I knew it was time for a career change when the invisible but perpetual twitch in my right eye progressed to a physical tic that made it appear as if I were winking at the world.
The past few hours spent with my client, Bitsy Van der Berg, had pushed me over the edge. Certain words come to mind at the mere mention of Bitsy Van der Berg: self-absorbed; manipulator; black widow spider, who kills everyone who gets tangled up in her itsy-Bitsy web. Oh, and let's not forget rich. The woman was born into one of those families with more money than royalty. She'd popped right out of the womb and straight into the lap of luxury.
What was supposed to be the glorious unveiling of a project that took months of my time—I even designed a prime piece of furniture for this job, had it custom made—and cost me countless nights of sleep had turned into my worst living nightmare. Bitsy swept in from Paris and insisted that the Provençal/Mediterranean interior she signed off on before she left for Paris three months ago was "absolutely wrong."
She claimed the design looked like a peasant's house, particularly hating the armoire I designed.
"No. No. This will never do. Where's my gold-leaf crown molding? Where are my mirrors and chandeliers?"
She'd changed her mind, but she wouldn't admit it. Once she got to Paris and was swept away on her whim du jour, rather than confessing that she'd found something else she liked better—or worse yet, living with the design she'd chosen like the rest of the peasants would, she tried to blame me. Pointing the finger was the only possible way out of paying for her fickle notions. Proving, once again, that some of the wealthiest people in the world were also the cheapest bitches, she opted for firing me, saying her lawyer would be in touch.
Well, goody. Maybe I could redecorate his office in oh-so-chic frivolous lawsuit motif.
Cursing the evil woman, I parked my white Volvo in the garage, next to my husband Fred's white Saturn. I gathered my briefcase and the bag of Chinese takeout I'd picked up because it was already seven-thirty and cooking and cleaning up yet another mess was the last thing I wanted to do tonight.
Fred had probably been home since five-thirty He was as punctual and predictable as the quarter-hour chime of the antique grandfather clock in the foyer. That's why I knew before I walked in the door that he'd be hunkered down in his recliner watching TV with his slippers on. The first words out of his mouth would be a listless "Hey… how was your day?" Then, "What's for dinner? I'm starving," as he stared hypnotically at the boob tube.
Normally it didn't bother me, but tonight before I could stop myself, I snapped, "I don't know, Fred. What did you fix?"
He lowered the television volume and shot me a befuddled look. "Jeez, someone's in a foul mood."
I knew I shouldn't take my bad day out on him. I should've checked the ugliness at the door and been happy that my husband was at home, rather than at some corner bar drinking with the boys. Still, I couldn't decide if it was the predictability that irked me or the fact that he'd sit in that damn La-Z-Boy and starve to death before he'd even think of starting dinner.
"Well, yeah, it's been one of those days," I groused.
He sat up, pushed in the footrest and lumbered into the kitchen, watching me as if I might attack.
My eye spasmed again, and I pressed my fingertips to it to quiet the tic.
"What's wrong with your eye? Or are you winking at me?" Fred winked back at me as he walked to the refrigerator and took out an open bottle of Chardonnay and a can of Budweiser.
"Bitsy Van der Berg is what's wrong with my eye. The woman has finally driven me over the edge. Will you remind me why I wanted to design interiors for spoiled women with too much money and nothing to do but cause others grief?"
He handed me a glass of wine, gave me a peck on the lips.
"Because you're damn good at it," Fred offered. "They may have the cash, but you have the taste, my love."
His words soothed me, and I almost felt guilty for being so crabby.
"And because people with deep pockets pay you a lot of money to work your magic." He touched his beer can to my glass.
"Well, she fired me."
Fred's right brow shot up and his jaw dropped, forming his mouth into an "oh."
"What happened?" he asked as we dished out our Chinese meal.
"The woman's crazy." I took my plate and sat down at the table in the great room. "She approved everything before she left for France—the color scheme, the custom-built furniture, the tapestry. She signed off on it, but now she's demanding I send everything back. She says I misled her and misrepresented the design."
As I relived the day in painstaking detail, Fred's gaze drifted to the muted TV visible in the sitting area.
"She's always been a pain in the ass, but she's never gone this far."
Fred didn't say anything. His gaze had been fastened to the television the entire time I was talking. At first I thought he was being a good listener, but now it was obvious he hadn't heard a damn word I'd said.
"Are you listening to me?"
"What? Yeah, Bitsy… I don't know what you're worried about. She signed off on everything, right?"
"Well, there you go. I don't know what's the big deal. You can't stand the woman. Now you don't have to put up with her crap anymore."
Irritation welled inside me, and I suppressed a snort. "It's the principle of the matter, Fred. Don't expect me to be logical about this for at least twenty-four hours."
The phone rang. I got up to answer it, welcoming the diversion.
"Bonjour, Rita, it's Annabelle."
"Anna! Hi, my gosh, what time is it in Paris? It's nearly eight o'clock here."
"It's almost two. Jean Luc and I just got back from a party at the art center and I thought I might catch you in."
I glanced at Fred, who'd carried his dinner over to his recliner. The Jeopardy theme song rang out as he pointed the remote at the television and restored it to its full volume.
"Anna! Oh, I'm so happy it's you!"
"Hey, Ri," Fred called. Lowering his voice, he muttered, "Since you're up, would you hand me another beer?"
I was too happy to hear my sister's voice to be annoyed at my husband. Although, he could get up and get his own beer if he wanted it that bad.
Waving him off, I took the phone into the bedroom so I wouldn't have to compete with the background noise. "How was the party?"
"It was great. It was the welcome reception for a new round of art center residents."
I sighed. "Tell me everything. Let me live vicariously through you."
It was hard to believe two years had passed since Anna had won a residency at the International Center for the Arts in Paris and ultimately won the one-hundred-thousand-dollar purchase prize for one of her paintings. The residency opportunity had come at a low point in her life. She'd discovered that her husband of eighteen years wasn't the man she thought he was. Or maybe it's more apt to say she wasn't the man he'd fallen in love with. Discovering the truth about her husband's homosexuality came as a crushing blow. But with a little push from me, she applied for a resident-artist program in Paris, won the spot, moved to France and hadn't looked back.
That aside, what was even harder to believe was two long years had passed since I'd seen my sister. I missed her desperately.
"Rita, when are you coming for a visit?"
"I don't know, honey."
"You and Fred have an anniversary coming up. If my math is right, it's a significant one. Get him to bring you to Paris. You can stay with Jean Luc and me."
It would be twenty years this May. The thought of spending our anniversary in the most romantic city in the world lifted me up and out of the mire I'd been wallowing in all day. Or maybe my change in mood came from hearing my sister's voice. Either way, the anger that had festered inside me earlier fizzled out as we talked.
"You're good," I said. "How can you remember my anniversary? I'm not sure my husband even remembers it."
She laughed. "I won't let him forget. Put him on the phone and I'll refresh his memory."
"Jeopardy's on right now. You wouldn't have much luck. In fact, it would be like talking to a wall."
Anna and I spent the next forty-five minutes catching up on her life in Paris with Jean Luc; the art world; her son, Ben, who'd managed to make several trips over to visit his mother; and how tonight she and Jean Luc had talked to a glassblower from Provence about pooling their resources to buy an old rectory near Avignon. That way she and Jean Luc could extend their artistic presence into the south of France.
Yes, life was beautiful for my sister. I wanted what she had so badly envy nearly oozed from my pores.
Especially when Fred shuffled into the bedroom. I glanced at the clock on the dresser. The neon red numbers glowed a decisive nine o'clock. But I could've told you that. It was Fred's bedtime. I also could've told you the routine: he'd shuffle into the bathroom where he'd spend six minutes brushing and flossing his teeth and doing whatever he did in there before he shuffled out in his navy blue striped pajamas. He'd give me a peck on the lips, then stiffly settle himself into bed and sleep contentedly until the alarm sounded at five forty-five, when he would get up and go to work at the Internal Revenue Service, as he had every morning for the past twenty years.
A surge of irritation ripped through me again. Why was I annoyed by my husband's predictable routine? Did I resent him for being happy and content in the life we'd built? I wasn't mad at Anna for being happy in Paris. Even if I did envy her.
Ahhh, Paris. That's where I wanted to be.
"Enough about me," Anna finally said. "Tell me what's happening with you."
I realized with a guilty start that I'd zoned out on Anna-belle for a moment, and I struggled to recall what she'd said and think of something positive to say about it. She hadn't called to hear about our evening routine or my bad day or my selfish ex-client. Make no mistake, she would've graciously listened to me recount all the gruesome details, but the truth was, I didn't want to. How tedious. Why inflict that on my sister when even thinking about it bored me?
"Nothing new here—work, work and more work. Then I get up and do it all over the next day."
"Then all the more reason you should get Fred to…" She paused and it sounded as if she put her hand over the receiver because her voice was muffled. Still, I could her laugh and murmur, "Jean Luc, wait… Mmm… No… don't… stop… I'll be off the phone in a moment."
The reprimand is more "Don't stop," than "Don't. Stop."
And who could blame her? Even I was straining to hear their exchanges until the sound of Fred gargling his Listerine preempted my eavesdropping.
"I'm sorry, Rita. What were you saying?"
"I wasn't saying. You were. Something about how I should get Fred to do something. I hope you were about to suggest I get Fred to do the same thing to me that Jean Luc is doing to you?"
"Oh! No! Oh, I'm so embarrassed—"
"Oh, come on, Annabelle, it's me you're talking to. Don't be embarrassed because you're getting it. You're my heroine. My role model. In fact, you just might have inspired me to shake things up a bit in the Brooks bedroom tonight."
I sighed and Annabelle laughed. It was a sound like light through crystal.
"You go, girl," she said. "But actually, what I started to say was you and Fred really should come to Paris."
The Brooks toilet flushed.
"We're sort of at a standoff on that one. He wants to rent an RV and take a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer."
I wanted Paris. He wanted a Winnebago. If that didn't say it all? An RV was just a La-Z-Boy on wheels. In a split second, the vacation flashed through my mind: I'd get to cook and clean up the messes the entire time, only in a smaller space than usual. Although, I'd draw the line at sanitizing the onboard Port-a-Potty. Fred would get that pleasure. And that was nonnegotiable. But if we went to Paris, we wouldn't even need to have that conversation.
A moment later, my Lazy Boy emerged from the bathroom.
"I'll talk to him about it and let you know," I said. "But I need to run. Fred's going to bed. I have a very short window of opportunity, if you know what I mean."
I glanced over at him, but he wasn't listening to me. He was making his nest.
"Oooh, have fun," Annabelle sang. "Love you, bye!"
I hung up and curled up next to him on the bed, my head resting on his shoulder.
"Anna said to tell you hi."
"That's nice… Hi, Annabelle."
With my index finger, I traced the V of skin visible at his throat. His eyes were closed, but he slid his arm under me and pulled me close, nuzzling the top of my head with his cheek.
A surge of ooohhh-we're-really-going-to-do-this excitement coursed through me, making my stomach flutter, awakening sleepy, intimate places that hadn't seen action in ages.
I eased my leg over his, so that I was on my side and pressed against him. That way, I had better access to the buttons on his pajama top, which I started working with one hand until I'd undone the top two and could stroke his chest.
He tensed a little and pulled away the slightest bit—so slight I couldn't quite read the signal. Stop? Go?
It sounded more like a sleepy mmm than a bring-it-on mmmmmm. But I could've been wrong.
"Fred, make love to me."
He was silent for a moment, then he gave me a little squeeze. "Ah, babe, I'm so…tired. I'm sorry. That Chinese gave me a bad case of heartburn and I just—"
I pulled away from him. "Fine." In two quick moves I was sitting rod straight on my side of the bed. "Forget about it."
Tears stung my eyes, and the liquid-velvet sensation I'd felt mere seconds ago dried up like barren desert.
"Aw, Ri, come on." His voice was husky with sleep, like he'd been drugged, but Fred didn't take pills—he wouldn't even go to the doctor. It looked as if it took every ounce of strength he had to force his eyes open.