by Kim Magowan
CALL ME, Aria had texted, all caps. Greg saw the text when he turned on and then immediately pocketed his phone. He and his partner Franny were in a taxi, winding snakily from the airport.
Franny had forgotten to pack her sunglasses, an omission she realized only when they landed in blinding Phuket. Greg waited for her to go to the hotel lobby to buy a new pair before sitting on the bed with its gold linen cover and pulling out his cell phone.
“I thought we agreed no communication while I’m in Thailand?” he said.
“Right, except for fucking emergencies,” Aria said, and proceeded. Charlie knew. He was checking an Amazon order on her computer, and her last email to Greg had popped up. Aria spoke very quickly, something Greg had witnessed her do in staff meetings when the news was bad, when, for instance, they’d made that critical error on the class action suit. As if zooming through content could ease the sting.
“Oh my God,” said Greg.
“Listen, this doesn’t have to be a disaster. I mean, it’s good you’re 8,000 miles away just now. Charlie has time to cool off, he isn’t going to show up at your doorstep with a baseball bat. Not like violence is Charlie’s style, but still: thank God you’re out of town. Once he calms down I’ll convince him not to say anything to Franny—”
Aria’s voice was a small plane, needling through the sky: Greg’s revelation the contrail puffing behind it. “I have to tell Franny,” Greg said.
“What? Gregory, don’t be stupid. I can fix this,” Aria said. Again Greg had a vivid picture of Aria at the conference table, having just disclosed some critical error, and then gesticulating in her magnetic, Italian way meant to convey, No big deal, this is nothing.
“I have to tell Franny,” Greg repeated; the statement thudded between them. Aria was silent. “You left your email open?” he added.
“Not deliberately! My God, do you think I wanted this to happen?”
Greg could picture Aria so clearly, 8,000 miles away: the way her skin would marbleize when she got upset.
“No,” he said. They were both silent for a full minute before Greg said, “I have to go. Don’t text or call. I’ll be in touch.”
What the fuck was he going to do?
Aria was brilliant but unrealistic—professionally, this was her biggest flaw. She refused to concede when she had a losing case. Of course Aria wanted to believe that if she put her hands over her eyes the storm would somehow blow over, that she could “reason” with Charlie. But Greg understood, even if Aria was being an ostrich, the impossibility of putting his life in the hands of an angry, cuckolded husband. There was no way to predict, much less plug, all the potential breaches here, once the great secret of his life had slipped the closed fortress of Aria and himself.
But how to tell Franny? And when?
They’d been in Thailand for all of two hours; their ten-day trip stretched grayly ahead. A vacation they’d been planning for months. Franny, the least girly woman on the planet, had gotten a pedicure for the occasion, had her toenails painted sea-green in honor of a week swimming in the ocean. Was he going to blow up the whole trip, just begun? Destroy Franny, waste $4,000 of plane tickets? Wreck all their plans, spend the week fighting and in tears?
If Franny even agreed to stay in Thailand. If she didn’t take the first flight home. If “home” was still a site for either of them to return to.
Greg stared out the window at the cummerbund of the beach, the vivid ocean.
The door opened and Franny bounced in. “I put two pairs on hold. Honey, I need your fashion advice,” she said, then looked confused. “I thought you were going to unpack?”
So Greg put on shorts and sandals and escalatored down to the lobby with Franny to look at and then reject both pairs of sunglasses (they were both dreadful) and pick out a different, presentable pair.
Not if but when, Greg kept telling himself, a thorny koan, as he and Franny stretched on lawn chairs under a beach umbrella. The Indian Ocean was almost too warm, though Franny delighted in the novelty of swimming in the sea. “It’s so different from the Pacific!” she said, giddily (their version of the Pacific, in San Francisco, was freezing. You had to wear a wet suit to venture into it). “Look at the sand. It’s like sugar! Do you think they consider ‘sand’ to mean ‘white’ here? Maybe ‘sand’ is a wedding dress color, like ‘champagne’ or ‘eggshell’? ‘I’ll have this gown in sand’?”
She smiled at Greg, a little sadly—years ago, Franny had pushed for a wedding, and had only reluctantly accepted Greg’s rejection of marriage as a state-sanctioned institution. He picked his social rebellions self-servingly, she’d accused, in one of their rare fights.
Now Greg laughed, though he’d never felt less like doing so.
“Come swim with me,” Franny said.
Again, Greg felt only disinclination—the water was like standing in steeped tea; he had a headache from the sun glare or stress or both. But they walked, hands laced, toward the water.
Wading in, Greg felt disgusted. He knew what he was doing: banking good moments with Franny. Was it so when he revealed the truth, Franny would be more forgiving, she’d have a deeper store of love in reserve for him to deplete? Or was it because he knew his time with Franny was limited, and so he was banking these moments not for her, but for himself—her warm, freckled hand in his, her tender feet, the way she said “Oh, hot, hot, hot” as they walked on the blazing sand?
Over the next few days Greg kept returning to this concept of making emotional deposits. That first night they’d fallen into a comatose sleep at 8:00 PM, after forcing themselves to stay awake for the lurid Thai sunset, but in the middle of the night he woke up, kissed Franny awake, and fucked her. It was the first time they’d had that kind of middle-of-the-night sex in five years, since their early days together. Franny was sleepy but agreeable. “That was lovely,” she said afterwards, kissed his jaw, then fell asleep, leaving Greg wide awake, thinking of the two things he’d entered Franny to avoid thinking: whether this was the last time they’d ever make love; and Aria.
“That was lovely,” for instance—had Franny said that because Greg had put more effort into it this time, that it wasn’t their usual sweet-but-brisk copulation, that he’d slowed down to make sure Franny came first? In other words, that he’d brought the kind of A game that he brought to his hotel afternoons with Aria: going down on her while she twisted her wrists in their mangled bedsheets, and the white curtains whipped frothily in the breeze? “You’re the best lover I ever had,” Aria had told him. Greg had been delighted, but had also mentally asterisked that comment: best lover to Aria, exceptionally. Aria compelled his effort, since the first week he knew her, before he even admitted to himself he had a crush on her. He was wittier and smarter and better in bed around her, because he tried harder.
“If you had a magic wand,” his mother used to say to him, when he was a kid: what would he have for dinner? Who would he invite to the Halloween dance? What afterschool club would he join? Don’t think about what club will have you, his mother had insisted: think about what you most want, what you would bring about if you could.
If Greg could turn back the clock six months into the past: would he have foregone that after-work drink with Aria? Not leaned forward when she said, “Tell me something that will surprise me”? Not have said, “I’m falling for you,” and then heard her deep, throaty laugh (even her laughter sounded Italian), heard her say: “Well, that doesn’t surprise me.” Before Greg could decide whether he should be mortified, Aria had leaned forward to kiss him with her lime-sticky, gin-and-tonic lips. Would he forego all that?
And if not, did that mean that he should give up Franny instead? That it was time to reject all of Aria’s conditions, to yank her from her marriage to Charlie? Twist her away, like the larger (winning) half of a tugged wishbone?
Greg mulled these questions while he splashed with Franny in the ocean that felt like warm milk. While he and Franny ate green papaya salad and pumpkin curries at night at restaurants on the soft sand, the pillar candles surrounded by furry clouds of midges.
“Your mother would love Phuket,” Franny said. “Next trip we take, we should bring her.”
“Take my mother to Phuket?”
“Well, not here, but wherever we go. What about New Zealand?”
“My mother only likes cruises,” Greg said. “Her ideal vacation involves a shellfish buffet and a magician who does handkerchief tricks.”
“Greg, she only goes on those because she’s lonely. Seriously, we should broaden her horizons. Mary is a ball of anxiety—she needs to relax. Like you, now: you’re so relaxed here.” Franny kissed his nose. “You see? We needed this trip. You’ve been so distracted.”
That last comment made Greg wonder if Franny had seen more than appeared. That made him sad, too, that she was so blind to the current state of his mind, which felt as hot and bubbling as a witch’s cauldron. Of course blinding Franny was the point, what he was expending so much energy doing. Why bother, only to rip the blinders away? Not if but when.
On the beach Greg leaned on his elbows, watching Franny breaststroke away from him. He watched the seagulls glide and suddenly dive-bomb, opening their cruel beaks.
Franny was on a quest to find the best iced coffee in Phuket. Every morning, she posted coffees on Instagram, and analyzed their qualities: this one had too much ice, that one had a pinch of cardamom. Greg sent her off by herself so he could check his phone. Still no word from Aria.
Of course, he’d told Aria “Don’t text or call.” Still: wouldn’t she have reached out if Charlie had moved out? Or if she truly loved Greg?
One of Aria’s theories was that every couple had a designated Lover and a Beloved, and the reason she and Greg wouldn’t work in the “real world”—her name for everything outside the borders of their hotel room—was that both of them were Beloveds. “It’s like we’re two Tops,” she’d told him.
“So are these types specific to a couple? Or entrenched personality types you carry around like a tortoise shell wherever you go?” Greg had asked. Lying on the bed, he’d watched Aria shrug herself into her blue shift dress. It was like watching a snake slip back into her shed skin.
“Both, hence the ‘two Tops’ analogy,” she said. “We both require devotion. I wouldn’t love you enough, you wouldn’t love me enough, so we’d sulk and pout. That’s why we work better”—her arm swept expansively, encompassing the hotel room, the chaotic sheets, the blowing curtains—“confined to here.”
Was she right? When he looked at his relationship with Franny, he saw Aria’s point. Always, Franny was the one to give way, when any of their most essential visions collided; his objection to marriage, for instance, his refusal to have children. And certainly Aria was the alpha in her marriage—“wore the pants,” Greg would have thought, had Aria not schooled him from all that patriarchal language. “Don’t be such a fucking caveman!” Franny was kind and flexible; Aria was a pain in the ass, stubborn and spoiled, and yet…
In the middle of the night, when Greg woke up to stare at the hotel’s dimpled ceiling, Aria’s face swerved and dipped above him like one of the swooping seagulls. Was she currently fucking Charlie, trying to lure him back, stick and adhere him to herself?
After six days in Phuket, Franny and Greg flew to Chiang Mai. The plane was tiny. It bounced and skidded through the clouds like something made of paper: truly frightening. Franny laughed and squeezed Greg’s hand. “It’ll be over soon.”
They spent their last weekend in Thailand trekking through mountains, visiting the tiny Northern villages. Franny had saved room in her suitcase for souvenirs. The villages were known for their woven baskets, embroidered fabrics, and carvings.
Their trek group included a young Australian couple on their honeymoon who had to be continually reminded to walk single-file. Franny walked behind their guide, Greg at the back, the Australian couple wedged between them. The guide, out in front, poked the bushes with his walking stick. “Be on the lookout for snakes. Especially, we call it, I don’t know your name for it, the ‘three-second viper.’”
“Why?” asked Franny, right behind his heels.
“Because in three seconds, if it bites you, it stops your heart.”
Later, when they found a hotspot in the chilly, dusty village they were sleeping in for the night, Greg Googled “three second viper.” Of course there was no such snake.
“Do you think he meant a pit viper? There are definitely pit vipers in Thailand, and they’re seriously poisonous.”
“Who knows?” said Franny. She was using her own cell phone as a mirror, to examine a bead necklace she’d bought from a woman who was missing all her back teeth. “What do you think, Honey? Too culturally appropriative?”
“I think it’s pretty,” said Greg. Tomorrow—hiking back down the mountain, then making their way back to Bangkok, and from there, to chaotic California—uncoiled, like a viper, before him.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Booth, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
Image original: Taylor Heery/Unsplash