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In a Strange Light

by Tryn Elva Paxton

So I think I’ve figure out the trouble: I’m a magpie married to a mole. I’ve been reading this marriage book during my lunch hour and one day last week—Tuesday, I think—while I was eating leftover beef stroganoff over noodles I got to chapter six, the part where Dr. Broderick says that magpies usually marry moles, and I recognized the description right away. I thought, This is us. Dr. Broderick says a magpie is somebody who knows that if anything good is ever going to happen, she’s going to have to pull it off herself, so she ends up being a nag. That’s me, I thought, and I realized: I’m married to a mole. His name is Matthew and he’s just like it says in the book: the harder you try to get him to open up the deeper he burrows in. So. There it was in black and white. And I thought, What can I do? Once I actually suggested to Matt that we see a marriage counselor. I thought he would say something. But he didn’t say a word. Not a word. He just looked at me and went back to watching the game on television. Dr. Broderick says you have to practice effective communication and get the unresponsive partner to express his real feelings. Communication is the name of the game, he says. Well, when I read that, I got hopeful. I thought, This might work. So Tuesday, while I was driving home from work—I remember it was Tuesday because it was the same day I won the money—I was thinking about how I could get Matt to talk about his real feelings. I had the radio on to KFRT and right in between “Rush, Rush” and “Love at First Sight,” they played this noise, the mystery noise they call it. They play it every few hours, and people call in and try to guess what it is. Every time somebody guesses wrong, the jackpot goes up a hundred dollars. They were already up to $300 this time. I heard the noise and I thought, It could be anything: a toilet flushing, a water fountain, an airplane taking off, anything. How could you tell? The caller guessed a car engine. That was wrong. It didn’t sound anything like that. So anyway, I got home, and Matt wasn’t home yet, so I thought, Great, and I started to make lasagna. I got it in the oven and then I set the table with this real pretty tablecloth we got as a wedding present, and I used our good china. I turned on the radio kinda soft in the background and then I started buttering the French bread. Matt got home about then and I said, Hi, How was your day? He said it was okay and then he said, What’s all this? So I told him I just wanted to use some of the stuff we got for our wedding for once. Matt watched the news and I made the salad and when everything was ready, we sat down to eat. Well, I didn’t know what to say, but I had to say something so I asked him again how his day was. Okay, he said. How was yours? So I told him about the fire drill at work and how Angie—she’s this ditzy woman whose office is right next to mine—dropped her purse off the fire escape ledge. Angie wouldn’t think of waiting two minutes for the fire drill to get over so she could ride the elevator down to the street. She just started walking right down the fire escape stairs, stopping every so often to talk to the people on the fire escapes below ours to tell them where she was going. Well, she got about halfway down, I was telling him, and then right in the middle of my story I remembered that I needed to get him to communicate, so I stopped and said, Oh, never mind. What happened? Matt said. And I said, It’s no big deal. And he said, Just tell me what happened. But I said, How about if you tell me something that happened to you today? Would you just finish the damn story? he said. So I did, and the part about the lipstick made him laugh and I laughed a little too, and I thought, This is nice. But just then I heard them announce the mystery noise on the radio, and I thought, What is it? So I reached over and turned up the volume, but I still couldn’t tell. This time the caller guessed an electric pencil sharpener, but that was wrong too and now the jackpot was up to $500. Matt got up and started clearing the table. I told him not to forget to rinse the dishes before he put them in the dishwasher and then I could have kicked myself. See, Matt and I worked out this deal. I do the cooking because I like it and he cleans up. It works out pretty good except that Matt is sort of absentminded. He always forgets to do little things like wipe off the stove and run the garbage disposal. He forgets other stuff too. Like turning the water in the shower all the way off so it doesn’t drip, drip, drip all day while we’re at work until I get home and hear it and turn it off myself. I always shower first because I have to be to work by 7:30 and he doesn’t have to be to work until 8:00. Matt is an accountant. He’s real good with numbers that way—left-brained. I’m more right-brained. Maybe that’s another reason we have trouble communicating. We’re operating from different spheres. I read about that once. But Dr. Broderick says a couple can learn to communicate effectively if they work at it. Our dinner conversation didn’t turn out exactly the way—well it’s not like I even knew what I wanted—but I’d hoped. But I’m very persistent—that’s one good thing about being a magpie, I guess—so I knew that if I just kept trying, not pushing, you know, but trying, I could get him to open up. So I went into the kitchen and said, How about if I make some coffee and we sit and talk for a while? But he said he was going down to the gym to work out. I bought him this membership to a health club for his birthday because he’s real athletic. He’s good at almost all sports and he likes to watch them on television too. So when Matt said he was going down to the club I thought, Oh well. And after he left I wiped off the stove and ran the garbage disposal and watered all our plants, and then I called my friend Robyn to ask her opinion. Robyn is a really good listener and that’s what I like about her. She just listens to all your problems and doesn’t interrupt you. Well, not that—she just doesn’t make you feel stupid. I told her all about the magpies and the moles and she said maybe Matt needed some space. So when he came home I was in bed reading a book, not the marriage book, of course, but another book, about how to become an extrovert if you’re an introvert or vice-versa. I was taking this little quiz in the first chapter to see which I am, but I still don’t know because before I finished Matt had showered and climbed in on the left side. I sleep on the right side, next to the nightstand with the alarm clock on it because, like I said before, I have to get up earlier. So anyway, when Matt got in bed I put the book down right off and turned out the light and just lay there in the dark. I wasn’t going to say a word, but then after a while of neither of us saying anything, I was afraid he would just go to sleep so I asked how his workout was. And he said, Fine. And then he didn’t say anything else. I thought, What can I do? So I gave up trying to be subtle and just asked him straight out, Why do you go down to the gym so much? And he said, I don’t know, because I like it. Why do you like it? I said. I don’t know, he said, I just do. So I kept going, Is it the power? Does it make you feel powerful? No, not that, he said, kind of defensive-like. It’s not that. It’s more like the—it’s rhythm. Of moving. You know—breathing in and out. Moving in time . . . you lift the weight and you realize you haven’t breathed. In years. And you know that it’s ending. That your life is ending. But you keep on pushing and you remember to breathe. It is power, he said, but not really. Well, after that I didn’t know what to say. I forgot about the stuff from the marriage book and I just thought, Who is this guy? And that was a real panicky feeling, sleeping with a stranger. Or just not knowing. Finally I told him I forgot to set the alarm so I turned on the light to fiddle with the buttons on our digital clock-radio. But it wasn’t just that. I wanted to look at his face in the light, to see that it was him lying there. But he had burrowed under the covers to keep the glare out. So anyway, I turned on the radio for a second to make sure the dial was at the right spot, because I like to wake up to music. When I turned on the radio, they were playing the mystery noise again. And when I heard it, the whirring, whirring, all at once I recognized the sound. I don’t know how I missed it before. I went to the kitchen where our phone is and dialed 224-KFRT and waited to see if my call would go through. The voice from the radio said, Hi, This is KFRT. Whadaya say? Well, I took a deep breath and said, Is it a garbage disposal? And that was the right answer so the voice congratulated me all enthusiastic and happy-like and then some other guy’s voice came on the line and asked for my name and address so they could mail me a check for $600. When I hung up I went back to the bedroom to see if Matt had heard me on the radio, but when I got there the light and the radio were already turned off and Matt was asleep. I just stood next to the bed looking at him and the light from the hallway—or the clock-radio—or something—made his skin look kind of pale and strange and I hardly recognized him. So I just reached over and touched his face because that’s all I could think of to do.

Tryn Elva Paxton did her graduate work at BYU and teaches English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.