He needed to lose weight.
Dan’s gain started as just a few extra pounds, but soon his little paunch turned rounder right about the beltline. Never thought he’d be the type of a guy with a belly—the guy with yellowed pit stains and a too-hairy chest—but there he was, sitting on the couch with an empty Cheetos bag and a fine orange coating in his fingernails.
“In just two weeks, you could look like me!” The guy in the infomercial said, flexing muscles on his arms the size of bowling balls.
The infomercial was for some at-home gym thing that looked more like an instrument of torture than any barbell he’d seen. For only 19.99 nonetheless. Dan clicked the TV off. He needed to go for a run.
His neighborhood full of matching track homes and palm trees didn’t offer a variety of scenery. Running in eighty degrees isn’t all that it is cracked up to be, especially after polishing off an entire bag of manufactured orange fat-foams. His body felt like a piece of lead cutting through the thick wall of humidity. But he would do it.
“Where were you?” Amy asked when he came through the garage door an hour later. “It’s late. Hailey’s already in bed.” She was sitting at the kitchen counter flipping through one of those flimsy catalogs she got each day. She still wore the stained daycare t-shirt and jeans from work. Because she spent six hours a day with three year-olds, Amy perpetually smelled like goldfish and play dough.
He opened the fridge. “I’m gonna get in shape.” And closed it.
“Mmmhmm. You and me both.” Amy hadn’t really ever recovered from her pregnancy weight. Not that she’d ever been that thin to begin with. She was short and round. Flabby and soft.
They met in sociology. It was a small class and since no one really moved seats after the first day’s random seating, she was next to him for an entire semester. He didn’t like sociology; blaming everything on the environment just didn’t sound right. Amy, on the other hand, loved it. When they were paired together for a presentation she took far more than her share and he was more than happy to let her. He felt sort of bad, but only because it was typical. He was an athlete and she was the kind of girl who spent holidays reading, so of course she would be doing all the work. And of course he would end up asking her out. But she was nice, it was senior year, and what the hell did he have to lose? They were married a year and a half later.
“I’m going to join a gym.” He said.
“What do you think of this?” She held up the catalog and pointed to a frying pan. “It’s cast-iron. Someone was telling me about these.”
He shrugged. “I’m going to lose at least ten pounds.”
“Ten pounds, Amy.” He said. Maybe fifteen.
His boss was the first one to notice his weight loss. They were right outside his office discussing the weekend’s trip when he stopped mid sentence.
“—You lose weight?”
“Uh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve been working out.” Dan answered. It’d been three weeks. Eight pounds. Monday, Wednesday, Friday were for running. Tuesday and Thursday he lifted. Saturday was pretty much booked for membership programs and there was no way he was putting on spandex for any stupid spin or yoga class.
His boss continued the discussion, as if Dan hadn’t even answered. As if he hadn’t even asked. He was assigning Dan to the new program with the intern, Elise Peterson. So basically, Dan would tote around some college girl and pretend like he enjoyed his job for two months.
Later that afternoon, he was late picking up Hailey. Amy’d wanted more kids, but one was plenty. Between soccer and piano lessons, how did any sane working parent have time for more? He chose sanity, thank you very much.
“How was school?” The typical parent question. He’d become that, recently: typical.
“Eh. Fine.” She said as she got into the car. “We had a sub who didn’t know what she was doing.” Haiely began rummaging in the glove compartment.
“Cup holder.” He said.
“Thanks.” She reached for the gum she was searching for. “I am just, like, so over high school.”
Dan smiled. Hailey was always a little above average, but this was a bit much. She was just a freshman. And it was September.
Amy already had dinner waiting when they got back. Chicken Parmesan. (She wasn’t helping his diet.) They ate around the kitchen island and alternately watched the news and one of Hailey’s TLC shows, switching back and forth during commercials.
Dan and Amy exchanged a few pleasantries for Hailey’s sake. How was work? Fine. You? Busy but fine. Turned out to be sunny, didn’t it? Yep it sure did.
They fell into their usual silence. They’d lost things to talk about a long time ago.
On Wednesday he met the intern.
“I’m quite passionate about my work.” This is what she first told him. “I hope you have high expectations because I intend to meet them.”
Elise had very long thin legs. Unlike the other women in the office, she never wore nylons and he noticed the faint freckles clustered around her kneecaps. Her cropped hair was black, but it was the kind of black that looked faintly fuzzy, giving its true origin (a box at Walgreens probably) away.
He gave her easy jobs the first week. Sorting and Filing bored her, however, and she didn’t hesitate to tell him so. She was soon talking to clients.
“Do you ever dream?” Elise asked him over lunch. It was just the two of them in his brown office. He was at his desk and she sat against the wall with her legs tucked up underneath her. She waved her peanut-butter sandwich at him. “I don’t mean the pillow kind. The aspiration kind.”
He looked at his salad and sighed. Down 20 pounds and he still didn’t care for spinach. “I dream, I guess. Like anybody else.”
She gave him a pointed look.
“I wanna have a boat.” His words surprised him. He did? Since when did he want a boat?
“That’s a beautiful dream. A boat.” She said ‘boat’ as if she slipping it into her mouth with a spoon. She looked at him, tilting her head slightly. He wondered if she ever blinked.
“And I want to travel Europe.” He hadn’t thought of that since grad school. Italy had a funny way of feeling farther and farther away.
Elise smiled. “I figured.”
“Why is that?”
“Oh, you just look like the Europe type,” She said. “I’m the Europe type too, you know.”
It was a week before they started sleeping together—or as Elise insisted on calling it, making love. Her car broke down and she called him at home.
“I could’ve gotten someone else,” She said. “But I knew you’d come.” She’d already called a tow and so he gave her a ride back to her apartment.
“Want to come in?” She asked.
Yeah he did. “Nah, I need to get back.”
“I can at least give you some coffee.” She twisted a piece of hair at her temple around her finger until it stood straight out. “You were my rescuer tonight.”
He thought of Amy, on her back in her snowman flannel pajamas, asleep with her mouth open. “All right.”
She invited him in and they sat too close on the couch. When she said she was hot, apologized for having no air conditioner, and took off her shirt, he wasn’t actually all that surprised. He never planned on having an affair, but that night it was like they both just knew it was expected. He was the king of ‘expected’.
Dan bought two smoothies before picking up Hailey. An all fruit smoothie for himself and peanut butter banana smoothie for her. Hailey swung her backpack into the backseat and thanked him for the drink.
“School good?” He didn’t respect a response.
“We talked about love in lit today,” she said.
“Yeah. The other kids are pretty immature. I didn’t think they’d get into the conversation—other than to talk about sex, I mean. But you know what?” She took a drink, let it sit in her mouth, and swallowed. “Everyone actually participated in the group discussion. We talked about how love is much more than, like, all the sex stuff.”
Dan drummed his left thumb against the steering wheel and thought of Elise perched on her side on top of his desk.
“Did you say anything?” He asked.
“Just that love isn’t always exciting. I actually mentioned you and mom, like as an example.”
“You and mom. I’m not an idiot, Dad. I know you sleep on the couch.”
Dan wondered if Amy knew that Hailey knew. How much other stuff did Hailey know?
“But you guys still love each other, you know? Even though the excitement is gone, you’re committed.” Her straw made a squeaking noise as she moved it up and down. “Can I have the rest of your smoothie?”
“Uh, take it.” He couldn’t stomach any more.
Amy was mad at him. He could tell by the way she sighed when he left his shoes by the door and by the way she sighed when he put his dishes into the sink instead of the dishwasher. Those things only irritated her when she was mad about something else. He waited until Hailey went upstairs and followed Amy into the laundryroom right off the kitchen.
“What bugs?” He asked. The room was not very big so he was talking to her back as she began to fold the whites.
“Two kids threw up on me today,” She said.
“Gross.” But what else was new?. Welcome to working with toddlers. “And?”
“Elise Peterson called.” She snapped one of Hailey’s t-shirts in the air to get the wrinkles out. Once, twice, a third time. She flung the shirt down and turned around. “I know.”
“Oh.” He knew she would figure it out eventually since he wasn’t all that cautious. But not this soon. He wasn’t ready to put an end to it quite yet. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” Amy’s voice rose. “Are you?”
He wished he were. “Yes.”
Amy shook her head. “I feel sorry for you.”
“What do you mean?” Hadn’t expected that one.
Amy scooted past him back into the kitchen. He followed her to the bedroom. He sat on the edge of the bed as she went about the room, undressed, and ran a comb through her hair.
“What do you mean?” He asked again.
“I thought maybe you could be more creative.” She went into the bathroom and came out with a toothbrush. She stood in the doorway and attacked her teeth with a few violent strokes. “I mean, the intern? It just never occurred to you to rise above the expected, did it?” She pointed the toothbrush at him and he watched a glop of toothpaste fall on the carpet. He thought for a second of scooping it up before it dried, but at this point, why bother? It could blend in well enough.
“You think you’re something special, do you? Working out all the time, staying late at work, sleeping with some girl not even old enough to have real breasts?” She laughed and left to rinse her toothbrush. She called over her shoulder, “So original. So daring.” She came back and got into bed.
“I’m sorry.” He said, turning to face her. What else was he going to say? He never would have expected this kind of response. Tears for Hailey’s sake? Yes. Yelling in frustration? Most definitely. But not this bitter acceptance.
“You’re the one who chose this life. Yet you walk around like some puppet of life. Frankly, it’s pathetic.” Her voice was malice. “You’re planning to sleep with her for, what, another two weeks or so? Then break it off, realize that you love me, and try to make whatever we used to have work?”
He didn’t say anything. She was right. A puppet of life.
“Well, you don’t love me, and that’s fine.” She turned the lamps off with the switch by her bed.
“That is not true-” He did love her. He did. Didn’t he?
“Go and marry the bitch for all I care,” She sat up, fluffed her pillow, and laid back down. “And work for another twenty years, retire with a nice savings account, and go live the rest of your days in Florida gaining back the weight you tried so hard to lose.”
Dan opened his mouth but nothing came. He’d never seen Amy so angry, yet so calm. He sat, paralyzed into stupor and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. How long was he sitting there? An hour, perhaps? Ten minutes? He needed to workout but he didn’t feel like it anymore.
He watched Amy for a minute more and left for the kitchen, leaving her on her back in her snowman flannel pajamas, asleep with her mouth open.