The Girlfriend

The Girlfriend

The Girlfriend 1920 1246 Brian Moore

After the police leave, Amanda refuses to go back to bed, saying she’s hungry even though it’s the middle of the night. Dennis microwaves leftovers and they both eat in luxurious silence in the dinette, listening to the wind rattle the kitchen windows. Dennis feels warm, reprieved, exhausted. The calm settles on him as if he has returned from a long trip. He checks his watch. Four a.m.

The police come in pairs now, a man and a woman, wearing black vests and black hats with precise crimson trim that matches the pinstripe on their pants. The woman, especially, was very understanding. This was the second time he called them to the house this month, not because he believed he was physically in danger but because he didn’t know what else to do. When it gets really bad, he locks himself in the bathroom and phones 911, whispering, sitting on the toilet.

Amanda finishes the meatloaf and he takes her plate to the sink. For a few minutes they negotiate about which pills she is willing to take. Finally, she swallows the pink ones but not the blue ones because she does not like the colour; it’s depressing. Better some pills than none at all. He stacks dishes in the washer, yearning for sleep. She naps in the afternoons now, wide awake at midnight, sometimes arguing until sunrise about his tasteless homemade meatloaf or why he insists on turning the thermostat below eighty—Is he trying to freeze her out?

Why don’t you get ready for bed, he calls. I’ll finish up here. He can hear her shuffling around the living room, restless, fingers searching.

Amanda’s diagnosis was in long words Dennis did not understand. He pretends her illness is part of getting old, like bad knees and waking in the middle of the night to pee. The GP warned that eventually she will lose the ability to feed herself, bathe, or even use the bathroom. Until she reaches that point, he said, you have to look after your own health. Don’t burn out.

Walking out of the harsh, unforgiving light of the doctor’s office, Dennis saw the  horizon narrow, his feet on a winding, haphazard descent.

The air changes, as if the house is holding its breath. He rounds the corner of the living room, wiping his hands on a tea towel. Amanda is standing over the china buffet. She bangs open a drawer, yanking until it pops out completely, spilling all the tablecloths, embroidered napkins, and the good silverware across the rug.

What are you doing?

Where are they?

What?

Don’t patronize me. The letters from your girlfriend.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

What’s her name?

I don’t have a girlfriend. I’ve told you, over and over and over, there’s no one. How many times do I have to say that?

You expect me to believe you?

Why shouldn’t you?

You were always a cheater, always thought you were too good for me. I should never have trusted you.

Something jars loose inside Dennis. He slams his fist on the buffet, startling both of them. He couldn’t go on like this; the constant needling, as if he is the enemy. Who takes her to the doctor? Who pays the bills? Who cleans the underwear she doesn’t know is dirty anymore?

You’re insane, he said. You need to punish me? Fine. Her name was Rachel.

Amanda shakes her head, bewildered.

What?

Rachel. You wanted a name. There’s your goddamn name. What more do you want from me?

What does she look like?

The sad truth is he can’t remember. Rachel worked in Dennis’s office in the nineties. Someone’s wife. A clerk in shipping. They drifted toward each other over months like toy boats in a pond. Too much drink after work, all hormones, no brains. The whole thing ended the next day with embarrassed glances and fractured excuses. Somehow Amanda found out. Twenty damned years the betrayal has stuck, in a groove the dementia skips to while the rest of their lives has been erased. Rachel. He wishes he could at least remember her face.

You’re going to send me away. Aren’t you?

Don’t be ridiculous.

You’ll put me in a home so you can be with your girlfriend. Then you can do what you please.

No one is doing that.

Do you think I’m an idiot? The stupid wife. How did I come to be alone with you?

He approaches, carefully wraps his arms around her. When she does not fight him, he gently rubs her back in a way he hopes is soothing and she lays her forehead on his chest. He has not hugged her since the journey began, the doctors, the pills, the silences. He whispers into her ear: You are safe; no one is going to take you away.

The only words he has left.

At dawn he is still holding her, and the sun comes all the way into the room like a spotlight, leaving him no place to hide.

Header photograph © Roger Slatten.

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