In a long-forgotten society, there was a test people had to pass to get married. The test had one question. The question was multiple choice. If you were a woman, the question was:
You have one plank of wood. Do you:
- Affix it to the wall to support your husband’s golf trophies?
- Burn it to provide warmth for you and your family?
- Ask your husband what he wants to do with the wood?
You know from other records that the question and answer choices were different for men. You also know that there was a correct answer that, if circled, would allow the test-taker to get married. However, since no answer key or specific records of the test survive, you are left to hypothesize the answer.
The marriage test was discovered fifty years ago. No one’s taken as much of an interest in it as you. You dream about the test. You can’t hear the alphabet without thinking of A, B, and C, golf, fire, deferment.
Your husband does not care for the history of marriage law. You try to engage him during dinner by passing him a handwritten version of the test and he almost chokes on his shrimp scampi, laughing. You frown, your face the color of the shrimp on your plate. Upon noticing this, he calms himself and skims the paper.
“Who would have thought they had golf back then?” he says with a smile.
You explain that this is a loose translation of a sport closer to croquet than golf.
“Why don’t they just translate it as croquet?”
You’ve wondered this yourself, though you don’t admit it. You shrug. Say, “Maybe they thought it would be more understandable because it’s more popular.”
Get no response, not even a hmm. Return to your food.
He, the man you married, wakes you up in the middle of the night. You feel uncertain of your shape. You are both veiled by darkness. How do you know you’re not changing, disfiguring?
“C’mon,” your husband says, and his voice is like snow falling. “What’s the right answer?”
You roll over. Press your palms against your ribs. Nothing suddenly sharp or absent. You’re still whole, full of caged organs.
“You know what,” he says.
“There isn’t one we know of.”
You pull your hands out from under your shirt and breathe. You tell him you’re not kidding. Wait for the next question, the one you hoped he’d ask at dinner. What do you think the correct answer is?
He snores like waves against rocks. It is worse than silence.
Your research into the marriage test hasn’t won you any grants or awards. You can’t yet call yourself doctor. You tell yourself you aren’t in it for those reasons, but seeing Dr. Jeff dance around the library celebrating his second grant of the month isn’t a joyride. You wish you could chuck him out of the archives room. He sweats on all the rare books.
You mention this, the sweating, to the librarian one day. She gives you a stare like your fly is down. You hope she will not tell Jeff.
Jeff’s area of study is marital fashion. His numerous grants of late are due to his writings on corsetry. He’s working on a book about how all wedding dresses are metaphorical or literal shackles and bonds. You know this because he has run his grant proposals by you numerous times. He claims you have a good ear for arrogance and aren’t afraid to call him out on it. You have yet to find a nice way of explaining how hard it is to sound arrogant when you’re begging people for money.
If you would’ve had to take the marriage test, would you have failed? This question haunts the back of your throat. You blurt it out to the cashier at the grocery store.
The cashier says if he had to take the test, he wouldn’t care if he passed or failed. He is scanning the third bag of shrimp when you realize you didn’t grab anything else. On the way home, you pick up cheesesteak sandwiches.
“I’m sure you’d pass,” your husband says that night, when you voice the question to him. “You’d figure out the right answer.” He does not say what he thinks the right answer is.
The cheesesteak is a bloated sponge in your hand. Too much cheese. You choke and your husband watches you give yourself the Heimlich maneuver over the back of your chair. He tells you you’re very brave for saving yourself.
You think if he took the test, he’d fail, and you think of a singledom full of cats and baths, of soap operas and saving yourself from all kinds of pitiful near-death experiences. But, you think, he would not take the test. He would just get married. Jeff, too. They’d simply be unable to comprehend why anyone had the power to control their lives like that.
One boiling day in the archives, Jeff theorizes that the correct answer is C. His justification is that deferment to a husband is probably what was expected, “back in those days.”
“Only it wasn’t like that in all cultures,” you say. “Maybe it’s B because a wife should check her husband’s wants against the family’s needs.”
“But what if you take the test in the summer?” Jeff asks. “Then there’s no point in a fire for warmth.” He’s sweating more than usual. His nose is soggy like a dog’s. You lean over your half of the textbook between you to protect its pages.
“It’s symbolic,” you say. “You’re not letting the husband have the wood.”
“What if you choose C knowing your husband will burn the wood?”
You don’t know. To change the subject, you point at a picture on his side of the page. The picture shows a woman in a dress made of canary feathers, popular in the weddings of a now-extinct tribe.
“That’s pretty,” you say.
Jeff says the feathers were plucked from live birds, says the dress had to be stitched by the bride’s father, says if the feathers weren’t the right shade of yellow it was grounds for canceling the ceremony. You’re jealous of his answers. You pine for a textbook on the marriage test. Maybe when you pass out from heat exhaustion, you’ll dream one up.
Your husband stages an intervention after the fifth shrimp dinner of the week.
“Why are you so out of it lately?” he says. He doesn’t realize that:
- You’re actually as ‘into it’ as you’ve ever been, which is to say you never cared much for shaking up dinner and just got careless this week.
- Because being out of it is equivalent to finally finding something you’re truly passionate about, even if no one else is, even if it never amounts to anything, because you care. You care so much.
- Ask your husband what he thinks.
You choose C.
“You’re blaming me now? What did I do?”
You repeat yourself: “What do you think?”
Your husband sleeps on the couch. Neither of you clears your plates from the table or washes the dishes. In the morning the fetid smell greets you like a slap.
Your husband is gone. He left a note: Going to my brother’s for a few days.
You take a dry erase marker and on the fridge you write out the marriage test. Swap out golf for croquet. Run your hands through your hair. Pace. Wonder what Jeff has won today. Tell yourself not to care, but care anyways. Someone knocks on the door. It’s your landlord looking for the rent check. He follows you into the kitchen, reads the refrigerator while you scurry to the bedroom and find the check in your husband’s sock drawer.
“What’s with the piece of wood?” he asks, pointing towards the question on the fridge.
You fumble something about lumber being a useful resource.
“Still don’t get it,” he says.
You hand him the check. When he leaves, you wipe the test off the fridge with your sleeve.
Your husband comes back unshaven, closer than ever to a wild animal. He holds a plank of wood in his hand. Drops it on the kitchen floor with a dull thud.
Your husband does not play golf or croquet. It is hotter today than it has ever been in your life. You know deferring to him again is useless. This is your choice.
You pick up the plank of wood and drop it in the kitchen trash. You ask him if he will cook dinner for the both of you. He says yes.