Crawling With Invisible Vermin

I told Toby to wash her hands every time she touched the turkey. Why didn't she listen to me? Now I'm holding her head as she heaves into the toilet, and between each regurgitative contraction she fixes me with an accusatory look. Unfair! How is this my fault? I warned her about salmonella. She shrugged it off. Now she's sick. I'm sorry, believe me I am, no dinner unless I drive to the diner on Hollywell Avenue, sit in a booth by myself, eat and read and endure the waitress's smug sympathetic smile while my wife lies in bed, sips tea and moans at each abdominal twinge. All because she grabbed a piece of celery and ate it as she stuffed the raw bird. This is a far from welcome turn of events for either of us, but I refuse to take the blame.

I mean, what century is this, after all? Germs are not a new idea. They're everywhere, which I've explained to Toby repeatedly and in the simplest possible terms. Basic seventh-grade science words--bacteria, microscopic--the same words, in fact, with which I teach these concepts to my seventh-grade science classes. They get it, and they're not winning any Westinghouse awards, if you know what I mean. Why can't she?

It isn't just turkey. Not only today's reminder of the nature of things, how whole worlds subsist on unseen planes of existence, infinitesimal arenas hidden yet teeming with biochemical interactions, electrical relationships, subatomic dynamics. I accept that she can't fathom the complex systems with which she coexists. Her brain isn't made that way. Nevertheless I find her attitude infuriating. Bad enough that she "hates science"--her actual phrase, infantile as well as meaningless from a literary viewpoint, which you'd think she'd appreciate since she's an English teacher, something you'd never guess given her habitual imprecision in thought and speech. But it gets worse. Of late, it seems to me, she hates everything remotely connected to science. Everyone with a scientific bent. Even her husband! And what's my crime? Imparting knowledge from time to time?

Here she kneels, shivering, sweating, shudders subsiding as I soothe her forehead with my cool palm. My poor puked-out wife, infested with rod-shaped cells propelled through her intestinal tract by hairy flagella--Toby sickened by microbes, not by me! So why does she remove my hand, glower, pull away? Why the crazed gaze, stumbling to her feet, lurching to the bedroom bookcase, searching, grabbing, tossing tomes, until she finds a narrow, hardbound volume and thrusts it toward me, her face glowing with a greenly feverish sheen as she grins maniacally--and why the angry laugh?

"Here, you bastard."

I gasp--in 27 years she's never talked to me like that. Sure, she's always been grumpy around the holidays. Grumbling about having to cook and clean, all those guests, no help except for the bird itself: that was my job. Every year I prepped and dressed the turkey, popped it in the oven and bopped back into the kitchen every 20 minutes to baste it. Toby bragged about her liberated man. Otherwise, though, a season to be endured. Those first years her folks, Toby showing off her wifely skills seeking a smidgen of praise from her unforthcoming mom, later the boys and me in the living room watching College Bowl, playing chess, consulting on Phil's geophysics midterm or Mark's debate club strategies. This year for the first time neither son came home. Phil's on a fellowship at Oxford; Mark is at his fiancee's folks on the West Coast. It was supposed to be an easy day. She was supposed to be relieved. No real work, no guests, no pressure, just Toby and me. Turkey, stuffing, an old movie on TV.

My wife shoves the book's spine into my midriff, hard, twice. Then slams it onto the floor. I stagger back, surprised at the noisy crash and the spasms of rhythmic pain that ripple my innards. Jesus, that book hit me like a fist to the solar plexus. My guts convulse as if they're crawling with invisible vermin. I double over in a sudden retch. I'm on my knees. I swallow. Try to breathe. I close my eyes, then open them again, tell myself to focus, stare at the book until the cover colors stop swimming. It works. Two minutes, three, my heart slows, belly settles. There.

"There, you bastard." I lift my head to Toby above me. "That's right. Your favorite book." I look back down. The Unintended Feast. No, it's not my favorite, but it is a fine work of popular science, and full of lively illustrations to hold the layperson's interest. That's why I gave it to her for her last birthday. I thought she'd enjoy learning about the unseen beings that thrive amongst us--on eyebrows, hair, fingernails, saliva, not to mention countertops, sinks, unwashed strawberries, pink pork, uncooked geese--guests, as it were, and us, our bodies, the unwitting hosts. There's a whole other level to life. Wouldn't anyone want to know?

Has she even read the thing? I pick it up, turn the pages. Stiff, shiny, new. Untouched. I shake my head. So now, somehow, her food poisoning is my fault? Or sillier yet, the book's? I sigh. Women. You can't say that out loud anymore, and I never do. Still, I hold the evidence here in my hands. Her mind doesn't work like mine. So much more going on than the eye perceives, but my wife can't grasp it. She doesn't see.

About the author:

Shelley Ettinger lives in New York City. Her work has been published recently or is forthcoming in Blithe House Quarterly, Lodestar Quarterly, Tattoo Highway, Snow Monkey and other journals.