The school year is over, and summer has begun quickly, hot and heavy. Nikols spends every day at home, lucky that he does not have to find a part-time summer job to make ends meet. Susan’s promotion to partner has their finances intact. Her office is finished, complete with a high-back leather office chair, a Persian rug, window treatments and a fresh coat of paint. The mint green paint that she and Nikols had chosen for their nursery color is nowhere to be seen, and usually neither is Susan. The warmth of her body next to him at night use to bring arousal and pleasant dreams, but now, Nikols only wishes that she would be quiet when she comes to bed.
At 9:47 am, the rain has just stopped and a thin, mist is rising from the grass and pavement. The clouds are retreating to the east and the sun has eagerly taken the stage. With his wife gone, and all of his school suits dirty, Nikols gathers them haphazardly, and heads out for the day. The morning is beautiful. All of the professional people are tucked snugly in their cubicles, and the streets belong to the gardeners, the stay-at-home mothers and the many children who are free for the next three months. When Nikols arrives at the dry cleaners, he notices a city bus has come to a stop on the curb. As it disembarks, he exits his car, coughing as the ozone-depleting exhaust overcomes him. Suits in hand, he crosses the street and must wait as a few others enter in order to utilize the laundry mat adjoined to the cleaners. Seizing his opportunity, Nikols grabs the handle, and nearly enters, when he sees a cinnamon-skinned female approaching in his peripheral vision. She is carrying a large basket, but instead of holding it in the front of her body, like a sack of potatoes, she has it nestled firmly on her right hip. Overwhelmed by a nearly forgotten sense of chivalry, he steps aside and opens the door for her. Using the same dismissive courtesy that is common between strangers, he remarks, “There ya go.” And the woman swiftly flashes a brilliant smile, and says, “Thank you.”
He is stunned by her voice; it is thick with an accent that reminds him of a distant, tropical island. Her lips are full and reflective, shiny from a sheer gloss; and her large, dark brown eyes seem to regard and dismiss him with a single gaze. Once he is able to collect himself, the sweet scent of vanilla mixed with an unidentifiable aroma fills his nose and all of Nikols’ college-educated logic dissipates, like the morning rain surrendering to the heat. The aroma overpowers the scent of laundry detergent and the harsh odor of chemicals, blurring the edges of reason and reality. The muscles in his right arm mechanically tense to prevent the suits from cascading to the floor, and finally he steps inside, watching as she lowers the heavy basket to the ground. Stepping lazily forward, he only sees the back of her. She is fully covered; none of her bronze-toned skin is exposed. She is clad in a simple, white t-shirt and yellow capri pants, but as she makes her way to the change machine in the rear of the room, the natural sway of her rounded hips, like the arc of a pendulum, lures him like a game fish to a baited hook on the open sea.
The suits are meaningless. He considers discarding them, but then his clumsy entrance would look even more foolish. Instead, Nikols quickly finds the dry cleaning counter, giving over the garments in exchange for a ticket.
“How do you want these?” The clerk asks.
Still looking mostly behind him, Nikols says, “Just clean.”
The clerk asks him another question, but Nikols is already walking away. He has lost sight of her, and is moving to quiet the dull panic growing within him. After weaving past other woman carrying baskets and children, he spots her closing the lid on the washer and inserting a handful of coins. As she inserts the final quarter into its slot, and presses the start button, Nikols slides up beside her, leaning on the machine with his elbow propped on it.
“Do these machines take a lot of quarters?” Nikols asks nervously.
The brown-skinned woman does not answer immediately. She moves her laundry basket so that it sits directly in front of the washer, and faces him with arms folded, quickly sizing him up, before she speaks.
“They take five dollars worth of quarters per load, but luckily I only have one.” She says politely.
His ears had not deceived him, her thick-island accent was true, and he could feel his legs turn rubbery beneath him.
“Cat got your tongue?” She asks when the silence persists for too long.
“No. I, uh …am admiring your accent.”
“It surprises me that you can understand me. Most white people just smile and nod when I speak to them. But you held the door open for me earlier, so maybe I should not be so surprised by a gentleman.” She finishes with a smile.
Nikols can feel twenty years melt away from him in an instant. The warmth growing around his neck and ears tells him that he is blushing, and he wants to run like a kid from a girl that is far too pretty for him to bear.
Pointing a manicured, yet short-nailed finger at him, she says, “Eh-eh, you’re blushing young man. Doesn’t your wife give you compliments?”
Considering neither the answer nor the question, Nikols answers,
“No,” while sheepishly running his fingers through his hair.
Hands on her hips, she continues. “The house must not be a home if you’re doing your own laundry.”
“She’s a lawyer, working all the time, and school’s out for the summer. So, I’m taking care of my clothes.” Nikols confesses naturally.
“The gentleman is a school teacher. Why don’t you tell me your name young man?” She asks while gingerly moving her hair off her shoulder, so that it drapes down her back.
“Nikols. My name is Nikols.”
Extending her hand, she says, “And I am Ceillia.”
Nikols takes her hand and gives it a strong shake, but his grip slackens, as the softness of her skin enters his pores. The scent that captured him earlier is washing over him in waves, and he is taking in every detail of her; her high cheekbones and dark brown eyes. She wears little make-up, allowing her skin to glow much like the young girls he teaches year after year, before they succumb to the need to look older. On closer inspection, her dark, long hair is locked into hundreds of even ropes, pulled back into a thick braid, decorated with tiny yellow flowers. She looks strong in a way one acquires by living, not by working out and her hips could support the weight of nations. Much like the women his former roommate Kelly, would have dated.
Their conversation continues as naturally as it began. All the while, Ceillia is tending to her laundry, drying and then folding it. Before long, she looks up on the wall, and remarks that its 12 after one, and that the bus would be arriving soon.
“It’s too hot to carry laundry on the bus. I can give you a ride home.”
With an eyebrow raised, she places a hand on her hip.
“Do you think I trust you, young man?”
“I’m the gentleman, school teacher. What’s not to trust?”
Instead of outwardly accepting, she instructs Nikols to grab her laundry basket, who eagerly obliges. They have some difficulty finding the car, because although he should be leading the way, he would rather walk behind her, taking in all of her various curves. His desire for such shapeliness is novel and exotic. He feels like a young child, who has seen a bike for the very first time. The drive to her home is a simple one. She lives very close to the school where he teaches, and he even sees some of his former students along the way. Her home is modest, smaller than his own but still spacious. It stands out like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, being the only yellow house on a street littered in white and beige. She would normally have to walk several blocks from the bus stop, and expresses her appreciation for the ride home. She automatically invites him without any awkwardness or pretense, and he accepts.
When Cecilia opens the door to her home, he is bombarded by an assortment of fragrances, but the most prominent is the scent that attracted him to her hours earlier. She is showing him around and he is following her gestures, but he is not really hearing anything, merely experiencing new sights and sounds. Her home is much different from his. She has decorated with colors; deep, rich shades of blue, red and yellow. The home smells of spice and food, foreign to his palate but causing him to salivate nonetheless. He is instantly comfortable, and after placing her laundry on the floor, she gives him a glass of juice that is spicy and sweet.
“What is this?” Nikols asks, still savoring the new flavor on his tongue.
Cecilia immediately begins to chuckle as the expression of doubt crosses his face.
“It’s just called beer, but it’s not alcohol. Do you like it?”
“It’s spicy, but it’s good.” He says while taking another sip. “I’ve never had anything like it before.”
“It’s an old recipe from Trinidad that my grandmother used to make. She passed it to my mother, who passed it to me. They are both gone now. And one day I’ll pass it down to my daughter …or my son. Many say that men make the best cooks. Are ya hungry young man? I guess that wife of yours won’t be making lunch for ya either?” She says resting her hands on her hips.
Plainly, he answers. “No. She won’t be.”
With a bright smile spreading across her face, she motions for him to follow, as she walks down a short corridor.
“Then come with me, honey. Food is almost ready. Ceillia’s gonna feed ya.”
As though being controlled by a puppeteer, Nikols follows his host down the hall, watching the rhythm of her movements more than listening to her words. When he returns home later, it is well after dark and it looks as if no one is there. He glances at the dashboard clock, which reads 9:21pm. Nikols had spent the entire day with Cecilia, talking and getting to know her. Out of respect for his wife, he had journeyed home to find that there was no one to come home to. He had lived, quietly and simply for half of a day and learned more about himself than he had known throughout his entire marriage. Grasping his wedding ring with his right hand, he tugs on it until it slips off and he drops it in the ashtray. Then, he puts the car in reverse and follows the breadcrumbs back home.
When she opens the door Cecilia does not seem surprised to see him, nor is she surprised when he grabs her by the hips and pulls her close to him. All that she says is that some things are just natural. Foregoing more conversation, Nikols kisses her urgently, as though he might catch the words before they have fallen completely from her lips. He does not stay with her the entire night. Responsibly, he returns to his house, hoping to find his wife, waiting for him, angry that he has returned home so late. Instead, she is sleeping soundly, resting comfortably in the center of their bed. With the fragrance of his infidelity still radiating from his skin, he looks at himself in the bedroom mirror, just noticing the clock turning 3:42 am, and finally feels no disappointment at what he sees. After a long shower, he falls heavily asleep on the downstairs couch, accompanied only by pleasant dreams.
The next morning, there are no questions of his whereabouts. Nor are there questions a month after. Nikols hears snatches of his wife’s career successes in passing, but no longer asks. As his daily visitations with Cecilia extend later into the passing nights, his responsible need to return home diminishes, like the dew each morning that he awakens with her. Before the school year begins, he wakes up with her when she is overwhelmed by morning sickness. And once school begins, he
schedules his week around her doctor’s visits. All of the doors before him lie open, but there is only one left to close behind him. When Susan walks into his classroom, after the final bell, Nikols is surprised, but relieved all at once.
“Nothing has changed around here.” Susan says matter-of-factly.
“Things rarely do in schools.” He answers.
“Has the year started off well?”
With a genuine smile, dancing at the corners of his mouth, Nikols says, “Maybe not as great as your year, but off to a good start.”
“I’ve been winning cases. And I came home to celebrate one day and you weren’t there. Nothing was there. I went to make some dinner, guessing you would get home around nine, but the cupboard was bare. And you didn’t come home.”
“I’m not as predictable as I once was, Susan. You can’t count on me anymore.” He says while closing his briefcase, clinching his jaw in response to her sudden interest.
“You look good. Fitter than before. That looks like a new suit. It‘s a brighter color than you‘d normally wear. You’ve been eating well at least. Somewhere …Haven’t you?”
Irritated, he slams his fist down on the desk. “Don’t question me, Susan. I’ve gotta go. So come out with it. What do you want?”
“I’m your wife. You can spare me a minute of your precious time.” She spits, waving her hand at the clock on the wall over his head. Instantly, she begins to wipe at her eyes with the back of her hand. Although, he can feel their history compelling him to comfort her, their reality encourages him to think better of it.
“I know that I’m too driven. And I put my career first, but…”
Interrupting her, Nikols says, “None of that matters anymore.”
“Was it the night I made partner? That night I came home drunk. I’m sorry I should’ve called you…”
“You did what you wanted to do. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t the missed appointments, or the late nights, Susan.” He explains, while releasing a
With her eyes widening hopefully, Susan crosses the room, standing in front of him.
“Then we can fix what we’ve squandered.”
“I haven’t squandered anything. But if you have to know, you lost me when you chose walnut colored wood over mint green for your new office. You have money and recognition, all that you wanted, but I never got what I wanted from you.” Side stepping, Nikols walks to the door and waits. “I have to go, Susan.”
“So this is it?”
“I can fight this. I can drag you into court for years.” She says through tears.
“Then it will be no different than our marriage. One sided. I don’t want anything from you. I don’t even want to hate you. I just want it to be over; so that I can continue the new life I’ve started.”
Slowly, Susan begins to weep. Sorrowful sobs sweep over her slim
form, likening her to a brittle leaf shivering in the autumn wind. Although touched by her emotions, they do little to move him. After several sniffs, she wipes her face on the back of her hand, and joins him at the door.
“We did have some good times.”
“A few.” He regards pleasantly. “A few.”
They leave the room together and walk in silence, until they reach the main steps of the building, where they part ways. Neither of them speaks, or watches the departure of the other. Once inside his car, he starts the ignition, glancing at the clock on the dashboard. It is 2:18pm, and Ceillia’s appointment isn’t until three o’clock. There is plenty of time.
When Nikols pulls up to the house, the driveway is vacant and a “For Sale” sign is slightly swaying in the breeze. With the divorce proceedings underway, it is time to retrieve the last of his belongings. After nearly an hour of loading clothing and keepsakes, Nikols grabs an empty box and climbs the stairs. When he opens the bedroom door, he sneezes uncontrollably. The air is so stale, that he considers opening a window and then smirks at the foolishness of the thought. The bed is untouched, as though not even his wife had been sleeping here. His wife. That word no longer fits comfortably on his lips or even in his thoughts. With the late day sunlight temporarily blinding him, as he crosses to the closet, he looks down at the floor, noticing the footprints that he is leaving in the freshly vacuumed carpet. He feels like a traveler walking into a hotel room, but instead of settling in, he is moving out.
The closet has very little to offer him now. Most of his belongings are boxed up in his car. He is only here to retrieve the last of his much-needed suits and box of papers for his classes. He expected to find a box of his wife’s law books, but they no longer dwell here either. They have been moved to her new office, the room that would have belonged to their future son or daughter. The thought is painful. It hurts like a day old bee sting, not as sharp but still recognizable. Instantly, he feels silly for feeling any hurt at all. They have chosen to move on without each other. Their time together had passed, but being in this room gives Nikols the sense that he is stuck in a time warp where their lives converged and parted in a single instant. So much of the hope in this terminal relationship was dependent on time. There was always plenty of time for the both of them, but they were both watching a different clock. Knowing this is both a relief and a blessing, now he can move forward, living joyfully, instead of watching time tick away in despair.
With his suit jackets stuffed into the last box, Nikols closes the closet door with his foot, and scans the room one last time. Immediately, his eyes fall on the alarm clock sitting on the end table, which flashes 12:00 mockingly. Feeling a swell of annoyance, he crosses the room to where the clock rests, finds the cord snaking from the back of it, and forcefully snatches the plug from the wall. Instantly, the numbers vanish and Nikols feels that his mockery is finally at an end. Shifting the box to his right hip, he exits, closing the door firmly behind him.
-If you have enjoyed my commentary or my short stories, then please check out my youtube channel, The Wicked Orchard; where you can listen to me read my short stories