Valentine’s Day

Leslie Pietrzyk Click to read more...

Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of unconventionally linked short stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her new novel, Silver Girl, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press in February 2018. More information: www.lesliepietrzyk.com Twitter: @lesliepwriter

“It’s your worst habit.” She accuses him constantly, a waspish buzz to ignore: it’s the toothpick wagging between his teeth, or “Jesus fucking Christ” flying out even on Sundays, or letting crackers go stale with the inner bag left gaping open, or sleepwalking, or. “It’s your worst habit,” she says to all of that and to all the rest, a prissy smirk cemented on her face, and here it is tonight, already.

“Now, darling, how can they all be the worst?”

He hopes she’ll laugh, but she pauses, pondering as if it’s a test question. “Hmm, you’re right,” she says. “You’re absolutely right.”

It’s spaghetti at home, kids in bed, what passes for a romantic night here: sauce from a jar, thrashing out his bad habits. He pours another glug of wine for each of them, a nice Barolo he picked up earlier in the day—for his girlfriend but uncorked tonight in a moment of compassion for her, his wife, who begged him to etch this night into his calendar, begged him not to cancel, whatever came up. That explains the jar sauce, he thinks, that she bet against his following through, and how immensely proud he is for showing up.

He sips wine, eyes her across the table, her face framed between two flickering tapers. Says, “I’m being funny. Trying to be. Hell, you’re right. They’re all bad, all the worst.”

“Noooo.” She draws the word out long and low, a husky whisper, but there’s no more.

“I mean—,” he says. But what does he mean? He flicks a glance at his watch. Ten-thirty. Already half an hour late. But his girlfriend knows he’s always late, knows the exact amount of late that is his on-time. She knows him as well as anyone—actually, she assumes she does, which is what he wants from them, a comfortable simplicity.

His wife props the tines of her fork upside-down on the plate rim. So damn neat. No spills, no mess ever. “What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“How beautiful you are.”

She says, “That’s your worst habit, really. Saying that whenever I ask what you’re thinking.”

“But it is what I’m thinking.” He reaches across the tablecloth for her hand, and she allows him to take it. He worries his thumb over the diamond in the anniversary ring he presented last July. Ten years. Or, as she told him then: 3652 days, including leap years. “You’re not in my head,” he says.

“Thank god.” She laughs. Her turn to sip wine.

He smiles. He’s a rising politician, famous for his smile. They love his smile. He loves to smile.

“Opulent wine,” she says.

He’ll be fine. He’s always fine.

Then she lumps her other hand on top of his, squeezes so he can’t easily slide away. Her grip makes him abruptly aware of his own bones. She says, “I know you’re lying.”

In his head: Jesus fucking Christ. The tedium of it. To her he says, “It’s not like I’m breaking the law. Thinking one thing, saying another. It’s what people do.”

“What politicians do.”

“What we all do.”

He wants his hand free; he wants to cross his arms across his chest. He wants to leave. He sits perfectly still. He knows how to do this.

She says, “You’re thinking about her. You want to go to her right now, don’t you?”

“No.”

But he can’t outlast her silence, any silence. He never can. He jabbers, about her, the kids, the expensive ring on her finger, her. She sits pillar-straight, listening to each word. He feels like he’s delivering lines in a movie, like he deserves a fucking Oscar. He surprises himself when he says, “Goddamn it, you are beautiful. You’re fucking beautiful. Look at you in this candlelight, how you glow. I’m lucky to be married to you. That’s what I am, lucky.”

She releases his hand at that word, “lucky,” but he keeps his hand resting on hers to prove he can.

“Honestly, we’re both lucky,” she says.

He agrees. Profusely. So, so lucky. The sex is actually okay, even beyond okay. That husky voice she gets sometimes.

Later, he wonders why she called herself lucky. At first it’s mostly, Damn right she’s lucky. But later, late on a different night, driving to his office from a different girl’s condo, he gets it: She actually does know him. And he, stupid fool, didn’t even know that—until she told him so.

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Discussion

2 Responses to Valentine’s Day

  1. How does the writer do it? I expect one kind of couple at the open and end up completely somewhere else at the end. Powerful.

  2. Jodie Slaughter says:

    Leslie, so wonderful and powerful and sad. Brava!!

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