This story is by Jessica Deen and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Alison stepped out of the shower, her freshly painted toes dripping onto the mat. She patted herself dry, leaned over the tub and squeezed the excess water from her hair. She wiped a circle in the steam on the mirror with her hand and “Hey! Baby” started playing on her speaker. She smiled at herself and spun around, stepping forward and backward, pretending to balance on a log, just like Baby did in Dirty Dancing.
“I wanna know-o-o, if you’ll be my girl,” she sang into her thumb doubling as a microphone. She pumped lotion into her hands and rubbed them together, bringing them to her face to smell the cucumber and aloe. Alison propped her foot on the toilet and spread the lotion on her moist skin from the bottom up.
Heat rushed to her cheeks thinking about what Brad might do if he found her like this, bent over, back arched. She checked the small clock on the vanity. 4:34pm. Brad wouldn’t be done work for another hour.
She slipped into her robe and ran out to the kitchen to throw the lasagna in the oven. With a spatula, she smoothed the homemade chocolate icing over the cooled cake and added the plastic bride and groom from their wedding twenty-two years earlier.
Back in her closet, Alison slipped on her black off-the-shoulder cocktail dress, baring her tan collarbone and thigh with a slit to her right hip. The satin interior of the dress slid across her skin, the lace edging stiff and rough.
She pulled her blond curls to the side and clasped the necklace Brad gave her around her neck. Just days before their tenth anniversary, while Alison was still in the hospital, he brought her the necklace taped to a handwritten card. Inside he wrote, “It’s me and you against the world.”
Tears pooling in her eyes, she batted them away. Her throat tightened thinking of the nursery they prepared for their babies they were never able to bring home.
Picking up her glass of wine, Alison took a small sip. She stopped, the glass just touching her lips and listened. Was Brad home already? She thought she heard his keys over her music.
Her heart thumped in her chest. He’d come to the bedroom first to change, so she straightened her back, tilted her head baring her neck toward the door. No footsteps.
The oven squeaked open and she dashed down the hallway, forgetting to be graceful. She paused at the kitchen to see Brad scooping out a large, cheesy corner piece of lasagna onto his plate. Alison let out an audible sigh, drawing Brad’s attention.
“Whoa. What are you all dressed up for?” Still in his work boots, he went back to spooning his dinner on to his plate, breaking eye contact.
Her shoulders slumped forward.
She looked sideways toward the chocolate cake and then to the pair of tickets on the counter.
“Oh, Gaaaawwd!” he said, throwing up his arms. “I knew I was forgetting something when I wrote the date down. Aww, baby, I’m sorry. I had a day!”
Alison crossed her arms, raising her eyebrows.
He stepped toward her and wrapped his arms around her. Alison fought the urge to push off of him. He kissed her on the side of the mouth and in a baby voice, he said, “Happy Anniversary.”
She swallowed hard and choked out a quiet response. “Happy Anniversary.”
Brad put his forehead to hers, trying to catch her eyes. She patted his shoulder and turned away.
She walked to the counter where the tickets sat and, behind her at the table, Brad took a spoonful of the hot lasagna into his mouth and puffed out the steam as he chewed.
Grabbing the tickets to the theater, Alison leaned against the counter and flashed them like dollar bills.
“So, if you had such a day, I guess you aren’t feeling the theater tonight.”
Turning, she plucked the bride and groom off the top of the cake to cut herself a slice, thinking of how she ate the cake alone last year while Brad worked until past midnight. By the time he came home, their anniversary was over.
She dropped the topper into the sink to be washed and, the plastic growing thin and brittle with time, it broke in half.
“Not really. Do you think we could transfer them to another night.”
“No, we can’t. I told you that when I bought the tickets.”
Alison chewed the inside of her cheek and said, “You know what? Gina wanted to see this play. If you don’t want to go, I’ll call her and see if she wants to come.”
Mouth full, Brad said, “That’s a great idea. You guys haven’t hung out in a while. Girls night.” He laughed.
“Yeah, girls night.”
She grabbed her cell phone and walked into the hallway. She unlocked her phone and found Gina’s contact. Her thumb hovered over the call button without touching it and instead, she put the phone up to her ear and pretended to ask Gina to come with her.
Alison wondered why she hadn’t just called Gina. She could’ve told Brad she was upset and surely he would come, but she didn’t want that either.
A pity agreement. No thank you.
All the options seemed like too much work and she was tired of it. The thought of explaining what happened to Gina, after she’d told her yesterday about their plans for their anniversary, exhausted and embarrassed her and she didn’t want to fight with Brad.
Brad hollered around the corner. “Is she going with you?”
Without thinking, she answered. “Yep. I’m going to pick her up.”
Her stomach clenched like a fist up toward her chest, her palms damp as she popped back into the kitchen. Her smile came easier despite her raw nerves as she leaned in to kiss Brad on the cheek while he finished his lasagna.
“I’m going to finish getting ready.”
“Aren’t you gonna eat any dinner?”
Alison scrunched up her nose, turning her head over her shoulder to answer. “I’m not hungry.”
Driving to the theater, Alison remembered sitting in the back of the movies in their early days, catching Brad smiling at her. She grabbed his hand and smiled back, signaling him to move in closer to kiss her. She shook her head, trying to dislodge the memory and the foolishness of her feeble attempt to bring those moments back in a new sophisticated way.
Brad wasn’t what you’d call the theater type. He’d take a burger and a beer in his baseball uniform any day before he’d wear a suit with a glass of wine in a stuffy auditorium. Maybe it was thoughtless of her to expect him to come to the show in the first place.
Now she was going alone, her body relaxed. There weren’t any expectations, and if there were, she was the only one who could leave her disappointed.
She sat through the first act of the play, the seat empty beside her. She sat tall and confident and tried not to fidget, aware of how she may look sitting alone. She looked ahead at the stage, laughing too loudly at the funny parts.
When the lights came up for intermission, she stood, holding her clutch tight to her hip and headed for the bathroom. After washing her hands, she wiped under her eyes and checked her teeth even though she hadn’t eaten anything yet.
As Alison walked back to the main theater, she felt the clasp of her sling-back heel loosen. She bent down close to the edge of the room before entering the theater to fix it, realizing it was broken. She almost cried.
Losing her composure, she rose up, vibrating and backed in to another patron. She felt a cold, splash on her open back and turned to apologize, taking in the open neck of a crisp, white dress shirt. His hand went to her low back to steady her from falling and the tips of his fingers brushed her bare skin. She stared, unable to speak.
Alison looked up into his face, his dark eyes taking her in.
“Are you alright?” he said. His voice was deep, but gentle. His hand was still on her back.
She stammered a response, feeling a current moving from the spot he touched. Alison swallowed her hesitation and spun the rings on her left hand with her thumb.
His fingers moved, not to break the touch, but to feel more of her bare skin. She swore he tugged her toward him. Alison brought her hand to her hair, pushing it up at the roots and traced a circle with the toe of her shoe on the floor tile.
Peaking through her lashes, she said “I have an empty seat beside me. Care to join me?”