Things with Permanence
My husband’s nose changed first—a nearly imperceptible spot-the-difference puzzle on a face I’d known for twenty-two years. Through our kitchen’s bay windows, the morning sunlight highlighted his sharp features, but the shadows fell all wrong.
“Your nose looks longer,” I said, through a mouthful of toast.
“My nose?” Jeff patted it all around, as if he could feel its size.
“I swear it usually sticks out a little less...” I squinted at him, and he frowned.
“I’m serious! It must’ve grown overnight.”
“Well, I haven’t been telling any lies.”
I shook my head. “Maybe I’m going crazy in my old age.”
“You’re only 42, love. You’re not even halfway done yet.”
Apparently eager to end the conversation, he returned to his usual black tea and phone scrolling. Another subtle shift snagged my eye. His skin looked more bronzed, almost leathery, like he’d spent hours at the tanning bed down the street. My gut twisted. Maybe he was having an affair, preening himself for someone new. A spouse growing more concerned about their appearance was a warning sign; that’s what all the articles said, anyway.
I stood and cleared my plate into the trash.
The next evening, something else had changed. We went to dinner with our long-time neighbor, Karen. From the appetizers to dessert, I couldn’t stop staring at Jeff.
“If Randy had looked at me as intensely as you’re looking at Jeff, we might’ve stood half a chance,” Karen said, smirking, once Jeff had left for the bathroom. “What’s the big secret? To staying all smitten like that?”
I swirled the white wine in my glass and smiled tightly. “No secrets here. Good love just ages like fine wine. Hey...what color are Jeff’s eyes?”
Karen blinked at me. “I don’t know. What are they? Is this a quiz?”
I put my glass down with a shrug. “I’m being weird, I know. I thought they were hazel, but they’re definitely solid brown today.”
“Must be the lighting.”
“Must be,” I muttered, not mentioning they’d been dark brown that morning, too.
When Jeff and I pulled into our driveway later that night, I caved to my curiosity and asked him point-blank: “Jeff, what color do you think your eyes are?”
He unbuckled his seatbelt. “Uh, the same color they’ve always been?”
“Here, look at me.” I whipped out my phone as he turned.
“Agh, what’re you—” He rubbed his eyes, wincing at the flash of white light.
I toggled between pictures of him on my phone, vindication rushing through me. “See! Your eyes are hazel in this picture from last month and plain brown in the one I just took. Isn’t that weird?”
I shoved my phone under his nose, and he barely glanced at the pictures. Instead, he fixed me with a concerned look.
“Is this like the nose thing? Are you doing that messed-up trick where people pretend something isn’t true?”
I sat back with a scoff. “I’m not gaslighting you!”
“I know what this is really about.” His matter-of-fact confidence made me want to kiss him and strangle him in equal measure. “You’re tired of our routine.”
“That’s not true,” I whispered.
“Then why do you keep looking at me like you’re hoping to see...someone else?”
I closed my eyes to ward against the sting in my chest. “There’s no one else for me. I love you. Forever and always.”
He smiled and squeezed my hand. “And I love you.”
We went inside without saying anything else of substance, commenting on how tender the steak had been and how many inches of rain to expect that weekend. The well of deep conversation had gone bone dry. Perhaps that’s bound to happen to anyone who loves the same person for too long—they become so familiar you almost don’t see them as they are, like a road you’ve driven a hundred times.
As we undressed for bed, Jeff looped his arms around me from behind and kissed my neck—our signal.
“It’ll be all right,” he murmured in my ear. His breath smelled like garlic, but he’d sulk if I slinked away. So I relaxed against him.
He switched off the light, shrouding us in darkness. The old mattress sunk beneath our weight, and I let him lead, as he always did. My hands wandered down his chest and froze. What had once been firm muscle had been replaced with individual ribs I could trace with my fingers.
“The light! Turn on the light!” I croaked out, jerking my hands back.
“Caroline?” Even his voice didn’t sound right. It was higher. Scratchier.
A wave of revulsion hit me, and my body shook with the desperate need to escape his touch. I pushed him off and flicked on the lamp. The man naked before me resembled Jeff, but his eyes were brown and his nose too long and his skin too leathery and his body thin as a heroin addict’s.
“You’re not him... You’re not my husband.” The words wavered in my mouth.
The stranger grinned uneasily. “Are you okay, love?”
His tone sounded right, even though his voice didn’t, but I couldn’t think straight. “I’m sorry. I’m going to sleep in the guest bedroom.”
He didn’t protest as I stumbled down the hall. Sleep didn’t find me for a long time. In my mind, I kept raking my fingertips along those emaciated bones.
When I opened my eyes the next morning, peaceful light streamed through the curtains, as if I’d awoken from a decade-long nightmare. I sat up at the sound of a rustling from the other room. Longing filled me—a yearning to drink in Jeff’s familiar hazel eyes. My legs carried me to the bedroom, where a nude man was tucking in the sheets. A man entirely unrecognizable to me, gaunt and bald, his body riddled with holes. Hundreds of them, some large enough to see the wall beyond, the rings of flesh crusted over.
I stood at the threshold, unsure if my body would choose fight or flight. He turned, and our eyes met.
“There you are, love.” A crooked smile grew on his face, and his teeth shone black. A hole cut through his left cheek. “Won’t you kiss me quick?”
He took a step toward me, and I staggered back.
The man tilted his head, elongating the dozens of openings along his throat. “Please don’t go. Don’t leave me.”
He moved forward again, and my body at last responded. Running, I found myself outside the house, bare feet pounding against the brick path. Jeff had made that, during a year when he had felt compelled to create “things with permanence.”
The tears came in a flood, and I pressed a shaking hand over my mouth. Where had my love gone? Where was my Jeff?
My car still stood in the driveway, and the keys jangled in the pocket of the jacket I’d worn to bed. As I reached for the door, I caught my reflection in the black glass. My eyes were sunken craters set in an unfamiliar face, more holes than skin.