The Truth of the Matter
By: Alexander Kemp
Life is good. Life is beautiful. This is my thought as I take a final look over my notes. My students, adults with disabilities, file into the classroom. Phone buzzes.
Taking out my phone, I see notifications for Facebook Messenger. Opening the app, a photo of a text exchange is briefly seen. A student vies for my attention. I hold up a finger but Jolene, a middle-aged woman excitedly tells me about her breakfast. An intuition of danger lingers. Jolene keeps speaking. I wager the messages from Facebook originate from my wife, Hannah. It wouldn’t be the first time she posted a sweet, if slightly embarrassing exchange we’ve had. She’s always been amused by the pet names bestowed upon her; Miss Sexy Hips was the last one.
Brushing Jolene aside, I announce class is about to begin. Phone buzzes.
I take out my phone, another notification from Facebook Messenger. “Thought you should know this was in my husband’s phone. Sorry dude, people suck.” The message is from Nicole. Who’s Nicole? Her profile picture is a little girl’s beaming face. And I remember, a thirty-something blond with a young daughter. This woman is the neighbor of my brother-in-law, Bryan. She sometimes watches my nephew. We’ve met once at a party Bryan hosted and then another time when she dropped by his place while I was visiting. All the messages I’ve received this morning are from her.
Scrolling to the next message, I turn my back to the students and inhale deeply. The message is a copied Facebook exchange. I look. I read. And I learn.
Hannah: (Kiss emoji)
Rick: (Kiss emoji) Goodnight sexy. Damn alcohol had me rambling, lol. Sorry bout that. U gotta let me eat that pussy/booty…Please and thank you
Hannah: Pussy, yes. Booty, no.
Rick: I can’t eat the booty?
Rick: But I wanna turn u the fuck out.
Hannah: Do you?! Goodnight.
Rick: Ok. I’ll put it on the wish list for next time.
My knees hold steady, but my heart falls to the bottom of my stomach with a cataclysmic impact. I’m lightheaded. The floor of the room has gray carpeting and through sheer will, I avoid the temptation of falling and planting my face in the finely woven wool.
Hannah. Hannah! She’s a nine, I’m a seven (on my best day). She’s funny and smart. When we married last fall, it could be seen on everyone’s faces. My family smiled, thinking I somehow married…up. Her family politely smiled, without a trace of disapproval, just a lurking curiosity about the pairing. On that day, I won the jackpot, and in the years ahead I had every intention of proving myself a worthy recipient. More importantly, four short months ago, the former homecoming queen herself, became mine, until death do us part.
I’ve met Rick, a personal trainer, once before. Well over six feet tall, I imagine his oversized hands sliding down her bare back onto her rear, reversing direction and heading to the base of her head, positioning her face so he can kiss her pouty lips. She giggles right before penetration. I know because this is what Hannah does with me.
Hidden noises reverberate through my mind, transporting me to a room with dimmed lighting, and a bed with ruffled sheets and the silhouettes of moving bodies. My students look at me bewildered, completely unaware of the grotesque sounds only I can hear. Leaving the room, I find a co-worker in the hallway and tell him I’m leaving for the day; I’ve become ill.
Hannah has today off and should be at home. I rush down a flight of stairs. Phone buzzes. Not knowing exactly what I want to get accomplished, I only know going home is the best answer. Catching her off guard is to my advantage. Phone buzzes.
Taking out my phone, I see a couple more messages from Nicole. “Talked with Rick and your wife, each are saying their Facebook account was hacked. Can’t speak for Hannah. But I already know my husband is a liar.”
Heading out the building, I put my coat on as a gust of wind beats against my face. I walk swiftly across the parking lot and find myself calling Nicole before I can even jump in my vehicle. There’s no lag time in her answering the phone. Sitting in my car, I hear distress and frustration in Nicole’s voice as she recounts Rick’s excuses.
“I saw Rick’s phone light up just past six. I read a disgusting text from your wife. Anyway, he says he was hacked, but this isn’t the first time this has happened. Rick lies,” Nicole says. “Has Hannah mentioned him before?”
“No,” I say too quickly. Then I tell the truth. “He’s funny. He wrestles—with Bryan. He dances. He’s fun.”
Nicole says, “They’re always attracted to Rick, the muscles, the smile. Moths to a flame.”
Clouding my mind are the facts of the case. Hannah leaving that night for Bryan’s apartment. This had become a weekly ritual. She would go over to her brother’s place to play games, listen to music and drink. This Sunday I didn’t go because of homework; I’m in grad school and spend this night, like most nights, studying. I can’t remember what time Hannah climbed into bed, maybe three in the morning. She knew she didn’t have to work at the daycare today.
Nicole says, “I’m sorry. I know you’re still newlyweds. She ever screw around before?”
Infidelity. My mind races to a vague story of Hannah and her roommate’s boyfriend from several years ago. Rumors whispered, nothing confirmed, the past is the past and I didn’t need to know, or want to know.
Nicole states, “My daughter is only eight.”
The car is cold, but I don’t turn the heat on. Coldness is right. A woman passes, hand-in-hand with a little girl. The woman’s coat is such a bleak gray that she blends in with the minimal gray light. The young girl turns, revealing a pretty child with a beaming smile. I exhale and watch the condensation rise and evaporate.
I’m driving over the speed limit. Ordinarily, it only takes twenty minutes to reach home from work, but not today. I’ll confront Hannah and see how she responds. My breathing labors with each passing mile.
A black dress with dark blue flowers was what she wore last night. I watched my wife move in and out of the bedroom as she primped herself. My focus was on the development of the welfare state after LBJ’s presidency. Just another night of work, which Hannah and myself had become accustomed. She buckled a brown belt around her waist. Her pacing from the bathroom to the bedroom increased. I found an article from the University of Michigan on the War on Poverty, circa 1968. It was a lengthy piece, but this would be another long night. Bending slightly over, Hannah was putting on a shoe with her back towards me. The dress continued to ride up as she struggled with the shoe, revealing her upper thigh. Attractive, sexy for sure, but not indecent.
Excited for a night of games and drinking with her brother and sister-in-law, she gave me a passionate kiss.
“I’m going to miss you so much,” she whispered in my ear.
With her face still next to mine, we shared one last kiss before she left the room, the house, and me.
I make a left onto my street. My heart drops again. Hannah, Rick, and I were over at Bryan’s apartment a year ago. The discussion came up about joining a gym, Hannah wanted to lose weight. Rick demonstrated the proper way to do a push up. He told Hannah she will have to adjust her stance because of her bust size, then turned his head and winked at me. Yeah, she does have a large bust size and this is great, or maybe funny, or something…but I’m in on the joke, which is why I smiled back. Sure, Rick looked her over that night, but it was quick and when honest with myself, I liked it. For the first time in my life the woman who turns heads when she walks into a room arrives and leaves on my arm. The house is in view now.
What if Rick’s there? I’ll kill him. I’ll enter through the kitchen. The biggest knife in the drying rack should be able…
No, I won’t kill him. I’m probably not a killer. And besides, I figure, why commit murder over a cheap whore. And then a pang of guilt spreads through my mind over branding Hannah, my caring partner, such a vulgar term. I’ve always refrain from misogynistic language, until now.
I pull into the driveway. Hannah’s truck is there. Quickly getting out, I enter my home through the kitchen as planned and instinctively know it’s just my wife and I, no intruders.
Entering the bedroom, the dog quickly greets me but I have no interest in rubbing her head. Hannah is still in bed, lying comfortably under the covers. I walk around the side of the bed she is facing. Her eyes slowly open when she realizes it’s me.
“Hey baby, what are you doing home?” she asks.
“I’m not feeling well.”
She displays interest and sits up in bed, revealing her bare chest, sleeping in the nude gradually became one of our things. I tell her about the messages from Nicole.
“Oh, you came home because of that?” she asks incredulously.
This is something I don’t expect, her flippancy towards the matter. “I spoke with Rick’s distraught wife,” I say.
“Those messages are fake. I’m not a homewrecker,” Hannah informs me.
Sustaining a level of eye contact which would otherwise make me uncomfortable, she sits even further up in bed, revealing her belly button now. Some truth is about to be revealed, this much I’m sure about. My eyes, for the briefest of seconds, take in her firm stomach and pale breasts as she slowly breaths in and out, and when our gazes meet, there’s a longing and a desperation. The blood rushes to that most notorious artery and I remember four days since we’ve last made love. Disgust, that’s what I feel for myself next, and fury, for having to abruptly leave work, and most of all, for not knowing what to believe.
“Baby,” she begins, her favorite pet name for me. “Baby, I would never cheat on you. Never. I’m not a cheater. I told you about my ex—Jeff, and what he did to me. I would never do that to another person, least of all you,” she says.
I ask if Rick was at Bryan’s last night and she responds in the affirmative, but they hardly spoke. I ask to see her phone, and she gives a slight hesitation and then hands it over. I already know her password, our wedding anniversary. Her only message is as follows:
Rick: Nicole thinks we’re fucking!
There are no messages before or after. She reiterates that her Facebook account was hacked and she can’t even see the messages Nicole is referencing.
“Do you believe me, baby?”
“I want to.”
She pulls the covers back, revealing more of herself, and motions for me to get into bed. Instead, I head towards the door.
“I’m going for a walk.”
Hannah sighs and retreats under the covers. She’s going to try and get some more sleep, it’s still early morning. Opening the door, I take a final look at my wife. Curling up in bed, eyes already closed, I look at her face and wonder what type of person I married.
Though there’s snow on the ground, a cold rain is falling as I walk along a country road. She got bored. I just wish you could be spontaneous and actually enjoy yourself. Show me some emotion! Hannah’s said this multiple times. I’m quiet. And I’ve never been much of one to tell a joke, but I figured I made up for it with a good sense of humor.
Her mother says I was the best guy she ever brought home. Her friends concurred. I have a job, my own place, and no felonies. The bar was set so low I only had to step over it. Hannah had always gravitated to the bad boy, and I, according to her grandmother, was a needed cough medicine with a pleasant aftertaste.
Hannah threw me a surprise birthday party a couple years ago at a swanky dining hall. She had made German chocolate cake, my favorite dessert. She even invited a few of my classmates I hadn’t seen in several years, ever since graduation. Hannah was the epitome of beauty that night, with her hair cascading to her shoulders, wearing a diamond cross I had given her for Valentine’s Day. Later on, after too much drinking on her part, I held her blonde tipped hair back as she puked into a toilet.
“Why are you so good to me?” she asked.
“Because I love you.”
The car that’s about to pass turns on its headlights; this dreary day is becoming darker. Phone buzzes. I wonder if Bryan and his wife know. Were they laughing at me? No, they like me, think I’m a good guy. It’s been so long since I’ve gone to one of their Sunday night gatherings. I’m always at work or studying. I knew she was a little lonely, but…phone buzzes.
I already know its Hannah before answering. She asks if I’ll please come back, her anxiety is getting the best of her. I want to ask is her anxiety from guilt. Instead, I tell her I’m heading back now, but it’s going to be awhile; I’m several miles from the house.
The rain falls harder. I never have been the popular one in the group. And how many cutbacks were made to the wedding because of so little money? Am I really a winner? My eye is caught on a rundown gazebo as I approach a fork in the road.
Back at the house, we sit on the couch in the living room, staring at one another with the gray light from this sunless day. Unable to sleep on account of her anxiety, she looks tired. She seemed to be sleeping fine when I arrived this morning, but this is something I keep to myself. Hannah says how awful she feels for me and how violated she feels in general. I nod. She says it’s terrible she’s been hacked, but this sort of thing does happen.
“Do you believe Rick got hacked, too?” I ask.
This seems to be the first time she’s considered this. With downcast eyes, she only says, “Maybe, maybe not.”
“If you really think there’s a chance Rick wasn’t hacked, why’d he respond to your messages in the manner he did, like everything had been pre-discussed?”
Hannah shakes her head. “He’s a jerk. I didn’t know that until today, but he really is, and he’d probably say anything right now. One night at Bryan’s, I did feel him checking me out but I never imagined it could lead to anything like this. And you know I don’t even like tall guys with big muscles, never have,” Hannah says, pleads. She scoots closer to me. “You do believe it’s possible I was hacked, that it wasn’t me sending those messages?”
I nod. Anything is possible.
Hannah attempts to grab my hand. I move away.
“Oh baby…” The hurt in her eyes seem real.
The ensuing evening and morning are a daze. I communicate with my spouse only when necessary. All the while, my heart and mind remain in purgatory. I pray on the matter, and if God speaks, I miss the message. Co-workers inquire if I’m okay, and I nod. Maybe going to work isn’t the best idea, but I don’t want to be alone. Shame prevents me from telling any friend or relative. Phone buzzes.
Hannah is mine, or was mine, and she had belonged to me. And then she’s stolen away. Women aren’t property. I know this. Women can’t be owned. I’m one of the good guys and I know this. But…
Phone buzzes. Should I look at the phone? I hate getting a notification. The harsh truth might be revealed. Why’d she wear that dress over there? And in the winter. Phone buzzes. My boss is talking to me and while I do take in some of the words, I’m confident it’s all meaningless, so I nod.
I glance at a text. “I love you, baby.” Already knowing who it’s from, I turn the phone off. I become sure that love can be owned, cherished, grown. And when decided, discarded. The world turns black.
In the bedroom, Hannah touches my face. Her hand lingers. It shouldn’t be there but I enjoy the warmth of her flesh and don’t dare move. The lights are off. Nonetheless, there’s enough moonlight to see her striking blue eyes. They’re transfixing, they’re welcoming. We stand close enough I smell the peppermint on her breath, and by God, I inhale deeper to consume the aroma. Hannah wraps her arms around me, and after a momentary pause, I do the same. Pressing her body against mine is a homecoming. She kisses me. Placing my cheek against hers, I take pleasure in the warmth, the smoothness of her cheek. We kiss. And keep kissing.
Lying on the bed, only wearing the black laced panties I adore, her arms reach out for me. Briefly, I wonder did she plan the black panties, but what does it matter? I can take a leap of faith. This wondrous sight is my reality. Already disrobed, I climb on the bed and begin kissing her right below her ribcage. Continuing down, I kiss her navel and allow my tongue to swirl around the circumference. Kissing her thighs, I grab the waistband of her underwear and slide the panties off. All the while, she watches me intently.
Slowly penetrating her, I believe this is all mine. Traveling deeper into her warmth, she wraps her arm around me and presses my face into the nook of her shoulder and neck. She pants. I wonder. She pants. I believe.
“I love you. Baby, I really love you,” she says breathlessly. Turning her head, she says it once more in my ear.
She reaches and puts her hand on my backside, pushing me further in. She loves you, she must. Our rhythms synchronize. She holds my head close to hers, with two hands on my face, forcing me to stare into her eyes. Using moonlight, I search her eyes and she searches mine. You can do it, she seems to be transmitting. As our bodies begin to exude sweat, I know we’re getting closer to becoming that one person again. Increasing our tempo, I think of that first time I ever saw her at the bowling alley, the checkered shirt she wore, and that giggle she released with the first strike she scored against me. You can do it. She won’t break eye contact. At the bowling alley I jumped off that cliff and asked the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen out to dinner. And she smiled. And I knew.
“I love you! Hannah!” The words burst from my mouth like a jet breaking the sound barrier. I collapse. And wrapping her arms and legs around me, I say it once more.
Afterwards, lying in bed, total darkness reigns supreme in the room. Her head lies on my shoulder and I have both arms wrapped around her. Hannah’s index finger traces the outline of my lips in the gentlest fashion. The word of the day is “doubt.” I don’t speak it though. And in an effort to not think about the definition and the many synonyms connected with doubt, I let my mind turn black.
The following months are good, and the following months are bad. Spring comes and then summer. Arguments, so many arguments, sprout up like weeds and are handled accordingly, without either one of us being able to remember their origin. We have intercourse that’s labeled love-making. We exchange words, without really talking. I live a life that outsiders call “the good life.” During autumn, after work, I stay in the parking lot for ten minutes each day, and then eventually in my garage, too, with the engine turned off, silence serving as my companion. I comfort her when she’s sad, buy medicine when she’s sick, and listen when I have no urge to listen. I do this simply because this is what a good man does and what else is there? I’m more a creature of habit than righteousness.
The words Hannah’s been saying to me are void of any anger, strangely, they are even void of any real sadness. Days before Thanksgiving, she delivers her position again. She and I are so different, and she wants to be with someone who’s passionate, someone more outgoing, and she states that I truly want something different as well. She wants to have fun and she wants to be with someone who’s fun. She says she deserves that. I nod.
Phone buzzes. Sitting on the couch we’ve sat on thousands of times, she picks her phone up, presumably reads something, shaking her head in the process. Placing it back down, her blue eyes stare back into mine, but there’s no searching on her part. She says we’ve been unhappy for too long. And at this moment she says my name, and I’m startled by how sterile it sounds, and how foreign. I’ve never disliked my name until right now.
“It’s probably time for a divorce. What do you think?” Hannah asks.
The rain is coming down harder, and I know I should be walking home after telling Hannah I’m headed back, but I can’t help but notice the rundown gazebo off the trail. It’ll only add ten minutes. As I leave the paved road for the gravel path leading up to the dilapidated structure, I think about my hatred for Rick, for his wife, and for Hannah. I lived a charmed life this morning, and now it’s been mutilated.
I take the hood off my head. In the middle of the gazebo is a drizzling leak. I stay to one side. Grandpa. For whatever reason, I think of him, and the last time I actually cried, at the age of twelve, many years ago. My absentee father, who I hadn’t spoken to in over a year, calls me up drunk and says his old man died. Cancer. And in that childhood room with the posters of NBA players and Pokémon, the dam breaks and the tears stream down, not because I knew the man that well, he lived on the other side of the country, but because he at least seemed kind and patient, and forgiving, and he actually remembered my birthday. He was what my father never would be. He was pure.
I can’t breathe. Already I start to use the past tense for words associated with “wife” and “love.” I sob. This is it. The dam breaks. And yet, nothing more than that sob comes out. I stagger to the edge of the gazebo. Rain hits my face. I close my eyes and let the droplets running down my cheeks serve as tears.