December 11, 2019KR OnlineFiction

Only the Lonely

My husband thinks he is Roy Orbison. Each night before bed, after rinsing the hard gel from his head and untangling the knot from his skinny black tie, he props a pair of sunglasses over his eyes and drifts to the tender lull of “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Our house is a museum of classic rock collectibles. We don’t have children, but we have vintage Gretsch guitars and stacks of rock-themed coffee books and enough vinyl records to build our own metropolitan skyline. In place of a TV above our fireplace, my husband has hung a framed black-and-white poster of the Traveling Wilburys from the summer of 1988. I’ve heard more lectures on the personal histories of Roy, George, Tom, Bob, and Jeff than I have on my own ancestral tree. And it’s during these lectures that I imagine myself doing things. Little things. Like giving Jeff Lynne a haircut or taking concealer to Bob Dylan’s under-eyes.

Last night, on my way home from work, I stopped by a kitschy lingerie shop in Concord’s historic district to purchase a bottle of women’s perfume. The salesgirl—a peroxide-blonde with rubbery lips—must have sensed my middle-age desperation. The way I’d wandered in with the neck of a Cabernet Sauvignon peeking over my reusable canvas tote. Before approaching me, she knelt to the floor and withdrew a vial of perfume from a hidden compartment. Then she spritzed it on herself before leaning into me with the effusiveness of an old trusted friend. It works every time on my husband.

I remember her words as I watch my husband use his fork to dig at a strand of meat wedged between his teeth. He likes his steak as rare as chapped lips. Fork still in his hand, he pushes his Ray-Bans farther up the bridge of his nose. I tip my wineglass to my mouth, then set it down before chiseling off a triangle of meat.

Like a forgotten grandparent whose war stories waft up a room, Roy hovers in the background, crooning on about women, unfulfilled dreams, the ache of self-imposed loneliness—himself. I glance across the table at my husband. “If you listen closely, he’s actually rather depressed, isn’t he?”

My husband tears at his steak. Grease circles the islands of his mashed potatoes. He burps into his serviette. “That’s one interpretation.”

“And what are others?”

“The ones of his fans.”

We stay quiet for a long while. After a few more sips of wine, I find the courage to lift myself out of my seat. Without letting him finish, I pull him by the wrist and lead him down the hall toward our bedroom.

He glances back at our plates. “You sure you want to leave that?”

“When have you worried about it before?”

He then announces he needs to use the restroom.

I smile at him. “Of course.”

While the fan runs, I peel off my blouse, an impulse buy from Ann Taylor, and stuff myself into a blue satin slip purchased at the same lingerie shop. I hadn’t bothered trying it on, glossing over the tag as the salesgirl tissued all my purchases into a sleek, chromatic bag.

When my husband returns, he finds me sprawled across the bed, and for a moment, he looks confused. Almost as if he’s misplaced his libido like a set of house keys. I make a gentle patting motion on the bed. “Come lie down.” And like a child, he obeys.

Winter of our freshman year, the entire Brandeis campus conceded to a widespread blackout. I remember us young, tethered to my dorm’s twin bed, our still-adolescent bodies so effortlessly syncretic, for a single culminating moment, it seemed as though our energy alone could turn the lights of the city back on.

Tonight, my husband hesitates before sinking in beside me. He’s still wearing his sunglasses as he fumbles with the buttons on his shirt, the clasp of his belt buckle. Once he’s disrobed, he punches his beloved clock radio, and the crackling sounds of WZLX, Boston’s classic rock station, fills the room.

We are patient in our rediscovery of one another, the rhythm of our mouths measured and unhurried. I close my eyes and begin imagining we are there, in my dusty old dorm room, entangled in sheets on a wiry twin mattress, when I hear a familiar drumming, followed by the ting-tinging of a hi-hat, and then a man’s voice, so low as to lull a child to sleep.

Roy joins us as he always does, hovering in the background like an overseeing Virgin Mary.

I pull away from my husband. “Can we maybe turn that off?”

He laughs. “In the middle of ‘Pretty Woman’?”

I stare at him until he sighs and reaches for the radio, pushing a small button. The room darkens in the sudden quiet. He shifts back into bed, and for a moment, I’m afraid my request has snuffed his arousal, the harping of music the only thing keeping him interested. But then he’s on top of me again, his head bobbing like a tetherball, sunglasses steadied over the slight hook of his nose, and I’m counting the seconds before they slip off his face and clatter over mine.

“Raymond, please take those off.”

“I can’t. They’re glued on pretty tight.”

“Excuse me?”

He smiles. His teeth glow against the light of the radio. “A joke.” He rolls back to his side.

The beams of a passing car tunnel through the window and blanch the walls of our bedroom. I yank a sheave of tissue from my nightstand and dab my eyes with it. Outside, a bird has landed on the outstretched branch of a hemlock. A darkness inside me wants to see all good things crushed. I imagine the tree’s decrepit fingers wrapping themselves around those tiny bird bones.

Without looking at him, I say, “I need more than what you’re giving me.”

“And what am I not giving you?”

I search for the right words to piece together. “I need you to try—for my sake—being a little less like him and a little more like you.”

For a long time, my husband says nothing.

The bird flutters away, into the opaque night. We lie in silence, the only sound the deep exhale of the air-conditioner shutting off. I turn my back to him and try to recount the number of times today I sprayed myself with that goddamn perfume. I start to drift to sleep. I start to falter into dream. And then I feel the strong hold of my husband pulling me close, whispering the chorus of “Pretty Woman” as if it were a bedtime lullaby. The hot swell from his mouth warms my cheek, the low rasp of his voice so that only I can hear, and for the swiftest of moments, as if like his posters ejected back in time, he returns to that someone I once knew.