I set the flower on our bed–a rose, the warm color of love. The second one, pinned to a note, would go in Frank’s office downstairs. He’ll find it, love life again and smile. Would he smile?
Not the first time I had to fix my plan, of course. The biggest bump in the road–waking up next to a man I hardly knew–nearly threw me over the cliff. That fix brought me Frank, not the man in my original blueprint, but a value just the same.
Navigating life, the confusion and chaos humankind created, took an avid plan. Naturally, I designed one for our lives–three children, our big house in the suburbs with a custom-made portico and vegetable garden. We’d spend winters at Lake Tahoe in a cabin with perfect lake views. Summers in Cabo San Lucas to practice and improve our Spanish while soaking up the sun.
“You’re sowing seeds for life,” Frank, the professor fantasist, said. “But you’re planting them in fertilized soil. Life doesn’t work on our terms.”
Two dreamers in one house, that’d never work. I watched him jump in the pool, the chlorine’s suffocating odor setting my teeth grinding. We sacrificed part of my garden for the idea of pruned-up skin, unhealthy sunburns and premature wrinkles.
Yes, I had a plan. Idealists lived impulsive lives–trusting in the force, the energy. Not me. My job was to keep us on the path I’d traveled, from law school to a rewarding career to esteem and security. To teach our children the lesson poured into my head until I understood its value. Winners were always prepared. At the end of the road, I would fade back and watch my greatest work fully developed.
That kind of discipline took replanning when children failed to come. The doctorsaid it was all in my head. “Don’t stress, let worries melt away like ice,” he declared with the calm smile he’d perfected for the infertility-plagued women of the world. All along, I’d forgotten to hit the do-not-stress switch in the back of my head.
“A little socializing tonight,” Frank said, fixing his tie clip, “will free your mind of all that junk.” He hurried out to start the car, leaving his words to hang on me like a weight.
I hauled myself to the Nudlemans’ party, the affair that dragged on for hours. Chatter and leisurely drinking filled the evening, with the occasional loud joke tobreathe life into the event.
“One night without the kids,” a chubby fellow with a bald patch said. “To add one more to the family, and she says but what happened to romance? Roses are romantic.”
I winced at the sound of laughter pounding against my skull.
Quick to reveal in the spotlight, Chubby went on. “Or what about poems to spruce up the mood? Really, do I look like an artist?”
The strain and worries my doctor insisted I let melt away hardened into a block of ice before a droplet had a chance to drip.
But Frank had no problem with word therapy. Tall and confident he stood, lifting his glass as he spoke. “Men enjoy flowers and poetry, too.”
The room quieted, no more silk dress swishing or glass clinking, as everyone turned to gape at us. Bob Nudleman, God bless his hearty laughter, took the joke elsewhere. The chatter buzz returned.
Flowers–my burly, manly husband liked poetry and flowers. I did not know that. Was it a plea for attention I’d ignored while scrambling with life? Was there more than work at the heart of his recent silence?
A thread in our life fabric snapped, and I didn’t notice the hole it left. But I had time and our anniversary to fix everything with flowers and wine. Poetry shall follow, recited in my most seductive voice–the prelude to a night of crazy lovemaking.
I have to admit, I’m scared. Submitting to Frank’s ‘live a little’ ways usually filled me with a tautness that didn’t dissipate for days. But I would venture into the murky woods of recklessness tonight. Tomorrow, I’d forge ahead cuddled up to caution and design.
I readjusted the strap of my satin dress then pulled at the hem, as if the red material would stretch and better cover me. I’ll be fine in this skin-tight beauty, showing my every curve. The number required confidence I no longer had after the extra pounds gained from hormone treatments. But tonight, I needed an exceptional plan.
‘Red goes with your dark hair and green eyes, babe,’ Frank would say, his fingers running through my hair, hand sliding down my back and lower–much lower. That was then. Intimacy had waned after years of trying for a child; doctor appointments, hormones, and scheduled sex, until it all became too much. Until hearing Frank say, ‘We’re no good at this conceiving business. Fucking shouldn’t be a pain,’ became too much. Two people, sleeping on a desert of a bed, content, even relieved to keep away from one another.
Connie Nudleman had suggested Chic Times. Best place to charm a man, she’d said. Connie wrote for television. She and her group, a happy-going lot, gave dramatic poetry plays on a stage by the beach. People like them knew the power of words and the most romantic restaurants in town.
I wanted us to be the perfect couple on our anniversary. To relearn the secrets only we once knew. That’s what couples did, wasn’t it? Grew closer to each other more than anybody else. Made love symphony between the sheets–the effortless kind of love, like Frank said. On this anniversary, any arguments, any unforgiven moments, I wanted them forgotten.
One more look in the mirror at the vision of shimmering red that was the new me, pretending to be comfortable in the little dress. Feeling svelte. Images of us dancing at Chic Times, Al Green playing in the background, floated through my mind. No one like you, baby.
Downstairs, the desk drawer slid open after a few hearty pulls. No, this was not the ideal spot for my symbol of love. Frank might not find the rose until it shriveled. The heap of papers on Frank’s desk, perhaps. How could he find anything in thismess? I’d organize his desk later. Put everything in chronological order. Ever the dreamer, my Frank, thought things sorted all by themselves in life.
I set the note and flower on the stack, the petals facing the door. A blue paper with orange borders stuck out mid pile. Color in the midst of Frank’s black and white mess. I pulled it out, rearranging theheap in place. Verses of uneven length, written in my husband’s sloppy hand.
I watched you laugh out loud
tracing their way
across your lovely cheeks
Your hair caressed
by the wind.
I wanted to kiss your lips
A kiss so special, so perfect
Frank, who couldn’t write a creative line on my birthday card, had written an intimate poem. What had inspired him? Or who? The dress strap cut into my shoulder. The satin material suctioned to my body.
A man needed a muse to write this, didn’t he? The secret wish for a kiss, the lover’s face, the tears. An inspirational message likely based on real life. Maybe I analyzed this too deeply. But he’d never told me our kiss was so special, so perfect, so right. Not in these exact words, not even close.
Footsteps approached, then silence. “What are you doing?” Frank said behind me.
Though confused by my emotions, my reaction was automatic. I hardly put any thought into turning around and lifting the blue paper.
He stiffened. His face flushed.
“You look good,” he said, but his voice faded away. His gaze shifted to the rose in my left hand.
Strange, my heart and mind couldn’t get on the same page. “Nice poem.” I handed him the note. “Romantic. Must’ve been long ago. I don’t remember laughing out loud, tears tracing their way on my cheek.” Unless, of course, it’s not about me–but those words never made it out.
Maybe it was dedicated to a love from his past, but we’ve been married for five years, together for six. How old could this crisp paper be? How important the thoughts he’d put on it? Language was about logic to Frank; words had to make sense.
“It’s only a game,” he said, taking the paper. “A stupid game.” His voice sounded older. Weaker. He didn’t look at me; maybe afraid I’d notice something I didn’t want to see. But a simple explanation would do–any old version of a lie. I’d take it this moment while the damn dress squeezed my waist like a torture instrument. I’d think about it later.
“Who is she?” I pointed at the blue paper.
“It’s not like that, babe.” He shook his head, looking everywhere but at me.
Butterflies chased themselves from my stomach to my throat. Not like that. After every conversation, difference of opinion, it was always, “It’s not like that.”
For the first time, I tried to narrow the gap between what he said and what he meant. I should’ve noticed if something was amiss with us. If anything aside from infertility problems had plagued our marriage.
Frank’s hand moved toward me, and I wanted to take it. But I didn’t. I just stood, frozen. He patted my shoulder, nothing more.
“She encouraged me to write, that’s all,” Frank said. “Over martinis at their house once, then I went to a show. She read my poem on the stage. Everyone clapped. She said I should keep at it because I’m good, really good. Took many drafts but I wrote another poem. She read it again. The audience clapped again. Felt like taking the best drug, like I could hear the blood rushing through my veins. I was good at something.”
Good at something. Poems by the beach. From some foggy dreamlike state, I roused a little to the meaning of Frank’s words.
“It’s been too damn much lately,” Frank said. “The doctors, the moods. The planning, only for everything to go to hell. Disappointments. I needed a break. I should’ve told you. But Con insisted that would kill my inspiration. The sneaking, the unknown, made me good, she said. I wrote again, but nothing worked for a while.”
Con as in Connie Nudleman. She was the only person we called Con.
“There were the picnics,” Frank continued. “Beer at the beach a couple of times. Talking about the sound of the wind and waves, watching the sunset. We talked and laughed, and that brought it all back. I wrote again.”
I looked at Frank, his face so happy, his smile so sincere. He’d gone out to live a little. He’d written about Connie. About those evenings they’d spent at the beach. Sneaking out with his muse. Hiding from my disappointment. Finally, good at something, but with another woman.
Frank wiped his eyes gingerly. Whether to erase the shimmering red me, or the secret memories, I didn’t know. But his body language said it all. There was a sag in his neck and shoulders, like an internal surrender to an inescapable truth. It would’ve been easier to know he had sex and it meant nothing than to imagine him smitten by the other woman.
The regret in his eyes only made me angrier. Had he come home every day out of sympathy for what we’d been through? I searched my mind for one of the many life blueprints I’d constructed over the years, for something well thought out, but found nothing.
“Do we have dinner plans?” Frank eyed the flower.
I pushed the note and rose into his hand. “No plans.”
Outside, I pulled off the dress and jumped in the pool.
Silvia Villalobos was born in Bucharest, Romania and moved to the U.S. in 1992 to finish her studies.
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