by Claire Rudy Foster
The last time I saw my ex-wife, we were sitting next to each other on a faded picnic blanket in a field of daisies and late-spring grass so bright that I could feel my corneas crisping. She looked great, as always. She was wearing a pair of black cutoff shorts that she’d made herself, cuffed high enough to show the mermaid tattoo looping down onto her upper thigh. She was hot, the hot mom. A hot mess.
Attraction isn’t a tragedy; she wasn’t a tragic figure to me, at that moment. Her shirt showed both bra straps and more tattoos, decorating her upper arms and all I could think was, I used to fuck this woman and everyone who sees us together assumes I probably still am, even though I was over a decade older, and that made my body feel full of blood and I was proud of how hot she was, taking credit for it kind of. It must have been apparent that I had something going on that would attract this super hot woman to me. Sex was everywhere that spring, bees and little white flowers each with a golden nipple in its center.
“Hang on,” she said, glancing at her phone. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. I looked over at another mother, one my age, with a long lumpy ass and black yoga pants. That was my dating pool now. At the rehab I owned, women like that were the majority of my clients. Lumpy, sad, and drunk. I watched as one of the woman’s two sons took off his shoe and threw it at her. “I’m gonna punch you in the face!” he screamed.
“What a little shit,” Boo said.
“I’m so glad our kid isn’t an asshole,” I said.
“Must be a recessive gene, huh?”
A hundred feet away, Jim ran across the soccer field, tailing the ball. He was nine. Lanky, like me. He had Boo’s sweetness, her weird compassion that made her too tender with strangers, and my body. My build and my eyes. Maybe my brain would grow between his ears someday: in time.
“Is that coffee?”
Brown slush in a mason jar. She swirled its contents, and her bangles clinked softly on her wrist. I knew they were real gold; I’d bought them for her. “I made it at home. I freeze the coffee and milk in an ice cube tray. It doesn’t get diluted.”
If things between us had been one degree different, I would have asked for a taste. But no. I looked at the jar and the soft, blurry quality of her face. I knew that look: there was a correlation.
“Why do you care if it gets watered down?”
She just rolled her eyes. She was my second wife, a rebound that turned serious. We stuck around each other, mostly because of Jim but also because our marriage covered some hard years. We were horrible to each other a lot of the time, but I think we both had the feeling that we grew up together. That special bond. I’m sure wardens feel the same way about their inmates.
Five years after the divorce, I liked how we were easy with one another. It helped that I was working on Wife Number Three, a less hot version of Boo who had a great personality and liked kids. Specifically, my kid. I hoped to get it right this time, and finally get into a marriage that didn’t have claw marks all over it.
“He’s not much of a player,” she said. “Look at him. He’s not even paying attention.”
The ball sailed past Jim. “He’s nine. This isn’t the World Cup.”
“You signed him up for this. If he has a meltdown in the car on the way home—you know how sensitive he is.”
No, you’re sensitive, I thought. “The point is to give him a chance to socialize. It’s fine.”
A few days before, Jim presented each of us with an elaborately drawn letter. Mine had big curly script and was decorated with crude likenesses of Jim’s favorite Pokemon characters. “I Wish you were Still Together,” the note said. I folded it twice and put it in my pocket. He must’ve been looking at the wedding pictures I kept packed away in the study.
“He’ll end up like the other little bastards,” Boo said. “Picking up their habits. Our baby. What if he ends up normal?”
“No danger of that.”
She drank deeply from the jar. A drop of coffee lingered on the corner of her mouth. When the small, pink bud of her tongue edged out to lick it away, I felt my skin tighten around me. She was still the focal point of my entire world. I fantasized about her, even when I was with other women. Of course we’d gotten married for the wrong reasons—but I couldn’t tell anyone that. I didn’t love Boo the way I loved my first wife, but unlike the first one I found myself unable to stop loving her. Boo wasn’t normal and in her presence I wasn’t, either. Our connection was the thing that, at last, made me feel like someone special.
“What’s in the coffee, Boo?”
“Can I try?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “Mine.” She tilted her head back and I watched her throat contort as she swallowed the rest of it. Beyond her, Jim ran across the field, one of a dozen brightly colored jerseys. The whistle blast that hit my ears like a slap. Boo set the empty jar down and grinned at me. She’d looked at me like that the first time I met her, all those years ago, when neither of us had any idea what we were in for.
At the time, I was bartending at O’Brien’s while I finished up my last few credits in my psychology program. The money was good, and I was bored but paying my rent. I talked to a lot of drunks. But behold, one night there was Boo. I knew she was different, right away.
She wore flowers in her hair. She came in with a few friends, propped herself up in the corner booth. As my shift went on, her companions departed one by one and left her alone. I went over with a pint glass of club soda and a damp rag. The petals of her daisy crown caught the red lights of the bar’s neon.
“You all right over here?” I asked, swiping at the napkin dispenser. She eyed me, shrugged.
“Bars are boring places. Look around you.” I gestured with the rag. “You’re young, you’ll figure it out.”
“I’m not a baby,” she said. She took the club soda. “I’m not even supposed to be here, it was someone else’s idea.”
Behind me, someone kicked the jukebox. The recording of Lou Reed had a glitch in it and kept skipping around. In the back, a basket of frozen potatoes hit the hot oil. She was in the wrong place, for sure. The daisies. Her round face reminded me of Bridget Bardot. She had a sweet, lopsided smile. I took her hand when she offered me a crumpled dollar bill.
“I’ll come back,” she said.
“Don’t,” I replied, and closed her fingers over the money. When I touched her, I felt the ground shift under me, as though the moon had leaned down to look at us through the window. She was something else.
The next time I saw her was two years later, at the rehab. My receptionist buzzed her into my office. No flower crown this time, though she still had a freshness to her. She wore a dark blue skirt suit and tiny, leaf-shaped diamond studs. She set her sleek travel case down next to her chair.
“You look expensive,” I said.
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“I’m not slinging drinks anymore,” I said. “I remember you.”
“I wish I could say the same. I thought I knew every rehab director in my region.”
She was repping a new antidepressant that was supposed to be a perfect fit for people just sobering up; it paired effortlessly with Anabuse and the other beta-blockers. I took the glossy pamphlets and business card she offered me and noticed how her perfectly manicured fingers lingered near mine on the desk. Pharma sales was borderline prostitution—the companies sent young, sexy girls around to take you to dinner while they repeated into your willing ears the benefits of the latest non-generic wonder drug, the pill that was going to change your entire practice. I was against it in principle, but who didn’t like pretty women? I was working eighty hours that week at the center and needed a break. So we had sushi. I sat next to her in the booth, pressed my thigh against hers. It didn’t have to go any further, and she seemed relieved when all I wanted to do after dinner was walk her to her car. After a couple of weeks, I gave her a call.
“I’m not interested in the drug,” I said.
“That’s a line,” she answered, but I could hear the smile in her voice.
“I just want you to know that, the next time we see each other, you won’t have to give me the corporate lap dance. I’m not interested in what you’re selling. In fact, I’d like to buy you dinner.”
“I bet you would,” she said. “You know? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a dive like O’Brien’s. A girl like me.”
“There’s only one girl like you,” I told her. “You’re unforgettable.”
“You’re really laying it on.”
“I’m not usually like this. Honestly.”
I didn’t mind it when she laughed at me. Back then, it meant that she thought I was funny.
It’s not like I woke up the next morning with her hair in my mouth, the cells that would become Jim incubating inside her. No. We saw each other frequently, though, and I liked her. I told her all the the time that she was too young for me, and she responded with Freud jokes. She was the only person in my life who teased me—I liked it. It was a relief to have someone around who didn’t take me as seriously as I took myself. I loved who I was when I was with her, loosened up, never worried about the future. And, back then, I trusted her, though she never made a move to introduce me to her family or her friends.
Although there was the question of her pain.
The pain was mysterious, a third party in our relationship. In the beginning, she gave the impression that it was intermittent. Sometimes it was there, and sometimes not. Once she moved in, I realized that the pain was chronic, ambient, and all-demanding, like a colicky child. She tried everything for it, every over the counter remedy, hot baths, red wine. Herbal supplements. Edibles. She started to go crazy, trying things that didn’t work. When I suggested that pain that wouldn’t submit to normal treatments might be psychosomatic, she accused me of being unsympathetic.
“You can’t tell me what I feel,” she said. She turned away from me in bed when the pain was strong. I had every reason to want to help her. “I should just go back to San Diego. I miss surfing. Being close to the water.”
But she was in pain, so she stayed.
The morphine, I admit, was my idea. I brought her sheets of little white pills from the clinic, marked as “samples/training” in our inventory, in case of an audit. Boo responded to the morphine. In fact, it was the only thing that worked, so she took it all the time. When she ran low on her supply, I brought her more. Then, she was sweet and funny again and when I drove her around, she put her arm around my shoulders and played with my hair, stroking down over my nape and touching my collar. Life with Boo made my worries fade. One night, as she was falling asleep in my arms, her body going soft and malleable, I asked her to marry me. I am sure she told me yes.
If I had any idea that the drugs would be a problem; if I’d known what she was mixing the morphine with; if I had known about the stashes of empty bottles and bubble packs she kept around my house; if she had been less careful about cleaning up after herself, then perhaps our relationship wouldn’t have gone as far. Or maybe that’s a lie. The idea of life without Boo was too horrible to consider. I wanted more of her, always. Sometimes, holding her, I had the crazy urge to bite her face, or eat her, because she was so delicious and trusting and I wanted every part of her so close to me that we were one flesh. When I told her this, she laughed and let me gently sink my teeth into her cheek.
“You want me inside you?” she said. “That’s a reversal.”
I didn’t realize the extent of her problem, until she got sloppy about covering her tracks. One day, I came home from work and found her in the tub, soaking. When I went in to kiss her, she lifted her chin obediently. I noticed that the water was cold.
“How long have you been in here?” I asked.
She smirked, shrugged. Her pupils were huge. I put my hand on her shoulder. Her skin was the chilled texture of a cadaver. I had the feeling that I could have sunk my fingers into her and torn out a handful and that she would simply have watched me do it, smiling her lovely half tilted, empty smile. And there was a suggestive trace of powder on the sink. And an empty champagne flute, submerged between her feet.
“Boo,” I said. “What else are you taking?”
“Go away,” she said, her voice lazy. “I’m not ready to talk to you.”
She only screamed once: when I lifted her out of the water, a high stabbing note. If I hadn’t seen the evidence, I might have believed I was hurting her. I laid her on the bed and wrapped her in a quilt. She started to shiver. She wouldn’t answer questions about substance, dose, intervals. She rolled over and tried to go to sleep.
“If you pass out, I can promise that you’ll wake up in the clinic,” I said.
“You’d like that, hmm?”
“I don’t want you to die, Boo. What did you take?”
“Mind your own business.”
“I could take you there now. Thirty day detox. Is that what you want?”
“I hate you,” she sighed, and closed her eyes.
“Boo, you’re my everything. You bitch.” I shook her by the shoulder. “You can’t do this to me.”
“I’m in pain. Leave me alone.”
I let her sleep while I went through her belongings. I searched the car I’d bought her. I went through her pockets and her purse. Everything I found was problematic. She was still taking the morphine I gave her. Mismatched baggies suggested that she was also scoring from at least two dealers, and her texts implied that she was fucking one or both of them. I also found slips for uncollected prescriptions for benzos and more painkillers, tucked into a book she always carried around. The pad of paper, with the doctor’s name at the top of each page and his signature pre-scribbled at the bottom, was in her lingerie drawer. Was I furious? I don’t remember. I collected all of it. This was the girl I loved. Sick.
“Why are you always at work? I get lonely when you’re gone,” she said when I woke her. She was drooling, tongue too big for her mouth. “Do you love me?”
“I’m trying to save your life,” I said.
“Why won’t you just let me be dead?”
I took a week off from work and detoxed her at home; my first vacation since I started the center. My assistant director handled operations, I stayed on top of my email, and as far as I know, nobody asked any questions. I flushed the baggies and wiped surfaces clean of powders. I bagged her empty bottles and left them in the alley behind the drug store. I put her cell phone in the dishwasher and ran it, twice. I read her emails. She was in deeper than I expected. Plenty to work with. After the first three days—she’d gotten most of the vomiting and shaking over with—Boo sat up and asked for food. I made her a grilled cheese and we discussed her options.
“I don’t feel safe with you,” I said. “You’ve lied. You can’t do this again.”
“You’ll die. Or you won’t, and I’ll find you and check you in.”
“My hero.” Her tone was dry as a new dollar bill.
“Please, Boo. Let me take care of you—keep you safe. Nobody will know about this except us.”
“You’re insane. I want to take a bath. I don’t want to eat this.”
I stared. She had vomited less than an hour before, but I wanted her. My first wife was in Africa now, sourcing coffee beans for her line of artisanal cold brews. Leni was my age, collecting sun damage and stories that made her interesting at cocktail parties. Boo, in comparison, was a child—complicated, but not yet complex. She was wild and whole and I desired her with a thirst that bewildered me.
“Here’s how it’s going to work. From now on, I’ll make the rules,” I told her. “You eat when I tell you to eat. You may have a bath when I say so. Is that clear?”
“I want to go home.”
“If you don’t want your family knowing about the two dealers you were fucking, or the dope you were trading your pussy for, you’ll stay where you are and do everything I tell you.”
“Who made you God?” But she couldn’t look me in the eye.
“Eat your sandwich. Today is the happiest day of your life, Boo.”
She ate. And she said, every day, that today was the happiest day of her life. When she was folding my shirts, or doing yoga in the living room, or when she swam in the pool out back while I watched her from the upstairs window, or when she burned the lasagna and the fire department came, or when she was up all night with the baby—happy. We had no secrets, so how could this have been a lie? She was so grateful I’d saved her, she said. She could never repay me. She worked so hard at being my wife that she didn’t have time to miss her friends, her privacy, or her phone. She didn’t miss the drugs. She never went out, unless I was with her. She let me decide what was best.
For a while, it worked. Our home was beautiful with her in it, and she communicated joy to me. Her ring was massive, a solid band of heavy diamonds. I decorated her, rewarded her, protected her. I needed her to be happy and so she was. She did everything she was told to do, and because I told her to, she put a smile on her face while she did it. Neither of us will ever forget how completely I owned her, or how easily she adapted to it. She was at her best during those years. I know it: I made her that way.
The ref’s whistle broke my concentration. They were going into the second half. Jim moved to the other side of the field and took a knee.
“How’s your new girl?” she asked. “Is she as good as I was? Enjoying her cage?”
“What’s her name again? Sloane? Logan?”
I reached for the jar; she slapped my hand away. In a professional setting, I would note her reaction as unearned. The potential for escalation hinted at a deeper instability. Really, I would have loved to choke her.
“Logan’s Run? I’m almost too old for that, they euthanize you at thirty-five.”
“You’re only thirty-two.”
“And you’re pushing fifty. Don’t sweat it, Hank: you’re only as old as your youngest wife.”
She said that when we were married, too.
“You’re not dying.”
“Suicide on the installment plan. That’s what I’ve got going on. I’ve been trying to kill myself since I met you.”
I blinked. That explained my nostalgia. She was in the same condition as when we met. I could feel that she needed me, and it pulled me in. No wonder we were getting along better.
“Our kid just face-planted in the goalie box,” I said.
Jim came up with a mouthful of turf. He immediately scanned the row of parents, pausing when he came to our blanket. I could tell that he was deciding whether or not to cry. Last year, it wouldn’t have been a choice. Now he was almost ten. He was hardening into the man he’d eventually be. His eyes went to Boo.
“My baby,” she muttered. “He doesn’t know I’m not sober, Hank, so give me a minute before you go sounding off any alarms.”
“You’re drinking enough that you need to quit?”
“One thing at a time.”
“How many things: other things?”
She turned to look at me. All I saw were her bare arms and long legs and the dots in her eyes, the dots of daisies that stuck to her like tears.
“Why, are you going to check me into Serenity Manor? Take a trip down memory lane?” Her tone was acid.
“If you’re going to drink, that’s your problem, but it means Jim can’t go home with you today. It isn’t safe. I can take him in my car.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Go home. Sleep it off.”
“You think you know everything.”
“I don’t, but at least I’m not wasted at a kid’s soccer game.”
“Which girlfriend are you on now?”
“Game’s over.” I got up, waiting for her to follow. After a minute, she did. Her body rose smoothly, legs unfolding like long hydraulic pistons. She was a surfer when I met her, more at home in the water. When we lived together, she’d swim laps until she was exhausted and come in with her hair smelling like chlorine. She missed the ocean, she told me. The pool wasn’t the same. I imagined her paddling out on her surfboard, her head as slick as a seal. Getting smaller, getting away from me.
“Go fuck yourself, Hank.” She said it casually, as though reminding me where I had left my keys.
“I’m not fighting about this. Jim can stay the night. You honestly shouldn’t be driving.”
“How about you suck my dick.”
“Deal with yourself, Boo,” I said. Her eyes met mine, hard and green and flint.
“You can’t take him.”
“We could all ride down to the police station so you can get breathalyzed? Would you like that? How long ago did you relapse?”
“You’re crazy,” she spat, and then Jim was coming towards us with the dirt smeared across his face and all smiles and a juice box in one hand.
“Bjorn’s dad brought grapes!” he said.
Boo took his hand. “That’s so great,” she said, voice suddenly warm for him. “I watched you play.”
“You can walk us to the car,” I told her. I folded the blanket and tucked it under my arm. I was ready to grab him, and getting them both out of sight would make it easier for me. We went down to the parking lot with Jim between us. The sun was higher now, and the trees and flowers were painfully bright. The next step would be to act quickly, before things really went sideways. Boo was walking loose and sassy. A string hung from the hem of her cut-offs and tickled against the back of her leg, making a shape like a black vein. Still sexy. Up to the last minute, she was a fox.
In my defense, I didn’t know that this would be the last time I saw her. If I’d had any inkling, I might have done or said something different. If we’d stayed together, none of this would have happened—that’s what I tell Jim, who is pure-hearted and enough like his mother to believe me. I don’t know how much of that day he retains, or what he’ll recall later, when it’s his turn to sit on the therapist’s couch. Will he repeat the bitter words his parents exchanged, or tell how Boo’s hands were so unexpectedly strong when she refused to release him to me? No doubt, he remembers the horrible sensation of being pulled on in two different directions, his arms stretching, the sense that we might have torn him in half if we had been any angrier at each other.
Maybe he’ll tell his therapist about how suddenly our voices were cut off when I slammed his car door and sealed him into the backseat, where his mother couldn’t get him. He must remember how she pounded on the window, screaming his name, and then ran after us as I drove away, followed us all the way through the parking lot, losing her purse and dropping the jar, which shattered.
I felt a wave rising in me as Boo got smaller and smaller until she exactly fit in the silver rectangle of the rearview mirror. I could see all of her at once, every graceful, vindictive inch, as she ran and it was suddenly quiet in my head, the silence that comes after a reel of film runs to its last few frames, the sound of spring ending and taking all the sunshine with it. I tapped the brake and turned to look at my son, whose wide eyes recorded every minute, who looked so much like Boo that I knew I’d never, ever escape her.
“You’ll be safe now, sweetie,” I said, and pressed—quite hard—on the gas pedal.
Claire Rudy Foster’s short story collection, I’ve Never Done This Before, was published to warm acclaim in 2016. Twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Vestal Review, and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She’s a Sterling Room Writer, and teaches writing workshops to people in recovery in Portland, Oregon. Claire is also a frequent contributor to Cleaver. Her stories, essays, and book reviews can be found on her contributor’s page.
You may also enjoy:
BEST READER, WORST ENEMY, a Craft Essay by Claire Rudy Foster
A CONVERSATION WITH CLAIRE RUDY FOSTER author of I’ve Never Done This Before