Two married couples face off, microwaved containers of Dal Makhani and curry between them. They are playing a game better suited for their kids, who’ve left their hot dogs and spagetteos to hurry upstairs, as far away as they can get from the tedium of another adult story. The couples’ singed cheeks tingle, though they don’t regret the strange Bengali spices they’ve just ingested. Their painful, teary winces make them forget their usual time-tested reticence, restraint, reserve, and then there is that soothing white wine.
“What experience of pain in your whole life has been the greatest?” one wife asks. It is no coincidence that the others, too, are close to thinking about that same subject, for any intense adult talk must end up there, if drinking and desire are involved. Husband number one begins, his realm merely physical, and therefore boring, dismissed—as though his dislocated, cracked wrist bone twisted and wrenched back into place meant little more to them than a playground moan ignored by one of their kids. The second husband’s example is met with disbelief. Did he really contract Scarlet Fever as a kid, a disease from the distant past like small pox or consumption? Was he in fact, quarantined? Or was this his mother’s quaint way of explaining the bashful blush that still tracks across his face at times, a deeper ache? Besides, who cares right now; their kids upstairs have moved away from play to torment.
The first wife then supplies the blow by blow of her second birth, her child and placenta already delivered, when the blood clots way too slowly. And within minutes, a clump–big as an apple, hard as bone, stuck in her uterus. The midwife must reach her fist inside, unfist, and then crumble the bloody stone, clump by bloody clump, bypassing her screech. That shuts the others up and halts their hot breathing, as they listen to kids again, sweet-causers of their own pain, who stretch a blanket tent from bed to bed. The couples’ glasses of undrunk wine glisten like a four-cupped chandelier beneath the real chandelier.
The second wife, the last, now speaks. Aware the evening is hastening to an end, she rushes through the telling, losing herself in her own reliving. She’s only ten, or ten-and-a-half, her father long gone from her life, her mother working the night shift at the local hospital. She is babysitting her younger sibs, who laugh along with the perfect TV family they’re watching. Her uncle shows up at the door, drunkenly helpful and solicitously charms his way inside, as he displays his batch of tools to fix, as long-promised, a dripping sink or sticky lock tumbler. And soon, once the little ones are in their beds dozing, he tells her to switch the channel to something they can view alone like two adults–Johnny Carson’s crass hints of sex, which even she, feeling older than she is, can tune into. And then, backed into her own bedroom by his entreaties, both sweet and cross, she sits on her own bed, atop a cartoon quilt.
Before she can realize what’s happening, he eases her back, pushes her down, and with one hand braces her neck to the pillow. Then with the other, he forcibly inserts a tire-pressure gauge into her ass. He flips her over and drives the hilt of a screw-driver driven into her, telling her that he is going to jiggle it and jiggle it more, until she comes. “I had no idea what he was talking about. And he knew I would never tell anyone what he did.”
Their kids upstairs reaffirm the treasure of hurting each other—the limitations of acting nice. Her husband who has not heard this tale before turns the color of cumin, burning him like ground seeds dumped indiscriminately. The other couple stares back at the blank white takeout containers.
Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Thirteens, and Walk Like Bo Diddley. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio and edits creative non-fiction for Artful Dodge.