People would often ask the Von Brenner’s how they found each other. It was, after all, unusual for people to meet couples with first names as similar as theirs were. Most were satisfied when the Missus would wave her hand, flashing her well manicured nails, and say “How often does an Erin meet an Aaron?” She’d wait three beats, look up with doating eyes at her husband, and add sweetly “it was fate.” With a small laugh, their audience would agree and drive the conversation down a different path.
Mr. Von Brenner’s coworkers, however, kept asking. It had seemed to Erin and Aaron that their story didn’t satisfy their peer’s curiosity anymore. “Tell us more,” said one particularly round man at the office’s holiday party. His wine glass looked tiny between his large, inflated fingers. The Von Brenner’s had become skilled deflectors. Mr. Von Brenner mentioned something briefly about the election, which caught the attention of a thin woman nearby, who started to rant about immigration. The round man gripped his wine glass tightly and interrupted her monologue. As they argued, the Von Brenners slid past them and stood quietly by the window, smiling to each other. Mr. Von Brenner’s eyes danced around his wife’s face, landing just to the sides of her bright blue eyes. He requested that his wife get injections to hide the crows feet.
“There are no crows feet,” she told him.
“It’s preventative,” he responded.
And so she set a reminder to make an appointment.
Their friends, or rather Mr. Von Brenner’s work associates, peered curiously at the Missus while she spoke of her hobbies. “I enjoy cleaning,” she said with a smile. “Cleaning up a mess is satisfying. I just can’t explain it. All my stress trickles away.” She had lost herself in the thought. Her eyes stared at nothing in particular beyond her audience, but she quickly reminded herself where she was. “And when I’m not stressed, Aaron is not stressed.” Opinions split. Some of the women nodded and touched her arm while laughing “Yes, I know exactly what you mean–and some people just don’t get that cleaning can be relaxing!” Everyone else, however, rolled their eyes and sipped at their wine to avoid commenting altogether.
“I don’t even know what she has to clean,” they whispered to each other when they were sure the Missus wasn’t around. “It’s not like they even have kids to clean up after.”
“I bet she is having an affair,” one woman with expensive pearl earrings spat. “Not that I would, but if you had that much free time… ”
“Or maybe she’s volunteering,” the woman’s husband interjected. There was a pause, and then laughter. There was always laughter. The Missus, well aware she needed to remain composed to promote her husband’s image, kept her chin parallel with the ground and continued her own conversation around the corner.
The party had ended, and the couple had said nothing to each other until they walked through their front door and up the spiral staircase to their bedroom. “One of your strengths is that you never let them see you sweat,” said Mr. Von Brenner. Like her, he had a sharp awareness about what other people thought.
“I have nothing to sweat about,” she said coolly, removing her jewelry and placing it on the vanity.
“You don’t have to act that way with me, Erin. I don’t aim an arrow at you like those people do.”
“I’m not acting any way.” The Missus crossed the room and unbuckled the straps on her high heeled shoes. She removed the nylons from her legs very carefully, certain not to let them rip. “I wish you would stop acting as if you know me better than I know myself,” she added, keeping her voice steady.
“I know you better than anyone else,” Mr. Von Brenner announced, removing his tie. “I know you hate these parties, but you do them for me. I know you hate high heeled shoes and makeup and moisturizers and shaving your legs, but I know you do them for me.” He approached her and rubbed each of her arms with his smooth hands. He looked down to meet her eyes. He gave a soft smile and kissed her forehead. “Now come to bed.”
More rapidly than she had imagined, her angers rose. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe in deeply. She counted to 10, then 20, then backwards, but the noise around her faded, and her heart pounded at her chest. “I need to go to the kitchen,” she said.
“Now? But we just got home.” Mr. Von Brenner’s tone had changed. No longer did it boom with authority, nor did was it deep and steady. Though subtle, Erin could hear the softness in his voice. It did not beg for her to calm down, but simply not to leave. This was not their first conversation on the matter.
“I need to clean.”
There was silence.
“I will come back.”
Though he wanted to, he knew better than to offer his ear. She never took it, neither to scream, nor yell, nor plea, nor cry. He sat on the bed and struggled to untie his shoes with his arthritis-ridden hands. His eyes darted up to see her walk out the door, barefoot and in only her slip.
The Missus reached the kitchen, her kingdom. It smelled heavily of bleach. The appliances glistened as she slid the dimmer switch up, illuminating the room. She glided to a cupboard off to the side by the cellar stairs, almost completely lost in the shadows. Inside laid an array of products: window cleaner, bleach, extra dish soap, boxes of detergent. She reached past them and pulled out a cage, small with black rungs that shined like new, although it had been used many times before.
Inside lay a rat, once plump and full of fight but now very weak and cold. Shaking, it only had the energy to spit at the Missus’ hand as she unlatched the trap and reached for it’s neck. Soft hush sounds escaped her mouth. Her hushes calmed the crying infants dragged into office parties as it did to the animals Mr. Von Brenner dragged back from the park.
The rat had stopped shaking. Its body grew limp as the Missus held the scruff of his neck between her fingers. She gently laid him against her table, and grabbed a small paring knife from a drawer.
With the first slice against his throat, her breathing slowed. Sound came back to her, and the crispness of skin breaking came with it. She swayed on her feet as the veins popped and drops of blood dotted her cheek and gown. She imagined this is how other people felt swaying in the ocean’s waves as the mist splashed against their bodies.
Aaron listened for his wifes’ humming to stop before he came downstairs. “Will you come to bed now?” he whispered in her ear, standing behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist.
“I can come to bed now,” she said, and turned her head to rub her nose against his cheek. Aaron had grown accustomed to the distinct smell of rodent blood, but he had never gotten used to the thick, sticky feel of it against his skin.
In bed, Aaron spooned his wife who had washed her hands and face, but kept on her slip splattered lightly with red. He breathed deeply into her hair and closed his eyes, imagining what it would be like to hold someone who, occasionally, held him back.
Erin laid awake, hyper aware of her husband’s flesh against hers and his breath against her neck. Her skin crawled. But as her stomach churned, she remembered to count her blessings– at least in her marriage, there were no facades.
We are transparent, though quiet; we have trust, not desire; we have an agreement, not love.
Both of them laid there, cold.