I was with a woman the other night, the first time I’d been with one in a while.  I’m not going to give her a name here because I’m not sure her name is all that important: she could have been anybody. That sounds mean, but it’s true. She could have been any number of women, I think, even though things had worked out with us well enough to the point that we were together, and we were all set to have sex. We’d gone through the preliminaries: the dinners, the movies, sharing highlights from our pasts like movie trailers, and then the gradual physical intimacy that began with a brief kiss on the first date and then a deep one on the second and a very complicated and tangled maneuver on her couch on the third, which left us both breathless, wanting more. But we were pacing ourselves, just being together a little bit before we went the whole nine yards.  Both of us knew that the next time we saw each other we’d have sex.  It’s not something we said, but we both knew it was going to happen. 

    I thought about it all week.  I must have thought about it ten times a day, imagining this woman with her clothes off, or me taking them off, and then me with my clothes off, on top of her, you know, or wherever, wondering how it would all play out. When you’re married for a while you trade in that mystery for comfort, and while the excitement level can be low there’s nothing like being with a friend, making love with someone who doesn’t care if you look a certain way, different from Mel Gibson or whoever, and who accepts you as you are, who actually wants you as you are. That’s the way it is in a good marriage, folks, at least that’s the way it was in mine. But it’s not like I ever thought about making love to my wife ten times a day. We just did it. Then, usually, we’d go to sleep. I shouldn’t keep calling her my wife. But it’s hard to rename somebody after calling them one thing for so long. It’s a lot to ask, to start calling her my ex-wife, just like that. It’s only been a few months. I’m trying but I’m not there yet. It’s like having a new telephone number, or the first few weeks after the year changes. It takes time to get it right.

    Finally the night came. This woman and I had a little dinner at the new Mexican place, which was good. A couple of margaritas apiece. I was funny—or she was laughing, at any rate. When she laughed she showed all her teeth, and they were nice. Nicer than I had remembered. Things went well.

    Back at my place, my apartment, events proceeded rapidly. I mean the door was barely closed before we were all over each other, kissing hard right there in the hallway and holding our bodies together with such a force that I worried I might hurt her. But you could tell the opposite was happening: she was loving it. I was, too. It had been six months since anything like this had happened, and I couldn’t believe I had gone so long without it. I don’t know how long it had been for her, I never asked, but I could tell we were on the same page: she almost ripped my clothes off. She turned into a kind of beast, honestly. Her eyes were hooded, and she had to push me away from her occasionally, not because of anything I was doing but to put the brakes on herself, as if she were on the verge of ripping the flesh from my body with her teeth. And she did bite. I think I still have the bruises to prove it.

    No reason to go into every detail, though. You know what happens. This isn’t a how-to manual. By the time we made it into my bed we were naked, except that she was wearing her socks and I had my watch on. A couple of times I nicked her with it, and apologized. And though I’d been worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform, it having been so long and this woman my first since being with the same woman for ten years, I did pretty well, I think, all things considered, and I think that she was happy too, though I felt I shouldn’t ask. I don’t know what to do anymore, how to be. But it was probably a good idea not to ask.

    After it was over, we lay beside each other, breathing. As fast-paced as everything had been up until then, it was weird, just lying there, still. I’d left the bathroom light on, with the door cracked, and a thin path of light edged across the room and fell against my dresser. We were both looking at it. On the top of the dresser was a little photograph of my wife, unframed; it leaning against the bare wall, the only picture in the whole room.  I missed her, there was no getting around that. I missed her body. I missed watching her take her shirt off, the way she crossed her arms in an X, taking the hem of the shirt in her fingers and pulling it upwards over her head, exposing her bra and then her breasts, drooping like teardrops, soft as rain. I missed the sentences she never finished, the words she never found. I missed the idea of her as my wife, to have and to hold. I missed her saying, “Well, I’ll be….” And when, because some friend of hers was broken-hearted and out of anger and empathy she condemned the men of the world wholesale as terrible, inhumane creatures, she always looked at me and smiled and said, “Present company excluded.” I liked that, and I missed that, and I wished I had a chance to hear her say it again. I had found the picture the other day and something about it, I don’t know, it was just a nice shot of her. But looking at it now, with this woman, it made me wish I had put it away.

    “Who’s that?” she asked me.

    “That picture?” I said. “Nobody.”

    “Well,” she said, with a little laugh. “It’s somebody.”

    “You know what I mean,” I said.

    “Is that, like, your girlfriend?”

    “No,” I said. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”

    But maybe I shouldn’t have said it like that, because if I had a girlfriend it was her. I could tell this stung her. The air in the room changed then, and she seemed to move away from me a little on the bed. Our arms had been touching but they weren’t anymore, and her face, when I looked at it, had lost something. A friendliness.

    “Is it your wife?” she asked me.

    “No,” I said. “No. I mean, it is, she was, but she’s not anymore. I told you that.”

    “And you have her picture on your dresser?”   

    “It’s just a picture,” I said. “One picture.”

    And I thought how true that was, how it was only a picture, a moment a picture had fixed in time, one moment out of all of them. It was just her standing there, doing nothing special, at a time before when she was my wife. And here I was looking at it with this new woman.

    “It’s none of my business,” she said, “but I should tell you, you know, for the next time this happens to you. It’s maybe best not to have a picture of your ex-wife on display. It kills the mood.”

    She smiled at me then, in a friendly way, and I knew, just the way I knew a week ago we were going to be having sex that night, that we were never going to have it again. It just wasn’t going to work out. I knew we wouldn’t see each other again, all because of that picture I had on my dresser and the way the light fell on it so that we both could see. The way she said the next time this happens to you.  The next woman, she meant. The next her. And I thought, How wonderful.  How wonderful that I would get to go through this all again, the movies and dinners, the incremental kissing, the flirting, the figuring out of each other, just to get right back to this same place. Christ, I thought, I might have to do it ten times, or even more. Who could say? Not me: I’d be the last person to know. I’d be the last person in the whole world.  And all of a sudden I was glad I had that picture of my wife up there now, illuminated in the light, so we could all see whose fault this was. I hated her, hated her so much in that moment. But it passed.

    “She’s pretty,” the woman said. “Your ex-wife.”

    “Well, she takes a good picture,” I said.

    And that was that. I took the woman home, the two of us sharing that terrible quiet, and watched her walk the long walk that led to her door. Then I drove away, and for some reason started laughing. Because it struck me as funny, I think, how fucked up we can be and still manage to carry on. Not we really, but me: I was fucked up, and here I was carrying on—like a soldier, or a dark and quiet hero, and that was kind of funny.  It was a cool night, a starry sky, and I drove without a thought of where I was going, through the dark parts of town, the lights of the city glowing in the distance. The wind slipped in through my window and was soft against my skin.  It felt good. The wind felt good.  It was like feeling like you’re in a movie, that your life is a movie and this is one of the good parts, where the sweet music starts to play.  I could even see a piece of the moon, shy tonight, but full behind a glowing bank of clouds. Perfect. It would be a night like this, I hoped, when I would suddenly realize I wasn’t married anymore, like the day you get the year right, or remember your telephone number without thinking about it, or when you can tell somebody where you live, the new place, and call it home, and mean it.

Daniel Wallace is author of four novels, including Big Fish (1998), Ray in Reverse (2000), The Watermelon King (2003), and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (2007). He has written one book for children, Elynora, and in 2008 it was published in Italy, with illustrations by Daniela Tordi. O Great Rosenfeld!, the only book both written and illustrated by the author, has been released in France and Korea and is forthcoming in Italy, but there are not, at this writing, plans for an American edition. His work has been published in over two dozen languages, and his stories, novels and non-fiction essays are taught in high schools and colleges throughout this country. His illustrations have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Italian Vanity Fair, and many other magazines and books, including Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds: Indispensible Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers, by George Singleton, and Adventures in Pen Land: One Writer's Journey from Inklings to Ink, by Marianne Gingher. Big Fish was made into a motion picture of the same name by Tim Burton in 2003, a film in which the author plays the part of a professor at Auburn University. He is in fact the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is also his alma mater (Class of '08). Though born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Chapel Hill longer than he has lived anywhere else, and he has no plans to leave. His wife, Laura, is a social worker, and his son, Henry, a student at East Chapel Hill High. His daughter, Lillian Bayley Hoover, is a working artist and teacher in Baltimore, Maryland. More information about him, his writing, and his illustrations can be found at www.danielwallace.org and www.ogreatrosenfeld.com.

Back to Freight Stories No. 4


Daniel Wallace

A Night Like This