by John Danahy
John Danahy resides in New Hampshire. He enjoys writing, reading, photography, and traveling with his wife, four children, and nine grandchildren. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aim Magazine, Art Times, Desert Voices, Forge, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The MacGuffin, North Atlantic Review, RiversEdge, Salt River Review, and The Griffin.
Although he wasn't sure why, Matt felt a mild excitement about the upcoming visit with his oldest friend, Dave, and Dave's second wife, Marilyn. While he and Dave had grown up together, Matt couldn't recall any single act or occasion that formed or cemented a bond. It seemed to him that they had less in common with every passing year, since he had gone on to college and career while Dave remained in their small Indiana hometown. Even their appearances had diverged, as Matt grew ever more slight and his wispy, sandy hair dwindled to a sole, ashen patch, while Dave grew portly with still-dark curls—aided, Matt suspected, by wiry implants.
In spite of this and for no reason he could name, Matt felt a sense of obligation and had always responded to Dave's efforts to keep their connection intact.
"How was your day?" Julie asked as Matt arrived home late Friday afternoon.
"Hectic," Matt said. "Meetings all day."
"With your new boss?"
"What's he like?"
"Let's forget about the office and just have a good time this weekend with Dave and Marilyn."
"Fine with me," Julie said, forcing a smile. "I hope you can relax."
Matt changed into navy blue slacks, a white shirt with a button-down collar, and a gray cardigan sweater. He wore thick, wire-rim glasses balanced on his pointed nose, magnifying his small, gray eyes. Julie was ready, dressed in her usual uniform since she'd stopped working—faded jeans and a loose-fitting sweatshirt. She wore her gray-streaked brown hair pulled tightly back and fastened in a twist on the top of her head. Her plain, round face was scrubbed, lending a healthy color to her cheeks.
After packing the car for the two-hour trip, Matt drove toward the highway, while Julie busied herself with cross-stitch.
"Dave called today," he told her, "to ask what time we're planning to get there. Then he carried on about Marilyn and last night."
"About how good she was in bed?"
"That's the gist. Classic Dave."
"Humph. She encourages him with her sexy clothes and constant innuendos."
"What's so wrong with that?"
"It's . . . I just don't like it, that's all."
"I hope you two will get along."
"Don't worry. We're not the best of friends, but we'll be fine."
Matt didn't respond and they drove along in silence.
"I think it's his constant bragging about sex that bothers me the most," Julie said after a time.
"Good for him if he's getting as much as he says."
Julie's jaws clenched as she scowled at Matt. Turning away, she flung her cross-stitch into the backseat, retrieved a magazine, and rapidly flipped the pages.
Dave answered the door with a drink in his hand. His light-blue eyes were bloodshot, and his left eyelid drooped lazily. Tiny blood vessels traversed his large nose, and a flat gold chain hung across his exposed chest.
"Great to see you, old buddy," Dave said, enveloping Matt in a bear hug. "Let me help you with your stuff."
Matt watched as his old friend hugged Julie tentatively, as though afraid he'd crush her with his six-foot-three frame, then gave her a friendly peck on the cheek. Marilyn was concealed behind Dave's bulk, and as he stepped backward, he bumped into her. She moved around him, tossing long, platinum-blond hair from her face, and flashed a wide smile at Matt. His eyes darted to her deeply scooped neckline. As she hugged him her perfume drifted thick and heavy into his nostrils, and he had to suppress the urge to sneeze. Moving away, Marilyn greeted Julie with a quick hug.
After helping carry the luggage into the spare bedroom, Dave ushered Matt and Julie into the living room. Dave plopped on one of two matching leather couches and propped his size eleven alligator loafers on a huge oak coffee table. He beckoned Matt to a matching recliner and Julie to the opposite couch.
"It's been too long," Dave said. As he leaned across the table, his exposed stomach protruded from an open button on his silk shirt.
"Almost six months," Matt replied.
Dave's reflected image in the polished surface of the oak table caught Matt's eye. He remembered Dave coaching him through industrial arts in their freshman year. Dave had rarely paid attention in school, but Matt remembered how different he was in shop—excited, interested, fascinated by anything he made with his hands.
"You know I'm in awe of this table. You just don't see thick planks like this anymore. The finish really brings out the grain. Do you still work with wood?"
"Not as much as I'd like. The armoire I built for our bedroom is some of my best work, but I haven't done anything since the kitchen cabinets."
"It's been almost thirty years since you made that table."
"Time flies," Dave said with a sigh. A grin sprouted slowly across his face. "Hey, old buddy, remember that time when we skipped Hawker's shop class and got caught in the girls' gym?"
"Seems like a million years ago, but before we get into old times, it's getting late, and Julie and I are famished."
While their husbands went outside to grill steaks, Marilyn and Julie went into the kitchen to prepare vegetables. Compact and efficiently designed, with gleaming surfaces everywhere, the kitchen had delicate, hand-carved cabinet doors, white tile countertops, and an array of polished utensils hanging within easy reach above the stove.
"We heard your job's going well," Julie said, her eyes on the carrots she was slicing. "Do you enjoy it?"
"Well, the money's great and we certainly need it. But I'm making more than Dave, and I think it bothers him."
"You know," Julie went on as if she hadn't heard the comment, "sometimes I miss the people, but I don't want to go back to work. I enjoy my freedom too much, and I keep busy with crafts and the book club. What about the people at your job?"
"They're nice enough. They work for me, though, so I'm never quite sure if they're just sucking up. But my boss," Marilyn said after a pause, "is a problem."
Julie lifted her eyes to Marilyn. Light reflected on the silver Pisces hanging from her ear, and she noticed the wide turquoise rings Marilyn wore on two fingers of each hand.
"What do you mean?"
"He leans on me to work more hours and generate more revenue. He doesn't come right out and say he'll fire me if I don't, but he wants me to believe he will. And he gets personal."
"Look, I haven't told anyone this, so don't tell Dave." Marilyn hesitated a moment, then said, "He's trying to get me into bed."
"Are you sure?"
Marilyn arched her carefully penciled eyebrows. "Of course. I know the signs."
Julie considered the contrasts between herself and Marilyn. She knew Marilyn's firm, trim shape and sexy clothes would attract attention in any office, but this was going too far. "Tell him to buzz off. You don't have to put up with that."
"I told you, we need the money. Dave's job isn't working out. He's barely selling enough to cover his salary, never mind making any commission, and his alimony payments are astronomical. He gave that bitch everything."
"That doesn't mean you have to let this guy think he can bully you into bed. You could get a lawyer and make him sorry he's ever seen you."
"Don't be silly. Besides, he's not bullying me. There's a promotion opening up, and it pays more money—a lot more. The word is, I'm his favorite, and if I play my cards right, I'll have the job locked up."
"No job is worth that."
"Easy for you to say."
"I guess you're right," Julie nodded. "I'm sorry. Look, don't worry. I won't say anything."
"What about the time Coach Perizzi found the pack of rubbers in my locker?" Dave chortled as he threw the marinated steaks on the grill. "Those were the days, right?"
A feeling of uneasiness came over Matt as he remembered the few times he and Dave had come close to real trouble, how he had felt awkward and afraid, unmoored from the safety of his conventionality. He found it strange that Dave seemed comforted, even nurtured, by those same memories. The sizzle of searing meat brought his attention back to Dave.
"Why did you give up woodworking?" Matt asked.
"I haven't. My job is so damn boring. I have to concentrate on what I'm doing all the time. But when I'm working with wood, I get an idea and start a piece, and then it takes over and carries me along. I swear the wood talks to me through my hands. It's a great feeling."
"Then why don't you do more?"
"Time, man. I just don't seem to have the time." Dave shook his head, then grinned at Matt. "So, how's your job going?"
Matt's eyes swept across the patio toward the door. "Julie doesn't know this, so keep it between us. I told you there's a new VP of accounting. Well, I'm having big problems with him. As far as he's concerned, I can't do anything right."
"Ah, don't worry. New bosses come and go. You've survived plenty of them."
"This one's different. He was at the South Carolina plant less than two years and fired everyone reporting to him. All of them."
"Come on. You've got more than twenty years in. They won't fire you."
"They could. And if I get fired, Julie might have to go back to work. She'd hate that. If I can't turn him around, he'll probably fire me." Matt drew his hand across his pate. "God, I'm forty-nine years old. Who'd hire an over-the-hill accountant? I'm really scared this time, Dave."
Dave speared a steak and flipped it. "Quit worrying, man. You'll be fine. Just figure out what this guy's looking for and do it."
"Easy to say. Anyway, I don't want to think about that son of a bitch. How's your job going?"
"Couldn't be better," Dave said in a hearty voice. "My sales are the highest in the district, and they may expand my territory. It's the best career move I've ever made."
"I'm glad things are working out for you after so many job hops. You deserve it."
"Yeah, it's a good feeling."
"Marilyn's job still going well?"
"Even better than mine. Her boss is thinking of putting her in charge of one of their biggest accounts. She loves the excitement and the money is great."
"That's terrific. I bet you're pleased."
"For her, but I don't know. Marilyn's really caught up in it, and she loves the money. She says it makes her as good as any man—I mean, as anyone." Fat dripped on to the coals, and flames flicked around the meat. Dave stepped back from the smoke. "She's making more than I am."
"Hmm," Matt said. "She is doing well."
The three-quarter moon had risen over the horizon, and Matt could see its reflected light in Dave's eyes. "Does it bother you?"
"Nah, why should it?" Dave grinned. "I love being a kept man."
It was almost ten o'clock when they finished dinner. Dave suggested Matt join him for an after-dinner cigar.
"If you're going to smoke one of those things," Marilyn said, "please go outside. I can't stand the smell, even in the next room."
"Me either," Julie echoed. "Why do men smoke cigars?"
"We like something big and wet in our mouths," Dave said.
"Just go outside," Julie said, blushing.
Dark clouds partially obscured the moon and were outlined in its glow. Horns from distant cars infringed on the incessant clicking of crickets. Dave lit his cigar and attempted to blow smoke rings that never formed.
"Marilyn sounds like she's ready for a big night," Dave said.
Matt marveled at the adolescent grin spreading over Dave's face—the one he'd seen so often in the past. For the first time he noticed Dave's nascent double chin. "Tell me something. Do you get laid as often as you'd like everyone to believe?"
"You bet your ass I do. That lady wears me out."
"Okay, okay, but do we have to hear about it all the time?"
"What the hell's with you? Not getting any?"
"Sorry. I guess I'm on edge about my job." He picked up his cigar and, after a few halfhearted attempts to light it, gave up. "It's not just the job—it's me and Julie. Since her hysterectomy, she doesn't seem to, you know, care about sex anymore. I mean, we were never as hot as you and Marilyn, but it used to be nice."
"Oh, man, what a pain in the ass. Sounds like my ex. I could never handle that."
"I've tried to talk to her about it, but she changes the subject. Maybe it's my fault, but I don't know what to do."
"Don't ask me," Dave said. He took a puff and streamed smoke out his nostrils.
Matt didn't think Julie would change, but he wondered if he had. He wasn't as horny now as he had been twenty years ago. Some nights lately he'd been very tired and secretly hoped she wasn't in the mood. So it wasn't just her—maybe sex was less important to him too.
After cleaning up, Marilyn poured Julie a club soda, fixed herself a gin and tonic, and suggested they go into the living room to relax.
"I saw you blushing at Dave's last wisecrack," Marilyn said. "I hope his bullshit doesn't bother you after all this time."
"Not really. But constantly talking about sex can be boring."
"Talking about it's not the only thing that can be boring."
"Are you saying you're bored with sex?" Julie frowned. "You're the one who's always joking about it, and you seem so . . . so ready."
Marilyn leaned her head back, and the loud, guttural laugh emanating from deep inside her rib cage caused her breasts to jounce. With her head tilted back, the line on her neck delineating her heavy makeup looked like a faded scar.
"What's so funny?" Julie asked.
"I guess I'm laughing at myself. I didn't know anyone but Dave believed my act."
"Uh-huh, my act. I knew the first time I met him, he was one of those men who needs his women to be nice, obedient sex kittens. You know, the kind who laugh at all his stupid remarks and groan when they have sex and tell him he's the world's greatest lover." She drained her glass in an exaggerated motion and placed it firmly on the table. "So I do."
Julie knew people thought of her as plain and comfortable, but the thought of any woman, even Marilyn, as an obedient sex kitten seemed too cartoonish to be real.
"You mean he's . . . no good in bed?"
"No, I didn't say that. I just mean it's no big deal. I mean, it's . . . well it's no big deal, that's all."
Julie held her gaze, then looked away. "I . . . I'm sorry."
"For what? Look, it doesn't matter. I'll keep up my act because he likes it. I can't afford to go looking for another husband at my age."
"Your age?" Julie asked, puzzled. "You're at least ten years younger than Matt and me, and you look so, so attractive to men."
"You've been married to the same man since college. Two husbands have already dumped me, and I have less and less of what it takes to get another one. Besides, I'm getting weary of the whole damn charade."
Awkward moments passed as silence hung between them. Julie stared vacantly at the fireplace, and Marilyn stirred the remains of her ice cubes with her index finger. It was almost midnight when the men came in from the patio.
"I see you two need a drink," Dave said loudly.
"Huh?" Marilyn asked. "Oh, I guess we do."
"That's my girl. Ready to get down and boogie?"
"I'd rather you get down, sweet cheeks."
Marilyn tried for the knowing smile Julie had seen her use when trading double entendres with Dave, but the crooked way she held her mouth changed the effect to a grimace.
"Make mine club soda, please," Julie said.
The lateness of the hour and the effects of the alcohol amplified Dave's drooping eyelid, and as he became more drunk, his speech slurred slightly. With Julie and Matt barely participating, the conversation ranged from shopping to movies, to real estate prices, and, finally, to ex-spouses.
"I get zippo from either ex, and you support yours like a queen," Marilyn sneered. "I'll never understand why you gave that bitch everything."
"Don't start on that again," Dave shouted. "I can't take it tonight."
"You can't take it? Too damned bad. I can't take the crap happening to me either."
"I . . . just . . . just crap, that's all. Drop it."
"Hey, guys," Matt said and stood abruptly. "Let's talk about something else. Who else needs a drink? I'm pouring."
Stifling a yawn, Dave slurred, "I've about had it. One last nightcap and I'll hit the hay. Make mine a double, buddy."
"A double?" Marilyn asked. "Are you trying to pass out, or are you already too far gone to realize it?"
"I'm not counting your goddamned drinks, so don't count mine."
"Matt's right," Julie said. "Let's finish the evening in peace and go to bed."
Matt returned with the round of drinks and proposed a toast. "To my best friends in the world," he said. "May we grow old together and always be friends."
The couples exchanged glances and half smiles, but no one said a word. The silence stretched on for over a minute. Dave's eyes sagged shut and he began to snore. His head rolled on to his shoulder and he woke. Disoriented, his eyes darted back and forth. He gulped the last of his drink and stood up, wavering. Marilyn led him by the hand into the bedroom. Julie said good night and went to bed.
Fifteen minutes later Matt sat motionless on the couch, nursing his drink. Marilyn came into the living room, her face clean and free of makeup, and her hair hanging smoothly to her shoulders. She looked different to him, more genuine.
"He's passed out on the floor. Can you help me get him into bed?"
Matt nodded and followed her into the bedroom. Dave was curled up on the floor like a fully dressed giant fetus. She tugged his arm and he stirred but didn't wake. Struggling to hoist Dave's considerable inert mass into the bed, Matt brushed against her and her robe opened. Their eyes met for a moment, and then, as if both were unaware of her exposed body, they finished the chore without comment. Matt returned to the living room couch, and Marilyn followed a few steps behind.
Her robe hung open. The dim amber light gilded her snow-white panties and left breast. Matt looked down at his shoes, then around the room, but his gaze returned to her golden curves.
"Please, close your robe."
She tilted her head slightly, a languid expression on her face, and put her hands on her hips. "Am I bothering you?"
"You know damn well you're bothering me. If you don't close your robe, something may happen that we'll both regret."
She gathered her robe about her and crossed her arms, holding his eyes. "Oh, hell," she said, dropping her arms and letting the robe fall open again. "I'm about out of regrets."
Matt took off his glasses and rubbed his right hand slowly up his forehead to the lonely tuft of hair. "Do you know what you're doing?"
"Maybe not. Do you?"
"For God's sake, you're my best friend's wife."
"You think that would stop him?"
She walked the few steps between them and stood over him. Matt squinted at her exposed breast as if it were a bright light overwhelming his pupils. As she lifted her leg to step out of her panties, she almost lost her balance, and he reached for her. He steadied her with his hand, and she gave him an awkward half smile, then looked away. She pulled at her sleeve, rolled her shoulders, and the robe fell to the floor.
"Sweet Jesus," he whispered.
When it was over Matt thought he should feel free, sated, but he felt empty, as if he hadn't eaten in days. His pulse raced with worry that Julie or Dave would wake and find them. Nude except for his black mid-calf socks, he felt foolish and vulnerable. Marilyn's head nestled on his right shoulder, and her breasts pushed against his ribs. Her hair smelled clean and fresh, like baby shampoo. In the dim light he saw tiny lines at the corners of her eyes and on her forehead. Her jaw twitched and her lips tensed. He tried to control his breathing to remain still, but she stirred, then lifted her head.
"We should get up," he said. "They could find us."
She untangled her limbs, stepped into her panties, and put on her robe.
"Why'd you do it?" he asked.
"You mean, why did we do it? I'm sick of doing what everyone else wants and sick of worrying about appearances or what people think."
"What if they find out?"
She studied his face. "Telling her won't make you feel less guilty. It'll just hurt her."
Matt didn't sleep well and was the first to get up the next morning. He made coffee and sat in the kitchen, staring at the pale-gray light slanting in through the window. His anxiety had grown stronger through the fitful night, and the low-hanging clouds added to his closed-in feeling. Dave trundled in, his hair hanging over his left ear, revealing a bald spot in the center of his head.
"Out of Excedrin," he muttered. He opened the cabinet over the sink and swallowed three pills with a glass of water. "Shower," he said as he walked out of the kitchen. He returned in forty-five minutes, clean-shaven, with his hair carefully combed and his eyes still awash with red.
"What a night," Dave said.
Matt nodded. "We all had a lot to drink."
"That's not what I meant, buddy. Marilyn was dynamite last night. I thought I'd never get to sleep."
The clouds were breaking and the sun climbed higher in the sky. Matt, turning toward its warm yellow light, gave no reply.
Marilyn, her hair and makeup fixed and wearing plaid leggings and an oversized man's shirt, and Julie, her hair down but not yet brushed and wearing her faded-blue robe, walked into the kitchen together.
"Hey, babe," Dave said. "Fix us some breakfast, will you?"
"Sure." She walked to Dave and gently patted his head. "You just sit there and let Mama take care of you." She looked into the refrigerator, then turned to Dave. "We're almost out of bacon. Can my big, strong man go to the corner and get some?"
"Damn." Eyes unfocused, he crooked a finger toward Matt. "Let's take a ride."
When the men left Marilyn busied herself cleaning the kitchen, while Julie sat motionless at the table, staring into her coffee cup. The sunlight lingered on her hair, accenting the slivers of gray.
"Something bothering you?" Marilyn asked.
Each scrutinized the other, then Julie turned away.
"Look," Marilyn said, "I know we're not exactly best friends, and you think I'm some sort of bimbo."
"Don't deny it. I know what I look like. But in spite of what you think, we're not so different. If you've got something on your mind, you can tell me."
Julie waved a hand, then sighed and gave in. "It's about . . . well, about sex."
"You can trust me."
"It's not you," Julie said, her back still turned. "I'm embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. Since my hysterectomy, sex has turned into a chore, like doing his laundry or scrubbing the sink. It hurts me and I just don't want to do it."
"Have you talked to your doctor about the pain?"
"Yes, but he has that condescending attitude you get from most men. They look at you like there's something wrong with you. I'd like to see one of them go through this."
"Why don't you go to a woman doctor?"
"I, I've never felt comfortable showing my body to a woman."
"Hmm. Look, it takes time to recover from major surgery. Why are you so concerned?"
"It's Matt," she said, turning to face Marilyn. "Lately, sex seems more important to him, and he's, well, too fast. And I know I'm less interested, so maybe that's why it hurts."
"You mean you're dry?"
"I guess so, but it's more than that. I'm afraid if I don't do it, he'll get it somewhere else and I'll lose him."
Marilyn flushed and busied herself whisking eggs. "I'm sure he wouldn't cheat on you. Have you told him how you feel?"
"Something's on his mind lately. We don't talk anymore. Besides, I'm not sure I can."
"Why not? He'll probably understand. Why wouldn't he? Besides, what have you got to lose?"
"I hadn't thought of it that way," Julie said, arching her eyebrows. She looked into her cup for a moment and then at Marilyn. "I'll do it. On the way home."
"Thanks for listening," Julie said, smiling at Marilyn.
A car door slammed and a moment later Dave called out, "Your man is back."
Marilyn touched her hair into place, smoothed the leggings over her hips, and spread the collar of her shirt as Dave entered the kitchen. "Sit right down and I'll make breakfast for my he-man and our friends."
Dave and Marilyn had Bloody Marys with breakfast, while Matt and Julie drank black coffee. After breakfast Matt sat at the table reading the paper and trading small talk, while Julie showered and dressed, then joined them.
A few minutes before noon, Matt stood up. "We've got to hit the road pretty soon," he said. "I have some work to do for a meeting with the boss on Monday morning. Stay here and relax, honey. I'll load the car."
"Then I might as well change the bed now," Marilyn said as she followed Matt toward the bedroom.
"Let me help," Julie called after her.
"Sit," Marilyn said from the hall. "You're our guest."
Matt was zipping the suitcase when Marilyn walked into the bedroom. He eyed her over his shoulder but said nothing.
"I'm sorry about last night," Marilyn said.
"Now you're sorry?"
"Don't push me. I'm trying to apologize."
"I . . . I didn't mean it. I'm scared and I don't know what to do about last night or about my job."
"Don't do anything about last night. Believe me, it won't happen again. Getting laid isn't the answer to my problems or yours."
Matt turned to face her but remained silent.
"As for your job, whatever you're afraid of, why not share it with Julie? She's your wife and she loves you. Why not be honest?"
In spite of her mascara, eye shadow, and rouged cheeks, Matt thought Marilyn had the same genuine look he'd seen the night before.
"Hmm. Maybe you're right. Why not?"
Marilyn's guileless smile, one he hadn't seen before, held him for a moment. Then he turned and walked to the living room.
Dave stood up, his smile warm and friendly, his bloodshot eyes reflecting the lingering effects of the night before. He gripped Matt's hand firmly and grinned when Matt winced.
"Thanks for coming, old buddy. It's always fun with you guys. Let's do it again soon."
"You bet," Matt replied, "but next time it's your turn to drive to our house."
"It's a deal," Marilyn said, looking at Matt.
Dave hugged Julie and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Matt stood back from Marilyn, hands in his pockets. Marilyn glanced at Dave and Julie, then hugged Matt and kissed him on the cheek, smearing him with lipstick. They looked at each other, then laughed nervously as Matt wiped his cheek. Julie hugged Marilyn and thanked her for everything.
"We're all lucky to have such good friends," Matt said. He took Julie's hand and walked out the front door to the car.
Marilyn poured two more Bloody Marys and joined Dave on the patio.
"Did Julie tell you she might have to go back to work?" he asked.
"Did Matt say that?"
"He said he might get fired, and she'll have to work if he does."
"She didn't mention a thing about it."
"I guess she doesn't know. He must keep things from her."
"We don't have it so tough, babe," Marilyn said. "Your job's not exactly going great, but you're not going to get fired."
"Right," Dave said, hoisting his glass. "You know, they're old friends, but their life's a mess."
As they drove along the highway, Matt broke the silence. "You and Marilyn seemed to get along well on this visit."
"We had a nice talk, woman-to-woman."
He shifted his position behind the wheel and glanced at Julie. His eyes met hers and he studied their familiar depth. "I need to talk to you.
"There's something I want to talk to you about, too," Julie said.
He reached for her hand and held it tightly as they drove toward home.
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