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Bed and Breakfast

The first time they had sex in a stranger’s home, it was an accident. Back then, there was no chamomile tea welcome, no anticipation building while someone explains that they merely like to meet new people, or need to supplement their income in lean times to afford their gorgeous home or their kid’s college tuition. There were no longing looks before being shown to a room where they were directed to “settle in.” Then, it had started with shame. Alcohol had been involved, but not as much as one might imagine. Just enough that tears had given way to laughter, and laughter to a clumsy kiss, and the kiss to something else entirely. And then, all of a sudden, freedom—the thing that burst out of your chest like laughter in an August night that could fill up all the space between the life you expected and the tract housing where you ended up.   


These days, Alex and Brian were considerate guests—all their reviews on the apartment share website on which they booked said as much. Alex, who hated small talk, would nod politely, answering direct questions with a smile while she focused on small details in the homes they rented. This morning, for example, she stared at a long, scar-like bubble on the ceiling in the corner of Heloise’s Manhattan kitchen, by the door into the tiny backyard. It looked like old water damage. The coffeepot on the center of the counter was shiny and new, beneath a hanging menagerie of old pots and pans that had scratches dug deep in their bottoms from decades of use. Heloise took her morning coffee seriously, Alex thought. There was no Keurig that allowed guests to try different flavors or opt for hot cocoa. A gracious hostess, sure, but Heloise wasn’t going to cater to a guest’s every whim. If folks wanted hot cocoa on a November morning, they could go to the Starbucks, two blocks up, one block over. 


Alex liked that about Heloise. Her honesty, her no-nonsense demeanor. But it was maybe a little too much for her that first, that last morning. The smell of coffee, rich and strong and faintly bitter, permeated the first floor, and Alex, unable to sleep through Brian’s snoring, had decided to seek it out. Of course, with Heloise humming and puttering about, Alex wished Brian was awake to be there as a buffer. Alex felt as if someone had hacked her phone and posted the pictures she took at a Kohls dressing room trying on a series of different bathing suits that she’d never buy: exposed. 

She took a mug that had been laid out, with milk and sweeteners, on the counter, and filled it with coffee. Heloise sat bathed in morning light at a small table, across from Alex’s seat at the island counter. 


“You’ll have to excuse me for monopolizing this seat,” Heloise said, her eyes closed as she inhaled the steam of her own coffee. “The sun is here so briefly.” 


The light was like a heavy beam that had fallen over Heloise’s shoulders, trapping her there happily until it was lifted away. “Took me almost two years of living here to figure out when the sun would peek into the kitchen every day. The surrounding buildings block the light. I get ten to fifteen minutes of direct light like this. So I soak it all in each day, even when I’m ill. It lifts the spirits.”

“That’s lovely.” Alex didn’t know what else to say. She took a long sip of her coffee, wishing it had cooled enough that she could gulp it rather than have to say much else. She drank, and tried to read on her phone, but stared at the bubble in the ceiling she had first noticed when they arrived. She couldn’t decide if the mark was old or new.


Heloise didn’t say anything else. She sat there in the sun, taking a sip of coffee and turning her weak chin up into the light. She was one of those large practical women, who had aged into a blowsy softness around every edge, adopting a short haircut so as to not have to spend hours fiddling. No nonsense there, too. 


It was just after Alex relaxed and took a second cup of coffee, deciding to let Brian sleep, that the morning light left the kitchen completely. Heloise sighed, pushed herself away from the table, and slapped her hands to knees, making a point to catch up her empty mug and swing it over to the sink before turning to Alex.


“Big plans for the day?”


“Easier to travel without them. Brian can sleep in. He doesn’t any other time, not even on the weekends. We go on vacation, though, and he drops his guard.”


“Hm.” Heloise nodded conspiratorially. “Indeed.”


Alex was, again, uncomfortable, but dismissed the feeling. She took a sip of coffee, placing the mug between her and the older woman. She almost spit her coffee into Heloise’s face when the older woman leaned in, dropped her voice to a whisper, as if she was worried she’d wake Brian half a house away, and said, “It did seem like the both of you deserved a sleep, after all that commotion last night. Be level with me—did the two of you break anything? I have a long-term guest arriving on Thursday, and if I need a new headboard, I’d like to know.”

*

The first time, almost thirty years earlier, it wasn’t until they were finished and laying side by side across the bed, their legs dangling off the side and a towel twisted between them, that Alex realized the house had gone silent in the late afternoon. 


“Do you think . . . “


“She heard?” Brian shrugged. Their hostess had been singing earlier, so loud and mildly off key that it bounced awkwardly off the walls of the home. 


“Were we really loud?”


“We weren’t silent, I don’t think. The woman is married. She knows how the world works.”


“Sure. But the idea of a complete stranger listening . . .”


She trailed off and let the thought just sit between the two of them. It was like blowing a smoke ring and watching it slowly dissipate in the air until just the scent of burnt tobacco was left in the room. He held his breath, like he always did when he was thinking about what to say. 


“Yeah,” he exhaled. “It’s kind of hot.”


She turned to him and they did it again, laughing and whooping with abandon through the whole thing. Alex, who had never been loud in the handful of couplings she had experienced before this for fear of someone overhearing her business, moaned like she had heard in a movie once. It had an immediate effect on Brian, who puffed himself up with pride. But it was that release—the feeling of being volubly free—that had the most profound effect on her, not the man that would become her husband three years later. When he ended up panting on the floor, she rolled over on the bed to smile wickedly at him as he said, “Wow.” Alex let laughter pour out as if they were all alone in their own suburban house somewhere, where they could let it echo off the walls and down the hallway to the front door and out into the street.


When Alex went out to the car to grab the deodorant that had been backed away with her camp gear, she ran into Libby. Alex had thrown on an Indigo Girls t-shirt and sweats with no underwear or bra underneath. Her limbs felt untangled. If Alex was released from some imaginary bonds, it seemed as if they had found their way to their hostess: her arms were rigid, she walked erect, her head pointed directly at the pictures she hung at the far end of the hall. Alex offered a cheerful hello, and the woman glanced away with a forced smile and a partial nod. It was the way Alex would have greeted someone who casually used racial epithets or men who talked to her breasts. When Alex got outside, she laughed again, and imagined her laughter traveling out and down the river, all the way to Niagara Falls, where it would compete with its cacophonous roar.


That trip would became shorthand for them. He didn’t need to tease her about the very adult fantasy that she had entertained about romantic getaways, bubble baths and aged trees and gazebos; he avoided reminding her of their journey through the vacation town, as they followed the directions she had written down and passed gorgeous home after gorgeous home, and ignored together what had become obvious—that the number of the house they were looking for was much, much smaller than those they were passing. As they passed out of the historic district into suburban tract housing, Alex became more and more anxious as they neared the number of the home she had booked. Brian tried to placate her by suggesting that it must be a historic house on a well-appointed spot of land beyond the center of town. He prompted her to imagine the privacy of an estate, until they found themselves idling in front of a split-level ranch home at the end of a cul-de-sac designed in the 1970s with tan aluminum siding and mottled stone accents.  The lawn was yellow, and while there were some poorly trimmed bushes strategically placed in the front of the home, there was not a tree—much less some genuflecting old oak—on the block.  

All that Brian had to do, those next thirty years, was to remind her of his initial assessment: he had said it looked like the house on The Brady Bunch. Her fantasy weekend getaway had become a farce, and instead of luxuriating in an afternoon romance like her mother used to watch each day at two o’clock when Alex was a kid, they were stuck instead in a syndicated sitcom hell. Brian had the decency not to hum the theme song, but she had burst into tears nevertheless. 


For their entire married life, the Brady Bunch house was the joke they shared when one or the other was feeling stressed or they needed to remind each other of the moment they bonded together against circumstance and error and thus cemented their love for each other. The sex after that weekend was never equally or even particularly unabashed, especially since they both lived in dorms on different campuses with suitemates that they actually had to be able to look in the face the next day. Sometimes they were desperately quiet, when visiting each other’s homes and they were mindful of the prying ears of siblings, neighbors, or, one particularly daring Thanksgiving weekend, the parents who were in the room directly below theirs. 


Even after Brian had proposed and she had accepted and their lives together seemed assured, their intimacy had fallen into soft routines. The first weekend they spent together in a romantic getaway in Philadelphia, a month before the wedding, was preceded by a strange anticipation by Alex, as if she might be able to allow herself, finally, to let go. She didn’t imagine bellowing sex or raucous laughter—nothing that might get the cops called on a noise complaint—but thought a little bit of commotion might be in order. Yet the sex (which was nice, she told herself, very, very, nice for all of that) was subdued. They turned the lights off and found each other as the city glowed through the drapes at night. There was no pornographic moaning, no headboard smacking against the walls, and though each of them spoke the other’s name, it was not in screams but whispers, her name breathed warm into the space between her neck and ear. 

And as Brian snored beside her in that Marriott Inn, Alex decided that this must in fact be what being an adult was: a slow gentle undemanding being with one another. 


That was the suburban life they grew into as she became a history teacher and later a vice principal of a huge middle school, and as he grew his accounting skills into a thriving practice. Alex gave birth to twin boys who were bright, uncomplicated versions of their father. She and Brian never sat down with a calendar, but wordlessly set aside Thursday night as the time she would not wear pajama bottoms to bed and he would sleep in just a pair of boxers, the time when they could try and remember each other’s feel and taste and smell. They each loved Thursdays, looked forward to them, even at times planned around them, all without really talking about it. 


It was a decent life, one only slightly unsettled when their bright boys went off to college and left Alex and Brian to knock about an empty in Southeastern Michigan house together. Their lives were no longer physically tethered to the home they lived in. No boys, no pets, no persnickety gardens. Nothing but the two of them, sharing a bottle of wine or a pot of coffee. After a couple of her coworkers, also recent empty-nesters, took spontaneous trips to Las Vegas or Chicago, she decided to listen to their advice and book an apartment in San Francisco, a town that Brian had always wanted to visit, if only because of Alcatraz. She had never used the website before, but her friends all raved about it in the lunchroom at school, bragging about the price or the amenities they had arranged. Brian—always game, if never interested in organizing such trips himself—acquiesced.


In hindsight, the trip reminded Alex of their first weekend together, only through a funhouse mirror. They arrived at a modern bungalow at the top of a hill, and were greeted at the door not by a prim married woman in her twenties, but by a trim man about a decade their senior in a turtleneck, jeans and silk slippers, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper goatee. He took one look at her face and sucked in his breath through his teeth. “Oh, sweetie. First time booking?”


He was exceedingly polite, pulling them into the home, and offered them a glass of scotch that he swirled around by the neck of the bottle. Calling them over to the sleek monitor on his desk, he called up his profile, and directed them to the section that explained, right there at the top where Alex should have noticed it, “private room in house.” She remembered the picture of the hot tub. 

Brian was the first to laugh, and she joined him, realizing that they weren’t kids masquerading as adults anymore. This was no tragedy—and recognizing that reminded her that the trip way back then was not either. They sat with Travis, the home’s owner, Brian and he chatting about real estate costs in San Francisco (extortionate) and how much time it took to explore Alcatraz (no idea at all). Alex nodded politely, answered questions posed to her, and even bragged about the boys’ success on their midterms in Columbus. But mostly, she sipped very good sixteen-year-old scotch she’d later say was worth the cost of the rental, and gazed quietly out onto the skyline until everyone was tired and Travis showed them to their exquisitely laid out room. The bed was no squeaky full, but a California king with enough room for them to both lay down and barely graze the other’s knuckles if they reached out to their full length. 


“I did it again, looks like. Never allow me to book a B & B again.”


She laughed, loud and hard, and Brian shushed her. Something about him playing the schoolmarm got her administrator’s dander up, and she laughed even louder. “He’s all the way on the first floor.”


“What if the ducts carry sound?” 


“Then maybe Travis will hear this.” And she kissed him, hard, their teeth banging together a little, which made them laugh like a pair of kids, but without the nerves. The kiss softened and, perhaps due to the ridiculousness of their romantic getaway being proctored by a sweet gay man of late middle age, or the alcohol, or the way the day mirrored the disastrous vacation in which she fell in love with him, Alex found herself moaning—so loud that Brian paused to look at her in shock, as if maybe he had misheard and she had strained something. She pulled him back toward her. Avidly. Raucously. 


The next morning, Travis, the very model of discretion, placed a tray of pre-packaged pastries on the counter, next to the Keurig. He said nothing but scrolled through the news on his kindle, coffee at his side. 


After the trip, Brian was convinced they’d need to create a new user account on the website, since Travis, though extremely polite, must have posted a poor review. Yet Travis rated them five out of five, and Alex rewarded him glowingly—five stars, with the comments “A perfect shared space, with gorgeous décor, and a meticulous and discrete host. And the pastries? Yum!” 


“He must be afraid to seem a prude,” Alex said.


“Maybe,” Brian said, “he was afraid we’d give him a bad review if he reviewed us poorly.”


“Mutually assured destruction? I like it.”


Their regular weekly routines did not change, and though the boys were no longer in the house, they still had what Alex would describe, if she had to, as very bourgeoisie, suburban sex. Sex with the lights off, and hushed, as if the neighbors sat at the wall of their home with a stethoscope, or watched for grinding shadows through the drapes. 


But they enjoyed themselves so thoroughly in San Francisco that it became their new thing—every two months or so they would schedule a weekend trip to a “private room” in someone else’s home, far away where they knew no one, where they would make riotous love on a day that was never, ever, a Thursday. They worked to otherwise be the perfect guests—polite, clean, respectful. They did not arrive early or overstay their welcome. They did not come in at all hours of the night, or invite others to the home. They merely had an uninhibited time in the bedroom, with the door locked. They weren’t in their twenties anymore—they were, for the most part, asleep by eleven. They rated even the average hosts with five stars. Their own rating as guests remained perfect. 


Alex would not warn Brian ahead of time—with the exception of his busy season in March and April, he kept his weekends free—but would find a place, book it, and then send her husband “invitations” to join her itinerary. He would accept. 


It was a kind of magic, but one that, if spoken aloud, could cause the whole delicate miraculous structure to crumble away. 


“No judgement on my end, I have to say,” Heloise continued. “A healthy sex life was the cornerstone of my marriage.”


Alex’s gaze wandered to the bubble glaring at her from the ceiling, and back to her coffee. She wanted to toss the mug in the sink and sprint back to the room where Brian was asleep, to close herself in the closet and pull on her blue jeans in the dark. 


“Some days, I truly miss my husband,” Heloise said, sighing, and left the room.


Alex waited until her footsteps disappeared, and got up to go to get dressed, but then, suddenly not wanting to be near Brian, instead slid into the same spot that had held bright, searing, beautiful light just a couple of minutes before. The spot was now all dim shadows, so deep it was as if the sun had never graced the place. All of the lightness she had felt the night before, that she had felt for the past year, slipped away. She felt as if the full weight of twenty-four years of marriage had settled sagging on her middle. The bubbling crack held in the ceiling. She looked out the window at the shadowed alley between brownstones. She couldn’t get up from the seat at all. 


“Fifteen minutes of sun,” she said.  


What felt like an hour later, Brian stumbled in wearing jeans and an old sweater and asked after coffee. He was shocked he hadn’t noticed that Heloise owned no Keurig. 


“There’s a Starbucks two blocks away.” 


“OK. You want anything?”


Brian was solid like that. Dependable, the way he looked after her.

 

“No,” she said. “I’m fine.”


She opened her tablet and browsed different rentals on the northern coast of Michigan. She called Brian’s name, but he was already out the door, probably halfway down the block. She tapped his name on her cell phone. “Ah! Change your mind, did you?”


“Not at all. I was just thinking. What would you think about renting a whole house up near Traverse City this summer?”


“Luxurious! Do we need the space?”


“I thought we’d invite the boys. Maybe your sister and Steve. A big family thing.”


As the words left her mouth, Alex knew the spell had ended. She realized that “big family things” would be all she’d sign up for in the future. She would leave Heloise’s place that very morning if she didn’t have to explain to Brian, but it was easier to busy themselves all day, see a play, have a nice dinner out, and when they returned that night, when Brian pulled her to him and begin to lift the flowing skirt that she’d brought in case she chose not to wear panties, she would shush him, push him away, and tell him the truth, or some of it: Heloise had actually said something to her. 


Brian would be his dependable self. He would put a finger to his lips, and tiptoe around in an exaggerated way, if he had enough wine with dinner. He would try to make her laugh. And they would quietly get ready for bed, put on pajamas with their backs to one another, snuggle together until he became too warm for either of them to bear, and turn away again. She would read the first few chapters of the book she’d buy that afternoon until he began to snore lightly. And she’d shush him again, as if even that might unsettle the keen-eared Heloise. 


“Sure,” he said. “Sounds fun. See you soon.”


As Brian hung up, Alex could suddenly see not just the remainder of their day, their weekend, but twenty more years and a thousand Thursdays stretched before her. She wished that she had asked her husband for a hot cocoa. 






 

Writer C.C. Apap
C.C. Apap

C.C. Apap grew up in the kind of Detroit suburb that had a functioning farm just over the back fence. His writing has been featured or is forthcoming in Belt Magazine, Alba, The Thimble Literary Magazine, Roi Fainéant, The Hooghly Review, and Ghost City Review.




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