Those living in the six-hundred block of Sidewinder Lane were overexposed; at least whereas it pertained to the personal affairs of a particular couple living there. The Feldman’s drove a chestnut colored sedan, owned a poodle named Sherman, and raised two children who were presently away at college. Two people as ordinary as paper, except that each subscribed to the school of thinking that the louder of two points most often prevailed. It happened during the spring and fall of the year when windows were thrown wide open and voices carried. Primarily their disagreements revolved around toothpaste etiquette, missed trash days, and the like. Pretty average, if not boring, fare, I decided. But all of that changed one Saturday afternoon in late September when the dissemination of information spilled into the street like poison.
“Yes, she’s an attractive woman, Margaret, but the world is full of attractive women. In fact, many years ago, you used to be….”
In an attempt to cut off his words, I sincerely hoped Mr. Feldman swallowed his tongue. Even then, I wasn’t convinced a medical emergency could save him.
“Used to be what, Harold?” She screeched. “Attractive? Enough for you? I’ll tell you one thing I refuse to be—that’s naïve!”
I’d just finished raking leaves when their words turned sideways. Without question, the proper response would have been for me to return indoors, but knowing the correct course of action and executing it are two different matters altogether. For two full years, I had endured every minor quibble. Now, having stumbled upon it, I felt entitled to a serving of meat and potatoes as it were. Glancing across the street, I discovered company—a familiar set of eyes hovering just above the hydrangeas. Mrs. Jones had found a unique and depraved use for her gardening stool—sandwiched between the garage and the landscaping she appeared to have settled in for the duration. I had never officially attended an eavesdropping before, but in the absence of experience, I supposed common courtesy prevailed. As such, I raised my hand in her direction. It became painfully apparent that she perceived my offering as an egregious and unforgivable breach of etiquette, as Mrs. Jones left me standing like a school-crossing guard frozen in time. This period of penance dragged on long enough that the connective tissue in my right shoulder became a series of angry and knotted muscles. Perhaps out of pity, even then rather reluctantly, she returned the awkward gesture, and I understood our exchange to be a shared oath of silence rather than a greeting.
We, Mrs. Jones and I, would soon learn the mystery woman Mr. Feldman found attractive happened to also be his twenty-something secretary, Giselle. A damning bit of information that in my opinion only bolstered his underdog status. Mrs. Feldman taught Literature at the university, and I supposed painting pictures with words for a living made for a decided advantage in any argument.
“Come on, Harold. Giselle hurdled past attractive in junior high and never looked back. Hot doesn’t even begin to describe her. The woman is….she’s….she’s…infernoesque!”
It wasn’t a word, but it didn’t matter. By the time Mrs. Feldman finished describing it, you’d be looking for an opportunity to slip it into any conversation where it half-way fit.
“Those four-inch stiletto heels barely provide enough clearance to prevent leaving scorch marks everywhere she steps. Does she still wear those dangerously short skirts, and the black stocking, turned down at the top to allow the steam to escape? And who could possibly forget that first glimpse of skin lying just above the stocking turndown—a healthy, three-finger width gap of flesh—delightfully and evenly tanned, except when a man’s thumbs press it white again. Should we dust for prints, Harold?”
“That’s enough, Margaret. Can we stop this now?” Mr. Feldman pleaded.
She steamrolled his objection as if she’d gone deaf to the tone of his voice. “What a lucky bit of flesh indeed, as it plays quietly in a ‘W’ shaped shadow with the lower portions of the letter squared off—a shadow cast down by a plump and juicy apple-shaped derriere.”
Mrs. Feldman was exceedingly good. Despite never having laid eyes on Giselle, in less than a minute she carved the curvaceous, young trollop out of thin air. Suddenly, I felt dirty for considering the image frolicking in the dead space between my ears.
Mrs. Feldman made it abundantly clear that she had nothing against attractive women, or an apple-shaped derriere. At one point, she even stated that she could understand a stolen glance now and again, but it became apparent that her understanding of such a glimpse did not extend to the man whom she shared a bed with, when she lashed at him with a renewed fervor.
“Did you look at it, Harold?” His wife bellowed.
I sympathized with Mr. Feldman’s predicament, if for no other reason than we shared the same man parts. Saying nothing at all equated to a guilty plea, yet uttering a word in either direction instantly made him a liar or a pig.
Sadly, Mr. Feldman folded like a dove on opening day. His admission of guilt came out mushed, as if she had his face firmly in her grasp, and by now, I supposed she did. Her white knuckles milking the poison from his lips.
“Do you know how incredibly unbelievable it is that after a glance or two, you might suddenly find your conscience—unless, of course, it was pasted on the back side of your zipper. Are you naïve enough to think I can’t smell her on your clothes? Tell me, Harold, was there even a fleeting thought of me when you gripped her thighs and pressed those bits of flesh white again? Did taking hold of something so young and electric make your blackened heart race? And did you once consider our children, as that wayward worm of yours burrowed deep into the core of that rotten apple? The thought of it turns my stomach irreversibly inside out!”
I can only assume that Mrs. Feldman turned loose of his cheeks long enough to slap one of them soundly. A sharp snap sliced through the chilly air between houses, arriving with enough force to temporarily dislodge Mrs. Jones from her gardening stool and rattle the tines of my rake. In the silence that followed, I sensed a checkmate. If he responded at all, I anticipated a frantic plea from a man caught, in the most literal sense, with his pants around his ankles. But Mr. Feldman recovered and countered rather quickly, his voice carrying an air of sincerity that had been missing earlier.
Even with his wife’s stomach lining exposed, he suggested that the abuse of alcohol and prescription pills were more likely the cause of her digestive disorder than his indiscretions. He recommended that if she ever stumbled upon a minute’s sobriety she might eventually see her part in it. Mr. Feldman closed by assuring her that a decade of frigidity and inattention will almost always trigger a man’s appetite for apples.
To my knowledge, Mrs. Jones and I were the only neighbors outside that day. In the days, weeks, and months that followed, we always found something else to talk about. Neither of us admitted seeing Mr. Feldman throw a duffle bag in the back seat, before crawling behind the wheel of the chestnut colored sedan and driving away. I never told anyone that when he turned the corner and headed for the highway that an avalanche of emotion filled my belly and backed up in my throat. Or that I stared for a long while at the mound of spoiled breakfast covering my shoes—trying to make sense of what had transpired. I simply couldn’t shake the tremendous sense of loss, and eventually scattered the pile of leaves as to erase the evidence I’d ever been there.
Within a few weeks, a knock came at our door. Mrs. Feldman announced she’d be searching for an apartment in the city. Closer to her teaching job at the university she said. After signing a lease and settling in, she’d return for her belongings.
Her words sounded too rehearsed and I couldn’t get past the runaway look in her eyes. Even when she tried to bluff, the wringing of her hands said something altogether different. “Could you help move some of the heavy things? I mean…..when I…when I come ba…..” Her voice cracked and the syllables crumbled completely.
It wasn’t my lie to tell, but I helped her anyway. “When you come back”, I offered. She managed only a nod. The moment I reached to steady her trembling hands something moved between us; she instantly knew that I knew everything….about the affair, her drinking problem, and that if she survived the escape she’d never return to this place of brokenness. When the tears of shame and frustration became too many to disguise, she hugged me quickly before wheeling and heading down the steps.
Mrs. Feldman could have easily slipped away in the middle of the night, but she hadn’t. She needed something from me. I searched for the words that might be appropriate for the last she heard from me, but my mind malfunctioned under the pressure. I called after her. “Infernoesque, Mrs. Feldman…you’re a classy version of Infernoesque!” Her determined gate stalled and resumed more than once, I supposed until she decided it was o.k. for me to see her cry. She turned and mouthed the words “Thank you”.
After a few months, the bank foreclosed on the property and auctioned off the contents. Even when another couple moved in, I avoided walking past or even looking at the place. Something significant died there. An accidental death, I supposed.
Claire leaned close to the mirror, waiting for the eyelash glue to set. She tossed her head from side to side and blinked from every imaginable angle. I often wondered what determined whether they passed inspection or she ripped them off and started over again. Waiting for the sink, I picked up the box and looked on the back for some type of ancient algorithm harkening back to the days of Cleopatra. My first disappointment of the day—nothing but made in China stamped on the case.
She finished at the sink and walked across the hallway to the bedroom. Waiting for the water to get hot again, I spied on her from the bathroom mirror. Maybe spied wasn’t the correct terminology, but I supposed even if you’d been married a hundred years, people did things, or at least did them differently when they knew someone was watching. Claire reached inside her slip with the opposing hand and yanked her left breast into alignment before jamming an enhancer into the bra. She applied the same violent method of compliance to her right breast. I imagined a migrant worker tossing cantaloupes onto a wagon, and resented the fact I would have been scolded for handling them so roughly. Sometimes I missed the youthful days when we pawed at one another without permission—when we had to fight back the impulses instead of trying to manufacture the moments. I wondered if Claire missed those moments too, but long ago I determined finding out otherwise would cause more damage than asking hard questions. I guess Claire decided the same, as we didn’t talk about the old days. For a married couple, we didn’t talk much at all.
With the aids in place, Claire leaned forward at the waist and shimmied her shoulders back and forth until she achieved maximum boost. Over the years I’d quit telling her how ridiculous and unnecessary I thought the enhancers were, but I did still snicker when the packages arrived. Claire shopped on-line and ordered from a place called the ‘Spillage Village’.
“I wish the Spellman’s would have cancelled.” Claire complained.
“What? I thought you liked Mark and Sherry?”
“Mark’s alright, but that Sherry is so fake. Did you hear she’s got a new set of knockers…like D’s weren’t enough.”
The word hypocrisy flashed long and hard in my mind like a neon sign. Maybe Claire made a distinction between her own temporary fake, and Sherry’s more permanent. Maybe in a few days or weeks I’d mention the contradiction, maybe I wouldn’t.
Claire appeared in the bathroom doorway. Sometimes it felt like she heard me thinking.
“They’re like 38’s, you know?”
I said absolutely nothing, but it didn’t stop her from pulling me in.
“You do know, Charlie. I’ve seen you look at them, especially after a couple of beers. But looking’s not cooking, right?”
Remember when I said that people do things when they think no one’s looking. The truth of the matter was I had looked. I specifically remembered a Christmas party ten or more years back. Sherry wore a red sweater with an embroidered Christmas tree on the front. The designer’s focus was clearly the angel topping the tree, but the combination of a plunging neckline and ten pounds of heaving breasts framing the head gave the disturbing appearance that the cherub had been involved in an accident with air bag deployment. The pressure applied equally from either side contorted and creased the saint’s features into a slightly heavenly version of Chuckie. Every time Sherry sauntered across the room and her goods began to float and gyrate, I swore the angel winked at me. When I caught Rick outside and asked his take, he relayed a similar version of a fallen angel living in the valley deep. The simple fact that such vivid imagery had survived in my mind for a decade was enough evidence to convict.
I pretended that the trimming of my beard required my full attention. I supposed much the way Claire pretended my looking at another woman hadn’t wounded her. Claire didn’t pretend well. The turned down corner of her mouth indicated extreme disappointment—usually in me.
“I need the truth, Charlie. Do you think Sherry is attractive?”
Low and behold, it was the deadliest kind of Déjà vu. The attractive question—the loose end that unraveled Mr. Feldman. Stretched across the doorway like a barricade, Claire had loosed a question so heavy it displaced every ounce of oxygen in the room.
“No…the answer is absolutely not.” I had blurted out of panic, but as soon as the words left my lips, I decided if she turned up the heat I was sticking to it.
“Then you must find her breasts attractive.”
We both knew I was operating from a point of weakness, but still I attempted a redirect. “Mark’s a gym-rat and a pretty buff guy, are you attracted to his physique, Claire?”
“You’re not leaving this bathroom until you answer the question….do you find her boobs attractive?”
After putting away my toiletries and wiping down the sink a second time, she still hadn’t budged.
“I suppose a little, but that’s the defective gene thing. Take a professor who’s got five P.H.D’s in his back pocket; flash a set of boobs in front of him, and suddenly he can’t work third grade math. Honestly, I think it goes way back to Adam in the Bible. Remember, God created him from dust…..so according to divine design all men are kind of dirty like.”
Claire gave me the benefit of appearing to consider my absurd proposition, but only for a moment.
“A long time ago, you used to look at me like that, Charlie. What happened to the way we used to be?”
My initial answer covered broad topics like jobs, children, and life happened. Claire didn’t offer a response. She couldn’t because the corner of her mouth turned down again.
I’m not even sure I understood exactly what constituted an epiphany, but if it came in shots, I think the reflection of the man staring back from the mirror slipped me a double. I suddenly realized that Claire objecting to the fake Sherry wasn’t hypocrisy at all. The only reason she shopped at the ‘Spillage Village’, put on the fake eyelashes, wore freakishly high heels, and did a hundred other things was because of my extreme stupidity. I had either glorified or crucified certain things by offering undue attention or complete and utter inattention. To the best of knowledge, there had been no infidelity in our marriage and we weren’t the type to engage in loud verbal exchanges, but our marriage was just as broken as the Feldman’s. I supposed it high time that I quit stumbling in circles, stepping on my wife’s feet, waiting for the song to change.
“Hey, Mark, this is Charlie. Sorry about the late notice, but Claire and I won’t be able to make it. Awesome news, brother, I have a gorgeous wife that’s been pretending to be someone else for years. Never mind, I’ll call you next week and explain.”
I joined Claire standing before an open closet, slipping hangers from right to left, moving more to the rejection side. Positioned behind her, I massaged her shoulders for a moment; a diversionary tactic designed to disguise the moment I slid my hand past her shoulders and retrieved the merchandise from the Spillage Village. She turned on me and issued a half-serious glare.
“I haven’t listened in a while, and that’s probably why you quit talking, but I hear you now, Claire.”
She watched intently as I worked the scissors through each of the aids and tossed the useless halves onto the bed. “You used to say the sparkly purple dress made you feel sexy. Put it on. I’ve made reservations for Mandini’s downtown at 8:00.”