Making It Last - A Novella (Camelot Series), page 3
Jacob’s face went blank, then broke. He dropped his head and started to cry all over again. “I didn’t mean to eat the chocolate, Dad! I was trying to be good. I was really trying.”
“I know, Jake. You’re a good boy. Your mom loves you. She isn’t staying in Jamaica because you did anything wrong.”
Over Jake’s head, Tony shot Ant a look that said, Pipe down, or you’re in a world of hurt.
Ant smiled evilly and turned his attention back to the game on his DS.
He wasn’t supposed to have the DS today.
Bigger fish to fry.
Tony lifted his free hand to brace his small son’s back between his palms. Framing him, pressing slightly, trying to tell him with the pressure that the world wasn’t coming apart, even if it felt like it must be.
He’d realized in the van—Jake had never been apart from his mother overnight.
Six years old.
Which meant that not only was this really super extra hard for Jake, but also, Amber hadn’t spent a single night apart from the kids in six years.
He’d never thought of it before. She’d never said.
They used to get away sometimes. Leave Clark with his mom or hers, or with one of his sisters, and drive up to Columbus to stay in some swanky hotel and split a bottle of wine. Go dancing, if she made him. Have noisy, tipsy sex with the lights on, all their clothes off, on top of the goddamn sheets for a change, and not give a damn who heard them.
One year they’d gone to Oktoberfest at the fairgrounds, and for some reason he couldn’t remember, Amber had been waitressing at one of the booths for a shift. She’d worn one of those German outfits, like the chick on the St. Pauli Girl bottle. A white shirt cut low, and those suspender things over a big flouncy skirt.
The outfit had plumped up her breasts, and he’d eye-fucked her all night. After she got off her shift, they’d clinked together their giant plastic steins of beer and laughed because they were free of the work, free of the kids. Together. They’d taken a cab back to the hotel and she’d worked the heel of her hand along the fly his jeans, outlining his cock, smiling at him with her hair loose and her eyes so happy.
And God, when they got in the room, he’d had his hand up her skirt and his mouth on her breasts before the door was even closed all the way. They’d been like animals, rutting against the wall, sliding down to the floor. On the carpet. Sitting up on the bed. On all fours. He’d been drunk enough that he didn’t come for forever, and they kept laughing and grabbing at each other, her hand slick sliding over his balls, his nose in her neck, in her armpit, her shirt a little ripped, askew, then gone, her mouth sucking him until finally he came, and every single piece of that whole night had felt good. Every second.
She’d been there. Right with him.
He remembered, on those trips, how they used to plan to sleep in late but always woke up early instead, listening for phantom baby cries. They’d head home at dawn, grab breakfast at a diner, hold hands in the car.
Even after Ant was born, they’d done that sometimes. Once when she was pregnant with Jake. At least once when she was pregnant.
Since then …
Jake had been a tough baby. And they were dead broke.
Still. He should’ve taken her somewhere. Six fucking years.
“Wuh-was it Ant?” Jake asked, too loudly. Tony could see the flight attendant making her way down the aisle, her forehead furrowed with concern. She had two cans of Coke in her hands. Thank Christ.
“Because Ant and Clark were getting on her last nerve,” Jake said. “She told Grandma at the reception.”
“It wasn’t Ant. It was just …”
But Tony didn’t know any way to tell Jake what Jamila had told him. That Amber had disappeared after the wedding ceremony so that she could cry. That she’d cried herself incoherent, her throat hoarse, and her mother had been frightened to find her that way.
He’d been on the phone the whole time. The interior paint job in Dublin had gotten all fucked up, and the owner had called him, furious, accusing Tony of trying to cut corners because he’d lowballed the bid, which he had, but he’d thought the painter had enough sense to be able to spray the goddamn walls without getting paint all over the window trim and the countertops.
It took him two hours to calm the guy down, a promise that he would personally fix anything the owner had a problem with, and by then Amber had seemed fine.
A little distant, but fine.
Distant was nothing new.
He couldn’t tell his son how it cracked him open to hear that Amber had been crying. How he’d thought maybe when it was less busy at work, he could do something. Take her somewhere.
But it was never less busy at work—not since Patrick left. Not before that, if he was being honest.
He couldn’t tell Jake that what had really happened was that he’d watched his wife as she crossed the lobby, and he’d seen so much pain in her eyes. That he’d wanted more than anything to be able to fix it, but he had no idea how.
Jamila had given him this chance to do something to make Amber feel better. This one chance. So he’d taken it.
He still wasn’t sure it had been the right thing to do.
“She needs a break, that’s all,” he said.
He looked over Jake’s head, out the window toward the tarmac, and willed himself to believe it.
She’s coming home. Not leaving us.
This is the right thing to do.
By the time the plane lifted off, Jake and Ant were both asleep.
Tony kept reminding himself to breathe.
Amber sat at the edge of the pool, dangling her legs in the water. They appeared to fracture at mid-calf, dividing cool, blue-tinted flesh from the warm light brown of her thighs. There were dry white spots on her knee where she needed lotion.
At least she’d shaved her legs.
At least she’d shaved twenty-five pounds of stored excess off her frame, working out twice a week with Marc for a year and a half, until Tony had announced they couldn’t afford it anymore.
She’d felt so different when she was losing the weight. Especially at first. So much better, as though she were uncovering her true self from beneath layers of debris.
She’d been so hopeful that her body was the problem, its resurrection the solution she’d been seeking.
But beneath the Caribbean sun, wearing a silver bikini that she’d purchased at the resort gift shop with two fifties peeled off the wad of cash she’d found in the envelope Jamila had pressed into her hand, Amber didn’t feel hopeful. She felt the impulse to pinch the goose-pimpled expanse of her thigh. To twist her own skin between her fingers until she left a red mark, a bruise.
She had done this radical thing, effected this transformation, and it hadn’t fixed her.
It hadn’t fixed anything.
That’s what she would have told Tony if she’d had a minute to think before the van pulled away from the curb. That these kinds of changes—these big gestures—didn’t help.
She and Tony didn’t have the kind of problem that could be fixed with a gesture or a glorious truth delivered at exactly the right moment. They had a dead ember. A light that had gone out.
It wasn’t his fault or hers. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It had just happened, somewhere along the line. They’d been preoccupied with raising their kids and paying the mortgage, and they’d lost each other.
When she looked around at the other couples she knew—her friends, the moms and dads of the kids in the boys’ classes at school—she thought the same thing must have happened to them. They weren’t kissing against pillars in the sunlight. They had things to do, lives to tend to.
This was marriage. This was life.
But God, she missed Tony sometimes.
She missed feeling like she knew who she was, apart from the roles she inhabited.
She missed wanting things.
Sometimes, when she was alone in the house, dog in the backyard, silence all around her, she tried to imagine the shape of her future, and all she could see was the boys growing up. She’d think, In twenty years, I’ll be …
And the next thing she knew, she’d be imagining Clark working as a vet or a computer programmer, and her heart would swell with pride. She’d imagine Tony, building beautiful houses.
There was this gap in her life where she used to be, and she couldn’t fill it, so she mopped the kitchen floor and Swiffered the hallways of her big, empty house. She kept it clean and beautiful, kept her kids clean and beautiful, and tried to convince herself it was enough.
It wasn’t enough.
But it was all she had.
Amber looked at the rocking surface of the water. The sun beat down on the crown of her head, intense rather than diffused, its rays focused on one nickel-size spot of dark hair that would sizzle if she jumped into the water.
Too much hair, hot against her neck. Too much fuss, washing and conditioning it every day. Blowing it dry or dealing with the fact that if she didn’t, it would still be damp at lunchtime.
Tony liked it long, but he’d claimed to like those twenty-five extra pounds, too.
In the pool, a man was swimming alone. Good-looking. About Tony’s age, maybe a little older. Every time she looked up, he was in a new position, but he was always facing her direction.
She thought she knew what he saw when he looked at her. Lonely woman. Shiny bikini. An ad that said, Come talk to me.
But she was a false advertisement. The dry spot on her knee—raspy with flaking skin when she put her fingertip on it—that was the true product. She was desiccated, her body a ship held together by tarred hemp ropes, drying in the sun. A vessel with no captain.
She’d walked up to Jamila’s luxurious, beautiful suite, placed her bag in the closet, turned in a circle, and realized she didn’t have the faintest notion what to do with herself.
Have fun, Tony had commanded.
And then that kiss. The force behind it, the conviction—as if he knew something she didn’t. Something he couldn’t put into words.
At home, she caught herself watching him moving through rooms. Reaching for the salad dressing. Toweling off his hair or bending down to pull a pair of jeans out of his dresser drawer. She caught herself hoping that he still loved her as much as she loved him, and more than that—that he knew something.
Because there had been times when it surprised her what Tony knew. Not with his head, but with his heart. In his bones. Back when they met, he’d known how to make love to her until she was limp and exhausted, suffused with lazy confidence that there was no greater thing she had been put on the earth to do.
When she’d found herself pregnant with Clark, staring into the future and watching one door after another close in her face, Tony had known how to talk her back to reason. He’d known how to hold her hand in the hospital, how to carry the baby in the crook of his arm like Clark was this hardy thing, unbreakable.
He’d known how to deal with the fact that their plans had been replaced with question marks.
She could still feel that kiss. How erotically unfamiliar his mouth had been, with all those people watching. The tug of a golden thread of hope, wrapped around her heart even as the van drove away.
But then the van was gone, and that was that.
They’d been married for ten years, together longer than that. She bought his underwear, his socks. She scrubbed his toilets and birthed his children, and she couldn’t really believe at this stage of the game that Tony knew anything she didn’t know.
“Hey, Mom! Watch this!”
She looked up in time to see a boy who wasn’t her son leap off the diving board, hands wrapped around his knees. His hair was airborne, his cheeks puffing out because he was so young, he still thought he needed that talisman to keep him safe from drowning.
He didn’t know that his body would float. That it took work, concentration, deliberation, to really let yourself drown.
Yesterday, it had been Tony in this pool with the boys. Wading toward the deep end with Jacob dangling from his back—surely choking him, but Tony had smiled as he cocked his arm and tossed the Nerf football into the deep end. It had shed water in a sparkling spiral and then dropped into Ant’s waiting hands right before Clark dunked him mercilessly under the water.
And then, when Clark came up with the football, “Go deep, Dad!”
Tony obligingly backing into the shallow end of the pool. One big hand gripping Jacob’s spindly thigh, holding the boy up. Black swim trunks sucked tight to his quads as water sluiced over his chest and stomach.
There had been two girls in the deck chairs beside her. Twenty, twenty-two years old. They’d rated all the men in the pool area, and Tony had come in a close second to the Jamaican lifeguard on duty.
Amber had squinted at him from behind her sunglasses, trying to see him the way they did.
At forty-two, he still had what could objectively be declared a great chest—broad, muscular—attached to a pair of arms that could hoist a sack of Quikrete or an eighty-pound kid up onto his shoulders with equal ease. Flat stomach, nice tan, good hair.
Hot, one of the girls had said.
Smoking, the other agreed. I’d do him in a heartbeat.
He’d just looked like Tony to her.
Then Anthony had shouted, Look, Mom! exactly like this other boy, and he’d performed some kind of cannonball-twist thing off the diving board while grinning in Amber’s direction.
The girls had put two and two together. They’d found something else to talk about. A short while later, they’d found somewhere else to be.
Amber’s mother, stretched out flat on the chaise to her right, had declared the whole episode hilarious, but Amber hadn’t been amused. She’d wanted to lean over and stop the closest girl right as she was about to depart.
You don’t have to go, she might have said. I know what he looks like. I know you probably didn’t get that he’s my husband, because for all the attention he pays to me, I might as well not be here.
But of course she’d done nothing. Said nothing.
What would be the point?
She’d laughed along with her mother, and she’d pretended everything was fine, because it was.
Everything could be broken, the light in a marriage gone out, and still be fine.
The man in the pool began walking toward her, his progress impeded by the drag of the water and his obvious desire to look suave.
He held a drink in one hand, wore sunglasses pushed up on top of his head.
He smiled at her, a winning sort of try-out smile that contained the right amount of sheepishness to let her know that he was going to hit on her now, and he knew it was kind of cheesy, but perhaps she would be willing to roll with it.
She wore her wedding ring, but it wasn’t much of a ring. A simple gold band. Maybe he hadn’t noticed.
Maybe he didn’t care.
Amber lifted her hair off her neck, gathering it into a ponytail and then twisting it into a knot. She wrapped one strand around it twice, split it, and tugged it tight, fashioning a loose bun that would fall out as soon as she stood up.
The action straightened her spine, exposed her to his gaze, and she felt it roaming over her breasts, which had risen with her arms. Her breasts had been on the small side to begin with, but they’d come out of motherhood in passable condition.
She felt the stranger’s eyes roam over her stomach. Reasonably close to flat. No C-section scars. Barely visible stretch marks.
She thought about how easy it would be. How she wouldn’t even have to make the decision. She could just allow the wind to push her along. Allow this man’s winning smile to charm her, one drink to turn into three. Allow him to lead her somewhere.
She wondered how many times Tony had lived through this moment. This knowing that if he wanted to, he
She didn’t think he’d ever done it, but she couldn’t be sure. And if he did—if he had—what would it mean? That he didn’t love her? That he no longer deserved to be the father of her children, the provider of her household, the lover in her bed?
Maybe it would only mean that he’d wanted to do something simple. That he wanted to fuck and be fucked, the most rudimentary of transactions, without past or future or anything layered over it.
Maybe it would mean that he’d wanted to feel powerful, to feel wanted, the object of someone’s fantasies. The subject of his own life.
Maybe it would mean one thing to him, another to her, and neither of them would be right, because there was no such thing as right. Only interpretations of reality, held close to the heart or spoken aloud. Shared back and forth.
I’d do him in a heartbeat.
Those girls—they had no idea how many heartbeats made up a marriage. How many decisions had to be made.
They had no idea what it was like.
The man reached the edge of the pool, braced his palms on the edge, and levered himself up, twisting around at the last second to sit beside her. Water dripped off his legs and pooled on the concrete, a puddle inching its way toward her thigh. Warm when it reached her. Warm as a touch.
She thought that when she was done with this man, she’d go to the salon and see if they had an opening.
She would sit down in a chair, and she would tell the stylist to cut off her hair.
By the time Tony got home from work, it was after ten.
He pushed the door open quietly and toed off his boots, which he’d unlaced in the garage. He hung his work jacket on the hook and exhaled, rubbing flattened fingers up and down over his forehead, trying to ease the tension from his face.
In the kitchen, he opened the fridge, looking for something to eat.
“Top shelf,” a voice said, and he jumped and hit his head on the corner of the freezer door.