Lauren stood at the sink, looking out through the kitchen window onto her garden. Ben was hunched over the laptop, having turned the volume down to disguise the repetitive bleeps of the game he was playing, under the auspices of sending invoices for the last month of freelance work.
Money, he made writing about her, she thought with a thin film of distaste coating the sentiment. She picked up the last saucer from the bubble-swathed soup of hot water and set it on the racking. Lauren wondered how much of her life had become cleaning up after others without cleaning up her own mess. The mathematics were appalling to contemplate.
She liked mess, which was something Ben never figured out, instead he had built an image of her as sterile as an operating theatre. His first book had been a hymn to her, and it had been dizzying in its focus. His awe of her made him a comforting if hesitant lover and an engaged father for a time.
She heard her name called and turned around. Ben had wandered into the living room, a passive warm ghost and she saw the cherry red stain on the tablecloth where he had spilled his can of soda and left it behind. He never wrote about his own failings without framing them as amusing foibles but she fostered a slow burning frustration like a secret.
Lauren had those too.
Ben had attended a convention organised by his publisher to promote the last book. They held bright, cheerleading meetings about washing off the stink of derision which had been clinging to him and cut into his pride and achievements in taking his blog about fatherhood to three books and movie options. The convention was part of his reinvention and Lauren’s parents had Jay over which made Ben issue a list of instructions for his care. Lauren knew they’d ignore it in favour of allowing Jay to be eight years old and to have fun but she understood the fragility of her husband better than anyone else. It was a passive, well-intentioned tyranny and she had survived it by letting herself float along with it. The hotel looked lovely and she made plans to use the spa and enjoy room service whilst Ben did interviews and panels. They’d have sex again, Lauren had hoped he would be, well she wasn’t specific about it, but something different. He had to be coaxed and reassured, and his interest had waned as his writing took off. She did not like it. She had written but with Jay taking more of her time as well as still working at the bank, she was too in season binges tired to do little more than watch television. Lauren measured her life in season binges.
Jay was a good child, bright and sensitive, but he became a conductor for his parent’s emotional energy and grew restless, prone to tears as his father became successful for his parenting skills over being a parent. He brought a new laptop and a tv with the advance, Lauren paid the bill for the air conditioning. Jay got a handheld console but they stopped playing ball, unless it was for the cameras. A warm, enthusiastic article in The New Yorker. Fresh paint on the walls but the house was dull and bloated with Jay’s things. He spent the money he made talking about being a stay at home father on things which kept him away from it.
She had gone with him to the convention. He had been in demand from the start, so she sat in the hotel spa, wrapped in a thick dressing gown and fighting the quiet resentment which squalled within her. Lauren believed in her vows, but the disappointment grew, like the start of a rain storm which shook the rafters. She shuddered and got out of the sauna.
Lauren bumped into a man and gave a polite cry, stepping back and bringing her hands up with a jolt of surprise.
It was his eyes, she told herself. Warm and kind, twinkling with amusement as he smiled through the scrub of beard. He excused himself and moved past her to enter the sauna, looking back at her before he opened the door and went in. He was taller than her, thick across the shoulders and back.
She saw him again in the hotel restaurant, eating alone in a corner with a book. Ben whistled under his breath and swore under his breath.
‘Do you know him?’ she said.
He pulled his lips back over his teeth, a simian grimace of distaste.
‘He’s the writer who called me a manlet in an interview. Plus he got the Oprah Book Club over me.’
Lauren recalled his anger over the interview. She tried to soothe him with the suggestion to not read it but he had sneered at her and shook his head, gone onto his laptop and soothed himself into a sulking reluctance with a few games of Sugar Crush. The plink of the pieces exploding irritated her
Well fuck you then, she had thought, with a snarl and gone to take Jay his glass of milk.
Lauren glanced at him and he looked up from his book. His eyes narrowed before his mouth curved into a smile and he picked up his cup of coffee, gestured to her before he saw Ben and his smile fell and his look at her became one of knowing empathy. It irritated her, but she wasn’t sure of the subject, him or Ben.
She gripped Ben’s hand in sympathy and they went to their table. The publisher had given them reservations for the best table in the restaurant, but Lauren would find her attention wandering in one direction whenever Ben wasn’t looking at her. The meal was delicate and exquisite but Ben’s bitterness was too strong a condiment not to spoil the food. He drank too much, too fast. She had sex with him, but it took a lot of reassuring whispers to make him buck and afterwards, he rolled over and went to sleep like he’d been drugged. She laid there with aching thighs and a chill stickiness between them, fighting the urge to cry and afraid to wake her husband and tell him about it.
She thought about Skippy in the attic. Her stuffed bear from childhood, which she had kept in the attic when Jay started to get rough with it, pulling the seams on the left arm from swinging it around like a lassoo. It would have been nice to hold him again, she thought with a stab of nostalgia sliding between her ribs.
The thought followed her like a sad ghost into sleep.
Ben slept in and Lauren went down to breakfast in the restaurant. The idea of room service felt decadent to her, and she was restless with the need to get out of the suite. John was there in the corner, reading with a steaming pile of breakfast meat on a large plate whilst sipping at a coffee. He smiled at her and she found herself wandering over, fighting the indignation at the memory of Ben’s upset.
‘Hello again.’ he said.
She scowled at him.
‘It appears you know my husband.’ she said.
He nodded and gestured to the empty seat across from him.
‘I’ll listen to you tell me off if you don’t mind me eating.’ he said.
She pulled out the chair and sat down.
‘You said some cruel things about us.’ she said.
He furrowed his forehead and set his book down with care.
‘No, I didn’t say anything about you at all. Quite the opposite.’ he said.
His voice was gruff but soft. Lauren felt her cheeks flush with blood as the waitress came over. She had coffee poured for her, collecting her thoughts in tense silence as she clutched the thick cloth napkin with her fingers. The waitress took her order and went away.
‘I haven’t read what you said about my husband. I only know it upset him, which upsets me.’
His mouth smoothed out into a line as he sat back in his chair and picked up his coffee.
‘If he was offended, it’s not my problem. I was asked for my opinion, I gave it.’ he said.
She spooned in sugar and cream, stirred it into her coffee with tinkling rotations of the spoon before she raised the cup to her lips.
‘I don’t care what you said. It’s a shitty thing to do, he’s a good father.’ she said.
John sipped his coffee and considered her over the rim of his cup before he set it down onto the saucer.
‘Did you choose to go to work?’ he said.
She looked away but the intensity of his gaze registered on her cheek like a beam of winter sunlight.
‘I don’t want to talk about me. Not to you, anyway.’ she said.
He snorted and pulled his plate towards him, and picked up a forkful of egg, popped it into his mouth and chewed with his mouth closed. She turned her cup with her fingertips. The silence was poignant, thickening with each passing moment.
He swallowed and wiped his mouth with a corner of a napkin.
‘Well, this is going well, isn’t it?’ he said.
His voice was wry and amused as he smiled at her.
‘You could have read what I’ve written, argued the points I made, something like that. You’re a smart woman.’ he said.
She took her phone from her purse and typed in her husband’s name and looked up at John.
‘What’s your surname?’ she said.
He told her and she typed it in. It was at the top of the search results and she clicked onto the link.
What shocked her was it was nothing she had not thought herself. John caught onto Ben’s narcissism, disguised as sacrifice. The research pointed out how Ben had been fired from his job although the details were unavailable. Lauren tasted sour metal and continued to read. John’s comments were succinct, almost taciturn but their blows landed where he needed them to.
She read what he said about her twice. It made her smile, and she looked up from her phone.
‘He’s a good father. We agreed he could stay home with Jay, and there’s nothing wrong with the arrangement.’ she said.
John nodded and speared a link of sausage onto the fork before he gestured towards himself.
‘It’s noble but it sounds like you’re convincing yourself. I read his work and gave my informed opinion when I was asked.’ he said.
Her breakfast arrived and she looked at it, her stomach fluttering with disquiet as she drank her coffee.
‘He’s too polite to say anything but I thought you should know.’ she said.
Her upset was forced so she let it go. John was not contrite about his opinions, but neither was he cruel. She glanced over the things he said about her.
‘A lioness married to a glib, lumpen mule.’
John sighed and shook his head.
‘He made his feelings quite clear. I didn’t recognise you in the sauna yesterday, but I wouldn’t be rude to you or your choices.’ he said.
‘What do you mean about him making his feelings clear?’ she said.
John set the fork down on the plate and grimaced.
‘Search it on there.’ he said.
He got to his feet and slipped his book under his arm.
‘I’ve got a panel in an hour. It was a pleasure Lauren, really. I hope the next time we meet, it will be less awkward for you.’ he said.
He smiled without affectation and cocked his head to the left as he regarded her with a quiet, open pleasure. She had not irritated him, which surprised her. She smiled at him.
‘Me too, John.’ she said.
Ben rang her phone and when she looked up, John had walked away.
She searched for him on the drive home. Ben was flushed with affirmation, and he had been candid and expansive, if a little bit glib, she thought.
It was John’s voice in her head as she watched from the side of the stage.
He had a website where he posted links to his books and short stories with some poetry. She read a few stories until Ben asked her what she was reading and she shut down the browser. Lauren ordered his first book to her e-reader. She emailed him with her informed opinion on the book and he replied.
It started from there, the time difference made his emails arrive at odd hours, and soon she found herself fighting a quiet aching anticipation for more of his lengthy, erudite messages. He wrote about the books he read, adjusting to life in the U.S and having his children come over to spend the winter and how he was enjoying Florida a good twenty years before retirement. She sent him one of her stories and he offered robust, stoic insights into it as well as some observations which made her grin to herself. Lauren wanted to tell Ben, but she had read what he posted in return to John’s interview.
The curt viciousness of his responses shocked her. Ben had shared articles about John’s divorce, his political views and the social media accounts of his children. The time on the laptop had borne bitter fruit and Lauren was shocked by it. It also meant she could not share her correspondence with him at all.
He did not notice, even as she carried the secret, delighted and appalled by it in equal measure.
The vibe grew between them like a rare flower, nursed in secret and tended with a delight which made her shiver.
Ben’s discovery stood on it just as it bloomed. He was going to be in the area, doing a lecture at the university. An offer of a coffee, nothing more and it felt safe to accept. Her hands shook as she accepted.
She told herself it was innocent.
Lauren had heard the clatter of Jay falling over and dashed to him. She left the laptop open and Ben had seen the email.
The photograph, John on his deck with the sea sparkling behind him. A small, warm place with his dogs by his feet. She had wondered what it would be like to sit with him there, but a coffee was a good place to start.
Ben waited for her to come back. She was about to ask why he hadn’t come to see Jay but his expression strangled the words in her throat.
He stood at Lauren’s shoulder as she typed a terse goodbye. Ben asked her to delete the emails and she had pleaded on John’s behalf but Ben’s face looked like he was being stabbed by each second of knowledge which passed like a murder in the line at a prison cafeteria. She did it and went into the bedroom, sobbed in the dark until she felt Jay’s soft hand at her cheek. Lauren pulled him into her embrace and held him until he wriggled away.
Lauren went into the attic to escape Ben’s constant wounded silences, alternating with pleading indignations which raked her from the inside. She found Skippy in a plastic crate of old toys and retrieved it with care. It smelled of must as she held him to her nose and wept with a force which made her shudder.
The paw brushed against her cheek and she dropped Skippy in shock. He flopped against the floorboards and his oversized head lolled up at her. His button eyes were polished with endless touches and she wiped her eyes, confused by what had happened.
Skippy spoke with a rumbling paternal voice, patient and understanding to a fault. She heard it and put her hand over her mouth.
Skippy raised up and got to his feet like a professional drunk, unsteady yet determined. He was a foot tall, but he stood before her and tugged at her jeans.
‘You got big.’ he said.
Lauren blinked and wondered if this was her mind breaking in two.
He raised his paws and his muzzle wrinkled into a smile. Lauren picked him up and when he nestled against her, she sobbed with a deep and terrible grief. Skippy asked her what happened.
She told him between choked sobs. A purging confession which Skippy absorbed without reaction beyond a careful stroke of her cheek or leaning in and wrapping his tiny paws around her neck. When she finished, her eyes burned from tears and her throat was raw. Skippy rubbed his left ear against her cheek and told her she would be ok.
She sobbed and hugged him.
‘I know when you are hurting.’ he said.
His tiny soft paw swiped her tears away.
‘If this is me going crazy, then it’s not the worst thing.’ she said.
Skippy chuckled and drew backwards to look at her.
‘The crazy thing is refusing to face what’s happening, Laurie.’ he said.
She sniffed and nodded before she took him downstairs and put him on her side of the bed, laid on the crisp white cotton pillowcase. Lauren made dinner, but Ben’s sour, judgemental looks made the food taste of ashes. Jay sat with his chin against his chest and left his plate untouched. Her guilt was lava pooling in her chest and she went through the evening wondering how much more she could endure.
She wanted to talk to John but she worried about Ben’s reaction. He had been clinging to her, wet eyed reassurances of his forgiveness hanging in the air like limp decorations. Lauren typed his website address and read the last few posts.
She wept. Lauren knew he dealt with pain by being terse. The poems and short stories were sketches of quiet anguish, and she wanted to call him. Those were quiet bursts of pleasure for her and sat there, she shuddered with the memory.
She shut the laptop, went into the bedroom and scooped up Skippy, pressed him against her cheek and sobbed. He wiped her tears away and pressed his head against hers.
‘Has Ben been unkind?’
Lauren shook her head and Skippy sighed as he brushed her hair back over her ears.
‘He is hurt. I did that to him, Skippy.’
Skippy smiled, his muzzle wrinkling and bunching up as he wriggled in her arms.
‘And he’s never hurt you?’
She went to answer but her words were thick and stuck at the back of her throat. Lauren had a catalogue of lowercase injuries to recall but he had been loyal in a bland, steadfast way.
She cried again and pulled Skippy to her chest.
The question echoed in her nerves, making the world around her sparkle and seethe with new insights. She resolved to let John go with a grisly, wrenching horror snapping at her insides but she had made vows. They had a good life, she told herself, over and over.
Ben left his laptop open on the couch and she went to close it. The black rectangle in the lower right corner of the screen. The earphones dangling from the port like a length of collagen, spitting nasal bursts of noise.
The chat logs appeared with a click. She managed to read a few lines, studded with incriminating tiny X’s punctuating each one. The temperature fell as she sat there, bleak and dumbfounded.
He stood in the doorway, face reddened and eyes damp with shock. Lauren turned and looked at him.
She took no pleasure in it. The pain and guilt were coruscating, too great to allow for schadenfreude but they kept at it until his denials burned away and they were stripped of title and moral high ground. Two people, trying to get by as much as along. The most honest conversation they had in years.
He loved her. The twenty something public relations manager at his publisher with her overbite and dark, red hair. Flat stomach and lean thighs. Lauren was appalled at the destructive depths of his romance, and how it should have been something meant for one another.
Jay went to her parents. Ben packed a bag and went to a hotel in New York. Lauren rang John, and through her tears, told him what had happened.
He was on the next flight.
She picked Skippy up by his left paw and looked into his shining button eyes, the stitching of his smile made wry and knowing where time had worked its will. Lauren lifted it and inhaled its fur, a faint musk made sweet before she put it into her case. There was room for him in the second act of her life, she decided. She took the case downstairs and smiled as John stood in the hallway, rolling a cigarette for the drive ahead. The case was light in her hand as she strode towards him and kissed him, enjoying the soft prickle of his beard against her face. His fingers rested either side of her throat and she sighed as her lips grazed over his. The pleasure flowed like wine through her body, all the more potent for its resurrection. When they drew apart, their faces were flushed and their eyes sparkled with pleasure.
‘ You ready?’ he said.
They would get Jay along the way, she said.