‘I am getting married,’ she said. ‘I thought you should know.’
Kent stopped attempting to wedge the printout into the binder. Instead he looked at her. Her shoulders were set. Her hands were tightly clasped together.
I would have married you, he didn’t say.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘We love each other and wish to make a life together.’
I loved you, he didn’t say.
‘Why did you think I should know?’ he asked.
A muscle jumped in her cheek. ‘It seemed appropriate given our previous brief intimacy.’
Kent sat back. ‘Are you then informing all of your previous sexual partners? Is marriage a communicable disease to be warned against like HIV or syphilis?’
‘Bitterness doesn’t suit you,’ she said.
‘Cruelty has always suited you,’ he said.
Kent had worked in plenty of offices where colleges had gotten married. He was aware that people varied in how much they shared and engaged with their contemporaries.
Nonetheless, he strongly suspected that Sue had told nobody but himself: he heard absolutely no mention of it, no collections were circulated, no congratulatory card gathered half-hearted good wishes. He was confident that his colleagues were not taking steps to hide all these expected operations from him. The office was emphatically not a close, warm, and protective environment.
It was a sort of comfort. He could almost put the situation out of his mind.
The invitation was creamy ecru card with a gold border.
Kent Davison, plus one. RSVP.
He fed it into his shredder.
Three days later she materialised in front of his desk, holding another invitation.
‘You haven’t RSVP’d,’ she said, holding it out. ‘I know how busy you are and how disorganised you can be. I need an answer before the end of the week.’
He raised his eyebrow. ‘Is there a reason for that deadline?’
‘You didn’t check the date.’
‘Why would I?’
Sue narrowed her eyes. ‘We are getting married in six weeks.’
Kent’s stomach clenched violently. ‘Rushing into marriage is rarely a positive sign. Do you have some pressing need to marry?’
‘You know that I have no intention of bearing children,’ she said acidly.
Kent nodded. It had been one of the few truly personal things that she shared with him.
‘I need your answer.’
Kent ignored the invitation she was holding out. ‘No. There’s your answer.’
Sue sighed. ‘You are being childish.’
‘And you are being ridiculous. People do not invite their former lovers to their wedding unless they are making a point about moving on, are sadists, or have some bizarre wish to sabotage the entire wedding.’
Sue put the card down on his desk. ‘I am not inviting you as my former lover but as my friend.’
Kent stared at her. ‘We’re not friends.’
She licked her lips. ‘We agreed that we would remain so.’
Kent snorted. ‘Don’t be ludicrous. We both know that “let’s stay friends” is a polite fiction that some people employ in the futile hope of softening the blow.’ He turned his attention to his computer. ‘For the record, it does nothing but offer baseless hope to those who don’t know better and insult those who do.’
‘I meant it,’ she said quietly.
Kent said nothing, and kept his gaze on his screen until she left the room.
She didn’t wear an engagement ring. It wasn’t that Kent was looking particularly. He had done his best to put the situation out of his mind. No, it was simply that Sue had rather strikingly elegant hands which often attracted his notice. It was while his eye was drawn to her long, delicate fingers that he noticed the absence. Women did still wear engagement rings, didn’t they? Kent would be the first person to admit that he hardly had his finger on the pulse of feminine trends.
Sue didn’t wear an engagement ring and Kent did his best not to think about the looming date. So, the memorandum from human resources took him completely by surprise. Ben had taken to delegating much of that side of the paperwork to Kent. It was likely for the best; Ben was not a man for fine detail.
Sue had notified human resources that she had changed her marital status and her next of kin. She was married.
Kent read the memo. Then he read it again. He made himself a cup of herbal tea.
She had married. She told him that she was going to marry. She did.
Kent sat down and drank his tea.
Melissa was older than advertised but that was quite acceptable. Kent had never privileged youth over character and she certainly had that.
‘I haven't done this in years,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure I’ve got the stamina for a full session.’
‘But you have done it before?’
She gave him a look. ‘I said that I had.’
Working for Selina Meyer had some pros as well as cons. Meyer’s distinctly scattershot approach to hiring and firing meant that Kent frequently had to pick up bits and pieces of other people’s duties. This contributed to his working hours that in any other line of work would probably had led to a strike or a stroke before now. His long hours made it difficult for him to sustain an outside life but this meant nobody thought it odd or even noteworthy if he worked through the night. It was quiet then and he found the solitude refreshing after a long day of dealing with incompetence, hysteria, and aggression. It was his quiet time.
Which is why he was first surprised, and then disturbed, to realise that there was someone in the bullpen at seven in the morning. A woman. Speaking in a tightly controlled voice.
Like many men of his generation, Kent was uncomfortable with open displays of distress. However, he had grown up with both a younger and an older sister: unlike many of his contemporaries he had no general terror of female emotions.
Therefore, rather than barricade his door and pretend he hadn’t heard, he walked out into the bullpen.
But cautiously, because he had a specific fear of Sue’s anger. He no longer feared her disappointment.
Sue was still wearing her jacket as she growled into her cell.
‘I am not discussing this with you,’ she said. ‘This is my place of work. I do not discuss my private life at work. No, not even with you.’ She listened in silence for a few seconds. Her jaw clenched. ‘You are talking nonsense. There is no possible compromise between having a child and not having a child. What do you suggest, half a child?’
She didn't want children. She had always been very clear on that point. Kent could see no reason she would have been less clear with the man she meant to marry.
Kent had no strong feelings regarding children. If there had ever been a woman in his life, intelligent enough to attract him but lacking enough judgement to consider him a sound prospect, who had wanted children, then he would have done his best to comply. He would have done considerably more for Sue.
Sue threw her cell down onto her desk.
Kent walked back to the door, opened it quietly, and closed it loudly. He marched back into the bullpen, pretending to examine something on his cell.
‘Mr Davison,’ Sue said, folding her arms.
‘Miss Wilson,’ he said. ‘Or is it Mrs. Something?’
She tapped her foot. ‘Miss Wilson is quite sufficient.’
‘I will bear it in mind.’
‘Did you come here purely to ask me that?’
Kent put his cell in his pocket. ‘I was working in my office and I heard a noise,’ he said. ‘I thought it best to investigate.’
He saw her mouth twitch as she realised.
‘Did you intend to tackle an intruder?’ she asked. ‘That seems outside your remit.’
‘I saw my role as primarily being that of information gathering,’ Kent said.
Sue removed her coat. ‘Did you learn anything useful?’ she asked sharply.
‘Merely that the security of the nation remains secure.’
Sue relaxed a fraction. ‘Then we have nothing else to discuss.’
In a long and varied career, Kent had learned that there were certain things which remained constant: politicians slept with people half their ages, staffers had affairs with each other, and marriages disintegrated. All of these constants had their own signs and symptoms which one learned to recognise, even if one would rather not.
Sue was having issues at home. There were too many tense phone calls and sharp comments for it to be anything else. She was always brusque, sometimes to the point of rudeness, but she had become occasionally nasty, almost abusive, particularly towards interns and junior staffers. That wasn't like her. They were usually too far beneath her notice.
He didn’t say anything. He was quite sure she had no desire for his advice. She considered herself utterly capable and competent. She believed any advice to be an implicit suggestion that she was wrong, and that was not to be borne.
Jenny cracked her knuckles and stretched her hands as if she were about to start playing piano, or perhaps palm some cards in a cut-throat poker game.
She and Melissa knew each other a little, which certainly made things somewhat easier.
Kent was in his kitchen, attempting to stretch the kinks from his back while the chamomile tea brewed, when his doorbell chimed.
It was his own fault that his back was tight and painful. In his enthusiasm to rekindle the pleasures of his youth, he had overestimated his endurance. Ah well, he would be more realistic next time.
The doorbell chimed again.
Kent checked his watch. Wristwatches were an anachronism now given that everyone carried a cell phone at the very least. Kent had two cell phones, a tablet, and a laptop. Yet, as heavily as he relied on modern technology, by instinct he always looked to his watch for the time.
Ten. It was rare that he had a full weekend off but he had no regret in how he had spent the day.
The figure on the security monitor was tall and shadowed but undeniably female. Too tall for Melissa. Too slim for Jenny.
It hardly mattered. He had known who it was the moment he saw her.
She pushed past him, into the house. A faint lingering scent of alcohol followed her. As she opened the kitchen door, she looked at him over her shoulder. ‘Don’t stand there with the door open.’
Kent looked outside for her car. It wasn’t within sight but he could see a cab vanishing into the distance.
He shut and locked the front door before following her into the living room.
‘What’re you doing here, Sue?’
‘You’re out of whiskey,’ she scolded, rifling in his liquor cabinet.
Kent watched the way her hair fell over her shoulders. ‘Did you get a cab here?’
She nodded as she stood. She poured brandy into two glasses and handed him the smaller one. ‘I was in no mood to drive.’
Or state to drive, he didn’t say.
‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here,’ Kent admitted.
Sue sipped her brandy. ‘Tell me that you’re glad to see me.’
There was a touch of redness in her eyes and slight puffiness beneath them.
He took the bottle from her and put it back in the cabinet. ‘I’m glad to see you.’
She leaned back against the wall. ‘Tell me that I look beautiful.’
‘You look beautiful.’
Sue sipped her brandy. ‘Tell me that you’ve missed me.’
Kent looked away. ‘Why’re you here?’ he asked quietly.
‘Can’t I visit a friend?’
‘Is that’s what’s happening here?’
Sue drained her glass and put it aside. ‘You always ask too many questions, Kent.’
‘The curse of an inquisitive nature,’ he said. He could hear his voice shaking.
She stepped forward, wrapped his tie around her fist, and kissed him.
Kent closed his eyes. He breathed in her scent.
Then he stepped back.
‘I’ll call you a cab,’ he said.
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘I can’t do this.’ Kent touched her face. ‘You’ve been crying. You’ve been drinking.’
She tilted her cheek to his palm. ‘That doesn’t matter. We’ve been intimate before when we were intoxicated.’
‘We, yes,’ Kent said. ‘Tonight, you’re upset and a little drunk. Tomorrow you might feel differently.’
‘Do you truly mean to pretend some moral or ethical qualm?’
‘I haven't even mentioned that you’re married.’
Sue raised an eyebrow. ‘Don’t pretend you care about that ‘
Kent looked away. ‘I care very much about that.’
‘That's not what I meant.’
He looked at her again. At her too straight back and trembling hands. ‘I just made some chamomile tea. Would you like some?’
‘Do you wish to discuss it?’
‘I do not.’
Kent didn’t consider himself an envious person. The thought of her with some other man made him sad, not angry. It would have been envy, he didn’t have the right to jealousy. He had no claim on Sue. He wondered if he ever had.
Kent licked his lips. ‘Where does he think that you are?’
Sue regarded him steadily. ‘I am not going to talk about him with you. Not now. Not in the future.’
‘I wasn’t attempting to do whatever it is you are obliquely accusing me of,’ he protested. ‘I merely... You keep it so stringently segregated. You can hardly be surprised that I'm curious.’
‘You had your opportunity,’ she said. ‘I invited you to the wedding.’
Kent snorted. ‘We both know that if I had gone to your wedding I would have been banished to a table in the far corner with the distant cousins and the aunt who drinks too much and makes passes at any man she sees. You and I wouldn’t have spoken and your husband would have continued oblivious to my existence.’
Sue warmed her hands around her cup. ‘He knows that you exist. He is aware that we briefly dated.’
For a moment, he thought… but no. His memory threw up a much more likely suspect.
‘Your mother, I assume?’
She nodded. ‘That is all I am going to say on the matter.’
‘I can’t ask if you’re happy?’
‘You certainly cannot.’ Sue put her cup down. ‘I’m going to go up to the bedroom now. I will wait five minutes for you to join me. If you don’t, the opportunity will not arise again.’
Kent watched her walk out of the kitchen. He didn’t doubt for the moment that she meant it. He didn’t doubt that she would take a refusal as absolute. He didn’t doubt that she would cut him off cold.
She might do that anyway.
He stood up, rinsed the cups, turned off the lights, and went upstairs.
‘Don’t do that.’
She was getting dressed. He had tried to kiss the nape of her neck.
‘Please don’t use that tone,’ Kent said. ‘I don’t like that tone from you.’
That gave her pause. She took a moment to look at him. He felt uncomfortably exposed, naked in the bed while she primly buttoned up her shirt.
‘Dismissive. As if I were a naughty child.’
She touched the back of his hand. ‘That wasn’t my intention.’
Kent stroked her thumb. Sue pulled her hand away.
‘This is not the time for that,’ she said. Her tone wasn’t warm but it was a little gentler than he had heard from her recently.
‘I suppose that you decide when that time is,’ he said.
Sue stood up and slipped her feet into her shoes. ‘Yes.’
‘And I just wait around on your whim, do I?’
She pursed her lips and then stalked from the room. She returned a moment later and threw something onto the bed: an orange hair scrunchie.
Kent looked at her blankly.
‘That is not mine,’ she said. ‘Don’t play the martyr, Kent. It doesn’t suit you.’
‘It’s certainly not mine.’
‘It was on the stairs.’
She couldn’t be jealous. She didn’t care enough.
Kent shook his head. ‘I only want to know what I am to you.’
Sue put her hand to his cheek. She kissed him softly.
It was Jenny’s scrunchie. She often arrived with her hair up only to take it down partway through the session. She generally tucked the unused accessory into her back pocket when that happened. Kent had found several of them after they fell out onto his carpet. He always gave them back, and she always made the same joke about forgetting her head. People were so predictable.
When Sue proceeded to treat him with utter indifference at work, he bought the orange scrunchie from Jenny, and placed it on his desk amid his stationery. It was well worth a few dollars to see Sue’s face when she first noticed it.
He would have thrown it away afterwards, but it disappeared from his desk when he went out for his lunch.
‘If you’re not going to commit to this, then we’re going to have a problem,’ Melissa said severely.
‘I’m committed,’ Jenny protested.
‘If you’re gonna be skipping sessions maybe we need to recruit another player.’
‘I was sick.’
Kent adjusted the board. ‘We’re all here now,’ he said.
Melissa consulted her notes. ‘I spend hours writing these things. I don’t just make them up on the spot.’
Kent exchanged an amused look with Jenny.
‘We’re very grateful for your hard work,’ he said meekly.
Jenny stole a tiny goat’s cheese tartlet from the tray at the side of the gaming table. ‘Yup,’ she said, through a mouthful of food. ‘God, this is good. Thanks for hosting again, Kent. My kids would be crashing in and out constantly.’
‘You should get them playing,’ Melissa said.
Kent winced. ‘I would prefer to keep the members of our group over the age of eighteen.’
Jenny winked at Melissa. ‘Are you hoping for some adult style adventures, Kent?’
‘I need some extra time to incorporate that,’ Melissa said.
It wasn’t often that Sue was dragged along on one of Selina’s trips. She arrived on the bus in such a foul mood that Kent suspected she wouldn’t be pressganged again.
He caught her looking at him.
He wasn’t the only one.
‘What the fuck is going on with you and Sue?’ Ben growled. They were forced to share a room and neither of them relished it.
Kent gripped his tablet. Even though everyone else was in the nearby rooms, he kept his voice low. ‘There’s nothing going on.’
‘Bullshit.’ Ben prodded Kent with a stubby finger. ‘I’m the past fucking master of banging co-workers. I know what it looks like, and it looks like you two.’
‘Since when do you care?’
‘Since you started stinking of guilt and shame.’ Ben snorted. ‘One or both of you is cheating on someone, that’s pretty fucking clear.’
Kent rolled his eyes. ‘The man who’s had more affairs than JFK is lecturing me on morality.’
‘I’m lecturing you on being fucking obvious about it,’ Ben said. ‘I’m lecturing you about not knowing what you’re doing.’
Kent stared at him. ‘Are you seriously attempting to claim that participation in infidelity requires some sort of skill set?’
‘It requires you to not take things too seriously,’ Ben said. ‘It’s exciting, sneaking around. A bit of fun and you don’t know how to have fun. You'll take it too seriously and she won’t. I bet she knows it's just a break from the routine.’
‘Are you done?’
Ben prodded him again. ‘This administration has enough problems without you and Miss Ice Panties –'
Kent punched him.
Ben backed away, hand clasped over his eye. ‘What the fuck are you doing?’
Kent turned on the cold water tap and shoved his aching hand under the water. ‘Don’t talk about her like that.’
There was a sharp rap at the door and then Selina’s voice. ‘What the fuck is going on in there?’
Ben waved a hand. ‘You wanna tell her that you just sucker punched me?’
‘Would you like me to tell Sue what you just called her?’
‘Asshole.’ Ben stamped to the door and yanked it open.
‘Jesus, what happened to you?’ Selina’s demanded.
‘Tripped over Kent's huge feet.’
Selina’s sniggered and leaned into the room. ‘Hey, Kent, is it true what they say about men with big feet?’
‘That they wear large shoes?’ he suggested.
She sniffed. ‘Heard that one before, huh?’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘What happened to your hand?’
‘He thumped it trying to stop me falling,’ Ben said.
Selina’s looked at Kent. ‘You wanna tell me another lie or are you sticking with Ben's?’
Kent turned off the tap and dried his hands. ‘Is there something specific I can help you with, Ma'am?’
Selina’s shook her head. ‘Jesus, I expect better from you two. Have you finished waving your dicks around? Shake hands. I don’t want any more of this bullshit.’
They mumbled acquiescence.
‘Hey, am I talking to myself? Shake hands.’
‘My hand hurts,’ Kent muttered.
‘Boo-fucking-hoo.’ Ben thrust out his left hand.
Kent gave it a quick and awkward shake.
‘Don’t pull this crap again,’ Selina said.
Kent was tucked into the corner of the room, working on his laptop. He was running statistical models and not liking what he saw. Selina was getting ready for an event – he forgot which. There were so many that, for him, they all blended together into two types: ones that he had to attend, and ones that he could avoid. This was one of the latter, for which he was deeply grateful.
‘I’m taking orders for lunch,’ Sue said.
She had done something different with her hair. He couldn’t quite identify what it was and he certainly couldn’t ask, not with other people present.
‘Oh,’ Kent said.
‘I’ve decided that we’re having Japanese,’ she said.
Kent sat back. ‘Japanese is my favourite.’
‘I’m aware of that.’ Her gaze flicked to his bruised knuckles.
He moved his hand to the other side of the laptop. She hadn’t asked him. He didn’t want her to ask him.
‘I would like some sashimi and some miso soup,’ he said.
‘Certainly.’ Sue jotted down some notes on her pad. She lowered her voice. ‘I have located a motel on the other side of town. They will ask no questions and they accept cash.’
Kent cringed. ‘A motel?’
‘You are sharing a room with Ben and I am sharing a room with Amy. Our options are extremely limited.’
A motel. Perhaps it would it perfectly pleasant, nonetheless it felt grubby. Ben thought it should be fun. Exciting. Kent didn’t think that Sue found it exciting.
He knew that he didn’t.
The carpet sucked at his shoes. The fluorescent lights overhead flickered and hummed. Kent handed the money over to a sweaty sixtyish woman with badly dyed hair and breath that laboured through her permanently semi-open mouth.
She didn’t leer at him. She didn’t even look at him. To her he was just a handful of dollars and the greasy key that she handed over.
The room was as bad, although it appeared basically clean. Kent peeled back the crackling nylon sheets and smoothed them with his hand. The hairs on the back of his wrist stood up.
There was a single tap on the door.
Sue was carrying several large, light bags. He stood aside to let her enter the room.
‘It lacks a certain charm and warmth,’ he said.
Sue took clean bedding from her bags. ‘We will provide our own. Help me change these.’
‘Ben suspects,’ Kent said, stripping off the sheets. ‘But he doesn’t know that you’re married. I don’t think he’ll say anything. He’s more concerned about the possibility of a scandal.’
‘Is that why you hit him?’
‘No. He was... offensive about you.’
Sue stopped what she was doing. She caressed Kent’s face. ‘Did you defend my honour?’
‘Don’t laugh at me.’
Kent watched the strip light flickering. Sue's hand was resting on his chest. He could feel the warmth of her body. He could still taste her. He knew that until he showered he would smell her on his skin.
‘Do you think that there’s a shower in the bathroom?’ Sue asked.
‘If there is, I shouldn’t care to risk using it. I’ll shower at the hotel.’
She looked at him. ‘I like your scent.’
He looked at her, at the fan of her hair across the pillow. ‘Are you happy?’
She thought about it. ‘At the moment, I’m quite content.’
‘Are you happy with him?’
She rolled over to face him. ‘Kent, don’t ask questions where the only possible answers will upset you.’
He shook his head. ‘You think very badly of me.’
‘I’m merely realistic.’ Sue brushed her fingers through his hair. ‘I wouldn’t wish you to be happy with someone else either.’
Kent could see the light on in his room. He sighed. He had been hoping that Ben might have gone to bed. An unlikely hope, certainly, and now definitely denied.
Ben was lay on his bed in his underwear. It was a sight that Kent had seen several times before, yet it never seemed to improve. The best that could be said was that at least he wasn’t smoking.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ Ben asked.
‘I don’t answer to you.’
‘If you were bunked up with Sue then I hope to God you were discreet,’ Ben said.
Kent unbuttoned his shirt. ‘Oh, sure. I doubt anyone at the EZ Nite Motel would recognise either of us, let alone care.’
Ben started to laugh. ‘EZ Nite Motel? Was there a flashing neon sign and those squeaky plastic seats?’
‘There was a prophylactic machine in the hallway,’ Kent said dryly. ‘And a drug dealer in the car park.’
He watched Ben dissolve into giggles.
‘I’m going to have a shower,’ Kent said. ‘Don’t wait up.’
Ben wiped tears from his eyes. ‘I hope it was worth it.’
Kent leaned against the shower wall. He rested his head against the cool tiles. Hot water and citrus-scented body wash swirled down the drain.
Ben thought that it was exciting, fun, a break from the routine. Was that what Sue thought? Was Kent nothing but a diversion from the humdrum repetition of married life?
He should end things with her.
He knew that he wouldn’t.
Was it worth it?
He didn’t know.