If you don't have any interest in short fiction, you can pass on this one! ;>)
This is my entry for the Storyblogging Carnival. There will be more fiction here from time to time.
by Trudy W. Schuett
The first thing Jim always did when he got home from work was to go back to her studio and kiss her hello.
When they built the house, 20 years ago, she wanted to be able to work while keeping an eye on the boys, who were 3 at the time. They'd placed the studio where other houses would have an enclosed patio leading to the backyard. The yard, of course, was fenced all around to keep the twins from wandering off. The house itself was “less house” than you'd expect an architect to build. Three bedrooms, two-car garage – it was just a degree nicer than the others in the neighborhood. Jim preferred to leave his work, which was mostly commercial architecture, at the office, and have his home a comfortable place to be with his family, rather than a showcase for his abilities.
Jena was a portrait painter and landscape artist whose paintings were often hung in the office buildings and homes of the real estate developers and shopping mall owners who were Jim's clientele. Jena's income had allowed them to take better vacations and send the boys to college. There had been times she could've branched out and shown her work in New York galleries, but she chose to spend her time with the boys instead. She didn't have a moment's regret, either. The boys were on their own now; one a commercial artist for an advertising agency, the other an archaeologist working for the state government.
Between them, Jim and Jena had built a home for the four of them that was their refuge, not only for their own boys, but for half the neighborhood kids as well. In the summer, the driveway would be covered with chalk drawings. In winter, the wide windowsill in the studio would be lined with all kinds of art projects, from play clay sculpture to fingerpaints. As the kids got older, the attention naturally gravitated to the kitchen that Jena kept well-stocked with snacks, and the den with its computer games.
With the kids grown, and suddenly many hours in a quiet house appeared, they found they still enjoyed each other's company. This did not go unnoticed by the office staff and Jim's partners, as he showed up for work some mornings with telltale spots of paint on his tie or in his hair. Jena was often at work before sunrise, and Jim liked to sneak up behind her and kiss her good morning. Sometimes a good morning kiss turned into something else.
"At it again, I see," Bob Kent, Jim's partner would say with a grin, pointing to a smear of chartreuse or indigo on his collar, when Jim would walk down the hall, whistling to himself. The younger clerks would nudge each other and giggle at the thought of somebody so ancient still so much in love with his wife.
Jim would shrug, and grin back, and go into his office without comment.
Most men have photos of their wives or kids on their desks, but Jim had a formal family portrait, painted by Jena, hanging on the wall. He'd salute the painting, and make a halfhearted attempt to remove the paint stain from his shirt or tie, but it didn't really matter that people knew he'd been kissing his wife. Then the phone would ring; the workday would start, and the spot of clashing color would stay where it was.
At home, in the studio, Jena had one of her first portraits displayed in a place of honor at one end of the room. This was a large, full-length rendition of Jim at age 21, with shoulder-length hair, leaning casually against the doorway to the little kitchen in their tiny apartment, wearing nothing but a teasing grin and a pencil behind his ear. The smile was the thing that made the painting a real work of art. Somehow she managed to capture the way he felt about her, and only she knew how it melted her heart. She'd painted it in their first apartment together, displayed it at the college art show, and it had led to her first paying commission. It had been finished the day the twins were conceived, and always brought back loving, bright memories. She'd had it put away for years, because the boys were embarrassed by what they called, "the naked picture," when they started school and began bringing friends home. The day they went off to college together, she took down the less-remarkable one of Jim wearing a business suit, put that in the storage closet, and replaced it with the one she liked better.
Sometimes she'd catch him looking at his portrait with a wistful kind of a half-smile. "I still see you that way,” she'd say, reaching up to give him a kiss on the cheek.
"20 years and forty pounds ago," he'd retort, but he'd kiss her back; pleased anyway.
Today she was hanging up her smock as he came in. The smell of dinner cooking in the kitchen was competing with the paint smells of the studio. The easel held a completed interpretation of a developer's new trophy wife with a pair of Old English sheepdogs, on the lawn of his newest, biggest, most excessive house. The woman was beautiful, but not very bright. Plus, she hated the dogs, who would not cooperate and stand beside her as they appeared in the painting.
"Well, I'm glad that one's done," Jena said to Jim by way of greeting. "Good thing I work from stills and video, none of them wanted to sit still and behave!" She grinned at him and went into his arms, kissing him on the neck. "So how was your day?"
"Ugh. It's like a freaking mausoleum over there. Glad to see somebody's in a good mood."
This was a Monday, and Mondays were the worst. For the last year, the divorce monster had reared its ugly head in the halls of King, Kent, and LeClaire, Commercial Architects, LLC. After Bob Kent's wife left him, it seemed to create a ripple effect, as one by one the partners, associates and office staff found themselves engaged in contentious divorce actions and heartbreaking custody disputes. The divorced and divorcing would show up Mondays with tremendous hangovers after a bitter, lonely weekend; while those still married tried to pretend they weren't secretly dreading the “other shoe dropping” in their own lives. The partners had the additional worry of how it was all going to eventually affect the business. It was a difficult, unclear and disturbing time for everybody.
"Yep, that painting's done, and I can take some time off. I was thinking maybe you could, too. Just a couple of days – we could go antiquing! Stay in cheap motels and eat in little holes-in-the-wall and pretend we're Michelin Guide spies on the trail. Whatcha think?"
She stayed put, rubbing his back, letting him know without words it didn't really matter if she didn't get her way. Maybe she was more trying to let him know now she had some time off, she'd like to spend it with him.
Their wordless communication had always been efficient. Most of the time, anyway, except for a few years when the boys were in high school and nothing either of them said to the other was understood. The boys weren't talking then either. They never knew why it happened or when it started.
They did know when it ended, one Sunday morning in the emergency room of the local hospital. The twins had been in a car with some other boys; the driver was drunk and hit a tree at high speed. The two boys in the front were killed; the three boys in the back were hurt, but would recover. That's all they knew for hours, sitting in the waiting room of the hospital while the staff tried to sort out identities, and letting bits of the wrong information slip. Jim and Jena had been so busy arguing and blaming each other neither of them noticed the boys' car was parked across the street from their house, and they couldn't have been driving. If they'd noticed that, they would've saved themselves many hours of anguish. Their boys had been in the back of somebody else's car. Tommy walked away from the wreck with scrapes and bruises; Sammy had broken ribs and a broken arm.
They had a terrible scare, but they'd never take each other for granted again. They needed each other too much, and almost lost everything that night. Jena knew she'd never voluntarily choose a life without Jim. She'd thought about it in those days, when any question was answered either by silence or an angry retort, but no. They were a family, for better or worse.
Maybe that's what he was thinking about too, as they stood in the studio wrapped in each other's arms. Jim was taking a long time to answer her question about the antiquing trip. Those bad days were seldom spoken of out loud now they were safely in the past. But sometimes...
He was fumbling with the waistband of her shorts, slipping a hand underneath and encountering bare skin. "Got anything on a timer there, in the kitchen?"
"Nope, beef stew in the crockpot."
He led her over to the other end of the studio, where there was a couch and chair, a table for visitors to sit and talk to her as she worked. As she lay back on the couch, she caught a glimpse of her painting of young Jim over the present-day Jim's shoulder. The same smile was still there. She got to see it a lot, now they had so much time alone, and it had the same effect on her as ever.
Later, they were eating their dinner in the kitchen, and Jim finally came up with an answer to her question.
"I can't manage anything more than maybe Friday afternoon for right now. Bob's in court tomorrow, so he won't be good for anything the rest of the week, and I think Chris goes Wednesday. I better stick around."
"That's OK – I'll bring you lunch tomorrow, how's that?"
"That would be great." He loved her lunches. They didn't happen too often, but when they did she'd bring enough food for an army and everyone in the office would share. It would brighten everyone's spirits for the day. He was thinking about something as he tore a roll into shreds. He reached across the table and took her hand. "Still with me, aren't you?" It wasn't really a question.
"Yes I am, honey – no doubt about it! We had our bad times, and we got through it." She shrugged, and sighed. "Some people can't, I guess. But we've always had something special. Anyway, I've never slept with anybody but you and I wouldn't know how to act," she confessed.
He was looking down at his bowl, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. He looked up at her. "Well, I haven't either."
She stared at him. "So I was right – that thing with Sherry wasn't what Betty thought it was!" Sherry had been Jim's secretary for ten years, and then abruptly left the firm. Betty Kent made it her business to tell Jena what she suspected.
"What thing with Sherry? She got married and moved to Chicago, is all I know. God, that was years ago." He gave her a puzzled look.
"Betty told me you and Sherry, well – she moved to Chicago because you'd been having a – an affair, and wouldn't leave me and marry her." Jena was embarrassed about even saying it. "I didn't believe it, but I couldn't bring myself to ask you, either."
"Well, how smart could Betty be? Throwing Bob out after 25 years, like there's anybody else that would put up with her crap." He took their empty bowls and put them in the sink. "You know what? Remember back in the little apartment at school, we'd just get in bed and talk all night? Maybe we should do that again."
A smile leaped into her eyes as she remembered. "Sure, maybe we should."
"I'll meet you upstairs after I lock up," he said. As Jena headed upstairs, he went into the darkened studio to lock the back door. As he passed the big portrait on the wall with its lighted frame, he could've sworn the young Jim winked at him.