Short Story Wednesday: The Existentialist Wife

Short Story Prompt: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“It’s life itself that makes us die, Tom,” I remembered Marsha saying to me this morning after she called me into the kitchen. I looked into her hazel eyes. She was about to cry.

Now I sit on this bus on my way to work, wondering what she meant when she said that to me. We had just eaten our usual breakfast, oatmeal and melon, coffee and orange juice, with our six-year-old daughter Emma, the pride and joy of our years together. Then Marsha stood up and said to me, “Can I see you in the kitchen?” In the kitchen, she said, “It’s life itself that makes us die.” She’d never said anything like that before.  All I could do was respond with a “What?” and enfold her petite body in my arms, not knowing what else I could do.

Then she disappeared back into the dining room. I was left there to wrestle with philosophy, a philosophy that somehow seemed to sit somewhere close to the existentialism I studied in college. Why all of a sudden this Sartrean absurdism from Marsha, my wife for twenty years who had given me a beautiful, brown-eyed, brunette Emma after the barren years. A wife with a joyfulness in her soul that I had never seen in anyone else.

Why such a statement?  Could it be?  Oh, no.  It couldn’t be?  Marsha was more in love with life than anyone I had ever met.

Here I sit on this city bus and study the woman in the black Moslem veil and wonder why Marsha said those words to me in the kitchen. That kitchen which seemed to have a life of its own when she was in it. That kitchen where she loved to cook. What marvelous soufflés and quiches and crepes she made. Wonder if that veiled woman is a good cook.

What was Marsha contemplating when she spoke those words to me, “It’s life itself that makes us die.”  I am not sure if I’ll ever know.

Lately she’s been on a Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf kick.  We saw the movies “Iris” and “The Hours.” Nicole Kidman’s perfect portrayal of the writer and Judi Dench’s performance of the philosopher moved her.  I couldn’t believe the tears Marsha shed. She doesn’t cry at movies, but she cried at those.  They inspired her and made her want more of both, so now she lies in bed and reads first “Mrs. Dalloway”, then “The Bell”, then back to “Mrs. Dalloway”  just before going to sleep. I wish she’d get back to her Jane Austen and all her nineteenth-century sunniness and leave these writers behind.  Pretty soon she’ll be reading “The Bell Jar” by that Sylvia Plath and I’ll have to send her away. I don’t want to do that. How could I ever do that?  What would Emma and I do without her?

Wonder what that woman in the veil thinks about all this American stuff. Wonder if she misses her desert home? Now there I go making an assumption. Maybe she’s not from some desert place. How has she adjusted to this western modernism we all have to deal with? Wonder if she’s ever seen “Iris” or “The Hours”?

I know I could use a bit of a nineteenth century air. Everything was so much simpler then. Britannia ruled the waves and manifest destiny and all that. Choices were so much better. Do I go west or do I stay here in this dead-end job at the bank? Now we have to deal with 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Iran. I am just so sick of it. Maybe Marsha is sick of it too.

Hmmm….It’s life itself that makes us die. When you think about it, that is true.  We’ve all become so deadly serious about everything.  Wonder if that young black man sitting there behind the woman in the veil is so serious about things.  He looks like he’s got plenty of time to sober up. If I were his age, I know I wouldn’t have a serious bone in my body. But Martha says that I am always so impractically realistic.

Always serious.  She is the light-hearted one.  Will I now have to be the light-hearted one while she becomes the serious one?  That might be a lot of fun.  I’d go dancing, always wanted to be a dancer, learn to yodel. Hmmm. Maybe Emma would learn to yodel too.

That woman across from the black veiled woman looks so unhappy. Worried.  Do I look anxious?  Do I always worry?  Seems to work out that anxiety is my friend.

There she sits in an orange blouse and blue jeans and sneakers and she’s worrying.  Let’s call her Jean. Maybe Jean has a son in Afghanistan, or a daughter. Could be she just got fired. Could be her husband hits her.  How can he do that? She looks so worn down by life. She’s probably only in her early forties. She looks sixty. Reminds me of a saying that Jesus had. What is it that Father Brennan quotes? The poor will be with you always. Then he would say that is no excuse. That doesn’t get us off the hook.

I am so glad Martha converted. Now she’s more regular at Mass than I am, always takes Emma with her. I find some comfort in that. But I can’t seem to find any consolation in the Eucharist anymore. It’s all bread to me. Maybe it is true that it’s life itself that makes us die. Where did my childhood faith go?

Wonder what the guy at the back of the bus with the mustache and the Yankees hat would think about that.  Wonder if he is happy.  He looks happy.  Looks like he’s got the world on a string, as he gazes out the window.  Not a worry in his head.

Wonder if Martha is worried about Emma and what the doctor said. Emma is so fragile, always has been. After all she was a preemie, almost a month early, and oh so tiny. Why do we have to have more tests? Don’t those doctors know anything?

Wonder what that black woman in the seat with the young girl beside her, looks like her daughter, would think if the doctor told her that the girl needed to have more tests?

Well, it looks like I am coming to my stop.

I pull the cord. The bus drops me off at the corner for another day here in paradise. Another day in the big city. Another day of work. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is life itself that makes us die.  Just perhaps.

Next Wednesday’s Prompt: “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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12 thoughts on “Short Story Wednesday: The Existentialist Wife

  1. “Pretty soon she’ll be reading “The Bell Jar” by that Sylvia Plath and I’ll have to send her away.”
    I love this sentence. For me, it’s the heart of this story. 🙂

  2. I liked that he was wondering about the lives of the other people on his commute. I do that all the time. But, now I want to know, what’s wrong with Marsha?

  3. The statement doesn’t take that much contemplating. It’s definitely true, although life also makes us live. Yet, to come up with the statement, for someone to say it outright, that takes contemplating and it’s difficult for someone who is so joyful to come out with. Beautifully written, this has given me a lot to think about.

  4. Don, this is so good! You are getting better and better. I especially enjoyed the device of making up stories about people on a bus. It is a great way to exercise the muse.

    I have been looking for a path to transition from writing 500 word humor essays to short stories. This would be an excellent way to do it.

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