Published in Pilcrow & Dagger in December 2018
Eddie saw them first: friends they hadn’t seen in a decade, on the up escalator beside the one they were riding down. “Chuck!” he called. “Chloe!”
It was a long airport escalator, two stories or more; he’d recognized them twenty yards away. Their faces – Chuck’s still capped by a blond mop, hers with almond eyes seeming untouched by the seams of age — broke into a starburst of smiles as they recognized and called back. “Eddie! Peg!”
For a moment he thought they might hug as they passed, but of course that was absurd. In the blink of an eye they were beyond, turning to look back, straining to sustain a sudden, unexpected bond lest it snap like an overstretched elastic band. “Have time to talk?” he shouted as the distance widened.
“Yes!” Chuck’s voice was lost in the gathering gap and airport crowd noise. It took more face-reading than lip-reading, but the answer was unmistakably affirmative.
“Wait!” Eddie patted the air with both hands, palms down, meaning ‘stay up there!’ He turned to Peg. “Isn’t that amazing? We have to go back up!”
“Do we have time?” Her response seemed brusque, perhaps because they had to step off, keep moving, pressed by the throng behind them. At last, at a break in the brass rail after thirty yards, they could ease out of the traffic and join those headed up. “When do they start boarding our plane?” she finished.
They paused to study boarding passes. “We’re okay,” he said. “Not time for a drink or anything like that, but five or ten minutes just to talk.”
“I guess.” Her reluctance was now unmistakable.
But why? She and Chuck had worked together at school; it was she who initiated the friendship, inviting the pair to dinner. All four hit it off: For a time they did everything imaginable together, including their teen kids’ baseball and basketball games, cross-country skiing, family picnics.
Despite Peg’s hesitation, they’d now been nudged along by the crowd almost to the foot of the upbound escalator. “Are you coming?”
“Oh, all right,” she said, and they headed back up.
Eddie was sure she didn’t know. The affair hadn’t lasted long. Passionate and delicious, but careful. It began the year all the kids were in college, when Peg and Chuck attended a school counselors’ meeting in Providence. Having dinner with Chloe was innocent, keeping each other casual company while their spouses went to a conference. Going back to her place – hers and Chuck’s – was just continuing a conversation over another glass of wine when the restaurant closed.
One thing led to another, though, from the sofa to the bedroom. They were in torrid union when her phone rang: Chuck. Chloe got it on the third ring, turning her enticingly naked back to him. Not even audibly breathing hard, she had a perfectly ordinary chat with her husband-at-convention, then turned back to him with resumed ardor.
Then his phone rang at the worst possible time, and he had to break off to chat with Peg.
The interruptions, far from making their love-making awkward, made it like fruit stolen from the heights of a tree, harder to reach and so sweeter. He spent the night — with little sleep — and staggered home at dawn to freshen up and get to the office.
The conventioneers came home, and they went back to doing things as couples. It was as though nothing had happened. He and Chloe never talked or texted or had any one-to-one contact – until their spouses went off to another convention. That year, and the next and next – four years, each time a night of unforgettable fervor.
They were a third of the way back up. “You know,” Peg interrupted his musing, “it wasn’t that they moved away.”
Hearing an edge to her voice, he said nothing.
“We’d stopped doing things together a year before that,” she added.
Suddenly, on the adjoining down escalator, there they were again, Chloe making a tear-your-hair out gesture of frustration.
It was Peg who took the initiative before the two descended out of earshot again. “Wait down there,” she shouted. “We’ll come back down.”
Chloe and Chuck both obviously got it: They nodded, grinned.
At the top, Peg made clear she was in control. “Over this way,” she commanded. “There’s got to be an elevator down. We have a plane to catch.”
She gave him no chance to protest: She was off, and indeed found the elevator, fifty yards away. He caught up as she pushed the call button.
“But sweetie,” he protested, “you told them we’d go back down!”
“They’ll get over it.” Her face was a mask.
It angered him. “Why, for God’s sake?”
She ignored him, turning to the elevator as the door opened. They got in, just the two of them. She pushed the down button.
“But why?” he asked again.
She took both his hands and pulled him close. “While you were bedding Chloe,” she said, “Chuck was spending the night in my hotel room.”
He couldn’t speak.
“After four years, we decided to stop. Neither of us wanted the messiness of divorce. Didn’t want to screw up the kids’ lives.”
Eddie was still speechless.
“And frankly,” she added, “although the secrecy made the sex exciting, he wasn’t as good as you are.” She pulled him close, tipped her face up, and gave him a long, wet kiss.
The elevator stopped. The door opened. She pried herself away, took him by the hand, left the elevator car and turned away from the escalators.
As they stepped into the concourse they both, in the same moment, saw Chuck and Chloe. They sat at a bar-restaurant table, backs to the elevator, sipping drinks, watching the escalator intently.
“Well?” Peg asked.
“I think we’d better catch our plane.”