An auburn-haired woman named Corinne closes the car door softly—closing out the chilling rain—and settles into her seat. Through her passenger window, she watches the blur of a coffee-brown Kia turn out of the lot and slide down the street. Deep breath, wonder and warmth.
“I’d better go,” he’d said.
“I wish you didn’t have to,” was her reply.
The next time she sees one of those cars, she’ll look for him and wonder where he’s going. Younger, not overly ambitious. A capable lover.
She checks her phone. In nineteen minutes, her eighth-grader will be out of school. Twenty-six minutes later, the boys. Time to go.
Corinne pulls the lap belt across her body, bringing a tingle. Echoes of exhileration, joy through satisfaction. Not an hour ago, seated on the edge of her queen-sized bed, she’d gripped the back of a man’s head. Moans of approval from both of them. A sweet orgasm. A second crashing one which sent her back on the bed and desiring his penis. This was what love was supposed to be. Mutual happiness.
She shakes off a tremble, another deep breath. How does she look in the mirror? Does her hair tell the story? Her face, a bit flushed? She pulls her sweater down, as if to flatten or de-accentuate her breasts. Is that enough? Do other things about her give it away? She should’ve gotten a quick rinse-off shower, but opted for perfume spritzes instead.
Will her daughter smell it on her—the pheromones of climax and sin popping like pink bubbles all over the Highlander’s interior?
Do you know what your mother just did? That an hour ago a strange man who was not strange to her was in the townhouse, in her bedroom? That her bedroom was not, for once, a sad place?
Concern carries her out of the parking lot and up Market Street. Her conversation with Macy would be private, and mean something completely different than the same phrase used with the boys: “I had lunch with a friend.”
What will Macy think, when it comes to that? How will she think of her mother, in the filter of her mother having a friend?
‘Friend’ is a funny word, many uses. ‘Friends with benefits’ has gone out of fashion, hasn’t it? This man was all benefits. The second time, at his place, they hadn’t even removed her green silk blouse first. Behind her, satiated, he ran trembling fingers over her sides and down her spine, and asked if his method was okay. She’d released a handful of pillow and turned to give him a smile. “Yes, that was very okay.”
Forty-seven years old and now she gets to have the time of her life.
It had started the way they’re always supposed to start (she’d heard). At a gas station on a wet, sunny Saturday morning. From the next pump, he paused when he first saw her. “Beautiful day,” he said.
The shock of flattery, perhaps, opened a door in her mind. His young, chiseled face—35, 36?—was addressing her and it wasn’t only out of politeness. “I agree,” she’d remarked. “Lucky. They said it would rain all weekend.”
Corinne roars past the gas station—that one—and up the hill towards the middle school.
How had she presented herself to this man? An easy mark? Lonely? A sad widow? (She was hardly that—begrudgingly divorced and consigned to a suburban townhouse, but still eternally optimistic.)
With a sigh and a grin, she reckons that his—Joey’s—motivations were honest, and not disagreeable. He wanted nothing else. His Web-dev salary, she imagines, is higher than her real-estate earnings. And the first time, when a cup of coffee served as a turnstile to her place nearby? He was gentle, treating her like a fragile piece of art. And Corinne, who hadn’t had intercourse in four years, finally said, “I won’t break.”
Granting permission was a wondrous new power. She realized this while swimming in afterglow as, with Joey, her needs came first.
At a stoplight, Corinne takes a few deep breaths to calm her heart. Time to return to the reality she knew—supportive mother, chauffeur, cook, overseer of pesky homework. Life stays compartmentalized.
Still, her body resists fully reverting. Can pleasure be considered a toxin?
~ ~ ~
In a former life, she thought of herself as a kind of scientist. (She’s said as much to her daughter, who has displayed an appropriate amount of curiosity.) It—that thing she was after—was often a question. Is there a desired result of an experimental conversation? There always is. People always want something. The shift to real estate—almost a backward step considering how she’d thought of her own realtor and prior incarnations—required a simple shift in focus. What do people want? A base of operations, a reliable and protective structure for their ambitions (children) and comforts (leisure time) and egos (parties). They want aesthetics and reassurance that their regrets-to-come (every homebuyer has them) will be manageably packaged in “Home” and “smart investment” and so on. Neighborhood and local school are exterior concerns (for those with enough money, hardly concerns at all).
The scientist in her calculated the temporal limits of her clients (their patience, their willingness to pounce on a good deal) and started adding factors to the control groups. She’d gauge their reaction, often (satisfactorily, in the liberated Northwest) the woman’s change in color or temperature. As of late, she’d come to think of herself as a human mood ring. She could divine, often within ten minutes of a client’s assessment of a house, what they thought. Three times, she’d gotten same-afternoon offers with no need for a ‘second look’ or nail-biting inspection pause. Once, she’d led an adorable couple to a lavender-and-white bungalow with a brick walk on Phinney Ridge. The African-American woman, Penny, got out of the car and promptly lit up with emerald-green sparkles, bounding up the steps. Thirteen minutes later (Corinne’s own ego paying attention) Penny said, “This is the one!”
There were wholesome rewards, too. An overly-sympathetic mortgage broker—a friend who seemed personally offended by a divorced colleague of 47 calling a mid-market townhouse Home—tried to shoehorn her into two different houses with super-sweet financials. Corinne’s sensible side—playing scientist—said she should. There’d be enough to keep padding the Roth account. Each was a kinder residence for the kids, less ribbing in high school before they flung themselves to Academic Parts Unknown (tuition, at least, a key consideration of the settlement).
The wounded-animal side of her, however, remained quietly vindictive, relishing in the diminished expenses and bare-bones protective shelter of dreams. She put of craftsman-style house numbers and flower baskets out front, and she took the high road in conversations with friends (for which she was admired). They all assumed—not incorrectly—that she hated Bernard for the instability, the auto-accident jerking change in reality and station.
When she told her buddy Talia about her new beau, Talia offered a leering, halfway vindictive smile of her own. “You get yours. Ride that train as along as it suits you. There was, Corinne noted, even a hint of jealousy in her voice. Talia had always had a better body and alluringly crooked smile, but Corinne was now the one getting home runs for the team.
~ ~ ~
They’d stopped talking, really talking—she was sure of that.
Disagreement and too much assumption and far-too-frequent pauses (on his part) had snowballed. An issue becomes a problem. A problem becomes a disaster. In her mind, mass dislodges more mass, gravity increases without corrective measures, a wave of negative energy races downhill toward the idyllic valley.
What the scientist struggles to identify, peering back through the haze of time, was which cold rock started it all. Hers? Bernard’s? It hadn’t come up in fights—at least, not when it was appropriately small. The regret-tinged questions persist. If she had acted this way or that, would the advances from that girl Miller have mattered? The various scenarios played out—realistic proxies on film or TV. Most every time, things hinged on her ex-husband’s reaction to a busty Marketing intern with seduction and discord in mind.
Truth be told, Corinne has imagined what it would feel like to brain Miller with a cinderblock. The girl was, after all, someone else’s monster.
There were others, of course, but they came with less risk and moral ambiguity. It was easier, she imagines, after that first transgression. The matter seemed as clear as the bottom of a purchase-and-sale agreement: She’d lost her husband to three weeks of nightly blowjobs and a romp in Whistler.
~ ~ ~
The rumbling arrival of a school bus yanks Corinne back to the present. Another mom has knocked on her window and waved cheerily. She waves back, too late to be seen.
Off to her left, a flagpole line is clanging away. Wind has blown the rain past. At some point, the world will settle and dry. Trash bins can be righted. Animals will know when to exit their warm burrows.
Macy gets in the car, there’s an exchange of pleasantries, and she’s off to the world of SnapChat. Laughter and a comment shared. Corinne asks if she likes Tyson, sender of many messages. “He’s such a clown,” Macy giggles.
There’s comfort in that her daughter isn’t hiding something about a boy. Like it gives Corinne permission to hide her own male-oriented secret.
Rejoining the flow of traffic, she lets a couple cars in ahead of her. The world is all right, recovering, easier.
At a stoplight, a glint of sunlight appears in the rain droplets on her side mirror. She wonders if Joey notices, plugging away at two monitors in his office.
Another deep breath paired with a grin. What does the customer want?
Green light, foot eases off the brake pedal. Add foreign element to stable control group, apply heat and stir.
Behold, Scientist: Happiness.