Yesterday I stole my wife’s wallet. I’m forty-five years old, and I’ve never taken so much as a loose grape from my grocery cart without paying for it. A half pound of stuffed red leather, the contents of which could wreck my marriage, now weighs down the breast pocket of my parka, grazing my heart with my every move.
I only feel a tinge of guilt that Annabel is probably canceling her credit cards while I stand in her sister’s kitchen cupping a warm Starbucks—straight black. I watch Maggie’s lips move as if she’s the adult to my Charlie Brown. Blah, blah, blah. I’ve been renovating kitchens long enough to know that she wants more counter space, a view of whatever will bloom in her garden this spring, and a bigger pantry. Normally, I’d already be mapping out a dozen configurations in my head. Not today.
“You look stressed, Leon. Annabel been moody?” Maggie asks.
I’m tempted to tell her everything, that I showed up at Annabel’s office to drive her to her late afternoon doctor’s appointment even though I knew I’d been smothering her lately, that I found her wallet on her desk, that I tracked her down in Adams Morgan to give it to her, that I wished to hell I hadn’t seen what I had.
“Earth to Leon.” Maggie touches my sleeve.
Her hand, inches from the wallet, makes me flinch. I assure her that I’m fine, and she tells me to lock up after I finish taking my measurements. I wish her a nice day or something feeble like that and stand slack-jawed in her kitchen, watching her Toyota hybrid drive past Cape Cods whose owners will call for estimates come barbecue season, after they’ve filed into her kitchen to inspect my work. I’m not arrogant; it just works that way.
I haven’t eaten since yesterday. I’m woozy. I help myself to an apple juice box and a bag of multigrain goldfish crackers from Maggie’s soon-to-be-expanded pantry and plunk down on the family room sofa, gobbling up cheddared cardboard, contemplating Maggie and Eric’s photo albums lined up on the bookcase.
I submit to my curiosity. I know Annabel met what’s-his-face at Eric’s thirtieth birthday party, so I pluck an album, which falls open to a photo of Annabel with short hair. It looks okay—shows off her eyes, so big that those little glasses she wears barely cover them. I like her hair long, though. It spills halfway down her back, and on lazy Saturday mornings I wash it for her, and my hands smell faintly of her lemon-scented shampoo for the rest of the day.
I find him at the back of the album. Skinny redheaded weasel. Phil. He’s sitting in an Adirondack chair at dusk, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette; it’s a moody picture. He looks like the kind of guy you tell your sister to avoid. Annabel told me about him early on, during one of those romantic history conversations I could have done without. I’ve slept with barely a handful of women. Annabel. My late first wife, Mary, who was also my high-school and college sweetheart. The olive-skinned lifeguard who helped me pass the summer after I graduated from college when Mary decided we needed to play the field. Oh, and some drunken sympathy sex from my bookkeeper in the back of her Honda Odyssey my first Christmas without Mary. My sexual history. Annabel’s feels more vivid to me.
What the hell was she doing with that guy last night? I would have felt better if they were talking or even laughing, but they were walking down Columbia Road in the familiarity of silence. Ridiculous. Just last week we were picking out baby names.
The underarms of my flannel shirt are soaked. When I slide off my parka, the wallet thuds against the couch. My face is hot, and my heart is pumping fast. I better hit the head. I need to get the hell away from this album and the wallet. Standing up too quickly, I step on the bag of goldfish and relish the sound of the crackers crumbling under my boot. I wash my hands and face with cold water and soap that smells like watermelon. Feels good.
I dial Annabel’s cell. She’ll clear this up. She’ll tell me that she bumped into Phil, that they were simply walking in the same direction, and then she ran into a friend, maybe Nadine, who gave her money for the thirty-dollar cab ride home. I’ll apologize for hovering and acknowledge her need for time to herself, and tonight she’ll cuddle up against me and remind me that I get weird in January, and we’ll laugh about it all. I love Annabel’s laugh: half cackle, half bleat. Annabel doesn’t answer, and I don’t leave a message.
I grab my coat, pull out the wallet, still warm from my body, and go upstairs to scout the perfect spot to examine my spoils. First stop, my thirteen-year-old niece’s room. Mary and I started trying to have a baby the week before she died. She wanted a girl. Had we been successful, our daughter would be Kaya’s age, and I might be able to identify the wall-full of androgynous Disney creations grinning at me through their sparkling white teeth.
I stand at the doorway of Maggie and Eric’s bedroom. Early in our courtship, Annabel and I snuck up here during their Oscar party and groped each other in the dark to the sound of guests laughing at Whoopi Goldberg’s wit and the aroma of Eric’s famous garlic bread wafting up the stairs. This morning, the room smells like Maggie’s perfume, cloying and flowery; Annabel’s scent is musky, much sexier, and Mary smelled like Vaseline Intensive Care, the kind that comes in the mint green bottle. You can buy it at the Giant for a few dollars.
I dial Annabel’s cell again.
“Did you just call?” She picks up on the first ring. I can hear a smile in her voice.
I pause, flustered and frozen.
She giggles. “Leon, aren’t we a little late in the game for you to become a heavy breather?” She sounds like her usual self, and when she came home last night, her body english revealed no deceit. She kissed me, took off her bra, polished off a leftover burrito, asked me about my day, listened carefully to my response, and flipped on yesterday’s recorded episode of Days of Our Lives.
I laugh. “How are you?”
“Rotten. My wallet was stolen.”
How the hell did you pay the cabdriver last night? Why haven’t you mentioned this? These questions are stapled to edge of my tongue.
She continues, “I’m swamped here. I can’t afford to spend hours on the phone with VISA, ready to bitch-slap whoever recorded ‘thank you for holding.’” She imitates the recording perfectly.
If I hadn’t swiped her wallet, I would offer to do this for her. “You sure you didn’t leave it at the acupuncturist?” I’m a jerk.
“I’ll be right in.” I hear her tell someone in her office. “Call me later,” she says to me. “I like the heavy breathing.” She giggles.
Annabel was the first person to make me laugh after Mary died. So she ran into an ex-boyfriend? What’s the big deal? I wish my rational side, usually dominant, were winning this battle, stopping me from rifling through her wallet.
Back downstairs, I decide on the kitchen table. I take a swig of my coffee before clearing away this morning’s Washington Post and a cookbook opened to a recipe for tomato soup, and then I take a sponge and wipe globs of jelly off the white surface. I dry it with a paper towel and place the wallet right in front of me.
My hands are shaking. When Maggie and Eric’s phone rings, I practically shoot out of my chair like a pebble from a slingshot. The goldfish are swimming up to my throat, every nerve in my body is vibrating. In ten years of marriage to Mary, I never felt this alive or scared. Never once did I question my assumption that we’d grow old together. When she died, I was overcome with an unspeakable ache that I can still evoke if I stare too long at one of the few pictures of her I’ve kept. Last year Annabel dragged me to one of those sappy female movies, and I thought I heard Mary weeping two rows back. I didn’t turn around, but my heart stayed heavy through the pizza and sex that followed.
I run my hand over the bumpy red leather. It’s a big wallet with room enough for a change purse, a checkbook, a calendar, and a plastic case for credit cards. I open the case first. Visa, Maryland driver’s license, Bethesda Sport and Health, Blockbuster, Aetna. I sort her forty dollars by denomination—a twenty, a ten, and two fives. Bringing order to her things gives me a slender sense of peace and the courage to look at her calendar.
My upper lip starts to twitch as I flip through it. Surprising that a graphic artist, someone who works with computers all day, would spurn a Blackberry, but Annabel says she likes to see the whole month on one page. It’s late January, so I can only see a few weeks’ worth of past appointments and dates. I hate January.
Sunday, January 4. Dinner with Maggie and Eric to discuss their kitchen. Maggie made a hearty beef stew—red, the color of Annabel’s wallet. We dunked thick slabs of bread into our bowls, and I looked around the kitchen musing about its possibilities. On the drive home, I was sated and more than pleased with Maggie’s delight in my idea for salvaging her beloved breakfast nook when Annabel remarked casually that she had a headache. In our five years of marriage, she’d never complained of a headache. Fear sullied my contentment, and I lay awake the whole night, my hand close enough to her back to feel her every breath.
Tuesday, January 6, 13, and 20. Three late-afternoon appointments to treat her sciatica at the Women’s Acupuncture Center on Belmont and Columbia. I scour the squares for some code name for her secret lover, but I recognize all the names, and thank God, Phil’s isn’t one of them.
Friday, January 23. Blank. The anniversary of Mary’s death.
I’m breathing easier now, but I’m still not satisfied that there aren’t items in this wallet that might bite me. The house is so still that all I can hear is the hum of the fish tank, and then the sound of my hand unzipping the back compartment of the wallet. I take a deep breath before sticking my fingers into the small fold, where I find an airplane ticket stub. A memento of something. Maybe a trip she took with Phil to one of her conventions. Sweat trickles down my side, over the lump of flesh that I blame on Annabel’s recent potato chip habit. I turn the ticket over. Midwest Express. July 2001. If I close my eyes, I can see us on that plane where we first met: Annabel sitting beside me in her funeral clothes, her eyes puffy and red, her fingers thankfully ringless, a dark-green bra strap sliding down her lovely shoulder as she told me about her father’s unexpected death and the fishing trip they’d scheduled for the following weekend. Her father’s heart attack, sudden and lethal, reminded me of Mary’s aneurysm, so I concentrated on her lips forming words and sentences and paragraphs whose meanings washed over me.
I recognize the second piece of paper in the compartment. I lay the flimsy square on the table. This is William. We’re going to name him after Annabel and Maggie’s father. The blurry white looks like a spider web superimposed on a black chalkboard. I can only see his profile, but Annabel insists that he has my forehead and nose. The sonographer agreed, and they’re not supposed to say things like that. Now that he’s getting bigger, he can’t fit into the frame. Annabel and I are supposed to go for her twenty-week sonogram next Thursday. She’ll need her Aetna card.
I bring the image of William to my lips, gingerly fold the paper in half, and slide it back into the wallet. I’m dying to see Annabel, to kiss her neck and rest my fingers on her belly and wait for our son to move.
In my haste to put miles between this morning and my wish, I reach for the ticket stub, knocking over my Starbucks cup, the cold coffee spilling onto Annabel’s calendar, still splayed to reveal every week of January. I start to reach for a paper towel, but I stop myself. I do nothing to redirect or stop the flow, to prevent Annabel’s cursive from bleeding across the page, blending names and places and times, blurring the days, the ones that have passed and the ones that lie ahead.