When had his knuckles gotten so knobby?
They didn’t used to be this way - his knuckles. He was sure of that. There was definitely a time when the skin was smooth and taut over the joints, the lines thin and shallow.
Now the bone protruded sharply beyond the fleshy parts. An old man’s hands. Deep creases wove between pink and white splotches, winding their way to his palms where they zigged and zagged, combining in places and separating in others like tributaries in an ancient river delta. On the fourth finger of his left hand, a pale depression circumscribed the area that had been occupied by his wedding ring for the past thirty-seven years.
“Knobby knuckles,” he said aloud. The words came out raspy where he’d meant for them to be sing-songy. A croaky stream of hot air passing over a dried out, lethargic tongue. It sounded like the beginning of a children’s rhyme. Something that he might have sung a long time ago, perhaps while jumping rope or playing tag on some idyllic and idealized childhood playground that may or may not have ever existed. “Wobbly buckles. Cobbled hucksters. Fuckle, muckle, cuckhold, chuckle.”
Waves of pressure emanated from behind his eyes. He shut them, blocking out what little light managed to squeeze between the thick hotel window curtains. The skin on his face felt flush and hot. He tried to remember the night before at the upstairs bar. To recreate what he’d said, what he’d done. Grasping at flashes, trying to piece together a coherent whole.
A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead and landed on his pillow.
He opened his eyes. On the nightstand next to his still-made hotel bed, the sheets tucked tightly and covered in the thick duvet, stood the evidence. Four single serving bottles of Skyy Vodka from the minibar, a tumbler with half a finger of melted ice, his phone with the little red notifications light blinking, and the fourteen karat gold ring inscribed on the inside with his and his wife’s initials and the date of their wedding. He was still dressed in the slacks and white linen shirt he’d worn the night before, his wallet and electronic keycard secured in his pants’ back and left pockets, respectively. The expensive fabrics were wrinkled and covered in the smell of perspiration and deodorant and body odor and day-old booze. He had managed to get his shoes off, at least. Those were by the door, their laces still tied.
He picked up the ring and attempted to slide it over his swollen finger, twisting and turning it. He groaned slightly.
A narrow beam of mid-morning light crept across the far wall. On the other side of the curtains, a glorious view of the Magnificent Mile and Lake Michigan that would have impressed him at one point. Before he had become so jaded, perhaps. Above the queen-sized bed, a painting of the Chicago skyline hung, carefully selected by a team of interior designers and consultants to be utterly neutral and inoffensive in every way.
At least he knew where he was. In his three-plus decade career with Barnes Partners he had stayed in more rooms just like this than he cared to count. Senior Partner, Head of Business Development, Platinum Elite, Million Mile Club, Diamond Circle, Medallion Plus, a duplex in a pre-war building on the Upper West side, a weekend house in Bridgehampton with a two-door Porsche next to a Lexus SUV in the garage, membership at the grass court tennis club that he never went to anymore. He’d worked hard for it. He’d earned it. Beijing, New York, Rio, London. Long stints on the road in identical hotel rooms and corporate board rooms and glass towers, all decorated the same international modern industrial chic. He’d once woken up in a panic because he couldn’t for the life of him remember where in the world he was, finally calling the front desk. “Where am I?” He’d asked the confused woman on the other end of the line. Singapore, it turned out.
It would be another twenty minutes, at least, until the Advil kicked in. Once it did, he’d be able to stand up, take a shower, get ready for his one o’clock flight back to La Guardia. Until then, though, he had decided he would stay where he was, face half buried in the soft down pillow dampened with his sweat.
The previous night, before he started drinking, he’d gotten a call from his wife that had ended in a fight. It was something stupid and inconsequential. It usually was. Something about money, and what to do with it now that they had everything. He’d pursued his career while he and his wife became roommates with little to talk about and seemingly nothing in common now that the children were grown and no longer occupied their time and conversations. She told him she wanted to renovate the kitchen and he’d said in a not patient tone, “again?” and then, “we just renovated the damn kitchen.”
They did that a lot these days. Argued over inconsequential things. She told him he drank too much, which was true, but so what? He criticized the way she cut vegetables too thick or had too many pairs of heels. She’d called him controlling, a “tyrant,” as he recalled. He’d told her that all she knew how to do anymore was spend what he earned. “You have no idea how hard I work for what we have.” In retrospect, it was probably too harsh an assessment, but he’d hung up the phone in dramatic fashion, not giving her a chance to respond. Getting the last word mattered to him these days. It was a small victory.
From there, he’d gone straight to the minibar. The first drink had been an angry one. He hadn’t bothered to use a glass. Just poured it directly into his mouth and swallowed it down in one shot.
He had paced back and forth in the room, rehashing the phone call, thinking of clever and cutting things that he could have said. Maybe he would call her back. He‘d picked up his phone, typed in the password, started to scroll through text messages his wife had sent him, and then put it back down.
He would take the elevator to the top floor bar, he‘d decided. There was a reception to celebrate the end of the Midwestern Bankers Association Annual Conference, where he’d been a keynote speaker earlier that day. The presentation he’d given – “Asset Allocation for Pension Fund Management in a Volatile Market” – had been well received. A room full of potential new clients and leads and new lines of business.
He’d go up to the top floor and pretend to take in the view. Mingle a bit. Let people flatter him. That still made him feel good, the outside affirmation of being someone who mattered, who had some authority, who was at the top of his field. He’d go up and just see what happened. There was no harm in that. Maybe he would order a steak. He’d get it rare and eat it without worrying about what it meant for his blood pressure or cholesterol levels. He had earned that too.
But first, he would have a second drink. This one he’d poured into a tumbler with a cube of ice. The warmth of the vodka spread from his stomach into his chest and arms. He got into the marble-tiled shower and masturbated. He got out. He put on a fresh shirt and stood in front of the mirror buttoning and unbuttoning the second one from the top.
By then, the edges were dull. The second drink had put some space between him and his anger. He‘d poured the third and drunk it quickly. Had he debated pouring the fourth, or had he just gone ahead and done it without thinking?
After that, he felt good. He looked good too. He undid the second button of his fresh linen shirt. He wet his hand in the sink and parted his salt and pepper, expensively cut hair. He still wore a thirty-three-inch waist, still had some definition in his stomach and chest and arms. He liked that he hadn’t let that go, like so many other men his age. He had been disciplined. He put his keycard in his pocket and stepped out into the hallway. He stopped and put his foot in the door, checked again to make sure he had the key, and then let the door close.
The throbbing in his temples was showing some initial signs of subsiding. He rolled over in bed and held his hand above his head, hoping that by allowing the blood to drain he would be able to squeeze the ring back into place.
What had happened, once he’d gotten to the bar? He needed to put it back together. Fill in the blanks. He’d ordered a drink. Another vodka, this time with tonic and a lime. He’d told the bartender to put it on his room account. He could probably get it comped. He was a loyal customer. He’d earned it. He’d made a mental note that he would need to have that conversation with the person at the desk when he checked out in the morning.
The room had been lively. Conversations were louder than they needed to be, the volume of people who had been drinking. He had been to enough of these things to know how they went. They were a chance to get away. To leave home in St. Louis or Indianapolis or Columbus with the kids and the spouse and the obligations behind. To let loose just a little bit.
A woman had sat down next to him at the bar and ordered a glass of red wine. She was pretty. Not drop dead gorgeous, but pretty. Julia. Or was it Juliana? He couldn’t remember for certain. Mid-thirties, he guessed. She’d tipped the bar tender and taken a long sip of wine before turning to him. “That’s better,” Julia or Juliana had said, letting out a sigh and pushing a strand of dirty blonde hair out of her eyes. She’d turned and smiled at him and told him that she’d enjoyed his presentation. He’d pretended to be humble.
She was from Milwaukee. “Not too far away. Just a couple hours’ drive. But it feels like such an escape to be here. You know what I mean?” He’d nodded and said that he did. She had given him a business card.
He lowered his hand and felt his breast pocket of his shirt. It was still there, her business card. He removed it, straightened the edges, and squinted at the embossed lettering. Jennifer Dovers, Regional Director, First Bank of the Great Lakes, it read.
Jennifer. That was it.
Was it then that he’d taken off his ring? Or had it been earlier? He couldn’t remember. She was going home first thing in the morning, she had told him. He had put his hand on the bar, making a show of his bare fingers.
What then? She’d finished her wine. She’d asked whether he wanted a cocktail. “Something sweet,” she insisted, “to celebrate.” She had smiled at him and waved toward the bartender. “Have you ever had a Malibu Sunset? It’s my favorite.” And rather than be a prick about it, rather than say that that wasn’t his thing, that he preferred aged whiskey or top-shelf vodka, he’d said ‘yes’. “Just as long as I can treat you to the next one.” Her hair had fallen back across her eyes, and she'd brushed it back again, tucking it behind her ear.
In his darkened room, the phone on the table buzzed with a text message alert. He tried again to slide the ring into its place. He pushed hard. It still wouldn’t budge.
They’d chatted a little while. He and Jennifer. She told him she hadn’t imagined herself at Bank of the Great Lakes. She’d been a theater major. But she liked the work well enough. It paid the bills. And she was good at it. She’d been promoted recently. That was the general outline of the thing. The details were probably lost forever. They weren’t important anyway. He guessed that she was only a few years older than his daughter.
She was born on a Wednesday, his daughter, and he had been back in the office the following Monday. His managers had noticed that and rewarded him for it by making him a project lead.
Across from the bar, through the gaggles of inebriated coworkers telling one another things that they’d almost certainly regret the next day, there had been a floor to ceiling window that looked out over the Chicago skyline. She’d said they should go and have a look, that her own room was only on the third floor and looked directly into the wall of the neighboring building. She was excited about it, about being away. There was something unpredictable about it, an element of danger in what had become a too safe life. This was all still new to her. She hadn‘t yet become jaded.
Had he said ‘yes?’ Had he tried to kiss her there by the window, the lights of the city sprawling out before them? No. He was pretty sure he hadn’t, but he couldn’t rule it out completely. He’d certainly considered it, at a minimum. Was that who he’d become? A man who tries to kiss young women in hotel bars? A sad old man with old man’s hands and the second button of his shirt unbuttoned. And then what? What had he thought would happen next? Would they have sex, he and Jennifer? Would he have lain there next to her afterward and confessed everything? Would he tell her about his wife and his children? Would he have tearfully pulled his ring out of his pocket and shown it to her and told her how he and his wife had drifted apart, how his obsession over his job had cost him the only thing in his life that had ever really mattered? How all they did now was bicker? That he regretted it all? Would he warn her not to end up like he had, to go back to theater, to get out while she still could?
The Advil was doing its trick. The ache behind his forehead replaced now with foggy dullness. He gritted his teeth and pushed hard on the ring. He grunted as the ring budged slowly past his knuckle and slid into its pale-skinned depression. He held his hand to his eyes and observed it up close. The skin on his knuckles was red and raw and scraped. The light through the crack in the shades glinted off the gold of the ring.
He picked up his phone from the bedside table and typed out a text message. “I’m sorry about last night,” he tapped out. And then, “you’re right about the kitchen.” He pushed send. He put the phone down. Then he picked it back up and typed out another message. “I love you.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d told her that.
He would get up and open the curtains, let the light in, appreciate the view. He would take a shower and change into some fresh clothes. He would check out of the hotel. He would pay his bill without asking for special treatment. He would go to the airport and catch his one o’clock flight to La Guardia. He would drink less. He would be less critical. He would help his wife renovate the kitchen. He would do better.