“To Love Again” by Steve Cushman

 

Pulling onto I-4, heading out of Orlando, Fay told herself to relax.
On the seat next to her was her purse and an overnight bag stuffed
with a couple days worth of clean clothes, suntan lotion, a romance
novel, and a manila envelope with the divorce papers.  She was going
to Cocoa Beach for the weekend, just long enough to clear her mind
and sign the divorce papers Dale, her soon to be ex, had the nerve to
send certified mail to Dr. Hasell’s office where she worked as a dental
hygienist

Fay concentrated on staying between the white lines of the highway.
Driving had gotten somewhat easier in the last month.  More than
once, in those first few weeks after the separation, she’d had to fight
the urge to jerk the steering wheel hard to the right and plow into the
pine trees lining the highway.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to die as
much as go to sleep for a while, perhaps long enough to make it
through the grieving process, however long that might be, maybe wake
up on the other side, ready for life again.

She’d reserved a room at the Ocean Shore Suites.  The front of the
motel faced US 1 and the back faced the beach.  While her first floor
room didn’t offer a view of the ocean, only sand dunes, she could smell
and taste the salt in the air.

Hungry from the drive, Fay walked across the street to Sonny’s Pit
Bar-B-Q.  She ordered a pulled pork sandwich and watched a baby boy,
maybe a year old, at the table across from her, gobble up a plateful of
baked beans.  His face and hands were covered in the red-brown
sauce.  The parents, a scruffy looking pair of nineteen or twenty year
olds, didn’t seem to notice when the baby started running his dirty
hands through his blonde hair.  Fay had to fight the desire to reach
over and stop him, to fling one of her French fries into the back of that
worthless father’s head.

She could not help but think of Dale and her son Owen, who was a
high school senior and still living with his father.  Dale had come to her
that Sunday morning on his way out the door to go fishing.  He had on
that stupid hat with the hooks and lures fastened to the brim.  She
was reading the paper without much concentration, thinking that what
she really needed to do was get out there and tidy up the garden, get
it ready for winter.

“With Owen graduating this year I think we should consider splitting
up,” Dale said as easy as could be, as if it were something he’d
practiced hundreds of times before and were no bigger deal than
suggesting they plant a new crepe myrtle in the front yard.

At first she didn’t quite understand what he’d said; she didn’t listen
to half of what he said.  He was always talking.  Plans for expanding his
landscaping business, plans for buying a new work truck.  Talk, talk,
talk.  Always something she didn’t really care about.  Lowering the
newspaper, she noticed a cartoon was on the TV behind him.  This
seemed strange to her, because weren’t cartoons for Saturday
mornings?

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Split up, divorce.”

“But why?”  Other questions occurred to her: Is it another woman?
Have you felt this way a long time?  Is it me?  Am I fat?  Am I not
attractive?  But the words to these questions, thankfully, she would
think later, didn’t come out of her mouth.

“You know neither of us are happy,” he said.

And it was true.  She hadn’t been particularly happy with the
marriage for years.  But half the people she knew weren’t happy with
their marriages.  Were you even supposed to be married and happy?
She didn’t know.  They had a decent life—minus romance and
excitement and shared secrets—but it hadn’t been awful.  He had never
slapped her around or come home drunk wanting rough second-hand
sex after a night at the strip clubs like some of her friend’s husbands.
He had never, as far as she knew, cheated on her.

“I’ve got to go,” he said.  “I’m already late.”  And then he walked out
the door.

Fay spent the rest of day shopping, buying flowers and a new
blouse, some shoes.  Anything at all but to think about the fact she
would have to start living alone.  What upset her most was that she
would probably have to move out.  Dale hadn’t yet said he wanted to
stay in the house, but he’d built a three-car garage out back the year
before so he could store his lawn equipment and they’d converted the
back bedroom into his office.

*
She leaned back in the motel bed, her head and neck up against the
strange headboard.  The old, green comforter was on the floor at the
foot of the bed.  Julie, Dr. Hasell’s wife and the other hygienist in the
office, had told her to never touch those things.  She said they were
only washed once a month and you never know what type of bodily
fluids might be on them.

This weekend trip had actually been Julie’s idea: get away, she’d said,
it’ll help you clear your mind and make plans for your future.  To Fay,
this sounded like a good idea at the time.

Fay took two big mouthfuls of the beer she’d bought at 7-Eleven on
the way back from the restaurant, then pulled the papers out of the
manila envelope.  His name Dale Ray Brown was above hers, Fay Alice
Brown.  The details of the divorce were what they’d already discussed
and decided: he’d get the house and pay her half its value over the
next ten years.  They would split the cost of Owen’s college education
and she’d cover his insurance.  There were no surprises here.

All she had to do was sign, slide her pen across those three lines
with the red X beside them and the marriage would officially be over.
But she couldn’t sign them just yet.  While she knew the marriage was
over and that she didn’t love Dale, the movement from one person, a
married woman, to the next, a divorcee, was more difficult than she’d
imagined.  She slid the pen back into her purse and turned the bedside
light off.  The beer and her breathing exercises helped ease her toward
sleep in only a matter of minutes.

*

Fay was at the beach by ten the next morning.  She’d bought the
bathing suit Tuesday night, after work, at Target.  It was a little loose
in the hips.  Without trying, she had lost fifteen pounds since moving
out.  The only time she bothered cooking dinner was when Owen came
over on the weekends.  Most nights she was in bed by eight, a half-
eaten bowl of cereal on her bedside table.

The beach was not crowded yet, but it was April and a Saturday—
temperatures in the mid-80’s—so Fay was sure it would fill up
eventually.  She found a spot twenty yards from the water, set her
towel down and her bag with the change of clothes, her lotion and
sunglasses, and the romance novel, To Love Again, Julie had given her
for the trip.

Fay had woken an hour ago, but the water and sun and sand made
her sleepy again, so she closed her eyes and drifted off.  The crashing
of the waves against the beach was calming and easy.

*
She had met Dale twenty-two years ago.  He’d come in to have a
tooth pulled.  He was well-built and attractive, but she was not
available.  Two days before, a man she’d been dating for over a year,
and whom she didn’t truly love, had asked her to marry him.

As she prepped Dale’s tooth for the extraction, she began telling him
about this other man—a man whose name she could no longer pull
from her memory—and about how he was a nice enough guy.  He wore
suits and argyle socks to work and had a yellow canary named Finch.

“Sounds like a fag,” Dale said.

“He’s a good man.”

“You know what you need?”

“No,” she said.  “What?”

“You need to go out to dinner with me, tonight.  I’ll show you a good
time.”  Dale reached over and ran his hand against her naked calf.  And
while she knew she should have been offended, she was not.  She
slapped his hand away, but took him up on his offer for dinner.  Four
months later they were married.

It was the sound of children that pulled her back to the beach.  Two
boys, no older than ten or eleven, were running in and out of the
water, screaming.  Fay sat up and pulled To Love Again from her bag.
On the cover, a couple stood arm-in-arm facing the sea.  In the right
corner of the book was a round sticker with 25 cents scribbled in black
pen.  It was not a new book.  Julie had told her to read it, said it would
show her there were more men out there.

The first chapter introduced the reader to Marie, a woman whose
husband was leaving her for another woman after twelve years of
marriage.  Chapter two and three went through the next couple
months of Marie trying to understand what to do with her life now that
she was alone.  A woman in her forties who had not worked in years.
There were obvious similarities to Fay’s life and she knew Julie had
given it to her for that reason.  She could imagine what was going to
happen; Marie would meet a man and they would fall in love and she’d
be happier than she’d ever been with that old cow of a husband.

Fay had read forty pages of the three-hundred page book when she
felt the need to pee.  Her motel room was only fifty yards behind her
but she didn’t want to leave her things out here unattended and she
didn’t want to lose this prime spot, so she headed to the water.  It was
cooler than she thought it would be.  It was only April.

In waist-deep water, she could see the crowd of people on the
beach.  White-fleshed tourists from places she’d never been:
Minnesota, New York, and Iowa.  She squatted and felt the warm rush
against her thigh, swimming around her knees, her ankles, and then it
was gone.  She was embarrassed as she walked out of the water, sure
that everyone knew exactly what she’d done.  But she told herself it
didn’t matter.  She would never see these people again.  Anything she
did this weekend would stay here, away from her other life back in
Orlando.

On her stomach now, propped up on her elbows, Fay continued to
read the novel.  Marie had started working the counter at a flower shop
where a customer named John came in every Friday and bought a
dozen tulips.  He didn’t wear a ring, so Marie assumed they must be for
his girlfriend.  After his fourth visit, she asked him who the flowers
were for and he’d smiled and said shyly that they were for his mother’s
room at a nearby nursing home.

When she told him how sweet that was, John invited her to come
with him and meet his mother and to have dinner afterwards.  Marie
accepted his offer.  What harm, she wondered, could happen to her in
a nursing home?  Or from a man who was kind enough to bring his
mother fresh flowers every week?

Fay smiled and shook her head.  Of course, it was ridiculous and
predictable, but still she read on, turning to on one side when she felt
her back starting to burn.  Over the course of the next few weeks,
Marie learned that John was an investment banker.  His wife had died a
dozen years earlier in a boating accident.

Through the next hundred pages, the couple began kissing, holding
hands, taking long walks on an unnamed, empty beach.  There were
long passages where they gave each other massages, would not have
sex, but would lie side by side, running their hands across each other’s
excited, naked bodies.  Marie would ask John to make love to her, but
he said he didn’t think he could move on to that stage of the
relationship while his mother was still alive.  She had loved his ex-wife
as if she were her own daughter.

In the parts of the book which detailed these massages, and oiled
hands gliding over  foreign flesh, Fay could feel a stirring inside of
herself.  She ignored it, pushing forward, wanting to know what was
going to happen and how they would finally consummate their love.

But for the next fifty pages, they continued to visit John’s ailing
mother and to explore each other’s bodies with their hands and to tell
secrets of their previous lives: the time John kissed a man in college,
Marie’s admitting she once watered her backyard naked.

With thirty-five pages left to go, Fay’s back and shoulders felt
officially sunburned.  She walked back to her room.  She’d been out
here long enough.  She closed the curtains and took a cool shower and
instead of putting her clothes back on climbed into bed naked.  Her skin
tickled.  The fan swirled overhead.

Fay leaned against the headboard and continued to read.  John’s
mother died.  Her heart simply gave out.  The night of the funeral, after
all the guests had left, Marie stripped John naked and made love to
him.  The book ended with them waking up the next morning with sun
streaming through tall, white curtains.

By the time Fay turned the final page, and dropped the book, her
right hand was stroking herself, pressing and pushing, and that was all
it took.  The force of the orgasm surprised her.  All alone in this
strange motel room with her hand moist, resting on her stomach, Fay
felt a little dirty, a little embarrassed and sore, but, all in all, she felt
pretty damn good.

After a nap, she took another quick shower and got dressed for
dinner.  A mile up US 1, there was a bar named Conchy Joe’s.  She’d
eaten there years ago with Dale.  She decided to go there tonight, have
a beer or two, some oysters and a plate of conch fritters.  Then she
would come back and sign those damn divorce papers, be done with it
once and for all.

Conchy Joe’s was hopping and Fay took a seat on the balcony bar
under a faux straw-mat roof. Behind her was the Intercoastal Waterway
and she watched as a pair of sailboats cruised under the bridge. It was a
fine evening. The heat of the day, though mild, had burned her shoulders
and her neck. She could feel the fabric of the shirt touching her skin and
this, she thought, was not completely unpleasant. She hadn’t worn a bra
and her nipples felt firm, reacting to the soft cotton of her top.

The bartender was tall and young and cute and he winked at her. But
she knew he probably winked at every woman who came in here. His tips
counted on it. There were a couple men, both older than her, sitting at
one corner of the bar and a married couple sitting to her right.

Just relax, she told herself again. The beer tasted good. The oysters
felt soft and soggy on her tongue but she didn’t care. She was miles
away from her home and that apartment, from her son who had
disappointed her by choosing to stay with his father, from her all-but-final
divorce. She was a woman alone at the beach enjoying herself. This, in
itself, was a new life for her, one she couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

She thought about that little apartment she’d lived in for almost five
months. The only personal decoration she’d added was a pair of framed
photos atop the entertainment center: one of her and Owen at the state
fair and Owen’s senior photo. The apartment had come furnished and she
was grateful that she had not had to go out and purchase furniture that
would be hers, and not theirs, for the first time in twenty-one years.

Maybe she shouldn’t sign those divorce papers as they were written.
Originally she’d agreed to leave Dale the house because it was set up for
his business, but now with the conviction of beer and distance she
wondered why in the hell he should get it. Sure he would be paying her,
but she deserved it as much as him, if not more. She’d painted almost
every room, had picked out the carpet and appliances and she’d hung the
borders. Plus, she had been the main breadwinner for almost all of their
marriage. If she had to move out and start over, maybe he should have
to do the same thing. They could sell the house and split the profits. But
she knew it would be easier to just let him stay in the house. Plus, Owen
would have that little bit of consistency when he came home from college
on summer breaks.

“May I buy you another?”

It took Fay a moment to realize someone was talking to her. She
turned. He was a thick man, a couple years older than her, with gray hair
and a deeply tanned face. His pale blue button-up shirt was not tucked
into his linen slacks.

Fay smiled, lifted her bottle to finish it and said, “Sure.”

“Chuck,” he said, extending his hands. “Chuck Mulhauser.” The only
jewelry he wore was a gold band on his pinky.

“Fay,” she said, shaking his rough, calloused hand.

“Another beer for the lady and a Jack and Coke for me,” he said to the
bartender. He turned back to Fay. “So the obvious question is what is a
beautiful lady like you doing alone in a place like this?”

She could see tufts of his grey chest hair at the top of his shirt. Dale
was practically hairless. She could see a slight shaving nick by his right
ear. Dale wore a beard. This man’s lips were full. Dale’s lips were almost
non-existent. Chuck Mulhauser was the physical opposite of Dale and this
alone was enough to make him attractive to Fay.

“A little vacation from life,” she said. She considered telling him why she
was really here, the divorce papers and whatnot, but did not want to seem
like easy prey.

“We all need one of those sometimes.”

She knew this was playful banter. For twenty-four years now, she’d
done that, leaning over patients and talking, saying words that didn’t add
up to anything. “And you, what are you doing in a place like this?”

Fay was well on her way to being drunk. She’d had two beers before he’
d approached her, and she knew she was a certifiable lightweight when it
came to alcohol. What was she doing talking, even flirting, with this
strange man? For all she knew he could have been a murderer, a
rapist.

“I was hungry,” he said and smiled.

He ordered another dozen oysters and eventually each of them another
drink. Fay felt herself leaning into him. He ran his hand along her knee, an
inch or two up her thigh. A respectable distance, she thought, confident
but not too aggressive. As they ate and drank, he told her that he was in
the import/export business over at the docks. Boring stuff, he said,
except plenty of money to be made.

“I’m not sure why I’m even talking to you. Women, I’ve discovered, are
the enemy. My wife, Sheila, married twenty-nine years—two sons—built
her the fancy house she wanted. You name it, I gave it to her. Well, she
runs off and leaves me for some pansy-ass out of work physicist. I
should have beat the shit out of both of them. But what are you going to
do? Am I happier now without her? Hell, no. Would I take her back in a
minute if she called me? Hell, yes.

“I don’t even understand how these things happen. You think
everything is going along at whatever rate it’s supposed to and then
bamb, you’re blindsided. Hell, I just don’t know.”

Fay saw the tears in the corner of his eyes and she reached out and took
his hand in hers. Why couldn’t Dale be more like this man? Huh, why
not? Because, she knew, life is not fair and never would be.

“Let’s go back to your hotel,” he whispered. She looked into his eyes
and nodded.

*

Inside the hotel room, they went at each other’s clothes before the door
was even shut. He was thicker around the middle than she’d imagined,
but this Chuck Mulhauser was a sure and confident lover. She closed her
eyes and held on and enjoyed herself. Although he was not particularly
big, maybe even smaller than Dale down there, it hurt a little at first. But
she liked his smell and the way his rough hands gripped her waist and
squeezed her breasts. And then as quickly as it had begun it was over.

She rested her head against his hairy chest, could feel his heart
thumping wildly. “Was it good?” she asked, embarrassed as soon as the
words left her lips.

“Amazing,” he said in a low, satisfied voice.

“Tomorrow we’ll go for breakfast,” she said.

“I’ll serve you fresh eggs and fruit,” he said. “Orange Juice. We’ll take
my boat out.”

Fay closed her eyes, thought that sounded damn good. Maybe Julie had
been right after all. Just let yourself go and you’ll find happiness, you’ll
find something. Chuck started to snore and she slid away from him,
listening to his even breathing.

When Fay woke early in the morning, he was still sleeping and snoring
on his side of the bed. She thought about what he’d promised, about
breakfast in bed, a day out on his sailboat. That sounded good to her,
the way something like this should begin. She wanted to do that, but
knew she couldn’t, not yet. She’d come here, met a man and discovered
that she just might be able to love again. While she knew two people
meeting at a bar for a one-night stand wasn’t exactly love, it was a start,
perhaps a sign that her life could be filled with a sort of intimacy she’d
forgotten she was capable of.

Fay got dressed quietly. She wrote him a quick note on motel
stationary: thanks & take care, Fay. After writing the first three numbers
of her phone number, she scribbled through them. Walking outside, the
bright sun almost took her breath away. Fay blinked a couple times and
headed to her car, climbed in.

Instinctively, as she always had in times of crisis, Fay dialed her old
phone number. It rang two, three times. She could see Dale standing
there with his mug of coffee, one hand scratching his fat ass. Then his
voice was in her ear: “Hello.” When she didn’t say anything, he said it
again, annoyed this time, “Hello.”

She turned the phone off and dropped it on the seat beside her, pulled
the divorce papers from the envelope. After signing all three required
lines, she slid the papers back inside and sealed it shut. Then Fay climbed
out of the car and walked back to the motel room and knocked on the
door. When Chuck answered, he had a towel around his waist, his eyes
cloudy with sleep. “I thought you left,” he said.

“Not yet,” Fay said, taking him by the hand and leading him back to bed
and those still warm comfortable sheets.

 

 

Steve Cushman has worked as an X-ray Technologist for the last fifteen years. He is the author of the novel, Portisville, and a forthcoming short story collection,
Fracture City.

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