her belly button and giving it a kiss. He played his role, but it hurt. For your eyes only! That she could take advantage of his adoration with such a shameless lie was as ugly as the specter of infidelity.
She tilted up his chin. “Everything okay, hon?”
Another invitation to confront: to open the box and see if the damned cat was dead or alive. But the not knowing meant it could still be breathing. Whereas, whereas…
“I slept badly.”
“You’ve been on the computer for ages and sort of distant for a while. Not like you.”
“Work stuff. Boring.”
“No cyber romance?”
“A joke, I hope.”
“I hope,” she said, giving him a quick kiss. “We’d better hurry. They’ll be here any minute.”
* * *
If it hadn’t been a Thursday—if he hadn’t gone to Office Depot on his lunch break—if his home printer hadn’t run out of color inks—if he’d never bought a printer in the first place—then he wouldn’t have happened to see her car in the parking lot of that infamous no-tell motel. If her ’04 Forester hadn’t been such a distinctive slate blue, he’d probably never have noticed it. If the Mount Holyoke decal hadn’t been in the rear window, his glance might have slid right over it. There was no denying the drumroll of circumstance announcing his arrival at such a catastrophic point. Should he check the license plate or accept the unbelievable coincidence that there were two such cars in town and go on about his day? Of course, he opted to check the plate. As he approached the car, he felt ashamed for entertaining the possibility that somewhere behind the shoddy facade of that sleazy motel, his beloved was being thrust open by another man.
He was doubly ashamed to find himself back at the parking lot the following Thursday, and then the next. Her car was always there. So much for her Thursday lunches with the girls. So, one evening, feeling like he was slipping a banana peel in her path, he casually asked, “How are your Thursday lunches? Still enjoying them?”
“For the most part,” she replied. “There’s a lot of bitching and moaning, mostly about husbands. It gets boring after a while. Especially since I’ve got nothing to contribute to the pity-me party.” She blew him a kiss. “Other than that, we have a lot of laughs.” He felt like a cad. Then like a dupe. Then like a cowardly asshole. But he couldn’t make himself do the obvious.
One day, while sitting in his office, staring out the window and trying to get his mind back on the business of the day, a vague memory of the cat-in-the-box paradox swam into his consciousness. In a college course he’d taken there’d been a discussion of dual realities and how, in a context he couldn’t reconstruct, a cat could be both dead and alive at the same time. After some Googling, he found a rundown on an arcane quantum theory known as “Schrödinger’s Cat.” The gist of it was that if you shut a cat in a steel box along with a mechanism that randomly may or may not kill the cat, then from an observer’s point of view, the cat would be both alive and dead at the same time. Not until the observer opened the box and consigned the cat to one state or the other would the duality of its existence be destroyed
He couldn’t fathom whether the paradox made any sense, but he felt an instant affinity for it. As long as he didn’t open the box by confronting her, she could both be having and not having a Thursday affair. As long as he didn’t open the box, the two realities could coexist, and he was free to believe either one.
The scientifically based duality pleased him; it eased his torment and he embraced it. He abandoned his idea of finding out where the next ladies’ luncheon was taking place and calling Karla on some pretext. If he did, then she wouldn’t be there, but if he didn’t, then she would be there. He gave up cruising through the motel parking lot on Thursdays because if he did, then there her car would be, but if he didn’t, then the car would be somewhere else, parked outside the restaurant where the women were having lunch. Sooner or later, he told himself, the whole thing would blow over and be past history. In fact, two past histories, both of which could then be forgotten.
He shared his revelation with his mates in the chat room he’d found for husbands who think their wives are cheating on them. His insight hadn’t translated well from the feeling to the telling, but all the same, he was surprised at the amount of icy water the usually supportive group flung on the flames of his messianic enthusiasm. One of the kindest kickbacks he got was from sleeplessinseattle, who eased his marital agony by being stoned most of the time. He wrote: “Far-out, man!” But the general consensus could be summed up by kansaskukold’s terse: “Dude: Get help.”
Then, last night, QB2 had signed in. He didn’t turn up often, but when he did, he got a warm welcome. He was both a psychiatrist and a marriage counselor whose wife was carrying on with a younger man. His was a voice of calm and reason—and of an acute pain they could all share.
QB2 singled Charley out. “Can we Skype?”
“Sure,” Charley replied.
“You seem like a reasonable guy,” QB2 began, “and I’d like to offer you a word of caution. But I won’t if you don’t want me to because it will kill your cat.”
Charley was intrigued. “That’s okay, go ahead.”
“The thing is, in the long run, you’re not doing yourself a favor by wrapping yourself up in your feline fantasy.”
“Hey! Schrödinger was a reputable scientist and a Nobel Prize winner.”
“Yes. But when it comes to his cat, there are a couple of things you’re missing.”
“An important part of his paradox was the mechanism in the box that acted randomly. It may or may not activate, and there would be no way to know whether it had until the box is opened. Where’s yours?”
“Er, where’s my what?”
“Your random mechanism.”
Charley tried to find a logical answer, but found his mind in a hall of fun-house mirrors. “Okay. What else am I missing?”
“You’ve gotten off on the wrong foot to begin with. Schrödinger didn’t come up with his paradox to demonstrate how a cat could be both alive and dead at the same time.”
“No. He used it to show to what absurd conclusions erroneous thinking can lead.”
There was a silence.
“Look,” QB2 went on, “I’m telling you this because you have to get your feet under you and find your balance. We all need our balance. We’re going to have to stand up to some pretty high-velocity shit.”
“So what should I do?” Charley finally asked.
“I can’t tell you what you should do,” QB2 said, “but in my case, I’ve decided that tomorrow I’m going to drag this whole thing out into the open. I’m going to confront my wife, and then we’re going to figure out what we’re going to do about it. I should have done it before, but I’m no braver than anyone else.”
On that note, they’d ended. Charley had gone to bed and slept badly.
* * *
For the first time ever, when the doorbell rang, Charley found himself dreading an evening with Annie and Greg. They had been friends forever, godparents to one another’s children and mutual confidantes. They knew each other far too well to be able to dissemble. Charley knew that playing his role as genial host in a happy home was not in the cards. He’d plead work stress, coming down with an ailment…
“My darlings!” Annie said, billowing through the door like a patterned caftan spinnaker. She gave them both a hug at once. “We just had to share the news!”
Karla laughed. “Should we be sitting down?”
“Definitely,” said Greg, handsome, tan, and country club dapper. As always, he seemed content to be swept along in his wife’s slipstream.
“And bracing ourselves with a drink?” Charley suggested.
“Definitely squared, except make Annie’s non-alcoholic,” Greg said.
Drinks in hand and everyone seated, Karla said, “Okay, let’s have it.”
“I’m pregnant,” said Annie.
Annie nodded complacently. “I am.”
Charley looked at Greg disbelievingly. “True,” Greg said.
“How far along are you?” Karla asked.
“Why you sly thing! Holding out on us!”
“I didn’t want to say anything until I knew it was going to be okay. I felt superstitious about it.”
“Greg! You old goat!” Charley said.
Annie shook her head. “He had nothing to do with it.”
There was a shocked silence.
“So whose is it?” Karla asked.
“They never tell you. They don’t want you to know.”
“So you did this through a fertility clinic? But why not Greg?” Karla asked. “He’s still got plenty of GRRRR!”
Charley glared at her and muttered. “How would you know?”
“We didn’t want to have any more children,” Annie said.
“A funny way to go about it,” observed Charley.
“Well, if the baby was Greg’s, we’d have to keep it.”
“But because it’s yours, you don’t?” said Karla. “I need a drink.”
“It’s not mine either.”
“Okay, guys,” Charley said. “So what exactly is going on? Who’s this ‘nobody’s child’ hanging out in Annie’s belly? Just crept in to get out of the cold?”
Greg laughed. “As a matter of fact, that’s pretty close to what happened. It’s like this. There’s this couple—from upstate somewhere—and they’d been trying everything to have a baby. Five years. No luck.”
“Something wrong with her ovulation,” Annie explained. “So they end up buying a batch of eggs.”
“From?” Charley wanted to know. “A farm stand?”
“You do it through doctors,” Greg said. “They’re all in cahoots.”
Karla returned with her drink. “I still don’t understand why you’ve ended up sitting on this egg, Annie.”
“These eggs. I’ve got two in here.”
“Annie!” Karla exclaimed. “Oh my god!”
“So, this couple buys a batch of eggs from a donor who then is out of the picture, maybe off on a cruise somewhere. The donor’s eggs are implanted in the barren wife and the husband does his stuff. Thanks to medical magic, the wife soon has a rug rat hanging onto the walls of her uterus for dear life.”
“Can you believe this, hon?”
“I’m learning to believe anything,” Charley said pointedly. “But Annie, I still don’t get it.”
“Well,” Annie went on, “the non-ovulator’s system is fragile. Three months into her pregnancy, she miscarries. They’ve kept the extra eggs in the freezer, so they thaw out a couple, the husband hoses them down, and off they go to a good foster home.” Annie pointed to her belly. “Ta-da!”
“How come you?” asked Karla.
“She’s had this thing for at least a year now,” explained Greg. “She’s wanted to be pregnant in the worst way, but neither of us wanted more kids.”
“Right!” said Annie. “Hey, we’ve just got Tommy out of the nest—tit rings, tattoos, and all. Were we up for another eighteen-year, ever-loving, wrestling match? Nuh-uh! Greg and I have things we want to do. But something’s been going on in my body. This sweet old machine’s just not ready to quit. In my dreams I’m always pregnant, lying in a hammock, watching my belly swell up with life, feeling my breasts fill with milk… When I wake up, I feel all thin, empty and old. It hurts so bad that I cry!”
“Almost every goddamn morning—sobbing,” said Greg. “Her doctor, who knows about the upstate couple, he comes up with this. Perfect, or what?”
“But twins? Jesus, Annie! At your age?” Karla looked at her aghast.
“The doc says I’ll be fine. Some finale, huh?”
“And the rest of the good news is the couple agreed to up the ante.” said Greg.
“What ante?” asked Charley.
“It’s a paid job,” said Annie. “Ten grand for one, but seventeen thousand for two.”
“That’s $1,900 and change per month or $65 bucks a day,” Charley calculated.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Karla.
“This calls for a refill,” said Charley, getting up to collect the empty glasses.
At the bar, he poured himself a double shot and downed it before filling all the glasses. Cat-out-of-the-bag time, he told himself. Out of Schrödinger’s fucking box, dead or alive. He returned to the group.
“Karla’s got news too,” he said.
“I do?” she asked.
“You can tell them. They’re our best friends.”
“Tell them what, hon?”
“That your hormones have been raging too.”
Karla looked at Annie and Greg, puzzled. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“I’m talking about your Thursday shack ups. At the Silverado motel.”
Karla looked down at her hands, biting her lip, but Charley caught the swift glance that flew between her and Greg.
No, Greg, please not with you! “Thursdays are supposed to be Karla’s ‘lunch with the girls,’” he said. “If I ask her how it went, she makes up something and her buddies cover for her. But she’s isn’t out with her friends, she’s at the Silverado. Her Forester’s there regular as a clock.”
Karla fixed him with a look of bitter disbelief. “If you want to accuse me of fucking someone, you should have done in private.”
“You deny it?”
“I won’t dignify it with a denial.”
“So you don’t deny it.”
Greg made a time-out sign. “Hey, you guys, go easy!”
“Go easy, my ass! I want to hear her deny it! Before God and present company!”
“I don’t want to hear anything more!” said Annie. “Not anything! I can’t bear to hear you two shouting at each other!” She clapped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes, shaking her head violently.
Greg went to stand behind her, placing his hands over her hands. “You’ve gotta stop, guys. She can’t stand this kind of quarreling. It’s her childhood all over again.” Then, holding Annie’s head close to his chest, he said, barely audibly but with exaggerated mouth movements, “Chaz. It’s me. I pick up the car from wherever they’re lunching and drop it back.”
Charley looked at Karla for confirmation. She nodded. “Oh,” he said.
Releasing Annie’s head, Greg leaned over her and gave her a kiss. “It’s okay, sweetie pie. It’s okay. A misunderstanding.” Annie looked at the others uncertainly.
Charley nodded. “We’ll work it out,” he assured her.
“I just can’t stand to hear folks I love shouting at each other,” Annie said, waving as though to disperse a bad smell. “And I can’t bear the thought that something could come between the two of you, of all people.”
“It won’t,” Karla told her. “Will it?” she said sharply to Charley, who shook his head.
“Greg, darling, I really think we should go. They’ve got to talk about this.”
Karla gave Annie a big hug. “Call you tomorrow. Take care of yourself and your paying passengers, hear?”
* * *
“I’m sorry,” Charley says when they’ve gone.
“And so you should be!”
“I am, hon. But what was I supposed to think?”
“Is that what you’d do if you found I was having an affair? Rub my nose in it in front of our friends? Obviously it is. Because you just tried.”
“And if it were the other way around?”
“You—cheating on me?”
“I’ll tell you what I’d do—just what I’m going to do now. In private I’m asking you what’s up cruising gay chat rooms? You got some news of your own?”
“I’m not cruising gay chat rooms!”
“So what’s ‘Men for Men’? Yes, I confess. I went into your computer and checked your browsing history.”
“Whatever happened to trust?”
Karla laughs. “You? Asking me what happened to trust? Yes, whatever did? Tell me.”
“That site is a chat room for men whose wives are cheating on them, and they don’t know what the fuck to do about it.”
A prickly silence descends, which Charley breaks by holding up his empty glass. “Refill?”
“Definitely squared,” Karla says.
When he returns with their glasses, he asks, “So who’s Greg bonking?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t tell,” she answers.
“Do you know?”
“Fee for service. Don’t worry about it. You know how oversexed Greg’s always been. I guess he and Annie couldn’t do it until she’s delivered.”
It’s a friendlier silence this time. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she says.
“How about this?” Charley suggests. “I shut you in a steel box with a mechanism that will make you either cry or laugh. One or the other. From my point of view, you are doing both at the same time—that is, until I open the box.”
She stares at him in total puzzlement. “Huh?” she says.
He returns her look and laughs, saluting her with his drink. “Right,” he agrees.
Barry is a Brit with an M.A. from Oxford in Modern Languages. As a Permanent Resident of the U.S., he has worked as a journalist, writer and editor in a variety of media, publishing fiction and non-fiction along the way. He has co-authored five books, self-published an acclaimed novel for children, and was Writer and Artistic Director of an award-winning television documentary on PBS. Barry now lives and works in Oaxaca, Mexico, where in addition to writing, he pursues an active career as a painter. For more details, he invites you to visit barryhead.com.