Sandra Benedetto: The Somnambulant Wife (Part 1 of 2)

cheever
Photo from Vanity Fair

Last year I became obsessed with John Cheever’s short stories (I know, another WASP-y dude). Two of my favorites are The Enormous Radio and The Swimmer. His writing style is incomparable, but I wanted to try to imitate it in this piece.

It started the way all things begin, out of nowhere. One day everything was normal, and the next day there was a wrinkle in the routine; or, in their case, the next night. He awoke in the early morning hours to find Julia standing in their bedroom, facing the open wardrobe. When he asked what she was doing she didn’t respond. He told her to come back to bed. She stood still. It wouldn’t surprise him if some part of her brain was working below the surface to select the appropriate dress for Saturday evening cocktails at the Peterson’s. He thought it would be futile to persist, so he went back to sleep.

The next morning, Julia was frying eggs when he woke up. When he gave her a kiss on the cheek and asked how she was feeling today, she said she felt wonderful. What did he think about pork tenderloin for dinner? She could run to the butcher shop after dropping the children off at school. He thought he oughtn’t mention her sleepwalking because Julia tended to fixate on small things, and he didn’t want to worry her for what was surely a fleeting aberration. He remembered the time Kitty had a rash on the inside of her elbow and Julia was beside herself thinking it was scarlet fever, despite the absence of a fever and the telltale abdominal rash. Julia didn’t calm down until they’d brought her in to see the pediatrician. No, he didn’t need her to think it was anything serious.

The tenderloin that evening tasted a bit off, as if the poor swine had sensed what was coming in the moments before she was slaughtered. It was a chore for Del to finish his portion, thinking about the contaminating emotions brought on by imminent death. Who could say for certain what a pig would feel? If not fear and betrayal, surely uneasiness at the unexpected turn of events. He finished his whisky drink and wiped the corner of his mouth with his napkin before excusing himself from the table.

That night he had trouble falling asleep. He was more aware of Julia’s body lying next to him than he’d been in a long time. Eventually, convinced by her faint, even breaths that she was sleeping soundly, he drifted off. When he woke up a few hours later, he knew he was alone in the bed before opening his eyes. He ran his hand over the cool indentation of Julia’s phantom body. After a moment of reflection he realized he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep and got up to look for her.

He found her in Kitty’s room, staring through the lavender curtains into the garden. He grabbed her by the elbow, trying to escort her gently back to their room so as not to wake Kitty, but Julia wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t turn her head to look at him, even. Seeking to understand, he stood beside his entranced wife and looked out the window. All he saw was his well-manicured lawn and the birdbath in the Blackstone’s yard.

The night after that he found her in the pantry. The night after that, the sewing room. She was seated at the machine as if she were just waiting for someone to hand her the right spool so she could thread the bobbin, please. It was all harmless enough, if unsettling. But the night after that he found her standing at the front door with the door wide open, which disturbed him greatly. What if a neighbor were to pass by and spread gossip about nocturnal activities at the Templeton’s? What if, god forbid, one of the transients who sometimes hung about the train station decided to wander in search of an opportunity just like this? When he saw her there he cried out, hoping to startle her into waking. When she was unresponsive he picked her up and carried her to bed.

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