Timothy was hiding in the garage when his wife, Jacqueline, called his phone.
“I’m back from my walk and I need a foot rub,” she said.
“Have you showered?” he asked, knowing she had not.
“I couldn’t stand up another two minutes.”
She ended the call. Of course he must. He had strayed, at a conference in the Maldives with a CPA from Ireland, a first and a last transgression, but a transgression whose forgiveness was not yet complete and so his penance ongoing. It was all very vindictive. Jacqueline had never met and would never meet the woman, and he would never see her again. They were no longer even associates on LinkedIn.
Despite the family money, the salon hair, the spa skin, the boutique wardrobe, the fromagerie body, Jacqueline had the feet of a pig farmer. It was as if every repressed desire, every masked flaw, made its way to the pores of her feet, festering along the way.
“You’re not wearing the choker,” said Jacqueline as he arrived with the tray of scented massage oil and wipes.
“I couldn’t find it and I’m glad. It was demeaning. I felt like a fifteen-year-old goth with daddy issues wearing it.”
The smell of lemongrass couldn’t mask the foot odour, but it gave him another scent to focus on. Jacqueline decried his cruelty whenever he mentioned the smell of her feet, and claimed to smell nothing herself, not that she could get her nose particularly close to them.
“No. Demeaning is seeing your husband sticking his tongue down the throat of another woman in the audience of a Ted-X presentation with over two million views.”
He rubbed the edges of her feet, hoping it would relax her. If he had known there was a camera on the audience he wouldn’t have kissed Fiona. He had assumed the theatrette was dark enough no-one would ever see. Just as well Fiona’s hand had not been visible.
“You couldn’t find it,” she continued, “because I threw it away.”
Was this a crocus poking through the snow? He kept his face blank, and his head down, penitent, so penitent he never even thought about being forgiven, or Jacqueline building a bridge, getting over it, and these bullshit games ending. But the emotion was betrayed by the rise in his voice.
He might run his fingers between her toes this afternoon instead of using the wipes. She liked that.
“Because, you see,” she said reaching into the pocket of her jacket, “I found this cheap, filthy dog collar on the road. It seemed more appropriate, you being a filthy dog and all. Put it on.”
It was red woven nylon, the edges frayed and dirty with the grease from some dog’s pelt. It had a buckle like a toothed maw, the lower jaw hinged and sprung. To do it up you fed the mesh into and through the mouth and pulled. His fingers trembled. It took effort to stop his chin from joining them.
“Put it on. Tighter than that. I want to see it above your shirt.”
He gave another tug on the loose end of the collar. It put pressure on his Adam’s apple. He could feel it when he swallowed. The pre-nup her father made him sign had a clause about infidelity and another about public disgrace. Like she was the one who had been hounded, ridiculed by the online mob. His name badge had been legible in the 4K version of the video. And his employer. He had, as they relished saying, been “doxxed”, de-anonymised, and then “memed”, immortalised in gif and png, as “Ted-X and Chill Guy”, the personification of consummating any illicit desire, initially things like party-size bags of corn chips, now 36 packs of three-ply quilted toilet paper.
The lockdown had allowed him to drop the facade of seeking employment. His previous employer, still recovering from their CEO’s near-incarceration over a DWI that saw his Audi embedded up to its rear wheels in a McDonald’s indoor playground, had made a spectacle of its corporate moral values by ham-stringing him with a public letter that denounced and fired him, before throwing him to the wolves of Twitter.
No-one wanted to take him on and he was completely dependent on Jacqueline. He had never saved a cent. Not for retirement, not even for the next week. He had Jacqueline. That “had” was in danger of slipping out of the ongoing and into the past. If that transition, that flow in time, could be held off, even cut off, by tightening a collar, he would tighten the collar. The alternative was a long jump into the shadows beyond disgrace, deep into poverty, or worse, a service job, like washing dishes or changing damp, stained sheets.
“Keep rubbing,” said Jacqueline.
He pulled himself back from the abyss into the familiar pit of lemongrass and stink.
“If you could cook you would actually be useful,” she said, swiping on her phone. “I’m ordering us dinner from Emile’s. For pick-up, not delivery. Look what I’m typing.”
She showed him her phone. In the box labelled “Instructions” she had written “Emile, dearest! Don’t give the order to Timothy unless he’s wearing his dog collar. Love to Bethany and the girls.”
He had avoided humiliation, no, mitigated humiliation, by taking off the collar and wrapping it around his wrist before joining the properly spaced line of delivery drivers waiting outside of Emile’s. Maybe he could join Uber if Jacqueline let him keep one of the cars. Unlikely.
The floor manager working the front desk, blonde, her primness and discretion the full two hats, had looked up from the order and lifted an eyebrow. He raised his wrist with the collar on it and shrugged. Of course Emile and his staff knew, and eventually the story of the collar on the wrist would get back to Jacqueline, on some unknown day, if the lockdown ever ended.
On his return, before exiting the car, he put the collar back on and pulled it tight. It was hard to swallow. That was probably her plan.
They ate in silence. What was there to talk about? The virus had grown boring. Besides Jacqueline’s walk neither had done anything of interest. She had her phone beside her plate and read from it. Timothy choked down his food. His temples were beginning to throb. He needed a whisky and a lie down.
“Why must you chew so loud?” said Jacqueline, looking up from her phone. “It’s ruining my appetite. Take smaller bites and tighten the collar. Maybe that will help.”
After dinner, while Jacqueline re-watched Downton Abbey in the viewing room, a bottle of red wine by her side, Timothy roamed the house with his second whisky. This was his exercise, out of the public eye, away from Jacqueline. Walking up the stairs always got his heart going. That had to be good. Now it made his head throb. It was even worse when he went down the stairs. But he kept going. He was supposed to suffer, right? Once he suffered enough, reached some measure that only Jacqueline knew, he would be forgiven.
Reversing the circuit through the house, his glimpse into Jacqueline’s study took in her desk. Normally bare, it had her laptop on it with a stack of paper beside it.
He rolled the leather chair out of the way and tapped the space bar of the laptop. The screen lit up, but it requested a log-in. She had never shared any passwords with him. His passwords he had handed over to her in the hope of regaining her trust. It hadn’t worked.
The papers beside the computer had the print-out of an email from her law firm on the top. Underneath were the documents attached to it. Divorce papers.
He fingered the collar. It had been her last little game, some final vengeful hoop-jumping, before kicking him out into the cold. The email quoted those fateful clauses from the pre-nup.
The collar probably stopped the blood from draining out of his face. He backed himself into the desk chair, gulped whisky and pulled at the collar. He had Jacqueline. His fingertips found the loose end and tugged it. He had a career. He gave the collar another tug. The pounding in his head left no room for his thoughts. One cut through - he was going to end up on the streets. Another tug and that faded, like a dark cloud descended over it. He could still breath, barely, it was a wheeze, weak and thin, but thinking was out of the question. There was only the sensation of increasing pressure at his temples.