Vows and Vagrancy

 

Mark Bernard made several mistakes last night. He’d forgotten to charge his phone. He’d worn those loafers that chafed his heel. He’d forgotten to pick up flowers, then ordered the dried out chicken instead of sirloin at the steakhouse. But Mark’s biggest blunder, the one he’d come to regret the more than any of all the boneheaded things he’d done, was choosing the Nifty Thrifty roadside motel to launch his fledgling bachelorhood.

The traffic. Semi-trailers rumbling ceaselessly through the night. Roaring across the overpass, the downshifts bombarding the walls and causing the temperamental wall mount AC unit to rattle and cough and spit out whatever mold had harvested in its dank and rusty shell. Mark had fiddled with the settings, only to step into a swamp. He’d ripped the plug from the wall for fear of being electrocuted, then sweat it out barefoot and vulnerable on the bed.

The trucks took some getting used to, and any reprieve of slogging interstate commerce only amplified the clumsy comings and goings next door. From his place under the pillows, Mark came to know the cast of characters on the other side of the paper thin wall between the rooms. Jerome was not going to show up with the weed. The news of which sent Jenna, (Mark assumed it was with a J, just as he was willing to wager his Ford Fusion that she had a nose ring), into a venomous rage where a clatter of bottles, shoes, and possibly a bible were hurled at the wall.

Mark snapped out of his daze, somewhere in all of this was his wife. How for the past year he’d been toying around with the notion of being single. Not that he didn’t love Maggie, the person, he did. Some form of her anyway. And up until last night, the whole idea of being single was only a thought, a passing glitch in the system, something he fixed his mind to when sleep played hard to get. In reality. Mark didn’t have the gumption to pick up dry cleaning, much less branch out on his own.

But last night did happen. Happened so fast it caught him flat-footed. Mark’s soft, Egyptian cotton life hadn’t prepared him for roadside motels and possibly Legionnaires disease. And he’d hardly made any sense of it all when now–after ninety minutes of fitful sleep—the phone buzzed in his hand with incessant urgency.

The screen flashed with his favorite picture of Maggie. One arm clinging to a palm tree, her other arm outstretched, reaching for the sky. A pink tint over the ocean at her back. Mark rubbed his face. He was about to see just how real his dream of being single had become.

Another fleet of trucks blitzed the overpass, knocking an empty beer can from the night stand. Mark summoned the strength to slide his thumb across the screen. Then he waited.

“I can’t do this Mark…”

He clung to the groggy silence inside the phone. There was something significant about those waning moments. Of Maggie and Mark. Of them. Twelve years of marriage about to end in a dank motel room.

Mark was taken by her composure. Because she was the one who’d been discovered. While he’d been toying with the single life she’d been putting in the work. Not some one night fling with another dipshit realtor but a full-fledged affair. An affair so obvious it was insulting.

“I’ll talk to you in a few days, but after last night I don’t want to see you…”

The call ended. Mark had hardly managed a grunt. He stared at the spread of wet towels beneath the air conditioner. Set aside thoughts of black mold. One worry at a time.

Of course Maggie didn’t want to see him. She’d been outed, and her defense was a counter attack. A well-executed escape plan that caught Mark reeling. The lack of sleep combined with the beers last night left him vulnerable. He should have seen this coming. Her new hairstyle, the red wine, the sudden interest in romance novels. Michael Buble on Pandora. And then last night.

#

A birthday dinner with those two blowhards, Steve and Laura. Maggie, bronzed and relaxed from her retreat had seemed distracted on the ride to the restaurant.

“So how was the seminar?” Mark asked, knowing that Maggie’s job as a realtor lent her every opportunity in the world to commit adultery. He’d gone with her on a couple of occasions, shaking hands and fake laughing with every teeth-whitening, self-tanner-lotion applying Kent, Clark, and Preston on the eastern seaboard. Mark had bailed early—feigning stomach pains after filling up on shrimp and crackers—to watch Netflix in bed. The cause of one of their more epic fights.

Later they’d both decided it would be better if he just hung back and held down the fort at home. Fine by him, there were seminars for new products, Risk Management, Annuities, Selling to Seniors, and a slew of other sleep-inducing training seminars, the recaps of which he’d tuned out like a church service.

“Well, on Thursday…”

The light turned green and Mark made it to Thursday before getting sidetracked. Her infidelity wasn’t happening at some retreat. Nope, the affair was taking place much closer to home.

Mark was long gone in thought when he noticed that Maggie had stopped talking. This meant two things: Either she knew he hadn’t heard a word she’d said or that it was his turn to contribute. He nodded, then took a stab at a response. “Wow,” he managed, and then waited for the deep sigh, or at least the disgusted headshake in response to his bland answer. But to his surprise Maggie was at her phone, fingers working the screen with calm precision.

Another new development. The constant phone. The old Maggie hated when he dawdled around on the phone. Dawdled, he thought again. That’s what she used to call it. Now look at her.

The birthday dinner with Steve and Laura was a drag. Steve ordered the rib eye, Laura the Santa Fe Salad. Mark, with his rubbery chicken looked on as she drowned the leafy greens with chipotle ranch while droning on about an open house. They were all supposed to relate. A quick chuckle before touching down with an example from their respective workweeks. Mark would be forced to answer questions relating to the rigors of his job search. The highs and the lows, the hits and misses as Steve would say—always said. Then the discussion would invariably circle back to the housing market—or the housing mirage as Laura called it—with Maggie nodding along and Mark drifting off before she could get around to interest rates and FDA approved loans.

Before being laid off, Mark had filled the day writing up training manuals for the customer service department at Vita Life, a midsized insurance company. Bullshit instructional guides read by half-literate new hires, half of whom quit before they ever hit the floor. Mark, who’d never worked a day in customer service in his life and abhorred face-to-face conversations, could write a killer training manual.

Three beers later he was plotting the death of his neighbor while Steve prattled on about a new set of Titleist. And by the time they’d said goodbye, Mark, limping along in the cursed loafers, had all but convinced himself that it was time to take a stand.

#

Maggie’s leftovers filled the car with an oniony vinaigrette that did little to cover the rush of emotion that came over Mark when she took to her phone again, the glow of the screen bouncing off of her glasses. Ten years of contacts, and now glasses.

The surge of anger had surprised him. A mash of the foot and the car charged forward with his blood. How long were they going to play this little game?  Mark gripped the wheel and came out with it.

“So how long have you two been screwing?”

His voice faltered just a touch, so the delivery wasn’t perfect, but Mark tightened his grip on the wheel. Held firm. What did she have to say for herself?  How about those vows they made eleven years ago, or twelve rather. Vows weakened by time and circumstance, forgotten after trying for nearly eight years to have kids until giving up on sex all together?  At least with each other.

Maggie brought the phone down, slow and calm, lending a dramatic pause to the moment as the car went dark. Mark felt his bravado retreating. The radio announced a one time blow out sale extravaganza event this weekend only at a local department store. A deep yoga breath through the nose before both lenses were trained on her husband.

“Who am I screwing Mark?”

“You know who.”

“No Mark. I don’t. Please tell me who I’m screwing. The bartender? The kid waiter? Steve? Please tell me. I would love to know what you’ve cooked up.”

“Don’t make this about me, I know what’s going on with you and that cop.”

Her hands fell to her lap. She turned to face him full on. “Eric? Mark, you think I’m cheating on you with Eric, who’s what, twenty-five? And engaged?”

“Yep.”

Mark eyed the road but watched her, how the lights streamed over her face, her mouth opening then closing. The silence hung in the darkness before she cleared her throat with her gaze still at the window. When she spoke again, her voice was soft, with a touch of concern.

“Mark, let’s get you some help.  I’m serious. At first with the job, I thought it would be good for you to have some time off, but….”

Mark felt his grasp slip. “There you go again.  This isn’t about me Maggie.”  Mark cut her off before she could finish twisting it around. He wasn’t the one at fault. He hadn’t cheated on her.

By the time he pulled into the driveway, the headlights shining on the unpainted fencepost in the side yard, a defeated silence had taken hold. Maggie held the door handle for a moment. Then she stepped out of the car. Mark, all geared up for the ensuing fight, went to turn the key when she leaned in with her hand on the door, the interior light exposing the path of a tear escaping down her cheek.

“Thanks for a spectacular fortieth birthday Mark.  Don’t bother coming inside.”

Maggie shoved the door shut then strode towards the house, a hybrid of walks both old and new.  And it was then that Mark backed out and made the mistake of checking into the Nifty Thrifty.

 

 

–Pete Fanning/2015

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