Ships in the Night
My husband has taken to going on long walks at the park after work, before the autumn twilight sets in, earlier and earlier each day. There is a paved trail, and, depending on which route he takes he can walk up to five miles, winding through trees and open field and a creek that turns to swamp when the April showers come. He took me there, early on, stopping to kiss on the bridge over the little creek, paying no mind to mosquitos buzzing in our ears, rollerbladers, and mothers with jogging strollers passing us. I doubt he thinks of this as he walks across the bridge, but I know I would. I do.
While my husband is out walking, I get to lie down on the couch with my feet propped up on one of the arms. I lie there in silence, breathing deeply with my eyes closed, until I am in a near meditative state. I think of nothing and I enjoy the silence. Occasionally, when the stars align, my neighbor Janet will bring me a joint. I pay her for it, we don’t split it, and she goes home. I’ll savor it over several evenings, and she knows that. We’ll have lunch on the weekends, when it’s harder for my husband and I to avoid each other for long stretches. This is our arrangement. It is a small indulgence I allow myself.
If I get lucky, I will be home when Jacob from UPS brings my packages. Even luckier, like today, I will have to sign for them. Jacob is half my age, surely, but he smiles like I am younger, like I am someone he would consider. I arrange the packages he has brought around the legs of the couch, ready for me. I finish off the joint Janet brought earlier this week, a little more than a third, a little more than I usually have at once, and as I lie on the couch with my feet on the armrest I am lulled into a sleepy state where I think about the curvature of Jacob’s olive calves in his brown uniform shorts. This is another indulgence I allow myself.
When I awake I sit on the floor and gather my boxes around me, splitting them open from their taped centers with red-handled kitchen scissors. A silver candelabra. A gel eye mask. A turquoise picture frame. I beam at each one before placing them back in their boxes, knowing I have no use for them (except maybe the eye mask) knowing they will go straight into a donation bin headed for Goodwill some date in the future.
As I tear open the final box I’m confronted with a Polaroid camera that I don’t remember buying. It’s black and gray and clunky; it’s heavier than I remember them being. Taped to the bottom is a handwritten note.
Dear M, I hope you’re enjoying your time away, but I also hope you miss me. I miss you all the time. Come back soon. Xoxo
My name does not start with M. My husband’s name does not start with M.
My husband and I like to play this game now, or maybe it’s a dance. When we were younger we would hide from one another, in closets or behind doors, around corners. We would jump out and scare the other, gasps and yelps turning into play slapping and giggling. Giggling turning into kissing, turning into fucking, red burns from the rug on my thighs.
Now we hide from each other in different ways. Moving out of a room when one enters, ducking around corners, hiding behind doors. I have not yet slipped into the closet to hide.
I take extra long showers now, enjoying the solitude and thinking about the timelessness of water, how it can be neither created nor destroyed. My husband goes on his afternoon walks and long drives so he doesn’t have to see me. He comes home and spends the rest of his evening in the study, working on his model ships.
Back when we loved each other, my husband would write my name delicately on some minuscule piece of boat, sometimes unseen, and lodge it into the greater work. He’d spend hours, days hunched over a desk, lighted by a bright, angled lamp to guide his nimble fingers. When he’d finished he’d call me into the study and beam at me with the pride of a child and show me what he’d accomplished. He’d pull me tight to his side and point toward some indistinguishable bit and say, “That’s where you are. Without you the whole thing falls apart.”
But in reality, the whole thing is held together with glue, and the bits named after me never seemed that important. The thing would have stood the same, tall and proud, with a small hole. It was a nice gesture.
Space in the study has dried up, though. Every spare shelf and ledge and table corner contains a model ship, but when he placed a few in the common areas of the house, I put my foot down. I said we would not be the home that is decorated entirely with model ships. We are not boat people. But I didn’t want to crush his spirit—this is when we still loved each other—and so my husband continues to make them. He gives them to friends now. He gave one to our doctor, one to our dentist, and those ships sit in their waiting rooms, riding waves of old magazines. And each time one passed through our home and out the door I’d call out, somewhat cheerfully, “There I go.”
I do not hide money because I am planning to leave my husband. (I won’t.) We have apparently made a silent agreement to traverse this valley together, in respective solitude. This respective solitude is better, I think, than what would come after: actual solitude. No one will leave; no one will step out.
We share a checking account, an antiquated idea that we thought was smart when we were too young and broke to know the difference. When I wised up, I got my own, and I have been quietly squirreling away raises and bonuses. From there I buy things. I select rush delivery on a stand mixer. (I do not bake.) I overnight all the components for a 16 step Korean skin care routine. I bid on abstract paintings from artists famous only on Instagram. I don’t care. It is my money to piss away in whatever fashion I choose. It feels good to have a secret.
This is how I have come to have so many packages, how this box containing the Polaroid has shown up at my door.
When I hear his car pull into the drive I scramble to hide my purchases. Not that he would dare confront me, that is not the nature of our home now, but because I don’t want to feel compelled to explain myself.
I have just hidden the last of the boxes in the guest bedroom closet when my husband comes in through the garage. We are ships in the night, exchanging tight, polite smiles, the way you might with someone you’ve made eye contact with at the grocery store, and he makes himself a sandwich before heading to the study to spend his time with the love that has endured. Am I so horrible to be around? Maybe. And anyway, I imagine he’s asking the same thing about himself. A vow of better or worse seems romantic when you’re young, when your problems are imaginary and your imaginary problems are cute. When you don’t yet know who you are, the idea of drifting so far away seems not only impossible, it’s not even an option that enters into the equation.
My husband has no secrets from me. But then again, how would I know?
I phone the office in the morning to tell them I’m running late, we had an issue with the plumbing. This is a lie. My husband has already gone, hand gripped around the glinting silver of the reusable coffee mug he takes with him daily. He is a blur of khaki and blue as he quickly runs through his morning routine, making sure he is always ten minutes early to the accounting firm where he is still looking down the barrel of half a decade before retirement. He goes without a word, without a kiss goodbye. I lie about the plumbing because I want some time with the box without the fear of someone peeking in on me.
I take the box to the guest bed and place it on the floral bedspread. It had been very fashionable when I bought it, and I felt proud that I could buy it new, that we didn’t have to budget for it, that my husband and I were finally making waves. The thing is out of style now, but my affection for it remains. Nostalgia is a curse upon those of us who live long enough. I sit on my knees on the floor in front of the box—an altar of sorts; I don’t yet know what I’m praying to.
When I pick up the Polaroid, open the face of the camera so the light is pointing outward, I realize there are only six exposures left. Then, below bubblewrap, I see something else. Wrapped in white tissue paper are four developed photos. The woman is slender, young, ghostly pale. The photos are not nudes, exactly, but they are sensual, evocative. I suppose that is the point. In one, taken from the side, exposed bare legs, folded at the knee; calf under bare thigh, feet crossed under bare buttocks. It is not unlike the way I’m sitting now, but she is younger, firmer. In another, a bare shoulder and chin; the bottom half of the face angular and sharp, mouth damp and lips parted. A wisp of glossy brown hair is the only covering. There is no bra strap. Her eyes are out of frame.
Another, taken from the side, reveals a small, round breast, slender fingers obscuring nipples. There is the hollow of her armpit, her many visible ribs. The part of me that might have been a mother wishes she would eat. The final picture is taken from behind. Her back is bare. Her small, round bottom is exposed – delicate olive green material snaking up as if from nowhere to wind round her narrow hips and out of view up front. The photos are taken with a trusted, loving eye.
Again, I read the note that had been taped to the camera. I search the box to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I read the label, realizing I hadn’t done this yesterday. Half stoned and filled with the momentary high of receiving my purchases, I assumed whatever Jacob gave me was mine. Yes, this package is addressed to me. Or, rather, it has my address on it. It does not bear my name, nor does it bear my husband’s. The box has no return address.
I repack the box and shove it back into the closet.
An essential oil diffuser. A Bluetooth speaker. An aromatherapy candle. A vintage Trapper Keeper. I am awarded with a small, momentary surge of adrenaline as I inhale the scent of cardboard and cellophane. These things are mine.
I had a roommate in college. When she asked me to move in she accentuated our similarities, exploited the parts of our lives that appeared to be parallel. By the time I moved out I could barely have a conversation with her, felt the air pulled tight when we were in the same room together. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. When my friends would ask me how it was living with her I would curse her name and my own idiocy. When they asked me what happened, when they asked for specifics, I would falter and stutter. Nothing happened. It is like that now, with my husband. No infidelity. No abuse. No secret addiction. Only mutual, quiet neglect.
There’s something to be said about a shared history, because even though I feel the tension in my shoulders when my husband enters a room, like they’re being pumped with poison, I’ve become so accustomed to the poison that I don’t know what I’d do without it. I sometimes think that we should have had children, something to break up the monotony. It would be a challenge or an adventure or at least another face to look at, another voice to hear. But that never seemed like a good reason to have kids, or a good way to think of them, even. I entertained the idea that a baby might heal some unspoken hairline fracture in our relationship, but you can’t expect a baby to hold together a marriage. They can’t even hold up their own heads.
Sometimes, when I am sitting quiet and small, on the opposite end of the house from my husband, I become nearly overwhelmed with an urge to scream. I sit still, fingers curls into fists, and fantasize about filling my lungs with air, my chest ballooning, opening my mouth and letting out a ragged, savage bellow. I think of going through our home, smashing vases and plates and heirlooms and especially, model ships. I dream of cracking them open, some with a great smash from overhead, some with a booted foot. Others I pry open gently, looking for myself, sticking her in the pocket of my jeans.
When I open my eyes I feel lighter, but not released. I unfurl my fingers, running the smooth pads of them over the crescent moon indentions my nails have left in my palm. I smile and order a set of satin pajamas the color of red wine.
The second package arrives in the same shipment as the miniature dollhouse, the umbrella stand, the book about making homemade ice cream. It has been three weeks since the first arrived. This box is smaller than the first, weighs almost nothing. There are no photos waiting inside as I crack open the thick, lined tape holding the box closed. Instead, I am greeted with dried flowers. Some petals, orange and magenta, have fallen to the bottom of the box, but most are fixed to sheets of thick, off-white paper. Across the paper in a gentle scrawl, reads things like, “I’m only interesting to you because I’m interested in you.” “Are you bored without me?” “Do you really miss me or do you just miss the feeling?” I recognize the yearning of youth.
I have gone into the study to use my husband’s ship building light. He prefers to turn out the overhead light and work only by this powerful spotlight. I have decided to turn on every possible light in the room. The brighter the better, I figure, but maybe I am acting childishly, like I am opposing him out of spite. I am pouring over the package, looking for something I have surely missed. A detail, a clue, why a package like this would show up to the home where I’ve lived for 25 years.
My husband finds me here, in the study, where he did not expect to find me. “Oh,” he says when he sees me sitting at the desk he considers his.
“I’m just using the light.”
“Right. Okay,” he says as he backs out into the hallway and shuffles toward the kitchen, displaced.
I think about the Polaroids as I look at these lines adorned with flowers, though I don’t dare get them out while my husband is home. It is too intimate, too heavy with love not meant for me. I close the box and make an appointment to get my eyebrows done.
It does not cross my mind that these packages might have been sent for my husband, that he might have an online persona with a name that starts with M. He does not have the constitution. He does not have the imagination. Though I think it would thrill him to see the photos of the woman, to know that someone in our disconnected sphere is capable of such brazen desire, so young and sick with love, it would not occur to him to seek it. He is no longer the type.
A yoga mat. A 24-pack of white, vanilla scented votive candles. A foot bath with bubbles and heat. A leopard print steering wheel cover.
When we married, he was young and handsome and adventurous. He would blindfold me and ease me down gently into the passenger seat of his car. He would drive for miles and miles to show me the edge of a private flower farm, bursting with color and life, just because he thought I would like it. He would persuade me to hop the fence, grab what I liked best; convince the farmer, when he came stomping down the hill, yelling and spitting, that it was the most important thing in the world to let me do it, and slip him a twenty for his goods and not calling the police.
When we first married he was fresh out of college, a year younger than me. He made jabs about his attraction for older women. He made them in the name of good, clean fun until I turned 40, when I started to become softer in the middle, my lips less full, and then they transformed into something nastier, brought up in a passive aggressive huff.
My husband is currently old, and formerly handsome, a man hiding from his wife by making model ships that he must give away. Though I don’t find it as charming as I used to, I admire my husband’s stubbornness. It mirrors my own.
Blue and green Keds in an art deco pattern. A keychain of pepper spray. Distressed denim jeans. A knockoff Kate Spade wallet. 3/4 lbs of rose quartz.
Silence is a shapeshifter. There is a quiet that creeps in that is different from the quiet of slow Sundays spent reading different books and looking up occasionally, grabbing the others’ foot, and saying, “Listen to this!” It is a quiet that slides in easily, begging to be filled, even with irritations and petty arguments. Without voices it grows larger, intimidating, the bouncer not allowing you into the club where your lover is waiting.
If you wait too long to tackle the thing, or pay off the bouncer, it shifts again. A radio just out of frequency, only picking up insults and passive aggression. A black hole sucking up every apology or comforting word on the tips of tongues until only quiet remains.
This time there is a return address. It is in Maryland, some nine hours away, and when I Google the address from my desk at the insurance office it shows a red brick apartment building in a row of red brick apartment buildings. It doesn’t look like the scene where passionate love takes place, but I guess I don’t know what does.
The box is light but full to capacity with trash. Actually, only two types of trash: disposable coffee cups and cigarette butts. The smell is foul—stale and acidic. Each is painted with bright red lipstick, the imprint of intake. There is no note. I wonder if she is kissing M goodbye with each lip print.
This time, when my husband finds me, though he might be annoyed, he does not appear surprised. Before his retreat, he asks what I am looking at. I still know his ticks. The way he stutters when he’s caught in a lie. The way he bites his lower lip when he’s anxious. The way he purses his lips when thinking of how to tell a hard truth. I search him and see nothing.
“Someone mailed us garbage.”
He walks to the desk, picks up the box. “It doesn’t have your name on it.”
“But this is where it’s addressed.”
“That’s a felony, you know. Opening someone else’s mail.”
“Call the cops, then.”
I don’t need to ask him to walk away.
A book about patent medicines. A poster of Carmen Electra. A weather vane depicting a crying wolf instead of a rooster. A model ship, fully assembled.
The new girl is earning her tip. We laugh when others interrupt our conversation while she is ripping the hairs from my face. She tells me I have incredible lashes, that I have nice skin, especially, she qualifies, for someone my age. Her name is Tamika and her arms are too dark to be the ones in the photos. I choose to believe we have a connection.
I have called the office to let them know I am going to be late again. There is a lingering problem with the plumbing, not addressed the first time, but it should be a quick fix. Lies like these are easy and largely inconsequential. I take the Polaroid camera out to the front lawn and lie on the grass underneath the oak, finding the branch most bursting with color through the view finder. The photo isn’t instantaneous like I remember. There is a fraction of a moment, just long enough to question whether or not the machine is broken, before it hums and clicks, birthing the snapshot. Despite the popularity of doing so, I do not shake the picture.
The model ship I have ordered, already assembled, is an exact replica of the one sitting on the mantle of the fireplace in the study. I keep the box it came in, and all the softness inside that protects it. It is smallish, smaller than many of the others, but contains a delicate arrangement of sails and knots. The thing looks proud—small but mighty.
The literal act of switching the model ships is easy enough. My husband is not home. I do not have to be afraid of getting caught, but I keep looking over my shoulder anyway. I imagine the scene as a farce, a soap opera where only I know the true identity of the twins. In reality, I have a little trouble letting go. What I am doing feels to me just outside the bounds of what’s acceptable in a home where we do not speak. It feels just on the criminal side of stealing the time my husband has devoted to this work. As I place the boat into the box I remind myself, it is nice to have a secret.
I etch the date on the Polaroid and toss it in the box before covering the thing with bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts, reused from the model’s twin. At the UPS store I scan the building for Jacob, unsure of his route, which facility he parks his truck. Outside, I think I see it before remembering they all look the same.
No, I don’t want to pay for tracking. I do not care how long it takes for the package to arrive. It is out of my hands now, gliding along a conveyer belt, a sticker marked FRAGILE, haphazardly slapped on the top. The box is jostled by other packages, a rocky sea, as two belts converge, approaching a chute. And as my box disappears out of sight, journeying toward someone else’s lover, I say to myself, there I go.
Neta Harris is a recent graduate of the MFA at VCU. She was a 2021 contributor at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and her work has previously been shortlisted for the Raymond Carver Short Story Award at Carve Magazine and The Masters Review summer short story contest. Originally from Tennessee, she currently lives in Richmond.