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Her wicker-backed chair faced the window, allowing her to gaze out into the dry desert that was her home. Like everything else inside the house, the chair’s arms were covered by a thick layer of dirt- the result of leaving the front door open long enough for the desert to reclaim its territory. She remained motionless, watching the light slowly dwindle out of the sky. The sun slowly sunk on the horizon. Still she waited patiently.
In that space of time between silver twilight and darkest night, the last of the waning sun illuminated a car that sped down the makeshift road leading to her front door, kicking up dirt beneath its tires. Its headlights swung erratically. She gripped the webbed wood of her chair in anxiety. The car slowed to a halt in front of the house. She lifted herself up and made her fumbling way over to the overstuffed sofa, dust trailing in her wake as she went.
He appeared in only a few moments. “Hello?”
She did not look at him. “Greetings.”
Touched by the sun’s final fire, he looked to be a god, lit in a molten river of gold at her threshold. The illusion only lasted for a second, and then the world plunged into black. He made an uncertain move.
“There’s a chair by the window,” she said, her voice carrying through the endless layers of grime that surrounded her. “Go sit in it.”
He hastily went to the window and shut the lacy curtains, as it was now unnecessary to use natural light for guidance. Wind blew outside, the only indication of the season. The Joshua trees’ tangled branches rattled in the brief breeze.
He picked up the chair and hurried back over to her, setting his load in front of the sofa. If the TV had been on, her view would have been obscured.
“There’s much to discuss…” He looked down. “We haven’t talked since…”
“Since you betrayed my trust.” Her harsh voice resounded across the smooth walls, eventually soaked up by the plush rug beneath their feet.
He sighed. “Please don’t fight with me. You know I didn’t come here for that. It’s been too long, and you haven’t answered my calls… I miss you, Clark.” His voice wavered despite himself.
Slowly, one sea green eye flicked onto his face, scrutinizing.
“Hear me out on this. You need to let me tell my side of the story.”
As quickly as her gaze had focused, it now rolled away from him. She folded her hands in her lap. “If that’s all you want, I’ll let you speak on one condition.”
Curiosity flared before he could stop it. “What condition?”
“That I get to start.”
Her ring finger remained bare. It hurt him more than it should, seeing once again that reminder of the love that had gone out. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “That’s fine by me.”
It seemed that she had just met him in the bar a week ago, herself as a free-spirited waitress with hopes and aspirations. To her, he resembled an oak tree– tall and handsome, lumbering through the cluster of tables with an admirable steadfastness- and a wistful expression struck her face as she watched him take the stage “Hello, we’re Transmission.”
She stared from the sidelines, halted in her work. He had complete control over the bar, singing away into the crooked microphone with eyes closed. Everything about him was… perfect.
“Hello, what’s your name?” she’d asked as soon as the performance was over.
“I’m Michael. And you?”
He had praised her on the interesting name and moved on. Neither of them had thought that that one connection would tie them together forever.
Clark became a frequent attender of Transmission concerts, and soon Michael reciprocated her infatuation. They were engaged after several months of dating. Clark liked the feeling of rushing into things. She took great delight in her responsibility of telling the family- “I’ve gotten engaged to a rock star.” Never mind that he wasn’t famous. Never mind that his band had no contract. None of that mattered in the face of love.
They were married in the desert, nearby the bar where they had first met. It seemed only appropriate for the couple. Clark wore a dress of white lace, flaunting and parading down the “aisle” created by a broom. Her friends and family had stared, but Clark only had eyes for the man at the end of her walk. She remembered how beautiful he had looked, standing at attention with his teeth planted on his lower lip. The sun’s light, brilliant though it was, paled in comparison to him.
The rings were presented, homemade by a friend of Clark’s. After the ceremony, Clark took the silver band off to examine it. An engraving was etched on the interior. Je t’aime toujours… I love you always. Michael’s inscription was the same.
She fell silent, and he blinked and came back to himself, emerging from the breaker of memories. Subtly he studied her hand. It was no trick of the eye- the telltale flash of metal was absent from his observation. She sensed his eyes on her fingers and balled them inside her fist. He sighed and crossed his legs, choosing not to comment on that.
“You may go on,” she said. He racked his brain, searching for a memory she had not covered.
Michael knew something was up when that pretty waitress from (name of bar) wouldn’t leave him alone. At first glance she had resembled a butterfly, the way she flitted from customer to customer, tittering about who knows what and making sure everyone was happy. It was rather charming. He fell hard and fast, accepting her offer of a date in an instant. Like turned to love, and Michael proposed without any apprehension. He knew Clark would never refuse.
The happy couple pooled their money and bought a house in the desert, as Clark couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. On their first night in the new dwelling, each half of the couple made promises, wrapped in each other’s embrace. Michael promised to put Clark first above his band- if, in return, Clark promised not to get in the way of Transmisson’s progress and future breakthrough. They pledged to love each other forever and, as a token of affection, to always wear their wedding rings no matter what. The swears were made lightly, but neither partner forgot them in the morning.
He swallowed and glanced at her, face lit by artificial lamplight. “I don’t know what went wrong…”
Her voice was ringing with disapproval. “You went wrong. If it hadn’t been for you, none of our promises would be broken. Let me talk to you now.”
He quieted, wringing his hands. He didn’t feel much like correcting her, calling her out for being the first one to betray their love.
Clark had attended every single show that Transmission played, her eyes lighting up like a schoolgirl whenever Michael sang. After the concert, he would walk out to Clark with sweat sticking his brown hair to his face, pull an arm around her, and always, always declare in that voice that held entire rooms spellbound, “Are you doing okay?” And she would answer- “Yes, I’m fine.” They’d hightail it out of there, pretending rabid fans were at their backs. This fantasy never did come true.
By far, Clark had been Transmission’s most diligent fan. She loved their music for itself, not just because her husband sang it. The band thrived on Michael’s instrumentalist friends, as he couldn’t play a note on anything. When Michael found that Clark knew the flute, he was delighted.
“How long have you been playing?”
“Since high school.” She offered the silver cylinder to him, but the noises he made come from it were squeaks, nothing more. She laughed in mirth.
A few days later, Michael came to her with a piece of sheet music and a demo record. Sitting close, Clark recorded a flute piece over one of Transmission’s songs while her husband only stared, enjoying every second. When she was through, he leapt up and kissed her.
And it all went downhill from there.
“Uphill,” he muttered under his breath. “It all went uphill.”
She stared at him forcefully. “Excuse me…”
Michael brought his wife onstage one night. She stared down into the sea of faces in the club, and clutched Michael’s arm hard. He didn’t seem to feel the tightness in her contact or see her white knuckles, instead calling out into the microphone. “Let’s all welcome my wife, Clark, to the stage! She’s gonna play with us.” Clark had shot a scornful glare at him. Michael wasn’t looking at her. To make matters worse, there was no chair where Clark could sit down and play. She couldn’t hit high notes while standing up. The guitarist’s mic was pulled to amplify the flute’s rickety sound. Clark just barely managed not to bolt and drop her instrument. Her nervousness followed her out the back way and remained long after the show.
“Are you doing okay?”
This time, Clark could not respond with the affirmative. She stalked away from him.
She folded her arms across her chest, daring him to continue. He stuttered.
“I… I didn’t think you felt that way…”
“Well, I did,” she growled- still bitter after all these years.
“That’s not what happened… I thought you enjoyed it…”
Clark had played flute beautifully, and the fans of Transmission in the club were ecstatic. It filled Michael’s heart to see his wife muster up confidence in front of all these people. He was proud that they accepted her. But after the show, she had snapped at him. He couldn’t figure out why.
Her eyes popped. “Jerk.”
He let the remark slide. He’d had enough of those jabs in his day. Not looking at him, she continued her story with a sigh.
It soon became apparent to Clark that Michael was more interested in scoring a new hit single with Transmission than he was in taking care of her. He worked more and more often, rehearsing for gigs. Clark was left all alone, banging around in a huge empty house that only came to life when Michael was there. She stopped attending his concerts regularly. What did it matter? She’d probably only hinder him in his search for a radio-friendly song.
Michael came home late most gig nights, occasionally drunk. Clark always tucked him into bed, feeling neglected. She needed Michael’s attention, and it badly showed. It was on one of these nights, as Clark lay by Michael’s side in bed, that a terrible feeling crept over her. What if Michael no longer wanted her at the clubs? What if he didn’t care about her presence?
She sat up to look at Michael. In REM sleep, drool was slowly slipping out of his open mouth. Beneath that gorgeous hair, two hands lay folded. Clark stared at the hands, her heart sinking. It couldn’t be…
Michael rolled over, and that was the moment that Clark’s heart shattered. His wedding ring was gone. Clark sat up in bed and pulled the covers around her knees. Terrible thoughts filled her head. Why would he remove their ring?! Did he want to take back their wedding vows?
And with that, it struck her.
Michael was seeing another woman. There was no other possible explanation. Obviously, if the wedding ring was worth so little to him, Clark had the same value She shuddered, trying not to cry. What could she do with an unfaithful husband?
Well, she could fight fire with fire.
His mouth was clenched shut as he struggled to keep it from falling agape. She angled her eyebrows. “What?”
Through gritted teeth, he managed to whine, “That’s… not… what… happened…”
“So what did?”
In a flash, the concert was over. It had all passed much too quickly for Michael. He came back to life, smiling at the fans, but his eyes wandered and lingered on the spot where Clark was normally inclined to sit. Why was she so distant these days? Didn’t she want to see him perform anymore? Michael hadn’t admitted it before, but he missed her badly.
He jumped offstage and was immediately ensnared by a few lonely Transmission fans who wanted an autograph. As Michael whipped out his pen, his gaze fell on his own hand- and he froze, shocked. The ring was gone! His wedding ring, the band which he cherished and would have NEVER removed on purpose…
“There was no affair,” he said, trying to keep a hold on his sanity. “There was no freaking affair- there wasn’t even a single, for crying out loud! We never made it to that stage where beautiful women would… fall at my feet, drooling, each one of them begging with their eyes to have sex with me!”
Hurt flashed across her eyes. “I knew it. You always wanted Transmission to become famous more than you wanted to stay with me.”
“Listen-“ he hissed- “to what I’m trying to tell you!” To his surprise, she did.
When Michael walked into the bedroom and found the first man, he slammed the door and ran outside, not caring if he startled Clark. The desert’s hot sand scorched the soles of his feet, and he collapsed to the ground, shoving his back against the Joshua tree he found there. Its shade cooled Michael’s body off, but his soul was on fire. How could she do this to me? Rubbing his hands behind his neck, Michael wished he could pour bleach on his brain to scald the image of his wife, lying with another man, out of his thoughts.
The front door banged shut, and Michael watched the faceless figure depart his house. He swore at him under his breath. The man drifted off across the sand and was gone, departed like a sudden, rare rainfall. Slowly, Clark came to the front porch. She called Michael’s name. He didn’t raise his head, but he could still see her eyes- glazed over with frost. She had mentally killed him.
Soon there were many more men paying tribute in her bed.
“My God!” She made a move to rise from the sofa. “How did you not see the extra car out front?”
“Because there was no extra car out front! I would have remembered seeing it!”
“No, it was there.” Her voice was scathing. “He’d driven over to the house. It was a blue Toyota- how could you miss it?
The brief interlude revealed their pounding hearts. He picked up the story where it had left off.
Michael took to living out under the stars. The desert was warm enough, though he had to get a sleeping bag come nighttime. If Clark didn’t want him in their bed, he wouldn’t insist on it. During rehearsals with Transmission, his bandmates wondered why he looked so troubled. Their musical ideas began to clash, and the arguments piled up.. Finally Michael bid adieu to his band. He couldn’t take it anymore.
“That’s not how I remember it,” she whispered.
Clark had watched from a distance through the window outdoors as Michael talked on his phone. The two could no longer stand to be in the house at the same time. Clark drew herself in closer, listening hard. Michael was shouting. “If you don’t want to be in this band, fine! I quit!”
He didn’t try to correct her. She lost interest in the story as soon as she’d gained it. He went forward.
Finally one night Michael stumbled into the house, not caring who Clark was entertaining that night- he needed to shower. Michael went straight for the bathroom- and halted, stock-still in the doorway. Shock crackled through him. Clark was kneeling at the foot of the toilet, head hanging down.
“What are you doing?!”
“Making you love me!” she screamed through the finger in her throat. Michael watched the act with horror. He had never thought this kind of disease plagued adults… Clark wouldn’t let him touch her. He lay awake on the porch all night, scared to death. Clark needed help, and she needed it fast.
“After what you did, I would have never tried to make you love me,” she said nonchalantly.
He shrugged casually. “Just go along with it…”
Her voice lifted in pitch, but oddly enough, not in anger. “Don’t you remember… I wasn’t doing it on purpose.”
“Huh?” Confusion swamped him. Of course she had been doing it on purpose. Why else would she have induced vomiting?
When no one spoke, she shifted in her seat and announced, “Go on…”
The doctors diagnosed her as severely bulimic. Michael sat around guiltily, wondering why he had never noticed the signs. He stayed with Clark all night in the hospital, rubbing her hand. The wedding band was loose around her finger, in danger of falling off. Michael thanked God she had kept it on even with her string of lovers.
“Stop.” One eyebrow was raised. He sighed, waiting for the protest.
“I was not bulimic. I was never bulimic. You’ve got your facts entirely wrong.”
Clark drove herself to the hospital, biting her lip to ignore the pain in her stomach. If she didn’t speed up, the baby might not make it… Clark careered into the parking lot and rushed in as fast as she could on tottering legs. She managed to reach the receptionist before collapsing.
The baby did not survive. Clark wailed in her hospital room for days. Why had life thrown her a chance to make something all for herself, and then snatched it back on the due date? Nurses told her that Michael was waiting to see her. Clark wouldn’t let him in, wouldn’t let him know how ashamed she was…
He stared in disbelief.
She gazed levelly back at him, an almost smug smile hovering on her face.
“No way… That’s impossible!”
“What, that I could get pregnant from someone who wasn’t you? What do you think happened instead?”
Clark refused to let Michael see her at all in the hospital, much to his anxiety. She would not eat properly, and the doctors flocked around her, tossing around labels as alternate diagnoses. Eventually Clark did eat, and in a week she was admitted from the hospital, flying straight to Michael’s arms. She maintained a sullen silence with him, seeming to childishly decide that they were no longer on speaking terms.
The small voice in the back of Michael’s head told him Clark should be more forgiving. He had always been there for her, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health… Wasn’t that what their marriage was all about?
Throughout her recovery days at home, Clark was quiet and subdued. They ate at the same dinner table, though Clark would not let Michael back into the bed. He began to raise his hopes. Maybe things were finally turning around. Maybe Michael could forget about the wrong she had done him… and maybe, just maybe, there was still a chance for love.
But everything changed one afternoon. As Michael answered the ringing phone, a strangely familiar man’s voice filled his ears, inquiring as to Clark’s health. The subject in question walked into the room, sunlight turning her into a silhouette. The air left Michael’s lungs. Clark wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. All at once it fell into place, and he knew where he’d heard the voice on the other end of the phone. It was Clark’s doctor from the hospital. She was having another affair.
He sat back and waited for her to challenge that tidbit of information, as she did so often. But no sound came from the couch. He took in her view in full on. Her eyes were puzzled.
“He was only calling to see if I was doing any better…”
He didn’t think so. What had the tone of lust in his voice meant, then?
“I wouldn’t have taken my ring off. I wouldn’t have done such an injustice to you.”
“Yeah, seeing men behind my back was enough,” he snapped.
Michael had driven her off. He’d yelled so violently that Clark had left the house. Her curls whipped her face as she ran through the open door, starting the car engine violently. Michael watched in torment as she drove off into the setting sun.
“And… that was it,” he whispered, awkwardly clearing his throat. “That was the end of our love. I’ve told my story, and now I should be going.”
She told him to stay. Her eyes were focused on a hazy, far-off scene from her memory.
“I never got rid of it…”
He followed her with his gaze as she disappeared into the bedroom, returning with a small circular object in one hand. He stood up and peered down at it. The ring was clouded with corrosion, but the inscription on the inside was still legible. Je t’aime toujours.
“It’s tarnished,” he whispered, and looked up at her. She was staring back with a mixture of contempt and pity.
“Maybe you could go get it cleaned…”
“No, Michael.” Her voice was definite. “I’ve spent too many years trying to build my life back after you wrecked it. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
He turned his back so that she could not see the tears building. After risking it all to come here and tell his story, this is what has come of it?
Well, what were you expecting? An armistice?
A sudden gust of wind made both figures jump. She ran to the window. A storm was building.
“Out here, in the desert?” she murmured.
He emitted a low moan.
The skies opened up, and down fell the rain. Indoors, tears came rolling down his face. She went over to him and laid her hand on his back.
“I’m sorry, Michael. I did love you, once, but we just can’t succeed like this.”
He slapped her off and turned to face her with blazing eyes. “You lied to me! There was no car… there was no pregnancy… there was no miscarriage…”
He snatched the ring from her hand and rushed out into the pouring rain.
The hot ground hissed and steamed as the sky’s water touched it. He fell to his knees and scraped aimlessly in the mud. He knew she was watching him. He deliberated over the size of the hole, meaninglessly, and dumped the ring into it. Water filled up his small pit soon enough. He ran to the car and sped off blindly, the wheel shuddering beneath his fingers. She watched him from inside until he was out of her line of vision. Then she closed the curtains.
There was a lover… there was a single… he had never cared…