Danny hated keeping secrets from her. He lit a cigarette and plopped down into the overstuffed brown chair in the middle of their shabby living room. He took a deep drag, blew the smoke out evenly in one long exhalation and then stubbed the butt out in the overfull ashtray sitting on the arm. Waste of a good cigarette, he thought, but so much is wasted. Linda would be home soon and then they would have to talk, really talk. He hated keeping secrets from her, but this wasn’t really a secret since they both knew, but didn’t know that the other knew. Hidden information. What else could a secret be?
Danny looked around the room and hated the second-hand furniture, the few pieces of yard sale art that Linda had picked, the little table that served as a dining room, the chipped paint on the door leading to their bedroom. He also realized how much he hated it when she wasn’t there. With only him in this place it was empty. He was a castaway. And she was out there working, and that bothered him as much as anything. She was out there working.
Just like that he heard her turning the doorknob and stepping into the room, hanging her purse on the chair and taking off her coat. She was wearing that blue dress he really liked. Pretty enough for any kind of work. In that instant he realized again just how beautiful she was; what a contrast to his sad, sorry ass.
“Hi, honey,” she said, her voice as sweet as the sugar he put in his bitter coffee every morning. “How was your day?”
“It was a day,” he said.
“Probably better that way,” she replied. “I’ve got to get out of these clothes,” she said as she danced into the bedroom.
Danny imagined her unzipping that blue dress, dropping it to the floor, stepping out of it and taking off her heels, always after the dress. He imagined every curve of her body as she took off her stockings, her underwear, her jewelry. How had he ever gotten so lucky, he thought. Linda with her small, trim body, her flat stomach and pert, exquisite breasts, her long legs and tight ass. Perfect opposite of him, sagging muscles and embarrassing belly, short of breath after the first flight of stairs. With the way that he knew all the men looked at her, how could she ever have looked at him, let alone chosen him to be with her? He never told her how often he thought that, how often he felt inadequate and pitiful in her presence, and that was just another thing he kept from her. She came back in the room wearing her Japanese silk robe and sat on the couch beside his chair, putting her feet up on the coffee table.
“Tony from the office said to say hi,” she said. “Any luck with the job hunt today?”
“No.” he said as he squirmed in the chair, “Who’s Tony from the office?”
She looked over at him but didn’t answer. “Where did you look?”
“I went down to the union hall and looked on the wall. Not much going on right now.”
“Is that right?” Linda said, almost meaning it. If only he knew just how much was going on right now, she thought.
“Look, Linda… we’ve got to talk. And we’ve got to talk right now.”
“C’mon Danny, I’ve been working all day and I’m planning on going out again this evening.”
“Yeah. No big deal. Remember, I told you that Wally from the bar asked me if I could work a few nights a week?”
“At the bar?”
She was glad he never came in the bar. Kept him sober and her safe. “We can use the money, Danny.”
“Seems like you’re going out every night lately. That’s a pretty full-time part-time job, isn’t it? I’m thinking maybe you don’t really like being here.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it.” You’re not the only man in the world, she thought, not by a long shot.
“Since you got hurt the money’s been tight. You know that. What with the medical bills and you not being able to work…”
“I can work.”
“You think I wouldn’t like to get out of this house as much as you do? I can get a job, even with a bad back.”
“But first you have to find someone who will hire you. They’re just not interested in you any more, Danny.”
“Maybe so. Bosses don’t really give a shit.” He stood up and walked over to where she was sitting. “And are you still interested in me?”
The question hung in the air like the stale tobacco smoke from his extinguished cigarette. Linda stood up and walked to the other side of the room, leaned against the china hutch and then turned back.
“Can I fix some dinner? Some food will take the edge off.”
“I’m not hungry for food, Linda, and neither are you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can’t put up with this much longer,” Danny said.
“Can’t put up with what?” Linda said and her eyes narrowed into an almost painful squint.
“With the lies, Linda. With all the lies between us.”
“What lies? Have you been into the pain meds again?”
“Don’t have any meds for this kind.”
“Look, we can talk about whatever this is later. I’d just like to get a bite to eat before I go out to my other job.”
Danny stood up and moved toward her. She had no idea how much he knew about her other job. She thought she was so cagey, so much smarter than him. And he knew very well how she worked that beauty of hers. He knew very well the power she could have over men. She could make them pay. Oh, yeah, he thought, she could make them pay. Three steps and he was very close to her now.
She saw him coming and edged around him on her way to the kitchen. He didn’t follow her. In this small space there was no need to. She opened the cabinet door and took out a single plate and a glass. It never occurred to her to take out two. Danny could take care of himself. And she could take care of herself.
She grabbed a thin pork chop from the refrigerator and threw it in the frying pan. Who does he think he is? she thought, And who the hell does he think I am? Back when they first got together he was a completely different man and she…well, she wasn’t really that different a woman. Still, she knew from her first day in the insurance office that this was not going to be her whole life, not a chance. She liked to party. She liked to go out to bars and flirt with men she didn’t know, and when she was younger she liked to go home with them, with a lot of them. But then she met Danny and she thought maybe that was the way to stability, to a faithful, respectable, everyday marriage. And it worked for a while.
Then he got hurt and even though she spent many, many hours caring for him, she eventually knew she had to get away from this house. She wasn’t a nurse or a babysitter. She wasn’t going to be stranded with him. She started going out to the bar just for a drink or two before coming back home and getting a decent night’s sleep before work in the morning.
But one night a guy at the bar, a good-looking, well-dressed man in a suit and tie bought her two or three drinks in a row. She knew it wasn’t a good idea, but the guy was just so charming. He told her he was from out of town and staying at a local hotel. He asked her if she’d like to come back to his room with him? Just like that. And just like that she said yes. They had great sex and it reminded her of just how dull and predictable Danny had become.
That was a bit of a surprise, but not as big as surprise as when she got home and found three hundred bucks he’d stuffed in her purse. At first she was offended, but then she realized that Danny would never have to know about it and, besides, she was worth it. After that, she went to the bar practically every night and came home with a handsomely decorated purse practically every night.
Danny had no idea. How could he? And more and more Linda began forming a new roadmap for her life. She wasn’t going to stay around here in this dead-end marriage. Danny needed her, but she didn’t need him. He could hire an in-home nurse or something.
Danny called to her again from the other room. “Linda, I mean it. We have to talk. Now.”
“Right,” she called back, “About all the lies and stuff, right?”
“That’s right,” Danny said in a low, even voice.
She took the chop out of the pan and dropped it on the plate, scooped some potato salad out of a deli container and walked back into the living room, where she leaned against the wall and started eating.
“OK, let me guess. You haven’t really been looking for a job? You haven’t really been paying the bills I’ve been giving you money for? You have another girlfriend on the side? You’re not really happy with me? Are those the lies between us, Danny?”
“You know better than that,” Danny said.
“Then what, Danny? For Christsakes, don’t make me play guessing games. I’m not in the mood for games. You want me to fix you a chop?”
“Neither am I. We got a statement from Dr. Evans today. The orthopedist. Nine hundred bucks.”
“It was marked paid, Linda. Where the hell did we get the money to pay that? Not from your office job. Did you pay that bill before I could even see it, Linda? And how? How?
Linda didn’t say anything. She put the plate down on the little table by the window. She stood behind the big recliner chair. A big lake of silence slowly seeped out of the walls and filled the room between them. They were on separate beaches. Had been for some time. Danny looked her deeply in the eyes expecting she would look away. She didn’t. Her eyes were locked on his.
“Danny, you’re not a stupid man. You’ve always known more about what’s going on than I thought you did.”
“Yeah, just like you’ve always known more about me.”
“We’ve been together for a while now, honey. Maybe we don’t have to know everything about each other, and maybe that needs to be all right.”
“So what’s the big mystery about me, Linda? What about me do you think you don’t know; what do you think I’m not telling you?”
She sat for another moment on her private beach, letting the waves of silence slowly roll onto the sand. The sun was much hotter. The back of her neck was turning red. She was trying very hard to see the details of his face from this distance.
“What, Linda? What is it about me that you don’t know?”
In a low, clear voice that carried across the great waters, she finally said “Why you’ve given up, Danny. Why you’ve given up.”
He didn’t say anything right away. He knew better. He knew that when she asked him a question like that, a question like nothing that she’d ever asked him before, that he had to have a real answer.
“It’s not what I’ve given up, sweetheart. It’s what I’ve lost. I’ve lost any sense that I was in control of my life, any pride that I could work hard enough to build a good world for both of us.”
“I make enough, Danny. My job at the office…”
“I know about that job. I know about all your jobs. That’s not where you make your money. Don’t lie to me, Linda. Not any more.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just because I quit drinking doesn’t mean I can never go in a bar again. I went down to that bar you go to every night, or at least where you start every night.”
“Danny, you’re not making sense.”
“Yeah, I am. What didn’t make sense was that you’d spend your evenings working at a bar for small change. But you didn’t, did you? Wally… I used to know him really well back in the day when I was a regular down there… He says that you’ve never worked for him, and that you leave just about every night with some guy you’ve just met.”
“That’s a goddamn lie.”
“No, Linda. We’re the goddamn lie.”
“I’m not going to listen to this. I’m going out.” She started for the door and he grabbed her by the arm.
“You left your wallet when you went to work this morning. I guess you forgot to put it back in your purse.” It was the first time he’d touched her in too long, and he held on tightly. “OK, I’m not proud of it, but I opened it up.”
“You had no right.”
“And you had twelve hundred bucks. Twelve hundred bucks in cash, Linda.You didn’t get that from tending a bar in the evening. The only way you could make that much money is…”
“You stay the hell out of my stuff, Danny. We need money. I’m gonna do…”
“What you’re gonna do. I know that. I do know you that well, Linda. And I’ve known it for a fair amount of time.” He let go of her arm. “I spend a lot of time in this empty room thinking about what you would do. And I don’t really blame you. I’m sure there are a whole lot of guys a whole lot more attractive than me, and I’m sure they’re more willing to pay the price of having you than I am.”
Linda was shocked and thrown off-balance. How long had he known? She thought her little story about working the bar was so simple and clever. Why did he have to know how she was working it?
“Look, Danny. When we’re together, as long as we’re together, why do we have to know anything about what either one of us is doing when we’re not together? What difference does it make? Don’t we both have a right to a little personal privacy?”
“Yeah. We probably do. And you’re going to have all the privacy you’ve ever wanted.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m leaving, Linda.”
“I can’t do this any more. I’m turning my back on you and walking out that door, and what you do with your life is going to be entirely your business. Isn’t that the way you want it?”
“Well, at least that way there won’t be any more secrets between us, will there?”
“Are secrets really so bad?”
“Just bad enough to ruin everything else.”
Danny walked over to her and kissed her on the cheek. She stood frozen. She thought of maybe a dozen things she could say, but nothing came out of her mouth. Cold, cold water lapped between them as he turned away from her and walked toward the door. She did not cry. She stood strong and proud. No one was ever going to live her life but her. There would be other men. Many other men. She would forget all about Danny. Damaged Danny. She didn’t even look up as she heard Danny turning the doorknob. She looked down at her feet, wiggled her toes in the wet sand, felt the warm breeze on her face. Paradise.