The Unspoken Language of Spouses
by Beth Escott Newcomer
You are standing with the porch light behind you, casting a shadow on the steps. I can see you’re holding the letter. I left it out on the kitchen table in plain sight, and yet I’m still surprised you noticed it, let alone cared to read it.
In your mouth, the words are not an accusation. Far from it. Your question is casual. Guileless. Genuinely curious. But not without weight. A perfect reflection of all that I love best about you.
I’m sitting on a folding chair in the front yard, smoking a stale Marlboro—one of the cigarettes I’d hidden away when we quit last year. I’m out here letting my tears dry naturally in the cool evening air. For the last forty-five minutes, and for the long month before that, “Who’s Jim?” had been my question. Now it was ours. It was my turn to speak, and though I had left Exhibit A on the table for you to find, and was prepared for an indictment should that be the way it went, I still did not know what to say for myself.
That night last month, right after it happened, I vowed to lock up the details. What did it have to do with us? It was something I did for myself. And besides, it all started out so innocently. A matter of thirst—the kind a pint of Guinness might quench.
You probably don’t remember that particular evening, resembling as it did all the other evenings we’ve had lately. As usual, I called from the office to say, “Go ahead and have dinner without me. I’m going to stick around at the office tonight and get a jump on some of these deadlines.”
As usual, you half mumbled, “Okay, honey. See you when I see you.” I imagined you in your favorite chair, glasses resting midway down your nose, scanning the page of one of your books. A quiet fixture. Relieved to have another evening to yourself.
When I hung up the phone, I sat around for a while at my desk, tidying up papers, thumbing through job folders, flipping through the slides of an unfinished PowerPoint presentation. I added a few entries to my mile-long to-do list when I suddenly threw my pen across the room and found myself out of my chair, pacing the floor, antsy, impatient.
I have not mentioned it to you, but lately I’ve been feeling cramped, as if I’ve been sitting too long in the same position in my life. As if some part of me needed to be taken out and shaken. I had to get out of there.
But I had no idea where to go or what to do with myself. I picked up the newspaper, considered then rejected the list of recent movie releases. Next, I consulted my address book but ultimately abandoned the list of long-neglected friends moldering in there. What have you become? said the voice in my head. You used to know how to have fun. And with that, I switched off the lights, locked the office door, and walked to my car.
I made a left on Pico toward the freeway, merged east on the 10 instead of the usual west, and before I knew it, found myself in the alley off Motor Street, looking for a parking spot behind the Blarney Stone—an Irish place I frequented before we were married. It was still early, still light out, just after 7:00.
I walked in the back door just like I used to, squinting up the long, dark hallway past the office, the kitchen, the restroom doors, and out into the big, bright, noisy room, where I found a stool at the bar. But nothing was the same: New big-screen TVs hung in every corner broadcasting a soccer match, and a crowd of noisy sports fans had invaded the place. I didn’t recognize a single soul.
Eight or nine years ago, back before we got married, when I was still in my early thirties, the place would have been full of friends that I thought of as family. My entrance would be celebrated. There would have been hugs and teasing and now-we-can-start-the-party! But that night I was alone. I felt old and out of place, foolish. What did you expect? I asked myself and got up to leave. Just then, a young busty bartender spun a coaster across the bar and said, “What’ll you have, ma’am?” Before I could reply, there was a hand on my arm and a low voice in my left ear. “May I recommend the iced tea?” It was Jim.
Jim, the original proprietor of the pub. Jim, raconteur and host, beating heart of the place, the one who made everyone feel welcome. He was just as I remembered him: a trim, compact gentleman in pressed black slacks and a crisp white shirt open one button at the collar. “Iced tea” was his code for the Bushmills on ice he kept already poured behind the bar—an old habit from before the place got its full liquor license. Jim waved away the bartender, then reached over the counter and placed two glasses of the amber elixir in front of us.
We hugged like the old friends we were. His cologne may have been from the drugstore, but it was infused with the scent of easy confidence with an overlay of tobacco, whiskey, and the licorice-y smell of Sen-Sen. He spoke with a smoky Irish brogue. His wavy silver hair was still soft and thick in spite of advancing years. Ocean-colored eyes twinkled with mischief behind plain wire-frame glasses, and tiny bunches of laugh lines collected at the corners, ready to bloom at every amusing remark.
“Where is everybody?” I asked him.
“Oh, here and there,” he said. “Some went back home to Dublin. Some got married. Some stopped coming here after I sold the bar—took issue with the new management. But I still like it. They let me tend bar in the afternoon and then they let me hang around in the evening. Me and some of the boys. We add authenticity.” He grinned and settled onto the stool next to mine.
He continued, “But the real mystery is how could your husband let such a gorgeous woman out of his sight, alone at night?”
“I was wondering that myself,” I replied.
Our conversation set off down an old familiar path, and the years since we’d last traded stories melted away like the ice in our glasses: We toasted to harbor parties on Jackie’s boat down in the marina; to riotous times at the bar, behind the bar, on the bar; to a hundred Sunday mornings on Mark and Una’s shady back deck, blending a hundred different helpings of the hair of the dog into one long, lazy story.
One minute we laughed, and the next we were maudlin, teary, naming absent friends one by one, some who’d died, some we’d lost in other ways. Such bittersweet subjects steered us off into deeper waters, and before long we were talking about marriage and the unspoken language of spouses.
He was something of an expert on the topic, having been married three times, twice to the same woman. Margaret, his first and his third wife. He still loved her but she hated LA. Preferred New York, where she lived now, with their daughter. Jim said it was better that way: a marriage with a whole country in between them. Cohabitation disagreed with them. “Thing is, we fought like cats,” he said, with a half smile and a faraway look. Lifting his glass, he toasted her. “Like cats, Peg, like cats…”
We were on our second glass of “iced tea” by then, and that’s when he asked me how things had been between you and me since he and I had last seen each other—How’s married life treatin’ you? The truth now, sweet one, no fibbin’.
The whiskey began talking through me. It was so freeing to talk about all the things you and I have been too afraid to discuss. I told Jim things I have not mentioned to you, or even to myself: How you and I used to talk all night and ten times a day, but now how little we had to say to each other. How we’d been going through the motions for I don’t know how long, and how I never thought I’d be the type that would “go through the motions.”
I told him how sick and tired I am of tiptoeing around “It”—the name I’d given your depression, how it was like a sleeping invalid, an uninvited houseguest, always in the way. How lately I have wondered if you will ever come back and be the man I loved, or if you are just going to check out on me, one book at a time.
Somehow, without my noticing, I’d become really unhappy.
I got weepy and felt embarrassed and excused myself. In the restroom, I splashed water on my face. No more whiskey for you, I said to my image in the mirror. In a lopsided heart drawn on the wall, it said “Teri + Paddy 4ever.” When she drew that heart, did Teri have any concept of how long forever really is?
Standing there, I had the strangest feeling you were right there in the bar with us somehow, overhearing me breaking our confidences like I was snapping open salted peanuts. What was I doing there? I had the urge to call you—better yet rush home to tell you face-to-face that I loved you, to say I still had faith in you, in us, how I knew it was all going to work out eventually. Even if I wasn’t sure I believed my own words.
But then something snapped.
I was suddenly angry and defiant.
No way! I’m going to have some fun for a change! I said to you, to the air, to myself. Besides, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t notice if I did or didn’t come home.
I put on fresh lipstick, poofed my hair, and returned to the bar. By then, it must have been 9:00. You would have been closing your book and getting ready to turn in for the night, but then there’s Jim, nearly twice your age, still full of energy, elegant even on a bar stool, cracking wise with a couple of his mates. I could tell they were talking about me, and I admit I was flattered when the one old guy gave Jim a thumbs-up.
“Want to join me for a smoke out back?” said Jim.
“I would love a cigarette, darling,” I said, a little louder and more flirtatiously than I intended. Rebelliousness had taken me over and I didn’t care.
Shredded jacaranda blossoms covered the tiny patio where the staff went to smoke. As Jim lit my cigarette—the first I’d had in more than a year—he held the match with practiced gallantry. The hot smoke felt good against my throat. Another old friend returns. Pleasantly light-headed I leaned into Jim to keep from stumbling.
“Let’s take a little walk, my dear,” he said, a much younger version of himself grinning in the shadowy light. It had rained and the air was cool and smelled springtime sweet. With one arm around my waist, he guided me through the night as if he were escorting me onto a dance floor. We strolled along and he told me stories of when he was young, when Ireland was poor and New York was the place they all dreamed about. He told me I reminded him of a girl he loved in Manhattan, in 1958, when he was in the union and the money came easy. We lit another Marlboro.
“Do you know what day this is?” he asked. “’Tis the anniversary of the night the Titanic crashed into the Devil’s own iceberg and sank to the bottom of the sea. I’ll wager you didn’t know that that most magnificent seagoing vessel in history was built with Irish hands? She disembarked from my hometown in County Cork.
“Before my time of course, but…” He stopped walking and began to speak as if he were delivering a eulogy. “One hundred twenty Irish souls on their way to a better life in America…trapped in steerage, went down into the cold black water that night. Among them, my grandmother’s little sister Tirzah.” He closed his eyes and recited from memory a poem by Thomas Hardy about the tragic event. While he pronounced the words, I heard in the space between them the sorrow of the man and of the boy.
After a long moment, we returned the way we’d come, our footsteps on the wet sidewalk the only sound.
By the time we reached the Blarney Stone, the whiskey had worn off some but not all the way. Jim asked if he should call you or call a cab, and I said, “No, I’ll be all right in a few minutes.”
“Okay then, but let’s have a coffee before you leave,” and he guided me to the little office in the back. While I sat at the desk, surrounded by stacked-up cases of beer and boxes of old files and St. Paddy’s Day decorations, I idly sharpened a few pencils while he made us a fresh pot.
We drank our coffee. Now it was his turn to tell me his secrets: How for the first time lately he’d found himself lonely in the crowded bar. How he’d been reconsidering things, like maybe it wasn’t the best idea to have a whole country separating a man from his wife, a half a world between a father and his children. He’d made the bar his whole life, but now even that was gone, really. Oh, he enjoyed the work and the company of his mates, but home was nothing but a drab one-room apartment over a garage, and what kind of life is this anyway? Not one for a man who’s just celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday. A man who worried about his health, his heart, dying…
“I have longings,” he said, looking first into the blackness of his coffee, then lifting his gaze until it met mine.
“I’ve gotta go,” I said, flustered.
He helped me on with my jacket. Together we left the bar and walked to my parking place. The alley was dark. The car sat half in and half out of a wide pool of orange streetlight.
“Nice to see you again, Jim,” I said, extending my hand for him to shake.
If he had simply taken my hand, given it a pump or two—or even a gentlemanly buss on my cheek—the story of the evening could be told in three sentences. “I got thirsty and I stopped for a beer at the Blarney Stone. Remember Jim? The bartender? Well, he was there. He asked about you. The End.” But it didn’t happen that way.
Instead, Jim gently pushed my hand away and said, “Just a wee kiss between old friends?” Without waiting for my answer, he slipped his hands inside my jacket and placed them on my ribs, took a step closer, and kissed me. Starting with a gentle peck, then sneaking back for seconds, lingering there, an inch away, just breathing for an extra moment before parting my lips very slightly and pushing his tongue into my mouth so sweetly, so expertly that I did not stop him when his fingers began to fiddle with the buttons of my blouse, nor when he lightly traced the outline of my bra to find the hooks to unhook.
“I’ve waited so long for this,” he said.
And I thought, Me too.
Yes. For this. From you. From him. From anyone. From you.
My every cell awakened with a start, as sublime as it was terrifying. I forgot to breathe, then gasped for air while I frantically unlocked the car. We climbed into the backseat and flailed and groped like teenage virgins, exploring every avenue of pleasure with the one primary exception. And then it was over. We straightened our clothing and caught our breath.
Sobriety returned and with it came a wave of remorse.
What would I tell you? Would I tell you? How could I tell you? How could I?
“We can never do this again,” I said.
“Aw, sweet one. Never say never,” said Jim, pushing a lock of hair from my face and leaning in to pull one last kiss from my swollen lips.
I drove home through the night with the radio turned up full blast, with the cold April wind rushing in the open car windows, and yet I could still feel the ghosts of his hands all over me. I hated myself for loving it, craving it, luxuriating in it like a deep, hot bath: Gorgeous sweet silver hair ocean-eyed butterscotch dream of a man. He saw me, listened to me, touched me like he loved me. Like he’d always loved me.
But by the time I glided down the Overland entrance ramp to the 10, I was cursing myself out loud. Oh God, what a fool you are! What an idiot! “Just a wee kiss between old friends” ? Please. He liquored you up and then used you! I made deals, negotiated, rationalized, with myself, with you, with the angel on my shoulder.
I considered telling you everything as soon as I got home. I practiced what I would say, but found no solace in the confession.
Thank goodness you were sound asleep that night when I got in, just before twelve. I showered off the cigarettes, brushed my teeth, put on my nightgown, and slipped between the sheets. I lay on my side, facing away from you. When you rolled over and snuggled up behind me, I was enveloped in your warmth, your bed smell. You softly growled the two syllables which translate as “love you” in our sleeping language.
By then I’d decided not to tell you about what happened. Because what did it really mean? To you, to our marriage, I mean. Nothing, really. It was personal, wasn’t it?
Except I couldn’t stop thinking about Jim.
I planned routes through Culver City so I could drive by the bar. I fantasized about dropping in during one of Jim’s afternoon shifts. Never having had an affair, I wondered how to do it. What the logistics would be. I fretted about what I would wear—such a foolish detail. I memorized the telephone number that rang in the tiny back office and found myself in idle moments absentmindedly reciting digits to myself in the rhythmic manner of some advertising jingle. Once, when I couldn’t resist the temptation, I dialed the numbers, but pressed the disconnect button as soon as it rang the first time.
For these last four weeks, I’ve been like an addict counting days of sobriety, taking pride in the passing of yet another day when I didn’t call the Blarney Stone. I thought I gained some small measure of dignity by keeping the story to myself, fighting a perverse desire to blurt it all out, just to relieve the pressure of the guilt. In this awful Limbo, I may long for his kiss in the morning, but when I see you there in the evening, peacefully reading in your chair, I pray for a future when my memories of that night might grow fuzzy, when I might wonder if maybe I made up the whole thing.
Then today, in the mail, there was a Blarney Stone business envelope, the familiar green logo leaping off the ivory paper. It was him! I held the sealed letter in my hand for a long time before tearing it open. What could it be? A passionate love letter! An invitation to run away! Then I noticed the New York postmark. New York? On a sheet of lined paper torn from a spiral notebook, and dated from that night in April, he’d copied in neat, schoolboy cursive the words of “The Convergence of the Twain”—the Thomas Hardy poem he’d recited from memory the night under the jacarandas, the poem which ends like this:
Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
by paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
On the back of the last page, in a more casual hand, he had written—
I have gone home to Peg and we are as happy as a couple of kids on their honeymoon. Please know if it weren’t for our ‘august event’ last month, I would never have seen the light. You reminded me that life is long with plenty of room for mistakes and forgiveness. Your man loves you so much, he just needs to be reminded how. Have faith, sweet one. You will always have a glass of iced tea behind my bar.
I was startled by my grief. I sobbed into the paper until the blue ink ran and some of the words were washed away.
I wondered, Should I burn the letter, or should I leave it out in plain sight on the table, where you might find it, might scan the blurred lines and ask innocently, “Who’s Jim?”
The half-smoked cigarette between my fingers tastes terrible. I stand up, drop it in the grass, stub it out with my foot. It isn’t your fault life has begun to seem a bit colorless. I’ve had my part to play, growing a little more afraid each day, taking fewer chances with my life, agreeing to go through the motions, agreeing not to discuss the difficult subjects because it was easier. It’s all this not talking about things that has been the trouble between us all along.
“You okay? You seem so sad,” you say, forgetting the letter, coming over to my chair, putting your arms around me, holding me close to your chest. I can hear your heart, my heart, your heart pounding in my ears. It’s time to tell you something true. The details are unimportant. It’s time to tell you I remember what it’s like to be seen and heard, to be kissed and touched and loved. How it used to be between you and me. How I miss it so much and how I don’t want to think it will never happen again.
I know you miss it too.
“The Unspoken Language of Spouses” originally appeared in Hawai’i Pacific Review online literary magazine, January 31, 2019.
After many years of restless seeking, Beth Escott Newcomer now lives a quiet life with her husband and a pack of dogs in rural Fallbrook, California. To support her writing habit, she manages her eponymous graphic design and communications firm and sells cacti and succulent plants in the family nursery.