Author’s Note: Oh, how time crawls when you’re stuck in an excruciating relationship. In this segment, Sam is starting to show signs of rebellion against his tyrannical and most probably psychotic wife.
TWO YEARS LATER
Every Christmas Harper & Lyttle throws a huge, formal Christmas bash in the convention room on the Lower Level. The white boards are covered with velvet drapes, the pillars are wrapped with gold foil and plaid ribbon threaded with shiny gold fibers. The usual long banquet tables and folding chairs are removed in favor of linen draped rounds and sturdier chairs with elegant jacquard covers. This year the centerpieces are pillar candles surrounded by fake pine boughs strewn with cranberries, and the candlelight makes even the most plain woman glow.
It’s optional to bring dates or spouses, and most do. I, of course, have no choice in the matter. This seems to the one occasion for which Malia delights in parading me around as her husband. The Gloating Bitch Parade, Gus calls it.
I guess I should explain Malia and me. You already know how we ended up married. You also already know why we stayed married after we came back from Vegas instead of filing for an annulment.
What you don’t know is why we stayed married for the last two years. Well, if you figure it out, let me know, because I don’t have a goddamned clue. There honestly have been times when I’ve wanted to strangle the woman, and other times when I’ve felt so badly for her solitary existence that I couldn’t bear to walk out on her. That I put aside my love for Frannie Freeman, and put aside Frannie’s broken heart (which she hides very well, by the way, so well that I sometimes suspect I was mistaken in thinking she felt the same for me. Then I remind myself that she still won’t meet my eyes. It’s been two years, and she has not looked me in the eyes once. She’ll look at my left eyebrow, or my right cheekbone, or my collar, or my ear, but she won’t meet my gaze. So really—ah, right. Back to what I was saying…)
That I put aside any possibility of a relationship with Frannie for this strange woman I have no recollection of marrying is a major bone of contention between Gus and me. We’re still best friends, we still work out together and go drinking together and watch football together—actually, in spite of the fact that I’m married, my life is not much different than when I was single. I kept my apartment, but I don’t live there. I live in Malia’s townhouse, and I have my own bedroom. Yes, you heard right: separate bedrooms.
You’d think to look at her that she’d be a difficult woman to resist, but trust me, you want no part of that. You know how some species of spiders spin their mates into a silken trap and suck the life out of them? She’s related to one of them. Gus keeps bringing me do-it-yourself divorce packets and nudges me knowingly when Frannie passes by. He tells me I’ve been neutered; I don’t think he has any idea of the formidable arguments that take place in that townhouse—and sometimes in my office, although I try to keep those at a controlled decibel level—or of my quiet refusal to be run by that woman.
I won’t say there has been no intimacy between us. We did agree to make a real attempt, and we did. But it was a sadly dismal experience that left me more depressed than ever, and although she would probably deny it, I heard Malia crying when she thought I was asleep. Shortly after, I moved into one of the spare bedrooms, and that was the end of that.
Frannie’s far removed from my life now and even if I extricated myself from Malia, I probably wouldn’t be able to win her back. And frankly, between you and me, something about Malia’s dark periods of misery scare me. I don’t want to be the last straw, and that’s why I stay.
I’m still attuned to her presence—Frannie’s, I mean—so when she comes into the convention room, I’m perfectly aware she’s arrived even though my back is to the door. Gus, standing by me at the punch bowl, suddenly straightens, his eyes going wide. He elbows me, making me spill my punch. Thankfully the caterers have anticipated such events, and the punch bowl sits on a deep red table runner.
“Yeah, I know she’s here,” I say, keeping my voice low so no one overhears me.
“Samuel, turn around and feast your eyes.”
“No can do, buddy,” I say with forced lightness, “and you know why.”
“You will regret it forever if you don’t,” he persists, giving me a sly look. He leans back against the table, crossing arms and ankles, a look of pure enjoyment on his face that only comes to a man who is watching a fantastically attractive woman. So I turn to look, and it’s as though someone ripped my lungs from my chest, because I can’t breathe.
Frannie’s shrugging out of a lightweight overcoat, laughing at something Gretchen’s said. But it’s not a Frannie I can ever recall seeing. Her dark hair is swept back from her face and cascades down her back in shining ringlets; I don’t think she’s cut it once in the intervening two years, and it reaches down past her shoulder blades…which are bare. The back of her dress plunges alarmingly low, revealing a smooth expanse of honey-colored skin. Muscles flex as she moves, and a quick glance around the room shows me Gus and I aren’t the only ones enjoying the view.
And the dress itself… Made of rich, russet velvet, it’s positively demure in the front, with a high collar circling her throat and long sleeves that leave her shoulders bare. The fabric swirls and clings to her figure and catches the light in nuances of color, making her skin glow even more. The only jewelry I can make out from this distance sparkle along her chin: dangling crystal earrings that catch the light and men’s eyes.
I can’t look away, even when Gus clears his throat in warning and turns away, nudging me hard in the ribs. And I don’t look away until an acidic voice at my elbow says, “Jesus, Sam, can’t you have at least a little bit of decorum and respect?”
Reluctantly, I drag my eyes away from Frannie. “Probably not, Malia. I am, after all, just a man. Come on, Gus, let’s go grab a seat near the bar.”
Gus shrugs at her helplessly with mock-chagrin; Malia huffs out an impatient breath, rolls her eyes, and stalks away, no doubt to find Brenda and vent about what a hopeless pig I am. She’s probably right that I’m a pig, but in my (weak) defense, I don’t think there’s a man alive who would not have been riveted by Frannie Freeman tonight. Except maybe a gay man. Nah, even a gay man wouldn’t have been able to look away from her. She’s fantastic, she’s incredibly beautiful, she’s—
Gus pushes me into a chair and leans close. “What the fuck are you doing, Sam?”
“Having some champagne punch and ogling Frannie Freeman to the intense irritation of my inconvenient wife.”
“And that’s exactly what I mean.” He shoots a look around to make sure no one is within earshot. “Why the hell are you still married to her, Sam? You obviously still have feelings for Frannie, and face it, pal: Malia is a nightmare.”
“Satan’s daughter,” I agree.
“So…why? Is the sex that great?”
My eyes wander the room, finding Fran even in the gloom. She’s surrounded by an inordinate number of men preening like peacocks. Vultures.
“No sex. Not for one year and eleven months.”
He stares at me, mouth gaping. “Holy shit…was it that bad?”
I consider. “Well, it wasn’t good. But I don’t know that it was all her fault. I just know neither of us wanted to do it again.”
“Sam,” Gus begins. He falls silent, a frown creasing his brow, obviously searching for something to say. “You’ve got to get out of that marriage. A man can die from lack of sex.”
I burst out laughing. “Not true. That’s just something we tell women so they’ll have sex with us.”
“Okay, but you can die from lack of love, and I don’t necessarily mean physical death. This is not normal. Are you going to go through the rest of your life with no love and no sex?”
I think that’s the exact moment that I see my future clearly for the first time, an emotional wasteland devoid of a woman’s friendship, the joy of a committed relationship…and yes, sex. And I look at Frannie one more time, considering. She’s put on a little weight over the last two years, but it’s done wonderful things to her figure. I thought she was a little too skinny before I married Malia, and now her curves are voluptuous. Sensuous.
She laughs at the men’s jokes but I notice when they touch her, she turns slightly away from them, discouraging any ideas they might be forming. I want to kill them all for even looking at her, while at the same time I can’t fault them one bit. I notice something that I doubt anyone else has, except maybe Gus or Gretchen: Frannie’s eyes frequently flick quick little glances in my direction, never rising past my kneecaps.
“She does that all the time, you know.”
“Watches you when you aren’t looking.”
“What’s your point, Gus?” I ask with no small amount of irritation.
“I guess I’m just trying to say the hour is not as late as you think it is.” He leans back. “Maybe you should ask her to dance.”
“Malia would kill me.”
“Do you care?”
“Not particularly.” My eyes follow Frannie, watching her nervously dodge their flirtatious advances, watching her flick glances my way. And it’s not a hard thing to admit to myself that I still love her.
But I don’t dance with her, not until the last dance of the evening, when my colleagues—and my wife—are snockered enough that no one will notice, and if they notice, they won’t remember it later. And it’s purely by accident that I end up her partner; George Stuckey, my immediate boss, begs off when the orchestra begins a waltz, and leaves Frannie partner-less at the edge of the dance floor not five feet from me. I don’t even think twice; I step smoothly in and, despite her stammered protests, whirl her out on the floor. She still won’t look at me, and she keeps trying to put more space between us, especially when the waltz ends and the orchestra begins a slow song that to this day I can’t name because every ounce of my attention is centered on her.
My hand holding hers during the waltz is now holding hers captive between our bodies, pressed hard against my chest. I’m sure she can feel the erratic rhythm of my heart but I don’t know how to make it behave. I can feel hers against the backs of my fingers, steady and strong and a little faster than it should beat. Maybe Gus is right; maybe the hour isn’t as late as I think.
Then the song ends and one of my fellow Adminispherists points over Frannie’s head, laughing. We’ve stopped under the mistletoe.
“Well, go on and kiss her, Sam,” Gus drawls with a sardonic grin. Frannie sends a panicked glance at him, and then at Malia, who is standing with a knot of uptight skirts and sending us cold, narrowed-eyed looks.
I hold her hand up, trying to bring it to my lips to kiss—the only action that will not encourage Malia to cause a completely humiliating public scene, but Fran is already pulling away. I exert more pressure to hold here there, and she wrenches away with enough force to lose her balance.
Perhaps predictably, she careens into the punch table. The table tips, the punch bowl flies, and dark red champagne punch splatters the pristine white walls. She falls against the toppled table, her dress riding up to show a delectable length of leg all the way to mid-thigh, much to the delight of every man present.
“Shit, Fran, I’m sorry!” I start to wade in and haul her to her feet, but Eric Edwards from Sales beats me to it.
“It’s all right, Sam.” Frannie brushes off my apology, looking at my right eyebrow, and accepts Eric’s hand up. She smiles gamely as several people cheer—the drunker they get, the more heroic everything seems, I guess—and allows Edwards to lead her off to her table.
Gus’s smile has faded, and a malicious smirk has found Malia’s. And I’m still standing there, alone. I realize then that I’ve been left behind, and a younger, more charming man has taken my place.
The thought of Frannie marrying someone else -of ending any possibility of setting things right – breaks something inside of me. Maybe it’s not honorable. Maybe it’s not honest. Hell, maybe it’s the last act needed to guarantee my burning spot in an eternal fire in the afterlife. I don’t care. I’m going to make that woman look me in the eyes, and I’m going to win her back.
Now I just have to figure out what to do about Malia.