Our Wife By Susan Lago
We keep the spare wife in the hall closet. Whoever gets home from work first takes her out. While we go upstairs to shower the remains of the day from our weary skins, the spare wife prepares dinner. As we eat, she waits, bland and innocuous, while my husband and I make each other laugh by painting the day’s frustrations in rosy afterglow. And when our two children bicker and kick each other under the table, we have the patience to reason them out of their misbehavior. This is because of the spare wife.
She cleans up after dinner, then helps the children with their homework. She supervises their bath times, then hands them over to us, clean and glowing. My husband puts our son to bed, I, our daughter. Who’s ever done first, puts the spare wife back in the hall closet. If we’re not too tired, my husband and I make love.
I store the spare wife in the hall closet. I don’t need her often these days, only when I am exhausted from being a woman. Since my husband leaves the house early to go to the gym before work, I wake our two children, feed them breakfast, and assemble them for school. At work, I sit in front of my computer waiting for it to tell me what to do. When it does, I do it. Then home again. Drive kids to respective extracurricular activities. Pick them up. Schedule doctor’s appointments, pay the bills, throw dinner in the microwave. My husband kisses me when he arrives home. He’s tired from his long commute from the city, retreats upstairs to take a shower while I help the kids with their homework. While my husband negotiates with his Blackberry to tie up the loose ends of his day, I supervise the children’s bath time. He puts them to bed so I can shower the day from my weary skin.
If I’m too tired, I take the spare wife out of the closet. My husband makes love to her.
The spare wife waits in the hall closet. Her name is Marcie, same as me. She looks like me, too, or rather a blurry version of me. When I get home from work, she emerges from the closet. She is always glad to see me. She fixes me dinner and sits with me while I eat. I tell her about my day and she laughs in all the right places, crinkles up her brow in sympathy at the down parts.
The children love her, but not too much. Not more than they love me, which is only right. Marcie helps them with their homework while I go upstairs to shower. Rachel understands fractions now, but Davie still struggles with his weekly vocabulary words. Marcie looks them up in his workbook and explains them to him.
When my husband gets home from work, the spare wife retreats to the background. Together, we supervise the children’s bath time and put them to bed. The spare wife hangs up the wet towels and wipes toothpaste spit out of the sink. She mops the kitchen floor.
Often, Mike is too tired from the rigors of his day and his long commute to make love to me. Then Marcie climbs into bed and holds me.
The spare wife hides in the hall closet. She’s looking a bit worse for wear these days. Her clothes are stained from where the children have pulled on them with their sticky fingers. Her hair is frizzy and gray at the roots. The skin on her hands is red and dry from cooking and cleaning. I try to talk to her, but her attention wanders. Sometimes she seems to be sleeping with her eyes open.
The children want her.
“Fix me a snack, Mom.”
“Help me with my homework.”
“You forgot to sign my permission slip for the field trip and it’s due tomorrow, MOM.”
“You have to pick up Kenny and Brandon on the way to soccer practice. Did you remember to wash my uniform?”
“Mom? Mom. Mom!”
At these times, the spare wife trembles. Her mom jeans sag at the rear; her Keds are no longer pristine white.
When my husband gets home from work, he expects a hot dinner on the table. The spare wife does her best to oblige.
“Corned beef and cabbage again, dear?” he asks, raising one eyebrow in wry humor.
“Did you remember to pick up my shirts at the dry cleaner?”
“Oh, I almost forgot. My partner and his wife are coming for dinner this Saturday. I’m up for a promotion so make sure the meal is top notch.”
“Is there any more of this wine? No? Don’t forget to pick up another bottle tomorrow when you do the food shopping.”
“Sit for a minute, goddamn it. You’re always running around. I want to tell you about this funny thing that happened at the office.”
Only I do not make demands on the spare wife. While she’s seeing to the running of the house, I’m off to Zumba at the gym or I curl up in my favorite chair with a good book and a cup of tea. Or a vodka martini.
After she’s done putting the children to bed and making love to my husband, I help her limp back to the hall closet. She sleeps.
The spare wife leaps from the hall closet, swinging open the door with such an emphatic push that it smashes against the wall.
My husband and I have been fighting since we got home from work. As usual, we argue over who had the hardest day, the longest commute, has done the most chores around the house. We tear it up. When my energy flags at my husband’s latest sally, out the spare wife springs, ready to take my place in the fray. I fall back against the sofa.
Without missing a beat, my husband turns to her: “When is the last time you bothered to clean this house?”
The spare wife is ready. “I’m busy working full time and raising your children. When is the last time you gave the kids a bath let alone tucked them into bed?”
Oh, my husband is red in the face now. He leans in: “Don’t you accuse me of being a bad father,” he yells. Spittle flecks the spare wife’s cheeks; she doesn’t even flinch. “I took care of them almost all day Saturday so you could do the food shopping.”
The spare wife throws back her head and laughs, mouth wide open, and crosses her arms across her chest. “So this is my break? Food shopping? I spent all day preparing dinner for your obnoxious partner and his anorexic wife. You didn’t even bother to tell me she was vegan. I thought she was going to pass out when I came to the table with the duck ala orange.” She’s not done, barely pauses for breath when she lobs one to him out of left field. “You spent all day playing golf on Sunday while I was stuck at home with YOUR children.”
My husband falters, takes a half-step back. “That was business,” he whines. “I had to go.”
The spare wife presses her advantage. “Really? You had to buy yourself a new nine-iron? And you came home sticking of beer.”
He raises one arm, palm out as if to shield himself. “It was for work.”
Now, the spare wife brings out the big guns: She cries. “You don’t know how hard it is,” she sobs.
He’s done for now. “Aw, honey…”
She bats away his outstretched hand. But not too hard. Then he’s holding her and she’s weeping gently into his shoulder.
In the meantime, the children have crept down the stairs. In the ruckus, I almost forgot about them.
I can see they took their baths, hope they finished their homework.
“Is Mommy okay?” asks my son. “Why is she crying?” My daughter looks more annoyed than worried. “We heard you yelling,” she says. “Again,” she adds.
The spare wife wipes her eyes with the back of her hand and looks at me. I nod and she retreats back into the hall closet. She shuts the door softly behind her.
My husband and I look shyly at each other. “Sorry,” he mumbles.
I can afford to be magnanimous. “Me, too,” I say.
My husband and I hold our arms out to the children and they rush into them. We repair the family bond with hugs and kisses and promises not to fight anymore. Then we put the kids to bed. We stand with our arms around each other in the doorway of their bedroom and watch them for a while.
We are too drained to make love. We sleep.
I sit in the hall closet. In the morning, light seeps beneath the door. Soon I hear the family moving about. Running water, footsteps up and down the stairs, the clink of dishes. I smell coffee brewing. A laugh. A shout. A door slams, then a few minutes later, slams again. Silence. They’re gone.
With me in the closet: four winter coats, a set of golf clubs, a sewing kit. On the shelf above my head: half-used rolls of wrapping paper, a menorah, a stack of porn, a gun hidden in a frayed wool scarf. A cubic zirconium earring winks in the corner, lost now for more than a year. A mousetrap, the decayed husk of a dead mouse. Snow boots. Dust.
Hours later, they are home. The closet door swings open and one of them yanks me out by the arm. I blink in the sudden brightness. Immediately, I am immersed in chaos of dinner and children. Over burgers, tater tots and a small side salad, husband and wife snipe at each other, their children egging them on from the sidelines.
In the bathroom, the children cry and cling to me when they should be washing up for bed. “Please stay with us,” they sob. “Don’t go back into the closet.”
They are so young; they don’t understand the way of families. I put my arms around them, hold their small hot bodies close to mine. They smell like grass, like sun. I wipe away their tears with a washcloth.
Husband and wife tuck them into bed, murmuring lullabies. Nightlight: check. Door left slightly ajar: check. Last good night kiss: check.
He and I make love. He’s only semi-hard and seems to forget I’m there for stretches of time. He comes; I don’t.
Then I am back in the hall closet, nestled between the water pipes and down coats. Who am I, I wonder. The spare wife? The real wife? These are questions that cannot be simply answered.
We keep the spare husband in the hall closet. We traded in the spare wife for him after Mike lost his job in the Wall Street meltdown of ’08. Fortunately, the spare husband wasn’t too proud to take a job at the Wal-Mart over in the next county. He never complains about mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage either.
Mike, in the meantime, spends a lot of time staring at the dead screen of his offline Blackberry. During the day, while I’m at work, he watches Sports Center on ESPN. The stubble on his cheeks has grown in gray. Since we had to cancel the membership at the gym, he has developed a slight paunch.
When I get home from work, I cook dinner, help the kids with their homework, make sure they wash their faces and brush their teeth. After the children are in bed, I sit at my desk and try to solve the puzzle of which bills I can afford to pay, and which I can’t afford not to.
Mike, in the meantime, is depressed. He goes to therapy once a week, which we can barely afford, and takes a small white pill every morning with breakfast. After the children are asleep, he sits in the den and channel surfs into the long dark stretch of night. He looks over his porn collection. Once in a while he takes out the gun from the hall closet and holds it in his lap. I know this because the spare husband told me.
The night holds its breath; I climb over the Mike-shaped space on the far side of the bed, creep down the stairs, and take the spare husband out of the closet. He makes love to me, then holds me in his arms.