The nights when her husband played poker were her favorite. She knew undoubtedly that he would disappear into a cloud of mahogany scented smoke and lose time until the early hours of the next morning. It never bothered her that he came home smelling like burnt tobacco and bourbon. She dreamt of nights where she could slip into her long-forgotten little black dress and escape to the retreat of other adults, adults who didn’t need their diapers changed, or dinner on the table. For several blissful hours, she could sit at the end of the bar and sip a dry martini and watch the comings and goings of strangers, people she would never know. She wondered what their stories were. Were they on dates? Were they prowling for company that would ultimately end up tousled in their bedroom sheets, only to disappear the next day in an awkward exchange of false promises to call again? How did these people know each other, or happen upon each other? The mystery of the night intrigued and beguiled her; it was a life she missed desperately, her own lost in the suburbs of complacency.
Tonight was no different from those nights.
Wiping the fog from her bathroom mirror absent mindedly, she gazed off into space, wondering where she would end up later that evening, anxious and nervous for the prospect of a new adventure. She toweled off and shrugged into her red terrycloth robe, tying it around the front of her securely. The babysitter would be here at any moment armed with enthusiasm that can only be attributed to the high wages she would be paid. It was hard for her to fathom anyone finding that much joy in caring for two children under the age of four, one of which had an affinity for late-night tantrums and the other who still required consistent attention and even more consistent diaper changes. It was only eight o’clock, so the lounge would not fill up with strangers of the night for at least another hour. With butterflies in her stomach, she approached her closet and opened the door with caution. She pursed her lips as she mindlessly flipped through hangers of sweater-sets and camisoles, slacks and modest sundresses. It was her “mom” wardrobe, her safe, functional, comfortable bureau full of physical manifestations of her boredom. Finally, she had reached the dark, hard to reach right corner of the closet. It was like unwrapping a gift; she felt guilty if she made a beeline for that particular part of the closet. It housed the clothing she had long left behind her in exchange for the convenience of clothing that would mask her womanly curves and accentuate only her status as wife, mother, and middle aged woman. She embraced those roles with ease, but yearned for the identity just of a woman. Lovingly, she ran her fingers over the few hangers hidden from the light, over layers of satin slip dresses and lace cocktail blouses like butter on a hot griddle.
After a moment of hesitation, she yanked a short, backless, microfiber black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps off of the furthest hanger, and bent down to grab her red peep-toe stiletto heels from the floor of the closet. The dress slipped over her head like a second skin, falling without any assistance to the middle of her thighs, which even after two children and fifteen years still had exceptional muscle tone and elasticity. Twenty minutes later, her hair was dried and her makeup was finished. In the full length mirror that hung behind the bedroom door, she examined herself for what felt like hours. Every curve, every angle, looked astonishing when it was not cloaked in jeans and a sweater set. Eventually, she mustered up the courage to head downstairs to greet the babysitter, who was ringing the doorbell.
“Wow! Mrs. H, you look fantastic! Hot date tonight?” Mallory bounced into the house with a wink and made herself at home in the living room, where both children were entranced in a Disney film in their respective playpens. “Oh, no honey but thanks you for the compliment. I am just going to meet some girlfriends for a book club meeting and a bottle of wine. But please, if Greg comes home early please do not bother him with the details, I have already texted him my plans. He may just be a bit tired; I suspect he may be working late.” Nervously, she played with her car keys in her hands, fumbling to find the right one to lock the door behind her. She contemplated running back upstairs and putting her pajamas on, shaking the idea of an adventure far out of her mind. And yet, she stayed firmly planted in the foyer, paralyzed with nerves.
“Oh okay, sure.” Mallory looked at her curiously. Perhaps she was a bit overdressed for a book club meet up, but she was confident that Mallory would not question her whereabouts. She only hoped she would not tell Greg how she was dressed, or that she was wearing perfume, and heels, and makeup. Greg did not approve of provocative clothing once their children were born, time and again he explained that he wanted to be respectful of her new role as a mother, and he hardly remembered a time when his mother needed a reason to cook dinner in kitten heels. She longed for the earlier days of their marriage, when he would come home with a pink striped shopping bag, containing the unmentionables he used to tear off of her with sexual abandon. It had been a long time, and two children, since he had done this. He worked so much, played poker more than he ate dinner at home, and seemed to find his escape from reality without missing a beat.
“Goodnight darlings!” she called into the other room, although neither child seemed concerned with greeting her while the television hypnotized them. Slowly, she made her way to the door, her heels clinking on the hardwood floor with each step. Grabbing her long pea coat from the foyer closet, as deliberate as she had been with the robe, she covered herself securely and reached for the door handle, only for it to turn and for Greg to appear in the foyer before her. Startled, she clutched the belt of her jacket nervously, ensuring all of her was covered.
“You’re home early, babe.” If she was stammering, she had no control over it, but she maintained anxious eye contact with him. “Yeah,” he began, “decided to call it a night early.” They eyed each other like gunslingers, although they had no reason not to trust one another. He leaned into her, kissing her gingerly on the cheek, and brushing past her into the living room. With as much luck as she had in getting the kids attention, he kissed them each goodnight and returned to the foyer, loosening his tie as he made his way for the stairs. “Oh, were you going somewhere? I see Mallory in the kitchen playing Angry Birds. Book club again?” If there was suspicion in his mind, he certainly hid it well in his flat tone.
“Um, well yeah I am running a bit late so I have to run honey. Love you.”
“Love you too. Don’t be too late.” And with that, he skipped up the stairs, retrieving his cell phone from his pocket and texting as he disappeared into the dark hallway that led to their bedroom. With urgency, she pulled the front door open and gasped as the brisk, winter air whipped her cheeks. You could turn around and go inside, her inner voice quelled. Just go inside and watch reruns of the same Criminal Minds episodes and fall asleep on separate sides of the bed as usual, it taunted. For a moment, she pivoted to turn and run back into the house, caught for sure in what she thought was an obvious lie. But as she approached the porch, she heard footsteps in the foyer and froze. From behind the door, she could hear Greg’s voice in a faint tunnel of sound.
“Mal, I am going to go play poker! Just, uh, don’t worry about letting Maria know since she is already out. I am sure I will beat her back anyway. You know the emergency numbers! Goodnight!” In a panic, she sauntered awkwardly in towards her car in the driveway, cursing the height of her heels with each hurried step. She had to go now, since Greg would be making his way outside and see her still standing there if she did not do so quickly. In a daze, she hopped into her car, slammed it into reverse, and made her way to the Midtown Lounge in record time, sweaty palms on the steering wheel and curious eyes on the rear view mirror. Somehow, she felt far more comfortable knowing she had made it to her destination undetected, and her mind calmed as she entered the lounge.
Pushing politely past droves of twenty-something professionals and local hipsters doused in devil-may-care confidence, she found an empty spot at the end of the L-shaped bar and pulled the stool in close, like it would somehow hide her anxiety and lack of belonging in the surroundings. She ordered a dry martini, and nursed it for some time, nervously playing with the plastic sword holding two green olives in place. It clinked across the inside of the glass, ticking away the seconds, ticking away the nervousness as she finished glass after glass. Her face was hot now, her mind quieting with each sip and each slip into a buzzed and fuzzy place. Her eyes wandered across the faces of the men in the room, but none of them appealed to her. They were too muscular, or too young, too tall or not tall enough. She noticed their eyes on her too, usually with an attracted approval. It made her feel alive, womanly, knowing she still had that type of magnetic pull over a man who did not look at her like a baby making orifice or a maid. For half an hour, she reveled in the attention of the young men who bought her drinks and pretended to care about the details of her life.
While she was window shopping through the variety of the ambitious young men, a strikingly handsome man entered the bar and perched himself directly across from her. His hair was short and well kept, with salt and pepper tones in all the right places to make him look mature yet alluring. He had youthful blue eyes aged only by crow’s feet, and looked comfortably casual in freshly pressed slacks and a half unbuttoned pinstripe dress shirt. She imagined he was the intense career man by day, and the stuff of epic harlequin novels when the sun set. She was dazzled by him, and when he made brief eye contact with her, she felt her cheeks flush as she quickly looked away from him. When she looked up once again, he was gone. She reached into her clutch and pulled out her secret pack of Marlboros and lit one, breathing in deep with relief and enjoyment, but also with disappointment.
“Tisk tisk, such a beautiful woman should not poison herself with such junk.”
The voice made the hair on her neck stand at attention, sending chills down her exposed spine. It was deep, sultry, and raspy, like a lone oboe rich with undertones. She turned to face the voice, and saw the most strapping and devilishly handsome man she had ever laid eyes on. His jaw was strong and athletic, and he beamed at her with a mouth full of perfect, white teeth. He smelled of new leather and cologne, and he was impressively tall and well built. This living Ken doll had plucked her out of obscurity, among the flock of younger women dressed solely for the attention of men such as him. He cocked his head to the side and plucked the cigarette from her mouth, putting it out in the ashtray in front of her on the bar. “Let me buy you another one of those poisonous things, though,” he motioned towards her empty glass and winked with approval. He waved the bartender over and ordered one for them both, sliding into the minimal space there was to stand next to her stool in the crowded bar. He brushed her leg, her arm, even her hair, squeezing into the space, and her body lit up with electricity and arousal. Surely, he had noticed, because as they chatted and played the cat-and-mouse game of pick-up lines and feigned interest in the garbage about who they were and what they did, his hand found its way to her thigh, gently squeezing her with each laugh and agreement about whatever the hell it was they were talking about. She had no idea where she was in the conversation, she was just so immensely turned on by this that her mind wandered to devious places that made her smile coyly and laugh far too much at his jokes.
“So what do you say that you and I get out of here, and skip the awkward pretention that we ‘never do things like this’ and get down to business. I’d like to make love to you, because if I can’t, I’ll never forgive myself.” She was taken aback by the directness in his approach, but she didn’t let it creep across her face. She was unchanged in her coy performance, liberated by his glaring desire to have her, and dying to have him. There were no words necessary, so she just grabbed his hand and led him towards the door. He helped her into her jacket, although now she felt no need to bustle herself into hiding, and when the chill of the night hit her face, it felt exhilarating. They went to their respective cars, and she followed him with excitement to his house, lit only by the streetlight in front of it amongst the line of dark homes resting in the twilight of the evening.
He appeared at her car door, extending his hand in a gentlemanly act of chivalry, closing it behind her and leading her towards the house with his hand guiding her by the small of her back. When they reached the door, he turned to her slowly and intent on finding her eyes in the darkness. He pulled her close, drawing her body to him until it was pressed against him, and laid his lips on hers in the most intimate kiss she had ever experienced. It was slow, deliberate, and sensual. When he finally released her from his hold, she was dizzy with desire and longing to kiss him again. Instead, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny, gold wedding band and slipped it onto his ring finger, raising his head to see her eyes once again. He looked at her with guilt, but she did not flinch.
“Sorry, I couldn’t leave it on in the bar. Would’ve killed the entire mood, huh?” She grabbed his hand and pulled it towards her chest to cover her heart. “It never kills the mood when I see that ring there, because I gave it to you.” She brought his hand to her lips and kissed it gently. For a long moment, they smiled at one another in mutual but silent agreement that tonight was the night they needed. It would likely be the first among many nights where they took a brief snapshot of their lives as lovers and as people, rather than labels. They held hands and walked into their home together, where the television stayed off, and the distance between them in bed disappeared.