by Stephanie Hutton
My wife Mary is not a lady of science. She says retirement means no need for all those books any more. I run my finger down a stack of journals wedged onto the oak shelf in my study, feel the soothing bumps of spines that cover the greatest scientific thinking 1986 – 1989. Obsessive she says. Avoidant, peculiar, deal-breaker. The harsh consonants hurt me. I swallow and pull down my first edition of A Brief History of Time. Its silver cover has lost no lustre over the nineteen years of our marriage. It was kicked out of our bed three years before I was. Pulled up towards my face, I leaf through the pages and let a small breeze of genius waft random bristles of my beard. It is three months since I left the university with nothing but a mantel clock with its countdown to death.
Mary wants to see mountains, meet friends for couples’ brunch, start a herb garden. She keeps her wiry body moving at all times, as if stillness would start the rotting process. Her foot tap-tap-tapped as she puckered her lips around the instruction choose – me or the bloody books. I’d longed for the heaviness of a hardback in my hand.
After seventy-two hours in the safety of my study, it is time to make a decision. The brass door handle beckons, but the act of observation will define the rest of my life. In this moment, Mary is in the laundry folding sheets, and in the bedroom dabbing perfume onto her delicate neck, and leaning over the sink, settling her wedding ring on the window ledge as she dips her hands into soapy water, and in a taxi with all her belongings in bags. When I open the door, only one of those things will become true. In the early winter darkness, I peer through the slats of the window blinds at the stars blinking their message of infinite possibilities and clutch my book to my chest.
I take off my striped tie and wrap it over my eyes, making a tight knot behind my head. With the top button of my shirt undone, I slow my breaths from dog-fast to human. I divide a tissue in two, roll up each half and wedge them into my ears. Then the same with each nostril. Arms outstretched, I feel my way to the study door and pull it open, straining to not-hear my wife. I creep down the stairs with one arm on the banister, aware of mild pain in each old knee. Crossing the hallway, I make my way into the living room and settle into my leather chair. I pant through my mouth and hear only my internal world of batta-batta heart beats. Unobserved, my wife remains in the laundry and the bedroom and by the sink. But I cannot read my books blindfold. I lift trembling fingers to the tie around my eyes and hope that out of all multiverses, the universe I’m trapped in does not contain my wife in a taxi.
Stephanie Hutton is a short fiction writer and clinical psychologist in the UK. Recent publications include Atticus Review, Connotation Press and Bristol Short Story Prize anthology.
Find her at stephaniehutton.com and @tiredpsych.