Neither New nor Old nor Wife nor Widow

by Marsha Timblin

     Standing in the middle of her living room, the mailman gave Leona nipple clamps for Valentine’s Day. Leona was such a cliché that she was having an affair with the mailman. He was six years younger than her and kissed hello and goodbye with copious amounts of tongue.

           "You can turn this thing here to change the tension on the grip.” The mailman worked the mechanism between delicate fingers, showing her how to use it.

           Leona wondered if it was really an affair. Did it count since her husband disappeared into thin air four months ago? That was almost as long as they’d been married before he vanished.

           “If you want to boost the intensity, put the chain in your mouth and tug.” The silver glittered and snaked as he dangled the chain, mimicking the tugging motion. The metal looked high quality and substantial, but she wasn’t sure since he hadn’t let her touch them yet.

           The police officer who had taken her missing person report assured her they would do everything in their power to find her husband, but since he was an adult and there were no signs of illegal activity or foul play, there wasn’t much they could do. As a grown man married less than six months with his own finances, warrants for personal information that went beyond the scope of public record would be hard to get.

           “He may have just had a change of heart about married life. It wouldn’t be the first time,” the police officer had said as he snapped his notebook shut.

           “So, what do you think? Want to give them a try?” The mailman raised his brows in a hopeful query.

           Leona liked a little pain—it cleared her head.

           The mailman knew that.

           She watched puddles form beneath his slush-covered boots propped up against the radiator by her front door as he undid the buttons of his blue uniform shirt.

           The mailman was the first person she gave her number to after her husband disappeared. When he hadn’t been home in four days and Leona stopped being able to make reasonable excuses for him, she started being unreasonable. Before the mailman was able to stuff a wad of junk mail into the slot, she yanked open the front door.

           “Have you seen my husband around the neighborhood anytime recently? You know who he is, right?”

           “I know him to see him, but I haven’t. Not in a long time.” He held out the mail, but she didn’t take it from him.

           “He hasn’t been home in days. I’m getting worried now. Can you keep an eye out? Call or text if you see him on your rounds?” Leona ripped a corner off one of the circulars still clutched in his hand, scribbled her number, and stuffed it in his shirt pocket.

           Two days later, he texted. No husband sighting, but he wanted to see how she was doing. If she’d had any word on his whereabouts.

           The mailman’s beard was soft on Leona’s face when he kissed her. She thought about the fancy shave kit she’d bought her husband for Christmas. She’d tucked it back in her closet when she took down the Christmas tree, but it was still wrapped in red and gold paper with curly ribbon. Maybe she’d give it to the mailman. He did that thing with his teeth against her throat that made her knees buckle, and then they were on the floor.

           The texts came every few days, polite and friendly, reassuring even. She posed dozens of what ifs and wild scenarios about what had happened to her husband. He didn’t dismiss them but somehow neutralized the pull they had on her. About a month later, they ran into each other at Nicky’s Tavern on the other side of town. Leona was glad because her friends had become awkward and annoying—it seemed they didn’t know how to act with her anymore. Was she an abandoned wife of a deadbeat, dirtbag husband? Or was she a young widow, a tragic figure whose love was cut short almost as soon as it began?  Like Schrödinger’s cat, she was neither of these things and both of them at the same time.

           But with the mailman, she was just Leona. Not even the old Leona, the one she’d been before she got married. And somehow not the post-disappearance Leona, agonized and suspicious. A different Leona entirely who was neither new nor old nor wife nor widow. They talked until the lights came on and the bartender kicked them out. When he offered her a ride home, she demurred, stating it was too far out of his way.

           “I know where you live,” said the mailman. It could’ve sounded like a threat. Or it could’ve sounded like a flirt. But instead, the way the mailman said it, it sounded like he understood. Understood Leona’s circumstances, state of limbo. That it wasn’t up to either one of them to open the box. So she accepted.

           Rolling around on the floor, the mailman pulled off Leona’s top and gripped both of her wrists in his left hand over her head. He grappled with the new hardware with his right.

           In the middle of the living room rug, on Valentine’s Day, with the mailman, Leona realized it wasn’t so much as an affair but a dare. A defiant invitation. For her husband to walk through that door, catch them in the act. Maybe even a double dare. For Leona herself to get rid of the box. Step away from both and neither.

           The metal was cold as it nipped into her flesh.

           “Is that too tight? Does it need adjusting?”

           Leona blinked away the tear that jumped up in the corner of her eye. “No, it’s just right.”

Author's Note

A version of the first line of the story just popped into my head late one night last February. In that murky area between sleep and consciousness it just appeared unbidden and seemingly unconnected to anything else swimming around inside my mind. Most of the time I forget these kinds of ideas by the time I get out of bed, but this was so provocative and odd that it stuck with me long enough to write it down in a Word doc the next day. I certainly didn’t set out to write a little meditation about shifting identity and who we let affect how we see ourselves and why, or an exploration on pain and comfort and control, but when this story came together from somewhere in the ether, I was so pleased that it had more to it than a little bit of slap and tickle.

Marsha Timblin holds an MFA from Chatham University, and her work has appeared in Orange Blossom Review, The Hellebore, and Amethyst Review, among others. She writes fiction from her home near Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband, son, dog, and mischievous kitten. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaLena.