Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Rings 

 

As Susan and Phillip dress for a dinner party, she’s quietly obsessing about what happened on their last wedding anniversary. They’re days away from their next.

“Can you fasten this clasp?” she asks Phillip, holding her freshwater pearls around her neck and catching his eye in the mirror as he passes behind her.

“Sure.” She feels his hands at the nape of her neck and suppresses the sensation. She’s been avoiding intimacy with him for months, and the tension between them is mounting.

“You look lovely,” he says, completing the task and stepping back to admire her in the mirror.

They are standing together but not touching.

He moves behind her and puts his hands on her shoulders. “We’re already late,” he says. “What do you say we ditch it and call Kim with regrets?”

“I’m not in the mood to go either,” she says, “but it’ll give us the chance to reconnect with our Kiawah friends. We haven’t seen them in months.” They’ve just driven down from D.C. to their summer home on one of the Sea Islands in South Carolina, just outside of Charleston.

“Whatever you say, boss.” The tone is not friendly. He walks out of the room and down the stairs.

Of course she knew he was flirting, but she couldn’t bring herself to respond. Phillip’s losing patience with her. She can tell. She takes her anniversary bands from the crystal bowl by the sink and carefully places the fortieth on the ring finger of her left hand and the twenty-fifth on the pinky of her right.  As her thumbs caress the back of each band, she promises herself tonight will be different.

***

At the dinner party in Kim and Richard’s antique summer bungalow, Susan and Phillip are seated across from each other at the center of two strikingly different conversations. To Susan’s left, in spite of the alternating male-female design of Kim’s meticulous seating plan, the men are leaning over the women to argue with each other about Dustin Johnson’s run-in with the Rules Committee during the final round of last year’s U.S. Open and how it affected various players, including Johnson, while the women sit mutely back. To Phillip’s left men and women, in the same alternating pattern, are debating vigorously, though unpredictably, about whether Hillary or Trump was the worst presidential candidate in U.S. history. It’s already over but they’re still debating last year’s election as if that would change anything.

“This is delightful!” Susan calls out to Phillip over the blah-blah-blah of the dueling conversations.

“Sure is,” he says and finishes chewing.

Down the table a man who’s drunk too much knocks his glass across a plate and there’s a commotion.

Simultaneously Susan and Phillip push back their chairs and stand up—the sloppiness of the people around them making it necessary for them to seek refuge with each other.

“Let’s get some air,” she says, picking up her wine glass, taking a sip, and making her way out to the side porch. He follows her.

They slip past the clamorous guests in the dining room. “Sh-h-h,” he whispers in her ear as he catches up with her and she giggles. She can smell his aftershave, a musky scent of—what? On the porch they do not kiss.

They stand shoulder to shoulder, looking out at the formal side garden Kim lovingly nurtures every spring with its huge clumps of blue hydrangeas and lush, green succulents. “It’s too hot in there anyway,” he says. “Think we can just sneak off into the night?” He leans into her suggestively.

“Amen to that,” she says, clinking glasses with him.

He leans in again, expectant.

She brushes him off. “If we leave early, Kim will be so offended. Richard won’t give a damn. She’s the one who’s gone to all the fuss.”

“Okay, but I can’t take too much more of this,” he says. He looks annoyed.

“Don’t take it out on me.” She’s no longer sure what they’re talking about. “We better go back in.”

“You go ahead. I’ll be just a few minutes.”

She turns away and pushes through the screen door.

The other guests have drifted from the dinner table to the living room and broken into small groups. Richard leaves his group and walks toward her. She takes in his early summer tan and trim build.

“Unpacked yet? Phillip’s already texting me about a golf game, so I figure you’re doing the bulk of it.”

She laughs. “Yeah. Just about done. He’s got his pile of things to organize in the garage, but it’ll be weeks before he gets to it.”

“We all know Phillip’s agenda. When does he start traveling again?”

What a peculiar thing to say. “Next week sometime. I don’t keep track when we’re down here. Why?”

He puts his arm around her. “You know that walk we were talking about last summer? The one to the end of the island. I hear there’s new dune formation there, and I’d like to hike down and see it. Are you game?”

She wriggles out from under his arm and looks at him.  Richard knows Phillip saves whatever walking he does these days for the golf course. “I might be. Is Kim game? You already know, I assume, that Phillip would want no part of it.”

He ignores her remark about Phillip. “I don’t think so. Kim’s knee’s been bothering her lately. If you’re interested, I’ll look at the tide schedule. We’ll have to ford a couple of streams, and it’s better if we start out at low tide. What’s a good day for you next week?”

“I’ll check my calendar and get back to you.  Okay?” She doesn’t want to assume anything, but it sure feels like he’s coming on to her.

“No problem,” Richard says as Phillip walks up. He holds out his hand and pulls Phillip into a backslap. “Hey, bro! I’ve just been chatting with your lovely wife. How’s your golf game? Good time for me to take advantage of you?”

“Maybe. When do you want to play?” Phillip answers with the quiet confidence of the low-handicap golfer.

As they talk, Phillip casually drapes an arm over her shoulder. Susan wonders whether something in Richard’s demeanor has prompted it.

“Are the kids coming down for the Fourth?” she asks Richard.

“I have no idea. That’s Kim’s department.”

She can see Phillip’s done with the pleasantries. He shakes Richard’s hand and makes excuses about being exhausted from the long drive down to Kiawah. He’s unilaterally decided it’s time to go, in spite of what she’d said about Kim earlier. But she doesn’t protest and decides not to mention it on their way home. She notices that Phillip doesn’t ask about her conversation with Richard. So this is the way it happens, she thinks to herself. She’s already decided not to go hiking with Richard.

When they get home, Phillip suggests a nightcap. She agrees and squeezes past him to change. She comes back downstairs wearing a black silk nightgown. It’s one of his favorites. He sets her vodka martini on the cocktail table and pulls her gently toward him. Her heart is racing.

“Sorry, but I had to get out of there,” he says.

“It’s okay. I’ll text Kim in the morning and apologize.”

Neither of them wants to disturb the mood. He hands her her glass, picks up his own, and touches it to hers.  “To us,” he says. “To us,” she repeats. They chug their drinks and are quickly smashed. Then Phillip congas her up the stairs, down the hall, and onto the bed. They lie there for a quiet, tense moment and watch the shadowy shapes of trees in the full moonlight outside the windows. She hears his breathing and quivers. She wants to be with him as much as he with her. She’s riding the momentum as he caresses her body. She sits up and allows him to take off her gown. He brushes her breast, and she moans.  But even as she’s moving with him, their torsos slowly swaying downward, her mind is racing obsessively ahead.

“Was it worth it?” she hears herself ask him.

She feels Phillip’s muscles tighten. “What? Was what worth what?”

“The affair. Therese. You know.”

He laughs, bitterly, and rolls away from her. “I was waiting for this to happen. I thought we had a chance this time. I don’t know why you had to destroy it.”

He turns his back on her. In a few minutes she hears him breathing.

She tosses and turns, and eventually she falls into a drugged, fitful sleep.

***

Suddenly Susan’s wide awake. It’s very early in the morning.  It feels strange; usually Phillip’s the first one up, halfway through his email before she wanders down the stairs for coffee. But she’s had another nightmare--one for each night they’ve been here. She lies still, quietly taking in the beauty of the place and breathing deeply to calm herself. The sun behind the shades highlights the palm fronds against the windows surrounding their bed. Ordinarily she loves waking up here. She and Phillip have always called this room their tree house, with its vaulted ceiling and windows on the three adjacent walls overlooking the marsh grasses and Cinder Creek zigzagging through them. Their bed is against a freestanding, three-quarter wall covered with green veneer. It turns its back on the door to the room, saying, not so subtly, that this is their private space.

She pushes back the sheet and thin bedspread, rolls off the firm mattress, and looks over at Phillip. He’s sound asleep. She gets up, pads down the hallway and the carpeted stairs into the calm, green kitchen where everything is exactly where she wants it to be. She hits the espresso button as she passes the machine and opens the last cabinet in the long row on the left, reaching in for one of the heavy, porous brown mugs she favors. Cup in hand, she stares out the kitchen window at the tall pine forest, with stately palm trees interspersed and the wax myrtle that artfully blocks her view of the distant house to the west. She walks back to the espresso machine and waits for the hot water rinsing it to come to a stop; then she pushes the large-cup button and puts the mug under the spout. While it’s filling, she walks across the kitchen to the fridge and takes out the milk. She’s freezing in the air-conditioning, so she grabs a sweater from the front hall closet and throws it over her thin nightgown.

She comes back into the kitchen, sits down on a barstool at the counter, and takes a big sip of coffee.

***

A year ago Susan and Phillip celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary at Le Pavilion de la Reine, her favorite hotel in Paris. Phillip knew she had gotten him a wedding band as a present—he had never worn a ring before, and without knowing exactly why, she’d asked him, “How would you like to wear a wedding ring for the next half-century?” “I’d be honored to,” he’d said. She knew for him it wasn’t a big thing, but she’d chosen a one-of-a-kind, hand-tooled band with twisted coils of metal, a handsome designer ring. “Don’t get one for me,” she said. “I love this one.” She held out her left hand with the Russian wedding ring—three intertwined, yellow-gold bands fused together with a slant of diamonds. He had gotten it for her for their twenty-fifth anniversary. “Please, dear, don’t get me another ring,” she’d said. So, on the evening of their anniversary, when she came downstairs in the grand duplex hotel room they were sharing and there was a small, gift-wrapped box on the side table next to the small, wrapped box she had placed there earlier, she’d been puzzled about why he would get her a ring, especially since she’d explicitly asked him not to. In retrospect, she knows why. It was his way of reaffirming his love. But that evening she’d been disappointed and a bit saddened by the unwanted gift, although he’d never have known. She’d simply demoted the twenty-fifth anniversary band to the pinky of her right hand, allowed him to put the new band on her left, told him how lovely it was, and carried on.

She remembers it as if it were yesterday. After exchanging rings, they left the hotel and strolled to dinner along the Place des Vosges. She had always been proud to be with Phillip. He was tall and muscular, a former wrestler and competitive tennis player during his college years. He worked out regularly, paid attention to his weight, and dressed well. On this particular evening he wore a dark suit and the Hermes tie she had given him for Father’s Day.

From the moment they entered L’Ambroisie, the tiny jewel of a restaurant diagonally across the square from their hotel, she saw that every single detail was just right and exactly as it should be. She felt a sense of well-being as they were seated against the wall beneath the rearing horse and armored warrior in the room with the enormous Aubusson tapestry. As she looked around the room at the oil paintings, the vases, the perfectly polished floors and the marble, the pristine linen and finest crystal glasses adorning the tables, nothing seemed superfluous or excessive. She could not think of any way to improve on anything without upsetting the overall harmony. We belong here, she’d thought to herself. We’ve worked hard for this moment.

They dined slowly, savoring the food, the wine, and their cleverness in having slipped away from children and friends to enjoy their anniversary alone. They’d joked and reminisced, teasing each other with familiar stories of their marriage.

“You know you ran away from me on our honeymoon,” Phillip said. “You might have missed out on all this.”

“Yes. In Salzburg.” She beamed at him from across the table. This was old, comfortable terrain.

“The hiking boots. I wanted you to wear them. To break them in.”

“You made me cry.”

They both laughed and she felt girlish, though she couldn’t stop herself from thinking she had been right. He shouldn’t have pushed her into something she hadn’t wanted to do. By now it was an old story of their marital life.

“You ran away a second time. Remember? Seriously, if not for my persistence, we might not be sitting here tonight.”

“No, no. Anyway, that was years later.”

“Maybe ten years?”

“Maybe. We can figure it out. We were in Cairo. At one of your medical conferences.”

“It was dangerous what you did.” She had taken off into the crowded streets. “I still don’t know what got into you.”

They’d never discussed it. She’d made up something silly about his being bossy and rushing her through the Tutankhamen exhibit. But it had been much more than that. She’d looked around at all the veiled women, and she’d felt trapped and dependent, diminished in some way she couldn’t articulate. To be truthful, to this day she disliked travelling with Phillip. After years of a successful marketing career of her own and a lot of independent travel, she was still Mrs. Pinkus when they traveled together, and everyone deferred to him, although she was the one who made most of the travel arrangements.

She changed the subject. “My turn. Do you remember the fights we had over naming the children? Rachel actually left the hospital as ‘Baby Girl Pinkus’ because we couldn’t come to an agreement.” They laughed together, rattling off his name choices for their daughter versus hers—Naomi, Rebecca, Rachel—yes, Rachel had been his choice. What a small thing that had turned out to be, though it had darkened their joy for days after their daughter’s birth. “Our Rachel! She’s become such a beautiful woman,” she said.

Phillip looked at her across the table and took her hand. “Very much so. But not as beautiful as you are tonight.”

Susan felt herself blushing all over again. For a husband to say such a thing after forty years of marriage! She’d brushed it off at the time. “You look pretty good yourself,” she’d said. Then, regretting it, she added, “I’m happy you feel that way, Phillip. Really I am. Tonight I’m the happiest woman in the world.” How ironic that she’d had so much pride. She’d actually said that.

After dinner they held hands as they walked back to the hotel. They climbed the private stairs to their brocaded duplex with its sweet nest at the top of a spiraling staircase, thrown their clothes everywhere like a young couple, and made love with the quiet assurance and deep contentment of the long married. Then, instead of drifting off to sleep as he almost always did after sex, Phillip took her face in his hands and confessed, with tears in his eyes, that he had been having an affair. “Forgive me,” he said. “I assure you it’s over. She was so young. Not even Rachel’s age. I don’t know how I fell into it. I swear to you, it’s over.”

They were both crying and clinging to each other. Susan reached for the light and stared at Phillip. She’d always thought she would know. She tried to think. Was there a time during the past year that he hadn’t wanted her or held her hand as they went to sleep? When she realized there hadn’t been, she didn’t know whether to take it as evidence of his deceit or enduring love.

“When? How? How long? I don’t understand, Phillip,” she said. “Why didn’t you come to me and tell me before it happened?” She beat his chest as he held onto her. He would not defend himself. He kept repeating his confession and his reassurance. “It’s over. I’m sorry. I promise you, it’s over.

After he fell asleep, she lay there with her hand in his. She looked down at their wedding rings for confirmation: she knew they would stay in the marriage, though she had no idea how things would change.

* * *

One year later and days away from their forty-first anniversary, Susan is reluctant to admit exactly what has changed. She recognizes that she’s sulky and suspicious much of the time, while Phillip fluctuates between sickeningly accommodating and angry. But the big change is the absence of intimacy; that, and the undercurrent, which has been building by the day. It’s there beneath the surface of their daily lives. They’ve had several episodes like last night’s. Maybe not as bad, but close. She senses the silent wave growing in force as their anniversary approaches; she suspects it’s the cause of the nightmares she’s been having.

Not surprisingly, the first dream was about rings. There was a woman in it she didn’t quite recognize. Her hands were delicate and small-boned, like a girl’s. On the ring finger of her left hand, the girl wore the thin, gold-filigreed band Susan had put away years ago. Susan knew what it was as soon as she saw it. It was the fake wedding ring she wore before they were married, when they traveled together and Phillip would register them as Mr. and Mrs. Pinkus. That’s the way things were done in those days. Above this ring, on the same finger, She saw the wedding band Phillip had given her for their twenty-fifth anniversary. He had gotten down on one knee and proposed again when he gave it to her. When she woke up, she’d run into the bathroom and checked the crystal bowl above her sink to be sure it was still there. She’d put it on immediately and rubbed it nervously all that day.

Susan looks down at her hands for reassurance. The twenty-fifth anniversary band is safely on her right pinky, and on her left ring finger she’s wearing the fortieth anniversary band Phillip gave her last year. She’s checked and the fake band is safely in the drawer where she’d put it years ago. Instinctively she rubs her rings with the fingertips of opposite hands. They still feel like tangible proof of the solidity of her marriage. Even after Phillip’s confession of infidelity, they’d felt that way.

Last night’s dream was worse. She didn’t understand it at all. No rings.  No other woman. This time she saw herself. She was riding her bike along a forested trail in the marsh near the house. She was ahead and Phillip was right behind her when she saw a dock. She rode up it, across the rail-less horizontal juncture, and right off. She still can’t shake the dread she felt tumbling through space in a soundless cocoon. As she nurses her coffee, she’s trying to remember what happened after that. She presses her fingers together through the handle and holds the mug tight to absorb its warmth; she’s shivering with cold in spite of the sweater and the warm mug. And then she sees the rest of it. As she’s riding off the dock and suspended in air, she’s looking down into a deep, ominous vortex. She’s struggling to free herself, grappling with the air around her, when something makes her look back. It’s Phillip. He’s right behind her, already on the dock and reaching out for her.

If only she could be sure.

She’s stung by the way he turned his back on her last night. She’s terrified. Not only of the dreams but also of the undercurrent. She knows it was there even before his confession; the affair was not entirely his fault. She’d been harboring anger for years. She’d resented his control and found ways to undermine it. And during the past year, she’s used the affair to sabotage his desire and her own.

She would have to do something to break the cycle or their marriage would not survive.

In a minute he would get up, anxious that she is not there beside him. He would come downstairs to find her. She would turn toward him and say, “Hey, do you mind?” and hand him her empty mug as he heads to the espresso machine, and he would go to the kitchen and make her a fresh cup and bring it to her along with the newspaper. He would be careful not to talk about what happened last night and she would too. Yet she would not want him to doubt she understands that something has to change for them to continue. If the moment seems right, she would find a way to talk to him about the dreams. They’d analyze them and she’d give the second dream a favorable interpretation, something about its telling her she must take the lead to find their way back. She would say this as she offers him her hand and brings him up the stairs.

While she imagines his reaction to her dreams, Phillip is making his way down the hallway from their bedroom. Though she cannot see him, she hears him in the stairwell and senses his confusion at her having been the first to rise and come downstairs. She hears him call out to her.









Marlene Molinoff is a former university literature teacher and marketing strategist, and has traveled and photographed extensively in Africa, Antarctica, the Middle East, and South America. Her short stories have appeared in The Alembic, Amarillo Bay, Crack the Spine, EDGE, Forge, Good Works Review, Steam Ticket, and the Iowa Summer Festival Anthology. She completed her bachelor's degree in English literature at Barnard College and received her master's degree from Tufts University. She earned the PhD in English Literature at George Washington University, and then attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a certificate in business administration.