As published in November 2018 by the Magnolia Review, a Bowling Green online literary magazine
The house feels vacant, forlorn: no nestlings under its wings, no one waiting impatiently to use the bathroom, no young voices hurrying down the stairs.
Had Henry brought her home, he might have shared the hollowness, mitigated it. But he was still angry, and they got back just in time for school. “I’m supposed to greet the kids, Carol. You go along; I’ll get a ride home at the end of the day.”
The end of the day. She is sentenced to solitude the first long day with both kids gone.
Even Ginger, who usually hears the key in the lock and is at the door with poodle tail wagging exuberantly, seemed restrained in her greeting, resentful at having spent the night without company.
Putting the little suitcase at the foot of the stairs, she takes the newspaper to the kitchen, reassured by its sunny brightness, the lawn and flowerbeds in late summer glory outside the dining alcove. She starts coffee. Ginger, relenting, rubs against her leg expectantly. Glad to be needed, she rinses the dog’s bowl, feeds her, and sits again.
The rattle of the kibbles and the chug-gulp of the coffeemaker are thunderous. She turns on the radio to fill the silence. More damned news. She changes the station, and recognizes a Brahms quartet. Good.
Getting Millie settled into her dorm yesterday was nostalgic fun. They’d made repeated rounds of college visits in the last two years, first with Carl and then with Millie, so merely being back on a campus wasn’t special. Getting Carl started at Yale last year had been easy compared to installing his sister at Smith yesterday, lugging clothes and books and boxes up two flights.
The stairs loosed a torrent of memories. They’d met and courted at college; Henry had tiptoed up such stairs more than once when her roommate went home for a weekend.
No roommates nowadays; girls had their own rooms. While envying Millie the privacy, Carol’s protective mother side worried about too-easy nocturnal visitors. The suitemates seemed nice enough. She and Henry met most of the other parents, introducing themselves at landings where the empty-handed one waited for the upbound one laden with daughter-belongings. Carol remembered her own father maneuvering a floor lamp up and helping hang a few pictures. The addition of computers and TVs and chargers made the moving-in more demanding now.
Henry tried to bring the little travel suitcase up to Millie’s new room, and looked mystified when told to leave it in the van. Carol waited until they’d kissed their daughter goodbye before telling him why.
“It will be strange to be home alone,” Henry said as he drove out the campus gates.
“Not yet, dear,” she said.
“I have a surprise for us.” She took the motel flyer from her purse, unfolding it to show the map. “I thought it would be fun to celebrate someplace more romantic than an empty house.”
“You’ve made a reservation?”
“It’s half an hour toward home. All the good ones near the college were full already.
“What’s a good one?”
“King-sized bed.” She read from the flyer. “A Jacuzzi in every room. A romantic setting with gardens that rival Eden’s. Our own quiet restaurant, with a master chef, a few steps away.”
“Sounds expensive.” Sober, careful Henry, not given to self-indulgence.
“I sold a house. Last week. I didn’t tell you.”
“After twenty years, you still amaze me.” He blew her an air-kiss. “Okay, you’re navigator. Direct me to Eden.”
By the time they arrived they were hungry. Their room was as spacious and handsome as advertised, better than any motel room she could remember. She told herself to stop remembering other motel rooms.
Henry brought the little bag up. “It doesn’t feel very heavy. You brought something for both of us?”
“The bare essentials,” she told him. “Your PJs, our toilet kits, clean underwear and a shirt for tomorrow, and” – giving him a coy smile – “a filmy nightgown that takes no space at all. Let’s go eat.” They freshened up, and walked to the restaurant.
It was as good as advertised, and not crowded. She suggested a bottle of wine instead of cocktails lest too much alcohol diminish the connubial joy ahead. Henry had the lamb chops; she had an excellent swordfish steak. “I wonder what happens to the swords?” she said.
“Maybe ground up like shark fins to make aphrodisiac soup,” he joshed.
“That would be nice symbolism, wouldn’t it? I don’t need any, though. How are the lamb chops?”
“Delicious. I’m tempted to take off the lacy paper frills.”
“Wait,” she said. “There’s better lace upstairs.” She loved seeing his grin.
The air was fresh as they started back. “Let’s try the Edenic garden,” Henry said, “away from light pollution.” He loved stars, and never tired of trying to help her appreciate them. “There’s Taurus the bull, rising in the east.”
“I can see him darling. More nice symbolism.”
“The bright star setting in the west is Spica, part of Virgo.”
“I can see the star, but not the constellation.”
“Never mind,” he said. “Latin for virgin. A thing of the past. But Venus is there, casting her spell.” He drew her into a long kiss, and walked back with his arm around her.
“I’ll run the Jacuzzi,” she said. “It looks lovely, big enough for two.”
“I’d better take my pill before we start that,” Henry said, “so it has time to work. Where’d you pack it?”
“Oh God!” she said. “Isn’t there always one in your toilet kit?”
“Of course not. You always worried what the kids might hear. It’s been years since we’ve made love on vacation. Damn!”
“I’m sorry. I’ll help you do without.” She unbuttoned his shirt. “I told you I brought that skimpy nightgown. Remind me how Omar Khayyam said it.”
“Let’s see. ‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou beside me, singing in the wilderness.’”
She remembered, and they finished it together: “Ah, wilderness were paradise enow.”
“Let’s hope so,” he said. He shaved in the shower while she filled the tub and got the temperature right. Her first motel room with a Jacuzzi, she thought, a nice touch; then remembered to stop remembering.
They climbed in together, his arm steadying her. He reached behind and found the switch for the jets.
“Wait here,” she whispered, and climbed out, conscious of his watching, keeping her tummy flat. “Just the night-lights will be more romantic.” In the bedroom she turned back the bed, spritzed on perfume, turned out the lights, and came back to turn off the bathroom light.
“That’s a bit much, dear,” Henry said. “No point in stumbling and breaking our necks. How about turning on the closet light and leaving the door ajar?” She did. “Ah, just right,” he said as she lowered herself back into the tub. “I like to see your body. You’re still a handsome woman.”
“And you’re a handsome man.” They sank into the tub chin-deep, his arm around her waist, the jets pulsing.
He nuzzled her neck. “Nice perfume.” He drew her out of the water enough to bury his smooth-shaven face between her breasts.
“Niki de Saint Phalle.”
He looked up. “You’re kidding. That’s really a perfume name?”
“I bought it just for you,” she lied. She drew him to a long kiss. They lay in each other’s arms, languorously at first, then with growing passion, hands exploring bodies as though new territory, caressing, gently opening legs to the thrust of the water, ecstatic foreplay.
In retrospect, they should have stayed in the tub. She considered it. A bit awkward, but so were the back seats of cars. Or they might have stayed cuddled there in the hot water, hands helping them come together. Henry was fully aroused, and so was she.
“I want you inside me,” she whispered. “Come.” They toweled each other, then slipped into the bed. “My darling,” she murmured, drawing him up. “Come to me.” But it was too late. He was softening.
He knew it too. She felt it. He searched her mouth with his tongue, buried his face in her neck to breathe in lingering perfume, seeking fresh stimulus.
At last he rolled off her, onto his back. “Damn! It’s no use. Why in hell didn’t you think of that pill? You could think of your Saint Phallus and not remember the pill?”
“Darling, I’m so sorry. You know I’m disappointed too.” She brought his hand to her belly. Sometimes he helped her finish when he hadn’t been able to wait for her. She thought of getting back into the tub.
He pulled his hand away. His anger grew. He was angry at himself, she knew; humiliated, his manhood compromised. “It’s all right, darling,” she whispered. “There will be other times. We have an empty nest to ourselves at home.”
He would not be placated. It got ugly. “I suppose there are men in their mid-forties who don’t need pills,” he rasped. “I wouldn’t know. But I guess you would.”
“Oh dear,” she murmured. “Don’t.”
He persisted. “And why a motel anyway? Because that’s where you think passion happens?”
“All these years I’ve pretended not to notice, and finally you decide on a fresh start, and can’t remember to pack what you know your husband needs?”
“Henry, stop! I’m sorry. I truly am. I’ll make it up when we get home. But there’s nothing I can do tonight.” He would go on like this as long as she would listen; it would get worse. “I’m sorry. I’m going to sleep,” she said, rolling away from him.
She heard him get up, pee noisily, come back to the other side. A bed so big he could avoid touching, a cold chasm between them. She was sure they were both awake for a long time, but neither spoke. At last she slept.
He had set his phone alarm. The windows were still inky dark. He got up and began turning on lights. “It’s the first day of school today. There’s probably more need for vice-principals on opening day than any other day.” He was almost dressed. “I saw a donut shop up the road. They’re always open early. I’ll get coffee and donuts. Maybe fifteen minutes. Can you be downstairs and waiting, please?”
She was outside when he drove up, the suitcase at her feet, the air a bit chilly. She hoped he might say something appreciative about her being ready so quickly, but he did not. The coffee was in the cupholders; he handed her a brightly-colored paper bag.
“Chocolate cream-filled!” she said brightly. “My favorite. Thank you, Henry.” Even when angry, he was a thoughtful man. “You don’t want one of these?”
“Too messy. I’m driving. I have a couple of plain ones.” He reached for the car radio, finding the local public radio just before reaching the highway ramp. News-noise to drown out memory, muffle anger? She almost said it aloud, but thought better of it. When static grew on the first station, he switched to their home station with a button-push. By the time they reached the school she knew more about the state of the nation and world than she needed, and knew nothing about how long it might take to repair their marriage.
He didn’t wait for her to get into the driver’s seat, and didn’t offer even a perfunctory kiss, striding away to take his position greeting teenagers at the school door.
The coffee has stopped burbling. She takes a cup to the alcove to admire the growing day and ponder how to spend it. She checks for phone messages, hoping the office might have a client for her. No luck. A day showing houses would have kept her busy, distracted. Perhaps she should look for a full-time job now that the kids are gone.
She gets up to examine the fridge, but finds no excuse to kill time with a supermarket trip. Back in the alcove, she opens her calendar as she sips the last of the coffee. Nothing today. Book club tomorrow. She hasn’t finished the book yet, but wouldn’t retain a word if she ventured to read now. She tries the paper, ignoring news she’s already heard several times, looking at ads. A new blouse or scarf usually cheers her up, but today she worries that Henry, if he noticed, would find new fuel for recrimination.
She takes the suitcase upstairs and unpacks, puts clothes into the hamper. Rummaging in the medicine cabinet, she finds a tiny travel-bottle and puts one of Henry’s pills in it. Another. Three, hoping he might notice the generous supply even if they don’t use all three on the next trip. A symbol; an offering. Improvising a label, she drops the bottle in his travel kit. She puts her kit away, but leaves his out and open where he’ll see it.
Lunch with someone might do her good. She sits on the bed, takes her phone from a pocket. Smart phone; it knows all her friends. She has it dial Susan. “Hello? It’s Carol. How about lunch today?
“I’m sorry. I’d love to, but I have a doctor’s appointment. Nothing serious, but it would take weeks to reschedule. Are you all right?”
“Just a touch of empty nest syndrome. We took Millie to college yesterday.”
“You poor dear, I know the feeling. We’re a year ahead of you. Find someone else today, and call me next time you’re having withdrawal symptoms.”
Unfortunate choice of words, Carol thinks. She has the phone call Lisa, who doesn’t want to give up her yoga class. Karen doesn’t answer; she doesn’t bother leaving a message. Bessie answers. “I have an art class at the museum,” she says. “You want to come along?”
“Thanks, not today. I need someone to talk with, not be talked at.”
Donna is in bed with a heavy cold. Gretchen doesn’t answer. She goes back down to the kitchen. Eleven o’clock. Millie must be in class; can’t call her. It is a gorgeous September day. The silence is deafening.
She needs company. It’s Henry’s fault that she’s so distraught. Damn Henry.
She starts to dial from the smartphone, but — remembering that it remembers – reaches for the kitchen phone, not needing to look up the number. “Jeff? It’s Carol. Any chance you’re free for lunch today?
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