When the Wolf Comes to Your Door by Ted McLoof
What if I slept with someone else? What if— You heard me. I think I’m going to need more context for this. I’m asking what you would do. Would you divorce me? This is hypothetical, right? I said what if, didn’t I? What’s this all about then? It’s a thought experiment. I heard about it somewhere. It’s supposed to help communication for couples who aren’t hearing each other well. Oprah really knows her stuff. You know what? Fuck you. Never mind. No, OK—what if you slept with someone else. That’s what you’re asking? That’s what I’m asking. Well I suppose it would depend on a lot of things. Such as? Oh, I don’t know. How long it had been going on, I guess. Why does that matter? Because if you were out one night, and you got tipsy, or you were on a work conference or something and had an off night—if you made a slight error in judgment, I think I’d understand. I wouldn’t divorce you. What if it had been going on for a while? Then I think I’d ask you a lot of questions, but I wouldn’t divorce you. What would you ask? Whether you have feelings for this person? How often it happens? That’s very sweet that you’d want to talk to me about these things. What would you do if I slept with someone? You wouldn’t. Oh, I totally would. Pig! Total pig. I’d go wild with it, too. Sleazy motels and Persian nightclubs. Escort services from ads on the back of Vegas business cards. I’d wear a fake mustache so I wouldn’t get caught. You’re not taking this seriously. Well answer, then: what would you do if I slept with someone? It depends on where we are in our relationship, how well we’re getting along. What if it’s where we’re at now, and we get along as well as we do now? I don’t know. I don’t know if I could forgive you. After I just totally let you off the hook! You’re a better person than I am. No I’m not. That’s true, you’re not. But you’re less jealous. I just love you too much to be jealous. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes being jealous can be a sign of love. And not caring means the opposite. Where did you meet this person you’re hypothetically sleeping with? Maybe I met him at work. Why I oughtta! I’ll sock him right in the kisser! Don’t get fake jealous. That’s worse. How is that worse? Because you’re making fun of me. If it was someone at work, someone I saw every day. Someone I went on trips with and worked late hours with and spent more time with than you and who understood what was going on in my brain and the professional stresses I was going through because he had them too. If it was someone like that, you wouldn’t even get jealous then? I’d get jealous, ok? OK. But I still wouldn’t divorce you.
. . .
She’s late. You told her to meet you in your classroom, at work, because you couldn’t think of another neutral place, a couples’ version of Switzerland. You can’t meet at her work because he’ll be there and you can’t meet at home because home isn’t home anymore, and you don’t want her to know where you’ve been staying, a shitty no-tell motel called Take 5 where she’d have to brush the pubes off the mattress if she wanted to sit down. But your classroom sets the right tone. You feel confident here. You know how to command this room. You look at the board and wonder what your wife, a graphic artist and compulsive doodler, would do with that canvas.
You were supposed to meet at 3:30 when most of the kids would be gone. You only now realize the gym is full of students running extramural drills so you’re praying none of them run to the water fountain as your estranged wife tries to reconcile, talks to you about the guy she fucked. But before you finish the thought, you look at the door and bang, there she is, in her professional work clothes but still looking sexy as hell, and you already feel you’ve lost the argument.
“Hey,” she says and then looks at the whiteboard you forgot to erase. “Breaking Bad? Again?”
“The kids seem to like it,” you lie.
“I thought the board told you to stick to the district curriculum.”
“Not the board. Anders,” you say, referring to the militant principal. “He’s an idiot.”
“Don’t piss him off. This is no time to lose your job.”
“Is this what you came here to talk about?”
She rolls her eyes and walks right past you, just like that, like it’s her goddam room, and puts her purse on your desk like she owns the place. She hops up—she’s only five foot one—onto the desk and it’s a struggle. You’re grateful for this human touch in her otherwise confident attempt.
“So,” she says.
“So,” you say.
“I don’t need to know where you’ve been staying, I just want to know you’re OK.”
“I’m fine,” you say, and wish to God you’d had time to shave this morning or that she’d come on a better hair day. She looks unconvinced, swinging her legs off the desk’s height at you, pursing her lips like you’ve fed her something tart that you’d promised was savory. You hear the coach’s whistle blow from the gym and say, “Sorry. I forgot about practice.”
She shrugs. “You never were much of a jock,” she says. You know she means it as a joke but in the context it infuriates you. ‘What,” she says. “What are you thinking?”
“I don’t know, Dayna. What am I thinking?”
“I can see it on your face. You’re almost chartreuse. What do you want to say?”
He’s a dumb jock, you want to tell her. A pig. She met Greg at work and he asked her to yoga class, you want to tell her. We’re still married, you want to tell her. Men who do yoga are serious creeps with manbuns and Namaste bumper stickers and plastic bags of dried lentils from the co-op in their pockets and idiotic philosophies about open relationships that trick women in complicated marriages and flexible joints they use to tantrically pose from their Kama sutra books and oils in their incensed bedrooms that they use to practice massages on your wife, you want to tell her. But she already knows all that, of course. So instead you say, “Is our marriage that bad?”
She laughs, which feels inappropriate to say the least and probably makes you even chartreuser, but she gathers herself and says, “You know that’s not the issue. It’s not about you.”
“It’s about him then?”
“It’s about me. And me needing you to hear me and talk to me, and you thinking it’s some commentary on your own value and me wanting to fucking kill you when you do that.”
You look out the door when she swears to make sure no one’s within earshot, not that you care all that much. Down the hall, Talia Grecco and Frnkie Angelone are at their lockers. Talia’s got her hand on his chest in that unsubtle fourteen-year-old girl way where she has no idea how to hint at anything so she’s just doing it, and Frankie’s not picking up on it in that fourteen-year-old boy way where he doesn’t feel comfortable trusting that any girl wants to touch him. Dayna catches your eyeline and looks down the hall, too, says, “Christ. Remember those days?”
“Wonder where they’ll end up,” you say.
“She looks like she can take care of herself. I’m not even that sure of myself now.”
“I was more worried about him,” you say, as a six-foot tall sophomore in a basketball jersey walks past them and winks at Talia. You sit down in Frankie’s desk without thinking and it’s a horrible move, tactically speaking, because you can barely fit in the desk and you have to look up at her like she’s disciplining you in detention. You get hard immediately.
“Well what are we gonna do,” she says. “What do you need from me to have a real conversation about this? What do I need to do to help you move past this? I want to talk again.”
“I want that too,” you say, without reminding her of the conversation you had forever ago, when she asked you out of nowhere what you’d do if she fucked someone else. Only now you know it wasn’t out of nowhere at all and the only real answer for how to get back to the way things were is for you to not feel small anymore. What would it be like to fuck right here in this classroom? Despite the odor of adolescent underarms and Axe body spray, with the kids down the hall and the fear of getting caught, what if she seduced you right now, made you feel badly wanted, if you started going at it like clumsy teenagers? “You slept with someone. This should be simple and you’re trying to convince me it’s not. It’s a house of straw I thought was made of bricks.”
She misreads your expression, walks over to you and puts her hand on yours, says, “I know.” She says it gently and her voice breaks a little.
“I need a cigarette,” you say with a wolfish grin. “Mind if I step outside for a minute?”
She picks up a marker from the dry erase board and says, “Don’t get caught, you little punk.”
. . .
You know how not to get caught because you’ve seen the seniors do it. The row of trees behind the baseball field’s concession stand offers cover and the ground there is so covered in dead butts they look like maggots on a feeding frenzy. You light up and lean against the wall of the snack stand and as you exhale you hear, “Mr. T, can I bum one?”
You turn around and it’s Miranda. She was in your class as a freshman but you don’t know how long ago. If she’s here, she hasn’t graduated yet. She looks—not older, more tired maybe. Hair fried from bleach. Bags under her eyes. Baby fat gone from her cheeks. “Hey Miranda,” you say, and even as you’re handing her one you say, “Should you be smoking these? At school, I mean.”
“Should you?” she asks and she has a point. “What are you still doing here anyway? It’s 4:30.”
“My wife is inside. In the classroom.”
“Picking you up?”
“Something like that.”
“Isn’t she an artist?”
You almost choke on the smoke at your disbelief. “Yeah. Jesus, good memory. Aren’t you one too? How come you’re still here? I don’t remember you playing sports.”
She looks at her cigarette and then spreads out her arms, presenting her baggy jeans and Beastie Boys t-shirt. “I must have left my cheerleading uniform in my licker.” You laugh and she says, “We’re doing graduation pictures. I’m outta here in three weeks.”
For some reason this news stabs you in the throat. “You can’t be,” you say. “You just got here.”
She looks at the soccer field where a bunch of bodies in baby blue jerseys chase a bunch of bodies in fire engine red ones. The expression on her face is like she’s staring at hell itself. “See that?” she says, pointing at a girl nailing it straight past the goalie. “That’s why I wanna leave. “
“You don’t like soccer?”
She either doesn’t hear you or pretends not to. “That’s what passes for a win around here. It’s so simplistic. You get an A, you score a goal, you make honor roll, you’re happy. Get a B or miss the net or flunk, and you’re not. “
“People get more complicated after this,” you say, and you mean it as a warning but she looks at you like you’ve just promised her that people turn into centaurs after high school.
“That sounds rad,” she says.
And you think to yourself about its relative radness, its raditude. Dayna says it’s not about you or him or us. How complicated it feels. You told her forever ago, when she’d asked what you’d do if she slept with someone, that it depended on context. You never would have thought that as a kid, when infidelity was bad and fidelity good and that was that. You consider all the times since the day you checked into the motel that you fantasized about this whole thing being simple, about all the times you’ve stressed to your wife, who’s still your wife, that it really is simple and all the times she’s told you it’s complicated. And you look at the kid smoking your cigarette and the look on her face that lets you know she’d kill for a messy web of adult emotions that a loving partner is waiting in your classroom to talk through.
You put out your cigarette and she bums one more. “Come back and visit, huh?” you tell her. “You were always one of the smart ones.”
“Smart enough not to visit.”
“You won’t always feel like that.”
You light her cigarette for her. Then you shrug and walk away.
. . .
She’s no longer in the classroom once you walk back in. You figure she’s in the bathroom and you check your phone for a text from her and your desk for a note. Her car’s not in the parking lot anymore. You’re about to give up when you glance at the whiteboard.
She was always a gifted artist—her boss at her graphic design firm did fuck her, after all. You met her in an art course in college, where the best you could produce were out-of-proportion fruit bowls and buildings with shadows on both sides like they were set in the Andromeda galaxy. But Dayna could draw you anything: the characters from your favorite TV show playing each other in basketball; a rhinoceros and a squirrel getting it on with the caption “I’m horny for your nuts”; Prince, Freddy Mercury, and Elvis dressed up like the Royal Family—anything to make you laugh, really. Your favorite was the Three Little Wolves, and that’s what she’s drawn on the board. There are houses of straw, sticks, and bricks with smokestacks coming out of each. A ferocious, hellaciously large pig blows fire at all three. The sticks and straw are up in flames. Inside the house of bricks were always the Three little Wolves giving him the finger and laughing at the danger they’ve managed to fend off, together.
But today she’s drawn just two wolves, one dressed in the tie and blazer you have on and the other in her work blouse. They’re holding hands and flipping off the pig with their free ones. Outside of the house of bricks, you notice something that’s never stood out to you before but seems the most prominent piece now. On their doorstep, like an announcement to the world for anyone who cares to see it, is a welcome mat that says, simply, “Home.”
Ted McLoof teaches fiction at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Minnesota Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, Louisville Review, Juked, Los Angeles Review, Juxtaprose, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net Award. His debut collection, ANHEDONIA, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.