This story is published here by kind permission of Ruthie's Club, where it appeared first, perfectly and beautifully illustrated by dAVID.
This is a work of adult fiction and should be read only by adults. It is also my work. Although I receive no compensation other than your comments, it is still my work. Please respect this and do not repost it somewhere else without talking to me first about it.
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She stared at the mark on the wall as she listened to his voice on the 'phone. She really should do something to cover it. Paint the wall, hang a picture there, move the sofa, something. It wasn't so bad when they still had the leather sofa, the one that made the mark originally, but last month they had refurbished and redecorated. Upscaled. A fainting couch instead of a sofa, a footstool instead of an ottoman. They were entertaining business associates more often now, and it was important to look the part. The brown faded leather they'd had for the first ten years of their marriage was out of place beneath the framed oils and the gilded sconces and the beveled-edge leaded mirrors.
"My 'plane is going to be late. Something about a headwind and construction in Dallas." Sean's cell 'phone broke up badly. "Won't- crackle, screech-... don't expect... nine. Okay?"
She pressed the 'phone harder to her ear, as though she could improve the connection by holding him tighter. "What? I missed that entire last bit. You're still coming home, right?"
He'd been gone, this trip, for almost three weeks. It was supposed to be a week, just to explore the new sales area. Then it was ten days. There was a bigger complex attached to the hospital than he had been led to believe, which meant more doctors to visit. Then it became thirteen days. As long as he was in the area, he might as well take some of the more lucrative doctors for a round or two of golf. Then it was another week to help train a new representative in a neighboring area. That's how it's played. That's how sales are made and commissions earned and the Jaguar paid for. They certainly weren't getting there on her teacher's salary.
It had been this way for most of their marriage. They started out together. She was twenty-three, fresh out of student teaching, first year in the classroom, earning little more than minimum wage. He was three years older, barely above entry-level sales for a company, and earning enough in commissions to put gas in their Volkswagen after dropping her off in front of the school flagpole every morning. They were together all the time, evenings and weekends, mornings and holidays. It was how it was supposed to be.
But he was very good. Smooth, glib, intelligent, funny. All those qualities that drew her to him also drew other people in. He'd run his fingers absently through his very-good-but-not-perfect hair, he'd smile with his perfect-but-not-intimidating smile, and the nurses and receptionists would "find" an extra ten minutes in Doctor's schedule so that he could just "drop off some new samples that we're very excited about." He used his bedroom voice with the receptionists. The one that said, despite his actual words, I'd be very, very good to you. His voice that told them, I know what to do. I know how to stroke you. I know how to make you beg, and I can make you come twice before I even stick it in.
Oh, yes, they always found room in Doctor's schedule for Sean. And, since doctors get most of their prescribing information from the drug reps anyway, he was almost guaranteed a bigger commission check after each visit.
Before long, his sales area was expanded and he began making overnight trips, then they were three- and four-day trips. And his smile got smoother and his hair started prematurely to silver-making him, of course, that much more attractive to the young and perky receptionists and secretaries. Now, at thirty-five, he was one of the top salesman for the company. His territory expanded again and, instead of three-day driving sales trips, he began flying enough to earn them free first-class upgrades when they spent their three-week summer vacation at the beach. It was Myrtle Beach those first few years. Now it was more likely to be Aruba or St. Maarten. Not a bad way to spend part of her summer off.
So she tried not to complain about his business trips that seemed to be getting longer and longer. She smiled, and she cleaned house, and she cooked special "welcome home" meals, and she kept herself pretty and fit and sexy for when he was home.
"Yes. I'm coming home. I can't wait to see you." The static seemed to have cleared.
I wish he'd just use an airport pay 'phone instead of his company cell, she thought. I don't care if it does mean he has to queue at the 'phone instead of being able to call from the airport bar.
"I've just found out that there's a problem with my connection in Dallas, something about the construction. Don't worry though. I've booked a different flight so that I could definitely be home tonight, but I'll be a little bit later." She could hear the muffled sound of the waitress delivering his drink. There was a brief shuffle, and she pictured the casual way he handed over his credit card. She was sure that he'd flashed one of his prize-winning smiles at the barmaid. You never know when you might see them again; can't take the chance of offending someone.
"Can you pick me up at eleven instead of six? If it's a problem, I'll take a cab home." It was an almost two-hour round trip from home to the airport, but it wasn't a school night, and it had been too long since she'd seen him.
"Of course I'll be there. Shall I meet you at the baggage claim?" She missed the days before heightened security when she could meet him at the gate. It was always such a romantic moment, standing there as the passengers filed through the doorway, craning her neck to catch the first glimpse of his hair, maybe a flash of his shoulder. She could always tell him, even in a sea of blue business suits. Something about the way he carried his shoulders. So straight. So sure. So confident.
She'd stand just to the side of the crowd, back behind the squalling, sticky-fingered children waiting to dig into Grandma's carryon bag. Sean always knew where to find her. Even in the most crowded of waiting groups, she'd always be right there. Two steps behind the gate counter, dressed in one of his favorite dresses. Something that flowed. Something that drifted. Something that made her look like his bride. Never one of the wash-and-wear sweater sets that made her look like a third grade teacher. When he came home, she was his Tabitha, sexy and loving, not Tabby, the patient and mothering schoolmarm.
He'd walk to her. He never pushed through the crowd, but somehow people just seemed to move out of his way, and he'd drop his briefcase at her feet, wrap his hands around her shoulders, and look down into her eyes. And he always kissed her. Right there. A melting, gentle-but-insistent kiss. A returning-from-the-front kiss, like something from a World War II newsreel. A black-and-white movie kiss. A kiss that said, "This is my wife. Not my lover, or my girlfriend, but the woman I'm going to grow old with." She knew that other passengers watched them enviously. She missed those homecomings.
It wasn't the same, waiting for him in front of the cold-steel conveyor belt of baggage claim. There were too many people, the lights were too bright, there was too much noise and activity. There was nothing romantic about baggage claim.
"No. Don't go to baggage claim. There's no point in you battling the parking lots. I'll meet you outside. Eleven o'clock should give me plenty of time to get my bags and be outside the Arrivals doors. I'll see you then, honey." Crack, snap. "I'm losing the connection again. I'll see you tonight."
"Yes, I can't wait," she said into the empty 'phone.
It was a Friday night. There was a standing date for school staff members on Friday night at one of the local restaurants. A small core of regulars and a group of occasional others at a place set by whoever took the initiative to send out an e-mail on Friday morning. Today it was the local Mexican place. Margaritas, chips, salsa, and a chance to decompress after the week. She knew she'd find at least three or four people whom she genuinely liked there. It was a good way to spend the extra time instead of sitting home and waiting. It was on the way to the airport anyway. Might as well.
"Don't. Don't even get me started. I swear to God, if that cow tells me one more time that it's not her 'precious baby's fault that his homework isn't done, I'm going to reach down her throat and pull her heart out with my own hands."
Everyone tsked and uh-huh'd sympathetically. Different year, different class, different parents, same stories.
She nursed her margarita, licking salt from the rim and letting the hard iciness of the frozen lime chill her top lip. Just one drink tonight. Enough to be social, but not too much for the longish drive to the airport.
She was only half-listening. Debbie had been battling this particular set of parents since school started last September, so the story was a familiar one. She let her eyes roam the room, indulging her hobby of people watching. Couples, small groups, the restaurant was crowded tonight, but it was a small town, it was Friday night, and the availability of mid-priced dining with decent food and drink was limited. It was always crowded.
She smiled at their waiter, Mitchell, as he paused to refill her water glass. He was cute, very much worth a second look, and he knew it. He was younger than she was, by a few years.Eye candy, to be sure, and he worked it to his favor. They'd flirted back and forth for months-silly, casual, regular-customer/waiter-earning-tips flirting, until the middle of last quarter when he arrived at the school to pick one of her students and she realized that he was the girl's way-too-young step-father. It put a damper on the Friday night playfulness, but he still smiled and winked and they could both laugh.
She turned to watch him as he stopped at a table across the room. He leaned down to pick up the woman's plate-her back was to Tabitha, but it was obvious even from behind that she must have been stunningly gorgeous. She shook her head and her hair, ginger-blonde waves to the middle of her back, caught the candle light from a neighboring table. Mitchell's smile went from being professional-waiter smile to being-smitten-young-man smile. Her date said something and they all laughed-Mitchell, the woman, and her date. Tabitha could hear an oddly familiar guffaw that focused he attention through the background restaurant noise of conversation and muffled pseudo-Mexican music.
Mitchell moved away from the table, and Tabitha felt the kick in her gut. It couldn't be Sean. He was on a 'plane, or in an airport waiting for his 'plane. He wasn't here. It was a trick of the light and her disappointment at the delay causing her to imagine him.
Except it wasn't. It was he. He ran his fingers through his not-quite- perfect silvering hair and smiled that casual, practiced smile. It was his blue traveling suit and understated blue tie with the red woven pattern. Professional, but not stuffy. Subtle. It didn't so much scream "trust me" as whisper it-directly into the subconscious of whomever he was selling to. His entire wardrobe suggested Ivy League without being threatening. He dressed with care, always. Clothes say everything about the man, he'd always told her. Can never be too careful about your image when you're selling, Tabitha. Doctors are funny people, Tab. They need to think that they're always the smartest person in the room, and they'll find ways to ensure that you know it. You never know what might make him change his mind about trusting you.
She couldn't take her eyes off the tie. She'd bought it for him last Christmas. That tie was supposed to be halfway to Dallas. That tie never should have been in a Mexican restaurant, sitting across from Ms. Perfect Hair. That tie was supposed to be across from her.
He wasn't watching the room. He wasn't looking anywhere except Ms. Perfect Hair. And, no matter what, Tabitha knew that he couldn't see her. Not here. Not like this. There would be a scene, no doubt about it. If he spoke to her, if she heard the voice that was supposed to be wrapping her in love and comfort and marital bliss, trying instead to explain and backpedal, there would be a scene. But it couldn't happen here. Not in front of her friends. Not with her sitting there to drink in her superiority over The Wife.
Tabitha turned her back to her table and finished the last of her drink. Martha, a fourth-grade teacher, was telling her latest, 'ways children try to cheat on spelling tests' story-something about temporary tattoos and Capri pants.
She leaned over to Debbie and handed her a bill. "Gotta run. This should cover my drink. Take care of it for me, okay?" She was talking too fast, frantic to get out before Sean and Ms. Perfect spotted her.
"Okay. No problem. Tab, are you okay to drive?"
"Fine. I'm fine. I just lost track of time. Gotta run. See you Monday."
Her mind raced as she drove, randomly. It was early-she had at least two hours to burn before Sean's plane was supposed to "arrive," but it was at least an hour to the airport and she had a full tank of gas. She could drive.
At each stoplight, she pulled the rear-view mirror down to look at herself, appraising. Some wrinkles around the corners, but not so many. Make up, clothes, all impeccable. Not perfect, but still good enough to turn heads on the beach.
So why? Why was Sean's tie at the restaurant with Ms. Perfect-Hair instead of halfway to Dallas?
They still talked. They didn't fight. They didn't have money problems or children to disagree over. They still spent their Saturday mornings drinking coffee over their own sections of the newspaper. They spent Sunday mornings at church followed by brunch at the club.
So why was he laughing with Ms. Ginger Blonde instead of with her?
Was he sleeping with her? Stupid, of course he's sleeping with her. He wouldn't have made up a delayed flight if he weren't sleeping with her.
She drove the same highway loop over and over, fighting the urge to pull over to the shoulder. Her mind raced as fast as her wheels turned on the pavement.
So why was he sleeping with her? It would almost be understandable if she were someone in one of his sales cities. But here? In their own town? Was there something he wanted, sexually, that she wasn't giving him? Tabitha had always been the more adventurous about sex. The one to suggest new things, to try new positions, to tease him with silent gestures and erotic notes hidden in his pockets. She'd decided early on that there was no way her husband was going to be one of those men who complained that their wives weren't 'active' enough. No 'once or twice a week and only on the weekend' for them.
That had always been her intention. To keep him from ever having a reason to stray. She'd kept her body young and fit, fighting a decade-and-a-half of gravity. She tried not to be demanding, but she initiated sex as often as he did.
The startling blat! of a horn brought her back to the road. She was almost at the airport exit, another minute or two and she'd have overshot it, which would have put her at least a half-hour late. The airport was the last highway exit for a good four or five miles.
Airport construction kept her mind on driving as she maneuvered through the endlessly changing concrete web of entrances and exits and parking garages and international-not-domestic departure lanes.
He was still easy to spot. Even among the crowd of weary travelers hailing taxies or waiting for hotel shuttles or searching for tired relatives it was unmistakably he-standing outside the Arrivals gate with his briefcase in one hand and his sample case and garment bag on the ground next to him. She pushed the seat back and slid across to the passenger seat as he came around to the driver's door.
"Welcome home, Sean."
"I missed you, Tabitha. It's good to be home." He leaned over to kiss her. She rested her hand against his chest and gave his tie, that tie, a stroke as his lips met hers. No, it wasn't the same as meeting him at the gate, and they both knew it.
They drove in silence, mostly. Married silence, each somewhere else. Was he thinking about dinner and margaritas and long curls? Her stomach clenched and she realized that she wasn't sad. She was something else. Angry? No. Not yet, but that was coming. She couldn't talk to him, not now. If she started while they were locked together in the car, she'd have to listen to his smooth explanations and rational excuses and glib denials. Now was not the time.
They pulled into the driveway. "Are you hungry? I ate out tonight, but I could fix you a sandwich while you unpack."
"No. Thanks. I'm not hungry. I'm just going to bed, if that's okay."
She lingered in the living room, listening for the shower to start before turning off the lights.
He snored softly in the dark beside her. She listened, tried to sleep, but thoughts of perfect hair and understated ties kept her awake.
What was it that she had that Tabitha was missing? What did she do for him that Tabitha couldn't? The world had shifted, and all at once, she was unsure.
Without turning on the light, Tabitha sat up and pulled her nightgown over her head, baring her breasts in the darkness. She let her hands roam, taking a silent inventory, starting at the top. Highlighted hair, smartly cut and styled. Casual, soft, smooth. She thought of how gently he stroked her hair after sex, holding her, cuddling until they both fell asleep.
She turned her face to watch him in the darkness. His breathing was untroubled, not the guilty tossing and turning she'd expect from an adulterer. Maybe she was wrong, maybe there was an explanation, a perfectly legitimate reason for his tie to have been having dinner with her hair.
No. Because he'd have told her. There wouldn't have been a reason for him to call and pretend to be late if there was an innocent reason for him to be in town.
She stroked the skin of her throat, felt its softness under her fingertips. Watching his in-and-out breathing, feeling the different rhythms of her pulse and his breath. They were like that, lately, she realized. Him slow and calm and reserved and quiet. She was the faster one. Always moving, always going somewhere, doing something. Maybe that's what it was. Maybe Ms. Ginger Hair matched him better, didn't demand his time or his energy. Maybe she floated through, gently breathing in and out with him.
Tabitha got up, stood beside the bed, and let her nightgown slip off her shoulder, to the floor, before slipping into the bathroom. She looked back at the bed before turning on the bathroom light. Her movements hadn't seemed to disturb Sean. He was like that-she'd joked that he could sleep through an earthquake, through an avalanche, through the end of the world probably.