I take frequent breaks from my wife. I know this makes me sound like a complete arse, but on the rare occasion when we’re in the same room, she launches words from her mouth that corner me, control me, and bend me to her will.
Recently it has become harder to get away. I had to make some promises this time. They are not ones I intend to keep, but they have bought me some time.
A lot depends on this vacation. I’m getting closer to finishing the book.
And now this.
But why should I be surprised? Of course something like this would happen on the kind of getaway I plan because my wife only gives me enough of an allowance to vacation one level above a peasant.
Then again, the young woman who has just appeared in the doorway of this somewhat seedy hotel room definitely commands a second look, especially since she’s my new roommate. “Just for the night,” the man at the front desk promised. “I’m so sorry for the mix-up.”
“Me, too.” I replied.
But now, maybe not so much.
She is light skinned, with defined arms, and looks so startlingly fresh as she leans against the door frame in a sun-yellow dress. For a man who hasn’t touched his wife in more than six months, I am intrigued by her presence.
“I’m Julia,” she says, as she enters and extends her hand. Her teeth are very white.
“Thomas.” I squeeze her hand lightly, and I think maybe she blushes.
“I heard there was some confusion at the front desk.”
“Yes. But I’m sure we can make things work for just one night.”
Her mouth quirks to the side.
“I was about to try to find some dinner. Would you like me to bring you something back?” She clasps her hands and rocks back on her heels. “Since we’re roommates and all.”
I hesitate. Although our hotel is a dive, there are a couple of surprisingly modern restaurants nearby, their counters sleek and smooth, illuminated by pendant lights that plunge from the ceiling. Unfortunately, modern usually equals expensive.
“My treat,” she says.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
“It’s no bother.”
“Okay, then. I appreciate it.”
An hour later she reappears with a bag and drink in hand. “I went with chicken. You didn’t mention being a vegetarian, and I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like chicken. Do you like chicken?”
She looks at me with raised eyebrows.
“Sure. Chicken is great.” I realize I’ve almost forgotten how to talk to people.
“There’s some asparagus on the side. I figured that was a little risky, but everyone needs some greens.”
“That was very thoughtful. Thank you.”
“Do you always talk like a robot?”
“Not always.” She stares, and I laugh at myself. It feels good.
“So. The basics.” She retrieves a laptop from a small turquoise bag.
“The basics,” I repeat. “I’m a writer. Getting close to finishing my book.” I don’t usually get to say things like this except to my agent, and I savor sharing these words with a stranger. “How about you?”
“I’m just off on a little holiday. Waiting to hear about a new job. Nothing as exciting as finishing a book.”
My chest swells.
She continues, “I take it you’re not married? I didn’t see a ring.”
I am caught off guard. “Actually I am. I just don’t have the ring on right now.”
She settles herself onto the bed. “Oh. Is that a normal thing to do? Take your wedding ring off from time to time?”
My breath catches. I have not revealed my plans to anyone.
“My wife and I will be separating soon. I’m getting used to things.”
“Is your wife aware of this soon-to-be separation?”
“I don’t think she’ll be surprised.” I pause to consider why I am sharing this information. Maybe the idea has been caged too long, and I admit I’m enjoying hearing it frolick into the open air.
Her eyes flit back to her laptop screen. “Damn it.” She closes the top with a snap and tosses the laptop onto the bed as she collapses into the thin pillow behind her. "Damn it," she says again as her head thumps the headboard.
“Sorry. That job I mentioned earlier. It’s not going to work out.” She throws her arm over her eyes.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. Things just haven’t been working out for me lately, not in the way I want them to. It’s complicated.” She sighs and looks over at me. “ I always have a tendency to emotionally vomit all over people I just met.”
I’m unsure how much advice to offer, but something feels right about what I’m about to say. “I received 32 rejection notices over the course of two years.”
“Is that a lot? It sounds like a lot.”
“It is. But now I’m going to publish my book.”
I’m not sure she understands. “So don’t give up. Whatever it is you’re wanting. I didn’t think my time would ever come either.”
She sits up cross-legged in the bed and smiles at me, her white teeth gleaming. “Did you just string three whole sentences together?”
I laugh at myself again. That’s twice in one evening.
But she throws me a curve ball when she says, “Tell me about your wife.” She stretches her legs out and flops over to her side. I am momentarily distracted and amused by the child-like maneuver. “It’ll take my mind off my latest pitfall.”
“I’m not sure I really want to talk about it.” This is a lie. I want to talk about it, but I think she’ll think I’m strange if I actually do.
“Oh, come on. Chances are we’ll never even see each other again after our sleepover. So what’s the problem with her? Did the romance fade? Is she into another guy? Were you not able to have children? Those are usually the top three, right?”
“I’ll take your word for it. But none of those apply to my situation.”
She tilts her head, and this small movement encourages me. So I tell her. I tell her about how Meredith controls all the finances since, in her words, I don’t have “a real job”. How her words cut and scar, the string of expletives that spew forth for something as simple as leaving the milk out on the counter, in her opinion, a little too long. How she hates my sister, whom I now rarely call because Meredith checks the phone bill incessantly. And lastly, how she wants me to have a child with her, is in fact demanding it, who will also be struck by her daily barbs.
Julia grows very quiet. I watch her stand, pull the covers back, and climb underneath. She pulls them up to her chin, but turns toward me. “Hey, Thomas. I think the food tonight upset my stomach. I need to close my eyes for a few minutes.”
I’m a bit taken aback. It’s a jarring dismissal to endure, and I realize I long for empathy, but I don’t know of another response to make. “Oh, of course. Feel better. I need to get back to work anyway.”
She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she murmurs, and I think I see a tear slip down her cheek.
A couple of hours later, I am in the midst of typing a riveting scene when Julia bolts upright, shouting and flailing her legs, which send the covers down toward the foot of the bed.
I go to her.
She is breathing hard. I watch her bring my face into focus. “I was dreaming of your wife.”
“My wife? I’m not sure she’s quite the stuff of nightmares.”
She wraps her hands around her knees. “I know her.”
“You mean you know someone like her?”
“I mean I know her. I know Meredith.”
I feel the blood draining from my face. “How?”
Julia puts her head down on her knees. “She sent me here. I’m supposed to report back to her.”
“Here?” I realize I sound somewhat incoherent.
“To watch you. She thinks you’re leaving.”
“But you will eventually?”
“Why have you stayed?”
“I need to finish the book.”
“You can’t leave and then finish it?”
“The book is about her. A controlling wife. How her husband finally frees himself.”
“I just have to create the ending. Then I’ll leave.”
I feel the dead-cold of her hand as she grips mine, her face wet with tears. “I’m afraid you won’t make it.”
An idea suddenly occurs to me as I stare at this woman who has turned out to be nothing more than another one of my wife’s tentacles. “Practice makes perfect,” I say, as my hands circle round her neck.