She only meant to kill him a little bit. A small nick with the kitchen knife was all Dominique had in mind, but the new blade had free will. She bought it in spring from a young salesman who rang her doorbell then tapped twice with the lion’s head knocker. “Chris Burnham,” he announced with a half smile. Stepping across the rooster doorstop, he said a neighbor had recommended this house. He showed her a list of names of recent purchasers, including Mrs. Olivia Henry, 320 North Shore Avenue. Warming up to his prospect’s potential—“Look, see!”—he flashed before her a yellow sheet of paper, signed with a spidery wisp. Mrs. Henry had provided a testimonial.
Dominque was a sucker for students, their earnest patter and whiff of neediness. Whatever her neighbors bought was alluring to her—one year it was Hummers, followed by Lexus’s and recently Teslas. Dominique and her husband Terence had just ordered a Tesla. At block parties the neighbors talked about sending their kids to M.I.T, University of Michigan, even Harvard—the biggest purchase of all, although recently the conversations had shifted to the attributes of a gap year. Now the kids flew off to Guatemalan orphanages, a Thai elephant reserve, or picked lavender on organic farms. She couldn’t compete with that—she and Terence had no offspring. Children need mothers around, he told her after grad school. Her acting wouldn’t fit with motherhood, he said. Travel was essential to career advancement, he added some years into their marriage. She went along.
How could she forgo the attributes of a sharp blade? This one could slice through watermelon, sliver a Kobe steak, fine cut an onion, chop squash without straining her wrist. It came with a lifetime guarantee and multiple copies of paperwork.
Tangles and thorns weren’t visible to her younger self. The boredom of marriage, joined lives bifurcating—how could she foresee the rub and wear of time and indifference? Terence appealed to her as a steady earner, a reliable good sort, when they met at a barbecue and he, inexplicably after a few beers, outlined to her the wisdom of a savings plan—pay herself first, then bills, then short-term savings and longterm investments. She’d come straight from the theater, waifish in a wispy black silk dress and high heels. Her costume had set her up for a role that never quite fit.
Dominique watched Chris julienne a carrot. She’d seen the neighborhood children grow up—not with wistfulness or any feeling of missing out—but with growing tension as her domain shrank and her husband’s expanded. Those kids were now in their prime, still taut-skinned and bouncy, expecting that life would unfurl before them like a shining ribbon. Chris, standing expectantly in front of her with his open display, reminded her of her younger self, uncertain yet hopeful, pragmatic yet aspiring for more than the merely prosaic. Was this a pyramid scheme, where he’d been obliged to buy the merchandise first?
Her expectations were low. She could keep sawing through meat just as she had with the old Sabatiers she kept in a wooden block and dragged across a whetstone each Thanksgiving. Dominque’s potential purchase had a black handle made of thermo resin, whatever that was, and a carbon steel blade that didn’t need regular honing, but if it did get blunt (a contradiction she noted silently, but refrained from cutting into Chris’s spiel—she wasn’t one for interrupting,) she could ship it, at no cost to her, to the factory for free sharpening.
“If… when,” she bought from him, “she would be part of a family,” Chris said. Dominique liked the idea of being part of something bigger than herself. Perhaps a movement to stop climate change or save sick babies, but she could settle for being part of a cutlery family. It was quiet on her block. Some families she’d known since their diaper days sold their large Victorians and American Four Squares, vanishing to condos downtown or farmlets in Tennessee. What would she and Terence do, when Terence retired from his consultancy? Long-haul flights and late-night snifters were rounding his belly, straining the buttons on his cotton shirts. Menopause was thickening her well-exercised midriff too. Maybe Terence and she could move to South Carolina, where her parents lived in their final years. Or Italy where they’d vacationed. You could buy a whole village for the price of their current property taxes. Trawling through real estate sites, she found a small villa in an olive grove, a few miles from the sea, elevated so it had a perfect sixty-eight-degree climate, unlike the soupy summer weather here. Just the thought of heat made her perspire. She wiped her palms on her white linen blouse.
Catching Chris in her peripheral vision waving documents, Dominique focused instead on endorsements from Ray from Texas and Sherry from Idaho and Mrs. Henry from 320 North Shore. Purchase complete.
That was how it came to be on this Tuesday, a day started off-kilter. The summer air felt like a damp shroud. Dominique woke irritable, with itchy skin and frizzy hair. “Could you turn the A.C. on,” she’d asked Terence when he crashed into bed in the wee hours, back from Shanghai. Stinking. Airplane whiskey. Perspiration. Sickly sweet undertone. Rolling over, he muttered “Headache. Gift in my bag.”
When she rose, Dominique caught a whiff of patchouli in the clothes Terence had thrown on the chaise. Reaching into his carry-on bag, she pulled out a blue Tiffany box tied with a white satin ribbon. She shoved it back. Lurching downstairs, she rubbed the spasm in her temple. Her stomach soured and her mouth filled with a foul taste. Perhaps the barometric pressure was high. Maybe she was on the edge of a migraine. Her hands and feet were clammy and her anger was on the boil.
Knife in hand, she rocked the blade back and forth across a bunch of parsley. Sloshing vodka, tabasco and tomato juice over ice into a pitcher, Dominique thwacked a length of celery and used it to stir in parsley and pepper. She spooned scrambled eggs onto matching grey plates, then arranged a garnish and soldiers of rye toast. Setting the jug of Bloody Mary on the opposite side of the kitchen island, she called to her husband that breakfast was ready. Coming, he yelled, but he didn’t come.
Eggs are getting cold, she yelled up the stairs.
Still he didn’t come. She heard him in the bathroom. Dominique seethed. He did this. He knew when she was cooking, he knew that food was almost ready, but almost always, he would have to make a phone call or return an email or go to the toilet. Just for once, for goddam once, he could arrive on time. Waiting for him was the central theme of their marriage. Waiting for his next promotion, waiting for him to come home, waiting for him to roll off her after he fucked her, following six minutes of foreplay, in his predictable favorite position with her lying off the end of the bed. Nothing was placated by the years of scarves and bracelets he brought home—habit, apology, tic. A stack of unworn blue scarves lay sequestered in her closet, trinkets still in boxes lined the shelves. She hadn’t worn blue for years, since she lightened her hair, nor bracelets since taking up Pilates.
She ate her luke-warm eggs slowly, sitting at the island. Laying her raging head on the cool countertop, she gazed at the pool just beyond the open glass kitchen doors next to her, hoping the sight would soothe her. Sweat rolled past her ears and pooled under her temple. A blazing white knot wedged between her ribs. All these years of accommodating her spouse, turning a blind eye to his idiosyncrasies, his comings and goings, his indiscretions and his habit of watching soccer at full volume when he was home—it was time he learned respect, R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Hadn’t she fulfilled her part of the bargain? No kids. No fuss. Pilates and a trainer three times a week. Putting on a long, slinky dress and slipping her arm through his every time he had a client event. The least Terence could do was join her for breakfast and eat his damned scrambled eggs while they were hot, before she sluiced them down the damned waste disposal!
If the marriage had a point where she noticed it shifting, it was when they lived in London. Terence worked late most nights, so occasionally Dominique met him for lunch. Once, they’d eaten on the run and walked to Sir John Soane’s Museum to look at “A Rake’s Progress,” by William Hogarth. Terence seemed oddly agitated when they started out, and as they looked at the bawdy images of Tom Rakewell in a brothel, he slipped his hand up Dominique’s dress and licked the back of her neck. It was most unlike him, usually a satisfying yet predictable lover. As soon as the security guard’s footsteps receded, Terence ventured a finger inside her. Discovering—surprised, she thought—her excitement, he’d grabbed her hand and pulled her into a little gated park nearby, to a bench conveniently secluded by trees. Too convenient, she thought later. How had he known it was there? That day she stepped out of her underwear and sat atop him for what she recalls as the best sex they had ever had. And had not had since.
Subsequently, he’d gone on an unscheduled work trip to Brussels and stayed the weekend. On return, Terence announced sharply that he couldn’t stand his workplace a minute more and wanted to go home. Dominique didn’t ask why. They just left. When the next job took him to Delhi, Terence suggested that she stay home and supervise house renovation and pool construction. When he left his chief financial officer job to begin consulting and years of global travel, she remained put, her own career long ago mothballed. She’d paid attention to Terence’s lesson about long-term savings, but she had forgotten the initial part—to pay herself first, to see to her own needs and measure of worth. So had he.
Dominique felt the air change as her husband passed her to take his place. She breathed in wet hair and hint of lime. She sat up. Perhaps that was when she grasped the knife and delicately thrust the tip into his neck, as if she was spearing asparagus. Just a nick, to teach him not to mess with her. She was not a violent person. She didn’t know any criminals or people who carried knives. She didn’t fit the profile that she’d read about. She wasn’t a seventeen-year-old male, with a history of drug use or violence or a distrust of police. Dominique was as surprised as any of her neighbors would be (“She just didn’t seem the type,” “such a thoughtful woman,” “who would have guessed?”) to find her rage lifting her across a threshold, into a different sort of family than the one she expected to join with her knife purchase.
Terence didn’t speak. His mouth opened enough to make a mewing, like the small calico cat that sometimes wandered under their gate. He knocked the pitcher to the floor, and a red ooze crept across the polished bamboo boards. She noticed the intense blue of his eyes, widening and reflecting light from the sleek surfaces around them, quartz, stainless steel, the water dancing beyond the door. The color of cornflowers or love-in-the-mist. They had a velvety rim of black, a faint starburst of white radiating from the pupil, and the left eye had a shadowy teardrop in the lower right quadrant that she had never noticed before.
Her love-in-the-mist hadn’t done well this year, but she could see the deep plum hibiscus glowing in a planter outside the kitchen. Reliable, it could be counted on to bloom every July. It seemed to expand in the corner of her eye, pulsing, quivering and growing larger. She turned her gaze back to her husband and the flash of crimson trailing down his neck. Across the gleaming kitchen island, over the floor, a carmine shimmer—wet, becoming viscous, pooling in places and trickling slowly towards the door. The floor must not be level, Dominique thought, following a rivulet towards the front step, watching it tumble out and bloom into the pool, multiplying and cascading like a riot of tropical flowers.
She rested her head again on the slippery counter. If she squinted her eyes, the pool looked like a sunset, bruised and bleeding across the day. It reminded her of a time when she’d met Terence in Nice after a work trip and they’d driven along the Italian coast to Portofino. Particles from Spanish forest fires seemed to set the entire Mediterranean ablaze, a liquid rapture. “Terence darling,” she murmured, straightening up. “We really must go back to Italy.”
-- TONI NEALIE is the author of the essay collection The Miles Between Me and the Literary Editor of Newcity. Her nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Guernica, The Guardian, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. From New Zealand, she now writes and teaches in Chicago.