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.