originally published in Sand Hill Review
Of course, he hadn’t meant to. No man in his right mind would utter the name of a former lover while having sex with his wife.
Diane paused for the briefest moment after he whispered, “Nina.”
She must have heard. Why else hadn’t she just kept going?
As usual, he fell asleep right afterwards, then awoke to find her side of the bed empty. That wasn’t usual. He got up, put on his bathrobe, and went down the long hallway, hating the the cold wood floor on his bare feet. She was in her office, a tiny warm space she’d claimed against his wishes because he’d thought his spare photography equipment should go in there, not in the garage next to the water heater, as she suggested. She was typing on her computer, bent over as she always did—she had poor posture, something she ruefully admitted. She was five feet ten, and slouching was something she’d learned as a teenager when kids at school teased her about her height. Watching her from behind, he felt a surge of affection. Diane was charming in ways she didn’t recognize. She was strong, capable, a talented chef. She dressed impeccably in brightly colored natural fibers. She loved silver jewelry. And she understood him, a little too well sometimes. When he misbehaved, even just slightly, like having one too many bottles of beer, or leaving the toilet seat up, his greater foibles could be listed out, gently of course. In that way, she more like a mother than a wife.
“I just wanted to get this down,” she said, without turning around.
How could she have heard his approach? He’d been careful to step silently.
She was writing a new cook book. Her agent had suggested one on vegan dishes. Morris despised vegan cooking. He was passionate about cheese and meat, particularly beef. Lately he’d been presented with sautéed eggplant over garlic na’an; rice cooked with vegetable broth and tossed with undercooked vegetables; and tofu. Lots and lots of tofu. He was certain he was developing an iron deficiency, although Diane assured him that all the dark, leafy greens appearing on his plate were chock full of iron.
“What is it?” he asked.
“An idea for carrot soup.”
Curry was in everything these days. She even had tried sprinkling it over toast and blending it with sugar. He had to admit, it hadn’t been too awful, but then, his taste buds were probably disintegrating on his tongue.
The thought of tongues turned his thoughts back to Nina. God, that woman could kiss! They’d spent hours making out before they ever got in bed, by which point he was beyond insane. That was years ago, before he met Diane, and she didn’t cross his mind all that often. Except sometimes, like this evening, when all of a sudden, there he was inside her again.
Diane closed her document, turned off the computer, and walked with him back to the bedroom, arm in arm. He enjoyed the closeness of her, and the way she could make a simple event, like going down a hall, a little grand.
She stopped at the door and looked at him closely.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing. I was just thinking about something.”
Whatever it was, she wouldn’t tell him until she was ready.
Morris didn’t like Diane’s friend, Carol, probably because Carol didn’t like him, although she’d never said so, and Diane hadn’t, either. Physically, Carol was everything Diane wasn’t. She was short, built like a fireplug, with tight, curly hair. She reminded him of a wrestler he’d gone up against in high school who got him in a half nelson five seconds in. Carol was always polite, pleasant. She asked about his work, if he was still shooting children—the play on words never failed to make her giggle— or if he’d moved on to clients who could sit still. Carol owned a bed and breakfast, and always had something wry to say about her guests. She was fond of gay couples, and didn’t care for anyone with special dietary needs, though she realized it was her duty to try to accommodate them. Diane was a great help to her there. And when Carol came over, they went at once to the kitchen to cook and drink expensive wine. He wasn’t welcome, though again, it was never specifically stated. It was the way the conversation stopped when he appeared in the doorway, or how Carol’s eyebrows lifted when he asked a simple question.
He disliked Carol even more when she asked Diane to foster a rescue dog. Carol was on the board of the local animal shelter, and would foster one, herself, if she were home more. Diane said it was pretty much a done deal, unless he had real objections. Dealing with dog shit was a real objection, but she said she’d handle that. Would the dog sleep with them? No, he’d be crated in the laundry room. What if it howled all night? That was part of fostering, to teach the animal that there are boundaries, and that humans are in charge.
So, the dog moved in. His name was Buster, which Morris didn’t care for. He would have preferred something more elevated, like Charles, or Phineas. Diane explained that this was the name the dog had learned to respond to. The new owners could give him a new one, of course, but until then, Buster must remain Buster.
Buster had been abused, and yet brimmed with love. He turned his moist brown eyes on Diane with a look of pure adoration. Buster was around fifty pounds, long-haired, some sort of collie mix, and despite his good heart, was devious. He liked carrying a single shoe from room to room, then forgetting it was there. They were always Diane’s shoes, so she said nothing of this to Morris.
A week after Buster came to stay, Morris dreamed of Nina. His hands were full of her raven hair. He was naked, and she wasn’t, and when he woke up and analyzed the dream, he decided it represented her ultimate power over him.
They’d met on a photo shoot. She was modeling winter coats for one of the higher end department stores downtown. It was one of his first free-lance jobs, which led to others, and eventually opening his own studio where most of his clients, as Carol suggested, were squirmy, sticky children and their exhausted parents.
Nina was Russian. Her English was poor. She communicated with her hands, and how she held her head. She laughed a lot, sometimes uncontrollably, as when he couldn’t find a working power outlet, or the make-up artist dropped an entire tin of face powder, sending small billows of it everywhere. The gaiety masked deep tragedy, he soon learned. Her father and uncle had been in the war with Afghanistan. Her mother had been sent to a gulag for protesting her country’s military involvements. Nina was handed over to a vodka-swilling grandmother, who would caress her delicately one minute, and slap her silly, the next. Being beautiful in a country like Russia wasn’t so special, she liked to say. Most of the women were beautiful, if they didn’t get fat by the time they were thirty. They only went out for a few weeks. She made no secret of not being in love with him. He made it a big secret that he was madly in love with her.
As if sensing his dreams, Buster gave Morris the stink eye, and avoided him, which suited Morris fine, even when Diane said he wasn’t making any attempt to be friendly.
Then she told him he’d started talking in his sleep.
“Really? What do I say?”
“Just a bunch of mumbles.”
She’d just presented him with a dish of curried tofu, and a side of white rice to which she’d added golden raisins. He was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was. He told her he loved it.
“Thank you, darling!”
There was something forced in her gratitude. His stomach clenched, which made eating hard.
The weather warmed, and promised another glorious summer. Business fell off a little, just as it always did. People didn’t want to coral their children and beg them not to fidget when they could turn them loose on a playground, or at the beach.
Diane pounded out the cookbook all day, and long into the night. The finished draft went off to her agent one bright Tuesday morning, and two weeks later she received an offer to publish it along with a generous advance. Morris was happy for her. Diane seemed happy, too, yet there was some lurking disappointment he could hear in her more frequent sighs. He bought a bottle of pink champagne to celebrate her success, and was concerned when she only had one glass of it.
“You’re not . . .” he said.
“Of course not.”
She always said she couldn’t conceive. A pelvic infection when she was a teenager had left her permanently scarred.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?”
“He seems so happy here.”
She cried. She hadn’t done that for years, not since her mother died. He saw how attached she’d grown to Buster, and how painful the thought of his leaving was.
“Why don’t we just keep him?” he said.
Her eyes filled with watery joy.
“Do you mean it?”
“But you hate him.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You don’t like him, though.”
“He’ll grow on me.”
She opened her arms, and he leaned against her, thinking how no one smelled the ways she did, floral notes blended with spice, and an earthier overlay, which he glumly suspected was Buster.
The dreams of Nina came more often, and then every night. Scenes from the life they never had were vivid, full of color and movement. They were always going somewhere. When he made love with Diane, he was silent, refusing to give himself away.
She asked him about it.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you usually make noise. You know what I mean. At the end.”
He had no idea he did that.
Then he had to assure her that he still loved having sex with her, which was true.
He wanted to ask if he still talked in his sleep and couldn’t find a clever way to bring it up.
The days were long and hot. Carol and Diane sat on the shaded patio for hours every day, drinking. Carol had hired someone to manage the B & B for her during the whole month of July. She needed some time off, she said. She was thinking of giving it up, selling out, doing something new. They talked about opening a restaurant. That took money. Diane had inherited some from her mother. Carol was pretty flush, too. They were smart businesswomen, and could put together a good, solid plan.
Morris knew that if they succeeded, Diane would never be home. He hated the idea. He said only that he hoped it wouldn’t take too much of her time.
“I’ve got nothing but time now,” she said. He assumed she meant since finishing her book.
One afternoon, Morris came into the kitchen for a glass of ice water. His last shoot had ended just after noon. He hoped to catch up on some reading, and maybe later watch a movie. Carol and Diane were in their usual spot. Buster was asleep in Morris’ favorite easy chair, snoring, and twitching his thick paws.
“Is he still doing it?” he heard Carol ask.
“Yeah. He can’t seem to stop.”
“That sucks. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I could talk to someone about it. I mean, there must be people who know about this sort of thing.”
“He seemed like he was getting better.”
“I know. That’s what’s so hard.”
Morris stood right where he was, waiting. The women discussed a new dish Diane was going to make on the weekend, that featured both kale and swiss chard. Morris felt a weight in the pit of his stomach.
When Carol had gone home, he sat Diane down. He had something he had to get off his chest.
“What?” Diane asked. She was flushed from the wine. Her eyes were a little woozy.
“I just want to say I’m so sorry.”
“Saying Nina’s name the other night when we were, you know.”
Diane’s brow furrowed.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“You must have.”
“Because you got up after, and went into your office.”
“So? I do that a lot after you fall asleep. Even on nights when we haven’t, you know.”
That was news to Morris.
Buster padded into the kitchen, and nuzzled Diane’s hand. She stroked his head, then leaned down and said, “I’m on to you. I found it in the bathroom. I’m going to put them all up on a shelve first thing tomorrow. I’ve given you all the chances you’ll get. Now, go and try to be a good boy.”
Buster padded back the way he came.
Diane looked at Morris as if she’d forgotten he was there. Then she focused.
“Darling, who the hell is Nina?” she asked.
He realized he’d never mentioned her. He hadn’t been able to, all those years ago, even when Diane talked about the men she’d had before him. She’d even asked him if there’d been anyone special, anyone who had broken his heart, and he said nothing, because he didn’t want to seem like a loser, someone still carrying a torch.
Diane went on looking at him, her head tilted, eyes growing darker.
He cleared his throat, but the words just wouldn’t come.