Maera knew that her husband believed she was ugly.
But she did not. Maera had gained weight and her bust slackened over decades, and she always had crooked toes and stretch marks. But, she did not feel repulsed by her aged body. Maera was comfortable with the tiger’s stripes along her hips. Those almost orange stains against her dark skin had been there since college. She loved them. Secretly, she was glad to have them, and when she became pregnant, they darkened and spread, which made them better. Now they were a beautiful bruised carmine where she was most womanly. But how did it all look together?
If it were up to nature, Maera would not be capable of seeing her entire body. She was unable to see past her breasts and stomach. She was also able to see her hand on her leg when she was walking, her feet flashing in and out beneath the hem of her skirt as she moved about the house doing chores. Left up to God, Maera only knew her elder form from perspectives when she was working and providing for her husband. But, with the help of a mirror, Maera saw things that were rippled or puffy. Those parts of herself made her feel frightened and worry about her husband’s aging, particular heart. But, then, those tigress stripes were still loud and consistent.
Also, ever since Maera could remember, her small toes had always curled up on flip flops and the nails would point out. Now, her toes were larger and could appear ashen even when it wasn’t summertime. But, she loved her crooked toes as well. Maera accepted that her body would always be raw or misshapen no matter how she shaved or paid someone to tame it all down for her. Long ago, she had been this fond of her great parts. The firm and the flush had empowered her to try seducing a man who’d she’d seen walking on the wrong side of 16th Street. Every day she saw him, and on one day, she removed her shawl, stood with her skirt in a wind, and he came at her through traffic.
Years later, when Maera had their baby, those good parts of her body frightened her. They’d started to sag and change. They threatened to repulse her beautiful husband and never come back again if she didn’t work hard to appease them and right away. But the clawed toes and the tiger stripes, they were powerful in that they refused to leave her. These eventually defined her. Maera was amazed at how these must have loved her, to make her still seem unique as she aged.
Maera was once a weird, intense pubescent girl. Now she was a powerful, unusual-looking woman. Strangers thought twice about taking a seat from her on the bus if she wanted it. Then she could rest and feel refreshed for her husband. She could bully into the grocery line first, get her husband’s dinner home and done the fastest. They backed out of the way, ushered their children far from the crazy, unhealthy looking, tough old lady—the one who shouldn’t still be living the way she weaved and leaned as she walked. It was as if she’d grown a bull’s wide horns. Once, Siuta had called her a cow. But she’d kept these markings and methods just him. Was that what he was also seeing, of the woman he loved?
Who was Siuta?
Maera sat alone at the table with her paw upturned. It had been dissected. Her mate, Siuta, must have wanted to see where her claws had always come from. Were they retractable? How was she able to get to him when he was well off on his own, eating his own dinner, changing his own television, and should have been safely out of nagging’s reach? How was his wife able to latch on when he was a grown man and wanted to get away?
Maera loved her husband as she watched him pace and fret around the loud living room. She realized that she always missed him when he should have been nearby. Siuta didn’t look at her in the right way anymore. Always from the side of his eyes. Nor would he speak to her directly. Always from beneath his breath. So, she tugged when he showed an opening and got his tongue going, pawed at it until he might admit something meaningful to her. She’d say anything to keep Siuta going when he got started. But Maera did not ever hear her chiding words, she was truly purring in her mind. Yes, she would annoy him, tease him, do the things he precisely did not like. Because she liked his angry energy. She wanted to see him struggle and exhaust himself. Maera wanted Siuta to admit to defeat on some evenings, and allow her to draw him near to herself again, curl him up, surround him with her warm, beating stripes and then point toes to the world to defend them.
Siuta was on the phone now, with an ambulance.
“She’s bleeding out, she’s cut something. We were fighting–arguing over the sugar, the sugar in my tea, so simple, and now her hand is split wide open…”
Siuta’s tan pants were up to his true waist and the brown belt was neatly fixed where it should be. His free hand was shaking. He hooked fingers in a belt loop to try re-adjusting it, but his waistline was still perfect. He had always been that sort of man.
Was she in any pain? Maera decided that her head was filled with only purring and loving him, as she watched her husband’s slender back turned. And Siuta was sweating. The yellow kitchen lights did it, and the hot water in a screaming kettle on the stove, ready for more controversial tea was doing it. But it was Siuta’s worry for her also, making him exhausted tonight. Such a bad man. Such a good man.
A man who left a knife on the table alongside her cut palm, and a toothpick. There was a ballpoint pen pointing in the blood too. So white. So loud, wide and silent in the orange room. Maera wanted to lay her head down. She also wanted to lift it back up, but this was too difficult. That involved awakening.
Maera, when she did try well enough, was able to see all the things her husband had removed surgically from her hand. These were things they had not seen together in years.
That nasty poster of over-the-desk Jessie. Their first remote control. His half of the bedsheet, now soaking up most of the blood, lay over one side of the table. His pair of socks that she decided she was going to wear anyway. An old picture of them in swimsuits from back when she could convince him to wear that, and run toward her through traffic. In this photograph, they were on one of those vacations on television. Everyone else was their age and perfectly tight beautiful, playing in the green water on the horizon, but she floated out of her bikini a little. One could see all of her stripes and all her teeth in this old, red-stained picture. Siuta was foolish back then. He was busy looking behind himself, for the sharks.
This commercial she loved, because Siuta claimed he hated it, now returned to the television. He leaned out of the kitchen, a coil of their old telephone chord tensed against the doorpost where it snagged. They listened to the terrible thing together.
“…an affordable romantic package that includes a wedding on the beach for just the two of you. Perfect for lovers who want to get away and just obey their sweetest instinct.”
Doorbell and confident knocking. Before he let the paramedics in, Siuta wrapped all of his things in the bloodied sheet and rushed the bundle back into their bedroom. Their absent daughter warned, a thousand times, that she was moving out so as not to seem them finally do something like this.
Maera saw the whites of her husband’s eyes, at last. She swore that she could smell his fear aso, it was like the taste of copper. Maera also felt herself smiling, though she knew she was angry.
“I love you, I’m afraid for your life. Now will you stop baiting me, you crazy woman?”
“I drive you crazy, Siuta?”
“Yes, we’re even! Now, what are you going to tell them for me?”
“Good then, Siuta. I drive you crazy.” Her fingers spread through the pain, reaching for the door that was not as loud as the television set, asking to open.
Siuta did not have to go and do it. He could have maimed her, turned his back, waited through critical moments, then have them in and ended it. His wife had ugly toes. She had these nasty stretch marks he begged her to do something about. But, in a way that he did not understand, Siuta felt he should open the door so that his wife would not lose her strange and powerful hand.
He was worried that the paramedics would cuss right away and be disgusted by her claws when they bandaged them. But they went at her with cool focus and worked swiftly, as if Maera only had a woman’s fingers.