This story is by jenna langbaum and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
We were sitting across from each other at the Remedy Diner when we decided to keep the baby. We had decided three hours ago. You looked at me with fire eyes and grinned. But you were married and so was I.
“I will tell Arthur tonight,” you said defiantly. “Just one more hour with you.” You grabbed my knee under the booth. You did this often. 48 hours until I see you next. 4 more minutes until you are allowed to fall asleep. You existed in a series of buildups and comedowns.
We met four months ago at a bar on Delancey. My wife was staying with her mother. We were in a bad place. We were rotting before my eyes.
I was never one to drink alone. There was something so contrived about the depressed man, drinking whiskey alone at the bar. But there I was with a glass of Jameson and tears welling behind my eyes. You, on the other hand, seemed very comfortable with drinking alone. You plopped on the stool next to me; your combat boots rattled the bar awake.
“I just need a break,” you told the bartender and quickly finished a dark beer. Your eyes were two bulbs of dirt and fire. Your skin was brown velvet.
You always seem to be swaying, like you just might fall over, but you manage to catch yourself at the last second.
You looked at me, hard.
“Your first time drinking alone?”
“Am I that obvious?” You laughed hoarsely.
“Can I get you a drink?” You swirled your finger around the brim of your glass.
“How about you get me one and I’ll get you one.”
All of a sudden we were standing up, your arms around my waist. I stared down at you bemused.
“I haven’t had any attention in a long time.” You looked at me square in the eyes. You had on a long black dress and red lipstick.
You seemed too boisterous to be ignored.
“I haven’t…had attention in…two years.”
Your eyes widened.
“I know my wife wants a divorce. I heard her on the phone with her mother.”
“Why do you want to tell me everything?” your lips rested on my ear.
I didn’t answer. The bar hummed with chatter but we existed in a tunnel of each other.
“It shouldn’t be this way,” you said, “we deserve to have.” Your fingers wrapped around my chin.
I wasn’t sure what I deserved but I liked the sound of it.
Your wide hips pressed against me. “I think I like you.” We slept together that night.
When you are married, you learn body parts; thighs, eyes, hips and smalls of the back. They become as familiar as your own body. When you are happy, this is comforting, fulfilling and reassuring. When you are not happy, this familiarity is like a second skin you want to rip off.
I would come to find your husband’s name was Arthur. You lost your fathers at the same time. Your mothers thought it was the right thing to do. Your mother thought you were too difficult to find anyone else and you kind of agreed.
You would wave your hands ferociously when Arthur was brought up. “Look, he knew what he was getting. I am stubborn as hell. I am not a very good wife but he wants someone he can boss around.”
And I would nod weakly. Your coarseness both frightened me and consumed me. You often said my quietness kept you from falling over.
We didn’t talk much about my wife. Just that we fell out of love. I imagined the love spilling out of a glass and having to mop it up slowly and tediously. She asked for a divorce two months ago. I wasn’t sure if she knew I was sleeping with someone else. I never told you that we had tried and failed to have a baby, how we lived in mud since then. I never told you how I desperately longed to be a father.
“What if I’m too old” you slowly sipped decaf coffee, the pink lights of the diner hitting your face like a halo.
“Or what if the baby hates us?”
“We will have to teach the baby to speak and then we can all talk it out.”
“I have thirty eight years to give her and you have thirty four. Collectively seventy two years…I think she will be happy to be so wise.”
Once we both decided it was going to be a girl, you decided we would keep the baby. I knew I wanted it all along.
The diner was quiet and the waiters sauntered from table to table as if they were following stage directions. We were on the cusp of dismantling our lives and I was eating toast.
“I will tell Arthur in forty minutes.” You repeated confidently.
Once you told Arthur, our story became an affair and we became culprits.
“Forty minutes until we come out of hiding. Is it evil that I hope he is sad?”
You were always entirely too honest.
“We are good people.” I felt unsure.
“Are you going to tell her?”
I was waiting for the divorce papers; it would be any day now. With a squiggle of a black pen, I would unwind all of the wires of having a wife.
“There is something about a diner,” I said changing the subject, “something about the fact that pancakes and lamb gyro are on the same page. It’s comforting to know I can have it all.”
I put my hands in your hands and felt the original buzz of your brown eyes, your body like a lost glove I finally found. You hummed to the Jukebox playing Etta James.
“Do you think you will love me as much when we aren’t hiding?” I whisper this and you laugh.
“Are we really hiding, baby? Arthur hates me and you are divorced. As much as I love a story, ours is pretty simple.”
After our first night together, I was sure I would never see you again. My night with you was a testament to how far I had wandered from myself. I had only ever been with my wife. The next morning I walked from the Lower East Side to Harlem and back. When I finally returned to my apartment, you were on my stoop in your combat boots.
“I want to do it again.” You smiled.
You unearthed something unusual within me, a self I hadn’t met yet, someone brighter and boyish. It scared me that at the age of thirty-eight I was still meeting myself. I had never been with someone who loved me so much. It was shocking. I am six foot five, skin and bones, clumsy and introverted. You are five foot two, loud, rash and fitful. We are a motley pair.
“Thirty more minutes until I have to tell Arthur,” you said with a flare of excitement.
I thought of your tiny studio on the corner of Delancey and Essex. Arthur would be sprawled on the gray sheets snoring. You would burst in and reveal the news, you were pregnant and leaving him. You loved the drama of leaving the man who never gave you attention; finally he would crumble, if only a little.
“I want to paint her room a petunia purple. And I want bows, hundreds of bows and dresses, and dolls, and patent leather shoes and a giant white crib.” I smiled widely at your list and ordered a side of fries.
“I don’t think we could afford New York with the baby.”
I stared out the window at the light rain. It was almost 2am and the diner was going to close soon.
“What about Brooklyn?”
“I would do Brooklyn.”
This is how we were – things were settled quickly. We had become so weathered with our old lives. This time, we aimed to please.
In the final moments before you left for Arthur, I could see my wife in your face, pursing her lips, telling me not to eat so much salt, her blue eyes blinking through your brown ones. She hated greasy food. She was so slight. I wondered where she was sleeping right now, her blonde hair in a ponytail.
The waiter gave us our check.
“Ok culprit, time for me to go.” Your eyes shone with mischief.
Why was this so thrilling for you? Isn’t this supposed to be the hard part? You clutched your stomach like the baby might fall out.
You kissed me lightly and strode away.
As I watched you head into the night, I wondered for a split second if I would never see you again. I wondered if you would grow bored of me like you grew bored of most things. My fate was set. I was having a kid. The thick black heat swaddled me and I walked home alone.