Henry and Pauletta Glenn’s home was dressed in palm fronds for Easter. They were still green, accenting the white manor house as a beach getaway more than a moderately rustic estate. Everything under Henry’s neglect and the meticulous administration of Pauletta would never look settled. In their living room, coffee table books were serried across ottomans, poised to read themselves to whoever sat before them. Unsettled victorian couches that didn’t fit either owner’s taste stood in squat dignity.
The couple sat in the kitchen and began their breakfast play. “I knew there wasn’t enough available over the counter, but the pharmacist told me this should hold you until next Tuesday,” said Pauletta, in nonchalant confidence. “Dr. Astor will fill the rest of the script then.” Her words cut with a transatlantic formality softened by the passage of time and fashion. They crested over the silence that usually filled their home and squarely landed in her husband’s right ear, which was often turned to her.
Henry’s breath strained at her update. He had left the script his doctor gave him over a week ago in his nightstand drawer.
“How did you know I needed my prescription filled?” he asked.
“Because I’m the only one that tries to keep tabs on your health. You’d be tawny and death-choked without me.” She offered him phrases that didn’t exist. He used to love them, sounding mischievous from of her posh, Anglo bat-face.
He chuckled, then spoke dryly. “Surely you know I want to live.”
“Want has nothing to do with it,” said Pauletta. “You wait, and wait, then lose track of yourself. The difference between life and death is knowing how to use a date book.”
Henry turned to her. “Paulie, you don’t—“
“I don’t need to lie. Let’s just make this easier, shall we?” said Pauletta, staring at Henry with judicious practicality, slightly drooped cheekbones, and feigned weariness.
Let’s make this easier. It was an expression that knew exactly how vague it needed to be. Henry often resigned to these statements, sobered to the reality of their relationship: sympathetic caretaker and glorified toddler swaddled in far too much Brooks Brothers. They knew each other so well, a realization that despite their mutual lack of tenderness brought Henry comfort and love. He couldn’t articulate their roles and how he felt about them. They never allowed each other time: the elusive, frittering theme of their conversations. He found a second comfort in this failure; soft tones and dodgy words were their remaining mysteries, a vague promise to speak more, if only later.
“You’re not supposed to know the secret. Anyone that has a secret to tell you is a liar,” he half-mumbled over his oatmeal.
Pauletta paused to consider this. “You’re right, dear. So, let’s leave it at that,” she said, concerned but unconvinced.
“But I don’t want the last word…”
She left him talking and went to wash her face. He took his oatmeal into his hands and wandered the halls of his home.
His candy stripe oxford should have been slim-fit, not custom for the body he didn’t have. The floors were never stained right and they should have been walnut. The beach down the road should, through the grace of the fringe amalgamation of best wishes he’d usually reserve for likable children, but could also have passed for the god he didn’t believe in, should shift and face another, warmer sea. Henry felt the vibrational psyche-out that would accompany intrusion on another’s home. As he walked past his living room, it flashed its sconces and scowled him away.
Henry finished eating in his study. In a shadow box against against the room’s southern window was his great-grandfather’s liccasapuni, Sicilian soap-licker, a long stiletto knife from the old country used to forgotten ends. He took it out and proceeded to forage for memories in its worn handle and brown-splotched blade. It was honed steel and leather, an easy target for thoughts of old battles and that electric moment when a deal went south. He liked to think he was smart enough to just flirt with such nostalgia, lightly flicking his wrist with the blade confidently gripped in his hand. But flirtation bites hard in its intent of carelessness. The decorative palms rustled with his awkward swishes, and his chin began to itch. Henry looked outside through the window, which knocked open from avuncular punches of gust spreading a new drizzle eastward. His little show to no one eased his crisis; he began to savor crisp gulps of the ocean air with less apprehensive lungs. He left the room, self-satisfied as a noble, and marched towards the bathroom to find his wife.
She was mid-motion, face cupped in her hands and body uncharacteristically hunched over the faucet, slightly crumpled as if she had been working 10 acres with a soup ladle. Pauletta’s arms shined and revealed unfamiliar cracks in the amber light of their provincial washroom. Her hair, forever auburn and straight, was blacker and frayed in a singed zephyr around her head. She stood up straight, gripped the edges of the basin and turned to Henry. He thought her eyes, at least, should have had the decency to look recognizable. It had to be her, except her nose tipped downward, its bridge higher, deeply ridged and slightly curved right. Her cheeks further drooped and widened from breakfast, and made her face a teardrop. She gasped at Henry and ran out of the room, eyes shut in unmanageable embarrassment.
Henry followed after her, dashing down the hall and into the living room, where Pauletta escaped through porch doors. The trail leading away from their home to the beach lost itself in the rain, which smacked down the dune weeds and raised starry Pepagnaea and gaping Viola Ucriana in their stead. The Norway Maples on his property cracked echoes and stretched upward, their leaves splintering into needles as their stumps summoned flares of Egyptian Lavender. Henry’s scalp now roiled in irritation, his hair sliding wet and matted over his temples. Earth and its servants groaned as they tempered their new knotty blemishes.
Henry halted at the foot of the beach. The foreign overgrowth stopped behind him, though its momentum seemed to billow past and make dwarven gales across the sand. Pauletta stood ahead of him at the shore, hesitantly tracing her hands over the wind as she scanned the coast. Her straining expressions seemed to command the wind, dancing off her eyelashes and circling her wrists. He stood there panting, his head further enflamed as stubble rapidly shadowed his face. He caught his breath and the shifting stopped.
Henry finally felt away from himself and saw her. Face in the rain, tear among thousands of wild ones, amber prism of nervous fire. She stood anxiously in their shimmer, with each droplet pelting her dress — a little longer than before — and turning it gold and blue, drenching color across its weaves in cosmic arabesques. She stared back with green and grey eyes, seasick worlds wide open and imbued with sight beyond the shameful outskirts of their little mystery, and realized herself in this other world. She spoke familiar sentiments to her husband in different shapes and tenderness.
“Io guardo amore
Ma e’ riposa solo sopra cerchi tue parole
Io inseguo tu liberamente”
I see love, but it only rests on the circles of your words. I chase you for free.
He knew her phrases, but this a spell that folded the stretch of their lives among the tall corridors of their faultless home into bare intimacy. On his dreamiest terms on his old hidden coast, through his resurrection of her elements, she was his and yet never so fully beyond his best and most selfish intentions. His ball-busting friend was right there, still not mincing her words. Pauletta and Henry heard them again, renewing the vows of unmade separation and perpetual admonishment they sleep spoke through decades together. They sat on the beach and wept, occasionally laughing, chattering warped Sicilianu, all while his beard grew longer and greyed.
“Mom told me they’d look as lost as you do,” said Henry.
“Lovers or women?,” replied Pauletta.
“It was always lovers, not that I knew enough to realize it then,” said Henry.
“You still don’t,” she said, her words outrageously quiet in their crush. “You know I love your mother, but I wouldn’t buy those words for whatever they’re worth, let alone what she’s sold them for. Those are pretty words, Henry, but they have nothing to do me.” said Pauletta, smirking.
“You’re right,” said Henry. “I can’t have this, can I?”
That was his last attempt to speak around her. “You already do,” said Pauletta. If anything, you can’t leave it.”
“Make the last word, dear.”
They’d have to return home soon, change their clothes, and go to bed. He sat closer, met the zephyr by her ear, and gracefully obeyed.