The King of Cuckolds

(This story first appeared in the Quarterly #FTW01 package.)

He’s standing in their bedroom, over the pile of clothes that he’s pulled out of her closet, when the Rauschenberg story pops into his head. Robert Rauschenberg, only a year out of art school, is drunk. He is knocking on Willem de Kooning’s studio door. There’s enough left in the bottle to offer the old man a drink. He’s here to ask for a drawing. To erase. The old man is amused and agrees. But here’s the good bit, the part that applies to our current predicament: the old man purposely chooses a drawing that is fucking hard to erase. It takes Rauschenberg two months to do it. The old man didn’t make it easy. Not that he should have. Not that this should be easy either.

He finishes pulling her clothes out of her closet. He overturns her drawers into the pile. And her hamper. Those smell particularly like her. He tries not to think about it. He grabs one of her shirts and tries ripping it in half. After a few tugs he finally gets a sleeve off. Then another. Ripping someone’s clothes to shreds isn’t as easy as you’d think. He makes a mental note to start going to the gym when this is all over. For a few reasons. He starts off with his bare hands. And the appropriate amount of rage. That gets him past the shirts. The lighter garments are easier. Cotton rips nicely. His fingers hurt.

By the time he gets to the outerwear he finds himself needing a knife. She always did take pride in buying well-made clothes. Luckily, she also enjoyed to cook. They’re well-stocked in the knife department. A fact he tries not to linger on for too long. Stabbing at the winter coat he’d gotten her last Christmas is particularly satisfying. All of her pockets are empty, a sign of someone trying too  hard to erase something. When he gets to the knits he has to switch to a serrated knife, and for good measure he grabs a pair of kitchen shears while he’s in the kitchen. And an X-acto knife.

By now his rage has turned methodical. He’s carefully separating the clothes apart. Looking for seams. Begrudgingly admiring the handiwork on the pieces that are harder to destroy. He remembers this sweater from Christmas. Maybe he got it for her. Now he wonders which “he” he’s writing about.

The knits go from irritating to satisfying as they turn into puzzles whose method of destruction need to be unlocked.
He’s not sure when the arranging starts, but it starts by color, then fabric, then size. A pile of buttons, carefully pulled off and stacked, then arranged by size and color as well. Zippers, by length, many with the vestigial fabric they’d once been attached to still hanging from them.

At some point it becomes important to carefully cut out animal prints, a favorite theme of hers, carefully with scissors. The room was becoming a zoo. He’s in the middle of pulling an owl decal off a sweater when the phone rings. It’s his mother and not something he needs right now. He ignores it, goes back to the owl and makes a “How many licks DOES it take?” joke to himself. He regrets it almost immediately.

He is surrounded by shreds of what used to be her clothes. He tries to remember what she packed when she left. It was a small suitcase. Not much. Certainly not the stupid cardigan with the unicorn prints. He can see what’s left of that one. God, he always hated that sweater.

He is covered in filth. Whatever kind of filth and grime and dust you get covered in from ripping clothes apart. He takes a shower, makes himself a bowl of soup, gets dressed, taking particular joy in being able to choose what to wear. He Googles an address and writes it on a small box which he fills with all the buttons in his little pile.

He walks to the corner store, buys a book of stamps and — what the fuck — a pack of smokes. He enjoys that the stamps say “forever”. He enjoys the first cigarette in years on his walk to the mailbox. No one sends surprises in the mail anymore, so he is pleased.

He hopes her lover’s wife will enjoy the buttons.