Fine is For Sugar

The spaces in between the words, where the unspoken truths reside, is where one man wistfully waits for his mundane life to finally crack open…

by: Jaime Grookett

Ray’d be damned if he were going to let his wife ruin his weekend before it even began. It was just like her to nag him for six months about hanging the pictures, then blast him for where he hung them, and leave him second guessing himself to the point of indigestion the entire time she was gone. 

Before leaving for her sister’s house, Maureen passed Ray in the narrow hall and mentioned snidely, “Why are the pictures in the dining room?” Her coffee breath coated Ray’s blank face. “You should have hung the pictures in the hall instead of the dining room. Family pictures belong in halls, where visitors steal a glance while moving to someplace more interesting, not dining rooms where they’re forced to stare at snapshots of us hunchbacked and sweaty atop Mount Vesuvius.” Marcy, their only child and Maureen’s three-year-old mini-me, sidled up to her leg and reached up her arms to be carried. Maureen scooped her up and propped her on a switched hip. Marcy’s blonde ponytails swayed as she shook her head and giggled. She planted a huge kiss on Maureen’s freshly painted cheeks. Maureen smiled at her then glared back at Ray. “The pictures look ridiculous. No class.” 

Ray defended himself, if not for his own sake then for Marcy’s. She deserved a father who commanded respect. “I thought it’d be a nice conversation starter. Aren’t we always looking for conversation pieces?” At least that’s what Maureen would say every time she came home from an antique shop with an overpriced broken lamp. 

“Why do I bother?” she huffed and turned from him to walk up the stairs with Marcy.

Ray paced the dining room and had to admit the offending placement of the photos would turn guests’ stomachs while dining on her dry tenderloin and burnt roasted potatoes. He figured she was right after all. She knew more about those things than he did. Although, Ray wondered, if staring at their portraits while choking down her leathery beef were so offensive, then why even hang them? In the end, he left the pictures in the dining room, lining the puce-colored wall opposite the buffet. He knew it’d irk the hell out of Maureen when she returned from her sister’s. 

When they moved in ten years ago, their house defined the block, a sprawling rancher that stood out amongst neighbors whose houses dripped with the mediocrity of 9 to 5 jobs. The eyesore color, though, a bile yellow, didn’t do the house any favors. So, in an effort to please his wife, which at the time he thought to be a formidable but realistic goal, he surprised Maureen. One weekend when she stayed at her sister’s in order to help with a colicky baby, he painted the house. He waited on the swept front porch all day for her to return, itching to see the look of appreciation on her face as she pulled up to their transformed exterior. But when she arrived home early in the afternoon driving their new BMW convertible, ragtop down, Coach sunglasses on, she stepped out of the car and just stared up at the now gray house. Ray watched for some trace of expression on her face. Without so much as a smirk, she slung her overnight bag over her shoulder, reached into the back to grab an overflowing reusable bag, and walked up the flagstone walkway. “A little too blue,” she said. “It’s the undertone, I guess. I imagine it’ll look nice in the right light.” She handed him a grocery bag of gluten-free pasta and almond milk as she walked into the house. Bitch, he thought, even then, in the heydays of their marriage. If there were any heydays.

Ray walked around the living room picking up stray dolls and books. He tossed them into the playroom and shut the door. 

“Did you get the oil in my car changed?” Maureen yelled down the stairs.

Damn. He forgot. “It’ll be good for another 400 miles. Those alert signals are designed to make people change it too soon.”

He heard Maureen huff, then her footsteps pound dramatically on the floor as she moved away from the stairs.

At the time, the BMW signaled their wealth, their fair claim to a spot on Hartford Road in Haventown. Dotted with potholes and aging trees, it was not the most prized street in town, but people recognized it as the worst street in the best town, and that counted for something. Now, the new neighbors had added second stories and two-car garages to their single-story homes, dwarfing Ray and Maureen’s ranch. The street had crept up in stature over the years, house values teetering mid-level in a high-income neighborhood. They had barely squeaked in. Just two blocks over was a modest neighborhood, and for the cost they’d have a bigger home and a comfortable life punctuated with annual trips to Disney. Ray heard the schools there would see to it their kids earned a spot in the higher ranks of a solid state school. He thought a house in that town was fine. “Fine,” Maureen said, “Is for sugar.” Ray never quite knew what she meant by that, but it ended any further discussion on the matter. They were moving to Haventown. 

Maureen still drove the same BMW as she had when they first moved in, but it had lost the charm and status of a new convertible long ago. Now, its flat paint and peeling roof reeked of stagnancy and disappointment. The town itself, though, packed as much quaintness and charm as any town could into three-square miles. He had to admit he was content, if not a bit outranked. He was happy to lay roots here. To settle.

Ray grew up on store brand spaghetti and Ragu sauce while Maureen dined on sashimi and sushi by age five, but he was fine with that. Maureen always wanted more. Some would say to her mother that she set the bar too low when she married Ray. But he thought he won her over fair and square. His law degree from Boston University and a summer internship at Pearson and Pearson had shown his promise. How could either of them know he would eventually be passed up for partner again and again in favor of someone more charismatic, who golfed on Sundays or boned the head partner, until, finally, after a crisis of conscience, he’d abandon law altogether to teach at the university for a fraction of the salary and prestige? 

Maureen planned to bring Marcy on a weekend trip to visit her incapable sister, who now was on her fourth child she couldn’t properly care for, a last-ditch effort to save a brittle marriage. Maureen approached family life differently. Their family planning discussion consisted of a single sentiment from Maureen: When you have one child, they have to fit into your life. More than one, you have to fit into theirs.  Maureen’s family believed in conventional lives filled with conventional things — unhappy couples, bitter hearts, meaningless, yet lucrative, careers. So in the grand tradition of hapless marriages, he didn’t second-guess himself when he decided to invite Kate over for the night. Usually, he’d sneak to her house when her son wasn’t home, or he’d meet her at the Red Roof Inn in the middle of the day on Wednesdays when they were both supposed to be working. But a proper night together, in his own home, on the bed he shared with Maureen, might be just what he needed to knock him out of his current rut. 

Ray ordered Indian, aiming for it to be delivered soon after Maureen left. She was distracted while packing up, complaining about the picture placement and the peeling white picket fence lining their front yard, a fence for decor, not meant to keep anything in, or out. He’d promised he’d paint the fence that weekend, that it’d be finished before she returned from her sister’s. But he already knew that was a lie. He hadn’t even bought the paint.

Maureen’s stalling meant the food delivery arrived before she left. The doorbell rang, so he rushed to answer it before she could. He opened the door to see Rob standing on the porch holding a lopsided brown paper bag, an oily-looking stain of curry forming at its bottom corner. Rob’s long hair and strong shoulders reminded Ray of himself when he was twenty.

“Rob, didn’t know you were working for Indian Palace these days. How have you been?”

“Great, Mr. Blight. Just earning some extra money for college.” He fumbled the bag before handing it over. “Sorry, looks like it’s leaking a bit. Better hold it from the bottom.” He handed over the bag then wiped mustard-colored curry onto his jeans.

“Thanks. You tell your mom and dad I say hello. And congrats to your dad on making Chief.”

“Yeah. ‘Bout time.” Ray held out his hand and Rob slipped the tip from Ray’s fingers and shoved it into his pocket as if they’d just completed a drug deal. “Have a nice night. Tell Mrs. Blight I say hello.” He turned to walk back to his beat-up Chevy, the lighted Indian Palace sign perched lopsided atop its faded black roof.

Rob held out the now dripping bag of food as he scurried to the kitchen to stash it in the oven. He needed to hide the evidence that he had ordered dinner for two while he waited for Maureen to leave. She was never on time. It was as if the world was perpetually waiting for her. He touched the screen of his phone to check the time and then shouted down the hall, “If you don’t leave soon, you’ll be late.”

“I think I can handle getting to my sister’s,” she called as she walked down the stairs, Marcy scurrying behind, grabbing her mother’s pant leg. As a toddler, Marcy still loved her mother, still admired despite her faults. Ray imagined that within ten years’ time, Marcy would grow to hate the woman, and Maureen, reciprocating, would cultivate disappointment in her daughter in equal measure, for she’d never live up to her standards.

“Give me a kiss,” Ray said, stooping down to bearhug his squirming daughter, giving her a giant kiss on the cheek. “I’ll miss you, Puddin’.”

“I’ll miss you too, Daddy. But I brought Rabbit. He’ll keep me company when I miss you.” Her soft voice squealed with excitement. He knew she loved him too, for now. He feared by the time the hate festered in her heart towards her mother, shame of her father would sprout like tendrils on a vine. His own mother, a woman whose expectations surpassed Ray’s potential ten-fold, taught Ray these lessons early on when she tossed his finger painting in the bin for lack of originality. 

Ray kissed Rabbit, too, then hugged them both. “That’s for both of you. I’ll see you Sunday.” 

“Love you, Daddy.”

“Love you, Puddin.”

Maureen shuffled passed them in the hall as they exchanged goodbyes. She straddled the front door threshold, and called to Marcy, “Let’s go. We’re already running a bit late.” She walked towards the car.

Marcy followed and held the railing as she took on the large stone steps. She turned back to wave to Ray at the door, and he flailed his hands towards her. As Maureen’s car doors slammed, he waved out the window, overkill as he normally would be working in his office paying little mind to when she left. This time, he stood by the front door and listened for the roll of the worn tires as they backed over the lip of asphalt at the edge of the drive. Then, he texted Kate: The coast is clear. I’ll leave the back door unlocked. He went to the makeshift bar in the living room and poured two glasses of Cabernet, Kate’s favorite, and listened for the creak of the door, the sound of his mundane life cracking open.

“Hello,” he heard Kate whisper from the kitchen. He happily sauntered in to meet her, a wine glass swaying in each hand, stifling a giggle. He set the glasses on the island, hugged her, then gave her a kiss. 

“Hey, so Maureen’s gone?” Her voice rose just above a whisper.

“Yes, yes. We have the place to ourselves,” Ray said, bouncing a bit. 

“Aren’t you nervous?” she tittered as she placed her oversized purse on the island. He wondered what she had in there. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“I’m more than okay. I’m incredible.” He leaned toward her, pressed his lips to hers then opened his mouth slightly, breathing between her parted lips. 

Kate took a step back and smiled, her eyes cast towards the floor. She shook her head and looked up at him, “We’ve never had a whole night together. This will be fun.” She shifted her hips to each side, as if she wasn’t sure which was more comfortable. Ray stared at her tight black pants and the neckline of her pink top that dipped low enough to the bare cleavage of her small, even breasts. She never tried to hide her figure or disguise it in any way, as far as Ray could tell. Maureen dressed as if trying to fool the world, low-waisted pants to downplay her wide hips, bras two sizes too small to eek voluptuousness out her B-sized breasts. He appreciated Kate’s honesty.

They moved to the dining room. He set the table then lit the five tall candles in the sterling candelabra they’d gotten for their wedding but never used. He wondered if Maureen would notice the slight wear if she ever went to use the thing herself. He fetched the containers from the oven and set them on the center of the paisley runner so as not to mark the table. 

“Oh, lovely family pictures,” Kate said. She walked over to take a closer look. Ray’s breath caught as he realized Maureen was right. The way he had positioned the settings, Kate was forced to stare at their family’s faces the entire meal. He realized his effort to spite Maureen by keeping the pictures as they were had backfired.

“You know, I can switch you to the other side of the table. So you don’t have to have my family watching you while you eat.” Ray scanned the wall and his eyes locked with Maureen’s as she sat on a beach in a wide-brimmed hat. Her nose poised down in disappointment, chiding him for ordering smelly curry to serve a date. He could hear her laughing at him. “Curry?” 

“I’m fine,” Kate insisted and sat down at her seat to begin eating.

Ray took his seat quickly, remaining quiet through dinner, listening to Kate go on about her son smoking pot. It got worse from there.

“Steve came over to talk to him. I doubt it’ll make any difference, but —” She paused to take a bite of curry. “You know how kids are.”

“Oh, you called Steve to help?” Ray looked up from his dish. He knew he had no right to be jealous. After all, he and Maureen had just celebrated their tin anniversary. He had gifted her a tin of cookies and cream popcorn. She had bought him cufflinks. He returned his attention to Kate who persisted in her stories of Steve, all sugarcoated to make him appear more palatable than a philandering husband has a right to be.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Kate said, her voice lowering in suspicion.

“I just love to hear you talk. I’m getting to know you better.” He wished Kate would shut the hell up. All this talk of her ex and her miserable, unappreciated son gave him indigestion. But Ray knew he had less chance of fucking things up if he’d just listen, like Maureen always said.

When Kate came up for air, he asked, “Are you all finished?” She hadn’t touched her curry in five minutes, but he wasn’t sure if it was her need to talk or her fullness that kept her at bay. 

“I am, thank you. It was delicious.” She stood and picked up her own plate and empty container. “Let me help.”

“Well, thank you. If you insist,” he said bowing. “You are the guest.” He realized he was overdoing it in a corny sort of way, the way that would have Kate second-guessing if he were good enough for her. 

“You know what? Let’s leave the dishes here. I can get to them later.” 

“Are you sure?”

Ray looped his arm around Kate’s waist and pulled her close to him, his curry breath coating her face as he said, “Of course. I only want to focus on you tonight.” He pressed smoky lips to hers and heat rushed between them. He wondered, for a moment, if it were passion. Although they’d had several afternoons together, having sex and watching Netflix at the hotel, they’d yet to have a moment where either seemed taken over by fervor. He blamed it on the time of day, the need to strip the bed of its comforter each time they entered the room, or the jacuzzi tub peppered with pubic hairs. He hoped tonight would be a turning point.

“Let’s cuddle on the couch and enjoy our wine.” He slipped her hand into his and led her into the front room. She had been there only once before when Marcy was born prematurely and weighed just four pounds. She had dropped off a baked ziti covered in mozzarella cheese and a loaf of Ninitto’s Italian Bread. He thought her attractive, then, out of his league — not that he was looking. He had no idea her husband slipped into the Hilton with other women at least once a week, and that, after years of infidelities, she wouldn’t find out until he broke the news he was moving out, transitioning from a cheating husband to an ex-husband. Ray always had more success with heartbroken women of low self-esteem. Had he known when her house of cards had caved, he would have messaged her on Facebook sooner, instead of waiting for her to drop her last name from her profile. Once she popped up on his newsfeed as Kate Renee instead of Kate Renee-Pierson, the whole world knew of her singlehood. His competition, then, would grow fierce. He’d admired her all this time. Watched her sneak out in a fuzzy robe to get the mail, or wear a bikini top to pick weeds. He hadn’t realized he’d been looking for another woman, but there she was. So he messaged her before he had much time to think about it.

Ray scooted closer to her on the couch, holding his wine with one hand and wrapping the other around Kate. He pulled her close, then closer. He struggled to create a spark between them. “Don’t you feel bad being here? Like wicked bad?” He smirked and raised his glass towards Kate’s. They clinked, and she shifted her weight towards the arm of the sofa, away from Ray.

“Sort of,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder and laughing.

He watched her drain the rest of her wine and set the empty glass onto the coffee table. He moved it to the coaster. “Maybe I could have another glass?” 

Ray thought Kate was drinking an awful lot. His mind wandered off with possible reasons for her binge. He settled on him. He thought, maybe, she was having second thoughts. He took a deep breath and reminded himself it could just as easily be her pot-smoking son or cheating husband that drove her to drink so much. “Oh, of course,” he said, shaking his head. “Of course. Let me get you another.” He picked up both glasses and polished his off on the way to the kitchen. He returned with refills and said, “Here you go. I think I should have bought more wine.” He tried to sound lighthearted but a stern voice slipped out.

“Are you afraid your wife will get mad if you drink all her wine? Mean old Maureen will storm in here jabbering on about how selfish you were.” Kate paused for a drink. Ray could tell she was getting drunk. She curated her tone more carefully when sober, never painting Maureen in too harsh a light. “Do you think she’ll be more upset about you sleeping with me or finishing off the last of the wine?” 

Although he was certain he knew the answer, he didn’t tell her. Ray didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing he knew his own worth in that house. He’d heard what Maureen had said about him at toddler playgroups and book club. Kate’s kids were older; they didn’t run in the same circles. But word got back to him, husbands telling him in jest at the brewery or other wives confiding in him Maureen’s tales of his ineptitude as a way of forming an alliance with him as another person who didn’t care for Maureen. Such people weren’t hard to find in a small place like Haventown. And if people were willing to divulge to him the awful stories his wife shared about him, surely Kate would have heard them as well. 

“What are you thinking?” Kate asked, her voice elevated by the wine.

“I’m thinking we should move the party upstairs.”

“I’m not finished,” she said, holding up her drink.

He leaned in to hold her, caressing her pointed shoulders, her rigid back, her narrow thighs. They kissed, their chests pressed against each other. His body grew warm. As he moved to pull her even closer, he forgot she still held the wine glass. He brushed his shoulder against the stem of it then drew back when he realized what he’d done. Still, it tumbled onto the cushion, splashing deep red onto the white microfiber. “Shit,” he said, jumping up and picking up the glass. “Shit.”

Ray sprinted to the kitchen, returning with a tall glass of sudsy water and a dishtowel. He dipped the towel into the water and scrubbed the red stain. The red faded, spreading into a fainter, but wider splotch. 

“Blot, don’t scrub.”

“I’m doing that.” Ray kept scrubbing.

“You’re not. You’re making it worse,” Kate huffed. “You need club soda.”

“It’s not coming up.” He was sweating now. Not the sexy sweat he imagined earlier in the day, but a nervous, jittery sweat that smelled of curry. “I don’t have club soda. Damn it.”

“Let me try.” She snatched the towel from him and blotted the stain with the sopping towel. Kate smirked while knee-deep in the business of cleaning up Ray’s mess. She had Maureen written all over her.

“It’s fine. Leave it.” If he didn’t seize the night back soon, he’d lose it entirely. 

“I don’t think it’s coming up. You may have to have an upholstery cleaner come out for a visit.”

“Let’s go upstairs.” He held her hand gently, flashed her a wide smile, tried to put the stain out of his mind. He’d worry about it tomorrow. Concoct a good lie for why red wine, a drink he never drank alone, on a couch he rarely sat on, had soaked Maureen’s cushion. He’d think of something. She wouldn’t believe him, but there’d be no proof. Plausible deniability sided with Ray.

He set their glasses on the side table and took her hand to lead her up the steps and into the bedroom. It was exactly how Maureen had left it, her pink bra draped along the closet door knob, the shades half open to let daylight into the drab room. No one ever saw their bedroom but themselves, so they never modernized it when they moved in. Now, he saw the peeling wallpaper, the dated wainscoting, the frayed comforter, and wondered why neither of them ever put more effort into its decor. 

Kate sat on the edge of the bed then crab-walked back to the pillows. It struck Ray as child-like. She dropped into the deep purple pillows, her soft blonde hair fanning around her head like a halo. She flicked her yellow ballet flats off to the side of the bed like plucking the heads off of dandelions. She waved for him to join her, so he slipped out of his loafers and crept onto the bed. Laying on top of her, his arms caressing her head, his fingers weaving through her hair, he pressed his lips to her and kissed her as if it were the first time. The novel touch reminded him of the early days with Maureen, when she glowed after a kiss or pulsed when he touched her between her legs. He sat up and tugged his shirt over his head, then helped Kate do the same. Her bra shined pink and silver. He wanted her to keep it on. 

Ray moved his hand softly up her thigh and she followed his lead, sliding hers between his legs. Just give it a moment, he thought. Just a moment. He shifted away. Still nothing. He could tell by the wideness of her eyes that she knew he was struggling. Her body, loose and warm moments before, had turned rigid and chilled. She moved in, gripping him a little firmer, allowing a puff of forced ecstasy to slip between her lips and fall warm on his cheek. 

He switched positions, flipping so she lay on top of him. She pawed at his chest in an exaggerated sort of way, feigned passion he recognized from a low rate porno he had watched in his friend Leo’s basement at fifteen.

He channeled his own inner Christian Grey and tossed her across the bed then leaped on top of her like the wild animal he was, or wanted to be. She banged her head on the edge of the bedpost and rubbed it but never broke character. He slipped her panties off and touched her softly. She reached for the waist of his boxer briefs he bought just for her, having decided there was nothing sexy about the white briefs Maureen bought him. But he stopped her, mid-tug.

“I don’t think I can,” he said, moving off of her. “I can’t right now.”

“Why not? Is it something I said?” Her eyes misted, gazed down to see the flatness of his boxers.

“No, it’s not you at all. It’s just not cooperating.”

“Do you think it’s the house? Maureen? The red wine?” 

“Yeah.” Ray laughed a little. “It’s probably all that.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Kate tickled his chest and twirled his patch of coarse graying hair. She leaned in close to nibble his earlobe.

“I don’t think so. Sorry, Kate.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. Why don’t I go home tonight? Let you enjoy the house to yourself?” He thought her response was too quick, as if she’d been waiting for an out. He figured she judged this as much her failure as his, but he wasn’t sure if it was just that night that had been a failure, or the entire affair. It didn’t suit her. He wondered if tonight would be their last night together.

“Yeah, maybe that’s a good idea.” 

They avoided eye contact while dressing. He led her down the stairs, along the hall and past the living room. He looked in at the couch. “Maybe I’ll try to get that stain out.”

They continued into the kitchen, littered with takeout containers and dirty dishes. “Yeah. Good luck.” She searched her handbag still on the island for her car keys. He noticed a t-shirt, pants, even a toothbrush inside. He moved the dishes to the sink as she rummaged. 

“I’m really sorry,” he said, unable to meet her gaze.

“It’s fine,” she said. She pecked him on the cheek as he opened the back door for her.

Fine is for sugar, he thought. Then he closed the door behind her.

 

Jaime Grookett is an MFA Candidate at Drexel University and teaches college composition. She is a Fiction Editor at Paper Dragon, Drexel University’s graduate-run literary magazine. Her poetry has been published in The Sock Drawer Journal and Grand Little Things. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a historical fiction novel.

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