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Watercolors

The week after he returned from the hospital, she came home from teaching her fourth grade class to find him listening to Beethoven and pushing himself around with a broom and dustpan on his lap. She called it the accident again, and he whirled his wheelchair around so his back was to her.

“I’m talking to you,” she said.

He zoomed over to the boombox and boosted the volume. The music filled the room like water. She waited for him turn it down again. He scooped up the tiniest amount of dirt; Beethoven’s noise cascaded onward. “I can’t hear myself,” she said.

The day of the accident, he’d worked out a plan to find his birth mother in Korea, though she’d said she didn’t care about his past or skin color. Their housekeeper, the bitch who came once a week and wanted to sleep with him, had encouraged him.

Now she couldn’t help asking what she’d meant to ask the day of the accident. She yelled it over the music.

“What do you mean,” he said, “am I fucking her?”

She sank back against the wall and waited for him to confirm it.

“You mean Sharon?”

“I mean that bitch housekeeper.”

He turned and faced her, expressionless. “I could have,” he said, “if I’d wanted to, but I didn’t.” She hated that she believed him. After a moment, he said, “I’m not going to do this.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to talk to me, or you’re not going to tell me the truth about her, or you’re not going to be my husband anymore?” she said.

“That’s what you want, for us to end. That’s why you started this.” She hated him.

He rammed his footrest into the hutch her mother had reluctantly passed down, and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket—who would he call? She tried to grab it from him and the wheelchair almost fell over and tipped him helpless to the floor.

They both went silent. Then he said, “I guess you’re the same as your father. A violent apple from his tree,” and a door opened and swallowed her love for him.

“I guess,” she said, “your birth mother didn’t want you so she threw you away.”

“I’ll kill you,” he said. He sped his wheelchair across the floor and into another room, and she thought about how to apologize or make him apologize.

It was a week later that she found the watercolors inside her feather pillow. She’d cut open the case because the crinkling sound had woken her two nights in a row. She’d thought, perhaps, that the feathers had somehow gone bad, though she didn’t know how or if such a thing even happened; she wasn’t prepared to find her husband’s art.

When she found the paintings, she thought, beneath her head. In the pillow she’d used for the last three years, and how long had they been there?

She had to sit on the bed and not try to move for a while. She knew she couldn’t move. She wondered if he’d painted the two watercolors because he really did mean to kill her, in just this way, whether the watercolors were his way of threatening her. She tried not to think so—yet it was obvious that the woman dead in the watercolors was her and the murderer was him.

The pillows were three years old. In the paintings, his foot was through her throat.

She imagined him cutting the seams open, then carefully guarding the feathers that could blow away with a breath, then restuffing the case with the added watercolors, then re-sewing everything. He’d never had patience for that sort of task before.

She studied the watercolors carefully. They were much sharper and finer than their medium usually allowed. They would have taken weeks. He must have painted them before the fight. He must have taken his time.

She was still sitting there when he rolled in for the night.

“What are those?” he asked, the light reflecting off the spokes of his wheelchair. “You’ve been in here for a while.”

“I can’t believe you’d do this.”

“Are those paintings?”

She started to cry. “Stop trying fuck with me.”

But he looked honest, as he rolled over and took a look. “Did you do these?” he asked her. “They’re really good. They’re disturbed, but they’re really good. Who are these people?”

She didn’t know whether he was a magnificent actor with no heart or whether he was serious. “These are yours.”

“They do look a bit like my watercolors during our first years together,” he said. “I didn’t know you’d admired them that much.”

“Don’t you recognize them?” she asked.

“The people?”

“The watercolors, the murder.”

“Are these really murders?” he asked. “Maybe you should see somebody if you’re feeling this upset.” But then he smiled.

That night, like every night since the accident, she dreamed of how he broke his spine. He was his old self, standing in the road with one hand in his pocket and the other at his face, as he always used to stand. He carried a backpack over one shoulder, like a child, in which he had all the papers he’d gathered to find his birth mother. He looked happy and youthful. He was walking down to the post office to mail the information to Seoul.

When he saw her driving up to him in the van they’d bought for their future kids that never happened, he seemed to know what she was going to do before she knew. His eyes were afraid. He said, “What are you going to do?” and she continued toward him, and when he said, “Please, you’re going to hit me. Please, don’t,” it was as if she decided it then. She decided he looked wrong standing on his two legs.

She dreamed this over and over. She put her foot down on the gas and ran him under her wheels, hearing him crack apart—though that was not all what had happened.

In the morning, she was supposed to take him to a specialist. She’d used a personal day. But when she woke, he was not beside her. The wheelchair was creaking back and forth in the dark. She felt something crawling into her throat. The metal chair was rocking as if it had come alive.

She turned on the light, pulled the blanket up to her chin—at last she saw him. He was on the floor, one hand on the seat of the wheelchair, trying to get himself up into it.

“Turn off the light,” he screamed.

When they got to the specialist’s office, he was moody. The specialist took some x-rays that seemed the same as the many other x-rays. She asked the specialist what he thought of her husband.

“You are looking for a chance,” the specialist said. He looked at the charts for a long while, as if he’d forgotten he’d started to speak; then he said, “I think I can give you a chance.”

She looked at her husband and promptly wheeled him out of the room.

When her husband was in the hall, she asked the specialist, “Why would you lie to us? We’ve been to seven specialists and you were supposed to be the last one. He was supposed to accept it.”

“I’m not lying,” the specialist said.

“You’re lying.”

“Look at your husband’s face. He has hope now.”

“That’s not hope,” she said. “That’s how he looks when he keeps arguing even though he knows he’s wrong.”

She went outside. Her husband had the same look. She pushed him down the hall and out to the front desk and paid for their session and agreed to the other sessions that she knew were a lie. When they got out to the van, he said, “I could hear you. Why did you make it sound like I was the one who wanted to see the specialists?”

She lifted him out of his seat, straining her back, through the passenger side door. She folded up the wheelchair and put it inside.

They went to the specialist for weeks. After each session, the specialist said things were improving and her husband seemed to hate her more.

Once, she arrived early and found him on the parallel bars, pulling himself along with his arms. If anything, his upper body was getting stronger.

“Are your legs moving?” she asked.

“I’ll tell you a story,” he said.

He told her about a man who was given the ability to understand women. When they fought, he would not fight back; he would absorb their attacks into his heart, which grew larger and larger to carry all that weight. Many women fell in love with him, and eventually, he agreed to marry the most beautiful, though she was also the most hurtful. Nobody else would marry her, but he had the ability to meet her anger with compassion. After years of marriage, his heart was big and unshapely and he could feel it inside his chest in a way he’d never felt before. When it beat, blood rushed into the extremes of his body. He began to worry that his ability was killing him. He designed a plan to take her on a cruise and make her happier, so that she would demand less. They took an ocean liner around the Mediterranean and saw Europe. The last day of the cruise, it rained and everyone played cards inside except for them, and she got bored and went out and stood at the bow. She teased him to come out to her and not be such a baby, and while she was teasing him, she slipped and fell. The man watched his beautiful wife fall into the water. “Help,” she cried. “I can’t,” he said. “My heart is too heavy. We would both drown.”

As she listened to the story, she imagined the man and the woman on the cruise, and when he finished talking, she saw that he’d gotten into his wheelchair from the bars and was ready to leave. She pushed him outside to the van. She could feel the vibrations of the wheelchair in her fingertips.

That night, as she cooked spaghetti for him, she heard a shuffling sound from his studio. And then footsteps. Neither of them had invited anyone over since the accident. She decided she must have been mistaken, but a few minutes later, she heard footsteps again, scuffling across the hall. She left the sauce simmering on the stove and went to find him. He couldn’t move his legs—she’d done that to him, so she was sure.

She went to the studio. In the hall, she had to stop herself from walking sideways, back against the wall, as she’d done as a child when she was home alone and afraid that someone would sneak up on her. The door to the studio was closed. She turned the knob.

Once inside, she saw that the watercolors had been framed and hung. When had he had time to do this, she thought. Why would he do this? One of them was hung above the window and the other beside the door. He couldn’t have reached high enough to hang them there. Either someone was in the house to help him, or—she would not continue her thoughts.

“The sauce is burning.”

She turned. He was behind her, in his wheelchair, looking up at her curiously. “You hung those watercolors?” she asked. “The murders.”

“I thought you’d like it,” he said. “We have so much of my art up. I thought it would be nice to put up some of yours.” But there was that smile again.

She stared at his legs, afraid to ask if he could walk.

“The sauce is burning,” he said. He pivoted on one wheel and exited.

The specialist said a little positive thinking would help: maybe they could have a picnic. She couldn’t handle lifting him in and out as many times as a picnic would entail, but her husband said they could have one on the floor in their living room. Put the blanket here, he said, and she did. Let’s use paper plates, he said, and she went to the store. Let’s open that bottle of wine we were saving, he said. They ate and drank and got drunk on a second bottle and couldn’t get him back into his chair. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll sleep here tonight.”

“Do you still hate me?” she asked.

“Yes, but I love you, too.”

“I thought you were going to kill me.”

“I thought you were going to kill me.”

“The accident?” she asked.

“It wasn’t an accident.”

“It was bad luck.”

“It wasn’t bad luck,” he said. “I wanted to find my birth mother and you didn’t want me to become someone else.”

“You did,” she said. “You did become someone else.”

“No.”

“I fired the housekeeper.”

“I realized that when she stopped coming,” he said. He held her and she trembled. She wasn’t sure what she was afraid of—whether it was him or herself.

“Do you still see her?”

“No.”

“It wasn’t because she was Korean too?”

He held her closer and she knew it was.

She dreamed about walking away from him, the same as in the watercolors, for good. As she walked, their van slowed and pulled up beside her. The window rolled down and she saw him staring back at her. How did you get in there? she asked. How are you driving? He ran his finger along the line of his chin. I just needed someone to help me, he said. He seemed confident, pitiless, entirely recovered. He reached out his arm and pointed down the road. I’ll give you a chance, he said. Run.

When she woke, he was gone again. She looked for his path. Before, he had wrinkled the carpet pulling himself along. The blanket on the ground was smooth.

She walked through their hallway, her back against the wall. She turned on the lights, one by one. Cold air clutched at her lungs. Her muscles tightened and ached like in the winter when she dressed too thinly, her body insisting on shivering. She side-stepped until she could hear Beethoven. He was humming.

She opened the door to the bedroom and the light was on beside the bed and he sat in front of an easel painting the watercolor she was most afraid of. She saw the dark outlines of the van, himself on the ground. He was seated in a regular wooden chair—one from around the dining table. How had he gotten the chair inside, and the easel, and the canvas? His wheelchair was not there with him. He sat with one leg up, the ankle resting on his knee. He held the brush and turned to her. The watercolor was almost finished.

“The accident,” she said.

“It wasn’t an accident.”

He pushed his leg off his knee with both hands, and his foot thumped to the floor.

square-salessesMatthew Salesses was born in Korea and adopted at age two. He is the author of The Last Repatriate (Nouvella, 2011), which James Franco called “pensive and brooding. A subtly painful psychological journey.” He also wrote two chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics (PANK, 2010) and We Will Take What We Can Get (Publishing Genius, 2009). He edits fiction and writes a column about his Korean wife, new baby, and two cats for the Good Men Project.

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