The contact paper on the counter was beginning to peel. No, not beginning— it was peeling, a whole square inch coming up off the corner, crumbs and coffee grounds edging underneath. Eddie kept meaning to fix it. He brushed them to the floor, looked around for the dustpan a moment, and quickly forgot. He filled the mug with coffee. “You got cream?” Chandra called from the dining room.
He pulled the vanilla hazelnut Coffeemate from the refrigerator’s side compartment. His wife Karen made special semi-weekly trips to the Kroger in Lake Forest to get it; their regular grocery store only stocked French vanilla.
The dining room was enrobed in darkness; the curtains were drawn because he hated the glare of the streetlamps. The overhead fixture was too golden, too bright, so he’d just lit the room with the glow of the kitchen and the lamp in the living room. Chandra sat at the end of the dining room table, shadows cloaking her hairline and the upper part of her face— exactly the places where she’d aged the worst.
Eddie slung the mug and creamer onto the table in feigned casualness.
“Yick,” Chandra said before inspecting the package. Her mind was clearly made up, but she was examining the ingredients anyway. “I can’t do soy.”
Easing into the chair across from her, Eddie said, “You’re some kind of reverse-vegan then?”
“No. I’m vegetarian, regular vegetarian. But I’m allergic to soy, all this flavored creamer crap is just soy and corn syrup solids.”
“It does a body good.”
“Hon?” Karen called from the living room. Eddie suddenly remembered she was wearing her mall kiosk slippers.
“There’s some sweetened condensed milk in the cupboard!”
“Oh-” Chandra said, putting a hand up fretfully, “Oh no that’s fine.” Then louder, she returned Karen’s call, “I’m fine drinking it black, Karen! Sorry to be such an uppity bitch about it.”
Eddie returned to the kitchen to check on his tea. The kettle was starting to emit steam but hadn’t hissed yet. He took it off and filled his mug anyway. Cranapple Zinger, though normally he only drank Sleepytime so late at night.
“So what kind of a vegan can’t eat soy? What do you do for protein?”
“Lots of vegetarians and vegans don’t eat soy,” Chandra said, cupping her mug in her hands. She looked cold. She was so thin— Eddie figured that was an easy feat when you don’t eat a damn thing. She sighed and stared at him, pushing hair from his face. “I eat nuts, and legumes, and beans, and seitan-"
He wrinkled his nose. “Seitan, blech. Yeah right. I know what kind of vegetarian you are, the kind where you just eat French fries.”
She smiled tightly. “I probably would if I could, but my doc’s all on my ass about trans fats.”
She fingered the spot on her neck. They’d stitched her artery back up after pulling it out and scraping away at its insides. The plaque inside had been solid and thick as a lock of hair, she’d told him, hard as a straw filled with cement. Eddie’s stomach lurched at the thought, at even the appearance of the stitches, and was instantly glad he hadn’t sweetened his tea.
“Jesus,” he said after a while. “Jesus, what can you do?”
“I can go skiing,” she said, and the mischief that rose from the depths of her face was uncanny. She could have been nineteen, begging him to go with her and joyride the neighbors’ unlocked car around the block. “I can go ziplining again.”
Their eyes traced the ceiling as they thought. “Deep-sea diving?”
Chandra shook her head, and a few tawny little curls fell into her face. Her hair had been long when they met, but she’d shaved it off, then grew it long for years until the accident. “I can’t go mountain climbing or diving. The oxygen and air pressure, I guess, can fuck everything up, give me a brain bleed.”
Karen sighed from the other room and flipped her magazine loudly.
Eddie didn’t acknowledge her. He wanted Chandra to feel comfortable. God knew, the woman needed a respite, an oasis from stress. Didn’t want her to keel over and drool blood on the new tablecloth. Imagine if Maisy came down and saw?
“I think I’m gonna climb a Baobab tree, set up a vertical sleeping bag and some trail mix, and camp in it a few days,” Chandra said. She patted the table and nodded with finality and certainty, and it made Eddie feel this was a good plan too. “It’s pretty easy, not too much physical stress, not strenuous-"
“Calming I bet,” he added. “Watching the, um, little mammals and things. Pretty flowers, bright colored frogs,” she laughed as he continued, “Um…leaf-cutter ants? Toucans?”
“What I’d love to see is a Proboscis Monkey.”
“Since when do you like monkeys?”
Chandra shrugged. “Since always, it’s like liking people.”
Her hand dropped, and Eddie found himself reaching for it. “Are you serious though? You’re gonna do it?”
“Sure, probably in October. Depending on when I can get my passport renewed.” She brightened. “I’ll bring your kid toys from some local market down there, maybe some blow-darts.”
“Bring two!” Karen called, sitting up rigidly on the loveseat. Eddie noticed how the light hit her neck, how it was beginning to go slack, and he wondered if having a serial concussion and a stroke would do the wonders for her weight it had for Chandra.
Chandra beamed at Karen, then Eddie. “Another one? Maisy’s gonna have a baby brother or sister?”
“Maybe,” Karen said.
“We hope,” Eddie said, trying to lock down Chandra’s attention. “It might be too late. But we hope.”
“Oh well in that case, maybe I’ll also get you guys some weird local virility cures, if there are any.”
Karen laughed and asked, “Like what?”
“Ohh…like hand-carved cock rings, from rainforest wood.”
“Painted with natural dyes, from berries!” Karen added.
Eddie drank half his mug of tea in a single downward-staring gulp. He hated talking about sex with either of them, always had— together it was impossible. Karen was laughing and adjusting the quilt around her shoulders.
“Do you need a refill?” Eddie asked when they’d stopped speculating about powdered rhinoceros horn and fermented tiger dung and ancient stone pessaries.
“Sure! Hey, let’s go into that adorable breakfast nook you guys have, is that okay?” She had been off caffeine for the duration of her hospital stay and was bustling with pep now that she could drink it again.
Karen touched her on the arm and said, “Honey, how are you ever gonna get to sleep?”
“Oh who cares,” Chandra said. “I slept more than enough this month, more than enough. I don’t ever wanna sleep again!”
A familiar refrain— that much about her was constant. She used to stay up all night planning trips to Trinidad, to Nepal, to Indonesia, chewing Adderall and filling out spreadsheets. She planned everything, was grandiose but also practical, picking out restaurants and estimating expenses, locating hostels and cheap sources of local entertainment. It couldn’t have been Adderall, Eddie realized, no— it had to have been regular old speed. Or the diet pills they don’t prescribe anymore. She never wanted to sleep or stay or relax; having a stroke must’ve been hell for her.
Karen yawned. “Well that makes one of us,” she said, eyeing her husband. “I’m bushed, I’m sorry dear but I’m gonna turn in.”
Chandra turned to Eddie. “Oh, oh no, I should get going-"
“Nah, stay with me a while,” Eddie said. “Finish your coffee, maybe I’ll convince you to break your medical fast and eat some of these Entenmann’s cookies with me.”
The women hugged and Karen padded upstairs. For a while the groan of adult weight easing across old wood could be heard above their heads. Eddie clicked on the light above the breakfast nook. It was harsh and bright, and their reflections materialized in the window. Chandra’s hair was dotted with yellowy white, and her forehead was ribbed with lines of surprise, but it all served her well. Eddie tried not to examine his slight softness or the cotton-candy wispiness of his hair, and he especially tried not to contrast this image of himself with that from when they’d first dated or been married.
“You two are the fucking sweetest,” Chandra said.
“Yeah we’re pretty great. Pretty spectacular.” He expected for some reason that this would make her laugh, but it didn’t. “When are you gonna settle in with your own fella?”
“Oh please. My fate is set in stone on that one.”
Eddie was perplexed and a little nauseated by this. Her fate? Set in stone? What kind of phrases were these for her to use?
“I can’t imagine you’ve given up hope,” he said, more sadly than he meant to.
“Woah that sounds heavy. I have no hope of being sedentary, that’s all it is. I have no hope of roping someone onto this careening caboose.”
He thought she liked marriage. Why else had they done it? He couldn’t remember how they’d decided. He thought she’d liked him. Maybe he’d never been listening or maybe it had changed. Still, he felt as comfortable with her as if he actually still understood her. It was funny, he thought, how even if something’s just a hologram you still feel like you can touch it. That he felt they could just run off at any second and erase everything that had happened. The moment he’d forgotten to submit his grant application and refused to follow her could all be undone; They could hitch a cargo ship. He felt it was true. But he knew nobody else thought that.
“What about work?” he asked. “Did you get any writing done while you were, uh, laid up? Musta been nice at least to have time for that.”
She’d always been a fierce defender of the sanctity of designated writing times. She’d always been adamant that if you had a good idea, you could write it on the floor of a jostling van, in pen on your skin— all it took was the idea, and the time to get it down. She’d worshipped the time.
Chandra just shrugged. “My head was too foggy, from everything. You know. It’s just like any anesthesia, but longer.”
Eddie nodded but didn’t really follow. “Musta been trippy to slip in and out of consciousness that much.”
Fingering the sides of her cup somewhat frantically, she said, “Yeah it was scary. Psychedelic, like. Not what I want to see, being sober.”
“Damn,” Eddie said audibly, accidentally. He always forgot about her going to rehab. Why did he always forget she’d done that? Was it her consistently sloppy mien, her happy unreliability that hadn’t vanished when the drugs did? Was it her ability (and desire) to still venture with him to a bar when she was in town? Or did he simply forget about that period of her life because he was so enamored with Karen at the time? Two years on and off, six straight months locked in detox, and all he could remember from those years was planning a honeymoon and buying a house with someone else.
He stared into her eyes, their bags and thin streams of red, and tried to see in them stories of what she’d been through. Every wrinkle and crow’s foot on Karen’s face was clear; He could look at a worry-line on her brow and read the story behind it. Chandra’s? They were all hieroglyphics. He didn’t know which moments or expressions they came from.
“So you don’t, don’t…write at all?”
“No,” she said simply. “I read so much, you know for work, so much great stuff and so much dreck, that it’s really hard to put together a sentence I recognize as my own instead of somebody else’s.”
“Huh, you don’t say. Never had that problem, either the reading or the writing. ‘Specially now, all I ever read seems to be books my English 2 kids are reading.” He stroked his chin. “Anything to look forward to on the young adult front?”
“Mermaids. We’re about to release a big series from this new author, all about mermaids. Romance, psychic echolocation powers, battles over the health of the ocean’s ecosystems, the whole thing.” Chandra said in her book-pitch voice.
“Huh. Mermaids. Shell bras. Kelp.”
“Did you find this one?”
“Yeah. It’s by the daughter of the woman who wrote all those Animorphs books. I negotiated a really low advance on it, it was a real steal.”
“Animorphs. My wife- uh, Karen, she loved those growing up. She says.”
Chandra nodded and leaned across the table. The kitchen table was much smaller and lower than the one in the dining room, and Chandra seemed about two times larger and brighter than before. Karen hated when the breakfast nook was used at night. Chandra’s hand was very close to the edge of Eddie’s side of the table; Close to his lap and his hands as well. She looked ready to say something.
That was when Maisy came in. She was wearing a long nightgown and socks with little rubber buttons on the bottom, which her mom insisted she wear to keep from slipping down the stairs. Her hair was a stringy, chaotic mess. Chandra always loved talking to Maisy and soon she’d pulled the girl into her lap and commenced stroking her on the head like a cat.
“I was just telling your daddy I’m gonna bring you some nice toys from South America, and some books,” Chandra told her.
“Where are they?” The child demanded, looking up at her.
“Well I don’t have them yet, you’ll see when I get back from my trip.”
“When is that? I want some new books! What kind of toys-"
“Honey stop,” Eddie said.
“Well I’m not sure yet,” Chandra said.
“What kinda toys? Like animals? I don’t like dolls or cars,” Maisy insisted.
“I’m not sure yet, dear, I haven’t gotten them yet.”
“Are they gonna be cool though?”
“Honey, quit it,” Eddie said sternly. “Sometimes you have to wait, okay? You have to wait and see what you’re going to get and if it’s gonna be any good.”
“And sometimes,” Chandra added, her voice lilting, “You get nothing at all, or something horrible, and you wonder what all the waiting was for.”
Maisy looked up at her, perplexed, but didn’t ask, as she could tell Chandra was using the tone adults employed when they were talking about things of no substance. Eddie drummed on the table impatiently. Fate always handed you a glut of time when you were stuck doing something unpleasant.
“So,” he said. “You’re really going on that trip?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Of what?” Maisy chimed in.
Eddie began but Chandra cut him off. “Well, last time I went on a trip I fell from really high up and got hurt, hurt bad, so your daddy is wondering why I’m not scared to get hurt again,” she told the girl.
“Karen and I both…we’re sick, Char, worrying you’re gonna end up a vegetable.”
“It’ll be fine,” Chandra said. “I’m just camping in a tree. I got six weeks of work first, of ass-busting meetings and contract negotiations and editing schmaltzy-ass romance novels. If I’m gonna stroke out again it’ll be in the first month, believe me, and it’ll be from the stress of work, not play.”
Eddie winced at her use of the term ass-busting, but gave up when he noticed Maisy was falling asleep in Chandra’s arms anyway.
“Just, be careful please?”
His voice shattered into sobs that he hadn’t felt coming, and he drew breath in trying to cover it. Maisy stirred from the noise and from the new tension in Chandra’s back as she moved forward.
“I’ll probably be fine. Ed? I wasn’t scared.” She reached for his hand again, but Maisy was in the way. Eddie leaned to take it. So much rougher than his wife’s hands, tiny quick-bitten nails. “When it happened, the accident? I felt…composed. Ready. Don’t be sad for me.”
She settled back into her seat and rocked his daughter. The two of them watched him redden and shake in silent grief. He didn’t want this woman to die, she couldn’t die, that would close her chapter of his life forever. If she lived, she was a page in a choose-your-own-adventure novel, one he could flip back to, re-read, re-select, try again.
She had lived plenty. She’d been shot, in rehab, married twice, she’d had at least one abortion (that he knew of anyway), she’d summited fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, she’d discovered a New York Times bestseller, she’d killed, cooked, and eaten a boar, she’d met a Nobel Prize winner, she’d rambled through forests and coral and across plains and had fucked two or three federal politicians (she claimed). She’d lived on the Australian bush watching native people and sunburned archeologists and writing, going without him even though the idea had originally been his. She’d done a lot Eddie’d never heard about, he was sure.
If she didn’t die, someday he could change his mind, quit his teaching gig, send out his Fulbright application in time and journey with her like they’d intended. As long as Chandra existed and looked and smelled the same as always, he could be a once-married, handsome, thin, childless anthropologist again. And she would be a writer again and it’d be a risk but it’d go alright.
But when she looked at him, disappointed like that, her face was slack and old and seemed very nearly dead.
“Are you happy?” Her face seemed to say. “Could you say the same as me? Could you die now and be whole?” And it seemed to say, too, “If not I can’t rescue you.”
But audibly at least, Chandra didn’t talk. She and Eddie’s daughter stared at him until his crying stopped and his skin paled.
“I’d better get,” Chandra said finally. Her voice lacked its old crackle. Now it croaked instead. She handed Maisy to him and rose. The light so close to her face illuminated all the grays and spots. She looked every bit the forty-five post-operative stroke victim she was.
He lead her to the door and out to her car, the child sleeping on his chest, his mind blinking away. She wasn’t Chandra, where had Chandra gone, the one he knew? Chandra was a feeling, a flickering idea of a gorgeous and crazy young thing that blew him in the car and flung cigarette butts at him. A thing which, like childhood, he once had to dash away from to preserve his health, but now longed for like a god he didn’t believe in. He used to pray to the future— someday I will be rich, someday I will be settled, someday I will be happy— but now he only worshipped past hypotheticals.
She strapped into her compact, practical car. A car young Chandra would have detested. Still it was red, like her nails had always been, like the tattoo on her shoulder (Eddie could no longer recall which side). Like the scar on her neck where they’d scraped out the hemorrhage-causing plaque that had built up inside of her over ages and ages and caused her brain to bleed. The engine was tutting.
They hugged and he kissed her on the cheek. There wasn’t tension or anticipation in any of it. She was like Karen, she didn’t worry about him making a move. She knew nothing was coming. Karen was always so trusting -- she knew the book was closed on them. They went out for drinks, they danced, he visited her in the hospital, all of it— no one suspected for a second that he’d be untrustworthy. That he’d have ambition.
“Bye, Ed,” Chandra said, and squeezed Maisy’s little puffy-socked foot. “I’ll be in town in a few months I’m sure; We’ll be in touch.”
“Sure,” he said. “Of course. Don’t be a stranger.”
She turned on her radio, dug around in her purse for a piece of gum. “Doesn’t get any stranger than this,” she joked.
He shut the driver’s door and listened to the music piping out the window. It was an old one, a New Pornographer’s song from when they’d both been in college. He rocked his daughter and watched Chandra’s car pull out and away, singing long after it was out of hearing range.
About the Author: Erika D. Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago, IL. Her work has been featured in eFiction, eHorror, Red Fez, and on Liar's League NYC's podcast. She writes at processproduct.tumblr.com. In her spare time she eats trail mix, makes needled felted animals, and contemplates depressive realism.