Phil is sitting in his office staring at his computer when his cellphone rings. It is his wife, Helen. He picks it up, punches a button. The call goes straight to voicemail.
“Tell it to your mother,” says Phil.
Then it’s the phone on his desk, melodic and eager. Phil watches the blue digits scroll across the caller ID display. It’s Helen. Phil turns back to work on his spreadsheet. He knows an email will appear on his screen within minutes, an apology from Helen. Her contrition will be touching, the way a green fly is touching.
Before Phil married Helen, his older brother pulled him aside at a family cookout and said, “Marriage is really hard. You have to work at it. It’s a lot of work.”
Phil said, “It’s a lot of work for you, because you’re an asshole.” His sister-in-law was watching them from across the deck. She had their two-year-old daughter attached to a leash. “And you married a corrections officer.”
His older brother laughed, and Phil laughed. Then his brother stopped laughing.
“Maybe Helen’s not the one,” he said. “You’re a handsome guy. You have a good job. You could do better.”
Phil’s older brother knew a few things, but he didn’t know everything. He didn’t know that Helen and Phil spent most of their time in bed. Helen slept a lot, and when she wasn’t sleeping, she and Phil were having unfinished sex, sex that never finished. They took turns asking and answering; the conversation constantly changed color, texture, and tone. It sped up, then languished. It scratched at them when they finally got up to eat a meal, or bathe, brush their teeth. When they were out with friends, it would spark suddenly when their legs touched beneath the table, forcing them to leave early and hurry home to bed.
“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” asked Phil’s brother.
“Are you serious?”
“Dad used to say it.”
“So what? It’s a legacy or something? To insult my girlfriend?”
“I’m looking out for you. Dad would have done the same if he were alive.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not.”
“What about kids?” his brother asked. “You have to consider that whole angle.”
Helen was a package of damaged goods, and she didn’t come with an open-box discount. Phil proposed anyway, and Helen accepted. She loved him, she wanted him, and she tried to get help. She started to see a therapist whose office was out in Virginia, beyond the beltway. Helen called it “the pilgrimage of childhood pain.” When Phil was at work, which was most of the time in those days, Helen lay on the floor in their apartment, curled up and crying like a feral baby animal left in a pile of rotting leaves.
“It’s a process,” she told him. “You go through the forest. To get to the other side.”
Phil went to see the therapist once with Helen. He told the therapist that Helen sometimes talked about killing herself. Helen had withheld that detail from the therapist, who was actually surprised. She told Helen to buy the movie Gandhi and watch it when she felt blue. She also gave Phil the number for the suicide hotline. Helen adored the therapist and saw her up until the wedding day, but never again after it.
At the reception, Phil’s brother stood up and said he knew that Helen loved Phil, because when she went to the grocery store, she came home with a fresh fruit smoothie for him, and she sat in his lap while he drank it. A few months after the wedding, the grocery store stopped making those smoothies. And then it got to where Phil had to slap his knee, lure her over. Then it got to where he didn’t bother.
Still, what a great moment, his brother’s toast at the wedding. Then Helen’s mother had presented them with a pair of boxer shorts, pressed flat behind the glass of a cheap, plastic frame. The boxer shorts had belonged to Helen’s roving, alcoholic father. Her mother had saved them all those years. It was all she had left of him. “Good luck in your marriage!”
In the year after their wedding, Phil spent weeks at a time in St. Louis for his job. He ate at a different steakhouse every night. At his favorite place, the waitress gave him a handlebar mustache to wear for fun while he waited for his porterhouse. Helen called him there—she called him everywhere—and he stepped outside.
“I am standing in the bathroom with a knife,” she told him. “I have a knife in my hand.”
Phil had heard this line before, but he still had trouble responding. A drunk guy stumbled out of the restaurant and started to piss on one of the cars in the parking lot. Phil wondered if this was the drunk guy’s car. Probably not.
He said, “Don’t hurt yourself, Helen. Remember what your therapist said. If you hurt yourself, you are hurting the wrong person.”
“I don’t want to hurt myself,” said Helen.
“I want to hurt Milo.” (Milo was their Labrador Retriever.)
“What did you say?”
“I want to hurt Milo.”
“Don’t touch my fucking dog, Helen.”
When Phil finally got back to his table inside the restaurant, his steak was cold, pulpy, and completely unattractive. A few weeks later, Helen discovered she was pregnant, and she was struck happy.
She was an ecstatic pregnant person, and she felt invincible when she was nursing the babies. She would have had twelve kids, if that were socially acceptable. But it wasn’t, not at all. She settled for three. Hal, their youngest, had just turned four, and Helen was slipping.
Ding. The email arrives like an unconscious paratrooper in Phil’s inbox. He clicks it open immediately: “I am really, really sorry. I love you so much. Don’t be mad.” And what is her excuse? Pain, she explains in the email.
Helen is in emotional pain. Because her mother had been visiting, had driven up from Georgia to spend time with the grandchildren. Every hour her mother was there, and it was less than fifty, Helen grew fiercer, more distant and cruel. She couldn’t just sit there in her anguish, like some kind of starving saint. So she bit little pieces out of Phil. (She was nice to her mother.)
On Sunday afternoon, at the end of the visit, Phil helped his mother-in-law with her suitcase. The driveway was slushy. No one was wearing a coat. Helen stood there with her arms crossed and watched Phil load the car. Phil smiled at Helen, to show her that he understood. But she looked away.
“Bye Mom,” said Helen.
“I love you,” her mother growled. And then Helen’s heart rolled backwards into its dank cave and a boulder sealed the opening. Monday night. Tuesday night. Wednesday. All Phil had was a little chisel, but he was unwilling to use it. It was a lot of work to get through to the darkness. Might as well wait outside by the entrance, save his hands and fingers.
Phil looks up from his monitor just as Kyle, a dapper junior guy from creative, walks by in the hallway. Kyle nods hello through the glass door. He is working on one of Phil’s major accounts; he copies Phil on all relevant emails. And Phil, in turn, offers the contents of his correspondence up to higher beings. But there is no one to copy on his email to Helen. There is no covering of ass, not in a marriage.
“I’ve been horrible all week,” admits Helen in the email. Phil clicks through the top of it to draft his reply. She has left the subject line completely blank. She had to override a software default to do that. Why? Could she not connect one word or phrase to what was happening between them? How about Sorry!?!? Oh right, Phil has seventy-four of these in his inbox already.
This depressing exchange with Helen matters to no other living creature, not even Phil’s older brother. When Phil speaks to him, his brother talks mostly about his two girls, who are lovely, smart, and athletic. Phil’s kids are still too young to achieve and succeed. He just hopes they are getting enough love, and that the love will not go sour before they can share it with others.
If Phil’s brother ever mentions Helen, it is only to comment on how great she looks in her Facebook pictures, and she does look great. She still wears her black hair long, and her body has weathered the breeding years with no permanent damage, except one nipple is slightly bent and flattened. Phil’s brother has a functional wife who still looks like a prison guard, but she’s a pretty good mother.
And Helen? Helen takes care of the basics. Then she cries in the mornings in the kitchen while the coffee brews. She leans against the counter with her face in her hands. And Phil finds this behavior sexy, which is possibly messed up and weird.
He opens his response as a Reply All, even though there is no “all,” no listserve, no Board of Trustees. There is only Helen, who will open his message immediately. But she’ll be disappointed, because Phil leaves the damn thing empty. He writes nothing, nothing at all.
He imagines the conversation they will have after dinner.
“Why didn’t you call me back today?”
“I sent you an email. Didn’t you get it?”
“I got it, but it was empty.”
“What do you mean?”
“The email. The body of the email. There was nothing there.”
I must have deleted it.”
“Why did you delete it, Phil?”
“I mean, by accident. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“So what did it say?”
Kyle walks by Phil’s office again, but this time he does not nod or wave. A second greeting would be construed as aggressively friendly. Kyle doesn’t even look in Phil’s direction. He acts as if Phil, and Phil’s office—his computer and his coffee mug and his dry-erase board and his family photos—have been sealed behind sheetrock and painted white in the time it takes to go scan a fax.
This is how we do things, thinks Phil. This is etiquette. Don’t ask questions. Leave that for those who are better equipped. He reopens his empty, sent email and stares longingly at the Cc and Bcc fields, fallow and dry, rendered useless by faulty crop rotation. The soil is dead. The farmers have all moved to the city to work for Dell.
Phil picks up his desk phone and dials Helen’s cell number. She answers right away.
“Hi, honey.” Her voice is bright and hopeful.
Phil says, “I have a knife in my hand.”
Helen laughs a little. “What?”
“You heard me.”