I lost my wedding ring. We fought a few nights ago, and he thinks I'm not wearing it because I'm mad at him. It's in the backyard under nearly eight inches of snow that accumulated during the blizzards of the last forty-eight hours. It's among dirty, chewed-up Frisbees from the summer we fostered dogs saved from a puppy mill.
My wedding ring is frozen and covered with frozen squirrel shit. Some days that seems appropriate; when he comes to bed late and I pretend to be asleep, I think of the ring smothered by rotted winter leaves and compacting into hard, shiny coal.
We eat breakfast in the kitchen on Sunday morning. I sit in the corner so that my back catches the light from both windows. It's like a greenhouse, and my sweater soaks in the heat and saves it for later. He works a crossword puzzle, and when he laughs at something he always waits for me to say what? before he explains, even though he knows I'm staring at my orange juice waiting for him to share the joke, and when he can't decode 12 Across, I feel skipped over, too.
On these mornings, over microwaved omelets, I forget that we aren't in love anymore; and when my shoulders are warm enough it feels like summer, or like a birthday before numbers mattered.
The kisses in public have become embarrassing. We lean in and our lips stretch out. By the time we make contact, they're pointed, dry, and silent. I don't know why we bother, but we always do. When we parted ways at the mall to do holiday shopping, we did the little beak-touch kiss and a duo of teenage girls noticed. When I passed them later they sighed, and with voices rich with pity swore that "that" would never happen to them.
They think every kiss will be smooth and fragrant. They don't know anything about life, I tell myself. Then the numbers matter and I feel old and out of date.
I took a day off from work. I visited my niece, Nora, and she showed me her project for the ninth-grade science fair. She's mounted butterflies and moths in a case complete with Latin names. Eurytides marcellus: Zebra Swallowtail. Nymphalis antiopa: Mourning Cloak. She is thoughtful on topics such as conservation and notes that there are no threatened species in her collection.
She doesn't call him her uncle unless pressed. She witnessed the on-again-off-again of our early relationship and she's never trusted that our bond is stable enough to make him Uncle. Sometimes I worry that she will have commitment issues in her future relationships, and then I realize I'm flattering myself.
We don't avoid each other. We eat dinner together almost every night. We watch TV and I put my hand under his shirt to feel the warmth of his belly. This touch isn't what it used to be, but it reminds me he's there. My cold fingers startle him and he jumps. That moment shocks me and I grab his leg and hope this makes a difference, but it doesn't, and we both laugh at whatever is on TV, which is different from laughing together.
A decision has been made. I made it.
We sit at the kitchen table eating sandwiches heated on the stove. He's looking out the window, absently describing last night's gunslinger dream.
I slap him. Open palm, full on the side of his face, hard as I can although that isn't much. I want to do it again because it felt so good, but the decision was only for one slap. A challenge.
He doesn't say anything, because it is so obvious what he should say, and the way he touches the red welt that develops around his fresh-shaved jaw says it anyway. He takes another bite of his sandwich—this surprises me—and then puts it down. His eyes are watering a bit, but he doesn't look hurt, not really. He's waiting.
"I needed … a first-time something," I say. It sounds horrible and weak.
"Okay," he says. He jumps up and pulls my chair out from under me. I land on my butt and the sandwich that was still in my hand splats out onto the wall as I break my own fall.
"That was different," he says. He smirks. For a moment he's more of an asshole than I'd ever known him to be. He's fighting a smile.
I wipe the mustard from my hand onto my socks.
He kisses me, and I wonder, who is he?
I lost the ring while searching the backyard for bugs for Nora's project. She hadn't asked—she has methods for bug collection that are sophisticated compared to mine. But it had warmed up over the weekend, and I thought there might be something crawling around. The cold wind of that March storm was already blowing, but I wasn't wearing gloves. I'm very gullible that way when it comes to weather.
My fingers were cold and thin and the ring fell off. I saw it, but pretended I didn't. Why do we do that? No one was watching me, but I couldn't just leave it—I had to pretend I didn't notice its glint as it landed; I denied the urge to rub my naked finger. Inside I made a cup of tea and watched the first sloppy snowflakes fall.
I feel like a crazy sex kitten; I feel like a princess and a boxer. I have mustard on my socks.
A month before the ring was placed on my finger, I had a bridal shower. Many of the women there were my mother's coworkers and family friends, strangers to me. Most of it was forgettable, but three months after the wedding I received a small package. The attached card showed a Donna Reed-type housewife looking desperately depressed and desperately perfect at the dinner table while her husband read the paper and stuffed food in his mouth. Inside it said "So … The Honeymoon's Over."
I stashed the box in my closet and went through it when he wasn't home—I suspected it was full of tired, man-hating crap. It contained items contributed at the shower: a short-term time capsule. A lace thong, red lipstick, an advice column torn out from Cosmo and other "useful" things. I taunted him with the thong but threw everything else away except for one index card that offered advice from a woman named Sarah. I remembered her because she was much older than everyone else. Her handwriting was light and curvaceous, like sienna ink from a feather pen. Her advice, too, seemed old fashioned. Someday you'll make a list of reasons to leave. You must also make a list of reasons to stay.
The slap was that list. As short as it could possibly have been, not even a letter or a thought, just a need. Less than lust or comfort or security. It renewed our connection.
The sex under the kitchen table was perfunctory and uncoordinated—the result of perfect spontaneity. The girls at the mall would be terrified to know that something so unromantic occurred between a couple that had been driven from the church in a horse-drawn carriage.
We pull our clothes back on. I giggle as he tries to put my sweater back on me, over my head. I straighten it out and smooth my hair. I start to raise myself off the floor and into a chair.
"Wait," he says, "I have an idea."
He moves the chairs out to the middle of the room and pushes the table into the corner by the two windows. He puts one chair in front of the table like a step and gestures me to the table. I climb up and scoot myself right up against the glass. He joins me. The table creaks and wobbles a little but is sturdy enough once we stop moving.
"I think we have half an hour of sun," he says. I nod an agreement and we wrap our warm arms around each other.
It snows again. My ring is now buried under five more inches of sparkling powder.
We are in love, at least for the day. It's like spring fever and we hold hands and stare at each other with ga-ga eyes just like we did the first time we fell in love, except this time I feel like a liar because of my secret. I had given up.
He wants to build a snow fort in the yard. But I confess first. I tell him I lost the ring, and I cry. I don't tell him I know where it is, but the tears are sincere. I did lose something, and I feel guilty because I found it again before he even noticed.
Because what we have renewed is still fragile he says it's okay about the ring.
He uses a small cardboard box to make snow bricks. This will stop the wind, he explains, and when we come out tonight with hot chocolate it'll be fifteen degrees warmer in the fort than outside. He steadily packs the bricks and directs me to place them according to a blueprint he has in his mind.
"Enough snow for parapets," he says.
I laugh, even roll my eyes, but this is my favorite quality of his. I see a grown man playing in the snow, but he sees the foundation of a castle that shimmers against all danger.
Notes from the Author
This story follows up on the relationships in the story "Cattywampus" (also available on fresh.ink). I still wonder about the niece, Nora, and if she stayed obsessed with insects—I spent hours reading about butterflies just for one or two sentences, and it was worth it.