I have read that crises like the ones Pat and I experienced this year, can break a marriage. I don’t doubt that the extreme stress can do just that. What I have found with Pat, however, is that we have become kinder to each other. Deferential. We have become so close that I can barely remember the tenor of our relationship before we became embattled survivors.
When Pat asked me to marry him in the middle of a hot Chicago night twenty years ago, we grabbed onto each other and giggled like we’d just gotten away with something. I thought about the usual stuff—the years we would laugh through, cry through—and the children we would have. But I didn’t think about the day I would have to meet his extended family. The part that wasn’t incarcerated.
When the day came I approached it with dread and determination. I decided on a conservative beige sleeveless dress. In the bathroom I carefully curled the ends of my hair under. Pat came in and banged around looking for some after-shave.
“So it’s your Aunt Jo Anne, and there’s Dee-Dee, your cousin, and George, and then David—right?”
“Yup,” said Pat, finding the Lagerfeld and loading it on. “Aunt Jo won’t be wearing her teeth. So don’t keep looking at her funny.”
I got the mascara out of my make-up bag, shook it, and removed the wand.
“Now, David,” I said, brushing black on my lashes. “David is the one who threatened to kill his brother when he found out he was gay.”
“Right,” said Pat.
“And Dee-Dee has the glandular condition, that makes her unable to stop eating and that’s why there are locks on the cupboards and the refrigerator?”
I screwed the wand back in the mascara bottle, looked in the mirror and practiced my neutral smile. ‘Good,” I said. “I think I’ll be fine.”
“Sure,” said Pat, “just remember I’m right there with you. I’ll take over and do the talking if things dry up.”
“One more thing,” Pat said as we left the bathroom, “David…”
“The killer,” I said,
“Yeah, well, he has a toupee that snaps on to a snap that is surgically imbedded in his forehead.”
As our car approached his aunt’s house, I went over the names and relationships in my head. “Now the toupee,” I said, “actually snaps onto his head? Is it just one snap, or several?”
“Don’t think about it,” Pat said, taking an exit.
“No, I think I should be prepared.”
“I think it’s just the one snap in front,” he said.
“Did he have an operation to put the snap in his head?”
“I don’t think you should think too much about this Brett,” he said. “If you think about it too much, something bad is going to happen. You’re going to say something. Or start laughing.”
“Pat, look, it’s pretty unusual. I need to know what I’m in for.”
“Frankly, I think the lock on the refrigerator is much stranger,” he said, turning into a housing complex. All the houses looked like fake tiny log cabins.
“No, the snap on the head is worse,” I said. “I think it’s worse because it’s a choice.”
“Maybe he won’t even have the toupee on,” said Pat, turning into a driveway.
“You mean he could just be sitting there with an exposed snap?”
“No, of course not,” said Pat, opening his door, “Sometimes he snaps on a cap instead of the rug.”
The inside of Aunt Jo’s log cabin bungalow was dark. Hundreds of porcelain pigs sat on every inch of available shelf or cabinet top. Pigs doing things like skiing, shooting hoops, and peeing. Pigs from different backgrounds: A Chinese Pig, an Eskimo Pig, and a Pig doing the Hula. Aunt Jo materialized in front of the pigs. She was a shapeless woman dressed in what appeared to be a pillowcase.
“Beer?” Jo asked. Sucking in air through her flapping, denture-less mouth.
“No thanks,” I said, sitting on the edge of the couch.
“Coke?” she asked, sucking.
“Sure,” I looked at Pat.
The person who was Pat had shrunk and hidden in a corner of his mind. Representing Pat was a kind of moving wax facsimile of himself. I had seen this transformation before. Once when I had drunkenly stripped in front of his co-workers, and invited them to throw damp quarters at my nipples to see if they would stick. And more recently, when he’d gone to a family reunion of mine and was forced by my cousins to sing, “Oh, Mandy,” into a pool cue that was being used as a fake microphone.
The wax Pat said, “I’ll have a coke.”
Jo ambled off to the kitchen. I looked at a Pencil Sharpener Pig. Pat stared out the window blankly.
“Oh, here’th David,” I heard from the kitchen.
My jaw clenched. I ripped my eyes from the pencil sharpener pig and, with hope that Pat might have returned to his body, threw a look of appeal in his direction. The only sign of life I saw was a slight twitch of his thumb. I heard footsteps hitting the hall carpet with muffled thuds. My best chance of getting through the meeting without offending anyone would be not to look at the toupee at all. The footsteps approached as I fixed my face to appear expressionless.
“So you’re Brett,” I heard a man say.
I raised my face carefully and looked directly into David’s eyes. Of course, I could see something on top of his head, but as long as I kept my concentration on his eyes, it remained a shadowy. Don’t look at it. Don’t look at it.
“Hi David,” I said, standing to shake his hand. My eyes wanted to travel north but I willed them to stay focused on David’s somewhat dilated pupils. I sat down again and threw a glance to Pat, who was rocking ever so slightly at the window. Don’t look at it. Don’t look at it.
David sank into the lazy boy opposite me, moved a Dutch Girl Pig on the end table next to him, and lay down a jackknife that looked large enough to gut a deer. I stared at the jackknife intently, images of gutting swirling around my brain. My eyes began to hurt and I shut them, taking in a long purposeful breath. Then I heard a shuffle from Pat. Maybe he was reanimating. Relieved, I repositioned my head and opened my eyes.
There. Right in my line of sight was a black hairy thing affixed to a dent in the center of David’s forehead. It was amazing in it’s wrongness. A monument to bad judgment. It didn’t look remotely like hair. It didn’t even look like a hat. It looked like something matted and living. It looked taxidermical.
“Did you guys have an OK time getting here?” he asked.
Aunt Jo lumbered in with Cokes, giving a can to Pat and one to me. I stared at the Coke can. The nice neat swirl of white above the letters C-O-K-E. I repeated the letters in my head. C-O-K-E. The wax Pat turned from the window and said, “It was pretty easy going.”
“Good,” said David.
I thought, what kind of person looks in a mirror and thinks that looks good? Then I thought, obviously a person who threatens to kill people. A person who lives in a house with his mother and a thousand porcelain pigs. David flipped out the footrest of the lazy boy, popping his legs in my direction.
“George and Dee Dee are late,” he said.
I took in a long breath and narrowed my eyes at Wax Pat. I watched as he moved to a chair, his gait reminiscent of the slow, hesitating march of soldiers who are burying one of their own. I looked at the Coke can. In the middle of the word Coke, were the letters O.K. O-K. O-K. Don’t look at it. Don’t look at it.
The doorbell rang. Aunt Jo leaned over to me quickly.
“That’ll be George and Dee Dee. Do me a favor and don’t offer Dee Dee any nuts.”
I nodded like we were old friends. Aunt Jo winked and trudged over to the door. As I looked up to greet Dee Dee and George, my eyes grazed the black thing on David’s head. I paused there, not meaning to, willing my eyes to move. But they were paralyzed. Move eyes. Move eyes. C -O -K -E. C –O- K- E.
I thought, is the black thing supposed to be hair? Or is it a hat? Did killer David pick this one out of a bunch of other choices? Snapping and unsnapping different colors, different textures – curly, bone straight – till he said, “This is the one. This black fuzz that looks like a smoker’s lung. This is the one I want?” When he unsnaps the thing, does the skin around the scalp snap pull? You know the way you lose snaps from clothing -- Is his scalp snap in danger of pulling out of his skin? Is “scalp snap” the correct term?
“Brett, this is George,” I heard Aunt Jo say. Only with the sucking sound, it sounded like “thorsh”. I had to move my whole head, because my eyes had lost all movement. I saw a bulky man wearing a faded t-shirt that read, “I like pussy” above a cartoon kitten. Behind him loomed a round woman who was wider than she was tall.
“And here’s Dee Dee,” Jo Anne said.
I nodded and smiled. I think. And threw a “help me” look to Pat. He had melted into the chair. Only his head retained its former shape.
“Pat,” I said, in a high, small voice. “I left my cigarettes out in the car.” I rose and walked like a sailor on a choppy sea, making my way to the door.
“Excuse me a second,” I threw over my shoulder to the humans, to wax Pat, and the pigs.
Outside the log cabin, in the fading daylight, I made sharp little barking sounds as I struggled to regulate my breathing and stifle the scream that was pushing itself out of my chest. Shaking, I reached in the car for a cigarette, pulled one out and lit it. I inhaled the smoke, let it out, then hummed a satisfying, sustained MMMMMMMM. Then I did it again. The repeated smoking and humming calmed me in much the same way rocking calms psychotics. After awhile, my mind and body rested.
My pupils regained some movement and I scanned the other log cabins, wondering about their inhabitants. I thought about all the things Pat and I had to learn about each other. When he returned to his natural state. I thought about all the things I had put him through. Long, boring teas with my uptight college pals. Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts. Demanding that he read, Getting the Love you Want and then do the exercises where you mirror back what your partner just said.
When I thought about it, I had put Pat in many more uncomfortable situations than he had me.
I sighed, dropped my cigarette to the ground and stepped on it. I turned to face the log cabin, pulled in a breath and held it. Yes, being married would be a series of compromises. Little things I would do for him and little things he would do for me.
I walked toward the doormat that said, “Leave your shit-kickers here”. I paused with my hand on the door handle and thought, so this is it – these are the little things we do for each other. I turned the handle and froze. I froze because deep in my heart I knew that NOTHING I COULD EVER PUT PAT THROUGH-- NOTHING WOULD EVER COME CLOSE TO THE SNAP. NOTHING.