Marital Bliss

originally published in Coe Review


1

 

As three year old Shelly's hammerlock around two year old Amy's neck becomes more professional, and as Amy's screams become more mind piercing, and as the vertical hold on the 12 inch TV set perched on top of the bookcase becomes non­existent, the picture on the tube sliding from the top to the bottom of the screen like bodies falling down open elevators, Jake Van Gelder becomes more exasperated.

"Hey, kids," he pleads, trying to pull the two girls apart.

"Dumb shitty Amy," Shelley screams into his ear, tightening her hold around Amy's neck.

"Come on, girls... Daddy's trying to watch Nova... please... LOOK... hey, Shelley, look... it's about stars...."

Amy grabs Shelley's long blonde hair and yanks. Shelley screams into tears. Amy sinks her sharp baby teeth into Shelley's arm.

"Enough is enough!" Jake shouts, tearing the two of them bodily apart and then reaching up to turn the TV up to full volume. Holding them apart and crouching on the floor between them and ignoring their screams and cries and howls of murderous rage, Jake stares at the revolving picture and tries to listen to the voice over commentary. The commentator is talking about the discovery of radio astronomy. Something about somebody fooling around with radar or something in the Australian desert. He's trying to remember how radar works. He's trying to figure out how a radio telescope works. That mysterious background noise. It's coming from outer space. It's not planetary noise. It's not the background noise from World War II. It's not the silence of Jews as they enter the howl of gas chambers. It's not the screaming of his daughters.

It's interstellar noise.

2

Leah pours the measuring cup of soap into the washing machine, closes the lid, adjusts the dial, and flips on the machine. She walks over to the dryer, opens it, checks the clothes inside. She pulls the laundry basket over and fills it with dry clothes.

She hears the screaming upstairs.

She's going to the meeting tonight, no matter what happens.

She wonders what Jake is doing. Probably watching Nova, she thinks, violently yanking out his blue jeans and tossing them on the top of the basket. Dumb stupid chauvinist pig wallowing in cheap science. Thinks he's a genius and can't even figure out what's going on under his nose. Always picking the worst times to sneak into outer space through the box when there's work to done. She's been telegraphing it for months, but he's too stupid to read it. Idiot academic husband.

She picks up the basket and heads for the stairs at the far end of the basement for what seems like the ten thousandth time in the last three days. Thank God Shelley's diarrhea is over. Now all she has to worry about is Amy's diaper rash.

She reaches the top of the basement steps, lifts the basket over the baby gate, thinks about opening the gate, but then steps over it. The kids are still screaming in the living room, the dinner dishes are still on the dining room table, the toys are still scattered all over the house, and Jake is still hypnotized by Nova.

She's tired.

He hasn't done a thing all day. Said he had all those papers to correct and three books to read before tomorrow and all he did was get stoned and sit in front of the typewriter. Like an idiot zombie with a drooling grin on its face all day long. She carries the laundry basket into the dining room and drops it on a chair.

"Jake... ?" she calls, "Jake, the children...."

He doesn't hear her, is totally oblivious to her presence, is mindlessly unaware of Amy screaming and struggling on his lap and Shelly howling and pulling him by the neck.

"Jake!" Leah shouts. "JAKE!!!!" Leah screams.

3

The interstellar noise astounds astronomers in Sweden, baffles astronomers in Russia, intrigues astronomers in France. Suddenly, astronomers all over the world go berserk. They're triangulating all over the planet, listening, talking to each other, and now they're discovering that the Crab Nebula seems to be screaming for the whole universe.

Far fucking out.

He stares up enthralled at the slipping picture on the screen as Amy throws herself down on his lap and screams like a banshee and tries to punch him in the balls with her tiny fists while Shelly, demonically indifferent to the screaming universe, howls like banzai attacks of thousands and wraps her small arms around his neck and tries to choke him as Leah comes up from downstairs with the laundry basket.

The Crab Nebula is screaming.

He's got to follow this. He's got to understand it. There's something important here. Something to do with the scientific planetary civilization. The birth of planetary cooperation. Something to do with a world­wide intelligence network... a kind of meta­intelligence... a super consciousness... the whole planet listening to outer space... tuning into the Crab Nebula... a transcendental ear replacing the transcendental eyeball.

Far fucking out.

If only he could pursue the idea, if only he could follow the commentary, if only the children would stop screaming, if only Leah would not interrupt him, if only he were living in New Mexico, in the mountains, if only he could live in an observatory, listening to interstellar noise.

The Crab Nebula is screaming.

4

The sudden rage she feels grabs her throat like a jerked noose. Finally, he turns to her, smiles, says: "This is a great show ... it's all about pulsars and quasars...."

Idiot, she thinks. Idiot tube.

Leah walks over to the TV set and turns down the volume. Slowly, she turns back to him, takes a deep breath in order to compose herself, thinking, you son­of­a­bitch... you lazy son­of­a­bitch... says: "Thank you, Jake... I know it's a great show, but it's the children's bedtime. It's your turn to give them a bath and put them to bed. I'm supposed to be going to a meeting, remember?"

He's not looking at her. He's still staring into the tube.

"I'll take them up in a minute, Leah... honest, I promise... just five more minutes, okay? Please?" He tries his boyish grin. The children keep screaming, he tries to soothe them for her benefit, he nods as if nothing is wrong. "It's okay, Leah," he smiles. "Don't worry. I'll take care of everything."

Shelly kicks Amy in the shins.

"It's seven­thirty, Jake," Leah reminds him. "The girls are tired."

Amy tries to bite Shelly's kneecap.

Jake has that glazed look in his eye. He sneaks another glance at the screen, walks toward her, puts his arms around her, kisses her cheek, reaches up, and turns the volume up on the TV.

"This is an amazing show," he mumbles, backing away from her.

She's tired. Dead tired. Exhausted. And Paul wasn't home when she called earlier. She doesn't care anymore. She turns around and shuts the TV off.

"Hey... what the fuck...," he explodes, lunging for the control knob and flipping the set back on.

Wordlessly, Leah moves toward the children. She tries to separate the girls, but they resist her, are suddenly in league against her. She feels beyond rage, beyond anger, beyond murder. They scream, kick, and whine as she drags them toward the hall stairs. He hates women. No wonder the girls fight so much.

5

He wants to tell her that it's okay, that she shouldn't worry, that she shouldn't get pissed off, that he knows he should have washed the dishes, that he's going to take the girls upstairs, that it's okay, that everything's okay, that he's in total control of the situation, that he's just conducting a bit of intellectual research, that she should keep cool, relax, he'll take care of everything, but just keep quiet for a while. Settle down, sit back, take a look at the scientific­planetary civilization.

The Crab Nebula is screaming.

She turns down the sound. Jesus Christ.

He's got to find out why the Crab Nebula screams. Can't she understand? Goddammit, how could he ever get to sleep tonight if he doesn't find out what's going on? This is the future. It's one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th Century, the universe is alive, it's screaming and howling and whining up there, can't she understand? Something is talking up there. As titular Lord of the household, Master of Fantasy Empires, and Field Marshall of alien influences, it's his responsibility, his God­given duty, and, yes, his sacred mission... the reason he was put on this planet in the first place... to stay glued to the tube and find out what the fuck is going on. Can't she understand that? Doesn't she realize that he has an I.Q. of 343? that only he can understand what's going on? that the universe exists for him? that astronomers all over the world working night and day for years have compiled this information for him and only him? that the Crab Nebula is talking to him? For Godsake, he's got to listen. Cleverly, he embraces her and reaches over her shoulder and turns up the sound.

The children continue to scream.

The dog groans from her lair under the desk. The cat jumps up on the easy chair and begins to sharpen her claws. Leah flicks off the tube. He turns into a black hole. The universe is collapsing. He's disappearing into himself. Leah is pushing the children out of the living room.

6

Too tired to scold the children, too exhausted to be angry, too calm to take out her resentment on them, Leah waits as they scream and whine and howl; then she quietly urges them up the stairs, and by the time they reach the top of the steps, Shelly has stopped crying and Amy is only whimpering. She hears Jake calling her from the lower hallway, but he's not worth the listening.

She steers the children into the bathroom.

She turns on the water in the bath, finds the sponge, cleans the ring of dirt he left in the tub from his bath last night... the first one he's taken in six weeks. What if Paul... she doesn't want to think about it yet. She allows the girls to get close to her and then she hugs both of them, rocks them both in her arms, tells them how much she loves them, and then begins to undress them.

She loves their small bodies. "How about some bubblebath, girls?" she asks them, and they respond with glee.

She pours three capsful into the water and holds her finger over the spigot. Then Shelly jumps in and almost slips, but luckily Leah grabs her in time. Amy is a bit more reluctant. Her diaper rash hurts, but Leah convinces her that the bath will help the rash. She lowers Amy into the bubbles, and after a few squeals, the girls begin to play with the bubbles and the water.

Magic begins to fill the room.

She opens a drawer, pulls out two rubber ducks, and hands one to Shelly and the other to Amy. Pathetic fool. He would rather watch TV than his daughters. She reaches up on the shelf above the sink for the gentlest soap. He would rather read a book than read or listen to his wife. She kneels down on the rug beside the tub, squirts some soap in Shelly's hand, and gently begins to soap Amy's body.

Time seems to slow down, and rage pops harmlessly away like the bubbles. Everything will be okay as long as she keeps him stupid. If they could only.... She wants him to feel it but he'd rather smoke dope, watch tv, or read. She shampoos Shelly's hair first and then Amy's hair, plays and talks and sings, and then it's time, too soon, for the towels, the diapers, the careful medication of Amy's rash, and pajamas. She doesn't need him. She takes them into their room adjacent to the bathroom, pulls out leggos for Shelly and blocks for Amy, tells them she's going to clean up the bathroom, leaves them happy, returns to the hallway, pulls the baby gate across the top of the stairs, and returns to the bathroom. She can do anything.

7

They're finding pulsars in a woman's PhD thesis. They're building this strange radio telescope of wires that stretches across acres and acres of England. He thinks about going upstairs to help. He moves into the downstairs hallway. "Hey, Leah," he calls softly up the stairs, "Leah... I'm... sorry... hey, Leah...." She refuses to answer.

He's gone too far into the black hole.

He returns to the tv set. He wonders where the money comes from to build all those weird contraptions. He thinks about going upstairs to help again, but then reconsiders. She'll get him back anyway.... He might as well enjoy himself now. Bending down, he begins to absently pick up toys and newspapers and cups and ashtrays and balls of wadded dog hair, dirt, and carpet fluff.

He unplugs the TV and carries it into the kitchen and plugs it in again. He goes back into the dining room and clears the dishes off the table. He fills the sink with dishes, turns on the hot water, and adds the soap. She's been talking about seeing a marriage counselor, going back to graduate school, finding a job. Can't stand the goddam housework and neither can he. As soon as he finishes a class, he rushes home to babysit so that she can go out with her feminist friends and bitch about what assholes their husbands are. You're such an asshole, he tells himself as he dips his hands into the scalding water. Such a black hole. He stares at the transcendental eyeball, watching the montage of the system of telescopes that ring the whole planet. Incredible. How is it possible to see and hear so far into space, and yet see and hear nothing?

He hears the girls playing in the tub directly above his head.

He's got to get organized. He's got to stop being freaked out by pulsars and quasars and black holes. He's got to stop reading Scientific American. He's got to stop reading Science fiction. He ought to be reading Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and The Intimate Enemy and The Hite Report.

If they could only afford a maid.

If they could only afford to hire a wife... or a butler... no, that wouldn't work... not with Leah. A nanny? How wonderful it must be to be rich. Buy some robots. Design a washing machine that would take the dirty clothes out of the chute, separate them into different piles based on fabric identification, scan them electronically for stains and grease marks, be able to pull out the clothes with buttons missing or holes in the elbows, yeah, man, send that batch to the sewing robot, but how about dry cleaning, yeah... gotta make a wet and a dry washer, man... and don't forget about the folding machine and then the conveyor system that would bring the clothes back upstairs, man, dressers and closets....

Inexplicably, he begins to whistle the theme from Star Wars.

8

Would he still be home or did Jane get to him first?

Leah cleans the tub, washes out Amy's diaper, throws the dirty laundry down the chute, and then remembers that she left the basket of clean laundry downstairs. She won't go down there. She leans into the girls' room, talks with them about what they'll do tomorrow, feels the anxiety welling up inside, and starts to hum to herself. Anything because she doesn't love him and she's going to call him again. She tells them they have five more minutes to play, and then she'll read them a bedtime story.

She walks into the other bedroom and flicks on the light.

Nothing. She feels nothing when she walks into the room, nothing special. She heads for the nightstand, picks up the phone, and dials his number.

"You're home," she whispers. "What's up?"

She smiles in response to what the voice on the other end says. "Tonight," she whispers. "Same time. There's a meeting at Unitarian Church. Yeah. Later." She hangs up the phone and feels the energy and efficiency, the wild fierce joy building with a rush. She reads the children Goodnight, Moon three times before they get groggy; suddenly, they're asleep.

Now.

Now she'll make up with Jake for acting so bitchy, explaining to him that she was anxious because she's nervous about the Consciousness Raising class she's going to tonight, didn't he remember? and then tell him she's going over to Betsy's after the meeting, that she'll probably be late, and could he please, please not forget to do another load of dirty laundry.

9

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