“All I wanted to know.” I hung up the phone and went into the other room, where Laura sat staring out the window, cradling a cigarette. I told her what he’d said, after gloating a bit over the fact that he actually talked to me. Somehow, knowing what was going on didn’t seem to make anything better.
We went into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of cheap white. The phone rang, and Laura picked it up–a habit that annoys the hell out of me.
“I don’t wanna talk to anybody,” I told her. It didn’t much matter–the call wasn’t for me anyway. It was Chris’ wife, calling to talk to Laura. I put another bottle in the refrigerator to chill, figuring we’d need it soon. An hour later, after being torn to pieces by the “betrayed wife,” Laura was a pile of living rubble. I opened the next bottle.
“I kept telling him to talk to her,” she muttered flatly, “I kept offering to talk to her myself…I tried to do the right thing. I mean, Christ, we never slept together!”
“Maybe you should’ve told her that.”
“I wanted to, but there’s no way to do that without sounding crass.”
“Y’know, my dear, the more I think about it, the more this Chris fellow’s coming off as a real pussy. The more I think about it, he seems more and more like just another 45 year-old having a mid-life crisis and wanting a little chickie on the side.”
Knowing the facts didn’t help. Knowing the facts never does. Laura spiralled deeper into something bad for the rest of the day.
“We could do a double suicide,” she suggested at one point.
“I don’t want to do a double suicide.”
“A triple suicide then–you and me and Anna.” (Anna was a friend of ours who’s also been suicidal of late). You could make a bomb, and we could all get drunk and go to sleep with our heads next to it.”
“I’m not going to make a bomb.”
“Okay then, Anna and I’ll make the bomb.”
“No you won’t. I’m the only one who’ll be making any bombs around here.”
Late that afternoon, she went out to see a doctor friend of hers. That was good. He always seemed to help, and it gave me a chance to relax a bit. How do I get myself into these things? Just too fucking nice, I guess. I told Laura to come back to Brooklyn afterwards. State she was in, leaving her alone in Harlem was the worst possible alternative.
While I was putting dinner together, the phone rang. It was her doctor.
“She wanted me to call to let you know she was on her way home.”
“Good. How’s she doing?”
“I did my best, I think she’s a little better–but do me a favor.”
“Try and keep her away from alcohol tonight. It just makes things worse for her.”
“Don’t worry–we pretty much cleaned out the apartment this afternoon. I’m a little hung now as it is.”
Laura showed up an hour later with a few more bottles. She opened the first one before I could say anything. What could I do? Just as I was finished cooking dinner, she pulled out a sketchpad and some charcoals. It was one of her self-therapies. That and jigsaw puzzles.
“Uhhh, should I keep this warm, or what?”
“No, it’s okay.”
As I laid the plates down on the table, I noticed she already had a few smudges of black on her face.
“Uhhh, Laura? Uhhh, you look like Oliver Twist.”
“It’s fine. I planned it that way.”
“Oh. I see.”
Over the course of dinner, she took a charcoal stick and proceeded to etch deep black lines across her face–down the nose, outlining eye sockets, around the cheekbones. When she was finished with that, she moved on to her hands, then her feet.
“Uhhh, dear? Uhhh, I’m gonna have to be washing these dishes, um…”
When she was finished eating, she stood up and went into the bathroom. After a few minutes of silence, I went in to make sure she was alright.
Laura had thrown off the rest of her clothes, and was sitting on the edge of the tub, in the process of covering her entire body with charcoal. Slashes across the stomach, outlined ribs, arms blackened entirely.
“So, uhhh…what’re you doing?” It was a stupid question, and she knew it. She’d been stabbed in the back again.
“This is better than blood.” I’d dealt with her blood on the floor in the past, and she had a point. I crouched down in the doorway and watched my estranged wife act out some form of lonely madness in my bathroom.
After she pulled out the red and yellow paints and started painting her throat and torso, I couldn’t watch anymore.
“Laura, look, you’re really freakin’ me out here.”
“Go get the bottle.”
I sighed, stood, then got the bottle of red. My head was screaming as I poured out two more glasses. Things were bad. She hadn’t been in this kind of shape since the days she was seeing giant snails in the apartment, and I didn’t know what the hell to do.
“Look, Laura, why don’t you wash that shit off, huh? I’m doing what I can here, but Christ, I’m an outsider in all this, and I’m about to snap, too.”
She looked at me from inside a coal-blackened face, didn’t say a word, but turned on the water and crawled into the tub.
“Thanks.” Funny, I thought I’d made a major breakthrough there, but over the next few days, things only got stranger and worse. They always seem to.
Jim Knipfel’s novel, Unplugging Philco, was released earlier this year by Simon and Schuster. To read Jim’s weekly column, Slackjaw, at www.electronpress.com.