Read Once More with Feeling Online

Authors: Cynthia Baxter

Tags: #Contemporary Women's Fiction

Once More with Feeling

 

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING

 

Cynthia Baxter

 

Chapter One

 

“Tablecloths, flowers,
paper goods, food, hired help, food for
the hired help ...”

Chewing the end of a Bic, Laura Briggs scanned the list in front of her. She let out a deep sigh, then took a sip of coffee from her Forty-and-Still-Pushing mug. Planning an anniversary party, she thought, was as much work as planning the wedding had been fifteen years earlier. And the uncomfortable gnawing in her stomach, the nagging feeling that something was wrong with this picture, wasn’t making it any easier.

She tried to ignore her Pepto-Bismol moment, instead concentrating on her monumental task. Menus from a dozen of Long Island’s best restaurants and caterers, stacked on the dining room table, offered everything from the slimming
nouvelle cuisine
to the food of third-world countries in which the natives were lucky to eat at all. Pushed aside were the flyers from rental agencies proffering gigantic coffeemakers, tanks of helium, and bubble machines.

Then there was her own list, without which the entire project would fall apart. It had been scrawled across the back of a brochure from an environmentalist organization printed on dingy recycled paper. Immediately to her right sat a telephone and the Yellow Pages.

The Pages were open to
Party Supls.—Retail & Rental,
with red check marks next to the places she’d already tried. Finding just the right paper goods was turning out to be more challenging than coming up with the plot of one of the children’s books she wrote.

I need a break, she thought, gazing out the dining room window.

The Long Island suburb of Clover Hollow, meandering roads dotted with an odd mixture of whimsical Victorians and cookie-cutter ranch houses, was at its best in late September. The sky was a soft shade of blue, the trees covered with patches of orange and gold. Laura found herself fighting an almost overwhelming urge to borrow a golden retriever and take a long walk in the woods.

Reminding herself she was determined to put this party together this afternoon, she turned back to the phone. Ever since she’d packed away the lawn chairs and bought her son, Evan, a brand-new back-to-school wardrobe consisting of enough tie-dyed T-shirts for a Woodstock revival, she’d been fantasizing about this soiree. She wanted it to be a tribute to Roger and her as a couple, a celebration of the fact that they’d made it through a decade and a half despite their many ups and downs.

Ups and downs was an understatement, Laura reflected pensively as she ran her finger down the handle of her coffee mug. She was talking the Swiss Alps here. Since the very beginning, the marriage of Laura Briggs and Roger Walsh had been less than perfect. More than once she’d been driven to the Self-Help section of the bookstore to buy thick paperbacks with titles like
You CAN Make Your Marriage Work!
and
He Said, She Said: Translating the Language of Couples.

Awareness of their rocky history created an ambivalence in Laura every time she sat down to make a list of people to invite or lay in bed trying to estimate exactly how many stuffed mushrooms and crudité platters she’d need.

But we made it, she reminded herself stubbornly. Fifteen years together is no small achievement . . . one that deserves recognition.

And
the right paper napkins. Pushing back her hair, which was straight and blond and just long enough to brush her shoulders, she turned her attention to the phone book.

“Hey, Ev?” she called into the living room once she’d located the next paper emporium in line. “It’s a beautiful day. How about finding a friend and tossing a football around? A softball? A Frisbee? The neighbor’s cat?”

Her eight-year-old son, looking like Oliver Twist with his shaggy blond hair and his carefully constructed outfit of ripped jeans, a T-shirt seven sizes too big, and a scuffed pair of L.A. Lights, didn’t even glance up. She found it frightening, the way his angelic blue eyes zeroed in on the TV, his fingers moving frantically over the plastic Nintendo control. On the screen, one of the Mario Brothers was racking up points by smashing his head against blocks. The computerized bleeps and squawks set Laura’s fillings vibrating.

“Evan,” she pleaded, “the sun is shining, the air is crisp.... I’ve seen enough Tide commercials to know you should be outside, breathing fresh air and grinding grass stains into your jeans.”

No response.

“Tell you what. Two bucks if you rake up every leaf on the property.”

His eyes still fixed on the television, he said, “Make it three and we’ve got a deal.”

“That’s highway robbery!”

‘Two seventy-five.”

“Two-fifty.”

“Deal.”

He was already bounding out of the room, the Nintendo game gone from the screen.

“Thanks, muffin,” she called after him.

“Mo-o-om! I told you not to call me that anymore!”

“Thanks, killer.”

It was all she could do to keep from going over and ruffling his hair. Or worse, kissing him. Yet those days were over. Already Evan was less interested in cuddling with his mom than in massacring bad guys on the video screen, shooting hoops with balled-up socks, and drinking milk straight from the carton. Her little boy, she reflected sadly, was growing up.

As she turned back to her party plans and punched in a phone number, Laura happened to glance at the television screen. Instead of the Mario Brothers, Phil Donahue was earnestly making eye contact with the camera.

‘Today we’re talking with men who, to the people who know them, seem like the typical guy next door. Yet they all have one thing in common: they’re leading secret lives—”

“Oh, please!” Laura groaned. “Evan! Will you turn off—”

Behind her, the back door slammed.

“Great. Now I’ve got Phil Donahue—hello, Paper Trail? Do you carry paper napkins printed with—yes, I’ll hold.”

“Norm has been living with his terrible secret for years,” Phil told her, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial tone. ‘To his friends and neighbors, he looks like an average Joe. He’s a plumber, a volunteer fireman, and a Little League coach. He’s always known his secret life would bring pain to the people who love him, yet he claims he’s powerless in the face of his desires.”

The camera cut to a balding man built like an automatic banking machine. His eyes were cast downward, glued to his beefy thighs.

“For the past four years,” reported Phil’s voice-over, “Norm has been having an affair with his mother-in-law.”

“Oh, Norm,” Laura breathed. “Have you no shame?”

“It all just kind of happened,” Norm confessed, his eyes still fixed on the two massive fields of wool-and-polyester blend. “One day I go over my mother-in-law’s house to unclog her toilet, and the next thing I know, we’re in bed.”

Laura shook her head in disbelief. “Why on earth would anyone go in front of millions of people like that and spill his—yes, I’m still here. I’m calling to find out if you carry paper napkins for fifteenth wedding anniversaries. Oh, I don’t know, something catchy like ‘Happy Fifteenth Wedding Anniversary.’

“Uh-huh ... yes, I have thought of going with solid colors, but . . . Yes, peach and mint green
are
very nice.... Thanks, I think I’ll try someplace else.”

Grimacing, Laura hung up. Putting this anniversary party together was taking up too much time. She’d already reached the Ps and her dream napkins had yet to materialize.

“Paperazzi,” she read from the telephone book. “Six-seven-four ...”

Glancing at the TV while she waited, Laura saw that another distraught man, this one with more hair and less body fat, was pouring his heart out to America. Emblazoned across the screen were the words DWAYNE. LIKES TO WEAR PANTY HOSE.

“Good Lord,” Laura muttered. “I’d be much more interested in seeing a
woman
who enjoys wearing panty hose—hello? Can you tell me if you have paper napkins printed with ‘Happy Fifteenth Wedding Anniversary’? No, ‘Happy Anniversary’ isn’t specific enough. Sure, I’ll hold for the manager.

“You’d think I was trying to find the Holy Grail,” Laura complained to Dwayne, who was peering out at her from the screen, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“If you’re watching this, Marva,” he was saying, “I hope you’ll forgive me. Please try to understand. I never wanted to hurt you.”

Laura, the phone receiver still clamped against her ear, checked her watch. It was after four, and she hadn’t even begun to tackle “Food.”

Her ruminations were cut short by a cheerful yet commanding voice at the other end of the phone line.

“Paperazzi, the place for all your disposable needs. How may I help you?”

“Hi, is this the manager? 1 was wondering if you had ‘Happy Fifteenth Wedding Anniversary’ napkins in stock.... You’re kidding! You
do!”

Suddenly she froze. Dwayne was gone from the screen. In his place was an attractive man. Thick, dark hair, well-proportioned features, the handsome cragginess that good-looking men develop somewhere in their mid-forties. He was a man she recognized. His head was distorted, the colors a bit off, the flatness disconcerting, but his identity was unmistakable.

Her husband. That was Roger’s face on the screen.

For a moment Laura was puzzled. Desperately she struggled to figure out what was going on.

“You, too, have been living with a secret.” Phil’s voice-over reverberated in Laura’s ears. “Tell us, Roger, what you haven’t been able to tell anyone else—not even your own wife.”

“They come in packages of twenty-four or fifty.”

It took Laura a few seconds to figure out that the manager of Paperazzi was speaking to her.

“Could you please hold on a minute?” Her mouth was so dry she could barely get the words out. One hand gripped the receiver a few inches from her ear, the other clutched her chest. The room was suddenly odd-looking, the walls and windows tilting at strange angles like those in a fun house. The tightness in her stomach had graduated to an intense pain.

“I haven’t been working for the past seven months,” Roger told Laura, Phil, and millions of faceless, nameless television viewers. He looked surprisingly at ease, sitting up there with Norm and Dwayne. Laura couldn’t help noticing how good-looking he was.

“You’ve been unemployed . . . and your own wife hasn’t known about it?” Phil’s bushy eyebrows were furrowed.

“That’s right.”

“Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You got fired—”

“I wasn’t fired. I quit.” Roger was indignant. “I had no choice. Not when my boss was so unreasonable.”

“Exactly what did he expect of you?” Phil asked.

“He wanted a robot. Somebody who’d do what he was told, no questions asked.” Roger snorted contemptuously. “I don’t know who he thought he was.”

The audience was growing restless. Hands were shooting up like weeds along a highway.

“It’s not the first time I’ve run into that attitude, either,” Roger went on. “Before this, I worked for a small company for about a year. Oh, sure, it sounded good at first. But it turned out to be the same thing. I had no choice but to leave. There was no outlet for creative expression, no room for individuality—”

“What was that job?” Phil interrupted.

“Selling water-purifying systems. Anyway, the job I had before
that
—”

Wearing a look of incredulity, Phil asked, “Roger, how many jobs have you had?”

“Let’s see.” Roger began counting on his fingers.

“Oh, boy,” breathed Norm.

“And you’ve kept the fact that you quit this last job a secret from your wife?” Phil asked.

Laura watched, vaguely aware that she’d lapsed into a state of suspended animation: her heart stopped, her blood frozen in her veins, her brain in an eerie holding pattern.

“I’ve been keeping this secret since last spring. She wouldn’t have understood how unhappy I was. That job compromised my integrity. She’d have blamed me.” Bitterly he added, “She always does.”

Phil strode over to the audience, brandishing his microphone.

“I have a question for Roger,” said a well-groomed woman dressed completely in beige. “How did you keep your wife from finding out you’d quit another job?”

“I’d pretend I was going off to work, but instead I’d go to IHOP.”

“The International House of Pancakes?” It was hard to tell whether Phil was appalled or sympathetic.

“Right. I’d sit there for hours, drinking cup after cup of coffee. They give unlimited refills.”

Phil seemed to be having trouble comprehending. “Didn’t your wife notice you weren’t getting a paycheck?”

Roger waved his hand in the air. “I dipped into our savings a little. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it? A rainy day?”

“Roger,” asked Phil, “how much of your savings did you go through?”

“Pretty much all of it.”

Abruptly Laura’s life functions recommenced, leaping into overdrive. “All our money?” she gasped.

“All of it?” Phil echoed.

“After I went through our savings, I cashed in a couple of IRAs.”

“And your wife didn’t know a thing about any of this?”

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