The blonde receptionist sitting behind the looming black marble desk is typing furiously. Alfred stares down at the questionnaire on the tablet. Sweat drips down his forehead and pools in the small of his back. He clears his throat while nervously glancing at Angel. She doesn’t look up from her work and casually answers the phone after two melodic tones play, “Seven Year Itch, Angel speaking, how may I help you?” Alfred crosses and uncrosses his legs. He clenches his jaw and unclenches his jaw as he reads through the questions. He finishes the task and turns the tablet into Angel who is still talking through her head set. She nods at him, her red lipstick stark on pale skin. Alfred weaves his way back to his black seat and tries to settle in. He bites his bottom lip as his green eyes flash to the white door he entered through twenty minutes ago. As he stands a woman calls his name and he turns to follow her through another white, automatic door. It’s too late to turn back now.
She leads him down a white tiled hallway. Her pace is brisk and her white heels click on the floor rhythmically. She badges into a room at the end of the hallway. It’s a vivid red room. The carpet is plush and Alfred longs to take off his shoes and squish his toes into it. There is a large, cloth couch in one corner and a small coffee table in front of it. As she departs he sees she’s wearing a name tag that says ANGEL.
He frowns and takes a seat. His right foot begins bouncing nervously. The door swings open right as he’s about to cut and run for it. A woman, tall and dressed all in black enters. She places a black folder on the coffee table and introduces herself as Angel. She has the same long blonde curls, the same entrancing blue eyes. “Welcome to Seven Year Itch,” she says as she takes a seat next to Alfred. He inhales her perfume. “We’re going to start with some questions-I see you chose a single experience,” she whips out a thin gold pen and holds his gaze.
Alfred nods silently. For a moment, he pictures his wife, in her flowing cotton dress sitting in the pew at church. He sees her kneeling and praying before mass. Her grandmother’s little gold cross sparkling in the sunrise. Her soft, pink lips, furiously moving through the rosary before Peter cries out or Margaret grows tired of her coloring. “Yeah, a single experience,” sighs Alfred. Angel nods and smiles at him while scribbling in the folder.
“And what are you picturing as your perfect experience with Seven Year? Start picturing yourself as you get ready for the Unification. What are you wearing? Where are you going?” asks Angel. Alfred leans back on the couch, considering her question before answering. She makes a few notes and then looks at him, “How are you expecting this Unification to end?”
Alfred gnaws at his sore, red, bottom lip. He answers Angel while rubbing his palms together to spread out the sweat. Angel nods and tells him it will all happen this Friday. “That feels, ah, kinda fast,” he stutters and she nods. He signs at the bottom of the contract and hands over the cash-half now, half on Friday. Angel pricks his left index finger for the blood test. It stings. She slaps a band aid onto his finger with a grin.
Alfred stares at the wall, the image of his wife, standing for communion in his mind. The golden sunrise makes her glow, like an angel.
Maddie scoffs at the ad depicting the blonde “Angel” on the train station wall. “Stop,” says Candace as she strokes Peter’s head and clutches Margaret’s little hand . She has him pressed against her chest in the baby carrier and she whips her head wildly around as she deboards the train to make sure everyone is safe. “It’s a career, Maddie,” points out Candace as they climb the stairs and make the journey to the cafe. “It’s not as if they are having affairs with customers, they just…” her voice drops off.
“They just facilitate the affairs,” interejects Maddie; her heels loudly bang along the pavement. “Which is, like, a million times worse,” reminds Maddie. They are seated at a little black table and Candace negotiates Margaret into her high chair. She scoops Peter into her arms. Maddie and Luke have been trying to conceive for five years-to no avail. Candace smiles at her best friend and they ask for coffees from the waiter.
“Is it worse, though? To have someone go to Seven Year Itch instead of doing it in secret?”muses Candace. The autumn air is crisp, but the Colorado sunshine prevails and warms their shoulders.
“An affair is an affair!” scoffs Maddie. Candace detects a hint of fear.
“I’m just saying, maybe it’s better to know. Maybe it’s better to cheat once through the company than over and over outside of the company,” Candace argues. When she looks up, she notices her friend’s bottom lip quivering.
“Sweetie,” she says as the waiter serves up two omelets for the women and a pancake with a chocolate chip face for Margaret. “Luke is loyal, don’t you worry. Just because your seventh anniversary just passed, doesn’t mean anything will happen,” soothes Candace. Margaret is in a surprisingly good mood as she plays with her scraps of pancake. Her little fingers swirl them in leftover syrup.
“I’m not worried,” proclaims Maddie defiantly. “I just don’t understand how it is even an option,” she laments.
“It isn’t. People like us don’t have affairs.” says Candace. She strokes the soft back of Maddie’s hand, trying to calm her.
“Right. It’s not an option for me,” Maddie’s voice cracks.
Candace almost chokes on her coffee, “Not for you? Was it ever a thought for you?”
“No! No!” says Maddie. She shakes her head the way Margaret does when she doesn’t get ice cream after dinner, flaming red curls dancing in the wind . “No,” Maddie’s voice is calmer now, less shrill. The guests surrounding them stop staring at the frantic woman. They finish their coffee in silence. Candace watches the clouds and points out different shapes to Margaret. She resists to stare at the glassy eyes of Maddie. She refuses to encourage this reaction.
Candace pays the bill and tips 20%. She stashes the receipt in her wallet and leans back against the warm metal of the chair. She sips her coffee and feels her heart drop: had she terribly offended Maddie? Candace wrapped herself in a hug as she felt cold and worried. Maddie glances at her and laughs. They walk back to the train.
Candace stares at the advertisement. Angel is surrounded by a pretty pink background dotted with hearts. In the left corner in fancy cursive Are you bored in your marriage? Feeling that itch? Let us help! The model puckers her lips and blows a kiss. The advert changes and shows a very fit man blowing a kiss. His name is Angel, too. He asks the same questions and blows the same kiss. Candance, uncomfortably taps her foot and peers down the dark tunnel, waiting for the train. It eventually rumbles into the station.
Candace watches as the final ad displays two bored looking people-clearly married as they held hands and huddled around the female angel. Candace reads the script: Wanna Unify together? We offer couples experiences, too. Let’s make your dreams come true!
Despite their years of friendship, neither woman has much to stay and the train chugs along. So much for their perfect Saturday.
He arrives at the company at 6pm. He is led by Angel to the same red room he was interviewed in. A coal black suit hangs on a rack in the corner. Champagne, beer, and a selection of wine is neatly arranged on the coffee table. Alfred marches over, downs a beer, and takes a deep breath. He notes a door he hadn’t before which is now propped. His eye had been drawn by the stark white decoration peeking through.
Alfred steps into the winter wonderland themed bathroom. There is a large claw foot tub, with gold feet, pressed against one corner and a shower in the other. There is a large caddy filled with anything he could have wanted: shampoos, conditioners, body washes, shaving supplies, and hair gel. He makes a few selections and starts up the shower. The water pounds his skin and turns him all red like a lobster. He leans his back against the white tile, relishing in the juxtaposition of the heat of the water and the cool tile. A chime sounds and the water shuts off. Alfred steps onto the bath mat and wraps himself in the cloud white towel. Steam clouds the mirror, but he wipes it away with a corner of the towel.
The green eyes staring back at him feel different. Bizarre. Unknown to him. They have deep bags underneath them and the beginnings of crow’s feet. His mind briefly wanders to the woman he’ll be meeting. He crosses his fingers that Angel had heard his fantasy and made his dreams come true, as she had promised. Alfred folds his lip into his mouth, but only for a moment. His wife loves his freckles, dotted all over his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. She used to kiss each and every one. It was an impossible task and the thought brings a smile, followed by an abrupt frown, to his face.
He meanders out to the big, red room and chugs a second beer before returning to the bathroom. Alfred makes quick work of a shave and styles his rust colored curls. His eyes linger over his freckles and he rushes out of the room to change. There is a pair of black dress shoes at the base of the suit and he tests out several of the provided colognes, sitting on the glass end table by the clothes rack, before settling on one called Midnight. A chime signals his time is over and the door opens. Angel leads him out of the company and to a black car. The driver nods and they zoom off to the Union. Orange sunlight dances across the sky.
She frowns at her phone. Alfie had said he needed to work late. He would be home late. He missed her. Her heart cracks and she stares at the gold band with seven little diamonds on it-one for each year of their marriage.
Alfie is a jeweler. It was one of the first things that attracted him to her. They met at an art gala. One of the artists, Maddie, had featured an array of her husband’s jewelry in the paintings she had created. It was the start of many things. The band now feels heavy on her hand which falls into her lap. Peter begins to wail on the monitor.
The car pulls up to a hotel. It’s the biggest one downtown-made out of classic brick. His driver expertly pulls under the large golden arch and Alfred swallows one glass of champagne before hopping out of the car. With a trembling hand, Alfred opens the door. The lobby is decorated in turkeys and bright leaves. A desk clerk waves at him and he approaches the marble counter. She takes his name and hands him a key. It’s not like what he expected. Most hotels had graduated to electric, plastic key cards or apps on phones which allowed guests to enter their rooms. This key is small, tiny, just a smidge bigger than a quarter. He stashes it in his pocket while she tells him with an elective smile that his room is 505. Alfred thanks her and heads into the bar.
He suddenly feels like he’s seventeen again, nervous to take Juliet to the prom so he takes the key out, turning it over in his sweaty fingers as he reminisces. She was the prettiest girl in town with raven curls and she always wore red lipstick. Every boy was enchanted by her. Alfred had been pleasantly surprised when they were matched as chemistry partners their senior year. Over chemicals and lab notes, he flirted furiously. She flirted back. And he took her to the local Italian restaurant on a spring night. She had spaghetti and he had the chicken parmesan. He paid the bill. They made out on the dance floor. And kissed each other goodbye in matching black graduation caps.
Butterflies dance in his stomach as his hostess leads him to a table, tucked in the corner, lit by candles. He tucks into his seat, dropping the key in the process. He fumbles on the black, carpeted floor, as the wait approaches. Alfred desperately pulls out his phone which has a flashlight and scans the ground. He is vaguely aware of the black foot tapping impatiently for him. Alfred decides to ditch the key and attempts to look up at his pizza-faced host. He orders a cocktail and for the first time tonight, wonders if she will show.
He considers the fact that some of his buddies reported no shows. Also, he knew some male friends who didn’t show up to the date themselves. His hand shakes as he swallows his whiskey and orders a second, all the wile attempting to find the key. The burning alcohol wrapped him in fiery confidence. He would still get a nice meal. And Seven Year would set up another Union. It happens. Some people just back out at the last moment. His eyes scan the dining room and he sits up straighter, in an attempt to end the sweat pouring down his back.
He notices her red hair first. That was red hair he knew. Red hair scattered across a canvas, covered in paint. Red hair draped along cream colored breasts. Red hair in a bun at an art gallery, a ponytail when working, but down only for him.
She stops halfway to the table as her eyes recognize him. Her heart catches in her throat. His heart catches in his throat. Their matching green eyes gaze into each other’s souls. Alfred finds himself nodding and patting the booth, as if Cupid is controlling his body. Maddie tucks her red dress beneath her thighs and takes a seat. “Oh,” she glances down at the toe of her heel, “Looks like you dropped something.” Pinched between delicately manicured fingers is the key.
The attempted video chat call beeps three times to indicate that Maddie isn’t available. Candace tosses the phone on her bed and turns onto her stomach. It’s 8:30pm. She justifies her dissatisfaction by saying out loud, “She’s probably working. Struck by some brilliance!” Her heart begins to shatter along the hairline crack that started on her 7th wedding anniversary.
Maddie orders a drink. They sit in deafening silence; both of them avoid staring at the key in the center of the table. Only after her first glass of wine does she whisper, “I can go.”
“Don’t,” he insists and they place their order. While waiting, Alfred desperately watches the other guests. Some are laughing at jokes, others are staring at their screens instead of each other. Alfred’s hand brushes Maddie’s as he reaches for another slice of bread. They are both freezing to the touch. The waiter offers dessert and both of them shake their heads.
He reaches out and pulls the tiny, gold piece toward him as Maddie nods, staring intently at her own hand. He leads her to the elevator and takes the key out of his pocket, testing the weight. A couple stumbles out, clearly drunk. The woman pulls her black skirt down at her partner’s behest. They giggle all the way to the lobby. Maddie and Alfred watch them go. The couple is entangled in one another as they careen against each other. Alfred touches the small of her back and they step into the elevator. She wobbles in her heels slightly.
Alfred laughs. That heavenly sound unleashes something in her. Full, Santa Claus belly laughs fill the elevator, bringing tears to their eyes. The elevator door opens on the fifth floor and their laughter fades.
Their footsteps thud in the empty hallway. A brown wooden door with a gold placard stating 505 stares them down. He takes the key out. It slips in his sweaty fingers. He bites his lip and grabs it from the floor as she giggles. The key slides in easily and he turns it slowly. They listen to the mechanics of the lock with baited breath and step into the room.
It looks like any other hotel room with a king bed covered in white sheets in the center. There are two bedside tables with little lamps and a light switch by the door to turn on the overhead light. There’s a fake potted plant in one corner by the sliding door to the balcony and a small doorway which leads to the bathroom. When Maddie opens the closet door she discovers fluffy white robes which they change into. The couple sit on the bed.
Alfred stares into her eyes as she traces his freckles with a cold finger tip. It makes him smile. He scatters kisses on her neck and explores all of her. She undoes the buttons of his shirt deftly.
Alfred loses himself in memories, lost in the time she invited him to her studio. He wandered through her mind as he took in each painting. She captured the glint of diamonds on a woman’s neck. The weight of the gold band on a man’s finger. They collapsed in madness together that night. Just like tonight.
He places the key on the counter in the lobby two hours later. The driver takes him back to Seven Year Itch where he showers and pays the receptionist.
She packs her bags and places her wedding ring on the kitchen counter.