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Cristina Van Dyck

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Estrangement
By Cristina Van Dyck
Wednesday, July 16, 2003

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A story of betrayal.

Estrangement

© 2002 Cristina C Van Dyck

1

Not long ago, every smallish town seemed to have a dollar-theater. The Starlight was just as antique as the dollar-jobs in other towns, but what set it apart from the other dollar-theaters, was that it had preserved its aged charm. It had a balcony that was opened on the weekends, when the place was jammed with families and high school students. That balcony would overflow with young bodies, while the adults enjoyed the lower level and suffered only the occasional pelting of popcorn and Dots. The staircase leading to the balcony creaked warmly as youthful feet stampeded up and down its curves.

From the main floor you could lean back in your chair, look up, and there see the domed ceiling. It was painted like a twilit sky and lighted so colors changed over the stars as an imaginary sun set in the unseen distance. Round the perimeter of the dome was a fake balcony and plastic plants. It was easy to picture yourself in an old Italian courtyard with a tumbler of garnet-red Campari. You could look down at your feet and almost see a cobble-stoned floor, moss growing in the seams. The dome in that ceiling was like a precious secret between you and it, one that no one else shared.

The Starlight, being a dollar-theater, showed a narrow selection of movies long after they’d appeared in the eight-dollar fancy theaters, and it showed only one movie each week. Often I’d sit through the previews and make a mental list of movies I wanted to see, though I’d surely be back the following week no matter what was playing. Many times, the movies on my list never showed up at The Starlight, but others did play that were equally satisfying.

On Tuesday nights a man would play the organ before the previews began. He and the big instrument would rise from the orchestra pit on a platform, and for the next half-hour he’d play the old standards and anything at your request. It seemed there was nothing he didn’t know—From Scott Joplin to Pearl Jam. And of course, Take Me Out to the Ball Game was an audience favorite.

Before I married Steve, I went to the movies sometimes twice a week. Once on a Saturday night to see a first-run film in one of the new theaters, and then once during the week, on a night I didn’t have to work late. It was those weeknights I went to the Starlight. It was a ritual for me. A religion.

After I married, my visits slackened quite a bit. In fact, after a few months I stopped going to the Starlight, altogether. A new husband required new responsibilities—and somehow, the Starlight didn’t fit in this new realm of married life. My husband and I enjoyed going to the movies together, but the Starlight experience was mine alone. Sacred. It didn’t feel right to bring anyone else in there with me.

Steve’s job soon brought us to Arizona. I followed and endured its arid climate, grassless, rock-garden front yards, and the occasional scorpion lurking in the bathtub. I found the Phoenix suburbs much less tolerable than the heat and humidity of Chicago summers. At least in Chicago, ninety-five-degree days and ninety-five-percent humidity were tempered by much cooler, rainy stretches of weather. In either place, it could at any time be too hot to breathe. It was a matter of preference, really. Boil or bake? Centipedes or scorpions? As for centipedes, those leggy, elongated, lightning-quick, spider-like monsters, at least they are fragile creatures. They break apart easily in the bathtub after a good dose of hairspray. If you’re fast enough, you can even trap them under a glass and leave them there for your man to show and take care of the rest. Can’t say that about scorpions. When Steve was called back to Chicago, we joyfully packed up and headed back home. We found a house in a neighborhood not far from where we’d started out, and settled in for good.


Of all the things that my husband could have taken up with to get out of the house—golf, softball, Tuesday Night Volleyball at the local church (though we weren’t churchgoers)—he chose to sit in a bar every Monday night with his best friend, Bruce, to watch Monday Night Football. We started arguing about it, and nothing ever got resolved. So I went back to the Starlight every Monday night for a couple of hours, and returned home again, sated and fulfilled after my cinematic indulgence. If he could have Monday nights, so could I. He didn’t dare complain. But then, I doubted he really cared. He had his own agenda.

I started recognizing faces. Funny, but that hadn’t happened before I was married. Maybe that was because I hadn’t visited the theatre on the same night every week, like now. We would nod and smile to each other, then go our separate ways, to our favorite seats. We never spoke.

I saw these people often enough that I gave them silent names. There was Betty, with the short brown hair and round glasses, who always wore gray sweats. She’d once sat next to me, and wouldn’t sit still for the next two hours. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, Indian-style, during the whole movie.

There was also Rooting Richard, brown-haired, tall, homely and gaunt. He walked with a stoop, and his open face and honest eyes made me believe he would have made a good friend to anyone willing to get past his nose-picking. He would shove the first third of his finger deep into his nose, upper lip wrinkled with effort. I would watch transfixed as he finally (finally!) withdrew the finger and popped it in his mouth. I learned to judge a show by Richard’s habit, however. The better the movie, the more Richard rooted. Was it the suspense of a thriller, the loneliness of a romance that inspired heavy picking over light? I didn’t know. But it was accurate. Jenny would ask me the next day how the movie was, and I would rate it as a one-, two-, or three-boog flick.

Jenny was my best friend, and privy to all that went on in my life. She knew right away when I’d become an NFL-widow, and sympathized. Jenny and I did much together, but not even she went to the Starlight with me. That was sacred ground, by tacit understanding. Besides, she had started taking night classes for work and was unavailable two or three nights each week.

2

On a Monday night in late fall, Steve had left to meet Bruce in the Black Watch Pub, as usual. I escaped the stifling silence of the house and settled in my usual center aisle seat, trying not to think about my marriage. What exactly was going on there, I wondered. Whose fault was it? Steve’s for forsaking me in favor of football and work, or mine for perpetuating it by going to the movies alone every week? Were we in trouble? Was our marriage falling apart? I pushed these questions away, and looked around me. Richard sat in the left wing, as usual. Betty, who never chose the same seat twice, was under the balcony, squirming and wiggling her way through the previews. The movie was a popular one, and the theater was pretty full. I nibbled through my box of Dots, pleased no one had sat in front of me. I had a nice clear view of the screen. The seat next to me was free as well, and I was a little disappointed when a voice asked me, “Is that seat taken?” I said no, and pulled my knees up to let the speaker pass.

“Thanks,” the man said. I grabbed my jacket, which I had thrown onto the empty seat when I’d taken it off, and he settled himself next to me. I tried not to resent his presence, and sneaking a quick glance at him, found it wasn’t hard. He was dressed in a silk, charcoal-grey turtleneck, black chinos and black, lug-soled shoes. Over it all he had draped a loose, fall-weight black trench coat. His ensemble fit together very nicely, even if it was a bit cliché. He appeared wealthy, which wasn’t unusual for this area—there was a very large business consulting firm nearby that worked its employees hard, but paid them well. His hair was black, too—long enough to brush his collar, but not too long. He wore it sweeped away from his face, a slight wave lent it an appealing shagginess. He was handsome, too. Wide-set dark eyes, a long straight nose, strong brow and chin, and teeth any orthodontist would be proud to take credit for. White, shiny, perfect. Too perfect. I wondered if they were capped.

Next to him, I felt frumpy and ugly in my three-day-old jeans, baggy at the knees, old college sweatshirt and glasses. My face was shiny and lacked makeup. I hadn’t even bothered to brush my hair before I left the house. Or my teeth for that matter. Why should I have? Who had I expected to meet?

I hoped he wouldn’t speak to me.

It was an action film. The dialogue was stilted, the action bloody with lots of explosive. For the first time ever, I’d questioned the wisdom of driving way out here to see a movie, even for a dollar, it was so bad. When it was over, I sat watching the credits roll, contemplating the disastrous film, waiting for the place to clear before I left, too. I hated herding up the narrow aisles so close to so many other warm sleepy bodies, pushing and hurrying each other without actually touching, out into the lobby and jostling around in the parking lot trying to get back on the street and back home. When I felt a warm pressure on my arm, I turned and found myself looking into the stranger’s handsome face, and he smiled at me. I looked down at his hand, still resting on my arm, and he moved it unselfconsciously. It takes a lot of practice to be that smooth, I thought. I looked at his face again. “Yes?”

“Terrible movie, wasn’t it?” His eyes crinkled at the corners, and his mouth tilted into a lopsided smile.

I swallowed and smiled back. “Yes, it was. Awful.” He held my gaze a little too long, and I looked away. We sat in silence a moment or two, until I said, “Well, looks like the place has cleared.” I got up and pulled on my jacket.

He rose from his seat, slipping on his own coat.

I started to walk away when I heard him say something. I turned around. “I’m sorry?”

He walked up the aisle toward me, adjusting his collar. “I asked whether you come here often?”

I looked at him narrowly. Was he trying to pick me up, or just make conversation? My face must have shown something, because he said quickly, “I was just asking. It didn’t mean anything.”

Of course it didn’t. I glanced down at my old dirty cross-trainers. I looked like what I was, a housewife out on her own for a couple of hours. I smiled weakly. “Um, once in a while.”

He nodded his head. “I thought I recognized you.” He held out his hand. “My name is Ron.”

I stared at him. “I don’t recognize you.” I was beginning to feel a little creepy and started edging up the aisle where the last few people were spilling out into the lobby.

“No, you probably wouldn’t. I get out of work late, and don’t often make it before the movie starts. Usually I sit back there, but it was pretty crowded tonight. Hard to believe for such a bad movie, isn’t it?”

“I guess we’re all a diehard at heart.”

He laughed at my joke. “Yes, I guess so. This is a great place, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I’ve been coming here a long time.”

“Really? I just moved into town a couple months ago. I work for Richardson Consulting.”

“I thought as much.”

He looked at me with startled brown eyes. “How did you know?”

I shrugged. “Just a hunch, I guess.” I didn’t want to tell him you could tell the RC crowd from the rest of us by their expensive, stylish tastes. There was an air about them, too—smart, excited, privileged people who knew just how special they are and how very ordinary we are. Richardson Consulting bred these ego-monsters like race horses. This guy lacked that quality, but I could see it wasn’t far behind. He was older, though, my age. Maybe he escaped that trap. Maybe he had enough of the right kind of chutzpah to get him there, and stay a nice guy anyway.

“How long have you been with Richardson?”

“Fifteen years,” he said. “I got in right out of college. I’ve spent most of the last eight years in France, Germany, England. Australia a few months. Malaysia a few weeks. Taiwan once, and that’s about it. They finally called me back home.”

“You grew up around here?”

“No, I was hired in New Hampshire, and got transferred here a little while ago. It’s just good to be back in the States. Permanently, I hope.”

We reached the lobby doors and he held one open for me as I eased through behind the other stragglers. “Thanks,” I said. We shuffled through the lobby and out the building. The crowd had dispersed and were scattering in all directions toward their cars. He followed me across the street, where I was parked. I glanced at him, intrigued and a little uneasy. “Did you park over here?” I asked, waving my hand toward the lot that fronted Wolf River. I could smell its fishiness through the chilly damp night.

He nodded and smiled. “Did you think I was following you?”

I blushed. “Well… You know… Wouldn’t want to be found floating in that mess out there. All those PCBs. Bad for the complexion.”

He nodded, as if he did know. “Don’t worry, I’m harmless.” He smiled, his perfect teeth gleaming.

I groped in my pocket for the car keys and swallowed. We’d reached my car. “No one’s harmless,” I said, gripping my keys tightly.

“True,” he said, and walked past to his own car. His keys jingled softly in his hand.

I pushed a key into the lock and opened the door. With one leg in, my heart thumping madly in my chest, I shouted over the roof, “Take it easy, okay? See you next time.” I wondered if I’d lost my mind.

He waved and nodded. He’d reached his own car and was opening the door. “Next time,” he agreed.


When I returned home, it was late and the house was dark. I walked through the garage and up the riser to the kitchen, fumbling for the light. I put my purse on the table and wondered when Steve would get home from the pub. He was with Bruce and time was meaningless to them when they were together.

Bruce was an old friend of Steve’s from high school. They’d gone to college together, both majoring in Business and pushing forward until they’d achieved their MBAs. Somehow they had even managed to hook up at the same firm years later, right before Steve was transferred to Phoenix. Now, after Steve’s relocation to Chicago, they were joined at the hip again. Sometimes I felt Steve should have married Bruce instead of me—they were always together, especially these days. I threw my keys on the counter and walked through the darkened house to our bedroom.

I closed the blinds and unbuttoned my jeans, sliding them over my hips. I stepped out of them and tossed them in the hamper. I figured it was time to wash them. When I pulled off my sweatshirt, I noticed there was a stain on the front where the fabric laid between my breasts. Ketchup, from the burgers I’d fried up for dinner, bright-red and noisy, screaming to be noticed. How could I have missed that? I rolled my eyes and tossed that in the hamper too.

I stood before my antique full-length mirror, the revolving kind. Pulling my hair out of the scrunchie, I examined it. Too long. Lanky. The gray hairs fading out the rich brown color it once held. My face was showing signs of age, too. The wrinkles around my mouth had gotten deeper, and the natural circles under my eyes appeared darker, hollower. And the funny horizontal crinkle between my eyes, just a phantom before, was noticeable now. If I raised my eyebrows just enough, I could stretch it out, but then I looked perpetually surprised. I played with my face, adjusting it until I achieved an expression I believed was one of wide-eyed innocence. When had all this happened? How had I aged so fast?

My gaze slid down my body. Steve and I hadn’t had children, something we’d agreed upon before we’d gotten married, so my body had maintained most of its original shape. Still, I was thirty-nine years old. My metabolism was slowing, and my body beginning to spread. My narrow shoulders had rounded forward a bit, dragging my posture down; my small breasts were beginning more to resemble half-empty Baggies rather than the pert little peaches they once were; and my narrow hips were not fuller, but something about them looked flaccid, the skin looser across the bones. Pockets of fat had begun to fill out along my thighs, under my arms, around my waist. I pinched an inch below my belly button and grimaced. This would not do.

I sighed and turned away, slipping into the T-shirt I was using for a nightgown. I climbed into bed and turned out the light, feeling worn and tired. But I didn’t sleep. I laid awake waiting for Steve to come home. I wanted to snuggle against him and feel his warmth. I wanted his kisses to tell me I was still young and lovely.

When Steve finally came home, it was nearly two a.m. I rolled over to greet him. “Hey, stranger. Where’ve you been? I missed you.”

“I was out with Bruce. You know that. Nothing different from before.”

I caressed his chest through his BVD T-shirt. “I was just wondering what you guys were up to.” I kissed his earlobe, twirled a finger in his fine ginger-colored hair.

He moved his head and rolled over, turning his back to me. “We were hanging out. That’s all.”

“Oh,” I said in the darkness, withdrawing my arm. “Did you have fun?”

“Yep,” he said and turned out the light. He was sound asleep in seconds.

I shifted to my side of the bed and stared at the ceiling, trying to ignore the low rumble of my husband’s snoring. Instead, I imagined the domed ceiling of the Starlight overhead, the plastic ivy trailing over the fake banisters, and the colored lights shifting over the twilit-painted sky. I sat on a chair in a cobbled Italian courtyard, a warm breeze whispering through my hair, stroking my cheek. The taste of Campari lingered in my mouth, bitter and chill. The sound of footsteps knocked across the old stone until they stopped behind me. A hand fell to my shoulder, a face nuzzled my neck. I raised a hand to the thick dark hair of my lover, and sighed contentedly before finally falling asleep.

3

When I awoke the next morning, it was late and Steve had already left for work. I picked up the phone and dialed.

“Rush Advertising. Jennifer Lang speaking.”

“Hi Jenny, it’s me.”

“Oh hey, Trish. I was waiting for your call. How was the movie?”

“A no-boog. A complete bust. It was awful.”

Jenny chuckled softly. “Win some, lose some, I guess.”

“But,” I continued, “there’s more. There was a guy there, he sat right next to me.”

“And?”

“Well, we talked a little, and he’s good-looking, and he noticed me from before. Can you believe it?”

Jenny was quiet a moment. “What do you mean he noticed you from before?”

“Well, he goes there after work sometimes, and he’s seen me there before. Last night, he sat down next to me and when the movie was over he started talking to me.”

“So what are you trying to say?” Her voice was heavy with significance. What kind, I wasn’t sure.

I snicked my tongue impatiently. “I’m telling you a handsome man sat next to me in a movie theatre, spoke to me, I think he was hitting on me… and I liked it. Steve has been so distant. He spends so much time at work, and then he goes out with Bruce a lot—not just to watch football—and a strange handsome man pays a little attention to me, and I liked it!”

“You know, Trish, I think you should do something with your hair.”

That silenced me a moment. “What?”

“Well you know. You’ve had long hair for a decade or so, and I think maybe it’s time you got a new style. Maybe it would, you know, get Steve’s attention.”

“You think I need a new hairstyle?”

“Or join a health club. You know, they have a special at mine and you could say I referred you…”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

“It might make you feel good, that’s all.”

“I guess. You think Steve’s bored with me?”

Jenny paused. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt. If he sees you feeling good about yourself… well, you never know.”

Stung, I said, “So. Lose any more weight?”

“Touche’. As a matter of fact, I’ve lost 52 pounds as of this morning.”

“You’ve been looking pretty terrific these days.”

“Thanks. You know what else I think?”

I sighed. “What now?”

“I think you should flirt back with that guy. Shamelessly. What a pity you should let such an opportunity go to waste.”

I laughed. “Maybe I will. After I get my hair done. Oh, and what’s that health club called?”


I showered and dressed, then searched for the phonebook. I was always losing the damn thing. I finally found it between the arm of the couch in the living room and the end table, curled around itself on the floor. When I picked it up, a scrap of paper fell from it. I snatched it up. It was a telephone number written in Steve’s hand. I stuck it back in the phone book and flipped through the Yellow Pages until I found what I wanted and dialed the number.

“Third Street Salon and Day Spa,” a woman’s voice answered. “This is Tiffany. May I help you?”

“Yes, I’d like to make an appointment for this afternoon, if possible.”

“Certainly. Have you been with us before?”

“No.”

“And what would you like to have done?”

My hand went to my hair. It fell well below my shoulders. “Hair cut.” I looked down at my hands, and saw the torn cuticles and bitten nails. “And a manicure, if possible,” I added.

“Two o’clock okay with you?” the woman asked.

“Yes, fine, thank you.”

“Your hairdresser will be Georgia. She’ll do your nails, too.”

I gave her my name and hung up. I felt nervous. Giddy. I hadn’t had a new hairstyle in years.


When I left the salon, I scampered to my car to inspect my new ‘do. Gone was all that old natty hair and dry ends. In its place was a stylish coif, shoulder-length, sophisticated, requiring daily styling, but still easy to handle, Georgia had promised me. I ran my rejuvenated coral pink fingers through it and rejoiced at the new me.

But I wasn’t finished yet. Next, I enrolled at the new high-tech health club that had opened a few weeks before, on Jenny’s referral. As I signed my check and handed it over, the girl behind the counter said to me, “Nice hair.”

I smiled. “Thanks,” I said, and let her show me how to use the equipment.

I felt my muscles working beneath my loosening skin and imagined myself sleek and fit, muscles showing in the right spots, lean where it counts. I rode the recumbent stationary bicycle and reveled in the movement of my legs, the labor of my breathing, the sweat dampening my face and forearms. Why was I so late in this discovery, I wondered. Why hadn’t I known this pleasure before?

At home, in front of the mirror again, I inspected my body, straining to see some reward for my newfound efforts. Were the backs of my thighs somewhat rounder than before? My stomach slightly flatter? Waist narrower? My calves already more defined? I reminded myself to be patient and then dressed, returning to the bathroom to experiment with my new hair. Georgia was right. It was a lot easier to style than I feared it would be. Having had long hair for nearly a decade, my technique was rusty, but I was confident it would get better in time. I sprayed it, and went to the kitchen to fix dinner. Steven would be home soon.

I was setting the kitchen table when the phone rang. I put the silverware down and answered. “Hello?”

“Trish, it’s me.” Steve was talking fast, as he often did when things got crazy at work and he got excited. “I’ll be home late tonight. Last minute meeting and all that, and this month’s spreadsheets are due first thing in the morning. I’m way behind.”

I tried not to let my disappointment show, and failed. “Oh. I’d fixed something special tonight…”

“Don’t bother waiting up for me. I’ll be pretty late.”

“Like last night?” I asked, anger creeping into my voice. But Steve ignored it.

“I’ll see you when I get home.”

“Sure Steve. Tell Bruce I said hi.”

There was a slight pause. “Okay. See you.”

And before I could say goodbye, Steve hung up.

4

I sat in the car considering my reflection in the vanity mirror. I patted my hair, ran the coral-colored nail of my pinky around my lips, checking my lipstick. I got out of the car, locked it and jogged across the street to the Starlight. My steps were light and buoyant. I’d worked out three times since I signed up at the health club the week before and felt athletic already. Maybe I should consider running, I thought. And then, Nah.

Inside, I paid for my ticket and settled down in my seat. Robert was in his place too, with a large bucket of popcorn in his lap, an ankle crossed over his knee. I could just see the nervous twitch of his fingers limbering up for their next dive into the deep unknown. I heard a clatter behind me and knew it was Betty testing the seats. Creak-swoosh-fwap-fwap-fwap went each chair as she pulled one down, sat, and rose from it in an impatient rush, then moved on to the next. I rolled my eyes as she finally settled into a seat in my aisle, four down from me. I looked over and smiled at her in greeting. She jerked her chin to me in return, the corner of her mouth lifting. It was an oddly masculine gesture, but fit nicely with her square figure, gray sweats, and blunt-toed tennis shoes. She wiggled and squirmed herself into position and opened her box of Raisinettes. I looked away toward the screen and the lights dimmed.

Something brushed my shoulder and I looked up. Ron grinned down at me, a wavy flop of glossy hair hiding one eye. His teeth gleamed at me in the glow of the screen, and I felt myself smiling back. “Can I sit there?” he asked, waving a hand at the chair beside me.

“You’re just in time for the previews,” I answered. I stood to let him pass. Instead of my jacket, I’d worn a heavy sweater, and clean jeans fresh from the dryer. I’d left my jogging shoes at home and slipped out with a pair of flat, lace-up shoes made of soft green leather. I called them my Robin Hood shoes. They were comfy, casual and looked good with jeans.

Ron slid past me, one hand balanced carefully on my arm. I could smell his cologne and my breath caught. It was my favorite, Bulova. I’d tried to get Steve to wear it, but he refused to perfume himself, even for me, so I had to content myself with little cards of it whenever I walked through Marshall Field’s. A shiver ran through my body. He was close enough that I could almost bury my face in his neck, and I caught myself leaning toward him. I turned my head to follow his scent as he moved past me and settled into the seat next to mine. Clearing my throat, I looked around expecting to find a full audience, and didn’t. I sat down again, and said, “It’s pretty empty here, tonight. Lots of seats open…”

“I know, but I like the company.” He looked at me steadily. I felt the heat rush into my face, and I was thankful for the darkness which hid my sudden color. I turned and stared straight ahead.


I was too aware of the man sitting beside me to pay much attention to the movie. I remember it was a romantic comedy, but not much more. Though I’d only met Ron the week before, something about him made me forget that we were strangers. In spite of the hammering in my chest, my sweaty hands, I felt drawn to him, like we’d been friends before and reunited. Jenny’s words lingered in my mind, to flirt shamelessly, and I was tempted to. But Steve’s face niggled at my conscience, and I behaved myself. Occasionally Ron’s knee brushed mine, and I enjoyed the touch, the sensation of butterflies in my belly, my heart thump-thumping in my chest. Our arms touched on the arm rest, lingering briefly before one or the other relinquished the space. It was a game. We were like college kids again, feeling strong emotions of a love-from-afar variety, and both afraid to admit it, to make the first move. We were testing the waters, and it felt good.


When the movie was over, Ron and I walked to the parking lot across the street, his hand resting lightly on the small of my back. I enjoyed his touch, and didn’t draw away. When we reached my car, we stood together at the open door, the dome light illuminating our faces.

“I had a nice time,” he began. “A really nice time.”

I laughed and shook my head. “You sound like we’re on a date.”

“I feel like we’re on a date.”

I stopped smiling, shook my head. “We’re not. This was not a date.”

He stepped closer. “You’re wearing lipstick. Your hair is cut and styled.” He reached out and fingered a lock of hair where it curled at my jaw line. “It looks nice.”

I cleared my throat. “And you’re wearing cologne.” I wouldn’t meet his eyes. “How could this be a date if we just met last week? If, if we didn’t even know we would both be here again tonight?”

“Didn’t you?” His hand moved, his thumb glancing across my earlobe, and settled in my hair behind my neck.

I swallowed. “Ron, I’m married. I don’t date.” My voice quavered. I moved my head away and placed my hands against his chest to push him away. He took my wrists and pulled me closer, lowered his face close to mine.

“You do now.” His lips were warm against mine, soft and yielding. I remained frozen, unsure of myself.

I knew what was right, and I knew what I wanted, and they were not the same thing. Something opened inside me and I kissed him back. His body pressed against mine, and I responded. I tried not to think about my husband, hanging out God knew where with Bruce and their buddies. I tried not to remember that I was married, and fixed meals every day for my husband, washed his clothes, cleaned the home we’d made together, stripped old sheets off our bed and put on new. And for a few seconds, I did forget, lost in the moment, enjoying the warmth and strength of this exciting dark stranger, imagining the things that would come from this kiss. Future nights together, walking hand in hand along the river, the lingering scent of him on my clothes and skin, the taste of him on my lips. Of starlit nights and blazing fires and champagne, half-drunk with each other. I pushed away the exclamation points flashing in my mind, the pulsing questions, What am I doing? What am I thinking?

There was a loud commotion and we pulled away from each other. Still clinging to one another, breathless, we turned to watch a group of men across the street, drunken-loud and silly, shoving out of the Black Watch Pub next door to the theatre. I saw Bruce, towering head and massive shoulders over the other men, his red beard a beacon beneath the orange glow of the street lights.

I pushed Ron away from me. Where Bruce was, I knew, Steve was sure to follow. And seconds later, he spilled out of the bar after his friends. I stood in the dome-light glow of my car, guilty as sin, watching, expecting to be caught. But right behind Steve, holding his hand, followed a shapely blonde, long hair fluffed into a halo of natural curls around her face. Up close, I knew faint lines would crackle around her eyes and mouth. I knew in that halo of curls would be silver strands that didn’t fade her hair, as they did mine, but added a dimension of light to it. I knew that beneath those jeans, in spite of her rigorous exercise regime, would be stretch marks and cellulite left over from her days of overweight bliss. She had encouraged me to beautify myself and flirt with a stranger, and was staggering outside the Black Watch Pub holding my husband’s hand, now nestled comfortably under his arm.

“What’s the matter?” Ron asked. He had taken hold of my arms, and I looked down at his hands, then up at his face.

“That’s my husband over there,” I said, gesturing across the street.

Ron turned, then looked back at me, worried. “You mean Big Red?”

I shook my head. “No, the one with the blonde.” The calm of my voice surprised me.

Ron looked over his shoulder again. “Uh oh,” he said after a moment. “This is an interesting situation.” He turned back to me. “Are you alright?”

“I think I’m in shock.”

He stepped closer to shield me from the noisy group across the street. “Why don’t you come with me? We can go somewhere and talk. Coffee, maybe? A drink—somewhere else?”

“No,” I said, and started across the street. He tried to stop me, but I shook his hand off my arm.

Bruce noticed me first and shook his head. No, this is not a good time, he seemed to say. I walked past him to my husband, whose back was turned to the street. Jenny was still glued to his side. “So, was it a good game?” I asked, sticking my head between theirs. They jumped apart, and stared at me. “Did everyone have a good time? Is the evening over already, or can I join in?”

“Tricia! We were just—”

I stared at Jenny, feeling more hurt by her betrayal than by Steve’s. Is your class canceled tonight, or are you just playing hooky? Oh wait, don’t tell me. You’re not taking classes, are you?” Jenny opened her mouth to say something. “Don’t bother.” I said, interrupting her. “I can see what’s going on here.” I turned to Steve. “Will it be a late night for you again? Any last-minute meetings? Post-game parties? Or will you just get a hotel room and stay out all night? Better yet, why don’t you just go home with Jenny. I’m sure she’ll be happy to keep you for a few days while I figure things out.”

“Tricia, don’t…”

“Don’t talk to me. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. Don’t come home. Not until I call you.” I shot a glance at my best friend. “I’ll know where to find you.”

I turned away from them and pushed through the group, who had huddled behind me, watching. When I reached the curb, Bruce caught up with me.

“Tricia, I’m really sorry about all this. I should have said something to you before. I wanted to, I told Steve he was making a mistake, I—”

“It’s okay, Bruce. You were just being loyal to Steve.”

“But you’re my friend, too.”

“Well, I kinda came along with the package, didn’t I?” He opened his mouth to protest, but I held up my hand. “Don’t worry about it, Bruce. Really. It’s not your fault.” I stepped off the curb and crossed the street.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said to Ron. I knew Steve would be watching from the other side.

Ron stared at me as I got into my car, his eyes wide. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Now, are we going, or what?”

“Where?”

“To my place.”

Ron followed me out of the parking lot in his own car. When I drove past the group still gathered outside the pub, I noticed Steve and Jenny were not touching.


I took Ron’s coat and ushered him into the kitchen. It was well-lit, the fluorescent light above flickering gently, casting its chilly white glow across the kitchen. I brewed some coffee, pouring a cup for each of us, and set milk, sugar and a bottle of Bailey’s on the kitchen table. Ron watched me as I poured a liberal dose of the alcohol into my cup. We sipped in silence for a minute or two before Ron finally spoke.

“Who was that woman your husband was with? I saw you speaking to her. Do you know her?”

“Yes,” I said. “She’s my best friend.”

“Hmmm. That’s sticky.”

“Yes, it is.”

Ron drank from his cup. “Maybe I shouldn’t be here with you, right now.”

I looked into my cup, letting the steam swirl around my face, into my nostrils. “Why not? I invited you here, didn’t I?”

“What I’m saying is I don’t think you should be alone, right now, and I’m not really the appropriate person to be here. Maybe I can call someone for you…?”

I looked at him evenly. “This coming from the man who was perfectly comfortable hitting on a married woman.” He had the grace to blush. “Who would you suggest I call, Ron? My best friend? I want you here. No one else.”

“I’m hardly a disinterested party…”

“Well, who could be, given the circumstances? I’d just as soon be with someone comforting, who wants me, rather than alone and dwelling on someone who apparently doesn’t.” I reached out and took his hand. “Right now, I want you, too. To be honest, that cologne you’re wearing is my favorite, and it’s driving me crazy.”

He laughed.

I sat back in my chair, slipping my hand from his. “I’m in shock, but I can’t say I’m really surprised. And oddly, I’m not terribly hurt, either. Not about Steve. About being rejected, maybe, but Steve and I have been moving away from each other for a while, now. It’s Jenny I’m really pissed at.” I shook my head. “Is that messed up or what?”

Ron looked at me closely, a tightness about his eyes. “Do you love him?”

“Of course I do.”

“Would you take him back?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe to see if we could work things out. But the first question is, would he want to come back?”

“Oh, I think he would.”

I looked at him. “How would you know that?”

Ron sat back in his chair and met my eyes. “Gut feeling.”

I remembered driving past Steve and Tricia after the confrontation, how they had stood apart from each other, not touching. “Maybe.”

“Trust me, he would. But now I have a question.” He paused a moment before going on. “Do I have a chance with you?”

It was my turn to be silent. I thought about it, then reached across the table and took his hand. It was warm from the coffee mug. “Tonight, you’re the only person who has one.”

He squeezed my hand. “And after tonight?”

“We’ll just have to see. We barely know each other, after all.” I started to withdraw my hand from his, but he held on.

“I’d like to change that,” he said.

I stood and pulled him to his feet. “You can try. But I can’t make any promises.”

“Understood,” he said, and I let him kiss me, letting the feel and taste of him wash over my senses. I led him upstairs to the bedroom, glad I’d changed the sheets that morning.

5

The next day, I wandered around the house, not sure what to do with myself. Ron had left in the morning, and a note on the kitchen table said, Call Me. His phone number was scrawled below. First things first, I thought, and decided to search for a marriage counselor. Steve and I needed help, that much was certain. I hunted up the phone book, and this time found it in the junk drawer under the microwave. As I leafed through the pages, a piece of paper floated out, drifting to the floor. I picked it up and it was the same scrap I’d found last week and stuffed back in the pages. I looked at it and read the number, and realized whose it was. It was Jenny’s work number. How long had that piece of paper been stuffed between these pages? How long had they been carrying on together? I picked up the phone and decided to find out.


“Leighton Advertising,” said the voice on the phone.

“Jenny, it’s me,” I said. “We need to talk.”

Jenny was silent a moment. I heard her breathe over the phone, a sudden panting that belied the calm of her voice. “Tricia, I’m really sorry. It wasn’t supposed to go so far…”

That stopped me. “How far has it gone?”

“He needed someone to talk to. His firm was in trouble, his job was at stake, and he was afraid to go to you. Afraid you’d worry. Afraid you’d be angry.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I tried to tell him that, but by the time I’d convinced him to go to you, the trouble had cleared, and there was no need. And by then we’d become close.”

“And that’s when it started?”

I heard her sigh. “Yes.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Tricia, maybe we shouldn’t talk about this over the phone.”

“How long ago was this?” I pressed. “Right now, I’m trying to get some facts straight. My marriage is at stake. Our friendship is another matter, and if you want to discuss that one in private another time, we can. Now answer the question.”

“Alright, Tricia. Hold on a sec. Let me put my calls on hold.” A minute or two later she was back on the line. “Are you still there?”

“Yes. When did it happen, Jenny?”

“About a year ago.”

“So that’s why Steve was suddenly interested in football. Was he with you every time?”

“Most times,” Jenny sniffed. There were tears in her voice. “Sometimes we were out with a group, like last night.”

“And when you encouraged me to do something on those nights? To go to the movies? What about that? What about when I told you about Ron, and you practically cheered me on? Can you explain that?”

“Oh Tricia, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you. Steve loves you. He always has. He has trouble showing it. You know that.”

“So he shows you, instead?”

“Steve doesn’t love me. It’s just something that happened. A diversion. If you remember, I also encouraged you to go to the gym, get your hair cut. I wanted you to get Steve’s attention and things could go back to the way they were. I wanted Steve to go back to you. But I wanted you to have Ron, too. To even the scales.”

“That’s… I don’t know what to call it. That’s twisted logic. You were feeling guilty and wanted to absolve some of that guilt by pushing me toward another man.”

Jenny sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”

I let her cry, and pitied her.

6

We’d all known each other in college, Jenny, Steve, Bruce and I. Jenny and Steve had some classes together, and I remembered the days she’d return from class to our tiny shared apartment on the lakeshore campus. We’d sit and drink cocoa—or Hawaiian Punch and vodka—the heat turned up to a balmy wave against the howling winds, our music drowning the incessant monotone of crashing waves against the shore. She told me about a guy she’d met, who sat next to her in their econ and business classes, his lovely sand-colored hair and hazel eyes. How funny he was. How he liked to tease her. His name was Steven Paxton, she’d told me. Steven. Steve. And he had a friend. Did I want to double date one night? I’d shrugged my shoulders. Why not? She really liked this Steve guy. What would one blind date hurt, if it made her happy?

A few nights later we waited for our dates, dolled up, sipping glasses of ultra-cheap Brut, a bottle of which we kept chilled in the fridge at all times. The boys were late, and by the time they’d arrived, buzzing us from ten stories below, the bottle was empty and we were nicely tipsy. We tripped into the elevator and when the doors opened again, Steve and my date turned from the revolving door to greet us. Bubbling with giggles, we walked across the ancient black-and-white-tiled floor, to them. Jenny smiled shyly at Steve, and introduced us. He was good-looking in an average, school-boy way. His sandy hair flopped over his forehead, and blue eyes sparkled at me. His easy open smile surprised me and I swallowed as we shook hands. He held mine just a fraction longer than was necessary.

I looked up at Steve’s companion. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a shock of thick red hair that curled at the ends. He smiled large, strong, even teeth at me, a big mouthful of them. “Hi,” he’d said, and held his hand out to me. “I’m Bruce. I think we’re together tonight.”

I smiled and shook his hand, holding back a grimace when he squeezed a little too hard. “That’s quite a grip you’ve got there.”

Bruce blushed a little, unconsciously wiping his hand on his jacket. “Sorry about that. I promise I won’t sling you over my shoulder or drag you by your hair.”

We all laughed, and it struck me—not without compassion—that Bruce had been teased about such things before.


We had dinner at Leona’s, a comfortable Italian restaurant. It was popular among students, though just on the outer edges of the budgets of most. The company was good, the food better. As I plodded through my giant bowl of tortellini quattro formaggio, I noticed Steve was talking to me more than to Jenny. Had Jenny noticed it too, I wondered? Was I imagining it?

We’d agreed beforehand to pay for our own meals, but when the separate checks arrived, Steve scooped them all up and pulled out his wallet. “I’ll take care of this one,” he said, looking—pointedly, I thought—at me. “It was my idea.”

We argued, insisting on paying for our own, but not too heartily. None of us could really afford the meal and I wondered who he was trying to impress.

We left the restaurant and walked back toward campus in the bitter Chicago cold. Bruce and I followed behind Jenny and Steve. A block from campus, Steve had dropped back to ask me a pointless question. By tacit understanding, Bruce moved forward to walk with Jenny. As we continued in our new formation, Jenny kept glancing back at me, and I shrugged my shoulders. Something beyond my chocolate-brown hair and average looks had captured Steve’s attention, and I was more than a little flattered.


Back on campus, we parted ways, Steve and Jenny to his apartment, I toward our apartment, and Bruce to a friend’s. Around midnight, Jenny came home in tears. “He likes you, dammit! He told me! He asked about you!” she said, bursting through the door. “He likes you! Unfair! What did you say to him back there?!”

Stunned, I looked at her from beneath the covers of my bed. “Jenny, I said nothing. I swear.”

“You must have said something! Done something! How could you?!”

I held up my hands and shook my head. “I swear, I didn’t do anything. You know that. You were there.”

She looked at me and wiped tears from her eyes. She came to me and I held her, smoothing hair out of her face. “Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “He’s nothing. It was one date, and it didn’t work. It’s not important.”

“You’re right,” she said after a few minutes, sniffling. “One date, and it wasn’t even that, was it?” She smiled a little. “And I didn’t even get a lousy kiss out of it.”

“There, you see? Wasn’t meant to be. Forget him.”

“But I wanted him, though. He’s so cute.”

“He is cute,” I agreed, “but not worth the trouble.”

Jenny raised her head from my shoulder and looked at me steadily. “Then you take him.”

I pushed her away from me. “Huh-uh. No way. I would never…”

“Oh why not? He doesn’t like me, to hell with him. I don’t want him either.” That had always been my Jenny. Emotionally dramatic one minute, practical to the core the next. “But he likes you, why don’t you take him?”

“Who said I even liked him?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t matter, Trish. You think he’s cute, he thinks you are too. Go for it. Who knows, it might work out. It might not. What have you got to lose?”

“Well, you, for one,” I said, but thought about it and shook my head. “I couldn’t do that to you.”

“That’s garbage. There was nothing there but a hint of a promise, anyway. I know that. I’m not stupid. And if I can’t have him, I’d rather see you with him than anyone else.”

“You’re demented. What about this little tantrum you just had? Do you think I want to live with that while I date someone you want?”
She waved her hands, brushing the image away. “I’m spoiled. You know that. I can’t get what I want, I make a little fuss, and then it’s over. How long have you known me?”

“Too long.”

“So there you go. I’ll tell him to call you.”

“You’re insane. I’ll never do it.”

“Yes you will.”

7

“Okay, okay,” I said into the phone. “Take it easy. We can talk about it later. Just for the record, I did sleep with Ron. Last night.”

She gasped. “You’re kidding. I never thought…”

“I never thought you’d sleep with Steve. So what’s the difference?”

“Point made.”

I took a deep breath and asked the impossible question. “If I were to leave Steve, would you stay with him?”

She was silent a moment. “Tricia, you know how I feel about him. How I’ve always felt. Just because I gave him up all those years ago—and in a very big-hearted way, I might add—doesn’t mean what I felt for him ever left me. He may have wanted you, but I never stopped wanting him. If you had been anyone else, I would have hired some hit men to get rid of you. But you were my best friend, and I wanted you to be happy. Even more, I wanted Steve to be happy. I did what I had to do to keep both of you in my life. I may have been weak and betrayed you, but I didn’t sleep with Steve out of spite. I didn’t do it to hurt you, and I’m sorry that I have. I let it happen because I still love him. Still! Isn’t that the most pathetic thing you’ve ever heard?”

I was silent, but finally said, “Well, yes. It is.”

“I didn’t want to tell you all this over the phone. I wish we could be together to talk about this.”

“It isn’t necessary, Jenny. Tell Steve to call me, okay? Tomorrow night. I want to see him tomorrow night, but not before.” I hung up without saying goodbye, without angry words, without imparting forgiveness. The truth was, I had no angry words, and I had already forgiven Jenny. But she still had hurt me, and I wanted her to squirm a little for it. She was the single most important person in my life, and I’m not sure what disturbed me more: that I considered her betrayal far more painful than Steve’s, or that my husband did not rank Number-one in my life—and never had. I needed time to think. But not before I opened the phone book again and found another number.

8

The next evening I had showered and was pulling on my jeans when the doorbell rang. Frowning, I buttoned up my shirt and headed down the stairs. I padded to the door in my bare feet and opened it.

“Steve.” I shook my head in confusion. “What… You rang the doorbell. You could have come in. This is your house, too.”

“Well, under the circumstances, I wasn’t too sure,” he said, scratching his head. “I thought it would be better if I rang.”

I nodded. “Well, come in. You’re no stranger here.” I stepped back to let him enter, and turned toward the stairs. “I’ll be right down, okay? Let me finish getting dressed. You’re earlier than I expected.”

Oddly, I was not nervous. But Steve was. He looked pale, and the muscles around his eyes were tight, giving him a pinched look. I watched his sandy head bob down as he lowered himself into a corner of the sofa, his back to me. I knew I was doing the right thing.

In my bedroom, I took my time getting ready. I pulled on some socks and dried my hair, fluffing it out around my face. I’d gone back to the salon to have highlights added to disguise the grey. I liked the result, and wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner.

I returned to Steve in the living room. My hair, my makeup, my newfound joy of getting fit, all added a new glow to my appearance. And Steve noticed. I smiled at him with more than a little satisfaction. “So,” I began. “It’s come to this, hasn’t it?”

“Tricia, let me explain.”

“I spoke to Jenny, as you already know, and I think I have a pretty clear picture of what’s been happening.”

“You have?”

“Mmmh. Yes.” I let the silence hang a moment before continuing. “Steve, why didn’t you ever tell about what was going on at work? Why?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t think I could. I thought you would worry, that you might be angry.”

“How could I be angry about something you have no control over?”

He shrugged.

“That’s just it. You don’t know. And you couldn’t trust me. And that’s the way things have always been between us. That little breath of distance for lack of trust. That’s why you went to Jenny, isn’t it? You trust her.”

He opened his mouth and closed it again. There was nothing to be said, nothing to be denied.

“She loves you. Did you know that?”

He nodded, and ran his hand through his hair. “I… yeah, I did.”

“Do you love her?”

“No, of course not. I love you.”

It sounded flat coming out of his mouth, and I stared.

He sighed. “I don’t know. Yeah. I guess so. Yes. I do.” He looked up at me, and he was miserable. A young boy caught doing something naughty.

“Then you better let her know, fast. She’s loved you for a long time, but not even her love is indefinite. You show her, and you keep showing her, and you never stop. Don’t let what happened to us happen to her. Or I’ll kill you.”

He stared at me, his eyes wide and disbelieving. “What are you saying?”

“You’re the analyst here. You figure it out.”

“You want…” he stumbled over the word. “You want a…divorce?”

“That about sums it up. Do I hear an argument coming?”

He shook his head, stared at his hands. “I don’t know what to say.”

I was silent.

“I expected to come here and you would rave at me,” he continued, “but instead, you’re telling me you want a divorce. I don’t know what to say.”

“Steve, you know how things have been between us for a long time, now. Something is missing that has never been there, and it’s showing. Do you disagree?”

“No,” he said quietly.

“So, what’s your answer?”

“What about the house?”

“We can make it as simple as possible. We can sell it and all joint property, and split the proceeds.”

“Sounds like you’ve spoken to a lawyer already.”

“I have.”

He nodded again. “I think that’s the wisest thing to do, then.”

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll talk to my lawyer again, and we’ll get things arranged.”

He nodded some more. “Okay.”

“Good,” I said, rising from the arm of the sofa. “Now that that’s settled, I think you should get back to Jenny. Tell her you love her.”

“That’s it? That’s all?”

“Yep.”

He just looked at me, expecting more, wondering why I wasn’t screaming.

“Steve, I love you, and I know you love me. But we don’t have the kind of love for each other that makes a marriage work. We need a little magic for sticking power, and there is none between us, is there? And I can’t control that, either. We might as well cut our losses and move on, don’t you think? Do something to make ourselves happy.”

I took his hand and led him to the door. “Don’t tell me you’ve never considered it?”

“Yes, actually, I have.”

“So the problem’s solved. I’ll go back to work, and we won’t worry about alimony, the house, or anything like that.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” He opened the door and stepped out.

I reached into the coat closet and handed him the two bags I’d packed for him earlier in the day. “I think you’ll need these for now. You can come back for the rest later. Call me first.”

“Okay.” He stepped toward his car, then turned around again. “Tricia?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For everything.”

Coming from Steve, those words spoke volumes.

“We’ll talk again later,” I replied, and closed the door.


I leaned against the door for a moment and headed back upstairs. I sat on the edge of my bed and picked up the piece of paper I’d laid next to the phone. I looked at it, fingering the edges, and put it back down again. I would call Ron. But not tonight. Maybe not for a little while. But I would call.

Maybe I’d go see a movie, first. At one of the new theatres.

Estrangement © 2002, 2003 Cristina Van Dyck




 


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Reviewed by Tani A. Mough 7/18/2003
WOW you had me from the begining! And you know my taste in fiction. HUZZAH!

Peace and Laughter
Tani



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