It started with an earworm. A couple of weeks ago I was weeding one of the flowerbeds when my husband sat down on the gravel driveway a few feet away from me and started digging dandelions out with a trowel.
“I’ve had this stupid song going through my head all morning,” I said. “You know, that one about Sylvia’s mother.”
He looked up sharply as I went on. “It keeps going along until I get to the part that says Please, Mrs. … and I can’t remember the name. Mrs. Who?”
“Mrs. Avery,” he said bluntly. “I’ve had the same song in my head all morning.”
We furrowed brows.
“We must’ve heard it somewhere earlier,” he said.
But we couldn’t figure out where. We hadn’t been listening to the radio, hadn’t gone anywhere or had anyone pass by with music playing. It had been quiet, just the two of us, as it has been for how many months now? And why both of us? “Well, that’s weird,” we concluded, shaking our heads, and went back to our weeding.
We’re both retired, so we got off easy with the pandemic – no loss of income, no real hardships, except a cancelled trip and the social isolation. But we were lucky there, too. At least we had each other. Ours was a comfortable relationship, without many arguments. Having both been through a previous marriage, we knew the value of thinking before speaking. And we were past the stage where hormones drove our behavior. As we headed into our golden years, it was a relief to be settled in a relationship where we knew each other so well.
But later, as we silently ate dinner, he suddenly asked how my ex-husband had ended up in the small town where I grew up. That didn’t just surprise me, but sent a little jolt of alarm through my body. At that very moment, I was thinking about my first husband, considering what attracted me to him so long ago when we were both young. But I didn’t let on, saying instead, “Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know, the idea just popped into my head.”
“Really.” I narrowed my eyes a bit and told him the story.
By the time we’d finished watching our latest show on Netflix and climbed into bed together, I’d forgotten the disquieting coincidence at dinner. Propped on our pillows, we both opened our books and settled down for an hour of reading, but he closed his novel after ten minutes, saying he couldn’t seem to focus on it tonight, kept getting distracted, his mind wandering to some other story he must have read.
The next day, I knew something was up. As we ate breakfast across from each other while fixated on our screens, he blurted, “You’re cheating.”
My face flushed and I closed the Scrabble game on my iPad. “Everyone does it,” I said defensively. Who did he think he was? Not exactly a saint.
I went in to the bedroom and, as I picked up and hurled his dirty socks into his hamper, he came up behind me and exclaimed indignantly, “I am not a fucking slob!”
I spun around. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
He backed up a step. “I-I don’t know. But that is what you were thinking, wasn’t it?” He put on a hurt, miffed look.
What was happening here? This wasn’t telepathy; I wasn’t sending him messages. But somehow he was connecting with my mind, like Mr. Spock’s mind meld. And I didn’t like it. It was a violation of my privacy, a theft of my identity. My mind – my thoughts, my inner life, whatever it was called – was the only thing that kept me apart from him, that constituted my self. I didn’t want him in there. Fear and resentment filled me.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. What if I was? Why don’t you put your stupid dirty clothes in the laundry hamper instead of strewing them all over the floor?”
“Hmph!” He turned and stalked out of the room, sneering over his shoulder, “I never knew you were so bitchy!”
He pouted all morning, staying away from me by sitting at his computer, surfing the net. That was fine by me, as I was left alone in my studio with no interruptions for a change. However, my thoughts kept pinging back to the curious invasion of my mind. I wondered if he could do it from afar or if we needed to be close. I decided to try an experiment.
At lunch time, I found him rummaging in the fridge.
“Did you know what I was thinking about while I was in my studio? I asked his back.
“No. Why would I?” He didn’t look at me as he picked out the peanut butter jar and closed the fridge.
I was encouraged. “Do you know what I’m thinking right now?” I was standing about eight feet away from him.
“No! And I don’t care.”
I took three steps toward him. “How about now?” I was a little less than six feet away.
He paused for a second and then slowly pivoted to me, eyes wide. “You hussy!”
He plunked the jar onto the counter and walked over to me, took my hand, and pulled me toward the bedroom. Now, this was not something that occurred often any more. Twenty years of marriage and aging bodies had eroded our passion. I pulled back, thinking of the few, unfulfilling encounters of the past couple of years. But he turned, kissed me with the passion of a young lover, and my body warmed to him.
The sex was breathtaking – better than any I had ever experienced, with any partner. He knew where to touch, how to stroke, when to stop. As I lay on the bed afterward, I thought maybe this mind reading thing wasn’t so bad after all.
“I’ll say,” he said.
The week that followed was a sensuous blur. I made sure to keep away from him, at least six feet, guarding my thoughts so that my mind could not be invaded – until I was ready. Then all I had to do was sidle up to him, conjure up an erotic image, and we were in bed again – or on the couch or floor. I was amazed at our re-awakened lust after all these years, at our age. Our lives were consumed with sexual desire.
But we still needed exercise and fresh air. With rosy cheeks, we went for walks around the neighborhood, waving and smiling smugly. Who would have guessed what we, the grey-haired couple in the tidy little house, were doing every day behind those walls?
Until the day before yesterday, when we were out for our walk. A busty young woman jogged up the sidewalk toward us, breathing hard, breasts bouncing like a pair of melons. I was thinking how difficult it must be to have all that weight thumping on your chest, when suddenly I knew what was in my husband’s mind.
My eyes popped open as the girl passed us. I lurched to a stop and faced him. “You want to do what?”
He stared at me with a look of shock and growing awareness. Then he swallowed and lifted his nose. “It is not disgusting, even if I am old enough to be her father. It’s just a natural reaction.”
“Oh my god, I can’t believe you think that’s natural. You should be ashamed of yourself!” I stalked off in a fit of jealousy and repugnance, leaving him sputtering on the sidewalk.
How could I have been married to him for so long without knowing what he was really thinking? He was an animal, a beast. I could have believed this of my first husband, but this one was an educated man – he had a master’s degree, which, I recalled, I had helped him attain. Fuming, I imagined him in seminars lusting over that slutty classmate while I edited his lousy papers. And that was years ago – I had sagging skin and wrinkles now. He was probably thinking of some young, fecund woman every time he kissed me. I walked for kilometers, breathing hard. Somewhere along the way, I finally realized what this meant – I could read his thoughts, too. I returned to the house, showered, and locked myself in my studio.
An hour later, I heard a timid knocking. I didn’t answer, so he talked through the door.
“Listen, I’m sorry. It was just an instinctive reaction, not something I would ever do. All men have those thoughts. You know I love you, don’t you? And now you can read my thoughts, we’re kind of even.” Silence for a few seconds. “And think of what we could do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, now you’ll know what I want, how things feel to me, when we…you know.”
I considered this. It was worth a try, and we had nothing better to do that evening. But I wasn’t ready to face him just yet. “I’m coming out to cook dinner. Just go wait in the TV room until it’s ready.”
While I chopped and cooked, I settled down. Really, we were stuck together. It’s not like I was going to take off somewhere. Where would I go during this never-ending pandemic? And if I kicked him out, I’d be left alone. My family was spread out across the globe and, though I could see them virtually on occasion, I couldn’t physically be with them. Besides, they had their own pandemic stresses to worry about. And really, the sex…
I called him when dinner was ready. He looked sheepish as he sat down and I softened toward him. Maybe he was right. It was an instinctive reaction that men have, not really his fault. I brought the plates to the table and sat down, giving him a little glance of goodwill, a hint that I was ready to forgive him.
“Looks good,” he said. But I knew instantly that wasn’t what he was thinking.
“What do you mean? Not this shit again? I thought you liked the way I make kale. Maybe you should just prepare your own meals.”
He looked up from his plate and stammered, “I didn’t mean that. I know it’s for my own good.”
“Oh, don’t lie. There’s no point.” My temper shot up again, amplifying my voice. “Better yet, maybe you should get some young, bouncy-breasted thing to take my place and cook for you.”
He stared, his jaw slack, as I continued, outright yelling now.
“I’m sure she’d make you bacon and eggs every morning and greasy hamburgers and steaks every night, so you’d have a heart attack and she’d get your pension!” I looked daggers at him and growled, “But don’t you forget, that pension is mine, you bastard.”
I could sense his fear and confusion. He gulped. “But if we split up, we both get half of the other’s pension.”
I glared at him. Not if you’re dead, I thought.
“Okay.” He drained his glass of wine in one draft and took his plate to the living room.
I gulped my wine down and stuffed kale into my mouth, chewed and chewed. I knew it wasn’t the most palatable stuff, but it was healthy, goddammit. I washed it down with more wine. If we break up, I thought, I’ll live to a ripe old age and he’ll get clogged arteries and intestines and suffer an early death. Ha! I would be triumphant, and people would say, “Oh, if only he’d stayed with her.”
And I would have my thoughts to myself, even if I was alone. However, he was right – our pensions would be split – I’d be living on a small, fixed income. And then there was the house. We’d have to sell it and split the proceeds. I’d end up in some cramped, noisy apartment. I’d be far better off if he died.
But how could I be thinking that? And if I was, was he?
I guzzled the last of the wine. Then, as quietly as I could, I got up and crept into the kitchen and turned on the tap to cover any noise from my movements. I peeked around the corner toward the living room. He was sitting with his head in his hands, back toward me, about eight feet away. I got down on my hands and creaking knees and, silently wincing, crawled up behind him, two feet, just until I could hear his thoughts.
Oh, what a jumble was his mind! “How did this happen? I don’t want to move. This kale shit is awful. I want another drink. How can I get to my whiskey? We were having such good sex. I don’t want to be alone. What about my income? We’re better off together, or, or…what if she died?”
“Aha!” I lurched up, causing him to leap to his feet and twirl around.
“You’re trying to give me a heart attack!” He clutched his chest.
“I know what you’re thinking. You can’t hide it.”
He dropped his fists and shot me an icy glare. “You’re thinking it, too.”
An impasse. We studied each other silently. His face, his body were so familiar, but his inner, honest thoughts were foreign, alien. Had we been truly happy, or just floating along in our tenuously connected bubbles, oblivious to the currents within each other? Where did we go wrong? Was keeping silent as harmful as lying? I thought back to when we first met, to what attracted me to him in the first place – his tentative advances, his shy eyes.
I realized he was thinking of me, too, of the curve of my hips where his hands fit, of my soft lips.
My eyes welled with tears. He came to me, wrapped me in his arms, pressed me to his warm body. We kissed, and I thought, yes, we can make this work, build a new and better relationship, a marriage of true minds. It was an evolution in humankind, prompted by a virus. Passion flared within me.
Then the image of Miss Melon Boobs flashed into my brain, from his.
“What the hell? I can’t have sex with you while you’re imagining some other woman!”
He looked stunned. “Why not?”
I rolled my eyes, turned, dropped my head, and trudged down the hall to my bedroom.
That was two days ago. Since then, we’ve kept apart and we text instead of talking. I’m not sure if we can handle this evolution, if we can transform our relationship. For now, neither of us is leaving, but only I know where the knives are hidden.