Only after my own wedding did I realize the power, the immense power, buried deep in a wedding band — in every single wedding band, that is. I didn’t mean the power of love and affection and eternal devotion; I didn’t mean any such things that, almost by definition, seemed to lie dormant in this shiny little scrap of more or less noble metal, like a sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean, at least from the insufferably sentimental point of view — no, what I meant was the singular power binding every newlywed to the hordes of other married men of all kinds and ages, like the possession of car keys jingling in one’s pocket makes one a part of the larger gasoline-drenched community. I became a part of such a community.
It was nothing short of joining the ranks of some covert organization; it felt like becoming an initiated member of some unnamed sect or other, yet without even having known about it, without even having given one’s consent to it. It was as if this tiny ring, this tiny gilded affair, were a pass — a key even — to the unseen world of strange connections, furtive affiliations, and secret meetings convened in the dark and desolate underground parking lots late at night, if not to the whole sprawling underworld occupied by married men, eluding the unaided and uninitiated eyes of those not bound by marriage vows, just like rows and scuffles among rat exterminators that remain perfectly invisible to anyone unencumbered by the rodent control equipment. It was like that; it was exactly like that.
What was more, I felt as if I suddenly acquired a kind of kinship with all the husbands who had lived over the past centuries. I felt as if — with the help of this ring, of course — I became capable of bending, if not transcending, the boundaries and limitations of time and space. I found myself to be an unwitting comrade and inadvertent companion of an endless file of long-gone emperors, dethroned rulers, and various former great men, all of whom had had their fingers enwrapped, if not finger-cuffed, by such symbolic pieces of shiny metal — just like I did. It was a powerful experience, I couldn’t deny it; it was something no one had told me about beforehand.
But I didn’t notice it straight away; I didn’t realize it until after our return from the honeymoon trip, until I found myself, on my way to work, on a congested subway train, brimful of the people pressing and pushing irritably against one another though without uttering a single word or warning, like the pieces of metal type tightly packed inside an old printing press. It was then that I caught the gaze of a stranger staring at me, over the heads and more or less intentionally disheveled coiffures of other passengers, from the opposite end of the car. He stared directly at me. I averted my eyes, suspecting that it was my mistake; it must have been my mistake. I suspected that I had been eyeing him unknowingly, deep in my newlywed thoughts, and now he was merely reciprocating my attention by eyeing me back, like a grocer who politely hands you a fistful of clinking change after you gave him too much money. But when I glanced at him again, I noticed that he didn’t give up and still kept staring at me unceremoniously, like a ship captain peering into the binoculars through the wrong end. It wasn’t a misunderstanding after all; he wasn’t a pitiful shortsighted wretch glaring at me unconsciously with his unseeing eyes; he was doing it on purpose — there was no doubt about it. He grew even bolder in his gawking, because with time and with the subway stations we had passed in the meantime, he nonchalantly abandoned the vestiges of appearances and shed all the pretense of accidental curiosity, like a veteran actor slipping out of his role. He ceased to play any games; he ceased to mince his gazes, and simply looked at me. He did that just like one who observes an inanimate object that simply can’t raise an objection to all that unwarranted scrutiny and attention. He stared at me as if I were a mere lifeless apple or yesterday’s newspaper with a fish wrapped in it.
I suddenly felt an urge to say something, to tell him a thing or two, if not three for that matter — I was no garage sale sign to be stared at with impunity. I even started inching closer and closer toward his distant corner of the car, undauntedly elbowing my way through the crowd of apathetic commuters hanging from the grab handles and swaying there with the ebullience and liveliness of a gaggle of suit hangers in a closet. However, midway through this gently heaving sea of half-dozing and half-catatonic bodies — all that, apparently, due to the morning caffeine deficiency in their veins — I saw him give me a sign with his chin. Then he did it again. He pointed at something. He evidently signaled something to me, like a fellow driver gesturing that you’re driving with your headlights off late at night.
I followed his gaze, like a private eye tailing a suspect — it led me straight to the wedding band on my hand with which I clutched a grab rail over the head of a desiccated smelly old man.
I looked back at him. He nodded at me confidentially, as if we were sharing a secret, as if I were an accessory to some unnamed crime and he was magnanimously promising me not to tell anyone about it.
Then I would witness in many situations a similarly odd behavior of utter strangers toward me: I would see them nod at me surreptitiously in coffee shops or restaurants; I would catch them winking at me during afternoon strolls with my beautiful, loving wife; I would notice them everywhere, for they seemed to be everywhere, peering at me, nodding at me, as well as gesticulating at me diligently from behind every shrub, from every dark alley, and from every window — as if competing for my attention with my mundane everyday duties — like wooden figures jumping on one on a shooting range. They seemed to be communicating to me their tacit approval of something, of the thing I couldn’t quite grasp at the time.
But it wasn’t all; their interest in me didn’t come down merely to a few movements of their heads or limbs. It wouldn’t have been so bad had it boiled down just to that, to a pantomime of several vague gestures and grimaces. Before long, they began waylaying me on the street and striking up those innocent little conversations with me. At first, they approached me rather shyly, as if uncertain how I might react to this kind of unearned familiarity. In fact, I didn’t react to it; I didn’t react to it at all — I hoped that it would pass of its own accord if I only pretended convincingly enough that I couldn’t notice any of it, if I only made an effort to ignore them, like when one snubs a pesky salesperson. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t that simple. Soon afterward, I found myself being dragged into the most ridiculous and time-consuming discussions wherever I went or intended to go. I would find myself listening to all those strange and peculiar men, in spite of my implied reluctance and the discreet signs that I gave them — the well-mannered person that I was. But nothing worked; nothing seemed to work on those married guys. I felt cornered; I felt trapped, like when you are accosted by a person collecting money for charity when you don’t have a dime on you.
But the worst thing was that I found myself listening to the litanies of their laments over, and grievances against, their wives. That was the worst thing; I was becoming their unwilling confessor and go-to confidant in one. I was becoming a breathing and squirming equivalent of a well into which you throw a coin and which buys you the right to vent all your anger and frustrations, and scream them down its impassive shaft, as if you were cramming them down the throat of some indifferent creature. I was that well now; I was that shaft from then on.
I would hear them impart to me their most intimate and embarrassing marital secrets; I would hear them badmouth and denigrate their wives for their pettiest and tiniest blunders or nuptial transgressions to which — as I saw it — everyone was entitled every now and then, like a flea to a dog. After all, no one is perfect, had never been, and will never be. I would hear them enumerate and reiterate every single one of their spouses’ flaws and shortcomings — every single one; no little imperfection or awkward nuance was safe from them and sacred enough for them; I learned about everything. I knew when and why exactly their life mates refused to fulfill their conjugal duties to them; I knew so many of those overwhelmingly private and personal details that I could easily compile a schedule, or a calendar based on them, if I wanted; I could set every clock and watch in my house by them if I only wished to. I would also hear them joke about their better halves if they discerned on my face any sign telling them that they had gone far, too far even, with the straight trash-talking.
Soon, I couldn’t even go near any bar, any bowling alley, or any place where men might be hanging around, as if I were a drunkard steering clear of distilleries — which, by the way, seemed to please my wife. I couldn’t go there, because whenever I ventured to do that I would instantly be sucked into yet another whirlpool of ferocious whining and complaining, like an earring into a kitchen drain, with all the men demonizing their ladies only to return to them a little later and bow their heads to them obediently. They wouldn’t even let me finish my beer, for there would always appear someone who needed not so much a sympathetic as a sober ear at the other end of the bar. Thus, the only kind of alcohol I would be allowed to taste at the time was the one being served to me in the form of heady vapors breathed out by my slurring and swaying interlocutors. Some of them would even become overfriendly with me — like the big guy in the trucker hat who would often hang his large body on my neck, brush his beard against my cheek, and sob like a little child whom someone has refused a candy.
But what pained me the most was the fact that I didn’t feel that way about my wife — I did not; I simply did not. We were a nice couple, a loving couple, and a perfectly matched couple — in our enamored eyes as well as in the eyes of others. I wouldn’t say a bad word about her even if I were forced to do so by a road roller crawling straight at me — not a single bad word. And what I couldn’t understand was why such men, all those men, who had failed in their attempts to forge working relationships with the women who had fallen for them, decided to turn me into their chum, into their crony — me, of all people — whereas I was unable not only to relate to them, but also to appreciate their motives and dilemmas, like an adamantly healthy person whom the afflictions of the sick leave cold, dreadfully cold. I wasn’t like them; we certainly weren’t cut from the same cloth — in fact, my cloth was impeccably clean and ironed, if not admirably wrinkleless, unlike the fraying one that had been used to make them.
There wasn’t a single thing that I shared with their lot, perhaps, except for that piece of metal blinking at me from my finger, like a road beacon warning drivers of the troubles ahead. Its presence there alone sufficed to make me shudder, and I mean shudder violently.
For this reason, a few days later, early in the morning, I resolved, over a lazily steaming cup of coffee, to take it off, to throw it away, and to get rid of it once and for all. My wife walked into the kitchen and gave me a look — that look.
“I can’t take it,” I said through clenched teeth, still wrestling with the wedding band, trying to remove it even if at the expense of losing a finger. “I can’t bear them staring at me like that.”
“But it’s not for them,” she said mildly. “You’re not wearing it for any of them.”
“I know that,” I assured her hesitantly. “I think that I know that.”
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.