~This story was previously published in Passages North (2009).
~Selected by Kenneth A. Fleming, Assistant Editor, Fiction.
Ellen lies on a bed at the Plaza Athénée, idly stroking the satin coverlet. She and Jim have been on plenty of weekend getaways, but none like this. We just need some time alone, he has promised, and Ellen wants to believe.
“The water pressure’s weak,” he calls from the shower. He’s annoyed and Ellen wonders how long he will take to ease out of it. In the early days, a drink before dinner did the trick. Now, an entire bottle of merlot can’t shake Jim of the tension he wears like a porcupine coat. Ellen’s sister has urged her to consult a lawyer.
“Should I call the front desk?” Ellen’s words sound foreign to her, as if another woman has spoken them, a common occurrence since the birth of their child. Spending hours alone with a toddler has atrophied Ellen’s mind. She barely glances at the newspaper each morning before flipping to the ad inserts in search of diaper coupons. She used to read Wittgenstein, for Christ’s sake.
Ellen looks around the suite, which contains several furniture arrangements they will not use, and lets her eyes linger on a Chippendale breakfront stocked with porcelain knickknacks. It’s funny how all you really need is a bathroom and a bed. Jim would disagree. Their first weekend away, he spent forty-five minutes shuttling around The Four Seasons Miami with the hotel manager. Every room was too small or too noisy. When Ellen finally suggested they settle for a junior suite on the second floor, Jim admonished her. “You’ll never get anywhere if you’re willing to settle.” Where am I going? she wondered, but just in case, she kept her mouth shut.
From the beginning, Jim’s dark eyes and barrel chest made her heart dance in a million directions, and she loved his quick tongue. Sure, it had gotten them into trouble. Like the time he said “fuck you” to the American Airlines flight attendant and security guards “escorted” them off the plane to the cheers of the other passengers. But Jim’s unpredictability provided a certain excitement. Besides, you couldn’t expect to get all of the good and none of the bad in a marriage.
Jim emerges from the bathroom, a towel wrapped tightly around his waist. Ellen loves when he is freshly groomed—the sweet scent of soap, the rubbery feel of his damp skin, the minty smell of toothpaste with just a hint of his real breath coming through. She pats the bed and he sits down. Then he reaches over and squeezes her nipple. God, how she hates that. In six years of lovemaking, Jim hasn’t learned not to go straight for her boobs or her cunt. She likes these parts worked up to, yearns for a delicate path that meanders to an exquisite ripeness. But she wants the weekend to go well. If she offends him—and when it comes to sex Jim is easily offended—he won’t shake it off and they’ll go ten rounds. So she lets him plot his course, even gamely strokes his thigh. In another minute, though, she can’t stop herself from remarking,
“I wonder if there were any more bombings in Baghdad today.”
Jim, who follows the war obsessively, grabs the television clicker and looks for CNN. Ellen breathes a sigh of relief. She isn’t ready to succumb, not yet. As he works the remote, she stares at the walls, seeking inspiration. Above the bathroom door, the creamy paper is curling back, exposing a gluey yellow compound which casts a tawdry glow on the rest of the room. The antique furniture, at first glance so elegant, now suggests the tired finery of a brothel in an old Western, while the fringed skirting on a red silk divan dangles like a beaded saloon door. Ellen wonders how many couples have groped each other here, prostituting their better judgment in a last-ditch effort to blow some oxygen back into the dying embers of their passion.
“Can you believe those bastards killed off four more Marines today?” Jim says. An image of blood-drenched bodies and twisted metal floats across the television screen. “Blew them to bits with a car bomb and got away.” He sounds animated, almost gleeful.
Ellen wonders if the attorney’s business card is still tucked in her sequin clutch where her sister slipped it one night after a difficult party.
She wriggles on the bed, a twinge of excitement shooting through her. When Jim turns off the news, she is ready for him.