Ru knew the man in 6B was staring at her. Just like the kid in 5A who kept turning around, peeking back at her through the sliver of space between her seat and the plane wall. Just like the entire flight staff not contained in the cockpit. Two of them had even come over and asked if there was anything they could do. Both times Ru had shaken her head with a slight, “No, thank you,” finally accepting a pillow the second one had offered, if only to hide her face and muffle her tears. It didn’t work; the false security the pillow lent only caused her to add an audible amount of wailing to her misery.
She blew it. She’d waited almost twenty years, meticulously orchestrated her stay in Burbank around contacting Tate and it had worked. She had gotten him out and alone and groping in the backseat of a car. And then . . . .
She let out a choking sob that caused 6B to chuff out a weary grunt.
“What?” she asked, turning on him. “Am I bothering you? Is my sadness inconvenient for you? Is my misery ruining your fine coach experience? Travel first class next time, you cheap bastard. Class act; why don’t you offer a crying lady some Puffs Plus?” She turned away from him, towards the window, tossing off a final “douchebag” before curling up in her seat.
She’d been prepared to take a cab home but when she arrived at the baggage claim at BWI Zane was there to greet her.
“Wow, you look like shit,” he said after hugging her.
“Fuck you, Zane.”
She apologized in the car, not a very sincere one considering she only did it so she could spend the ride home telling him about Tate. She couldn’t really expect a sympathetic ear from someone she’d basically told to go fuck himself.
She woke up with the alarm at seven the following morning, called out of work and fell back asleep until noon. It was raining and she cried her way through preparing and drinking a pot of coffee while she watched My Baltimore TV afternoon court staples Cristina Perez, Judge Alex, Divorce Court. Zane got home from work at six, stopping at her door before his own to knock and ask if she wanted some dinner.
“I’m not hungry,” she told him through the screen door.
“Come over anyway. You’ve got an hour.”
He made her spaghetti with pesto sauce he whipped up in a food processor, and they ate on his couch in front of the television. She tried not to talk about Tate, to not even think about him, but she couldn’t help looking over at Zane and wishing, wishing.
Her affect over the following weeks was one of someone coping with death. She slept little and showered less, even on the days when she had to test clients. Her appearance earned her more than one visit to supervisor Danielle Traynor’s office. The first meeting was full of tissues and sympathy; by the third she was told in no uncertain terms to pull her shit together or be prepared to carry it home in a box.
“Don’t let a man do this to you,” Dani told her, under the assumption Ru had been through a devastating breakup due to her boyfriend reuniting with his wife. “You wouldn’t be the first woman to fuck up her life because a man rejected her, and you will. Just don’t make your job one of the casualties.”
She took the advice to heart and vowed to shake it off, but continued to check her phone and email and Facebook every couple of hours for any messages from Tate. There never were any.
“You know what I did today?” she asked Zane Sunday afternoon while watching football over beer and pizza. “I went to church and lit a candle, praying that Elaine would die.”
His eyebrows narrowed so severely they almost touched the tip of his nose.
“I know it’s wrong,” she followed up quickly. “I mean, the last thing I would want would be for her to die. Then he’d be crying over her, she’d be some kind of immortal presence in his life, and for his daughters. I so couldn’t compete with that. No way I’m playing second fiddle to some sainted dead wife.”
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Whatever, Zane, yes, it’s horrible, but it’s how I feel. Sorry if that’s too ugly for you. This is me, okay? Women are bitches, grow up.”
Zane picked up the pizza box stacked with the empty beer cans and carried it wordlessly into the kitchen.
“Zane, please just let me talk like this,” she called after him. “I feel so rotten inside, just let me get it out and don’t hate me for it, okay?”
When he didn’t answer, she lightly kicked the edge of his coffee table. “Well fuck you, too.”
She paused only a breath before calling out, “So, do you think he’d miss her if she died?”
* * * * * * * *
As with every other Monday for the past three years, Elaine had prepared rigatoni with canned Hunt’s meat sauce for dinner, accompanied with a Fresh Express bagged mixed green salad, gasping for air beneath a smothering blanket of Ken’s Steak House peppercorn dressing.
“Special occasion?” she asked as he took his place at the table, just as she always did when he arrived home from work early enough to join them for dinner. He exchanged a look with his older daughter, Brynn, who at twelve was just slightly more sophisticated than her mother. She rolled her eyes, and Tate smiled back.
“Ron’s Cornish Rex grew a hair; he sent us all home at five of five to celebrate.”
His daughters giggled; either Elaine didn’t get the joke, or she didn’t get Tate. Probably both were true.
In between bites of salad, which Elaine chomped with the same type of ferocity she used when snapping at the girls to stop slouching or scraping their forks on their teeth or bobbing their legs up and down—“Christ, you’re going to give me a fucking seizure”—she filled him in on what was happening on her favorite prime time shows and the grannies who pissed her off at JoAnn, where she was a part time torture associate and bitching specialist. God, when had he come to resent her so much?
As he lifted another forkful of rubber tomato sauce slicked tubes of nasty into his mouth he heard a vacuous silence, saw three pairs of eyes staring at him with more intensity than Sissy Spacek’s Carrie White and realized he’d spoken out loud.
He looked at his daughters, now focused on their plates, eating fast enough to warrant three rolls of Tums apiece.
“I just mean—” He swallowed what was in his mouth, washing it down with the rest of the water in his glass. “Do we have any red wine?”
Elaine looked at him as if he’d asked for a chunk of the severed head chilling in the crisper. “What?”
“Some wine. Do you realize we never have wine with dinner?”
Or vodka, or whiskey, or a fucking eight ball, anything that would numb me to spending another meal like this with you?
He lifted his water glass and tilted it to his lips again, even though he knew there was nothing left to drink in it.
“I’m just saying, it would be nice to make dinner a little fancy sometimes. Some wine. Maybe I could bring home some fresh flowers for the table. We could buy a new cd once a week, listen to it while we eat.”
Now even the girls were looking at him strangely.
He kept going.
“I mean, aren’t you bored? Just a little?” He was trying to accept responsibility in this, even though he fully believed it was all her fault. He would be the hero Dr. Phil spoke of every family needing. He drank nothing from the glass again.
“Aren’t you tired of eating the same meals all the time?”
“I know I’m tired of shopping, preparing, cooking and cleaning up after them.”
Okay, so he walked right into that one.
“What I mean is, the whole process of dinner is boring. Predictable. Lonely. I finish eating, get up and go do more work in the office, the girls hole themselves up in their bedrooms—”
“Uh, yeah, dad, you can leave us out of this one,” Brynn advised. “My life is just fine as is.”
“—you go in the kitchen and clean up—”
“You could help,” Elaine accused.
“Yeah, because that would be so much more sexy and exciting,” he said.
“Hey now,” Brynn warned, dramatically plugging her ears with her middle fingers. He narrowed his eyes at her and she switched to her pinkies.
“Make the kids load the dishwasher,” he concluded.
“Load the dishwasher?”
Younger daughter Tilly’s gasp broke through Elaine’s beginning tirade, along with Brynn’s indignant, “’Scu?” Great. Now every female in the house hated him.
“Is that what you think I’m doing for an hour after dinner? Cleaning up requires more than loading a dishwasher, Tate. If you ever did it you would know that. Besides, would you want to eat leftovers the girls packed away? Eat out of pots and pans the kids cleaned?”
“Okay, but—listen—we’re getting off the point here. I’m not trying to blame you—”
“Maybe you should take me out to eat once in a while.”
“Take you out to eat? You complain that’s too expensive—”
“Not the whole family, Tate. Me.”
“Right. Where would we go? You complain every time I suggest we go somewhere. ‘Oh, I don’t want to eat there, we just went there last month.’ ‘Oh, that creepy waiter with the long nose hairs works there, what if we get him?’ ‘Oh, that place has spotty silverware.’”
“Take me somewhere different, then.”
“Different? Elaine, we’ve eaten our way from here up to San Francisco down to Baja and back again. Where different would you like to go to dinner? Paris?”
“California isn’t the only state in America, Tate.”
“Oh, perhaps a nice little drive to Prim then for a $4.99 prime rib dinner?”
“How about a weekend in Vegas? Utah? Four days in New York?”
“I don’t know how we got from changing up dinner to flying to Manhattan. I was thinking more along the lines of you opening up a cookbook or taking notes during Rachael Ray.”
“Oh, well, there you go. Thank you for telling me what I can do to make your life less boring.” She shook her head and sniffed out a laugh. “Take notes during Rachael Ray. You’re such an asshole.”
At some point during their argument the girls had left the table. He hadn’t even noticed. He looked at their empty seats and suddenly felt so very sad, so lost. And yes, like a huge asshole.
“You can’t tell me you don’t find our life boring,” he said softly.
“Actually I don’t. I’m too busy to be bored, Tate,” she fired back, her voice still so combatively loud. “I’m too busy cleaning your house and doing your laundry and cooking your meals and taking care of your daughters, while still maintaining a job outside the home so we can have supplemental income for those family vacations we never take because I’m so goddamn frigging busy. So no, Tate; I’m never bored. I have no time to be bored. How lucky you are to be bored. Oh, wait; I’m wrong. There are a few times every week when I am bored.”
He blinked, kept his eyes closed a little longer than he needed. Here it comes.
“Sometime between eleven and eleven fifteen on Saturday nights and at seven on Monday mornings when you roll on top of me and pump away like you’re making guacamole in my vagina.”
The conversation over, she rose from the table and began clearing the dishes. In a nod to habit and the basis for their misery for the past five or so years and especially this evening, Tate made his way toward his office as though a retractable leash attached to his desk compelled him there. He stopped in the threshold. He just couldn’t do it. He didn’t think he could fight the comfort of the familiar, the insanity of the mindless actions that kept him suffocating under the illusion that such behaviors kept him from going insane, but if he didn’t make a move toward escape on tonight of all nights, he had the sickening feeling he never would.
Before he could contemplate and ultimately fear the decision of leaving the house without notifying his wife of his departure, destination and estimated time of return, he practically ran for the front door, letting himself out and slamming it behind him without concern that it would alert Elaine to his absence. He climbed behind the wheel of his car, feeling like he had at sixteen when he’d first gotten his license and driving meant real freedom, the kind that you got from eggs and bacon in a diner at three in the morning and having a girl grinding on your lap in the back seat.
He drove to the Barnes and Noble where he’d met up with Ru, the one and only time he’d ever been there. He hadn’t been back since and walking through the entrance brought that night back to him, and all that had followed. He still had that. That was something different he’d done, exciting, forbidden, hidden from Elaine. She didn’t know everything about him. No one did. Not even him. He could do things that would shock even himself.
He sat in the café with a chocolatey drink he had no interest in even tasting and looked at Ru’s Facebook page. She’d posted a picture yesterday, an action shot of a guy crossing home plate. The caption was “Zane’s homer. Doh!” He hadn’t looked at her page in a while. Not since the week she left. He hadn’t even given her a thought since then. Her interest in him fueled his interest in her; without it she would remain completely off his radar as she had for the past twenty years. But now that he knew there was someone out there who found him hot and exciting he didn’t want to not think about it. Could he go to Baltimore? His groin tightened at the thought. God, how good it would feel to get on top of someone who would wrap her legs around him and trap him there.
He couldn’t. Elaine would be so pissed. She’d make his life more miserable than it was already. He wasn’t so anti-routine that he wanted to abandon it entirely: just take a vacation from it. That’s all he wanted. A fling. But Elaine would never let him do that. And was it reasonable to ruin a marriage, a family, just because he was bored? Maybe even unhappy? Shouldn’t he just suck it up and move past the whole thing?
He stared at Ru’s profile picture, gazing out at all her Facebook friends, a red bandana twisted into her blonde hair, a matching shade of crimson lipstick on her grinning lips. He thought of Elaine’s profile photo, a shot of the Twilight book cover.
God, but sometimes he just hated her.
Sometimes he wondered if he’d even miss her if she died.