The clues were there for her to find. The credit cards he claimed were used for business. The dinner meetings. The trips out of town. Ira could have advertised his transgressions on a billboard. A Penis is a Terrible Thing to Waste... When You Care Enough to Fuck the Very Best... Kiki looked in the mirror and smacked herself on the head. Her husband had become a midlife crisis cliché.
They had married right after college. Kiki thought his thoughts before he had them. She knew the topography of his body like a map. But the moment Ira turned forty-nine, he changed. Now he spent each waking moment obsessed with death.
Of course their friends were dealing with the same issues. Some women came back from their summer vacations with their faces ironed and pressed. Men bought sport cars and popped little blue pills. But Ira's panic set the curve. Kiki taught English to two hundred middle school kids. She faced a sea of raging hormones every day. Lately she found her husband more trying than her most obstreperous students.
It was 7 a.m. They were circling the clothes closet. His suits were color-coded along one wall. Her slacks and blouses lined the other. Ira was busy arranging himself in his spandex underwear.
"Those new briefs?" asked Kiki.
Ira foraged around his crotch, balancing first on one foot then the other. "They're supposed to give me support. You know. Like a push-up bra."
Kiki glanced at her husband. Sighed. Her brain felt foggy, like it needed a jump-start, like she needed windshield wipers for her face. Coffee. What she wouldn't do for a coffee.
"You wouldn't believe the horror stories you hear at the gym," said Ira. "The chafing. The rashes."
Suddenly she felt her husband's eyes travel up and down her naked body. The only exercise Kiki had the energy for was standing in front of a classroom eight hours a day.
"Jesus," said Ira. He pointed at her the triangle between her legs. "Is that a gray hair? My God, do people get gray hair down there?" There was no mistaking the look of sheer horror on his face.
Kiki looked down. Sighed. "No one's poked around in there since the millennium, Ira. It's not a gray hair. It's fricking cobwebs."
Kiki was wise enough to realize that marriages traverse peaks and valleys. Now they were slugging through a trough. Sometimes you needed to shake things up. Looking back, she should have gone to Best Buy and bought her husband an 85" LED Ultra HD TV. Looking back, she should have planned a vacation to Europe. Instead she withdrew $1000 from her credit union fund and made him a surprise birthday party.
The idea was simple. A handful of guys would take Ira to a sports bar to watch football and make sure he was home by six. Waiting in their home would be fifty of their closest relatives and friends. What could be easier?
The details consumed her. Helium balloons. A Congratulations Ira! sign. Not to mention mopping and dusting the house. When the day finally arrived, Kiki spent the afternoon at Costco loading the cart with stone crabs and wine. An enormous sheet cake with Happy Fiftieth took up half their dining table. The only thing left up-in-the-air was the entertainment. Harold, Ira's business partner, a troll with a ponytail and a pinkie ring, offered to help.
I've made a video, he told her. You wouldn't believe the shit that goes on in a chiropractor's office. It'll go viral, Kiki. It'll be the hit of the party—you'll see.
At 6:40 Ira and his three friends opened the front door and stumbled inside. A cloud of sweat and booze trailed them. When everyone yelled Surprise!, Ira looked over his shoulder as if he were expecting someone else. It took him a full minute to register where he was and when he figured that out he took him another full minute to register the faces of the people in the room. All Kiki could do is screw on a smile.
For the rest of the evening, everything moved in slow motion. People opened and closed their mouths and made hand gestures like the deaf. Kiki watched the ceiling fans circle and crumbs from the birthday cake glide to the floor. And when it time for the video, when Harold turned off the lights and the television started to blare, the world dissolved into thousands of disparate pixels. Red blocks. Blue blocks. Green blocks. Hammering at her head. Even when Kiki closed her eyes, the images penetrated her skull like shrapnel.
At first everyone laughed. Harold caught her husband in every compromising position a chiropractor could make. A parade of young nubile patients in various stages of undress seemed more than happy to pose for the camera. And for the finale, their twenty-something receptionist poured into a slinky cocktail dress, donned a Marilyn Monroe wig and sang in her breathiest voice Happy Birthday.
When the video was over, Kiki was too shell-shocked to react. The room tunneled in. She grabbed a few platters and beat a retreat towards the kitchen. She had almost made a clean getaway when she heard the sobbing. It was the receptionist. Flanked by office personnel, she had laid siege to Kiki's couch.
"I thought he loved me! Just me!"
Kiki had met her once or twice before. Without the wig and dress, she seemed like just another kid. Mousy brown hair. An overbite. Their daughter Tina was a senior at the state university. This was the sort of girl she'd bring home over Thanksgiving, telling her parents she felt sorry for her, telling her parents the girl had no place left to go.
"I've never been so embarrassed!" the receptionist blurted. "He told me I was the only one!"
Ira sat down on the couch and patted the receptionist's knee. She hiccupped a sob, shivered. He put his arm around her shoulder, whispered in her ear then pointed towards Kiki. "Francesca, this is my wife. Kiki, Francesca."
Kiki was speechless. She looked down at the platter filled with stone crab shells and lipsticked napkins. Then she imagined taking the nutcracker and squeezing her husband's genitals into a pulp.
The guests quickly sobered up and left. Half empty paper cups were on every table. Bits and pieces of food crunched under her feet. Kiki accessed the mess that was her living room and her life, then walked into the bedroom. Ira was packing. She watched him fold his Under Armour briefs with origami precision, roll his T-shirts so they wouldn't crease, stuff socks inside his shoes. Then she reached inside his closet, found his over-sized tennis racquet, and walloped him on the head.
"Are you out of your mind!" screamed Kiki. "You're old enough to be her father!"
"I love her," said Ira.
Her arms seemed to move on their own volition, swinging a forehand, then a backhand, then an overhead slam. All Ira could do was double over and make himself small.
"She makes me feel young," he shouted. "She makes me feel like a kid again."
Kiki got all of the house and half their savings. While a few of Ira's guy friends remained loyal, most of their social circle stayed by Kiki's side. Their daughter Tina turned out to be her greatest support. When she was at school, she phoned her mother twice a day. When she came home for Christmas vacation, she refused to meet Francesca. Instead she went to out to dinner with Ira alone.
The evening would be added to Kiki's growing list of horrible evenings. Afterwards, Tina was teary-eyed, red-faced, angry. Without speaking she headed straight for the bathroom. She slammed the door so hard the walls rattled. Her mother stood outside and knocked.
"Tina, holding the toilet hostage for three hours is not a solution to this problem."
"We're not a family anymore. "
"There are different kinds of families," said Kiki.
"A father's not like a crab, Mom. You don't cut off a claw and grow another one back."
The last thing Kiki needed was a crab simile. She was never eating crabs again. "We'll get past this, Ti. Your father still loves you."
"And Francesca?" asked Tina. "What about Francesca?"
Kiki glanced up at the ceiling searching for wisdom, a divine insight, anything. Instead she discovered a spray of mildew radiating from an air-conditioning vent.
"Francesca can be your friend," said Kiki. She was really stretching now. "You two can hang out. Go to the mall. You know. Text and tweet."
Though she would never admit it, Kiki was relieved when her daughter's vacation ended. She craved her normal routine, the din of the school hallways, the busyness. As always she sat in the cafeteria across from her best friend. Carlton had bright red hair, was fifty pounds overweight, and had suffered through a torturous adolescence. His parents never accepted the fact that he was gay. The gay kids never accepted his homeliness. Of all of Kiki's friends, he was the only one she could rely on for unfiltered advice. An Algebra teacher, he peppered their conversations with statistics.
"Did you know that daughters from broken homes have a fifty-eight percent chance of divorce?"
She glanced across the room. The chair of the English Department was at another table, sending her side glances. Kiki was sure he was gossiping. She visualized him choking on his food. The bulging eyes. The purple face. For a few seconds, she felt better.
"Did you know," said Kiki, "that Ira bought the receptionist a car?"
Her friend, as always, luxuriated in despair. "Did you know," said Carlton, "that sixty-seven percent of all second marriages fail?"
"Did you know," said Kiki, "that Ira bought a new house?"
Her husband had been right about one thing. Being fifty sucked. Kiki was too young to date a seventy-year-old and too old for any man her age to be interested. She felt like a consolation prize, like leftovers, like the dregs in a coffee cup. Her students' lives seemed so full of promise, so paved with possibility! How did Kiki manage to hit a dead-end? And the lonelier she was, the happier she imagined her husband and Francesca.
No longer was Francesca a college dropout with limp hair and bad skin. As time passed, she became more alluring and attractive. Kiki imagined trips to Cabo with Francesca frolicking along the beach, a proud and confident Ira by her side. She imagined them starting a new family, decorating a nursery, poring through books to find just the right baby names.
Kiki had lost her appetite. For lunch. For men. For living. "Maybe if I'm lucky," she said to Carlton, "Ira will have a coronary." Maybe if I'm lucky," she said, "he'll pop an aneurysm lifting weights at the gym."
Carlton finished chewing then stuck his fork in the air. "People want to believe that a string of bad luck eventually fails. You flip a coin and eventually the heads even out the tails. So keep on feeding that slot machine, baby. You can't just lose all of the time." He rearranged the wilted lettuce on his plate then looked up again. "But life just doesn't work like that does it? Maybe crap just begets crap."
When it came time for her daughter's college graduation, Kiki decided to call a truce. Chugging a glass of Chablis, she dialed Ira's number. Her heart trampolined while the phone rang. Please don't let her answer. Please don't let her answer. As soon as Kiki heard his voice, she got straight to the point.
"Tina's graduation is coming up soon. We need to plan something. A gift. A party. Something. What did you say? Are you there? Are you listening?"
Ira sounded hesitant— like English was a second language and he was picking out each word. Was he lisping? Ira never lisped.
"Okay...whatever you thay, Kiki...just let me know... I'll send money...whatever you thay."
Kiki held the handset out and stared at it. The machine seemed to have taken her husband's voice and changed it around. Like Darth Vader. Only in reverse. What was that cartoon cat's name? The one who lisped? Sylvester. He sounded like Sylvester. "You okay, Ira? You're talking funny."
"You were always so good at those thort of things, Kiki. You know. Running things. I'm thure you'll plan something great. You always do."
The plan was simple. Kiki reserved a private room at Tina's favorite restaurant and invited family and Tina's closest friends. When the day finally arrived, she marched to the hair salon and Macy's makeup counter. For hours she was buffed and polished. For moral support she asked Carlton to be her date.
A long table seating thirty stretched from one wall to the other. On the side was a small dance floor. A friend of Tina's brought along a CD player and turned the volume up high. Normally Kiki would have hated the music. The fillings in her teeth vibrated. The lyrics were positively obscene. But considering the circumstances it was perfect. Absolutely no one could talk.
On the dance floor, the twenty-somethings nodded their heads and shuffled their feet. Ira flitted like an insect among Tina's friends. Huddling in a corner, Kiki and Carlton shouted in each others' ears.
"Did you know," said Kiki, "that some species have asexual reproduction? That female honeybees that can replicate their own DNA?"
"Did you know," said Carlton, "that seventy percent of men who cheat on their wives cheat on their girlfriends?"
They both turned and stared at the receptionist. Francesca was sitting alone at the table. She looked concave, thought Kiki, like a parenthesis. Her shoulders were hunched, her stomach scooped. Kiki sighed. Then she sat down on the empty chair next to her.
"I guess you don't like to dance," yelled Kiki.
Francesca startled. She sat up straighter and smoothed her hair with her hand. The girl had slathered on pancake makeup. Her face had an orange tint. "I'm a little under the weather," said Francesca.
Kiki pivoted her neck and looked at Ira. He was flirting with one of Tina's friends, whatshername, someone starting law school. He had positioned himself inches from her cleavage. "I guess he's trying to be a good host," said Kiki in her most chipper voice.
"Host my ass," said Francesca.
Kiki glanced across the room at Tina, Carlton, anything.
"We've been trying to get pregnant," said Francesca. "Only instead of a fetus I've been incubating an ovarian mass."
She started crying. Jesus, thought Kiki, remind me not to invite this girl to another party. Then she glanced at her daughter. Tina was laughing, her laughter skipping like pebbles, her smile filling the room. Kiki put her hand over Francesca's. Heartache is never graded on a curve. "Are you going to be okay?"
"They say it's not cancer," said Francesca. "But I may never have a baby. It'll be a miracle if I'll ever be a mom."
Once again a room tunneled in. "Giving birth to a child doesn't define you," said Kiki.
Francesca blew her nose with a napkin. "I know I'll be okay. It's Ira. Ira likes bright shiny pennies." She pointed to the Tina's friends on the dance floor. "They're bright shiny pennies. I've become a dented can."
Kiki scooted her chair closer and gripped the girl's chin. "Being someone's girlfriend or someone's wife doesn't define you either." Like she did with her students, she waited a few seconds for the information to sink it. Then she bent over and kissed the receptionist's cheek. "You'll be fine, Francesca. We're tougher than we think."
Hours later, Carlton drove her home. They had survived the evening. Tina seemed happy. The party was a success. Her friend, of course, couldn't resist offering a recap of the night's events.
"You realize, don't you, that Ira's been botoxed. The man can't even manage a grin, for God's sake. His mouth muscles are frozen."
"I know," said Kiki. "I know."
"Tina has a crush on that cute one with the wavy hair. Did you notice? The one who danced like he had Parkinson's."
"I know," said Kiki. "I know."
"And that Francesca, poor thing, with her Halloween makeup and the sad sack of a dress. Someone needs to start reading Cosmo, I can tell you that!"
She watched his brake lights disappear after he dropped her off. Then she opened the front door and headed for the kitchen. Kiki poured herself a glass of wine, sat down at the table and thumbed her calendar. She had gotten it for free in the mail. On each page were pictures of kittens and advertisements from local stores. Her fingers skimmed over the days and weeks. She knew her daughter would be home soon. There would be presents to unwrap, leftover cake to eat, gossip to share. I'll give Ira one month, thought Kiki. One month tops.
Pen in hand, she marshaled her courage and set her sights on doing the right thing. She put on her reading glasses. Then slowly she filled out the white box. Call Francesca, she wrote. Francesca will need to be called.
Marlene Olin's short stories have been published or are forthcoming in over sixty journals including The Massachusetts Review, The Water-Stone Review, upstreet Magazine, Steam Ticket, Vine Leaves, Poetica, and Crack the Spine. She is also the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and a Best of the Net nominee.