A Short Story by Alex Ewing

This was probably over the line.  Barry had made such a succulent dinner.  Would it be so terrible to bag up the leftovers and take them for lunch?  Would she care if he did the same thing?  Whom was she kidding?  She would care about it all.  

Still, the chicken would keep nicely in the portable lunch warmer. Coincidentally- he also bought her.  At the time, she had thought-ugh another lunch bag, another purse, no initiative no passion.  Nevertheless, she would come to rely on the handy lunch bag on many occasions. That was her Barry... Practical, tactical.   Not to mention, it was a rare occasion that he cooked.  This was going to be the last time, so she thought a nice meal might be suitable for a perfect ending.

He would praise her for being resourceful.  “We need to start saving more money, eating out less.” Although Barry was speaking of Claire, as she was usually the one who ate out.  Barry-with his perfect routine, sack lunch, bottled water and apple.  Practical, tactical Barry.  She had loved this about him when they first got together.  He did not waiver.  Barry was a decisive man- The take-charge type.   “No, this is the way,” he would say. “Just trust me.”  Usually Barry was right, but lately this had become more of an annoyance than a blessing.  Jostle your edges a little for goodness sake!  Burn a pancake for the love of all that’s holy!” she had yelled at him once when they had a “disagreement.”  Because Barry did not “argue” or fight. “Mature adults are perfectly capable of having reasonable disagreements,” Barry had retorted-which had infuriated Claire even further.  After the birth of their first child, Barry had naturally become even worse.  By the time they had their third child, he had almost completely changed.

Something that had not changed was Barry and Claire’s bedroom life, which was still on point.  Which is also the reason why she was sure he would not understand.  This was about her, not him.  She needed something just for herself- without his watchful eye and dollar.  He would not see it like that at all.  He would see lies, betrayal and he would never forgive her no matter how big or small.  “Marriages last on trust,” was Barry’s motto.  

The money was the first issue.  How would she get the money without him noticing the decrease in the account?  They had a joint account, of course. “Hands in marriage, funds in marriage,” Barry had chuckled.   He earned more money so Claire had not made a fuss.  Besides, she never knew anyone who kept his or her finances separate in a marriage.  It was unseemly and secretive.

 Claire was making a list – money – check, food-check, music playlist- check.  She had all the perfect music.  Barry had taken it upon himself to add some songs, and Claire was pleasantly surprised.  She felt a twinge of guilt playing music he compiled for her, knowing he had no idea about her extracurricular activity.

Barry Waters was a handsome man and he knew it.  He boasted about his youthful days, how he turned heads and still did in the local supermarket.  “She just gave me the look,” he would tease as he and Claire browsed the freezer aisle.  Claire didn’t fuss about details like that.  She knew how women could be and besides, Claire was no slouch either.  She had kept her physical shape after all these years.  She could still turn heads herself.  Matter of fact, she rocked a bikini just last summer.  

Although she looked good, Claire felt so exhausted about everything- her husband, children, work and her friends-what was left of them.  Barry was just too meticulous now.  He itemized every bill, even a ten-dollar bill from the grocery store.   Socks needed replenished every month due to loss.  He had to have his pants tailored and replaced every six months.  He rotated shoes every two days.  He had his brown pair for brown slacks, black for black.  Looking at the wrinkles in Claire’s blouse, he would imply sloppiness “Aren’t you going to iron that?”  With the exception of cooking once per week, Barry was a very traditional when it came to the kids and homemaking.   The wife did the cooking and served it to her man on a silver platter.  The wife handled the kid’s school affairs, meetings and doctor appointments. Claire handled the carpooling and PTO meetings.  Barry had insisted Claire join the PTO.  It looked good on a mother’s resume.   From early on, Barry was adamant the children were involved in some sort of extracurricular program, which Claire was ordained to be the chauffer, referee, and den mother- all of the above. 

At the end of the night, Claire was exhausted.  She had stopped complaining to her friends long ago.  “You have a great life,” they chimed.  “You are lucky to have Barry. Shoot girl-wish my husband would treat me like Barry treats you!”   However, Barry usually crossed the line and acted like a father figure to Claire.  To Barry, there had been no question Claire was going to stay home and raise the children instead of working.  Claire had fought long and hard on the subject.  In the end, she prevailed.  Not because of her quick thinking skills but because Barry’s check was not covering all the bills.  This made him very irritable and self-conscious- as if he was not handling his responsibilities as a man and taking care of his family.

Claire made a checklist every day and it was long.   She was only human and felt like a robot, stretched in many directions.  Tuesdays and Thursdays, their middle child, Kyle had basketball practice.  Barry and Claire’s oldest son, Peter had counseling once a week and community service – which usually required Claire to miss work.   Their youngest daughter, Sherry, had special needs.  She had therapy three times per week and Claire had to drive her.  The Water’s middle class income left them no room for government assistance or extra home health care.  They did the best they could to get Sherry the assistance she needed.  In addition to all of that, Claire kept a clean house.  She refused to have any insinuate the Waters lived like pigs.  This was all under the umbrella of full time worker, wife and mother.  

What exactly was Barry’s job description?  He did work long hours.  He did mow the lawn and keep the weeds out.  He fixed things around the home, which was no easy task.  However, Claire wished Barry would be more hands on with the kids.  He criticized the way Claire did everything.  She put the toaster on the wrong setting.  She did not finely grind the meat the way Barry liked.   She had not thickened the spaghetti sauce with paste.  How many times had he asked her?  “Is it too much to give a little extra to please your man,” he had said with a sullen face over runny-sauced spaghetti.

For Claire, the pressure began to build and build.  On the weekends, it was even worse.  Besides Kyle’s basketball games on Saturday mornings, Claire’s weekend routine became a laundry list of things she had not gotten to during the week.  “Time to lean, time to clean.”  Claire had always hated this saying, and hated it more from her husband’s mouth.  A little relaxation never hurt anyone.   Matter of fact, Claire and Barry had a running joke to compare their blood pressure readings from their yearly exams.  The doctor prescribed Barry medication last year.  Yet, he blamed it on a family predisposition and refused to admit that his overzealous worries contributed to his condition.  Claire did not want to end up in the same boat.  She did not share all of Barry’s philosophies.  Sometimes you do not have to push it.  Sometimes a quiet moment to oneself is the medicine.  It had been a particularly grueling week and she was looking forward to a break more than ever.

So now the Grand Finale.  Nothing lasts forever.  Claire had never been one to keep secrets.  This felt good and bad.  She had found she is capable of keeping things hush and that was reward enough.  Now came the strength to finish what she had started.  Claire had a system and it worked.  She had not gone on the same days-that would be too routine.  One time per month was the limit.  

The parking lot was virtually empty when she arrived at motel.  The attendant knew her by her assumed name.  She always used the same room - call it superstition or call it a product of Barry-hood. The ambience and mood had to be just right. Claire always felt the anticipation of things was better than the reveal.  This all felt bittersweet.  She had gotten good at this secret.  Nothing can last forever, she had been told this her whole life.  She knew it was true from her own circumstances.  Secrets eat away at you, and although Claire felt as if her secret was mild in comparison to some- it was, still a secret and something Barry didn’t know.  Something her children didn’t know.  Something that would hurt Barry if he knew.  The sheer act of something he did not know about Claire, the finesse of her white lies (what else was she hiding; what else would she hide)?  Was this the beginning or the end?  Could she honestly, say it had never been anything more than how she explained? Never once?  How far had this fantasy come?  Most importantly, why had she not come to him and explained that she had needed something?  Why had she not given him the chance to give it to her? It was his job to protect her, make her happy and she had omitted his chance to do so and taken it among herself.  That would be unforgivable to Barry.  He just would not understand, period.  It did not matter the explanation or the proof.

Claire loved Barry.  That was never the question, always the answer.  Wherever Barry was going, Claire wanted to be right there.  She wanted him to want her there.  When she looked at her beautiful kids, this solidified everything.  Absolutely no question, Claire’s life was with Barry and their children.  Claire told herself she was just exaggerating.  She should have just told Barry.  Perhaps he would have obliged.  Claire decided on the fact he would say she was weak and needed to suck it up.  He was also tired, also needed “more.”  Had that not been what they had agreed to?   Toughing things out and being strong.

Nobody was perfect. Not even Barry with his tight schedules, neat handwriting and steamed vegetables.  He had cheated on her once.  In a motel just like this one.  She had asked the details, and regretted it.  It was more than once, a 3-month stent.  Just like this- hiding money transactions, omitting whereabouts, sitting at the dinner table all smiles and sunshine.  There was nothing out of the ordinary. There was no trace of suspicion that Barry- only hours earlier-had been intimate with another woman.  How had he been with her?  Had he been slow and deliberate? Hog-wild? Had he come quick or slow?  Barry and Claire’s lovemaking was satisfying but she would hardly clarify it as “hog- wild.”  She determined this was how he had been and this was why he did it.  When Barry told her she had meant nothing, Claire was certain it was her he was describing.  How else could he have done such a thing? How could he touch another woman the way he touched her.

Barry and Claire’s recovery post affair was grueling.  They had decided together that counseling would be best.  What other option did they have?  In all the years together, Barry had never done anything like this to Claire’s knowledge.  She owed it to him to try to hear his side.  Barry had said he needed more.  He felt unappreciated.  This was in one ear out the other for Claire because as far as she was concerned, this was the textbook excuse of cheating - blame the other party.  She had not had the pleasure of foreign hands over her body.  She refused to take the blame.  The counseling was short lived as it led to more arguments than healing.  Eventually Claire stopped thinking about the infidelity less and less until the pain in the center of her chest became an intermittent aching.  A package in the grocery store would remind her.  She would pass a motel of the same name.  She was sorry she had asked where.  Things became better over time.  However, Claire was exhausted.  She had never had her moment.  Never cashed her ticket in- until now.  Except she had exchanged her ticket and as far as she was concerned, there was no charge for that.  She was finally getting the reprieve she needed and deserved.  She was a good wife, a devoted wife.  She was a good mother.  She needed a self-healing.  She could now go back and love Barry better than ever.  The best thing is nobody got hurt in the process.

Of all the rooms she had been in her life, number 7 was her favorite.  She liked the rooms at the end of the hall.    She welcomed the dusty cigarette smell.  She would miss this place.  There was a picture on the wall of an old man on a bicycle standing under a tree and a table directly underneath.  Claire thought of solitude every time she saw it.  Peace, exactly what she required.  Claire pulled the chicken out of the bag.  Still warm.  She set her music on some smooth jazz. It was so perfect and bittersweet.

This was it. The last hurrah.  Claire sat her garment bag on the bed and opened it.  She pulled out her favorite pink pearl satin pajamas, the ones Barry had bought for her on their tenth wedding anniversary.  The set came with a matching silk scarf. She loved the way the material felt against her skin.  Everything about this final moment felt so good and so right.  She set the alarm clock radio on the nightstand for 4 hours.  Claire carefully pulled back the multi-layer bedspread for the last time.  She slipped herself under the covers, blindfolded her eyes and Claire slept.

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