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The Screened Thing That Killed Us
He was once beautiful. I was once beautiful. Heck, we were practically supermodels, those kind that you learn to hate as soon as you reach puberty. Not only did we have the perfect bodies but we also seemed to have the perfect lives.
Our love was perfect, like a scene from the most enchanting fairytale ever written, embellished with magical elves and unicorn foals. It was Disney quality, got it? There was no time, only romance. We loved each other so unconditionally, it was sickingly sweet. I’m almost surprised we both didn’t puke into each other’s throats while passionate French-kissing and then choking on one another’s undoubtedly magically glittery vomit. He brought me handpicked roses each morning and then touched his lips gently onto my forehead in a light kiss. Sometimes we spoke, but other times, we gazed into each other’s Nazi blue eyes, treasuring the silence, even finding comfort in it. There was no need for words because we had this almost telepathic ability where we could guess each other’s corny thoughts. That’s how close we were and how close I assumed we’d always be. In the stereotypical Shakespearian sonnet mentality, I thought our love would never fade.
Then he bought the television and our life became a script from the kind of bad sitcom we wish would just end but the jerks at the station just keep re-running old episodes, over and over, because they know they can still make money without changing a Godforsaken thing.
The television was on sale at the local hardware store, but that’s not why he originally went shopping that day. I sent him there for nails so I could hang my newest painting in the living room. It was my favorite painting ever, one of a bright green macaw, so bright that you couldn’t ignore it. I was so excited about putting it up. But it was because of the damn television that he never brought the nails home. He was so excited to see fragments of New York, Paris, London---all of the glorious places he would never visit---right from where he stood in the middle of Iowa, our less than glorious home state. He ran into the house without even greeting me and slammed the television onto the dining room table, eager to watch something, anything, that would distract him from our mundane existence.
I walked from the kitchen to the dining room, stunned to see him watching a football game.
“First of all,” I began, standing in the doorway, “what is THAT doing on the table and, secondly, I thought you hated football.”
Either he didn’t hear me or he ignored me.
He turned to face me. “Yeah?”
“I thought you hated football,” I repeated.
“Well,” he shrugged, “It’s different on TV. Everything’s different, I guess. Could you get me some chips, hon?”
I gave him a bag of laxatives instead. He was so caught up in the game that he didn’t even notice â€˜til he popped one in his mouth.
“Ugh! I asked for chips, damn it!” Already he wasn’t himself.
“What about hanging up my painting?”
“What does that have to do with my chips?”
“It means you’re not getting any chips â€˜til you put up my painting.”
He looked down at his hands. “I forgot â€˜em.”
“Fine, fine. I’ll go back to the store!”
I pouted and said, “I’m not sure if I want you to go back to the store.”
“Well,” I took a breath, “What if you come back with another television set?”
“Oh, come now! We’re not millionaires! Besides, I only need one.”
I nodded hesitantly. “Okay. Go to the store and get the nails, please.”
He left, returned, and hung up the painting. All was well, for a while but I wasn’t totally reassured that our fairytale wouldn’t evaporate into the sky. What if his sweet loving rain never poured upon me again? Sadly, it wasn’t too melodramatic of a question to ask.
First he started watching football, beginning with one game a day, then two, then devouring every single one aired that evening. Two or three weeks later, he became much less discriminate and no longer limited himself to football. Baseball, basketball, heck, I even remember him catching a few minutes of ballet once. The content no longer mattered. When he wasn’t working, he eased into his armchair and flipped on the television.
“What’s on?” I was well aware that it was a sitcom, trite like all the others, but I wanted to make conversation.
He mumbled something.
“What did you say, dear?” No answer. I repeated myself like a deaf hag instead of with the musical voice of the sweet maiden I once was to him.
“Oh, it’s a comedy about a family,” he muttered.
“What’s it called?”
Again, he mumbled. When I inquired about the main actors, where it was set, and other mundane details, he slurred like a drunkard. Why, of course---it made sense: television intoxicated him.
But I used to intoxicate him! Before the era of the television, as I like to call it, there was love; there was romance. You heard my initial quixotic ramblings. It was all so damn wonderful. We were so damn wonderful that our friends and neighbors couldn’t help but envy us. I should’ve been the first to realize that it was too good to be true and that our sparkling empire would eventually collapse under the weight of all the fairy dust. And when it collapsed, it would fall flat without even bothering to stumble.
Our empire fell the evening my husband planted the television in our bedroom.
I was startled to see it sitting in front of our bed when I brought the dry laundry up. “What is that doing there?”
“Oh, I wanted to catch the rest of this program and I know how you hate it when I sleep downstairs.”
“I hate it when you sleep downstairs because you’re with this blasted television instead of me!”
“And now I can be with both of you at once. It’s like the best of both worl--”
“Yes! It’s perfect!”
“No! You can’t!”
“Woman,” he almost slithered the word, the word he had never directed toward me before. No, I had always been the lady. “I’m leaving the television here, no objections.”
That sealed it, didn’t it? The housewife knows better than to argue unless it’s a matter of life and death or, rather, mortality. After all, my soul was already waning.
You can bet that we stopped making love right away, with that screened thing in our bedroom. The television was his new mistress and I couldn’t have interfered between the two of them if I tried (and I was definitely past the point of ever trying). We stopped kissing each other in the morning and we stopped kissing each other at night. I mean pecking. Our lips no longer touched. At some point, I’m not sure when, we ceased touching each other altogether. We didn’t hug or even brushing against each other in passing while walking through the house tending to errands.
In the years of our marriage before the television, we always caressed each other but now we were as platonic with each other as a porcupine and a balloon. My body grew cold from abandon. He hadn’t touched me for so long that my skin peeled. My lips flaked, my hands reddened out of rawness. Every part of me that once thrived with his touch was miserable now. I didn’t have a screen. I couldn’t project the weather, broadcast the latest news about the war, or show him anything besides myself. In short, I wasn’t a television and therefore possessed no value to him anymore. He didn’t want a woman, he wanted a machine.
Some point after we stopped touching each other, we also stopped looking at each other. Even the slightest eye contact disappeared from our conversations, as if we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. No, I should just drop that conjunction and not speak in the conditional. I knew for certain that we hated to catch any kind of glimpse of each other. His very physical self repulsed me so much that I swore he sprouted metal antennae. I hated him almost as much as I hated that television.
There were times that I almost destroyed the television, I hated it so much. Once, while sitting at the kitchen counter, flipping through the newspaper, I folded the section I was reading and started staring into space, imagining an entire list of ways to demolish the screened thing. I went at it with a hatchet, a chainsaw, a machete, a hammer, another television set. In other fantasies, I set it on fire, rolled over it with a bulldozer, threw it into the cage of a circus lion, drove my car over it, tossed it into an Olympic-sized swimming pool, sent two giant dogs on it, stomped on it---why it just went on and on. I must have sat there for a couple of hours. I don’t think I’ve ever been so creative before. That was the longest I ever spent mulling over my violent fantasies. Usually, I just had a flash of one such fantasy and then directed my thoughts toward something else. I pretended that my marriage wasn’t dead and continued hanging the laundry or baking my husband’s favorite cookies---snicker doodles, golden-brown.
Yet there came a day when I could no longer pretend. The screened thing had won over my husband. I was his has-been lover and it was no use assuming otherwise. That was the day that my husband dragged the television into our bed.
I was perched at my vanity, smudging off my make-up so I could go to sleep with a clear face. I sighed at the heavy bags under my eyes. It was so easy to ignore them during the day when I caked on concealer. I knew what those bags represented---insomnia caused by nightmares induced by stress, stress stemming from a sad marriage---but I tried not to think about it. I was contemplating the rest of my reflection when I heard my husband walking up the stairs.
He entered the room without acknowledging me and removed his baseball cap, which he placed on the bedpost. I went on with my nightly ritual but whipped around when an anguished grunting caught my ear.
“What are you doing?”
At first he didn’t answer but when I asked again, he mumbled, “Moving the TV!”
For a split second I was relieved. He was taking the television back downstairs or, better yet, to the trash dump. Our marriage was saved! He realized what was wrong and was trying to fix it! He loved me again!
Then I saw him inch closer and closer to the bed.
“The door’s THAT way.”
“I know, woman. I’m not trying to get to the door.”
He slammed the television onto the bed and pushed it over to my side.
“That’s not where it belongs!”
“No, you mean, it’s not where you belong.”
He hopped into bed and drew up his blankets, all cozily the picture of a man in love with his machine. I stood there, watching him, as he pressed the â€˜power’ button and proceeded to channel surf.
“You think that screened thing can replace me, don’t you?”
When he didn’t respond, I answered my own question. The screened thing HAD replaced me. But I wasn’t going to accept defeat.
I seized the value-sized bottle of astringent I bought at the drug store and unscrewed the cap. Then I swallowed and moved closer to the bed until I was just behind the TV. My husband didn’t care where I moved within the room, the house, or even the whole universe so long as I didn’t block the screen, so he didn’t react. I, however, did. I poured the whole bottle of astringent onto the television set, every single drop, even when electric sparks started flying. The screened thing issued this horrible cackling, like it was amused by the fact that my husband and I were both getting electrocuting. Somehow I always knew that the screened thing would kill us but, at least, in the end it was gone.
Didn’t you ask how I came to Heaven?