SPECIAL- SHORT STORY- Dancing on the ledge
Back in March, local writer John Grisham, judge of the Hook's annual short story contest, chose our winner and two runners-up. This week, for readers' end-of-summer gratification, we present Sally Honenberger's second-place winning entry, "Dancing on the Ledge." Later, we'll print another story by that accomplished writer– she was also the third-place winner!
The stories didn't satisfy her anymore. Since she'd climbed into bed, she hadn't turned a page. At Alan's urging, she put the book down and turned off the light. His steady breathing filled the instant pitch black. Even though she was aware of his disappointment, she turned on her side, her back to him. The pattern set, he didn't ask.
The flannel nightgown, his annual holiday gift, clung to her legs. Raising the covers slightly, she tried to free the heavy cloth without disturbing him. She listened for his first light snores, a signal that he wasn't lying awake needing her. Years ago, the double bed had seemed so large. Lately he'd cut out advertisements of king size mattress sales and placed them prominently on her bureau as if they had graduated somehow, as if she should want it also.
Into the emptiness her imagination expanded, out of control. The dream rushed at her in the captive air. Images of a different man pressed inward, making her crazy with an unfamiliar passion. Muscled shoulders weighed against her bones. Feverish skin, probing fingers. She wanted to fling off the blankets.
The hall clock chimed. The radiators hissed hot air. Doubt wove in and out of her consciousness, in and around, until she rose and opened the window, a measured inch above the sill. Below, in the regimented street lamp light, the lawn chairs gleamed, neatly spaced on the patio stones. Tomorrow they might be buried under snow from the threatened storm, disguised, unrecognizable shapes.
Tugging the curtain straight, she returned to her side of the bed. She reclined in stages— calves extended, torso, head, careful not to lean where the bed might groan— not wanting to wake Alan. She was perspiring.
A steady partner, undemanding, predictable, he worked hard. Since the children were grown, she'd anticipated they'd spend more weekend time together. His hobbies left her time to pursue her own, the garden, tennis. With her law practice pared down, evenings found them together in the house in separate pursuits. She often said how lucky she was. Yet in that routine he flourished, and she was drowning.
In bed, side by side– beneficent husband, faithful wife– her envy raged. Rivulets of anger erupted at other women who had escaped what bound her. Wives who whispered over coffee while their unsuspecting husbands played at work or golf. Wives who spurned so blithely their husbands' bland content. Wives who raced unfettered to the lust she had just today recognized in the hungry eyes, the lingering handshake, the brush of an unfamiliar shoulder against hers in the hallway.
Even now she could hear Glen's laughter, so personal, so intense. He reeled her in as literally as if he had taken her hands, dragged her to the parapet, and commanded her to jump. Lust– she didn't think she'd ever known it until now.
Drawn into memories of a younger self, she scrounged for a wisp, a thread of an earlier time when she might have felt this way. Surely in her youth some man had made her melt and lose control, but she couldn't recall it– only this new, unspoken, outrageous demand of a stranger to be close, the soft rush of air, his breath slipping by hers in mere conversation, temptingly warm, sweet, her tongue sliding across her lips to catch the almost taste of him.
Even apart hours later, she felt the flush of embarrassment as her hand had drawn back from Glen's. She knew he noticed, knew he tempted purposefully to gauge how soon she'd fall. Yes, she was sure he knew how she felt. For years, she'd watched other women talk with him, a hand laid on his sleeve, a note slipped with a book, a nod with eyebrows raised. She'd been busy. And content. Somehow he'd known to bide his time, that a moment would come when she would want what he offered. Even the realization that he had orchestrated the whole charade didn't assuage the temptation. She wanted him all the more.
Suddenly she was impatient with good-natured Alan who accepted the growing distance between them placidly as if it were all they could expect at their age. It was hard to believe he didn't notice her distraction. Yet he served the salad, passed the dressing, offered her more wine. They played their parts as they had a thousand other evenings with talk of politics and office projects and plans for summer vacation. He hardly glanced in her direction.
With Alan inches from her in the bed, she let herself fall into a subconscious place where she succumbed without looking back. In her mind, she played out the appointed lunch. She imagined the bend of her head towards Glen's, the breathless drive to some private place, the unspoken yes, and the mounting tempo of tangled limbs in frenzied ecstasy.
But, when morning dawned, no satisfaction accompanied the moonlit treachery. She threw off the covers and stretched. In her legs and back she was aware of muscles she'd forgotten. Flushed, she fingered the rose-colored wool dress. She tried to remember the weather report. January in Virginia could be cold.
Glen's message at the office yesterday had said to pick a time. The idea of scrolling through her calendar and jotting down a place and time terrified her. Possible would transform to concrete, and there would be no turning back. She forced herself to choose. Once she'd picked the yellow silk, she couldn't help imagining how it might feel sliding across her skin as he pressed his hands there. And there.
When she opened her eyes, Alan had come from the shower, towel around his waist, his expression intent on his own choices for the day. He moved in considered deliberation. She wondered if, perhaps once, when she hadn't noticed, he had planned a similar mutiny, his mind and body separated from his regular life in a world that did not include her.
"Busy day?" he held a tie up to the starched shirt, still on the hanger.
"Office stuff. Catching up after yesterday's hearing."
"Wondered about what?"
"Whether the office was dragging you down. You're lucky to have Jill. A good secretary is hard to find."
"The clients are like causes to her. She likes helping them fix their lives. I think it's vicarious living."
"She probably idolizes you. Not everyone has such a considerate boss."
He laced up his wingtips and went down for breakfast, calling back from the landing. "The Thorntons invited us to dinner on Saturday. Can you check the calendar?"
As if from a distant overlook, she watched them— husband and wife, Alan and Elizabeth— in their daily routine. How odd that she could smile and nod at him all the while buttoning the silk dress where another man's hands would unbutton it. She wondered if afterward she would be able to come home and talk calmly of investments and anniversaries.
At the office, Glen's message hung in the air. Just tell me when. He meant to leave the impression he'd been waiting a long time, but that was part of the illusion. Although she picked up the phone book, she didn't have to open it. She knew the number. A hundred times she'd called his office for business. With the phone pressed against her ear, its weight was suddenly so great that her arm dragged downward. She propped her elbow on the desk.
"Is he there?" she asked the receptionist whose name she had known until that instant. She tried to recall whether the girl was attractive, though she'd never cared before.
"Mr. Morrell's still in court, but I expect him momentarily. Can I take a message?"
"No," she blurted. Yet even as she said it, she realized it would look odd if she didn't.
"Mrs. Clore?" Of course the girl recognized her voice.
Elizabeth's mind, stuck on what she'd planned to say, refused to shift. "Just tell him two o'clock. He'll understand."
"Which case is it? So I can pull the file." While the girl prattled on about his schedule and when he was likely to return, Elizabeth paced the length of the phone cord and back.
"It's just a scheduling matter," she explained. "He won't need a file."
After she hung up, she picked up folders and put them down. She stared at the pile of paperwork. She could run over to the courthouse on some pretense to see if he was there. In the confusion, he might find an excuse to brush her arm or take her hand.
Snapping at her own secretary, she shut the door again and gave up on work. With her back to the wall of family photographs, she contemplated the mountains outside her window and waited. At one-thirty the phone rang. Like a Tesla coil, it filled the room with energy. She grabbed it.
"Elizabeth," Glen said with yesterday's teasing tone, "I wondered if you'd call."
With those few words, he hinted of things she'd never talked about before, had barely thought of until yesterday. Even as she waited for the question, she rehearsed the practiced answer.
"Well?" he said. Was he so sure of her he didn't have to say the words?
"Does three o'clock sound good to you?" She heard her own voice, the tinny echo in the telephone receiver, the repetition in her head. To keep from swaying with relief, she gripped the edge of the desk. She'd done it. Muscles tightened in odd places. The office was suddenly too hot, though she'd been shivering moments ago.
"The Quarterpath Inn, Room 222," he replied. "It'll be unlocked."
He'd already booked the room. So confident? Or else he'd done this so often they simply held the room for him.
Startled when she thought he'd gone, she could only murmur, yes, and even that stuck in her throat.
He added, "I was up all night."
She recognized the intent, the manipulation, the suggestion of things to come. Mental images of bare skin and rumpled sheets smothered her. She couldn't talk. She could hardly breathe.
Although he had the answer he wanted, he pressed his advantage. "I know this isn't easy for you, but you won't regret it."
She already regretted it. Yet she couldn't stop herself. The dream was too real, the desire too strong. Already he knew this about her. From the one touch, he knew.
"I may not be back before five," she told her secretary as she tugged at the door.
Dogged as she felt by the overheated shadows of her dreams, the coolness of the outside air shocked her. Twenty minutes' drive on highway to country road and back to highway again drilled a steady cadence into her turmoil. Lulled by the steady roll of tires on pavement, she relaxed a little. If she arrived early at the motel, she might calm down. The room, at least, would grow familiar.
At the intersection, a car honked several times before she saw the green light. Although she had no idea where Room 222 was, she drove straight past the registration desk, only slowing at the corner to examine the posted signs. The room was in the back row. Overgrown junipers cloaked the empty parking spaces. Glen's obvious planning ought to offend her, but it wasn't as if he'd misled her. She could have said no. Yet from his first touch in the hallway, that had not been an option.
Before she got out, she checked her rear view mirror. His convertible wasn't here. When no one answered her knock, she tried the door. It was unlocked, just as he'd promised. The small room contained barely enough space for the bed, the dresser, and the single chair. Badly done country scenes, one from every season, decorated the walls. A generic year displayed before her in mass-produced mediocrity.
After she examined the bathroom— as if the acceptability of the room mattered— she pulled back the bedcovers and smoothed the sheets. For a second, she toyed with the idea of confronting him naked. It might give her back an edge she'd conceded with the gasp at his touch.
Naked and armed. Her laughter twirled giddily in the empty room. And yet in all her imaginings, he undressed her, and she couldn't give that up.
She moved the chair to the window. A square of blue sky hung there, attached to the earth by the weighty block of dull black pavement. Two-thirty. She straightened the bedspread. Slipping off her heels, she aligned them neatly under the radiator, out of the way.
Five minutes to three. He might have gotten tied up. The radiator's hot air spilled through narrow vents into the empty room. Where she'd been leaning against the vinyl chair, her dress stuck to her back. She yanked up the metal lid and turned the dial to low. They wouldn't need all that heat.
When he arrived, she didn't want to look anxious. Or upset. She decided to lie down. She closed her eyes. A car door slammed. She resisted the urge to peek out the window. Two more minutes, five, fifteen went by. No Glen.
Perhaps he'd been called back to court. She should have brought a book, though that would confuse him, make him think she did this all the time, not the image she intended. She turned the heater to the off position.
Opening the window would be wonderful, but she thought it might be too risky. She peeled off her stockings and wiggled her toes. There was a certain freedom in walking barefoot when she would normally be hard at work at the office. She rested her head on the pillow again, straining to hear his car.
In the stifling room, without meaning to, she dozed. When she awakened, the sharp lines of January sun that had edged the curtains earlier had disappeared. Four-forty. She tugged on her stockings and jammed her feet into her shoes. Perhaps he thought this was a joke. Or a test to be sure she was ready. He was the one experienced at playing games.
Although she ran the water to wash her face, she stopped herself before using the towel. If the room appeared unused, no one would know she'd come. She plumped the pillows and tucked the bedspread under them neatly. Before leaving, she searched the twilight in either direction. Leaving the door unlocked, she sprinted to her car.
Back at the office everyone had gone. She washed her face again. With the deep cobalt sky as backdrop, the mountains glowed black. The last of the sunset tinged the peaks with crimson. The outline of the world she knew looked close enough to touch, but the reality of the miles between her and the mountains made her feel even more alone. For a long time she stood at the window.
When she finally sat at the desk, it felt awkward and foreign. How many hours she'd logged here, solving other people's problems. Familiar phrases and forms, the repetition bred expertise, and she'd made a life for herself outside of Alan's version of a loyal wife. Until yesterday it had been enough. She could blame some cosmic alignment of time and space for the sudden change, but she'd be lying.
One at a time, more and more quickly, she reviewed the papers her secretary had left. She signed what was necessary, then picked up the phone. After five rings, the answering machine clicked into gear. She cleared her throat, forced her words to be distinct and authoritative.
"Glen, I am so sorry about this afternoon. I had an emergency with a client. Out of the office," she added. "I hope you made good use of the time. Will you forgive me?"
Once she'd hung up, flush with moral superiority, a vision of Glen came to her. Glen, insistent to arrange a second meeting, to see how malleable she was now that he'd made her wait and want him, now that he had her breathless and painfully eager. She imagined him scheming in his office while she paced the motel room. She could see his grin at the anticipated pleasure. Snapping off the lights, she twisted the key in the lock.
In the car she realized the message might make him angry. Perhaps he'd be suspicious and rush to the hotel to gloat, only to be disappointed. There would be no sign that she'd ever been there. When she tried to recreate last night's dream, the vision in her mind was fuzzy. What was it exactly that she'd craved?
As she turned the corner onto their street, she anticipated the quiet house, the kitchen's warmth, Alan's patient presence. His car stood on his side of the garage exactly where she expected it to be. He was humming in the kitchen.
"Hello," she called as she hung up her coat. The dining room table was set, complete with flowers. Apron askew, Alan grinned in front of the stove, his spatula poised above a sizzling frying pan.
"Italian sausage, okay?" he asked.
His hair, she noticed, was gray and thinning. Under the apron strings, his golf shirt bunched around his waist in extra wrinkles. Too many business lunches.
"You know, that dress suits you," he said, smiling. "You should wear it more often."
She looked up from the mail. "Thanks. So what's the occasion?"
"I don't know. I just felt like something different. No reason why you should always cook." So he had noticed it too, the sameness, the flat line of their days.
She waited for him to look at her, to let it rise to an issue that deserved words, but he didn't. Between the counter and stove, he moved confidently, rinsing vegetables and sliding them gracefully off the cutting board and into the frying pan. It reminded her of the first time he'd made them dinner, an early date, and how it had set him apart from earlier boyfriends, that he knew how to cook more than steak on the grill.
"I think I'll change into something more comfortable," she said.
He chuckled, though she hadn't meant anything by it. Upstairs, she went straight to the closet. She pulled off the silk dress. With one hand on the doorframe for balance, she slipped it onto the hanger and tossed the shoes in behind it. She grabbed her corduroys. That's when she saw the negligee, silvery and sheer, hanging from the door knob. Alan had tucked the tag under her jewelry box, her choice preserved.
He spoke from the bedroom doorway. "I tried to reach you at the office. I had to drive in to the city, thought you might like to come and do some shopping."
"Sorry," she said, standing in her slip, unable to look at him, "It wouldn't have worked today."
"Maybe next time."
Inches behind her, the warmth of his body radiated towards hers. He put his hands on her shoulders. Drawing in a long sigh, she closed her eyes and let herself sink against him.
The title of this story was originally misstated. "Dancing on the Ledge" is the correct title.