My wife could have been the greatest actress of her generation; she could have been a star.
She studied drama at one of the renowned acronym theatre schools, and was considered a natural by peers and lecturers alike. She played Shakespearean heroines with enough grace to bring reviewers to their knees, to coax tears from hard as nails teachers and bring forth laughter from the most humourless of gentlemen. But it didn’t make her happy, and after performances agents, examiners and family members would gather around her apathetic body of wax and gush about the complete immersion of her style and the sheer effortlessness of her inflection and although she would thank them, as soon as they left she would cry. She couldn’t focus. She was performing but thinking about the rent, how much milk was left in the fridge and whether her nightly bowl of pea and ham soup was a symptom of repressed OCD.
Sometimes I would recreate the applause that sound tracked those sad reflected eyes, sometimes I would buy her the red nail varnish she wore, when her hands gripped tightly around all those bouquets of flowers.
She got her BA in acting and left the stage for good. She went into teaching and we met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. We fell in love with all the passion that we could muster and before we had the chance to memorise each other irises we were married.
Our sex life was average to above average but sometimes she was missing. Her moans and shudders were real but her arms imaginary and their desperate grip around my waist felt more appropriate to the moment then her own instinctual clasp. Her eyes would glaze over and she would flee, accessing information on tomorrow’s class timetable, and I wanted to force her eyes to the side of the brain that accessed imagination, and yes I wanted more, but my wants were simple because I wanted her, I wanted her to lose herself, her self-consciousness. I wanted full access to her big stupid heart.
We were bathing one day, my hand stroking her bony knee, when I asked her if we could role-play. Just the usual stuff, I said. Just a game of secretaries, of schoolgirls, of pizza deliveryman. I pointed out she had this underused, under tapped and under appreciated qualification going to waste and I was beginning to grow bored.
I focused on the water from the tap hitting the water in the tub and the drip, drip, drip filled the air as she pondered my request, my admittance of ennui. She didn’t speak for a while but coiled a wet hair around her finger, and the tap dripped away some more, becoming the slow burning drum roll to the truth. She was repressed. She was too “self-consciousness to act unless there was some realism involved.” If I wanted her to truly transform herself then I had to provide her with a natural setting, the possibility that this could all take place. I had to give her some realistic context. Her imagination did not stretch far and her best acting had taken place long ago in a more natural setting then the artifice of planning and stage. If she could see the yellowing splinters in the wood of the set she lost her enjoyment and the audience reaped all the rewards.
When she was 18 she worked as a makeup artist in a nearby city centre. She sold brown eye shadow to the creases of elderly women but did so as a French exchange student with dreams of marrying a stockbroker and opening a novelty muffin store. She pushed concealer onto the pores of teenager girls and talked about a childhood in Paris. Her mother picked her up as the weather turned mild and her boss asked, “when did you lose your provincial accent?”
The next summer she was an American Southern belle with a talent for coming up with new ice cream flavours. She sold gelato at an overpriced deli and her colleagues helped her draft a letter to the CEO of the biggest ice cream manufacturing company asking for an internship. She dated the assistant manager and he asked her mother, “what do you miss most about Louisiana?” But she was truly lost, and truly happy in her self-created bubble because it had context, although her parents were becoming increasingly concerned about her mental health.
“Why can’t you be yourself?” They would say, “because you are so lovely.”
When she put on the European shell of Judith or the simple husk of Nancy she forgot all she owed to those around her.
(Imagine now if you will the guilt she felt nibbling at her ankles in the dead of night as she drank orange juice from the fridge.)
If I truly wanted her to be as free as she was back then, I had to give her context. I agreed and she told me to use my sabbatical from work to attempt to get a job as a plumber. She had always had a thing about plumbers. So I put my plans to write the Great British Novel on the shelf. But I had no qualifications that would easily relate to plumbing. I was an academic with academic trappings and ideas, and although I had common sense I had no real knowledge of how the pipes worked in my house, let alone in others. I contemplated backing out but I saw her eyes reflected in our bathroom mirror and they wondered if she would ever believe in anything again, and her nails were bitten down to the soft pink flesh of her fingertips.
I took an introductory course in plumbing at the local “Centre for Lifelong Learning.” It was basic, non vocational and laid a foundation of knowledge for people who wanted to fix their own pipes.
I got myself some business cards that I put up around our local high street.
(Imagine now if you will a montage of me trying to drum up a little bit of business but not a lot.)
I took an advert out in the local newspaper and waited for a call as she told me she would not touch me until the phone rang three times.
Despite this sternness, I noticed a change in her. It seemed that each practical step I took to legitimise this fantasy excited her and helped her unfold; there was passion and life flowing through the thin veins in her wrists, those tiny circles I would soon pin down.
(Imagine now if you will her holding up three fingers and then a fourth pointing to her exposed breasts.)
The first job was simple. The kitchen sink was blocked, full of tuna oil and shredded carrots. The client was a single father with unwashed hair that stuck to his head in greasy waves. He could have fixed it himself had he done any research, but he had a young child, three jobs and did not even have enough time to wash his hair. I charged him far less than I should and reported home to my wife who wagged her finger at my burgeoning erection and said “two more to go.”
The second one involved a septic tank and should be forgotten by all.
The last one I could not fix. A family’s basement had flooded and their sump pump was broken. I stood in the knee high water surrounded by broken toys and family heirlooms with tears cascading down my cheeks. I saw the ghost of my wife in the flood and she was looking at me with such disappointment, she was buttoning up her shirt and tightening her chastity belt, but I knew I could never feel that surge of sexual urgency around her ever again. I told the family I had to get something from my car and I left, arranging to meet a professional down the road. I told the real plumber I had an emergency to attend to, so could not fix it. I told the real plumber that I felt obligated to the family so would pay. I told the real plumber I was trapped in a marriage I could not get out of.
(Imagine now if you will the taste of the salty tears I licked off my lips as I explained how fantasies could only go so far.)
I gave him a large sum of money and went home to find my wife standing naked in the living room with a broken toilet handle.