Helen stared at her dark-haired husband, dinner plate in one of her hands and bizarre note in the other. Shocked, she watched him sip his espresso and waited for him to speak. Instead, Renaldo ignored her as if she hadn't stopped washing the dishes. He smiled and licked the crema off his delicate lips as he finished before departing for his study.
The dinner table was bare except for the demitasse cup and saucer. With the dishes all in the sink where Helen was supposed to be mechanically washing them, all traces of Renaldo's marinated pigeon and fresh olive oil sautéed peppers were gone. The sight made Helen feel abandoned.
Noting the dribbling from the plate onto her matching torn grey sweats, Helen dropped the plate in the clouded soapy water and stared again at the note.
Despite the contents, she couldn't help notice how beautiful the note was. Flowing letters drawn like impressionist brush strokes, maybe with a fine fountain pen, on parchment-like stationary paper. The kind of paper Renaldo had used to send his relatives abroad announcement of their wedding. But, the message was not beautiful.
She read again:
Oh, my perfect little pigeon. How happy you will make my wife with your wonderful tastiness. You are so different from the roast of last night's culinary sufferings. So overcooked. So tough. So flavorless. Is this how my Helen feels about me? That I am bland? That I am a tiresome thing that sustains mere life but does not exalt the soul? I worry, my careful creation. What is my Helen trying to tell my by presenting me with such a meal?
Helen shook her head in disbelief. It was ridiculous. A note? Stuck to the bottom of a plate where she'd be sure to find it? Renaldo wouldn't do that to talk about something so serious. It was too much of a joke.
Admittedly, Renaldo did not generally talk about problems openly. Confrontation was vulgar; Helen guessed he thought that although he had never specifically said so. Even at office parties, he'd never correct anyone who introduced him as the company's Spanish interpreter. He would just smirk…and then snub that person forever after. Renaldo spoke Castilian, and only 'a fool' didn't know the difference.
Still, reserved or no, this was her. He told people she was his 'artist,' even though she sold deliberately crude birdhouses thrown together from scavenged scrap wood. They'd always had that connection beyond words, ever since the lit course back in their college days. She'd read the assigned stories to him because his English was so new and he couldn't follow. He couldn't resort to such odd ways to communicate with her.
Scrunching her face in the way she knew made her look ugly, she hmmphed and threw the note in the trash. It really was a joke. That was all, a playful little joke. He wasn't serious. Not her Renaldo.
Then Helen dutifully scrubbed the dishes. The joke was cute, but that was about it. Cleaning the dishes was still necessary. It may not have been as 'carefully perfect' as the pigeon, but it was her contribution to the meal. Her and Renaldo took turns cooking and the other always cleaned up. That was their way, their partnership.
But, two nights later, when it was again Renaldo's turn to cook, another note waited for Helen on the bottom of Renaldo's plate. Renaldo had already gone upstairs to make an international call to the family back home, so Helen immediately snatched the note and read:
My suckling lamb, though Helen enjoys you with me, I think that there are really only two of us at this meal this evening. My wife may dine with me, but her thoughts seem far away from me. The spaghetti of the night before leaves me no other thoughts to think. The noodles…so underdone. Though they bent with the softness of a light caress, each bite had a hard crunch like a slap and a raw starch flavor of neglect. Did my Helen rush the cooking so she could later meet a lover? Is there anything else for me to believe from this?
Helen balled up the note in her first and threw it at the wall. She nearly threw the plate after it, or at Renaldo. Nearly stormed upstairs and broke it over his head while he trilled pretty foreign sounding sweetness to his aging mother.
She fumed, clenching the dirty plate. He knew she wasn't the world's greatest cook. Helen never pretended any different. Renaldo may have had flair and finesse in the kitchen, but she was more limited and made no secret of it. Roasts and spaghetti were her best, though better than the TV dinners from before they had met, and her best was sometimes over or undercooked. Why would he act now like that failing meant more than it did?
Scouring the dishes with much more strength than necessary, Helen wanted to scream at Renaldo. Demand an explanation, force him to confront this head on instead of hiding behind clever little notes.
But Helen knew Renaldo would not say a word if she charged in like that. His way was to sidestep gracefully, like a matador. Only a bull met such a charge head on. A matador, however, would simply not be there anymore.
Helen sagged and rinsed the dishes before dumping them in the strainer. So what was she to do? If she couldn't force Renaldo out of his little game, what could she try? Cook better so he wouldn't think she didn't love him anymore? Learn to be fancier about it so he wouldn't notice her mistakes so easily?
Is that what he wanted from her? Didn't he know she would have done all that before if it were possible? Wasn't her cooking proof that it wasn't? After five years?
With no more dishes, Helen felt helpless. She couldn't go to Renaldo because she hadn't figured out how to respond. There was a distance between them for some reason and she would feel it all the more if she was close to him. Instead, she went to the garage.
The garage was hers. Her workshop, a place Renaldo never went. He never even parked his car there. They both didn't, what with all her tools and discarded logs and lumber found in dumpsters or at roadsides. Between the half-built birdhouses, fasteners, and other junk items that might one day be useful, there was room for nothing else there but her. It was a sanctuary, but all she wished was that she didn't need one.
Helen picked up a recent work – a house assembled from two by four leavings recovered from a construction site trash heap. It looked like a clumsy jigsaw puzzle with perhaps a bit of Frankenstein's monster thrown in. Not sanded, not even, not even symmetrical, it was far from pretty or elegant.
Still, that was the point. That was why some rich idiot would give her fifty or even seventy-five dollars for the worthless thing. Her houses were supposed to look like they lacked craftsmanship, like they were made out of garbage. Then the buyers could feel smug that they were doing their part, like the carbon offsets and other frauds they willingly fell for. They felt good and she got good money for no more than twenty minutes work. No one expected anything more of her.
So why did Renaldo all of a sudden? She made the gesture like she was supposed to; she cooked for him when it was her turn. As usual, it wasn't good. When did that start to mean that her feelings weren't adequate? Was the food even the problem? Or, was it perhaps something else and this was all just Renaldo's way of dancing even further around the reality? Would things be fixed even if she suddenly could cook for him the way he did for her?
Helen sat with her plain face in her rough hands. It was hopeless. She had no idea what was really wrong and no idea at all how to fix it. Renaldo would be lost to her, like he was on the other side of water in a departing boat, waving handkerchiefs to tell her things in a pattern she couldn't understand.
She looked down at the makeshift house on the shop table in front of her. Though it was finished and ready for sale as it was, she started pointlessly sanding it. Her need to do at least something wouldn't let her be.
The next night, though, Helen chewed the last bite of her adequate ham and watched Renaldo at the sink. The thrill of sneakiness electrified her, but she tried to be patient. She wanted to pull it off just as he had done, but for that she couldn't rush things. She had to wait.
Renaldo scraped ham grease from the baking dish into the trash, his dinner dishes already ready to be washed. Helen had deliberately eaten slower than him, watched him, carefully looking for her moment. It wasn't until he cleared his portion of the table that she would have her opportunity, so she had to make sure she was still eating when he was through. Without, of course, dawdling obviously. The whole thing would have been up if she had been obvious.
The ham hadn't been anything special. She hadn't even done the improbable and made sure it wasn't too dry. She knew it would be, and it was. Helen had accepted this. Even the au gratin potatoes were from a box and would have been better if she had stirred more frequently. It had been dinner and it had been fine, but nothing particularly more than that.
No, Helen had hatched a different plan while doing useless things to that birdhouse. She had thought of it and then waited for her chance. As Renaldo had run water for the dishes and used the sprayer to make the soapy water foam, she'd noticed he wasn't looking and stuck a note of her own to the bottom of her plate.
She still wasn't sure why she had done it. It had just felt right. No more able to replicate the elegance of Renaldo's ones than she could his dinners, she'd written her own in cheap ballpoint pen on the back of a Safeway receipt. It read:
What is bothering Renaldo? I thought maybe you would know since you were going to be spending time with him tonight. He has always taken me as I am, never wanting me to be someone else, and I love him for that. But, lately I feel that he has forgotten me and thought of someone else in my place. Suddenly, the things I do are taken to say words I never wanted to say. Maybe my husband and I are losing touch. That thought scares me. I want nothing more than to be as close to him as we have always been. Can you help me, Ham?
Helen's heartbeat raced. She was sure Renaldo had to know what she was doing…even if he pretended he didn't. It wasn't as if she was sly. She wasn't; she knew that. Regardless, whether Renaldo saw through her or not, he acted as if he didn't have a clue.
At his place at the sink, Renaldo gracefully turned at the waist. Seeing her empty plate, he reached toward her. Helen gulped and then smiled, getting up to hand him her dishes.
Their eyes locked briefly. It felt like the time before they'd dated when he 'happened' to run across her at the dance club. Her friends had dragged her there and she hadn't been having a good time, but he'd caught her eyes and claimed her to the dance floor.
At the instant both of their hands were on the plate, Helen saw Renaldo smile as his fingers felt the note on the underside. Her fingers withdrew and she held her breath as he peeled off the note. He read, not hiding the note at all, and smiled again. He'd gotten her to play his game.
Suddenly, like the graceful matador's stab after the bull is distracted by the cape's pass, Helen shot her arm out and smacked Renaldo across the back of the head. "Now cut the crap!" She yelled. "And talk to your damn wife!"
After all, she wasn't going to do everything his way.
BIO: David S. Atkinson received his MFA from the University of Nebraska. His writing appears in Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His novel in short story form, Bones Buried in the Dirt, was published in January 2013 by River Otter Press. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.