"Throw me a towel, Ray," he heard called from the shower.
The white sheets in Room 11 of the Shenandoah Valley Howard Johnson Hotel were crumpled around the inhabitant of the bed. Two tanned and slightly hairy legs protruded over the edge. Ray Wetherington, owner of the legs, groaned and began to rise from the white folds.
"Dammit, Ray, did you hear me? Where are those towels?" the voice snapped. Ray swung his legs over the side of the bed and grabbed a stack of the white hotel towels. When he opened the door to the bathroom, he caught the full view of Elizabeth stepping into the shower. She gave him a wink as she pulled the shower curtain closed. It definitely was an invitation for him to join her. He gave her a smile as he shut the bathroom door. He wanted time to think. Ray crossed the double-occupancy room and sat on the crumpled sheets of the king-sized bed. He fumbled around on the nightstand for his cigarettes.
As he watched the gray smoke curl up to the ceiling, Ray let out a breath of contentment. He took another deep drag of his cigarette and smiled at the crumpled sheets around him. This trip had been just what he and Elizabeth needed, and he had not felt this way in a long time. This hotel room even reminded him of the night they had met last summer. He and Margaret were in the middle of their annual Fourth of July argument, so he had headed to the Holiday Inn lounge for some sympathetic company. Elizabeth, an angel sent from above, was just sitting there at the bar. She had been so understanding that night when he talked about the row he and Margaret had had. In fact, she had even talked about the fight she and her husband were having. They ended up together that night, and from that day on that hotel was their regular meeting place.
What was that he was feeling? He could not place his finger on it. Anyway, it felt good, and he had not had much to feel good about since the divorce proceedings began a few months ago. "Ray," he heard himself say aloud, "why don't you celebrate?" Ray leaned over the cherry-finished pressed wood table to pick up the phone. It was bolted to the end table. He snatched up the black receiver and dialed.
"Room service, send a bottle of your best champagne to room 52. It'll be how much? Well, damn, send a bottle of your off-brand champagne instead."
There was no use spending all his monthly allowance on something that would be drunk in an hour. After he finished paying Margaret alimony and child support, his wallet was almost empty. Nevertheless, he had decided to end his marriage of misery, and now he was a much happier man.
As Ray replaced the phone, he noticed his cigarette had burned down to nothing. He never understood how a cigarette could start so good and then burn out so fast. He found the Howard Johnson plastic ashtray and stuck another cigarette in his mouth.
Ray sat on the bed and took another deep breath of smoke. This time last year he and Margaret were putting a pool in the backyard for the kids. She had nagged and nagged that they were the only family on the block that didn't have a pool, so he went to Lowe's after work one afternoon and surprised Margaret by bringing home an above-ground pool. She sure was speechless for a few minutes. He loved it when that happened.
The kids loved the pool. They had splashed around all day while he was at the plant and had jumped in the water again when he came home from work. Joey had learned how to float on his back, and Sarah Jane had even taken off her swimmies before the end of the summer. He reckoned that it ended up being the best summer he ever had with the kids.
However, it was the worst summer he had ever had with Margaret. She had constantly questioned him when he came home late from the plant . . . "Where have you been? I know you are keeping something from me, Ray." Not that he had always been perfectly honest about his whereabouts, but he had never done anything that would drag him to divorce court. Margaret just did not understand the complexities of a man's life. Every man needed time to himself, and occasionally it was necessary to find a willing female that could understand his feelings.
Ray once thought that Margaret was the perfect female. Life with her had been good at first. He met Margaret Milhous when he was eighteen and working at Boykin's Service Station. She and her sister would drive in to get gas once or twice a week, and before long he had gathered up enough courage to ask her out. Her daddy had not been really happy with his daughter's choice at first, but Mr. Milhous was glad to get somebody around that could help him repair his truck. Margaret and her sister were his only kids, so Ray kind of filled in the spot where a son might have been. Ray's own daddy had never been around, so he liked the attention. After a while, Ray spent as much time with Mr. Milhous as he did with Margaret. Mr. Milhous had the reputation of spending time with many different women before and after Margaret's ma died. That did not make any difference to Ray, and he had not thought it mattered too much to Margaret. Before long, Mr. Milhous was talking to Ray about starting a repair shop together, and things would have worked out fine if the old man's heart attack had not blown all their plans to hell.
He and Margaret married anyway, and money was always tight. There was not enough money for her to go to college, and he was not so sure back then if wanted an educated wife. If he had known back then how much alimony he would be paying her one day, then he would have driven her to school himself! Still, even without money, things were okay. On Saturdays and Sundays they would go to the movies and play cards with friends, and during the week they would eat hot dogs and baked beans. He remembered the red velvet cake she had baked him for his twenty-fifth birthday. She hadn't used enough food coloring, so it looked more like a red vomit cake. They had laughed about it for a long time after that. After a while, she stopped laughing at that joke, and he stopped telling it. Margaret was always too serious about everything.
Then it started. After he got a job at the plant, he began getting calls once a day from Margaret to "see how he was doing." Then she would visit him at lunchtime and ask about his day. Not that he minded the attention at first, but it became obvious that she was on a mission, and every female he encountered during the day became Margaret's target. "Who is she? Just tell me her name!" he remembered her screaming. Sure, he was seeing Elizabeth occasionally when Margaret started her antics, but he had never allowed their meetings to interfere with his family time. Margaret wanted too much from him. She had even arranged some meeting for them with a marriage counselor. That was just the last straw. How he had lived with her for fifteen years, he did not know.
The sharp knock at the door brought Ray's mind back to the hotel. He grabbed his wallet and walked toward the door.
"Sir, that'll be $32.78," the bellman said. Ray handed him exactly $32.78 and pulled the cart inside before the bellman could move. He could get a tip from the next customer.
"Have a nice day, sir," Ray heard as he slammed the door shut.
Elizabeth would like this surprise when she came out of the shower. That is what made her so different from Margaret. She did not ask him for anything, and he did not ask her for anything. That way, they never disappointed each other. This bottle of champagne would make her happy for the next week. It would have taken a case of champagne to keep Margaret happy.
He flicked the ashes into the tray. Last Christmas he had really tried to fix things for Margaret. He bought her a new robe and nightgown from Wal-Mart, and he had even shopped for it himself. Still, it wasn't enough. It never was. When he put the present on her pillow on Christmas Eve, she'd flown into a rage and accused him of using the gift to ease his guilty conscience. Well, enough was enough. A man should not have to live with a wife put him on trial every day.
Christmas Day had been strained. Margaret refused to go with them to Ma's house, and he was too worn down to ask her to go for the children's sake. She wanted to make him repent for all she thought he had done. Hell, if she had known what the other men at the plant were doing away from their wives, she would have been thanking God for him every day. After he had loaded up the kids and the gifts to go to Ma's, he had promised himself that would be the last Christmas he spent with Margaret. Sarah Jane had asked why Mommy wasn't going with them to grandma's house. Ray remembered having to tell her, "Mommy doesn't want to be with us today." Sarah Jane had cried the whole day. He just did not understand why Margaret had upset her kids like that on Christmas Day.
"Ray? Are you ready to get some dinner? I'm starving?" He heard called from the bathroom.
"Whenever you are, Margaret," he called back.
The crash of some heavy object on the floor made him realize his mistake. When Ray raised his eyes to the door, he met the cold stare of the woman that was most definitely not named Margaret.
"I'm so sorry Elizabeth . . . Of course I know who you are. I was just thinking of the mess this past year . . . " he stammered.
Then the cold eyes flashed.
"Ray, try very hard not to make that mistake again!" Elizabeth coldly ordered. "By the way, I've made reservations for us at The Red Room at 7:00 sharp." Her eyes saw his half-clothed body. "You need to get dressed." She closed the door to finish getting ready.
Ray pulled on his trousers and thought about the woman in the bathroom. How could he deserve a woman like this? Elizabeth was one in a million. What would have happened if he had that to Margaret? Well, he had a good idea. Maybe she would have cut the left sleeve off all his work shirts like she did the night he told her he was leaving. Maybe she would have told all their neighbors how slimy and abusive he was like she did during after the hearing. He was lucky that the children even wanted to see him after hearing all the garbage their mother spewed about him.
"Okay, Ray, all ready to go!" he heard Elizabeth call.
Her voice still made his heart jump. The sweet sound was so different from the "Ray, what are you doing now?" he had heard from Margaret for the past few years. Ray remembered a time when Margaret had called his name like that, but she had changed. Thank God he had finally found a woman that understood him.
"Ray, this is so sweet . . . You remembered our anniversary!" Elizabeth's voice jolted him back to the hotel room. I'm not crazy, he thought, I've got a piece of heaven in this hotel. Elizabeth is nothing like--
"What brand of champagne IS this?" he heard Elizabeth's voice whine.
Ray lit another cigarette and took a deep breath.
Mica Merriman Brooks