Thursday, August 9, 2012

Short story - 'The Other Woman'

Below is a story written for the Stringybark Short Story Award, themed 'Seven Deadly Sins'. It appears, slightly edited (more on that later) in their eBook compilation of Highly Commended entries.


The Other Woman

A heart stimulated by restless yearning can send delusion coursing through the bloodstream. It usually subsided after climax, but recently it seemed to have increasingly infected his mind.

We’d become so familiar, I knew his signals. His chest expanded and deflated rapidly and the ecstatic contortions of his face read like a map. One push, then another, and a long, drawn-out sigh, during which he would seek to lock eyes. I arched my back and dropped my head, letting long, chestnut strands of hair brush over his face. And with closed eyes, I lowered my naked body onto his.

My heart-rate slowed. Feelings passed and thoughts closed in. Everything mattered again as I plummeted from the heights of an all-encompassing climactic moment towards concrete reality. Actually, I rolled off an admirable male specimen and landed gently on what could just be the most comfortable bed ever made. I gave him my back and curled up into a semi-fetal position. The softness of the mattress was conducive to dreams. For a moment I pretended this was my bed, my ‘McMansion,’ my husband lying behind me breathing soft warm breaths on the back of my neck and sending chills down to my toes. Childish dreams of an innocence long since abandoned.

Then I noticed her staring down at me. She had the saddest eyes I had seen in a long time. Her mouth smiled but the eyes, heavy with burden, couldn’t lift. Her hands clutched one shoulder of each of the young boys standing in front of her and there he was, just behind to her right, arm around her waist, smiling with subtly clenched lips.

Family in frame only, I thought, congratulating myself on my wit.

“Do you like it here?” he asked, flashing his confident, whitened teeth and breaking the unprofessional silence.

“I prefer the hotels,” was my retort. It was a rude abuse of his patience but put him on the back foot and gave me moment longer to compose myself.

Withdrawal moved through my veins now, accelerated by the physical activity. The dull throbbing of confusion arrived in party with a light nausea, as my brain buzzed like electricity without the shock; like a shiver without the chill. It felt like I was being dragged out of my body, a strange combination of déjà vu and some kind of profound revelation I could feel but not articulate. The sensation crashed over me like a six-foot wave, overwhelming me for several seconds before gently washing away as expected. I needed my pills and couldn’t believe I’d forgotten the morning dose again.

This was definitely her side of the bed — the bedside table held a trashy romance novel and a copy of Women’s Weekly; his side possessed an iPad and a drawer full of condoms. I could sense the imprint of her body. His hand was crept over my waist. I met it there and sighed approvingly, interlocking with his fingers but ensuring they moved no further.

“You are something else.” He kissed me on the neck and squeezed my hand while I resisted the urge to pull away, even sociably shifting onto my back.

“I earn my money,” I smiled, placing our relationship firmly back into proper context.

More photos straight ahead. Was he getting off on her watching us?

As if reading my thoughts, he tried reassurance. “It’s okay, she’s not here.”

“Wouldn’t know it,” I replied with a surprisingly jealous tone.

His hand now stroked hair over my ear. “It’s not like you didn’t know about her.”

“I know. It’s just strange.” Her eyes were full of beaten life, except in an old wedding photo — perhaps twenty years old — which showed a glorious, faultless bride; a loving, happy couple.

He looked up, briefly forlorn. “We barely talk. If it wasn’t for the kids…” he trailed off as I squeezed my insides.

“I have to pay for good company!” He smiled. I didn’t reciprocate.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing…”

Something. I just couldn’t quite figure out what. Of course I knew some of my clients had partners — it wasn’t my business and treating it as such would be bad for business. That’s what I liked hotels: each party stepped out of the real world for an hour (or more). I wasn’t a counsellor.

He nuzzled in close. “Between a train-wreck marriage and a life-consuming job, I look forward to seeing you so much.”

I smiled awkwardly, missing the days when we’d enjoy meaningless post-sex chatter rather than fully loaded sweet nothings. Nothing scared me more than sweet nothings.

Leaning over his charming face, I kissed him on the forehead. “I need to use the bathroom.”

“That’s hardly earning your money, babe,” he chuckled.

With a batted eyelids and a nonchalant smile I turned to grab my bag and headed for the ensuite thinking about the money. It was funny that thinking about the money eased my anxiety somewhat, even if it was only a distraction. Half the reason I’d started this work four years earlier was to fund the psychologist consultations, medication and study — all necessary for a happier life. Now the money was far too good to give up.

But, even though I still couldn’t bare the idea of dating again, I also needed intimacy; in a form that was non-threatening and disconnected.

I pushed the door behind me and considered vomiting. The little bottle of pills was buried deep in my bag.

With a slight tremor I clasped the bottle. The door swung open. Startled, I fumbled the half opened bottled, which fell onto the tiles scattering little pale-blue pills across the floor.

“Fuck! Don’t you knock?!”

“Sorry babe, the door was open, I thought…”

I gathered myself. “Sorry, it’s okay, don’t worry.” I was too embarrassed to be angry. I hit the floor to recover the pills.

“She always leaves them lying around,’ he said picking up the bottle before I could get to it.

It had my name on it – my real name, and address – but he didn’t look, just placed it down next to another, almost identical bottle beneath the cabinet. He looked at me staring dumbfounded at the twin bottles.

“Is she okay?” I asked, forgetting myself.

“She’s fine.” His eyes rolled at the thought. “I don’t know what those are but the bottle’s pop up everywhere.”

“Maybe you should ask?”

“Don’t you listen to anything I say either? She won’t talk to me! Whose side are you on anyway!”

I don’t need this. “Sorry, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just …” That’s all I had.

“You what? You a marriage counsellor as well as an escort now? Well there’s a fucking interesting mix!”

Stunned, I could only look at him.

“Sorry,” he said with the immediate regret of a man pulled in all directions by misplaced desires.

“I’m going to shower,” I said, making it clear I would do so alone. As he stepped out I swallowed the pill in my hand.

When I returned to the bedroom he sat on the bed in a towel, pouting like a needy pup. For a moment it felt nice to effortlessly wield such emotional power. And then it didn’t.

“It’s okay,” I said to clear the air, and looked towards the two large walk-in wardrobes either side of the ensuite. “Which is yours?”

He showered while I replaced all my clothes except the G-string. Stepping out of his wardrobe, I looked again at her image. Whose side was I on? How did this even happen?

I felt like I’d been asleep at the wheel and woken up on the wrong side of the road just before hitting an oncoming car — too late to avoid it, but with horns and lights and screaming that stimulated every nerve in my body, urging me to do something. She was urging me.

I wandered across the room, slid open the door to the other wardrobe and threw the g-string onto the floor. It was a self-indulgent act of sheer and helpless bloody-mindedness. I hoped to spark her voice, so she might confront him and help herself.

Ten minutes later he was in his business suit, ready to return to work from his ‘important meeting’. We walked out together and I let him put his arm around me.

“Got everything?” he asked at the front door.

“Yep.”

He kissed me on the cheek and I walked to my car.

At the bottom of the long driveway, I pulled away from the house for the first and last time. Doubt started to overwhelm the short-lived sense of victory.

You just killed your career, I thought. He would be understandably furious. I had retrieved the bottle, but he could find me professionally even if I changed my number. If he pursued me, my alias would have to cease existence.

But worse, what if all I sparked was the full blown explosion of that train-wreck marriage. What if I’d killed it once and for all?

What if she was surviving on the delusion?

I wept.


***

Postscript: For the published version the editors removed the second last line (which I, admittedly have amended now myself). I can understand why, but reckon it's removal significantly altered (and softened) the story's ending, so was a little disappointed. Ah well, published at least! 

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