Andrew Elsakr's despicable character strays from his marital vows during yet another long business trip, but things will soon come to a head.
"Wake me when we're there," she says as she tilts back her head and closes her eyes. I look at her enviously, wishing I had the capacity to fall asleep on flights. You'd think that with all the flying I do I'd be comfortable by now but I'm not and I don't think I ever will be.
The flight attendant walks by in the brisk way that they do and I nearly fall out of my seat to get her attention.
"Sir?" She says in a foreign accent.
"A bloody mary, please," I say in my most sweetest voice.
She sighs, nodding her slightly wrinkled face, and continues up the aisle. I watch her from behind, the way she moves her body, and imagine what a fox she must have been ten years ago. Then there I am again, remembering what a fox my wife was ten years ago. She used to wear these bright blue bows that went along beautifully with her red hair like Anastasia. She also wore these ruby slippers that must have been straight out of the Wizard of Oz which made her calves tight like a tennis player. And there was this one dress she would only wear for special occasions - it was the kind of dress that only made you want to take it off, if you know what I mean. I remember the care she used to put into her appearance, and I remember how it was all for me, how I was the one, the special one, the lucky one. That was before we had our son. Before we had Job.
I live in Orlando, but I'm hardly there. About five years ago, around the time of Job's birth, I took a job offer and my new job requires to to fly quite frequently. I usually fly alone, but sometimes my coworker, Jim, flies with me. He's on my flight today, but he decided to stay in first class since his back is aching. Our company always offers us first class, but I never take it. I don't like being up there behind the closed curtains, getting on before everyone else, having to wait for thirty minutes while all the coach passengers shuffle past looking bitterly at you and your seat while the flight attendant brings you complimentary pre-flight champagne. There are some people in this world who are good at being looked at, and I'm just not one of them.
The flight attendant comes back with my drink and I smile at her but she just rolls her eyes. I finish the drink but I still don't feel drowsy so I pull out the daily crossword puzzle and get busy. Half-an-hour later, long after I've been stumped, I give up and head for the bathroom with my toiletry kit. I squeeze into the small space and look at my face in the mirror. There are bags under my eyes and my forehead is covered with a sweaty shine. I wash my face a few times and fix my hair with a comb. Next I pluck some of my nose hairs that are sticking out. I look at my face again and decide that this is the best it's gonna get. I open the door while zipping up my kit and notice the same flight attendant is staring at me, shaking her foreign head, pursing her foreign lips, furrowing her foreign brow as if she knows exactly what I'm up to. I smile at her, one of my friendly half-smiles, but she doesn't smile back. She's probably seen a shit-ton guys just like me. Actually, she's probably been the target of shit-ton of guys just like me in the past.
I get back to my seat and gaze at the sleeping woman who will be mine for the night. She's got short wavy blonde hair like a librarian, and it's frayed all over her face. I stroke the strands across her forehead and behind her ear and she murmurs pleasantly in her sleep. Her lips are slightly parted and I wonder if I would get in trouble for kissing her right here and right now.
I think about how we got to the stage that we're at, how it escalated so quickly like it had with all the other women from all the other flights. It didn't take much. I just came to my row, saw her sitting in my seat and said, "Well I usually prefer the window seat, but I guess I'll let you keep it." She looked at her boarding pass again, realizing she was supposed to be in the aisle seat.
"I'm so sorry," she said, getting up. "I didn't realize -"
"No, no, please stay. I don't need the window. It seems I've got better view from here."
Her cheeks blushed and soon enough, we were telling each other everything about our lives. She was telling me about how her parents have been on her back about marriage since she was twenty, and if she makes it to thirty-five without finding a guy then they'll both drop dead out of sorrow. She asked if I'm married and I, being the noble guy that I am, told the truth. I told her that I am married. But I also told her that my wife and I have drifted apart and are getting a divorce - and only one of those is true. But as I expected, this was enough to get the girl on board, and next thing I know, I'm in the tiny airplane lavatory getting prettied up. It's a routine, and it never fails. The most important part, to me at least, is telling the truth about my marital status. Yes, I am a man with a wife and a kid. I am not going to fuck you without telling you. I have to say it or else I get this feeling, this rotten feeling in my stomach that gets bigger and bigger until I feel that I'm about to burst.
I know. I'm still a shitty guy. But I can't help looking for ways to convince myself otherwise.
The plane lands and I tell Jim I'll take a separate cab to the hotel. In the taxi she rests her hand on my thigh and I get the feeling.
That feeling: the moment when you realize that after all these years, it's still possible for you to get excited.
We pull up to a tall, snow-covered Marriott and rush up to my room on the ninth floor, trying as hard as we can to stay off of each other until we reach privacy. Once inside she throws herself at me and we collapse on my bed in a tangle of aching limbs. We're going at it hard and I can tell she wants to moan my name, but she finds that she is drawing a blank. She doesn't know my name. She doesn't know it because I never told it to her. And I can't remember if she told me her name or not, but I don't know what hers is either. And that is what makes our sex descend to a brutish, almost bestial level. We aren't simply Tom and Sue making love. We aren't even Joe and Ruth having sex. We're simply two animals, two homo sapiens, fucking away.
And you know what? I think I like it better that way.
When we finish she falls asleep, and I lie with her for a while before growing restless. For some reason it's hard for me to sleep after sex.
I look for my clothes which are scattered all over the room. I consider taking my watch and wedding ring from the nightstand but decide against it and head downstairs, to the bar.
At the bar I find Jim sitting alone, his silhouetted white hair quivering like a cobweb in the air-conditioned room. I've never seen him drink before, and certainly not on a business trip. He's normally quiet, but I wonder if liquor will loosen his tongue.
"Nice to have some company for a change," I tell him, putting my hand on his shoulder. "Where's the bartender?"
"It's self-serve," Jim croaks, gesturing towards the assortment of drinks in the corner of the room. I go over and pour myself some gin.
"You want anything else?" I ask.
"They should have music in this place," I say, looking around at the dimly lit walls of the room. "It would make it less lonely."
"It's two in the morning. I think they're too sleepy to give a damn."
"Why aren't you sleepy?" I ask him after finishing my first glass.
"Because me and sleep are no longer friends. It comes whenever it wants, teases me as it pleases, leaves a shit on my yard for me to step in."
"I know the feeling." I go to fill up my glass again. "Maybe it's the job. You thought about quitting?"
"What's the point? If I was going to quit, I could've done it years ago, when it actually mattered, when I had a reason to stay home more often."
I clench my teeth and hope I didn't just remind him of his wife. Jim's been known to send even the happiest spirit into periods of depression with his gloomy narratives and reflections.
"She was always there, always waiting for me to come back," Jim goes on. "But I just turned her away. I was such a fucking moron. I should've retired when she told me to. Maybe if I had, we'd both be laying out on a beach in the Caribbean right now, drinking brandies and making toasts with the sun."
I close my eyes a moment to pray that he doesn't go on but he does, and now, I notice that he's no longer reminiscing wistfully, but talking angrily. At me.
"And you," he spits. "You have a wife and a kid. And what the fuck are you doing?"
"You're even worse than I was."
"Jim, you've been drinking."
"I hope you can't sleep. I hope it takes all the beer and vodka in the world to put you out because you don't deserve sleep. You don't deserve to be able to lie in peace next to another woman and have pleasant dreams about a pleasant life."
"Go fuck yourself," I say as I get up and walk out of the bar.
"Do you want to be like me?" Jim calls after me. "Do you want to be like me?"
I try to make myself feel better. I remind myself that he's just old, just depressed, just tired, just drunk. He doesn't know what he's talking about because he isn't me and he doesn't understand what my life is like. I wish I could go back and tell Jim to go fuck himself one more time, but I decide it isn't worth it - he probably won't even remember our conversation in the morning.
I get back to my room and find the woman snoring away. I get in bed with her and fall asleep immediately. When I wake up it's sunny, and my watch on the nightstand tells me it's nine o'clock, which is fine because Jim and I don't have to be at our meeting till one. I put the silver watch on and adjust it to a nice tight grip. Then I go to put my wedding ring on but it isn't on the nightstand. I sit up and look on the floor and under the bed but still, no luck.
Suddenly the door opens and the woman waltzes in with a plastic bag. She's fully dressed and all smiles and I realize that she still doesn't understand what last night was.
"Good morning," she says before planting a wet kiss on my forehead. "Nice to see someone's finally up."
"What are you doing? What's going on?"
"I got us breakfast, silly. What do you think?"
We sit and eat our biscuits with gravy in silence, and I think about how I should approach this problem. I have to find a way to let her know that last night was meaningless, just a little bit of fun, without making her want to kill me.
I keep looking around for the ring and she notices.
"What's wrong, baby?" She asks.
"Can't find my ring," I tell her, doing my best to ignore her affection.
"Oh, your wedding ring? I figured you wouldn't need it anymore."
"What? So where is it?" I say, growing angrier by the millisecond.
"I threw it out."
"You did what?"
"I threw it o-"
"What gives you the fucking right to throw away my goddamn wedding ring. Are you dumb?" At this point my hands are on her shoulders and I'm shaking her like a bobble-head.
"No, shut up! I am not your baby."
"But last night." She takes a deep breath. "Last night we had something special!"
"Tell me where you threw the ring."
"Why do you -"
I slap her across the cheek. Not too hard, but hard enough to let her know that it's in her best interests to answer my question and then get the hell away from me.
"Where is my wedding ring?"
She tilts her head down and speaks in a soft murmur, "It's in the garbage can at the end of the hall."
I get to the door of the hotel room, but before I go out, I turn to look at the defeated woman sitting on my bed fighting back tears.
"A word of advice," I say. "If you're looking for the man you'll one day introduce to your parents, then he probably isn't the same man who wants sex within five minutes of meeting you."
I hold the door open, signaling for her to leave. She gets up and starts towards me. "You don't know how hard it is. Every man is just like you. I don't even know what a good man is anymore."
"Well, chances are, he'll want to know your name."
Jim and I give a hell of a presentation, and I get back to Orlando with my wedding ring smelling only slightly of expired milk. My wife, Swansea (or Swan, as I like to call her when I'm trying to be affectionate), is right where I left her, in a nightgown taking care of Job. He's about five, so he's not too young, but he's got what they call Intellectual Disability, which is the smart way of saying he's retarded.
I'm expecting a welcome back kiss, but all Swan does when she sees me is fold her arms and say, "We need to talk."
I sigh and mutter, "It's good to be back," before taking off my jacket. I make my way over to our bedroom and strip down to my underwear.
Swansea follows after me and says in her British accent that I stopped finding sexy a long time ago, "You're not just going to brush me off like that. We need to talk."
"Then talk," I say, now taking my boxers off as I head for the shower. I turn it on and get in after waiting for it to heat up. I can see Swan's blurred figure through the shower glass. She seems anxious, desperate even, to fix things between us, to become the moonstruck lovers we once were. I wonder if it has to do with sex, but it's not like I've been neglecting her or anything.
"I won't get cross this time. I swear," she shouts from across the glass.
I close my eyes and let the hot water hit my face while I wait for her to go on.
"And I won't ask you to stop traveling for work."
My ears perk up.
"I - I had an idea... Honey, can you hurry up? I don't like talking to you when I can't see your face."
"All right, all right," I say as I shampoo my hair. I finish washing myself and shut off the water. I take a towel and wrap it around my waist and go out in front of my bathroom mirror. I look at my reflection and flex like I used to when I was a teenager. The difference between now and then is that I had a lot more to flex when I was younger. I know I should work out more, but I'm not too motivated; I've got a good enough face, and that's all it takes for most women.
I find Swansea waiting for me in the bedroom. She's sitting on our bed with her legs tucked into her chest.
"Well?" I say expectantly.
"So I've been thinking. You know how we always have a gigantic row whenever you come back and I say the same exact thing over and over and over about how you would stop traveling if you really loved us and how you make everything very difficult for me because with you gone I have no time to myself since I've always got to keep an eye on Job? Well I think I've found a solution, but I needed to talk to you first."
"Do you remember the last time I went back to England?"
"Sure," I say. She used to go back to England every summer to visit her family and old friends before we had Job. I only went once but didn't exactly have the time of my life, so I stayed home the other times she went. Now that I think about it, she hasn't been in two years. I remember those two weeks well because that was the first time I had to take care of Job on my own.
"Well how about this - I go back to England while you stay here with Job, and while I'm there, I convince my cousin Liz to move in with us to be Job's full time nanny." Swan smiles smugly at me, showing the pride she must feel for having come up with this brilliant plan all by herself.
"You want your cousin to be our nanny?"
"I think she'd be great at it!"
"She lives in England for Christ's sake. You think she's just gonna pack up and emigrate at our request?"
"You talk like you know her so much better than I do. When's the last time you and Liz even had a conversation, hmm?"
"I didn't mean anything by that. I just wanted to make sure you've thought this through." I try to sound apologetic. The last thing I want is a full-on argument with Swan. Even if I win, I'll have to endure her shouting at a volume which I simply cannot tolerate. I'm not usually a violent man (except for that one time I got into it with this asshole I work with who, at a family Christmas party, told his buddy I should have gotten Job aborted, thinking I wouldn't overhear. Oh, and while I'm here, let me just say that the slap I gave that chick the night before does not count as violence. It was just something similar to what a cowboy does to his horse when he prods it with a spur), but Swan sure does tempt me when she gets loud.
"Well I have. She's told me countless times how unhappy she is with her life over there, and I bet she'll be thrilled to be offered a fresh start over here."
"If you say so."
I call in at work and tell them I won't be able to come in for the next week and that they should cancel any presentations I have scheduled out-of-town, but they tell me Jim's willing to take my place.
I sit down in my living room and watch Job play with a model car I got him a month ago from Detroit. I wonder why anyone would want to abort a kid like this: he's happy and he's content and if you can't understand that, then you're probably worse off than he is. I plan out the week's activities for me and Job and thank the gods that we live in Orlando. I plan to take Job to every Disney World park this week, and on the last day I'll take him to the Magic Kingdom, his favorite. Every time I take him he goes ballistic when he sees Pluto. And the funny thing is that he never even wants a picture or anything. All he wants is a nice big hug.
Time alone with Job is my chance to prove Swan wrong-that I didn't take up a traveling position at work to escape my responsibility for Job. This is the time I get to prove, not only to Swan but to myself, that I do love my son.
I start the week off with Epcot, which Job usually enjoys. But this time he's not pleased. The changing cultural atmospheres don't impress him, the rides don't excite him, and he doesn't even care for a shish kabob, which he normally adores. He just walks by my side and keeps his head pointed downward at all times. I try buying him a balloon but he lets go of it as soon as I give it to him, and I watch it slowly disappear into the sky. I ask him why he did that, and although he hasn't got much in the department of language skills, he manages to reply in the laconic.
All right then. Let's go home.
I try to take him to the Animal Kingdom the next day but he refuses to get in the car. All he wants to do is lie on the couch and watch Tom and Jerry, so I let him. I wonder what Swan would do. She'd probably have him take a break from TV and try to practice his alphabet, but I don't see the point. The way I see it, a kid's either smart or not and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Job isn't smart and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can find other things that he is talented in. So far, I've found out one thing Job is good at - watching cartoons.
Me: one, Swan: nil.
About halfway through the program my phone rings.
"Hey," I hear my boss say somewhat shakily. "I've got a first class ticket for you tonight on the 8:30 to Atlanta."
"First of all, you know I don't do business class. Second, I already told you I can't. I'm watching my son."
"Then how about two economy tickets?"
"What's going on? I thought you said Jim could cover for me."
"About that... it seems that Jim has had some, um, health issues."
"A heart attack."
"What? When did this happen?"
"Not too long ago. His ex-wife called to tell us."
"Is he okay?" I ask, almost shouting into the phone now. I look over to see if I've bothered Job, but he seems not to have noticed.
"Yeah, he's fine." There is an uncomfortable pause. I know that he wants to remind me of why he originally called, but I want to make it as difficult as possible for him. Why? Because he's a selfish fuck.
"Well?" He says softly.
I wait, long enough to hide how eager I am to get the hell out of this place, before saying back, as tersely as I can, "8:30. Two tickets. Coach."
I hang up.
I pack a bag and take Job to the airport. We go through security, stopping to allow Job to marvel at the x-ray machine, and arrive at our gate. After fifteen minutes or so they call for boarding and we shuffle onto the plane. We finally get to our seats and I get hit by a cement truck. Shit. This can't be. Why now, God, why fucking now? Any other time this would have been a blessing, but now? With Job right next to me?
See, in the seat next to mine there is a lady. And not just your average lady, either - this one is (as I'm sure any contemporary poet would agree) bangin'. I think back to my last flight and imagine that this must have been exactly what that flight attendant would have looked like in her prime. This lady is divine, so fine that if she got lost at sea and washed up on an undiscovered island, the local pygmies would think she was a goddess and offer up their finest coconuts as sacrifices to her. And here she is, her path intertwined with mine by nothing less than fate and the sad fact of the matter is this: I have no choice. I am absolutely powerless. I have to go after her and I will go after her and I have to use every trick I know because, let's face it, I'm a pig, a brute, an animal, a cur, and I cannot pass up such delicious blue moon ass and maintain a clear conscience afterward.
And just when I think it can't get any more surreal, I notice that the way the seating arrangements have worked out (once again, fate) there is a pretty girl Job's age in the seat next to his.
We sit down, and while I'm still thinking of an ice-breaker, the woman next to me begins to talk.
"Well," she says and it's the most fantastic Well I've heard in my life. "I was planning on asking whoever was next to me to switch with my daughter, but now that you're here I'm not so sure."
It may be the most indirect compliment I've ever received.
"You're telling me that that cute little girl over there is your daughter?"
She nods her head.
"That's funny," I say. "Because that cute little boy right next to her happens to be my son."
"Were you two visiting Disney as well?" she asks, and I almost laugh.
"Nope, unfortunately we live here. But how was your daughter's experience? Magical?"
"Nothing short. Last year I promised I'd take her if she stopped asking why she had to live with me instead of her father. Didn't think she'd actually remember."
And boom, there it is, the casual FYI that she's divorced. The skies are looking clear. Full sail ahead.
"What's her name?"
"Cass. It's short for Cassiopeia. Yours?"
"Job," I say, although I don't know whether she was asking for my name or my son's.
"Well that's a bit dismal, isn't it?"
"Job's the name of that poor bastard from the Bible. His family dies, he goes broke, he gets gross diseases. Ring a bell?"
"Hey, I didn't choose the name. It was my wife's decision," I say. "Guess that's another thing I have her to thank for."
"So you're married?"
"Barely," I say. Very barely. As barely as I can be, right now.
So things go how they normally do, and before I know it, I'm driving a rental Volkswagen to the address she scribbled down for me on my airline napkin. I wanted to drop Job off at the hotel, but I didn't feel good about leaving him alone in the middle of the night, and it also would've been inconvenient since the hotel is on the opposite side of town.
I keep hearing voices in my head, telling me how stupid this is, taking my son along with me to commit fucking adultery, and I even get close to turning around a couple times. But each time I get close to doing the right thing, the image of that voluptuous body re-enters my mind and keeps me sternly on course.
I finally pull up to the house and I tell Job to get out. He makes a sound I can't quite discern, but I think that he's expressing confusion as to why we aren't at a hotel, so I tell him, "Don't worry, Job. These are friends of ours. They offered to take us in for some refreshments." And when Job looks even more confused, "Food, Job. They give us food."
I knock on the door, and the little girl from the plane answers the door.
"Hello, there, you must be Cass," I say, and she gives me a polite but apprehensive smile. "You've already met Job, I believe. Say hi, Job." But he (no shit) doesn't say hi, and Cass just gives him this long, rattling stare.
Before long, though, Cass' mom comes to the rescue and invites us all in. There's a platter of cake set out in the kitchen and Job helps himself.
"All right," Cass' mom says, "you two enjoy each other's company now. We have some important business to attend to."
And we turn to exit into the hallway but before we can even take a step, a voice stops us dead in our tracks.
"And why can't you do this business out here?" The voice belongs to Cass, and I realize that I'm not the first her mother has brought over. Cass knows exactly what's going on. Meanwhile the only thing Job knows is the texture of that cake.
I'm ashamed to say it, but I've never been more thankful for him than at this moment.
Cass' mom, seemingly prepared to answer this, says, "Because it isn't appropriate for children."
Once the bedroom door clicks shut, we are all over each other, our kisses hungrier than starved hyenas, our embrace no more delicate than that of two wrestlers. What shocks me is the desperation with which she does it all. It's as if she hasn't felt a man's touch in decades, and now that she finally does, she can't get enough. We are moving fast, too fast for me to acknowledge the trepidation I have building up within me.
I'm giving it to her from behind and she's very loud. I pray that her screams aren't audible from the living room, but just as I'm thinking this, there is a loud knock on the door.
"Shit," I say and try to get to my clothes, but the woman grabs me, begs me not to stop.
Then I hear the voice of my son, "Dad! Daddy."
Time seems to stop, and all of a sudden I become the center of the solar system, with all its halted planets surrounding me, staring at me intently with their deep, glowering eyes. To my left is my son, and to my right is this Aphrodite, my very own Cleopatra. I am torn, and I am angry that this decision is so hard for me to make. Why can't I just slap this woman and go to my son like any good father, like any man with even a modicum of decency? This question is rhetorical, but I can't help answering it. The reason I can't do the right thing now is the same reason I've been fucking up my entire life: I am not a good man. And what finally gets me away from that woman and into my clothes and out of that godforsaken house isn't me. It isn't me at all. What happens is that I get lucky. I'm lucky that even though I'm a shitty human being, I have a son whose heart is nothing but pure, whose mind can never be corrupted. Because right then and there as I am stuck in my situation I hear his voice once more, "Daddy, I know you're busy in there, but I don't like this place and this girl isn't very nice." He takes a strained breath and his effort is clear. "I just want you to drive me home."
So now here we are, driving from Atlanta to Orlando, saying fuck you to whoever shows up to my presentation tomorrow because I'm done with that. I'm done traveling. I'll call my Swan tonight and tell her how much I love her and that she can leave her miserable cousin in England because we don't need her anymore.
I look at Job's sleeping face in the rear-view mirror and a flutter of envy passes through me. I think about how easy he can sleep, how easy he will always be able to sleep. He won't have to lie awake frustrated like I do because he and I are very different. Sure, a good man is hard to find, but I happen to know exactly where to find one.
And maybe some day, if I stick with Job, I can be a good man too.
But it's not until a few minutes later that I see it. A billboard. What it's advertising I do not know. All I see is a woman dressed in lingerie, and that's enough for me to get the feeling.
That feeling: the moment when you know you're about to fuck it all up again.