Ron reaches for my thigh at the same time my husband calls. A foul ball is sailing toward our box seats then lands, ten rows back, in the right field grandstands. I grab my cell phone from my purse and answer.
Half-cocked in Sacramento, Mark says he started drinking Mimosas with his stepfather at brunch and was now at a sports bar—translation: strip club—with his older brother Neil and two of Neil’s friends. When the crowd around us cheers for a diving catch in left field, Mark asks me where I am, his voice cracking.
“I’m at the Red Sox game with some people from work.” Which isn’t a complete lie. Ron is my editor at the newspaper. That much is true. However, what I leave out, what Mark suspected months ago is Ron wants to sleep with me.
So maybe you’re wondering what type of woman carries on a conversation with her husband, who is gushing at this point—Mark’s telling me how much he loves me and misses me and apologizes for the way he’s been acting—while another man, a man twenty years older, rubs her leg in an unambiguously sexual way?
The short answer, I suppose, is me.
I’d like to think this date with Ron is an anomaly, brought on by a witch’s brew of sadness and frustration and resentment. Meanwhile, three-thousands miles from Boston, my husband continues to fall apart.
“When I come home,” he says, “I’m going to start going to AA meetings again.” He’s slurring, his tongue tapped by a magic wand and turned to sludge. Music blares in the background, and I imagine a young girl in a silver g-string, grinding on his lap for ten dollars. “I’m going to do it for real this time, Lisa. For you. For us. For real.”
Ron stops a vender selling beer, removing his hand from my thigh only to pass me a plastic cup of Bud Light, and then placing it back, farther up.
“Mark, I have to go. These tickets weren’t cheap.” Actually, Ron paid.
“I love you.”
“Be sure you call a cab.” I hang up. In March, two weeks after getting his driver’s license back, Mark got a second DWI and is going to be serving a ten-day sentence in county jail when he returns to New Hampshire, where we live. Like a stubborn child, he continues to drive drunk, without a license, and it’s exactly these kinds of careless things that make me crazy. I tuck the phone back in my purse then place my hand on top of Ron’s.
“How’s your husband?”
“You’re a beautiful woman,” he says and leans in and kisses my cheek, catching the side of my mouth.
While I’ve already crossed more lines than a married woman should, the kiss in public—even if was more of a fatherly peck—is going too far. Ron’s been eyeing me since I started reporting for the newspaper six months ago, and then tonight, after Ron picked me up in Candia, New Hampshire, where Mark and I recently bought a house, Ron said it outright. He said, “Lisa, I’m too old to play games, so I’m just going to say it. I want to sleep with you.”
I laughed, avoiding a response. I don’t plan on sleeping with Ron, but, nonetheless, I’m participating in this courting ritual, which really, if you think about it, is a game. First, I accepted this date while my husband was away visiting his family and giving us some space. Then I wore a tight pair of jean shorts and a revealing pink tank top, which I knew would get Ron’s attention, and finally, now, I’m allowing Ron to rub my bare leg. I never said, “No, Ron, I will not sleep with you” or “Go to hell, I’m married.” So, in a way, my response is still hovering around us, vaporous and unclear, like clouds in a crystal ball.
But, for me, here’s the heartbreaking part: despite all of this, despite the fact that my husband is a pill-popping alcoholic man-child who barely works anymore and is running us broke with his addictions, I love him. I love Mark, and if you want to know the truth, I want things to work out for us.
The player batting for The Angels cracks another foul ball in our direction, and the crowd, again, rises to their feet. When I look up, the baseball is dropping, fast and portentous, toward me. I cover my head. Through a peephole in my fingers, I watch Ron reach for the ball with his bare hands, a ball that quite possibly could’ve hit me. It lands in Ron’s palms and then disappears like smoke, rolling into the aisle where a group of young men shove each other to get it. Ron sits down, shaking the sting out his hands. “Almost had you a present,” he says.
I place my hand on the back of his neck. It’s been a long time since anyone has plucked something from the air and tried to make it mine. “That was really sweet,” I say and kiss his cheek.
He played it perfectly.
While we’re driving north on I-93 in Ron’s jeep, leaving the Boston skyline behind us, Ron asks me back to his place, and I tell him I’ve had a wonderful night, but I say I’d prefer to go home and go to bed—alone. Ron says he understands, and when we get to my house at one a.m., Ron asks if he can use the bathroom. “Of course,” I tell him and Ron follows me inside.
The house is dark, except for the stove light, which we keep on for Gary, Mark’s parrot. The bird actually belongs to Mark’s cousin Casey, a drug dealer in Toronto, who was given the bird and its cage, worth close to five-thousand dollars, as collateral from one of his customers. A few months later, Casey was arrested for trafficking at Sault Ste Marie, trying to bring LSD over the border. While Casey was in jail, awaiting trial, Mark volunteered to take care of the parrot. Casey ended up getting thirty years in prison, so Gary, whose cage takes up a quarter of the kitchen, became ours until Casey comes up for parole. In ten years. While I initially didn’t care for the bird—he was the impetus of many arguments between Mark and me—I’ve actually started to soften to him, a little, since Mark left for California a week ago.
As soon as Ron walks into the house, Gary starts thrashing in his cage, squawking and squealing and beating his wings.
Awwk! Awwk! Fawwk you! Fawwk you!
“What the hell is that thing saying?”
“My husband thought it would be funny to teach him to say ‘fuck you.’ Don’t take it personally, Ron.” I place my purse on the kitchen counter and my cell phone starts to ring. “The bathroom is down the hallway, on your left.”
As soon as Ron leaves the room, Gary stops. I grab the phone, and when Mark answers, his voice is thick with beer. I know this voice. “Hang on, baby,” he says. “I’m doing my trick.”
“Wait, you called me.”
“I know. Hang on.”
In the background, the bar is buzzing. Then a loud male voice, whose I recognize as Mark’s brother, booms above the wet chatter and tells everyone to stop whatever they’re doing and watch Mark. A hush is followed by a female giggling.
I guess I should explain a few things. First, when we moved into the house, six months ago, Mark took up magic as a hobby. He bought a used book of beginner’s magic tricks and then spent a ridiculous amount of time practicing The Disappearing Coin in front of our bedroom mirror. He has gotten good, and whenever he’s drunk—which, lately, has been every night—he performs the slight-of-hand at the local bar for anyone willing to watch. However, he hasn’t bothered to learn any of the other tricks. In this sense, Mark’s magic baffles me.
But there’s more. Long before the magic, Mark and I fell in love. We started dating our sophomore year at The University of New Hampshire, only to break up when Mark, still mourning Jerry Garcia’s death, dropped out of school to follow Phish. Two years later, in the summer of 1997, we met again, entirely unexpected, at an Irish pub in Fort Collins. I had graduated and was traveling with my girlfriends on one of those post-college road trips to San Diego where we were trying to discover ourselves—as if you walk into a convenience store in some strange town one day, and there you are, buying cigarettes. I guess I thought I had discovered myself because after meeting Mark again, I abandoned my friends, who went on to California, and Mark and I traveled the country for the rest of the summer into the fall, following The Allman Brothers, then The String Cheese Incident, and finally catching up with the Widespread Panic Tour. At the shows, Mark sold acid, ecstasy, and mushrooms, which Casey was running across the border. And for a short time, I became the proverbial “hippie chick”—smoking a lot of pot, wearing paisley skirts and halter tops made from hemp, going days without bathing and weeks without shaving my legs or armpits.
The reason I mention this has to do with a night outside the Red Rock National Park, after The Allman Brothers played at the natural amphitheatre. Mark and I were living out of his car, sleeping in a tent, and pocketing all the money he made dealing. That night, we got split up during the first set of the show. We had eaten some mushrooms and after we got separated, while looking for Mark, I got lost, literally, and roamed the parking lot until sunrise, wandering through throngs of blurred bodies and drum circles and tents with nitrous tanks and big balloons.
I found him the next morning passed out in our tent beside another woman—a pretty girl in a long gypsy dress with dark hair flowing to her waist and long earrings with clear crystal orbs dangling at the ends. To this day, Mark claims nothing happened; he claims they were smoking pot, sucking on nitrous balloons and passed out. But I’ve always had my questions, my doubts. I suspect Mark cheated on me that night, and I’ve never forgotten it. Even on our wedding day, I thought about it, I thought about her—the Gypsy Girl.
Remember how I asked what kind of woman cheats in her marriage? To that, I add another question: What kind of woman allows herself to be cheated on?
The answer, in both cases, is the same.
“Baby, they loved it,” Mark says, breathless and impressed with himself. In the background, I hear the female voice. Is she next to him? On his lap? Hovering in the air around him?
“Why did you call?”
“I miss you.”
The toilet flushes in the other room. “I’m going to let you go now. Call me when you’re sober.”
“I love you.”
As Ron comes out of the bathroom, I grab a bottle of Merlot from a rack below the wall clock and reach in the cupboard for two glasses. Ron stands in the doorway with his arms folded, grinning, and his shadow splayed like a loose knot across the kitchen floor. Hysterical, Gary slams around in his cage.
“Can I interest you in a night cap?”
“I was hoping you’d ask.”
After two glasses of wine, the cigarettes come out from the junk drawer. As far as my parents and Mark know, I quit two months ago. And I have. I took up jogging and yoga and bought a subscription to Natural Health to lie conspicuously around the house, but, in a moment of second-guessing, I bought a pack on the day I quit and have kept it in the junk drawer beside a deck of playing cards—which given my husband Houdini’s proclivity for magic tricks, may not have been the best spot. But Mark isn’t the type to give me hell. He smokes himself. And if he knows about the pack, I doubt he’d say anything. Maybe he’s known all along and has seen through me. Maybe I’m not fooling anyone. Maybe my tricks have become transparent.
So after Ron and I finish the second nightcap, I refill our glasses and have a smoke. Ron, who says he quit smoking fifteen years ago—when I was twelve years-old—has one, too.
In fairness, let me say this about Ron: I like him. Despite being considerably older, I’m attracted to him, physically and intellectually. A well-admired journalist, Ron carries himself as a man who knows what he wants and is not afraid to pursue it, even if it means asking the tough questions. Like he said, he doesn’t play games or care for tricks. In many ways, he is Mark’s antithesis. I like Ron and enjoy his company, his conversation, and as the cigarette makes me light-headed, I can see myself with him.
If I wasn’t married, that is.
After our third glass, Ron and I move from the kitchen to the living room couch, where our hands become busy—holding, rubbing, roving—until his fingers unhook the top button on my shorts.
Soon our clothes are off, and I’m on top of Ron in my bra and panties, sloppily kissing his face. Then Ron slips his penis through the slit in his boxer shorts. As if sensing this indiscretion, Gary goes ballistic, crashing around in his cage, wailing his trained phrase again and again.
“Is there anything we can do about that bird?”
“I can cover his cage.” My mouth slick with saliva, I walk into the kitchen to cover Gary’s cage with a black magician’s cape Mark bought for two-dollars at a yard sale. When I pick up the cape, my stomach lurches, my heart hurts. This is Mark’s cape, my husband’s cape. As if he understands, Gary gets quiet as I drape the cape over his cage. With my head down, I go back into the living room, walking like I’d been sawed I half, like I could fall apart at any moment.
On the couch, Ron is touching himself. “Will you suck me?”
Like I said, he’s not afraid of the tough questions.
I put Ron’s penis in my mouth, an act that seems mechanical, as sensual as licking a stamp, but I figure I can get him off before things progress to the next logical step. Ron is really playing it up, moaning and telling me how good my mouth feels, which, if you want to know the truth, I find to be too dramatic, a turn-off. Mark is a silent lover.
Then, as Ron is close to organism, his hips quivering, he lifts my head and looks me in the eyes. “I want to be inside of you.”
I’ve never been the type of woman to submit to a man because of pressure—in fact, I’ve told a few guys to go grab ice—so to say I’m coerced by Ron is simply not true. As I slide my panties down my legs and pull Ron on top of me, I picture The Gypsy Girl in the tent, those clear crystal orbs dangling as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
But the moment Ron enters me I’m no longer interested in him. I’m thinking about Mark, drunk in front of our bedroom mirror, practicing his stupid coin trick and cursing each time the half-dollar slips out of his hand. I try to pretend I can’t hear my cell phone ringing in the other room, or Gary stirring in his cage.
As Ron grunts, I remember the night Mark finally perfected his trick. I was laying in bed, reading Rolling Stone, when Mark turned to me, his face beaming. “Hey babe,” he said and showed me the coin, “now you see it.” His hands moved, deft and magical, and the coin disappeared. “Now you don’t.”
I clapped and pulled him into bed. “That was great, baby,” I said. “You made me believe it was gone. I really believed you made it disappear.”
Note: This story was originally published on the now-defunct fiction site Bananafish and nominated by their editor for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors(Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. He has an MFA in fiction writing from The University of New Hampshire and teaches high school. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts will be published by Bottle of Smoke Press this summer. For more information, visit his website at www.nathangraziano.com.