Malcolm at Midlife

It had been two months, which was longer than usual. She was prettier than some of the others, more interesting. Cassandra. Even her name was interesting. It was more than that, though–she demanded less from Malcolm.

Malcolm’s wife Helen was plain. Her name was plain. Good ol’ dependable Helen. The type of girl you marry because she is kind and predictable. A real stand-by-your-man type. But Helen was exhausting. She always needed something. When they first started dating, she neededtosee him every day, needed to hear his voice on the phone, needed him physically. When they got married, she needed the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence and the rolling lawn. Now, tormented by the ticking of her biological clock, she had decided that she needed children, a boy and a girl. That was all he had heard for months: a boy and a girl, a boy and a girl, a boy and a girl… Malcolm stewed in silent fury–he had never wanted children and had told Helen that before they married.

Children–the thought made him shudder. Children with their red faces and their tiny dirty hands and their squalling cries at all hours of the night. Children with their play dates and trips to the beach where they would get sunburned or eat sand or, god forbid, be washed out to sea. He would not resign himself to soccer vans and piles of endless laundry and fast-food restaurants with their ball pits that smelled faintly of urine. He would not argue about it with Helen; when she got an idea stuck in her head, it would not be easily dislodged.

So he got a vasectomy. He was in and out of the doctor’s office in an hour. He would tell Helen about it…eventually. For now, he would continue to play his role in the game. He would avoid hot baths, he would bulk order ovulation test strips, and he would have frequent intercourse with Helen. Intercourse, not sex, because it had become a mostly mechanical act, undertaken only for its intended biological outcome: offspring. He hated the way Helen would cross her legs and prop them up on the wall after intercourse “to increase the chance of fertilization.” She appeared to Malcolm like an inverted Buddha, which made the whole thing seem even more unnatural and ungodly. A boy and a girl! Like ordering bookends from a home shopping channel. Want a boy? If you order in the next half hour, we’ll throw in a girl at no extra charge!

Malcolm smoothed down an errant hair and reached for the bouquet of flowers on the passenger’s seat. He walked up to the bungalow and then suddenly remembered. He turned off his cell phone and then removed his wedding ring, slipping it into his pants pocket. Cassandra wouldn’t like that. Perhaps she suspected that Malcolm was married, but it would be a little on the nose, a little gauche, to rub it in her face.

We all have our assigned roles, Malcolm thought to himself. Today I am playing the gentleman caller, not the cheating husband.

He rang the doorbell and waited. He rang it again. A small boy with dark eyes and horn-rimmed glasses opened the door. Her son! Malcolm had almost managed to forget about him. What was his name?

Cassandra appeared and placed her hands supportively on her son’s shoulders. “William, you remember Malcolm, don’t you?”

The boy shrugged.

“That’s okay, William,” Malcolm gushed, “I couldn’t forget you!”

Malcolm was terrible with children, which was part of the reason he never wanted any. He could never tell what age they were supposed to be–four or six or eight–so he never knew whether to pinch their cheeks or ruffle their hair or give them a high five. Malcolm smiled at William. William stared back at him like a myopic owl. He didn’t look like a child at all but like an adult–an austere and humorless adult who worked as an almond grader or tollbooth operator and had somehow become trapped in a child’s body. Malcolm just knew the child would never have a friend or an easy rapport with anyone. He would never be a Will or Bill or Billy but was destined to remain a William–quiet, odd, friendless William.

“Are these for me?” Cassandra asked, reaching for the flowers.

No, you stupid woman, I bought them for William. The thought bubbled forward, but Malcolm suppressed it with a smile.

“How lovely!” Cassandra clutched the bouquet and inhaled deeply. “They smell amazing,” she cooed. “You shouldn’t have!”

Malcolm smiled again. He knew the flowers smelled like nothing at all. The bouquet had hydrangeas, ranunculus, snapdragons, and tulips–all flowers with no scent–because of Helen’s allergies. He had given her the bouquet two days ago as an early anniversary present. When he thought of it now, the flowers were a perfect visual representation of their marriage–initially striking but without essence or zest. The flowers had played their part in the analogy and had begun to droop and wilt prematurely. Helen had asked him to throw them out, but he knew that Cassandra would appreciate them.

Cassandra threw her arms around Malcolm and kissed his cheek with a theatrical “Mwah!” He could feel the warmth of her, her soft feminine curves. He suddenly had an urgent desire for her.

“Down, boy,” she chided with a playful smile. “Can I get you boys something to drink? William likes milk, but I’m sure you’d prefer something stronger, Malcolm?”

“I could always do with a stiff drink, Cassandra,” Malcolm replied.

She laughed as she headed to the kitchen. It was that part of the courtship. The part with the double entendres and knowing winks and sex that came frequently and with an urgency and passion that would never be matched.

Malcolm smiled dreamily to himself. He noticed William sitting on the sofa staring at him. “Hello, William.”

William said nothing. His eyes blinked once. Twice.

“You don’t talk much, do you? It’s better that way. You get yourself into less trouble.”

William’s tiny hand opened and closed. It looked like a squid swimming.

“What have you got there, sport?”

William opened his palm, and in the center of it was a pearlescent blue marble.

Malcolm picked up the marble, turned it over in his hand, and gave it back to the boy. “Very nice, William. Is that the only one you have? Did you lose the rest? Did you lose your marbles?” Malcolm smiled at his own cleverness and rested a hand on the boy’s knee. “I don’t think you like me very much, William, but that’s okay. I’m not going to be coming around much anymore.”

Malcolm could see the faintest flutter at William’s nostrils­, the slightest suggestion of life. Otherwise, he might as well have been talking to a doll.

“Maybe you wonder why I come here at all? Well, I’ll tell you. I come here to fuck your mother.”

Malcolm fancied that the boy’s eyes grew a fraction larger.

“Oh, I’m sorry, William. I didn’t mean to offend your delicate sensibilities. I come here to make love to your mother.” Malcolm smiled at the boy. “Do you want to know the difference between making love and fucking?”

The boy said nothing.

“Well, William, your mother is making love to me while I’m fucking her!” Malcolm laughed.

“Good to hear you boys are getting along,” Cassandra said as she entered the room.  She set down a cup of milk next to William and handed Malcolm a tumbler of amber liquid, the glass tinkling with ice. “How’s that?” she asked Malcolm.

He took a sip. It tasted like banana bread and bourbon barrels, rising smoke and honey. “That’s delicious. What is it?”

Cassandra brushed a hair from Malcolm’s face. “Stick around long enough and I might tell you.”

She probably imagined that it was a harmless remark, but Malcolm recognized the desperation in it. The fear of being forgotten, left behind, supplanted by someone new. He knew their relationship would have to end soon. These things ran a natural course. But they still had today, they still had this afternoon, they still had…William.

“Do you want to put some shows on for the kid so we can go to your room and”–Malcolm grinned–“talk?”

Cassandra nodded. “Hmmm…talk…yeah. When have we ever just talked?”

Never. The answer was never. They did talk, but only afterwards. When they were slick with sweat and buzzing with post-coital endorphins. Talked about fast food and high school and animals they liked and actors they didn’t and heaven and hell and everything and nothing. The rambling, inane, inconsequential stream-of-consciousness dialogue between two completely loved-up people. Fat on love, fat as Piccadilly pigeons.

“William, honey, do you want to watch some cartoons?” Cassandra skimmed through the channels. “SpongeBob? You like SpongeBob. Okay, honey? Mommy and Malcolm are going to go talk for a bit. We’ll be right back.”

She kissed William’s head and led Malcolm to the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Now they were stumbling, falling over one another. Two creatures joined at the mouth, fumbling at each other’s clothes. Cassandra fell backward onto the bed. Malcolm threw his shirt on the floor. His pants were halfway down, and he fell on top of her. Cassandra laughed, and the afternoon was theirs.

Malcolm woke to the smell of frying onions and garlic. He climbed woozily out of bed. Sleeping at any time other than night always made him feel this way–punch drunk, with a head full of fog. He put on his shirt, then his pants, one unsteady leg at a time. He followed the smell to the kitchen. Cassandra was there in a thin t-shirt and gym shorts. Cassandra–messy, casual, and perfect–so different from Helen. When Helen cooked, she always tied her hair back and wore an apron like some hausfrau from a fifties catalog.

“Hi, sleepyhead,” Cassandra chirped.

“What time is it?”

Cassandra looked at her phone. “Quarter after six.”

“Shit. Shit…”

“What’s wrong?”

“Listen, Cassandra, I have to go.”

“You’re not going to stay for dinner? I’m fixing meatloaf–it’s William’s favorite.”

“I can’t. I have a deadline at work. So much to do. I’m under enormous pressure.”

Cassandra put on a face like an orphan, complete with trembling lip.

“I’d love to, but I can’t.”

“You’ll call me?”

“Of course.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Tonight?”

“Soon.”

Men and women really are from different planets, Malcolm thought bitterly as he drove home. Men want flings and dalliances and adventures, and women want relationships, bonds, and commitments. They will tell you otherwise in the beginning. They will tell you how they just got out of a relationship and how they want something casual. No strings attached. But the strings attach. They fasten with every date, every glass of wine, and every roll in the hay. Until you are suspended in space by strings, held up like a puppet with no will of your own. No, thank you!

It always ended up this way. It had been like this with Katherine. Katherine with a K. She wore librarian glasses, and she drank gin and tonics. Her family was rich; her father traded opals. She always cried after sex. “Not because I’m sad. Because I’m happy,” she had assured him. He had never quite believed her.

It had happened this way with Gemma. Gemma with her ribald sense of humor and tattoo of Hot Stuff the Little Devil above her left breast. Malcolm had imagined that sex with her would be the best ever. But she had simply lain beneath him inert and silent.

There had been other women. So many over the years, but he could barely remember them now, only the smallest details. He was almost home. He turned on his cell phone. Plink. A new message. Plink. Plink. Plink. Plink.

“Shit!” Malcolm muttered. Five new messages, all of them from Helen. Had he slipped up? Was it the ol’ lipstick on the collar? Had he been spotted in the wild by one of Helen’s jealous, insufferable friends? Maybe he had carried Cassandra home with him once–the smell of her–on his lips, on his fingertips, and Helen had finally decided to confront him about it. His heart thumped in his chest. He pulled into the drive, straightened his shirt, and popped a mint into his mouth. As he reached into his pocket to retrieve his wedding ring, his practiced smile twisted into a perplexed grimace. It wasn’t the ring. It was a pearlescent blue marble.

The boy held the ring in his hand. It surprised him how heavy it was for its size. He knew that the ring was important, because the man had kept it hidden. William had watched from the window–how the man had slid the ring off of his finger and put it in his pocket. William had taken the ring while the man was sleeping. He knew that stealing was wrong, so he had left his favorite blue marble in its place as a trade. He delighted in the ring, its golden color and the shiny surface where he could just make out the smudge of his own reflection.

Helen was sitting at the kitchen table, her head lowered, staring at something. She trembled with not-quite-noiseless sobs.

“Honey?”

She lifted her head. Her face was puffy and red. Her cheeks glistened with the tracks of dry tears.

“Oh, honey…” Malcolm began.

Helen held up an object. Malcolm’s first thought was that she had discovered some incriminating evidence, but as he looked more closely, he saw what it was: a home pregnancy test. The two telltale strips of a positive result sent a shudder down his body.

Helen sobbed, “Oh, Mal, I’m so happy! I’d almost given up hope.”

“How…” Malcolm stammered, “how wonderful.”

We all have our assigned roles, Malcolm thought to himself. Today I am playing the expectant father, not the cuckolded husband.

Born and raised in South Africa, K.P. Taylor traveled to the US at 29 to work at an amusement park for the summer and never left. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Gargoyle, Ginosko, The Blue Nib, Running Wild Anthology of Stories, and others.

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