Historians and Degenerates

By Joey Comeau

It has been six months since Marion disappeared on me. She left her journals, all of her belongings, some romance novels, a collection of ugly teddy bears, but nothing which indicates the kind of planning that you would need to successfully jump off the grid. We were married for sixteen years. She said she enjoyed sex with me, but sometimes she locked herself in the bathroom afterwards. That's the only thing that sticks out, when I think back.

On the train ride home tonight, I see her in a tunnel, out the subway window. It's just a glimpse, as we come around the corner and the train slows. She has a bandanna holding back her blonde hair. Her face is smeared with dirt. Maybe there's a gun in her hand? She has that same smile on her face that she used to get when she was working in the garden. She looks happy. There's a flash.

I'm standing up before I realize what's happening, and when the subway stops at the next station, I step out onto the platform and start heading back the way we've come. Who lives off the grid, anyway? Revolutionaries and criminals and historians. Yesterday I thought I saw her rappelling down the side of the bank across the street from McDonald's, near the square. If it was her, she's been working out. Her ass looked amazing in those tight camouflage pants.

There's a small pathway that heads back into the subway tunnel, and a short gate at the end of the platform. When I get too close, a camera drops from the ceiling and takes my picture. "Sir, this area is off-limits," it says. "Please turn around and return to the subway platform."

I do.

Waiting in the designated area of the platform, I take out the subway map I keep in my bag and mark a little X between the last stop and this one. There's already an X there, so I add today's date beside the new X. I get back on the subway. There's a girl sitting a few seats down from me, watching me fumble with the map and pen, and I smile at her. She looks away.

I live on the third floor, and I walk up the stairs out of principle. I have well-defined calves. When I approach the apartment door, the camera recognizes me, and Marion's voice says, "September the twenty-sixth: I had pineapple with my breakfast this morning." The door swings open, and her voice says, "Pineapple makes me feel alive in a way I can't explain. Those exotic, imperfect circles bring the whole world into focus around me. I remember how wonderful and strange life can be."

I can hear the vacuum going in one of the bedrooms. It rolls out to greet me, stopping at my feet and blinking. Marion's voice comes out, "December fifth: it snowed again today, somewhere in Canada. All we get these days is ash." That's the status code for no problems vacuuming, and no security troubles during the day. If something minor had happened, like a neighbor peeking in a window, Marion's voice would have talked about tea on January seventeenth. If there was a break-in, the door would have told me.

It took weeks to program the appliances to communicate entirely using snippets of her journals. But in the mornings now, the toaster burns a smile onto the face of my toast and it says, "My mother died today, and I just stood there at the phone, confused. I can't remember the last thing I said to her."

I remember how upset Marion was about that. She couldn't remember her last words to her mother. I feel the same way, now. I'm not going to forget Marion's voice, but her face is getting fuzzy. I have trouble remembering expressions that aren't in our photographs.

Her journals are anything but meticulous. She rambles on and on, without any structure beyond saying the date first. Sometimes she relates an event from the day, sometimes from her childhood. Sometimes she talks about ideas. The vacuum is cleaning again, on a quieter setting in the bedroom. I sit on the couch, and toss the map on the coffee table.

I relax on the couch while the house around me moves and cleans and whispers to itself all night in her voice. Her journals were technically illegal, and I should have either turned them in to the authorities or destroyed them. They're all I have left of her, though. So I used them to make this empty house ours again.

I can't see the door from the couch, but I hear the click as it unlocks and swings open. My eyes stay closed, but I'm fully awake again as I hear Marion's recorded voice saying, "April first: it's been three years since I've talked to my cousin. I realized that this morning. I'm not even sure what city she lives in. We're so different, now. When we were kids, we were best friends." The door swings closed, and I hear feet on the carpet near the couch.

I keep my eyes closed. I imagine that it's Marion. Was that the air conditioner, or a sharp intake of breath at seeing me asleep here? Is it really her? It's too quiet, for too long, and then the door opens again, and closes again. When I open my eyes, the subway map is gone, and a small book sits on the coffee table. On the cover there's a picture of me, sitting on a subway seat, in my work clothes. I can't tell from my expression if I'm coming from work or going to work.

There's a note taped to the cover, so that I can't see what the book is called. The note says, "Here's your copy. Marion." This is a professionally printed book, though there's no publisher's mark or ISBN. "By Marion Historian" it says, an assumed last name, like Susan Freedom, or Tina Revolution. Marion Historian. Is that her handwriting? I start to read the introduction.

She's written a biography of our sex life, a history of every time we made love, in explicit detail. It's horrifying and illegal, and in the introduction she writes, "I know that he'll be mortified when he reads this, and I never meant to hurt him. But we can't all lead our lives in secret from one another any more. How long ago did we stop asking why there are limits to what we can publish? Now we ask 'Why would you want to publish that anyway?' Now we say 'Why would you want to publish a description of a man smelling a woman's armpits?' (see page 183). There are things in this book that you do, and until now you thought maybe you were the only one. In any case, there couldn't be many, could there?"

It is three hundred pages long, and the type is small. The vacuum cleaner is doing the computer room, now. I open to the first chapter, and start to read. The very first line is "He thinks I am in this bathroom crying. I didn't want to forget anything. Tonight he twisted my arm behind me and laughed when he came. His eyes were wide."

It's three hundred pages long, with illustrations. I take it in to the computer room and start scanning chunks into the house programming. I'm afraid to read more. The parts that I open to are all awful. "He has started smelling my armpits just before he goes."

This isn't the first Historian book I've seen. People get their hands on them; they pass them around at the office. They scan them and email them to their friends. They quote them on the news at night. I can see that half-smile on the newscaster's face as she quotes, "He was born with an extra testicle, and though it was removed, he likes me to pay attention to it. To make believe that it's there. He says, 'It's real to me.'"

The new programming takes a couple of minutes to propagate through the house network, and then the blinds roll open and in a synthesized imitation of Marion's voice they say, "He likes the idea that people might see us. He means me, though. He likes the idea that people might see me."

When I lie back down on the couch, the vacuum scoots past, shrieking, "Sometimes, when we're done, he lays his head on my chest and listens to my heart beating. He whispers over and over 'It doesn't matter if we die and that's everything, this is worth it. This is worth it. This is worth it.' And he shakes a little, but doesn't cry. I found a bible hidden in his work bag. I'm worried about him."

The dishwasher is singing to itself as it rumbles. I hear my name again and again as I try to sleep. My wife, the historian. I wonder which rumours are true. There are so many rumours about the historians. I roll over and look at the book. I really did think she was crying in the bathroom. I used to ask her every time if she needed to talk to someone. She just smiled and shook her head. Was that really her tonight? Did she send someone else to deliver the book? She isn't dead.

In the morning, my name is on the TV. My picture is in a little square above the newscaster's head, and someone is knocking on my door. It's my neighbour's daughter, Kathy, in her nightgown, holding the book. Her hair is cropped short and she's got a dozen piercings. "I got you a copy," she says, pushing it into my hands. "You should stay home today. I'm on page thirty-seven," she says, and she blushes. She pulls open her gown a little and smiles at me before she turns to go.

Page thirty-seven: "He whispered the wrong name tonight. He whispered Kathy, the girl next door, twenty-one years old. Her parents call her Kathy, but she told me once that she wants everyone to call her Red, after some famous detective. He's never even spoken to her, but that's where he was last night. He looks right at me, focuses his eyes on my face, and smiles. It's like watching a car on cruise control. It's too perfect."

I make myself toast ("He's tried three times to talk me into letting him take pictures of us in bed, but I haven't said yes yet. What would they be like? I'm tempted.") and open the door to leave ("There's a simulated video on the computer of girls doing something I've never seen before. He programmed it himself, and called the file 'snowballing.' He didn't even try to hide it from me. One looks like me. The other is a woman I don't recognize.") and I feel ill. I'm ashamed, but I know it's going to be worse if I don't go to work. At work I can smile and say that it's all lies.

On the subway, I look out the window. There's nothing out there but dark tunnel walls. I don't remember sex with Marion the way she does. None of those things were meant to be public. The subway stops and I get out even though this isn't my stop. I walk to the end of the platform, and a camera pops down to take my picture.

"Sir, this area is off-limits," it says. "Please turn around and return to the subway platform." I don't. I push through the small gate, and I follow the metal walkway into the dark. Everything is so dirty, so wet. I can feel the grime between my shoes and the grate that I'm walking on. The walls are slick with grey.

I come to a recess in the wall, where someone has set up a lawn chair in front of a locked door. I drop into the chair. The book is in my pocket, but there isn't enough light here to read. My phone begins to vibrate, and the ring tone is Marion's voice.

I don't answer the phone. "We took a dozen pictures in bed, flashes of the hottest moments. Hands tied. Blindfolds. Mouths and lips and teeth. When we were both done, we sat and looked through the results. It was horrible. Each picture was more unflattering than the last. He took his pocketknife and cut them open, reaching for the chemicals inside. We scratched out the images, scraping away our faces and bodies to powder. It felt like voodoo, ritualistic. He scratched him, and I scratched me. In the morning I felt cursed, and he smiled and went to work."

I remember that feeling too, though I never spoke to her about it. The chemical powder wouldn't come off the blade of the knife, and I threw it away and bought a new pocketknife. It's in my pocket now, and I feel it with my fingertips.

I hear a rumble growing, and the train comes around the corner screaming with wind and metal, slowing for the turn. I watch the faces of the people inside. Marion isn't there, but there are a dozen beautiful women in the six cars that pass. Two or three dozen moderately attractive women.

Seeing every intimate detail of your sex life played out on the page is ugly, but how many women will read it? How many will see something that interests them, something they wouldn't have thought me capable of? It's been six months, and I still haven't asked anyone on a date. That girl Kathy this morning, she smiled at me. She's smiled at me before, but this was a different kind of smile. Notoriety might not be so bad. I wonder where Marion is.

I walk back to the station and wait on the platform for a subway that will take me to work. While I wait, I flip through the book, pen in hand, underlining passages that make me sound adventurous. There are a lot of them, I guess.

A reporter is waiting in my office. She says, "Your wife claims that our society is profoundly sex-negative as a result of government censorship. She says that by being forthright about the sexual details of our lives, she is helping people form a more true opinion of what's healthy and normal. How does it make you feel that she uses the details from your marriage to further this agenda?"

My phone is ringing again in my pocket. Marion's voice says, "He told me once, talking so quiet it was almost a whisper, that he wondered what it would be like to love somebody else."

The reporter says, "Do you have any comment at all? Is any of the book true? Did she just make it all up?"

I wonder how hard it would be to break the security of my office appliances the way I did at home. I could come to work to Marion's voice. I think about erasing her journals and setting all my home appliances back to normal. I think about coming home to a real woman, and I smile at the reporter as wide as I can.

"Have you read it?" I say. "It's all true." I pull my copy out from my jacket, and open it to an underlined passage. "Maybe we could meet later tonight to discuss it over dinner?"

She smiles and shakes her head. "I'm not going to dinner with a man who has an imaginary third testicle," she says. "My picture would be in the paper the next morning."

What do you say to something like that? "I'm really busy," I say, and she nods her head. "That last part was the ending I needed, anyway," she says.

"What last part?"

"The part where you ask me out and I make the crack about your imaginary testicle. Solid gold," she says, and she leaves. When the door is closed, and she's gone, I sit back in my chair and let my breath out long and slow. I flip through the book some more, and I find the chapter where Marion talks about my habit of naming the parts of her body for the characters in whatever movie we've just seen, acting out the scenes I thought were the best with her breasts and elbows while she stares at me, unimpressed.

Joey Comeau studies Linguistics in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and writes the weekly webcomic A Softer World. To contact him, send him email at untoward@asofterworld.com.