She’d listened to Gary long enough, but couldn’t let go. Even before coming here, Marla knew they were nearly done, her nights in bed by his snoring side becoming an interminable endurance test. They made love infrequently, life painting them into separate corners with its financial redecoration of who they’d been when they met four years ago. Gary quit working with kids about six months after their first date, crossing into telephone tech support on the advice of his buddy Frank because there was more money in it. It changed him, his face pulled into frowns naturally during their quiet time together on the couch rather than the smile he wore when they first met. A few weeks after they moved in together, he punched the wall when Creezus wouldn’t stop meowing in the middle of the night, his fist leaving a dent in the drywall of their bedroom. Creezus didn’t like him right off, her black cat that was always cautious but usually warmed up to people never warming to him. Marla knew now she should have trusted the cat’s instincts, she’d named him after Jesus Christ, she joked, because the cat was as black as the real deal and hated water so much he could walk on it. But the real reason was that Creezus was sage, cool, caring. It was sad irony that he died with Gary present, the man’s hand gently stroking the cat’s dark fur while he wrapped his other arm around her shuddering. It was one of Gary’s best moments, the last occasion he’d truly risen for Marla. The rest of the past year had been as flaccid between them as the nights he didn’t visit the strip club before coming home late.
At first she didn’t mind. He’d gotten a promotion at work and the pressure of being a manager weighed heavy on him, bags puffing under his tired eyes as if each new responsibility was a landed left hook. The money was better though, and he felt proud as she did for him. They started paying off bills, bought new furniture and she managed to have a few weeks off to look for a better job after working for a tyrant the past two years.
Gary started treating his stress by hanging out with his coworkers at Bare Assets on Route 11. Bitching, beers and boobs seemed to improve his mood and his attention to Marla, and that was a Hell of a lot better than him grousing endlessly at home about, at best, work and, at worst, her ever-increasing waistline. The first night he’d arrived home tipsy and hard, it was a late-inning revelation, a walk-off home run in bed that left her breathless for the first time in over a year. She panted as she rolled off him and he grinned, although Marla saw distance in his satisfied gaze. It was as if he’d traveled briefly to a better life, a prettier woman with a trimmer belly, higher tits and tighter thighs straddling him to bliss. And Marla didn’t care because it was better, he was better.
But this was not better. They’d only been in New Orleans for a few hours, enough time to get to the hotel, check in and drop off their bags before hitting Bourbon Street and ending up at the first strip club Gary saw. It was as if it was any other bar to him and he didn’t care about Marla’s reluctance, the way he had to tug her as if she were a stubborn, cold, heavy fish. They flopped into chairs at the foot of the stage next to another couple, a ridden-hard-and-put-away-dirty biker dude and his lady puffing cloyingly sweet grape vapors from e-cigarettes. The bikers smiled as if their bellies were full of canary, the man with skin more leather than his riding cut blatantly studying Marla’s modest curves the way vultures study the starving.
She averted her gaze to the empty stage as the waitress showed up, tight white t-shirt with a scoop neck revealing the tops of her large breasts and stretched taut. Marla watched Gary grin as he ordered himself a Bud and her rum and Coke. His smirk, the light in his eyes, it held as he glanced over at the Leathers, then as the next dancer took the stage, barely clothed, tone and surgically proportioned. It had been the way he looked at Marla when they’d first met, but now it was for the bitch bringing him overpriced drinks, the whore on the stage, any slit that paid him attention that wasn’t Marla. Her face flushed.
When the drinks arrived, she gulped hers down and waved for another to Fetchy McStretchTits, Gary barely noticing. The alcohol did little more than add to the brushfire at the sides of Marla’s face and she looked down at the scratches and nicks on the table, trying to rebalance the memories tilting inside her like countless dishes in the sink, fragile and ready to slip, chip, crack against the hardened edge of a sinking reality.
She sighed hard. Gary glanced at her. They’d gone to Bare Assets together a few times with his work friends, but this was different. She felt exposed and frustrated. She wanted out, out of this and out of the looks of disapproval he cast when she stepped from the shower, when she brought dinner to the table, when she spoke about her day at work, or what her friends did on vacation or what her nephew Snapchatted her. Miserable fuck. Tired, average, low and unappreciative miserable fuck. McStretchTits brought over Marla’s second drink and she gunned that one down too, as if dousing the rage stacking, flourishing, burning inside of her. Marla wanted to throw it into Gary’s lap, but she drank it all, let it slide and burn her throat. She was buzzing already and the edges of her off-kilter dirty-dish thoughts were dulling, falling into line. She looked up at the dancer on the stage, now topless and wearing nothing but a g-string as she writhed before them and felt a pang of remorse for the girl. Sure, it had to suck to be ogled by men four-to-eight hours a day, but how much worse was it to be hate-stared at by the women ignored by those same men. Maybe she didn’t care, but Marla doubted that anyone was fully immune to such laser derision. Her body may be perfect, but somewhere there were burn holes all throughout this girl’s soul.
Two more dancers came on. Marla finished a third rum and Coke before Gary got his second Bud, but then she stopped drinking, letting mild dizziness carry her like a tide might driftwood. Gary kept grinning, although not as wide, and Marla’s care faded until Lady Leatherskin called over to them, her own smile splayed across her face with switchblade tenderness. She spoke in a rasp, clearly a vaper only after years of the real thing ravaged her voice, but the intention was obvious regardless of how distorted her words sounded. She wanted to know if they were swingers and DTF. Marla felt icy fear swell up from her belly and she turned quickly to Gary who was looking the Leathers’ way. The fear turned hot. Gary’s grin was in full force, a twinkle of desire in his eye. The dishes tumbled. Marla stood, face red with alcohol and rage, Gary looking up at her like a kid that had set fire in a patch of dry grass that now consumed an entire forest. She broke his wide-eyed stare by walking toward the exit, trying to figure out how she was going to get home early. She would just go back to the hotel, grab her stuff and head to the airport. She wasn’t stuck. She could get out.
When she got outside, the humid air leeched into her cool, air conditioned skin and her contacts burned from a well of angry tears. She looked left, started to walk and missed the sidewalk, her sandled foot scraping the edge of the curb. Marla cursed and started to walk when suddenly Gary’s strong arm was on her, pulling her up onto the sidewalk. She thought about how he held her as Creezus passed away and her tears spilled over her ruddy cheeks.
Gary attempted to speak with calm, but she wanted his face to go away, just go back to its grinning state at the foot of stages where he could distantly dream of better than her. She looked up at him, felt his concern as his words assured like cooling breezes and she shuddered. Marla knew she wasn’t going anywhere, at least not then. When they got home, maybe, but she couldn’t leave now. She didn’t have the strength. So she listened and nodded, cried at his apologies and then they walked together arm in arm while crowds of revelers stumbled from clubs with loud voices and hard-ons. Gary catered to her and she slowly got her voice back, the red of her anger fading to pink, then dull beige. She knew they weren’t fixed by his sudden tenderness, but it was aloe on a sunburn. Turning onto the quiet artfulness of Royal Street, arms still encircling each other, Marla thought that when they got home she’d get another cat. And this time she’d heed any intuition, although she already knew what he would think of Gary.