Annie had gained that calmness which comes to young wives. It was not bought easily, or quickly. She had gone instead the common way and first grown heavier, for all the usual reasons: eating more dinner; exercising less fanatically; drinking beer instead of the mixed liquor drinks young women order in bars and clubs to get themselves quickly, courageously drunk. Her bearing, too, had changed at first, making her seem even bigger. She no longer walked with her belly sucked in, nor sat up straight with her chest shoved out. She had acquired, instead, the easy grace of a girl relieved to be married; the toll was actual and apparent increase in weight.
So when she decided her belly curved too far and felt too soft, when she discovered the line of her panties no longer ran flush against her upper thighs, she suffered a morning of furious panic, at the end of which she made a solemn commitment, to regimented exercise, every weekday morning.
At first it was hard to rise early. She missed having coffee and a bagel at home in her pajamas, disliked breakfasting on juice and granola in the car on the way to the gym. Then there was the boredom, of her lonely drive, of those long twenty minutes on the elliptical machine. At first brought to life by the exercise, made all full of blood and heat, yet not halfway through she would suddenly feel worn and listless, wish she were back in bed, smart with envy at thoughts of her husband (who was probably waking late and enjoying a whole pot of coffee, all to himself). One week she missed three sessions; this left her bitter and cranky. She could not enjoy staying at home in the morning when she knew she ought to be exercising, so she suffered a double loss, wasting the stolen leisure on guilt and sense of failure. That week she withheld her body from her husband, and they had two very bad fights.
She started going again, and found she could dampen the boredom of exercise by admiring the good-looking, well-built personal trainers.
There were three who worked in the mornings: Stanley, a slim blond man in his early forties, with the long, running muscles of a rower; Jake, who wore a thick, dark mustache reminiscent of a cartoon villain (she found Jake the least appealing); and Evan, a young black man with the height and chest of a college basketball player.
At first she simply watched them lift weights and run on the treadmills, admiring their biceps and butts. But eventually she paid the most attention to them when they had finished their workouts and gathered to chat. They would fiddle with towels, tell stories and jokes, laugh, their arms crossed, raising their feet up behind their backs to stretch their thighs and calves. She found these actions striking, even titillating, when the trainers reminded her of bantering soldiers, or rich businessmen talking sports.
Meanwhile, the honeymoon weight slipped away, and a great change took place in her body. She was no longer skinny (as she'd been in high school), nor thin (as she'd been in college); nor was she either heavy or fat (as had, just lately, been true).
She was slender.
Slender. The word seemed to contain within it sexual possibilities that had never been open to her before, which she had experienced only indirectly, while envying other women. Her body had acquired a kind of cohesiveness, a sensual consistency, a repetition throughout its frame of one common turn, the shape of fallen hair resembling the shape of mouth, the shape of hips, the tall curve that ran beneath her stiff backside on down to her calves, ankles and heels. Her mother used to say to her, "Goodness, girl, you're filling out!" Like many parental compliments, these infuriated the child, made her feel as if she were perpetually beginning the process of becoming a woman, never arriving at its completion. When she looked in the mirror now, though, she told herself, hesitantly at first, then with more and more assurance, "Girl, you have filled out!" The change was not consigned to her figure, either. She began to look in her eyes, and to see within them a fullness, a knowledge, as if something in her body's transformation had condensed there, and found its utmost expression within those dark round flashes of green. They had an attitude now, a style. She would stare into the mirror with her eyes half shut, comely and drowsy-looking with (she thought) the look of a woman just awakened from a short nap after an assignation in some old world hotel, in a room where the windows stand open, and the soft breezes of early spring set the curtains to flutter and reach.
The surplus weight vanished from her upper thighs, her waist, her face. It did not, though, abandon her chest. When she looked at her chest now, she wanted to laugh, the way a person laughs when they've finally won some long-sought prize. Before, her chest had been like the moody child in a family portrait, the one who slouches and pouts and ruins everything. It had never looked right on her body, no matter how good she looked otherwise. Now, though, her chest always looked exactly like she wanted. When she wanted it to look smaller and classy, it did. When she wanted it to seem big and womanly, it did. It could look trashy, it could look demure, it could look flirty and it could look ripe.
During this time she made her husband take her to a party thrown by a local artists' group, where the guests were invited to wear costumes celebrating the buttoned-up sexuality of the early Nineteen-sixties. She had purchased off the internet one of those cold war brassieres with the rocket-shaped cups, wore it beneath a pale pink turtleneck sweater, with a long, tan skirt, dark pantyhose, and brown high heels. All night long, she caught men's looks, and her husband could not keep his hands off of her. She fantasized he was a young Jack Kennedy, she some vivacious Washington secretary. The word 'tryst' flowed through her mind, adjusting it, bending her thoughts like high grass touched by a summer breeze.
Annie found herself given every kind of desirable attention now, wherever she went. When she walked into a coffee shop, she noticed the eyes of men curve repeatedly in her direction. At family gatherings she would sit among her aunts and cousins while each complimented in turn her newfound freshness and glow. And without giving it much thought at all, really, she decided she might like to someday have an affair.
An affair! How gorgeous an idea! How romantic! Annie became dreamier and dreamier at the prospect. She moved from her bed to the bathroom, to the gym and to work, out to parties or dinner, all with the distracted air of one adoring an interior, nearly religious image. She spent long hours in front of her vanity, putting on lipsticks and makeup and doing up her curly brown hair in different arrangements, as fixated on her own thoughts of adultery as a young boy on his fantasies of adventure.
At first, the idea of having an affair was nothing more to her than a source of secret, slightly guilty pride. "I could have that man if I wanted . . . I could have that man, too, if I wanted . . ." Then, almost without her noticing it, this wide-ranging interest in men coalesced into a different activity, one of cataloging the men within her range of contact, weighing them against one other, and building a pattern of the perfect partner for her still-hypothetical infidelity. She would walk into the neighborhood coffee shop, greet the broad-shouldered barista, and think, 'Very nice. He would be gentle, in a rough sort of way. Too young, though.' At parties she would speak to her husband's boss, a black-haired, well-dressed, healthy man. 'Handsome. Powerful, in a businessy way. Too complicated, though.'
So without addressing any preliminary moral matters, she had gone very far indeed with her project; even while keeping the prospect of an affair within the realm of fantasy, she had begun in earnest the selection process.
In the midst of all this came a highly troublesome development. Jake, the hairy trainer from the gym, began to take an obvious interest in gaining her attentions.
"Morning!" he would say.
"Oh. Hi." A prim smile before walking off.
He was persistent.
"I think we met when you first signed up here. I'm Jake."
He held out his hand, with its gross tuft of black hair. Annie puffed her mouth, smiled politely, shook the hand and said her name. She glanced past Jake, fixed an artificial interest on one of the elliptical machines, and excused herself. But she could not help but notice, as she exercised, that Jake passed her three times; nor that each time he passed, he looked up and smiled.
A pattern developed. Annie would finish her workout, towel off, and leave the weight room just as Jake rounded the corner.
"Hey! How's it goin?" he would ask.
Annie would sigh.
"Pretty good . . . Pretty good."
Jake would continue to smile beneath his thick, hammy mustache. She would watch for another trainer, thinking, 'Maybe if I flirt with someone else in his presence, he'll get the hint and leave me alone . . ."
One day, as Annie was leaving the gym, Jake came around the corner, saw her, and said, "Come with me."
She turned to him, her eyes wide. She blushed and began to stammer.
"Wha-- . . . I . . . Uhh . . ."
Jake showed his teeth and Annie glanced down his body. She looked back up and smiled, unsure why. Jake smiled too. His eyes glanced about the weight room and he spoke slowly, quietly, face barren of any mischief or device.
"I've got the morning off. A client cancelled."
Annie nodded. She felt concerned, a little angry. She muttered, "mm-hmm?"
"What's your work situation like?" he asked as though his intentions were as mundane as splitting a cab, or getting lunch somewhere.
"Um. I don't know," Annie said. She blushed, Jake chuckled.
"Do you have to go to work this morning?" he asked.
"Um. No," she said.
"Okay." Jake nodded and smiled, looking at the ceiling, like a judge disposing of a minor point.
She waited in the parking lot, her car running, while Jake finished some business inside. He walked out and looked around for her. When he saw her, he nodded and waved. She waved back, waited until he got into his car, and then she followed him home.
Jake met Annie in the driveway, spat upon his lawn, and led her into the house. He asked her to sit on the cream-colored couch while he made "a few short phone calls." She scratched her arms, looked around at the furnishings. There was a large television, surrounded by black shelves full of DVD movies. There was the couch, two chairs, and against the back wall, a bookshelf, with about two dozen books. Annie read their spines. Most were textbooks, with clumsy titles like Juxtapositions: Ideas for College Writers. All the others related to fitness.
Jake returned, came to Annie, spun her around, and kissed her, just off-center of square on the lips.
At first it was simple to feel like this were the affair she'd wanted. Whenever she doubted, she focused her attention on certain clear aspects: that they met at odd times throughout the day, and always for only about an hour and a half; that they always had intercourse; that they communicated solely by text messages; and that she always promptly erased them. She thrilled at everything clandestine in their arrangement; decided it was, for that reason alone, wanton; and she even reveled some in the flat, bald wrongness of her actions.
Yet whenever she tried to think sweet thoughts of Jake, she couldn't. She tried to think lustfully about him, and couldn't do that either. He was too blunt for love, too easy for lust. She felt repulsed by him at times, by his manners, his hairiness. He smelled of cheap scented soap and department store cologne. His mustache rubbed painfully at the space between her nose and upper lip. She began to fear vaguely that she had let the chance for something special pass her by, like a romantic stranger on a moonlit street.
At the end of their first two weeks, Annie told her husband she had decided to start jogging in the evenings; that gave her more time to meet with Jake, and also an excuse for taking a shower immediately upon returning home.
At first the couple would lie in bed after sex and say nothing. Annie made herself believe these silences to be full of romantic tension. Then, one day, while Annie was stroking Jake's curved belly, he began to complain about work. The spell was broken. Later that same day Annie found herself looking at Jake's house and thinking of all that ought to be done with it; not with the wholesome, glowing rapture a wife feels for the home shared with her husband, but with a poor, disdainful languor: "He could at least mop that floor . . . maybe buy a decent rug for that room . . ."
They no longer met for scandalously brief periods; as the situation progressed, they spent whole evenings together. Annie would tell her husband she was going out to do something on her own, visit a bookstore, maybe go to the mall. Her husband was only too happy to avoid such outings; they would surely have bored him. He took the free time instead to start a Wednesday night card game, devise intricate fantasy football strategies, and brew his own beer. Meanwhile, Annie would put on something flattering and meet Jake for dinner--someplace nice, not too expensive--and maybe a movie (comedies; Jake was averse to all other genres).
She no longer worked out--there just wasn't time; and anyway, she had grown comfortable again. The weight began to creep back up.
This went on for two months. Then, one day, Jake called Annie while she was at home, shopping for dresses on the internet.
"Hi Ann," he said.
"Uh . . . look. I'll just say it. This isn't working out."
"What do you mean?" Annie said.
"Well . . . look, you're great and all, but I just . . . well . . ."
"Jake . . . are you . . ."
"Are you breaking up with me?"
Jake took a short breath and paused.
"Well . . . thing is, I don't think . . . look, maybe, not for good, you know, maybe later, we can . . . but--"
He said a few more things, apologies, explanations. She felt a little like yelling at him, calling him a name, maybe. But she just didn't have the energy.
"That's fine, Jake," she said, and hung up the phone.
She sat, looking at the screen. It played a video of a pretty model in a short pink dress who whirled and posed, smiling, showing her smooth, brown back and slim legs. She began to cry. She cried and cried and could not stop. The sound brought her husband upstairs. He knelt beside her, frowned, held her face in his hands. He asked her over and over again to tell him what was wrong.
Of course, Annie couldn't.
"I'm just stressed out for a lot of reasons," she said.
He nodded, kissed her forehead.
"No worries, sweetheart, no worries. I'm sorry. You know, you and I haven't spent a lot of time together lately." He kissed her temples.
"Yeah, well, I don't . . . That's all right," Annie said.
"No, it's not. Look, let's spend the who-o-ole weekend together. Okay?" He held her face, cupped her cheeks. She smiled, eyes wet.
His eyes glowed, and his face was suddenly hot. He raised a finger and
wiped her cheek with it, making a line of wetness at the place where he
touched her. She gazed at him, her eyes big, her lips drawing apart. He
removed his finger, wiped the salty residue with his thumb, leaned forward,
put his mouth on hers, and raised a hand to her neck. Their hearts began to beat. Hers was light and fast, while his was hard and sure.
BIO: Brian Ted Jones was born in 1984 and raised in Oklahoma. He is a graduate of St. John's College and the author of Everything's Fearful Dead, a novel about religion. He lives with his wife, Jenne, and their sons Oscar and GuyJack.