If the house could speak, it would weep instead, the tumble out of slights and wounds and pent-up need that both built and fed it. Don’t call it home. Call it quicksand. Slow death. Ask it to share how, after 30 years of the silent treatment, a man can get used to anything.
The wife makes no coffee, no breakfast, no joy in her step or in her kitchen. She leaves before he awakes. He thinks maybe she’s working again. He can’t be sure. They don’t speak. Maybe she’s up at the cabin. He likes it when she’s at the cabin; there’s peace then, and he can think and maybe write a little, although he’s not writing much these days. The famous poet dresses in the clothes he wore the day before, grabs the morning paper from the front stoop, and walks to the coffeehouse. The cane the doctor foisted on him stays in the hall. He thinks it makes him look old.
The red-haired barista at the Quotidian Grind is lush, is a temptress, the famous poet as addicted to her blue-eyed gaze as to the triple decaf Americano he orders each morning. Blueberry scones, when they have them. “That’ll be $6.50,” she says. There’s this spark when the money changes hands; he’s sure her fingers linger in his, the same way he’s sure she’s a natural redhead. Irish. Creamy. A spatter of freckles across her nose and cheeks that shimmer when she blushes. He likes to make her blush. It makes him feel powerful.
The famous poet tucks a five into the tip jar, waits to meet her grateful eyes. She does not look up. But still, he stares, focuses on her perfect ears, wisps of red, unruly hair curling around them. How beautiful, he thinks, she’d look in emeralds. “I’d like to buy you a gift,” the famous poet smiles. The barista rolls her eyes. “Don’t buy me jewelry,” she says flatly, like she reads his mind. “I can’t accept jewelry,” she says again, just in case he doesn’t hear.
The famous poet drives to the mall. He scours the jumble of jewelry shops, looking for earrings with a hint of emerald, similar to what he’d seen her wear, but different. At each store, the same defeat. It’s the day after Valentine’s, and everything is picked over, the salesgirl at the jewelry counter at Sears explains. Still, he searches until he finds them, the perfect pair of earrings, emeralds encircled by tiny diamonds. 14K gold. And on sale! He closes his eyes, imagines them on his muse, her grateful joy. “Wrap ‘em up!” he tells the clerk.
All the way home, the famous poet is happy. He sings his favorite Sinatra songs. He feels younger each time he looks at the small box wrapped in silver paper, tied with a bright green bow. Waiting for the light to change, he imagines the barista’s face when she opens the box, her look of pleasure, the promise of her smile.
He brings the earrings into the house, hides them in his office. But what if his wife finds them? She snoops. He puts the earrings in the trunk of his car. But then he begins to worry. What was the freezing point of jewelry? At 2 a.m. he enters the garage, retrieves the earrings, secrets them in his briefcase.
“If only I was twenty years younger,” he says to himself in the mirror the next morning. He shaves carefully, splashing his face with Brut. “Forty years is nothing when two people are in love,” he assures himself. He puts on a fresh shirt, clean jeans.
“I bought you a gift,” the famous poet says to his muse in what he hopes is a sexy, sonorous voice, one that holds promises of intimacies to come. He’s a bit out of practice. He fingers the small box, holds it out to her like hope. “Is it jewelry? I told you not to buy me jewelry!” Her voice holds only annoyance, the kind she’d save for a gnat. “Yes,” he concedes. “Jewelry.”
He tries to catch her eye, turn it into a joke, but she won’t look at him. “That’ll be $6.50,” she says when his order arrives, all business. In truth, she’s given him no reason to hope, but he came of age when no meant yes, harassment was admiration, stalking was persistence, a woman was a mountain to be scaled. If she rejected him, she was a tease, bitch, frigid.
“I love her, but I won’t be going back,” the famous poet swears, his raison d’être so cruelly snatched away. “She’ll realize how much she misses my business. How she can’t treat people this way.”
“I’d be on the man’s side,” the famous poet replies. “She could have at least acknowledged the effort,” he says, “taken the gift. She could have tossed it later.”
“But she said no!”
“Yeah,” he says. “But she didn’t mean it.”