House of Babel

by: Julie Howard

She had indeed loved him, comforted him and been faithful to him. What was a little repugnance and disgust along the way?”

houseofbabel

“Coded,” he said disdainfully under his breath.

“What?” She was cooking and couldn’t hear him.

He shook his head. It didn’t matter these days what he said. She’d stopped listening – no, she’d stopped hearing what he said. There was a difference.

“Anyway,” she went on, “you should just chill out and see what happens. You’ll realize that I’m right.”

He nodded. Isn’t that what made for a good marriage, he thought. Agreement? Compromise? Even if it set his teeth on edge and bile rose in his mouth every time she talked these days?

“In good times and bad, in sickness and in health,” he muttered.

“I really can’t hear what you’re saying,” she said, clattering the dishes onto the counter.

“Honestly, you don’t make sense at all these days.”

Onions and garlic sizzled in the wok, making his mouth water. He watched as she added a splash of white wine and then added two handfuls of broccoli and snow peas, stirring them deftly. He’d always admired her cooking, how she could transform simple ingredients into something truly delectable. It didn’t matter how many times he watched or how earnestly she helped, he couldn’t replicate her recipes.

She poured the stir-fried vegetables into a warmed bowl and, seemingly in the same motion, added oil and shrimp to the wok. Steam rose to the ceiling. She poured something brown and sticky into the wok and worked it around, thoroughly coating the shrimp.

“More jobs, better pay,” she cried out above the bubbling.

I loved her once, he was thinking.

“You’re deplorable,” he said.

“Did you say something?” she asked, her back turned, scooping up perfectly steamed rice onto their plates.

Their union had come together in strife, each coming from bad breakups. They were each other’s rebound relationship – but they’d made it work, at least for awhile anyway. They’d heard that the key to a good marriage was a similar past.

Not that it hadn’t gotten violent from time to time. She could get a little ahead of herself sometimes and need a smack – nothing too hard – nothing that wouldn’t heal. Besides, he only did it when she truly deserved it, and only for a really good reason. It’s not like he didn’t bear the scars of her anger as well.

Their last argument had left him in a white hot fury for days. She’d harangued and taunted. He’d sneered and belittled. For months they didn’t talk to each other. They tried to avoid each other, but their house was too small for that. A tussle grew into a full-on brawl. She threw him down the stairs and he thrashed her on the landing. It was a rowdy slugfest that alerted the neighbors. When the police came, neither wanted to call foul. So the neighbors simply watched them warily and from afar.

“Maybe this isn’t working anymore,” he said. “I don’t like who I’ve become with you.”

He watched her slender neck bowed over her work. It would be hard to let her go. For all her faults, her ridiculous opinions, he found her strongly alluring.

“Carry these plates to the table, dear,” she said.

He obeyed automatically. She worked wonders with simple vegetables and shrimp. He knew if he tried it alone, the sauce wouldn’t turn out quite right, or he’d scorch the garlic, or he’d forget an ingredient. And when he was in his lowest moments – when he felt the world was against him and he doubted his own existence – she was always there for him, propping him up and giving him the strength to carry on. She had indeed loved him, comforted him and been faithful to him. What was a little repugnance and disgust along the way?

“What if we did a little volunteer work?” he suggested. “Helping others might bring us together again.”

“We need to put our marriage first,” she said without blinking an eye.

“That’s what I’m saying,” he said. “It’ll make us stronger if we work together.”

She moved toward him, staring unwaveringly into his eyes. Neither blinked. He wondered if either of them would survive another battle, or even another meal together. The aroma of dinner distracted him. He wanted to fight, but he didn’t want to miss dinner either.

Her eyelashes fluttered at him and he was lost. It always happened this way, her appeal to his baser instincts. They could crusade against each other another day. She swiveled smoothly away, one hip bumping him gently, and poured out glasses of wine. He knew where this would end up.

“You’re a nasty man,” she crooned in a sexy tone, setting the wine glasses on the table.

They sat across from each other and dug into dinner, each avoiding the other’s eyes. There was nothing left to say and no one was listening anyway.

 

Julie Howard is a former newspaper journalist and editor who has covered topics ranging from crime to cowboy poetry. Her career was primarily spent with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Sacramento Bee and the bygone Maturity News Service. She has published short stories in Literally Stories, The Piker Press and Dime Show Review. She currently lives in Boise, Idaho where she is working on longer fiction.

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