Hands Say What Words Cannot
First Round Submission: NYC Midnight Short Story Competition (Parameters: Comedy, a Bully, a Mail Order Bride)
Bill could learn a lot about people by studying their hands. His mother had taught him that. His mother was an exceptionally intelligent woman. Any time Bill disappointed her, she made him sit on his hands for punishment.
The woman before him had small, fragile hands. Nervous hands. Shaking, they pushed the fine hairs away from her face in short spasms. Bill assumed she adjusted her hair in this way to show him that she was as pretty in real life as she was in her profile photo (she was). Or, she might want to get a better look at him. He wondered, for the first time ever, if she liked his appearance. He cleared his throat and smoothed his mustache simultaneously. This was his nervous habit—that he thought only he was aware of—and he could do nothing to stop it.
Bill hadn’t gone through any special preparations for the occasion—no haircut, no tooth whitening, no ironing—because why make a big deal out of things and create nervousness? He’d gone to the airport straight from work, wearing his typical office attire: khakis with a short-sleeved button up shirt and tie. He’d even arrived late so he could avoid that awkward business of looking for her in the crowd of passengers exiting through the gate. By the time he’d gotten to her she’d already claimed her luggage—all three oversized suitcases—and was slumped over them in wait.
“How was the flight?” he asked—too loudly, because she jumped in alarm before settling back into her slumped state. “It’s me! Your new husband!” He held the sign he’d made, also saying, “IT’S ME! YOUR NEW HUSBAND!” with an arrow pointing to his face.
The woman flinched at the moisture erupting from his exclamations, but otherwise remained stoic.
Bill knocked on her head. “Helllllloooooo! Is anybody in there?”
The woman startled again, only to sink back into herself, blank-faced.
Bill couldn’t remember his wife’s name. He’d had two months to learn it, and had even signed marriage documents with her name on it, but Russian just wasn’t his thing. His name was Bill. It wasn’t fair.
If he asked her to pronounce her name for him, she’d think he simply wanted to spare her the discomfort of a mispronunciation, when the truth was he didn’t want to seem like an asshole husband and have her upset even before getting home.
“Stas-y-a—“ he sputtered, hoping she wouldn’t take too long to catch on, “Stas—I’m sorry, can you tell me how to pronounce your name? It’s such a beautiful name . . . for a beautiful woman,” he said, feigning bashful to emphasize his sincerity. He thought for sure that would soothe her. And as his wife she deserved his adoration.
She didn’t respond.
“Look, I know this must be intimidating. But you’re my wife now. I need to know how to say your name. How else will I thank you for being so lovely?” He hoped this compliment wouldn’t slip past her as the last one had. Flattery was the only thing he could think of that might ease the tension, which by then was palpable. Women love flattery.
But this woman was unaffected. Bill wondered if she spoke any English at all. The catalog guaranteed English-speaking brides. And her profile was in English. But broken English. Hm.
Bill panicked. How would he communicate with his new bride if she couldn’t speak English? Sure, it might be fun, at least for a little while, to help her adjust—guide her around and show her the ways of an American housewife—but he’d only taken two days off work. Talking is the most economical way of getting to know someone, and he’d counted on being able to speak with her in English. Bill had learned only two phrases in Russian and both would require some more getting to know each other.
He’d brought photos—one of his house, one of the view from his house, and one of him in his swim trunks—to break the ice. “This is where we will live,” he said, holding them to the woman’s face, “and this . . . well, this is just me, myself, and I.” He was hoping she’d take the photos without prompting, but she made no such effort. He grabbed her hand and pushed the photos into it. She studied the images without making a sound, her face remaining unchanged.
“A lot of women would love to live in a house like that,” Bill said, studying the woman’s hands again, this time as they arranged the photos, one in front of the other, over and over again. Though still shaking, her slender fingers moved with intent and precision, forming graceful shapes with seeming spontaneity. Bill wondered at the delicacy and strength of her hands, as he didn’t believe these two qualities could (or even should) coexist. These were his wife’s hands. These would be the hands to knead his tired neck after a day of programming, hands to prepare his favorite meals and fold his skid-marked underwear into perfect rectangles, hands to stroke his—
Bill plunged his own hands into his pockets. He would have to give her some time. He’d have to take her out to dinner at least once a week, and allow her to order from Victoria’s Secret catalogs. And he’d buy her a car—a cute little sports car for a cute little woman. She’d be the envy of all the programmer’s wives. They’d see her—his wife—at company parties (wearing some makeup and a figure-flattering dress—he could see it, even as she stood before him in an oversized sweater) and wish they could be his wife. She’d be the best wife, married to the best husband.
Bill envisioned their storybook future together even as his other half made no attempt at communicating. She only stared, wide-eyed and expressionless. Bill shuddered to know that her eyes reminded him of a pond in the moonlight.
Bill had refused to swim in the pond behind his mom’s house at night, even when all his cousins seemed to be having a good time at it—and even when his mom teased him about it, causing him to cry and his cousins to laugh. He refused to swim in that pond at night because he couldn’t see what was in there—it could only see him—and that scared him. His new wife was scaring him. It wasn’t what he’d had in mind.
Bill had hoped to return to work with confidence in his new marriage. He’d already Photoshopped the couple’s profile pictures together for a poster-sized “wedding photo” and had it framed for his office. The image had taken an entire weekend and was a real masterpiece of digital artistry (if he could say such a thing about his own work). The background was especially noteworthy—a collage of every beautiful and romantic thing he could think of: chocolates, lingerie, a diamond ring (an actual photo of the diamond ring he intended to give his new bride upon completion of their first successful lovemaking session), a couple strolling the beach hand-in-hand, moonlight (but no pond), an assortment of pink and red flowers, a dinner for two (by candlelight), and a swaddled newborn baby (which he could replace with an image in the same dimensions of a teacup Chihuahua, depending on his wife’s preference). He would hang the poster above his desk, to spread awareness of his good fortune. His was a truly lovely wife. The other programmers would be outwardly happy for him, even if incredulous.
Bill snapped out of his reverie when the eldest of two children playing tag around the luggage carousel ran into his leg and fell down. The children looked to be brother and sister, perhaps five and three. Feeling slighted by this indication of disrespect, Bill straightened to his full height, put his hands on his hips, and looked down at the offending boy: “Do you realize what you just did?”
The boy backed away, shaking his head. Wordless, he tugged the little girl’s sleeve as if asking her to leave with him.
“Excuse me, young man,” Bill lowered his voice and narrowed his eyes, for effect, “but you just assaulted me.” He meant to teach the boy a lesson on respect, and figured fear was the surest way to go about it.
It seemed to be working. The little boy stood frozen in place. His lower lip trembled.
“Assault is illegal. People go to jail for assault,” Bill continued, pleased with the authority in his tone. He would make a great father.
The boy put his arm around his little sister and looked Bill squarely in the eye. “You’re an asshole, mister,” he said, running off before Bill could respond.
Bill flushed crimson. He’d been bested by a little kid. Worse, his new wife had witnessed it. There was no way she would approve, even if she did appear to be concerned for the children. That’s no way for a kid to behave.
Their kids would be perfectly trained—an enviable combination of his brains and her looks. But did his wife want kids? Bill didn’t want kids. If his wife wanted kids, he would give her kids. That’s what a giving husband does.
“How about I just call you wife,” he said, making a statement more than inviting an answer. His nose dripped visibly, and he did nothing to stop it. This was a nervous habit of which he was not aware.
She stared in silence.
“Wwwwwwwwiiiiiiifffffffffffeeeeee.” He said it slowly, emphasizing the physical efforts of his articulation. If his wife needed, he would help her learn faster in this way. He was a giving husband, after all.
On the ride home Bill was still heated over what the little boy had said to him. When a driver in the oncoming left-turning lane cut too close, Bill recognized an outlet for his frustration. He stopped in the middle of the intersection, blocking both lanes of traffic and causing a traffic jam.
“Peon!” Bill yelled at the driver, his horn on full blast, “That’s right—you’re a peon!”
Bill turned to his new wife, who was sitting straight up in her seat and hugging herself. “A peon is someone with no education,” he said, “so I can basically call a peon a peon and he won’t know what I’m saying.” He laughed, to show it was all in good fun. Car horns beeped at them from all sides. “Did you see how confused that guy was? Oh, man, that’s good.”
Bill thought it best to explain his insults, so his wife could learn to distinguish those of quality. Eventually—if he kept working on her—she’d even be able to deliver a proper insult. He imagined the two of them sharing a park bench (or some other equally romantic scenario) and using their secret language to call out the most ugly, awkward, and simple passersby: “Rube! Pillock! Lickspittle!” The thought warmed his belly.
“You know, Stas-y . . . Stasy-aan . . . You know, wife, I’m starting to like you. I think we’re going to get along just fine.”
Bill locked eyes with his new bride, his face softened in sentimentality. Could it be? Was she looking at him with approval? The strange woman’s mouth slackened, taking a slight turn at the corners. In near disbelief, Bill watched as her smile expanded—a wide, tooth-filled smile—more beautiful than anything he could have imagined. Within seconds this smile had turned a timid and colorless girl into a radiant and spirited woman. Bill could even imagine someday loving her.
Just as Bill was sure his new bride would speak to him for the first time, she raised her hand in slow motion, balled it into a fist, and pointed her middle finger to the sky. “My name is Nastasia, you asshole.”
Bill was silent on the drive home.