Issue > Fiction
Sarah Creech

Sarah Creech

Sarah Creech's debut novel, Season of the Dragonflies, was published by Harpercollins in 2014, and it was a SIBA Okra pick and a SIBA book award long list selection. Her second novel, The Crooked Road, will be published in the fall of 2016. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in various publications, including WritersDigest.com, Storysouth and Literary Mama among others. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte.

One Flesh


You attend church in a warehouse on West Boulevard, the poorest neighborhood in the city. The church values art and music. Your husband tells you he prays for a nicer facility. But it's unlike any church you've attended in the Bible Belt: only one crucifix and always live art installations during the Easter service; an indie rock band; free coffee; candles on each table; low lighting. The place feels like a poetry gathering, or how you imagine one to be, especially on the days the pastor reads from the Psalms. Mostly he prefers Apostle Paul, who didn't recommend marriage: But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. You're beginning to understand Paul's position.

Despite the printed warnings inside each stall in the women's bathroom at church, someone flushed a tampon. The drains here are backed up and women must use the men's bathroom for an indefinite period of time. The men's room lacks the extras, like an orchid and a wall infuser spreading a noxious amount of fresh linen scent, as if women smell worse than men. After your husband pulls out of the gravel parking lot, he says he's glad he didn't need to use the bathroom at church today. You say nothing. Each Sunday he excuses himself from the congregation, just before communion, and goes to the restroom. Today he ate the body of Christ.

On Sundays at Harris Teeter the rotisserie chickens are $4.99 and your husband insists on stopping at the store to select the most succulent birds. This takes him twenty minutes, minimum. He buys three and eats them all by the end of the week.

The bathtub drain no longer works at home, the stagnant water from yesterday's shower rising and falling in the basin like high and low tide. You're not sure what's wrong. You're sure you don't want to call the plumber. You're sure your husband hasn't noticed. He won't, not until you say something. He will use the second bathroom for days, weeks, eternity if he must. You won't call his attention to the problem. You will take care of it. The wet/dry vacuum your now dead grandparents left you in their downsizing process to assisted living on the way to hospice is covered in cobwebs. It looks like R2-D2, only shorter, made of plastic, and with a hose. Like R2-D2, it will help you: a temporary handyman.

**

Your husband tells friends at dinner parties that his wife can work, if she wants, but he should be the breadwinner. Mostly, the other men agree. A few remain silent. Without question, he will bring you lilies if friends are coming over.

Three days and three nights. You call the plumber. The trip lever broke. $352.11 for his time to replace it. Your husband requests the receipt and you refer him to the refrigerator where you post all money-related information, just as you have for the past five years. He drills you about the itemized charges.

At your part-time job you tell Marlene, your cubicle mate at Electrolux, how much you forked out to the balding plumber who fixed the drain and talked to you about his yoga routine. He demonstrated the downward dog in your bathtub. She leans across you and shakes the mouse to your Dell computer. Marlene smells like warm cucumbers. She types in the Home Depot URL and searches the website for replacement bathtub drains. A nice brass one, she says, pointing at the screen. A lot cheaper too. Next time get your husband to do it. You tell her thanks and she returns to her seat. You can smell her still. She answers a service call. You read customer reviews about the repair process. James056327 has installed five of these in the past month. Very easy to do in a residence.

You spend a lot of time in traffic, considering the precious little money you make, but commuting allows you to listen to NPR. Diane Rehm will narrate the news of the world for much of your adult existence, and this thought causes your pulse to quicken. Why wasn't life designed to last longer? It's also your only chance to listen to pop music and news: Kim Kardashian made millions on that butt. She's outraged by accusations of implants and injections.

What would sex with another man feel like? Or a dildo? Commuting encourages your thoughts to wander.

**

At the YMCA your husband grips the chain at the top of the punching bag with his thighs. He hangs upside down, his gray t-shirt submitting to gravity and exposing his abdomen. The woman in spandex leggings on the elliptical machine next to you stops watching the celebrity chef on the tiny television before her and stares at your husband as he completes ten sets of twenty sit-ups. Sweat drips between your breasts that you bully into a sports bra five days a week. Your husband does more than you, pushes harder. He dismounts by handstand and hammers out one armed push-ups, sprints around the track, a speed bag routine, sit-ups again, a punching bag routine, all before he requests you to spot him in the weight lifting room. He does this so he can spot you too, but only after your cardio is complete. No wives accompany the other men to the weight room. Your husband wants you to watch him bench press beyond last week, beyond last month, beyond last year. He will improve in your lives together. He will always go forward. Sometimes you wonder what he'd do if the bar rolled onto his Adam's apple, black iron weights on each side sinking the bar deeper into his skin. His face would turn red, then purple. This you knew. But what would his mouth do?

Another Sunday and the plumbing problems at church continue. For the second week in a row, your husband takes communion before you. The wafer tastes like chalk. Later your husband suggests you keep your opinions to yourself. Again, Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians: The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. And this too from Romans: By law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.

**

NPR completed a survey of the most Bible-minded cities in America, and you heard the results on your way home from work. You were born and raised in the small city third from the top of the list, and you currently live in the city fifth from the top.

You are in the car on the way to the gym. Your husband notices a bumper sticker. Semper Fi, your husband says, his fist lifted into the air. On the elliptical machine you often think about what would happen if you had a stroke or were diagnosed with a terminal illness. Your husband would be a great caretaker. You're sure of it.

But you refuse to eat the fat burning pills. And the whey protein shakes.

Your husband swears he likes your body.

A portrait of Jesus Christ hangs on the wall outside the locker room at the Y. His skin glows in a golden taupe color that gives a vintage feel to the illustration. Jesus's hair grows much better than yours; his long locks are wavy. Your hair dresser would say he has good shine. Jesus looks up and to the right at his Father. Your Father. The Father. His eyes look soft, wounded. Brown eyes, like yours. Why does Jesus have such nicer hair than you? Has the picture always been there?

**

You met your husband in gym class when you were sophomores in high school. You never met your father and your mother died of brain cancer. She woke up one morning with shaking hands and a drooping mouth. You drove her to the urgent care. At first the doctor suspected a minor seizure. You pointed out the spit pooling in the corner of her mouth, which your mother couldn't feel. They transported her to the local hospital, and then to UVA. The tumor was larger than an egg. You know this because you asked. Now whenever you scramble eggs you think of death. She died two days after the surgery. You moved in with your boyfriend's family. One more person to feed where there's barely enough to begin with: your boyfriend's father said this about you a few months before he left.

Your boyfriend made sure before he enlisted: the military benefits would cover healthcare and housing and provide an allowance. He wanted to take care of you. He knew you'd be happy. What other options did you have? He asked you this repeatedly. You married him when you turned eighteen. You hadn't graduated from high school yet.

This time, from Ephesians: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

The toilets in the women's bathroom flush now, just like they should.

**

Friends who come over for dinner love to listen to your husband tell this story: All he looks forward to at Camp Lejeune is mail. He needs letters from his wife and his mother to keep him going. Some guys, they never get mail. They ask him to read his wife's letters aloud. They like the way you write to him. They want to know what it's like to have a wife and a mother who care. One guy, a huge black guy like a linebacker, has a girlfriend who is dumb enough to send him pictures. A drill sergeant intercepts the letter and pins the pictures of the naked girlfriend to the board. He calls everyone to attention and reads the girlfriend's letter out loud. She misses him. She wants him to come home so she can fuck him. Remember when he wore her red thong underwear? She wants to do that again. Every time the girlfriend sends a new letter the drill sergeant reads it to the group. The guys who never get mail look forward to it. Nobody messes with the linebacker, your husband tells your friends who love this story.

Sometimes he says to you, At least we're not like that.

Sex on your stomach is uncomfortable, but it's the only position your husband likes.

**

He comes home early from work on your day off. He repaired an engine issue on a US Airways plane, stood up, and felt pain in his abdomen. Nothing bad. Something he ate. All he needs is rest. He's sure it will pass. You continue to scrub the grout in the kitchen floor tiles with bleach, though no matter what you do, the gray shade returns within a week. You will scrub it again. You work part-time. Yours is a life of leisure, he likes to remind you. Cleaning the grout and baseboards once a week isn't too much for him to ask. After all, his salary bought you this decent house so close to the airport that you hear planes take off all day and all night. You imagine their destinations. It's sunny somewhere and someone somewhere licks salt off a margarita.

The small group for married couples decides to memorize a Bible verse each week. This is the first one: After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.

Of all the passages, why start here? Why not a popular and uplifting one?

Just keep your questions to yourself.

**

His gym trips reduce from twice daily to once a day. You believe he's turned a different shade, like the color of urine. He says he's tanning. It's summer, after all. But in his eyes? People don't tan in the whites of their eyes. That's a stupid thing to say. You agree. But shouldn't he see a doctor?

You make him swear to stop taking the fat burning pills. He swears something awful. Don't swear like that, you say. In the name of Jesus Christ. You demand this. In the name of Jesus Christ, stop taking those pills. He vows in the name of Jesus Christ.

But he doesn't stop.

**

Your husband passes out in the shower and knocks himself unconscious on the tub faucet. You call an ambulance. In the time before the paramedics arrive, you stroke his buzzed hair and conclude, beyond a doubt, that he doesn't look the same. He can't deny he's the color of mustard. The ambulance arrives in a storm of sound. The neighbors congregate in the front yard. You wonder if you'll need a receipt for the ride to the hospital.

The doctor asks what he's been taking and you tell him. For how long? Since high school. Dosage? That you don't know. Hours pass. His mother arrives. Soon enough you learn that your husband needs a liver transplant. But he's so young, his mother says. Later a psychiatrist comes by to the room where your husband remains comatose. The psychiatrist wants to know: Does he have a history of control issues?

**

Thankfully, the doctor tells you, liver transplants are fairly common and have high success rates. We'll know if that's a possibility a little later.

Were you aware he was also taking steroids? And pain killers? He didn't reenlist: that's your response, like it explains anything.

If he dies, you will be married to him for eternity. When he greets you on the shore of Heaven, his body will be restored. He won't be jaundiced. He'll be kind again. He will never call you a stupid bitch. He will never tell you to keep your goddamn fucking ideas to yourself. You don't want your husband to die. Except, maybe you do? A pain strikes in your upper abdomen. The two will become one flesh. It's the only verse you've managed to memorize. Your pain is from anxiety, so says the nurse. Your small group brings flowers and food and prayers.

**

Your husband's glory will be in heaven. His mother bites her nails and repeats this phrase to the point you fear saying a very unchristian thing to her.

The widows at the gym congregate in the hot tub, naked. They are fifty years older than you. You've always avoided the hot tub, but this doesn't mean you haven't seen them: rolling flesh, dimpled thighs, tiny white towels not used to hide their bodies. They look so much happier than you.

His mother cries and wonders why her son didn't reach out to her. Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Ephesians 6:1. You're aware that your husband isn't saved like he always said he was. Now his mother knows.

**

He's awake, but he won't talk to you, not to anyone. The doctor tells you he will be placed on the liver transplant list, and he will most likely live. He will rise from the hospital bed. Your small group members stop by and lay hands on you and your husband. They pray. They tell you prayer changes things.

In the night the hospital hums at a reduced volume. You attempt to sleep upright in a chair, but his crying wakes you. You pretend to sleep. You hear him talk to himself. He says what he'd never tell you. He says he knows he won't stop taking pills. He won't. He can't. He doesn't know how to be different, Lord. He just doesn't know how.

The next day at church you are alone and you hear once more from Apostle Paul: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. The congregation prays for your husband, for he is a son of God. They pray for your marriage to be restored.

You should close your eyes during prayer, but you don't.

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