A middle-age couple prepares for an evening out.
| David flipped through the ties at the back of his closet. Regimental stripes, paisleys, geometrics, and abstract allusions to Georgia O’Keefe represented four decades of colors, patterns, and textures in men’s neck wear. The fashion parade ended with a gift from his wife, a bold red and yellow from the 1990s, influenced by Soviet Constructivists. He selected a conservative blue geometric, carried it out of the closet, and held it under his chin so that it fell against his starched white shirt. “This?” he asked.
Maggie, his wife, paused at her makeup mirror to look up at his reflection behind her. “Nice,” she answered.” A little old fashioned, but nice.”
He looped the fabric around his neck and fumbled with a knot. “All of my ties are old-fashioned. I haven’t bought a new tie in twelve years.”
“Then, it’s time,” she said.
A fleeting bitterness passed through him; a windswept irritation at their battle for the last word. Her last word always took the form of an imperative or a criticism, or both. He read recently of a behavior scientist who trained himself to see those hidden emotions and thoughts, lasting a fraction of a second, on the faces of clients and clinical subjects. He wondered if Maggie saw the ripples of complex and half-felt emotions that swept through him.
“Too late,” he said, engaging the last word game that formed the foundation of their conversations. He hated the game, the constant struggle for dominance in their thirty-year marriage. In the early years, the game could go on for hours, but now they tired of it, and withdrawal did not signal defeat.
She applied a pink lipstick that he thought gave her California surf bunny sexiness, emphasized by late autumn straw colored hair.
“No one wears ties anymore, except to business meetings and art shows. Art shows, for Christ’s sake. Whatever happened to black turtlenecks and jeans?” he added.
“The beatnik look is as dated as your tie, dear.” She flashed him a dazzling pink and white smile that she knew would melt him, and indicated no cause for a renewed round of The Last Word game.
He botched the knot in his tie, pulled it out, and started over. In the days when calling oneself a hippie expressed self-aggrandizement, he bragged that he was the only hippie in the city who could tie a perfect Windsor. He learned the tightly wound knot from a 1970s-era Playboy magazine, and spent hours mastering it with a polyester regimental cravat purchased at a rent party garage sale. That talent atrophied over the years, until now his knots suggested mere competency. He pulled the tie snug against his throat and looked over his reflection in the mirror. He cringed at the sagging skin under his chin, made more pronounced by the tie. Mousy brown hair had turned iron gray. His forehead settled into permanent creases. Diet and exercise kept his stomach flat and back straight, and his clothes hid creeping love handles. The skin sunk under his cheeks, giving him a gaunt look and a resultant air of intensity that he believed compensated for the ravages of time.
Struggling with the tie, David spoke to Maggie’s reflection: “You know, since I’m expected to accompany you to these art shows, you could go with me to a book signing once in a while.” He didn’t even like her non-representational canvases and prints.
“Sweetheart,” she answered, “I don’t even read your work, not since you savaged me in Sesquicentennial.”
“I did not savage you, and that character wasn’t based on you, anyway. My characters are projections of my own psyche, and not based on life.”
His defense did not appease her. She rolled her eyes at her reflection in the mirror.
She did not see literature in his writing. She failed to grasp the story as pantoum, as Bach’s simultaneously progressing and regressing notes, as a series of strange loops where time hid as the unstated theme. She did not hear in his prose the rhythm of the rock anthem he heard when he wrote a particular paragraph or the sounds of the city at midnight when she slept and he wrote. Maggie wondered at the success of his books and short stories, just stories, faux art without historical context to support them. A painting exists, she thought, not just for its appeal to the eye, but for its contribution to the history of the form. A painting exists in multi-dimensional time, anchored in the past while surging into the future. Stories represented spikes on a two-dimensional timeline. Each spike bears a label: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Austen, Twain, Woolf, Hemingway. Every generation finds the previous generations’ work quaint, anachronistic, and unreadable. That his stories sold at all mystified her.
David, in turn, at unkind moments, thought of her work as corporate art; pretentious graphics purchased by unimaginative men to adorn the walls of soulless bureaucratic entities.
He looked down at his wife. She wore a little black dress with modest hem- and neckline befitting a middle-aged woman. Another rush of angst crossed him for a moment: sadness that a platonic familiarity had brought a sense of isolation. He remained at a distance from her that thirty years of marriage had not bridged.
He centered the knot between collar wings and regretted the wave of resentment at his obligation to attend her gallery shows. He went willingly, he admitted to himself; he went to protect his investment. In her fifties, Maggie still possessed a stunning beauty and feminine grace. Men craved even a moment of her attention and fantasized an evening, a weekend, or a life as her companion. Maggie handled the flirtations with aplomb, but occasionally a potential suitor exhibited an aggressive desire, forcing David to step in and take control of the situation. Following those incidents, their marriage returned for a short time to the early years. She became a girl again: feminine, affectionate, and sweetly agreeable. He had played his role as the man, defending his home against the wolves at the door. Slowly, they regressed into their competitive roles and again locked themselves into the struggle to maintain their individual identities.
David wondered if there had been affairs during their thirty years together, but squelched the thought immediately. He would not, could not, question her loyalty, though temptation made his own fidelity iffy. God played a cruel joke on men when He kept their sexual instincts intact into old age.
She stood and turned to face him with that female expectant expression that indicated that the male is to comment on her appearance.
“You’re gorgeous,” he said. “I’d buy whatever you’re selling.”
Maggie stood and faced her husband. She pretended to center the knot of his tie while dazzling him with a pink and white smile. She stood on her toes, pressing herself against him, gave him a perfunctory but soft kiss, and with the last word, said, “Let’s go sell some art.”