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By Martha Luege 

June 2009

“I don’t want you to wear that tie,” she says with a slight irritation in her voice.  She’s not sure if her annoyance is real, but she wants him to pick up on it. He doesn’t. He looks down at his tie unaffected and acquiesces. She hands him the tie she would like him to wear. It’s pale blue with tiny gold diamonds outlined in royal blue, not that different from the one he removes, almost robotically.

She paces to and fro looking for something, slamming drawers, where is the lipstick she bought for this night, where are those damn bobby pins? And why did it have to be so cloudy today? Her hair gets so unruly when it’s humid. She checks the curling iron; it burns the tip of her finger.  She pauses to lick it and looks at him in the mirror. He is putting on his shoes, sitting at the edge of the bed, in silence, unmoved by her burn.

She always liked the way he looked in a suit, and especially now, the way it hides the slightly sagging skin and the aging flaccid muscles, leaving only the profile of slim elegance. “Where is the skinny comb?” she yells out.

“The what?” he asks as if suddenly awakening from a confusing dream.

“You know, the…oh, what do you call it…the styling comb,” she explains, as if this helps, as if he knows what a styling comb is. He doesn’t, and the drawers perform a rhythmic encore.

“Maybe it’s in Caroline’s room,” he offers, imitating interest. Caroline will do that sometimes, walk into her parent’s bedroom and take the styling comb, her makeup, her highest heeled shoes, that lovely pale peach sweater he bought for her in Paris. But Caroline hasn’t been home in months, enjoying her respite away from home during her first year at college. “Did you check her room?” He adds in a habitual show of support.

She runs out of the room, her white silk robe flowing, leaving a trace of the familiar perfume that has scented the last 22 years of his life. He chose it for her not long after they met, hoping it would replace the assortment of ever changing fragrances, from which she would decide, on a whim, the one to wear on any particular day. He preferred constancy.

She returns defeated. She has slowed her pace. Now he is interested. “Did you find it?”

“I’ll use the brush.”

He checks his watch and announces cautiously, “Honey, we should leave in fifteen minutes if you want to make it to both the dinner and the show.”

“I thought you wanted to do both,” she snaps back into the unnoticed irritated voice.

“Sure,” he says, “we just need to get going soon.”

With the help of the brush, the curling iron and the damn bobby pins she shapes her hair into a soft chignon, expertly. No one will notice the struggle with the unruly straggling hairs, the doubts that demand the use of numerous hidden hairpins, the saturation of hairspray. She looks in the mirror, confident now that the dazzling drop diamond earrings will perform their magic and provide a radiant distraction from the lines that are beginning to invade her once porcelain face.     

She walks in front of him, turns her back to him, lowers her head and waits for him to zip her new black cocktail dress. 

He stands, at least three inches taller than she in her highest of heels and does what he must, what he is expected to do. But the zipper gets stuck.

He tries, down, up, down again, up, down again. Her breathing is getting louder, with punctuating sighs. His hands feel clumsy and inept. She wiggles out of his hands and tries to do it herself. “You broke it,” she announces, glaring at him hoping to communicate contempt.

“Why don’t you wear the red dress,” he calmly suggests, playing the ever-supportive-husband, as she hides inside her walk-in closet.

When she reappears her tears are dry and the layers of red chiffon drape nicely over the unwelcome new shapely curves she has tried desperately to conceal. Even after giving birth to Caroline, her body quickly evaporated back into the lean ballerina-like profile she often admired in front of the mirror. But that was 19 years ago.

He is ready to cover her still petite body, standing by the front door with his arms opened wide holding out her long evening coat as she slides into place and takes over the final fastening of the buttons.

Inside the dimly lit room, they are guided to their table through a maze of overdressed, over-jeweled, over-perfumed diners and it reminds her of a similar walk so many years ago. Back then she had spotted him waiting for her at a small table for two near the French doors that opened out to the courtyard of the hotel restaurant.  She nodded and smiled at the hostess, pointing to the broad shouldered gentleman in a blue denim shirt seated with his back to the entrance. She remembers knowing with certainty that his decision to sit where he did had been deliberate and almost felt that same jolt of exhilaration explode from within all over again.   

They were both working for the same law firm. She was one of a group of interns and first year attorneys who traveled to Washington to work under his guidance. For five nights the group enjoyed friendly late night dinners at fine local restaurants, allowing the martinis to melt away the stresses of inexperience. He didn’t drink in the presence of interns. 

It wasn’t long before someone noticed how they both were rather fastidious about where they sat, always choosing the chair up against the wall, facing the entrance or the largest open area in the room. It was jokingly suggested that perhaps this was some type of claustrophobia and someone else said something about claustrophobia being really about fear of losing control of a situation.  They looked at each other and smiled conspicuously.  It was an unusual quirk she proudly enjoyed sharing with him.  So the fact he had chosen to sit with his back to the entrance, leaving her the preferred spot, on that, the first night they would dine alone, was a delightful unspoken message she would always cherish.  

The obligatory bottle of her favorite champagne arrives at the table interrupting their silence, and her memories. They both watch as the expert hands uncork the bottle that effuses a constrained pop. Her mind wanders to the thunderous pops in the old black and white movies, the overflow of expensive champagne that precedes the joyful, boisterous laughter. Was it Cary Grant? Maybe it was Gary Cooper, maybe both. She wishes to hear an explosive pop and watch the bubbles burst out, drench them both as they break into laughter, loud, vulgar, uncontrollable laughter that inevitably leads to tears.

They toast. Twenty years, twenty champagne bottles, twenty dinners, twenty evenings dedicated to the rituals of an anniversary. She knows what he’ll say. Will she play along this time?

“Well, honey, what do you say we have twenty more?” he whispers and raises his glass again, waiting for hers to connect. She plays with hers as if it’s glued to the table, twirling it, keeping her eyes focused on the golden bubbles rising inside the champagne flute.

“Honey, is everything all right?”       

A tear makes an appearance. Does she subtly wipe it or let it slide down her cheek? She can almost imagine the peaceful pleasure of allowing it to roll off her jaw, to watch it drip and spread on to the tablecloth, a small tear stain that can easily pass for water. No big deal, really. But how to explain it? Does she have the words? Would she need to explain? And what about the streak it would leave on her cheek, might the waiter notice when he brings the appetizers?  

She wipes it, forces a smile. He is relieved.

They talk, about Caroline, the play they will both see later on that night, the latest political scandal in the newspapers. She gently interrogates him on his work, his travels, his friends and business acquaintances. He offers small crumbs of information that reveals little about his life, his days, and his thoughts.

“The prime rib is delicious, you want to try it?”

“No thank you, I’m actually rather full.”

“But you barely touched your food.”

“I had plenty,” she says and looks at him sternly, hoping to surprise him again with indignation.  He nods submissively, and continues to eat looking around the room, taking occasional sips of water. The conversation is over.

She excuses herself to go the restroom. He stands, pulls back her chair. She grabs her red evening purse, and walks regally towards the ladies’ room next to the front door of the restaurant. She hesitates for a moment, considers leaving. But where will she go? Would he look for her? Or would he go to the theatre without her? No, that would be too outrageous. Yes, he would look for her, he would ask a waitress to enter the woman’s bathroom and check for a lady in a red dress, call out her name. The waitress, a little embarrassed would sadly report there was no one there.  Would he panic? Would he run out, up and down the street screaming her name, thinking of the places she might go? Would he burst into her best friend’s apartment, spraying her with questions, demanding to know where she went? Would he call the police instead, incredulous that her exit was voluntary? “Check every hospital,” he’d say, “Oh God, no, not the morgue.”

Would he cry? How would he tell Caroline? “Honey, your mom, she…well, she disappeared.” Disappeared? Is that what she wants? Where would she reappear? Start a new life in a foreign country perhaps? Maybe Spain. Seville. She always loved Seville--cobble stoned streets, horse drawn carriages that comb through lush, desolate parks. She feels like one of the statues in one of those parks standing near the restroom door, unable to move, to decide, to act.  To die? Is that an option? Her heart is racing now; she notices her breath, short breaths, too fast, breathing, breathing as if only her internal organs can function, as if she has lost control of all she thought she could control.

Dessert. Maybe today she would eat dessert. It’s a celebration after all. She is breathing slower, deeper; she can move her head now and smiles at a couple waiting for their table. They are staring, looking puzzled and concerned. “I’m all right,” she calmly says to them, to herself. “I’m fine.” She doesn’t know if she’s fine. She just wants to stop wanting, stop thinking. She wants to feel full. Complete.  What more does she need? Certainly there are options, so many paralyzing choices--the thought, the idea of only one life, one chance to create a story, one story. That’s it. Is that it?  

Tiramisu. Yes, that’s what she’ll have tonight. It’s a good choice. Layers of lady fingers soaked in rum, coffee, sugar and cream. She can almost taste it. She walks slowly back to her table and puts on a smile for him. He doesn’t see it. He sits motionless with his back to the entrance, across from the empty chair in the preferred spot.  

Martha Luege was born in Cuba, lived in Spain, was educated in the U.S. and currently lives in Irvine California. After enjoying a career in advertising, she dedicated the last seven years of her life to writing and parenting her two children. She has published some nonfiction articles, but has now committed to exploring the world of fiction, which she finds so much more satisfying.  She is working on a novel set in Cuba, in the future (after the fall of Castro and communism).

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