“Good luck.” Peter kisses the top of my head and walks out the door, turning his key in the lock. I sip my coffee, curled up in the leather chair by the window. Finally, the house is quiet. If I prayed anymore, I would pray. The job would mean more stability. Peter hadn’t wanted me to work when we married, but we are past that as an option. As much as I want to be excited for a new start, doubt rolls in and blankets everything. I’m not qualified for the position. I have to go through the motions to show him I’m trying. I hate wasting time. I drain the cold remnants of my cup and allow for one slow, arching stretch.
I force myself into the shower. The citrus scent of the soap cheers me and I’m soon covered in suds. My hands lift and squeeze my slippery breasts, an act that always brings me an odd sense of comfort. Perhaps it’s their firmness in contrast to an otherwise aging body, or the heaviness in my hands acts as a type of grounding force. I lean against the shower tile, my cheek on cold stone, kneading them slowly.
You might as well, nobody else is going to.
The pleasing aroma fades. I release my chest, hoping my new suit-jacket covers it well enough, and rinse off the rest of the soap. Cursing my wandering mind, I towel off and dress. I’m running late. I stuff my wavy hair into a loose bun and apply a minimal amount of make-up. It’s a conservative newspaper so best to look the part, especially since I’m a Democrat… or, more accurately, hardly ever vote.
With growing anxiety, I drive fifty miles in silence to the Albany Post building. It’s a tall, imposing place and I feel my mouth go dry. Scowling people litter the parking-lot and lobby. Everyone is staring at their phones, walking fast, without bothering to look where they’re going. I hover on display for five minutes, waiting for the receptionist to direct me. I already don’t want to work here.
“Sit over there and Mr. Williams will collect you shortly.” She points to a burgundy couch against the wall where more serious people wait with their new briefcases. I only have a file-folder in my purse. I sit as far away from them as I can and start to frown at my phone like the others, hoping to distract myself. An hour of Twitter goes by.
“Ruby Frazier?” A deep, male voice gets my attention. I’m greeted with a smile I have never really forgotten. His brown hair has some flecks of gray, but twenty years have done little to the body I remember from track in high school. Watching him pull ahead of the others with the sun bouncing off his sweaty chest was one of my favorite pastimes.
His smile widens as he comes up beside me and whispers, “I should have known this was you. You don’t meet many ‘Rubys’ these days. I remember now that you went to Ohio State. It’s good to see you. Follow me.” His breath is hot on my earlobe and produces a wave effect in my body I haven’t felt in a long time. Bending to pick-up my purse, a bonfire pops into my mind where I tried pot for the first time and we made-out in the back of his car.
You’re so not getting this job.
He sits at his desk and motions for me to take the chair closest to it. He shakes his head and laughs as he sifts through papers. “Ruby Raines. It’s been a long time. I’m sorry I didn’t put it together sooner. Some of these files I just got this morning. So, tell me, how have you been?” Dylan leans back in his chair, hands behind his head. Suddenly, he’s eighteen again.
“I’m surprised to see you too. I wasn’t given a name; they just called me yesterday with a time. I had no idea you worked at a newspaper.”
“Yes, well, once a human resources director… and so on. The job doesn’t change much from place to place. You used to work as a H. R. assistant at a university in Westchester, right?
“Yes, before I got married.”
“Right. So, how are your parents?”
“My dad passed away earlier this year. My mom’s handling it okay. She’s been sick herself. We’re surviving, though. What about your parents?”
“Oh, Ruby,” his voice drops to a familiar tone I feel as much as hear. “I’m… just sorry. I didn’t know.” He wheels closer to the desk, his eyes heavy, searching mine. He had known my father. I remember one afternoon my dad tried to teach us both how to drive a stick-shift. I sat in the backseat, watching them laugh together as we started and stalled repeatedly. The memory makes my eyes water. I pretend to look for something in my pathetic folder. He stays silent and watches my performance.
I manage to say with only a trace of sadness, “Thanks, Dylan.”
He considers me for a few seconds more and then breaks eye contact, finishing his coffee in a gulp. “So, why do you want to work at the Albany Post?” He straightens in his chair and begins my interview, a smile playing on his lips through a series of benign questions. I pretend I’m being interviewed for a job I actually have a chance at and answer as best I can. It’s almost impossible to watch him and not smell his favorite pine-scented deodorant or giggle at the embarrassing number of hickeys he once prided himself on.
You’re married… and your ass is bigger.
We discuss the position in more detail and I ask all the boring questions about direct reports and compensation. It’s a good job, but I’m certain there are more qualified candidates. I haven’t worked in a decade. Ten years and all I have to show for them are three failed pregnancies and thirty pounds. Getting out of the house is probably long overdue.
“This… me questioning you over a desk… it’s so strange,” Dylan smiles and leans closer, as if we’re plotting something. “I guess I have one last question, totally off the record… would you be comfortable working here with me?”
His brown eyes are still so warm, turning dark-cinnamon under the fluorescent lights. They remind me of class when he’d try to catch my eye, holding my hand in his lap under the desk. It’s hard to look at him when I answer, “Of course.”
“Good. You’re officially my last interview.” He closes my file and places it on top of a large stack. We sit speechless for a moment. I’m not sure what we’re waiting for so I gather my things and stand, thanking him.
He comes around the desk. We remain immobile, facing each other for too long. “Christ, Ruby, this is awkward. Listen, I’m going to lunch. There’s a place called Patrick’s Deli a few blocks from here. Best tuna-salad sandwich you’ve ever had. What if you join me?” Dylan waits for my answer. It feels completely natural to go with him, but also wrong somehow.
“Sure, I guess you remember I like tuna-salad.”
“I do. My mom still makes it the same way, by the way. I’ll meet you there. It’s a right out of the parking lot and two traffic lights down on your left.” He opens his office door for me and follows me out to reception. “Thank you, Ms. Frazier. We’ll be in touch.” Dylan shakes my hand and gives me a small wink before walking back down the hall.
Patrick’s is easy to find and I use my head start to put on lip gloss. I wonder if it’s too weird to take my hair down. He used to love it down, wrapping it around his finger when we kissed. I check the mirror again. My cheeks are flushed. I can’t remember the last time they pinked-up like this. I leave my bun in place and go inside. Dylan arrives shortly after and picks a table.
We talk more about his work. For a second, I close my eyes and let his voice take me back to when I was his – a place where I was still hell-bent and hopeful. Nodding as he speaks, I allow myself to ask a silent question.
The image appears immediately. A hasty wedding thrown together in his family’s backyard. Me, newly pregnant and terrified, but so full of love it’s hard to think of anything but him. Dylan saying his vows, grinning and anxious to get me to the nearest hotel. Twenty years later, I sit and wonder what I was so afraid of. Our baby would be in college now. If I’d told anyone and not dealt with it on my own, maybe we would be a family. I stop the thought before it hurts too much.
“So, tell me about you. You’re married. Who’s the lucky guy?”
“We met in Westchester. Peter’s a home inspector. He and his partner run their own business.”
“Ah. Any kids?”
“No. We tried, but it didn’t work.” I take a long sip of my water and avoid meeting his gaze. If his eyes have any tenderness in them, I sense the flood gates will open. I know I should ask about his marital status, but I can’t bring myself to form the question.
“I’m sorry. That can be rough. My ex and I struggled with infertility. Just one of the many things she blamed me for in the end,” he muses and bites into a fry. I stuff my mouth with tuna sandwich to keep from proving his wife wrong.
Another image. Dylan and I married with six kids at his family’s lake house. Barren apart… at-it-like-rabbits together. He squints at me while he chews, like he’s trying to see the truth replaying in my head. It’s a dangerous fantasy.
“I have to tell you, Ruby. It’s inappropriate, but you don’t work for me yet… you look good.” He smiles like a boy who’s up to something, like the one in my fantasy saying his vows. My blush is instant.
“You’re being kind, but thank you. You’re so much the same it’s scary,” I laugh, trying to gloss over my reaction.
“No, I’m serious. Other than your hairstyle and the fact that you actually have fingernails, you’ve hardly changed.”
“Ha, I was a biter back then. I forgot that.”
“You were. So was I, if I recall correctly. It’s funny what you remember.”
I let myself return his stare and try to figure out if he’s flirting. It’s been so long, I have no idea. I continue, “It is funny. In a way it feels like another lifetime and then you do something that’s so you and we’re back at the bonfire.” He shifts in his chair and grins wider. I may have accidentally flirted. It may not have been an accident. I feel the touch of wickedness light me up like a pinball machine.
“I haven’t thought about that night in years. Refresh my memory – why did you break up with me? We had a certain something if I’m not mistaken. I think there was some bad poetry and man-crying after that summer.” He’s being playful, but he’s waiting on an answer. I try to think of the lie I gave at the time.
“We were going to two different schools. Different states. I was being practical.”
“That’s right, I forgot. You’re the reason I hate practicality to this day,” he laughs and finishes off his sandwich.
“I imagine that’s a bad quality in a human resources director.”
“It is. All because of you and Ohio State,” he shakes his head and pays our check. Not surprising to me, he walks me to my car. I put my purse inside and continue to stand with him in the parking lot. My unwillingness to say goodbye does surprise me.
“How long is your drive home?”
“Just under an hour.” The afternoon is chilly and I fold my arms across my chest.
He straightens to his full height in front of me. “If I asked you for a favor that’s only marginally over the line, would you consider it?” He smiles in a way that makes me want to step closer.
“How marginal? Are we talking fractions or feet?” His smile fades, replaced with a look of serious intent that caused me to shed my clothes many times before. An involuntary ache coils through me.
“Will you take your hair down?” He whispers as if propositioning me for parking-lot sex. There’s nothing scandalous about it, but I stop to consider anyway. It’s the most intimate thing I‘ve been asked to do in years. With shaking hands, I stretch to find all the pins. My suit jacket strains across my chest and the evil girl inside me can’t help but arch her back a little. I’m not looking directly at him, but I see him lick his lips. His expression is so gratifying, I feel my knees start to buckle. My hair falls and I leave it where it lands, letting him admire me as long as he wants.
He shields his eyes from the sun and smiles. “You’re so beautiful, Ruby.”
The dam breaks. Need rolls through me, but I manage a quiet, “Thank you,” in response. A horn sounds and the spell dissipates. We float back to being middle-aged in a deli parking-lot.
Dylan clasps his hands together and says, “I better let you get on the road. I’m so glad we got to catch up.”
“Me too, Dylan. Thanks for lunch. This was a much better day than I expected.”
“I’ll be in touch, okay?” He steps backward to his car, still watching me.
“Sure. I look forward to it.” We wave goodbye and I drive home. This time, I play classic rock loud all the way and try to count up the number of times we had sex. I never reach a firm total. It’s after 4 PM when I get back and I change out of my suit into jeans and an old t-shirt. The house is too quiet, so I put on The Police and leave the doors open so I can hear it on the deck. I’m on my second glass of red wine when Peter closes the front door.
“So, how was it?” He asks, standing over me.
“It was good, but it’s a long shot. Don’t get your hopes up.” I drink my wine and wrestle with the idea of telling him who my new boss will be on the off-chance I get the job. I haven’t ever mentioned Dylan. It wasn’t a history I wanted to share with an outsider. Without asking, Peter takes the stereo remote and turns off the music. I marvel at how much the small act angers me. The phone rings, breaking the silence.
“Ruby, it’s for you,” Peter yells. I meet him in the kitchen and take the receiver.
“Is it the paper?” He asks, while I’m trying to hear the caller.
I place the H. R. Coordinator on hold. “Yeah, they’re giving me the job.”
“Say yes. We need this.”
You need this.
I accept the offer with an exhale, like I’ve been holding my breath.
“When do I begin?”
Header photograph: By jeffreyw (Mmm… tuna salad sammich Uploaded by Fæ) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons