One day the husband told the wife he didn’t love her anymore. She cried and cried.
“What did I do?” she said.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Is there someone else?” she said.
“No,” he said.
“Then why?” she said.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It just stopped.”
They sat quietly together, with the remains of their love cradled between them like a dead bird.
“Do you want me to go?” he said.
“No,” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “Good.” He rested his chin on her head and breathed the smell of her shampoo. It was the same shampoo as his shampoo. They had been sharing shampoo for years, because they were married.
“What are we supposed to do?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I want to love you again.”
“So try,” she said.
“I am,” he said. They were young, and had married younger. They had no children.
“Can I do anything?” she said.
He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t think so,” he said.
She sighed a watery sigh: the moon reflected in a pool.
“Let me know,” she said.
“I will,” the husband said. “I will.”
The wife began to notice when the husband made phone calls.
He made a lot of phone calls. He took some of them to the other room.
One night at dinner, his phone rang. He looked embarrassed, and shut it off.
“Who is it?” the wife asked. The question had been hovering over the table, unasked, for weeks.
“Nobody,” the husband said. “A friend.”
“A woman friend?” she asked.
“That’s very heteronormative,” he said.
“A friend you’re secretly in love with regardless of gender?” she said.
He paused. In that pause, there was everything.
That night in bed she cried. “I feel like you’ve been lying to me,” she said.
He shushed her, like she was a child. “I haven’t,” he said. “She’s just a friend. I mean it.”
“I just miss you,” she whispered to her pillow.
He tried to pull her to him. She let herself be pulled. “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The wife began to stare with envy at people in the grocery store. Happy couples. The family-sized tubs of sour cream. She glared at anyone with flowers in their cart.
She tried to remember the last time the husband bought her flowers without secret guilt behind them. She tried to remember the last time he bought anything without secret guilt behind it. She imagined him everywhere, comparing prices, checking sodium. Thinking, these beans are beans I will eat with my wife whom I secretly don’t love anymore. Buying them at the checkout like they were normal beans.
The wife wanted to buy herself flowers, but it felt too trite. Even if she was unloved, she wanted to think she was unloved in an original way. She bought dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and fudgesicles. The coupon dispenser gave her a coupon for children’s cereal. The wife felt sick. She gave the fudgesicles to a homeless man outside of the grocery store, and went home.
The house was empty. Her husband was out. The wife preheated the oven and imagined that he was with his friend-who-happened-to-be-a-woman, eating guilt-free beans.
She ate breaded stegosauruses and tyrannosaurus rexes and pretended that she was the meteor: the asteroid, the earthquake, the acid rain. The event that wiped the planet clean of life 65.5 million years ago, left everything gray and barren.
She fell asleep without brushing her teeth and woke in the morning with Disaster scumming the backs of her molars.
The wife began to go to bed early and lie awake in the dark. She felt like she couldn’t breathe until the husband came in, tripping over shoes, bumping into the night table. She wondered if she should leave a lamp on for him, wondered if that kind of kindness would make it easier for him to love her again, or to leave her.
She blinked awake one night to feel him climbing into their bed. He moved quietly. There was a sweetness clinging to his skin: the smell of beer or coriander. The clock on the dresser flashed 1:04.
The woman waited for him to settle under the sheets. She said, “If you aren’t in love with me again by now, you can quit trying.”
The husband was quiet. Finally he said, “Thanks for telling me how you really feel.”
“I can’t do it anymore,” she said into the dark. “I’m fraying.”
He switched on the light. They blinked against the sudden brightness.
“Do you want me to go now?” he said.
She looked at her hands. They clenched for battle! But her traitorous voice said, “No.”
“Okay,” he said. There was less relief in it this time. “I still care about you,” he said.
“I care about you too,” she said. “But not in the same way as before. I can’t, in the same way as before.”
“So, how?” he said.
“You’re still my best friend,” she said.
“You’re still my best friend,” he said.
“Then. I guess we’re best friends,” she said. “Who are married.”
“Okay,” he said. “Can I still kiss you?”
“Yes!” she said. It was an exclamation point to break the awkwardness of the question. To smash its terrible sadness in the face. “God, yes.”
They lay on their separate pillows.
“Maybe later?” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “Any time.”
But he didn’t. She didn’t, either. In effect, they had already had their last kiss, though they didn’t know it. He had been running late to work the Wednesday before. He was wearing the aftershave she bought him for his birthday the previous year, as an attempt to love her again. The wife hadn’t brushed her teeth yet.
The kiss was perfunctory and sloppy. He kissed a bit above and to the left of her upper lip; she kissed a piece of his well-shaven chin. They said, “Bye.” She closed the door before he was off the porch; it was cold outside, and she didn’t want to let the heat out.
The wife began to walk around the house naked. She liked the cool air on her skin, the way the air conditioning ran its hands over her when she passed by the vents. She wanted the husband to see. She never liked her body, but he always had. Had said nice things about her breasts, which were a little too large, a little uneven. “It gives them personality,” the husband had said. She was embarrassed by the modern convention of pubic hair, had never known if she was supposed to shave it or trim it and if doing so would make her a slut and if not doing so would make her a hippie or a lesbian. He used to run his fingers through it like beach sand, rumble that he loved it, that she should stop worrying, he loved it.
She wanted him to love it now. She wanted him to stare. She walked into the den where he was watching TV, in her bare skin, and began to straighten the pillows.
The husband stared.
“What?” the wife said. Her voice was full of surprise bitterness. She could not help the bitterness these days. It grew up inside her like moss, coated her tongue. “It doesn’t matter anymore, right?”
“Right,” the husband said. He shifted in his chair, fiddled with the remote. Then he went on watching the news while she cooked dinner naked, ignored her when she walked bare from the shower, hair steaming in a turban. She hated the way he made her body nothing. In bed that night, she wept for her body. Her body shook with pity for itself.
I love my body, she thought. It was fierce and embarrassed and strange. She had never been someone who loved her body before. She had always had a husband to do it. Now, she reached down and cupped her breast, experimentally. It was like shaking hands with a stranger. The breast was warm and soft and poured into her hand as though it had been waiting. She hefted it a little, squeezed it a little. She wasn’t sure if she liked it. She felt a little perverted. But there was no one left to love her now but herself, and so she grimly cupped her own left breast, and woke up in the morning with a crick in her wrist, and the bed empty beside her.
The husband began to come home less and less. The wife painted the dining room purple. She had always hated purple, but she decided now to love it. She was willing to make compromises. Willing to try to be a new and loving person.
The husband came home on his lunch hour. He’d forgotten his watch.
“The walls look nice,” he said. “Kind of eggplant-y.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I thought the place could use some color.”
He looked around the room.
“I thought you didn’t like purple,” he said.
“Are you coming home tonight?” she said.
The husband shifted. This was uncomfortable. They had settled into a pattern of her not asking things.
“Probably not,” he said.
“Are we still best friends?”
He set down his briefcase. He sighed.
“Never mind,” she said.
He picked up his briefcase. The sun, gliding through the window, imbued it with a rich violet glow.
“I feel like I don’t know you anymore,” he said.
“Speak for yourself,” said the wife.
She went to Home Depot and got more paint. She got Purple Mountain’s Majesty and Blushing Orchid and Royal Edict and Plum In The Sun. She got Dusky Vineyard and Ultraviolet.
She covered the furniture with her blouses and jeans and sweet summer dresses. She painted the kitchen and the bathrooms and the den and the bedroom. She filled every room in the house with a fierce and vindictive joy.
The husband left one day and did not come back. The wife sat in her purple rooms and looked at his things, still mingled with her things. From a distance, their things still looked like married people’s things. She rearranged the dresser. She scooted his towel over on the rack. She couldn’t figure out how to erase him, which seemed unfair, since he had erased her.
The wife pulled on a paint-covered sweater and went to the drug store.
“Hello,” she said to the clerk. “I need some tiki torches.”
The clerk was seventeen. He had a slack jaw that he kept slack to show how stupid he thought other people were, or how little he cared.
“We only stock those in the summer,” he said. “It’s all pumpkins now.”
The wife stood firm in her paint-dripped sweater. Purple lines of plastic nubbled the knits and the purls.
“You don’t understand,” she said quietly. “My husband left. I need tiki torches.”
The clerk shifted. He resented being told he couldn’t understand.
“Are you having an anti-husband party?” he asked.
“I’m torching the house.”
The clerk looked at the security cameras.
“I’ll check the back,” he said.
The woman looked around the store. She watched the teenaged girls shoplifting makeup and the middle-aged women shoplifting eye cream. She caught a glimpse of herself in the security screen and wondered, for a moment, who that stranger was who looked so small.
The clerk returned bearing an armload of tiki torches. “My parents are divorced, too,” he said.
“Are there any more?” the woman asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
“That will do,” she said.
The clerk rang her up. It was $187.09 in tiki torches.
“Are you doing it tonight?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
He hesitated. “I get off work at seven,” he said.
“Come on by,” she said. “Maybe there will still be something left.”
Vans began pulling up to the woman’s house at dusk. The woman stepped outside. She had spent the afternoon marking with Xs the things they had shared. The shampoo, the television, condiments, the middle couch cushion. The clerk and his friends descended, carrying torches.
“Jason said you were going to burn down this house,” said a girl. Her hands were full of matches.
The woman looked up at the house. The windows were empty and toothless, open to the evening chill. Inside, the things irrelevant to her new and barren life sat in piles.
“No,” the woman said. “I’m going to light it up.”
The young people watched in silence as she planted torches around the open house. They shifted in the grass, smoking, as she ringed the lawn; filtered noiselessly in and out of rooms in her wake. She stuck the torches out of windows. She leaned them against the couch, the bed. She stuck one in the toilet. It poked out of the ceramic bowl like a very young tree, with no roots and no crown.
The clerk offered the woman a lighter. She waved it off.
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Don’t you want to do it?” he asked.
“I don’t need to,” she said.
She went outside and stood on the darkened lawn. She listened to the whoops and cries of the young people. She watched her house twinkle slowly to life.
The husband came and stood beside her. Neither of them spoke for a long time.
“Did you forget something?” she said at last.
“No,” he said. “I was just driving by.”
Their old house sparkled in front of them like ten thousand laughing stars.
“I was circling the block,” he admitted. “I’ve been feeling nostalgic.”
They stood beside each other in the autumn dark. Their bodies felt like nothing. They spoke from places very far away.
“What’s she like?” the woman said.
“Different,” the man said. “A lot like you used to be.”
Their old house dimpled with firefly light, the flesh of a midsummer night. Inside, beautiful strangers were laughing and kissing. They were taking pictures with their faces pressed to the purple walls.
“Good luck,” the woman said.
“You, too,” the man said.
He turned to go at the same time she did. They walked down the sidewalk together for several blocks, close but not touching, sharing without comfort the space that comes after goodbye and before there is anything new to say.