Three years ago, they spent a weekend away, just the two of them. They drank mimosas in bed, soaking in a giant tub big enough for two and making love in the afternoon sunlight. On the way home, she cried because she had forgotten what it felt like to be taken care of. When he said they should do it every year, her shoulders felt light, so she agreed.
She made reservations for the third weekend in May this year, and when her mother called to say she had the stomach flu, the car was already packed. Their third annual weekend for two became a weekend for four, and while she loved her children fiercely–though not always gracefully– a suite at the Ritz-Carlton with two six-year-olds felt like taking monkeys to church.
Velvet sofa cushions littered the floor. Aiden jumped from one queen bed to the other, wearing only his underwear and a plush white towel tied around his shoulders. Lexi stood completely naked in the center of the room, clothes flung around her in a frenzied shower, her whine piercing the thickness of the room.
“Mom . . . . Mom . . . . MOMMEEEEEE . . . . . . . MY SWIMMING SUIT!”
Wading through the debris, dodging the small superhero mid-flight, Grace pulled the tiny suit from the front pocket of her suitcase, where she stored it in a ziplock bag to keep everything else dry post-swim. Teetering flamingo style, her daughter pushed one foot through the impossibly small leg hole before getting her other foot tangled and promptly falling, bumping her head on the sofa frame on the way down. Worn out from saving the day, Super-Aiden now bounced on the bed chanting, “Food, Food, Food, Food, Food, FOOD!”
“JACK!” Grace called to her husband, “Can you please help me for a minute?”
Jack was a good man. In moments like these, when Grace was nearing the limits of her capacity, she almost forgot this. He came home from work every night on time, loved his kids, and didn’t drink excessively. He took out the trash, cooked on Sundays, and rarely lost his temper. Now, he sat in the corner of the room, on the only chair still wearing cushions. He was scrolling through his phone, shoes off, an open bottle of beer on the table next to him. She could feel her chest burn, every muscle in her body taut with tension. She vacillated between fury and jealousy at his oblivion. He casually looked up, taking in the chaos surrounding him. From the chair, he commanded Aiden to settle down, then pulled Lexi up onto his lap. He handed her a noodle from a greasy styrofoam container, then clicked on the TV. By then, Aiden had managed to settle himself into the pile of cushions with his legos and a five-dollar granola bar from the mini-bar. The room smelled of ramen and feet, but at least it was momentarily quiet.
Grace took the first opportunity since they checked in an hour ago to head into the bathroom and lock the door. Sitting on the toilet, she caught the display of herself in the awkwardly placed full-length mirror. The premonition of her mother was gaining strength every year. The gray hairs that sprouted at her temples were wiry, refusing to be tamed. Lack of rest shadowed her eyes, accented by “crinkles”— Lexi’s term—forming at the corners. Under her chin, a rogue hair persisted. Her breasts drooped, and a distinct horizontal line marred her soft belly. Her legs were strong but fleshy and dimpled. She flushed, then turned on the tap, letting the water splash into the porcelain until it was scalding. As she reached for the hand towel, she noticed that someone—probably Aiden—had used the lone washcloth to dry his hands.
“Shit,” Grace whispered under her breath. It wasn’t a big deal, except that it was. It was one more responsibility in such a long train of responsibilities that she could have ridden it to the moon and back.
“Why can’t you just call housekeeping and have them bring some up?” Jack asked her, still in the same chair but now with a second beer.
Just. The word immediately moved her irritation from simmering to almost boiling. Rather than start the same tired argument, she bit down hard on her tongue. It wasn’t about the towels, just like it wasn’t about the birthday party invitations or the dishes in the sink or the dirty socks shoved down under the covers on her side of the bed. If questioned, Jack would angrily say that he “helped her” way more than his friends and that he had gotten groceries all on his own last week—remember? So perhaps it was her expectations that were out of line. She would then chew her lip to keep from crying out of frustration and walk away. Because, as she said, he was a good man. And because he was a good man, and because she was a good woman, Grace grabbed the key and stepped out into the hall to avoid the embarrassment of a hotel room brawl.
As she stood in the quiet, slumped against the designer wallpaper, breathing in the hint of expensive perfume, she wondered what would happen if she just kept walking—one foot in front of the other until she had just simply crossed over into a whole new life. A door clicked shut somewhere in the corridor, and she quickly righted herself, embarrassed. She felt exposed without a child flanking her on each side, as if she had forgotten something essential and necessary. Early in their dating years, she surprised Jack over dinner by whispering that she wasn’t wearing underwear under her sleek black mini-dress. She felt that same tremor of nervousness and expectation now. She was brilliantly alone, in control of her own thoughts and body for as long as it took – and she was determined that it was going to take a long while – to find the obscure housekeeping closet.
Grace reached the end of the hall, which opened to reveal heavenly ceilings blanketed in waves of sparkling glass chandeliers keeping watch over creamy marble tiles. Plush velvet sofas, deep enough to absorb the whispered secrets of the well-dressed flanked the walls. The twenty-something front desk staff, decked in pristine navy jackets, efficiently directed traffic with subtle nods and quiet smiles. Several travelers stood in formation, wheeled leather bags at their feet. The concierge sat behind a massive mahogany desk, the surface broken only by a large arrangement of limey hydrangeas and a silver laptop. She looked down at her black leggings and was glad she at least remembered to slip on a pair of shoes before her hasty escape. There was a smudge of peanut butter on her left leg, just above her knee. She scratched at it with her fingernail, which only served to smear it further. Her brief confidence quickly burned off under the lobby’s bright orderliness, and she desperately searched for a dark corner to fade into. She scanned the room, her eyes catching the shadow of a softly lit bar area tucked behind the elevator bay. Keeping to the outskirts, she slunk her way to the entrance.
The hush hugged her immediately as she stepped inside. The mirrored wall behind the counter reflected tall backed booths, each set with a single votive. Glass liquor bottles gleamed under brass pendant lights. A deep wooden counter offered seating in sturdy captain’s chairs, upholstered in buttery soft brown leather. The bartender stood erect behind the bar, with smooth chocolate skin and tamed curls that shone in the flickering light. She watched the ropey muscles in his arms ripple as he expertly shook, then poured icy gin into a stemmed glass, finishing with a salty stuffed olive. She smelled coconut and incense as she approached him and felt herself slipping into her melting senses. She timidly moved to the bar counter, her petite frame dwarfed by the tall stools, trying to catch his eye. He glanced up as she approached, but without even a nod, went back to his mixology. She wriggled in between the fixed stools awkwardly, finally getting close enough to lean against the counter without committing to seating herself. As she moved in, she bumped up against something small and hard dangling underneath.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Pure reflex, the words out of her mouth without so much as a glance to see who—or what—would receive them.
Raising her eyes, she noticed a woman next to her reflected in the mirrored wall. She appeared to be in her late forties, her black hair cut in a shoulder-length bob that grazed the angles of her perfectly tailored cream wool suit. She was wearing a single chain around her neck with a square stone pendant and understated silver chunks in her ears. She methodically reached down and unhooked a gunmetal gray chain attached to a square black bag, moving it to the empty stool at her right.
“I don’t even like scotch,” the woman said, meeting Grace’s gaze while slowly swirling amber liquid over a rounded ice ball.
She spun her stool to look directly at Grace, her dark eyes piercing. Up close, Grace could see that she was older than her original estimate, precisely applied make-up, and expensive “salon” visits shaving off the last ten years.
“I’m sorry for bothering you . . . . I’m sorry, but I think you might be incorrect . . . . I’m sorry, but can you help me? Every damn sentence! What exactly are we sorry for?”
“I’m sor—oh shit! There it is again.” Grace laughed, shaking her head.
“Why does every conversation between strangers start with ‘I’m sorry?’ It’s like we’re apologizing for existing. Sit. I’ll buy you a drink. You look like you could use it.” The woman gestured to the empty stool next to her.
“I couldn’t . . . . I can’t . . . . Thank you, really, but I’ve got kids waiting in the room. I just stepped out to try and find the housekeeping closet.” More nervous laughter, followed by a sinking sigh.
“And landed in the bar? Please.”
A fleeting, desperate plea in the woman’s voice, or possibly sheer exhaustion, steered Grace to slide onto the vacant stool. She let out a breath as she felt the soft cushion relax under her weight. The guilt followed immediately, but she shushed it with the promise of adult female conversation, no matter how intimidating that felt—one drink.
“Mary,” the woman announced, holding up her drink. “Whores or saints. That’s all my mother’s generation could see.”
“And which are you?” Grace asked nervously. She wondered if this was going to be one of those moments when a perfect stranger over-shared intimate details, forcing the listener to bear witness while offering a polite pacifying smile. She wondered if, after a glass of wine, she was going to be the one over-sharing.
“Well, no kids. No husband. A 30-year career that just died in a boardroom whimper. What do you think?”
“I’d like to apologize, but . . . .”
Mary let out a bitter chuckle. “Touché!”
Grace looked up just as the impossibly beautiful bartender delivered a stemless bowl, half-full with thick scarlet comfort. She rolled the glass, watched the vintage mark the sides with pale pink trails —“legs”—she remembered from a honeymoon vineyard tour. She barely noticed the earthy bouquet before taking in a large gulp. The exquisite pleasure of simply drinking a glass of wine was almost painful. As much as Grace did not want to pollute the moment, obligation and curiosity drew her focus back to the woman seated next to her.
“So, your board meeting didn’t go well?” Tentative, secretly hoping Mary would retract her admission and slink back silently into her drink.
“Water under the bridge. Honestly? I just got tired of being invisible.” Another swirl of scotch, the ice gently rocking and thunking into the heavy crystal.
A forced burst of staccato laughter punctured the softened tones of the room. Grace’s eyes were drawn upward again, the reflective wall giving cover to her indulgent voyeurism. Three men in bespoke suits flanked a young woman with spin class calves and unreasonably high heels behind her. One of the men placed his meaty palm in the middle of the woman’s back, and Grace caught the stiffening in her posture, her slight lean in the opposite direction, but the collegial smile never twitched. Superimposed were her own bare face, disheveled ponytail, and loose-fitting sweater. Reflexively, she reached up to smooth the unruly escapees once again. She was no longer in danger of unwanted advances, and she couldn’t decide if she was insulted or relieved by her own accidental invisibility. Another pang of guilt seared her chest, and she immediately shot down the whisper of unspoken regrets. She reached for her wine, turning towards Mary.
“Do you ever wish you had done life differently? Had children, worked less, spoken up more, married a house-husband?”
Another bitter laugh from Mary. “More than you know. But not until it was way too late.”
Too late. Too late to spend the year after college in the Peace Corps. Too late for a one-night stand with the bartender. Too late for a body unmarred with stretch marks and a C-section scar. Too late for being the boss, even of her own life. She wasn’t sure exactly where too late began, but she knew it intimately. Or maybe they were always one lousy board meeting or a slammed hotel room door away from an entirely different life, the infinite possibilities spiraling out of control around them.
Mary took the last gulp of her drink, released a loud sigh, and dropped the glass heavily onto the counter, the abrupt bang grabbing the attention of the bartender. She leaned over and picked up the tidy handbag. In the alternate life, the shiny leather belonged to Grace. Inside, she would find the perfect shade of red lipstick, a tiny bottle of geranium scented hand sanitizer, a capped fountain pen, a small leather journal, and an impeccably organized wallet containing crisp bills and a company Visa. Maybe in that life, it was Mary who toted a too-large, too-floppy, too-dirty canvas bag filled with used tissues, half-sticks of gum, crayon remnants, loose change, rocks, and a scattering of beach sand that stuck in her chapstick.
Water under the bridge, indeed.
Mary stood, popped the magnetic catch with a click, and reached inside. Grace stood as well, turning towards Mary to thank her. In the doorway, the woman in the high heels and the men in suits were saying their good-byes. The bartender was staring down, intently stabbing at a touchscreen.
“Thank you for the drink—and the much-needed adult conversation. Time to get back to the circus.” Grace said with strained cheerfulness.
Then, from the shallow structure of the beautiful bag, Mary produced a compact Smith and Wesson. Grace stared at Mary’s small frame, her perfect nails, contoured cheekbones, and red lips. Her stomach lurched, and her entire body buzzed. She tried to breathe but struggled to loosen the tightness in her chest. She stalled, frozen so close to Mary that she could smell the metallic tang creeping out from under Chanel No. 5. She waited for the forceful dump of adrenaline, the proverbial pivotal moment slideshow, motherly instinct pushing her out the door and towards her children.
“Told you I was no saint,” Mary said with resolve as her french manicure dug deeply into Grace’s fleshy bicep, the sharp pain startling a quick inhale. As she exhaled, Grace felt her body start to release. An eerie detachment held her still in place, and she was shocked to find a flicker of wonder. She wanted to witness this. Mary’s eyes locked on Grace’s, and something like contrition passed between them. Grace understood with visceral clarity what it was to take one for the team, to bite her tongue, to keep the peace, to soften, to settle. She knew the deep ache of not being heard. She understood the breaking point. Mary might be criminal, but she was brave.
Grace caught the bartender’s eye just as he pushed the alarm under the cash register. He gave her a slight nod as if to reassure her. She quickly looked away, shame at her lack of gratitude burning her cheeks. She didn’t require salvation, and she wasn’t afraid of Mary—she was Mary. Every woman she knew had been Mary at some point.
The polite peacefulness of wealthy commerce dispersed into indignant waves of chaos as they moved from the bar to the lobby. Men and women clutching cardboard coffee cups gushed toward any break in the consistent marble surfaces. They oozed down halls, through doorways, behind desks, and under tables. Each space that opened immediately filled with a swarm of men in blue-black from helmet to boot-tip, leading with stiff, heavy rifles. It was then that Grace began to scream.
The stunted choking sound started high in her throat, barely audible, then deepened as it snaked into her chest and down into her belly, finally settling into a raw, primal roar. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she pushed out each new howl, the end of one cry giving birth to the next. She tore into a million pieces and was more whole than she had been in years—maybe ever.
Grace’s ears picked up Jack’s voice above the confusion. “Grace! Grace! I’m here! I’m here!” She could feel the pull toward him even before she found his familiar shape in the anonymous wall of shielded faces. As she collapsed against his solid chest, his heart beating against her cheek, arms wrapped tightly around her, she realized that too late and begin again were sometimes exactly the same.