Image by Dawn Estrin
As Hank rolled to a stop in front of Bern’s Steakhouse, the valet opened the door for his wife, Laura. The ride was short and uneventful which gave him the feeling that the evening might go smoothly.
It was their eleventh wedding anniversary and Hank took a moment to check his face in the rearview mirror. He wished he had shaved again before leaving. Sex was guaranteed on anniversaries and a full day’s beard reddened Laura’s soft flesh. It was the kind of oversight that might put her out of the mood. He suppressed the thought by extracting himself from behind the wheel in time to see Laura hand the valet a twenty-dollar bill. It wasn’t the money that annoyed him but the coy smile she shared with the skinny bastard.
The kid met Hank by the trunk of the car, waved a ticket stub in his face like a cigarette being discarded.
On the other side of the revolving door, he said “Twenty dollars? Really? It’s a BMW, not a Bentley, honey.”
“Enough,” she warned.
He watched her walk ahead of him, searched her back for signs of annoyance.
She’d been the same weight since college. Exact same size. And why shouldn’t she be? With what Hank paid to the long list of personal trainers and coaches.
Once inside the dining room, Laura sat to Hank’s left at their usual table. The chair was small beneath him and despite the padding, the edges of the seat cut into the backs of his thighs.
“It’s crowded in here tonight,” he said.
Without looking up from her menu, she said, “It’s always crowded in here during tourist season.”
He scooted as close to the table as possible, tucked his feet under the chair, then sank back. If he had stayed in his suit, he would have had the wingtips. He wished he’d at least worn socks with his Topsiders. He said, “It’s crowded tonight.”
“You already said that.”
Laura’s hair was down, framing an oval face as creamy as cashew butter. Hank looked down at his menu trying to ignore the warm current of heat radiating between the side of his knee and the front of hers. He wished they could skip dinner and go straight home. It had been so long since they were intimate. He wanted to find out if she still kept her privates bald as a peach or if she had grown hair there again. Hank shifted, tried to provide some slack in the front of his trousers. Eleven years, and she still gave him spontaneous erections.
He’d been doing okay on Atkins lately, not going gangbusters, but not depriving himself either. He pulled at his shirt to flatten the material against his chest, hoping she’d notice the weight he’d lost in the last couple days. But she never noticed. Or if she did, she kept it to herself.
After a moment, they made eye contact. Hank smiled and looked down at the silverware. Neither reached a hand across the table toward the other, they never touched in public.
The saliva in Hank’s mouth grew thick. Nerves did that to him, but three sips of mineral water diluted the pastiness and made his teeth slick.
Laura lifted her linen napkin and motioned toward her forehead, pantomiming one of those little signs they’d worked out years ago.
He looked at his napkin folded on his plate in the shape of a fan, the crisp edges shiny from too much starch. He picked it up–knew what to do. The napkin sucked moisture like sponge cake.
Laura smoothed her napkin and looked up. “Tourists stay down here later every year,” she said.
Hank nodded, watching her mouth, but not hearing her words. Those lips, perfect even before the collagen. Her nail polish the same shade as the roses he’d sent that morning.
The waiter approached the table like a quarterback receiving an award—wavy brown hair and a red server’s jacket in place of shoulder pads and helmet. Hank ordered a bottle of Cabernet ignoring the fact it would overpower the salmon he planned to have.
The waiter lingered, asked Laura about every detail of her meal. Meanwhile, Hank sorted through the wine list and double-checked the bin number. When he looked up, he could have sworn he saw Laura smile at the waiter with even more eyebrow and teeth than she did with the valet. It gave him a spasm under his sternum. Made him cough. Wiping his mouth with his wet napkin, he convinced himself he was reading too much into it. It was nothing. Just courtesy.
He stared at Laura, undressing her in his mind—those legs, the curve of her ribs, the scar on her hip from a bicycle accident as a child. The waiter came back to open the wine. Without asking, he poured the sample in Laura’s glass. Hank gathered his voice but swallowed it when he saw Laura smile. “That’s awfully good,” she said with a sigh.
He closed his eyes. They had celebrated ten anniversaries with no catastrophes, other than that brief incident on their fifth, when they were staying at a dude ranch in Montana and he’d first gone carb free and ordered the Cowboy Buster 32-ounce, boneless rib-eye, and suffered through every bite while other diners had left their tables to crowd his and watch with excitement and speculation. Every bite was like an inning in the World Series. After finally “beating the meat” Hank received a commemorative certificate and a free “Cowboy-Buster Buster” t-shirt. Size 4XL. He would rather have had his dignity back.
He’d packed on more weight in the years since and regretted every pound.
A toast, he thought. But instead of speaking, he watched Laura sip her wine. The lifting of the glass. The arching of her neck. Whenever he watched her, he felt voyeuristic. Like some hidden-camera peeping Tom stealing eye-time; peeking at his own wife.
He huffed the wine’s bouquet. Sucked in a chest-full of ethereal magic, all red and velvety and rich. Oak overtones and raspberry crème brulée. He raised his glass. “Isn’t this excellent, darling?”
She shifted, re-crossed her legs. “We should get a case for the house.”
He nodded without meaning to. It was a reflex. He didn’t approve of her bottle-a-day habit, especially at a hundred dollars per.
Her blouse matched her eyes and illuminated her face in a glowing blue-gray radiance. He’d like to tie her arms with the matching sweater when they got home.
“What are you looking at?”
“Most beautiful bride ever.” He breathed the words as he leaned back, proud for whipping out a spontaneous line so quick, so concise.
“Please.” She stared into her wine. “I’m hardly a bride.”
He searched for a counter to her remark, something clever, but came up blank. That’s why he was in real estate law instead of a trial lawyer. He rarely had the wit. That ability for dialogue. But this should have been a meatball on a silver platter. Perhaps it was nerves. He’d been a jumbling bag all day. Sex on their anniversary had been wordlessly scheduled. And today was a conjugal visit.
Sitting at that table he fantasized about feeling Laura’s palms on his chest, her nails pulling at the flesh, like a greedy animal. Like in the wild. Carnal. Before the image faded, his stomach rumbled. He’d only had one burger at lunch. No super-sizing today.
He tried to look calm there in his seat in the restaurant as he patted the top, then back, of his Berber hair, hoping none of it sprang wildly as it was prone to do. He turned again, this time remembering to tilt his belt buckle, and looked at Laura. It would be a long time before another opportunity appeared on the calendar. He threw her a slow wink. Her features softened. A swell of hope floated over him.
When their food came, he prepared himself. It was time to eat, not indulge. Feel hungry. Be hungry. He repeated it like a mantra.
DESPITE INTENTIONS, the internal shark devoured a feast he didn’t remember ordering.
What happened to the fist-thick slice of beef? All the Amaretto-soaked carrots, that huge potato, the onion strings? That scalding bowl of French onion soup, the cheese on top so thick that he had to cut it with a knife? And what about that monster Caesar salad, prepared tableside, with a near-violent scraping as the waiter mixed the anchovies and garlic? Did he really eat all of his salad and half of Laura’s too? What about the entree?
He again looked to his plate hoping for the image to change, but it was as empty as Laura’s expression. She was silently reapplying her lipstick and Hank wished he had ordered the fish as he’d originally planned.
She sat back. “Well, that was delicious.”
He panicked. His plate was clean. Hers too. Laura never finished more than half of anything she ordered and always offered him the rest.
Now, his diet was blown and he couldn’t bear to think what she would think of him when she saw him naked in the pale light from the streetlamp flooding their room later that night. He sucked in his stomach, tried to hide his fear. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Be right back, sweetie pie.”
“Stop calling me that,” she said.
Climbing the marble stairs to the men’s room, he stopped halfway, caught his wind. Breathing in heavy wads of air, he looked up. Nine more steps. Instead of stopping at the top, he walked directly to the men’s room. At the door, sweat rolled down his back. His shirt stuck to him. He entered the stall. He was a marshmallow in a matchbox.
He pressed his arms against the stall, bent over the toilet, poised to do the only thing he knew that might get him in bed with Laura later that night. Staring at the bowl, he tasted the salty remnants of garlic toast on his index finger as he wiggled it over his tongue, past his tender uvula. As he reached the reflex point, his stomach heaved into his ribs with a dry convulsion that made his anus constrict and his heels lift off the tiled floor. Nothing came out.
“Damn it,” he yelled and then leaned forward again. In one fluid motion he opened his jowls a little wider and forced his finger past the trigger point. That effort got the finger deeper. Better angle. Hit the spot. The reward was a colorful regurgitation of all he’d just consumed. A violent flow pulsing in subsequent waves. Coughing back the bitterness in his throat, Hank hunched over the bowl. Hands on his knees. A triple-take shudder rolled through him. Was there really that much in there or did the water make it look more voluminous? He guessed the carrots made that glowing shade of red by combining with the wine, or possibly the pound of Chateaubriand he’d downed.
Streaks of vomit splattered down the yellow backdrop of the silk shirt Laura had given him that morning as an anniversary present. The stains formed a purple zodiac design as they expanded through the fibers of the material. The only sound in the room was the dusty exhaust fan, directly over the stall. Spinning in clicking revolutions. Sounding as if it were chuckling. It was the sound of God Himself, looking down and laughing. He realized that the opportunity to have sex with his wife had been purged as well. Even if Laura could get past this sulfuric smell on his clothes, he would never get his breath fresh enough no matter how many times he brushed, rinsed and repeated. And he could floss a hundred times but he’d never have the confidence of cleanliness. The stress wouldn’t help matters downstairs either.
Dieting had always been an illusion. Just like Laura’s fidelity. He’d hidden from the reality of both issues the way a bear hibernates to avoid winter, but his cave was the refrigerator. His pillow was the cookie jar. The further he sank into self-pity, the more he couldn’t blame her, and the more doughnuts he grabbed for buoyancy.
He’d never caught her. Never got off his ass to investigate. But he’d never wanted proof. It was easier to digest a Titanic wad of suspicion than it was to risk a morsel of evidence.
He stood and leaned on the back wall, resting his head on his meaty forearm. After swallowing hard several times to clear the biting acid that coated his teeth, he muttered, “Christ.” He felt, not empty, but hollowed out, like a melon scraped raw from the inside but left just as round on the exterior as he’d been before. It was surely too late.
This thought circled his mind as he flushed the pungent contents and watched them swirl around the bowl. If only he could pull a hidden lever on his body and flush away the excess pounds, never to see them again.
In the mirror over the sink, just like at the beginning of his day, Hank saw a blob looking back at him. A stained sack of failure. Wiping them with a paper towel, inhaling the strawberry fragrance of the soap, he hoped it would dilute the smell of vomit. He wondered how he was going to explain this to Laura when he went back to the table.
Hank reached for his mints, filled his mouth with them until he was on fire, and headed back to the table.
The restaurant was mostly empty now. Laura seemed perfectly content talking to the waiter, her posture relaxed and casual. She plucked at the platinum chain around her neck and tossed her head back in laughter. The chain was his anniversary gift to her. She’d purchased it herself at Tiffany’s earlier that week.
Hank looked at the waiter, whose arm was extended, the sleeve of his jacket pushed up. Laura was tracing his tattoo with her finger.
That acid taste returned to Hank’s mouth. His arms quivered with some primordial instinct.
Laura’s thick lips tightened when Hank approached.
“What happened to you?”
“Forget the shirt,” Hank said. “What’s going on?”
“I was just keeping her company,” the waiter said, “ ‘til you got back.”
Hank charged the punk. Got street-fight close. “Well, I’m back.”
“Hank!” Laura said, her hand on her throat like a southern-sorority girl.
His caveman arms flapped at his side, up and down twice, “So take off, pal.”
Hank grabbed the waiter’s shoulders.
He stepped away. “No need to make this physical, man. I don’t want no trouble.”
“Bring me the check.” He took his seat. Sweat rolled down his back.
“It’s been taken care of. The lady paid cash.”
“Good,” Hank said, then stood.
As he came around the table, Laura touched his arm. “I’ve never seen you like this,” she said, looking up into his eyes.
Hank didn’t speak or pull her chair out for her. Instead he fished into his pocket, retrieved his valet stub.
Outside, he tossed the stub onto the valet stand and watched the kid’s shirt billow in the breeze as he ran to get the car.
Hank walked to the driver’s side as his car pulled up.
Holding a ten-dollar bill, he asked, “You got change for this?”
“Not on me.” The valet reached for the bill.
“Fuck you, then.”
Hank wedged himself behind the wheel and drove off, not even looking in the rearview mirror.
Jeffery Hess is the editor of Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform an anthology of military-related fiction (www.homeofthebraveanthology.com). He holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and his writing has appeared in numerous corporate publications and websites, as well as in The MacGuffin, Plots with Guns, The Houston Literary Review, the Tampa Tribune, and Writer’s Journal. He lives in Florida where he leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans and is completing a novel.