Two Wives was originally published on Fictionaut in September 2013. It has been significantly rewritten and is included in my collection: Considered Fiction.
Two women sat at a small outside table at a neighborhood restaurant waiting for the same man. The older woman, older by only twenty-four hours, was tall and slender, almost anorexic. She wore a newsboy cap, which covered her thinning short coif. She had large white teeth that were prominent when she laughed, which she did in a theatrical way. She was wearing a blue work shirt, Calvin Klein jeans and Brevitt boots. The combination of tight jeans and heeled boots accentuated her shapely hips and stems.
Her companion, junior to her by twenty-four hours, was a raven-haired beauty with, as they say, good bones and a wineglass figure. Her perfect complexion and classic high-cheek-boned face were framed by a crimson wide-brimmed hat decorated with a feather and a gold butterfly pin. She wore a white ruffled blouse with a straight black skirt. Her ensemble was accessorized by an Hermès scarf and black sling-back heels. Neither woman would ever see fifty again.
The man they were waiting for was the painter, Jack Mahler. Jack had been married to the older woman, his ex-wife, for three years. His current spouse of twenty-five years was the younger woman.
Bea, the older woman, cocked her head.
—Emma, you’re always so classy. I love what you’ve done to your hat.
—You flatter me, Bea. I always admire your sass. But, really, what woman would wear jeans to a classy New York City restaurant?
—When I was a successful artist in Santa Fe, this was dining attire. Upscale was when you flashed big antique turquoise jewelry.
The waiter approached the table.
—Would you ladies care for a cocktail?
—Seltzer with lime for me.
—Is it OK if I have a drink, Bea? Or will it cause a problem?
—No, no problem. After twenty years at AA and a few relapses, I know the ravages of drink. Don’t forget I’m sleeping not twenty feet from Jack’s liquor locker.
—He really should be more considerate. I told him to hide the booze.
—Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to go wild.
—I’ll take your delicious raspberry martini.
The waiter bowed and left.
—What are you going to do for a job? You’re not painting, and you seem to spend most days just wandering the city.
—I’m trying to get my life together. I have over $50,000 in credit card debt. My credit counselor is conferring with my art dealer to work out a pay down. The reason I don’t paint is that every picture I make instantly goes to my creditors. I used to make eight to ten thousand dollars when I sold a painting. Now when I sell a painting, it all goes to my Visa and Master Card bills.
—That doesn’t seem right. I think Jack knows people who can help you. He bitches about commissions and taxes, but he’s one of the highest-earning painters in the city.
—Yeah, but Jack is smart, very talented and clever in many ways.
—A clever drunk. He lost our Turner watercolor playing poker in some Chinatown gambling den.
—Jack can drink for sure, but he’s been pretty good the last three months I’ve been staying at your apartment.
—Bea, I think you’re impressing him with your temperance.
The waiter brought their drinks and a plate of salty peanuts.
Emma took a sip of her martini. Bea ignored her seltzer.
—Bea, do you think you will find a job and some other place to stay soon? It’s really a strain on our marriage for you to stay at our apartment. I know Jack wouldn’t say anything to you, but I know it’s bothering him.
—Emma, believe me, I want to get out as much as you want me to leave. I know how uncomfortable it can be. I had a girlfriend who crashed with me and my then beau for six months. I finally had to sleep with her boyfriend to get her to move out.
—I hope you’re not sleeping with Jack.
Emma’s eyes darted over Bea’s face looking for clues.
—No way. Sleeping with an ex is like incest. I’ve been down that road. It never works out.
—Jack told me everyone in your family is crazy.
—Not me! But if I am, I’m the least crazy.
Bea unleashed a loud toothy laugh and took the first sip of her seltzer.
The two women watched a girl in a short chic black dress flounce by their table.
—I use to wear dresses like that when I was her age. But now thirty years later I can’t get away with it.
—When I was her age, I was married to Jack and we didn’t have money for designer clothes.
—Well, I had the money and the figure, but I was writing my first book and didn’t go out much.
Emma wondered what being married to Jack was like thirty-five years ago. He was a struggling painter on the cusp of a big career break. Bea left the marriage before Jack tasted success.
—Was Jack ever a mean drunk with you?
Bea studied Emma’s face looking for the meaning of the question.
—I don’t know if it was meanness, just frustration. I was such an ungrateful wife. He was working sixteen hours or more a day and I was bored. I fell in with an avant-garde theater crowd and began doing a lot of drinking, drugs, and sex. I was arrested twice for indecent exposure. It was a sixties thing. He’d come home and I wouldn’t be there, sometimes not for a couple of days. He’d get drunk and once after one of my infidelities, he slugged me.
—He’s a difficult man, especially when he drinks. Even when he’s not drinking, he’s too intense. He makes me cry a couple times a month
—Only lately have I realized that there was a problem of cultural disconnect. He expected a dutiful wife who would cook and clean. Maybe even have babies. It just wasn’t my scene. Probably not his either, but that’s where he came from, so that’s what he expected.
—He’s changed. He has no interest in family or a subservient wife. Obviously, he doesn’t harbor any animus toward you, or he wouldn’t have allowed you to stay with us.
—I did leave him in the lurch. When he went to Germany for his first solo show, I sold everything I could and took off with the car. When he came home, there was no apartment and all his stuff was gone except for what was stashed in his studio
—Some days he makes me so mad, I want to leave like you did. You were so brave. I don’t have that strength.
—Well, I don’t know about brave. The marriage was over. I’d had it with the guilt-trips and the stress of it all. When he left, it was the opening I needed. I realized I just didn’t want to be married.
—You know my mother said that most men were only good for three weeks. Some days I know she was right.
—I’m certainly not thinking about marriage or even about a relationship. I’ve got my health and freedom. What more could a girl want? Certainly not three weeks with a loser.
Emma spotted a neighbor escorted by a handsome man take a table not far away.
—Don’t look now, Bea, but I think that is the woman Jack is seeing on the side.
—Which one? The brunette with the Renoir hair?
—Yes. Her name is Portia Biscotti, like the Italian pastry.
—She looks sophisticated, charming, cultured and very independent. And probably a gold digger. Do you know the man she’s with?
—That’s Ashford Williams. He’s a billionaire powerbroker in the city. Portia’s divorced. Her lawyer got her a couple million in alimony plus the big brownstone down the street from us. She’s set for life.
—I wouldn’t be worried. Unattached women like that have lots of male friends. They use the hope of a hook-up as bait to get those groveling men to do chores and favors for them. I call them “the troops.”
—Well, Jack has been at her house fixing plumbing and painting. We take care of her dog when she travels.
—I wouldn’t worry; Jack doesn’t exhibit the attitudes of an unfaithful husband. Besides, she’d be too worried about her make-up or hair getting ruined with a smoocher like Jack.
Emma blushed. It sounded like Bea was talking about her. Emma was vain and protective of her perfect skin and lavished time on her appearance. She didn’t like Jack or anyone messing it up. Possibly, just possibly, Emma mused, Jack could be having an affair with Portia. He was a good catch, even if he was an utter boor when blotto.
—Where is that husband of yours? He said he would be here at five.
—I’m getting hungry. He better arrive soon or we’ll order dinner. Imagine, he told me; Bea was always late.
—But this time, I’m here with you, Emma.
Both women sipped their drinks and tried not to look at Portia, yet they kept up a steady stream of furtive glances.
Bea pointed across Broadway to a flower stand by the subway entrance.
—Is that Jack across the street at that flower stand?
Emma was feeling threatened by Bea and now Portia Biscotti. She had to reinforce her position as Mrs. Jack Mahler or risk being overwhelmed by Jack’s peripheral women.
—That’s my man all right. Look he’s buying flowers.
—He was always thoughtful like that, even when we didn’t have money or we weren’t speaking.
Like a true New Yorker, Jack ignored the traffic lights and jaywalked across Broadway. He went directly to the table where Portia and her companion were seated.
Her companion stood up.
—I’m Jack Mahler. I’m a neighbor of Portia’s.
—This is Ashford Garth Williams, an old friend of my ex-husband’s. He’s a billionaire.
—My friends call me Ash. I think Portia overstates the case. I’m actually a nice guy.
—Pleased to meet you, Williams. You should buy my paintings, very good investments. If you had bought one of my paintings thirty years ago for two thousand bucks, it’d be worth a quarter mil today. Sorry you missed the opportunity. But as they say, past performance is no guarantee of future returns.
—Jack, stop being obnoxious.
Portia could tell he had been drinking or had a very good day at the studio.
Williams sensed an easy give-and-take between Jack and Portia that went beyond friendship. Experience told him they were long-term lovers.
—You look terrific Portia, said Jack, talking over Williams.
Jack pulled the prettiest rose from the bouquet, took a switchblade knife from his pocket, cut the stem, removed two thorns and gently pushed the flower into the lowest point of Portia’s décolletage.
Portia, taken aback by Jack’s bold move, blushed and plucked the flower from her cleavage.
—I see my ex-wife and current wife a few tables away. I better run.
He bent down and gave Portia a lingering kiss on the lips.
—You’re going to pay for that, Jack. Emma was watching you.
Portia smelled the flower and smiled. She waved to Emma who had witnessed the scene. That kiss confirmed Emma’s worst fears.
Jack braced himself for recriminations and hectoring from the tribe of wives. History would be served with fire and ice.
I better not drink, he said to himself. A good day in the studio isn’t worth a family fight.