Jane plugged the buds into her ears and placed her smartphone on the shelf above the sink. She squeezed dishwashing liquid onto a sponge and ran the water over a stack of dishes and pans. The song “I want to be sedated” buzzed in her ears. She felt rushed, anxious. He was liking photos again of ex-girlfriends and pretty women with duck lips and windswept hair and big breasts. She fumbled a mug, the handle’s thick loop splintering off on impact.
She surveyed the handle in her soapy hand. It couldn’t be fixed. She gingerly scooped up the shards, and put the handle and mug on top of the trash. Phil, her husband of less than a year, came in from the bedroom after hearing the crashing mug. They lived in a small, third-floor walkup. They both were on their second marriage.
“Everything all right?”
Jane tuned off the water and cleared the sink with the sponge. She placed the last dripping dish on a towel spread out unevenly on the counter. She was picturing Joey Ramone. He pinched her tee shirt.
“I said is everything all right?”
She took the bud out of her ear. “What?”
“You all right?” He sat on a hard chair at the kitchen table stained with last night’s dinner and cluttered with unopened bills and her kids’ textbooks. He took an overripe banana from a wooden bowl and began to peel it.
“Why do you talk to me when you know I’m listening to music?” She held out the ear bud as evidence.
He shrugged. “Sorry.” The banana was mushy, too sweet. He put it down and leaned forward. “Can I help?” He saw the trash, but didn’t want to bundle up and walk to the garage in the cold. He looked out the window. The sun glinted off dripping icicles.
She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and threw it on the counter. She tapped the phone’s screen to turn the music off. “I’m okay.” She was annoyed he had to ask. “Want some tea?”
“Sure.” He didn’t feel guilty about the trash. Wasn’t that her son’s chore anyway? He and his sister were with their father for the weekend and that suited him fine. More alone time for himself.
She filled the kettle and placed it on the stove. She liked decaffeinated lemon. He wanted Earl Grey. She removed the lid of a heavy porcelain jar and withdrew two colorful packets, and then laid out two mugs and spoons on the kitchen table. He retrieved the half-and-half from the refrigerator. The kettle started to stir, but it would be a couple of minutes. She went to put the wash in the dryer.
When she returned, she put away the drying mugs and plates too hastily, rearranged the contents of the cupboards, and studied the inside of the refrigerator. She made room by throwing out his half-eaten dinners. Phil watched her admiringly. She had long ribbons of dirty blond hair and near-perfect curves. An elementary school teacher, she was great with kids but unwilling to co-parent with him. When they met, they made love often and with the lustful intensity of teenagers.
He wanted to hug her, but thought better of it. He pulled his smartphone from his sweatpants. She cocked her head and stared. He typed in his Facebook password and glanced up at her.
“You sure you’re all right?”
Before she had a chance to respond, he buried himself in the phone. He wanted to see how many of his friends liked his recent posts. His list of friends began to swell with established writers. He was producing short stories and wanted to use his account as a platform for drawing attention to his work. He checked his wife’s timeline—nothing but pictures of her children. The kettle whistled.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Why don’t you take a shower? I’ll keep your tea hot.”
He put the phone on the table, forgetting to log out, and closed the bathroom door behind him. When he emerged from the shower twenty minutes later, wrapped in a bathrobe, Jane was pulling on a pair of boots over her corduroys in the bedroom. She had already put on a heavy jacket and wool hat, her hair snaking down her back in a tight braid. The phone beside her announced an incoming text. She smiled at the screen and shoved it in her pocket. The tea on the table was lukewarm. He intercepted her at the door.
“Kiss me,” he said. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her in.
She tensed up, offering only a cheek. “You like women with upturned noses and big tits. I’m a dog face.”
He tried meeting her eyes. “That’s crazy.”
Her face was drawn, ashen. “How many times have I asked you not to?”
“Not to what?”
“I thought I was special—we were special.” She wiggled free. “I don’t think you’re out to hook up with them. I’ve only ever said I didn’t like that you liked certain photos.”
It wasn’t the first time she had complained about him liking pictures of attractive women on Facebook. He had dismissed her concerns. That’s why they called it social media, he said. His hands rested on his hips. “I’ve told you a thousand times, it’s mercenary, honey. Anyway, how about a little gratitude for helping you out around here?”
“Jesus, I have no right to complain, do I?” She pushed past him, and yanked the door open. “Click like on whoever the fuck you want. I’m learning not to care, okay?”
A rush of cold air cut at his lower legs and feet. “Where you going?” Her feet landed heavily on the steps as she disappeared downstairs into the foyer. He closed the door and got dressed. Staying in the apartment would only make him obsess over where she had gone. He pulled on his sweatpants and a fleece-lined shirt, zipped up his winter coat, and wriggled his feet into a pair of galoshes. He didn’t tie them. Before sealing the trash, he removed the broken mug and handle, and placed them on the counter.
A slant of wet snow darkened his coat and stung his face. After depositing the trash bag in a barrel outside, he thrust his hands in his pockets and put a shoulder to the wind. He decided to walk the couple of blocks to a corner coffee shop. The white sky looked as if it had fallen to the ground. Only the mottled forms of trees and cars and people gave shape to the landscape.
When he entered the coffee shop, he dusted off his hair and tamped his galoshes. In line in front of him, a young couple draped over each other waited for the cashier to take their order. They wore black leather jackets and skin-tight pants, silver spikes wrapped around their wrists, knee-high boots zippered up the side. Their hair was pink. After being served, they walked over to a leather sofa in the corner. Phil ordered a large coffee and retreated to the same corner, sitting opposite the couple in a leather chair separated by a coffee table. Bing Crosby was singing Silent Night.
He took out his phone and scanned his newsfeed, saving lists of the best books and movies of the year, liking funny dog and cat videos, and gleefully injecting himself into futile discussions about politics. We just talk past each other, he thought. He accepted the friend request of a sexy manuscript editor from New Orleans. He was about to like her profile photo, but was distracted by the giggles and soft murmurings of the couple. He peeked over the top of his phone. When they started making out, Phil got annoyed. He scanned the coffee shop to see if anyone else noticed. The nearest customer was hunched over his coffee, mumbling to himself.
They were hungry. They kissed hard, their hands slipping inside each other’s jackets and thighs. It was a brazen display, and part of Phil admired them for it. Still he wanted to tell them. To warn them. To make them see. He took a sip of his coffee and lowered his phone.
“You know, this is a public place, not your bedroom.” He felt a twinge of nervousness in his stomach.
The couple kept kissing and pawing at each other. Had they not heard him? He resented their defiance. He thought of telling the store manager. He took another swig of the coffee, and studied their piercings and tattoos.
“Why don’t you guys grow up?”
The young man, without pausing in his passionate embrace of the woman, extended his arm toward Phil and flashed his middle finger. Phil mumbled assholes, zippered his coat and stood to leave. The couple started moaning and writhing, then broke into laughter. Phil dumped his coffee in the trash on his way out.
When he got home, Jane wasn’t there. It had been over an hour since they parted. He left his coat and galoshes by the door, and took the clothes out of the dryer. He matched outfits and socks, and folded the towels on their bed. After straightening out the kids’ rooms, he went into the kitchen and tried gluing the handle onto the mug. It wouldn’t take. He placed it in the utensils drawer for later.
He thought of calling her, but he knew she wouldn’t answer. The snow had turned to freezing rain. It pebbled the windows. When he heard the doorknob jiggle, he shoved the phone in his pocket and drifted toward the door.
Her cheeks were rosy, and the braid was unraveled over her shoulders. A thin smile, barely detectable, vanished when their eyes met. She hesitated, looked down, and then pressed ahead into the bedroom, closing the door. He took a step toward it, wondering whether he should go in. He slid his hands in his pockets and hung his head.
“You want tea?” He stared at the floor, at the fragments of melting ice left by her boots, then looked up at the door, waiting.
“Sure,” she said finally.
He filled the kettle, turned on the stove and set out two mugs, then waited for the water to boil.
David DeFusco is the communications manager for the Johns Hopkins School of Education.
© 2017, David DeFusco