She realized the truth about halfway down.
It’s not your life that flashes before your eyes, but your mistakes. The tiny moments that lead here, to your demise. Taking a left instead of right to get to work because your normal way was clogged with traffic. Leaving that curling iron plugged in while you stepped into the bath tub. Trying to wolf down that plate of chicken wings on that desolate stretch of I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Name the situation, no matter how ludicrous or outlandish, and those regrets have been lived over and over, mistakes debated, “maybe there was no way around it,” “maybe it was meant to be,” millions of self-administered cracks on the spectral forehead, repeated in perpetuity, in that final infinite moment before the blackness engulfs.
This is where Margaret’s flash begins: Setting her wedding ring on the hotel room’s ledge, cracking the window, and breathing in the night air.
It was the first time she’d taken off the ring in twenty years, save the occasional soap scrub-down when her mind would record-skip to the germs that must be festering underneath; images of deep sea creatures with lightened baits dangling from their foreheads to trap prey. Once, she had to take it off when an overly-sensitive metal detector wouldn’t let her board a red-eye flight to Denver. But that was all. Other than those, that ring stayed firmly attached to her body. Immovable. A part of her. Never giving it a second’s notice, this additive, this foreigner, this metal tumor.
She took another deep breath, bits of moisture from the dark night – the moon obscured by low-hanging clouds – finding its way into the bottoms of her lungs, skipping past her nose and windpipe entirely. It felt like that third puff of a cigarette, after the first two kill the sensation in the tongue and numb the throat, allowing a clear path to an internal fire.
“It was someone at work,” was what Jack had said.
Never mentioning a name or position or physical attribute that could be used to cull the co-worker pool. He never ventured any further, she never pried. In her mind she knew it best to stay away from definites and cold, hard facts. Details would only make the visions become that much clearer. In this wraith state, at the very least, she could make the other party into some far slob or nubile intern or really anyone at all, as long as they couldn’t be perceived as a threat. Whoever it was would have the worst her imagination could conjure, a forehead so chock full of pimples it would seem diseased, a distorted upper lip, the type of mouth that’s 85% gum and so little teeth that youngsters – those without the ability to yet feel shame – ask aloud as to what happened to the rest of ‘em.
“And it was only once,” he said. “And over a year ago.”
That was what bothered her the most: the timeframe of this. It was “over a year ago.” He’d been sitting on this information for somewhere between, mathematically speaking, 365 to 350,000 days, give or take, from the second he admitted it to when they first walked down the aisle. That’s too wide of a window to feel comfortable with anything that happened during the entirety of their marriage. Did it happen before they went away for that weekend in Lake Arrowhead to celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary? Or did he fuck the whore right after they had lost “either Aaron or Joyce, depending” after six months of incubating, where they felt as if they’d reconnected and doubled-down on their efforts to be with one another, through good times and, especially then, bad? Or after he came home drunk once every few months, supposedly out playing poker with friends, and whispered, sweetly, that he loved her? It could have been any of those, any previous sweetness up for grabs, any moment of love tarnished and diminished, made into nothing. She would ask who it was, specifically, and when it was, specifically, at some point down the line. She was sure of it. But for now, the uncertainty destroyed everything she had. The only way to get over it was to first know exactly what she was getting over. But, that was a goal for another night. Tonight was about … something else.
Revenge wasn’t quite the word. She was never going to get recompense or be made to feel better after doing what she planned. Her plan wasn’t exactly directed towards him, a measure to make him feel worse about the adultery he had committed. It was all about equality. The only way they could go forward is if they were on equal footing, to each have something to hold over the other, for both to feel unwanted and unneeded rather than having the burden fall on one. Yes, a relationship is about compromising and understanding. But it’s also a struggle, two sides butting up against each other; two equally-matched linemen at a standstill in the trenches at the line of scrimmage; two super-powers building up their nuclear arsenal as a threat to keep the other peaceful. Serenity through potential malice.
She booked a room at the Palmer because of the hotel’s Congress Bar, home to an eclectic mix of travelers looking for a quick nightcap, locals hoping a traveler was looking for some company that night, and the hotel staff who came in and stayed well past closing time. That was where she’d met Jack, twenty-four years ago almost to the day, an unusual downpour sending her into the warmth of the bar and into a handsome 24-year-old in the corner of it. The time was before he’d grown his beard and mustache, when you could still see the dimple in his chin and dent in between his nose and lips, almost as if God himself placed a slight pinky while the mold was still drying. “Crazy out there, ain’t it,” was what he’d said, a simple and instant way to make the absolutely heretic wave of rain outside their common enemy. A drink or two later, and that was that. It was what it was and it became what it became.
“It was someone at work,” she heard, echoing through her mind as she pushed open the doors to the Palmer’s first floor bar.
So, then: Was this, the Congress Bar, where her ultimate mistake was made? Where her path should have skewed elsewhere? Where she should have dipped instead of dove? Go back far enough on any timeline and there’s a point you can blame.
“You look troubled, if you don’t mind me saying,” said the man seated next to Margaret at the bar; her mind had wondered after ordering her first vodka tonic. He looked to be in his mid-40s, but could have easily passed for someone on the other side of the average man’s life span midpoint if push came to shove. It was because of his eyes.
The first thing she noticed were those deep blue eyes. The pure aqua could not be that of an elderly gentlemen; everything fades in time, these could be no exception. And even if she didn’t notice them on first glance, it was his one feature she couldn’t stray from seeing as they maintained full and constant contact with hers. Not a single glance a few inches south to her cleavage, on display for the first time in public in over a decade; she even glanced at the mirror behind the bar a few times during the conversation to make sure. Not a look towards her ring-less finger, which twitched on its own now, free of its usual weighted burden, jail-broken. Not even down to her lipstick-embalmed mouth as she spoke throughout the entire conversation. Nothing but pure and simple eye contact.
“You’ve been nursing that vodka for long enough now, if you’re looking to speak your mind,” he said. “If you’re just looking to be alone, then I’ll say no more and just finish this Jameson on my own. No harm, no foul.” It wasn’t so much that she immediately trusted him as she needed to trust somebody.
“Mordecai,” he said, offering his hand. “But my friends call me Mort. Like I said, if you want to talk about whatever it is ailin’ ya, the floor is yours. If not, I won’t take offense. I’ve been turned down by prettier ladies than yourself.” He grinned. She accepted his handshake and filled him in on the details, little specifics that there were, that led her back to the Congress Bar that night.
“Let me ask you this, then,” Mort started. “What’s your goal here, tonight?”
She opened her mouth but words refused to follow.
“Is it some kind of revenge? To put him in the situation you’re at?” Mort asked. “To bring yourself down to his level? Because none of it’s going to work, miss. There is no equal to what happened. Even now, if you went over and allowed, say, that man in the dark brown suit in the corner there to ‘have his way’ with you upstairs, it wouldn’t result in an equal footing. It wouldn’t mean you’re back to square one and bygones are bygones. There’s no eye-for-an-eye in cases of the heart.”
“Have a lot of experience with this, Mort?” she asked.
“58 years worth,” Mort replied. “Every case is its own, there are no two relationships alike. But I like to think that living this long has put me in a position of advice-giver.”
“Anything more specific I could use?”
“Leave this bar right now, go upstairs, call your husband and have him pick you up.”
“And that’s it?”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“That’s the one trick I’ve learned in my almost six decades,” said Mort. “It really all kinda is.” She toasted to that and he reciprocated, downing the last drops of what was left in their respective cups.
“Might as well get started then,” she said.
“And I’m right behind you.” Mort lifted himself off the stool and flashed his own wedding band. “Got my own misses I need to tuck into bed with my soothing crooner voice over the phone.” They downed their drinks and headed into the lobby. “Did you know I once won a Frank Sinatra sing-a-like contest?” A mandatory joke-telling pause. “All the judges were deaf.”
Margaret laughed. Not particularly the funniest joke she’d heard, but the way he delivered it – a slight twinkle in his eye and a smirk on his face as he was about to reveal the punchline, no doubt the same one that had been delivered countless times before – that was what sold it to her. She put it in the mental bank to tell Jack, later, after all this was cleared up and simply one of those “rough patches” that swing by three or four times during a marriage.
The thick brass of the elevator doors opened. Mort gentlemanly allowed the lady entry first, extended arm and all. Margaret went to the bank of numbers and pressed the number 9. “Saved me the trouble,” said Mort.
On the 9th floor, Mort once again did the polite thing and let Margaret out first. She left him with a smile and “good night.” He responded with a wink, a doff of his invisible top hat, and a “good luck.” She turned her back and nearly ran back to Room 1916. Before the door had concluded its pneumatic-assisted close, she was midway through dialing her home phone number.
“Hello?” Jack immediately answered. She wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. She was hoping for a ring or two to compose herself, to get the perfect quip down. Instead, caught off-guard, she made a momentary guttural, deep-throated sound, not unlike a monk chanting, a stalling tactic to give her time to collect herself. It would be the last sound she’d make.
“Margaret?” he asked. Jack had put two-and-two together. That monk-chanting sound was a running joke between the two of them, simply because of the amount of times she’d use it, constantly breaking it out whenever the atmosphere was a bit too thick with awkwardness. Like when they’d meet their next door neighbor Dolores on their shared landing and she would be completely drunk and arguing with her cat, Peaches. Or when Jack’s mother would fart in the middle of dinner, her sense of decorum or want of pride eradicated when she reached her 70s. “Is that you?” asked Jack.
A nylon cord kept her from replying, two strong hands gripping either end. She swung the phone receiver wildly behind her, landing an occasional glancing blow on her attacker, but it did nothing to loosen her bonds. She caught a glimpse of the person behind her for a moment (a black fedora obscuring his face) in the reflection across from her, a panel of glass protecting the framed portrait of a cut-away insert from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment of a tormented soul, one eye shielded by a hand, the other nervously awaiting what treachery lies beneath as demons swirled and dragged him down into hell.
“What an odd choice for a hotel wall,” was Margaret’s last thought before succumbing due to lack of oxygen.
Her next moment was pure pain, a burning across her chest waking her up from whatever pure-black slumber was on the other side of consciousness. A wetness flowed from her sternum that did not feel unlike waking from under a mountain of blankets, hidden under before the cool night air had morphed into early-morning sun scorch. Her eyes shot open and she instinctively sat up, the moisture now making its way down her stomach and further below forming into a sheet of heat on her skin. She saw him, Mort, one hand holding a dulled knife, the other a fleshy piece of something-or-other, its identification obscured by a mixture of blood and hanging gristle. In Mort’s eyes, his deep blue eyes, there was no longer the role of comforter but instead that of pure worry and hand-caught-in-the-cookie-jar guilt.
“I …,” he started before Margaret swiped an arc in front of her and collected some of his cheek, a fleck of blood streaking across the air. She could feel a chunk of his skin adding extra pressure between the flesh and nail of the ring-finger on her left hand. It was a moment of triumph before a blow struck her front-side. It didn’t cause pain, her wind wasn’t lost into the night. But it was simply an imbalance that, for some reason, she couldn’t correct on her own.
She didn’t realize she was falling until a story or two down. The flickering light from a TV on either the eighth or seventh floor illuminated the area a few inches from her outstretched hands. There, she saw her wedding ring hanging in mid-air, twirling, floating, dancing, two objects falling at the same rate, visual proof that the basic science of gravity was to be her reaper. When she understood the ending, she cursed the heavens that their lazy clouds had enveloped the sky. She would’ve liked to have seen the moon one last time.
* * * * *
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