The Space That Matters

A Short Story by Elizabeth Martin

Liz Martin

Alex paced around her hotel room adjusting the outfit laid out for tomorrow on the other double-bed, straightening the remotes, applying her lipstick, taking it off, and applying it again. She had only just begun to wear lipstick now, at 32, and wasn’t sure if she liked it. Lipstick made her noticeable in a way she’d tried to avoid most of her life. The shade, Petal, was close enough to her lips for “CasualDayWear” the gold-eye-shadowed, purple-lipped girl at Sephora had promised. She said it like that, too, as a single word. An industry phrase, Alex supposed. When she came home from the store, her boyfriend said it made her look “Luscious,” and then they’d had sex. She sucked on that memory in moments like this when she felt anxious and unsure about the boldness of her lips.

But was luscious what one wanted for a casual drink with the wife of a man with whom one had had an affair? No, it wasn’t. So back to the bathroom Alex went and Petal was off with a few swipes of a tissue. She considered her face in the mirror, as one might a sold-on-the-side-of-the-road iPad, for flaws.  Now, without the lipstick, there was a faint pink line around the edge of her lips that made it look like she’d been gnawing on a lollipop.  She scrubbed at it more with the clean side of the tissue, though in the magnified mirror she could see she just made it worse. The tissue went in the little garbage bin; the lipstick back on. It doesn’t mean anything, she thought. This doesn’t matter.

Thinking back, Alex couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Evelyn before bumping into her in the hotel lobby this afternoon. Not since she’d left her ex-husband, of course, so more than three years ago. Back home her apartment was in the next town over from where Evelyn and her husband lived, and she managed to never run into them at Target or Dunkin Donuts. Only here, in D.C., her luck turned to shit. Alex wasn’t worried Evelyn knew about the affair. A dramatic daytime television-style confrontation complete with thrown apple martini would not await her in the too trendy blue-lit bar downstairs. No, she was quite sure Evelyn did not know, and this bothered her more.

Once, after sex—a bit of bungle on his living room couch one afternoon—she had asked Evelyn’s husband if he would feel bad about this one day and tell his wife.

“This?”He was taking the trashcan out from under the kitchen sink to empty the garbage. An odd post-coital choice, considering they hadn’t used a condom. “No, things like this don’t bother me.”

She knew he had not meant it unkindly but was also sure he just called her—called them—a thing. A thing that couldn’t bother him, or that he couldn’t be bothered with, each option an equal exasperation. If anything she suspected he was trying to reassure her that she was safe with him. That this was something they could keep up for years if they wanted without either of their spouses finding out. Kisses and gropes out of sight at parties, drunk on the smell of him, could continue to string her excitement along for as long as she wanted to keep this up. But the sex, which they only ever had twice, proved disappointing and made her remember that she didn’t much like the guy, if she was being honest. So she asked him if he’d tell his wife because she did feel bad and she wanted him to share her shame. He didn’t, obviously. This affair was as routine to him as trash collection.

There was little worry that Evelyn knew: the only real worry was why Alex was doing this. Why had she proposed the drink in the first place?

She had turned around from checking in and there Evelyn was, standing just a few feet away when their eyes locked. And, once that happened, they had to dance through all the adult pleasantries of Hellos and Oh, really?s and How’s work/husband/pets/so-and-so? and the fake laughs and lippy-smiles women used to shield their personalities from the world.

They breezed their way through that part until it was acceptable to part ways with affectionate promises to Catch Up. But then, Alex faltered and blurted, “We should grab a drink later!” thus fucking up the negotiated and agreed upon choreography for how this was supposed to end.  Evelyn made a noise with her throat, as if to say No, but then said “Sure,” and that was that. They polited themselves into a drink neither wanted.

Then, as if to reassure herself that she intended all along to ask Evelyn for a drink and that she was delighted to see her again in this D.C. hotel lobby despite having unfriended her on Facebook and unfollowed her on Instagram years ago, Alex reached out her hand to rub Evelyn’s arm like she might pet a lost, but friendly Golden Retriever she’d found in the park. So good to see you.

No, thought Alex, still obsessing over the mirror, this is not good. As satisfied as she could be with the lipstick, she felt glad, not for the first time, that she was eight years younger and that Evelyn’s eyebrows were mostly drawn on, while Alex still got mistaken for a student whenever she wore a backpack. Wasn’t she just a shit for feeling glad? Where were her feminist politics in practice? Where was her sisterly compassion? Why did she want to compete with this woman here and now when in all the regular, knowable ways the outside world would see Evelyn as the victor? She kept her man despite threat of a young interloper.

This was why the affair had started in the first place—he had known Alex did not actually like him. She liked the attention, to be sure, but despite the things he said to her, despite whispering in her ear as she hugged him goodbye after his wedding reception that he’d be “Doing this with you if wasn’t for her,” she knew he knew she hated him. And that it was only because of her hate that they were able to kiss and grope without it affecting either of their lives too much. Mutual dislike was safe—it eased the affair along without risk of discovery.

Sitting on the couch in her therapist’s office a few months ago, supposedly still processing her three year old divorce, Alex had told her she worried her boyfriend was cheating. She had found a condom in his wallet the other day.

 “Did you ask him about it?” her therapist asked in that mild, non-judgmental way that made Alex’s shoulders tighten.

“Sort of.” Alex had picked his wallet up off the couch to put on the table by the door where it normally lived along with their keys and saw the telltale circle pushing through the back.

“Do you two use condoms?”

“Sometimes,” said Alex, though perhaps not as much as they needed to be. She’d celebrated more blood in the last year than one should outside of ritual sacrifice. “I just never noticed it before.”

 “So why do you think this means he’s cheating on you?”

When she found the condom Alex paused, wallet in hand, considering how to phrase her question in a delicate and non-accusatory manner before saying, “Is there a condom in your wallet?” “Yeah,” came his casual reply. She laughed to fake ease, “Why is there a condom in your wallet?” “Oh you know,” he said as he looked up over his laptop to catch her eye this time, half his mouth drawing up into a smirk. “Might go out sometime, have a nice dinner, take a little drive, feel so excited, so romantic.” She laughed for real this time. “So the condom’s for me?” “For us, baby,” he said.

“Because I never noticed it before,” she answered her therapist.

“Do you have any other evidence?” There was that voice again. Alex felt more comfortable when it was clear she was being judged—at least she knew where she stood. “Not that I think this is evidence if you two do use condoms.”

“No,” Alex said, unable to meet her therapist’s eye. “I just wonder if he is.”

Alex had already taken her coat off when Evelyn saw her that afternoon, so she realized she needed to change from what she wore during the day in hopes that Evelyn would think she had been to a meeting or dinner that night when in truth she had neither. She was here for a conference that didn’t start until tomorrow, and she’d planned to spend the afternoon breezing through last minute details for her presentation in some charming local coffee shop (or Starbucks, if necessary) before capping the night off with a scotch and a book at the hotel bar. Instead, she downed a coffee from the lobby kiosk, ran through her presentation a few times in front of the mirror, eaten a surprisingly greasy grilled chicken sandwich for dinner, and then allowed herself to fret. The hotel bar was still happening, obviously, but one could not drink scotch for a casual drink. At least not at first, and Alex had no intention of going past two glasses of wine.

Anger at herself bubbled up now as she pulled off her old soft jeans in exchange for a long skirt. Pulled her only cashmere sweater, a gift from an aunt at Christmas last year, over her t-shirt. She dropped so easily back into the pattern of forced cheerfulness she adopted so many times around Evelyn in the past. Many nights when the two couples had plans together, she fought with her husband about who knows what before leaving and had to fix ruined mascara or sit in the passenger’s seat while he drove with a cold washcloth over her eyes hoping to mask the puffiness of crying so she could bounce around the room pretending her marriage was not ending. They had taken a full year to come back fully, her emotions, and another year of therapy to figure out what the hell it was she was supposed to do with Anxiety or Sadness or Anger before it sent her careening for chocolate or bursting into tears when someone cut her in line at the grocery store. And now, here she was, a grown-ass-woman, more or less self-actualized, standing in front of the full-length mirror in her nice hotel bathroom fretting over some lipstick and a sweater at 8:53 at night. None of this matters.

The cashmere cuffs were soft against her itchy, sweaty wrists. More deodorant was needed. The helpful clock in the bathroom ticked to 8:54. Alex decided she would go down early, have a pre-drink drink to loosen herself up and give herself alcoholic confidence if she wasn’t going to feel it any other way. The bridge between her and Evelyn in the past had always been wine, and so to get through this it shouldn’t be any different. This was the real crux of why they’d stopped being friends: without her own marriage, Alex had nothing in common with this woman. There was no chat between them that didn’t involve light-hearted discussions about slight annoyances at their husbands’ inability to follow a list while grocery shopping to their mutual hopes for children in a few years. To Alex, this had been meaningless banter, designed to fill the time. Designed to put at bay the loneliness and disappointment she felt in her marriage by acting friend to her husband’s friends’ wives, Evelyn chief among them. But it wasn’t a real friendship. It wasn’t the kind that would last over distance, or time or through a breakup, as she knew too well. So this drink was just her slipping back into an old pattern. Drawing the line of her life backwards for just a night (she hoped) before moving forward tomorrow and the next day through this conference and then back home to the boyfriend who settled her in a way she never knew she could enjoy.

The hotel room phone rang, stopping Alex’s thoughts. None of this matters, she reminded herself for the third time that evening. Assuming it was the front desk calling to remind her about checkout or verify her OJ-only breakfast order, she answered.


It was Evelyn.

“Hi. Evelyn?”

“You didn’t go down yet.”

“No, sorry,” said Alex, checking the time to see she was Not Late and grabbing her purse from the bed. “Just about to—I’ll be there in a moment.”

“No!” said Evelyn with a bit of a shout. “I—well I’m not there.”

“You’re not?” Alex sank down onto the bed, purse dropping to the floor.

“That’s why I’m calling. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it at 9.”

“We could meet a little later if you need more time,” replied Alex. If Evelyn was trying to get out of this meeting, this meeting Alex dreaded but had sacrificed a relaxed afternoon cappuccino in a real mug for, she felt middling about it.

“I mean, I can’t. Meet you. I can’t do this with you tonight.”

Alex felt her body relax fully, the tension running out of her shoulders. She knows. He’d told her and she knows. It surprised Alex, but she was thankful. She was not going to have to endure more faked small talk or the drink-throwing showdown, but now it seemed Evelyn choose the terse phone call instead. Which was fine with Alex. Three years she had prepared for this, though she’d left her notes for the occasion at home. She remembered well enough how it went: I am deeply sorry that I’ve caused you pain. What we did—it was flirting that got out of hand—I, well, I think you know how unhappy I was in my marriage. Not that that excuses what I did. I just wish I’d been able to admit it fully to myself earlier so I could have saved you a lot of pain. No, of course. I understand. You let it out. I understand if you need to yell. Nothing justifies my actions.

In preparation to recite it, Alex unhooked her bra and lay down on the bed. She was grateful Evelyn was sparing her the thrown drink, it would have been expensive to ask the hotel to clean her sweater overnight, but Alex also felt she was losing out a bit by this confrontation being on the phone. She would have regained some of the moral high ground at least if Evelyn had made a scene with her in public. Maybe even gotten that scotch for free from a sympathetic bartender after such a scene.

“Right,” said Alex. “Don’t know what I was thinking when I said that we should get a drink after everything that’s happened. Of course you knew, and I am deeply…”

“It’s not you,” interrupted Evelyn. “This isn’t about you.”

Alex paused the breadth of an ocean—a thousand thoughts running through her mind at once that she couldn’t grab. Nothing would slow down enough for her to catch them. She focused on her breath.

“You know that we want kids,” Evelyn started. “I’ve been doing IVF treatments for about a year now, and I just. Well, I just had a miscarriage this morning. A miscarriage. Can’t even call it that. I got my period. Just a bit later than it should have been. I took the test, said I was pregnant on Sunday and now it’s Tuesday. And now I’m not.”

“I thought…”Alex said and then stopped herself. She didn’t trust herself to speak just yet. She wasn’t ready to let it all go. This space between them would just have to linger.

“Don’t really know what else to say. Didn’t even say anything about it to…” Evelyn broke off, her voice a crack at the end. “I was going to tell him when I got back from this trip. Just wanted to wait a few days, plan it out so it was nice for him. Whole thing planned out. No point now. But I think I need to be done with this. I think… Don’t know why I’m saying all of this. I guess… Just didn’t want you to think I didn’t want to. The drink would have been nice. I did, I do, want to. I just…”

“Evelyn—I’m so…” Alex stopped herself. “I understand about the drink. Entirely. I do. It’s fine. It’s… Do you need anything tonight? Can I bring you something?”

“No,” said Evelyn, “but thank you. Want to be alone, I think.”

“Of course, of course,” said Alex. “I understand. Well—let me know if there is anything I can do. We’re both away from home here, so really, I’d be happy to. I could probably even wrestle up some pot if you wanted. I’m sure I still have a friend of a friend somewhere in D.C.”

Evelyn managed a small laugh, which was what Alex was hoping for.

“No, but thank you again. I’m just going to watch TV. Try to sleep.”

“That sounds good—we’ll have to… just take care of yourself.”

“You too, Alex.”

As soon as she hung up the phone, Alex started to cry. At the loss of someone who may have actually been her friend, for the loss that Evelyn was feeling right now, but mostly with relief at her own lack of importance. She dried her eyes with a tissue from the nightstand after a minute, then pulled her bra off and walked to the bathroom. The conversation drained her more than two glasses of wine and forced small talk would have. She turned on the faucet, not looking at herself in the mirror, and took comfort in the start of her nighttime routine. She brushed her teeth, flossed, and finally washed her face, scrubbing the pink off her lips, glad, for once, for the abrasiveness of hotel washcloths bleached of all softness. When she woke up, she didn’t want a trace of it on her skin.


Elizabeth Martin is an Instructor in the Writing Studies Department at Montclair State University in New Jersey and a staff writer for American Mircoreviews & Interviews. Her journalism has appeared in Parsippany Life, Neighbor News, and The Suburban Trends. Her poetry and essays have been published by Hot Metal Bridge, Arsenic Lobster, and Menacing Hedge, among others. She is the recipient of two New Jersey Press Association awards. Currently, she is at work on a series of essays that blend the political and historical contexts of motherhood with the anxieties, fears, and hopes of women.

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