How long did it take to know a person? Two years? Six? She’d been married to John five years, but sometimes she felt she didn’t know him at all. Or maybe she knew him too well.
Michelle flopped back on the couch, head against the pillows John had carried out from the bedroom that afternoon. “I’ll be home by ten, ten thirty at the latest,” he’d declared. “We’ll watch SNL together. I promise.”
She’d wanted so badly to believe him that she actually had. He would attend the wedding and leave before the reception was over. No after-parties with fraternity brothers in the hotel bar. No stumbling in the door after midnight while she crouched by the toilet, vomiting in the dark.
The news ended and the SNL band played their opening bars. Justin Timberlake took the stage, flaunting his all-American, college boy grin. Michelle checked her phone. Again. Before he left John had pushed the coffee table closer to the couch, lining up the clicker and her phone, as well as the big pot his mother had used for spaghetti back in the day, the one they called The Throw-up Pot.
Connor was the only one who’d ever needed it. Tucked next to his toddler bed the few times he’d had a stomach bug, it provided comfort, knowing he could lean over and vomit without the risk of soiling his sheets. He was a little fastidious that way, and Michelle worried sometimes, when her own brain wasn’t racing, and she had a spare moment to consider her four-year-old’s potentially obsessive quirks.
The pot had been her constant companion the last few months, beside her in bed at night, placed innocuously next to the couch during the day while she read to Connor or they watched TV, or played their seven-hundredth game of Candy Land. From the second the plus sign lit up the pee stick four months ago she’d been unable to attempt much more. Grocery shopping, meal preparation, she depended on John for all of it. She’d taken a semi-permanent leave of absence from her job as a teaching assistant, even though that meant they would no longer be able to afford childcare.
For the second time in an hour, Michelle pushed a button and John’s number danced across her phone screen. He didn’t pick up, not to mention the texts he’d ignored. “Shit.” She slid her hands under the waistband of her sweatpants, resting them on her swollen belly. “My life is a fucking cliché.”
John had had it. For some unknowable reason he thought she should be able to control the nausea, the vomiting, the headache and fatigue that came with dehydration. “Just eat,” he kept saying. “I’ll make whatever you want.”
“I’m trying,” she’d insist, gagging on another spoonful of Jell-O, or sip of homemade milkshake. “I can’t.”
“How hard can it be?” John turning away muttering, like she couldn’t hear him, after she refused another offer that he to run to Chipotle, Panera, Wendy’s, any place she wanted.
With John, everything was a problem to be dissected methodically, leanly. He needed life to fit into his business model, always. If she couldn’t perform her due diligence and come up with a proactive solution, clearly she didn’t want the problem solved.
Michelle didn’t understand it herself. It hadn’t been like this with Connor. Sure, there’d been nausea, light and constant that first trimester, but it disappeared with food, vanishing for good somewhere in the third month. She’d never vomited, and there was very little fatigue. In fact, after the first trimester, Michelle swore she’d never felt better.
“Who knew?” John had joked. “I should’ve knocked you up years ago.”
He couldn’t get enough of her pregnant boobs, or the propensity she suddenly discovered to achieve multiple orgasms with the slightest effort on his part, the merest touch. They’d lie in bed naked, lights on so he could see her face. “Again,” she repeated each time she came, and they’d giggle like children as he placed his hands, his mouth, on her yet again.
Now the effort to get out of bed in the morning required every ounce of motivation Michelle possessed. Even thinking about sex made her gag. If she didn’t have Connor to dress and feed, to drive to preschool, swimming lessons, and the occasional story time, she couldn’t imagine getting up at all. Except maybe to dump The Throw Up Pot, which went everywhere, beside her even when she drove. She knew the location of every public toilet, from the library to the gas station to the Y. In the beginning Connor had been alarmed when she vomited. Now he barely noticed, occasionally rubbing her back on the couch, whispering, “It’s okay, Mommy,” his eyes never leaving the TV.
Early on, John had been sympathetic and supportive, picking up around the house at night, arranging rides for Connor to and from pre-k. He’d even come home before 7:30 a couple of evenings to throw in a load of laundry or take over Connor while she collapsed on the couch. But when weeks turned into months and she didn’t get better he began to pout, complaining she was milking it, that she had an exaggerated need for attention. What about him? Michelle felt terrible. She was a bad wife. She needed John to love her, or what was the point of it all?
One night after Conner was bathed and in bed, and she’d folded two loads of laundry and managed to clear away the remnants of dinner by eight, it occurred to her that a bath might be soothing. She was kneeling by the toilet, having vomited and flushed, and she quickly shed her clothes and crawled into the tub while it filled. Her bottles of lavender and geranium rose were miles away in her bedroom vanity, but she poured two capfuls of Connor’s Sesame Street organic bubble bath under the steaming spigot and lay back with a towel behind her head. She drifted off as the water cooled, and when she opened her eyes John stood in the doorway, a boyish smile slung across his face.
“Hi.” He kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. She attempted to sit up in the bubbles. “Don’t move,” he insisted. “You look relaxed.”
It was true. With one slippery foot she turned the hot water back on. John pulled over the tiny stool, the one Connor used to brush his teeth and Michelle perched on while she bathed him. He looked huge, camped there in his shirtsleeves and crisp navy slacks. Michelle reached one water-logged hand out from under the last of the bubbles and held it against his cheek.
“Hi,” he repeated, clasping her hand to his mouth. Her foot crept back out to turn the water off. John leaned over, smoothing tendrils of hair clinging to her forehead. “You’re all flushed.”
“It’s tropical in here.” She pulled the towel out from behind her head and dumped it on the floor. “Exactly what the doctor ordered, I think.”
“They’re ba-ack.” John traced the roadmap of blue veins over her breasts with his index finger, brushing his thumb against her nipple. His other hand crept under water between her legs. It was the first ounce of desire she’d felt in weeks, and her hips tilted up to meet his fingers. She kissed him, and he took one wet brown nipple into his mouth. Michelle moaned softly and John smiled around her breast.
The water cooled rapidly. “Hey,” she said, and he paused. “Let’s move this to the bedroom?”
He flicked the drain plug and grabbed a towel. She stepped out of the tub slowly, careful to avoid sudden movements. John wrapped the towel around her, kissing her neck. He reached between her legs, and she leaned back against the sink. His fingers felt clumsy, insistent, and she attempted to shift her hips.
“I’ll use my mouth,” John whispered.
It was too much. Her belly churned, and her knee jerked against John’s shoulder, pushing his head away. She leaned over, vomiting into the open toilet, spraying the seat and surrounding floor with pale green droplets. John sat back on the edge of the tub, one hand across his eyes, shielding himself from her monstrosity.
“I’m sorry.” She gagged again, wrapping her towel tighter, using the edge to wipe her mouth. “Hand me the sponge.”
“Just. Go to bed.” He didn’t look at her. “I’ve got it.”
Three days later Michelle was in the hospital, an IV with pale yellow fluid flowing through plastic tubing into her bony arm.
“You’re severely dehydrated,” the OB-GYN had scolded, standing at the end of her bed. The light was way too bright, Michelle’s migraine way too piercing to do anything but nod. She didn’t need anyone to explain the vicious cycle of vomiting, dehydration, and migraine, her body careening wildly out of control. She needed sustenance, and if she couldn’t keep it down it would be pumped directly into her blood.
There were injections for the migraine, which increased the vomiting before sending her to a foggy place where nothing mattered. The doctor reassured them that the low dose of narcotic wouldn’t hurt the baby and was necessary to break the cycle, but the nurses’ judgment was palpable each time they entered the room to shoot her up.
Fuck the nurses.
Her parents whisked Connor away and John made a reasonable effort to stay by her side. She cringed in pain every time his phone vibrated on the bedside table, so he took it out to the hallway where she barely heard the rise and fall of his voice.
Fuck John. Fuck them all.
After two days of IV fluids she was able to keep down spoonfuls of sherbet, a cup of vanilla Ensure, and Tylenol. On the third day, they pushed her out to the parking lot, an invalid in a wheelchair. John waited in the car, murmuring emphatically into his phone, making calls, taking calls, keeping the universe safe for mankind the whole way home.
On Saturday he made Connor breakfast (a bowl of Fruit Loops in two-percent milk and a juice box), and informed Michelle that her parents had agreed to babysit while he was at the wedding.
“The wedding?” She looked at him incredulously. “You’re going to the wedding?”
“You knew it was today.” John’s tone was severe. “Deebo’s one of my best friends.” He caressed her foot through the covers. “You’ll be fine. I’ll be home by ten, ten-thirty at the latest. We’ll watch SNL together. I promise.”
He reached over her, plucking the bottle of Tylenol from her nightstand. “Only two left. Take one now. I’ve got to run a few errands before I go.” She opened her mouth like a child, and John set the pill on her tongue. “Don’t worry, I’ll take Connor with me.” Like he was doing her a favor. He pecked the top of her head. “You never picked up those wine glasses from Macy’s, did you? I guess I’ll have to give them cash.” He plopped the cat on the end of her bed, collected Connor, and took off.
He was back before Michelle’s parents arrived. They gushed over his grey suit, how handsome he looked, how good he smelled. He twirled her mother in front of the fireplace, and she giggled like the cheerleader she once was.
“Don’t give your parents any trouble now,” John joked. “I want only good reports.” He waited for her to smile. She eyed him impassively. “Okay then. Bye, buddy.” He swung Connor toward the ceiling and set him down in her father’s arms.
“Have fun.” Her parents stood at the door waving. “You deserve it.”
“I love you Daddy!” Connor pounded the storm door, leaving fingerprints on the glass.
Traitors, she thought, from her spot on the couch. Goddamn traitors, the bunch of you.
Her parents took Conner to the park and got him a McNuggets Happy Meal on the way home. They gave him a bath and forced her to slurp some soup and half a vanilla shake.
“I’m exhausted,” her mother said. “This is why God gives you children when you’re young.”
“You’ll feel better soon,” her father promised Michelle. “You need to get some meat back on those bones.”
Connor was sullen when they left. She let him stay up watching The Incredibles until eight-thirty because it was easier to put off the bedtime routine. “If you were eight or ten,” she informed him, “I could send you upstairs to put yourself to bed.”
He folded his arms around his chest, lip furled in a pout. “I want Daddy.”
“Yeah well, don’t we all.” She pried herself off the couch and led him down the hall to pee. “Pick out a book and we’ll get this show on the road.”
“I want five books.” He glared at her defiantly.
She pulled down his PJ bottoms and propped him on the toilet. “Two books and three kisses. That’s my best offer.”
He sat there, thumb in mouth, not uttering a word.
It was 12:30. Justin Timberlake was performing some ridiculous music video with Andy Samberg when Michelle clicked off the TV. “Seriously, John?” She threw her phone down on the couch. “Seriously?”
He was probably in a fraternity brother’s hotel room drinking, getting stoned, sending her calls to voicemail because he knew she didn’t leave messages. She pictured him hooking up with some old college fling, fucking her in a hotel room, complaining about his selfish, pregnant wife, going on about how he hadn’t gotten any in four months.
Four months? Had it really been that long? If his penis was in another woman’s mouth at that very moment, what did she expect? He was allowed to want sex, wasn’t he? She’d given him a less-than-enthusiastic hand job a couple months back, but now that just seemed pathetic. This wedding was the first fun thing he’d done in ages. Who cared if she was pregnant, that she’d just been discharged from the hospital? It wasn’t like she was dying, for Christ’s sake.
Michelle shifted on the couch to see out the window and down the block, watching the headlights of every car that cruised past the house, hoping one would turn into the driveway. The thought of John’s hands, his mouth, on another woman’s skin made her physically ill. She grabbed the pot, retching up what little was left in her stomach.
What if he was lying in a ditch? Maybe she should call the police. But say what, that he was at a wedding somewhere in Morristown? She didn’t even know the venue. What kind of wife was she? He was probably just acting out some passive aggressive bullshit. Screw him.
Michelle stood, clutching her pot, and stumbled down the hall to her room, not bothering to check on Conner or grab her cell phone. “Have an affair.” She nudged the cat over and climbed into bed. “Land in a ditch.” She turned out the light. “See what I care.”
She dreamed she was at the lake with John, before Connor, before they were married. They skinny-dipped in the moonlight, clutching one another’s slippery bodies. John dove under water and disappeared, and she lunged after him, frantic, reaching for him in the darkness. Then he was on the wooden raft in the middle of the lake, saluting. It took forever to swim out, but when finally she hauled herself onto the raft, it wasn’t John at all. It was Kevin, her college boyfriend who she’d been madly in love with, and who’d dumped her for a 30-year-old woman with a toddler. She kept trying to cover her naked self with her hands, and he laughed and told her to chill. She cried, explaining John had drowned. “No, look.” Kevin pointed at the far shore. “There he is.” Sure enough, John waved at her in the moonlight. “Asshole,” she shouted. “Forget him,” Kevin whispered. Then he was naked too, and they rolled around the raft, arms and legs entwined, mouths everywhere. Until her phone started ringing and she had no idea where she’d put it, since she was naked on a raft.
The phone was still in the living room, but Michelle didn’t remember until she was awake, halfway down the hall, moving toward the sound. It was an unknown number.
“Hello?” She pounced on the phone. “John?”
“No ma’am, this is the Morristown police department. Is this the residence of John Millinowski?”
“I’m his wife.” She forced herself to breathe. “Is he okay?”
“We found him lying in the parking lot of the Morristown Inn.”
She sank down on the couch.
“He’s intoxicated ma’am.” The officer paused, as though embarrassed to go on. “We’re hoping someone can pick him up?”
“But he’s got the car,” Michelle sputtered. Intoxicated? In a parking lot? “Can someone there bring him home? I’m here with a sleeping child.”
“We’ve put him to bed in a room at the hotel, ma’am. An officer will check on him.”
“I…we…can’t pay for a room.” She imagined asking her parents for money to cover their precious son-in-law’s drunken debacle. No way in hell.
“No worries, ma’am. The hotel will pick up the charge. We just wanted someone to know where he is.”
Michelle started to say thank you, but the line was already dead.
Passed out in a parking lot? What the fuck. And the unmitigated privilege, given a room at the hotel. Would her best friend Liz’s husband, a black man, be treated so well? She was mortified. Where were his fraternity buddies now?
What if he was injured or someone took his wallet? The police would’ve told her, right? She hadn’t even asked. God, she was pitiful. Michelle crept down the hall and into bed. What if he’d lost his glasses in the parking lot, crunched under someone’s foot? Or had he been wearing contacts? She couldn’t remember. What if he’d peed himself? She was furious.
Fuck him and his glasses.
This wasn’t the first time. There’d been no police last time, but ironically she’d been three months pregnant with Conner. They drove Upstate to a fraternity party at John’s alma mater. The guys were all there, along with a few girlfriends, but she was the only wife, the only pregnant woman, not that anyone could tell.
“You should go alone. I can’t even drink,” Michelle had told him.
“Come on, everyone wants to see you.” They were in bed, and he’d covered her breasts with both hands. “Everyone wants to see these.”
They laughed. She’d agreed to go.
She’d never seen John that drunk, as if being back at college had turned him into some pathetic fraternity bro. He wouldn’t go back to the hotel with her. “Take the car.” He kissed her, his lips sticky with scotch. “I’ll stay another hour and catch a ride.”
She’d opened her eyes when he stumbled into the room at 3:57 a.m., reeking of beer and pot. He peed noisily in the bathroom before slipping into bed, pushing his body against her. For a few seconds he fumbled inside her nightgown, grinding his penis against her ass. But Michelle feigned sleep and he rolled away, snoring within seconds.
The sound of gagging woke her. Vomit all over the bed, all over her. She jumped up and stood with the light on, watching to be sure he didn’t choke, until finally he stopped. In the bathroom she stripped and stood under the shower, scrubbing her skin, her hair, the barely rounded belly that would one day be Connor.
When she emerged he was still asleep, snoring in the midst of his mess. “John.” She poked his shoulder hard. He smelled terrible. “You need to get up and shower. John.” He didn’t budge. She peeled the spread off the other bed and got in.
Next morning, he showered and made her a cup of tea, climbing into her bed, kissing her awake like nothing had happened. Michelle flinched and pulled away. “You threw up on me.” It was infuriating, having to tell him. “You didn’t even wake up.”
“I’m sorry, babe. I was so wasted.” He tried to hug her, his expression contrite.
“No.” She scrambled out of bed. “You threw up. On your pregnant wife. That is not okay.”
“What the hell do you want me to say, Michelle.” He got out of bed and began throwing things into his duffle bag. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Christ.”
They drove home in stony silence that lasted for days. For a while he was extra attentive. Then time passed, and the incident slid into that bottomless pit where unspeakable acts between couples simmer and rot, but never completely disappear. She’d thought about leaving, but that seemed extreme. They were a family.
Now she lay in the dark, again pregnant, again thinking about leaving. This time it didn’t feel so extreme. But. There was Connor, asleep upstairs. Another baby, asleep in her belly. Their insurmountable mortgage. Hospital bills from last week and those to come.
God, she was angry. And so tired. She wrestled in and out of sleep, envisioning John face down on the pitch-black parking lot, wallet gone, glasses shattered, all alone. She startled awake, crying. “You are pathetic,” she admonished herself, “taking this fucking bullshit.”
Should she call someone, her parents, her sister, her best friend Liz? But then they’d find out. About the police, about John in the parking lot. She probably needed therapy, but how pitiful would that be, telling this story to a shrink?
The sun fell in slants through the shutters and the front door scraped open. The cat fled. Footsteps creaked across the living room floorboards, past the kitchen, down the hall. She lay there, eyes open. John sat down at the very edge of the bed.
I want you to leave. The words reverberated in her head. She’d practiced them so many times during the night. I want you to go far away and never come back.
“Are you okay?” She felt obliged to inquire. She lay on her side, hands tucked beneath her chin. It seemed important that her hands be inaccessible in this moment.
John nodded, not looking at her. He stank of alcohol and vomit and smoke. Seedy motel sheets and lies and parking lot gravel. It made her nauseous, and she covered her mouth with the edge of the quilt.
Leave, leave. Leave!
He wept, huge gulping sobs wracking his shoulders, face wet with tears. It was the first time she’d ever seen him cry. He hadn’t even cried when Connor was born. She rolled over and sat up.
“I’m. I’m so sorry,” he sobbed.
Then his head was in her lap, arms about her waist. It was hard to breathe with his face shoved against her diaphragm. She couldn’t move. Her hands hovered over him, her fingers winding their way into his matted hair. She pressed her lips against his right earlobe, the one that was pointed, like he was descended from an elf.
“Shshush,” she whispered, her eyes completely dry. “It’s okay. You’re home.”
Maureen D. Hall is a writer and small-town librarian living in New England. Her fiction, essays, articles, and poems have appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Hospital Drive, Journal of New Jersey Poets, Avalon, American Journal of Nursing, Mothering, Woman’s World, Welcome Home, Hopscotch for Girls, among others. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.