(For Kate. Good for the goose, good for the gander.)
Since Mr. Ballard had been on Ativan for a while, not to mention Lexapro, Zoloft, Paxil and Wellbutrin, everyone felt uneasy about letting him know that his wife Brenda had been in a disastrous car accident.
It was Chip, Mr. Ballard’s younger brother, who finally texted about it: “Shit. Bro. Sorry 2 tell U, but Brenda was in an accident. Flipped the Explorer off US 1. Fucking American cars! Try not 2 lose Ur shit over this, ok? She’s DOA. Be strong.”
Other men might have taken a while to process this, might have felt disbelief, might have left their gaze drift about in confused aimlessness. Not Mr. Ballard. He understood at once, and pictured the car as a burning hulk by the side of the highway, and Brenda twisted somewhere in that flaming vehicular prison, and the hopeless ambulance ride as the EMTs gave up on the corpse. Mr. Ballard sobbed with sudden, wild abandonment, like he had sobbed at the beginning of Pixar’s “Up,” or at the end of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” or throughout most of Pixar’s “Toy Story 3.”
Then he recalled the cellphone in his hand. Chip would be expecting a reply. There would be other people to message about this, too, but mostly the names in his contact list were phantoms of the past, people he’d stopped talking to when domesticity had reduced his life to the most basic of interactions: texts to his brother and his inlaws and his supervisor at the company; a biweekly call to his mother in Boca. Once he’d had the old gang to talk to, but he didn’t really hang with them anymore: Brenda had helped him see that they were a bunch of worthless, retarded dudebros. As for female friends, they’d all been expunged from his phone, in a slow painful ritual. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Brenda had told him once, “it’s that I don’t trust THEM. And I particularly don’t trust that Lola. Lola is a name for whores. Yeah, yeah, you’re just good friends and you go back to college and blah blah blah. I don’t care and I don’t buy it and I don’t see why she has to text you all the time. College is the past, honey. You’re MARRIED, see?”
It had been three years or more since he’d talked to Lola. What WAS up with Lola? Was she still single? And as he thought of Lola, the gypsy grace of Lola’s easy-going smile, a phrase came to his delighted lips: “Free! Free! Free! I am free to have sex again!”
Yes, some part of him worried that he was being a monstrously selfish piece of shit, but hadn’t they made him read a story in college about how it was a good thing to be a monstrously selfish piece of shit? Commendable, even! Liberating! It had something to do with Free-Market Proto-Marxism or Fifth-Wave Neo-Feminism or Post-Apocalyptic Deconstructionism. One of those things; maybe ALL of those things at once. It didn’t matter: like Brenda said, college was the past. Freedom was the present.
“Free! I can even play Pokemon Go without her to glare at me and judge me and control me!”
And yet, he’d loved her – every now and then, anyway. She’d been a relatively kind wife, and had only cheated on him three times that he knew. That wasn’t bad, for a marriage that had lasted a decade. But who cared anyway! What did any of that matter when he had been a slave bent to her persistent will, when he’d had to provide for her every whim as society required, never complaining, always chivalrous, always a prey to impossible expectations and unceasing demands? So what if they had seemed happy enough to the world? At the end of the day, they had both been agonizing in the same way, trapped inside a flaming flipped-up wreck.
Well…She more literally so.
In any case, joy spread through his body. He could now walk away from the wreckage of marriage. It was as though he had been through an awakening or something.
He texted his brother:
“I WILL be strong, Chip. For Brenda. She would have wanted me to. Do I have to go to the morgue? Identify the body?”
A moment passed.
Then in came Chip’s text:
Then another text:
“Bro, what are U talking about? Brenda’s not dead. She’s cool. Broke 2 ribs though.”
The cellphone’s screen blurred before Mr. Ballard’s eyes. He pounded at it angrily:
“WTF, Chip!!! You said she was DOA!!! >:-( >:-(!!!”
A minute passed. Then came Chip’s reply: “Yeah. ‘Driving On Alcohol.’ Gonna lose her license.”
Mr. Ballard texted: “That’s not DOA, dipshit! That’s DUI!”
“DOA, DUI. Same diff. Relax, bro, take Ur chill pills.”
Another minute’s delay. Then a new text from Chip:
“Actually, bro, I just Googled ‘DOA’! OOOPS! My bad! Hahaha ;-) I see the mistake. Nah, Brenda’s fine! Hospital bill’s gonna be fucking insane, though! 80,000 bucks, easy!”
Mr. Ballard winced; he spasmed; he let the cell fall.
When the doctors came, they said he’d died of an anxiety attack – which was quite understandable because that hospital bill was indeed fucking insane.