Must He Fend for Himself?
Nate Liederbach

His wife holds the door and he hates that. Or not hate, though toeing up to it. But, wait, maybe hate because of the relief it produces when a second set of doors appears, immediately allowing annulment? Not simply relief, but elation, vindication, the Roman spear in his side as he pushes the great stone aside, as he steps into a space behind her, framing her in this new room of blank-slated strangers, all of them thinking, Who is this sweetheart/asshole that does/doesn’t hold the door open for his woman?

His woman. Amen, and hold your p.c. ponies. Judge not lest ye be judged. For she often refers to herself as “your woman.” And doesn’t such show of tender idiosyncrasy relax even the most contemporary of feminist hackles? Hush now, baby, don’t say a word. Your woman. So that he has fallen into referring to himself as “your man.” It’s their thang. Their Tammy-Wynette shtick. Stick by your woman and Stand by your man. Or, he wonders, is it more like Stand aside? I mean, really, where’s the rubber smash the toad?

She reaches a door before him, opens it and he reaches over her to clutch it, urging her in, but she won’t. She shakes her head, smiles firmly. It’s undermining. She’s much shorter. Much quieter. Much more disciplined. Or is it polite? She’s all around, he thinks, more Apolline. Is that it? Apolline? The word doesn’t sound right. It reminds him of horses. Of The Black Stallion. The sneaking of sugar cubes. The sinking of ships. The strictly non-sexual bonding of a pre-pubescent boy in a loin-cloth, bouncing in slow-motion on the sweaty back of a strapping beast. Location: tropical beach.

He is currently unemployed. This is not a matter of the country’s economic climate and it is, furthermore, not a problem. His father had a great deal of money, real estate, not development. Then the man sold a large plot of property to the county. That money is now his (the son’s—the father is dead). The county built a waterfront park. Later, he (the son) and his wife (his woman) married at the park on the Puget Sound’s smooth-champing shore. It was a brawny day, the sky flexing its blue sweat. His mother was there with binoculars, watching from a clay outcropping roughly two hundred feet off. After the ceremony, his bride held up her dress and scaled the dirt and roots to talk to her new mother-in-law. But his mom ran. And so did his wife. To this day, he’s not certain what happened—if she caught her, or if she got away, or if she gave up.

His father died not long after divorcing his mother. But his mother was the leaver. And his mother did not leave for another man or woman, but for what she called The Silence of Human Nature. Part of this silence was not talking—ever again—but another, more primary part, was staring forward while focusing on the periphery (the edge of a table, the shadow of a book, where a telephone wire disappears into your head). Yet another part of the silence, and one that emerged much later on in the process, was pretending to not always frown.

His parents’ divorce was right after he went out of state for college, and now (possibly ironically, though he’s not sure precisely how ironic it is, or if irony itself is a matter of precision) his wife is disrupting their marriage to go back to college. She’s 39 and working on a PhD. This is a new thing, reading while they eat, while they drive, while he falls asleep and again when he’s waking. Last she read Kant, next she’ll read Heidegger, and now it’s Nietzsche. Her professors, she says, are preparing her for the shock of post-humanism. When she says this, and sometimes when she says other things, she looks at him like she’s scanning a paragraph, her eyes on the semi-colon between his eyebrows. Holy shit, she’ll say out the blue, that’s it. That’s totally why I loved Bon Jovi in concert—the Dionysian chorus! I mean, losing my identity? Just another bimbo screaming for Richie Sambora to just….

To just what?

Tammy shrugs. (Tammy, her name is Tammy.) She says, To… you know … to whatever.

The Dionysian chorus. She didn’t explain it to him, but he knows. It’s the harmony of satyrs, the human pack howl, the sound of man below his tragic individualization. Another benefit of his unemployment is time to read the books his wife absorbs-discards. To read them and take notes and construct compelling insights. He will share these compelling insights (soon) and when he does he will nail the dear Aristotle’s kairos (that perfect moment). And that perfect moment is coming because it has to come. She’ll have to look back on where she’s been, won’t she? It can’t just go on and on and on, ad infinitum, Kant cancelling Hume, Nietzsche cancelling Kant, Russell cancelling Nietzsche, Wittgenstein cancelling Russell? He asked her this and she said, Wait.

Wait. She went into her office and trotted back with a red-spined book. He, on the sofa, got butterflies thinking, Schopenhauer! Thinking: The fundament upon which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable. Thinking: Put that in your box and rock it, Woman! Because that’s what he’d do. It was his ultimate fantasy now. He’d quote the bastard dead-on. Oh, he’d quote it, he’d quote it and then so very casually add, And, look, it’s no Slippery When Wet, but me, I still get hard off Shadows of the Night…

But the book. It was not Schopenhauer. Not even close, not even Kant. The red-spined book was Warhol. And what did he have to do with anything? Listen, she said. She sat cross-legged on the floor at his feet. Come on, she said, tell me this isn’t your question! She cleared her throat, and read: “Something I think about when I’m watching things like Olympic meets is ‘When will a person not break a record?’ If somebody runs at 2.2, does that mean that people will next be able to do it at 2.1 and 2.0 and 1.9 and so on until they can do it in 0.0? So at what point will they not break a record? Will they have to change the time or change the record?”

Hm, he said. 

Hm? That’s exactly what you were saying!

Was it?

Apolline. Like Apollo. Like Nietzsche. Like lines in the dirt from tragedy’s birth. Lines his father drew. Or his father’s father’s father…. One thing’s for sure: his father wouldn’t have it. If she tried to hold the door for him, the man simply wouldn’t enter. There’d be a standoff royale. And he pictures in full color and full sound. Full sound as in the ancient and inexorable traffic of every man and woman from every period and culture filling that taut space between his father and wife. And he pictures his father breaking this loud silence, pictures his father crossing his eyes and saying, Christ, pick your battles!

But it’s a not-memory. He tries to remember this every time he remembers it. And this remembering that this memory that never happened isn’t a memory at all leaves him more withered than sad. Blinking into sun to see black spots. His father is dead, gone at 44 while he himself is right now 45. But that long bullet year, it still feels like he hasn’t dodged it. He’s cheating. He’s cheating and his cheating will doom his woman too. Maybe he won’t die so young, but she won’t live so long either.

The two women in a footrace, neck-to-neck, hurdling stumps, ducking vines. They smell of fungus and carcass rot. They pant in time. The sun sets and their skin burns its meager heat into the crouching cold, but they run on. The binoculars around the neck bouncing off her chest, cracking her teeth, or the hem of the gown snagged, unraveling into the aimless forest, thin satin spun round mushroom stalks, draped through cold trickling springs. He never asked about what happened after the wedding but he often asks himself if he should.

Did his wife speak? Did his wife catch his mother and simply let her go? Let her go because the touch of skin was enough, filling, too filling, so filling she stands aside. He thinks about this when he tries to take the door from her. It’s not a competition, she might say … but she has never said this.  

In the movie, his favorite of all time, the boy, Alec is marooned. Desert island. Left to the elements Starving. He must fend for himself, wandering to and fro. But there are cobras and Alec happens to fall, fall right by one. The foul thing draws back, gets missile-lock, ready to strike, but the stallion materializes, its knife hooves annihilating the snake. It’s a declaration—not of trust, or love, but honesty. Alec never owns that horse. This is something he can’t explain, something that other people, people who weren’t on the island, who never saw the snake trampled, can’t understand.

Nate Liederbach is working on his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Utah. His work has appeared in Georgetown Review, Mississippi Review, Permafrost, and Quarterly West. He is the author of Doing a Bit of Bleeding (Ghost Road Press).