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The way you might get dressed in the morning and notice for the first time a bruise on your arm, and wonder how it got there. This was how he had come to think of his marriage.
The last time they had gone out together was two years earlier. They hired a babysitter, and went to a party at a friend’s house. He didn’t know many of the people there. When someone asked him what he did, he said he was a teacher.
“Don’t be modest,” his wife said. “He’s a writer.”
“Oh, really?” a woman asked. “What sort of things do you write about?”
“Oh, well,” he said. “Language. Words. Teaching. They say you should write about what you know.”
“That’s why he doesn’t write about sex,” his wife said, and everyone laughed.
“You can’t even tell your own daughter a story? Don’t you think that’s taking writer’s block a little far?”
He lay beside her on the bed, eyes closed. She was reading a biography of Hemingway. On the front cover was a photograph of the American, sitting in front of a typewriter.
“Did you know that Hemingway’s wife once lost everything he had written?” his wife asked him. “She left a suitcase, which had all his stories and the carbon copies, on a train when she was going to see him in Switzerland.”
“That’s appalling,” he said.
“But he forgave her,” she said. She put the book down. “If I lost everything you wrote, would you forgive me?”
“Of course.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. “Of course I’d forgive you. Of course I would.”
He knew he wasn’t easy to live with. If he were a character in a story, his every line of dialogue would be followed by “he said, irritably”.
During her pregnancy, she would spend hours looking at the ultrasound photographs of the baby, but all he could see were whorls and swirls like a satellite image of an approaching cyclone.
Their daughter woke up every three hours during the night until she was four. She slept in their bed. He slept on the couch. He and his wife were exhausted much of the time. They spent their days arguing in low voices while their daughter played on the floor. They spelt out swearwords so she wouldn’t understand them.
“You manipulative bee eye tee see aitch,” he said, irritably.
“Eff you see kay you!” she said.
When their daughter started school and learnt to spell, they had to stop doing this. Once, though, he found his wife had scrawled “Bastard!” in his notebook. He didn’t cross it out. For the past three years it had remained the only word written there.
They used to have a good sex life. He liked to lie with his face between her opened legs, slowly spelling out the alphabet on her clitoris with his tongue. By the time he reached V she would pull him up and inside her. Or they would take turns to read each other Anaïs Nin’s short stories, or excerpts from Victorian erotica, and then they’d make love. Sometimes, she asked him to make up stories with themselves as the main characters, and so he searched his memory for all the Penthouse letters he had read when he was a teenager. The situations were clichéd: cheerleader and football player, college lecturer and student, delivery man and housewife. But she didn’t seem to mind. He would whisper the story in her ear as she touched herself. He felt proud if he could time the climax of the story to his wife’s.
A few months into her pregnancy, she asked him again to tell her a story. He started off with a maid cleaning a hotel room, and a man, himself, watching her. But after the man pulled off the maid’s lacy underwear, he couldn’t think of how to go on.
“What happens next?” his wife breathed, hand trembling under the sheets. “Tell me, quick!”
“I don’t know,” he said.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. Then she turned away and switched off the light.
Every morning at nine o’clock, he went into the spare room and sat at his desk. Sometimes he would look at the keyboard and say the letters out loud. Sometimes he would look out the window. Sometimes he would look at the walls, which were covered in cheap framed prints of pine forests and mountain lakes and deserts, hung at odd heights and intervals. His wife had put them up to hide the holes he had punched there.
At 11 o’clock he would stand up and leave the room.
“People don’t want to read stories about writers,” she said.
One day, he noticed she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. He asked her where it was.
“I have a wart I’ve been getting treated. See?” And she held up her finger to show him. “I haven’t worn the ring in three months.”
The one review of his last book had praised his acute powers of observation.
They never spoke about his writing now. Before meeting him, she had worked as an editor at a publishing company. Her name was in the acknowledgements of several award-winning novels. Until they slept together, he had welcomed her comments on his stories. He knew her judgements were astute, and had helped his work, especially when he was blocked. But when he became involved with her, he could no longer accept her criticism. Once, they didn’t speak for a week; it was over a semicolon.
“Can’t you even give the female character a name? Don’t you think it’s demeaning that she’s just known as ‘his wife’?”
He enjoyed driving his daughter places: to the park, the swimming pool, her friends’ houses. They lived outside town, so almost anywhere was at least a half-hour drive away. He would pass the time by telling her stories. Sometimes he took two characters from different fairy tales and had them run off on an adventure together. Tom Thumb and Puss in Boots, or the Snow Queen and the Little Mermaid. But his daughter liked it best when he made up the characters and the plots himself. Over time he created, with prompts from his daughter, a long and complex tale about “the smellephant”, an elephant who had lost his sense of smell.
“And that’s when the smellephant realised that the treasure was gone!” he said, as he drove her to a ballet lesson. “Who could have taken it? he thought.”
“Daddy,” his daughter asked, “is that the complication?”
“The complication? Who told you that word?”
“My teacher says every story has an orientation, a complication and a resolution. Is that the complication?”
“I don’t know. Yes. I suppose so. The complication. Anyway, we’re here. I’ll finish the story tomorrow.”
But he didn’t.
“You shouldn’t keep reminding the reader that a story, especially a love story, isn’t real,” his wife said.
“But none of them are,” he replied.
All their arguments ended with her screaming, “And no! You can’t use this in your book!”
On their fifth wedding anniversary he gave her a silver necklace and a dictionary. When she flipped the book open, she saw her own picture glued beside the word “Patience” and she laughed. A year later he went to look up something, and the picture was gone.
He won a short-story competition with an old story he had reworked. The local newspaper took pictures of him holding his book in front of a bookshop. When the article appeared two months later he looked awkward and uncomfortable. Still, he bought a copy to show his wife. She kissed him, and sat down to read it.
After a moment, she said, “In the interview, you say you can revise stories at any time, but you only write new ones when you’re happy.”
“That’s right,” he smiled.
“But you haven’t written anything in three years.”
For the past six months or so, she had read only biographies of writers. Alice Munro, Saki, Chekhov, O Henry. He didn’t know why. Heavy hardbacks always littered her bedside table, and on top of them, always, was a copy of his book. It caught his eye as he sat on the bed, waiting for her to come home. He hadn’t opened it since it was published, but he did now. There was no dedication. He hadn’t known anyone then to dedicate it to.
Carefully, he wrote under the title, “For my wife.” Then he put the book back where he had found it.
He first came to know her when she sent him a rejection letter saying she regretted that the company was unable to publish his short-story collection. This was a reflection on the current literary market, she wrote, not his talent. Though he had been disappointed, he kept the handwritten note. The curve of her “y” reminded him of the small of a woman’s back, and he had found, to his shame and his puzzlement, that the note physically aroused him. He met her a year later, at a book launch, and she remembered him straight away. She had fought for his collection, she explained, and was pleased that another publisher had taken it on. He told her he had kept her rejection, and she was surprised. “I didn’t think of you as one of those writers who filed their rejection slips,” she said.
He knew that one day soon he would return from the library, or the university, or the shop, and find his wife and daughter gone, and there would be a handwritten note. He would read the note, and stand there alone, in an empty house, with an erection.
He wondered when his marriage had become full of complications. When his wife left her job? When his daughter was born? When he stopped writing?
He sits, staring at the letters on the keyboard, as he has for the last hour. Then he feels his wife’s breath, softly, on his neck. Her arms reach around him. With the forefinger of her left hand, her finger pecks at the keyboard. First, the farthest letter to the right on the middle row, then the one above it, then down to the middle letter of the fourth row, and finally, as he watches, her finger trails to the second row and the third letter from the left.
He places his hands over hers, and asks if he can tell her a story.
Ryan O’Neill is the author of The Weight of a Human Heart and Their Brilliant Careers.