Fiction by Jeremiah Blane Kniola
For the past three hours I’ve been staring out the window, nothing much to see but small identical towns distinguished by the names painted on their water towers, listening to you blabber about the incredible plans you’ve made for us this weekend: hiking the rocky terrain of Nuthatch Cave, touring inside the Grosbeak Harbor lighthouse, kayaking across the wetlands, photographing the amazing birdlife–the egrets, blue herons, bald eagles–who inhabit the area, sounding like you’re reading from one of those travel pamphlets they offer in the display racks of hotel lobbies. I respond in one or two-word quips, feigning enthusiasm.
The minute I learned about this trip I should’ve bailed. Perhaps that’s why you kept it a secret. You knew I’d never agree. While I was at the office you packed our suitcases and loaded them in the car so that way if I tried to refuse you could guilt me into going. Imagine my surprise! But that’s what our marriage has become: a Pandora’s box of surprises. You didn’t even care that I might’ve made plans. You just expected I’d cancel.
But I can’t remember the last time you considered my wants. Probably when I was allowed to choose my wedding dress, and even then, you stated your preference for the traditional white.
I would’ve preferred going somewhere like Madison, a college town, instead of backwoods Fish Creek. Don’t you know me by now? I’m afraid of remote places. To endure a weekend in seclusion I need a minimal amount of comfort. There’s something that can be said for cellphone reception. But you thought it would be healthy for us to reconnect with nature. Healthy for us to reconnect.
This weekend isn’t about us spending quality alone time. This weekend is an opportunity for you to hide me in a secluded area to evaluate what’ll take to convince me to stay. You’ve begun to notice how distant I’ve become. How when we’re together I’m not really there in the same room, but far away where you can’t reach me. A divorce would tarnish the wholesome image you’ve created, which is why you spent a lot of money to rent us the swankiest cabin in the northern Midwest. It’ll make you look considerate and me unappreciative if I complain. Isn’t that why you bragged to my mother about this little excursion? I received a text from her before we left wishing us a “good time.”
But this is how it goes, right? The second you feel me slipping away you set a trap to reel me in. And I’m stupid enough to fall for it every fucking time. Hoping, somehow, you’ll return to the person you were before you clamped a ring on my finger.
You turn to me with this hurt look on your face. That pitiful expression you employ whenever I refuse to indulge in your fantasy of our perfect life. You’re curious as to why I’m being quiet. My lack of interaction has unhinged your paranoia. “I’m fine, hon, really. Just enjoying some quiet,” I reply. I curse myself for letting the word “hon” slip from my mouth. Lately I refuse to refer to you in terms of endearment.
The sympathy you showed toward me moments ago turns into an interrogation when I don’t supply the answer you desire. I’m souring the mood. Spoiling your intentions. You accuse me of not appreciating the effort it took to plan this weekend. This might be true, but what victim appreciates their kidnapper. Punching the gas, you switch lanes, cutting off a trucker. He honks his horn in three loud blasts. I wish I had his gumption.
“Don’t be mad,” I say.
“I’m not mad.” You pat my hand. “Just in a hurry to get to the cabin. This weekend is going to be great. Don’t you think?”
I highly doubt it, but I don’t want to give you the impression I’m a stick in the mud. Your opinion of me shouldn’t matter but, for some reason, it does. Probably because I’ve been trained never to disappoint. My mom always says, “You don’t want people to think you’re undeserving.” She never clarifies if she means across the board or specific individuals. It’s no wonder you two get along. You measure success by how much others envy you.
Looking out the window at the asphalt speeding beneath us, I consider the extent of my injuries if I leapt from the vehicle. We pass a sign that reads ten miles to Fish Creek.
* * *
There was a time when I would’ve jumped at the thought of spending a romantic weekend with you in middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. Back when we lay in the twin bed of our studio apartment in Chicago, our conversations revolving around developing an app that provided travel time forecasts to cell phones. Those days we were a team. While sprawled on the slippery cushions of our sectional sofa you’d design the interface of our product while I developed code to make it function. We each worked two jobs, saving whatever money we could by surviving on far less than we could afford. We borrowed the remaining few thousand we needed from my mother. She could never say no to her then future son-in-law. You charmed her with your determination and confidence. You charmed me too.
We purchased a cramped office space in between a cigar shop and a laundromat in the South Loop. There was barely enough room to fit two desks. We scraped by at first. You spent most of the week traveling throughout the Midwest marketing our product while I logged every waking hour at the office improving the code to your specifications. You were extremely demanding. I should’ve seen past your charade then. But I chalked up your temper to financial stress. Eventually we were lucky to score some big contracts. Our company grew exponentially. Your ego did as well. We hired more developers and moved into a suite in that downtown high-rise on Randolph. My position shrank exponentially. The company no longer became our venture. You claimed it as your own.
I should’ve forced you to buy me out and left for good. But my mother convinced me to stay. She told me to look at the bright side. Sticking with you I’d always be taking care of. The same can be said for civilians in countries run by dictators. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the two of you were already planning our wedding. I had no say in any of it, but I went along all the same. I figured my freedom was a small price to pay for security. I know many women who would’ve snatched the opportunity to call you husband. So who was I to complain?
Mom never expected me to marry anyone who met her standards. She never expected me to marry anyone at all. Even as a child I was a disappointment. Never pretty enough. Never talented enough. Never outgoing enough. She constantly suggested strategies to improve myself from the self-help books she read. She constantly nagged me about my thrift store outfits and tangled mess of curly hair. Then you came along and swept us up in your nice guy routine. Now my mother has a second opinion on what is best for me. Too bad neither of you have a clue what’s best for me. I’m only beginning to know myself.
* * *
We circle the same endless labyrinth of potholed roads for a half-hour with no cabin in sight. Thick columns of Northern Pin Oaks surround us on either side, branches creating a cross-sectioned arch that blocks the sunlight. The dark toothed leaves of jimson weed, the devil’s snare, sprout from the ditches, its skunky odor polluting the air. From somewhere in the distance the hum of vehicles travels along the highway.
You’re growing irritated at our guidance system’s insistence we’re at our destination. I’m amused. The GPS is a small taste of what it’s like having your life constantly micro-managed. It doesn’t help matters that the manufacturers installed a female voice actress to portray our technological tour guide. Of course, you make a snarky remark about women being directionally challenged. But it isn’t this woman’s fault you’re lost. I suggested stopping somewhere in town to ask for directions, but you’re certain the cabin is somewhere in this general vicinity. We’ll be there any minute, you promise.
When I first moved to Chicago I used to get lost on purpose. On my days off, I’d ride an L line out to a neighborhood I’d never visited, explore the shops, then stop somewhere for food before heading home. I discovered some of my favorite places in the city that way. I’ve tried talking you into exploring with me, but the word spontaneity causes you to break out in hives. Even a trip to the grocery store needs to be closely planned in advance. How long were you planning this little excursion?
Now I invent any excuse to get out of your sight. Manicure. Shopping. A trip to the bank. Lately I find myself driving past our house to give me a few more minutes of freedom. Not too far away. A block or two. Close enough you won’t begin questioning my whereabouts.
On our sixth or seventeenth lap around—I’m not sure. I’ve stopped counting—I notice a dirt path cutting into the woods. I point it out. You act like you knew it was there all along.
The path winds through a grove of cedar trees before opening into a wide, grassy clearing encompassed by a lake of sparkling blue water. Ducks float leisurely near a long dock. They don’t pay us any attention as we pull into the narrow drive. A paddle boat rocks on the soft waves, creaking. On the opposite side of the lake the highway runs alongside a little town, merely a collection of drab buildings, the closest thing to civilization. The silence here is absolute. Even the wind doesn’t make a sound.
When I picture a cabin, I imagine a square box constructed from logs, heated by kerosene lamps, with a hole cut in the floor for a toilet. But this quaint two-story cottage has a slanted roof and decorative turrets and a porch that wraps around back. Big windows invite a stranger’s curiosity. From where we’re parked, I can see the wallpaper has a blossom turquoise design and an orb shaped chandelier hangs from the ceiling. Nothing about the architecture suggests age. Yet I wouldn’t describe the cabin as modern. It appears to have come from a time before cities existed. When people still traveled by horse and buggy.
We get out of the car. You ask what I think. I have to admit it’s gorgeous. You smile, glad I’m impressed.
You heft our luggage to the front door. I offer to carry my suitcase, but you pride yourself on being chivalrous. I used to admire that about you until I learned it was all for show. When in public you perform the role of gentleman. It doesn’t matter at this moment there’s no one around. There’s always a chance someone might witness behavior to the contrary.
On paper, you’re a quality catch. Even my friends admit they’re envious. They’re always asking about you. If they only knew what you really thought of them. It’s only once we’re in private that your inner critic surfaces, detailing the faults in other’s personalities.
Retrieving the keys from beneath the welcoming mat, we head inside, the wheels of our luggage skidding along the faux hardwood flooring. A staircase leads upstairs to the bedrooms, I presume. Must you be thinking about that already? We haven’t even unpacked. The parlor looks fashioned straight out of a photograph spread in Town & Country Magazine, the polished ornate furniture meant to be admired instead of sat on, deliberately positioned to bring attention to the brick fireplace and enormous flat screen TV. I’m surprised the owners haven’t roped it off.
In the kitchen, a complimentary bottle of Merlot sits on the marble counter. You read the label, snigger. “Couldn’t have sported for a decent Cabernet?” you say. I knew it wouldn’t take long for you to find something wrong with our accommodations. It’s certain to be mentioned in your Yelp review. I remind you it’s the thought that counts, but you’re too selfish to understand anything about that.
You look out the window and are delighted by what you see. Inside the screened-in porch is a turbo-jet whirlpool Jacuzzi.
“Care to go for a dip?” you ask.
Dare I refuse?
* * *
An hour later we’re soaking in the bubbling water of the Jacuzzi, finishing the last of the wine. The alcohol has gone straight to my head and is keeping me afloat. My eyes are closed and I barely listen to what you say. Once again, off on my far away island.
You’re talking about wanting to have a child. A subject you’ve recently begun bringing to my attention. You feel now is the ideal time. We’re young. We’re financially stable. We’re mature. You’ve already picked out names. Charles for a boy. Grace for a girl. Old-fashioned names. If it were my choice, I’d choose something slightly eclectic: Skylar or Johannes. But you’d never go for it. To you they sound like names hippies give their kids.
I lied about quitting the pill. I keep them wrapped in a plastic baggy and hidden inside an empty package of tampons. The one place I know you’ll never look. I had a scare a while back. My period was unusually late. On my way home from work, I bought a test from Walgreens. The clerk wished me good luck. I was uncertain what she meant. While you were asleep, I sat in the bathroom waiting for that pink plus to wink at me, flipping between whether I should keep or terminate. What I didn’t realize until later was that you never entered the equation. I didn’t even plan on telling you no matter what the outcome.
You exit the Jacuzzi. Wrap a towel around your waist. When we first met you were in exceptional shape. Now your belly has gotten soft, an inner tube of flesh. Even your ass has transformed into an unidentifiable shape. The overhead light shines on the bald patch you try to hide by combing your hair to the side. These physical afflictions wouldn’t matter to me if you didn’t constantly fret about them. I have gained a bit of weight too, which you never forget to mention in casual conversation. Isn’t that why you bought me a gym membership for my birthday?
You toss me a towel. “I’m starving. Let’s go into town for a bite.”
Whatever pleases you, dear.
We carry our suitcases to the bedroom. I watch as you dress. You carefully unfold your navy-blue dinner suit, ease on each article in such a way they remain unwrinkled, button your undershirt slowly and deliberately, knot the tie with the precision of an eagle scout. The leathery fragrance of your cologne conceals any unpleasant odors. I used to admire your attention to detail. That was until you used it against me.
You’re expecting me to dress fancy for the occasion, but tonight I don’t have the energy. Instead, I’m going casual. Going as myself. I apply a minimal amount of makeup and throw on an outfit that doesn’t expose my skin and squeeze the life out of me. When I emerge from the bedroom your anticipation drains along with the color of your complexion. You try to recover but it’s apparent you’re disappointed. Is something wrong? You don’t like my outfit? I add a little tremor to my voice to reflect the hurt I should feel. Afraid that I’ll think you’re callous, you utter a compliment about my earrings. But the lies that normally come easy to you sound hollow in these situations. I grab my purse and head downstairs before you can say anything else.
* * *
Living with a boy was such an exciting experience that I failed to realize that I knew very little about you. You never divulged any personal information and when I inquired you assured me there was nothing to tell. Far as I understood you were birthed from the nucleus of a computer matrix. You never discussed your childhood or mentioned friends from the past. Not a single photograph or keepsake from your family inhabited our apartment. I’d later discover after Googling your name you were born in Dekalb, the only son of a Microcenter manager and a DMV clerk. The one time I met your parents was at our wedding. They acted like servants, doing whatever you demanded, accepting your ridicule when their efforts proved unsatisfactory. Beforehand, you told me they were an embarrassment. Hicks from the burbs. In the short interim I spent in their company they treated me kindly. I found them sweet and endearing. Normal. They’ve invited us over for every holiday, but you won’t speak of it.
As your wife, I too have endured the harsh judgments of your impossible expectations. When you come home to a “dirty house” you rave about being unable to concentrate. When I ask you to help clean you claim to have important business to attend to. I know better than to pry into your affairs. You’ll only act as if I couldn’t possibly understand. Doesn’t matter that I put in fourteen-hour days keeping the apps database functioning. But I’ve learned to quit griping about my problems. They’re nothing compared to the migraines you deal with on a daily basis: Balancing the finances. Competing in the marketplace. Satisfying our customer base. My wifely duties are to keep you satisfied. How I’ve longed to have a conversation where I didn’t feel the need to defend my every statement. Once I’d like to ask you a favor without listening to a catalog of all the kindnesses you’ve done for me in the past. Even sex has become a chore. I pretend to be satisfied while you fish for compliments afterwards. Must I write out a five-page essay on your expertise in the bedroom? After seven years together, I’ve begun to feel like our app, programmed to execute without fail. But fail I have. Time and time again. Now I’m on the verge of malfunctioning completely.
Not long ago, I wrote a list of your pros and cons. I stow the paper in my purse, folded behind my license. Whenever I’m questioning our marriage, I take it out to see whether anything has changed. Startling what I’ve discovered. For all your negative qualities, it’s surprising the warmth I feel for you at certain moments. It was your idea to let my mother come live with us after she suffered a hip injury in that nasty fall last summer. You rented a U-Haul and brought her stuff to our house. These days you accompany her to appointments, driving her to physical therapy, dropping her at work at the ad agency, running her errands. You’re her first point of contact whenever there’s an emergency. Though the real reason behind your generosity is to win favoritism, I’d be lying to say it doesn’t touch my heart. You’re able to connect with my mother in ways I never have. You’re the son she’s always wanted.
As much as you put me down you never allow anyone else to speak a bad word on my behalf. Once you overheard an employee on our tech support team tell a customer that my incompetence caused a blip in our data. She had a crush on you and, therefore, had it out for me. I remember her blatant attempts at flirtation, hanging around your office after meetings, complimenting your designs.
You fired her immediately.
* * *
The steakhouse where you booked our reservation is on the opposite side of the lake. You suggest paddling across. “It’ll be romantic,” you say. I’m less than enthusiastic. You’re aware that I can barely swim, and the boat doesn’t contain any life preservers. But if I were to refuse you’d pout the rest of the night and I don’t have the strength. At least at the bottom of the lake I wouldn’t have to listen to you gripe anymore.
Taking my hand, you lead me to the end of the dock and assist in lowering me down the ladder into the boat. It tilts back and forth. I grab onto the sides, steady myself into a sitting position. Patches of rust a quarter inch thick decorate the hull. I won’t be surprised if water begins leaking in. But you promise everything will be fine. You won’t let anything happen to me. I almost laugh.
You row us in the direction of town. A white stripe runs along the middle of the dark lake where the moon reflects upon the waves. The lights from the buildings on shore blink on in succession, seeming to reflect the stars scattered across the sky. It’s chillier than expected, a slight wind blows across the water. I’m glad I decided against a dress, but I wish I’d brought a sweater. I hear a splash, a fish jumping out of the water. Glancing over the side, I wonder how deep you’d have to sink to hit bottom. Suddenly I feel dizzy. I lean forward, head between my legs, and concentrate on keeping my stomach from calling attention. You spout on about the wonders of nature, oblivious to my suffering.
When we reach land, I almost fall to my knees and kiss the grass. Did you need to remark on my sickly green hue? Laugh while I drown in humiliation. I push past you and walk up the wooden stairs winding up the embankment. You apologize. Say you were kidding. I have a strong urge to give you a piece of my mind, but I know you’d just insist I’m overreacting.
At the restaurant, the hostess leads us through a dining room lit by pendant lamps shining over vinyl booths and checkered clothed tables. Behind the bar a chalkboard announces the special tonight is Beef Liver. I can tell from your dumbfounded expression this isn’t the dining experience you were expecting. This place is closer to a Cracker Barrel than a Michelin Star. Once seated, we’re greeted by a bubbly red head in a plaid shirt and jeans. She has the kind of goofy smile that gives me a fuzzy feeling inside. For some reason, you take an immediate dislike to her. Is it because in your estimation she’s beneath you? Is it because she pronounces words that begin with “th” with a “d”? Or is it because she seems like the kind of girl who can double-fist beers and match shots with the boys? A true Wisconsinite. I’d like to befriend her. She says her name is Pam. I say her name over and over in my head. Pam. Pam. Pam.
You order a bottle of their most expensive Cabernet, which by your standards is cheap swill. I peruse the menu to stall conversation. You indicate dishes you think I might enjoy. I notice they are of the leafy variety. Has it ever occurred to you that I might understand my own palate? I order the most expensive steak on the menu. Good choice, you say. Like it was somehow your decision.
There’s something on your mind. Something I can tell I’m not going to like. You stare at me with this coy smile perfect for punching. I’ve seen this look before. Last time I saw it you announced you bought our house in Naperville. I confessed that I had no intention in moving out of the city, leaving behind everything I cherished. But you’d already financed the down payment and gave the landlord our notice. I was furious at your presumptuousness. It was the first time I won a shouting match. You grabbed a small suitcase full of your belongings and left. We separated for a month, you living in Naperville, me with my mother. Eventually you wore me down, calling my mother on the phone and begging her to talk sense into me, which she did often and with repute. You were lost without me, you said. Depressed. Seeing you in such a hopeless state I finally caved in. But ever since then I’ve pushed the limits of your boundaries, curious to find out how much I can get away with.
When I can no longer handle the suspense I demand you spit it out. You sold our company to an investor for a very large sum. The contract is being signed in a week. We can start a family now. Travel. Do the things we’ve always discussed, you say. I should be happy, most people would be ecstatic, but what will I do now? My entire personality is coded within our software. Take that away and I have nothing. I am nothing. Your excitement is matched only by my reluctance to face this reality.
Our food arrives. You dig in. I stare at my plate, no longer hungry.
* * *
The moon looks a sickly pale. Waves lap the rocky shore, washing the ground of debris. We walk along the empty street without uttering a single word. The shrill screams of cicadas break the silence. I stumble ahead, my thoughts sloshing in a pool of wine. Strings of colored lights shine in the distance, raucous banjo music growing louder the closer we get. I’m carried forward by my own need for annihilation. I’ve gone this far, what’s a little further? Next thing I know I’m jogging. You ask where I’m going. Ask is a kind word. More like demand. But I’m no longer listening. Up ahead a log cabin announces “Fun” in the glow of beer signs. A few cars along with a line of motorcycles are parked in the gravel lot. A group of shady characters smoke around a keg barrel, stomping their feet to the bluegrass pouring through the open screen door. You don’t think going in there is a good idea. I don’t see why not. Where’s the harm? You claim I’m drunk. I deny it.
The tavern is a no frills kind of joint. The choking aroma of cigarette smoke conceals a slight fishy odor floating in from the terrace. My shoes stick to the hardwood as I beeline toward the u-shaped bar. A deer head stares down at us from above the liquor shelf. You share the same shocked expression. I squat on a stool, unladylike. I expect a comment, but you’re too infuriated to speak. A bearded bartender in a cut off flannel shirt takes my order, a whiskey on the rocks, then turns his attention to you. You inquire about the wine list. Red or white, he says. I laugh at your ignorance and tell the bartender to bring you the same. You shake your head but keep your thoughts to yourself. I’m grateful for the consideration.
I pat the stool next to me. You refuse to sit. Our drinks arrive. You attempt to pay but the bar doesn’t accept credit cards. You’re in disbelief. I pull a twenty from my purse and tell the bartender to keep the change. I take a swallow. The gasoline-colored liquid is strong but surprisingly smooth. You shift uncomfortably. Stare at me like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to. You want to know what’s gotten into me. I have no idea what you mean. Isn’t this why we’re on vacation? To have fun. In your estimation, this isn’t fun. This is absurd. I don’t know what to tell you, but I wish you’d quit asking if we can leave.
Closing my eyes, I sway to the music. I ask you to dance, but you’re not interested. Suit yourself. I’m going out there anyway. I don’t care what you say. Moving to the middle of the floor, I wiggle my hips and point my finger toward the ceiling and shout “Woo-hoo!” I wonder what my mother would think of me now. Would she be as appalled as you are?
A young, gritty guy starts dancing next to me. Long scraggly hair pokes out of his dirty baseball cap and his nose is bent sideways from being broken too many times. But he has nice, gentle eyes and a strong jutting chin. He carries himself as if he pretty much has life figured out. For some reason, this turns me on. Probably because he’s nothing like you. Or because I know this light flirtation has you twisted into a hundred Boy Scout knots.
He asks my name, where I’m from, what I’m doing here. I lie, of course. It’s exciting to be someone else for a while. I ask him the same. His name is Lance. He’s from around these parts. Not far from here, he says with a wink that makes me laugh. For once, I’m in control. I could get used to this. I lean in close, our lips next to each other’s ears, our bodies practically touching. I remember a time when you gave me the same looks he’s giving me now. A time when you were interested in me as a person. A time when everything wasn’t about you. A time when there was a me.
Lance places his hand on my waist. Draws me in. I don’t notice that you’ve marched over to me until you grab me by the arm. I shout at you to let me go. I’m not leaving. Why don’t you leave? I’ll be fine on my own. Lance seconds that notion. Did you just tell him to mind his own business? Bad move. Get out of his face. Back off. Don’t start anything. You’re a stranger here. This is his territory. This will not end well for you. You’re outnumbered. Don’t push him. Fuck! Why did you have to push him? I can see where this is leading. As much as I hate you right now I don’t want to see you hurt. I step in between you and Lance, apologizing to everyone for your actions. I don’t care if I have to drag you out by your shirtsleeves. We’re leaving!
I stomp past you and out the door. Though I refuse to look behind me, I hear you following, your feet slapping pavement. I start to run. You beg to wait up. Slow down. You want to talk. Apologize. Work things out. But I want to run as far away from you as possible.
I imagine myself climbing into the boat, paddling to shore, grabbing my things from inside the cabin, getting into the car. I imagine as I floor it out of the woods. I see you chasing me in the rearview mirror. I imagine watching until you shrink into a dot. I imagine you disappearing completely.
Jeremiah Blane Kniola lives in Chicago, IL with his wife and pets. At the ripe age of 43, he graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Bachelor's Degree in English. Throughout his life he's worked as a Law Office Clerk, English Teacher, Railroad Steward, Construction Worker, Restaurant Manager, Bartender, Server, and Musician (though this last occupation he didn't really get paid for). His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Literary Orphans, Dogzplot, Rock & a Hard Place, among others. He enjoys baseball, archaeology, and gin martinis with blue cheese stuffed olives.