“Wanna taste?” The man behind the deli counter held the ham out to her. Its pale pink meat sat in the center of a blossom of white filmy paper.
She shook her head.
“Nothing wrong with a taste of what you pay for,” he cajoled, offering the meat again.
Except it had to be a pound, exactly a pound, not under, if was under… She shivered, didn’t want to think about it. The bruises had faded. She hoped the memory would.
“Suit yourself.” He wrapped the meat up, sealed it in the bag. “What else do you need?”
She read off the list, her husband’s precise handwriting, .33 of a pound of Swiss cheese, sliced medium, .5 of a pound of turkey, shaved. Alexander was always precise. He’d written costs next to each item, an exact accounting of what she should pay. In her wallet the hundred bill lived alone, no other money snuggled up next to it. One bill, one list, left in an envelope on the kitchen counter and when he came home tonight, one receipt and one list, each item ticked off, along with any change. He’d count it to, down to the penny. He thought he had it all figured out, but she’d been diligent, careful, and creative.
At the checkout she handed over the bill. The change came back to her, and she put the crisp bills away into her wallet. The receipt she held cautiously. The service counter was just ten feet away, the woman behind it bored. She could do this. Coupons in one hand, a meek smile on her face.
“Oh honey, happens all the time. And besides, we see you in here each week,” the woman smiled. Two dollars and fifty-five cents, the store doubled all coupons under a dollar. It would be enough, maybe more than enough.
She left the cart by the service desk, went back to the cleaning aisle. It was at the back, a box in red and white with a dead rat on the front. One-eighty-nine. How much to kill your husband? How much to live your life? She had enough change for a chocolate bar, which Alexander didn’t allow. She ate it in the car, savoring the forbidden sweetness.
Dinner at six o’clock, clear the dishes, hand him the newspaper to read while you do the cleaning. Return with dessert for him, along with coffee. When he finished those dishes went into the washer and then, only then, you could start it. It was just more efficient that way, he explained, it wasn’t about his way or her way, just the right way. Like the right way to drink coffee was with two creams and one sugar. And perhaps tonight, with rat poison.
She stopped herself in the kitchen, worried she’d forgotten something, checking, always checking. Check or suffer, those were the choices. Had she organized the sections of the paper the right way? Folded the dinner napkins? Would he like the pie? Did rat poison taste bitter?
She tossed the white powder into his mug, poured the coffee over top. Too much. Not enough room for cream. If the color wasn’t right… She remembered it from the early days of her marriage, the mug flying through the air toward her face, the hot liquid already burning on her cheek. Worst of all the indignity of scrubbing coffee off the dining room walls the next day. Not enough that he hurt her, she had to clean it up too.
She stirred, wondered if enough cream could fit in the mug. Poured, her hands shaking, spilling some on the counter. In a minute he’d be in here. He’d wonder why she was so nervous then check under the kitchen counter. The coffee color was perfect, but the liquid touched the brim, too high. A spill likely. She spooned out a portion, worried about the taste. Sipped it, nothing, just coffee and cream. She added the sugar, spooned out another portion, got it right. Exact. Brought it to him with the pie, the small fork at forty-five degrees on the plate, then sat, watching him drink it down. He asked for another cup, and she made it, following the new steps: poison, coffee, cream, sugar. This time she didn’t take a sip.
Second cup finished, he gave her time to run the dishwasher before taking them both upstairs. He finished and slept. She got up to take her shower. The movements of her life circumscribed by his rules, what if she wanted to shower in the morning? Maybe she could tomorrow.
The pain sliced across her abdomen, doubling her body in half. She stuffed her fist into her mouth to keep herself from crying too loudly. Didn’t want him coming in here. She grabbed at the shower curtain, but it gave way. To weak to stand she fell to the bottom of the tub, the pain blocking out everything else. Hot hurt lanced her belly, and she crawled to the toilet. The shower ran unoccupied as her body emptied itself, blood filling the bowl. It hurt, it cut, her insides being ripped from her body, sticking as they went, tearing out more flesh. Over and over again.
In the bedroom she heard retching, the bed bouncing as if violent spasms took her husband. She made to go to him, but her intestines cramped again, the agony worse than anything she had ever imagined.
Cold floor, hot pain, and the words of the deli man came back to her:
“Nothing wrong with a taste of what you pay for.”