Then We Reached Magnolia

          He laughed at me. That’s how it started.
          I walked into the kitchen from the back deck, carrying a glass of wine, and tripped over the lip of the old lino in the doorway. He was leaning against the counter, raising a bottle of beer towards his mouth, as he laughed.
          It was a party to celebrate the house a couple had bought, before they were to tear most of it down and put a new house in its place. My friend Clara knew them. I knew no one at the party other than her. My husband, Sean, didn’t want to come along. He hated parties.
          Wine had slopped onto the floor and I grabbed the roll of paper towel from the counter, but a few people came in the back door and walked through the wine, through the kitchen and into the hallway. I stood, looking helplessly at the floor.
          “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “This room won’t even be here on Monday.”
          “Are you one of the owners?” I said.
          He smiled. “One of the workers.”
          He held out his hand to me. “Dave Gilbert,” he said, and I knew then that he wasn’t one of the laborers—the gesture, introducing himself by his first and last name, and his hand was far too pale, clean, unmarked.
          I shook his hand. “Jane.”
          “Jane Doe?” he said.
          I scowled. “No.”
          “Let me get you a new glass of wine. You lost that one.” He went to the fridge. “What were you having?”
          “No idea. It was white.”
          He smiled over at me. “You’re one of those drinkers, are you?”
          “No. Sometimes.”
          He held out a bottle of wine to me that was non-descript. I shrugged and he poured me a large glass.
          “That’s a lot of wine,” I said. “You must be one of those men.”
          We both smiled. He handed me the glass and clinked his beer bottle against it.
          “Can we start again, Jane?”
          “Start what?” I said. “It’s Janey, actually.”
          “Pretty,” he said.
          His eyes were resting on the strap of my dress, my bare shoulder.
          “You’re not a laborer, are you?”
          His gaze snapped back to my face. “Architect.”
          “What does that mean?”
          I wanted to say, Ah, isn’t it lovely to speak with someone like this? This flirting? It had been ages.
          His white shirt was crisp and his pants were charcoal. Of course he was an architect. I was already thinking about the house he lived in.
          “What about you? What do you do?” he said.
          “I’m a high school teacher.”
          Perhaps that made sense to him too—my dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, my short nails and flat shoes. I felt him take it all in. 
          Then it was as if the party had started to conspire. Someone moved past us and we shifted out of the way, a step closer to each other. The music was turned up, very loud, and we had to lean in closer to speak. Who knows what we discussed? It was about speaking directly into the curl and hollow of his ear and catching the gleam of his smile. There must have been a time when I spoke with Sean in this way, but I doubted it. We were twenty when we met in college twelve years ago and not interested in conversation.
          It was like someone had pushed a window open and the room filled with oxygen, more than I could possibly take in. Or maybe Dave had already knocked down the walls. He pulled that house down around us.

          “There is little in this life—” Dave began and laughed.
          “There is little in this life that is as lovely as seeing you here.”
          I was sitting beside him in his car.
          “It’s probably the car,” I said. It was a Mercedes coupe after all.
          He smiled. “No. It’s not the car.”
          I felt lost, unable to speak. He had this effect on me sometimes—we were living his reality rather than mine. In real life, there was no way that I could let him drive me to a beachside hotel in Door County, Wisconsin. And yet I was sitting beside him in his car.
          Dave and I had been seeing each other for only two months. We were heading a long way north, because back in Chicago when we were planning this weekend, our first one together, I wanted to go that little bit further away. It got to the point where he thought we should catch a plane somewhere, which was ridiculous—the airport, for Christ’s sake, so that most of Chicago could see us together. Apparently I was the only one who knew how to play this game, though I hadn’t done this before and he had, as it turned out. In the confessional of the bed after sex, he told me that just before his divorce two years ago, he had an affair. I felt a tinge of disappointment at his moral choice, the same choice which I had now made too.
          I thought that, until I caught his eye and he smiled slowly, and I wished I hadn’t asked to stay somewhere over four hour’s drive away.

          We were heading to an expensive hotel with cabins, or huts as they described them. Dave almost called them discreet, but caught himself. He was paying for it. I couldn’t afford it and he could. It was as simple as that.
          He asked me whether we should stop for lunch on the way. He knew a place. And perhaps he had brought his lover here. It occurred to me from time to time that she would handle this better than me.
          As for his ex-wife, Fiona, we didn’t discuss her. But I knew it was coming.
          “Here we are,” Dave said, swinging the car off the freeway into the parking lot of a roadside diner. He laughed. “It’s better than it looks.”
          We got out of the car and he took my hand. Those six hurtling lanes of cars—three in each direction, only meters away. He said, “We’re far enough away now,” reminding me that my face was tell-tale.
          Sean was away on one of those blessed bachelor weekends. I didn’t know the bride and was spared a polite invitation to the bachelorette’s weekend.
          Here we were—me with Dave.
          Sean was with his friends in Acapulco, Mexico, scuba diving, jet skiing and all the rest of it. What goes on tour stays on tour, blah blah, haha. Go for it. Fucking go for it. I didn’t mind.
          “I know you wouldn’t think it, but the cheese macaroni is divine,” Dave said.
          Cheese macaroni.
          We hadn’t eaten a meal together in public before. So cheese macaroni it was. I almost laughed because I ate it at least once a week—it was the only meal Sean cooked.
          Dave took up both of my hands across the table. He seemed to be quite used to holding hands in public. If I was here with Sean, he’d be watching the televisions above the bar, his arms crossed high over his chest. I wanted to cry. My life now consisted of splintered moments of light and dark. I watched those cars rushing past to let my eyes clear, but Dave saw it and tightened his grip—one long squeeze. Someone looking into the diner would have only seen a couple holding hands.
          The waiter brought us our beers and to show that I truly was happy, I clinked my bottle against his.
          “Cheese macaroni is just the start,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t grow tired of me soon.

          We walked past huts called Primrose, Redbud, Wild Prairie Rose and Tasselflower. We crossed a little wooden bridge over a lit pool with floating water lilies, complete with perfect pink lotus blooms. We could have been in a theme park, a wonderland. Only couples were allowed here; it had a secluded, heated pool where you could skinny-dip. It was so quiet. I wondered what others were doing to each other in their huts.
          Then we reached our hut: Magnolia.
          The bed had been turned down and we stood looking at it. We had already fucked in it. Did housekeeping smooth out the map our bodies left on the sheet? Or was it still there, hidden beneath the quilt?
          Dave was confused, as if he wasn’t sure whether we had in fact fucked only a few hours ago. Then he smiled and walked to the bathroom.
          “Do you want a bath?” he called. “It must be the cleanest bath. Yes. It is.”
          I picked up a heart shaped chocolate in red foil left on the pillow and put it on the nightstand. I lay down on the bed and heard the water crashing into the bath.
          “It’s got spa jets. Nice,” he called over the water.
          “I don’t think I want a bath,” I said, knowing he couldn’t hear me. Sean liked solitary baths. He could stay in there for hours reading the sports pages and flicking through the porn on his phone that he thought I didn’t know about.
          I ate that bloody chocolate heart and the other one too. Dave walked into the room, pulling his shirt out of his pants with one hand.
          He dragged me from the bed, saying, “Bath first. Then bed.” He pulled my clothes off in a promising way. He touched me until I was turning inside of myself and breathing hard. He smiled like he had me exactly where he wanted me. And of course he did. This was after all what we were here for.

          Dave was asleep. This was where we didn’t fit. It was six in the morning and I was wide awake. I crawled out from under his leaden arm and went for a run, smelling of sex, of him, pressed into my skin.

          After my run and shower, I went to the dining room for the buffet breakfast. Dave was still fast asleep.
          I was eating a piece of star fruit when Dave walked into the room and spotted me. He had dragged on jeans and a t-shirt; his feet were bare.
          “He knows,” Dave said, standing above me.
          I stared at his bare feet. He didn’t need to tell me who, or what.
          “I’m sorry. These fucking phones. They all look the same,” he said and put my cell phone on the table.
          “I just picked it up and answered it without looking. I thought it was mine.” Dave sat down opposite me. “I’m really sorry.”
          “It’s okay,” I said. “These things happen.”
          “You could tell him your phone was stolen?” he said, hopefully. “Or misplaced? I only said hello.”
          I shook my head.
          “Just think about it for a minute,” Dave said.
          I got up from the table, my phone ringing.

          Sean was crying. Something had happened—they were all at Acapulco International Airport waiting for a flight home. His friend Richard had drowned. They went for a swim after dinner and they were drunk. It was only because of Richard that he was fucking calling me in the first place. Richard was one of his oldest friends, a good person. Of all of Sean’s friends, Richard was the one I liked the most.
          Sean let fly for quite a while. His voice was terrible, shaking and hurt. I imagined him standing in the departure lounge, trying to salvage some privacy.
          “I’m so sorry, Sean,” I said.
          “I bet you’re very fucking sorry.”
          “No. About Richard,” I said. Then, “And for what I’ve done.”
          “Spare me the bullshit. You’re so goddamn selfish. You never took me seriously,” he said. “Well, fuck you, Janey. Fuck. You.” He hung up.
          I pressed my forehead hard into the wall until it hurt. I looked down at my new sundress and flip-flops, my “Marilyn Red” pedicure. It was all so foolish, so stupid.
          Dave was sitting at the table where I left him, eating my fruit salad. Clearly none of this had affected his appetite. He put down the fork and looked a bit ashamed—about the fruit salad or the end of my marriage, I wasn’t sure.
          “It’s okay,” I said.
          “What is?”
          “I am. I am okay.”
          Dave stood up, unsure what to do next. Perhaps he knew that if he laid a finger on me I might scream.
          “Tell me,” he said.
          “His friend died. Drowned. They were drinking and went for a swim.”
          “What about—?”
          “He doesn’t want to see me again.”
          “I’m sorry,” he said.
          How sorry could he be? How sorry could either of us be? The one hurdle for us—my marriage—had been overcome. Now there were no excuses and maybe that was the thing he was sorry about.
          “What do you want to do?” he said. “Do you want to leave?”
          I cried. He came around the table and hugged me, here in the dining room that was filling with all of those other couples.

          We left the hotel and Dave drove us back to Chicago, to his place. Though I felt scattered, I pondered the logistics of packing and moving my things. I asked Dave how to go about it because after all, he had done this before and I couldn’t work it out.
          His hand slid onto my thigh. “You can stay with me. Move in with me.” He did not look at me.
          “I only found out last night that you like to sleep in,” I said.
          He finally glanced at me. “You don’t have to commit to anything, Janey.”
          “Call me sweetheart.”
          He laughed. “Okay,” he said. “Sweetheart. You don’t have to commit to anything.”
          I looked out the window at every car we passed. He turned his attention back on the road and we sped home.

Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, New World Writing, and Gravel among others. She has been a featured writer in Bang! One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia.