Am I the world's greatest ex-husband or what?
by Jim Knipfel
Well, this is it, I thought, I'm going to die right here. Fuckin' typical--dropping dead on a train from Jersey, my pockets empty except for one token, carrying a bag full of dirty clothes and a copy of Jack Black's "You Can't Win." Ain't it the truth?
I was coming off of four of the ugliest days I've suffered through in a long time, staring hard and hopeless into the fifth. It all started sometime in the middle of the night the Thursday before. I was lying in bed, my eyes wide in the darkness, sleep as obscene and foolish a notion as God, when the phone rang. Now, on principle, I never answer the phone after ten, because it's either bad news or someone I don't want to talk to. Unfortunately, I've given a few people the okay to call me whenever, so I crawled out of bed and went to listen to who it was.
It was Laura, my estranged wife, calling from her new apartment in Harlem. She sounded bad--you learn to recognize these things over time--so I picked up. She was in a state alright--some guy she had been seeing suddenly wasn't dealing with her anymore, wasn't taking her calls, was leaving his home phone off the hook. Both of us figured we knew what was going on.
"Look," I told her, pinching the bridge of my nose, "why don't you come down here, we can talk about it."
"Can we order a pizza?"
"Sure, we can order a pizza." With that, she was on her way. Laura and I were still very friendly, and I'd seen her through the worst of times before, so this was no big deal. So I figured. Of course I also figured that the world was going to end in August of 1985.
Two hours later, pizza ordered, beer opened, smokes lit, we got down to business. Laura's beau, Chris, you see, worked at the same research lab she did. So did Chris's wife. It was a pretty sticky situation from the get-go.
It started a few months back, when Laura moved out of the apartment and into the lab, while she looked for a place of her own. Chris would stop and ask her how she was doing. She'd tell him. The conversations grew longer. They'd go out for coffee or drinks. In Laura's eyes, it all seemed very innocent. Then one night she called and told me that he was pretty hooked.
"He just sits there and stares at me," she said.
"What about his wife and kids? I mean, this could get ugly."
"He says that he's bored at home--that when he walks in the door, he just shuts himself off. He says his wife doesn't understand him."
"He actually said that?"
"Uh-huh. He says that he can really talk to me, and that he's never met anyone like me before."
"He actually said that, too?"
"Oh, my dear--those are the oldest goddamn lines in the book."
"Thanks a lot."
Over the weeks, Chris got a little more ardent, while Laura kept holding him off. It was just a good friendship, she figured. I kept following the action from a distance, not having any love life of my own to worry about. Then this Chris character came out and told Laura that he loved her, and wanted to leave his wife for her.
"Yikes!" I said.
Thing is, after all these weeks living alone in a lab after having stepped away from an unhappy marriage, Laura was pretty vulnerable to anyone who'd be nice to her--and as a result, had started to reciprocate his affections.
"So, do you love him?" I asked.
"I could, I suppose."
A week later, I had no doubt that she did. Still, when he asked her to go to Canada with him for a week, she turned him down. That's when he stopped talking. The one time she did get him on the phone, he promised he'd call once he got to Canada and explain everything.
"I don't know what happened," she told me. "And what's more, I don't know what's going to happen--does it mean I can't go to the lab anymore? Does it mean I can't finish my research? He says he's going to call me, but that's two days away--two days of not knowing what to think."
Which meant two unbearable days of panic and paranoia.
"Look, how's this," I suggested, "I'll call him at the lab tomorrow and find out what the hell the story is."
"He'll never talk to you."
"Hey, are you forgetting that I'm a professional journalist? It's my job to get people who don't want to talk to talk."
"He's not going to talk to you."
"He'll talk to me."
At ten the next morning, I had him on the phone.
"Hey, Chris, Jim Knipfel here--you know, Laura's husband?"
"Tell me, Chris, uhhhh, what the hell's going on?"
I rolled my eyes and lit a smoke. "Jesus, no time for that now--you know damn well what I mean. Laura's here and she's a mess, and I'm not going to wait until you get out of the country to find out what the story is."
There was a bit of silence on the other end.
"Okay, let's play it this way," I stopped myself before calling him "Sugarlips," "I'll ask you two yes-or-no questions, then let you go, okay?"
"When you call Laura from Toronto, which I'm quite certain you're going to do, are you going to tell her that you can't see her anymore?"
"More or less. There was a big blow-up at home a few nights ago--"
"Not my problem, Chris, and not one of my questions. Question number two: Will this in any way affect her work at the lab?"
"All I wanted to know." I hung up the phone and went into the other room, where Laura sat staring out the window, cradling a cigarette. I told her what he'd said, after gloating a bit over the fact that he actually talked to me. Somehow, knowing what was going on didn't seem to make anything better.
We went into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of cheap white. The phone rang, and Laura picked it up--a habit that annoys the hell out of me.
"I don't wanna talk to anybody," I told her. It didn't much matter--the call wasn't for me anyway. It was Chris' wife, calling to talk to Laura. I put another bottle in the refrigerator to chill, figuring we'd need it soon. An hour later, after being torn to pieces by the "betrayed wife," Laura was a pile of living rubble. I opened the next bottle.
"I kept telling him to talk to her," she muttered flatly, "I kept offering to talk to her myself...I tried to do the right thing. I mean, Christ, we never slept together!"
"Maybe you should've told her that."
"I wanted to, but there's no way to do that without sounding crass."
"Y'know, my dear, the more I think about it, the more this Chris fellow's coming off as a real pussy. The more I think about it, he seems more and more like just another 45 year-old having a mid-life crisis and wanting a little chickie on the side."
Knowing the facts didn't help. Knowing the facts never does. Laura spiralled deeper into something bad for the rest of the day.
"We could do a double suicide," she suggested at one point.
"I don't want to do a double suicide."
"A triple suicide then--you and me and Anna." (Anna was a friend of ours who's also been suicidal of late). You could make a bomb, and we could all get drunk and go to sleep with our heads next to it."
"I'm not going to make a bomb."
"Okay then, Anna and I'll make the bomb."
"No you won't. I'm the only one who'll be making any bombs around here."
Late that afternoon, she went out to see a doctor friend of hers. That was good. He always seemed to help, and it gave me a chance to relax a bit. How do I get myself into these things? Just too fucking nice, I guess. I told Laura to come back to Brooklyn afterwards. State she was in, leaving her alone in Harlem was the worst possible alternative.
While I was putting dinner together, the phone rang. It was her doctor.
"She wanted me to call to let you know she was on her way home."
"Good. How's she doing?"
"I did my best, I think she's a little better--but do me a favor."
"Try and keep her away from alcohol tonight. It just makes things worse for her."
"Don't worry--we pretty much cleaned out the apartment this afternoon. I'm a little hung now as it is."
Laura showed up an hour later with a few more bottles. She opened the first one before I could say anything. What could I do? Just as I was finished cooking dinner, she pulled out a sketchpad and some charcoals. It was one of her self-therapies. That and jigsaw puzzles.
"Uhhh, should I keep this warm, or what?"
"No, it's okay."
As I laid the plates down on the table, I noticed she already had a few smudges of black on her face.
"Uhhh, Laura? Uhhh, you look like Oliver Twist."
"It's fine. I planned it that way."
"Oh. I see."
Over the course of dinner, she took a charcoal stick and proceeded to etch deep black lines across her face--down the nose, outlining eye sockets, around the cheekbones. When she was finished with that, she moved on to her hands, then her feet.
"Uhhh, dear? Uhhh, I'm gonna have to be washing these dishes, um..."
When she was finished eating, she stood up and went into the bathroom. After a few minutes of silence, I went in to make sure she was alright.
Laura had thrown off the rest of her clothes, and was sitting on the edge of the tub, in the process of covering her entire body with charcoal. Slashes across the stomach, outlined ribs, arms blackened entirely.
"So, uhhh...what're you doing?" It was a stupid question, and she knew it. She'd been stabbed in the back again.
"This is better than blood." I'd dealt with her blood on the floor in the past, and she had a point. I crouched down in the doorway and watched my estranged wife act out some form of lonely madness in my bathroom.
After she pulled out the red and yellow paints and started painting her throat and torso, I couldn't watch anymore.
"Laura, look, you're really freakin' me out here."
"Go get the bottle."
I sighed, stood, then got the bottle of red. My head was screaming as I poured out two more glasses. Things were bad. She hadn't been in this kind of shape since the days she was seeing giant snails in the apartment, and I didn't know what the hell to do.
"Look, Laura, why don't you wash that shit off, huh? I'm doing what I can here, but Christ, I'm an outsider in all this, and I'm about to snap, too."
She looked at me from inside a coal-blackened face, didn't say a word, but turned on the water and crawled into the tub.
"Thanks." Funny, I thought I'd made a major breakthrough there, but over the next few days, things only got stranger and worse. They always seem to.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the Welcomat. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.
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