“The Risky Variable”
Anston had his hand on the bedroom door, softly counting to thirty. He had no idea what would happen as soon as he opened it. Alice was unpredictable, and he didn’t want to barge into the bedroom as if everything was fine. Nothing was fine. She had been a secured patient at the Happy Place Enrichment Facility just a few hours ago, and nothing in Dr. Farea’s discussion, as confidential as he had tried to keep it, had suggested she was ready for discharge. The last year of her residency must’ve been good for her to some degree, but her state of psychosis was such that her therapy had come with an undetermined time frame for success. On the day of her evaluation, the last day Anston had seen her, the doctor in charge had simply given him a grim look when Anston asked what was wrong with her and how long it would take to treat her. His professional answer had been nothing more than a shrug.
Anston had seen the signs of her troubled mind the night he brought her home from the wedding. Almost as soon as they walked through the door, she started to cry. He expected a little bit of weeping, certainly. He had wept a little himself that night. They were forging a new life together after knowing each other for all of four months, and both were suddenly frightened by what that meant. But Anston was determined to forge on. Marriage was just the natural rite of passage for his stage in life, no different than when he had graduated high school, and then college, and then graduate school, and so on. It was a normal part of growing up, like getting a job, getting a promotion, losing that job to a lousy economy. Getting married was just one of those stepping stones to old age. At some point, he had to do it. Otherwise, what would he have? Loneliness? He was no extrovert, but he didn’t want to die alone, either.
Of course, he hadn’t been meeting anyone in the circles he was traveling in. He still knew someone was out there, so people had said, and he talked to experts on how to find “the one.” They all told him to make use of the systems that were available to him. They had offered him a dozen different paths, and each one was convinced that his or her way was the best way because it had worked for them. And he knew that he needed to find someone who made him feel good, since everyone agreed that was most important in the choosing process. So, he scoured the Internet for ideas and found Alice on a dating website called Match.com.
It had seemed like an okay decision at the time, dating strange women he met online. But he quickly discovered just how small the pond really was, even in cyberspace. He had committed to Alice within a couple of weeks of talking to her, when he realized she was interested in him, since she made him feel good. It was more than he could say about the others he had tried talking to.
Looking back, he knew he was hasty in his decision. Computer engineers, like him at the time, were always analytical about their solutions to any problem, and his intuition had been to do the same when he started getting to know her. But he had panicked. He had bought her an engagement ring at the end of the first month, either to sabotage the relationship before it progressed into something he couldn’t control, or to suppress his fears that no one else would love him if he had waited too long. When he presented the ring to her, he was surprised that she had said yes to his request. That was his first red flag.
The other red flags had been invisible during the first few months of their dating relationship, most likely because he had been looking at her through rose-colored glasses. An attractive, no, stunningly beautiful woman was interested in him and made him feel good, so he had ignored her faults for as long as he could. But as the wedding night drew near, he started to notice things about her that startled him, things like her propensity to gargle her water before she swallowed it, even at nice restaurants. The first time she’d done it, he had thought it was unique, and “unique” had looked a lot like “cute” through the lenses he was wearing. But eventually he found it disquieting. When he got the nerve to ask her why she did that, she said gargling helped her fully rinse her palate so that she could enjoy every bite of food as if it were the first. When he asked why she did it even when they weren’t eating—like when they got back to his house after a long, sweaty walk—she replied that it helped remove the toxins from her body. Two months after their wedding night, or sixty-three days after the rose-colored glasses had come off, she had admitted that she gargled to purge her system of evil spirits, which she would acquire after eating meat or getting winded from exercise. That was when the red flag had transformed into an emergency siren.
The path to her sanity had been a rocky one ever since, and Anston never figured out how to properly navigate it. Eventually, he realized he needed to find her help. But it was after her acceptance into the Happy Place Enrichment Facility that he decided he had nothing left to offer her personally. He couldn’t justify staying married to a stranger, especially not to one with so many psychological issues. Even as he drove her to the facility—he had told her they were going to the park for a picnic, even though he hated picnics—she had criticized him for not being tall enough for her. He didn’t know what else to do.
He’d felt ill about leaving her there. It was something he had lost sleep over for several nights. But he eventually got over it. He started discovering how much more peaceful his house was without her there. There was no one to argue with him over what to eat. There was no one forcing him to sleep on the sofa for forgetting to take out the trash. No one was going to punch him in the stomach for leaving a toothpaste ring around the sink. It was relaxing. And, financially, it was liberating. Preparing for a divorce had released him of his monetary liability to the enrichment facility. It was only when he’d gone to sleep each night that he realized his life was still incomplete. He missed having her by his side. But then he wondered if he had just missed having a woman by his side.
To test his wonder, he signed up with the same Internet dating site where he’d met her. Now that he had an idea of what to avoid, he was more open to his existing choices. The pond was still small, but he approached it with more confidence. He was ready for a more positive change in his life. But, as he had feared in the days leading to Alice, no one was willing to stick around for long. Most were out of his life within a couple of weeks. None of them had ever given him a reason for bailing. He suspected they had found someone better, or had gone back to someone from an earlier season in their lives. The problem, though, was that he was familiar with programming systems, not female brains. No answer he came up with ever seemed like the right one. He had kept at the dating game because he knew he didn’t want to spend his life alone. But in the back of his mind, even as the months passed and the divorce proceedings were set into motion, Anston couldn’t help but remember that his wife was still out there in a cold, dark place, and he was in this cozy house trying to supplant her with another woman. Something about that left him unsettled. Sometimes he wondered if the other women had split so quickly because he wanted them to.
When Anston turned the knob to his bedroom door, he told himself that his wife was home. This was not some flash-in-the-pan date that he had picked up on Match.com. As much as he liked Rebecca, she was not his wife, and regardless of all the coffee they could be drinking together, and whatever else would define their relationship, she was not going to ease his mind over abandoning his wife to a crazy hospital. The fact that Alice was home was certainly terrifying. He had no idea what she was planning to do to him tonight after what he had done to her a year ago. But it did ease him to know that whatever horrible thing she had in mind, she could do it in the comfort of her own bed.
Alice didn’t notice him coming into the room. She was sitting at his desk in an office chair, back turned to him. And though the chair concealed everything below her shoulder blades, he could see she was dressed exactly as she said she would be: naked, or her idea of being naked, which was everyone else’s idea of dressing for the beach. Yes, just as he’d expected, she was wearing her favorite dark blue one-piece swimsuit. She must’ve found it in the closet with her other things that Anston couldn’t bring himself to donate to charity. What he didn’t expect coming into the room was to find her at the desk. And he certainly didn’t expect to find her at the Windows login screen on his computer trying to get in.
He didn’t want to alarm her, so he cleared his throat softly to make sure she knew he was there. She didn’t give him any attention.
“Whatcha doin’, honey?” he asked, as he moved toward the bed.
She didn’t answer him.
As he moved toward his row of pillows, Anston checked for anything out of the ordinary. His memory of how he’d left things before the trip was a bit spotty, but he knew there had been more clothes on the floor, and the general run of the room was considerably messier than it was now. Now he could step only on the floor and throw rug. No dropped jeans or peeled-off socks. Even his slippers, which he usually kept under the nightstand in the corner, seemed to have changed location. And the surface of the nightstand was cleaner, as if it had been dusted in the last six hours. There were two goblets and a bottle of champagne on it next to the lamp, but other than that, nothing different that he could find. Just a cleaner version of the room he’d left behind. He suddenly wondered how long she had been waiting at home for him.
When he reached the pillows, he felt under them, one after another, checking for the presence of sharp objects. As he searched his bed for anything that might’ve caused him injury during the night, he glanced at the computer screen past Alice’s shoulder. She was still stuck on the login screen, trying one password after another. Nothing was working, but she didn’t betray her calm. She kept at it like a burgeoning hacker, and she did so without demonstrating even the slightest swaying of her body. It seemed that whatever was making her exceptionally loopy before had lessened its grip on her.
“Honey,” he said again, when she still hadn’t answered him. “Why are you trying to access my computer?”
“Want to see my pictures,” she finally said. She was still looking at the screen.
“I thought you wanted to reconnect.”
“Haven’t seen my pictures in a year. I miss them.”
Anston checked the last pillow. Nothing was hidden underneath it or in the pillowcase. Then he scanned the area closest to Alice. Other than cleanliness, nothing was out of the ordinary. Even his desk, which normally had junk mail addressed to “Current Resident” scattered about, was straightened. He wondered if maybe she was doing what he’d done in the early days: holding a knife close to the mouse for quick retrieval in an emergency. He grabbed the pillow and placed it in front of his chest. Then, as he took a step closer to her, he changed his mind. He moved it down to his crotch instead.
“How do I get into your computer?” she asked.
“You have to know the password,” he said, one second before he realized how unhelpful his answer was.
“I can’t figure it out.” She leaned closer to the screen, as if seeing the asterisks clearer would somehow crack the code.
Anston crept closer to her, keeping an eye on her hands. With each step he strained to locate any evidence of an ambush waiting for him. But he could see nothing. Just the computer and its accessories. He still wondered if she was sitting on anything dangerous but shot down that theory when he reasoned that her legs were almost entirely exposed, and anything sharp would cause her discomfort. Most likely he was safe to approach her. So he did.
She flinched when he stepped next to her, and her sudden movement caused him to flinch. He gripped his desk to steady his heart. As much as he was looking forward to releasing his sexual tension, he hated that she was causing him more regular tension everywhere else.
They stared at each other briefly. Alice’s expression was flat. She was more curious than angry or scared. What would he do so close to her now? she might’ve been wondering. Or, he could’ve been looking at the face of a hunter sizing up her prey. Or, she could’ve just been void of emotion. Odds were the truth was some combination of the three.
He reached between her hands and typed his password into the keyboard. Then he clicked the mouse to load the desktop.
“There you go,” he said. “Enjoy your photos. I’ll be in bed waiting.”
She didn’t thank him, or even acknowledge him. She went right to the “My Pictures” folder and started clicking around. He watched her briefly, just to remind himself what was in there, secretly hoping that he hadn’t updated it with anything conspicuous in the last year. As far as he could remember, he hadn’t taken any new photos since she’d left.
Convinced that she was going to preoccupy herself with the old memory tour for a while, Anston climbed into bed and waited for her. He had already showered and brushed his teeth after tidying up the bathroom, per her request, so he was physically ready. His mind, however, was fighting another battle. The thought of being with her again was frightening. So much time had passed, and he had no idea what kind of anger she had stored for him, and he wasn’t sure this was really such a good idea after all. His pounding heart supported his anxiety. But parts of him much lower than his brain were willing to take the risk. So much time had passed since she’d last teased him.
He wasn’t sure if he should grab a book while he waited, or maybe throw something on the floor just to feel a little less alien in his own bedroom. He removed his watch and set it on the nightstand. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it over the side of the mattress and watched as it disappeared out of sight on its way to the wooden floor. Then he cringed slightly when he heard the buttons of his shirt clacking against the boards. He was sure Alice had heard it and would snap to comment on how messy he was making the room again. But she didn’t move. She was glued to the computer screen.
Anston sat there for about two minutes lying there with his ankles crossed, tapping the bedspread with his thumbs, trying to think of some tunes to whistle. As he struggled to come up with anything worth whistling, he started thinking maybe some real music would get him in a better mood for whatever was about to happen between them. Their romantic relationship had always been a little off to the side of normal, even on the night of their first kiss, which Alice had finally relented to when she agreed to marry him, so there was no telling how things might’ve been after a year without contact. But then he remembered that all of his music was on the computer. He’d just have to improvise humming a random tune. A distant knocking sound on a neighbor’s door helped him form the beat.
Another minute passed when he noticed the air in his bedroom was stale, like it had been in his living room. It occurred to him that his windows were still shut. Well, one of them was cracked open—he’d often left the one facing the side of the yard slightly ajar to keep the house’s air quality fresh—but even if Alice was having trouble breathing earlier, thanks to the gas leaking in the living room, and opened the window more to let in some fresh air (and let out some bad air), knowing her, she had probably gotten cold and closed it again, thus causing the room’s air circulation to weaken. He climbed out of bed and opened them both fully. As he passed Alice to reach the second window in the adjacent wall, the one facing the front yard, she reached out and tugged on his pants.
“Why aren’t you naked yet?” she asked.
“I’m working on it.”
Once the other window was open, Anston dropped his pants to the floor. All that was left on him now were his black silk boxers. Really short boxers. He felt a little odd standing there so close to her with such vulnerability, made worse by the realization that he had left the pillow on the bed. But she didn’t try to stab him. She just kept scanning the photos folder. Now he was feeling awkward for being the second most important thing in the room.
He climbed back in bed and waited. He considered taking the boxers down, too, as most men would do under the rules of the proposition at hand, but Alice had the same idea about his nakedness as she had about her own: shorts counted as close enough and was generally preferable to the alternative. In the course of their entire marriage, he hadn’t actually seen her fully exposed. He’d certainly tried. But she would always wear a one-piece in the shower, or slam the bathroom door in his face and lock him out if she dared showering natural, which was rare as far as he knew. She’d often confused him.
He continued to watch her, uncertain about when she’d actually turn her attention to him. She was staring at pictures of her old friend: Dina, if he remembered her name correctly. It was hard to tell from here, but Anston could sense Alice crying. She hadn’t seen Dina since before the wedding; something had come up shortly before the wedding date and Dina couldn’t make the ceremony.
It seemed to Anston that maybe Alice had missed her in the year she was away. When he and Alice were dating, she would talk about the hilarious times that she and Dina would share growing up and the many times one would bail the other out of trouble during college and their early careers. They had had a rich history. But Alice didn’t speak of her much after the wedding. He assumed they had a falling out, but he’d never asked about the details. And, as he watched her scanning the many photos she had stored of her and her friend on his hard drive, he decided it was better not to ask about them now. It would just upset her further.
She didn’t say anything. She just sat there with her hand on her forehead, staring at the screen. Then she closed the “My Pictures” folder and wiped her eyes. Then she sat in silence for another moment.
Anston didn’t understand why she had suddenly gone docile. Her brain was full of such chaotic things that her having a moment of calm was unusual. He didn’t know what to make of it.
She sniffled, then nodded.
“Okay, I’m ready,” she said.
He had no time to respond, or even to clear his head. Within just under two seconds, she had gone from swinging around in the office chair to leaping like a wrestler off the top ropes onto his helpless supine body. She landed on him with a thud, and he felt the wind knocked out of him a little. His stomach responded with a wrenching jolt. And, even as he said “oof,” she had her hands on his shoulders and pushed him hard against the mattress. Her eyes looked vacant and her face pained.
Then he heard the phone ringing in the other room. He felt the wind knocked out of him again.
He wriggled out from under Alice and reached for the watch on his nightstand. It was after midnight. Alice wasn’t paying attention to the time; she was too busy tickling his narrow chest with the joyfulness of a robot. When she finally noticed him staring at the watch, she stole it from his hand and tossed it back on the nightstand. Or tried. It missed and hit the floor.
“Pay attention to me,” she said, like this was business, not pleasure.
She pulled him back to the center of the bed and pushed on his shoulders again. As she leaned down to lick his neck, the phone rang again.
“Maybe I should get that,” he said.
Alice offered him a grumpy look. Then she released his shoulders and rolled off to the side. He was already getting frustrated with the interruption, but he figured a midnight call was the same as an emergency call, so he climbed out of bed and jogged to the living room to check the phone’s caller ID.
Rebecca was calling.
He sighed. She was probably looking to chew him out over their missed dinner, or maybe she was checking to make sure he hadn’t died in a car accident on the way to the restaurant. He wasn’t sure. And he didn’t have the time to find out. He couldn’t keep the crazy woman in his bedroom waiting. She didn’t handle impatience well.
He left the phone ringing. The answering machine picked up as he reached the door, but the inbox was still full, so she couldn’t leave a message.
“Who was it?” Alice asked, when Anston came back to bed.
“Insurance agent,” he said. “Where were we?”
Alice once again pulled him to the center of the bed and hooked her legs around him. She kissed him hard on the cheek. He could smell her breath quite vividly now. It was stale with the flavor of alcohol. It seemed she had been drinking that day, which was unusual given that she rarely drank; she drank only to celebrate special occasions or when she was deeply troubled or nervous over something, if he remembered correctly. He noticed the champagne bottle sitting on the nightstand by his head, but he was certain that wasn’t the type of alcohol he had smelled on her breath. He thought he had smelled tequila or rum.
“What have you been drinking?” he asked.
“Talk later,” she said. “Consummate now.”
Then she reached for the lamp and turned it off. The room was left dark, save for the glow of the computer screen and the ambient streetlights outside—
And the roving flashlight beam that swept in through the side window and landed on them just as Alice closed her mouth over Anston’s nose. Her breath was definitely stale with tequila.
Both Anston and Alice froze as the beam of light washed over them and a booming female voice ruptured the silence.
“Ma’am, don’t move,” said the voice. “You need to stop attacking that helpless man. Right now. Please raise your hands slowly.”
Alice sprang upright, even as she straddled Anston’s waist, and lifted her hands. Both she and Anston dared to look in the direction of the light’s source. Anston could barely make out the image of a female police officer in the flashlight’s aura. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head. He’d forgotten that he had called the police earlier.
“This is a misunderstanding,” he said, as quickly as he could get the words out, trying to calm the scene before Alice freaked out. “She’s not attacking me. We’re, uh, we’re about to, uh…”
Suddenly the flashlight went out.
“Oh, my, I’m so sorry,” the police officer said. “We had received a call that—”
“Nope, nope,” Anston said, trying to cut her off before she incriminated him in front of Alice. “No one here called you. You might want to see what’s going on next door though. Those people have problems.”
“Right. Sorry. Carry on. And maybe close your curtains.”
Anston lay there mortified for the next five minutes. Alice lay next to him, equally shamed by the intrusion. Neither of them said a word until Alice climbed out of bed and closed the curtains. Then she turned on the lamp.
“I brought champagne to celebrate our reunion,” she said. “I want to drink before we officially reconnect.”
Anston was still rigid, but he slowly sat up. He was dazed.
“Yeah, that might take the edge off.”
Alice wrapped her hand around the top half of the cork and pulled it out of the bottle. Then she poured champagne into one of the goblets and handed it to Anston. Then she poured herself a glass. She held it up to him for a toast. Anston was still surprised that she even knew about this social cue, even though she’d done it once before, the night before they married.
“To the future love we’re about to seed,” she said. “Hopefully before this headache gets worse.”
He expected something a little more profound, perhaps a toast commemorating a greater purpose, like them reuniting as a couple, or whatever else was going on in that head of hers. But she seemed content with her dedication. He shrugged and clinked his glass against hers. Then he swallowed the champagne down whole. Alice got as far as putting the glass an inch to her lips before changing her mind and setting it on the nightstand.
“Ooh, I just thought of something,” she said. She hopped out of bed and went to the computer. “I’d written a poem once. I bet it’s still on here.”
Anston rolled his eyes and set his empty goblet on the nightstand next to the bottle. Now he remembered that one thing about her that would always drive him up the wall: she had the attention span of a fruit fly. He lay back down as he watched her search the “My Documents” folder for another relic from her past.
“I forgot what I called it.”
He watched her scan each file and randomly click on documents for a minute before he realized how tired he was. It had been a long weekend, and now his body was ready to reap what he had sewn. He was so tired now that he hardly cared that she was opening files that were personal to him. She was so determined to find that poem that she was opening just about everything she’d come across. He sat up in order to prolong his alertness, but he was fading fast. He fell back down to his pillow. He was so tired.
“Alice,” he said, almost at a whisper. “If we’re gonna get to it, we better do it now. I’m about to pass out.”
She ignored him. She kept hunting for that poem of hers.
Somehow in his addled brain, just before passing out, he wondered, just briefly, why the champagne’s cork was half out when she’d first made the toast. He hadn’t noticed a bottle opener anywhere. Normally, popping the cork was part of the toast. He wondered why it was already half out.
He was looking into the maw of an anglerfish a moment later. It was taking small, ticklish bites out of him, like a deep-sea rat looking for a quick snack on an unimportant part of his body’s surface. It did not match the image he had of an anglerfish, which was generally so nightmarish that he wouldn’t want one sitting on his dinner plate looking back at him. He couldn’t figure out why the feeling of it made him want to laugh.