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ISSUE:  Summer 2009

The first thing that made him suspicious was the smell. It wasn’t that she suddenly had an other-man smell, like a heavy aftershave or hairy sweat. It was just that she’d always had such a subtle smell, the kind you barely noticed, and suddenly it had become so strong it made his head spin. Besides, she kept disappearing—not for long. Fifteen minutes maybe, or a little longer, and then she’d be back, like nothing had happened. The time it really got to him was when once, right in the middle of the evening news, she asked him if he had change for a hundred. He took out his wallet, slowly, suspiciously, and pulled out two fifties. “Thanks,” she said, and gave him a peck on the cheek. “You’re welcome,” he said, “but, hey, why do you need change all of a sudden, in the middle of the night?” “No reason really,” she smiled. “Just felt like it.” And she disappeared toward the kitchen porch.

It’s not that they had less sex. People say that’s a sure giveaway. And when they did, it was as passionate as ever. She didn’t ask him for more money either, which is another sign that something’s going on. The opposite, in fact: she became more economical. And their talks—well, the truth is they’d never talked much anyway—so there wasn’t anything about that to make him suspicious either. And yet, he could tell there was something going on. A dark secret—so dark that there was black under her fingernails, like in those movies where in the end you discover that your wife is a hooker, or a Mossad agent, or something like that.

He could have followed her, but he preferred to wait and see. Maybe he was afraid of what he’d find out. Until one day, when he came home from work with a migraine in the middle of the day, and parked his car at the entrance to their driveway, a silver Mitsubishi with a big pro-life bumper sticker pulled up and started honking away. “Hey, you!” the Mitsubishi shouted. “Get that car out of there. Can’t you see you’re blocking the way?” The truth was that there wasn’t much to block in the entrance to his own driveway, but without thinking, he moved a little to the side and let the Mitsubishi get by. As he got out of the car he thought that maybe, despite his splitting headache, he ought to try and find out what the pro-lifer was doing in his yard. But before he could get very far, he spotted her, right there in the middle of their neglected backyard, just where he’d once promised her he’d plant a mulberry tree. She was wearing dirty blue overalls, and leaning over the Mitsubishi with a fuel hose in her hand. He looked up and saw that the hose led right into a fuel pump. Next to the fuel pump was an air pump, and between the two was a little booth with a sign in childish lettering that said: “FUEL—CHEAP!” “Fill ’er up! Fill ’er up!” he heard the driver shout. “Fill ’er up till she chokes!” He stared at her for a minute or so. She didn’t see him, because she had her back turned, and when the fuel pump rang because the tank was full, he stiffened, like someone waking up out of a bad dream, got into his car, and drove back to work, as if nothing had happened.

He didn’t discuss it with her, even though he often had the urge. He just kept quiet and waited for her to bring it up. Suddenly, everything made sense: the smell, the dirt, all those brief absences. There was just one thing he couldn’t figure out. Why hadn’t she shared it with him? And no matter how hard he tried to explain it to himself, he could feel the pain welling up inside. There’s something insulting about a loved one who opens up a business behind your back, no matter what the explanation or the psychology. You can’t help it. It just hurts, and that’s that. Next time she asked him if he could break a hundred, he said he couldn’t, even though his wallet was bulging with twenties and fifties. “Sorry,” he pretended to sympathize. “What did you say you needed it for?” “No reason really,” she smiled. “I dunno, I just had this urge.” And then she just disappeared onto the porch. Bitch.

She didn’t run the business on her own. She had a helper, an Arab. He knew because he followed her a little. Once, when she was out shopping, he even drove up, like an ordinary customer, and talked with Sami—that’s what he wanted people to call him—which was almost certainly short for Samir. “It’s nice, this filling station of yours,” he said, sucking up to Sami. “Gee, thanks,” Sami said, “but it’s not all mine. She and I each have half.” “You married?” he asked, playing along. “You bet,” Sami nodded, and started pulling some snaps of his kids out of his wallet, but then he realized, and stopped, and explained that his partner wasn’t his wife. She was someone else’s. “Too bad my bartner isn’t here,” Sami answered cheerfully, his accent only slightly noticeable. “You’d love her. She’s brecious.”

He’d been to the station lots of times since then, always when she was away. He even got kind of friendly with Sami. Sami had a degree in philosophy and psychology, and it’s not that he understood things about the world any better because of what he’d studied, but at least he could name all the things he didn’t understand. “Say,” he asked Sami once, “if you were to find out that somebody close to you was hiding something from you, not cheating on you, but still hiding something—what would you do?” “I don’t think I’d do anything,” Sami said. “Gee,” he said, “why’s that?” “Because I wouldn’t know what to do anyway,” Sami answered without thinking, the way people do with really easy questions.

The years went by, and they had a kid. Two kids even, identical twins. Towards the end of her pregnancy the station was really humming, and he’d help Sami out, without her knowing. The twins were precious too, and bursting with energy. When they got a little older, they started fighting a lot, but you could always tell how much they really loved each other. When they were about nine, one of them lost an eye in a fight with the other one, and they stopped being identical. And their parents, who were really proud of them, would play with them whenever they could. Sometimes he was sorry he hadn’t planted that mulberry tree when he promised he would. Kids love climbing, after all, and berries. But he never mentioned it. In fact, he wasn’t angry at her anymore, and always gave her change when he had it, no questions asked.

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