by Peter Berube
Beware the fury of a patient man. My name is Gerald. It is 7 am on a Tuesday in July, just before breakfast. I am standing in my navy blue bathrobe, a senseless gift my wife gave me last Christmas which she purchased with a gift card she herself had been poorly gifted from Bed Bath & Beyond. The neighbors fetching the morning paper stare at me in disarray as I stand motionless by my mailbox. A flood of surreal opportunities have overwhelmed my brain, and paralyzed my body. A maniacal grin commandeers my lips, stretching my face to its limits. The flimsy robe flaps openly in the breeze while the sprinklers occasionally spray freezing water across my calves, and I don’t care one bit. All I could see are two words which now eclipse everything that I had ever held dear to me. Two words which would change my fate, sculpt my future, and lead me on a path towards true marital bliss. Stamped in gorgeous bold red letters on the front of the envelope was the phrase “PAST DUE.” My wife Carolyn, finally made a mistake, and I will have my revenge.
Carolyn, and I have been married for ten “married-great” years. While I love her dearly, I must admit that the emotional toll of my daily walk through her invisible nagging minefield has changed me. I have grown to fear her seemingly awesome power of perfection, and consistently doubt my own sanity, for my vision of the world seems to require constant correction. While most moments in my own life seem to be passing experiences which I enjoy, and discard, her version is much more vivid, and permanent. She seems to remember every slurp of my soup, or the origins of every stain which marks my clothing. She makes mental notes of the glasses I have dropped, or every time I forgot to pick up something from the store. She wields this uncanny power over my life, which I will now reclaim. I have physical, tangible proof that Carolyn forgot to pay the credit card bill. In the court of our marriage this will serve as the first piece of
￼hard evidence in my defense against her onslaught of criticism. I know she too has made mistakes before, but I can never seem to remember them when mine are being listed out in front of me. I quickly folded the envelope in half, and shoved it into my robe pocket which finally now has a purpose. This ace up my oversized flannel sleeve must remain hidden until the perfect moment of retaliation. I can picture the look of shocking defeat on her face, her eyes bulging in horror as I unleash the letter mid-argument, forever blemishing her perfect record. There will undoubtedly be a squabble today, but by the end of the night there may be a new champion.
In order to not arouse suspicion, I rush into the house, stubbing my toe on the front step in an attempt to conceal my absence in our normal morning routine. Breakfast time has grown stale, and meaningless. While I chew away at my freshly prepared English muffin I watch Carolyn struggle with the settings on the toaster. She slams her palms on the counter, and screams “Gerald!” Yes, this may seem like just my name, but what she is saying with this lethally poignant exclamation is, “Gerald, how many times have I told you to stop changing the settings on the toaster?!” She’ll never understand the years of study I have dedicated to creating the perfect level of crisp and crunch in my English muffin. She makes toast.
Meanwhile any uneducated fool could tell you that the desired temperature and cooking time for toast versus English muffins are worlds apart. She insists that my methods of toasting preparation vex her on a daily basis. I have tried explaining the detailed, methodical way in which I have arrived at my muffin crunch theory, but alas it is not something someone who makes only toast could ever understand. She insists it is my responsibility to set the toaster settings back to the perceived norm. I feel every person who wishes to enjoy his or her own customized breakfast experience should be responsible for checking their settings before toasting. To her, I am thoughtless. I merely choose to live in a world where we are responsible for burning our own toast. Sadly, this was not enough of an outburst for me to pull out the letter. She only said my name, and that would leave me defenseless when trying to quote her over reaction. I must be patient. I surely have already done something wrong that does not meet her approval – I must simply watch, wait, and be there when she makes the discovery.
It is almost time for me to leave for work. Carolyn is getting ready in the bathroom while I struggle to maintain small talk. I watch as her eyes dart around the pristine counter- top, as she inspects every toiletry before she picks it up with her hand. She analyzes, and stores every detail; combing over her brush in such a way that even the most highly trained forensic analyst would find themselves embarrassed by their own comparatively amateur technique. She examines to see if somehow I have done something with her brush other than its intended purpose which is to straighten her hair.
“Can you pick up some more hand soap? It looks like we’re running low,” she mutters mid brush stroke. This could be it! I could forget to pick up hand soap on purpose. That way if I came home, she would surely lose herself in a fit of rage at my consistent lack of help around the house. No, this cannot be the way. If I were to stage a mistake, she would be right in the fact that I deliberately do these things to make her upset. In order
￼for this atom bomb to yield any satisfaction I must be truly innocent. It must be an overreaction to a mistake on her part. That is the only way this moment will be perfect.
“Sure. I can pick some up on my way home from work,” I say.
“Thank you, baby,” she says, as she leans over, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek. Do not let this display of affection persuade you into believing that she could not easily snap my neck one minute from now without hesitation. It’s getting late. I have to rush out for work. This confrontation will have to wait until I get home. I kiss Carolyn goodbye, hop into my car, and speed off to beat the morning rush.
The endless queue of cars creaking forward wears away at my patience. I take deep breaths, hoping to exhale out the tension I feel brewing up in my body. I will most undoubtedly be late. My phone rings. It’s Carolyn. Perhaps once I stepped out the door she saw something that I had forgotten. What could it be? I don’t know. I can’t remember. But she will remind me. Her name flashes on the phone. I can’t answer it. Let it go to voicemail. I know she won’t blow up on a voicemail. She’s too smart for that. She will wait until she can indulge in the full satisfaction of being right. That is not something that can happen from tossing your righteousness up into the ether when you leave it on a message, for it is too risky how, and when your attack will land. This method gives the victim too much time to calculate a response. No, Carolyn is much smarter than this. She will wait until we are in person, and so shall I. The phone stops ringing. There is no voicemail. The game is on. I smile, gripping the wheel as I feel my tension slowly evaporating from my body. The cars start to move, a lane opens up, and the clouds part filling the sky with beautiful beams of light which race across the rolling clouds creating a rainbow. Today, I start to believe there may be a God.
The work day was long, but it is over. I have not heard from Carolyn at all today. Either nothing is wrong, or everything is wrong. There is no way to tell the difference. Just in case, I will pick up the hand soap from the Walgreens on the corner. There is a flower shop there. I’ll buy her some roses, her favorite romantic surprise. This is not an effort to make up for any mistake that I most assuredly have made, but to give me an additional advantage in the battle that is yet to come. These flowers are a safety net. When I walk in the door the sight of this thoughtful bouquet will cause her to pause just enough before her attack to get my own defenses in place. If she flies off the handle, these roses will deliver a one-two punch which will echo into the future. When she tries to tell her gaggle of friends about my thoughtless behavior, she will have to include the fact that I came home with roses. Her envious friends will cling to that fact, fueled by their own self pity. “You’re so lucky. My husband never gets me flowers,” they’ll say one after another, pouting their lips as they drink their cheap white wine. She’ll be forced to speak good of me, ruining her credibility in the rant she was about to go on. She’ll sit there, and take it, as she plummets to new depths in how wrong she was for nagging me. This plan is foolproof. There is no way I can lose now.
I get home before she does. I quickly set down my keys, and bag on the kitchen counter. I run from room to room inspecting every detail to see if there is something I
￼forgot. After a while I realize the futility of this activity. She sees things that I can’t. There is no way of knowing which thing is not in its place. To me, the house is pristine. To her, it could be an embarrassment worthy of a night of reckless sobbing and self flagellation. I live in a constant game of I-Spy, but all I can see is a blank page. She will come home, quiz me, and I will fail. “Do you see anything wrong?” I won’t. I will stand there dumbfounded looking at a perfectly normal kitchen, staring, waiting for her to finally fill me in with my offensive naiveté.
“The milk cap is loose!” There is no human being alive that can see that just from looking at it. I’ll want to say, “So tighten it.” But I know that will just make her unhinged. I’ll want to say, “Well, if you noticed it was loose, and you left it loose so you could yell at me, technically you are the one that left it loose last.” Logic has no place in this game. This is not about fixing the problem. This is about maintaining the throne. She will win even if she is wrong. I know even suggesting my wife was wrong might make some people turn against me.
“How dare you say she was wrong? It’s a simple thing she asks you to do all the time. Why don’t you just do it, and she won’t have to chastise you?” This is commonly used logic in my wife’s defense. But, let us look at the mechanics behind this seemingly profound vindication. If she chastises me over and over again, even though it shows no effect, technically she is insane. To do the same thing expecting different results is the actual definition of insanity. If the tactic ever changed, I would understand her constant frustration. But, it never does. She continues to get angry. I continue to wonder when she will ever learn.
I hear her car pull into the driveway. The flowers are prominently displayed in a crystal vase on the kitchen table. I start cooking dinner which I never do. I am even making her favorite, breaded chicken cutlets. When she explodes at me today I will have so much ammunition for being the perfect husband. She comes in the door and swoons.
“Honey, you got me flowers.” she says as she drops her bags, which nearly land on her feet. “And, you’re making me dinner?!” She’s falling right into my trap.
“I figured you had a long day at work. I thought I could cook tonight and give you a break.” I am a stealthy assassin, and she is my prey. The cards are stacked against her so much, I almost feel start to feel bad. This will be the ultimate example to hang over her head, demonstrating how crazy she is, and how completely sane I am. I wonder if she feels the same way before she is about to pounce on me. I pour her a glass of wine, and help her take off her heels as she sits at down at the kitchen table. She sits, and stares at me with that glowing “I love you so much” look in her eyes. I chuckle inside at the genius of my plan.
We sit down, and eat our delicious meal. I keep staring at the clock. I haven’t said anything wrong yet. I tell her about work, and my female co-workers that I had lunch with, hoping to arouse suspicion. I decide to check the text messages on my phone, which will maybe arouse her curiosity, or maybe she will see me as rude for being on
￼my phone. No, you idiot, you cannot stage this outburst. She has to be irrational, or this victory will be forever tainted. She doesn’t even notice my attempts at rudeness which normally would send her into an outrage. She’s just sitting there, enjoying herself; smugly sipping her wine as if she had actually paid the bill, and this was her reward for a decade of flawless diligence.
She leans over, and whispers in my ear, “I’ll see you upstairs.” Damn! I know what will happen if I go up there. She won’t care about anything. We’ll start having sex, and she’ll go right to sleep, skipping her final rounds of checking through the house. If I refuse, or even hesitate for a moment about making love tonight, she will think there is something wrong. She will not yell. Instead she will shut down, retreating into her emotional cave for days. I’ll never make it that long. I will be the bad guy again, and everything will be my fault in a new way which this letter cannot recover. I have to stall. But how?
I slowly make my way up the stairs to meet her, gripping the railing, and bracing myself as each step hurls me forward towards an inescapable doom. I can see her down the hallway. She is already sitting on the bed, leaning back on her elbows in just her underwear. This is her usual seductive stance. I often wonder if she had seen this position in a movie while growing up, because it always looks very staged. I make my way up to her, stopping at the edge of the bed. She leans up to kiss me. But I instead slide down her legs, and start massaging her feet. This is my only hope. I have to stall. “Oh honey, that feels amazing,” she sighs out. I bet it does. She’s doing this on purpose! She’s not nagging me on purpose! This is all some elaborate mind game to get what she wants. That’s it. This is all her doing. She has found another tactic to warp my mind, and send me toppling down off of the mountain. I am so close to victory. Her sighs are getting louder, louder! How has she managed to manipulate my senses? She tricked me into turning down sex, and I find myself at her beck and call, massaging her feet. I can feel the rigid envelope pushing against my back pocket as I labor between her toes. My hands are cramping in servitude yet again. Why am I doing this? Why am I treating her like a princess when she forgot to pay the credit card bill?! She’s the forgetful one, not me! She is the one that deserves to be nagged and berated! Her moans of satisfaction pierce my ears, and sever the last delicate thread which kept me tethered to sanity. I am rubbing and rubbing her feet, destroying my hands and annihilating my dreams. She says, “Come up here, and kiss me.” I throw down her legs, and jump to my feet with determination.
“Never!” I belt from the core of my being. I reach into my back pocket, and pull out the envelope! Splaying it out in my hand to show the massive red letters which scream, “Past Due!”
“You forgot to pay the credit card!’ I yell. I examine her face, and do not see the look I was hoping for. She is confused. I realize in that moment I have nothing else to say. I have never nagged before. Now is the time where I am supposed to call her forgetful, and clumsy, and talk about how many times she has forgotten to do this. But I can’t. Then her look of confusion quickly turns to anger. I can see the wheels turning in her brain. This is the moment! This is the moment I have been waiting for all day. Finally she will strike me down about something stupid and thoughtless that I did today. She reaches up, flipped the envelope around, shoves it in my face, and says, “That’s the neighbor’s mail.”