Say Yes Tobias Wolf
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They were doing the dishes, his wife washing while he dried. He’d washed the night before. Unlike most men he knew, he really pitched in on the housework. A few months earlier he’d overheard a friend of his wife’s congratulate her on having such a considerate husband, and he thought, I try. Helping out with the dishes was a way he had of showing how considerate he was. They talked about different things and somehow got on the subject of whether white people should marry black people. He said that all things considered, he thought it was a bad idea. “Why?” she asked. Sometimes his wife got this look where she pinched her brows together and bit her lower lip and stared down at something. When he saw her like this he knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he never did. Actually it made him talk more. She had that look now. “Why?” she asked again, and stood there with her hand inside a bowl, not washing it but just holding it above the water. “Listen,” he said, “I went to school with blacks, I’ve worked with blacks, and we’ve always gotten along just fine. I don’t need you coming along now and implying that I’m a racist.” “I didn’t imply anything,” she said, and began washing the bowl again, turning it around in her hand as though she were shaping it. “I just don’t see what’s wrong with a white person marrying a black person, that’s all.” “They don’t come from the same culture as we do. Listen to them sometime – they even have their own language. That’s okay with me, I like hearing them talk” – he did; for some reason it always lifted his mood – “but it’s different. A person from their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other.” “Like you know me?” his wife asked. “Yes. Like I know you.” “But if they love each other,” she said. She was washing faster now, not looking at him. Oh boy, he thought. He said, “Don’t take my word for it. Look at the statistics. Most of those marriages break up.” “Statistics.” She was piling dishes on the drainboard at a terrific rate, just swiping at them with the cloth. Many of them were greasy, and there were flecks of food between the tines of the forks. “All right,” she said, “what about foreigners? I suppose you think the same thing about two foreigners getting married.” “Yes,” he said, “as a matter of fact I do. How can you understand someone who comes from a completely different background?” “Different,” said his wife. “Not the same, like us.” “Yes, different,” he snapped, angry with her for resorting to this trick of repeating his words so that they sounded crass, or hypocritical. “These are dirty,” he said, and dumped all the silverware back into the sink. The water had gone flat and gray. She stared down at it, her lips pressed tight together, then plunged her hands under the surface. “Oh!” she cried, and jumped back. She took her right hand by the wrist and held it up. He thumb was bleeding. “Ann, don’t move,” he said. “Stay right there.” He ran upstairs to the bathroom and rummaged in the medicine chest for alcohol, cotton, and a Band-Aid. When he came back down she was leaning against the refrigerator with her eyes closed, still holding her hand. He took the hand and dabbed at her thumb with the cotton. The bleeding had stopped. He squeezed it to see how deep the wound was and a single drop of blood welled up, trembling and bright, and fell to the floor. Over the thumb she stared at him accusingly. “It’s shallow,” he said. “Tomorrow you won’t even know it’s there.” He hoped that she appreciated how quickly he had come to her aid. He’d acted out of concern for her, with no thought of getting anything in return, but now the thought occurred to him that it would be a nice gesture on her part not to start up that conversation again, as he was tired of it. “I’ll finish up here,” he said. “You go and relax.” “That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll dry.” He began to wash the silverware again, giving a lot of attention to the forks. “So,” she said, “you wouldn’t have married me if I’d been black.” “For Christ’s sake, Ann!” “Well, that’s what you said, didn’t you?” “No, I did not. The whole question is ridiculous. If you had been black we probably wouldn’t even have met. You would have had your friends and I would have had mine. The only black girl I ever really knew was my partner in the debating club, and I was already going out with you by then.” “But if we had met, and I’d been black?” “Then you probably would have been going out with a black guy.” He picked up the rinsing nozzle and sprayed the silverware. The water was so hot that the metal darkened to pale blue, then turned silver again. “Let’s say I wasn’t,” she said. “Let’s say I am black and unattached and we meet and fall in love.” He glanced over at her. She was watching him and her eyes were bright. “Look,” he said, taking a reasonable tone, “this is stupid. If you were black you wouldn’t be you.” As he said this he realized it was absolutely true. There was no possible way of arguing with the fact that she would not be herself if she were black. So he said it again: “If you were black you wouldn’t be you.” “I know,” she said, “but let’s just say.” He took a deep breath. He had won the argument but he still felt cornered. “Say what?” he asked. “That I’m black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?” He thought about it. “Well?” she said, and stepped close to him. Her eyes were even brighter. “Will you marry me?” “I’m thinking,” he said. “You won’t, I can tell. You’re going to say no.” “Since you put it that way—” “No more considering, Yes or no.” “Jesus, Ann. All right. No.” She said “Thank you,” and walked from the kitchen into the living room. A moment later he heard her turning the pages of a magazine. He knew that she was too angry to be actually reading it, but she didn’t snap through the pages the way he would have done. She turned them slowly, as if she were studying every word. She was demonstrating her indifference to him, and it had the effect he knew she wanted it to have. It hurt him. He had no choice but to demonstrate his indifference to her. Quietly, thoroughly, he washed the rest of the dishes. Then he dried them and put them away. He wiped the counters and the stove and scoured the linoleum where the drop of blood had fallen. While he was at it, he decided, he might as well mop the whole floor. When he was done the kitchen looked new, the way it looked when they were first shown the house, before they had ever lived here. He picked up the garbage pail and went outside. The night was clear and he could see a few stars to the west, where the lights of the town didn’t blur them out. On El Camino the traffic was steady and light, peaceful as a river. He felt ashamed that he had let his wife get him into a fight. In another thirty years or so they would both be dead. What would all that stuff matter then? He thought of the years they had spent together, and how close they were, and how well they knew each other, and his throat tightened so that he could hardly breathe. His face and neck began to tingle. Warmth flooded his chest. He stood there for a while, enjoying these sensations, then picked up the pail and went out the back gate. The two mutts from down the street had pulled over the garbage can again. One of them was rolling around on his back and the other had something in her mouth. Growling, she tossed it into the air, leaped up and caught it, growled again and whipped her head from side to side. When they saw him coming they trotted away with short, mincing steps. Normally he would heave rocks at them, but this time he let them go. The Short Story Lesson 7a 4 The house was dark when he came back inside. She was in the bathroom. He stood outside the door and called her name. He heard bottles clinking, but she didn’t answer him. “Ann, I’m really sorry,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” “How?” she asked. He wasn’t expecting this. But from a sound in her voice, a level and definite note that was strange to him, he knew that he had to come up with the right answer. He leaned against the door. “I’ll marry you,” he whispered. “We’ll see,” she said. “Go on to bed. I’ll be out in a minute.” He undressed and got under the covers. Finally he heard the bathroom door open and close. “Turn off the light,” she said from the hallway. “What?” “Turn off the light.” He reached over and pulled the chain on the bedside lamp. The room went dark. “All right,” he said. He lay there, but nothing happened. “All right,” he said again. Then he heard a movement across the room. He sat up, but he couldn’t see a thing. The room was silent. His heart pounded the way it had on their first night together, the way it still did when he woke at a noise in the darkness and waited to hear it again – the sound of someone moving through the house, a stranger.