The woman fumbles with the pleats of her dress with her left hand, while chewing nervously on her lower lip. Timorously, her feet edge towards his, only to withdraw from them several times. The man is scarcely breathing- he is perfectly inert, an anonymous mass of muscle beneath a plaid blanket. Finally, the woman summons the courage to tap the tips of her toes on his. There should only be the lightest contact, indicating a decision taken without resolve. The man is visibly distraught by this- the contact reverberates through his leg like an electric current, and the foot recoils behind the leg of a chair. In this awkward position, the figure of the man once more achieves a state of perfect repose. The woman, angered by this, raises her foot a few inches above the ground, and stomps on the man’s other foot. The man’s torso immediately assumes a rectilinear position, throwing the blanket off his face.
W: We do have a good time together, don’t we?
M: [incredulous and groggy] mrmmhmmm
W: All kidding aside though, my dear, do you love me?
M: My God, what does that have to do with anything?
The man assumes a posture of righteous indignation, leaps off his chair, kicks it to the ground, wrestles with its legs and attempts to snap them off the frame. While doing this, he gnashes his teeth, clenches his fist and pounds the ground with impotent rage. After thumping the floor with a semi-convincing vehemence, the man begins to derive great gratification from this. He lies prostrate, face down upon the ground and bangs his fists against it with growing aggression, growling and flailing his legs in the air. Having exhausted his ire, he applies himself once more to the chair, punctuating each attempt with a savage bellow. Failing to break the legs, he decides to try his strength on the chair’s bars instead. This proves to be more successful- the chair’s age is revealed in the brittleness of these bars. He stands up, waves the bar in front of the woman and snaps it in two with a malicious glee. Following this, he turns his back towards her and stomps forward, gesticulating to the ceiling.
M: Is this just reward for the joke I just told? Is this a fair return for the gift I have offered, a gay coda to a (blissfully) tepid day? [crosses himself and looks towards the ceiling] For the few seconds we have stolen from tedium, a welcome reprieve, a few transports of joy for these asthmatic lungs? Have you no delicacy?
Cowed by his eloquence, the woman casts a downtrodden look towards the ground.
F: Well, I’m sorry, darling, but it’s just that you haven’t said it in such an awfully long time. It wouldn’t hurt, would it, if you were to say it once more, that which has been said so many times in the past?
The man swivels himself about with great force and theatricality. His fury, while fearsome, borders upon affectation. He thrusts an accusing finger at the woman.
M: Your presumption, madam, is most noxious to me. Precedent promises nothing. You must not deduce…
W: Oh do, dear, please, just once, I need to hear you say it.
M:...deduce, from prior evidence, that the present is an adjunct of the past. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory.
This evidently touches a nerve, and the woman shoots a contemptuous glare at the man.
W: How could it be otherwise? Would I be sitting on this wretched chair, in this wretched hovel, laughing at your smutty jokes had I not imagined, once long ago, that things would be otherwise?
M: Explain. I am in the dark.
The woman, having gained ascendancy in this confrontation, draws herself up to a formidable height.
W: The chain of causality runs thus, observe: Now. [looks at watch] 8:34 pm. May 14th. The year of our lord Anno Domini Two Thousand and Nine. Arse on moldering stool. [The woman takes out a roll of measuring tape from beneath her skirt, measures the width of the stool, then proceeds, with some difficulty, to measure the circumference of her ample backside] Width of stool seat: 11 inches precisely. Girth of arse: 13 inches. Warts on left cheek. Splinters in right. Sawdust shack with mildewed walls. Vermin problem. Malodorous outhouse. Fine. Inventory taken every day. Inventory found to be generally satisfactory. Just. Why?
The woman stares intently at the man.
M: Why? However should I know?
W: Three words, uttered with irresistible conviction and reassuring frequency over the span of a decade. A deluge of devotion. A torrent of tenderness. An avalanche of affection. What lass could resist? [blinks rapidly, eyes aflutter, hands on breast, film forms on dreamy eyes. Reverie subsides, woman scowls and forms fist with both hands] And then none. The faucet of forsworn fidelity, run dry!
The man, flabbergasted, can do little but stare at his wife, mouth agape.
W: Would I be here without your pledges and your platitudes? Your vows and vouchsafings? Your concupiscent confidences? For all of this I ask no recompense, but three words. From you, the most meager of offerings, you, who was once so good with words!
M: Was! Once! Was! Once! Ah, blessed past tense, blessed, hallowed, sacred past tense. Is it gone now, truly? [Man gets down on one knee, clasps both hands upon the woman’s arm and shakes it fervently] Say it once more, I need to be certain that it has passed. Say it, say!
W: The most gifted poet of his decade, the foremost wordsmith of his age, leader of the Post-Post-Renovationists, feted by the right, the left and the incurably apathetic, darling of the academies and the Fair Trade Cafes, at my feet!
M: [derisory] That was a sight to behold, I trust.
W: [turns to audience] And his very best poems, epistles to me! Observe.
The woman lifts the fringes of her skirt, unveiling a plethora of knick-knacks. This extraordinary trove is evidently a repository for all manner of sentimental items. Hidden in the ruffles is a bulging, frayed pouch, stuffed with yellowed papers and torn envelopes. These papers are slightly moist.
W: “Thick rivulets of jet, a billowing crepuscular surge…”
M: Yes, reading Baudelaire can do that to you, I’m afraid…
W: “My ardor glows with the will-o-the-wisp!”
M: [Turns to audience with exaggerated grimace] Edgar Allen rears his ashen brow!
M: [Holds nose, facing audience] Pah, it reeks of Rimbaud! Mentholated metaphors that barely cloak the stink! [pause] Look, need you remind me of all my falterings! Of my borrowings? Of my scrapings from the symbolist cistern? That mucus from the surrealist spittoon! You want more of these, these…abortions?
W: [Presses pathetic scraps to her breast with touching solicitude, stroking the ends with her raw fingertips] They’re the most beautiful lines I know.
M: [affecting an academician’s air] Your ear, I fear, is irreparably damaged.
W: [waves moist papers in air, begins to bawl] Lies? Lies?
M: Listen. Every day you learn. Learning is losing. Every day you must learn to lose. Will to lose. BEG to lose. Man is a damp snotrag that must be wrung. A moist faggot that is not yet fit for burning. Words, they moisten. They lubricate the pistons of life, they grease up the sprockets so the world can steamroll over our ribs. The everlasting treadmill. I WANT OUT! I WANT OFF! I WANT TO VEGETATE IN SILENCE! [looks anxiously at woman, imploring her to understand] Listen to me. Listen, or you won’t have understood a thing. Not a thing.
W: [tearfully] Why write? Why speak?
M: Bloodletting. The pen is a spear in my side. A tourniquet. I want every poem to be a wound. I want each verse to tear an artery open. So that I need no longer feel this compromise, this surrender in my veins. I’ve had enough of saline words, of pustulent words, of insecticide words, of iodine words, of muskrat words, of bacterial words sprawling with silverfish, an endless fungal bloom, sprouting, sprouting, acrid yeast fermenting in every orifice, sprouting, sprouting, a milky moss coating the tongue, sprouting, sprouting, SPROUTING…
The man begins to scrape at his tongue desperately with his fingernails, and in his delirium he begins to feel quite ill. He covers his mouth and excuses himself, stumbles forward and lands on his knees. The woman, wrenched from her fit of pathos by the sight of her ailing lover, reflexively springs to her feet and attends to him in a moving, but rather abject fashion. She strokes his back with great affection, subduing her despair. The crumpled poems are still pressed to her breast; her arm is stiff, clutching desperately at the papers. The man turns to her with alarming suddenness, seized by an inexplicable frenzy.
M: More words? More words? To muffle the thud of the piledriver? To drown the sound of bludgeoning? To silence the endless WHIRRRR of the meat tenderizer? It flays the flesh, it flays the flesh, it makes a mockery of our maunderings and melodramas…
The man is mortified by his speech, his face blanched by a hideous terror. He begins to choke, gagging on his own grandiloquence. Chest heaving, the man gets to his feet, eyes bulging from their sockets. The man begins to wheeze, lungs desperate for air. He stumbles to stage right, right arm stretched towards the audience.
The woman instinctively takes to her feet and begins to move awkwardly towards the man, only to trip over the voluminous ruffles of her skirt. Neither the man nor the woman is particularly adroit. Her right arm thrusts beneath her to guard her fall; her left arm remains pressed firmly to her chest, fist wrapped tightly around the poems. She hits the floor with a thud, surprised that her left arm remained rigid throughout her descent. The left arm has evidently assumed a life of its own, dislocated from the rest of the body. The right arm begins to claw at the left, attempting to rouse it. With effort, the woman manages to bring her left arm down to her belly. Pressing the left forearm down with her right elbow, she wraps her left arm between her legs, holding it in place as she begins to prise her fist open. In her solicitude for the man, she had forgotten what the fist enclosed. When she discovers its contents, she is delighted. Her eyes indicate her surprise, and she begins to unwrap the crumpled balls of paper with her right hand. Her left arm, intransigent as ever, remains lodged between her hips. As she reads the poems to herself, she lapses into a state of complete transfixion, occasionally lifting her eyes from the parchment, only to lose herself to a distant reverie. She begins to mumble certain verses to herself, reciting them as though they were a mantra, an incantation. The man begins to gasp loudly on stage right, right fist thumping his chest with pronounced violence. As the volume of his expectorations escalates, the woman’s voice grows louder, shriller. What results is an awful cacophony, a discordant mix of groans, yelps and syncopated speech, as each voice attempts to smother the other. As this reaches its apex, the man crawls towards the woman and begins to howl volubly into her ear. The woman, unperturbed, continues to drown his shrieks with bellowed verse.
The man is overwhelmed. Defeated, he retreats to his chair, drapes his coat over his face and once more assumes the posture of sleep. His right arm reaches towards the light bulb and pulls at the switch. Darkness. The woman’s voice subsides into a vague mumble, punctuated with tearful gulps. The voice continues to soften, until it becomes a spectral whisper. Silence. Nothing is heard for a space of a minute or two.
The man’s right arm reaches once more for the switch. The stage is illuminated once more. The woman’s back is on the ground, her right palm covering her face. Her left arm remains between her hips. This is, of course, an extraordinary posture to assume. The poems, crumpled into small balls, are scattered around her. The man peeks timorously beneath his coat to gauge the gravity of the situation. Feigning apathy, he wraps the coat tightly around his face and turns the light off once more. Darkness.
In the course of a minute, the light goes on and off periodically, as the man wrestles with his inclination to respond to the woman. He decides to leave the light on. The arm relinquishes the light switch and casts the coat off the man’s face. The man falls to his knees and moves cautiously towards the woman. This is a slow and excruciating process- the man is checked numerous times by reticence, pride, bashfulness. He looks behind him several times, casting his gaze longingly upon the chair, the coat. As he does this, he stumbles upon her, falling upon her body. He begins to kiss her, his lips moving across her right arm, towards her cheek. His kisses are saturated with desire and apology. The woman lowers her right palm, brings her left hand to his cheek. They stare at one another. Their lips meet.