In a movie, two spies have to pass through a checkpoint. As they get close, one whispers to the other, “act normal!” Inevitably they are caught. It’s an absurd order because it makes itself impossible to obey. To act normal is to be unselfconscious, but when you are told to do it, you instantly ask yourself what normal is. You scramble for a standard or a signature; self-consciousness consumes you. You may recover quickly, but for a moment you’ve been knocked off course.
As I stand here at the kitchen counter and set out food for the party, I try to fill a bowl with olives normally. I try to open a package of crackers normally, to arrange a cheeseboard in the way a normal person should arrange a cheeseboard, without excessive precision or showiness, presenting the cheese according to some ordinary aesthetic standard, with the right level of care, neither too much nor too little, unwrapping the cheeses—a wheel of Brie, a wedge of Manchego, one of those expensive little goat cheeses that come wrapped in a vine leaf—just as a normal host would, someone for whom the meaning of these actions could never be in question. When I handle the more charged objects (sharp knives, fragile glasses) I don’t look round to see if Rei is watching me. My aim is to appear neither too casual nor too intent, no more than averagely aware of their potential as hazards or weapons. When I speak, I modulate my voice. I try not to load my words with excess meaning. This is an important evening for Rei and it is vital that I display no undue excitement, that my behavior should have nothing about it to trouble her or anyone else.
“Shall I open the wine?” Casual, flat. More or less correct, but I hesitate, whereas the normal thing would be to go right ahead and do it, to open the wine without seeking permission, or rather to say “shall I open the wine?” with a slightly different tone, not that of a man seeking permission, someone who isn’t supposed to drink alcohol with his medication, whose offer to open the wine might be construed as a covert attempt to drink wine, or at least taste it, to mix wine with psychiatric medication, and who is therefore preempting his wife’s reaction, saying that although it may appear that he’s about to do this potentially dangerous or disruptive thing, there’s no cause for alarm. It ought to be an offer, a throwaway moment of negotiation between two partners preparing for the arrival of guests. I’ll do this while you do that. Don’t worry, I’ll handle it.
“No, it’s fine. Just sit down.”
“OK. I’ll go check on Nina.”
Rei is facing away from me, slicing a baguette. Her shoulders visibly stiffen, and this almost-imperceptible reaction makes me feel bleak and angry. What does she expect from me? How long can it go on? I master this flash of temper almost at once. I have no right to it. She is absolutely justified, and though I am not and never have been any danger to Nina, she has no way of knowing that. I am officially someone with a broken mind, someone whose mood and behavior is being pharmacologically regulated. I have acted in ways that were frightening and unpredictable. I have concealed the true state of my soul. But still I’m disappointed. Recently she’d seemed more relaxed. I’ve been out with Nina to the playground a few times, picked her up from preschool. Each time I’ve found Rei waiting impatiently for us to get back, pretending to do this or that, cleaning or tidying or scrolling through messages on her phone. Still, she managed it, she put herself through the stress. She has been trying very hard to trust me. This flinch, this little hunch of her shoulders, is a tell, an indication that she’s concealing the true pitch of her anxiety. But she doesn’t say anything, so I walk down the hallway and crack open the door to our daughter’s room.
Nina is sleeping at an angle, her feet hanging over the side of her bed. Her hair, which is getting longer all the time, long enough to tie in a ponytail, is spread around her, thick damp strands of it plastered to her cheek. Her pillow has fallen on the floor and so has her toy, a little black cat, its fur grubby and matted. We were given so many stuffed animals when she was born, but this odd thing with its cartoonish eyes and shiny plush was the one that she chose, the friend that has become indispensable to her. I pick it up off the rug and put it by her head. Her mouth is open a little, and as I watch, she wrinkles her nose, sniffing in her sleep. There’s a shadow in the doorway and I turn round to see Rei. Don’t wake her up, she whispers. Deliberately, very slightly emphasizing my movements so that she can see the care that I’m taking, I step out and close the door.
“She’s fine. I was just putting Furrycat back on the bed.”
Sometimes, when she’s tired or worried, Rei sets her face in a tragic mask, like something from a Noh drama. I’ve seen it a lot in the last few months. My wife is beautiful, even when she’s hiding behind her mask face, and now that she’s made herself so fundamentally inaccessible, now that I’ve lost the rights I used to have—to coax or cajole her into telling me what’s on her mind, to make a stupid joke and receive a smile—that beauty has become painful to me, a sign or index of what I have thrown away. Because I have to say something, and because I can’t bear to see that mask anymore, I ask what else needs to be done before the party. Nothing, she says. Just relax. Again, I have to tamp down my urge to push back, to say I am relaxed, which of course would blow it all. The injunction to relax is another one of those impossible demands.
Though I don’t really need to, I go to the bathroom and sit down on the toilet, just to have a moment offstage, wishing I could smoke a joint, have a drink, take a Xanax, anything to get me through the next few hours. Everyone will be very nice, I’m sure, but they’ll all be looking at me sideways. Every move I make will be scrutinized. Because I don’t want to stay in there too long (act normal) I splash some water on my face, flush the toilet, go into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of sparkling water.
I stand at the counter and watch the tiny bubbles rising up in my glass. I am freshly shaved, wearing my most normal clothes, chinos and a dress shirt, a spy in the house of the sane. I’m feeling OK. Not too dizzy, my mouth not too dry. I’ve put on weight because of the medication, but not too much. A normal amount of weight.
Everything about the apartment is the same, but everything is different. I feel like Odysseus. I have been gone twenty years and in my absence other men have made themselves at home. Rei is perched on an ottoman, the TV remote in her hand. She’s wearing a long dress and a piece of jewelry I don’t recognize, a silver necklace with a heavy geometrical pendant made from some kind of dull blue stone. It’s natural that she should have dressed up—we’re entertaining, after all—but the primitive part of my brain suspects that she didn’t dress for me. Since my return, she’s been spending a lot of time on the phone with her friend Godwin. She’s known him for years, since before we were together. I’ve no idea if they were ever involved. I suspect they probably were, once upon a time, but it never bothered me before. I like Godwin. He’s smart and funny, and between the two of us there’s never been any kind of atmosphere. He’s never attempted to claim Rei in any way, to suggest that there’s something he shares with her that is closed or exclusive. But recently he split up with his wife, and Rei has been the one to whom he’s turned, the one who offers him a shoulder to cry on, who goes out for dinner with him and helps him dissect what went wrong.
On nights when Rei goes out with Godwin (I am, I suppose, making it sound more frequent than I should—it’s really only been a question of three or four dinners in as many months) she doesn’t leave me alone with Nina. Our sitter is asked to stay late, despite my insistence that it’s unnecessary, that there’s no reason for us to spend the extra money. But as it’s Rei’s money (since I paid back the Deuter foundation’s stipend, my bank balance has been more or less zero) and since she always frames it as my chance to go out on my own, to “see a friend,” it’s hard for me to refuse. So Paulette sits and reads her magazines in the living room, and since I don’t really have a friend to go and see, and the stimulation of the cinema is out of the question, and I ought not to be sitting alone in a bar, even with a book and a non-alcoholic drink, I stay in the bedroom and pretend I need an early night. Inevitably I lie awake in the dark, listening for the sound of the front door, trying to intuit from the sounds Rei makes as she comes in, the tone of her conversation with Paulette, if she’s just been grinding against Godwin on the couch in the serviced apartment he’s been renting since he moved out of the family home. When she comes into the bedroom, I make my breathing regular and pretend to be asleep.
It’s not just Godwin. There’s another man, someone she knows through work, a diplomat who’s part of the French mission to the UN. I’ve met him a couple of times. He was apparently helpful during the weeks of my disappearance. He is a peacock, the type of guy who wears blue suede loafers and undoes too many buttons on his shirt. When we were introduced, he looked at me with frank disbelief, as if to say, this is who you were trying to get back? I have no doubt that I inspire contempt in him, and he seems like a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, a man for whom the fact of Rei’s marriage would be no more than a speed bump on the road to seduction. In truth I have no evidence that this diplomatic charmer has overstepped any bounds at all, but my dislike of him is so instinctive that I find it hard not to see him in the worst possible light. I torture myself with him, as I do with Godwin and various other men, in fact more or less anyone presentable who comes into our orbit, because it seems obvious to me that I’m no longer good enough for Rei, that she could be with someone better than me in almost every respect, and the only reason we’re still together is that she hasn’t worked this out. Would I blame her if she slept with someone else? She deserves to be happy, to have pleasure, to be free of this awful stress. What do I have to offer her? I haven’t been unfaithful, that’s one thing, but nevertheless I’ve strayed. I’ve been far away. And I have let her down. No woman can forget that, even if she forgives. It will always be there at the back of her mind. I am unreliable. She can no longer be sure that I’ll catch her if she falls.
I should, I suppose, count my blessings. Things could be worse. When I try to reconstruct the chain of events that brought me back home from the island, here to the kitchen counter and my glass of sparkling water, I see so many moments when I could have been lost, figuratively or literally, and all that prevented it was the determination of our friends. Mostly it was Rei. She saved me, and of course that makes me ashamed. I shouldn’t need to be saved. And I ought to be able to put my hand on my heart and say I could do the same, that if she were lost I’d have the grit and tenacity to find her and pull her back to me. I know I’d want to do that. I know I’d try. But would I be strong enough? That question hangs over my head like the blade of a guillotine.
Excerpted from Red Pill by Hari Kunzru. Copyright © 2020 by Hari Kunzru. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.