A short story
They ordered it in March but by Easter it still hadn’t arrived. Alise told David to call the company, who said it was on backorder. A few days later she told him to call again. He didn’t want to and this went on for a while, at least twice a week, her pushing and him refusing. What was the point, he’d say. Once there was something to know, they’d know it.
This was the kind of easygoing stance she had found charming when they were in college and newly in love and not sleeping every night on an air mattress they had hauled from the garage. The mattress was as tall as a regular king-size bed and had the feeling of internet porn: vast, rubbery, humiliating. Somewhere on its body was a tiny undiscoverable leak and throughout the night it would exhale a stream of air like a man talking in his sleep.
By the start of the summer, Alise had grown irritated with waking each morning to find herself on the floor of their bedroom, and she demanded a solution. Cancel the order. Get it from somewhere else. Just do something, she instructed.
David, who listened to her edict while curled into the easygoing L-shaped arm of the couch, promised to please her. He had been sneaking into the living room in the middle of the night for weeks now, and though he initially felt guilty about it, mostly he felt a childish satisfaction at getting something back for himself. He had been afraid of what Alise would do if she ever found him there, and hurried every morning to fold and stow the blankets and pad into the kitchen to brew their coffee as if nothing had happened. He was one of those people for whom erasure is a natural impulse, exposure the great belly-slitting fear.
Yet when confronted with the dreaded moment of revelation, he found the reality of it unexpectedly mild. When Alise, waking at three a.m. one night, ventured into the hallway to find him, she shook his shoulder until he roused.
Whu? he mumbled.
You suck, she said, and returned to their sighing rubber mat.
For the rest of the summer she treated him as if he were a hair in her favorite dish, plucking him from sight with swift disgust and disappointment. Explosion is a mercy, David learned, and cold calm the true hard punishment.
And then it was fall, September and October fiddled with the thermostat, November shed its red leaves. David no longer slumped off to the living room, but for a while Alise still woke in the middle of the night, her body refusing to believe in him yet. But she was loyal, and stubborn, and the thought of leaving him hurt more than the pain of standing in place while the world spun around her in dark dizzying fits.
For Christmas, David bought her a caramel-colored camel hair coat he had seen on a mannequin and she bought him a portable espresso maker powered by his car and they stood in front of the tree and took a picture of themselves with Alise’s phone, smiling like businessmen. Then the doorbell rang. They didn’t know their neighbors. Alise wondered if there had been an accident. She told David to answer the door and he loped toward it in a way that was unclear: satirical? playful? begrudging?
On the stoop, a woman dressed in a long-sleeve white top and a white skirt and leggings was holding a blanketed package in her arms. What is that, wine? Alise said.
Here you go, the woman said, and handed David a baby. He took it awkwardly, and the woman arranged his hands to support the head and neck. He bent his knees as if he were carrying something very heavy.
I’m sorry it took so long for your order to arrive, the woman said. I hope it didn’t cause too much inconvenience.
Alise waved away the stock apology, hurrying over to her husband, who hadn’t spoken. He was staring down at the baby. It did not squeeze his finger and although it gazed up into his eyes, Alise knew it could not really see him yet, he was just a well-meaning blob.
I’m sorry about the couch, he said.
Whisper, she whispered.
But when he tried again to apologize, quieter this time, she put her finger to her lips and shushed him. It was not quite forgiveness, but it was close.
The baby yawned and pursed its new mouth. Maybe it was its first yawn. They didn’t know anything about it yet. Then David yawned. Then Alise. They made their way together to the bedroom. Outside it was snowing.