He phoned his wife at her lover’s apartment. She asked him to repeat himself. He was sobbing and unintelligible. He wanted her to come home and collect her clothes. The sight of them was unbearable. She’d been conscious of his pain before then, but in a strangely general way. To her lover, she’d said, “I feel guilty for not feeling guilty.” But with her husband sobbing, she could virtually see her dresses and shoes in the bedroom closet, and she felt something strongly, a kind of urgency. She went home to collect her clothes. Her husband locked the door behind her and beat her up.

I heard her story at a literary conference. She complained that she couldn’t write it in a convincing manner. “But it really happened,” she said, laughing at herself. “It saved my marriage. You’d think I could write about that.”

She had told her husband about the other man and named him. Already, to my mind, a failed marriage. Her husband should have known her body; guessed there was another man. Smells change in erotic chemistry, especially about the ears and nostrils; elsewhere, too. Lilies fester. The drama of her love affair should certainly have reached him in how she gave herself. “Where did you learn to do that?” was a question he never asked. The man was dull. He made nothing of her luminous moods or irrational petulance. Her revulsion at the shape of his feet and his habit of scratching his head didn’t strike him as curious developments. He made nothing of his own depression and malaise. Simply didn’t know why he’d become that way. He was even cruel to his girlfriend and didn’t know why. He’d had to be told by his wife, in so many words, about her lover. The poor man’s suffering exceeded his understanding. He beat her up. “But it really happened,” she said, laughing moronically at herself.

Another woman at the conference, drawn forth by the story, said her husband accused her of sleeping with his best friend, a master carpenter. He helped build their sailboat. The accusations began at breakfast and resumed at night when her husband returned from work. He ruined her nicest dinners. He ruined her sleep. All her efforts to make them happy—and she “really tried”—were turned into ugly occasions by his suspiciousness. Marriage counseling did them no good. Her husband wouldn’t discuss “real problems.”

“Were you?” I asked.


“Fucking his friend?”

“Yes, but that’s not the point.”

Her exasperation was fierce. She lifted her hands, fingers bent into laborious hooks.

“I cleaned. I cooked. I washed his filthy hairs out of the bathtub. Our sex life was terrific, especially toward the end.”


There was nothing anyone could say.