by Aiden Baker
Over the years, my wife developed peculiar habits. The strangest, my favorite, is the way she will, on occasion, scrunch up her face and give birth to fruit. The first time she did it we were at the zoo. We’d spent the day wandering along the gravel paths, pointing at elephants and tigers and spitting camels, sharing an ice cream cone. We were standing by the perching birds exhibit, peeking through the iron cage, when it happened. Abel began heavy breathing. I hardly noticed— she simply exhaled a small oh, reached into her pants, and pulled them from her: a handful of little red buds. They were coated in a thin layer of mucus and glinted, ravishingly, in the sun.
“I wonder?” Abel said, holding the slick red things in her palm.
“Strawberries!” I said, amazed. She was a woman of wonders.
We fed the berries to the birds. One, blue-faced with a long tweezer beak, nudged himself between bars. Abel pinched a wet berry between the tips of her fingers and offered it to him. He blinked his beady eyes once before snatching it up with a long, bristled tongue. He blinked again, snapped his beak, and flitted away.
We stayed some time at the zoo, learning about birds, reading the signs. She’d brought her sketchbook and we sat together on an aluminum bench, her scratching charcoal against the page, trying to trace the shape of a particular bird. I watched her progress, watched my watch, watched some children play games on a green patch of grace. Abel kept putting down lines, erasing them, adding more. “A pretty good ibis,” I said. That’s what it looked like at least, with its crude neck and rough beak.
“It’s a spoonbill,” she said, not looking up from the page. And there, another habit, not-so wonderful. Her urge to correct me.
I’d found it charming when we’d first met, the way she’d lean on her elbows, talk with her hands, argue with fervor. On our first date, she’d worn a red pantsuit with a red matching lip and we argued for hours over hors d’oeuvres about elections, art. She was loud, aggressive, radiated a heat, and I remember watching her silver earrings swing to and fro as she asserted her points. She spat and squabbled. The energy between us was that of childhood rivals: familiar, feverish. Completely unlike the awkward bumbling I’d come to expect from first dates.
And then—what made the night memorable—some wasted street bum broke through a window. Abel and I were on dessert when we heard it: a scream, a crash, a cracking sound. We turned to see the front window splitting into spider web lines. I remember the glass held that way, finely webbed, for a moment. Of course, the commotion had thrown a hush over the room. Diners held their breath, the glass held together—and then, before anyone had the chance to exhale, the window came clattering down, shards raining to the restaurant floor. A frenzy erupted: everyone talking at once about the mess, costly and sharp, the scare it had caused, the surprise. With all the chaos, the bum managed to stumble away. He brushed himself off and disappeared into the night, disgraced.
I remember feeling disgust. Abel, though, was delighted. She thought the whole thing was poetic; it reminded her of some historical scene. I remember watching a waiter sweep up the shards while she blathered on about an old war, kings and queens and magistrates. To be honest, sometimes I can’t follow her spiraling tirades, but I do enjoy watching the pretty glimmer of her mouth. I fell in love with her that night, watching her red lips open and close with such fervor. I’d disagree here and there just to stoke coals. Her face would redden, her volume would rise, and her eyes would glisten and glimmer. A beautiful woman.
I thought it was her way of flirting. In time, things would be ironed out. There would be a certain kind of aquiescing. That’s what marriage was, I thought. But I was wrong. An ibis, a spoonbill, it was a pointless distinction. And it wasn’t a good sketch, to be honest. The lines were clumsy. I watched her thin wrist flick as she scratched and sketched. She clamped her tongue between her teeth, lips slightly parted. Her beautiful eyes narrowed, focused. She approached her little hobby with such serious airs.
The sun had tucked itself behind clouds by the time I managed to pull her away. On the drive home, we didn’t talk about strawberries or birds. I turned the radio dial one way, she turned it the other. When I took the wrong exit, she harped on it. Of course, I could have flipped it on her, could have mentioned that maybe I wouldn’t have been distracted if someone’s sketching hadn’t consumed my whole afternoon. I could have mentioned that I, unlike some people, have work to do. But I let her have this. Sometimes, it’s better to let her go off. Dig her own hole. I kept my foot on the gas, rolled down the windows. Air rushed in while she squealed and squawked, her loose hair whipping around in the wind. Briefly, I turned towards her. Her mouth takes a beautiful shape when she’s angry; I love the way her brows furrow. She was hot now, enraged. Eventually, she’d tire out.
A month later, there was another incident. We were out shopping, picking up cheese. The refrigerated air gave Abel gooseflesh, and she held herself to keep warm. I asked how she was feeling: savory, sweet? Havarti, gruyere? She didn’t respond, just blinked tight, muttered oh. Again the reaching, fingers slipping into her panties to collect the blue pellets.
“Blueberries,” she said plainly, a matter of fact, and showed them to me.
“Wonderful!” I exclaimed in the aisle, among the rows of canned, packaged food, thinking that yes, I had married a miracle woman. The dark blue beads glistened magnificently under the fluorescent store lights. I thought it marvelous, a sign. She looked at them, rolled them around in her palms like marbles, staring, saying nothing. I checked out, put our groceries onto the conveyor belt, handed over my card. Abel stood behind me, silent, the berries staining her hands a sweet purple-pink.
When we got home, we left the berries out on our porch, a gift for the deer.
The habit continued unpredictably. One Sunday in the park, we were splayed on a blanket, staring up at the Maple leaves. I was telling a story—a faint childhood memory, something about a swimming pool—when she grunted. Her face contorted into a confused kind of pain. “Go on,” she said, rubbing her side. So I went on, describing the chlorine smell, fat old men in tight trunks, the whistle shrill and piercing… Suddenly, Able let out a moan, interrupting me, and the memory drifted from reach. I couldn’t remember what it was I’d been trying to say. I stopped and looked at her: brow furrowed, eyes closed, jaw clenched. She grabbed her side. Near us, in the grass, kids were running in circles, shrieking. Not it, not it. Abel grimaced.
Somewhere, on the other side of the field, there was a birthday party. Over there, under the trees, I could make out a few colored hats. The sound of horns. My wife groaned again, loudly, and scrunched up her face. I asked how she was feeling but she just closed her eyes, exhaled, and out came a handful of grapes, light green and plump. They plopped right onto the picnic blanket. She picked them up by the stem, holding the globular cluster up to the light. They glimmered in the sun: green and round and dripping goo.
“Fabulous,” I exclaimed, and took them from her. I held the viscid cluster in my palm, amazed. Abel kicked off her shoes and leaned into the grass. All around us, kids were running and shrieking, making circles and circles.
There was a time before, before the fruit, when I wasn’t quite sure about Abel. We’d been dating a few months when she invited me to a gallery opening. It wasn’t exactly my thing, but I showed up, and wound up spending most of my time by the refreshments, sipping a plastic cup of wine. Strung up on the plain white walls were canvases, bold prints, vulgar colors. All amorphous, shapeless, ugly. Abel floated through the crowd, greeting people. The room was filled with young men, boys in baggy shirts, shaggy hair, thin wire glasses. Art students. I sipped my Malbec and watched Abel across the room, laughing, grabbing one of those skinny art boys by the arms. I didn’t know what she saw in them; didn’t know what she saw in those ghastly paintings, either. I almost left then, almost deleted her number. But something compelled me to stay. The bartender kept refilling my cup; I kept sipping that awful wine, glaring at those awful boys, their ragged beards and sloppy attire. Was it in? Was it chic, looking homeless?
Of course, we’d argued later. Volleyed insults back and forth. “I’m dating you,” she eventually said. “I’m with you.” Jealousy, she’d said, wasn’t cute. I told her fine, alright, but I just was uncomfortable. I didn’t like the gallery scene. I didn’t trust those boys.
Now, when I come home from work, she’s there. Quietly folding clothes, chopping peppers. Speaking less and less. Sometimes, I’ll find a tray of apples on the table. Unsure of where they came from.
Married life, lately, had been straining us both. A proper date was just what we needed. A night in the city, a chance to re-set. I’d overheard coworkers rave about some chic gastro-pub, a new hot spot, always booked up. Abel would be impressed. With a few phone calls, I finagled our way into a table for two. I took care of everything: checked their wine list for affordable bottles, scoured the menu, mapped out our walk from the train. I even bought her a new dress, a flowing bohemian thing. The night of, I laid it out on the bed. I could feel myself blush when she stepped into it. The white cloth rolled over her body like water. She was ethereal: my fairy woman. I watched her while she primped and preened. In the mirror, she dusted blush on her cheeks, tapped a wand to her lips. I watched in the glass as her lips closed, puckered, open. You, I said, are my miracle wife.
Her heels clicked on the concrete as we walked to the L. I pointed out the moon, plump and hanging in the late afternoon sky. It was beautiful, pale and gleaming against cloudless, robin’s egg blue. She glanced at it, the round, full thing, but said nothing. The whole night, she hardly spoke. But her warmth, her cheeks, her gown in the wind: love’s a slippery thing.
On the way back, on the train, returning from our languorous meal, it happened again. Abel and I sat next to each other on scratchy blue seats and watched the city flit by. We were alone in the car, apart from one man. He sat directly across from us and kept smacking his lips. A horrible stench filled the air, no doubt coming from him. I would have switched cars, or even just seats, but Able refused. She was full, she said, and tired. Too tired to move. So I was forced to look at him, this bum, his thick neck and tattered shirt and mud-caked pants, for the length of our ride. I couldn’t hide my disgust. I didn’t understand how Abel could be so oblivious. The stench alone was repulsive. Sideburns coiled out from his grease-stained face, as if they were trying to leap away. His yellow teeth, his smacking lips. Worse— his bulbous, bloodshot eyes were fixed on Abel’s legs. Her ankles, exposed. He looked at them and licked his teeth. But Abel didn’t seem to notice. Her eyelids drooped. I made a mental note: she shouldn’t be riding these late trains alone. I glared at him and pulled Abel’s hand into mine, clamping my knuckles down, clenching tight. The bum smacked his lips and kept trying, I’m sure, to look up her skirt.
A mechanical voice announced each stop. There were only four or five to go, but I contemplated pulling Abel off, thought about transferring trains, just to get away from this perverted, lip-smacking bum. She seemed so sleepy though, her torso swaying with each jerk of the train. Occasionally, our shoulders would bump. I decided to let her rest; I could keep watch. My chest swelled: her protector.
The L continued whipping its way between buildings and alleys and it was there in the shaking train car that she grabbed my forearm, closed her eyes, and I knew. From her dress tumbled a slew of cranberries. They rolled on the brown vinyl floor.
Across from us the man stared, eyes wide, incredulous.
As the months went on, the incidents became more frequent. Oranges would spring from her without warning. Slick and gleaming, they’d roll to the floor. Suddenly, pomegranates. Kiwis. Starfruit. She stopped wearing pants altogether, neglected her underpants, favoring the easy release of dresses and skirts. I’d come home from work to find a stack of viscous fruit on the table. Strawberries, blackberries, grapes. Our house soon became filled, corner to corner, with fruit. Bookshelves brimming with bowls of berries and limes; stacks of peaches, apples, and pears cloying every available space.
At first, we’d leave them outside, let whatever animal come have a feast. But then the birthings came more quickly, one after the next. At night she would groan, roll on her side. It appeared she was in pain. Our white comforter became a Pollock of fruit-stains.
We got in with the gynecologist. The waiting room was full of sounds: coughing women, the scratching of pens. A pair of needles clinked. My wife’s fingers danced on her knees, as if there was a piano. I flipped mindlessly through a magazine, fingering each glossy page, focusing on the feel, the motion. Somewhere, from deep in the building, came screams. “Abel?” A voice like bells called. “Abel Lautrec?”
In the examination room, I counted off-white tiles. Guitar music drifted in from a speaker. It sounded Spanish.
“Do you think it’s going to rain?” my wife asked.
I didn’t know. I held her hand.
The doctor burst in, hurried, frazzled, a pen tucked in her bush of hair. She put my wife’s legs in stirrups, pointing them up into a V, and leaned in, fascinated.
“Very interesting,” she kept saying. “Very interesting.”
She prescribed pills and asked us to come back in a month.
I find her in the bedroom now, often. Cocooned in our off-white comforter. I offer her soup, sandwiches, toast. She gently shakes her head, turns away, slips further into the shell of our bed.
I came home from a haircut to find her hunched over the dining room table, studying an array of old photos. She held one close to her face, like a detective.
“What’ve you got there?” I asked.
“I’ve been wondering if it runs in the family.”
“If what does?”
“The thing,” she said. “The thing I’ve been doing.”
I went behind her, put my hands on her shoulder, and looked at what she’d been studying. A photograph of her grandmother. Young, lipstick done, hair shaped into a slick beehive. Looking, as always, smart and proper. In front of her coy, teasing smile: a full bowl of fruit. Peaches, pineapples, plums. A bright yellow bunch of bananas. Something about her grandmother’s grin was unsettling. I quickly shut down Abel’s imagination.
“You would have known if your grandma was doing that.”
“I don’t know,” Abel said, and pinned the picture to the fridge.
I woke one night and the whole house smelled like sugar. I found her in the kitchen, on the floor, gazing into the oven.
“Pie,” she said, not moving her eyes. “Want some?”
I took a slice, cut into it, but when the crust hit my tongue I heard crying. Sharp, piercing cries filled my mouth, filled my head.
I spat it out, into a napkin.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Too much salt?”
After that, I couldn’t sleep. I listened to the walls creak and groan. I felt sweat collect on the small of my back. Tossing, grunting. Beside me, Abel slept. Her lips slightly parted. Eyelids fluttering.
I thought about her after our wedding. How her skin was like dew and the way her hair fell. Tracing her spine. Honeymoon eyes.
Sleepless, I snuck into the sheets, up her legs. To smell that! Aggressively sweet. Not like before. I wrapped my hands around her thighs, kissed my way up. Fruit-taste on my tongue. Not like before. This was a new taste. She gasped, twitched in her sleep, and I let her know: I think you’re amazing. A miracle woman.
With her legs wrapped around me, clutching me; she gasped, she kicked— I kept going. From somewhere within her a moan made its way out, crawled up her throat, smashed through her small teeth, hit the air with a symphonic crash. And when her body rippled, out came a handful of blackberries, popping into my mouth.
I spat. They splattered and burst on the hardwood floors. Together, we stared at the stains.
She stopped coming to bed. Instead, she worked the kitchen all night, slicing, mixing, shoving things into the oven. Circles forming around her eyes. Cheeks growing hollow.
I’d wake to a corpse wife, purple bags and paper skin, offering a pie.
One night I woke to a crashing sound. I rushed to the kitchen to find her wielding a hammer, smashing berries in a plastic bag.
“I thought I’d make jam,” she said, and brought the hammer down.
“Honey,” I said, eyeing the splattering of blue-purple-black. “We have a blender.” She didn’t acknowledge that. Just brought the hammer down again and flattened the fruit into mush.
I went back to bed and fell asleep to the crashing and smashing. When I woke, there were several flavors of jam, all lined up in the fridge.
Another night I woke, desperately having to pee. Groggily, I slumped towards the bathroom. I didn’t flip on the lights, didn’t notice at first, but after I flushed I could hear it. Wet sounds: a smacking, a gnawing. I turned and there she was, in the dark bluish light of our bathroom. Crouched on the white tile floor, guarding a pile of plums. Juice trickled from her chin in sticky rivulets, purple dripped from her thighs. She didn’t see me, didn’t notice me at all. She looked only at the fruit. The whites of her eyes were glowing, effulgent in the dark.
I watched carefully as she squatted there, next to our porcelain tub, over the pile of plums. Watched as she reached beneath her and pulled them, one by one, up and into her mouth. White teeth flashed as she widened her jaw, bit down, pierced the skin. Juice squirted and splattered. She ate like an animal woman: devouring.
In the gynecologist’s office, I put my hand to her back. Her paper gown rustled. No guitar music this time. I looked to my feet, wiggled my toes.
“Nothing has changed,” I told the doctor. My wife looked anemic. Graying. Thin.
“Very odd,” the doctor said. Above us, electric lights hummed.
The doctor poked and prodded. My wife stared up, eyes wide, and watched the fluorescent ceiling light. Inside the humming plastic dome, a black speck erratically flew, trapped in a pool of white. Abel looked intently as the fly buzzed around that plastic light, crashing into walls.
“Hmm,” the doctor said. After a small deliberation, she pulled a pen from her bushy hair. “Here’s what I’ll do,” she said. She wrote a prescription for another pill and tore it from her pad.
We stopped having sex. Each time I tried, she’d grab my index finger and wrap it in her fist, shaking her head. I’d pull her in, kiss the top of her head, and we’d fall asleep like that, with her fist around my finger.
I’d go down on her, sometimes, and she wouldn’t protest. I’d taste her until she’d kick and fill my mouth with fruit.
She’d become a skeleton, small, but still: she was stunning. My wife. Our house filled with the smell of fresh and rotting fruit.
At the aquarium in winter, we don’t hold hands. We look at the Amazon Tanks. The thick, full-bodied pythons. The deadly blue frogs.
We walked through each room, stopping at random intervals to witness wet, slithering things. Their world, their lives: four walls and a lamp. I made eye contact with one, a lizard, and tapped on his glass. His blinking eyes took note. He seemed rather happy. He thrust out his tongue.
My wife did not like my tapping. She swatted my hand. How’d you like that, she said. Being tapped at like that.
When we left the Shedd, she practically tripped down the white marble steps. She was looking thin, hollow, a stack of bones inside that big blue coat. I held onto her and she asked, softly, and she asked if we could walk by the lake. It was cold, colder by the shore, but I tightened my scarf and indulged her. Out there, ice-slabs drifted on the surface. She looked out over the water. Out where she was looking, the horizon blurred, lake melting to sky. I still have not gotten used to these gray Chicago winters. But that day, the sun was doing her job, making the air a lighter, breathable blue. Enjoyable, even.
“I’d like gills,” she said. She unwrapped her scarf, exposing her neck. “It’d be nice. To breathe under there.”
“Sure,” I said. “I can get those for you.”
The lakeshore was empty; the concrete pathway was coated with ice, random patches of salt sprinkled about. Abel kept her eyes out on the water. I looked around at the muddy snow banks, the barren trees. A lunatic in a windbreaker and shorts jogged past, face pink, eyes watering. I nodded to him. He nodded back. My wife kept her eyes on the lake.
I tried to take her hand. “What next? Daley Ribbon? Art Institute?” We’re not in this part of the city often. I wanted to take advantage. And, truthfully, I wanted to tire her out. I wanted her to give in. To see her glimmer. My miracle woman.
“There’s a Magritte exhibit,” I told her, wrapping my arms around her puffy down coat. Together, we watched the ice slabs crash into each other, creaking and groaning and cracking.
“Magritte’s mother killed herself,” she said, after a while. “Drowned herself in a river. Like Ophelia. And Virginia Woolf.”
I didn’t know what to say. She must have seen my face, because she laughed. A warm, airy laugh. I searched it for signs. She turned to kiss me, her lips cold and blue. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Ce n’est pas un présage.”
I didn’t ask for translation. I kissed her on the mouth. Tried to breathe into her lungs.
“That’s why the lovers have masks,” she said later, in the dim room with the canvas hanging, the neatly spread oil paint, the cool tones. Red, blue.
“When he found his mother in the river, her face was covered by a thin white dress.” She pointed to the canvas. “That’s why the masks.”
I stared into the painting, right where I imagined the masked lovers’ eyes.
“Amazing,” I said.
I followed her through the dim rooms. She pulled me from painting to painting. With each canvas she became animated, gesturing. She seemed almost herself again, warm, like her coals were relit. I wondered, briefly, if she missed her own art. I hadn’t seen her touch a canvas in months. Before I’d moved in she’d paint all the time: her hands always stained by oils and color. Now, she hardly picked up a pen. Her brushes, pastels, and paints buried beneath layers of fruit.
“Look,” she said, pointing her thin finger towards another indecipherable piece. It was redundant, a painting of a painting. In it, an artist studies his model, an egg, and paints on his canvas a fully born bird. In the one next to it, a white dove obstructs a man’s face. The images are aggressively odd, not my kind of thing. But Abel seemed to get a kick out of them. And when paired with her voice, they became almost tolerable. I squinted, tried to see what she saw.
We got to another with a man’s face obscured. “Why doesn’t he want us to see what’s there?” I was upset. It’s just that I was tired and hungry and annoyed with all the obstruction.
My wife, my miracle wife, tried to explain it to me. But my stomach growled. I was tired and hungry. I did not pay attention. She spoke, but all I heard were the humming gallery lights, the yawning of a security guard, my own growling hunger. Abel kept pressing on, spending an interminable amount of time with each piece. People filtered out of the exhibit, trickling away, until suddenly, we were the only ones left. Abel didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe she just didn’t care. I took her by the wrist and pulled her away, back through impressionists, down the shining marble stairs. I dragged her past cases of Chinese jade, pottery, glass, and we stepped outside, into the crisp biting air.
Night had fallen while we were inside, turning everything a cold, buttery yellow. The winter city was lit up by office buildings, street lamps, swooping holiday lights. I caught my breath and looked out. At the top of the Art Institute steps you can see the shining, gleaming traffic, the messy colonies of people, bustling into and out of Millenium Park.
We stayed a while at the top of the steps. On either side of us, the iconic lions stood, eager to pounce. Their wild bronze manes and fur coated with a green patina. Around their necks hung Christmas wreaths like collars, and tourists huddled in groups beneath them, taking pictures. LED camera lights flashed.
“They never get a break,” said my wife. “Always on duty.”
I liked the lions. They were symmetrical, secure. They did their job. I remember climbing their back as a kid. Somewhere there’s a picture of me, straddling the thick body, roaring. I’d started to tell Abel this half-memory when I heard a groan. By then, I’d gotten used to her habits and sounds. I rubbed her back. Told her to breathe. And there, in the blinking night, on those stone steps in winter, she gave birth, for the first time, to a slick, wriggling salamander. He writhed in her hands, wagged his tail, coated in transparent ooze. The street glow flashed on his body, shining iridescent and blue. Abel collapsed, gaunt and grey, onto the Institute steps.
“Beautiful!” I announced proudly. She was breathing heavily, one hand on her side. The salamander hissed when I took him, flashed his teeth, tried to slip out of my hands. He sunk his teeth into the pink flesh of my palm. I said it again. “Beautiful!”
Aiden Baker is a writer based out of Berkeley, California. Her work can be found in the Ninth Letter, Sonora Review, Orca, and other publications. She spends her free time crying, cooking, and tweeting.