Michael Mulgrave saved his wife from the fire. They had met thirty years ago when he was a cologne salesman.
“Hi there sir, would you like to try some avion for men?”
It was cold outside on that day, with enough snow to put Siberia to shame. She was wearing a thick jacket, with her hood pulled over her head.
“Sure, I’ll try some,” she said, removing her hood and blowing a strand of blonde hair out of her face.
“Oh, um, I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t apologize, spray,” she replied.
“Yes sir, um, I mean ma’am. You’re probably the first female customer I’ve ever sprayed. Oh, um, that sounded kind of weird.”
“Am I the first female you’ve ever talked to?”
“Sure sounds like it.”
He had watched her walk away for a long time. Then, when he wasn’t even sure if she was within ear-shot anymore, something in him snapped. The same part of him that snapped every time there was something scary he needed to do.
“Um, can I have your number!”
“Sure, and you can call me Izzy!”
An old woman standing between them almost had a heart attack. His boss chewed Michael out for raising his voice in the store. A female customer told him he wasn’t acting very professional. It was one of the best days of his life. That’s all it takes to turn a crappy day into a good one, a moment. Too bad it works the other way too.
“I don’t usually do this after a first date,” Michael said in his bedroom.
“Oh, me neither, but I’m willing to make an exception,” Izabella said next to him.
“Are you wearing men's cologne?” He asked.
“Of course, it’s avion for men. I went back and bought some.”
“Oh yeah, what convinced you?”
“Cute salesman I guess.”
“That’s just a day job.”
“Oh yeah, what do you really want to be?”
“I’m studying finance, so I guess I’ll be an accountant.”
“Wow Mikey, you sure know how to turn a woman on.”
“What do you want to be?”
“Oh, that’s so cool…”
She didn’t let him finish. Fifteen minutes later, she blew a strand of blonde hair off her face.
“Wow, that was amazing,” Michael said.
“Oh, um, yeah,” she said with a shrug.
Michael looked hurt.
“I’m just messing with you, it was good. Hey, we’ll get better.”
“Does that mean there’ll be a second date?”
“Sure, but why wait?”
He made her breakfast in bed the next morning.
“Jesus, when did you wake up?” She asked.
“Two hours ago,” he said.
“Should I be impressed or creeped out?”
“Try the scrambled eggs, then let me know. Oh, and the orange juice is freshly squeezed.”
“Not bad Mikey.”
They had breakfast in bed together. Every time a crumb fell on the bed, his eyes got wider. Izzabella had to bite her tongue not to laugh at his pained face.
“Do You have classes today?” She asked.
“Only in the afternoon. What about you?”
“Not at all.”
“What are you studying?” He asked.
“I’m taking different classes, just to figure out what I want to do. I’m mostly focused on photography, maybe graphic design.”
“Graphic design sounds cool.”
“Yeah, and don’t forget photography.”
“Sure, as a hobby.”
“Or as a job.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s going to pay the bills.”
“I don’t have to worry about bills, I’m dating a very successful perfume salesman.”
“I’m a cologne salesman.”
“Right, my manly cologne salesman.”
Michael didn’t have a TV in his room. He lived in a small, suburban home an hour away from his college campus. They left his bedroom together and crossed into his bathroom. Michael brushed his teeth while Izabella stood behind him.
“Can I borrow that toothbrush?” She asked.
“What? That’s so gross.”
“You’re such a neat-freak.”
“For not wanting to share my toothbrush?”
“Yes, come on, we should be sharing things now.”
Michael went quiet, not sure what to say.
“Fine, I guess we don’t have to share everything,” Izabella said.
Michael finished brushing his teeth and smiled at his reflection. Izabella laughed, stuck her tongue out, and made a funny face.
“Come on, do it,” she said.
“What?” He asked.
“Make a funny face.”
Michael focused for a moment. He scrunched up his nose and raised his brows.
“You look like you’re constipated,” she said.
“Are you suggesting my funny face has never been that funny?” He asked.
“Hey, chin up Mikey, you just need a good teacher.”
They spent the length of a feature film in front of the bathroom mirror, practicing funny faces. Michael was almost hopeless, but Izabella was a good teacher. He was so focused on these studies, that he forgot about his real ones. He was going to be late for Statistics class.
“I gotta go, I’m late,” Michael said.
“Go ahead, but you do have homework here. I want you to practice your funny face after school,” she said.
“I’ll know if you don’t do it, Michael, nothing gets past me.”
“Good. That’s what a photographer is supposed to do, capture details.”
“Wow, pretty deep for a finance major.”
Being in a relationship is a bit like filming yourself all day. Things take a bit longer to set up, but you’re also more animated. Everything feels better. If being in a relationship is like filming yourself, raising a family is like shooting a movie. Michael graduated from college, not at the top of his class, but that didn’t matter. His parents threw heaps of praise at him and apologized that they couldn’t fly to his graduation. He was happy to take a job as an actuary. It felt good to provide for Izabella.
There was only one class he just couldn’t seem to pass; funny faces. Izabella continued lecturing him. Michael bought a new house, close to his old one but bigger, and asked Izabella to move in with him.
“You sure you want to live with a slob?” She asked.
“Only if you’re okay living with a neat-freak,” he said.
“We’ll make it work,” she said.
The thing about watching yourself on film is that it can go one of two ways. Watching a bad video will usually make you self-conscious. Watching a good video can make you more self-aware.
For their fifth anniversary, Izabella decided to wake up before Michael. No easy feat even though it was a Saturday, because Michael preferred to wake up before the sun. She made him breakfast in bed.
“Careful Mikey, you’re getting crumbs all over the bed,” she said.
“Meh, who cares?” He said.
“I can see it in your eyes, Mikey, those crumbs are driving you crazy.”
“We’ll clean them later, let’s at least finish breakfast first,” he said.
Izabella smiled, then she stuck out her tongue and made a silly face. Michael laughed, she had a gift.
Michael worked long hours to support her. One night, Izabella surprised him.
“Guess what?” Izabella asked.
“Oh, I’m not very good at guessing, just tell me.”
“Aren’t actuaries supposed to guess stuff?”
“Yeah, but we have a little more to go off of then ‘guess what.’”
“Fine, I’ll tell you. I got a job. I’m a graphic designer at this cool magazine.”
Michael smiled, his eyes going wide.
“Honey you did it!” Izabella said, “that’s the silliest face I’ve ever seen you make. Now we have two things to celebrate, my new job, and you finally passed the silly face class.”
“Oh wow, I did it, I’d like to thank my parents. My friends. And of course, my very talented teacher.”
Izabella stared at him for a long time.
“Thank you, Michael,” she finally said.
“Supporting me for as long as you did. Making sure I wouldn’t have to settle for the first job I found.”
“Come on, I was happy to do it.”
“I have a graduation gift for you,” Izabella said.
“Yeah, it’s in the bedroom.”
She sauntered down the hall, turned around in the doorway of their bedroom, motioning for Michael to follow her.
“What, no dinner?” He asked.
“Is my Mikey hungry?”
“Want to postpone this until tomorrow so I can make you a sandwich.”
“You know what, never mind.”
Michael stood up and followed her into the bedroom.
Two months later, Izabella had a miscarriage. Michael assured her that everything was fine. They had each other, and that’s what mattered.
She was hesitant the second time, so was he, but they tried again. Another miscarriage.
By their twenty-fifth anniversary, they’d given up on having a child. Adoption was in talks, but it would be a long, stressful process. Michael took up smoking.
“Happy anniversary Mikey,” Izabella said, “I have good news.”
“What is it?” Michael asked.
“Can you put that cigarette out first, it’s nasty,” she said.
Michael was going to argue, but then he noticed Izabella cough. She tried to hide it, but it was right there in her throat. He put the cigarette out.
“One of my photos made it into the magazine that I work for,” she said.
“Wow, Izabella, that’s so great,” he said.
“I love telling you good news, Mikey! You always make the same stupid, happy face.”
“I learned from the best. What picture was it?”
“It was one you took of me. You know that big tree in our backyard, it’s me sitting against it. It’s going to be in the fall edition this year.”
“Credit is yours, I was just a human tripod, you did all the work.”
“Are we going to have dinner now?” he asked.
“I have something a little better in mind.”
Michael watched as she crossed the hall and stood in the doorway of their bedroom, index finger beckoning him to follow. He sat there, feeling like the luckiest man in the world.
As Michael walked towards her, he noticed she seemed more pale than usual. When had those dark bags under her eyes formed? Michael had to dive forwards to catch her. She collapsed in his arms. Her pulse was weak. In the car, to the nearest emergency room.
“I think she just had a heart attack,” Michael yelled at the woman in the emergency room.
“We’ll get a doctor out immediately, please take a seat.”
Michael sat down in the waiting area. He pulled out a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in here, sir,” the hospital receptionist told him.
“Oh, um, sorry.”
He made sure the cigarette was put out and threw it into the garbage can. He propped one of his elbows on the arm-rest and rested his head in his palm. He’d noticed it a long time ago; how pale she got, how she always shivered, the dark bags under her skin, the fluctuation in her weight. Why couldn’t it be him? It should have been him. He looked down at the cigarette he’d thrown into the empty garbage. He imagined it wasn’t well put out, that it started a fire that spread across the waiting room and engulfed him. But it was well put out, he’d extinguished hundreds if not thousands of cigarettes before. Why wasn’t he the one in the hospital?
Five years later she was gone. To celebrate their thirtieth anniversary, he went out and bought a can of avion for men. Highly flammable, perfect.
The firemen were too late. The house was up in flames and you wouldn’t be able to tell from that ash that used to be the dresser and the ash that used to be Michael. They went into the backyard to make sure the fire hadn’t spread. There, untouched by the flames, lay a picture of a beautiful woman with blonde hair. It rested against a big tree, saved from the fire.