This story is by Casey Hogue and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
April 13th, 2020, five weeks into Shelter-in-Place for California due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Robert and his fiancé Rachel were holed up in his house in Sacramento. This was their first real chance to live together for the foreseeable future and they were both elated. Rachel happily transported most of her belongings, along with their cat Booker from her apartment in Berkeley.
Dinner that night was Pasta Puttanesca, a recipe Rachel had from a cookbook she brought back from the trip to Italy where they met. Robert, who worked for a large winery, opened a beautiful bottle of Zinfandel to go with it.
“What do you think?”
She asks as she washed down her first bite with a large swig from her glass.
“It’s good, it’s delicious”
Robert responds thinking to himself how bland and tasteless it was. She’s an amazing cook and normally he loves everything she whips up, especially pasta. He compensated with a big sip of his own. A little bit buzzed, their spirits were high despite the world around them descending into limbo.
After dinner, they decide to take advantage of the warm evening air and have a stroll through the neighborhood. They walk past chalk drawings and inspiring messages scrawled across the sidewalks such as “Love is not Cancelled.” As they stroll, Rachel looks up to Robert.
“Ok, back to the topic of wedding venue, since you never seem to want to commit, what do you think about a destination wedding? Like the Amalfi Coast? It seems so dreamy and we could go wine tasting through Tuscany for the honeymoon.”
“Yes, sounds amazing, but you know only 12 people would show up right?”
Robert also imagined Rachel’s sister Brenda with her used mo-ped vocal-fry voice bragging about Rob and Rach’s Italian wedding. Their name alliteration was embarrassing enough.
As they approached his front door Robert felt slightly faint. Whoa, I need to put the breaks on the wine tonight he thought.
“Should we have a fire?” Robert asks as they walk in.
“Yes, please” Rachel replies with a sultry grin that Robert took to have greater, late-night implications. Robert felt fatigued from the day but his heart pulsed at the thought of sex. They were in the midst of the longest drought of their relationship. He figured with the pandemic and wedding planning it must be a phase.
The sun had just dipped under the horizon and the shadows of the day slowly faded. As the fire crackled in the backyard fire pit, Booker chased down mosquitos buzzing around the lawn. Under the warm sky, they comfortably lay on Robert’s cushy outdoor couch talking, fiddling with their phones and settling into the second month of quarantine.
Rachel continued on with two more glasses of Zin and Robert began to notice her acting strangely. She would pick up her phone, check it for a second, then put it down. Not totally out of the ordinary but just enough to catch Robert’s wine-buzzed attention.
“Who are you texting?” Robert snapped, as they gently rubbed elbows.
“I’m texting Samantha” she replies as she shifts away from Robert.
“Yeah, she’s fine,” Rachel says,
But in the .8 seconds between the words leaving his lips, Robert saw her swipe left on the text thread and delete it, then click on Samantha’s name to call it up. He couldn’t see the screen too clearly but whatever side-glimpse he did get, the name definitely did not resemble Samantha in length or shape.
As they continued to snuggle on the couch, Robert’s mind slumped into a paranoid loop, the cognitive dissonance of his love and trust for her battled it out between the reality of what he just witnessed. He leaned back running his hands through his hair, frozen in uncertainty. After 20 minutes of swirl, he noticed Rachel’s breath deepen as she slipped into a Zin induced slumber.
At 10:15 P.M., he shimmies off the couch and carries her to bed. As he tucks her in, he hovers above her, staring at her curly brunette hair. Her head is perfectly centered on the pillow with a faint smirk on her lips. Then, for a second, something shifts, he doesn’t recognize her. She looks like a different person lying in his bed, some stranger whom he knew nothing about.
His heart is racing as he walks back toward the living room, and sits down on the couch, staring at her phone on the coffee table. In the entire 4 years they’ve been together, Robert never once so much as thought about looking at her phone without her permission. He felt that if it came to that, the trust was gone, the relationship was over.
Robert grabs her phone, unlocks it, and goes to her texts. He sees a text thread from someone named “Ian.” right at the top. His whole body shivers and aches.
Ian: 4553 Western Dr. Apartment 33
Rachel: Oh you’re feeling frisky tonight?
Ian: Yes, winky emoji
Rachel: I’m going to sleep
Rachel: Kissy emoji
Robert’s heart sinks, his body tenses up. Feeling frisky? Is this some sort of sexting? He decided that he needed more information, he needed to confirm she was truly cheating or if it was just an inappropriate text exchange with some coworker. Screw it, let’s see if he’s still up. He pauses for a moment trying to conjure up Rachels’s sexting style. The last time they sexted was about a year into dating. He remembered she used a lot of emojis. That didn’t help.
He types “Hi” into the text field. It is returned by Ian within 15 seconds.
Ian: “Still up?”
Robert responds “Yep”
Robert: “Still want me to come over?”
Robert: “Right Now?” It was 10:53 P.M.
Ian: “What do you want right now?”
Robert: “Hot passionate touch in all the right places. Are you up for that?”
Robert: “What do you want?”
Ian: “To touch you, lick you, suck you, and fuck you again”
Robert’s heart sinks. His tongue goes numb. He feels light-headed and slightly nauseous.
Robert: “that sounds so hot, how long has it been?”
Ian: “3 weeks?”
They’ve been quarantined at his house for just shy of 3 weeks. Robert can barely breathe. He thinks to go get his inhaler from the bedroom. One last text.
Robert: “Thank you, Ian. That’s all I needed to hear. This is Robert, Rachel’s fiancé. I have your address, never text her again.”
He waits a minute for a reply. It doesn’t come. He looks up to see the potted cactus they picked out and planted together a year or so ago on a trip to Sedona. Robert begins to cough profusely. His whole body feels like it’s shutting down.
He fumbles to turn Rachel’s phone off and blankly stares out into the darkness of the back yard. For a fraction of a second, he is terrified by the surreal finality of the moment. Now his whole body now goes numb. He’s not angry, not sad, not full of rage. A vacuum. Blank like his brain is in the process of a hard reset. Every breath he takes grows heavier.
As he begins to regain his synapse functions a wave of exhaustion washes over him. He walks back to the bedroom and gently plugs her phone into the charger on her nightstand. He walks around to his side of the bed, his knees weak and wobbly. He slowly gets in. Sweat begins soaking the pillow and he struggles to catch a breath.
Where did they meet? How many times were they together? Did she use a condom? His nausea pulses and worsens. His mind wanders to superficial stuff like his Netflix account, shared bills, and passwords. He thinks of all the photos of him on her phone. I should delete them right now.
Rachel rolls over toward his back and lovingly puts her arm around him. He’s startled. He rolls to his left so her arm is draped over his chest as he stares up at the ceiling. The cat jumps onto the bed and nestles in between their bodies.
All the miles we commuted to see each other over the past few years. All the wedding plans already paid for. Rachel shifts and moves a bit and makes a popping noise with her mouth that Robert usually thinks is adorable. His whole body shivers. He feels his forehead. It’s on fire.
He looks down at her hand and sees the engagement ring. He leans in to smell her hair. Nothing. He puts his arm over hers and gently caresses her fingers.
She shifts again, rolling to her left side in a semi-fetal position with her butt right up against his thigh, her feet nestled up against his. It’s now midnight. Robert struggles for every breath. He reaches over for his inhaler on the nightstand and begins to cry.