"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Empty Vessels

Empty Vessels

The bed shifted slightly as Rich rolled away from me and said those dreaded words. “Don’t wait up for me tonight.” 

I tried to delude myself into believing he was working late or going out for a drink with his buddies—excuses he didn’t bother to offer up anymore.

“No problem,” I said, as if it mattered.

Rich darted into the bathroom and turned on the shower. When Rich and I first dated, we took long showers together, rubbing, poking, and eagerly exploring the body parts we usually kept hidden. Now, he showered for her, the unnamed, ever-changing rival for his affection, trying to wash away the scents he picked up from me at dawn when—with no pretext of romance or tenderness—he returned home, slipped into bed, and we came together. 

Rich and I had made a bargain when I became pregnant. He had convinced me to end my pregnancy, pleading that we weren’t ready. We had been married for only six months, he had not finished law school, I had just started my medical residency, and we both had student loans. “I’ll make it up to you,” he had promised. “When the time is right.” And, I intended to hold him to his promise.

The time was finally right when Rich joined a corporate law firm. We joyously tried to make a baby. The sex, which had always been good, became even better. But as the years passed, and I didn’t conceive again, the sex became the means to an end. I monitored my ovulation cycle and timed our sex to coincide with my most fertile times of the month. We experimented with different positions, not to please each other but to maximize the odds of conception. Pragmatics trumped passion and eventually extinguished it. After sex, we no longer caressed each other and spoke in the hoarse, hushed tones of lovers; now I laid in bed with my legs propped up on a pillow. Sex had become a chore.

Each passing year, I had fewer eggs. By the time I turned forty, my matryoshka was almost hollow. To make matters worse, the doctors discovered that Rich had a low sperm count. Rich had done his bit; he faithfully accompanied me to every session with the fertility doctor, stopped wearing tight jeans, and remembered not to put his cell phone into his pants pocket. 

“Don’t spill your sperm on the floor,” the doctor had told him. 

“Don’t worry,” Rich said with a wink.

But it didn’t take Rich long to start cheating on me. I had been suspicious for a few months. Then, one night after positioning me on top, he stroked me in a spot where I didn’t like being touched. “What the ...?” I had cried out, jumping off.

“What? No good, baby?” he asked, with closed eyes.

“Where the hell did that come from?” I said.

I grabbed a pillow and hugged it against my breasts. Rich started to fidget, and I swore I saw smoke coming out of his head as he tried to conjure up an excuse.

“Jesus. Just wanted to change things up a little,” he said. 

Even though he tried to sound cavalier, the tremor in his voice gave him away. At that moment I knew he had been with another woman. Words lie, but our bodies don’t—they always betray us in the end.

I wanted to shout: You thought I was someone else, you bastard, didn’t you? The moment passed, and I said nothing, afraid if I said the words out loud, they would become real. But the unspoken words still hung in the air and followed us around like word balloons of a comic strip.

Around this time, Rich started coming home late. At first, his excuses seemed innocent; he needed to attend conferences or network with his colleagues. Then, he stayed out so late that he returned with the dawn. I fell asleep quickly during those years, almost successfully convincing myself that everything was all right. But in the early morning, when the sun rudely poked through bent apartment-issued blinds and blasted away nighttime fantasies, I would awaken with a jolt and the inescapable realization that his side of the bed was still empty. 

I never confronted him. As long as he fulfilled his part of our contract and made a baby with me, I would stay. It wasn’t just a baby I wanted—it was Rich’s baby. He would never leave me for another woman if I had his baby. And if he did, at least I would have a piece of him. Either way, I couldn’t lose. 

After Rich finished showering and left for court, I opened the blinds slightly, squinted at my E.R. schedule posted above the computer desk, and returned to bed. Rich didn’t understand why I hadn’t chosen a more lucrative private practice, but the frenetic pace of the E.R. left me no time to dwell on my sorrows. 

  My mint colored scrubs, piled on a chair, beckoned to be laundered and reminded me of yesterday when I had mended broken bones, treated concussions, stopped hemorrhages, and—like Superman—anonymously saved the lives of people I didn’t know. My E.R. shift had been fourteen hours long, but it was easy compared to a day off. 

At noon, I dragged myself out of bed and left the apartment to run some errands. The sun was unusually bright for late fall, bathing the streets with a light that made everything glow, though I would have preferred a cloudy day to match my mood. Everywhere I looked I saw contented mothers pushing strollers, older couples maneuvering a walker or cane but still somehow holding hands; giggling girlfriends in groups of four taking pictures of each other with their cellphones; strutting young men with their arms almost defiantly wrapped around each other’s waists. Everyone was in love; everyone seemed happy. 

Shortly before dusk, I returned to the apartment and went directly into the kitchen, where I poured a glass of Cabernet and grabbed a bag of chips. I opened my kitchen drawer and rummaged through my collection of take-out menus. When I heard the key in the lock of the front door, I jumped. 

“Good. You’re home,” Rich said.

“I didn’t expect to see you so early. What’s up?” 

“Tired. Change of plans. Hoping to see you.”

He still couldn’t keep his stories straight. “I didn’t make dinner,” I said. “Should I call in for Thai food?”

“You wanna go out instead?”

“Oh. Maybe,” I said.

  “That new Italian restaurant on Broadway?”

When I hesitated, Rich jumped in. “Okay?”

“Sure. Why not? But I need to change first,” I said.

“You look fine.” And he laughed that sexy, guttural laugh I hadn’t heard in years. I was confused. Was he flirting with me? Trying to be good? Between mistresses? “I need to freshen up,” he said.

“Me too,” I said and almost collided with him as we raced to the bathroom. He got there first, and I stood at the doorway and watched him as he splashed water on his face. His prematurely gray hair was longer than his law partners found acceptable, but to placate them, he wore blue pinstriped suits and shirts with button-down collars. When he removed his shirt, he caught me staring at him and smiled. I was embarrassed that I still got a rush seeing him. 

The fluorescent light accentuated the lines in his face—lines that could deceive someone into believing they were earned through suffering that had morphed over time into wisdom. Tonight he looked weary, and I wondered when I had stopped seeing him as my husband and only as the potential father of my baby. 

I applied make-up, something I had stopped doing years ago, yanked the coated rubber band out of my hair, and shook my head, releasing my long, faded blonde curls. Then, I peeled off my jeans and tee-shirt and put on a dress. As sexy as women look in tight jeans, I knew that Rich preferred dresses—with bare legs, of course—pantyhose and tights were birth control, they killed more libido than sweatpants. 

Rich sat on the couch and ran his hands down his pants several times, smoothing imaginary wrinkles.

“Before we go, we need to talk,” he said.

I stopped breathing. After all these years, he was going to leave me for his current mistress. I walked over and sat down next to him. 

“I saw the doctor today. I’m shooting blanks,” he said with a nervous laugh.

I exhaled slowly—not the bad news I had expected. 

“Don’t leave me,” he said.

For a moment, I softened. Rich had lost his biggest bargaining chip, and he knew it. I called the shots now; perhaps there was a way of moving forward.

  “Of course, I would understand if you left,” he said. 

So, nothing had changed, after all; Rich still needed to be in control. “I don’t need your permission to leave,” I shouted. “I don’t need your fucking permission!” 

Rich recoiled as if I had hit him. “Take it easy.”

He reached over to put his arms around me, and I flung them away.

“Don’t touch me.” I jumped up from the couch and stormed out of the apartment. I walked around the block; still agitated, I circled it again and again. The longer I walked, the more I slowed down until I felt as if I were moving backward. After an hour, not knowing where else to go, I returned home.

Rich was sitting on the couch crying and holding his head in his hands. When he looked up, I saw that his face was red and twisted, and for a moment I was worried that he might be having a stroke.

“I love you,” he said.

I said nothing as I slowly walked over to him. 

“I promise it’ll be different from now on.” 

“Yeah. Right,” I said. I turned to walk away, but Rich grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

“Please stay.” 

“I need to think about it,” I said, trying to quell the quiver in my voice, but we both already knew my answer.

I strolled up Broadway to buy a salmon filet from my favorite fish market. Rich had been coming home straight from work, but this week he was in Denver for a conference; so, for the first time in months, I was cooking for one.  

As I turned the corner, I was startled to hear a deep-throated, sexy laugh. For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw the back of Rich’s head as he walked away from a woman—a thinner, blonder, prettier version of myself—almost young enough to be my daughter. Minutes later, she was still smiling the same vulnerable smile I had beamed up at Rich years ago, full of sweetness and the fragile hope for a future not yet tainted by disappointments and betrayals. What had this man promised her? What bargain had they made? The depth of my rage surprised me, and I felt bile rising into my throat. It took all of my willpower not to run over to her, cradle her in my arms, and say: Don’t bother. His vessel is empty. His heart is empty. He has nothing left to give you. Walk away while you still can—leave before it’s too late.

I realized I had stayed with Rich too long. Past the time when I was young, and my body was firm, and my tight grip had brought us both so much pleasure. Past the time of shared secrets whispered into the nape of my neck; past the time when I trusted him and still believed his promises. And past the time when I could have walked away with no regrets when memories—instead of pulling you back into a past you cannot change—gently propel you into the future.

Anna Zetlin is a retired attorney who has taught writing and is currently teaching math to disadvantaged adults. As a first-generation American, she was born and bred in the squalor and splendor of New York City, where she draws energy to work, live, play, and write. She is a recent contest winner in the Two Sisters Writing and Publishing fiction contest.

Cover photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Mr. Malaprop

Mr. Malaprop

Dear Mother

Dear Mother