When Tate arrived home a grown-cold platter of gummy chicken, pasty mashed potatoes with congealed gravy and limp straight-out-of-the-can army green-colored DelMonte kitchen cut string beans was set at his place on the kitchen table. A room temperature glass of water sat at two o’clock, a folded paper napkin and silverware flanked either side. That it was still there was a message from his wife, and not one that said, I prepared dinner for you, my hardworking husband. No, this gesture was far more sinister, and like Christina Crawford’s “rare” steak in Mommy Dearest, would probably be waiting for him as tomorrow’s breakfast if not completely consumed as tonight’s dinner.
He found Elaine in the living room, occupying her usual spot on the right side of the couch, watching a DVR’d episode of America’s Next Top Model. She found the reruns on Oxygen, WE, Lifetime, VH1—he was ashamed to know the many channels that his wife kept on rotation—and taped them all even though she’d seen each season—or cycle, as ANTM called their runs—at least five or six times.
“Didn’t you get my text?” he asked, hello or honey I’m home long ago lost greetings of their marriage lexicon, made extinct by the more necessary parlance of a man conditioned to apologize for something he did wrong.
“The one saying you were having dinner with an old friend?” The emphasis she put on “having dinner” and “old friend” was meant to convey that what she really meant was “screwing” and “some slut from your past.”
He stood waiting for . . . what, he wasn’t quite sure; but it was a full three minutes before she followed up with, “After I’d already gone and set your place at the table.” She didn’t bother to look away from the television or press pause; a discussion wasn’t something she wanted right now. He figured she’d save it for a few hours later, when he was trying to sleep. But when they eventually settled into bed after watching the news and half of Jimmy Fallon, keeping him awake with incessant reminders of his shortcomings as a man and husband and father and general provider would prove to be not as appealing to her as what she wrongly assumed was the torture of continuing with the silent treatment. As a result Tate had his thoughts to himself and he filled them with recalling the final moments of his time spent with Ru and how he could fit in another meeting with her before she returned to Baltimore in two days.
She wanted to fuck him. That much was obvious. He’d been oblivious to it when they’d known each other years ago. Not exactly oblivious; at that age he’d assumed every girl wanted to fuck him, but he’d thought Ru was different. She wasn’t the blatant easy pickings as so many of her contemporaries had been. Now he supposed he’d just never gotten around to her. Was that why she was coming to collect now? Good thing he had saved her for last; he couldn’t imagine any of the others coming for him after twenty years. Like him, most of them preferred their sex accessible and effortless. Leave it to Ru to wait twenty years and travel over 2500 miles to fulfill a booty call.
It almost happened tonight, but like a fool he’d stopped her. What a tool; he was kicking himself now. Literally. He woke up Elaine who thought he was jerking off and told him to cut it out. Not honey, let me help you with that, but “Cut it out, you sick perverted bastard.” Ru would have helped him out. He could call her right now and she’d help him right out. Christ, now he really did need to jerk off. He went into the main bathroom and took care of himself in the shower. Back in bed next to Elaine an hour later smelling of liquid Dial and Redken shampoo, he replayed in his mind his evening with Ru, leaving out the last scene with her in the car, which he’d used to get the job done in the shower. Ah, what the hell, he’d think about that again, too.
She’d made her first move at Kabuki where he’d taken her not only for sushi but to ply her with a few drinks. He seriously didn’t think anything sexual would come of it; seeing a woman drunk was just fun for him. But after two saketinis she slid her chair a little closer to his, and punctuated most of her sentences with a hand draped on his thigh. Eventually the drape turned into a squeeze, his thigh into his crotch. She said oops and giggled, even flushed with either embarrassment or shame at her boldness but he could see in her face she had meant it. They ended up making out in the backseat of his Mercury Mariner, an act he could convince himself in his boozed-up state wasn’t exactly cheating but then he got an erection and she felt it and straddled his lap, pressing down on it. He knew the next move either one of them made would be the one to officially make him a cheater and he’d turned his head away from her, grabbing her wrists and holding her arms at her sides, remaining that way for several minutes while their breathing slowed and his head cleared and his blood flowed away from dangerous places. He told her he was sorry and walked her to her rental car. He didn’t ask if she was okay to drive; he closed her door after assisting her into her place behind the wheel and hoped for the best.
He wondered if he should text her now, see if she got back to her hotel okay.
He crawled out of bed again, retrieved his iPhone from the nightstand and went down to the kitchen. He stared at the screen. She’d probably be asleep and anyway, he had no idea what to say.
He fell asleep in front of the television in the living room, missing the last segment of a 48 Hours episode during the first fifty minutes of which he’d struggled to stay awake.
The following morning, at work, after the usual checking of emails and wandering from office to office to see what everyone else planned to accomplish over the course of the next eight hours, Tate filled his coffee mug a third time, entered his office, shut the door and called Ru.
“Hey,” she answered.
“Hey.” There was a pause and he asked, “How are you?”
She laughed and he smiled, relieved. He stopped pacing, relaxed enough to perch on the corner of his desk.
“I’m okay,” she was saying. “A little embarrassed, but okay.”
“Yes. I’m so glad you called, I didn’t know how I was ever going to speak to you again.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, and he felt the mirth drain from his voice, along with his smile. He was glad she couldn’t see him; could she hear the change in his tone? “I’m the one who should be embarrassed,” he said.
“Should be? So you’re not?”
He smiled again. “Yes. Yes, I am. Not so much for what I did, but what I didn’t do.”
She paused a moment. “Really?”
Realizing the implication of his words, he quickly added, “Sending you to your car like that, not bothering to see you got home okay. We were both drinking, you know, to run away like that. It wasn’t very gentlemanly of me. Not that my behavior before that was the epitome of chivalry.”
“Right, right.” Her voice was soft and he wondered what she was wearing. Was she still in her pajamas, lounging across the bed?
“Where are you?” he asked, thinking it was a better choice than the creepy what-are-you-wearing inquiry; if he knew where she was he could still fill in the rest of the fantasy on his own.
“My room. I have an appointment later on today.”
“Yeah? What time?”
“Three. Then another at five-thirty.”
“Right on,” he said, flipping through some documents in his paper tray, hoping it made him sound busy with work, casual. “So you’re free for lunch?”
They went to Canter’s on Fairfax, a longer distance than either of them needed to travel for lunch, but she wanted authentic Jewish deli matzo ball soup and although the Mishmosh with all the extras ran almost twelve bucks a bowl, there was nothing else that beat it. They got one apiece and split a Reuben with corned beef. They talked mainly about their jobs, and although he found her career of taking down white collar cokeheads far more interesting that what he did on a daily basis at the marketing and consulting firm he co-founded with six others, she listened with determined focus whenever he spoke, asking questions, nodding, displaying a range of facial expressions based on the brevity of what was being relayed, widening her eyes, wrinkling her nose, giggling at the appropriate times. It had been a long time since someone had been this attentive to anything he’d said, if ever one had been. Certainly not Elaine. She hadn’t enjoyed his company since before they were married.
During one of Ru’s stories where she was describing a meeting between herself and the bank client she’d seen yesterday just before meeting up with him Tate could hear nothing but her moaning, his thoughts of them sleeping together edging out their physical presence in the restaurant.
“What?” She’d suddenly stopped talking, her half of the Reuben poised in the air midway to her mouth.
“What?” he asked back, hoping she wouldn’t ask him to repeat what she just said like Elaine sometimes did.
“I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”
“No, no, just the right amount.”
“Is this weird?” she asked, quickly following it up with a more decisive, “This is weird.”
She sighed, replacing her sandwich on the plate. She dabbed at her lips with her napkin, set it down before stuffing her hands under her thighs. “This is not 1989 and I’m pretending that it is. I may still feel like that seventeen-year-old girl when I’m around you, but we’re older now. You’re married, we have completely separate lives that neither one of us knows a thing about; just like we honestly didn’t know a thing about each other back then. Seriously, what am I doing?”
“What are you doing?”
She paused. “We?” He waited for her to continue. “What are we doing?” she asked slowly. Even more slowly, “Are we doing something?”
Slower still: “Did you want . . . us . . . to do . . . something?”
“Do. Do.” She rolled the word around in her head like a rare diamond in a tumbler, which strangely excited him almost to the point of an erection. Elaine could massage him for minutes and not get the response Ru was now getting with a few seconds of mere contemplation over a single word.
“Do you want us to do something?”
“I do,” he said evenly. That was easy. That he knew. It was the something that remained unclear.
Oh. He’d never thought of that question. Best to send it back; maybe he could poach something off her answer.
“Why?” She picked up her sandwich, took a bite. She swallowed, sipped some water. “I know why I want to do . . . something.”
Good. So she wasn’t sure either. Great.
“But you,” she said, peeling away a piece of corned beef hanging over the bread and popping it into her mouth. He hoped she wouldn’t lick the dab of Russian dressing that lingered on her index finger. It had been so long since a woman licked her fingers this close to his face.
“Why would you want something? From me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” He inwardly patted himself on the back for that one.
She tilted her head. “You’re married.”
She shrugged. “You never wanted me before.”
Something had finally been defined. Her. Ru. She was something. Did he want to do Ru?
“I didn’t want a lot of things back then. Like a marriage. Kids. A job.”
“Do you want them now?”
He let out a gust of air. This was becoming a drag.
“I’m sorry,” she suddenly said. She grabbed his hand across the table, only to quickly release it as if realizing it wasn’t her hand to grab, that his hand—as well as the rest of him—belonged to another woman.
“I told you I talk too much.” She twisted her lips in a wry smile. “Probably that’s why you never wanted something from me.”
She picked up her sandwich and began eating again, the possibility of having something else stashed away in an internal hope chest with the seventeen-year-old she once was, who never got to have him either.