The smile didn’t last long, for the moment he stepped through the door, looking pleasant, warm and fuzzy, he heard:
"Who was that?"
He started, and looked up wide eyed and saw his wife standing at the top of the short set of steps leading up into the living room. She looked angry, her face a scowl, eyebrows knotted and her arms folded across her chest. She was dressed in pearl silk pajamas—but Joel fairly expected her to have on a heavy furry housecoat and slippers, hair curlers and a rolling pin in her fist like some cartoon badgering wife.
He stammered. "Beg pardon?"
"Who were you talking to?"
He’d heard her the first time, but she had caught him so unawares that his first instinct was to stall to recollect his thoughts and come down from his moment of levity and plunge himself back into the pit of despair. He could already feel flames licking around his ankles—and it wasn’t the burning of his injury.
"That was a new contact at work. I took the call outside so as not to bring work home, since it bothers you so."
They stared at each other for long tenuous seconds, waiting for the other to turn away as if the one who balked was either guilty of being accusatory over some trivial matter or of being evasive over hiding something unseemly.
Joel usually lost, because he thought the game was foolish, but in recent months he had learned to change the topic in such a way that couldn’t be construed as evading an issue to any sane, normal person, which he suspected that he was no longer dealing with in the person of his wife.
So, he changed the subject, although not much. "Ahra asked about you. She said to say hello."
Jennine didn’t like Ahra, because Ahra, being a plain speaking woman who was as bitter as Jennine, albeit for much different reasons, never failed to let Jennine know how she felt about her. Naturally, it didn’t help Joel’s home life much since Jennine wondered why he kept such a worker who so plainly disrespected the CEOs wife to her face each and every time they saw each other. In Jennine’s mind, it showed how little regard Joel had for her. Joel’s only response was that she was a good worker and good workers were hard to find. To which Jennine would ask: "And I suppose having a good wife is easier than finding a good secretary?" To which Joel would think, and never, ever, not in a million years dare say: "I’ll let you know when I find a good wife which is easier."
She unfolded her arms and walked away in a huff. "I have nothing to say about that woman."
Joel sighed and dragged himself up the steps. At least tonight’s ‘round one’ was a short exchange with no major activity and no major blows landed by either opponent. A 10:10 round, in boxing terms.
Tentatively, he followed her into the kitchen, where she had seated herself with a steaming cup of tea. She stared into the cup, the tag from the teabag draped over the lip and down into the saucer, where a pool of brown liquid had settled after cascading over the lip during the stirs.
"So, how was your day, hun?" he asked softly.
"Hmm? Oh, it was okay. Nothing special."
She worked as a retail administrator in Cher Chez Le Or, a high end woman’s fashion store in town not too far from where Joel worked, but she did much of her work from home, particularly on days when the weather was inclement or when there was no need of her physical presence. She was a live-in example of a telecommuter, and one of the things that Joel’s mentor had helped the city and some of the top city businesses institute. In Joel’s opinion, it was only moderately successful, as many of the original precepts of the design were altered over time, and many of the environmental cost saving benefits of it were lost.
Jennine, as with most everything else that she experienced, was ambivalent about it. She’d worked most of her professional career to this point under that program, and it gave to her a sense of isolation when she didn’t go in to work. She loved the freedom it gave her, in that she didn’t have to slavishly travel to and fro like a ping pong ball everyday in the mad crush of commuting masses of humanity. But she didn’t have the camaraderie that develops when one sits side by side with and interacts daily with his or her co-workers. At times, Joel suspected that that was part of the reason she resented him conducting any sort of business matter in the house: he had the camaraderie from dealing with actual living, breathing human beings all day, and it was something that she craved. In essence, she envied him. Also, his doing work at home, while having the first advantage, was, in her mind, treading on her territory and/or violating her personal space.
So, for the sake of argument, and it had resulted in more of them than he cared to recount, he acquiesced as much as possible in that regard. Occasionally it proved to be impossible.
"Are you going in tomorrow?" he asked
She rolled her eyes up at him. Once upon a time, he thought of those eyes as the most beautiful ones he had ever seen. In fact, when he was an adolescent in hot pursuit of her, he always used to call her ‘Jennine with the light brown eye’ in homage to ‘jeannie with the light brown hair.’ She had light brown hair, as a matter of fact, but it was her eyes that he had found so overwhelmingly overwhelming in his youth.
In those glorious days of yore, they harbored innocence and admiration and love. Now, as they glared at him, they were a den of contempt and condemnation.
"Now why would you think I’d be going in tomorrow?"
He bristled. Ding, ding. Round Two.
"Just thought I’d ask."
"Well, you ask the same question every week, and you know what the answer’s going to be, so why ask?"
"People typically ask questions because they want to know something. Last week or the week before is not tomorrow."
She huffed. "Muhammad! Please. Just…just go upstairs, downstairs, outside, just somewhere else."
With that said, he knew that she had tuned him out and no matter what he said afterward would be ignored.
On cue, his phone rang and he wasted no time in answering it, even as she exhaled in a way that let Joel know exactly why they used to name hurricanes after women exclusively.
"Joel Goldstein speaking." He stared at her defiantly, almost hoping that she said something.
Which she did, under her breath. "Hmph. Joel Goldstein, my ass. Muhammad Smith. Muhammad Terry Smith"
He cinched his lips as he listened.
"Hello? Joel Goldstein?"
The voice sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it.
"Yes, this is Joel."
"Joel, this is Fiera. Fiera Coles of AGAPE. We met today at the meeting."
Joel’s expression and demeanor changed so drastically so suddenly that Jennine paused mid-gripe to watch and listen.
Joel turned and moved out of the kitchen, breathing out: "Yes, yes, I remember. Of course, I remember. What can I do for you?"
She chuckled breathfully and Joel could almost feel it against his ear. "Gale had to fly back to Arizona tonight and I was hoping that it’s not too late for me to cash in on that rain check?"
Joel stole a glance back toward the kitchen, but Jennine was not peaking at him. "Tonight?"
"Whenever is good for you. Tonight. Tomorrow. Tomorrow night. Breakfast the day after? Either one or all four."
Joel took a seat on the sofa in the living room. It was a crushed velvet imitation made of recycled hemp fiber.
"How ‘bout the last three?"
She laughed again. Hot breath all but poured through the phone and Joel had to wonder why it hadn’t melted on her end.
"I like the sound of that. Should I meet you at your office or would you prefer a little more discretion?"
"That I like the sound of too."
"Let’s say eleven thirty AM at your coffee house. The one on sixteenth street?"
"And we’ll go from there."
"A long, long way, I hope."
"All the way to seventh heaven."
She laughed again. "Just the place I wanted you to take me."
Joel couldn’t help smiling. "Naturally, I know the way."
"I bet you say that to all the girls."
"Women, my dear. Just the women."
Joel peaked over his shoulder to see if his wife had stalked in on him, but there was no sign of her in the room.
"Before I go, have you thought about my question?"
Joel closed his eyes. Notthe signs again!! If she brough up signs again, he was goin to…
"Yes. The signs."
"Before I answer that, is there a sign that I should be looking out for? A sign is no good unless you recognize it for what it is."
"Very astute. I like that answer. And before you can recognize the sign for what it is, you have to have a frame of reference for what the sign means."
"But to answer your question, yes, there is a sign that you should be looking out for. Tomorrow, I will explain everything." She chuckled. "Or perhaps the day after tomorrow before breakfast?"
Aside from her predilection with signs, Joel liked the way she thought.
"If the topic comes up before breakfast, yeah, we’ll talk about it then."
"Oh, it’ll come up. I am sure some other things will ‘come up’ then too, but rest assured that that will."
With that, the phone went dead. Joel snuck yet another peak over his shoulder and the wife was not present.
"Finished?" she said from in the kitchen.
"Yup. I am finished alright."
He suspected that many things were finished. But again, some things were already finished long ago.
Unto the Living Earth © 2007 Walter R. Milton