Two years ago, Em killed her boyfriend. She doesn’t think that this defines her, merely that it defines her for everyone else. The murder has, of course, had certain effects on her: she won’t watch horror movies or tolerate people who yell. She won’t eat spaghetti with red sauce. She won’t let her new husband wear green, even on their honeymoon when he insists that the t-shirt is the only clean one he has, and really, it’s more of a turquoise.
Still, Em is about as adjusted as a murderer can get, which she reminds herself as she and Marco sit in their hotel bed listening to the argument escalating in the room next to them. Em can’t make out all of the words, but she hears a combination of English and Spanish, hears bitch and idiot and cunt, hears the monotone of a man who has put his train on full speed and removed the brake pedal.
A man like that has to crash into something to stop.
“Should we…?” Marco whispers. His eyes are wide and red from a second day of drinking by the pool.
“Should we what?”
“You know. Do something?”
“Do something like what?”
She is being purposefully obtuse, but she’s curious what he’ll propose. Marco is a small man, soft around the edges, often too wrapped up in his own thoughts to remember to speak them out loud. He is the only man she knows who wears a full set of matching pajamas to bed. He bathes with lavender soap. He brought three books on his honeymoon—none of which he’s been sober enough to open—with titles like Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists.
“I don’t know. But we can’t just listen while…”
Something falls over in the other room, and Em decides the time for talk is over. Anyway, Marco has answered her question by not answering it. She throws off the comforter, finds the complementary robe, and slides on her flip-flips. She rifles around in the kitchen drawer for something, finds it.
“Em?” Marco asks from the bed, but she is already out the door.
When Em knocks there is a sudden silence followed by whispers. Then there is a frantic rearranging of the furniture, a replacing of fallen items on the nightstand. Em does not need to see inside the room to know this.
The man comes to the door. He has what Em would call a lumberjack build, tall and broad-shouldered, and the start of a beard. His eyes are red like Marco’s, only instead of dazed and blank, they are two red dot sights looking for targets. Em is aware of Marco coming up behind her, hovering a safe few feet away.
“Excuse me,” Em says, “but we couldn’t help overhearing your argument.” She is aware that she should be panicked, should feel her heart pumping too quickly and her blood pressure rising. She is aware that this calm that has come over her is not healthy, and that her therapist will be worried when Em recounts it. Maybe she won’t.
“No argument here,” the man says, his face contorting into a friendly smile. He has an accent—possibly from Spain, though Em has not met enough people from elsewhere to be sure.
“Perhaps we were mistaken,” Em says. She checks his hand. “Still, you won’t mind if we talk to your wife for a minute—alone—will you?”
The smile disappears. “I don’t think that is nec—”
The man is not expecting the shove, which means that when Em barrels through the door into the room, she manages to knock him backward with a combination of her and the door’s momentum. He stumbles into the frame of the open bathroom door a good three feet away, where his head makes impact with metal.
“Em!” Marco cries. He doesn’t move. His blood pressure is probably astronomical. He might faint.
The wife is standing out of view, between the two beds. She looks like a scared child. Her nightgown is that of a child too, pink and lined with white lace—the kind of nightgown that comes with a matching doll. Her hair is long and braided down her back.
Em puts her hand on the wife’s arm and says, “Are you okay?”
The wife nods. She is close to crying. She is twirling the wedding ring on her left hand around and around. She is wondering how she got here.
“Did he hurt you?” Em asks.
The woman shakes her head no.
Em hands the complementary notepad and pen from the nightstand to the wife and asks her to write down her name, address, and telephone number. The husband has come out of his daze, and he’s yelling again, telling his wife not to give them shit. The wife looks at him nervously, writes her information on the pad, and hands the whole thing to Em.
“Thank you,” Em says.
The woman smiles at her.
Em turns to the husband. His face is an unhealthy red. Marco’s face is red too, but from embarrassment. He probably feels they are intruding; he is probably suffering an inner debate about their right to judge others. When Em steps closer and takes out the knife, both men step back to the door.
“Listen to me,” Em tells the husband, only she says this in Spanish. Escúchame. “Two years ago, I had a boyfriend. He was a lot like you. I killed him, and I don’t regret it.”
The husband looks at Marco. Marco nods grimly. The husband looks back at Em.
“I know where you live now. I know how to find you. If you hurt this woman, I promise it’s the last thing you will ever do. Understand?” “Yes. I’m sorry.” The husband is apologetic now. He will probably take his wife to dinner, give her the best sex of her life. These effects are only temporary.
“Good.” Em puts the notepad in her robe pocket, along with the knife.
She leaves the married couple to make up, and Marco trails a safe distance behind her. When they reach the room, she realizes she forgot to bring a key; Marco, always thinking ahead, pulls one out of his pocket, but his hands shake too much to get the door open. “I’ll do it,” Em says. Her hands are steady.
“How did you…? And you speak…? When did you…?” Marco tries to ask.
“Just because I didn’t go to college doesn’t mean I don’t know things,” Em says. “I just prefer to learn them on my own.”
Marco doesn’t seem to know how to respond. He unscrews the cap from one of the mini bottles of vodka in the fridge and drinks it in one gulp. Then he sits down on the edge of the bed facing away from her and takes several deep breaths.
“How are you so calm?” Marco asks her later, once he’s pulled himself together a little.
“That’s what happens when you’ve killed someone,” Em says. She knows it unsettles Marco when she talks about the murder this way, but she can’t help it. Her therapist will want to discuss this, too. “And when you’ve almost been killed.”
Em goes out onto the patio to sit on one of the plastic chairs there, leaving Marco to his own recovery. She likes him for his thoughtfulness, but she won’t coddle him. She won’t let him drag her into his philosophical crises.
The sun is low, and Em loves the broiler orange color that comes with its daily setting. The ocean air blows through her hair and makes her smile.
For Em, life is simple.
No man has ever taken that away from her, and no man ever will.