Andrew Bertaina

The Key

I am taking a walk to cool off. The breeze outside is non-existent, and the day is verging on Dante’s Inferno, which means the cooling may have to be internal. Overhead, gnats are battering early evening streetlights, and bats are soaring through them at intervals, merchants of death. I’m taking deep meditative breaths, noting the way my heart beats, the way that emotions are just like waves passing through me. That sort of shit. 

The doorknob has fallen off the front door after weeks of giving off signs of distress. And I’m headed down to the local hardware store, a mere four blocks away, to talk about replacements, which is the cause of my distress. When I told my husband about the doorknob, he glanced up from his New York Review of books article and said, “Oh, no,” looking at me imploringly as the cats do before I pour out their food. It does not occur to him to ask if he can fix the doorknob, but merely to provide this look of concern. Five years ago, the concern would have been enough. 

I’m walking past the hawthorns now, and a riot of birds are making sounds well past bedtime. It’s a massive bird orgy up in the boughs of those trees, and I find myself jealous of the birds. 

I try to think of my husband in a different light as we talked about doing in couple’s therapy. The term is “reframing.” I need to consider his other strengths, which are unrelated to doorknobs. He can deliver a riposte about a poorly written op-ed on parenting in the Post. “Are there any other kind?” 

But across the street, the neighbor’s husband is working in the garage. He has a pencil behind his ear, and he’s making, what appears to be a large shelving unit with a powerful circular saw. I can’t tell if I’m coveting my neighbor’s husband or coveting his circular saw. 

The cruel truth, which my friend points out when I call to complain to her about my husband, is that I do not resent my husband’s bookishness, nor the helpless look he gives me when something practical goes wrong. Rather, I resent myself for choosing a husband whose chief interest on weekends was reading books in the original French. 

The skill, though initially impressive, has a deteriorating value. Lately, almost everything I want to read has already been translated into English, which means I could read them too, even without the benefit of French. The point is, the bedroom and hallway, with smudges from our children’s dirty hands, does not need to be read to in the original French. They just need to be painted. 

On the cement, a tapestry of light from the streetlights, a reminder that if I focus on my breath like a motherfucker, I might be able to let go of this small little wedge of self. But instead, after two breaths, my mind wanders back to my neighbor’s husband, dutifully measuring in the garage. I imagine him inviting me into his corridor of light, steadying my hand as he cuts neatly with the saw. The clean lines nearly destroy me. I imagine him cradling my face in his hands and saying, “let me go down to the store and pick out a whole new door.” 

Even my fantasies are depressing. By the time I’ve gotten the doorknob, the evening is shot. When I walk in the door, my husband looks up at me through his owlish glasses. He’s doing his yearly reading of Proust, sipping on bourbon. He smiles briefly and looks away, content. 

We humans are such a strange compendium of desires. The teens are still locked away upstairs, barely interested in us now. Those children who had once thought of us as the center of the universe. What a fucked-up thing, I think. Living. The cats still need to be fed, and I need to think about whether I want a doorknob that’s brass or not. 

I think of myself as the door and how my husband no longer has the keys to get inside. The cats are so delighted to see me at the sliding glass door that it nearly breaks my heart.   

I wander to the garage to get their food as they purr and brush against my legs, velvety soft. I lean down to shake the dry flakes into the bowl. I refill the water. I think sometimes the real problem is asking yourself if this is enough. 

Of course, it isn’t. I open the garage door and back the CRV down the driveway. In the distance, gingko leaves flutter slightly, backlit by a deep sky. I want so much to love this world more than I do. As I drive, the streets stretch out before me like a Leviathan. And suddenly, I can’t remember where I’m supposed to go, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find my way back. 

Andrew Bertaina                           

Andrew Bertaina’s short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, The Normal School, Orion, and The Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.