Darkroom

When it was very, very dark in the house, the unborn child could see as clearly as anyone. She had ears and eyes, fingers and a forebrain and a cerebellum, and she floated in a central place. She already knew the main hungers. Day after day the mother walked around in a stew of desire and guilt, and now the object of the mother’s desire lay three feet away from her. Everything in the mother was poised to melt and shut down at a loving touch anywhere on her body.

There was a lot of breathing going on. A lot of breathing but no touching.

Sleep eluded even Alfred. Each sinusy gasp of Enid’s seemed to pierce his ear the instant he was poised afresh to drop off.

After an interval that he judged to have lasted twenty minutes, the bed began to shake with poorly reined sobs.

He broke his silence, almost wailing: “What is it now?”

“Nothing.”

“Enid, it is very, very late, and the alarm is set for six, and I am bone-weary.”

She wept stormily. “You never kissed me goodbye!”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Well, don’t I have a right? A husband leaves his wife at home alone for two weeks?”

“This is water under the bridge. And frankly I’ve endured a lot worse.”

“And then he comes home and doesn’t even say hello? He just attacks me?”

“Enid, I have had a terrible week.”

“And leaves the dinner table before dinner’s over?”

“A terrible week and I’m extraordinarily tired–”

“And locks himself in the basement for five hours? Even though he’s supposedly very tired?”

“If you had had the week I had–”

You didn’t kiss me goodbye.”

“Grow up! For God’s sakes! Grow up!”

“Keep your voice down!”

(Keep your voice down or the baby might hear.)

(Indeed did hear and was soaking up every word.)

“Do you think I was on a pleasure cruise?” Alfred demanded in a whisper. “Everything I do I do for you and the boys. It’s been two week since I had a minute to myself. I believe I’m entitled to a few hours in the laboratory. You would not understand it, and you would not believe me if you did, but I have found something very interesting.”

“Oh, very interesting,” Enid said. Hardly the first time she’d heard this.

“Well is is very interesting.”

“Something with commercial applications?”

“You never know. Look what happened to Jack Callahan. This could end up paying for the boys’ education.”

“I thought you said Jack Callahan’s discovery was an accident.”

“My God, listen to yourself. You tell me I’m negative, but when it’s work that matters to me, who’s negative?”

“I just don’t understand why you won’t even consider–”

“Enough.”

“If the object is to make money–”

“Enough. Enough! I don’t give a damn what other people do. I am not that kind of person.”

Twice in church the previous Sunday Enid had turned her head and caught Chuck Meisner staring. She was a little fuller in the bust than usual, probably that was all. But Chuck had blushed both times.

“What is the reason you’re so cold to me?”

“There are reasons,” said Alfred, “but I will not tell you.”

“Why are you so unhappy? Why won’t you tell me.”

“I will go to the grave before I tell you. To the grave.”

“Oh, oh, oh!”

This was a bad husband she had landed, a bad, bad, bad husband who would never give her what she needed. Anything that might have satisfied her he found a reason to withhold.

And so she lay, a Tantala, beside the inert illusion of a feast. The merest finger anywhere would have. To say nothing of his split-plum lips. But he was useless. A wad of money stashed in a mattress and moldering and devaluing was what he was. A depression in the heartland had shriveled him away the way it had shriveled her mother, who didn’t understand that interest-bearing bank accounts were federally insured now, or that blue-chip stocks held for the long term with reinvested dividends might help provide for her old age. He was a bad investor.

But she was not. She’d even been known, when a room was very dark, to take a real risk or two, and she took one now. Rolled over and tickled his thigh with breasts that a certain neighbor had admired. Rested her cheek on her husband’s ribs. She could feel him waiting for her to go away, but first she had to stroke the plain of his muscled belly, hover-gliding, touching hair but no skin. To her mild surprise she felt his his his coming to life at the approach of her fingers. His groin tried to dodge her but the fingers were more nimble. She could feel him growing to manhood through the fly of his pajamas, and in an access of pent-up hunger she did a thing he’d never let her do before. She bent sideways and took it in her mouth. It: the rapidly growing boy, the faintly urinary dumpling. In the skill of her hands and the swelling of her breasts she felt desirable and capable of anything.

The man beneath her shook with resistance. She freed her mouth momentarily. “Al? Sweetie?”

“Enid. What are you–?”

Again her open mouth descended on the cylinder of his flesh. She held still for a moment, long enough to feel the flesh harden pulse by pulse against her palate. Then she raised her head. “We could have a little extra money in the bank — you think? Take the boys to Disneyland. You think?”

Back under she went. Tongue and penis were approaching an understanding, and he tasted like the inside of her mouth now. Like a chore and all the word implied. Perhaps involuntarily he kneed her in the ribs and she shifted, still feeling desirable. She stuffed her mouth and the top of her throat. Surfaced for air and took another big gulp.

“Even just to invest two thousand,” she murmured. “With a four-dollar differential–ack!”

Alfred had come to his senses and forced the succubus away from him.

(Schopenhauer: The people who make money are men, not women; and from this it follows that women are neither justified in having unconditional possession of it, nor fit persons to be entrusted with its administration.)

The succubus reached for him again but he grabbed her wrist and with his other hand pulled her nightgown up.

Maybe the pleasures of a swing set, likewise of sky- and scuba diving, were tastes from a time when the uterus held you harmless from the claims of up and down. A time when you hadn’t acquired the mechanics, even, to experience vertigo. Still luxuriated safely in a warm inland sea.

Only this tumble was scary, this tumble came accompanied by a rush of bloodborne adrenaline, as the mother appeared to be in some distress–

“Al, not so sure it’s a good idea, isn’t, I don’t think–”

“The book says there is nothing wrong–”

“Uneasy about this, though. Ooo. Really. Al?”

He was a man having lawful sexual intercourse with his lawful wife.

“Al, though, maybe not. So.”

Fighting the image of the leotarded teenaged TWAT. And all the other CUNTS with their TITS and their ASSESS that man might want to FUCK, fighting it although the room was very dark and much was allowed in the dark.

“Oh, I’m so unhappy about this!” Enid quietly wailed.

Worst was the image of the little girl curled up inside her, a girl not much larger than a large bug but already a witness to such harm. Witness to a tautly engorged little brain that dipped in and out beyond the cervix and then, with a quick double spasm that could hardly be considered adequate warning, spat thick alkaline webs of spunk into her private room. Not even born and already drenched in sticky knowledge.

Alfred lay catching his breath and repenting his defiling of the baby. A last child was a last opportunity to learn from one’s mistakes and make corrections, and he resolved to seize this opportunity. From the day she was born he would treat her more gently than he’d treated Gary or Chipper. Relax the law for her, indulge her outright, even, and never once force her to sit at the table after everyone was gone.

But he’d squirted such filth on her when she was helpless. She’d witnessed such scenes of marriage, and so of course, when she was older, she betrayed him.

— Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

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