Monday, December 15, 2008

Middle Shelf Story: Richard Matheson's "First Anniversary"

Marrying is one of the best things I’ve ever done -- but not one of the easiest. The initial twelve months were painful for both my wife and myself. The stress of a devastating diagnosis and a move halfway across the country dulled our newlywed blush. We argued frequently (as I imagine most couples do), only I didn’t fight fair, resorting to tactics I’d rather not remember, much less commit to print. That internal ugliness frightened me. One night, I sat up long into the dead hours, thinking, She can’t keep loving me. She knows me too well. That’s the terror Richard Matheson taps in “First Anniversary.”

Just before he left the house on Thursday morning, Adeline asked him, "Do I still taste sour to you?"

Norman looked at her reproachfully.

"Well, do I?"

He slipped his arms around her waist and nibbled at her throat.

"Tell me now," said Adeline.

Norman looked submissive.

"Aren't you going to let me live it down?" he asked.

"Well, you
said it, darling. And on our first anniversary too!"
Norman didn’t mean to hurt Adeline’s feelings. Sure, it was a little insensitive of him to tell his wife of one year that she tasted ... unpleasant when he kissed her. But she took it so hard, much harder than the offense warranted. Now she’s inconsolable, and Norman can’t seem to do anything to make it right. But he has other problems now. He can’t seem to taste Adeline at all.

"Now you can’t taste her at all," said Dr. Phillips.

Norman smiled. “I know it sounds ridiculous," he said.

"Well, it’s unique, I’ll give it that," said Phillips.

"More than you think," added Norman, his smile grown a trifle labored.

"How so?"

"I have no trouble tasting anything else."
The story’s inverted symmetry is as elegant as it is effective. As Norman’s suspicions mount, his senses fall away one by one -- but only as they relate to Adeline. The climax, simultaneously horrific and heart-rending, calls to mind the rarity of true love. Over the years I have learned that my wife loves me with a passionate, tough-rooted affection that abides even though she knows me and my failings. I can think of few things more beautiful when received or more terrible when denied.

You can read “First Anniversary” in Nightmare At 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories By Richard Matheson.

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