Jan Schmidt-Holberg is married to a beautiful and compassionate woman named Marie. Marie does things that Jan cannot believe. She darns socks. She keeps correspondence by letter. She can sense Jan’s moods before he knows they are there. He still can’t believe it, after 6 years of marriage he hasn’t figured out how she does any of those things.
Coming in the door one evening, Jan calls out, “Marie! It’s your loverboy!” which is what he always says coming in the door, but instead of hearing, “Baaaaby!”, like from that song by Mickey & Sylvia, which is one of their persistent inside jokes, there is a moment of silence and, as Jan moves into the sitting room, Marie is not there as she usually is, and then, behind him, she appears, and there is something in her eye which he doesn’t quite remember having seen before and she is surprised to see him, “Oh!” she says, “You startled me!”, and then she smiles and so does Jan and they move closer together so that their noses almost touch and she asks with a sly smile, “How was your day?”, and he, knowing how to return the smile, “How was yours?” and they laugh quietly together.
Time passes until one day at work Jan is talking with jovial Bill Stratton and Bill Stratton, who lives a full and lustful life, is telling Jan about a prostitute with whom he had spent a few hours the previous evening. “She’s a real humdinger,” says jovial Bill Stratton and he shows Jan his phone which has a picture of the prostitute on it and Jan is taken completely aback, he struggles to compose himself, because the picture looks something like Marie and while he immediately sees inconsistencies and is so sure that it is not his lovely Marie, there is an uncanniness to the resemblance and, remembering something about that unknown look in Marie’s eye, he asks Bill Stratton to send the picture to his phone. “Ho Ho,” Bill Stratton says, reaching toward Jan with his elbow, “interested are we?” and he sends the picture right then and there, “her name’s Haley,” Bill Stratton says as he walks toward his desk, “Haley Comet.”
After a few days, Jan begins to grow obsessed with the picture of Haley Comet on his phone. He studies it when no one else is around. He zooms in, looking for traces of Marie. He zooms back out. He spends a day studying the eyes and the lines around them, another studying the navel, looking for tell-tale markings, superimposing his thought-version of Marie’s body over the image. Noticing light traces of shadow over on the left shoulder, an indistinguishable reflection in the right eye.
The next time that Jan sees jovial Bill Stratton around the office, he asks him how one might contact the girl in the picture, Haley Comet. Jovial Bill laughs, “another goes the dark way!” and presses some buttons on his phone. Moments later Jan has a phone number for Haley Comet, who looks so much like his wife.
Haley Comet’s phone number, Haley Comet’s phone number, Jan’s mind cannot be eased, not even by the time that he spends with Marie. Here she is now, showing him a painting that she painted earlier in the day, and in the painting he can see their house and the tree in their back yard, near the old farrier’s shed, and he remembers that his life is there in the painting, but he does not feel that his life is there in the painting and he excuses himself to go for a walk down the country lane, which is not unlike something that he has always done, although as he walks, he looks at the picture of Haley and his mind turns and he decides to call the number, to see what will happen.
“Hello,” a voice that doesn’t really sound like Marie’s says, “who’s calling?”
“My name is Blake,” Jan says, “Bill Stratton gave me your number”.
“Oh,” she says, “You know Billy Bear?”
“Only as Bill,” he says, “but I would like to meet you.”
“I am free anytime tomorrow,” she says, “but not tonight”.
“Tomorrow at 6pm?” he suggests.
“It’s a date, Blake,” she replies, almost rhyming the words, “Now: do you come to me, or do I come to you?”
“I would like to come where you are,” Jan’s less-than-perfect reply.
“Six will work for that. Can you book us a room, Blakey, somewhere nice?”
“What do you mean, like the Plaza?”
“Oh Blakey, the Plaza would be perfect, can you text me the room number?”
“Yes,” Jan says and he ends the call, returning his phone to the picture and zooming in on the breasts with areolas just slightly unlike Marie’s.
Jan booked a room at the Plaza and texted Haley the room number. Marie was planning to make Shepherd’s Pie, but he told her how he had to return to work, which was not unusual for him to say, and so they postponed the Shepard’s Pie and she smiled and he smiled too, no longer believing that any of it was true, and he left, not going back to work, but instead to the Plaza, to the specified room, and there he met Haley Comet.
She was Beautiful, like his wife, but there was a mole between her breasts that his wife did not have and they made love, looking into one another’s eyes. “Marie!” he shouted and was perplexed and felt ashamed, for in that moment he had been certain that it was Marie, but now he was not certain, and the body that he held felt like Marie’s but did not move like Marie’s and there were inconsistencies both trifling and irrefutable.
“Blakey Oh Blakey, let’s stay another hour.”
And so they did. And ordered room service with champagne in a bucket of ice and small plates of shrimps and so on until the cost of the evening broke through Jan’s daze and he hastily squared the bill at the front desk and headed home, though not before dropping Haley off in front of her apartment and they stood on the sidewalk in a light wind, holding hands, their jackets occasionally billowing, and they gazed into one another’s eyes until they kissed and Blake told her that he wanted to remember this night and she pressed her finger to his lips and turned, just as Marie would have turned, clutching her jacket closed and pretending to run from the chill of the evening.
When Jan returns home, the sun is just beginning to crest the horizon and the large tree and the outbuildings stand out as silhouettes against the peach colored light. Marie is looking out of the translucent diamond window on the front door, she turns away from the window at Jan’s approach.
“What happened?” she asks, wearing her nightshirt. He notices chipped nail polish, he searches for Haley in her eyes, for a merging sign, he can’t remember if Haley wore nail polish. He moves toward his wife and they embrace, “I’m not sure,” he says. “Should I make coffee?” she asks. “Not for me, I need to sleep.” He moves toward the bedroom, undresses, and, unlike any other time, he pulls the covers up over his head.
When Jan awakes, Marie is getting ready to go to bed.
“What time is it?” he asks.
“10:34” she replies, both arms inside her nightshirt, removing her bra, “…P.M.”
“I missed work.”
“I called them for you,” she says, “you owe me.”
“How am I to sleep now?” he laments.
“Why don’t you watch some TV,” she suggests, “out on the couch.”
Jan perceives that he has hurt Marie.
He turns on the television but doesn’t quite notice it. His mind is occupied with the recent events of his life. He can see himself, lost in a perspective now foreign, and he sees Haley’s eyes and can feel her against him; he remembers kissing her in the wind and she pressing a finger to his lips and it seems like a dream but with the weight of something very real and terrible and confusing and he begins to drift off into sleep again, beneath the knitted blanket which Marie made to accent the couch and the TV light is there in the room with him and upon him and Haley and Marie and he begins to dream.
Jan awakes with the TV still on and Marie in the garden. He finds his phone and looks at the picture of Haley. He looks at the way she smiles in the picture. Sort of a half-smile, purposefully alluring. Jan suddenly feels something familiar; Marie has come into the room and is looking at him from the door. “What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Jan replies.
“Are you going to work today?” Marie is concerned.
“I don’t think so,” Jan had forgotten about work. He wondered what time it was. “I’m going for a walk,” he says, “to get my bearings,” but Jan doesn’t go for a walk. He doubles back and moves cautiously toward the outside of his house, toward a window which looks into the sitting room. He calls Haley.
“Hello,” the voice that is maybe Marie’s says.
“It’s Blake,” Jan says, “I’d like to see you again.”
“Blakey!” she purrs, “I’m free anytime tomorrow, but not tonight.”
“But I need to see you!” he is speaking in harsh whispers, “can I see you tonight?”
“Oh Blakey, I wish you could, but I already have plans. Let’s meet tomorrow night at the Plaza. Text me the room number again, would you Blakey?”
Jan falters. He is looking into the house, but he cannot see Marie. He is wondering if she is on the phone, talking to him, he can’t be certain that she is not. He’s seized with frantic compulsion. “Tomorrow night then,” he pouts, ending the call with Haley Comet.
Jan calls the Plaza, booking a room. He sends the room number to Haley by text. She replies with a smiley face that is blowing a heart shaped kiss. He decides that he cannot wait to see Haley, that he will surprise her.
Jan parks his car near Haley’s apartment. He has a bouquet of roses and a bottle of expensive champagne. He approaches the door of the building and scans the posted nameplates. One of them reads, “M. Lavigne / H.C.” It is room 203. Just then, someone exits the building from inside. Jan meets the eyes of the older woman as he holds the door open for her. “Thank you,” she says. He slips inside.
Outside the door of room 203, Jan hesitates. He hears voices within. His heart is enraged. He knocks on the door and as Haley opens it slowly, he pushes his way inside. The apartment is small, a studio apartment, and jovial Bill Stratton is handcuffed to the posts of a queen sized bed. Haley is topless. Bill is naked. “You’ll have to wait your turn, ol’ boy,” Bill says, but Jan thinks Haley is Marie. That he has discovered Marie’s double-life. Without thinking he smashes the bottle of champagne over Haley’s head and she drops to the floor in a heap. “What the fuck!” Bill Stratton screams, struggling to free himself. Jan stands silently in the doorway for a moment, hovering above Haley. He can see some blood running away from her body. He looks at Bill Stratton, struggling, his exposed genitals bigger than Jan’s. He sees that Haley has not stirred. He turns and flees into the burgeoning darkness.
Jan arrives home and is relieved to see Marie’s car in the driveway. He enters the house, intending to come clean, wanting to cry and to be held and to accept consequences. He is looking for Marie, but she is not in the house. He stands at an upstairs window and does not see her in the yard. He calls her name. He checks the cellar, where Marie would never go. He searches each room of their house, growing frantic. He looks in the outbuildings, speaking her name to the wind. He returns to their bedroom and sits on the bed. Her recent painting leans against the wall and he stares at it, into it, wondering what to do. He notices something in the painting. He notices Marie. She had painted herself, her face at the window gazing in the direction of the farrier’s shed, the big tree, and the fields beyond. He cannot find himself in the painting, yet he wants to be in the painting, his face next to Marie’s in the window. He wants to be in the painting but is not in the painting and he can feel that Marie is gone. While he watches, Marie’s face in the window fades away. The house, too, begins to fade and the outbuildings. Soon, only the tree line against the sky, against the fields beyond; the tree line and the setting sun are all that are left. In the painting, the sun sets. The bedroom grows dark.
Erik Chapman is a librarian from central Illinois. He holds a BA in English from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and is a proud and dedicated father.