Michael smelled wet paint the second he stepped through the back door. The kitchen walls had their usual faded rose flaking in the corners, the trim was its usual eggshell. Sabine shuffled out of the bedroom, her pale face splotched from crying, her nose scarlet. Therapy hadn’t gone well today. He had finished editing a 45-page manual for Tribal Software, and wasn’t up to therapy chatter. He just wanted beer, dinner, and to fall asleep in front of the television. She hovered in the doorway, her fists sunk to the bottom of her robe’s pockets, her shoulders raised and tight.

She was a patchwork of mood disorders and phobias. In the old days, referred to simply as Before, she lined the nightstand with massage oils, lubricant, edible body paints. Now she slept with orange-brown medicine bottles, named for every television and print ad known to man. Prozac, the king, was there. Wellbutrin. Atenolol, Xanax, Ambien.  Adjusted, tweaked, abandoned, praised then cursed, and none of them leading to sex, none of them about Michael in any perceptibly positive way.

“Dr. Mike says I have Seasonal Affective Disorder.”

Michael spread his right hand across the cool pink tiles of the kitchen counter and leaned. “Affective,” he said. “Like a trannie at a drag show. A put-on. Imagined.”

She frowned, her mouth prettier for the lines and furrows, her face deepened and more interesting for the stress. “No, affective. I’m affected by the change of seasons.”

He felt the moisture of his palm against the cool tile, and when he moved his hand, his handprint was there for a moment before fading. “Affectation. Affected accent. Fake.”

“It’s in journals. People stake reputations on it. It’s real. And I feel it.”

He could have gone on to say that she felt a lot of things that weren’t real. She felt tremors she called earthquakes that weren’t, she felt cosmic vibrations, she felt the tug of precognition and prescience everywhere, the spinning of Chakras. She was positively ecstatic, like Mariana, Leda or St. Ursula. Fucking ghosts. Fucking swans. Fucking bulls. Anyone but Michael.

“You don’t understand because you’re so stoic, so phlegmatic. You just churn along, the little engine that could. I feel everything.”

He wondered if she had gone to the store for the tuna. He liked tuna these days, was in a tuna way, making tuna with capers and artichoke hearts, tuna with gorgonzola, tuna folded into mayonnaise on white bread. He wanted the fucking tuna. He knew she had not gone to the store, that the tuna wasn’t going to be in the cabinet when he opened it, because there was something at the store that she feared, that gave her palpitations. It’s the fucking grocery store, he would want to say. But he would not say it. He wouldn’t say a lot of things, because the swirling mess of thoughts would end his marriage right there in the kitchen as he stared into the cabinet full of old spaghetti spilling from its wrapper and cocoa from Before.

“I got full-spectrum bulbs and white pajamas. I’m supposed to wear white. Open the blinds. Paint the walls.”

He loved the deep rust of the living room walls. “Don’t paint the living room.”

“There’s this paint, it’s the color of the walls at Timber Psychiatric. Dr. Mike told me about it. Kind of a champagne color. It’s supposed to soothe the mind. I got some of that.”

Dr. Mike. He had, his entire life, hated the shortening of Father Catoloniamiassmo to Father Jim. He objected to the familiarization of people who weren’t supposed to be friendly and fun. Priests and shrinks were out to get you. Share your worst secrets or you’ll be crazy. You won’t go to heaven. Michael begged to differ. Look at her. There was no relief in sharing, there was no heaven at the end of this. She was going to die and soak the ground with her misery, poison the groundwater.

“It’s a good color. Champagne.”

“Better than white.”

She plucked at a tissue in her hand. Floccillation, the plucking of bedclothes by the dying. “I already painted the living room.”

For someone depressed, she had boundless energy for state-of-mind collages and decoupage monuments to grief. Michael turned. She looked so pale and delicate in her nightgown, the tear in the shoulder visible under her robe, a little pale patch of freckled skin buried under terry cloth and cotton. He felt his arctic mood shift, a little melting around the edges. “Okay, Jelly Bean. Okay.”

She lowered her chin and shook her head, her red curls waving right, then left. Her scalp was stark against her red hair, her chin pointed against her chest.

“I already painted it. I’m so sorry.”

He gathered her into his arms and let her tears soak his shoulder. He liked the way his broad shoulders and thick chest physically overwhelmed her, made her vulnerable. “Maybe we should get more of that paint for the bedroom.” He never liked the sickly green, what Sabine called sage. It was more like nasal secretions, something hacked up into a wad of toilet paper.

She pulled away, sniffling. He really wanted her to clear up the tears and get undressed. Take off the fucking robe and nightgown. Lean back against the pillow. Give me a nipple. Just one fucking nipple to suckle.

“I have to go get tuna. You want ice cream?”   

Like a little girl, she nodded and smiled, her thin face crinkling like plastic wrap. “Yes. Chocolate.”

“Soothing milk chocolate.”

She nodded. He was good at understanding. He knew his cue. “Maybe we can huddle together, watch TV.” Without response, she shuffled back to the bedroom. He heard the bed creak with her gentle weight, a leaf resting on the grass. He pulled the keys from the hook and went back out into the ten-below night, to get ice cream and tuna. To hold, feed and reassure.

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Copyright © 2005 Frances Badgett

“Break Down”