Authors: Kelee Morris
“I wouldn’t call you old.”
He smiled, and the tension briefly ebbed. “That’s kind of you to say, Mrs. Nelson. All I can say in return is that I’m sorry. In the future, I’ll make sure I treat you with the professionalism you deserve.”
“Thank you, Dr. Stewart,” I replied. “That’s all I want. Nothing more.”
He so wants you.
He didn’t say that.
“You intrigued me?!?!”
He’s interested in my tattoo.
And everything it’s attached to.
I was standing in the grocery aisle at the local Target, texting with Van. Mackenzie and I had ventured out to replenish our perpetually understocked pantry and refrigerator, but she had disappeared down the toy aisle. She suddenly reappeared, breathless, gripping something in her hand. “We have to get this for Lily,” she declared.
She thrust a small stuffed leopard up at me. “Read the tag.”
I examined the plastic red heart attached to its collar:
Hello, my name is Lily.
“All right. Maybe we can stop by the rink and you can give it to her.”
“But we should have brought CC,” she pouted. When I eyed her questioningly, she offered further explanation. “So he can skate in a YouTube video.”
“Not today,” I said, smiling at the memory of last summer when Mackenzie attempted to teach our befuddled dog how to skateboard.
I had spent time in every ice rink in the area. They tended to be cheaply built, ‘70s era brick or cinderblock buildings with little architectural ambition beyond day-to-day functionality.
We slipped into the cold, cavernous rink and took seats at the top row of metal bleachers. Only a scattering of parents was in attendance, mostly those with younger skaters. I didn’t know how Lily would feel about our presence here. I hadn’t been to practice all season and even at meets she sometimes seemed to barely tolerate Matt and me cheering her on, claiming it made her nervous.
One of the things I appreciated about speed skating was the mixture of ages and levels. All the skaters practiced together, from the newcomers to the most competitive veterans. The older skaters often bonded with the younger ones. It created a sense of community and mutual support.
Over the past few years, Lily had become one of the strongest skaters on the team. I immediately spotted her, clad entirely in black Lycra, her powerful quads propelling her smoothly around a makeshift track outlined by orange cones. As she headed into the tight turn, she leaned in so far that it seemed impossible for her to remain on her blades. Her hand lightly touched the ice for support as her legs executed elegant crossovers. She was a joy to watch and it was one of the times I felt most proud of her.
“Your sister is looking really strong,” I commented to Mackenzie.
“It’s because she’s in love,” Mackenzie pronounced.
“What makes you think that?”
“Anna told me.”
I should have known. There were few secrets in our house.
I observed the male skaters rounding the track. There was a skater named Chase, or maybe it was Nate. But he was at least a year younger than Lily and had a severe case of acne. I doubted very much that he was boyfriend material.
Finishing her laps, Lily executed a perfect hockey stop just before reaching the boards. She bent over to catch her breath, resting her hands on her thighs. When she straightened again, she glanced up in the stands and spotted us. Mackenzie smiled and held up the stuffed animal. Lily smiled back. She actually seemed pleased to see us here. Perhaps she was in love.
“You have a letter.” Marilyn sounded annoyed. This was hardly surprising. Marilyn seemed to find everything and everyone that crossed her path annoying to one degree or another. A compact woman with wiry gray hair and a fondness for heavy, hand knit sweaters, she had been the Archeology Department secretary for almost 30 years. Perhaps she knew it was futile to change jobs. She would be no happier elsewhere.
I had stopped into her office because my department-issued laptop was acting finicky. But, as I had already learned about university finances, it was easier to raise $20 million for a new building than $2,000 to keep essential hardware running.
Marilyn pulled a square, embossed envelope out of a row of narrow mail slots and handed it over. “You really need to check your mailbox regularly,” she said.
“I didn’t know I had a mailbox.” I turned the envelope over in my hand, feeling its weight. My name was handwritten on the front in a neat cursive.
I waited until I had left the office to carefully break the seal and remove the invitation and reply card inside. It was so formal it felt like it had come from another century.
Dr. TJ Reiniger requests the pleasure of Mrs. Julia Nelson’s company for a cocktail party on Saturday next at 8 o’clock as he draws what may be his last breaths.
I paused in the middle of the empty hallway.
Was this for real?
I had heard that the archeology graduate students weren’t above playing practical jokes on one another.
I went to Nina’s office to give her an update on the laptop situation and to see if she had an explanation for the invitation.
“This is interesting,” she said after she read the card and handed it back to me.
“Who’s TJ Reiniger?”
“Dean of the Music School. He and Dr. Stewart have been best friends for years. His parties are must-attend social events, but this is probably his last one.”
“He has terminal cancer. He’s already lived longer than the doctor’s gave him.”
“That’s so sad,” I said. I tucked the invitation back in its envelope. “Are you going?”
She offered me a curious smile that made me even more puzzled. “You’re the first person in the department besides Dr. Stewart to ever be invited to one of his parties.”
Even if my computer had been functioning properly, I would have found it difficult to get work done that day. Instead, I watched a patch of sun slowly move across the library carpet as I contemplated the mystery that was Dr. Ashland Stewart. In the two weeks since our encounter by the lake, he had gone out of his way to make sure I didn’t feel snubbed. He stopped by the library twice to check on my progress and when I saw him in the archeology building, he interrupted his conversation with another professor to call me over and introduce me. Each time he was cordial and expansive, sharing interesting discoveries from his research. But neither of us had mentioned our conversation by the lake. I had already scolded myself many times for encouraging any possible interest he had in me. Now he had evidently convinced a friend whom I had never met to invite me to a party where I wouldn’t know anyone.
Of course I wasn’t going to attend. I didn’t want Ashland Stewart to think I had an interest in him. At night, when I was alone in the bedroom, I could enjoy weaving his mysterious incongruities into a baser fantasy—one that led to me slip my little blue friend out of its pouch and imagine the two of us sharing a tent on a remote mountain, his fingers, his lips, his tongue, his cock excavating every crevice, every orifice of my body. But that was a harmless fantasy. In the cold light of day, the idea of an affair with anyone was too extreme to contemplate.
I should have checked the “no” box immediately and returned the card. Instead, it remained in my computer bag until two days before the party, a silent presence that made my heart beat faster, my stomach churn, and my groin pulsate eagerly every time I thought of it.
I debated whether to ask Van for advise, but I knew she would only encourage me to go, to indulge my fantasies and desires.
You can’t do that,
my inner voice argued.
You’re a married woman.
Was I going to live by rationality or impulse? For 17 years, I’d done the former.
Marilyn wasn’t in her office when I stopped by, so I dropped the reply card into the outgoing interdepartmental mailbox.
Yes, I will attend
, I had checked.
I had crossed a line. It was a fuzzy boundary, but I couldn’t deny that it existed. I was attracted to Ashland Stewart, to his cool blue eyes, and to the sadness I sensed was behind them. My name was the only one on the invitation. I couldn’t bring Matt, Van, or anyone else along to talk me down if I was tempted to cross a more dangerous line. Whatever his intentions were, I would be on my own.
Matt was home all week, an unusual stretch for him. He would be home the night of the party. Thursday evening, I finished filling the dishwasher, checked in to make sure Mackenzie was asleep, and went to our bedroom. Matt was already under the covers, holding his phone above his head, scrolling through work emails or maybe just surfing as a way to relax.
I put on my soft flannel pajamas with red checks that Anna said made me look like a tablecloth in need of straightening before dinner could be served. I climbed under the covers and snuggled up next to my husband. He was still immersed in whatever he was doing. “Damn,” he muttered.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He was typing something.
“I have to be in Tulsa most of next week.”
“Sounds glamorous.” I slipped a hand under his pajama top and rested it on his stomach. I was looking for a connection, something to convince me not to go.
“It’s the center of the universe,” he joked. “It really is. There’s this spot downtown. They call it the Center of the Universe. It has a weird echo effect.”
“I can’t believe it’s not a major tourist hub,” I kept my hand where it was, even though Matt didn’t react to my touch. “Matt, are we okay?” I asked.
He put down his phone and turned to face me. “Why, is something wrong?”
I shook my head. “It just feels like we rush along with our day-to-day lives, but we never really experience anything more.”
“Like what?” he asked. I could tell from Matt’s wrinkled brow that he didn’t like where this was going. He was never comfortable with heavy conversations about the meaning of marriage or life.
“I don’t know. Something transcendent.”
“Transcendent.” He seemed to mull over the word. “You know, I have been thinking of taking the whole family to India to sit at the feet of a swami.”
I withdrew my hand. “Matt, I’m serious.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not good at these things.” He reached out an arm to pull me to him. “I thought this job was going to make you happy.”
“I like my job. It’s just, I feel like there’s still something missing.”
He leaned over and kissed me. “You’ve got three beautiful daughters, an incredibly handsome husband—what more could you want?”
I offered him a reassuring smile. “Nothing.”
He kissed me on the cheek and then, leaning on one elbow, moved to my lips. Before I climbed into bed, I imagined that sex would make me feel closer to Matt, would shut down the wild, untamed desires that had been coursing through me. But I knew now the sex would be obligatory. It wouldn’t satisfy.
Like he would.
I kissed Matt back. I wanted to be with my husband. I wanted to do the right thing.
But I just couldn’t fake it, not tonight.
I stopped returning his kisses. “I’m sorry, Matt,” I said. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”
“No, it’s just me. I’m tired.”
“It’s all right. It’s been a long week.”
He slipped back to his side. I knew I had to bring up the party. I willed myself to sound casual. “I forgot to tell you. I’m invited to a work thing Saturday night.”
He turned to me. “I’m going with Mike and Tim to the Bulls game. Did you forget?”
“I did. That’s all right. I can go by myself. It’s not a big deal.”
“Do you want me to call Isabelle?” he asked.
“No, I can do it.”
Matt turned his attention again to the blue glow of his phone screen. I switched off my bedside light so he couldn’t see my face, even though that was not where he could have found my true feelings. I shifted my body under the comforter. My husband had no way of knowing that the wetness between my legs was precipitated by the thought of the party on Saturday, and the man I would be seeing there.
I focused my attention on the corner of the room where I had spotted the spider. It felt like that night had been long ago, and I was a different person now. But that wasn’t true. I was still Julia Nelson, wife, mother, PTA president. The goddess symbol on my ankle was still just a tattoo. I was determined not to let anything happen. I would have some fun, flirt a little, stoke my ego, and nothing more.
Saturday night at six o’clock, I stood in front of my closet, staring into its depths, a thick bathrobe wrapped around my freshly showered body. I had already tried on four dresses, all of them dissatisfying in their own way. Van had pressed me to go shopping with her, but I had made a conscious decision not to buy any new clothes for this party. Now I regretted it. I didn’t want to come off as some suburban cougar but I didn’t want to look like a 44-year-old woman whose days of attracting men were long behind her.
“Where is it you’re going?” Lily asked from the doorway. Wearing sweats and a T-shirt that still managed to compliment her youthful body, she watched me with mild curiosity. Not surprisingly, she either hadn’t been listening or forgot when I told her this morning.