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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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THE RING

 

by Diane Lake

 

 

 

 

Sitting at the bar at seven, waiting for Paul, she glistened as she sipped a martini.

 

"This seat taken?" a handsome man with—truly—violet eyes asked her.

 

"Are those contacts?" she asked him.

 

"No."

 

"Then by all means," she said with a smile, her eyes gesturing to the seat.

 

She couldn't help but notice his glance at her ring finger, the simple gold band reflecting the light from mirrors overhead.

 

It had begun innocently enough. Paul had given Ada the ring to wear when they were out together. He didn't want to take off his wedding ring for fear of losing it and he didn't want to appear the married man out with his mistress. People would look at them, see how affectionate they were—and how old—and say to themselves, "Look at that, a married couple who've probably been together 30 years and are still so in love they can't stop touching each other."

 

She hadn't accorded it any significance—the fact of him giving her the ring. She'd never thought it was a precursor to him leaving his wife. He hadn't given it to her with any ceremony or phony "I wish this could be real" line. No, she knew what it was—a ring of convenience, something that would help him manage how others saw him.

 

They hadn't been together 30 years, but it had been a long time for an affair. It was coming up on 13. As she sat on the train heading toward New York she'd wished it was going to be a longer trip. He would be there on business for three days and she'd taken some time off to join him at the Plaza—one of their favorite hotels. He lived in Boston and she lived in D.C. where she rarely met an unmarried man. And of the married ones she'd met, Paul was special—he was thoughtful and funny. She was comfortable with what this was. They were in love. Well, she thought he loved her—he said he did, but she wondered sometimes. His desire to have people like him often made him say what they wanted to hear. But that was just business, he told her—that wasn't the case with the two of them. He was head of Alumni Development at Harvard—which meant he massaged all the millionaires into giving beaucoup bucks to their alma mater, so he was constantly saying whatever was necessary to get the donation, was constantly being the guy everyone liked. One of the things he loved about their relationship, he'd told her, was that it was based on complete honesty and he never said or did anything with her that he didn't truly feel. It was such a relief, he claimed. So she wanted to believe him when he said he loved her.

 

Had it really been four years since he'd given the ring to her? It still felt so foreign—like she was a character in a play, like she was someone else with a husband at home and maybe kids. The anticipation of seeing Paul was always delicious. She looked forward to his smile, his tender fingers touching her, his penetrating eyes gazing into hers across the dinner table. She'd wanted to meet him at the station, but no, too public, so she'd settled for the hotel.

 

She had walked into the Plaza, wheeling her small case behind her.

 

"Do you have a message for Ada Matthews?" she asked the austere desk clerk.

 

The clerk flipped through a box and withdrew an envelope with her name on it.

 

"Thank you," she said as she walked away. Inside the envelope were a card key and a room number. She got on the elevator, went to the seventh floor and knocked on the door to his room. No answer. Her disappointed fingers withdrew the card key from its envelope and put it in the slot.

 

Inside she surveyed the junior suite and was about to curl up in a chair by the window, where she could see the park, when she heard his card in the door. She ran to it and was standing in front of him when he opened the door.

 

The fact of him always took her by surprise. He was so polished, so handsome, so the consummate businessman. The way he looked in a suit, all lanky and suave—like an old time movie star, someone she'd see in black and white films on TCM. He dropped his briefcase and let the door close behind him as he scooped her into his arms. They kissed like lovers who'd been separated by a war and not a few miles of interstate. He didn't say a word, backed her into the room, his lips never leaving hers. Then he laid her back on the bed, and lifted her skirt.

 

"Off," he said, fingering the elastic of her panties.

 

She wiggled playfully as he pulled off her lavender panties and tossed them behind him, where they landed on the complimentary bottle of Perrier as the first sigh escaped her lips.

 

Afterwards they snuggled in bed, her head in the crook of his shoulder.

 

"Missed you kid," he said, "more than you can possibly imagine."

 

"Me too you," she said, and raised her head to kiss him again.

 

She could have lain in his arms forever, nestled in all of that warmth and caring. She held him a little more tightly.

 

"Don't worry," he said, "you're home."

 

If love was a liquid it would be Paul's voice. And he was right, of course, she did feel like she was coming home when they were together—like this was the only part of her life that was authentic, like the rest of it was the act and this was the reality.

 

"You make me want to hide sometimes," she said in her little girl voice—and she wasn't trying to be cute or anything, she did want to hide from him at times. He knew her too well and that was frightening. Maybe one of these days he'd realize how central he was to her existence and be scared away.

 

She hoped she was wrong about that as she absentmindedly twirled the ring around her finger with her thumb. It was him and the ring and the fantasy of them together, more permanently, that she allowed herself to indulge in when they cuddled like this. Why did she feel more content, more whole with him? This wasn't her. So what she couldn't understand is how that could be. She had never wanted to get married. Ever. Had she been lying to herself? Did she somewhere, deep down inside, crave marriage? No. That truly didn't feel like what was going on here.

 

Paul had fallen asleep as they lay in the spoon position, him behind her, his arms around her, cradling her breasts. She loved this—loved feeling so entwined. She absentmindedly touched the ring again—slipped it off then slipped it back on. She wondered where he'd gotten it. It wasn't brand new—it had the patina of age to it. She'd definitely ask him in the morning. Then she closed her eyes and dreamt, of all things, of the Trevi fountain in Rome.

 

When she woke the next morning he was already gone—there was a note on his pillow telling her where to meet him for dinner.

 

She stretched under the covers, loving how her body felt next to these wonderful sheets. Burying her head in Paul's pillow she could still smell him. Mmmm.

 

What was it about hotel rooms that made her so happy? She felt different in hotel rooms, special, like she'd achieved something important and her reward was being able to sleep in all this luxury. Maybe that's all it was—she longed to live a life of luxury [who didn't] and this rendezvous with Paul let her do that, let her pretend that this was her life. But it was her life, at least at the moment, so she was going to swim in it.           

 

She put on the hotel robe and called room service. She ordered eggs Benedict, croissants, strawberries with cream—insanely decadent.

 

The Prada, today, she thought, surveying her closet. Yes. Definitely the Prada.

 

She took the soft wool suit out of the closet and put it on the bed. It was a lovely shade of gray and she would wear the sleeveless pink Chanel cashmere camisole underneath the boucle jacket. She'd found the kickiest Christian LaCroix's in a shade of mauve that set the outfit off perfectly.

 

She'd spend the day at the hotel spa—hair up for tonight, she thought as she twirled a golden tress around her finger.

 

How amazing she was when she was with Paul…or, rather, when she was pretending to be the woman who was with Paul. She could do or say anything. She could be outrageous and clever. What Paul didn't know was that she wasn't the important government lobbyist that she had told him she was. She was a secretary who floated between lobbyists in her organization. She used every dime of her salary to buy expensive clothes and shoes to wear when she was with Paul. And she looked the part of the well-bred, well-heeled girlfriend.

 

Oh. She wasn't well-bred either. Though she'd told Paul she'd grown up in suburban Chicago in a rambling house in Oak Park—up the block from where Hemingway was born—truth was she'd grown up in a series of trailer parks and even a couple of foster homes in North Dakota. God she hated North Dakota. Why anyone would voluntarily live there when there were so many other more interesting states to choose from was beyond her. New York, for example. Or California. Or New Mexico. Come to think of it, she couldn't think of a state worse than North Dakota. It wasn't just that it was cold, it was the weight of it—all its small towns, each full of people who knew you, who had expectations, who were all committed to each other, tied down—it was a state that oppressed a person. So didn't that say something? Didn't that tell a person that she needed to put that pathetic excuse for a state behind her and head out into the rest of the world? So, 15 years ago, that's what she'd done. She left her job flipping burgers at the diner and headed west, eventually landing in a job where she worked for a lobbyist for the aircraft factories. Boy, he was a piece of work. But she'd slept with him and he was so into her that when he got promoted to D.C. he took her with him. In her experience, once a guy has a killer blow job, he's yours for life.

 

So here she was, in her Prada suit, looking not at all like the girl who once flipped those burgers, perched on a bar stool in this fancy hotel. She smiled politely at the attractive man who had settled himself onto the bar stool. She loved being the woman she was when she was with Paul. And that—that feeling of being who she was sure she was meant to be—was worth the subterfuge, was worth everything.

 

The violet man made a ‘too bad' gesture as he eyed her wedding ring.

 

"Oh, I'm not married," she said, noticing that he wasn't wearing a ring.

 

"Then why…?"

 

"It's a long story."

 

The bartender took his drink order—a Manhattan.

 

"I didn't think anyone drank Manhattans anymore," she said.

 

"They probably don't," he said. "But I'm here so I thought…"

 

"Ah, you're not from here."

 

"Nope. I'm here on business."

 

"What business is that?"

 

"Paper."

 

"Paper," she echoed.

 

"I have a paper and package business. We make boxes. Booklets. All sorts of things like that. Andrew Morehouse," he said, extending his hand.

 

"Ada Mathews," she replied, shaking the offered hand.

 

"Hey, if we got married you wouldn't have to change your monograms…AM"

 

"How about that," she smiled.

 

"Not that I'm proposing or anything. It's funny, don't you think? That we'd have the same initials?"

 

"Funny." He was adorable, was Andrew. Why couldn't she meet somebody like him in her real life? He probably wouldn't have given her the time of day in her street clothes and normally frizzy hair. The upsweep do and the fancy clothes…that's what brought him over.

 

"So are you from New York?"

 

"I live in Washington."

 

"So you're here on business too?"

               

"No… more pleasure."

 

It was odd, but he was so genuine—or seemed so genuine—that she didn't want to lie to him. She didn't want to lie and say she was a lobbyist so she decided to deflect the question before it was asked.

 

"Getting away from my boring government job," she said.

 

"Ah. Well, I'll bet it's not boring at all. No job is, really, when you do it well. I mean, paper boxes doesn't have much of a sexy factor, but it's really kind of interesting when you get into it."

 

Earnest. This guy was earnest in spades.

 

"I suppose you have dinner plans," he said—as Paul came up to her.

 

"Sorry I'm late, darling," he said, kissing her on the side of her neck. "Thought I'd never be able to get Worthington to stop talking."

 

It took Paul a minute to realize she'd been talking with this man beside her.

 

"Hi sweetheart," she said with a smile. "This is Andrew Morehouse—he's visiting New York and we were just chatting."

 

Andrew extended his hand and he and Paul greeted one another—each sizing the other up, Ada noticed.

 

Well. This was an interesting turn. She rarely was in public enough with Paul for him to see how desirable she might be to other men. Truth was, she didn't feel desirable—she figured it was all the clothes.

 

"Well," Andrew said, "I expect you two have plans so I'll be on my way. A pleasure to talk with you Ada."

 

"Have fun in New York," she said… wishing she could come up with something more clever and interesting and memorable to say as he walked away.

 

"So did I interrupt a pick-up here?" Paul said with a smile.

 

"Did you see his eyes?" she asked. "I've never seen violet eyes before—except on Elizabeth Taylor and even then I always wondered if…"

 

But she didn't finish her sentence. He cut her off with a kiss. Then he pulled back and looked around the bar to check for people he knew. That swivel of the head usually happened before they kissed—she liked when he was so passionate that he forget to check.

 

They headed off to a restaurant in the village—far away from the hotel and the prying eyes of his business acquaintances.

 

"Try this," he said, feeding her a bite of his lamb. He watched as she chewed, tasted and swallowed—purposely rolling her eyes to show him how much she loved it.

 

"Do you ever wonder what you might do if you lost your sense of taste?" she asked him.

 

"What?!"             

 

"People do—I read an article about it. They lose their sense of smell from a virus or something and that means their taste goes as well. I was thinking that you would absolutely die."

 

"Well. I can certainly think of a list of things I'd rather lose."

 

"It would be hard to lose something you loved so much, wouldn't it?"

 

"My wise Ada," he said, reaching across the table for her hand. "Believe me, if it was between you and the taste, I really would choose you."

 

And she believed him. But she wondered about the reverse. Which surprised her.

 

The next morning—their departure day—she was in the hotel pool gliding back and forth in a leisurely side stroke when she saw Andrew again. She tried to hide from him—after all, without the fancy hairdo and the stunning clothes, her plainness would be all too apparent. In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if he didn't even associate this indolent swimmer with the powerhouse babe he'd sat next to on the barstool last night. But she was wrong. From across the pool he yelled her name.

 

They swam toward each other.

 

Well, this would be the end of it for sure, she thought. He'd see her flabby thighs—so well hidden by her Prada suit last night—and run for the hills.

 

"Hey," Andrew said, a big grin on his face. "So you're a swimmer."

 

"More of a floater—I love the feeling of being in the water."

 

"Me too. Don't get enough pool time in my life. This is a real luxury."

 

He looked around the pool area.

 

"No Paul?"

 

"No, he's in meetings."

 

"Ah. I, uh… I hope you don't mind but I couldn't help but notice that he wears a ring too. His fake as well?"

 

She shook her head, embarrassed.

 

"So what's a beautiful girl like you doing with a married guy?"

 

He really thought she was beautiful? She shrugged. "He loves me."

 

"That right."

 

"You're not married?"

 

"Not anymore," he said. "My wife divorced me about a year ago."

 

"She involved with someone else?"

 

"Nope. That was me."

 

"Really."

 

"You sound surprised."

 

"You seem…too nice. Not the type."

 

"So Paul's not nice?"

 

"No, I… But wait a sec, if your wife left, why didn't you marry the girl you were…"

 

"Having the affair with?"

 

"Mmm hmm."

 

"Well, once the thrill of the secrecy and all that was gone, we both realized it wasn't love."

 

She leaned back on the side of the pool, making little circles in the water with her left hand.

 

"You're way too good for him. Trust me. I can tell."

 

"Maybe I'm lucky to have found him. Maybe I'm lucky to have someone like him love me."

 

"Or maybe you're wasting time—time that could be spent finding someone who could love you every day, every minute…not just when he can get away."

 

"But he needs me, you know? He's got such a high pressure job, he needs someone who's really there for him when things are rough."

 

Andrew nodded, solemnly. "And who's there for you when you need something?"

 

She looked away. Of course no one was, had been, or would be. And she realized she'd accepted that on some level. But as her eyes looked up to meet his, he floated toward her and kissed her.

 

A violet kiss—full of sweetness.

 

"Golly," she said.

 

He smiled and kissed her again.

 

"Who says ‘golly' anymore," he said with a grin when he'd stopped kissing her. "That some new thing in Washington or something?"

 

She shook her head.

 

"I was raised on ‘golly.' How long are you in New York?" she asked.

 

"Few more days. How about you?"

 

"I leave tonight."

 

"But it's the weekend," he said.

 

"Well, when you're with a married man, you never get the weekends—those go to the wife."

 

"You have any friends in New York you could stay with?" he asked as he kissed her again.

 

"Well, I do have a friend from D.C. who lives here now, maybe…"

 

And she kissed him this time.

 

"I'd invite you to stay with me," he said, "but I think we should get to know each other first."

 

"OK," she said.

 

"You realize you never said you loved him," he said, putting her wet hair behind her ear.

 

"Didn't I?"

 

"No. You said ‘he loves me' not ‘I love him.'"


She thought about this for a second. Then she reached up and touched his face—ran her finger over his lips, tracing their outline.

 

"You're very nice. And very sweet. You would be very easy to fall in love with."

 

"Do you fall in love often?" he asked.

 

"Never, actually. Not really. I fantasize it, I sort of play at it, but…"

 

"But if, you know, you actually sort of did fall for a guy like me, you'd be up for a long distance romance?"

 

She laughed. "That I've had a lot of practice at. How long distance, anyway?" she said, not really caring.

 

"North Dakota," he said.

 

She was silent. She looked into his nervous eyes—he looked like a man who cared about how she'd react. A man, she said to herself, who cares.

 

Then she smiled, took off the ring, and dropped it into the blue green water. She watched it turn and catch the light and sparkle as it drifted away, as it floated down until she could no longer see it—and she smiled as she thought of it sitting on the bottom of the pool, glistening without an audience.