The client took my coat and led me down a corridor to an ornate living room. On a large, oval table lay a cloth and five candles. Two of the candles were lit. He motioned for me to sit down.
“You’ll drink Scotch?”
“I’ll drink water, please.”
He looked at me like I was asking for something unusual.
He poured a Scotch and a glass of water, and then circled the table.
“My wife is ill,” he said, placing the glass in front of me. “She has a motor-neuron disease, which means her muscles don’t work. She can barely lift her head. She can barely speak without an incredible amount of effort. As you can imagine, it is a struggle for both of us.”
I took a sip of water. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can imagine it is.”
He paused to drink from his Scotch.
“But can you?” he said, wiping his top lip. “My wife is a shell now, all curled up in our bed. She’s got hands like claws. Do you understand the level of struggle I’m talking about?”
“It would be difficult for anyone to comprehend, without having experienced it first hand,” I said.
He stared at me.
“I’m not here to judge,” I added, lifting the water to my lips.
He took another drink of Scotch and sat down.
“We used to dance,” he said, tossing the ice cubes about in his glass. “Not professionally, just at clubs or weddings. Anywhere with a dancefloor. My wife was swift on her feet back then. I’d have to fly to catch her.”
I placed my hand on his knee, but he brushed it away.
“She used to kick me in the shins if I got a move wrong or if I turned too quickly. That kind of sudden violence was a real turn-on — I don’t know why.”
I looked around the apartment: the ethnic art; the diagrams of the Centre Pompidou; the tapestries depicting medieval scenes. I thought about his wife in her room. Could she hear us talking? Was I here so that she could hear?
“We’re on the clock already, just so you know,” I said, pointing to my wrist. “The time doesn’t start the moment you choose to touch me.”
“I know,” he said, distracted. “I know how it works.”
In bed, his fingers danced over my skin. He breathed long and hard into my neck, pushing his forehead into my chin like a child. As he sweated, I thought about his infirm wife somewhere in the apartment. She could hear us. No doubt about that.
He went to get more Scotch.
When he returned, he sat at the edge of the bed. The ice clinked in our glasses as we drank.
“I want to kill my wife,” he said, voice thick, hardly audible. “Sometimes…I mean that’s what goes through my mind.”
I touched his shoulders, but he flinched.
“It’s not that I want to kill her. I just…feel it sometimes. I feel it in my hands.”
I reached out to touch him again.
“My wife welcomes death,” he said, suddenly turning around and passing me one of the Scotches. “You know, she’s not scared of death. She’s eager to break through the seal into that other realm. She talks about it, constantly.”
“She must be as brave as hell,” I said.
“She is. She’s as brave as hell.”
The client paid for the night and morning in fifty Euro notes. We had sex one more time, and then drank Scotch until the first light hit the curtains. In the early hours, his wife let out a scream from somewhere close in the apartment — perhaps next door. The client assured me that they were just night terrors. She had them all the time.
While he was gone, I fell into a deep sleep — deeper than I had for years. I awoke to an empty bed and the sun up and the apartment completely quiet. I walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge for orange juice. There was none. There was nothing, in fact. Just clear shelves.
I walked back to the bedroom. As I passed by one of the rooms, I heard talking and so I pushed open the door a little.
The client was seated at the foot of his wife’s bed — her thin frame visible under a blanket. He was stroking what must’ve been her thigh or calf and he was whispering words — soothing ones, like a lullaby or song; words intended to calm and reassure her.
I stood for a while in the doorway, listening.
“These are the day terrors,” he said, without looking up.
Originally published in Jellyfish Review, March, 2017
IMAGE: Johann Heinrich Füssli “The Nightmare” (1781), oil on canvas, 101.6 cm × 127 cm (40.0 in × 50 in)
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan
Jonathan Cardew's stories appear in cream city review, Passages North, Atticus Review, wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. He is the author of A World Beyond Beyond Cardboard (ELJ Editions, 2022) and content editor for Bending Genres. Originally from the UK, he lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Follow him @cardewjcardew and https://jonathancardew.wordpress.com/