Alice pulled the empty suitcase behind her. The wheels groaned against the textured concrete of the parking garage. She emptied her lungs in relief as the elevator doors closed and moments later released her into the familiar hotel lobby.
A desk clerk tracked her approach. “Welcome back to the Excelsior, Ms. Fillmore.”
“My usual room, and would you please send up a bottle of champagne.”
After six weeks, Alice knew this room—the sound of the latch securing the door, the smell of the jasmine air freshener, the caress of the Turkish cotton robe, and most of all, the sound of her two visitors’ knocks. But who would get there first, the champagne or her lover?
Today it was the champagne—a whole glass first.
Her lover’s knock bounced through the room like the first notes of a favorite song. She paused at the door, tousling her hair in the full-length mirror on the back. She turned and pulled the handle. Her lips erased his smile and swallowed his words. “Let–me–get–in–the–room.”
“What took you so long? I was starting to worry.”
A recap of the week’s events melted into cooing, then passion, and finally silence.
She rolled off him. “Set the alarm, honey. I have to be up in twenty-five minutes.”
The alarm lesson emerged the second week when, after crashing for two hours, they had to excuse their excuses to their spouses with more extreme lies. Since then, they always set an alarm, regardless if it was for ten or forty-five minutes.
They never talked about the people at home. The only thing each of them knew was the other was expected to be home to put the kids to bed and free up their significant others for two hours of their own “mental health”.
Alice met this lover at the gym through brief conversation between exercises. The relationship quickly escalated to coffee afterward, then drinks instead of the gym until their Thursday night rendezvous at the Excelsior.
Alice wasn’t miserable in her marriage. She just needed more excitement—she deserved more excitement.
Passion had dissolved by year nine, quickly escalating to her first affair with a twenty-five year old bartender. Now it was a six-week courtship with this lover.
Doubt sprouted after all three kids were in school, her days decelerating without having to chase them around. As life stalled, the questions increased.
What would it be like with another man?
Was she still attractive?
Was it so wrong to want pleasure?
This lover answered all those questions.
The alarm shrieked. Her hand crawled across his chest and slapped the snooze.
He said, “Why doesn’t the rest of the week go this fast?”
She curled against him. “Maybe we can squeeze in a meeting Monday or Tuesday.”
“You know Thursday is the only night. Besides, I don’t want you to get sick of me.” He rolled her over on her back and pressed himself on top of her.
– – –
Her husband was finishing the dishes when she got home. “How was the gym?”
“Went to the museum instead.” She riffled through the mail on the counter. “There’s a new American Art exhibit there.”
“Why don’t we go to the museum anymore?”
“Because there’s only 24 hours in a day.”
He wiped his hands on his apron. “Someday.”
“What are you doing tonight?” She tossed the mail on the counter, her eyes scanning the room, avoiding him.
“Going to the Big Empty for a few drinks.” He removed the apron, folded it, and put in the drawer next to the sink. “Kids have already had their baths and are in their rooms.”
She walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door, just staring inside. “When are you taking me there?”
“Come tonight. Let’s call a sitter.”
“Sweet of you, but no. I’m wiped out.” She closed the door without taking anything out, offering a tight-lipped smile as she left the kitchen. “I’m going to go tuck the children in. Have fun tonight.”
– – –
At the Big Empty, Alice’s husband leaned toward a woman seated at the bar, patting the unoccupied stool next to her. “Is this spot taken?”
“Just me and my martini,” the woman said. “Plenty of room for her on the bar.”
He motioned for the bartender to make him the same. “I’ll add one to keep her company. Martinis measure my stay. Two is the objective; three is the limit.”
“I’m on two, so you need to catch up. We’ll be able to communicate as long as we retain a one martini gap.”
He climbed into the neighboring stool, scooting closer to the bar. “Easier to speed up than slow down.”
A few moments of uncomfortable silence passed. The woman took another drink. “I have to be careful when I don’t have my designated driver.”
“Married? Me, too.” The bartender delivered his martini. He immediately plucked one of the olives from the drink sword.
“He’s home with the kids.” She tore off the corner of her napkin.
Alice’s husband nodded. “Same here. We used to go out together. Now we pass in the doorway.”
The woman lifted her drink to toast. “I just hope when the kids are gone we still know each other.”
“I hope we make it that long.” He touched his glass to hers, spilling some gin over the side.
She put the glass to her lips but didn’t drink anything. More silence passed. She ripped another strip from her napkin. “It does get lonely.”
“Do you still love him?” he asked.
She rubbed her finger around the rim of her empty glass. “Honestly, I don’t even know anymore. You?”
He didn’t hesitate to answer. “Take the kids out and it was over years ago.”
She looked at him then straight ahead, connecting with his eyes in the mirror behind the bar. “Have you ever—I mean, it’s none of my business.” She lowered her longing gaze back to her dry glass.
He held up two fingers to the bartender to signal for another round. Chewing on another olive, he said, “One time I met someone, but I didn’t go through with it.”
“I wish I was as strong.”
“Strong? I was petrified,” he said. “If I can’t satisfy one woman why should I try two?”
“Most men don’t care about the woman.”
He gulped the remainder of his drink. “Guilt is a powerful motivator.”
The bartender brought two fresh cocktails. She said, “We all deserve to feel good.”
He slid the full martini close to him and bent down to sip so not to spill any. “I think commitment should take precedence over pleasure.”
She removed the fresh napkin from under her drink and tore off a fresh piece, adding it to the pile in front of her. “It’s not a jail sentence. Besides, do you think your wife is as committed?”
He said, “She’s a great mother.”
“So am I; my husband’s a good father. I still think he’s having an affair. He comes home cleaner than when he leaves in the morning.”
“And you?” he asked.
She twiddled with the strands of napkin. “Am I or have I?”
“No and yes,” she said. “I don’t restrict myself if I’m interested.”
“What interests you?” he asked.
She turned again to face him, but this time didn’t look away. “Conversation, mystery, strength.”
He rotated in his chair toward her. “Why don’t you just say perfection?”
She laughed. “A woman has to have standards.”
“So if I excuse myself now does that make me mysterious?” He drained the remainder of his drink.
She put her hand on his knee. “Or uninterested.”
He kissed her cheek and placed a fifty on the bar. “Hopefully the former. Drinks are on me.”
She removed her hand from his knee. “Thanks for the cocktails…and the conversation. See you here again?”
He pushed back from the bar, studying himself in the mirror. “Every Thursday from nine to eleven.”
– – –
Alice was reading in bed when he got home. “How was the Big Empty?”
“Too loud and too crowded. I think I’ll take a shower.”
The lights were off when he returned. Alice was on her side facing away.
He curled up behind her. “If we didn’t have kids, would we still be together?”
She stared into the darkness. “Where did this come from?”
“I had an interesting conversation with a lady at the bar. She reminded me a lot of you.”
Alice turned toward him. “What did she say?”
“The way she talked, her and her husband sounded more like colleagues.”
Alice bristled. “Raising a family is a fulltime job.”
He put his hand on her arm, rubbing gently. “But she was so accepting of infidelity. She’s had affairs; she thinks her husband is having an affair. Maybe they’ve given up.”
“I doubt it. She’s just acting on the doubt she sees in his eyes.” Alice placed her hand on the side of his face. “Have you ever thought about an affair?”
He rolled on his back, staring at the ceiling. “Once, but I didn’t go through with it. You?”
“No. When do I have time?”
“We’re apart so much, there seems to be ample opportunity.”
“Were you attracted to this woman?” Alice asked.
“Yes–I don’t know–maybe.” He grew quiet for a moment. “It evoked feelings I haven’t had in a while—fear.”
She moved closer to him. “Tell me. I’ll understand.”
“I just don’t want to wake up one day and realize our life has been bullshit.”
“Don’t even think like that. Look at our kids.”
“But what about us? Are we still in love?”
She touched his forehead with her lips. “I love you. That has never and will never change.”
“I know that, but we seem to be growing apart.”
She pushed him on his back and eased on top. “Have I ever let you down before?”
He wrapped his arms around her. “No more talking.”
That night there were only two people in the room—no kids, no Excelsior Hotel, no Big Empty—only two, the same two that spent the first nine years committed to one another.
Next Thursday Alice was home at seven o’clock—just as she was for the next five weeks when they shared their evenings of mental health.
On week six she said, “Would you be upset if I went to the gym on Thursday? I need to drop a few pounds.”
He looked up from his magazine. “Tired of playing house already?”
“Don’t be like that. I promise I’ll be home by nine. You could probably use a night out by yourself, too.”
– – –
At the gym, Alice strained to pull the bar behind her neck.
A man studied her movement. “You know, it’s better to pull it to the chest. Less chance of injury too.”
“All about the burn, right?” she said.
He stood behind her and placed his hands on the bar. “Pull and exhale. Slow release and inhale.”
She let go of the bar at the top of the movement. “I hate weights.”
“Gravity is your friend. Come on, one more.” He pulled the bar down toward her. She reached up, took the bar in her hands, and brought it to her chest. “That’s it,” he said.
She slowly extended her arms returning the weight to the stack. “Thanks for the help. Are you new here?”
“One month.” He stepped back, giving her space to exit the machine. “Haven’t seen you before either.”
She stood and faced him. “Consistency is a problem for me.”
“Just take it one rep at a time.” His eyes traveled the full length of her body. “Enjoy your workout. I guess I’ll see you around.”
She peeked out from behind a sportive smile. “I hope so.”