Clean Towel by Mary Valle

All I wanted was to get a clean towel out of the dryer so I could take a shower. I hoped to slip by her, unnoticed, as she hovered in the kitchen while I was rinsing dishes. I could feel her looking over my shoulder and pretended not to know she was lurking. And when I finally turned to take the kitchen trash out, she said, “Have you heard of this book Billions?” I said no, and that I would be right back.

I avoided her until I needed that towel. She caught me on the way out. There she was, naked, sweaty, hair in a ragged pouf on top of her head, running nowhere on a giant machine. My wife has a beautiful face and body – but the scene was not at all sexy. My vestigial thirteen-year-old self was apoplectic about my disregard for such erotic plenitude, but I didn’t want to look at her. She had a discomfiting look in her eye.

“That book, Billions?” she said, huffing away on the pedals.

“Uh-huh?” I said, holding a nice warm towel to my chest. I was biting the inside of my lips and inwardly pointing myself in the direction of the door.

“All this stuff? Our society? It’s going to crash,” she said. “It’s about all the things that are going to happen as a result of the population increasing – the guy just goes through everything and the end of the book – ”

I grimaced, squeezing the towel. It was ordinary, cotton, but I wanted to whisper things to it like “Go back in time and erase this marriage” and “Help! I am trapped with a crazy woman! And I mean actually crazy not just movie-crazy!” But I stood there, trying not to stay too long, nor to provoke her anger. I’d do anything not to set her off, I didn’t want open fire erupting in the house. There was no point in fighting, anyway, since it did nothing but make her even more angry.

She’d gotten into playing sex games, which I went along with. She wanted me to mock-rape her while calling her a “slut,” “whore,” “bitch,” etc. She’d say “No, no, don’t hurt me, your dick is too big.” I had to say, “You’re gonna get what you deserve, I’m gonna rape you with this big dick, you dumb fucking bitch.” “No, don’t mister, I’m a virgin, just let me go.” “Shut the fuck up, you slut! You want it! I know you do!” I think I might be odd, man-wise, but mock-raping someone who is going furiously insane isn’t all that fun. After I filled the bitch up, she held the “games” against me, as if I were actually a rapist and not a faux-rapist-by-request, looking all sad afterwards and then turning, theatrically, on her side, sniffing a little. didn’t want to punish her or make her pay or ride her bareback and knock her up because she was teasing me with her big tits and you just can’t do that to a man. I didn’t want to make her ass bleed. I didn’t want to bust her cherry even though she was only eleven. I didn’t want to have sex with her at all, actually. Since she had moved into the “kid gloves” category my “big dick” had died, as far as she was concerned. I would rather masturbate in the toilet then partake of my pretty wife, turned off as I was as soon she became a moving liability. Oh, she was getting help, by the way, the help just wasn’t working. Not that, like most Americans, I didn't have a therapist and prescribing shrink of my own.

All I wanted of her was that she be reasonably normal, not lie around watching That '70s Show on her laptop chuckling loudly, while the rest of us tiptoed round. And I began to think that that “she” was never going to be in there again, and the whole rest of my life would be a lonely exercise in placating the beast she had become. The thing was that, I still believed in honoring the marriage contract and didn’t want to abandon her. And what was the point of couples therapy? What, if anything, could actually be “worked out”? What we were dealing with was a chronic illness that might be kept at bay for periods but could never be eradicated. Maybe, I thought, we could build a little “studio” for her, behind the house, so she could “paint” out there – and I could leave her meals on trays outside the door, performing occasional stud duty. Something I could live with.

“So, anyway – ” I said, nearing the door.

“I mean, I just get this feeling, like, that society is going to totally break down – all this stuff is just going to go – and we’re going to need some acreage out somewhere. An island. Canada, New Zealand.”

“I don’t want to do that,” I said, “I want to live in town.”

“Which town?”

I said “I don’t know” with a small laugh, hoping I hadn’t betrayed myself; I cleared my throat.

She went one: “We don’t have to live on the land, but we need someplace to go. Somewhere the kids and their kids can go if they need to. At the end of the book? At the end he just says, there are things we could do to avert it, but we’re not going to, and so we're screwed. That’s how it ends.” Her face was a blank sheet of horror.

I nodded. There was a space for me to say something: I just said “OK,” and made my exit. There are times when you have to will yourself not to just grab the car keys and bail and/or actually think about what’s happening because the kids are upstairs and the dishes need to be washed and lights-outing needs to occur.

There had been one day recently when she was storming and fuming around the house without saying anything but kind of hissing/mumbling to herself and smacking her forehead and my son sat on the couch defensively reading a graphic novel. I could tell he wanted to actually get up and go to his room but he didn’t want to cross his mother’s space. Once she had gotten in the car and left, I sat down next to him and couldn’t think of anything to say but “I will always be here to take care of you,” putting my hand on his knee. He didn’t ask why I was saying it, he just said, “I know,” and we sat there for a few minutes looking blankly at our bookshelves, which were all filled with his mom’s carefully cataloged books, which, I now knew, had been stockpiled against some future shortage/doom.

Of course, I wanted to stay up later than she, as to slip in after she was already asleep, but was too tired. She, of course, was waiting, and began to talk as soon as I got my feet off the floor.

“This may sound crazy,” she said, “But I think I may be detecting some kind of pattern. Something that’s going to happen, some cataclysm and I don’t mean immediately or five years from now but maybe in the next decade or one hundred years,” she said. “Just like how Jung understood that some kind of darkness was coming – that was the war.”

“I’m sure you’re absolutely right,” I said, “but I’m trying to live in the present.”

“It’s just that – it’s just that – what if I am seeing some kind of pattern of what’s going to happen? What if I am connected to the – the – spiritus mundi? I feel like I need to think about not just us, but our children and their children – ”

“Well,” I said. “I want to just enjoy the moments. The kids won’t be here forever, you know? The future doesn’t exist,” I said. “Neither does the past.”

“I know,” she said. “But I just can’t stop thinking.”

“Maybe you should plow that into painting? Drawing pictures, you know, like Jung? And maybe trying to get some stuff out there?”

“I think I might be approaching readiness to do that.” She had been painting and drawing for years but I hadn’t seen much of her output. She hadn't begun to let other people see her work quite yet; she had it cached in the garage in portfolios. I used to be tempted to look, but realized I would be disturbed regardless of whether she was talented, average or completely kidding herself vis-à-vis her artistic ability.

“I’ve always had the feeling that this society is wrong and that I don’t fit in to it,” she said.

“Everyone feels that way to some extent,” I said. “We all put on and take off masks, all the time.”

“But what if our society is wrong? And it’s making people crazy? And I'm not the one who has the problem?”

“You know,” I said. “You’re not the only one who feels that way. Maybe if you showed some of your paintings to other people they would say ‘Wow! That is exactly how I feel!’ It might make you feel good to connect with people.”

“Yeah,” she said, not really listening. “But what difference would that make? We’re fucked. You know that. We built a zoo for ourselves and now we’re just pacing in our cages, like polar bears in San Diego.”

“Think about the ancient Chinese poets,” I said. “They were having the same problems. People were the same in the villages. Human nature doesn’t change.”

“But what if there is something coming?”

“Think about the Dalai Lama,” I said, trailing off, turning away on my side. “Smiling away and getting bored in meetings and trying new foods.”

Mary Valle lives and writes in Baltimore. Follow her at @marykvallePhotograph by Ame Laeyendecker.