Real Life Test

A young woman has everything: a home, a job, a baby, and a husband that brings her flowers.

Real Life Test
By Angela Rasch

My life had become a never-ending supply of dirty laundry, filthy rooms, and grimy dishes; the sink jammed with pots and pans with baked-on eggs, dried oatmeal, and ketchup leftovers. I had filled one side of the stainless steel monster to the brim with the filth and hot bubbly water.

“Keep the water as hot as you can stand it.”

Who had told me that? Momma maybe, though it could have just as easily been Grams. I had learned a lot from Mom. She showed me how to stick by your man. Mom had more talent for doing that than I did. She had alternatives, yet she never left Dad. I had no place to go; even so -- not a day went by that I didn’t wish I could leave Kirby.

The steam from my water had clouded my view out the kitchen window. I had to be careful. Most of my dresses had stains, even though I always wore an apron. They had become threadbare and offered almost no protection. I had been silly when I bought them, looking for the frilliest and not caring a nit about how long they would last or shield my clothing.

The weather had turned colder, not by most peoples’ standards, but still far too cold for my taste. I reached down into the scalding water and began to scrub the plates. The baby slept in his cradle near the couch. He snored lightly causing me to smile. The snoring seemed to be the only trait my son Matthew had acquired from my side of the family. Dark wisps of hair covered his round little head, which featured eyes as blue as the sky over Butte. Butte, by the way, is the world’s biggest single-word oxymoron.

I reached in the water to pull the plug, and then began rinsing the dishes, setting them in the rack to dry. The clock above the stove read a quarter past eleven. Time for me to worry? Not that it would do me any good; he would get home eventually. He always did. “Boys Night Out” had been hidden somewhere in the small print, somewhere long after the vows to love, honor, and cherish. But then, a lot of things in our marriage had been left out of the contract. Not that we had really been married. It had been an informal affair before a liberal minister.

Mom wouldn’t have liked my wedding. She had always wanted me to be like all the others. When I had crazy ideas about doing things, Mom would let me know what seemed realistic to her, and more vehemently, what didn’t. She wanted me to get along with people; to do the little things that people liked; so I could have friends.

Done with my kitchen chores, I looked around for something to break the boredom. Surely I can’t be the only wife home alone on a Friday night. I ran through the numbers in my cell phone, as I picked up the rattles and soft animals from the living room floor. When did the carpet get so stained? I dialed Claire first, my oldest and dearest friend. My oldest and dearest friend -- who apparently wasn’t home on a Friday night. After four more fruitless calls, I threw the phone down on the couch.

I should paint the living room and brighten things up. Imagine that. Me — painting? I didn’t know the first thing about painting. I would screw it up and make a mess. I had learned long ago to stick to those things I know how to do and could afford. I would be sure to teach Matthew all about flying under the radar. . .where it’s safe.

Kirby didn’t like it when I taught Matt things. He thought Matt would end up like me, if I wasn’t careful. I had to be very cautious about how I dressed Matt. I even had to throw out some of the cute outfits that my sister had bought for him before she died. I hadn’t taken her number off my phone yet. One time I even dialed it to see who would answer.

I had made dozens of friends since moving to Butte from Cut Bank. Not that Butte was the open-minded, big city, but it had enough people to allow me the anonymity that I wanted. It hardly seemed like four years since the car accident that killed Mom and Dad. I could still remember Mom’s voice, and how she would calm me after some embarrassing episode at school. Luckily, I could forget what Dad had said -- and done. I hadn’t been all I could be, in his eyes.

I’m not the person I had been in Cut Bank. I had paid a lawyer I found in the yellow pages to change my name, and as much as possible -- my gender. The process had been embarrassing. He had asked the most incredibly personal questions.

I walked back into the freshly cleaned kitchen and grabbed a Diet Pepsi from the fridge. Popping it open I again found the phone and dialed Sarah, the only one of my friends who didn’t have caller I.D. I could count on her to pick up, even though I couldn’t really consider her all that good of a friend. Kirby says I’m intolerant. Some of my friends can’t “tolerate” Kirby, but they don’t know him like I do.

I looked at the fresh flowers in a vase on the bookshelf. It seemed like Kirby bought me fresh flowers at least once a week. A guy who buys you pretty things can’t be all bad.

“Hey girl. I was just wondering about you.” Her voice sounded like a life raft.

“Hi Sarah, I thought I’d better call and make sure y’all were doing all right.”

“Oh, you know how we are. All work and no play.” She paused a moment, and I could hear her husband in the background. “Tom says hello. He wants you to bring that sweet little baby over next week.” What he had really said sounded much less friendly.

“Tell him hello. I’ll come over, if the car is running.” The bank and I owned a late seventies’ Toyota Corolla. Originally the paint had been a yellowish-green, but it had morphed over the years to a deep shade of rust and primer.

My house smells like baby, and not a Johnson & Johnson baby. If only I could afford an air freshener.

“I thought Kirby was going to fix that car for you?” I could hear a disappointing tinge in her voice. I shouldn’t have called her. She always knew how I felt, without my ever having said it.

She just knew.

“He was … he will. Eventually, he’ll fix my car.”

“You okay, darling?”

“I’m fine. Matt is waking up,” I lied. “I better get him. Let’s do lunch next week.” I knew we wouldn’t. I didn’t have the money and neither of us had the time. Wal-Mart doesn’t schedule my hours to facilitate my social life. “I love you, Sarah.”

“Love you more.”

I smiled for a moment before the tears began to streak across my face. I wanted so badly to scream, yell, or cry; anything that might have made me less miserable. Instead I set the phone back on its charger, grabbed a blanket, and curled up on the couch. I hadn’t been feeling too good about myself since I had to cut my medicine by half to save money. The hair on my face had gotten darker and seemed course. I think the boy who bagged my groceries noticed, because he sneered at me the way the boys in Cut Bank did -- way back when. Kirby gave me enough for a household budget, but I didn’t do a good enough job with coupons and wasted too much. I turned on the TV, but couldn’t think clearly enough to follow the plot.

The lawyers had split the money from Mom and Dad’s estate between my sister, them, and me. It had given me the opportunity of a lifetime. I had been taking my hormone pills for just over six months when I first met Kirby, while walking home from work, enjoying the spring sun. A soft breeze flowed through my long hair and under my pink suit intoxicating me with the wonder of my new womanhood. Back then all my things had been new. My job as a receptionist at a law firm required that I wear suits. My silk, eggshell blouse looked stunning with my cameo broach. I miss my jewelry. I’ve pawned most of it.

I had interrupted my walk to watch a softball game in the park. I had been a pretty good player at one time. Kirby saw me sitting in the stands and came over as soon as the game ended. He offered me a beer, and after that several more, and then gave me a ride home. I had felt no interest in boys before meeting Kirby, never having dated … girls or boys. His attention surprised and excited me.

Kirby seemed so incredibly handsome and so ambitious. He told me all about himself, and where he would go in life, once he got his big break. For the moment, he worked at a second-hand sporting equipment store, but would either become manager or would move on to a better opportunity.

Kirby treated me with the utmost respect. It never occurred to me that there might be a problem when he found out my secret. I knew instinctively what to do for him; and I think I did it okay because he never complained. The first time he felt me down there he got really mad, and I suppose I deserved it. I lost my law firm job when I couldn’t come to work, because of the bruises. Jobs like that are hard to find. Things hadn’t been going that good for me with the lawyers after a bar association meeting where the lawyer that changed my name talked with my bosses.

Most of the money from Mom and Dad’s estate went to pay for minor cosmetic surgery, pills, and doctors’ visits. The breasts operation had been expensive, but Kirby said they’re worth every penny I paid for them. He can be so sweet when he wants to be.

The one thing I did that turned out to be smart was buying our house before the money evaporated. I put enough down so that I could manage the payments. Even so we seemed to be forever a month behind at the bank. Kirby had a genius for handling credit cards; he moved money around so they didn’t know how much we owed in total. His deviousness kept us going, although the interest rates and fees seemed awfully high.

After our wedding ceremony, Kirby moved in with me and things were good. Every once in while he would get mad about me not being able to have a baby. Kirby really wanted to be a daddy; he loves kids so much.

God had heard about our problem and responded in a way that both hurt and helped. Had I known what he had up his sleeve I never would have prayed so much for a baby. My sister died in childbirth — not that God would kill my sister just for my happiness. No one knew who had fathered little Matt, and no one else could help -- so I ended up with him. I had thought everything would be perfect between Kirby and me once we had our baby.

The social worker who placed Matt with us has been acting less than cordial. She did something called a “criminal background check” on Kirby and me. Maybe she had found out about some of Kirby’s run-ins with the law. He just couldn’t seem to keep away from drugs. Sometimes he needs a little something, because I make him uncomfortable with himself, which I understand -- given how secretive we have to be with everyone about me. No one knows. Some days I even forgot, and then Kirby will remind me and I’m startled by my reality.

All of my thinking about the past made me drowsy, or maybe I had consumed one too many toddies waiting for Kirby. When I woke, complete darkness cloaked our house; the TV had been shut off, and I had slept long enough to put a terrible ache in one side of my neck. I reached a hand to massage the knot while I walked down a darkened hallway.

Kirby had sprawled across both sides of the queen bed we shared, and the smell of alcohol hit me at the doorway. So much for his promise to get up early and finish the yard work. I flicked the light switch a few times hoping to get a response, or, at least, a piece of the bed to sleep on. He remained motionless.

I could have covered him, but if I woke him it would turn bad. If he found me sleeping on the couch in the morning, he would feel rejected and accuse me of not loving him. I didn’t have any good options. I would have considered a can of gasoline, to end it all together, if not for the baby.

Why do I think thoughts like that? Kirby had a right to scold me if I became lazy and didn’t tend to things the way I should. If I didn’t deserve it, he wouldn’t have gotten so mad.

I took the extra blanket from the foot of the bed and settled back onto the couch. I knew from experience the couch provided better comfort, and was the far better choice than what I would get if I woke him.

Lightning shot across the sky, momentarily filling the living room. Matt’s eyes winked open at the crack of the thunder. I stayed still, waiting for him to decide whether, or not, to go back to sleep. His eyes drooped again. I shifted my position on the couch and the remote fell to the floor with a clunk. Matt’s eyes flashed open, and he let out a screech.

“Shh, baby. Momma’s here.” Please don’t let Kirby wake up. “It’s okay.” I bounced Matt lightly in my arms. Left, middle, middle, right, middle, middle. He liked to be bounced in a specific pattern. Kirby thought I babied Matt. Not even the steady bounce could calm him when he missed his real Mom and the milk that would have come from her breasts.

“Can’t you shut that kid up?” Kirby screamed from the bedroom.

“Shit.” Did I say that out loud, or had I just thought it?

I could see him heading down the dark hallway. I couldn’t make out his expression, but I knew what would come next. He pushed past me, turned on the TV, and cranked the volume up.

“If we’re all gonna be up anyway, we may as well see what’s on.” His breath could have knocked a buzzard off a manure wagon at forty paces. He turned the remote over in his hands a few times, like he was examining it for some sort of evidence, and then switched his gaze toward me. The cable company had shut us off a few months back, and he missed his ESPN. His eyes were gray empty voids. “Shut that damn kid up.” He threw the remote across the room. It crashed into the vase on top of the bookshelf, sending water, yellow roses, and shards of crystal around the room. I shut my eyes trying not to think about how much I would miss the last of my leaden crystal. Kirby could be hard on things.

I set Matt down in his bassinet, even though he still howled; knowing full well Kirby expected me to clean up the mess left by his little outburst. He grabbed me by the wrist and shoved me against the wall. “I told you to shut that kid up. Now look what he made me do.”

“Just go to bed, Kirby. Everything will look different in the morning.” I tried to pull my arm free.

“Don’t tell me what to do in my own home. ‘Everything’ will be the same, unless there’s some magic pill that can completely change ‘everything’ about you. You should have told me the truth before everyone started to think of us as a couple.”

“You should have stayed at the bar.” The words had barely cleared my mouth before I regretted saying them. His grip on my arm tightened and from the corner of my eye I saw his free hand make a ball. The room around me went black, as I fell to the floor, stunned by the blow.

In the morning, roses would wait for me on the counter, maybe even he would get me breakfast in bed. He would say, “I love you baby. I didn’t mean to hurt you. It will never happen again.”

I had everything I always wanted, plus fresh-cut flowers at least once a week.

The End

Thanks to Geoff, Jenny Walker, and Kim for your help and inspiration.

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