Bethany Ball

The Housewife

I found my husband in the kitchen making an espresso and I held up the condoms, a strip of three, and I said, “Give me three thousand dollars.”“What?” He held the tiny cup between two fingers and leaned up against the countertop. “But you said you didn’t want to get pregnant again. . . .They’re not for me, they’re for us.” I watched my husband pull a bank envelope out of his bag and count out the bills. “Now, I’ll have to make another stop at the bank,” he said. “Hundreds? Or twenties?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I walked to the stove and fished three hard-boiled eggs from the pot of boiling water.

After the taxi had come, I sat in the living room with my children and half listened to the din of cartoons. I was a good wife. Every night I made dinner. The laundry was always folded. The babysitters paid. The lunches packed. The hearth swept.

My mother arrived a couple hours later. She’d come to help with the children but really she just wanted to bitch about my father. “He’s such an asshole,” my mother said.

“Did Dad ever cheat on you?”

“I don’t know,” she said. She stared up to ceiling. “It might even have been a relief if he had.”

I said, “I’m going to the city for the night. Will you watch the kids in the morning? Give them cereal and pack their lunches?”

My mother turned to me offended. “I just came from across the country and you’re taking off?”

“Look,” I said, “If you watch the kids tonight I’ll give you five hundred dollars.”

“Done.”

I bathed the kids and laid them in their beds. I read, Blueberries for Sal and loaded the toothbrush. I pinned the littlest one to the bed. “Say, eeeeeeeeee,” I said swiping at his glittering row of spotless teeth.Then to the oldest boy’s bed where I crawled in beside him, and kissed his silky hair. I rubbed that spot on his chest that tightens up with anxiety before birthday parties and T-ball games.

“I’ll take the train into the city,” I told my mother, who glared at the television. “I’ll be back tomorrow before they get home from school.”

“Doesn’t matter. When they get off the bus I’ll just turn on the cartoons. They love their old Grandma,” my mother said. She poured herself a glass of wine from the box she’d set up on the coffee table. “You go on. Get a break. Wish I could have gotten away a night or two when you were small.”

I drove over to the train station and parked my car, then boarded the train for Manhattan. Once in my seat, I texted an old boyfriend who’d recently found me on the social media:

Meet me for a drink for old time’s sake, I wrote.

Now?

Yes?

Let’s get a room.

All right, I texted. Where?

The Standard.

The Standard Hotel overlooked the High Line, near the Chelsea cafe whereNick and I had had met the year before to catch up. Since then, we occasionally sent flirtatious texts, a flurry of them and then silence, a flurry of texts and then more silence. But we’d never said what we might have said which is that we meet again.

When we dated, years ago, I used to tell people he was so big he needed an extra hinge just to fold it back into his pants. He was nearly six and a half feet tall. His hands were as big as dinner plates. When we were young, he would spin me around on it like a top. He could be cruel and heartless, but he was exactly what I’d wanted.

A familiar grouping of numbers needled at the screen of my phone.Politely I declined. It was my husband calling from the airport business lounge. I held the phone in my hand and watched out the scratched glass of the train window. The landscape passed backwards in a blur of green trees and urban cement. I felt the tiny ping of a text message.

Let’s go to the room first, Nick wrote.

No, let’s get a drink.

Let’s go to the room first.

What do you think I am, a slut? My fingers, unused to tiny keyboards, began to cramp.

Yes, he wrote. As a matter of fact I do.

I took a cab from Grand Central to Chelsea. It was fashion week and fragile alien bodies tottered all around me on the cobblestones. The sun settled across the river. Mini studios had been set up in white tents up and downGreenwich Avenue. Everywhere there were cameras and flashes and gawkers and suits. People shouted into headsets, or held their phones in front of their mouths as they jostled one another on the sidewalks. Large black SUVs idled loudly in the street. I spotted him first in his clean white button-down shirt, opened at the neck. He was looking up at the windows of the hotel and sucking hard on a cigarette. Beads of sweat glistened along his hairline. He greeted me with a cloud of smoke and a kiss on the cheek, his hand casually rested on my hip. I asked him what he was looking at. “Article in the Times said the hotel got in trouble for encouraging guests to have sex in the windows.” I looked up at the blank dark glass windows. They reflected the clouds. The hotel was a hulking box that squatted inelegantly over the High Line. “Do you remember?” he asked. “When this area was completely desolate?”

I nodded, yes, I remembered. I remembered how we used to walk across town to the Lamp Light, through the old Nabisco factory, and the bakery in the back where workers dressed in white passed out fresh bread at four in the morning. The transsexuals who taunted us from the street corners. We’d carry a flask of vodka and get drunk and then stumble over to the meat warehouses where heavy carcasses hung from chains. Some nights we’d disappear down 7th Avenue basement stairs into Small’s for jazz, graham crackers and vodka-spiked apple juice in plastic cups. Or Nuyorican to hear the combative sputtering poets. I would go anywhere with him. To all stretches of Manhattan and all ends of the boroughs. He told me about his father’s affairs and his mother’s passivity. There were boarding schools and nannies. His first few years in NewYork and the Indian girl he’d been in love with, who back then still lived with her parents and how they used to meet in the Bowery flophouse hotels and have sex and he’d wrap his fingers around her neck, squeezing, and it would send her into the stratosphere
.

When we’d met the year before, in a café, summer heat outside was oppressive and the air conditioning had chilled the room to sub-frigid. He had stood at the front door of the café and shaded his eyes, looking for me. He slid into the seat beside me and said, “You don’t look any different. You haven’t changed at all.”

I looked down at his wrists and thought, no, I haven’t. After ten years of marriage and two children I haven’t changed. About you I feel exactly the way I always have. Like you could push everything off this cafe table and lay me down right here. Like only the breadth and length of you could find the bottom of me. Your wrists are so terrible that even in the cold air conditioning of the café I’m sweating again. I would do anything right now to wrap my fingers around them, to measure them.

“You look like you’ve lost weight,” I said.

“Yeah, well. I guess I have.”

He was no longer an underpaid publishing flack. He was a corporate lawyer now, dressed in good slacks, and a pressed button-down shirt. I was trying to play it very cool. But we couldn’t be friends. Not really. And then the check came and three little birds flew into the window and flopped down onto the sidewalk outside. Two got up and flew away, but the third lay on its back while a small crowd gathered around it.

“Jesus,” he laughed. “That was awful.”

I had reached for the cash in my purse and watched his hands root through his back pocket and then the portfolio he carried. His face flushed andI noticed he had hair on his chest just below the hollow of his throat. It was new hair. When I’d known him his chest had been as bald as a boy’s.

“I forgot my wallet,” he said. He handed me a business card and pointed to his cell phone number. “Next time’s on me.”

Now, one year later, we entered the lobby of the Standard through rotating glass doors and I said, “Next time’s on you, remember?” making a nervous joke, fingering the wad of cash in my jacket pocket. He stopped walking and turned to me.

“This hotel is, like, four hundred dollars a night.”

“And?”

“I have law school loans to pay! Jesus. You’re the horny housewife with the rich husband.”

“Wow,” I said. I put my hands up and backed away a few steps.

We stood staring at one another among the plastic furniture. He softened. He reached for my hand and pulled me close to him. A man in high short shorts minced over, “Checking in?”

“No,” I said. “Yes.”

“Maybe,” he said.

“Okie doke then,” the man said. “You all just let me know when you makeup your mind then.”

Nick stared at me. His cold eyes were two black pits I could vanish in.

“Let’s go,” he said, his voice husky.

“I’ve never strayed,” I said. “In ten years of marriage.”

He winced. “What a bland thing to say.”

I reached for the phone in my purse, phone checking messages and emails.I stared intently at a junk email from Pottery Barn.

He bent down his head and whispered close to my ear, “It’s not that big of a deal.” He bent down nearer still and kissed me on the forehead. He said,“I’ve been waiting for this since we last met.” My body was filled with sweetness.

Nick grabbed my arm and pulled me to the counter where the man behind the desk waited, fiddling with a tiny silver laptop. Nick pulled out a credit card and slapped it into the man’s open hand.

“Visiting from out of town?” the man asked.

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” Nick said.

The man smiled and handed us a small black envelope with two cards. Slip it in, the envelope read.

We got into the dark elevator. The walls inside were painted black. Nick pressed me into the corner. I watched an art video installation on the wall closest to me. I watched King Kong and showgirls, Michael Jackson moon walking to mid last century horror film music. We were descending into Hades, the caption on the video read, as the elevator began to rise.

He pushed his hand down into my pants, his finger in dryness like digging in sand. He growled. “What’s happened to you? Frigid now? Where is my little house cat?”

“I’m just not relaxed. I need a drink.”

“From the mini bar?”

“I’ll pay.”

“Don’t be silly.”

He began nuzzling me, kissing my neck, feeling me up with his hands. I waited to feel something like lust. I tried to remember how I felt when I’d seen him the last time in the café. We entered the cold austere room, white and modern. I turned down the A/C. The letters underneath the knob read, Blow me.

Nick was tender, groping for me while the door shut behind us. I pushed him away and opened the mini bar fridge. “What I really need is a joint,” I said. I grabbed a Heineken and sat down on the white bed. It was a small bed.It was not large enough for the years between us.

“That’s not what you need.”

“Do you remember the first time?”

“Sure.”

“You don’t remember. We came back from that Christmas party, at thePlaza. I had another date waiting for me but I blew him off to hang out with you.”

“Did you.”

“You came back to my apartment. I wonder how we got there? Did we splurge on a cab? Or did we take the subway?”

“Subway, probably.” He sat down beside me and unscrewed the top of an airplane sized bottle of whiskey.

“I was wearing a brown wrap dress that my mother had sent in the mail.It was a little big on me but I could cinch the waist—I was really skinny then—”

“And still.” He drowned the whiskey and reached across the tiny white futuristic room to the fridge for a second.

“I was starving actually. All of us girls were. That night I wore nothing under the dress but a pair of stockings. I pulled off my stockings. You were lying back on my bed.”

“The only piece of furniture in your room.”

“There was a table. You put your watch on it first.”

Nick nodded. “I was afraid you would steal the watch.”

“Yes. You bastard. You laughed at the size of my nipples. I asked if they were bad. You said no. You said you were one of those men who appreciated women, no matter their flaws.”

“Flaws. You mean like ‘being married’?”

“I climbed right on top of you. You pulled apart your belt and unbuttoned your pants. You slipped right inside me. I was so wet you gasped. I was never so turned on in all my life. I have never since been so turned on in all my life. That feeling. It’s never come back, but I can’t forget it.”

“And yet you don’t feel that way now.”

“What are you doing here anyway? I’m washed up and uptight. My second baby was a C-section. Do you want to see the scar?”

“Yes.”

“You do?”

“That woman stuff has never bothered me.”

“You’ve never had sex with a woman that’s been pregnant.”

“My Swedish girlfriend had two abortions.”

“But that’s different.”

“Come on. Let me see it.”

I unbuttoned my jeans and pushed down my panties. “It’s here.”

“I don’t see it.”

“It blends with the color of my skin.”

“Here?”

He pushed his hand down into my jeans and his mouth covered mine.

You used to like this, I heard him say, but he didn’t say it. He had his hands pinning my wrists down to the bed and his knee pried my legs apart. Pull your pants down, he said, but he didn’t say it. The blood rushed through my head and I could hear nothing but the dim Manhattan sounds below. He released my hands and I wriggled out of my jeans.

Then it was done. He was inside, and I felt him lean all his weight into me. Liquid filled my arms and softened them, arousal spread through me. He flipped me over, nailing me to the bed with his heavy limbs. The energy of that motion animated me. What had ebbed now flowed. In a frenzy I rubbed up against the sheets. He whispered in my ear, poised over me. Give me all your money, isn’t this how you like it, how much do you charge an hour. You like it now but will you like it when I do this….

Then he tried to push himself into my ass and I screamed.

He pulled away from me and knelt beside me on the bed, naked. I panted for a moment and then caught my breath. He covered himself with a sheet and lay down beside me and I wiped my eyes. Sometimes a pain comes to clarify everything. The thought made me smile. I sat up and began to feel around for my underwear.

“Okay then,” I said. “I’m leaving now.”

“Now?”

I smiled again. This time it felt ragged and crooked on my face.

“Yes, now. My mom’s at home with my kids,” I said. I took a long inhale, exhaled and everything slowed down again. “She’s old, senile, probably drunk.”

“But I didn’t even come!”

I reached for my purse and pulled out four hundred dollar bills. “Here’s two hundred for the room. And two for a girl. Go find a date. Maybe that Indian girl is still waiting for you at the Bowery.”

The week passed and my husband returned. I watched him pull his luggage out of the town car, and his face flooded with relief when I opened the front door. My mother watched us warily from the couch, as she had since we’d first married. The children were thrilled to see him. They jumped up and down and sang, Daddy, Daddy, and he scooped them up and devoured them. The kettle I’d put on went off and whistled and whistled and everyone stopped and turned to stare at me until I moved into the kitchen to settle it down.

My husband came to our bedroom at night and climbed in beside me. He took the magazine I was reading out of my hands and placed it on the other side of him.

“My birthday is next week,” I said to him. “What are you going to get me?”

“What do you want?”

“Money.

“How much?”

“Ten grand.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Yes,” I said. “Tell me. How long does it take for you to make that? A couple hours?”

“I reinvest everything back into the business. You know that.” We lay beside one another. He pulled himself up and leaned on his elbow, his face swayed over me, “Tell you what. We do it ten times before your birthday andI’ll give you the cash.”

“Yeah?”

“Sure. I mean, but you’re very expensive…” He raised his eyebrows.

“You know,” I said. “You could make a punch card. Like you get in cafes.If you get ten punches you get ten percent off your next purchase.”

“Like Starbucks. You buy five cappuccinos and the next one is free.” He was moving on top of me and I felt myself relaxing. I took him in my hand.

“Oh,” I said to it. “You poor thing. You poor lonely thing. You’ve seen nothing but strangers lately. Strange hands, and strange mouths. . . .”

When we were nearly finished he said, “You swallow every drop and I’ll punch that card two times.


Bethany Ball was born and raised in Detroit and lives in New York with her family. She has just completed her first novel, Yossi Tavili Stands in the Fields, which was published by Grove Atlantic in January 2015. An excerpt was published in Bomb magazine in May 2014.