Written for The Big O Challenge and chosen by Guest Editor, Monet P. Thomas
Even if the sheets chafe. Even if the lamps yellow the walls and a tang lingers, Ben believes he owes the room — owes himself—some indiscretion. He is bolder here than in either of their apartments. More eager. Messier. Margaret is suspect of the obligation.
She suspects this room is even dirtier than it appears and fingers for dust. She sniffs the sheets and coarse towels. Ben sprawls. He kicks his shoes across the duvet and, twice, digs his thumbs into Margaret’s shoulders to offer a back rub. She shakes free, and he reads her more titles from the pay-per-view porn catalog.
“Chamber of Cheerleaders.”
“Aren’t we too old for school girls?”
“MILF Cave 9.”
Margaret owed her mother a visit. Ben tagged along. He doesn’t owe her much. She sprang for this yellow chamber, where the window frames the parking garage and the air conditioner rattles. Ben shows her the tent in his pants.
“Dinner is in an hour,” Margaret says.
“Sixty whole minutes.”
Her mother counted the trips Margaret had posted with Ben’s family. “Four times this year,” she said over the phone. That night she posted a comment on one from months ago, “Looks fun.”
“I just don’t want to waste this room,” Ben says
“We’re going to sleep here.”
“We can sleep anywhere.”
Her mother demands she watch Fox News and defend coastal politicians. She reminds her before she unpacks to pick up her towels and make the bed and start saving for retirement. Bringing Ben gave her an excuse to rent a hotel. To get some space from her mother.
He steers his zipper toward her wrist.
“Tonight,” she says.
In the only photo Margaret has ever posted of her mother, she trims Margaret’s bangs, her homemade cut too uneven. One stiff, ringed finger draws the line. Margaret used the picture to write about her mother’s strength — reserved, direct, unflappable — but Margaret remembered what the picture couldn’t: her mother refusing to drive them to her cousin’s wedding until she could fix her bangs, both of them watching the clock, the second hand, a game of chicken — Margaret caved. Those fingers — always stiff, always ringed. Her mother’s strength made Margaret tough but not honest. On her own, she did not tell her mother much. She obliged her.
Ben unties his shoes at the front door. He crosses his legs when he sits and folds his hands.
“Where are your bags? I made up the guest rooms for you and your friend,” her mother says. Margaret hadn’t told her about the hotel room. The sheets are cotton. One window frames the lake, the other oaks. Ben bites his bottom lip when Margaret smoothes a duvet.
“The bags are in the car,” she tells her mother. “We’ll grab them later.”
They eat with polished silver over ironed napkins. Margaret lies about the flavor of the cream sauce and the size of her savings account. Ben searches Margaret’s face every time her mother fetches something from the kitchen. He sticks out his tongue. He lies about his opportunities for promotion. Margaret pretends she is a painting.
“This tiramisu is great,” she says.
“I can tell,” her mother says.
Ben scrolls through the On Demand, and Margaret wags her head when he pauses on the adult features. Her mother squeezes on the couch with them. She recommends something subtitled, black and white. “You have to see this.”
“Sounds good,” Margaret says.
Ben asks twice, “Is this the one?” before clicking play.
He and her mother both fall asleep before the third act. Margaret spoons more tiramisu from the cake dish. She counts the cash in her mother’s purse. She browses the adult features on the television in her mother’s bedroom.
No school girls. Or MILF caves. Just trysts and rendezvouses. Escapades. Margaret cannot find any evidence of a sex life in her mother’s bedside table — no lubricant, condoms, or vibrator. No love letters. No pictures of any men in her bedroom. Her and Margaret hold down their hair on a beach. They touch cups in a tearoom.
The first evidence of Margaret’s sex life is propped on a rocking chair. The pillow is chenille, a ruffled edge. From seven to ten, she couldn’t sleep without it. She hadn’t even known what she was doing until her mother and her shared a bed on a road trip. The disgust in her mother’s curled lips, those bony fingers snatching it from the bed. “We don’t do that,” she said. After they were home, Margaret couldn’t — not without seeing her mother’s face.
Ben finds her testing her mother’s wrinkle cream.
“Can we go already?”
“These beds are sanitary, babe. They don’t smell like mold.”
“They’re twins.” His antsy hands try his pockets, his belt, Margaret’s hips.
“Picture what we would have done,” she says. “Tell me about it in the morning.”
In the morning, she’ll make the bed. She’ll wipe the sink free of toothpaste and pick her hair from the shower drain. She’ll let Ben make a mess of the office chair in the hotel room when they stop in for their bags, beg for it and wait for it, his damp hands and caught breath. She’ll iron her clothes for work and carry the recycling bin down to the curb and leave the cans in a separate paper bag for the stooped woman who always makes a mess digging for them. She’ll give everyone everything they deserve. Or want. She’ll live debt free, a constant moving year of jubilee. But tonight she gets a twin bed and a door that locks and a firm pillow. Tonight she doesn’t pull the covers up to her ears or huddle against the edge of the bed. She straddles the pillow in the middle of the mattress. She imagines being seen — naked, flush, bucking. Imagines the kind of penthouse she will never afford, empties the chamber and cave, bodies braising every surface. Each cheerleader and mother obey her until she is sound asleep, forgetting them all.
TJ Fuller writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. His fiction has also appeared in Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere.
Monet P. Thomas interviews TJ Fuller about this story here
Also by TJ Soon
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