He throws the duvet over the bed and tucks in the corners, making sure the stripes align evenly with the sides of the frame. Perfect, he thinks to himself, as he glances around the room. The lavender micro-suede chair is clear of the customary clothing and papers they might have thrown on top of it during the week, leaving its classic shape and seemly wooden legs bare to the room. The bed is nicely made, with the nautical-blue and creamy-white stripes aligned to military perfection. He glances at the two paintings hung above the headboard, blurry blue dancing shapes in a sea of white and tan. He can’t remember if they picked out the paintings or the duvet first.
Satisfied with his work he strides confidently to the closet. He flicks on the light switch just inside the door and surveys the large walk-in. Laundry first, he decides. He gathers the dirty clothes into the canvas hamper, immediately grabbing those that look crumpled and worn while smelling others he is not quite sure about. Plaid shirt—Tuesday, definitely worn; orange button down—can’t remember, wash it anyway. He carries the large load downstairs and into the laundry room, right off the garage entrance. Maybe now that I’m off work I can put in that laundry shoot we’ve always talked about, he thinks. He’ll put that on tomorrow’s list.
He takes his time with the odious pile, separating the darks and lights from the delicates. Delicates first, always first since they must be hung to dry. That way by the time the darks and lights are done the delicates will be dry, and he can take the entire load upstairs in one trip. The entire job perfectly completed and nothing left behind. He smiles as he puts her delicate under-things inside the high-efficiency, large-capacity washer they had purchased a few years ago in preparation for the kids that had yet to materialize. He straightens up, turns the setting to hand wash, puts in the carefully measured amount of liquid detergent, and presses the start button. The washer begins to hum pleasantly, glad to be of use again.
He returns to the closet and surveys what might need cleaning, fixing, or organizing of any kind. He straightens the hangers on their bars, making sure there is at least half an inch between each of his suit jackets. He does the same for her dresses. The shoes he decides to pull from their habitual sleeping places on the shelves and reorganize, putting the least-used shoes on the very bottom and very top and the most-used shoes in between where they could be reached and plucked easily. Pink pumps next to the blue satin sandals; brown faux-croc loafers next to the polished black wing-tips; every shoe in its perfect place. He steps back and admires the rainbow he has created. A myriad of colors, styles, and patterns greets his eyes and delights his senses.
He turns from them to the freestanding dresser in the center of the walk-in. He opens the top drawer, her jewelry drawer. His fingers run over the braided silver chains and the hammered gold hoops. He stops; the velvet lining of the drawer has a slight lump in it. He is sure he can fix that. He carefully removes the precious pieces one-by-one and carries them to the bed where he lays them softly. He returns to the drawer and gingerly slides it from its hardware. It comes out smoothly.
He walks to the lavender chair and sits with the drawer perched on his lap. He feels along the sides and bottom with his hands, examining the odd raise in the back left corner. He gently coerces the edge of the velvet loose and peels it back from the wood. A blue border of something becomes visible. He continues to peel. Slowly the entire 3.5” by 5” navy blue rectangle becomes visible. He releases it from its hiding place and holds the strange object in his hand. He turns it over: PASSPORT it reads.
With all the calmness of a man who did not just find a hidden passport in his wife’s dresser, he slowly rises from the chair and places the half-uncovered drawer in the now-vacant space. He walks down the stairs, clutching the small blue book in his left hand, using his right to steady himself with the banister. Laundry, he thinks and walks with a measured gait toward the steady sound of whirring.
He places the passport carefully on the granite countertop next to the machines and opens the washer door. The timer flashes 5 minutes, but he sedately removes the dripping garments and hangs them on the fashionable drying rack she had insisted he buy. He loads the darks, shuts the door, measures a bit too much detergent, turns the dial to cold, and presses the start button. The machine resumes its thrumming.
He turns back to the passport and carries it into the kitchen, placing it next to the pile of yesterday's mail and the plate of cookies he had baked earlier that morning. He opens the refrigerator door and peers inside, then closes it quickly, he turns towards the pantry. The door swings open and he walks inside, squatting to see the bottom shelf. He returns from the closet with a nearly-full bottle of Bowmore Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky, aged twelve years. He searches the back of the cabinet for his whiskey glass which has remained unused for some time now. Finding it, he pours himself a hefty double and downs the amber liquid in one gulp. Ok, I’m, ready, he thinks to himself.
He sits at the cherry breakfast table with the passport and another generous pour of whiskey. He turns the passport over in his fingers, feeling the silky vinyl cover. Passport, United States of America, reads the outside in glittering gold letters. He opens the front cover, and his wife’s face greets him from the page. His eyes travel to the printed words: Becky Shaw, he reads. He stops and drops the booklet to the polished finish of the table. He can’t breathe; he swallows the whiskey instead. That’s not her name, he thinks. That’s not her name.
After a few minutes, he can pick up the passport without his fingers trembling. He turns to the first page again and stares, his eyes flitting from the picture to the name and back again. Birthday: 23 March 1976—correct. Place of birth: Elmira, New York—correct. Name: Becky Shaw—wrong, all wrong. His fingers stretch over the pages as his eyes stare at the foreign names: Australia, Belize, Greece, Switzerland, Russia, Egypt, Madagascar, and Oman; dates of travel ranging from years back to only months ago. He closes the book and pushes it across the polished wood table as if it had infected him.
He walks into the living room and pulls the photo albums from their shelf on the antique bookcase. Sitting on the worn leather couch, he begins to flip through the pages; picnics, class reunions, company outings, no international vacations. He stares at the woman in the photographs and wonders who she is. He stares with even more scrutiny at the man.
The first album contains pictures from the time they met to the time they married. He stares at the changes that have overcome them. Both young and carefree, they look happy on their first canoe trip; he’s wearing a red Hawaiian shirt with trunks, she’s wearing a green bikini, flecked with white flowers. He remembered that shirt, it was his favorite, yet she had made him give it to the church rummage sale years ago. It just didn’t suit him anymore, she had said.
He flips a few more pages; the steamboat trip down the Mississippi. She was wearing a pale blue cocktail dress with beaded fringe. He was wearing a black suit. She had bought him that suit, he remembered. He was sure it was still hanging in the closet upstairs, even though it itched.
More pages, more changes. He closes the album with a snap and throws it on the chic glass coffee table. It lands askew as he practically jumps up from the couch. More whiskey, he thinks. He downs another double and paces the kitchen, ignoring the pathetic beeping of the washing machine as it cries for attention. He eyes the passport, still sitting on the breakfast table as if it were an intruder in his home. My home? He thinks. Turning, he surveys the room.
No magnets on the fridge. He loved magnets. He had even started a magnet collection in college. They cluttered the clean, shiny, metallic surface she had said. He opens the cabinets and surveys the French country place settings they had purchased from Crate and Barrel after they were married. They had returned the classic white they had been given as a wedding present. He had liked the white plates. Leaving the cabinet ajar, he walks briskly to the pantry. Whole grain pasta, organic tomato soup, wheat thins for god’s sake! When had he stopped eating junk food?
Now startled, he strides from the kitchen and climbs the stairs, jumping every other one in his haste. He hurries into the closet. He turns around and stares at the fabrics that bristle at him from every side. Suede, leather, cotton, angora, linen, polyester, rayon—he turns. Wingtips, loafers, pumps, sandals, boots, slip-ons, cap toes, mules, slingbacks, clogs, moccasins—they grin at him wickedly like crooked teeth.
He looks down at himself, khaki pants, blue button-down shirt. He had never bought these. He had no idea how much they cost or who designed them. He tears the first few buttons of his shirt open, grabs the back of his collar, and twists it around his neck to read the tag: Ralph Lauren Purple label. He unbuttons his pants and yanks them off, almost tripping himself in the process. More Ralph Lauren, he reads. He didn’t even know who this Ralph Lauren character was.
He races into the next room, leaving his pants behind. The den had originally been a room solely for his use, but it housed the only computer they had, so he commonly found her in there for one thing or another. He sits in the desk chair and examines the room as he waits for the computer to start up. Pictures of ducks line the walls: mallards, mandarins, red-crested pochards. He knew nothing about ducks. He didn’t raise them or hunt them. Why would his den be covered in pictures of ducks?
He turns back to the computer and opens an internet browser. Ralph Lauren, he types into the Google search bar. He clicks on the Wikipedia link: ‘Ralph Lauren is an American fashion designer and business executive. He is most notable for his Polo Ralph Lauren clothing brand’, he reads aloud from the page.
He sits back, aghast at what his life has become. Shoes, suits, labels, whiskey, laundry, ducks, they all swirled around him like a merry-go-round, making him sick with their bright colors and unfamiliar patterns. He returns to the bedroom and tears the duvet free from the mattress, spilling her jewelry to the floor in the process. I hate stripes, he screams. He runs from the room and down the stairs, waving his arms wildly as his half-open shirt catches the wind and billows behind him like a sail. His white socks hit the floor with a thud as his bare legs take him frantically from room to room. His eyes search everywhere for something familiar, some speck of himself. He finds none.
He races into the kitchen, slows, and finally stops in front of the breakfast table. The Passport. He had almost forgotten about the passport. He walks calmly to the counter and gathers up the bottle of whiskey and plate of cookies, taking both with him to the table. He sits, pours himself another drink, takes a bite of cookie, and opens the passport to the first page.
Later that evening, he hears the garage door hum as it opens for his wife, now home from work. He doesn’t stir. He hears the purr of the engine cease; he hears the car door slam; he hears his wife open the door to the house and gently press the stop button on the washer which had been beeping piteously for hours. She makes her way slowly into the house through her usual routine; hanging up her coat in the hall closet, putting her briefcase down on the landing to take upstairs later, and finally into the kitchen for the mail.
“Oh, John!” She exclaims, as she comes upon him in his semi-dressed state, half-laying on the table, with the passport open in one hand and the empty glass of whiskey in the other.
“Samantha,” he says. “We need to talk.”