Mannequin – John Larson
February 8, 2022
This afternoon, while our daughter was at school, Margot came home early. Her Pace ADA bus pulled into our driveway. The wheelchair lift whined as it lowered her to the sidewalk.
Margot became a chest-down paraplegic in a car accident a year ago. She was a language arts teacher before the accident but now she works at the children’s library and takes this Pace bus to work. They usually drop her off at 5:00, but it was only 2:00.
The woman I’d invited over was boiling water in her underwear. We met online. This was her first time over and I hadn’t explained anything about my wife’s situation. For some reason, I’d lied and told her all the ramps were for my ailing father.
I go, “You gotta get out of here. Out the back door, around the house.”
“Which way?” she asks.
“It doesn’t matter, actually. Just leave. My wife’s bus is here.”
“Your wife’s bus?”
“Right now,” I say.
I throw her her shorts.
She slides them on, grabs her earrings, and leaves the back way. I at least had the sense to make her park down the street. The gate closes right as Margot opens the door.
“Pipe burst, so they closed the library and sent us home,” she says as she rolls inside. “What a mess.”
“Tea?” I ask, standing by the simmering kettle.
The fact that she didn’t see the woman seems to me a small miracle.
She brings my hand to her mouth and kisses it. Then she begins to suck my ring finger.
“Holly gets here in a half-hour,” I say, taking my hand back.
I’m in between jobs these days, so I’m always here when our daughter gets back from school.
Margot says, “Then when we put her to bed.”
“Sure,” I say. “You want to change?”
I take off her flats and her green, cross-hatched slacks. She lifts herself out of the chair—she’s strong in her upper body like a gymnast—and I slide her sweatpants up her thin legs. I hold two pairs of wool socks.
“The red or the blue?” I ask.
She picks the red and I slide them on her feet.
Later, the three of us have dinner. I make lamb tagine with an authentic recipe I got from a Moroccan restaurant.
“What do you think?” I ask them.
“Very good, Clay,” Margot says. “Different.”
“I don’t like lambs,” Holly says.
She is in the second grade.
“But you haven’t touched it,” I tell her.
“You’re brave for trying it. That’s all we can ask,” Margot says.
“Margot, she hasn’t touched it.”
But I can see this is not a conversation that’s going anywhere. I microwave Holly mashed potatoes, which she will always eat, and sit back down to my now cold tagine.
“How was school?” Margot asks Holly.
“Good. We did Bible circle and made a finger painting.”
“That’s fun,” I say.
Soon we’re putting Holly to bed and waiting for her to go to sleep. She has a stuffed monkey that reads a story which she listens to every night. It works like a charm. She is never awake by the end.
I’m thinking about how I have no desire to have sex with Margot. Not just tonight, either. I’ve felt this way every night for a long time now. But I can’t tell her this. There are certain expectations. The people in a man’s life demand things from him. It’s been too long since we’ve last had sex for me to tell her no.
Last weekend she asked me, point blank, “Do you find me attractive anymore?”
There’s only one way for a husband to answer that question.
“I know it’s different. I just want you to be honest with me,” she said. “It scares me, Clay.”
“No,” I said, “different can be good.”
It’s getting to the point where I’m not sure I can keep making excuses.
I make myself a martini after I load the dishwasher. Margot’s on some new medication, opioids for her neck, and can’t drink anymore. I make a second martini. I hand it to her. When she sees it she gives me a look.
“I forgot about your meds,” I say.
“You didn’t forget.”
“You like to watch me make drinks. You used to go, ‘Get behind that bar and let’s pretend we’re strangers tonight.’”
We used to do that kind of thing, role playing. But that was just the beginning. It was something that really caught me off guard after we started dating. I didn’t think much of her at first, but one night we were standing at the back of a bus on our way to a movie when she guided my hand down the back of her skirt. “Do you feel that?” she whispered, my finger touching the smooth glass knob of a plug in her ass. “For tonight.” I didn’t eat any popcorn during the movie because I wasn’t sure I could keep it down, I hadn’t “tried” anything with a woman. I was nervous. But that night was the best fuck of my life. From there, we moved into ropes, wax, masks, vacuum suits and so on. That kind of thing was how she hooked me, back then. Soon we were living together. Got married. What I loved more than anything was when I would take alligator clamps from my desk and clip them on her labia before she went to school. The thought of her at work all day, the tender skin purpling with pain until I removed them that afternoon was intense. There’s no stronger, more intimate feeling in the world than needing someone like that. We never tried other people, that was the one thing that she didn’t want. But eventually I got bored. I needed more.
“I’m not going to pour Hendrick’s in the sink,” I say, holding the second martini.
“You think I like taking that bus?” she asks. “It’s depressing, Clay. But I do it.”
I’m supposed to take her to work, but I got a DUI two months ago. I don’t remember a thing, but I’ve been told I slammed into a light pole only a block from the house. I was blasted. The only reason I’m not in jail is that the cop lives in the neighborhood and has been over for dinner parties a few times. It would be embarrassing for him, I think, if he arrested his neighbor for something like that.
There’s a palpable silence between us as we listen to Holly’s monkey finish his story. I stand there for a minute. I’ve got nothing.
Then she says, “I’m going to bed.”
I stand over the sink, looking at the other houses out of our tall narrow window. I take out the trash, heaps of tagine on the top. I never loved her, I think to myself, the liquor opening me up. It’s not that when your wife becomes paralyzed you suddenly realize that you never loved her—I always knew that in some repressed kind of way. It’s just that when she could walk it didn’t matter that I didn’t love her. That’s just how it is in a marriage. We own a home together. We want to keep having sex, even boring, unfulfilling sex, with someone. We have a kid together, and we both want the best things for her—good schools and extracurriculars and a safe neighborhood. Because we were both handcuffed to these common desires I had a lot of momentum with her, if that makes sense. The thing is, once your wife gets her legs paralyzed it’s hard to keep that same inertia. A man is suddenly expected to pick up the slack. Your relationship changes. Some of the wool is pulled from your eyes.
After the accident, one of the things the doctor told us was how we were supposed to have sex. She had a sort of speech for couples like us.
“Intercourse will change mechanically, for one. Vaginal lubrication is not something you can rely on. Are you familiar with water-based lubricants—your KY Jellies and so on? Look into that.” She continued, “More importantly, intercourse will be more of a mental experience for the woman from now on.” She held her hand out toward Margot, as if for clarification. “It’s not uncommon to see the patient’s sex drive decrease significantly.” She looked at me for some reason when she said this.
“Thank you, Doctor,” Margot said.
“Beyond that, though, perspectives shift when someone has a brush with death. Values change, even. It’s generally recommended that couples in your situation seek counseling. You both have different needs now, and you should explore new avenues to meet them.”
“We’ll figure it out,” I said.
But the doctor was right. When we have sex now it goes like this: She takes this pill before that is essentially a high-dose Viagra. It ramps up the blood flow. When she’s ready, I lift her out of her chair and lay her in bed. Then there’s a lot of foreplay, things we read about in pamphlets the doctor gave us. Ears are called “erogenous zones,” in these pamphlets. Necks are another area I’m supposed to focus on according to these instructions. Fingers. Lips, of course. We knew all this before, but the point is now that’s all we’ve got to work with—her plumbing, and everything around it, is frozen. It’s a tomb.
So I would kiss her neck. We would slide our fingers in each other’s mouths. That was all fine. But the problem was I had to talk to her to get her off, more than I ever had before. Not just expletives but whole sentences, real complete thoughts. The last time we had sex I was lying on top of her, my hand in her mouth, and I started talking about how proud it made me to watch her lawsuit against Sander’s Grocery gain traction. They’re not in compliance with some ADA article involving ramps, and apparently Sander’s has been brushing off complaints for years so Margot really took it upon herself to get justice for people like her. Anyway, I go on talking between heavy grunts about the happiness it brings me as a husband to watch her organize this locally notable movement from the ground up. And not for her own selfish reasons either (though we do stand to make a lot of money), but to really make a difference for the disabled and their families in this town. Starting a group at the library and in no time getting this pro-bono lawyer, who has a quadriplegic daughter himself and is sympathetic, is no small thing. To be by her side while this beautiful woman just takes the reins and reverses the momentum of our family’s tragedy and turns it into something meaningful…
And I could have kept going, completely lost in this story I was whispering in her ear, but she started biting my neck and moaning and I came out of it, realizing my job was finished. In that moment, with this paralyzed woman quivering beneath me, macrodosing Viagra, coming at my retelling of her litigation saga, I knew I couldn’t keep this up. Saying these things ought to make me love her, ought to make me realize the ways in which I always have, no? A beautiful woman fighting for what’s right, the mother of my daughter—this is what it’s all about. But after spending forty-five minutes telling this woman stories about her own life while I rub my thumb over her erogenous zones, I realized that it verifiably is not. At least, for me it isn’t. I thought to myself, what the fuck am I doing?
And in any other situation you divorce her. It happens. But what am I going to be, the guy who leaves his wife after she gets paralyzed in a car he was driving? Will I get any sympathy when I bring up the alligator clips that no longer do anything to her labia? I realized I’m the one who’s trapped. I’m the one who’s paralyzed. So that’s when I started meeting people online.
On my third drink now, I enter the bedroom where Margot is asleep. Her body is soundlessly rising and falling, the light from the window highlighting her sharp cheeks, the architecture of her delicate face. In this dim light, with her glasses off, she could be someone else. Something stirs in me that hasn’t in a long time. She’s not sexless, not by any stretch. If I could only disassociate her from the person of my wife, or from her condition, maybe I wouldn’t have these problems. And it’s not like she isn’t an agreeable, interesting, and good person. She’s all those things, the Sander’s Grocery story proves that. So what’s in the way, here? Why must I resent her like I do?
I return to the website where I met the woman who was over earlier today.
I have one unread message: You didn’t tell me your wife was in a fucking wheelchair, fucker. You are miserable. You’re a miserable person.
Her name is grayed out, meaning I’ve been blocked by her and can’t respond. What a trip. I could laugh at everyone who thinks like she does, the self-righteous posturing. Listen, if you had my life.
On the bedside table is Margot’s bottle of Percocet. I count out four 5mg pills and swallow them. I need to take more than I used to because if I’m not knocked out I might try and do something. Drive off and kill somebody.
My computer is in my lap, but its light seems far away, as if it’s the mouth of a cave. The blue lights behind my eyes turn to red, my white knuckles become an open brown hand, and I think I’m finally starting to fade. But then something like adrenaline shoots through my legs. I might be dying. The simple fear of death makes me run outside, out the back door to not wake Holly, and force my fingers down my throat. I vomit up the pills in the bushes by the garbage bins. One of their lids slams as a startled homeless man jumps away from it.
He goes, “What the hell? Watch out, man.”
He’s wearing a Starter jacket covered in faint stains. He continues cursing at me as he opens the lid again and takes a handful of tagine.
“You can’t be back here,” I say, wiping my mouth. “That’s mine.”
“Well, you threw it away.”
“We have a gate,” I say.
I spit to get the taste of stomach acid out of my mouth. I watch him eat for a moment in a kind of hazy way. I didn’t even know we had bums.
“What do you think?” I ask.
He shrugs, his mouth working through the tough lamb. “It’s all right.”
I only now notice the arm holding up the lid is stiff. It’s plastic, like a mannequin’s arm. And its color is mismatched with the rest of his skin.
“How did that happen?” I ask.
“How did what happen?”
I gesture to the arm.
“That’s none of your business,” he says.
I don’t know what to say exactly.
“Do you want money, or something?” I ask.
I say, “My name is Clay.”
Then he says, “Is your wife back, Clay?”
“Excuse me?” I ask.
He says he saw her walking out the door this morning. And I tell him no he didn’t.
“Bullshit,” he says. “I watched a very beautiful female leave your house just this afternoon.”
“No bullshit. My wife is in a wheelchair.” He’s pissing me off. “That wasn’t my wife.”
“So you won’t mind if I fuck her then?” He laughs and spit sprays between his ugly teeth.
“Do whatever the hell you want,” I say and storm off.
“Wait, wait,” he calls to me.
I turn around and ask him what his fucking problem is.
“I got no shoes, man. Can you just give me some old shoes?”
Just like that he’s groveling again. Part of me wants to spit on him. But there’s no one around. He’s bigger than me. Crippled, but only the one arm. It dawns on me that this situation could turn around for me in a bad way. So I promise I’ll go look for some shoes, just to keep him placated.
I go back inside and lock the door behind me. You’re not supposed to give them anything directly, anyway. Homeless people, I mean. It’s dangerous, for one, and bad for them, somehow. I can’t remember. If you really want to help, give to a shelter. But anyway, I lose this train of thought when I walk in the bedroom. Margot is sitting up with the lamp on and she’s crying. The computer is still open, all my messages plain to see.
“How could you?” she asks, her voice pained, enraged.
“I suppose you want some kind of apology,” I say.
“I want you gone,” she spits at me. “I want you out or I will have you dragged out.”
“You want me out?” I ask.
“This bitch is right, you are miserable,” she says. “And I’m done. Tomorrow, you’re gone.”
It strikes me as insane that she can kick me out and will. I think about taking our case in front of a third party and how fucked I would be. Everything would come out. I’d have my pants pulled down and I’d be punished like a little boy. It’s ridiculous. I can’t take it. I pick her up like I’ve done so many times before.
“You want me out?” I ask again.
I throw her over my shoulder. She beats my back with impotent fists.
“You disgusting, perverted, sick…”
I unlock the back door. I take her out into our yard and drop her on the ground.
“You’re never seeing our daughter again!” she says to me, crawling back on her elbows.
“Maybe not,” I say. I walk to get a better view of the garbage cans. “Hey, piece of shit… Are you still out here?”
Sure enough he creeps around the side of the house.
“This is my wife,” I say, pointing to Margot. “I’ll keep the shoes and you can have her. How’s that sound?”
The dread blooms in her face and she begs me to take her back. Just like I knew she would. But I just walk inside and shut the door.
I stand there to watch out the window and witness her humiliation. The dirty shoeless bum approaches her. She begs him to be reasonable. They have a brief exchange. From behind the glass, I can’t hear what they say back and forth. I think for a minute that he is going to leave, that she talked some mercy into him.
But then he removes his mannequin arm. He holds it up and I see where it attaches to a joint on his elbow. It is not plastic, but metal. He’s gazing at it with what could be admiration. Then, in one sudden motion, he brings it down and strikes her on the head. She is so surprised she doesn’t even defend herself. I’m surprised too. He continues to beat her with his arm made of metal. I’m amazed by his savagery. It stirs something inside me, how he pounds and pounds and pounds. And I can do nothing but watch.