Sarah Malinsky's heart pounded as the elevator doors opened to the smoked glass exterior of The Daily Tribune. Friday mornings had taken on a new significance since the beginning of her affair with the assistant editor ten weeks ago. Bustling through the horde of employees, she settled at her workstation and examined the emails bombarding her computer. Conscious of Judy Brown's watchful eye, Sarah leaned backwards and opened the top drawer of her desk. She suspected Judy might have picked up on her newfound relationship.
Her hands trembled as she slid the lid off the small white box with the bow attached. The contents made her smile. She unfolded a note with the word 'nothing', scribbled in capital letters followed by three exclamation marks. Glancing to the elevated glass office where Gary stood waiting, she nodded. He grinned and turned away.
At first, she hadn't paid him much attention. Happily married to John for three years, she had no reason to seek the company of another man. Their two-year-old daughter, Natasha, gave her everything to live for. But her spouse - the archetypal John Doe -reminded her of the husband in Dan Fogelberg's 'Auld Lang Syne'. He 'kept her warm and safe and dry. She would have liked to say she loved the man, but she didn't like to lie.'
Nobody understood why she had married him - least of all herself. Most of her relationships had been with the type of men mothers cautioned against and fathers abhorred. Her parents liked him. Steady, respectful, solid - if a little dull, but good for their daughter. The job with the city too, working in finance. He sent out tax reminders. Left off and picked up Natasha every day - except Friday, when Sarah joined her colleagues for happy hour and he worked late to ensure weekend mail processing. He called for Natasha on Saturdays - it suited. Sarah often had to go out of town on a weekend reporting job and the child got to spend the night with her grandparents.
Sarah had never meant to be unfaithful. When it happened at the office party she attempted to put it down to a one-night stand and move on. She wondered why Gary, with his beautiful wife and three handsome boys found her attractive. Whatever the reason, she enjoyed the attention. An occasional dinner at an out of town restaurant. Flowers arriving on her desk from 'a secret admirer'. After the first few times they had made love, she learned to rid herself of the guilt. Gary needed another woman in his life. As far as Sarah was concerned, it may as well be her.
The gift game. Every Friday, he left a piece of lingerie in a small box in her desk. She changed in the ladies' locker rooms before their rendezvous after happy hour. When they met at the hotel, he liked to look at her in the sexy underwear before removing it with meticulous care. He told her it spiced things up. A good enough explanation for Sarah - she needed a little spice in her life. Her role as a local reporter in Secaucus gave her plenty to write about, but little to excite her. Her sex life with her husband had become infrequent and as boring as John himself.
A visit to the local council office and an interview with the mayor about complaints from angry residents concerning the state of amenities in the area brought Friday to a close. She showered, changed and followed Gary's instructions. This evening, she wore no underwear. He had moved their relationship to a new level.
At happy hour in Flanagan's she sat with Judy and her friend Nora. A few rounds of drinks and the conversation turned to men. Judy and Nora, both divorced, kept their eyes peeled for eligible, and ineligible mates.
"Sometimes, I think Gary Cassidy has the hots for you, Sarah. I've caught him staring at you more than once," Judy said.
Sarah smiled and looked to where the men gathered by the bar. They drank beer and shouted at some baseball player on the wide screen. "He's kinda cute, but I suspect he stares at a lot of people. His job demands it."
"Not with the same stare. I've seen him. Believe me, I know lust when I see it. Isn't that right, Nora?"
"Sure is. What you mean, he's kinda cute. He could have his way with me anytime. He's hot, I tell you. Sizzling. Finger-licking good. Man, I'd work that guy over so he ain't gonna never forget. He stare at me, I go right up and ask him, if he wants some of this - that's what I'd do."
Sarah laughed. Judy probed. "Sarah's a choir girl. The angelic type . . . never does any wrong. You would never want to be the other woman, would you?"
"Never. Would you?"
Judy hesitated. "To tell you the truth, I'm more concerned about my own happiness than I used to be. Life, love and divorce have taught me some valuable lessons. Now, I go for it."
Nora interjected. "Yeah, girl. That's what I say. Fuck or be fucked. Life's too short. Gotta grab you some action while you can."
Sarah smiled. "I suppose, each to her own. Who am I to judge?"
"Indeed. Remember that," Judy said, turning. "Look, game over, here they come."
The men ambled across and began to mingle with the ladies scattered at the tables in the bar. Gary sat by Sarah. "Helluva story on the mayor today. Our politician's never fail to amaze me. Say anything to get elected then sit on their fat asses and do nothing."
Sarah ran her fingers through her shoulder-length blond hair. "Thank you. Hopefully we'll see some action now."
"Action, yeah. That's what we need around here," Nora added. "You getting any action, cutie?"
Gary threw his head back and laughed. "All the action, I need, thank you. My wife takes good care of me."
"You must be one of the lucky ones," Judy said, "Not many like you out there. All you need right by your side."
"Indeed. I'm a lucky man. I wish you could all experience true happiness in your relationships. It's special. I'm blessed."
"I bet you are. Too blessed for the likes of me. I have to go. Nora you ready?"
"Yeah. I'm done. I gotta get me some before the night's through. Ain't no point sitting here, sister. Let's go."
"Me too, I'm tired and I've a lot to do this weekend," Sarah said.
The ladies excused themselves and left. Sarah said goodbye to her friends as she climbed into a taxi. Six blocks away and ten minutes later, Gary picked her up.
"Jesus, I've been missing you all week," he said. "You got my note?"
"Give me a look."
Sarah spun towards him and opened her legs.
"You're beautiful," he said, as he caressed her thigh. "I can't wait."
The following week, Sarah became apprehensive when the gift box appeared in her drawer on Thursday. She unfolded the note, jumped up and ran to the ladies' room. Through tears, black with mascara, she read the words time and time again.
'Please don't judge me. John and I have been seeing each other for some time now. I thought you should know.
Sarah dried her eyes, folded the note and stuffed it in her pocket book. She sat in the solitude of a toilet stall and stared at the floor. The sound of a colleague using an adjacent facility prompted her to regain composure, leave her sanctuary and confront her bedraggled image in the bathroom mirror. She grimaced at the reflection, washed the black streaks from her face, applied a light blush and scurried back to the office floor.
Nothing on the computer screen made sense. Preoccupied with her husband’s infidelity and her unwitting relationship with the other woman exacerbated her sense of betrayal and vulnerability. Unable to cope with her newfound knowledge, she left the office on the pretext of following a lead for an important story, and drove to Laurel Hill County Park.
As she walked along the banks of the Hackensack, she thought about Natasha and John. When she tried to imagine life without them, a sharp stabbing pain forced her to stop and catch her breath. The prospect of losing her husband and daughter put everything in perspective. As she pondered her infidelity, she realised how little Gary meant to her. An ill-conceived fling amounted to nothing compared with the contentment, security and happiness she had found in her three years of marriage. An error of judgement fed by her weakness for attention had compromised her values and fuelled an affair. She had allowed the relationship with her husband to fall into a rut, had been insensitive to his needs and encouraged him to stray. When another woman wanted him, it made the loss more poignant and forced her to appreciate what she had taken for granted.
She sat for a while and scanned the lush meadowlands. People wearing life jackets and yellow helmets swayed and bobbed in harmony as they navigated their kayaks down wide waterways and narrow bends. Exuberant kids, parents in tow, ran back and forth along grassy banks, their innocence exacerbating her sense of loss and loneliness. Couples, hand-in-hand, reminded her of the times John and her had walked here. Once, on a quiet fall evening, she had lured him into making love in an area sheltered only by thick reeds and bulrush. She had always been the more promiscuous of the two.
When she stood and looked across the choppy blue abyss, a thought crossed her mind – but only for a second. Shivering, she strolled back to the car and contemplated her next move. She just couldn’t face her husband tonight. Calling him seemed the logical thing to do. When his voice mail kicked in, she left a message. The possibility of an important story meant she had to pull an out-of-towner at short notice. While she regretted the inconvenience, she knew he would understand. Tempted to tell him she loved him – she reneged. It had been a while, and a phone call didn’t seem like the time to resurrect such an important phrase, let alone the attendant emotion.
She called Nora and asked if she could meet her at the Sheraton Meadowlands where she intended to spend the night.
An hour later, as Sarah sipped a drink in a quiet area of the hotel bar, Nora burst in. She wore a gold-sequenced top, too tight for its contents, a black, thigh hugging skirt and high-heeled shoes that matched the colour of her top. She rushed over and opened her arms.
“Hey, girlfriend, what’s the matter? You been crying, ain’t you?”
She pulled Sarah to her breasts and signalled a bartender. “A gin and tonic please and whatever my friend’s having.” She pushed Sarah back and scrutinised her. “On second thought make that a double, looks like we’re in for a long night.”
When the drinks arrived Sarah settled and relayed her story. Nora shook her head. “My, my, you bitches getting all the action. How come I can’t get me none of that?” She rested her hand on Sarah’s thigh. “I hear you, sis, I hear you. You’re hurting. Your mind’s scrambled; you need some advice. Well here it is, so listen up. You hear me now? Old Nora here . . . she’s had her share of ups and downs.”
Sarah nodded. “I know Nora, I know, that’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
Nora folded her arms. “How you feel about Gary?”
“A fling, nothing more.”
“Okay. It’s you, John and Judy, then.”
Nora ran her finger round the top of her glass. “So Judy got a piece of your man – big deal. You got a piece of somebody else’s man. I reckon that leaves you and your man about even. You want him back?”
Sarah turned. “Of course I want him back.”
“Then you gotta win him back. Hearts and minds, cutie, that’s what it’s all about. You gotta make sure he don’t see nothing in no other woman. Let me ask you something. You been taking good care of your man?”
Sarah leaned back and shook her head. “No.”
“See, there’s your problem right there . . . neglect, honey. Men need attention. Make him feel good. Give him a little action when he needs it. You hear what I’m saying? Dress up. Look good. Once he sees other guys drooling over you he ain’t never gonna want to let you go. Get that cute little tush of yours into some lacy underwear. Flaunt that tight little hiney for your own man. Look at you, sitting there in the dark feeling sorry for yourself. Get out there. Go, win him back.”
Sarah finished her drink and shook her head. “Still doesn’t help to know he and Judy were together.”
“Ain’t no thing, sweetie. Grow up. You think he never slept with another woman before? That’s not how it works. Now, I gotta get going.”
Nora gulped the last of her drink, jumped up and held out her arms. “I’ll expect to see you at work tomorrow. It’s Friday, you got some thinking to do.”
Sarah fell into the embrace. “I know, Nora, I know. Thank you so much. I’ll sleep on it.”
She didn’t sleep. Her mind raced throughout the night. She opened her gift box at work and looked at the red thong Gary had bought her. She paused, looked to his office and nodded. He smiled and turned away.
Sarah didn’t show for happy hour. When Gary tried to contact her, he had no way of knowing her cell lay in the car where she had left it before deciding to walk along the banks of the Hackensack in the dark.
The October moon, like an inverted searchlight, shone across the river and reflected on the marshes. Leafless willow and birch trees rose up like gaunt scarecrows, their scraggy limbs bending to touch the reeds. Sarah slipped off her shoes and let the cold water ripple over her feet. She gasped at first, hesitated, then ventured further, each time allowing one foot to settle on the silt before moving the other. A short way out, as the water sloshed over her ankles, she edged towards a rock and sat down.
Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree crossed her mind: “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.” Joyce would have called it an epiphany – a moment of sudden and great revelation. She remembered their work from college . . . full of it, those Irish guys. A little like the one she’d fallen for when she’d spent a summer there – another episode in her ongoing relationship saga. She placed her feet on the rock, wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her head on her knees.
Staring across the silk, smooth water, she heard only one sound – Nora’s voice echoing in her ears. Up until now, Sarah had avoided Judy, John and Gary. She had refused to deal with the issue. That had to change. Any chance of happiness meant reconciling with her husband.
She fastened her coat, waded back to the tough, brittle grass and pulled on her shoes. He didn’t know her secret yet, so she still had that in her favour. She would deal with the complications as they arose.
John kept an eye on the small kitchen television as he twirled the spaghetti on his fork. An open bottle of red wine sat by his glass. He jumped up when Sarah entered.
“Hi, honey! How you doing? I wasn’t expecting you so soon. What? No happy hour this evening?”
“No, I wimped out. I don’t like being away from home so much. It’s hard on you and Natasha.”
“We’re good, hon, really. She’s fine, and I understand the demands of your work.” He took her by the hands and pulled her towards the table. “Come on, share some of my chicken and pasta, there’s enough for both of us.”
“Are you sure?” Sarah said, scanning the food.
“Of course. Pull up a chair. I’ll get you a plate and a glass.”
Sarah sat her gift box on the table and flung her coat over the back of a chair. “Don’t mind if I do, I didn’t realise I was so hungry. It looks delicious.”
“Did you buy me something nice?” John said, pointing to the box and smiling as he dished out the pasta.
Sarah grinned. “I did, actually – dessert.”
“Love desserts. Come on, eat up. Tell me about this big story you’re onto.”
Sarah took a mouthful of food and rolled her eyes. “God, this is delicious. I’d forgotten how good a cook you were.”
“See what you’re missing when you’re on the road. Tell me this story’s worth it.”
“It could be, if my informant’s telling the truth.”
Sarah took a sip of wine as she searched for a convincing response. “Mob related.”
“Get outta here!”
She had him. “That's right. Seems there’s friction between New Jersey and New York. Treading on each other’s turf. Remember that murder last month when they pulled the guy out of the Meadowlands?”
“The one with the bullet in the head?”
“That one. Could be a feud approaching.”
John’s eyes opened wide. “You got that, first hand?”
“Yeah, but the source has to be checked for veracity.”
“Why would someone want to volunteer that kind of information?”
Sarah shrugged. “Most likely he’s next on the hit list and figures if he turns state’s evidence the prosecution will place him in the witness protection programme.”
John finished his food, leaned over and locked Sarah in a tight embrace. “You be careful, hon. Remember what happened to that female reporter in Ireland when she investigated the Dublin drug dealers?”
Sarah savoured the comfort of the strong hug for a few moments. “I know, Veronica Guerin. Shot six times with a .357 Magnum by a motorcyclist. A court witness named Patrick ‘Dutchy’ Holland, a former US Marine, as the assassin, but the prosecution failed to win a conviction.”
John pulled Sarah close and kissed her softly on the lips. “You’re amazing, how do you know all this stuff?”
As his hands slipped to her buttocks she sensed his state of arousal. “I’m a journalist, that’s what I do.” She smiled – a coy suggestive smile. “I do other things, too. How about some dessert?”
“I hoped you had something like that in mind.”
“By the time you’ve cleared the plates, dessert will be ready.” She lifted the gift box. “I’ll be waiting.”
When John entered their room, he found Sarah kneeling on the bed facing the door, a candle burning in the background. As he approached, she opened her dressing gown to reveal a firm figure, naked, but for a tiny red thong. He collapsed into her arms, eased her back, and groaned in ecstasy as they melted into the harmony of conjugal bliss.
When Sarah woke, the candle still burned and John lay sleeping by her side. She sat up and marvelled at his peaceful repose. She wondered about revealing her secret. How did she tell her husband she was pregnant with another man’s child?