The Queen of Iceland
Pete didn’t even come into the kitchen. He just bounded right down the steps and out the front door like he had mornings for the past month, calling back at the last possible minute, “I’m late. I’ll grab breakfast on the run. See you tonight!”
He was back within minutes, searching along the walk and in the bushes. He came into the house, his alibi some forgotten business papers. So close to the truth. That’s what a good liar learned to do – to stay as close to the truth as possible, merely omitting the details that formed the lie. She heard him run up the stairs, the almost silent opening of the closet doors, the flushing of the toilet as he checked the bathroom.
It was almost fun observing him. He was like a character in a movie who doesn’t know what the audience knows. It lets the onlooker feel wiser than the character on the screen, because the audience gets to figure it out first.
“Find them?” she asked as he entered the kitchen.
“Want me to help look?”
He eyed her suspiciously, as though it had just entered his mind that perhaps she had already found what he was looking for.
“Tell me exactly what you’re looking for, and I’ll come help look for it.”
She could see his distorted reflection looking back at her from the chrome-like polish of the stainless steel blender, their eyes meeting as though in a mirror. His eyes revealed confusion, fear, a bit of anger.
What did he see in her eyes? She tried to feign indifference.
He worried the change in his pocket, fisting the coins and then letting them fall. Up and down, up and down, they pulsed like his blood and his indecision as he tried to decide what to do.
“What do the papers look like?” she asked, making off in the direction of the stairs.
It was then that he had decided he must have left the papers at the office and had quickly left for work.
She took the stolen letter out of the blender. She had been right. He had never thought to look there. She saw Pete’s neat handwriting on the sealed envelope she had found in the pocket of the jacket she had taken out of the closet for a quick pressing this morning. Running the iron over the pocket, she had heard a crackle that was the stamped letter addressed to a woman unknown to her. In the upper left hand corner was his name and return address–a PO box unknown to her.
She had had time to do little other than find a fast hiding place for it, because she knew that when he got to the letterbox at the corner and discovered the letter missing that he would be back fast to try to find where he’d dropped it. And she’d been right about it all.
Now that he was gone for the day, she slit open the letter with a skewer and read:
“I feel like one of the ceramic figurines on the shelf in my Grandmother’s house. Chosen so long ago, it is not clear whether I am of value or merely a familiar part of the environment. The insecurity that has kept me from writing sooner is based on that same metaphor: my feeling that the fact that someone once chose me does not mean that I have enough value or taste or appeal to anyone else in the world.”
She stopped reading, then reread the first three lines again and again, as though trying to wring all meaning out of them before plunging again into the letter. Was she referred to in those sentences? Was her life being scrutinized as in a novel? And if so, was she to be villainess or heroine? She probed her own memories for proof supporting one view or the other. Knowing oneself from the inside out, how could anyone ever claim complete innocence? For the world knows us by the decisions we make whereas we know ourselves as all the alternatives seriously considered before making a choice.
“She caters to me like she caters to guests. Polite, fair, maintaining her distance, she is like a really good household staff member.”
She stopped again. Reread the sentences. Reread them. Reread them. Unfair. He was not being fair. He made her sound so cold. If it was she he was describing. She picked up the letter and read on.
”I feel like the exception, the holdout in her life, for everyone else loves her. I, who know her best, am the only one she can’t convince.”
She sat down on the kitchen stool, plopping down hard more by necessity than design. It was the greatest infidelity. He was placing someone else’s mind and affections before hers. Talking about her, like the vilest gossip.
Each sentence farther into the letter, she was being pulled closer to the core of him and seeing herself strained through and stained by his consciousness; and she realized suddenly that it was the greatest self-cruelty that prodded her to read more. And so, although there was a page more of writing, she folded the letter without reading on. She had learned as much of his truth as she ever wanted to know.
She folded the letter into the envelope, then folded the envelope into a tight roll and put it back into the blender. The apple juice sat on the counter where she’d put in readiness for him. Next to it were all of the other unused ingredients for his morning cocktail of blended fruit, juice, cereal and soy milk. Neatly, she sloshed out a cup of juice. She reached for the soy milk next, then the banana, papaya and frozen blueberries. She put on the lid and watched as sweet ingredients mixed with the bitter words to form a purple mass. She lifted the lid and began to add the eight ice cubes, one at a time. When the action grew sluggish, she added more juice and heard the clunk of the eighth and last cube meet the propellers.
She turned off the blender, leaned over to extract a very large plastic glass from under the counter. The mess in the blender filled the glass and another just like it. She took one in each hand as she left the kitchen, climbed the stairs. She walked down the hall. To her right and her left, the hall was lined with the portraits of his ancestors. Beautiful and prosperous, they seemed to form some unattainable goal, like trophies lined up on a shelf. Winners all, they dared her to live up to them.
As she walked between them, she felt as though she were running the gauntlet. Her eyes went from glass top to glass top, watching so as not to spill a drop.
She walked down the hall to their bedroom, sat down on his side of the bed and put one glass on the night table as she bent over to open the wooded door of the night table. Inside was a small freezer full of Healthy Choice frozen nonfat yogurt bars, sugarless popsicles and frozen natural health-food candy bars. She slipped the two glasses into the freezer along one side, then shut the door.
The alarm rang as usual at 6 a.m. the next morning. Jarred from her sleep, she sat stiffly upright, like a mummy rising from the tomb. As she felt her way down the stairs, still half-asleep, he fumbled around in the bathroom. Ten minutes later, she was back with two mugs of coffee. As if rehearsed, he cracked the door to the bathroom and stuck his hand out. She placed the insulated mug onto his palm and the hand withdrew, leaving the door ajar.
“Early meeting again today?” she asked, walking across the room to perch on his side of the bed.
From the bathroom came shaving sounds. “Yeah, all this week.”
She bent down and opened the bedside mini-freezer, withdrawing a tall glass.
“I thought that might be the case, so I made your shake yesterday morning and froze it. If you put it in the microwave for a minute when you get to the office, it will thaw out enough to drink.
“Thanks, Rita. I’ll owe you one—anything you want.”
Her eyes caught on the steam sifting out from the cracked-open bathroom door as she climbed back into bed for an hour’s more sleep. Nestling more snuggly down into the pillow, she answered him in thought only.
Anything, Pete? You should be careful. You know me–I’m fully capable of making you eat your own words.
(Here’s another fictional response to today’s prompt, Fight or Flight.)