Thursday, December 11, 2014

FEATURED SHORT STORY: Summer of '95 by Michael Ewing



Michael Ewing

The blaring alarm shattered my sleep. I groaned and cracked my greasy eyes open wondering when five-thirty in the morning had gotten so damned bright. I pulled the pillow over my aching head and tried to figure out a way of not going into work. The night before I had gone out drinking at Shy’s with Scott and Justine for their anniversary and had overindulged. Yesterday, my boss, Gregg, had asked me for five more names for layoffs and it was easy to drink more than I should have. God, I hated my job.
I gingerly tried to stitch the previous evening together. I remembered going to Shy’s. I remembered waiting for my wife Laura to join us and her eventually calling to say that she couldn’t get away from work, again. I remembered getting angry about her job, about her endless hours, and how she was never home. I remembered hanging up on her and Scott ordering a round and someone ordering another and eventually the evening went blurry.
I heard water running and labored slowly into the bathroom, eyes squinting against the glare. Laura stood in the shower under the warm water with her eyes closed. I blinked at the water sluicing down her soft curves and remembered the last time we had made love in the shower, the way her back arched and how her fingers clutched at my shoulders. Our schedules had been horrible lately so it seemed like the only time we had together was in the shower. I wasn’t complaining. I loved the way she felt under my hands. She had been working out with a personal trainer for the last six months and every inch of her five foot something was toned and sculpted.
I slumped over to my sink and turned on the water.  The skin on my skull felt eggshell thin as I washed my face, like it was made of tissue paper. I stared at the defeat in my gray eyes. There were good days and bad days with my job, but today was going to be one of the worst. I didn’t want to lay Scott off.  He was my best friend and I had tried as much as I could over the years to protect him, but Gregg hadn’t given me a choice.
It had been a long time since I had been happy at work and being unhappy five days a week spilled over into every other part of my life. I was lucky Laura was willing to put up with it. Life with me hadn’t been pleasant.
I swished the taste of stale vodka out of my mouth trying not to move my head any more than was necessary. My hair was a snarled brown bush on one side and flat on the other. Annoying gray patches had somehow sprouted at my temples overnight. I needed to start thinking about a haircut. A day’s worth of whiskers darkened my jaw. All in all, a horrible start to an equally horrible day.
            I spat out the mouthwash, nearly fell getting out of my shorts, and stepped tentatively into the water, wincing under the thunder of the water on my skull. Laura opened her bright blue eyes and put a gentle hand on my chest.
"How was the party?"
“I don’t know.” My mouth felt like it was full of sawdust. “I can’t remember.”
"You should go back to bed. You look terrible.”
“I wish I could. I have meetings all day.”
“I hope it isn’t more layoffs. It seems like every time you have lots of meetings you have to walk someone out.”
I stared glumly at the drain as she put shampoo in her hair. I debated about telling her about Scott but didn’t want to ruin her morning. She didn’t want to hear about my job any more than I wanted to talk about it. We both needed new careers. Laura’s hours had been brutal for the past six months.
I switched to a safer topic.
            "I guess congratulations are in order. Do you feel forty?”
            “If it’s any consolation, you don’t look forty.”
            “Don’t let Darleen get you drunk at the Kenny Loggins concert tonight,” I cautioned. “You’ll never know what will happen.”
            She fixed me with a steady look. “Nothing will happen.”
            "Your old college roommate’s crazy. She almost got you kicked out of medical school. What did the two of you get caught doing again?”
            Laura’s baby blues narrowed into barbs. “The charges were dismissed.”
            “Well, don’t let Darleen keep buying you drinks. We don’t want another dismissal.”

I was eating a cheery breakfast of cheerios and aspirin when Laura swept into the kitchen in a very short, low-cut blue silk dress that showed off more than she had shown in years. A brilliant blue azurite necklace matched her eyes. Her dark, golden hair was fashionably highlighted with streaks of platinum. I whistled and immediately wished I hadn’t.
“Wow. No scrubs today?”
“I didn’t want to change before the concert. I’m going to put on a lab coat at work.”
            I gently pulled her close, inhaling her jasmine perfume, and holding her tighter than I normally would have. “You sure you have to go?”
            She put a finger onto my chest. “What, sir, is your intention?”
            I managed a smile. “With a dress like that, you could stay home tonight and we could celebrate your birthday in style instead of you going to the concert.”
She turned to inspect her reflection in the kitchen’s stainless steel oven. “Do you think it’s too much? I just wanted to be pretty, you know? It’s been so long since I’ve seen these people that I... Do I really look nice?”
            “You look a lot better than nice.”
            Her face went from pretty to beautiful in a flutter of her eyes. I forgot about her horrible hours and never seeing her and let myself fall in love with her all over again.
            “Thank you.”
I smiled. “Anytime. All the time.”
Her phone screeched. She turned, the moment lost, and picked it up.
            “This is Dr. Weller.”
She listened to the ER nurse then rattled off a medical order for a prescription change. She put her phone in her purse, grabbed her keys, and turned my way.
            “I know it’s hard but try to have a good day at work.”
            I made a face.
She put a hand on my shoulder. “Have you thought about calling some of your friends about other jobs? Dave has been after you for years to work for him. His company is growing. You could finally do something you really like again. It’s been years since you’ve been happy.”
            “If I leave, the department will close.  Gregg doesn’t have a clue about how to keep it running. He’d lay off the entire place in a month.”
“Maybe that would be for the best. Never knowing who’s going to be walked out next has to be getting old.”
She saw the expression on my face and her shoulders slumped. “How many this time?”
            “That’s over a quarter of your department.”
            “Will Scott be affected?”
            I lowered my gaze to the floor. “Gregg didn’t give me a choice.”
            “That’s horrible! Does Scott know yet?”
            “I’m under orders not to say anything.”
            She sighed. “Call Dave and at least talk with him. He’s your friend. It would make things so much easier.”
            I blinked at her. “Easier? His company is in San Jose. We live in Phoenix. How would that be easier?”
            Her phone buzzed and she pushed the button to look at the display. “I have to go. Darleen and I will be going out to dinner after the concert tonight so I’ll stay at her place and drive home from Tucson in the morning. Remember to take out the garbage. You forgot last week and the can is almost full and is starting to smell. Oh, and can you pick up my dry cleaning? They close at six and I never have time to get over there and they’re threatening to sell my wardrobe if I don’t pick it up.”
            She gave me a quick kiss and left me wondering when we had reached the point in our marriage when she failed to notice I was eating breakfast naked.

I was staring at the list of layoffs on my desk when Scott McClellan banged my office door open to collapse into one of my chairs. His brown hair was a mess, his askew eyes were rimmed in red, and his clothing looked like it had gotten wet and dried on him.
            “You look like hell,” I said, glancing at the clock. It was ten o’clock in the morning and he was just arriving at work.
            “So do you.” He sounded horrible. “I’ve never seen you drink as much as you did last night. We put you in a cab after you started falling asleep. How much do you remember?"
            "I'm not sure."
            "Do you remember Saundra and Don?”
            I probed my memory. “The blonde couple from the bar that Justine invited over?”
            “Yeah.” He sighed and an uncertain look crossed his face as he lowered his voice. “You’re not going to believe what happened. After we put you in a cab, Justine and I went to their house for a nightcap. They have this mansion up in Scottsdale with crystal chandeliers everywhere.”
I blinked. I knew Justine but I couldn’t imagine her going to another couple’s house after a night at Shy’s.
“That must have been,” I paused, thinking, “interesting on your anniversary. So what happened?”
"I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
            I stared. “You and your wife went home with another couple and you fell asleep?”
            Scott nodded glumly. “I woke up this morning under their coffee table with my face in my shoe.”
            I almost laughed but didn’t.
            “Where was Justine?”
“I have no idea. I crawled out from under the coffee table and tried to figure out where I was. There were these huge Palladian windows and the sun was cooking my brain. I felt like a vampire caught on a Mexican beach in high summer. But I really had to go so I started searching for a bathroom. The house was huge. I ran around snatching open doors until I finally found the master bedroom. The room was a mess. Bedding was tangled up on the floor. Clothing was everywhere. I sprinted for the bathroom and unzipped and let go. I was in mid-stream when I realized,” he swallowed, “I wasn’t alone.”
Scott blinked his grainy eyes. “The shower was running. The glass was all steamy but I could still, ah, see things.”
“What things?”
Scott ran his hand over his unshaven face. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I panicked and grabbed my car keys and ran for it.”
“You ran away?”
“What was I supposed to do? All I wanted was a bathroom and then I looked over and saw shapes through the glass and with all the clothing on the floor, I panicked.”
I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. There were lines on Scott’s face I had never seen before.  There was a dried beer stain on his pants. He looked like he had been run over in a mud puddle.
“Have you called Justine?”
“She called me.” Scott gritted his teeth. “We had a huge fight on the phone.  Probably the worst we’ve ever had. She went off on me because I had called her boring.”
“You told Justine she was boring?”
“It was our anniversary, remember? She asked me what I wanted and I made the mistake of telling her I wanted her to be more, ah, inventive.”
I stared again. “That’s almost as bad as last Christmas when you gave her a gift certificate for laser lipo.”
Scott winced, scowling. “Yeah, well, she wasn’t happy.” His voice jumped an octave. “How do you think it made me feel when you called me boring?” And then I made the mistake of saying, “I don’t know how you feel, Justine. But, how exactly, did they make you feel?
“She started yelling again and I had to pull into a Circle-K and buy a bottle of Tylenol because my head was about to split open. The next thing I know, I’m here trying to find my office.”
“You should go pick her up and take her to lunch so you can talk.”
Scott scratched at his stained pants. “What am I supposed to say then? Would you like me with your soup and Saundra and Don sandwich?” He swore, the words muttering out of his chest. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”
“But you don’t know what happened. She was probably asleep in the guest bedroom or something.”
“But what if she wasn’t?”
I sighed. “I feel uncomfortable asking you this, but how exactly did you want her to be more, ah, inventive?”
Scott shifted uncomfortably. “You remember J.C., the woman I dated before Justine?”
“The woman with all the cats who wanted you to marry her?”
“That’s the one. I used to come home from work and find her panties on my apartment doorknob. Inside I would find a trail of clothing leading into the bedroom where she would be lying on the bed in nothing but high heels reading a magazine.”
I blinked. “That’s it? You wanted Justine lying on the bed reading a magazine?”
Scott’s lip curled. “It’s not just that, you moron. What I wanted was for Justine to be a little crazy once in a while. Not all the time though, just on special occasions.”
“Like President’s Day?”
Scott glowered, slumping into his chair. “I don’t know what to do. This is all my fault. She got some alcohol in her and this happened. But what should I do now?
“At the risk of sounding like the therapist you should have, did you tell her what you wanted?”
“So she takes you out for your anniversary. She drinks a lot more than she should and decides to do something she normally wouldn’t because you made the mistake of calling her boring, but then you passed out and now your alcohol-fuddled brain is filing divorce papers.”
“I guess.”
“Have you asked her what she wants?”
 “Maybe you should.”
Fear crossed Scott’s pallid face. “I’m not good at talking about my feelings. I feel like Justine wants to pry open my head and grope around inside like she’s lost something. Women can get really crazy about that communication bullshit.”
He levered himself up out of the chair to open the door. He paused, staring out at the sea of vacant cubicles from all the layoffs. The glare from the windows made us both squint.
“I hate this job.”
“We all hate this job,” I corrected. “It used to be a good place to work before the buyout.”
He turned to go then stopped. “Have you thought more about getting out of here? Dave’s been after you for years. You provide the expertise and he provides the venture capital is one hell of a partnership. Just bring me with you if you decide to bail.”
“Dave’s in San Jose. Laura’s job is here.”
“She could sell her practice. She can’t like working the hours she’s putting in. The woman is never home.”
“She’s spent years building her practice. It’s not easy moving on.”
            Scott twisted his wedding ring. “It never is, is it?”

I sat in my office staring at my desk and thinking about what Scott had said about Laura never being home. Every year of our marriage she had gotten home later and later from work and the past year had been especially bad. It was rare for her to pull into the garage before nine in the evening and when she did get home, she would immediately get on the computer to catch up with her dictations. Afterwards, she would start the treadmill or do crunches. It had become a normal part of our routine. She exercised while I went to bed by myself. The next morning, she would complain about being exhausted yet she would do the same thing over and over again. Sex was scheduled over breakfast as we yawned at each other.
“I’m going to try to get home early tonight so maybe we can have a date,” she would announce. Or, “We have to do something quick tonight—I have an early patient.”
Usually it took three or four of these “appointments” before something happened. We spent more time yawning at each other than kissing.
Today was her birthday and birthdays ending in zeros were trouble. My sister-in-law, Denise, had told my brother, Rich, that she wanted a divorce on her fortieth. According to Rich, there had been no warning. The two of them were just finishing eating dinner and she turned around from the sink and dropped the bomb. One second they were cleaning up the dishes, the next she had cleaned out their shared bank account.
My fortieth birthday had been last March, and it wasn’t something I cared to remember. Laura had decorated the house with black balloons and invited all of our friends over so they could watch me moodily pop them with a steak knife. The evening had gotten worse after that.
I tapped my pencil. Laura had looked stunning in her dress that morning. I hadn’t known she owned a dress like that. Had it hung in the back of her closet waiting for something she could wear it to, or had she gone out and bought it for the concert?
On impulse, I logged into our checking account and went through the transactions until I found the charge and whistled. That tiny piece of silk had cost five hundred dollars. She had bought it two weeks before.
I stared at the charge and tried to remember the last time we had gone out for an evening or even a weekend where she could wear a dress like that. We hadn’t been to a concert in years, and her schedule was bad enough that she rarely had the energy to do anything but go to bed.
I tapped my pencil again and got on my computer to check ticket availability to the concert. I wasn’t a Kenny Loggins’ fan but maybe I should drive down to Tucson and go. I could book a suite somewhere and we could have room service for dinner. I needed a break from the layoffs. It would be a nice end to a terrible day.
Ten minutes later, I slammed my office door and headed for home. The rest of my day was full of exit interviews for five unfortunates, but I didn’t care.

I pulled my Lexus into the garage and parked between my restored ’69 Camaro and the dusty pile of boxes Laura had dragged behind her from house to house and job to job without ever getting rid of them. The boxes were a sore spot with me, literally, because they were heavy and I was always the one stuck moving them. Plus, it made it hard to get out of my car because I always tried to park as far away from the Camaro as possible so I wouldn’t ding the candy paint. I had spent almost twelve thousand dollars on that paint job. The entire bill for the restoration was more than I wanted to think about.
I opened the Lexus’ door until it touched the last stack of boxes and squeezed out. I shut my door and was about to go inside when an open box Laura had been sorting through on top of the stack teetered and fell. I saw it fall and jumped over to grab it, but I was too late. It hit with a heavy thud and bundles of old medical magazines exploded onto the floor.
Swearing sulfurously under my breath, I knelt down to clean up the mess. Laura hadn’t touched those boxes in years. Why had she opened the box and why hadn’t she sealed it up when she was done with it?
I dispatched the medical magazines into the box and found myself holding her old college yearbook. I stared at it for a moment then flipped pages until I found her name. She had been young and striking in school. Her thick hair was pale blonde and caught the flash of the camera. Her smile was captivating. Her eyes were vividly blue.
I turned to Darleen’s picture.  Her smile smoldered. She looked like she was auditioning for a men’s magazine. Her face was stunning, her jet-black hair long, her eyelids lowered as she pouted at the camera. Under her name was the scrawled letters, "The World Belongs To Us! 1995!"
In the bottom of the box was a stack of Laura’s yearly journals. Each had a date penned into the spine. I saw the one marked “1995” and on impulse, opened it up. Inside was page after page detailing school assignments and exams and guys she’d thought were cute and dreams of becoming a pediatrician. The weather was a favorite topic as was Darleen’s excessive drinking and how Laura never knew who Darleen would bring home to their apartment. She even kept track of what she ate for lunch. I read each day’s menu shaking my head. Why would she care what she ate on a Tuesday?
I flipped to the middle of the journal and found a concert ticket to Kenny Loggins taped to the top of the page. Under the ticket was a paragraph saying she had had the best time ever with the last word capitalized and underlined.
A week later was another concert ticket. Two days later was another. After that, almost every page had a different ticket as she and Darleen followed Kenny Loggins as he toured the east coast. After the fifth concert, they scored backstage passes and these were carefully kept along with the ticket stubs. There were pictures of Laura with the band. There were photographs of Darleen draped on the drummer. I flipped more pages. More backstage passes. More photographs. There were lots of Darleen with a guitarist, of her making out with an older man with tattoos and predatory eyes. There were informal pictures of Laura with the band. There were more of Darleen drinking, Darleen sitting on a man’s lap and Darleen sticking her tongue in another man’s ear.
“Does she still have a liver?” I wondered out loud.
I flipped the page to the next photograph and ice sliced through my stomach. Laura was sitting with Kenny Loggins. Her head was on his chest and her eyes were closed.  He had one arm around her. His other hand was on her knee. Everything about the picture spoke of intimate familiarity.
I stared at the page, blood rushing through my head, and tried to remember what she had said about that summer. Had she told me she had been the girlfriend of a famous rock star?
I numbly flipped more pages. There were more photographs of Laura and Kenny. They were comfortable together. They spent a lot of time smiling and staring into each other’s eyes.
I dropped the journal, abruptly deciding I didn’t want to look at it anymore. I felt awkward. I felt hurt. But why did it bother me? That was seventeen years ago. During her summer of ’95, when she was with Kenny, I was living with my fiancĂ© Viki. We were young, we were in love, and our lungs were full of fresh air.
We didn’t have much money so we spent our weekends driving my Camaro. We never had a destination. We just hit the accelerator.  The north rim of the Grand Canyon was a favorite destination as was the cool pines of the White Mountains. We slept in a tent if the weather was good or in the Camaro’s backseat if it wasn’t. I wouldn’t think of sleeping in the back of a car now, but at the time it had been the best summer of my life.
We eventually broke up—not because we didn’t love each other, but because the timing was wrong. Viki had gone to the University of San Francisco to get her MBA, and our long distance relationship had slowly fallen apart. I sent her hundreds of e-mails and letters and texts, but over time, all I heard from her was replies about her classes or the traffic as she walked on the street to school. I didn’t hear about her heart or her plans for our future. She had walled off her feelings.
Last I had heard she was still in San Francisco. She had gotten married and then divorced. She had called me a few months ago, after her marriage was over, to see if I was free. I told her I was married. After that, the call had been brief and awkward and she had wished me well.
Laura and I both had summers of ’95. So why did these photographs of her smiling face hurt?
I dejectedly went to put the book back in the box and noticed a manila envelope at the bottom.  It was large, thick, and held two pieces of semi-rigid cardboard inside. I opened it up and froze. Inside were proofs of Laura and Darleen taken with a professional, large format camera. Each was shot in front of a white background. The lighting was perfect. The poses were very carefully arranged. The two women stood with their backs to the camera, they wore faded jeans, and nothing else. They had their hands in each other’s back pockets.
I recognized the photograph instantly. It was the album cover from Kenny Loggins’ album, This or That?  The title song had been one of his biggest hits.
I stared at the journal and photographs for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. Laura was going to his concert tonight with Darleen. She had bought an expensive, clingy dress for the occasion and looked stunning wearing it. Six months before she had started working out with a personal trainer, and every night after work she exercised on the treadmill and did crunches until she was exhausted. It all added up to something. But to what?
I slammed the box back onto its dusty stack and stamped inside to take a shower. She could have opened the box months ago. Was I making a lot out of nothing?
I toweled off and angrily decided to forget the whole thing. I would go back to my horrible job and give Gregg the five names. Laura would return Saturday morning and that would be it. I would take her out for a date Saturday night for dinner and dancing if she wasn’t too tired and she could wear the dress. It had been a long time since we had gone out.
But I found myself calling her office instead.
“Doctor Weller’s office,” Laura’s secretary answered. “May I help you?”
I swallowed twice before the words would come. “Maryanne, this is Mark. Is she there?  Her cell phone was acting up this morning and she asked me to pick up her dry cleaning but she didn’t tell me where. I can’t get hold of her.”
“I’m sorry, Mark, but Laura took the day off to go to Tucson.”
My world fell out from under me. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. My heart clenched in my chest. I felt like a trap door had opened under my feet.
“She said she was going to drop by the office to finish a dictation before leaving,” I lied, stammering.
“Maybe she did it over the phone. Would you like me to leave her a message for Monday?”
I was having a hard time saying anything. “No,” I croaked. “No thank you.”

Ten minutes later I was speeding down to Tucson in the Camaro, the rumbling big-block 396 cubic inch engine and my heavy foot making it hard to keep my speed under a hundred. The empty, barren Sonoran Desert stretched towards the horizon through quivering veils of heat. Nothing moved through that thorny, desolate purgatory of dust and glare. I tried to get my mind around what I had seen. I rolled down the windows and let the hot summer wind howl through the car. I cursed myself for looking in the box. I cursed her for loving Kenny all those years ago. I cursed the hollow, terrible, vulnerability in my mind. Over and over I tried to call Laura but her phone only went to voicemail.  Normally that wouldn’t be an issue because it meant she was with patients, but since she wasn’t at work, she should have been available to answer her phone.
I got busy flipping stations on the Camaro’s old pushbutton radio. Along the way, about fifty miles from Tucson, the stereo landed on an adult contemporary radio station playing nineties love songs. I savagely went to switch the station then swerved onto the shoulder and slammed on the brakes. A horn blared off my left shoulder and the driver of a pickup gave me the finger as he rocketed by. I carefully listened to Kenny’s song on the radio. Like the rest of the world, I had heard it hundreds of times but I had never really paid attention to the lyrics.

This or that,
The choice is up to you.
This or that,
Whatever you decide.

I snatched up Laura’s journal and started flipping pages. I read rapidly, frenetically, burning through the months of July and August until I found the first mention of medical school. The decision had been horrible for her. Page after page of cramped, tiny writing, she debated whether to stay with Kenny or go back home. I turned another page and found her acceptance letter to medical school. I kept turning pages and I found something I hadn’t expected. Lyrics written in a hand not her own:

This or that,
The choice is up to you.
This or that,
Whatever you decide,

at the bottom were two lines that had never made the record:

just remember,
Laura, I will always love you.

The song hadn’t been about choosing between a blonde or dark haired beauty like the album cover implied. The song had been about a woman. A woman who had spent weeks making a decision to stay with him or go back to school.
I had asked Laura more than once, usually in the middle of the night when she finally crawled exhausted into bed, if this life was what she wanted. The answer had always been the same. She loved her job.  She loved helping people.  It was what she lived for, what she put her heart and soul into.  She had helped thousands of kids.
So when had she finally realized that in putting so much of herself into helping others, she hadn’t helped herself?
I shuddered the breath out of my chest and slowly took stock of what was important. I hated my job. I was tired of being on call around the clock and the endless budget cuts and never knowing if I was going to be tapped on the shoulder. I loved Laura, but neither of us liked where we had ended up.
I made a sudden, wrenching decision and called work.
 “Gregg, it’s me.”
His rheumy smoker’s voice was sharp. “Where the hell are you, Mark? You were supposed to start doing exit interviews after lunch. HR has called me three times in the past hour.”
“I had a family emergency. I had to go home.”
“When are you coming back?”
I clenched the handset and looked out the window. Here and there, standing like lonely sentinels, mesquite trees bowed thorny, gnarled shoulders under the unrelenting sun.
“I’m not coming back. I’ve decided the first name on your list should be mine.”
“I’m tired of laying people off. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“You’re the head of your department. Personnel changes are a part of your job.”
“Not anymore. I want out.”
“You can’t ask to be laid off.”
“Then fire me. It’s time for me to move onto something,” I abruptly thought of what Laura had said that morning, “easier. Either way, this is goodbye.”
I cut Gregg off in mid-yell and drew in a soul cleansing breath. I felt free, like a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
I turned off the radio and looked at my laptop computer on the passenger seat. I needed a way of finding Laura.  I could track the unique hardware MAC address of her phone on the cellular network with my MAC Tracker software from work. But her phone wasn't answering. It was probably powered off. So how could I find her?

I followed the GPS signal of Darleen’s phone to the Tucson Ventana Resort perched on the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of town. I tried to find Laura’s phone, but it was not on the cellular grid. Either it had been powered off or it was not broadcasting its identifying address to the cell towers.
I pulled into the resort and circled the winding parking lot until I found the white Mercedes convertible with the “KID DOC” custom plates. I stared at it, hands shaking on the wheel. I parked and numbly carried my laptop into the resort’s Flying V Bar and Grill.  The restaurant was dark and intimate with booths and tables scattered under a ceiling of rough wooden beams. Antiques and old photographs of early Tucson decorated the walls. In the back were floor-to-ceiling windows giving sweeping views of the beautiful Ventana Canyon. Was Laura was in the resort somewhere or had she left for the day? There was no way to tell. Hotels had gotten very good at protecting the privacy of their guests.
            I asked the hostess for a table away from the windows in the back where it was dark. The lunch hour was over so I had the gloom to myself. I wasn't hungry but I ordered the lunch special of chopped shrimp flautas and sat back to wait until Darleen’s phone moved.  Knowing Darleen, she was probably passed out naked somewhere with a blood alcohol level past the legal limit.
While I waited, I checked my phone messages. There were six from Gregg which I deleted. Two were from Scott. None were from Laura. On impulse, I looked up Dave’s phone number in San Jose, debated about what I was going to say for a moment, then hit, “DIAL.” Dave picked up on the second ring.
 “Mark! I was just thinking of calling you up!” he said cheerfully. “How’s life in the heat?”
“Great, actually. I gave notice today at my job. I had to layoff five more of my people and got tired of it.”
“You quit?”
“I told Gregg the first name on the list was mine.”
Dave chuckled. “I bet he liked that. He has no clue at all. The guy is worthless space.”
I tried to keep my voice even. “I was just wondering if your offer was still open.”
Dave didn’t say anything for a second. When he resumed talking his voice had quieted. “Moving out would be a big step. Laura would have to sell her practice.”
“She wants me to find something else and I think it’s time for a change. It’s a hundred and ten here in the shade. A trip to the coast would be nice.”
“Well that’s good news! When can you come out?”
“I’m wide open.”
Dave clicked on his computer. “I have a group of hedge fund investors flying in from New York on Monday. They’ll be here most of the week on a deal. Can you come out next weekend? You and Laura can stay at my place. We can drive down to the coast and do some sailing. Relax a bit. The wives can go shopping. It’ll be like old times.”
“That would be great.”
“Cheer up, buddy. You sound like you just got out of a funeral. It may not feel like it right now but today’s the best thing that’s happened to you in a long, long time. You've been depressed for years. Getting out of that bankrupt hole will do wonders for how you feel. I guarantee it.”
“Thank you.”
“I’ll have my secretary call you about booking your flights.”
I hung up and felt another weight leave my shoulders. Dave and I hadn’t discussed specifics, but all I needed was a chance. Maybe he was right. Today might be the best thing that had happened to me in a long time.
I stared at the laptop without seeing it until I realized Darleen’s phone was moving.  I clicked in the tracker’s window and watched her icon stop until the elevator went “DING” behind me and it started to move again. I glanced out of the restaurant into the lobby. My insides turned very cold.
Laura wore the blue dress and a smile on her face I hadn’t seen in years. Kenny was dressed in khaki Dockers, a pressed blue shirt, and leather boat shoes without socks. There was a crow’s nest of fine lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, but he was still a handsome man right down to his capped teeth. Darleen followed in a little black dress that showed a lot more than it hid. She glanced my way and for a second I thought she had recognized me in the gloom, but she didn’t say anything.
Time stopped. I couldn’t breathe. There was my wife. It wasn’t a dream, I wasn’t just guessing. The woman I loved was with someone else. I grabbed hold of the edge of the table. When had she given up on me? When had she given up on us?
The hostess took the three of them to a table in the opposite corner of the restaurant where they could gaze out the windows at the sweeping canyon views. Kenny held out Laura’s chair and she sat down with a whisper of thanks. I watched them talk, a volcano erupting in my stomach.
I thought back to when our relationship had been young, when I couldn't keep my hands off her. Each night lasted forever. Time apart lasted even longer. But then the years went past, slowly at first, and before we knew it, a decade had come and gone. The alarm clock would beep and we would hurry out of bed into the day. Long hugs and lingering kisses gave way to quick pecks on the cheek.
My job had been horrible for years. I hadn’t been the best of company. It was hard to be upbeat when one’s soul was being wood-chipped one bad work day at a time. Had I driven her to find something better for herself?
After they were finished eating, a cloud settled on Laura’s face and the smile disappeared. Her hands started to tremble. She looked down at her lap and opened her purse. My phone abruptly vibrated. I numbly answered it, lifting my eyes to look at her across the tables. I had to try the word twice before the hello would come.
"Mark?” Her voice was quiet, barely more than a whisper. “Can you talk?”
“Yes,” I managed over the scream echoing through my head. “I've been trying to call you.”
She went over to the windows to stare out at the beautiful view. In the sun, her dress sparkled like it was made of blue diamonds.
“I know. I’ve been on the phone most of the morning with work and I forgot my charger and the battery is almost dead.” She took a breath. “I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone, but I need a change. I’m tired of being tired all the time. I'm just not happy with how things have turned out."
My heart fell further into the abyss in my stomach. "What things are you talking about?"
            "I just feel like life is passing me by, you know? The last time I went to a concert was in 1995. Ever since then I've been digging myself a rut and trying to feel happy about it. I had so many plans back then. I could do whatever I wanted and no one would question me about schedules or commitments. I didn’t have to work all the time. I wasn’t a slave to my practice.”
            “Both of us feel that way. Do you think I like my job? I hate it.”
            “But I didn’t feel that way back then, Mark!  The summer of ‘95 was the best time of my life. I went to one of Kenny’s concerts and had so much fun that Darleen and I decided to go on tour with him. It was wonderful until medical school started and I made the decision to go home.”
            “You were his girlfriend?"
            Her voice froze. “Yes.”
            “Why didn’t you tell me?”
            “I tried a couple of times. I just didn’t know how.” She swallowed, bowing her head. "When was the last time you really enjoyed being with me, Mark? We used to write love letters. Now we write checks. We used to have long conversations about out hopes and dreams and what we wanted to do together. Now all we talk about is call schedules.” She let out a frustrated laugh. “Yesterday we argued about what was worse, bad sex or no sex. When did life pass us by?”
            "So what are you saying?”
She took a deep breath. "I know how much this life means to you—the big house in North Scottsdale, the new cars and expensive vacations. But I can’t do it anymore. My hours have been horrible. You need to quit your job. We need to try and find ourselves again.”
She brushed tears away. “Look, my battery is dying. The phone’s beeping. But life is too short to be unhappy, Mark. I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”
The connection dropped.  She pulled the phone away from her ear and looked at the display. I watched her chin fall to her chest. She stumbled out of the restaurant into the lobby and disappeared into the ladies room. Kenny put some money on the table and left. The elevator went “DING”, the elevator doors closed, and then Darleen set a vodka martini in front of me on the table. Her long black hair had been stylishly cropped so it fell around her beautiful face. It had been years since I had seen her but there was no mistaking her for the devilish siren on the album cover. She wore a tight black dress made of a filmy, semi-sheer material that glistened in the dim light. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and her full breasts strained at the material.
“How did you find us?” she asked.
“I tracked your phone,” I croaked. “Hers was powered off.”
“She forgot her charger.”
I tried to keep my voice even and failed. “She should have told me she was thinking of ending it, dammit. This is not something I wanted to hear on the phone, not here, and certainly not now.”
“She didn’t know how to tell you. She thought you would like being free of the responsibility. Most men do.” She put a cool hand on my arm. “However, if it’s any consolation, she had a horrible time making the decision. It tore her up inside.”
“Yeah, I could see that by the way she melted at the end.”
“Endings are always messy. Beginnings are where the fun is.”
She removed an olive from the martini and very slowly sucked the alcohol off of it as she stared at me before crunching it with her white, sharp teeth. I had never had a woman look at me like that before and glanced away. She smiled at my distress.
“You’re a very handsome man. I’d forgotten how attractive you are. Were you going somewhere in those slacks and tie or did you expect to see me?”
“I bought a ticket to the concert and booked a suite at the Hilton. I quit my job earlier today so I don’t have to go back to work. I thought Laura and I could take the weekend off.”
“Sounds like fun. Do you still want to go? I could make myself,” she leaned forward so I could see down her dress, “available.”
I choked out a laugh. “You hate me. You’ve always hated me.”
She shrugged, dress straining. “That’s because you’re the only man I’ve never been able to seduce.”
“I’m the only man you’ve never tried to seduce,” I corrected.
“True.” She pointed at my food. “Are you going to eat that?”
I motioned at the martini. “What about your lunch?”
“The drink is for you. Alcohol does so lower one’s inhibitions.”
“My inhibitions are fine.”
“If I had lost a piece of clothing every time I heard that line, I would be having a lot more fun.”
“This isn’t fun.”
“Another piece of clothing gone—I feel naked already. Parts of me are standing at attention.”
“Don’t you ever stop?”
I saw the vulnerability in her dark eyes then, the fragile, delicate moth wings that barely held her together.
“I’m walking on quicksand. I stop, I sink.”
She plucked another olive between lacquered fingernails, delicately licked it and locked eyes with me again.
“So what are you going to do now, Mr. Mark Thomas? It’s not often that one gets to start over in life.”
I wanted to snarl something at her. I wanted to kick and scream until everyone knew my wife had just gone upstairs with her boyfriend the rock star.
“I need to go.”
Darleen sighed. “They always do.” She set the toothpick on the table. “Take some advice from someone who has been there more than once. Think about what you want in your life and go get it. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. Nothing you can do or say will change anything about yesterday and will only make it worse."
"That's the best you have?"
Her piercing eyes caught mine and she stretched like a lioness under the dress. Her sexuality, like an intoxicating perfume, was overpowering up close. "Oh, no, honey. Not even close."
I snapped the lid of my computer closed. The concert was in a few hours. I could stay and try to win Laura back. North was Phoenix. I could drive home and feel sorry for myself. West was San Jose and my new job. I could call Viki in San Francisco. Maybe I could see her when I went to San Jose.
“Tell Laura I took Dave’s offer," I managed. "She’ll understand. And tell her thanks for having the courage to end it.”
 “So you’re okay with her decision then?”
“Of course I’m not. Nobody would be. I know things haven’t been great between us but I never saw this coming.”
“It was the only way out for her, Mark. She’s been agonizing over it for months. It’s a big change to give up on a dream.”
“That’s the understatement of the century.” I took a steadying breath.  I needed to get out of there. “Tell her I hope things turn out better for her this time around with Kenny.”
Surprise widened her dark eyes. For a second she didn’t make a sound and then she laughed. She laughed so loud it echoed across the tile floor and bounced off the antique decorations on the walls.
“So that’s why you’re all gloomy? Her being with him?” She laughed again.
I glared at her.  There were so many things I wanted to say to her but then I caught a flash of blue and I looked up to find Laura gaping at me from the entrance to the restaurant. I met her gaze and she started to cry as she walked slowly over. For once in her life Darleen actually did the right thing and left.  She grinned and swayed her hips as she left, every part of her moving in different directions, but she left.
Laura sat down without looking at me and started rummaging through her purse for a tissue.
“Before you say anything,” she whispered, “I’m sorry for not telling you what was going on. But I just couldn’t keep going the way things were. The cost was too great.”
She found the elusive tissue and wiped the corners of both eyes trying not to disturb her mascara. “Do you know what it’s like to give up on everything you’ve ever wanted? I finally achieved all of my hopes but at the end, I found only disappointment. Neither of us has been happy. I’ve tried to tell you I needed more out of life but your job was coming apart and I didn’t know if I had the courage to move forward so I didn’t say anything.”
A bit of western sunshine slanted through the windows and lit the table in gold. Dust mites danced.
She dabbed at her eyes again. “I should not have kept it from you. I’m sorry. Are you going to be okay?”
“I guess so. I quit my job. I told Gregg my name should be the first name on the list.”
She looked up in surprise. I continued on. “I called Dave and he wants me to come out next weekend to talk things over. Today’s a day of change for both of us.”
“Oh, Mark, that’s wonderful!” She gave me a hug. “I’m so happy for you! I wondered why you were here. If I would have known you were on your way down I would have just waited to tell you in person.”
For a second with her in my arms it was just like it had been all those years ago when we had spent every moment buried in each other. Nothing else was important. All we had was each other and it was all we would ever, ever want.
So how had it gotten so horribly, horribly wrong?
She stood and managed a small smile. “I’m glad you’re moving on. I was so worried you were going to take this badly. But we have our lives back.  It didn’t work out like either of us had planned the first time but we’re going to be so much smarter the second time around, hey? You’ll get a better job and I’ve made a ton of money selling the practice. Let’s go get a room and celebrate. It’ll be like we’re kids again, maybe not as crazy as it once was, but we can try. I’m sure they have wonderful rooms here.  We’ll get something with a king sized bed and a big tub and we can spend the entire weekend exactly like we used too.”
My mind lurched. She wanted me to go with her? After telling me she was going to leave?
“I don’t understand. What about Kenny?”
“The concert isn’t until tonight. We have three hours before I need to get ready. C’mon, I’ve dreamed of this for so long I’m going to go absolutely crazy if we don’t go somewhere.”
I replayed her words and stepped back. “Wait a minute. Back up.” I took a breath. “You sold your practice?”
“I know I should have told you weeks ago but you had so much going on with your job and the negotiations for the sale seemed to go on forever. The paperwork never stopped. Even the lawyers had lawyers, if you can believe it. I didn’t want you to get your hopes up until I knew the sale was really going to happen. We’ll have to sell the big house and give up the country club membership and the expensive cars, but we can start fresh with our lives.  Not many people can say that. So let’s start by getting a room and celebrating. I can’t believe it all worked out this well!”
She laughed like a schoolgirl and grabbed my hand, pulling me forward. “Let’s take your Camaro out to San Jose next week. How long has it been since we’ve gone anywhere together in that old car? We can take it easy and see everything between here and there. Remember when we were kids and we went to the Grand Canyon and made love on the edge in a tent? Let’s do that again.”
I stumbled after her, still unable to put everything together. So that was what this was all about, her selling her practice? And now she wanted to start our lives over? Together?
And then I saw my ring on her finger and I realized Darleen had been wrong. Beginnings weren’t where the fun was.

It was the miles in between.


About the author:

During Michael Ewing’s career as an engineer, he has had seven jobs in five states, been outsourced, spun-off, relocated, laid off, downsized and been married twice.  Characters, like the writers who create them, need a deep and tangled past and Michael doesn’t write about roller-coasters—he writes about people whose lives are roller-coasters. His novel, Satan’s Gold, is the winner of the 2014 Emerging Writers Gateway award for best crime thriller. His workflow automation software, Rhapsody, is the winner of two awards from NetWorld and Lotus Magazine. He has published short stories and poetry and is currently enrolled in the Arizona State University’s Your Novel Year program where, in addition to Satan’s Gold, he’s working on the science fiction novel, Landfall and the sequel to Satan’s Gold, The Second Worst Mistake

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