The morning the silent agreement began started much like the last 1,095 mornings of the Peabody marriage. Beth woke up at 5am to her internal clock, rubbed the crust out of her eyes, showered, ironed, then kissed Jeff on the cheek as she went off to her job as a news anchor. Jeff had always been a light sleeper. Every morning, when Beth slid off the bed as light as a ghost, Jeff had already been awake for an hour but kept his eyes closed until he felt the familiar coldness of her lips on his cheek, heard the steps down the stairs, the garage door opening, the garage door closing.
Jeff was a novelist. He wasn’t sure if his wife’s lips really were that cold or if he had invented a metaphor for the state of their marriage. He made a comfortable living making connections like that, though his last novel had been a failure. After failing to sell half of the initial printing, and even worse e-book sales, his publisher warned a similar showing would mean the axe.
This led to the silent agreement, which Jeff considered to be one of his best ideas yet. After another quiet lasagna dinner followed by a couple of DVR’d sitcoms, Jeff rose from the couch and suggested to Beth that they not speak to each other for an indefinite period of time. Something about needing to save his words for his new book, to get back on track, to reconnect with the war and sex-filled historical romances that had made him a New York Times bestseller in the first place. No talking, he said. To Jeff’s surprise, there were no questions, no tears. Beth simply stared and nodded. They agreed to start in the morning.
It was 7am. Jeff slid on his slippers and walked across the hallway to the den. He plopped into the leather chair and flipped on the computer. The word document appeared just as he left it: empty, the cursor blinking at him from the corner of the page. Outside, the late winter rain fell, hard and cold. He wondered if Beth brought her umbrella. He minimized the screen and checked his instant messages. She always IM’d him when she arrived at work. I’m here and safe! she’d say. Or: write well today! She was signed on but hadn’t messaged him. He set his fingertips on the keyboard and stared at the blank Word document on the screen.
At 8am, Jeff went downstairs. A plate of runny eggs and soggy bacon strips awaited him on the kitchen counter. He dumped the food into the trash compactor and microwaved some old pizza. Beth had never been a good cook, yet the first thing she’d wanted when they moved into the house was a new kitchen. For weeks they stood side by side, laughing as they swung their sledgehammers through the rotting wood cabinets and the particleboard countertops. Soon they were building a new front porch, retiling all the bathrooms, repainting all the walls. Building their future with their own hands. In the evenings, bodies aching and coated in dust and sweat and paint, they rolled around on the carpet with no breath for words.
Jeff tossed the box back into the refrigerator, grabbed the TV remote, and clicked on the morning news. A close-up of Beth’s face appeared on the screen: light green eyes, pink lips, a pale face made paler by powder. Jeff thought she looked spectral. She reported that one in five divorces could now be attributed to Facebook… a symptom of the new world, where relationships could be forged and broken by a few words on a status update… She said this with dimmed eyes, glancing at him in a way he’d almost forgotten, as though attempting to reach him through the screen. He changed the station and flipped through the channels for a while. Then he turned the TV off and went back to his computer.
At 11am, the doorbell rang. A UPS driver stood in the rain with a package for Beth. The deliveryman was young and muscular and carried a large Amazon box on his shoulder. There have to be at least thirty hardbacks in there, Jeff thought. Beth detested the Kindle and refused to get one. Jeff shut the door and struggled to set the heavy box on the dining room table, wondering what would happen if he grabbed a knife from the kitchen and sliced open the box. Nothing, probably. Beth would most likely break their silent agreement and tell him about all the wonderful new authors she’d discovered. Then she would go on talking, first about the affair between the meteorologist and the cameraman, then about how her father was doing much better in the new convalescent home, then about how her back pain was really starting to worsen. He decided he didn’t care what was in the box.
Back upstairs, Jeff checked his phone. Noon had come and gone, and usually he would’ve had three messages and a voicemail from Beth by then. Hope your day is going well, she’d say. Or: Keep writing! He punched HELLO? into the text box then erased it. She was probably busy with an urgent story. A ten-car pile-up. A hostage situation. The death of a celebrity. Something.
Jeff set the wireless keyboard on his lap but no words came.
Two hours later, Jeff signed onto his Facebook account and checked Beth’s page. A year ago, the station had insisted she make a public Facebook page, and since then strange men sent her Facebook messages and posted thinly veiled sexual comments. Every time Jeff would express his displeasure Beth would say it’s harmless and kiss him on the cheek and call it a day.
There was one new comment on her news feed, some steroid-freak named Dirk who stood shirtless in his profile picture thanking her for her constantly honest portrayal of the news. Beth responded with a quick thanks, he rejoined with a no really it’s amazing work you’re doing, she answered with a I really try and appreciate the compliment, and then he said you’re beautiful, and she responded with a ☺, and after that, Jeff stopped reading.
He stared at Beth’s thumbnail picture. It was one of his least favorites, a stoic, official, in-the-photographer’s-studio snapshot the station used on their website. She had been voted the second hottest newswoman in Sacramento by a local online magazine last year, but that was a long time ago. There had been a time when he couldn’t see a picture of her without getting aroused, but that time was unreachable, and he no longer felt guilty about wanting to masturbate more than he wanted to put in the work required to get Beth into the necessary romantic mood.
He took the keyboard off his lap and set it on the desk, leaned back his chair, and clicked back to his Facebook page. He had fans too, mostly middle-aged mothers who connected with his ill-fated heroines. Sometimes Jeff liked to scroll through their pictures and photo albums and concoct fantasies, some of which ended up as scenes in his books. There was one woman in particular, Julia from upstate New York, whose profile photos were filled with cleavage-revealing shots. They had emailed a few times, and though they never spoke, Jeff thought of Julia’s soft voice as he scrolled through her Facebook photo album with one hand while he stroked his penis with the other.
Twenty minutes later, after signing onto a live webcam show, then watching various orgies on a porn site, then going back to Julia’s photos, then closing his eyes tight and trying to recall Beth in the early days, when they slept naked and talked dirty, Jeff glanced down at the still limp penis in his hand and cursed at the computer.
4pm. Jeff checked his phone again. Nothing. At that time Beth was usually sitting in traffic, Bluetooth in her ear, complaining to him about how she should be on the nightly news team. Jeff googled traffic information. All freeways were relatively clear for a rainy day. He checked her Facebook page. He checked his email. Then he moved his chair to the window and watched the cars roll up and down the street.
5pm. Jeff dialed the station. A man answered. Jeff listened to the noise in the background, of people shouting across a room, but none that sounded like Beth. The man said hello a few times, uttered a curse word, and hung up the phone. Jeff listened to the dial tone, and when he was tired, put it on speaker to drown out the rain.
At 7pm, the garage door opened. Jeff quickly pulled up an old story to replace the blank screen. He tiptoed to the door and nudged it completely open, so she would have no excuse for not seeing him. He listened to the clacks of heels across the tile, the creak of the closet door opening, the familiar crack of Beth’s knuckles. Jeff banged on the keyboard, writing nonsense, so she could hear him working, so she would know he’d been right, that the juices were flowing again. He turned his ear towards the open doorway in anticipation of her footsteps, but he only heard her pressing buttons on the microwave and the familiar voices of a TV sitcom.
At 10pm, Jeff tiptoed to the hallway and leaned over the bannister. The lights were off in the living room, though the muted TV sent flashes of stale color across the dark walls. He could hear her in the dining room. He stood there for a while, waiting for her to pop out her head and smile. What would he say? Hi honey, how was your day? Or: who’s that Dirk asshole? He cleared his throat once, then louder. No movement. He walked to their bedroom, slammed the door. Ten minutes later, he opened it again and stomped across the hallway, stopping at his previous spot. Still nothing.
He stood there for half an hour. The same commercial played three times. A car alarm blared outside for a few seconds then died. He grabbed his phone and checked her Facebook page again. In the last two hours she’d made one new status update: Leftovers for dinner. Yum. Five likes. Was this a message for Jeff? That he should’ve made dinner? He hadn’t thought about it, but maybe he should’ve. Leftovers are the best, he commented. He stared at his phone, watching other people comment, waiting for her response. After half an hour, she’d liked every other comment but hadn’t touched his.
11pm. Jeff rocked back and forth in his chair, staring at his phone. He’d texted her three times. He shut off his computer and tiptoed to the bannister again. He hadn’t seen it before, but there was Beth’s phone, sitting on the coffee table, flashing in discord to the changing hues of the television. What was she doing? For a moment he thought about yelling, but he realized he’d never done that before, and maybe she would take it as a sign of disenchantment, or that he was a hypocrite for breaking their agreement. He thought about what he would say if she suddenly appeared on the steps, looking up at him in the way she had on the television, an expression he could no longer interpret. Maybe if he just said I love you, she’d forget the last year, forgive his aloofness, ignore the nights he preferred to hunch over his laptop instead of listening to her little complaints, eschew the general malaise that had settled on their marriage like mold. Jeff decided he would go downstairs.
He stepped lightly on each step, attentive to each creak. The carpet felt old and crusty underneath his feet. He reached the bottom and stopped, turning towards the dining room. From his vantage point, he could barely see the back of her body, her hair tucked into the crevices of an old hoodie. If she was aware of his presence, she made no acknowledgment. Her breathing remained slow and constant. He thought about coughing, making a sound of some kind, but she looked at peace or deep in thought, and he didn’t want to disrupt her or make her think he didn’t value her alone time. Did she want to be alone? He wondered if it had been her the whole time. No. It had been him.
He slid his phone into his pocket, then walked across the foyer and watched her from across the family room. She did not turn around. On the table, the Amazon box lay flat and folded. Beside it, in five neat piles, were thirty hardback editions of his latest novel, Love in the Digital Age. The story followed two lovebirds in an online-only marriage—they shared an online bank account, ran an eBay business together, communicated and made love via video chat—and over the thirty years of marital bliss, never met in real life. Apparently the bodiless state of human relations scared Jeff’s readers.
One copy lay open in front of her. He stood there for nearly an hour, watching her read his words, lick her fingers, turn the page. She bent her neck side to side, rotated it in small circles, and he remembered how she would lean her head towards him when he would massage her shoulders. He listened to her bones crack. He studied how her knee bounced up and down under the table. She turned another page.
At midnight, he walked across the family room and stopped right behind her. She raised her head, and in the reflection of the window in front of her, they stared at each other. Her eyes looked different then they had on TV. Pulsing. Alive. And Jeff Peabody knew then that they still knew each other. He began to say many things—Beth, I’m sorry, I love you, Beth—but she raised her finger to her lips, so instead he swallowed his words and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife.
About the Author: Elison Alcovendaz‘s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gargoyle Magazine, The Portland Review, Psychology Today, and other publications. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Sacramento State and sometimes blogs about Justin Bieber and other important things at www.elisonalcovendaz.com.