This Laura van den Berg Short Story Is An Eerie Commentary On #MeToo
In this story from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, a man tries to convince his wife her anger isn’t real.
The judge is still in the news. The story has been unfolding for weeks and every time she sees his face she feels so angry she’s surprised surfaces don’t ignite when she touches them. By dinnertime, a third woman has come forward. She and her husband eat in front of the blaring TV, plates balanced on their laps, forks suspended in midair. Afterward they do the dishes, standing barefoot in their small kitchen, the news still droning in the background. He washes and she dries because she keeps cracking wineglasses; in the last week they have gone from six to two. The kitchen is a shotgun, with a yellow tile floor and an outdated light fixture and a refrigerator that shudders and whines. They keep meaning to call someone to come out and have a look at the fridge, but then life intervenes and no calls get made.
“That judge should be in prison,” she says, toweling a plate. One thing about living in an apartment complex is that you’re always listening to a network of lives unfold around you and right now she can hear water running upstairs. She imagines a different couple washing dishes together, what they might be discussing. Lizards, perhaps. How they don’t have eyelids and can shed their tails at will and how they smell by tasting the air around them.
They have lived in Florida for only six months, but already she hates lizards, almost as much as she hates her new job. Entry-level, securities corporation, hellish commute. She dreams of having more money, more time, more space.
“Probably so.” Her husband pauses. He is concerned about the fridge too — the humming is louder than usual and he would be at wit’s end if the appliance broke down altogether; there is far too much he needs to keep cool. Also, a sharp and unfamiliar pain keeps flaring in his left heel, probably from all the waiting. They moved south for his job, his big opportunity, and then he was laid off before they could even finish furnishing the apartment and he didn’t expect to still be looking, but he is. In the meantime, he made a profile on a task app and discovered a great demand for taskers who could wait. Say you wanted barbecue from the popular place that did not deliver or concert tickets or the latest Apple product and you did not want to wait in line — well, why bother when you could hire someone like him to do the waiting for you.
"That’s all you have to say?” She can tell he’s holding back, from the way he keeps shifting his weight around, eyes flitting from sink to fridge, anywhere but her face.
He weighs his options, decides to press on. “Well—”
“It’s just that nothing has been proven yet.”
They both left dirty dishes in the sink that morning, so they have a whole mess of washing ahead. Sometimes she wakes so bleary she can’t do anything more than stagger into the shower and dress, her blouse buttoned crooked half the time. She has stopped blow-drying her hair or putting on makeup, save for a slash of lipstick applied in the rearview on her way to work. They don’t even have kids yet and she is already so tired, which worries her, though her husband blames the era that they live in — so divisive, so exhausting, who could keep up — and says they should spend less time watching the news.
“Okay.” She adds the plate to the dry rack. All week she has been preparing for this very conversation. “Let’s say two of the women are lying. Let’s just say. That still leaves one who is telling the truth. One is enough. Right?”
"Of course.” He raises the dripping sponge. He has learned to proceed carefully during these kinds of conversations. Ever since the allegations were made against the judge, the hostile nature of the news has started to leak into his wife; she’s like a boxer these days, always out there with that jab. He tries to channel the calm he feels while waiting in line. He is a good waiter, patient and focused, though in general the taskers are less agitated than the people doing their own waiting. For the taskers there is nothing on the other side of the waiting; the waiting is what they are there to do.
Ever since the allegations were made against the judge, the hostile nature of the news has started to leak into his wife.
"I’m just saying we can’t become so emotional, so caught up in the moment, that we forget about evidence. Corroboration and so on. I’m not saying he’s innocent. I’m just saying he hasn’t been proven guilty. Not yet, anyway."
She picks up a fork. He goes to work scrubbing a pot. The pain in his heel travels up the back of his leg like an electrical current; he tries to remember when exactly the discomfort first started. Was it last week, when he waited in line for three hours to collect tickets for a country music concert?
"Have you ever—"
She stops short, feels the fork tines through the dishtowel. She has practiced asking him this question in their bathroom mirror and in the rearview and in the compact she keeps in her purse.
"Have I ever what?"
"Have you ever been at a party where things got out of hand?”
“Well, I was in a fraternity.” He smiles at the memories of drinking shirtless and barefoot in the backyard of a house that no one person owned but everyone seemed to live in.
“Okay, so at one of those parties, did you ever—"
"Did I ever what?"
“Did you ever hear about stuff happening? Like with other guys in the fraternity?"
They’re edging into tricky territory, if he’s being honest. Sure, there were whisperings, here and there. The parties could get rowdy. A girl could maybe get touched in a way she wasn’t expecting (a sudden and unwelcome memory: his hand grazing a first year’s ass, which had looked so delicious in her jeans, and the girl whipping around, indignant, and him slurring, Where do you think you are?)
"Look,” he says, loud enough to be heard over the ambient noise of neighbors and the humming fridge. “I’m not saying everyone was an angel back then. That we wouldn’t do some things a little differently now. All I’m saying is that there’s a difference between having a regret or two and committing an actual crime."
“I guess it depends on what’s being regretted,” she replies.
"It’s just that, in this day and age, a simple mistake or a misunderstanding, made years in the past, when you were a completely different person, can be called up at any time to ruin someone’s life. Does that seem reasonable to you?"
"He’s going to be on the Supreme Court,” she says. “His life is hardly ruined."
They work in thick, humid silence for a while. He passes her a glass salad bowl, a wedding gift. The bowl is big and slips around in her arms.
“What about you?” she says.
“What about me?”
“Have you ever—”
The next question she has not practiced aloud. It bursts from her, a detonation. She hugs the bowl and stares down through the bottom, the tile floor warped by the glass.
This time, the jab connects. The fridge hums louder; he implores himself to not rush over to the white door and investigate further. He feels genuinely wounded by the question and also like if he does not respond in just the right way, with the right amounts of shock and sadness and indignation, he will, despite being entirely innocent, be implicated in his wife’s eyes.
He flings the sponge in the sink and turns off the water. He tries to keep both his feet planted on the floor, even as his heel throbs. “How could you even ask me that?”
The glass bowl is too big for the dry rack, so she places it on top of the microwave. She slings the dishtowel over her shoulders and crosses her arms.
“Well,” she says. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because I was raised right! Because I’m a decent person! Because I have a sister, for Christ’s sake.” He imagines his heel burning a hole in the floor, a small and perfect circle, lined with ash. He waits for her to say something more, to apologize, and when she doesn’t he adds, “We have really got to stop watching the news. It’s making you paranoid.”
“Turn the water back on,” she says. “I’d like to be done before midnight.”
“Be careful.” He hands her a wineglass.
As she dries the glass, her eyes wander over to the empty wall, where they keep meaning to hang a watercolor of daises in a jar that they bought at a yard sale. She is staring at that blank space when a green garden lizard darts across. It pauses for a moment, cocks its tiny head, and then shoots behind the kitchen cabinet. She shrieks and drops the wineglass.
“Shit!” he cries out, louder than he means to. “I told you to be careful.” At this rate, they’ll be drinking wine from coffee mugs by the weekend.
“Didn’t you see that lizard?” She crouches down and picks up a long glass shard, her heart still quaking. “It ran right across the wall.”
“No. I did not.” He fetches the broom and sweeps up the glass. He tells her to step aside; if she tries to touch the glass she’ll only cut herself. Does he have to do everything around here? “But do you know what? I see lizards every day. And do you know why? Because lizards are everywhere around here. They are everywhere and they are perfectly harmless.”
She knows the lizards are harmless — they aren’t poisonous, they don’t have teeth— but she is from up north and she can’t get used to these creatures crawling around inside her apartment. They look like tiny dinosaurs and tiny dinosaurs do not belong in people’s homes. Their apartment is on the sixth floor — how do they even get up here?
“I need to go for a walk,” she says.
Her husband will not approve — no one they know in Florida treats walking as a leisure activity — but she is desperate for air. They live in one of those labyrinthine apartment complexes ringed by interstates, but she can at least wander the grounds and the parking lots and sit out by the retention pond. Some- times, in the stairwells, she even finds interesting things to observe. Once she glimpsed a spectacular moth — orange and gold, a black dot on each wing — batting against a light. Also, if she’s out past a certain hour, she hears the same neighbor weeping in her apartment. It sounds like the neighbor is having a nervous breakdown in there, night after night. Sometimes she lingers by the door and listens for a minute, just to keep her own life in perspective. It has never occurred to her to knock.
“Wait.” He hates this walking habit she insists on clinging to. Once, not long after they moved and he learned that she’d gone on foot to the grocery, he had to take her aside and let her know that around here only poor people walked — a crass thing to say, perhaps, but it was the truth.
“I won’t be long.” She picks up the remote and turns off the TV.
“Have you been hydrating?” He opens the fridge and reaches for a can of sparkling water, lime-flavored. He holds it out to his wife. She stares at the can for a moment and when she finally accepts it she doesn’t open the water right away — she just holds the can to her forehead and shuts her eyes. It’s only when she turns and enters the living room that he hears the reassuring hiss of the tab popping.
He heard about this sparkling water from another husband in the complex, who maintains a stockpile in the trunk of his car. One Saturday afternoon, they were drinking beers by the retention pond and started complaining about their wives. It is a universal truth, the neighbor said, that some women never know when to shut the fuck up. He laughed along, even though his neighbor’s brashness made him uncomfortable. He likes to think of himself as more evolved. He’s a registered Democrat. He wore a "Deal Me In" T-shirt to the polls on Election Day. Come on, the neighbor said next. I want to show you something. In the parking lot, the neighbor popped open his trunk, cut into a flat of cans, and passed him one. It was lukewarm and looked like off-brand LaCroix. Have her drink it, he said, and then call me in the morning. The neighbor assured him that his wife drank a can almost every night and she was as healthy as a horse — healthier, even, than she’d been before. Besides, this water would be everywhere before too long, according to the neighbor; they needed new defenses for these times. So he took a can to be neighborly and planned to dispose of the water but then his wife came in from work, looking pale and disheveled, her blouse crooked, and started in about how she had been thinking and maybe Florida wasn’t working out for them and she really did hate her job and all this driving was frying her nerves and maybe they needed to move back north because she just couldn’t imagine starting a family here and—
It is a universal truth, the neighbor said, that some women never know when to shut the fuck up.
“Is that LaCroix?” she said after he opened the fridge and handed her a cold can.
“Even better,” he said back.
He went into the bathroom to shower and when he returned his wife was unconscious in bed, sunk into a deep and peaceful slumber, the half-empty can sitting on the bedside table. In the morning, she woke refreshed and cheerful. That evening, she did not complain about the traffic or her job.
On his lunch break, he called his neighbor and demanded to know where this magical sparkling water had come from. His neighbor said that he had heard about it from another husband in a different apartment complex who heard about it from a second cousin who heard about it from an internet forum. For a small fee, his neighbor said, I can be your supplier.
That was two months ago.
Now each time his wife simply becomes too much he offers her a can of sparkling water. He tells her it’s artisanal, made in small batches by a family friend who likes to gift it around. It helps that they live in Florida, where everyone is overheated all the time. He clips out articles on the importance of hydration for skin elasticity and weight loss and a general sense of wellbeing from women’s magazines and drops them into her purse.
“I might not go for a walk after all,” his wife calls out from the living room. “I just got so sleepy.”
She stands slumped in front of the silent TV and spends five minutes debating whether or not to brush her teeth before eventually deciding she is so desperate for sleep she must go straight to bed, hygiene be damned.
Of course, she has noticed a correlation between drinking the sparkling water, with the mysterious label she can never find anywhere else, and being seized by a narcoleptic longing for sleep. She believes the story about the family friend, even if making small-batch artisanal water does seem like a curious way to spend one’s time. But she likes the word "artisanal," thinks it sounds aspirational, and also the water is just so refreshing. Lately, though, she’s started to get an icy feeling in her stomach whenever her husband hands her a can and at the same time, for reasons she cannot articulate to herself, she feels compelled to accept his offering, as though they have entered into an agreement she doesn’t quite understand. Also, there is the problem of how her sleep has changed. After drinking the water, she used to wake feeling as though she had slept for a hundred years, like a character in a fairy tale, but recently she has been coming to in the middle of the night, upright in the shower or in the kitchen, her head stuck in the arctic glow of the freezer — even though she has no history of sleepwalking (her husband, always a sound sleeper, has yet to notice). Still, she wants this life. She really does, even if she has to admit that ever since the judge entered into the news cycle something inside her has been disturbed. The women who have come forward — they are so relatable. One of them looks just like her aunt Karen. So she wants to stand up. She wants to do something. If only she weren’t so tired. She should go to a march! Instead she has started shouting at the drivers who cut her off in traffic and snapping at coworkers and picking fights with her poor husband, who is trying his best, she supposes, to navigate these new currents.
The truth is that she is angriest at her own anger, which she suspects has arrived far too late to be of any real use.
She has been kept too safe, been too protected, for too long.
Besides, if she squints at the label the can just looks like a LaCroix.
This is what I need, she thinks as she sinks into bed. This is what the world needs. Sleep is holy. Maybe our problems would be solved if everyone just got more sleep. Isn’t that what the woman from the Huffington Post has been trying to tell us? She drifts away listening to her husband bang around in the kitchen, his movements a dim echo through the wall.
The last time he bought a flat of cans from his neighbor, in a remote corner of one of the complex’s many parking lots, the neighbor asked if he was taking “full advantage” of his new marital situation. He frowned and said he didn’t know what that was supposed to mean and then the neighbor told him that when his wife drinks a full can you can’t wake her up for the end of the world. Call me twisted, his neighbor whispered, but it makes me feel like a ghost. Like I’m walking through walls while everyone else is still using doors.
The neighbor’s confession was twisted, he assures himself in the kitchen. Why would anyone want to be a ghost? In the parking lot, he yanked the flat from his neighbor’s arms and hurried away, but now that the notion is in his head he can’t scrub it out, especially when she kicks away the covers and he spots a smooth thigh all twisted up in the sheets.
Sometimes he wonders what would happen if everyone were to one day stop pretending and he feels afraid.
He searches for a way to roust out the lizard. He knows how to catch it in a water glass and release it back into the outdoors, if an apartment complex entombed by interstates could still be considered the outdoors. He’s from this odd southern state and lizard catching was a favored pastime as a boy. He slams the cabinet doors open and shut, to see if he can startle the creature out from hiding. He pushes his fingers into the blade-narrow space between the cabinet and the wall. He looks forward to telling his wife that he stayed up very late and worked very hard to expel this lizard from their apartment, all in the service of her comfort.
She can’t be sure of the time when she rises from bed and begins to move (quietly, quietly), out the front door and down the open stairwell and into a vast parking lot, the asphalt lunar under the fluorescents. She walks and she walks. She has the sensation of floating, which morphs into the sensation of having been halved, like a cell dividing. One version of herself is floating right here while another hovers in the distance, her pale blue nightgown fluttering at her ankles. Except she doesn’t own a pale blue nightgown, she sleeps in sweats and T-shirts, and that’s when she feels the burn of the asphalt on her bare feet and understands the woman in the distance is not a splinter of her own self but rather a distinct person, out on her own night sojourn. She drifts closer to the woman; she imagines the two of them orbiting the parking lot together, twin satellites in outer space. She wants to call to the woman, to ask what she’s doing out here, and then she feels the sound of her own voice ring through her like a bell. She stops walking. The distant woman pauses, turns toward her. She is so close to being awake.
He thinks he hears a door open and close; for a moment, he imagines a human-size lizard creeping into the apartment, but of course there are only two human-size creatures in here and he is in the kitchen and his wife is in bed, asleep.
He takes a break and searches for “agonizing heel pain” on his phone. The results include plantar fasciitis, cysts, tendon tears, nerve entrapment, gout. His phone buzzes in his hand, a notification from the app, to wait at the new Cronut place first thing tomorrow. He has a job interview lined up for next week, at a real estate company, and he hopes he gets hired. In his heart he knows waiting in line is an absurd and humiliating job for an adult to have and he tries to not think about what it means that he’s so good at it.
When he finally catches the lizard, he doesn’t slide his palm under the glass right away. He keeps the glass pressed to the wall and leers at his specimen. He knows he must look like a giant, from the lizard’s perspective, that he must be terrifying. The creature is so still and it is strange how they watch you, with those unblinking eyes. Isn’t it true that they don’t have eyelids? Just as well, he thinks. They are little things, no longer than a finger, and so they have to be vigilant. The lizard cracks open its tiny mouth, heart twitching under its thin reptilian hide. His breath starts to fog the glass. It really does look like something from another epoch. Prehistoric, as his wife would say. Why are there tiny dinosaurs in our home? “How did you get all the way up here?” he asks the lizard, and the whole history of the world answers back.
Excerpted from I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on July 28, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Laura van den Berg. All rights reserved.
Laura van den Berg is the author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, The Isle of Youth, and I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, and the novels Find Me and The Third Hotel, which was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and an Indie Next pick, and was named one of the best books of 2018 by more than a dozen publications. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, a PEN/O. Henry Award, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and is a two-time finalist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Born and raised in Florida, Laura splits her time between the Boston area and central Florida with her husband and dog.