Ben and Mena married late and courted briefly. They had a small but fine house just fifteen minutes outside the city. Mena commuted thirty-five minutes to the law office where she worked as a paralegal. She wore tweed skirts and shopped for sleek but sensible shoes. She was on her feet for much of the day, but had a good deal of energy when she came home. Ben commuted an hour both ways to the broadcast studio where he worked as a chief editor. He sat for much of the day and was allowed to eat at his desk, but he mostly drank large amounts of coffee so as to still have energy when he returned home.
Mena enjoyed cooking and often had dinner prepared when Ben came home. At dinner parties, Ben would remark that Mena absorbed cooking magazines the way some people took in novels. Ben loved her interest in cooking and she enjoyed all manners of preparation. She loved searching out perfect ingredients in sets of two, rolling over produce to check for imperfect bruisings and squinting at lean meat in the butcher’s cube at the grocery store. She was aware that this had certain connotations of a subservient nature, but she had both a passion and a knack for it and Ben was agreeable to cleaning afterward, so she had no reservations. Ben complimented her meals always as they ate and they discussed the nuances of laws and broadcasting that had kept them busy throughout the day. They listened to public radio on their commutes and had complimentary opinions on the news of the day. But mostly Ben and Mena liked planning. Ben said that he would like to take a class on dancing; tango or salsa maybe.
“I was a decent dancer,” he said, “but it was only at high school dances and then during college. I’d go with my friends to those awful clubs in the downtown, do you remember those? We’d drink ridiculous drinks in all sorts of colors and go out on the dance floor.”
“Mai tais. Those were popular. Everyone those days in the clubs drank mai tais. The dark red ones with the umbrellas.”
“It was expensive then, wasn’t it? I’m sure those clubs are outrageous now. It would take awhile to get my endurance back. But with all my driving, I don’t know when I would find the time for it.”
“Yes, driving does take up the time that they offer those classes. I would take up tennis.”
“I like the way that those women move. They’re elegant and strong at the same time, almost dangerous seeming. And I’d like to get in better shape.”
“You talked about jogging before, remember? Did you ever do that?”
Mena shook her head and took a small sip of her cabernet. “No, after I get back, I’d rather be cooking. If I went jogging, I’d have to shower afterward and then I’d be getting such a later start on dinner that we’d just end up ordering out.”
“That would be okay, wouldn’t it? If it was just once a week, even. We could order out.”
“Nope,” Mena said, shaking her head, “No way. That’s a bad habit to fall into, eating that kind of food. I don’t want to get fat on take-out.”
“Me neither,” Ben agreed and gave a big shudder at the idea of getting fat.
Often Ben and Mena suggested other possibilities for their time that they spent driving: she would take a watercolor class, he would learn how to fix his car on his own, they would attend the theater and take their nephews to the park. Both wondered if these were things meant for the lives of other people, for lives outside their own, but out of consideration, neither made any mention of it. Other things mattered, work mattered. Having dinner together mattered, didn’t it?
As Ben finished the last of his entrée he said, “Look how pale I am! The last day of summer and I’ve barely gotten any color to me at all. All summer and no sun.”
Mena looked at her own arms. “I barely got out at all. I wish it wasn’t getting colder already.”
“You know what I wish?” Ben mused, “I wish we lived here in the summer when it’s nice and then we had a winter home somewhere. Maybe Florida. Or Northern California.”
“Northern California gets cold. Not as cold as here, but still cold.”
“We should go, shouldn’t we? Sometime, I mean. We should go visit the part of California that stays warm when it’s cold here.”
“We had talked about going to Nepal,” Mena said, “You must have dozens of vacation hours. I don’t even accrue anymore, I’ve got so much.”
Ben blinked in a mild annoyance and reminded Mena that vacation time was not the issue but yes, they could use a vacation. Maybe after the new year. There was so much going on at work. There was the daily news segment, there were side projects. The station hadn’t been mentioned in any of the local awards last year and the pressure was on this year to reclaim a place on the list. Ben’s boss made mention of this often in the memos he sent out over e-mail.
Mena was standing in the kitchen running warm water over the plates. Ben rose to help, but Mena was already drying her hands with a towel and coming back to the table with a pencil and paper. She sat down and began writing two columns of numbers. Ben sighed; his poor math skills had always embarrassed him. When they went to restaurants, Mena would sneak a quick glance to see if he was tipping properly, but she would never say so either way.
Ben watched Mena stare up at the ceiling fan counting numbers in her head. He looked up at the ceiling fan too, watching the blades spin and spin. Mena’s lips moved to the words of numbers and she pursed her lips together in thought.
“Twenty-one and a half,” she murmured, “rounded up to twenty-two.”
“Full days that you lose by driving every year. So,” she said, tapping the eraser of her pencil against the legal pad, “you’ve missed a total of forty-four days of our marriage already.”
Ben let out a breath of air through his lips as he looked at her jottings. He shook his head in defeat of a situation beyond his control.
“It’s because I leave at five,” he said, “There’s a cheap seats theater just off the highway and I’ve thought of waiting it out there, but then I’d be an extra hour late.”
“Why an extra hour?”
“An hour and a half, actually. Because that’s how long the movies are and I’d still have at least thirty minutes to go without the traffic.”
“You don’t have to stay the whole movie. Just the first half hour or so. They’re cheap seats you said.”
“But then I wouldn’t know how it ends.”
“We could figure it out. You like movies best when you already know the ending. At least we’d have something to talk about.”
When Ben pressed her, Mena repeated her answer sotto vocce. Then she asked, “How long are we going to be married?”
“I don’t know.”
“And how long are you staying at your job?”
“You’re being unfair.”
Ben didn’t hear her answer. He listened to the clicking, scratching sounds of her pencil against the notepad. Her commute was half the time of his. In eight years, he would miss a full year of their marriage for which she would be present six months.
“Think of the extra life I could have,” she said without a trace of anger, “simply while you are driving.”
Mena could have a larger house further outside the city or a smaller house closer to downtown. She could paint her living room red, a color Ben despised, and still keep her sage green bedroom. She could travel with a man somewhat older and refined. A man who had worked longer and made more money, given to elaborate vacations and ornate furnishings.
“Think of it! I could have a whole other husband for that year.”
The man would read journals voraciously. He would have strong opinions on the political leanings of editorial writers. He would purr with pleasure or indignation over the winners of fiction prizes and know what respected reviewers had to say about the opera traveling through town. She and this man would dance together and play tennis in the well-groomed court in the city park. He would blow kisses at their ‘love’ score and wear shorts above the knee in summer.
“Imagine!” she continued, “I could have a six month old child.”
The child would be precocious, though not glib. It would learn other languages early on and enjoy an ease of fluency rarely afforded by later learners. It would have well-rounded extracirriculars; it would have scholarships to prestigious universities. It would attend a private kindergarten. As Mena grew older, she would adorn the walls of her retirement condo with photos of her child, of vacations, graduations and state championships.
“You don’t want a child!” Ben said flatly, “You never have wanted one.”
“Is that so.”
Mena stared at her pencillings, idly drawing circles and boxes around her numbers.
“And maybe your other husband wouldn’t either, did you think of that? What are his feelings on the subject?”
Mena pressed her lips together tightly and rose from the table. Her numbers on the yellow pad stared up bleakly at Ben. She walked down the hallway toward the bathroom without turning the light on.
“And,” Ben sneered, “where does he work anyway? Better hope he works from home or you might have to take a third.”
From down the hall, Ben heard a chuckling sound. It was the neighbor’s car starting up in the alleyway or it was the low sound of Mena laughing in the dark.