by Elisabeth Seldes Annacone
Today is my anniversary and I’d rather be out shopping for a slinky new dress or a funny card or searching online for a great restaurant. But Stuart has a work thing tonight, so here I am on my knees by the coffee table, looking at selects to show Josie and Steve, whose wedding I’m shooting in three weeks. From the sound of it, they have arrived and made immediate use of the small bathroom off the waiting area. Their giddy moans and muffled groans come through from the other side of the wall. Josie and Steve are not the first couple who couldn’t resist a quickie in there and almost certainly won't be the last. I imagine her skirt twisted up around her waist, his pants in a pile at his ankles and for a moment let myself wonder when Stuart stopped wanting to have sex with me in inappropriate places. It was definitely post kids. But when...exactly?
Through the doorway of the study, Stuart looks up from his computer to give me a fleeting glance, his head tilted to the side, cradling the phone, shoulder to ear. There is a mound of molding clay in the shape of a sad elephant collapsed on newspapers on the kitchen table. I start to ask Stuart whether he and Billy did his school science project, but before I can get the question out Stuart gives me the look. He’s asked me many times not to talk to him when he’s on the phone and while I’ve agreed over and over, it’s proven harder than you’d think. I go down the hallway to my bedroom, past Maddy’s perpetually closed door and Billy’s open doorway. Billy’s sitting on the edge of his bed in a video game trance and I go in and wave my hand in front of the TV, but I can’t compete with oncoming sniper fire. In my bedroom I put my camera bags on the floor, feeling like a ghost in my own home.
I row with all my might, as if each pull could get me closer to my life. My best friend, Jules, and I are in our afternoon rowing class in a redone warehouse by the Williamsburg Bridge. I challenge myself to go further, pull harder, break boundaries. As I do I pray for an epiphany, a miracle that will get Stuart and me back on track.
In the steam room Jules is splayed out naked on top of her towel, feet akimbo, eyes closed. I sit on the bottom ledge wrapped in my towel, basking in the hot steam billowing around me. I tell Jules about my clients’ sexcapades in my studio bathroom earlier today.
“Remember what it was like when you couldn’t keep your hands off someone? What am I going to do if Stuart just doesn’t want me in that way ever again?”
“You’d have to leave him.”
I think about leaving Stuart and get a sick feeling. It’s a thought I usually don’t dare let myself think. “What about the kids? Aren’t I supposed to show them how to make a relationship work? How to be happy?”
“No. You’re supposed to show your kids how to love someone—and if you can’t do that, then you have to end it and find someone else.”
I don’t think Stuart and I have shown the kids very much about how to love. I sit up on the bench and a blast of steam engulfs me.
I put on my black heels. A year ago I’d have gone with flat-soled round-toed shoes that screamed I’ve given up. But now I’m walking tall in pumps, trying along with the other legions of women to get male attention. I carefully construct my hair into a loose bun. Stuart has promised me a dance tonight, the only nod to our anniversary. I ask to go dancing every year on our anniversary but somehow it never materializes. Maybe tonight I might just get lucky.
The party’s in full swing by the time I arrive. I’ve ignored Stuart’s last three texts asking where I am and if everything’s all right. Back in the day, our day, he couldn’t go two hours without pushing me into a closet and ravaging my bones or calling me with fresh, creative ideas about how and where he’d like to take me—like in the supply room at work. These thoughts that once occupied his mind have vacated for other, more private thoughts that he no longer shares with me.
I scan the room, taking in the DJ with the sideways baseball hat perched on a rise above the dance floor (where a few of Stuart’s colleagues self-consciously shift from one foot to another), to a photo booth, to the waiters circulating with food trays, to the bars at either end of the long room. On my second sweep, I see Stuart, head tilted, brow tense as he listens to Ronnie, his boss and the founder of Municipal Corp.
After we graduated from BU, Stuart took his poly-sci major and started a public action committee that forced businesses to have more transparency. For his efforts, he was given the Boston Citizens Ethics Award. Ronnie, never one to miss converting someone’s glory to his own advantage, swooped in and hired Stuart to be the ethical face of Municipal Corp, a guarantee to the investors that it was safe to park their money there. I can’t remember the last time Stuart railed to me about those one percenters. There is only silence in place of his ranting now. A quiet silence that encompasses everything he does. I wonder if he even knows how quiet he’s become.
Stuart stands across the room from me with Ronnie and a silver-haired fox I presume to be Stephen Kincaid, the man who just donated 75 untouched acres along the Hudson. Stuart sneaks a glance at his watch and looks up to see me standing at the entrance.
And there it is, the eye-pop that makes all my prep and my current cramped toes worth it. Stuart excuses himself and moves toward me, eyes fixed on me. I feel like I am home again, like I can locate myself for the first time in a long time. He’s coming to claim me and I can’t wait to be claimed. My body, pinched and squeezed by spandex and zippers a minute ago, now feels fluid and airy. In the brief moment it takes him to cross the room to me, I go from feeling small and insignificant to necessary and wanted again. This is the feeling I’ve been yearning for: I am desirable. I am alive. I have a purpose.
“Happy anniversary, beautiful.” Stuart searches my eyes. He takes my hand and gives me a kiss on the cheek. I am reminded this is a working evening.
There are only a handful of drunk guests left. I’m one of them, standing by the Memory Maker photo booth watching the last stragglers sway on the dance floor. Van Morrison’s “Moondance” cuts into me like a hot knife. Stuart is working the remaining party guests. I’ve made small talk with the few clients he’s introduced me to, then escaped to the bar. He’s circled back every now and then to check on me but no dance yet.
Finally at 10:30, Stuart crosses the room and puts a gentle hand on mine. I set down my drink and allow myself to be led to the dance floor, fighting to stay upright on my three- inch heels. We get a few moves into our groove and then the song ends, the music stops, the disco lights go out, and the DJ says, “Thanks for a great night, folks.” I can’t help but laugh.
“Wait here,” Stuart says. He rushes over and talks to the DJ, then comes back looking defeated. “Guess he has another gig to get to. Damn.”
Stuart wheels me around, pulls me into the photo booth, and sets me on his lap. “Will you take a rain check?” Under the low ceiling and between the narrow walls, he kisses my neck, his voice thick with contrition.
“I won’t hold my breath.” The words slip out of my mouth before I can stop them.
“Meems, please don’t.”
“Don’t what?” I say, pretending not to know.
“Don’t make me feel shitty. We agreed to celebrate next week. So we’ll put our dancing shoes on and break out all our moves then. Okay?”
“I’ve asked for the last however many years but we never go. We always end up at a Knick’s game or—somehow doing something else.” As soon as I say it, I realize I’m breaking my own relationship rule: Never use the words “always” or “never” in an argument. And definitely not in the same sentence.
Stuart’s eyes dim. “Can we just drop it?”
“We did drop it—we dropped our whole anniversary.” Even as I say it I hate myself. The old hurts start tumbling down on me like an avalanche. They take me far, far from home, the home I felt a second ago in Stuart’s eyes—and pretty soon I’m saying things I don’t mean. The never thoughts get their talons in me. Never getting to dance, never getting his complete attention, never being romantic ever again. The close quarters of the photo booth suddenly feel too tight for both of us.
“God, I wish for once you could just—” Stuart ventures.
“You wish?” I say. “We’re here because of your wish. What about what I wish? I wish—” And then before I can stop it, there it is, the personal attack. “You—you’re boring. This job has made you boring. Our life together is so predictable it’s like we’re dead. We never do anything fun anymore. What happened to the spontaneous guy I married? The guy who used to be full of surprises? Who used to bring me flowers for no reason? Where is he? Can I have him back, please? That’s what I wish for.”
I feel Stuart’s body go tense beneath me, his chest move away from my back. He lists to one side, his jaw tight, his eyes dark and hard behind his glasses.
“Okay, Mimi. Enough. I get it.” He leans forward to go but is blinded by the flash as it pops once. I turn as the next picture snaps, my behind to the lens. The last flash explodes behind the glass as I throw back the curtain and exit. Behind me Stuart stands and slams his head into the low pressboard ceiling of the booth. “Ow, fuck!”
The next morning, I come back to consciousness sprawled on the mattress, my throat too dry to swallow, my head like an anvil. Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” floats in from somewhere across the room. I open one heavy eyelid to see Stuart in his boxers airplaning in a cup of coffee to me, swaying to the beat. I pull the covers over my exposed parts. The clock behind him comes into focus. I sit up with a start.
“Oh my God, it’s nine a.m.! Move, I’ve got to get the kids up—”
“Already done.” He sets the coffee on the bedside table and straddles me. “I just dropped them off at school.”
“You took them?”
“Is that so hard to believe?” He’s kissing my neck.
I reach for the coffee, take a sip, try to get a handle on the day. “Why are you being so nice to me? And why aren’t you at work? ” I wriggle free, push him off me. “This is just about last night”
His hand, warm from the coffee cup, goes up my nightshirt. He gently rolls my left nipple between his thumb and forefinger. “This is just about you and me and our big empty house.”
I take another sip of coffee and feel the grip on my head loosen. “What about work?” His hand moves down my sleep shorts. “It can wait.” He drops under the covers. I let my eyelids close around my aching eyes. “This doesn’t mean I forgive you.”
I stand in the shower, a dumb smile spread across my face, trying to figure out what just happened. I turn my face up into the water stream and close my eyes. Showering and dressing is a private affair for me; somehow I’ve always felt vulnerable when someone sees me naked, even Stuart. Especially Stuart. And after fifteen years of marriage I still lock the bathroom door.
Today it must’ve slipped my mind, though, because suddenly the shower door opens and Stuart steps in beside me. I feel my chest constrict. The last time we showered together had to be just after I got pregnant with Maddy, when I was just starting to show. There was something about my belly being stretched a little more tightly over the baby bump that made me less self-conscious. Stuart begins to run the soap over my curves and along my crevices. Then he’s kissing my neck and sliding his soapy body against mine. I step into the water to rinse. “I have clients at eleven,” I say with a definitive move to the shower door.
“So cancel.” He pulls me back into him.
“I can’t…” Get comfortable standing here in the shower with you and don’t know what’s happening and I need to get away and clear my mind so I can process what the hell is going on here.
I wriggle free, get out of the shower and wrap a towel around myself, but I can’t seem to shake him. Even when I’m hopping around trying to get my foot through my pant leg, Stuart is there with an arm to steady me. His attentions have thrown me off balance. Everywhere I go—the kitchen, the bathroom, the hallway—he’s hovering close by, his eyes inescapable, like high beams on a dark highway.
“Come on. Spend the day with me. Play hooky. Let’s do things to each other.”
My thoughts are spinning. If he’s putting this on, he won’t be able to sustain it for much longer. If he’s not, what happened last night that triggered such an about-face? I’m too afraid to ask, too afraid all this new enthusiasm will turn to dust and dissolve right before my eyes. I decide to just go with it for now.
It’s Friday morning. Stuart’s been playing with the kids nonstop since our family’s forced leave of absence from Addison Middle School. It all started when we were picking the kids up after school last Tuesday and Stuart volunteered us to be chaperones at Maddy’s Friday night dance. Then at the dance he conned me into taking a hit off the joint we confiscated from Maddy and her friends in the library. Before I knew what was happening, he leaned in close, stuck the lit end of the joint into his mouth and shot out a muscular stream of smoke into my open mouth, right at the exact moment the badger-faced mother who heads up the volunteer committee happened by the library entranceway.
When we tried to explain to the principal on Monday morning, I watched her face go from blinking confusion to unblinking outrage when Stuart asked why she was being so uptight. We got a week suspension. We got off easy, in my opinion.
I wonder what’s going on with Stuart. He’s never been this rude to another person in all the years I’ve known him. It’s like he’s had a personality transplant. Or like he’s gone back to being the old Stuart I knew in college, except a little more boorish. It’s eerie. I keep waiting for him to drop the act, for any small reveal that would explain his odd behavior, for him to say he’s been putting all this on. Last night after dinner I actually said the words, “What are you up to?” Stuart’s forehead creased and rose as he tried to grab hold of what I was talking about.
Maddy’s mortification over the dance was epic. “Why didn’t you just kill me instead?” she said when she came home that night. And that was before she read the chatter on Snapchat. But even Maddy couldn’t stay mad when, on her first free day from school, Stuart skipped work to take her horseback riding in Central Park.
That was Monday, Day One. Day Two was kayaking under the Brooklyn Bridge. Day Three was climbing rocks in Central Park. I’m still mystified and not totally comfortable with Stuart’s personality transformation, but who’s going to argue with family outings, even if they mean he’s missing work?
His new Big Idea is to make the wealthy art collectors who turn their art collections into “private museums” open their doors to the public. He’s ranting about the one percenters again. “We taxpayers are subsidizing these rich private art collections or sprawling estates and don’t even get to enjoy them. The system is so rigged for the rich.”
I haven’t heard him say “the system” in years and am reminded that once Stuart has something in his craw there’s no letting it go. I can’t wait to hear how this goes over at Municipal Corp and think about what happened to Jerry McGuire when he grew a conscience.
Today, on Day Five, after he’s called in sick all week, I finally convince Stuart to go back to work and get started on his new campaign for social justice. I’ve organized a way for everyone to be out of the house. Maddy can talk about her miserable life to her friend Katsy at Serendipity, and Billy can go play with Coleman, our spirited technology-free redheaded neighbor.
It’s my first quiet moment in eons, and I lie on the couch and think about Stuart’s sudden metamorphosis. So far he hasn’t dropped his youthful exuberance one iota. I know I should concentrate on the positive, not indulge my suspicious nature, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling that there has to be an explanation for this sea change. I think about how this all started right after our anniversary. How that night we were in the photo booth screaming at each other and the next day things between us were totally different. What happened? My thoughts keep harking back to the moment in the photo booth when I wished Stuart back to the man I married. Then the next day he was the man I married. An idea begins to form in my mind: Did something magical happen in that photo booth? Despite vigorous attempts to be rational, I find myself wondering if the photo booth somehow changed Stuart. I shake it off. Big and Liar Liar hexes only happen in the movies. I must be losing my mind.
I hear a tinny version of our wedding song, Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” coming from my cell phone on the coffee table. It’s Stuart.
“Did you change my ringtone?”
“Don’t you like it? It’s our song.”
I scan the room and finally locate Stuart sitting on our deck, sporting a smile a mile wide. So much for alone time.
“I thought you went to work.”
“I did,” he answers. “And I quit.” He beams.
“You quit?” Fear rises in me like a mushroom cloud. I let Stuart in and retreat back to the couch. He sits beside me and takes my hand, all calm and confident. I pull it away. “But what are you going to do?”
With brimming excitement, he says, “I’m going to take on the system. I’m going to give the land back to the people. I’m going to do a Robin Hood.”
Dread thickens in my veins.
“But…you can’t,” I choke out. Before I can list all the reasons why—little things like private school tuition for both kids, the arm-and-a-leg mortgage on the brownstone, health insurance for all of us—he says, “Well, I just did. Besides, we don’t really need any of that stuff, do we?”
“Health insurance?” I say weakly.
“So we could sell and move to the country and send the kids to public school. We keep talking about getting out of the city and simplifying our lives, so let’s just do it. You know?” He bounces up and singsongs his way over to the fridge. I watch him, mesmerized, horrified, and a little jealous that he’s been able to cast off his moral imperatives so casually.
“I’m starved, what about you?”
I sink further into the couch, my world spinning off its axis.
“Good luck with ‘the Stu-ster,’” Jules says as she drops me at the curb.
We’ve been to New Jersey in search of the magical photo booth. If the photo booth changed Stuart, my thinking goes, then we have to get it to change him back. At first Jules thought I was totally nuts when I told her my theory on the phone. But when she got to my house and Stuart jumped over the couch chanting “ju-ju-bird, ju-ju-bird,” the name he called her in college, she turned to me, raised her eyebrows, and said, “Yup. Let’s go.”
We tracked down the photo booth company in Hoboken but the unit was still broken and without a flash from the blowout at the party. The guy said it would be a week before he could fix it.
I enter my house, bracing for total destruction, but the house is clean and quiet. There’s no sign of anyone. I’m taking a long hot bath, the memory of what sanity feels like creeping back into my psyche, when I hear the loud vroom-vroom of a motorcycle. I draw the bedroom curtain back, a towel wrapped around me and my hair dripping onto my shoulders. A black-helmeted Stuart sits astride a motorcycle at the curb. He sees me and holds up a red helmet. “Come down here and be my backseat riding bitch!” he yells.
I grip the windowsill. In college Stuart rode a red Honda 450 that he bought from a kid in his dorm, but he hasn’t shown any interest in motorcycles in twenty years. My life has become a terrible dream.
“Where’s the car?” I ask.
“Where are the kids?”
“At my mom’s—come on, let’s hit it!”
The next thing I know I’m flying along the Taconic on the back of Stuart’s new Honda, holding on for dear life. Gnats smash my visor. As scared as I am and as crazy as this feels, it’s thrilling: the thrum between my legs and the world racing by us.
By the time we pull off the Taconic onto a country road at Elizaville, my butt and thighs are vibrating. Stuart leans to the right and we veer off into the woods, wending our way through trees on an overgrown trail, branches brushing our shoulders. Stuart finally stops by a narrow strip of rocky sand at the edge of a lake.
He hops off and pulls his helmet off. “This is Stephen Kincaid’s private preserve. Can you believe no one even knows about this even though it’s technically public land?” He stands at the edge of the water, hands on his hips. “I’m going to make this a public space.”
I look at the light glinting off the water, at the fringe of trees on the far side of the lake. I take in the silence. I admit to myself that I’m happy Stuart brought me here. He opens a saddlebag and pulls out my old Leica. “I brought this for you.”
I take the camera and cradle it in my hands, appreciating how compact it feels. Stuart must have fished it out of one of my old photography boxes. I haven’t seen it since I went digital. I lift the camera to my eye and start shooting. I love how precise the shutter sounds, how balanced the world looks through the viewfinder. I cover the woods from every angle—the soft mossy ground below our feet, the sea of green ferns clustering at the base of the trees to our right, the canopy of leaves above us, every bit of it alive and in motion. I realize how, despite my careful measures against it, I’ve become a shoot and burn photographer. Only shooting black and white to capture a sense of timelessness somewhere along the way became static and lifeless. Now I find myself looking through my viewfinder at a world that’s fleeting and full of color.
When I finish Stuart is already up to his waist in the lake. I want to skinny-dip with my husband, to strip it all off and run into the water after him. To be that free. Instead, I step out of my pants, drop my shirt at the shore, and walk into the water in my bra and boy shorts, my body tensing from the chill. Stuart moves toward me. We’re suddenly weightless, our legs and arms interlocking. Stuart kisses me. His lips cold and slippery, his breath warm.
Later, I huddle and shiver in a blanket as Stuart collects branches and dry brush and stacks them in a pile at the edge of our blanket, his hair in wet curls, a towel hugging his hips. I move in close to the heat from the fire. Smoke curls up into the trees. Stuart folds himself into the blanket beside me and we sit there, the fire burning bright, our cheeks hot, while the sun sinks behind the tree line and the lake becomes a deep hazy blue. Stuart is quiet for a long time, staring out across the lake. I used to love to watch him think, the wheels turning behind his eyes.
“Penny, thoughts?” I say.
“Remember when we went skinny-dipping in Travers’ Gorge up near Saratoga? You were so scared to jump. I had to hold your hand.” He takes my hand and we lie back under the stars wrapped in the blanket by the fire.
“Wake up, lovebirds. Get your clothes on.” A park ranger stands over us, his hands on his gun belt.
Stuart and I ride in the back of our Uber to Brooklyn in silence. The Uber was our only choice since Stuart couldn’t produce the right class of driver’s license for a motorcycle. The motorcycle will come back to the city riderless, atop a tow truck.
In the park’s office, over Stuart’s furious headshakes, I told Ranger Bob that Stuart was having a midlife crisis and that’s why we ended up on Stephen Kincaid’s land. I flushed all that magic, that passion, those noises of approval I made as sparks flew off logs, under the fluorescent lights of Ranger Bob’s office so we could go home. Stephen Kincaid forgave us our trespassing and agreed not to press charges on the condition that we never enter his land again—an easy yes for me.
The air feels trapped in this hybrid Camry. Shock and betrayal radiate off Stuart in waves. I wonder if I could capture it on film with an infrared or thermal lens. It’s half an hour into the trip and he still won’t even look at me. Instead he looks out the window as nature slides by, giving way to the encroaching city, going over, I’m sure, the many ways I threw him and his big dreams for a better world under the bus.
But what was I supposed to do? Let our kids see their parents trotted through the criminal justice system? But I know it doesn’t end here. Once Stuart has an idea in his head, he follows through—even if it’s just to prove his point. A launch sequence has been set in motion and pretty soon we’ll be living on the streets like the squatters from Occupy Wall Street.
It’s a perfect night for a wedding at the Top of the Rock this evening. A forgiving wind blows from the east and the light is just right to capture it. And I’ve thrown a wildcard into the mix of Josie and Steve’s nuptials—I’ve arranged for Stuart and the repaired photo booth to be there so I can wish my husband back to his workaholic pre-wish state. Still mad at me for not standing up for him in Ranger Bob’s office, Stuart agreed to help tonight only because I vowed to strategize with him afterwards about how to grant public access to the Kincaid land preserve.
Josie and Steve are on the dance floor, their bodies moving in perfect sync to “Stand By Me.” As I grab a couple more shots of them in their slow sway, awash in candlelight, I wonder if I can really wish the current Stuart away? Can I trade this passionate free sexy reborn man for the have-no-game stand-in? If I don’t wish him back I’m committing to being an outlaw’s wife. Stuart looks up and I snap one last shot of my outlaw. The look in his eyes is pure enigma.
“Let’s go take a picture in that photo booth over there before they take it away,” I say, feeling like an executioner. “Only if you flash your boobs,” he says, zipping my wireless radio slave into its case.
Inside the photo booth, I push him down and sit on his lap. I kiss this horny rabble-rouser goodbye, long and sweet, and push the button. The red light blinks in front of me and I brace myself for the doldrums of married life. I hear the camera inside crank focus and I push out the words: “I just wish we could just go back to normal.”
“Who needs normal?” Stuart moans into my neck.
I muster my resolve. “I wish the old Stuart could come back,” I say. The second flash sears our eyes. Then, before the red light steadies for the last picture, Stuart abruptly stands, throwing me headfirst into the Plexiglas window and exits.
I stumble out of the booth, my head smarting from the klonk, and find Stuart’s eyes cutting through me like a sharp knife.
“God, I knew you couldn’t handle it,” he hisses.
“Handle…what?” I stutter.
Something has gone terribly wrong. I look at the photo booth for some clue as to why it sent this angry alien Stuart.
Stuart takes off at a clip across the dance floor toward the elevators.
“Wait!” I catch his sleeve by the elevator. “What’s happening?”
He jerks his arm away. “You. You just happened. You will never be happy with what you have. With me. With us.”
“What makes you think that?”
Stuart moves in on me.
“What? I just proved it by giving you exactly what you wanted—what you wished for—these past three weeks. And you couldn’t handle it. You just wished me different again.” A terrible realization cracks open over me: I’ve been had.
Stuart starts to go into the stairwell but turns and comes back in my face.
“You know what? You’ve never been happy with anything. With me or the kids or anything in our life. I’ve tried to give you everything you wanted and you could never appreciate it.”
I shake my head, dumbstruck.
“I can’t be with someone who won’t take responsibility for her own fucked-up idea. Someone who thinks it’s everyone around her—not her–—who’s the problem.”
The elevator doors yawn open and Stuart steps inside. I stick my hand out before the doors can close around him.
“Wait, you mean this was all an act? You were just pretending to be the old Stuart this whole time?”
He nods, eyes like steel behind his rimless glasses.
“No magic. Just me. The me you said you wished I was. And now it’s the real me, who has always been there, telling you that I am no longer interested in trying to be the person you want me to be.” Shock runs through my body like the clanging of a bell. Stuart pushes the elevator button and the doors close on our conversation.
In the taxi home my mind swirls, trying to piece together what Stuart has just told me. Beyond the window the world slides by like a video game. Flashes from the last few weeks appear in my mind in one big shame tapestry. My stomach churns. I see myself, the fool, through Stuart’s eyes.
At my front door, it takes extra effort with the key to get the heavy lock to tumble. I drop my equipment bags with a thud that startles Maddy out of her computer daze at the kitchen counter.
I take the stairs two at a time. Stuart comes out of the bedroom as I rush in and we almost crash. He has showered and changed and I wonder if he thinks he can just wash all this away and go on.
“Is this all some sort of joke to you?” I ask. “Our marriage? Who are you?” He closes the bedroom door and tells me to keep it down so the kids won’t hear.
“Maybe they should hear. I mean seriously—what you’ve put us through to make your point. What kind of father gets his kids thrown out of school? How could you do that to us?”
“Because it was either that or leave you at the party that night.” He waits while I take this in. Then he says: “Do you even remember what you said to me in that photo booth?”
The truth is, I was so drunk that night I don’t exactly remember what I said, but even I know that’s a flimsy argument.
Stuart doesn’t wait for my answer. “How boring I’d become, how my job made me boring, how our life together bored you. You told me all the happiness we used to have was gone forever. And then you made that stupid wish and I thought, Well, I have nothing else to try.”
“Well, why not just communicate about it like a normal person? Why put on some elaborate ruse—”
“I tried,” he says, like his bones ache. “In therapy. In all our fights. You weren’t listening. You say what’s wrong with me and everyone else, but you’re not interested in your own part in it. You’re just in it to complain. I always wondered whether if I gave you what you wanted you’d stop complaining. And then in that photo booth I thought fuck it—here’s some sort of Hail Mary.”
“So all of that, the motorcycle, the night at the lake, the horniness, was just a big put-on? It was all fake?
Stuart shakes his head. “I needed to see if you were right. And in many ways you were right. My job had made me boring. I had lost touch with myself. Our relationship was flat-lining. I knew I needed to shake things up.”
“Well, mission accomplished,” I say, my voice trembling.
From outside the door comes a vulnerable childlike voice I haven’t heard from Maddy since she was six.
“Mom? What’s happening in there? You guys are scaring Billy.”
Stuart opens the door. I can’t see Maddy’s face but I hear the rising fear in her voice. Billy isn’t the only one who’s scared. He might not even be awake. Stuart kisses and hugs Maddy but she continues to stand there, immobile. Then she takes one look at me and bolts.
When I turn back to Stuart my eyes fall on the packed duffel in the corner. I step back against the wall, my stomach squeezing around a pocket of air.
“What is that? You’re running away from this?”
Stuart zips up the bag and slips it over his shoulder, his eyes like two stones.
“Not this. You.”
I hold open the freezer door, feeling the cold air on my face, the wood floor hard under my feet. Stuart has been at his mom’s for two weeks. I’ve seen him only once since he left.
On Sunday night he looked up and saw me in the window as he stood at the door of his taxi waiting for the kids to get up the stairs and into the house. There he was, the man I built my life with, the father of my kids, the husband I overcorrected out of our marriage, giving me a little half wave, a waiting taxi between us.
“It was the only way I could be sure,” is the only answer I get back when I ask Stuart in texts why he did what he did. Texts are our sole line of communication; he won’t return my phone calls unless I have a question about the kids. “Be sure of what? To point out the central flaw in my character?” I sent back at once and stare at my phone, waiting for his answer. The indicator dots formed on my iPhone screen but then they disappeared. I could almost hear Stuart’s tired sigh and see him put his phone down.
What is my central flaw, I wonder now, standing at the fridge. I cast my eyes about the room looking for answers. The books and vases and photographs are all arranged with such precision they could be shot from any angle and you’d get a balanced frame. It has always stressed me out when things are out of place.
Another week goes by. Maddy has a perpetual look of hurt and accusation. It’s a look that says I know you drove my father out of the house. I return her hostile gazes with a I know, I’m sorry. Billy looks more confused than anything. No one’s talking to him. He begs everyone for answers to questions to which no one is willing to give truthful responses.
I wake up hung over under a blanket of old wedding photos. The kids are with Stuart this weekend and the house is so quiet it’s almost unbearable. Last night Jules came armed with vodka in an effort to get me to look on the bright side.
“We can party and not worry about the kids seeing us wasted,” was her play. Together we marveled over how Stuart masterminded the ultimate fake-out, at how he preyed upon my brainwashed movie-culture mind, at how I didn’t see through it.
An hour later I’m standing in New York’s City Hall amid a melting pot of wedding-vow-takers. This place could give Disneyland a run for its title as the Happiest Place on Earth. All walks of marriages, from traditional to green card, to unions of homosexuals and trannies, everyone is represented here, their excitement pressing against me like helium in a balloon. Their happiness makes me even more miserable.
“How about taking one here?” Jules pulls me out of my anthropological stupor. I turn back to Suki and Gwen. It’s a second marriage for both of them. Suki and Jules used to date in the culinary school. Now Suki and her bride-to-be are adorned in their matching uniforms: open jackets, white pressed shirts, and polished loafers. They turn their gazes toward my lens, that forever look in their bespectacled eyes, with their bouncy sperm-donor daughter Aria clutching a bouquet of white carnations. For a brief moment I wonder if one of these women would ever pull a prank like the one Stuart pulled on me. When did Stuart and I reach The Point of No Return? How did we blow by that billboard sign on the highway of Love?
“How many people do you marry here every day?” I ask Father Jerry Flanagan in the Justice of the Peace chapel.
I pull the camera away from my face. He leans in, a hand to the corner of his mouth in mock whisper, and says, “Would you rather have my job or Ken Finkle’s job down the hall in Divorce Court?”
“You’re talking to a wedding photographer, so what do you think?”
Suki’s daughter comes toward us in her shining moment as ring bearer. Little girls and fairy tales. She will no doubt soon be looking for her prince or princess charming. She will seek to recreate that fairytale picture in her mind, just as I did.
“I choose you,” the newlyweds are saying to one another, together with their daughter they form a bubble of love. I remember my own vows with Stuart by the hydrangeas in my parents’ backyard in West Tisbury. I promised to accept him and he promised to accept me. I get depressed all over again. Suki tosses her bouquet to her daughter, who pulls it to her chest like a crystal football. I pop off a rapid shutter sequence.
“Bitches be wedlocked!” Jules says, pulling me into a one-armed hug. She looks at my expression and takes it down a notch. “Thanks for doing this, especially in your condition.”
“My pleasure,” I lie.
Jules looks at me skeptically and releases me. “Go on, get out of here!” She jumps back into the celebratory fray. I take one last picture of the brides, their newly ringed hands raised in triumph. Triumph over a biased system from a polarized society. They are united. By law, by love, by ceremony.
I thread my way through the great hall, parting the sea of saris, African head wraps, burkas, and bow ties. I slide some breath mints into the pocket of my purse and my fingers catch on the corner of a photo strip. I stop and pull it out and suddenly I’m staring into the stony faces of Stuart and me in the photo booth, in triplicate, taken on our fateful anniversary night. In the last one, my rear end is blocking him. What an ass I’ve been. With a stab of shame, I take one last look at the hard, angry man I hold in my hands.
And just like that it dawns on me: In photography grad school we were told and retold that we had to have a critical eye. It’s that eye I trained on Stuart, on everything he was not and that my marriage was not. It’s that eye that no one stood a chance with. It burned everything in its path. It became all I could see through, this lens of dissatisfaction.
Everything in the room is plunged into Technicolor. This is hallowed ground. People are starting anew. A journey with a walking partner. I know I’ll be back. I want to take their portraits. To capture their truths plain and simple. But I miss Stuart too much to stay. My walking partner is out there walking alone. I jump in a cab and give the driver his mother’s address.
I sprint through my mother-in-law’s lobby, wondering how I will ever get Stuart to accept me as the panicked insecure affection-dependent woman that I am. I push open the apartment door, breathless with anticipation. Irene, Stuart’s mother, is painting a still life in her living room when I enter. Maddy emerges from the other room and softens on seeing me for the first time in I don’t know how long. Perhaps she finally misses me.
I can see in her face that her sky has been torn. I want to hug her and apologize for being such an overbearing beast. But she rushes me first, tears in her eyes and I enfold my beautiful daughter in my arms. I feel pressure around my waist and realize Billy has materialized for a group hug. I squeeze tight and wish this moment could last forever. But I’ve stopped making wishes.
As the kids and I come apart I say, “Where’s Dad?”
“He’s camping,” Billy says. Maddy shoots him a look. “He said he needed some alone time.” Now Billy is crying. “Mom, make him come back. I want to go home.” I pull Billy into my hip and Maddy into my armpit and tell them I can’t make Daddy do anything he doesn’t want to do but I promise to try.
“Where is he, exactly?”
They all, Maddy, Billy and Irene, shrug their shoulders in a collective search me. Across the room I catch sight of Stuart’s tackle box and suddenly I know: He’s back at that lake, trespassing again.
On the Major Deegan, I realize I’m still in my platform clogs, not exactly hiking material. Then it occurs to me that, even if I can miraculously find the right exit, I have no idea where to enter the woods or how to get to the campsite. Moments later I’m standing in Ranger Bob’s office, with another elaborate lie about dropping my wedding ring by the lake. To my horror, Ranger Bob offers to drive me there himself.
“So how’s that looney Tunes husband of yours doing?” Ranger Bob asks as we bump along the dirt road.
“He’s not the Looney Tunes. I am.”
So I tell this man, this ranger I've only met once, the full true story. I tell him about the wish and how Stuart turned the tables on me and that now I have to go into those woods and find him and apologize and hope he still loves me enough to take me back. Ranger Bob shifts into park next to Stuart’s motorcycle leaning against a tall pine tree, and sits silently for a few seconds shaking his head. “Well, “he says, “I hope you learned your lesson.”
As I teeter along the path, looking for the fork that will take me to the lake, I wonder if I have learned my lesson. I have a sinking feeling that I’ll never be able to stop correcting. I feel suddenly exhausted, like I’ll be wandering these woods for the rest of my life in some way or another.
At the fork, I pause and look down the Road Not Taken—the road where I leave Stuart or let him keep leaving me and find some other more perfect man. I take the left to the lake, the low road to an uncertain future with the man I love.
Stuart sits on his heels by the water’s edge, a fishing pole stuck in the ground next to him. A campfire is burning down a few feet away. Not sure what to say or do, and for a reason unknown even to me, I take off all my clothes. Here I am now, naked. For a moment I feel the old crippling self-consciousness, the part of me that could never go from the closet to a drawn bath without streaking or go skinny-dipping with too much light in the sky.
I stand arrested by the edge of the woods, unable to move in either direction. Then I step into the clearing, naked and trembling. Stuart turns, taking in the sight of me for what feels like an eternity. His eyes search mine for answers to unspoken questions. He rises to his feet and reaches out to me. I cross the great expanse toward him.
Elisabeth Seldes Annacone began her career on the NPR radio show "All Things Considered," before going on to work for Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, Born on the Fourth of July), Francis Ford Coppola (Dracula, The Secret Garden, Buddy, White Dwarf), and then to MGM as a senior VP overseeing movie development and production. From there, she went on to become an independent producer, working on such films as the cult thriller Disturbing Behavior, before turning her energies toward writing. Her first script won Best Family Feature at NAFF, her second, Places, Please, won the Howard J. Green award. Recently, she wrote and directed an award-winning short film called The Changing Room and has received her MFA from UCLA and her BA from Skidmore College. “Shoot and Burn” is her first short story.