The air was choked by silence aside from the occasional grating of teeth against dinner forks and the gulps that followed. I was wracked with guilt as I sat rigidly in my seat—eyes fixated on the woman seated directly across from me. I was searching for my wife, but she’d been consumed by the stoic statue seated there—a chiseled piece of art that I could not seem to find beauty in. Her once unfettered mane that showcased her eclectic personality in all its glory now wreaked of chemicals that worked to tame her tresses into a sleek bun. Her dedication to a poised demeanor sucked the energy from her dark irises that were once so electric they could captivate an entire room. Her plump, pink pout that used to spend most days between her teeth as she pondered the beauty of a flawed world was now habitually smeared with vixen red lipstick, rarely showcasing any authentic emotion. She was a bold and fierce beauty—a lioness reduced to a pathetic, withdrawn creature willing to bow down in her cage if it meant her handlers would feed her the highest quality of prime rib. Those in captivity rarely wind up there willingly, so I could not blame my wife. I could not love her either.
“You haven’t touched your dinner,” her icy tone yanks me from my unsettling thoughts. We lock eyes briefly and I force a half-hearted smile before picking up my fork and taking a bite of the meal before me. “Have you taken a glance at the email I sent you during lunch?” She takes a sip of Merlot as she analyzes every detail of my demeanor. I choke down my food and ponder how to answer her question.
“I did,” I chose to respond simply. She raises a perfectly shaped eyebrow in my direction as she slowly swirls the wine in her glass—her eyes never leave me. She was stalking me—waiting patiently for a breach to appear in my suit of armor and vulnerability to seep through the cracks. If she was a caged lioness, then I was the severed head of a mustang, flung into her enclosure to be devoured.
She purses her lips before commenting, “I hope you’ll consider accepting the position. My husband should not want to remain in retail forever.” She finishes the rest of her wine with one gulp before pushing herself back from the table and leaving me to sit with the implications of her words. I wondered if she remembered what it was like to feel something besides the burning sensation of fermented grapes in the pit of her belly. She was right. She always was. I fucking hated customer service. I loathed the ache I felt in my cheeks after each drawn-out day spent serving hollow smiles to the public as I ran frozen waffles and men’s deodorant across my register’s scanner. My stomach churned at the memory of kissing the feet of entitled patrons who missed our clearance sale by over 48 hours. And yet, ironically enough, despite my wife’s constant insistence upon my pathetic and miserable position within our society, I could not help but feel as though she was remarkably more unhappy than even the likes of me. After calming my budding resentment, I too left our dejected dining table and made my way to our garage.
When I stepped into the room I was transported back to a simpler period. Canvases adorned every crevice of the confined space. The room lacked windows, but Her art would allow you to see every enchanting vision-- every flawed detail about the unforeseeable world around us. The stale scent of acrylic paint and oil pastels wisped into my nostrils. I closed my eyes and reminisced about my wife before the Collapse of the Humanities— the wife who was bewitched by life and wanted to replicate its magnificence. In the months preceding the Collapse, we smiled because we felt it, and not because we were supposed to. Her evenings would be spent gnawing at her bottom lip like it was her favorite flavor of trident gum as she guided her brushes seamlessly across blank canvases. I would sit beside her—enamored as I observed vibrant streaks gliding across woven, white cloth like the steel-blades of figure skaters sliding along ice. Her passion often inspired my own, and so I wielded the written word in a way that transformed the mundane world into something worth pondering about. We complimented one another, and like Rumpelstiltskin, we yearned to spin gold from an ordinary straw pile and share it with our peers. That longing led us to spend the majority of our days molding the creative minds of future artists and writers. At times I would find myself sneaking a peek into her lectures to steal a glance of the spark in her eyes—eyes enthralled by her student’s aptitude for self-expression. Likewise, I’d occasionally catch her tucked quietly in the back of my own classrooms listening intently as I explained to my students the artistic aspects of literature.
The day my wife began her metamorphosis was another ordinary day for the two of us. Following another eight hours spent teaching, we both retired to my wife’s art studio and began our nightly ritual of peaceful creation in each other’s company. The air was filled with the sound of her humming along to the smooth jazz emitting from her favorite radio station and the clattering of my keyboard as I typed prose poetry. We’d occasionally offer up a loving smile to one another before returning to our work, naïve to what awaited us. As the warm tones of the saxophone faded away, they were jarringly replaced by the calculated, disconnected speech of a local reporter.
As of 6:00pm today, the Federal Government has declared that they will be reallocating funds from the humanities in all school districts and utilizing that money for other, more urgent public works. As of right now, the Governor states that STEM subjects will remain unaffected by this decision. We will work to provide further information as it is received.
My wife and I locked eyes—and I could see the contemplation and worry that clouded her own. What did this mean for our jobs and our students?
“I think I will be retiring early,” she choked out. I watched as she released her paintbrush and scurried off to our bedroom. That was the last time I ever saw her touch a canvas.
In the months following the Collapse, I noticed the streets were littered with homeless people plagued by soulless gazes. Their eyes told the tale of a creative stripped of the ability to create. Professions in art, writing, and music took a backburner to STEM fields—leaving many confined to government assistance, or blindly wandering for their place in this newly ordered society. My wife and I were tenured professors, so we were offered the opportunity to begin teaching STEM-based courses if we returned to school and at least received an associate degree in a STEM subject. My wife was bound by the fear of becoming an addition to the budding museum of lost souls on our streets, so she complied with this request to my dismay, but I knew I could not fault her. Things were different now. Alternatively, I refused to sacrifice my artistic integrity to add to the overpopulation of math and science professors within our society with overinflated egos and a disregard for the well-being of the humanities professors they used to work harmoniously alongside. I turned in my resignation and succumbed to a life of jumping from retail job to retail job so that I could at the very least allocate some of my free time to writing the way that I used to. I found my eyes often wandering to an imaginary silhouette of her beside me, painting without a care in the world.
My wife, on the other hand, changed. After receiving her Associate's degree in Chemistry, she returned to the school we both used to frequent to become a STEM professor. This was a position that discouraged her idiosyncrasies, so she erased the parts of herself that made her look like art, and with that, her demeanor followed. The light in her eyes that once drew me into her dissipated, and I was left cohabitating with a strange woman driven mad by the numbers she was forced to regurgitate day in and day out—constantly yearning to locate the lost, eccentric soul buried beneath.
She avoided our garage like the plague, often ridiculing me for not having converted it into an office for her to perform her new work duties. Fortunately, I could do her one better. I opened my eyes and took one, last deep breath— committing the scent of our former haven to my memory. I picked up the can of gasoline resting in the corner of the room and began to leisurely stroll about the space, dousing the chemicals on every piece of art I encountered. I watched as a mixture of gasoline and acrylic paint seeped onto the concrete beneath my feet. The collection of combining colors reminded me of the art she would create. With a despondent sigh, I removed a box of matches from the front pouch of my button-up. I took out a match, struck it along the textured side of the box, and released the small flame to the ground. This will be the last thing that I write.