by Zachary Ginsburg
Bethany ended the phone call with her husband and slid the kitchen knife back into its wooden block on the countertop. She tossed the unopened package of tortellini into the fridge and poured the boiling water into the sink. The sink flooded, and bits of soggy organic matter floated out of the drain and cavorted in the hot water like nudibranchs. As she reached to switch on the disposal, a small round object glinted in the basin. She fished it out and held in her palm her husband’s wedding ring.
“The hell?” she said aloud. She dried it off and laid it on a paper towel. On second thought, she slipped it into the pocket of her shorts. On third thought, she placed it back on the counter, because her shorts were pretty short and things tended to fall out of her pockets when she sat on the couch.
With her legs tucked under her on the couch, she gazed out the window across Lake Shore Drive at the boats bobbing in Belmont Harbor, thirteen stories below. Then she picked some gunk from underneath her fingernail and wondered why her husband had been so careless with his ring. By nature, he was a clean and organized person, even to the point of OCD. Everything in the condo had its proper place, from the leather box that held the TV remotes to the nightstand that stored his earplugs, sleeping mask, and Vaseline. When she would forget to use a coaster, he would lift her glass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the woodgrain. When she would forget to lay a towel down before sex, he would lift her ass, slide one underneath, and remind her of the eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton.
She kicked her legs up on the walnut coffee table and opened her laptop. She was in the process of designing a website for a nail salon. It featured a lifelike hand of adjustable skin tone, which would allow users to preview different polishes. Her clients expected this level of ingenuity from her. She made bold claims on the bulletin boards of Chicago coffeeshops and damn well lived up to them.
When his key jangled the doorknob, she closed her laptop and walked into the kitchen. He stripped off his sport coat and carried the smiley-face bag of takeout to their round oak dining table. Bethany handed him a plate.
“Check it out,” he said, nipping his chopsticks at her nose. “I’m getting better. Pretty soon I’ll be able to lift a grain of rice.”
The sweet garlicky smell of her pad thai made her stomach rumble, and she shoveled the entire plastic container onto her plate. “How was bowling?”
“Shot a two-twenty,” he said casually, scooping noodles into his mouth. “New personal best.”
“Did you win?”
“Oh, babe. This wasn’t league play.”
She chewed hard on a peanut. Did he really need to practice for his bowling league?
“Your ring’s on the counter,” she said.
He peered at the tan line on his finger. Then he scratched his stubbly chin, as if contemplating the best way to word it. “See, I’ve been taking it off, to bowl. But I thought it was in my work bag. Where was it?”
“The sink actually. The disposal.”
“You’re shitting me.”
She grabbed it off the counter and placed it on his napkin.
“It must have been when I was loosening it with the dish soap.” He rolled the platinum band around in his fingers and slipped it into the breast pocket of his checkered shirt.
“How was work, I mean, have you finished that new website?” he asked.
She burped softly and pushed the bean sprouts to the edge of her plate. She could hear the wheels spinning in his head: she’s getting quiet. I’ve done something wrong. Well, at least she hoped he was thinking this. He had done something wrong. She just didn’t know what it was yet.
It happened again a couple days later. Bethany was sitting in the kitchen, half working on her client’s website, half reading a news story about a missing woman from their neighborhood, when her husband called saying he would grab takeout on his way home from practice. She dumped the pot of water she had been heating and watched the nudibranchs dance up from the disposal and shake their tentacles. Amidst the merriment, Bethany spotted something shiny and lifted a ring that was not her husband’s. It was an engagement ring, with an awfully large diamond sparkling wet.
Her heart sank, and she plopped on the couch, clenching the ring in her fist. With her other hand, she teased the tassels on a throw pillow. Something about the innocence of the tassels, their simple purpose of adorning the pillow, made her want to cry. She pinched her thigh and wondered if she should have gone to more spin classes.
An hour later, he walked in the door, stepped out of his loafers, and crossed the beige handwoven rug they bought at Crate&Barrel. The smiley-face bag in his hand smelled sweetly of pad thai. Had she known “takeout” meant the same meal from two nights ago, she would have cooked the damn tortellini.
She marched to the table and set the ring on his placemat. “What is this?”
He turned it over in his fingers and raised one of his caterpillar eyebrows. She usually enjoyed this fuzzy expression but now analyzed it for discrepancies.
“Tiffany’s?” he said.
“I meant the jewelry store. Whose is it?”
“You tell me,” she said, dropping into the seat across from him.
Both of his eyebrows shot up as if the caterpillars were stretching their backs.
“What are you accusing me of?”
Bethany did not know the answer to this. Deep down, she felt he was having an affair, but why would it end with both his and her rings down the drain?
“Has anyone been here that I don’t know about?”
“You’re the one who works from home,” he said, hunching over his noodles. “I’m never alone here.”
“That’s not true. I go to coffeeshops. I go out with friends.”
“When was the last time you did either of those?”
“I went to my mother’s last weekend.”
“Your mother,” he said, spearing a piece of beef with his chopstick. “Are you going to call her after dinner? Tell her I’m having an affair?” His eyes hardened, and the muscles in his face tightened. “Are you two going to whisper behind my back?”
A flare-up. It was as if a switch flipped inside him. This was how she described these episodes to her mother, who often responded by calling him a “hothead.” She would never forget the first one, in college when she asked about his ex-girlfriend, and he spent the next hour ranting about how much he hated her, using insults she tried to wipe clean from her memory. Back then, she would offset these flare-ups with the reasons she loved him: his laugh, his caterpillar eyebrows, the way he would wait for her outside of her classes, the way they would talk until dawn, wrapped in each other’s arms. But tonight, she was having a hard time retrieving this affection.
“Goddamn it!” he yelled after dropping a saucy piece of beef in his lap. He stood, and it flopped to the floor, leaving a dark stain on his chinos. He snapped his chopsticks in half, stormed to the sink, and wet the orange dish towel. Nothing infuriated him more than stains.
A wave of schadenfreude lifted Bethany out of her despair. She tossed her unopened container of pad thai into the fridge and slunk to their bedroom. She decided against calling her mother. He wouldn’t win that easily.
His bowling league was the following night. He returned late on these nights after drinking with his friends, so she figured it was finally safe to cook tortellini. She had been brooding all day as she worked on the website and poured herself a glass of chardonnay. She considered reading The Art of Happiness, which rested on the coffee table for when she felt out of sorts, but the day had been taxing and reading seemed laborious. As the water heated, she watched the news, but this only made her feel worse. They ran a story on the missing woman she read about yesterday. A photo showed her smiling with thin eyebrows and highlighted hair cascading over her right shoulder. She was pinching a lock of it between her red fingernails, as if twirling it.
“Thirty-two-year-old Samantha Rogers was last seen at Diversey River Bowl, where she works as a bartender,” the newswoman said numbly.
Bethany turned off the TV and reached for the book. The doorknob rattled, and she jumped, imagining a burglar trying to pick the lock. She glanced at the knives on the counter, but before she could move, the door swung open. It was only her husband, carrying a bouquet of purple tulips.
“You may want to put on something nice,” he said, handing her the flowers. “I made a reservation at Mon Ami Gabi.”
This was her favorite restaurant. She breathed in the fresh tulips and searched his gray-blue eyes, finding them pleasant like the lake on a calm day. “What about the league?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “for acting like a jerk. Can I treat you to salmon tartare?”
She took another whiff of the bouquet. “I’ll be right back.”
She chose her green dress, leaving the lavender one on its hanger. He didn’t deserve her best, at least not right now. It would take more than one dinner for her to put on a show. Still, she wished she’d known in advance so she could have painted her nails.
After she retrieved her phone from the kitchen counter and zipped it in her purse, she noticed the front door was open.
He must be waiting in the hallway, she thought, annoyed by his sudden impatience. This night was supposed to be about her, right?
She stepped into her ballet flats but remembered the pot of water boiling on the stove. She dumped it in the sink and hovered over the nudibranch dance party, scanning for rings. She found none but spotted a pale shrimp-like object rolling along the basin. She reached her hand into the hot water and pinched its squishy middle. When she breached the surface, droplets of water dripped off the red nail. She was holding a severed human finger.
Her arm spasmed in a reflex of terror, flinging the finger into the sink. She did not hear the thud she must have made toppling to the floor. After righting herself to her hands and knees, the kitchen spun as if their whole condo were spiraling down a drain.
The missing woman on the news. Could her husband have possibly…?
She pulled herself up by the counter but lurched back when she saw her husband blocking the doorway.
“You look pale,” he said, his hard unblinking eyes trained on her. “Have you eaten today?”
“Not a thing,” Bethany said, glancing at the knives. A last resort.
“We should get to the restaurant.”
“Will you pull the car around?” she asked. “I just need to make a quick call.”
“To a client.”
His footsteps died down the hallway in the direction of the elevator. She grabbed her phone out of her purse and dialed 9-1-1, but her finger hesitated above the green call button. Her husband, the man she’d lived with for the past seven years, the boy in college who made her laugh until sunrise. Could he really have murdered someone? She deleted 9-1-1 and dialed her mother instead. Her mother would be too shocked to say, “I told you so.” That would come later. But in the present moment, her mother would guide her out of this disaster. She would rattle off a list of instructions like a recipe, with safety popping out at the end.
Zachary Ginsburg was born and raised in Chicago and worked there as an educator. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Fiction at The New School.