Sins and Secrets


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4 min
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Chicago-born Michael Riordan has taught in the U.S., Australia, Singapore, and most recently in China, where he was a professor of Writing and Film Studies. He was also co-founder and director of  [+]

Image of Short Circuit #06
He had earned the stamp of "loser" in his father-in-law's eyes. Worse, he was less a man to his wife Jean. When a possum tried to move in a few months after they purchased their little two-bedroom "starter home," the pest people found asbestos in the roof lining and walls. Their starter home was finished, and the young couple were forced to abandon the useless house and recover a little money for the land. Jean and her dad blamed the debacle on Mark for not paying for an adequate inspection. Mark seethed with resentment: How did he get to be in charge of inspections?
The couple had better luck with their second house because Jean insisted that, from then on, they would use her father's real estate agent.
Mark opened his hands: "Sure, whatever." His resignation set, like concrete.
It was a few years later, at their daughter Thea's second birthday party that he almost punched Jean's dad. The two found themselves alone in the living room, having avoided each other all afternoon. They sat at opposite ends of the sofa. Mark, leaning forward like Usain Bolt in the starting blocks, just wanted to escape. Jean's father rotated his head towards Mark like a turret.
"Too bad that novel you always talked about writing never got off the ground, Mark. I suppose that little pipe dream is well and truly over, what with your little birthday cutie. I suppose there's worse things than being a high-school English teacher. Oh well."
Mark had nothing to say to him. He just wanted to grab the standard lamp next to his father-in-law and break it over his head. Would that hurt? Luckily, Jean's aunt showed up and announced that everybody was about to sing Happy Birthday and cut the cake.
Mark felt lodged in a cliché. He could almost hear his father-in-law's voice telling someone, "I really think Jean could have done much better."
Maybe she could have, Mark thought.

***

Mark sat on the edge of his daughter's bed and stared at the carpet. He replayed Jean's insistent words from years earlier. When they bought this house—their third—they'd wanted to replace the previous owner's mustardy-orange monstrosity. Even the real estate agent had said, "The carpet has to go."
Mark agreed, not that it mattered. He had long ago lost his vote on such matters. Jean, unencumbered by Mark's opinions, took less than two days to come up with her selection: a light beige number of medium-density—inoffensive and neutral. Her choice was the Switzerland of carpets: composed of polyester, nylon, and a minuscule 5 percent wool as an insulting homage to nature.
They laid it in every room in the house. The carpet had millions of little flecks of rust and brown so cleverly scattered throughout that one could drip, spill, or vomit anything, and somehow—after a quick wipe or vacuum—no one would ever notice what human havoc or carelessness might have transpired there. Mark had dropped umpteen soiled diapers, sandwiches, and cups of coffee all over house. The carpet had absorbed a multitude of sins and secrets.
Now, Mark picked up a little framed picture of his daughter. At first, Mark didn't notice how quiet it had become without Thea. When she'd left for college, they'd all celebrated. Thea had done well in school and gotten through the turmoil of growing up generally unscathed. She had escaped the shrapnel that decimated many of her classmates: broken hearts, car accidents, and in one sad case, a fatal drug overdose. Thea was their nineteen-year-old trophy, evidence that Mark and his wife had done something right.
"There you are," Jean said. "I sent you in for garden gloves ten minutes ago—is something wrong?" She had noticed Mark's reddened eyes.
"No—nothing," Mark replied. "Just here thinking about Thea."
"Mark, we made the trip to see her just two weeks ago. She's Okay. Now can you help me finish the yard? You know Steve and Shirley show up early sometimes."
Mark was fifty, and things were supposed to be different. High school teaching was supposed to be a stop-gap, a practical matter, a way to support his writing career. Fifty, and his red pen still snaked through hundreds of student compositions year after year. He still scratched trite and possibly unhelpful commentary, unleashed so hurriedly and illegibly that sometimes even he couldn't tell what he had written.
When Steve and Shirley showed up, Jean conducted the evening like a string quartet. All in time and harmony, the night held no surprises.
Mark was never totally sure he liked Steve and Shirley, but Jean invited them again and kept their "entertaining" safe and predictable. Evenings rolled out like overplayed songs, easily recalled and hum-able. Mark never found out too much about Steve and Shirley, and they never learned much about Mark and Jean. Mark thought that was probably okay.
Steve and Shirley drove away, before midnight as always. Mark turned quickly and managed to avoid Jean's eyes, but he couldn't stifle a sigh.
"There you go again," Jean began.
"Jean, I'm really tired, that's all. And there's no there there."
Suddenly noticing a wadded napkin on the living room floor, Jean dashed over and picked it up like a ball boy at the U.S. Open.
"These nights used to be more fun," she said.
Not really, Mark thought.
"Am I in charge of fun?" Mark replied. Uh-oh, he thought.
"Well fun is not something we've experienced for a while," Jean said.
Mark considered saying something like, "Not always my fault, you know."
But Mark knew Jean would have just marched into the bathroom without a word. He'd then feel awful and peel off his clothes like defeat in the locker room. He'd roll his clothes into a small, smelly bundle, spot the closet laundry basket, and go for a three-pointer. He would miss, and his clothes would land short and still be there in the morning, huddled at the base of the basket on their practical carpet—except for a single black sock, jettisoned early from the pack. That pathetic black sock would be the first thing he'd see in the morning.
So, none of that happened.
Instead, Mark looked at Jean and said, "You want some fun, do you?"
Mark conjured up a phony little smirk. Jean studied his face for a second before she made her own decision about how the night would end. She smiled, and then Mark knew he was about to be let off the hook.
The next moments played out like Mark's sophomore drama class: Okay, Class, now you're underwater and you are all fronds of seaweed. Feel the current, feel the current against you. Freeze! Now you're all white pointer sharks and you're going to circle around Mark. Mark, you get in the middle. Remember, the rest of you are man-eating sharks—but, Mark, now you're a scuba diver, and you've run out of oxygen, and the sharks are coming closer and closer. Everyone, freeze! Okay, now pair-up. You're a married couple pretending that you still enjoy being together—more, Mark! More pretend feeling . . .
Later, something awakened Mark in the night. He wandered back into Thea's old room again, switched on a bedside lamp, and sat on the edge of her bed. Two teardrops disappeared into the carpet, and Mark thought how easily someone could mistake this whole house for a place nobody lived in. He never heard Jean come into the room.
"Mark, what's wrong? It's late."
"Empty, empty. So empty," he sobbed.
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