The Last Night They Spent Together Before the Separation
Susan McCarty

They put the children to bed, all eight of them. They put the camera crew members to bed, all eight of them, though most of the crew stayed up, listening through the thin suburban floors, clutching their fists at each other for all that was not being recorded.

In the kitchen, she said to him, "You may not agree, but the children really are the most important thing. We have to think of them in all of this." He said to her, "I know." Then he said, "You don't have to be such a bitch about it." She said, "Is that the way you talk to the mother of your children?" and he said, "Stop thinking of the children. Just for a minute, can't you think of us?"

She did not storm away, into another room, because she could feel the camera crew listening and even though they were each tucked into beds in the bunking area behind the false wall in the basement and their cameras were not on, she felt beholden to them, like a child to its teachers. Instead, she took a bag of apples, provided by Dole, and began to slice them for the children's lunches. Thus she was in a position to dramatically thrust the knife into the air when he made his next remark, which he delivered as if it were scripted, though that was not strictly allowed:

"I think I'm in love with someone else."

There was the satisfying thunk as the knife became a heavier weight in her hand and torpedoed, as if by destiny, into the heavy wood cutting board in front of her. She thought to herself "cut." She may have actually said "cut." And then an uncertain silence fell between them because what more was there to do or say?

He had backed up against the refrigerator when the knife came down, as if he'd been commanded to wince, though he knew exactly where that knife would go and that it would stay there. This was not Court TV. He stood in a small avalanche of happy drawings of houses and stick mommies and daddies and finger-painted abstractions that he was almost certain had not been made by his own children but by the children of his producers and editors and perhaps, it was rumored, by the extremely gifted two-year-old daughter of one of the network executives, a toddler with a prodigal understanding of light and color and space, drawings that had come down when he had backed himself without fear against the refrigerator door while her knife came to rest in the place that it had to.

So she moved to him. And now he did wince because it was not something he understood. Her mouth was doing that slight twitching thing it did, which could mean she was annoyed or about to laugh or possibly that she was having an allergic reaction to the heavy foundation she wore so her skin would appear skin-colored on television. He wasn't sure anymore. He wasn't sure he had ever been sure. He might watch old episodes in his new bachelor pad to see if there was something recognizable about the way her mouth moved in the first season. Or perhaps it was a tic she had picked up for the cameras. He would go back and watch all the seasons to see what fragments of wife revealed themselves. He would build a montage of her.

So she moved to him and put her mouth to his neck. Then his jaw, just below the left earlobe. Then the earlobe.

The camera crew, highly trained in their field, heard the small sound of something strange and intimate taking place and pounded the carpeted floor of their chamber.

She kissed his chin. She took one of his hands, which was curled into a half-hearted fist and flattened it out between her two hands. She kissed his hand.

He could not remember if she was tender. She was edited to sometimes be tender. But was she? She was murmuring something as she kissed him, but he couldn't understand what she was saying until he lowered his head to where her lips met his chest. "Is it you?" she was asking, "Is it you?"

What's more, he realized as his head came down to touch her head, she was not quietly kissing him, but smelling him. It was her nose, not her mouth, which left his skin damp and goosebumped where she touched him with it.

She smelled his forearm below the elbow crook. She smelled his side just above his hip where his jeans made a hard ridge beneath his t-shirt. He still smelled the same, which meant that this could not be happening. For a moment she thought of the knife again. For a moment she thought of another life entirely.

In the dark, the camera crew crept into a pile on the hard, hooked gray carpet. The places where they squeezed each other for reassurance were soft and sometimes moist.

For a moment he looked at the knife stuck deep in the cutting block. For a moment he could not imagine any part of the life that had come before this.

From the hall came a shrill noise, like the cry of an animal before it is eaten by a bigger animal. They both stood up straight. They both thought of the children, though each of them thought of a different child in particular.

The camera crew stood barefoot in the dark hallway. They were cold, they said. They couldn't sleep. Their hands were open and red, as if to show the source of their cold and sleeplessness.

She put apple slices in their hands. He marched them back downstairs. When he came back up, he said he thought he might watch reruns for just a little while before bed.

Susan McCarty's fiction and nonfiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review and Conjunctions. She's working on her Ph.D in Creative Writing at the University of Utah.

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