Stephen Wade is a prize nominee for the PEN/O’Henry Award, 2011, and a prize nominee for the Pushcart Prize, 2013. Wade’s fiction has been published in over thirty-five print publications. His unpublished novel ‘On Hikers’ Hill’ was awarded First Prize in the UK abook2read Literary Competition, December 2010. Among the publications in which is work appears are: Crannog, Zenfri Publications, New Fables, Gem Street, Grey Sparrow, Fjords Arts and Literary Review, and Aesthetica Creative Works Annual, 2011 and 2015. www.stephenwade.ie
Too Damn Beautiful
By Stephen Wade
But Friday nights were pizza nights. As soon as the kids were gone to bed, they would order in and watch a movie. That was the rule. And it was her turn to choose from Netflix. He put his hands on her waist, looked into her eyes, and agreed that yes, of course it was. But the thing is, see, he’d had pizza at lunchtime. One of the girls in the office was leaving and they surprised her with a going-away lunch.
“I’ve already got ‘Titanic’ lined up,” she said. She stamped her foot on the carpet like a child. “I’m looking forward to it the whole week.”
“Come on, Rach,” he said. “It’s just this one time.” The rugby semi-final was on. Between Leinster and Scarlets.
“It’s not fair,” she said. And whacked away his hands from off her hips. She folded her arms. “And another thing. You didn’t tidy up last night. Or put the plates in the dishwasher. It was your turn.”
“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “It’s been a mad week. With all the extra bullshit I have to do these days.” He reached out a hand towards her face.
She jerked from him. “Don’t touch me, David,” she said. She spat his name like a curse.
“Come on, baby, please,” he said.
Without saying another word, she picked up the red notebook from the coffee table, twisted about and left the room. The door she closed gently.
“Bastard,” she said in the hall. More about him than at him. Though over the raised up sound of the pre-match sports panel he wouldn’t have heard her anyway.
While she crept up the stairs, she could hear the girls, his girls, giggling and whispering. And she heard too the click of the light-switch. And then silence. Looking in on them would only give them the excuse to start up again. She passed their bedroom door and went into her own room, careful not to wake the baby. Her baby.
She resisted the temptation to wake him, so she could put him in the bed beside her. Instead she switched on the bedside lamp and lay down on top of the duvet. She then opened the red notebook and went through this week’s list. Apart from Monday, she’d prepared breakfast every day, although he had put the lunches together for the girls. And sure why wouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t he? They were his girls.
She was aware of her own increased breathing through her nostrils as she went through the itemised chores. He’d done the shopping on Wednesday, but she had prepared the grocery list. The laundry, including his dirty underwear, she had picked up off chairs and off the floor and put into the washing machine. And, of course, she was the one to empty it and put the clothes in the drier. This week it was supposed to have been his job. He was rostered. She put ticks beside what he had done and crosses next to what he was supposed to do but hadn’t.
When she was through with checking the list, she considered storming back downstairs and presenting him with her findings. She decided against it. Unlike their friends’ marriages, theirs was going to work. They too, she and he, had had separate failed marriages. For six years she lived with someone she never really knew. Not until she got pregnant did he decide to take himself off one weekend when she was visiting her sister in London. A text message. That’s all the bastard could manage. A fucking text message to say he was ‘moving on’. And David’s wife had taken her own life. Left a note saying she just couldn’t cope anymore. When David spoke about her to Rachel, his voice always grew angry. ‘Cope?” he’d say, frowning at Rachel as if it were she who had written the note and taken an overdose. “Cope? And did she ever think about how I’m supposed to cope with two young girls to bring up on my own?
Rachel and David had met each other through an online dating agency. Neither of them had lied too much in their personal profiles. He described himself as an ‘almost young, widowed father of two girls’, which made Rachel smile. And she, in turn, went so far as to include a picture of herself with her baby. When they first met, he greeted her with two kisses. Very continental, she thought, which clinched it for her. While, for him, as he told her often, the moment he saw her smile, he knew that he would spend the rest of his life waking up to that smile.
The roster outlining their shared domestic duties they had put together methodically as a way of avoiding a second marital breakdown for each of them. She claimed it was her idea, he said it was his. Finally, they agreed that they had both come up with it together.
Whosever idea it was, the core purpose was that by dividing the indoor and outdoor chores fairly, they could avoid the inevitable tension that arises in a relationship when one side does more work than the other.
Rachel, who had read an online article recently on the power of positivity, decided she would put the time not watching TV to good use. She opened up the new book she’d bought for their forthcoming holiday to Tenerife. She read the first page and turned to the second, only to realise she had taken nothing in. She returned to the opening, but stopped to check her Smartphone. Just some junk emails. Tempted to log on to Facebook, she recalled another online article that claimed people were becoming more stupid thanks to technology and our addiction to social networking sites. She began the first chapter again, but something else niggled at her. The book’s title: ‘Go Set a Watchman’. What was that supposed to mean? She lay the book on his pillow, cover up, and checked its meaning on Wikipedia. There were references to the Bible, and Isaiah, whoever he was.
She clutched her phone to her chest and closed her eyes. She thought about their holiday to Tenerife. This would be their first trip together as a family. The images of golden beaches, azure blue bays and suntanned bodies gave her a pleasant feeling in her stomach. She saw herself applying sun-cream to the girls’ bodies. Playing her role as stepmom. And there would be handsome waiters to serve them, other people to prepare their meals, no need to worry about whose turn it was to do the cleaning. No reluctant trips to the supermarket. A break from the arguments about the school-run.
The next thing Rachel was aware of was the sound of David in the bathroom. She’d fallen asleep. She reached out for her book and knocked it off the bed. She left it where it fell. From the bathroom she could hear him making hawking noises. Something she hated. She threw her feet over the side of the bed, stood up and slipped off her skirt and top. And just before he was in the room, she got herself back in the bed and under the duvet.
“Hey baby,” he said.
With her back to him, she stayed quiet.
“Are you asleep?”
She listened to him hurriedly shucking off his clothes. She knew what that meant. The cold air pawed at her when he lifted the duvet. Already at the edge of her side of the mattress, she brought her arm out from under the duvet and lay it flat upon the bed, marking the boundary between them. And she tucked the middle of the duvet under her body.
He tried to push close to her.
“No,” she said.
“Ah, c’mon, Rach, don’t be like that.” He tried to palm her ass.
She tensed her entire body. “I mean it,” she said. “Keep your hands off me.”
He made a sucking sound with his tongue off the roof of his mouth, and twisted from her, his back to hers. “Okay,” he said.
That was that. She could relax. If there was one thing about his character that was unbending, it had to be his pride. Something Rachel always admired in him. And with this reawakened feeling for him came a sense of pity. She was denying him the one thing that always brought them as close as any two people can ever come. Some of the things he said to her during those moments of intimacy almost undermined her willpower. The way he looked, not into her eyes but, into her soul, his contorted expression so cute, and told her how he wished they could stay that way forever. And then there were the words she never tired of hearing, when he told her how damn beautiful she is. Or how, not until he met her, did he realise that there had to be a God.
Soon, David was snoring next to her. Unable to return to sleep, she began in her head a new list. A list of all the things about him that she loved and those she didn’t. She began with the positives. Top of the list was his insistence always in jumping out of the car and running around to her side and opening her door. And she loved too the way he had of looking from each of her eyes to the other. And his appearance. Okay, so he wasn’t George Clooney, although they shared the same age, but he had a rugged handsomeness. Those smile lines about his eyes. Something her friends generally agreed about. She continued with the list till she reached ten things.
The second part of the list came much more quickly, beginning with what she had realised very soon into their relationship was an innate selfishness. At first, she joked about this, using one of her dad’s quips. His three favourite people she told him were me, myself and I. And then there was the way he sometimes paid more attention to people around them in public than to her. And of course the comments he made, always too loud, about others, usually couples. What the hell did she see in that guy? Or, your man had to have money. How could anybody let themselves go like that?
When she reached number ten on the second part of the list, she stopped. She could have gone on but didn’t.
Accentuate the positive. Another of her dad’s wisdoms. Perhaps she’d been unreasonable. David’s job had become too demanding lately. Too much administration. If she thought about it before, she could understand why he hadn’t been attending properly to his chores about the house. At bottom, David was a good man, a loving husband, and a caring father. To her baby as much as the girls. The way to salvage their marriage came to her the way things sometimes did. In an instant. Through what she believed as divine intervention. But she suspected more through her dead father.
Rachel loosened the duvet and shifted into the centre of the bed, her back to him. She pressed into his manly warmth. He mumbled. She slipped free from her bra, took his hand and cupped it over her left breast.
The next morning, she got up early. Hours before the children’s channels came on air. She fixed some coffee and took it and herself into what they called the computer room and logged on. She was on a mission.
The fruits of that mission, a Nigerian girl called Chantal, arrived for duty on Tuesday afternoon. Rachel’s day off. The girl was about Rachel’s height, but far slimmer. She wore tight grey leggings and a dark top. On her face she wore a permanent smile. Rachel had never seen such perfect white teeth. She supervised the girl for the first hour, ensuring she knew exactly what she had to clean and attend to and how Rachel wanted it done. She left her alone for the second hour, while Rachel went to pick up the kids from school.
When she returned home with the girls, David’s jeep was parked in the driveway. Inside she was surprised to find the girl still there. She and David were sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea.
“Hi Rach,” he said. He told her he’d knocked off early to make up for Friday. Thought they’d all go out for a pizza.
“Yay, pizza. Pizza,” the girls said.
Rachel said she didn’t feel up to it, but that he and the kids should go ahead. She’d stay home with the baby.
The housekeeping girl walked out with David and the girls. And, if she wasn’t imagining it, Rachel saw his hand slip down from the small of her back and tap her lightly on the ass. David turned around to say he was running Chantel down to the bus stop. Something they seemed to have already arranged.
Thursday afternoon, David’s day to do the school run, Chantel arrived, as agreed, for housekeeping duties.
On Friday evening, David sent Rachel a text letting her know he was snowed under with paperwork and wouldn’t be home till late. While she was trying to call him, a follow up text came in to say he’d done the figures, and that they’d have to forgo the holiday to Tenerife. What with the crèche and now the housekeeping charges, they just couldn’t afford a holiday.
Maybe next year.
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