Pleasantness

by Pete Able

I took my wife out on the town. It was the same old town but a new restaurant we hadn’t been to before. An experience that I hoped would slightly expand our relatively small little world. It seemed I at least could use such expansion. Upon arrival we valeted the Volkswagen at the curb.

The four large paintings in the main room were impressionistic bordering on the abstract. At a glance I couldn’t really tell what they were supposed to be, though they were clearly supposed to be something. I thought maybe people in funny poses in funny places, or, on second glance, maybe just animals in the wild, depicted with unusual colors.

After we were seated, the waiter, a confident young man with scruffy black hair and scruffy black facial hair, took our drink orders. My wife ordered wine and I, for health reasons, ordered sparkling water. My doctor had me under strict orders. And I had gotten to an age where I listened to everything doctors had to say.

I tried some pleasant chit chat and my wife smiled at my efforts, smiled with her eyes over the tall black leather-bound menu that otherwise blocked her face from my view. Indeed, though her eyes were smiling, her mouth may very well have been frowning flat out. Because of the menu there was no way of knowing.

I said, “This crowd is a step above, isn’t it? I’m not sure I belong.”
Then, “It’s really jumping. Word must be out on this place.”

My wife said nothing. She didn’t say much these days. Not to me at least. She merely arched a dark eyebrow my way before looking back down at her menu.

I looked over at her pale, flat, smooth, blank forehead and imagined I could read her thoughts there. I knew I wasn’t psychic, but, in addition to the insight that comes with twenty-four years of marriage, I had some fresh insider information. And what a juicy little tidbit it was.

My wife was having an affair. It wasn’t exactly a state secret. Although we hadn’t discussed it openly, she knew I knew she was having an affair. I myself had been trying to have an affair of my own ever since I found out, but so far had been unsuccessful. It seemed some of my general likability had worn off during the interim of my married years. Evidently it had done so while I wasn’t paying close attention. It came as something of a shock.

I took a look around. I noticed the wood floors were so dark they almost looked black. Indeed, I had to stoop down close to the floor to see that it was wood, and not some kind of marble or tile. My wife seemed to consider asking me what I was doing with my face down so close to the floor and then, deciding against it, went back to buttering her bread.

The confident waiter, confidently put our drinks down in front of us then scratched at his scruffy facial hair, smiling. If his wife was cheating on him and he wanted to have an affair he would not have to try so hard, I thought. He probably could sleep with half of the wait staff at the drop of a hat. Something told me he probably already had.

“Have you decided?” he asked, smiling at my much-older, but still-very-attractive, smiling wife. She asked him a question about the filet mignon, which I felt I could have answered myself. The filet mignon was a lot like filet mignon. Case closed. I wasn’t completely sure, but wasn’t it always? Filet was filet. Mignon was mignon. Or anyway, I couldn’t imagine there was very much variety in the thing. But what did I know?

After exchanging a few banal comments, and several more smiles with the waiter, my wife ordered—big shocker—the filet mignon. Medium-well steak was practically all she ever ordered. It was funny—she’d once talked about becoming a vegetarian, but I knew she would never make it as one. Not for more than a month or two anyway. Realistically, she probably wouldn’t last a week. I could easily picture her all keyed up in a Burger King drive-thru, in a mad dash to sate her craving for cooked flesh.

“I’ll have the salmon,” I said bluntly, handing over my menu. I too would have liked the filet, but my doctor had said, in addition to alcohol, I should steer clear of red meat. And I should still call it living? I had asked with sarcasm. The doctor had chuckled, but without sympathy. He had been young and fresh and, no doubt, healthy as could be.

While we waited I made more pleasant chit chat. Or at least, I did my best.

I said, “It’s a pretty nice place. I could see coming back sometime.”
Then, “The decor isn’t great, but there’s a lot of space.”

My wife didn’t use her words to say anything with her mouth. Nothing audible anyway.

She drank her wine and smiled sort of abstractly. Most of the time she was looking around the room rather than at me. I felt somewhat ridiculous, sitting there with my paunch, thinning hair and beautiful, cheating wife. I felt I could’ve been her brother, or an old friend of hers that she had once cared for but now only took for granted and kept largely in the dark. Or anyway, I felt that she hardly thought of me at all, and when she did, it was only as an afterthought.

I observed the ceiling fans, spinning slowly on the belt-driven mechanism, with the motor somewhere out of view, in the kitchen perhaps. The motor, I thought, was like my wife’s lover—I couldn’t see him plainly but I knew he was there, causing some of the actions I could see plainly, like my wife’s sudden interest in yoga, and colorful lingerie. In addition to these small harmless changes, I thought, there would certainly be greater effects to come—things much more substantial than the slow circulation of air caused by the fan blades overhead. But they were difficult to predict, and I didn’t want to try. Not now.

In time our food came and the confident waiter bordered on cockiness as he set our plates before us and said, “Bon appétit!” It was just the way he said the phrase, as if he had invented it or something, I don’t know. But I almost never liked waiters for some reason. I never took the time to examine exactly why. I guess I didn’t eat out often enough to ever bother.

My wife dug into her steak with relish, washing it down with her wine, and I came closer than perhaps I ever had before, to hating her. I felt like a jealous child. She had everything I wanted. I wanted what was in her glass. I wanted what was on her plate. I wanted to feel excitement and lust with a new partner just as she had been doing. Her new lover, I found, was like (in addition to a ceiling fan motor) a toy I found her playing with, and now I wouldn’t be satisfied until I had one of my own.

For the record, I had never once cheated on my wife. Not even close. I never kissed another woman on the lips on purpose. I never arranged a date behind my wife’s back. And I mentioned everything worth mentioning in respect to my interaction with other women. Now it seemed I should’ve cheated before because now it seemed I was too unappealing and old. But it didn’t matter to me all that much really.

I ate my salmon and strived not to become bitter. Or bitterer. I squeezed the lemon wedge into my sparkling water and took a refreshing sip. I cut up the asparagus that came with my salmon. I liked asparagus. I took a bite of one and smiled at my beautiful wife, who, for the time being, was continuing to cohabitate with me. Everything is pleasant if you make it so, I decided. The deep red tablecloth and high back upholstered chairs were, I thought, a nice touch.

I followed my wife’s lead and looked around at the people. It seemed there were a lot of wonderful people present. It seemed I’d be lucky to count them among my friends, that they were of a good general type, and surely had lots of wonderful and entertaining things to say. Indeed, I listened in and heard bits and pieces of interesting dialogue.

A woman with short brown hair and a simple white dress sitting at the table behind my wife said, “I like the idea of life starting at forty. Honestly, I’m putting a lot of eggs in that basket. I guess I’m still waiting for things to one day suddenly make sense. I know I probably shouldn’t be holding my breath. And yet I keep finding myself gasping for air.”

An older man who sounded kind was chuckled at, or with, by the people at his table behind me when he said, “I wish I had a time machine. Each night I would look back on the day and unsay one stupid thing. Maybe then people would form better opinions of me. I wouldn’t be thought of as such a damn fool.”

A tall woman sitting at a table a couple over from ours, who sat up very straight and who sounded simultaneously defiant and wise, spoke loudly about success. “If one day you find that you’re a failure in life, you can always just change your definition of success. Personally, I like to save myself the trouble and set my sights real low. I say, that if I stay out of jail, out of mental institutions, and keep myself from living on the street, I’m a success. It’s a simple recipe. And because of it, there’s a chance I may never truly fail.”

Next, a kid at a table of what looked to be college students in the corner said spiritedly, “My Mom keeps sending me links to articles that will, quote, ‘restore my faith in humanity,’ but I never read them. I’m not sure I want my faith in humanity restored. I enjoy thinking poorly of people. And not just the people I have to deal with in class or at work, but people in general, people on the whole.” Most of the kids at his table laughed and I myself smiled.

Then, lastly, the woman in the white dress, who was so looking forward to being forty, spoke up again. She had an almost melodic voice. “They say that in order to get by in life you can either be smart or pleasant. Me, I’d rather be pleasant—it just seems easier. I don’t want to have to think so hard all the time. Always having to be right and know the answer is such tough going. And being pleasant can be so easy, like swimming through the air.”

I couldn’t help but nod in agreement. Wonderful people, indeed. I found I agreed with most of what I’d heard. Or at least approved of it being said for entertainment value or argument’s sake. And I was enjoying myself in spite of my wife’s indifference. But soon the damned confident waiter came back and ruined my equanimity. “How’s everything?” he asked, sort of oozingly.

I had a sudden impulse to take my fork and jab him in the gut with it a couple of times. I wanted to see blood seep through and dampen his fancy black shirt. Not a lot of blood, but enough so that he wouldn’t be able to finish his shift and would have to go away.

Suddenly my wife’s abstraction turned to animation as she smiled and told him how wonderful everything was. The filet was just perfect and would he bring her another glass of wine when he got the chance? Wonderful! Thank you!

Yes, wonderful! Everything is pleasant if you get exactly what you want, I thought. Anyway, my wife looked content. She was basically my sister now. And her happiness was my happiness. Wasn’t it? I mean, I should be glad she had everything she wanted, shouldn’t I?

“Are you in the mood for dessert?” I asked a short time later.

“No, I don’t think so. Not tonight. I’m tired.”

It seemed that was practically all she ever said to me anymore.

Which, in this case, was really fine by me. My doctor had also told me no sweets. Not until after the operation. Not until I had my brand spanking new aortic valve and had recovered to a certain degree.

And yet, part of me had been looking forward to admiring my lovely wife while she enjoyed a piece of cheesecake. Cheesecake gave her such pleasure, and that would surely be pleasant to see.

As we were leaving I looked again at one of the large paintings that hung on the wall behind the hostess station. Now it seemed clear to me as to what it really was. It was a painting of a man, or rather a woman, tossing a dog, or rather a bitch, a bone. I felt part of it somehow, as if it captured some aspect of my life. I wasn’t sure if I was the bone or the bitch, or, if I was one, what the other was, but the woman was certainly my wife. I had no idea what any of it meant, of course.

Outside the summer air felt like something one could swim through. I handed the ticket to the swarthy valet and he stalked off. While we waited for the car to pull up my wife took my arm, and then she surprised me further by resting her head on my shoulder.

Though I was confused, it was a pleasant confusion. The situation, it seemed, was not yet untenable.

About the Author:
Pete Able’s work has appeared in Literally Stories, Philadelphia Stories, Blue Lake Review, Spillwords Press, Johnny America, and others. He lives in southern New Jersey.

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