James Hartman ~ Stage Three

Even pro­lif­ic swingers like us had morals.  Rules to our care­free promis­cu­ity.  Rules each of us took seri­ous­ly.  Beth and I had been hap­pi­ly mar­ried, you see, before we met this mar­ried cou­ple off a dat­ing site at Sloppy Joe’s.  Rule One: we only got togeth­er with just as hap­pi­ly mar­ried cou­ples.  But when these two walked in, Beth poked my shoul­der and rasped, “They’re not hap­py.  I bet you they’re not even mar­ried.”

Over a large shrimp cock­tail, Charley and Jaci said they were cel­e­brat­ing their five-year anniver­sary and had always want­ed to expe­ri­ence the trop­i­cal charm of Key West.  No chil­dren.  Real-estate agents from Colorado.  Jaci had jagged-short black hair and long, tanned fore­arms.  Her ass was small and coiled.  And Beth had to admit that Charley was attrac­tive in a washed-up, Tom Cruise sort of fash­ion.  In oth­er words, they were good can­di­dates: kind, estab­lished, phys­i­cal­ly attrac­tive, and they seemed so hap­py.

So hap­py, that is, except to my wife.

As the two of them danced to Van Morrison, Beth jerked her head, her straw pinched between two fin­gers.  “Look at that, they’re danc­ing so close but they aren’t look­ing at each oth­er.  The only time I’ve seen them smile is when they were try­ing to con­vince us how hap­py they are.”

I wasn’t total­ly con­vinced, and told my wife so.

Beth smirked at me, amused.  “Ask them how they met then.”

We had nev­er asked a cou­ple this.  Every one of them always vol­un­teered this infor­ma­tion.  When Charley and Jaci returned, we moved over to a vacant table by the open doors, with­in the light­ed stream of a steady breeze, so I could eas­i­ly view their faces.  Beth got annoyed with me when I kept delay­ing and toed me under the table.  Sooner or lat­er I expect­ed them to divulge this answer on their own, like we had done ear­li­er, like every oth­er cou­ple we had met up with had done.  But they didn’t, and I actu­al­ly grew uncom­fort­able.  Until I asked.  Near tears, they told us they met while under­go­ing chemother­a­py for can­cer.  Hers, thy­roid.  His, skin.  They played check­ers to dis­tract them­selves, often help­ing the oth­er when he or she had no strength to lift their piece.  Stage III and poor prog­noses.  Their imme­di­ate fam­i­lies were “gone,” they lacked “true” friends, yet they had each oth­er.  When they real­ized they had been diag­nosed on the same day, they got mar­ried on the one-year anniver­sary.  “Our love lit­er­al­ly saved us,” Charley said.  Both were now in remis­sion.

I mean, their sto­ry was inspir­ing.  When they showed us indi­vid­ual scars from var­i­ous surg­eries, I had to smear two tears from my cheek.  Even Beth was moved.

So with­out order­ing anoth­er drink, we walked back to the ranch-house we rent­ed on Greene.  A rare January mist descend­ed from the palm trees and fil­tered around us, like chilled steam.  Jaci remarked how she didn’t expect to get so wet in Key West dur­ing the hol­i­days, and elbowed me, her smile juicy-Margarita red.  Beth smiled, too.  So did Charley.

Rule Two: we had to play on the same bed, not because of dis­trust or inse­cu­ri­ty but watch­ing each oth­er con­sid­er­ably ele­vat­ed our arousal.  Despite what ulti­mate­ly hap­pened, I still can­not get over how erot­ic it all was.  I had nev­er expe­ri­enced any­thing that par­al­leled it.  Regardless of posi­tion, Beth and I clutched hands, which we had nev­er done before, and angled our faces close, cud­dling noses.  I guess that’s what’s extra trag­ic about this.  Amid all that strange, hot, orgas­mic sweat, our mar­riage was nev­er stronger.  I was right about Jaci’s ass.  That thing had spring.

If only we hadn’t passed out right after.

We awoke the next morn­ing to dis­ori­en­ta­tion.  Everything, I mean, just gone.  Jewelry, tele­vi­sion, stereo, our cred­it cards, all our cash.  We felt the way our home now looked: dis­abled.  A note in black per­ma­nent mark­er scrib­bled on our bed­room mir­ror said: “Sorry.”  Below that, in dif­fer­ent hand­writ­ing: “Maybe you shouldn’t hook up with strangers?”

The Key West Police Department took our state­ments and promised a thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tion and of course noth­ing result­ed from it.  We were forced to move out of Old Town into the Motel 6 on Highway 1.  Beth end­ed our play dates.  We both picked up extra hours at the Hog’s Breath Saloon.  When we still didn’t have enough mon­ey to coör­di­nate an apart­ment, Beth left.  Rumors soon cir­cu­lat­ed about this new hot thing down at Teasers on Duval, but Teasers was always adver­tis­ing a “new hot thing” every oth­er week.

Then, this morn­ing, in the USA Today left out­side my door, I saw on the front page the arrest in Arizona of a man and woman who, while pos­ing as a mar­ried cou­ple, alleged­ly com­mit­ted 23 rob­beries in nine states.  When I saw their mugshots, I sidearmed the paper out the win­dow.  Then, lat­er this after­noon, Beth called me from a Restricted num­ber.  I had been call­ing her every day since she quit the Hog’s Breath, and every time got for­ward­ed.  She was cry­ing.  I didn’t have to ask if she saw the USA Today.  “This is what we get!” she screamed.

I looked at her rings twin­kling on the chipped night­stand, and real­ized this may be my final chance to sew shut what had been ripped so vio­lent­ly open.  I exhaled two extra deep breaths, and said, “We got robbed, Beth.  It wasn’t our fault.”

A baf­fling pause.  Then: “You still don’t get it!”

I plead­ed and plead­ed, even after the call had end­ed.

Unbelievable, is what this all is.  Just because of some rob­bery.  It real­ly got to her.  I mean, it com­plete­ly re-chan­neled her per­spec­tive.  How she became so mate­ri­al­is­tic, how she allowed the per­fect­ly replace­able loss of our pos­ses­sions to destroy our mar­riage, I’ll nev­er know.

~

James Hartman’s fic­tion has been nom­i­nat­ed for the Pushcart Prize and the Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forth­com­ing in Per Contra, Blue Fifth Review, Gravel, After the Pause, Out of the Gutter Online, The Airgonaut, and Jellyfish Review, among oth­ers. His schol­ar­ly work is fea­tured in The Hemingway Review. He has sev­er­al degrees, includ­ing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife. He writes for SB Nation.