I drive to the grocery store for some butter and on the way I remember not to think about her. It’s easy most days because I have made it so that she is under the surface, under the surface of me. Keeping her down in the dark, though it horrifies me to think of her that way, is the only way I can keep myself in the light, keep myself going, going to the grocery store for butter.
“Hey sweetie,” my wife says when I come home, and kisses me while I live with Kari everywhere while she does it, her lips on mine. My kind, kind lips. So kind. So soft, Kari once said. It was one of her few compliments, and she was drunk. “Did you get the butter?” she asks, narrowing her eyes a little, and I nod, my head moving up and down with the swift motion of pushing Kari down. “Good,” my wife says and I smile, my lips soft, my finger at the fullest point of them, remembering. She seems preoccupied, or maybe she can feel me, feel my heart, where it’s at, where it is not.
My wife is white, of course she is, like my mother, white and safe and from a background like mine. Though not like mine, because I am Indian, I am Ute, and Kari was like me, though not like me. Chickasaw and rough and poor and beautiful. And she did not love me. Or she did, but the way she did was like not loving me at all, or worse.
I sit down at the plain wooden table that my plain wooden wife wanted and I pull out my phone so I can look at the news and shake my head and sit at the table for long enough to make her feel like I want to be in her presence, which I do not. I don’t know if she feels the same way, and I don’t want to know, because I am kind, and kind men don’t think that way.
“Sold a house today,” she says, straightening her pale white suit, her pale beige heels by the door, her feet bare. I tell her congratulations and shift in my seat. I am uncomfortable in the way I have been ever since I met her. It’s why I married her, punishment for my heart. I was actually kind once, I remember, and it’s not Kari’s fault that I’m not kind now, though I am nice, the way my white neighbors are nice, the way they condescend to be nice to me. Though I can tell, they don’t like it, they don’t like me. The feeling is mutual but Sheryl, my wife, wanted to live here, said it was a good neighborhood to raise children. I remember when she said it, and shudder.
“Which one?” I ask nicely, but I don’t care, because Kari wouldn’t and she is living with me all day in the dark. Kari—drinking a Bud and laughing loud and sweet and like an Indian woman. Not polite like my wife, who is white, who loves this neighborhood, a good neighborhood to raise children.
Maybe my wife hates it like me. Maybe she is like me. Maybe she lives with someone else in the dark, in her heart, but I don’t think so. She doesn’t love me, at least I don’t think so. That is a relief at least. Unlike other men, I have never tried to fool myself. That doesn’t work with me. I’ve never told myself that I love her. I have told her, but only when I must, in a nice way, to be nice.
The thing about my wife is that she isn’t smart, and she isn’t beautiful, and I don’t fault her for either of those things. She is a human being, and my unhappiness has nothing to do with her beyond that she is a reminder that Kari didn’t love me. My wife likes cooking shows, and she still has her little brown teddy bear from when she was young. She is a human being. I am ridiculous, I cannot get over it, over Kari, though I leave her alone, because she asked me to. She is a human being, she deserves to move on with her life, though it hurts me and I google her every day, looking for something, but there is nothing. She is not on social media. She wouldn’t be. Kari would consider it a waste of time. I am on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and it says “Married” and it says “Architect” and it says “Highlands Ranch” and it has pictures of me at the beach, and at Disneyland, though we do not have children. My wife loves Disneyland, and we go every year, and eat ice cream and go on the It’s a Small World ride while my wife’s eyes fill with childlike wonder and I hate it because I know Kari would, because in all honesty I hate it, me, alone, myself. And I hate my wife, though I do not hate her, I hate myself, and I love Kari, and I can’t get over it.
My wife leans against the granite counter and looks up from her phone. “How’s the new project going?”
“Good. Bob is finally ready to take my suggestions.”
“Good,” she says. Everything is always good. She looks down at her phone again, her mouth pinching at something she sees, or thinks, her short, highlighted hair waving and covering her little, pale, freckled face. A face another man would’ve found endearing, and it is. I love her in a way because I am used to her, and she is a human being who deserves at least respect if not love, so there is a way in which I love her.
Denver is a booming city. It is rich. It is expensive, and I wonder where Kari lives in it every day. And by every day, I mean every minute. There is not a moment when I have relief so I have kept her in the dark, always with me. Sometimes I tell my wife I have to work late, and I drive around Colfax where I know the other Indians live, and I look for her, not to talk to her because she told me to go. That would be cruel and frankly unkind, and also she has the right to say no, I always loved that she did. I think if I could glimpse her I would feel…fulfilled. Like magic was back in my life, if only for a second. I could eat that second up, fill myself with that little glimmer of time, and live for it for a while. I wouldn’t care what she looked like, though I have a feeling she is the same. She was not beautiful, she was magical, she had hair like a thousand brown-red fireworks, long, and in my hands, my face inside it, my eyes closed, I was whole.
My wife puts her phone down on the counter and sits next to me at the table. I put my phone down and look up at her and smile, and push Kari down further, as far as she can go without dying.
“Let’s go out tonight,” she says, smiling, like a child, her lips pulling up just a bit at the corners. I think if I loved her she would put her hand over mine and I would squeeze her hand and I would feel my heart move like an unborn child, one whose heart has just begun to beat, but she doesn’t, and I never do. We only meet late at night three times a year, when I am half asleep, and I must have what most human beings must have, and so must she. And when it is over, we roll over, and we never kiss, only in front of others or when I first come home, briefly, to be nice.
“Sure. Where?” I ask and she smiles again, wider. There is something in her little light brown eyes.
We go out at least half of the days of the week because we have money. We are middle class, and we have no children, it’s nice, we have money. Money for granite counter tops and an office to myself with all of the things my spiritual leader gave me when I was young, when I did that ceremony, when I thought I would have children with Kari and teach them our languages. But there is no one to do that with now. And I cannot keep those things in our bedroom. They would scare my wife, and frankly, it would make me sick, sick in my spirit, and I am already sick there. In all honesty, I hurt.
“Chinese?” I ask, because she loves Chinese and I am nice. And I don’t hate it. It was the one food besides hamburgers and Mexican food Kari would eat. I always get what she ordered twenty years ago, Kung Pao Chicken, and I imagine I have her mouth while I eat it, closing my eyes and dreaming and knowing that I am sick but that this is the only way I can deal with the sickness. It is too big for my elders now, even if I still knew them, which I do not. Even if I still spoke parts of my language, which I do not. Those words live even further down in the dark than Kari does, where they are warm, where they are safe, safe from this life.
She claps her hands briefly and this time I smile, I am nice.
“I’ll go get ready,” she says, “unless…you don’t want to go out?” She looks worried, strange and I reassure her, and she walks up the stairs. I do not watch her. I look down at my phone. And then it comes, the surge that happens to me once a week, the thing I push down all the time rising up, and I do it. I put her name in the phone like it is magic and this time I will see something. But I don’t. I thought I did years ago, something about court and charges, and it frightened me. I wanted to find out more so that I could find her by any means and save her, hold her, make her OK. But it disappeared, that small thing on the computer, when all I had was a computer, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get it back. God, I could never get it back.
Sometimes I wish she would die or I would die so that this could be over. When I think about my own death, I’m mainly indifferent though that makes me sad. It makes me sad mainly for my mother, who loved me so much, and in a way, sad for my father, who left when I was so young. He was Ute. He never called again. He drank. That wasn’t a stereotype. That was real. I am thankful that is not part of my sickness. But my mother, she died a few year ago of cancer. She worried so much that I stopped drinking around her and it made her happy. I liked to make her happy. She was a good person. Not just nice, but good. My wife is like a pale imitation of my mother. My mother liked her, the way she never liked Kari, who could feel that. Kari was a reminder of our distance, one that would never close, a reminder of who I was, of who she wasn’t, of my father, who my mother loved.
My wife and my mother would talk in the kitchen and share recipes like women do on television and they would laugh, small, polite laughter that wouldn’t scare anyone, not like Kari’s which was wonderful. Which was Kari. I like to be scared.
But thinking of Kari’s death is unbearable. It keeps me up at night. It fills my stomach like blood, like an ocean of pain. The only reason I wish for it is because then I would know what happened to her. Her absence is like a wide, great thing I live with, and am embarrassed because why can’t I get over her? I’m not crazy. I don’t love her so much I hate her. I just love her, and I can’t not love her. It’s not who I am.
She comes down the gray carpeted stairs, my wife, and she has put lipstick on, pale pink, and I know she is excited for this small, new adventure and I guess so am I. These things get us out of the house, and except for my office it is not a place I like, it is not my place. It is 2,500 square feet of box filled with things I don’t care about.
At the restaurant she folds her napkin over her small, polite lap. She will order sesame chicken. She will not eat much of it. She is little, she is thin, she goes to the gym and almost never drinks. Sometimes a glass of white wine, that is all. I have never seen her drunk. I saw Kari drunk all the time, and she was beautiful because she drank for fun, not for pain, and never too much. Just enough to move into a place of heightened beauty, and she would push me a little, but like I said, I like to be scared.
“Are you OK?” my wife asks, and I say yes, and I suppose she believes me. Sometimes I’m not as good at not pushing it down. Right now I’m not good at pushing it down. I will order a drink. I will order another.
My wife cocks her head like she doesn’t believe me and I wonder.
“Just you two?” the waitress asks, and I nod. My wife expects me to. Kari would’ve gotten mad at me for doing anything on behalf of both of us. But my wife likes it. She looks down at the menu and so do I, as if either of us will order what we haven’t ordered countless times before.
It’s time to make polite conversation, something about the neighbors, and something about something that they are doing that is scandalous, that is bad, but not really. I thought she would be staring at her menu, or at her phone, or at her hands, or at other people but she is staring at me. She never stares at me, the way I used to stare at Kari. I never stare at her, the way I used to stare at Kari. Kari would never stare at me, though sometimes I would catch her looking, a mix of pity and annoyance on her face. Though sometimes I wondered if I didn’t see love, maybe just a little, though she never said it, not once, no matter how I wished she would. I tried not to say it to her too much. I knew she didn’t want it, but I loved her, and convinced myself she loved me. I was fifteen.
“Hi,” I say and I try to sound friendly and confused.
“Hi,” she says, her cheeks turning red. Like we’d just met. Like she had been caught staring at a stranger, which she had.
“Are you OK?” she asks again and my eyebrows come together, my thick, dark eyebrows that I have to pluck or they would never be in a perfect, white people, curved, line.
“I…you asked me that before,” I answer.
“Oh, I’m, I’m sorry.” She says I’m sorry a lot. Every day. To me. To people in line at the post office. To people in the street if her arm brushes their arm, to everyone, to everyone.
“Don’t be sorry,” I say, but I am. I’m sorry she is asking me if I am OK. “What’s wrong?” I ask, and she turns away, smooths her thick, black napkin down on her lap.
“Nothing. Nothing,” she says, and I feel relief. I know I should push her, that’s what a good husband does, but I don’t because I’m not a good husband, I’m a nice one.
She begins talking about a woman at work who bullies her. I nod sympathetically until the waitress comes, a booster seat under her arm. She starts to put the booster down in the seat next to us and I stop her.
“We—we didn’t ask for this,” I say, and she stops, picks it up.
“No booster?” she asks. “No children?”
“No,” I say, and the woman leaves.
My wife is silent. She’s always silent when it comes to this, to children. I give her a minute to come back together, to get her head back where it has to be and yet she seems to need more time than usual and I wonder and I worry. I like to be nice.
“You were saying?” I prompt her. “About, you know, work?”
“Yessssss,” she says, drawing it out strangely, like a cartoon, like she has suddenly developed a neurological disorder, like she is going to have a breakdown and that is Kari. But not the kind of Kari I like. The kind that could bring all of this down. No matter how much I hate it, I live for it too, our lives together, the lies, the small things we do, they kept me from doing things like going to Colfax all the time, becoming one of those men you shake your head at, one of those men who can’t take no for an answer, one of those men I hate.
“You said she didn’t want to hear about your idea?”
“She didn’t,” my wife says, and I breathe a huge sigh, one that takes my shoulders up, and then down.
“She – ” my wife begins, but she is interrupted by our drinks, hers is wine, mine is scotch. I need it. I keep some in my office, and late at night, I drink it and go to the computer, hoping it is magic, hoping for her name.
I sip eagerly and my wife does the same and when I look back up, she is staring at me again, and I know this is over. She’s going to do something that will ruin this thing that we have and there is nothing I can do to get out of it.
“Who is, I mean, I have to know. Who is Kari James?” she asks, the words like a dam bursting from her small, thin lips. I feel the air go out of me like she’s punched me with her small, thin hand.
“How do you know that name?” The fact that she’s said her name makes me sad, makes Kari’s name so small. Her knowing feels like poison.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just… Her lip begins to tremble, like it did when she found out we couldn’t have children, and I know if she cries people will look and things are already very, very bad.
“It’s OK,” I say, “I’ll tell you. It’s no big deal. I’ll tell you. I’m sorry you feel bad or weird. It’s OK.”
Her lip continues to tremble. I take a long sip of the scotch, and then I take the rest of it in my mouth. I signal the waitress, the waitress with the goddamn booster, for another. And maybe another. Just one more would get me through this night.
“She was a high school girlfriend, that’s all,” I say, and smile. It’s true, I’m telling the truth.
“OK,” she says, but she isn’t done and I feel Kari coming out of the darkness to laugh at me, to mock me, to ask why the fuck I can’t get over her. Jesus, why.
“How do you know her name?” I ask, but shouldn’t have. I feel sick, I want to drown.
“I went to your – computer. I – just needed to google something and my phone was in the car and my computer was down and I needed…to know something. And when I went to google her name came up.”
“I looked her up. Curious,” I say too fast, waiving the waitress down who took my drink order.
“Yes. Oh, of course. I do that. But – ”
And I wait.
“For some reason I clicked on the history. You – you google her all the time. It must be every day,” her head is down. She’s crying. She shouldn’t be. She doesn’t love me. That was the deal. There isn’t love so what I’m doing is OK, it’s mutual.
“I just – was curious.”
I say nothing and I think she might move on, and let me push Kari back down into the dark, where she is safe.
“Every day, Sam!” she says, raising her voice. “It’s embarrassing!”
Now I’m the one who is quiet because now we will both be living with Kari.
“I loved her once, you know,” I say, taking another drink but the glass is empty. I close my eyes. Then, “Let’s drop it. It’s no big deal.”
She’s quiet, and our food comes, and my third scotch. I drink and I look at my wife, Sheryl, a human being who I had to think of as empty, and she smiles, her eyes lighting up, just a little, and then the woman with the booster seat comes again, and starts to put the booster in the seat again. Jesus she’s really struggling to get it in there and at first I am speechless and then I am angry. So angry I almost yell. But I don’t yell. I stop myself. Because there’s nothing more dangerous than being brown in a restaurant full of white people, and being angry and brown and yelling in a restaurant full of white people.
We are both quiet now. I drink my scotch. I’m lucky they had given it to me. I hope that later I can get my wife to talk about work, about the house she sold, if I could just get her to talk about anything, something nice, she would let Kari float down, all the way back down home, in the place far under my heart.
My wife nibbles at her food like a tiny white rabbit, and I push my steak around like a moose, and I think about the booster seat and I think about the waitress and my anger, and as we eat I remembered going to the doctor right after I asked Sheryl to marry me.
Another waitress comes up, thank God not the one with the booster seat, and my wife tells the waitress that the food was very good, thanks, and that no she doesn’t want another drink, thanks, and she smiles at me, and she opens her mouth and closes it.
I smile back, and swallow my meat. Things are going well. I remembered at the doctor’s office, his clean white office, my tall brown body up on the large plastic bed, it was covered in paper. He was nice. It was an outpatient procedure. It was quick. It didn’t really hurt. He cut those parts clean. Now, I look at my wife and I picture a meadow, one close to the mountains, so wide, so pure, green. Kari and I had gone camping once. I had felt something move there. And though it is sick, I feel happy, meat in my mouth, blood at my tongue. I can see Kari’s face, her sharp brown eyes looking into me, her hair pouring down her neck like earth, my lips at her throat, which was shaking with laughter. I think about what I wanted. Children with Kari, their hair brown, thick, their tiny bodies sitting square during a sweat, their faces lit up at ceremony, their hands reaching for an eagle feather, theirs. I look over at my wife as if in a dream, thank God for the scotch, thank God for my sickness.
My wife’s face begins to float and I think about how I will ask her to drive home, how I will hand her the keys and then I will sleep, and I will go to that place I keep under my heart, the place where Kari lives, my home, my true home. I blink slowly, dreaming, I am dreaming. When my wife and I weren’t able to have children, I comforted her when she cried, which wasn’t that much. But to have children with anyone except for Kari, no, no, no, that is wrong, it is sick. And I am already sick. I am already so far from home.