Heidi was growing increasingly selfish and Gary was running out of energy. It seemed to start innocently enough; she made a logical argument when she said that grocery stores were less busy in the evenings. So one night she went shopping after dark, or claimed to. He believed her then. The exhaustion came before the worry; Gary had a tendency towards naiveté. The frequency of her late nights and the outlandishness of her excuses increased at parallel rates. The bridge was closed and she had to drive the long way home, she explained. A coworker had gotten her drunk, forcing her to sit in the car and sober up long into the night. The moon was so beautiful she had lost track of time. Fishing was her new hobby, and everyone knew it was essential to arrive lakeside between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Everything began to unravel. The foundation of a good marriage is the equality of sleep patterns, of course.
Gary was steadfastly trusting despite the deepening shade of bluish purple under his watery eyes. To fuel Heidi’s newfound routine of staying out late, Gary slept the necessary long hours, upholding his side of the partnership. The long hours were growing longer and longer each day, yet he always awoke plagued with fatigue. Heidi was barely sleeping at all. He didn’t know where they’d gone wrong. Like everyone else, their wedding vows had included the universally memorized phrase: I vow to rest my body to replenish the energy, soul, and physical strength of my partner. I vow to dedicate myself to my partner and will display the intangible love in my heart through the physical act of sleep, thus powering the life of my beloved. Through this ceremony, I accept the Burden of Sleep for my partner, thus relieving the parents of this duty.
As time went on, strange occurrences began to accompany his wife’s absence, and Gary succumbed to suspicion. To begin with, he couldn’t help that he had a well functioning nose. Something was amiss with the way that Heidi smelled. The problem was in the crook of her neck; it was musty and sexual. Gary himself always smelled rather dewy and a bit like lavender. His mother was an excellent soap maker.
Gary’s parents were the picture of a perfect marriage. Each evening his mother would sleep for exactly five hours, harnessing energy for his father to use the following day. When morning came, his father would then sleep for an equally precise five hours, and the next day his mother would be spunky as a monkey. When Gary was a child, they slept together for two hours for their son’s sake; that was just good parenting. They were atypical in their meticulous timing, but a good model for a healthy relationship, nonetheless.
Because Heidi couldn’t remember when she’d gotten bored of Gary, she figured it must have been a long time ago. She hadn’t intended to begin a regular sexual relationship with their mailman, but once it happened, it was easy to continue. He was around every day with those tight navy blue shorts, whispering in her ear as he leaned into her mailbox. I’ll see you tonight, you sweet thang, he’d say. It thrilled her somehow, seeing Nate the mailman as he drove in the mail car that had its steering wheel on the wrong side, thumb tapping on that wheel constantly, winking at people on the sidewalk. Sometimes, he waved at the trees as if he were in a parade. Those were the kind of quirks that interested her. The first time, forever ago, they had made rugged love in the mail car while she sat atop him in the spot that was normally the driver’s seat. They had thrust and thrust, and the movement of the car helped Heidi climax much more quickly than usual. It was then that she knew her habits were about to change.
It wasn’t that Gary was harmful or terrible in any specific way. He just compelled her towards a certain sort of ennui that became unbearable. Sometimes, after a long workday at the museum, she came home and the first thing he told her about was the laundry. I’ve done the whites, and I’ll get around to the colors tomorrow, he’d say. Sometimes, he ate plain lentils for dinner five nights in a row. Heidi supposed the first real crack in the foundation was when she decided that she was fed up with the way he would breathe so loudly. Scraggly exhales all the time, like he had a perpetual cold.
Heidi’s job title was Exhibition Manager, but she was, reluctantly, just a security guard of sorts. She worked in the Museum of Natural History, and often her job felt more like babysitting. There were children aplenty, accompanied by parents who yearned for their offspring to develop an interest in science. No touching the turtle shell was always on the tip of her tongue, and she sometimes counted how many times a day she said it. Forty-seven was the record. But when she started up with Nate, she began to vary little things about her life to make the general monotony more interesting. It became essential to make each day recognizable from the next in at least some miniscule way. So she started experimenting with different ways of fending children off of the shell. It is forbidden to touch this shell, she tried one day, making her voice round and booming. Scoot! Away from this shell, ya hear? she tried another, donning a Southern accent. And once, when she knew she would be meeting up with Nate later that day, she watched a child touch the shell, made eye contact with the little girl, then winked. Heidi found herself addicted to her betrayal.
For work, Gary drove a van around town, delivering hulking bags of flour to all of the bakeries within a fifty-mile radius of the mill. At each stop, he would make several trips in and out, loading dolly after dolly with the sacks. The dusty flour was impossible to contain, and Gary always returned home at the end of the day coated in the stuff. It dulled his colors, threatening to make him disappear. As his energy drained from him, lugging the bags became a nearly impossible task. His exhaustion inspired an accusation, finally.
Not trying to ruffle feathers, but seeking an explanation, Gary tried questioning his misbehaving wife. She was swooning about the moon. He sat at the kitchen table and spoke to her back as she stirred a pot of spaghetti sauce.
“Where exactly were you last night? It was pretty overcast, so I’m not sure you’d have been able to see the moon.” Gary knew for a fact that the cloud cover had been most severe.
“Mmmm. I took the back road. There was a clear patch. The moon stuck right out of it. Quite a sight.” Her body lingered over the stove, giving him no opportunity to read her expression. The deep blurps of the thick sauce creating and bursting rolling bubbles as it boiled penetrated the awkward silence. Unsure of a way to trap her into truthfulness, Gary sighed, rubbed a rough hand over his balding head, and slouched in his seat.
“Sounds nice. That smells good,” Gary said.
He would have to be more clever. For the time being, he would continue sleeping for her, hoping to dream up a solution.
Something about the affair wasn’t satisfying Heidi in the same way anymore. Nate’s wife was in a coma, so Nate was relentlessly full of energy. He sought Heidi out in the darkest hours. Please, Heidi, please me, he’d say. His availability was wearing on her. She began borrowing from her old excuses to find things to do. Once, she found herself confronting the back entrance to the museum, after hours. A local, wealthy businessman was getting married in the main hall, so the usual alarms had yet to be set. She eased through the door without trouble. The lights of the small exhibition rooms had been turned off for the night, and she could only make her way through them thanks to the low green glow from the Exit signs. First The Arctic, then The Savannah. She made eye contact with a giraffe with a menacing glare and felt instant heart palpitations. She steadied herself by resting a hand on the head of a lioness, finding the hair rough against her palm. Heidi wandered, knowing that Gary had slept nearly eleven hours the night before. Yes, she did feel some guilt. But somehow Gary had become a person she didn’t even know; they saw one another so infrequently.
Heidi just wanted things to be mixed up a little. Shaken around, rattled. She wanted to throw the fragments of her life into disarray and see if maybe they would come back together in a more interesting way.
There was a room in the museum that employees simply called Pending. Items of all sorts waited there before they were added to an exhibition. Secret affairs were often conducted in Pending, due to the labyrinthine rows of tall shelves that could easily conceal sweaty bodies. Newly acquired items rested on these shelves, or items on loan from other museums. Forgotten objects also lingered in the back corners, sometimes for years on old shelves that no one bothered to inventory. Heidi meandered around. On a shelf in the far corner she found a small stone with the veiny imprint of a leaf. The ridges of the fossil pleased her fingertips, and she dropped it in the pocket of her jacket. She traced figure eights on the ridges as she left the museum from the same back entrance.
Gary felt an increasingly disconcerting lightness in his bones. In fact, his entire body took on a new fragility. In the time since Heidi first began acting suspiciously, Gary had broken several fingers and twisted an ankle. The first time he slept for twelve hours, he awoke to a tooth falling out.
Gary began finding odd objects here and there around the house. The first discovery was a small fossil of a leaf. About to pour coffee into a seldom used mug, he happened to glance inside and see the stone. Removing it, he turned it over in his hand, staring for a few seconds before uttering a single non-word. Huh. Its presence there was unfathomable. Gary just wanted some peace.
His confusion and exhaustion reached an all-time high when a rummage through their bathroom junk drawer resulted in the discovery of a very beautiful letter opener. With a handle of crystal and a shiny blade of silver, it was a breathtaking piece. But what was it doing amongst old dried-up tubes of Neosporin and pink sponge curlers and hotel bottles of conditioner? Gary’s head ached as he tried to puzzle things out. Blips of nonsense were slowly infiltrating his universe, and he could not understand why. He continued hunting through the drawer, eventually finding a box of bandages. He removed seven slender strips to cover seven minor cuts that refused to stop bleeding.
Seeking advice, Gary decided to pay his parents a visit. His mother was a peculiar woman, but a sensible one. His father was a sensible man, but a peculiar one. Their perfection had a tendency to irk Gary, so he avoided stopping by very often. Jo and Rich were unique people with the same unique taste. Greeting Gary as he walked through their door was a set of blue plaid couches resting upon brown plaid carpet that was custom ordered. The walls were adorned with red plaid wallpaper that would have been better suited for a kilt. It was always a bit of a shock. Saying hello to both parents with a hug, the trio bypassed the plaid foyer and settled within the polka-dotted kitchen.
Rich thought it best to get straight to the point. He didn’t like seeing his boy with an ashen face and a slowed pace. The man looked positively ragged.
“So, what’s the latest? With Heidi, I mean,” Rich said. Gary took several slow laborious breaths before speaking. His tongue poked through the gummy hole where his tooth had been.
“I still haven’t a clue. She barely sleeps at all, and I don’t know if she even cares. I’m starting to worry that we won’t ever be able to go back now that it’s gotten this far. I wish there was a way …” Jo braided and unbraided her hair. She replied while trying to avert her eyes from the bruises that peppered her son’s forearms.
“Gary, you can’t play the trusting husband forever. You know I’ll tell it to you straight—you look like hell.” Hanging on the wall beyond his mother’s head was a mirror in which Gary caught his reflection. His very skin looked ill; the color suggested nausea and the wrinkles carved it into it suggested the façade of a much older man.
“Trust me, I feel like hell. There has to be a way to get things back to normal, I just can’t put my finger on it,” Gary said.
His parents shared a glance. Jo sighed, stroking the ridges of a new braid.
“You know how these things work … in a marriage both partners have to give equally. Clearly, that’s not happening. How much did you sleep last night, twelve, thirteen hours?” Jo rested feathery fingertips on her son’s shoulder. She didn’t want to damage him any further.
“I’ve stopped counting,” Gary said. He was staring at the lime green and neon pink polka dots on the wall, and they seemed to swirl together in worrisome ways. He closed his eyes.
“That says it all Gary, that says it all,” Rich said.
“Maybe, dear, normal isn’t what you should try for anymore …” Jo said, looking at Gary with an expression that he couldn’t read.
They spoke in circles as the familiar sensation of heavy eyelids hit Gary. Passing through the patterns and leaving his parents, he returned to his own stark white bed within his own stark white house.
At the first bakery the next evening, Gary sat in the van, willing himself to move. His arms, he knew, were twigs—more susceptible than ever to snapping. They were twigs, but they also felt like lead as he lifted them to his eyes in a vain attempt to rub the sleep out. He needed to sleep right away, before he broke an arm, a leg, or fell spectacularly and cracked his head open. In a most un-Gary-like fashion, he started the car and left the bakery, without a word and without making his delivery. He steered the van back to his house, taking each red light as an opportunity for a very tiny nap.
Heidi was supposed to be sleeping while he started work—even just her meager two hours. When he entered their bedroom, Gary saw that not only was Heidi not sleeping, why, she wasn’t home at all. Something snapped. His fingers had already snapped, strands of his hair had already snapped, nails had already snapped; today, something snapped inside.
First, Gary simply shouted and shouted. Not words, just sounds, like a wild animal that had missed catching its prey by half a second. Then, tramping through the house, he disrupted everything, pointlessly, madly. He took one shoe off and flung it at a window with a weak arm. With one shoe left on, he dragged his wrecked body out to the van and opened the back door. The typical cloud of white engulfed him for a moment, and he breathed it in, relishing the tickling inside his nose. With a strength he didn’t know still resided within him, Gary ripped a bag from the van, flinging it across the lawn. He roared again, enjoying the way the sound echoed down their street. Bending at the waist, Gary grasped at the sack of flour, his leaden twig arms somehow managing to bring it up above his head, letting it rest on the crown of his skull. In this way, Gary trekked back into his house, dropping the sack on the floor of the kitchen as it coughed yet another cloud of whiteness. Gary was as pale as he’d ever been as he gathered a bowl, yeast, salt, sugar, water. Indeed, maybe it wasn’t “normal” that he should be trying for.
Gary mixed and mixed, guessing at a recipe. He tripled his chosen quantities for each ingredient, paused, then decided to quadruple them. The bowl was overflowing, so he dumped the sticky contents onto the table. His hands were covered in the pale, tacky stuff, and ever so slowly he began to knead at the mess. The dough itself seemed grateful for the attention, and it succumbed to his massage, transforming minute by minute into an elastic bundle. He continued to knead, his fingers and palms reveling in the sensation of the material growing softer and more pliable. The dough ball was huge, nearly too big to handle, but Gary was patient underneath his manic fury. He kneaded and kneaded, watching the dough change, knowing he was its master. When one ball of dough was finished, he began another, then another, somehow gaining energy as he expended it. In this way, hours passed, the whole night, the next day. Gary did not stop kneading, even when a sudden wave of vigor passed through his body, almost like an orgasm, and abruptly he was awake, alive, powerful. He kneaded until he had used up the entire monstrous bag of flour, and the table was covered in balls of dough, all rising at different rates. Orbs of all different sizes, all perfect and fleshy.
He baked one.
Feeling amazing, finally, he sliced the bread. And then, alone, he ate the most wonderful piece of toast.
Stephanie Mataya holds a degree in Creative Writing from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA. She wrote “The Most Wonderful Piece of Toast” while living in Paris; it is her first published piece. Stephanie currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.