Robert was passed out in the bed. Jackie stared at her drunken husband with a mix of anger, pity, and relief. The anger was directed solely at Robert – he had started the fight, after all. And he was the one who lost a thousand dollars at the casino. But the pity and the relief were for both of them. Pity because this was their first child-free vacation in over a decade, and they had screwed it up — relief for the same reason. Jackie had built up this vacation too much, planning, and preparing, and making checklists for the last month. And now that it was happening, and now that they had ruined it, the pressure was off. It was like finally slitting a large, pulsing blister. Painful, but there was also that satisfying release.
It would have been easier if something went wrong on the journey to the Caribbean – a delayed flight, or an obnoxious seatmate, for example. Just a hiccup to remove the sheen of perfection. But the flight to the island was seamless, and when they arrived at the resort, they found that it exceeded their expectations. Jackie booked the hotel online, and even if it was four hundred dollars a night, you never really knew with the internet, did you? But it was very tasteful, not like those all-inclusive monstrosities where the name of the resort was painted across the pool.
Robert was still wearing his dress clothes, having only removed his jacket before he stumbled into bed. He insisted on wearing a suit to the resort’s casino as if he were an international spy, or a diplomat, and not an Ear, Nose & Throat doctor from suburban Baltimore. Jackie was angered by this pretense. She found herself angered by everything. Left unchecked, the anger grew darker and stronger, until she was pacing the room in a fury. How could Robert lose a thousand dollars? And how could he say those things about the Me Too movement, as if he didn’t have two daughters? One was already a teenager, the other on the cusp of adolescence, and Robert seemed to have no idea of the threats that awaited them. But Jackie did. She had been an attractive girl – she was an attractive woman still – and she knew the dangers that lurked out there, like wolves stalking the dark.
Jackie knew she should give her husband a pass. If they were at home, this might be possible. There was enough to distract her there – children and errands and a large house that needed perpetual, meticulous attention. But now there was nowhere to turn. The girls were at sleep-away camp for the week, and Jackie was certainly not going to bother a girlfriend with this stupid and embarrassing argument. And so she was alone. Until she realized, there was somebody that she could talk to.
The somebody was a man, and he was at the very same resort, although she had no way of getting in touch with him. But the resort was a self-contained universe, like a cruise ship or a snow globe. It wouldn’t be that difficult to find him. Jackie did not change her clothes. This would imply she had an agenda of some kind, which she did not. She didn’t know what she wanted. She only knew that she was suffocating in the airless room, so she closed the door on her husband and stepped into the warm tropical night.
The first part of their vacation was flawless. It was mind-boggling how many hours there were in the day once they were removed from their normal humdrum tasks. Jackie and Robert could spend an eternity at the beach and still have the afternoon to do as they pleased. And privacy. Good lord, the privacy. In those sun-soaked hours, Jackie discovered that she could actually talk to her husband. As in, converse, more than the passing words they exchanged as they cleaned up dinner.
On their fourth morning, Jackie found herself sitting by the pool, Robert dozing beside her in a matching teak lounge chair. Jackie fussed with the book in her lap. She had already read one novel and was halfway through this one, which seemed overindulgent. She really ought to be working on her lesson plans. They were due in three weeks, although she purposefully left all of her material at home. This was going to be her second year as an elementary school teacher, and she still wanted to make a good impression. Really, it was going to be her eighth year, since she worked as a teacher for six years before the girls were born. But after a decade and a half away from the working world, Jackie might as well be fresh out of school. Everything was different. Now it seemed the parents had unlimited access to you, emails, and phone calls at all hours of the day as if she were their child’s private governess. It was trying, to say the least. But she made such a fuss about returning to work she couldn’t very well back out now.
Jackie requested to go back to work after an encounter at Robert’s office Christmas party. She was talking to one of the other doctors, an older man who was long-divorced. Although they had little in common, both he and Jackie made an effort to converse. And yet, each attempt still fizzled into nothing. The man was not one to hide his feelings, and the longer they stood by the charcuterie, the more obvious it became. Oh my dear god, she realized, this man thinks that I’m stupid. Jackie was not stupid, but when she tried to think of something clever or intellectual to talk about, nothing came to mind. That very evening she told Robert she wanted to go back to teaching.
Jackie’s thoughts were interrupted by a girlish shriek, and she looked up to find that several people had established themselves at the pool’s thatched-roof bar. They were in their twenties and thirties, by the look of it. Something told her it was a wedding party. It was too diverse a group, a hodgepodge of cousins and friends and boyfriends. Robert heard them too and viewed the newcomers with an appraising eye.
“I need a drink,” he said and meandered to the bar.
Watching him, Jackie was afforded a rare glimpse of the Robert she knew in college. It was nice to see him this way. Relaxed, eager for fun and attention. He remained by the bar, talking to a couple. As Jackie scanned the group, her gaze kept returning to one man. He had dark hair, almost black in its intensity, a stark contrast with his lighter skin. Something about the man seemed familiar. He reminded Jackie of someone, though she couldn’t pinpoint who. For a moment, Jackie thought the man was returning her gaze. But she was probably self-conscious. Jackie was wearing a bikini, and she was not used to having so much skin exposed. Still, when she dozed off, she was struck by the not-unpleasant sensation that someone was watching her.
Later, when they were resting in their room, Jackie looked up from her book to find Robert pacing. It was four o’clock, a strange, empty time on vacation. They couldn’t call the girls at camp, but Jackie thought it would be nice to send a letter, and she suggested they each write one. Robert waved the idea away. This bothered her, but Jackie made an effort not to let it show. While she was missing the girls terribly, she was not certain that Robert felt the same way. Sydney was fourteen, a rising freshman in high school, and Chloe was twelve. Difficult ages to be sure, but it seemed that the older they got, the less Robert knew how to interact with them. He just seemed so alienated by the new realities of their daughters’ lives. He had no time for the friendship dramas, the popularity contests, the clothes, the conversations about body confidence.
There was no question that Robert loved his children, though sometimes Jackie wondered if he would have been a better father to boys. When the girls were little, he was so engaged and playful, but now he was like a deer in headlights. And instead of confronting these new challenges, he feigned ignorance. He acted as if it was all inconsequential or beneath him, and whenever Jackie asked for his assistance, his reply was the same. They want to talk to you, he would say. I have no idea about these things. Maybe that’s why she had insisted on going back to work. If she were working too, Jackie reasoned, Robert could no longer shift the parenting burden solely onto her.
Robert decided to visit the casino, leaving Jackie alone. The sound of the ocean filtered through the open French doors and Jackie was struck by a formless sort of panic that made her rise and go to the balcony. From her perspective, in the shade, the water appeared as a solid sheet of aquamarine. It really was breathtaking. It could be years before she had another afternoon like this, and she had to do something, so she slipped into a sundress and went exploring.
Jackie walked the narrow, shaded paths that crisscrossed the resort. The greenery was so dense it felt like she was in a tunnel, and she pushed at the fronds like a little girl. She wandered, the paths connected in an intricate web she had no intention of understanding. She ended up at the resort’s small beachside bar, so she stepped inside and ordered a drink. A little way down the beach, she saw the group from the pool. She was right – it was a wedding party, and they were in the middle of the rehearsal. She settled into a chair and opened her book, and only looked up when a peal of laughter broke the quiet chatter of the bar. The wedding party was descending, and it was clear that the celebration had carried on from the morning.
Jackie felt certain attention directed at her. Same as she did at the pool. Although when she looked up, she found the group engrossed with itself, a self-sustaining ecosystem. For reasons utterly unknown to her, Jackie went to the bar and ordered another round. And rather than returning to her seat she perched on a stool at the end of the bar. Soon enough, a dark shape appeared in her periphery. It was the man she noticed at the pool, waiting to order a drink.
“Is that good?” The man asked. He motioned to the book sitting on the bar.
Jackie looked down as if only now remembering that it was there.
“I’ve been thinking of reading it,” he clarified, “but I haven’t bought it yet.”
Jackie replied, “It’s good so far. Great for the beach.”
The bartender handed him his beer, and a too-long moment passed. The man gave her a tight smile, an end to their perfunctory conversation.
Jackie blurted out, “It’s a lot like another book I just read. Only darker. This one has a psychological bent.”
As they talked, the man leaned both elbows against the bar, his hands casually wrapped around his bottle. The polite stance of a man conversing with an unknown woman. He only reached over when Jackie introduced herself.
“Jimmy Carmichael,” he said, his strong hand briefly gripping her own.
“Are you with the wedding?” Jackie asked, even though it was obvious that he was.
“My little sister is getting married.”
“That’s wonderful,” Jackie said. Her tone was too bright; she sounded like a doting grandmother.
The man shrugged, uninterested in the topic. When he took a swig from his beer, Jackie noticed that his left ring finger was bare.
“So what do you do, Jackie?” He asked.
“I’m a teacher,” she said. At that moment, with her answer so readily and tidily offered, she would have put up with a thousand emails from tedious parents.
“What do you do?” She asked.
“I’m an actor.”
Jackie thought he was kidding at first. He said it so plainly as if he were a banker or an electrician.
“Oh,” Jackie said when she realized that he was serious. “What have you been in, anything I would have seen?”
“Some stuff, here and there. I was in a bigger show recently.”
He told her the name of the show, and Jackie had heard of it. It was a relatively popular cop drama, running for four or five seasons if she remembered correctly. He was not the lead, but he wasn’t a bit part either. He would be the person standing over the right shoulder of the star on a billboard. Maybe that’s why she had been drawn to him, his familiar appearance a tug on her subconscious. Jackie studied him more closely. She placed his age as mid-thirties, and while he was only a few inches taller than her, his body was unrealistically muscular in the way of people whose careers depend on it.
“I heard that was a great show,” Jackie said. Then she asked, “What do you have lined up next?”
“I shot a pilot in the spring. We’re still waiting to see if it’s picked up. So, fingers crossed.”
He was very easy to talk to; maybe this was a byproduct of being an actor, of being frequently thrown into new and unfamiliar situations. He moved to sit next to her and ordered another beer, so Jackie did the same. She was curious about the show, so she asked about it in a frank manner that often eluded her. She would have stayed indefinitely, except her phone pinged. She looked down to find a text from Robert. The message contained only the word dinner, followed by a question mark. Here they were, utterly unencumbered in paradise, and he was still sending the same kind of terse messages he sent from the office.
“Well,” she said, “duty calls.”
She did not know how to end their conversation, and he was looking at her expectantly.
“Good luck with your pilot,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be watching you this fall.”
“Thanks,” he said. Before he returned to the group, he said quickly, “Hey, if you’re around tomorrow, the wedding ends at ten. We’ll probably hit the bar afterward.”
“Sure. Thanks,” Jackie said, though he had already turned around.
The fight started as most unintentional fights do – with a small comment at the wrong moment. It was Saturday, their last night, and Jackie and Robert were finishing dinner. Both were uncomfortably full, a little tipsy, and looking for their mysteriously absent waiter. Robert was certain the waiter was sneaking a smoke break, and he craned his neck in an exaggerated manner as if to catch the poor boy in the act. If only one of these things had been different, the fight might not have happened at all – if, say, they had been in the midst of eating their shrimp, or if they had been fully drunk, or if the waiter had been ready with their check and not AWOL.
Jackie was pretty sure that the restaurant used to be owned by a famous chef and restauranteur. Or maybe it was a partnership between the resort and the chef, or some brand affiliation. In any case, the resort no longer had any dealings with the chef. The man, it turned out, was a predatory lowlife who stalked the young women in his orbit, and that was bad for business. Jackie made an offhand comment about the chef, about what a pig he was, and how he deserved his comeuppance.
“I don’t know,” Robert said, “it seems a little extreme.”
“What do you mean?” Jackie asked.
“His life is over. Everything he ever worked for, because a few girls came out with those stories.”
It wasn’t a few girls. It was dozens of girls. And they weren’t girls for Christ’s sake; they were colleagues, and employees, and aspiring chefs.
“You’re not serious,” Jackie said, her irritation plain.
“I just…there has to be some balance. Now you can ruin a man’s career without a second thought. You don’t even have to have evidence. It’s all he said, she said.”
Jackie thought of all the women whose careers had ended before they even began. Young women who had dreams of their own who believed it when their teachers told them that all they had to do was work hard, and they could be anything they wanted. In just a few short years Sydney and Chloe would be the same age as the women in the headlines. And surely, at the very least, their father wouldn’t sympathize with the men who could derail their careers?
Jackie voiced these thoughts and more. For the first minute, Robert only looked at her with a wide-eyed expression. But then his eyes narrowed. Would it kill her, would it just kill her to give him a break? He had flown them a thousand miles away, he had forked over an obscene amount of money, and even that couldn’t stop her relentless bitching. Jackie inhaled sharply, but she did not say anything. When the waiter finally returned with their check, she was gone.
A few hours later, once Jackie had walked the dark beach, she was calm enough to find her husband. Even though he made her feel like an ungrateful shrew, and even though she was still upset, she was mostly inclined to put the argument behind them and salvage the evening. But when she found Robert sitting by the poker table, she discovered that he was already gone. His eyes were glassy and bright, and he was swaying slightly. He barely acknowledged her, rudeness that seemed unnecessary. But something was going on. The tension around the table was growing. And then the dealer flipped a card, and the crowd rustled. Chips were moving around, going the wrong way, leaving the space before Robert. Jackie did the math in her head, confused and yet sure at the result. Robert had just lost a thousand dollars. He stood from the table and stormed away.
She let Robert walk ahead and waited outside their room so that he had the illusion of privacy. When she finally entered, she found her husband sprawled across the bed. Her anger was so strong that Jackie almost felt ill. Her heart rate quickened, and she was struck by the most peculiar sensation. She could only describe it as a sort of impulsive petulance. The kind that sent her sneaking out of her house in high school, to meet the dark car idling in her parents’ drive. It was then that she remembered Jimmy’s invitation.
Jackie made her way toward the resort’s main building where, presumably, the event space was. She checked her watch. It was ten-thirty, possibly too late. She wasn’t sure why exactly she was seeking Jimmy out. She was just moving. She certainly didn’t want anything from him. Not in the way it would appear to an outsider. Jackie had never been unfaithful. It wasn’t in her genetic code. Her parents had been married for thirty-three years, Robert’s for thirty-eight, and it was understood that they would be the same. Her only experience with cheating was in a voyeuristic way, when Amy, Jackie’s best friend, began an affair with a man from her office.
Jackie would listen intently as Amy reported her encounters with the man, each tale more illicit than the last. But then, four months into it, Amy ended the relationship. She conveyed to Jackie the exact moment she knew it was over. Amy was having lunch at a restaurant and talking on the phone with her paramour. When she mentioned where she was, the man said that his dry cleaner was in the same strip mall, and could she just run by? Amy said it was one of the most depressing moments of her life.
Jackie thought about this a lot. The reason for the affair was quite simple. It presented Amy with a multitude of possibilities. With this new man, she could be so many different women. There stretched before her a thousand different lives and adventures. But in that mundane moment, when the man asked her to pick up his dry cleaning, these possibilities evaporated. Amy glimpsed what her life would be like, and it was just going to be the same old bullshit.
Jackie walked into the bar and saw Jimmy standing alone at a high top. As though he had been waiting for her.
“Jackie,” he said, his smile bright and genuine. He looked behind her and asked, “Where’s your other half?”
“In a drunken stupor,” she replied. Then she added, “He lost a thousand dollars, and then passed out.”
Why was she making it out like it was a sob story? But Jimmy only shrugged, and said, “That’s paradise for you.”
He motioned to the bar and said, “Well, at the very least, you deserve a drink.”
She thought they were going to sit at the bar, but once they had their drinks, Jimmy guided her to the back of the room. Jackie discovered that instead of a back wall, the bar opened up to a large porch. Tiki-torches were the only source of light, providing a flickering orange glow that did not illuminate much of anything. They sat on a low-slung couch facing the water. The ocean felt very close as if she took two steps, she might simply drop in.
She asked, “How was the wedding?”
“Fine,” He said. Then he admitted, “It was fun, actually.”
The topic of a wedding felt safe — a buffer against this strange new intimacy. Jackie’s arm was aching inexplicably, and she looked down to find herself clutching the champagne glass so hard her knuckles were white. She was starting to feel lightheaded. The ocean was very loud, wasn’t it? There must be rough weather coming. The tiki torches left bleary trails of smoke that would not dissipate. It was too much. The smoke, the salty air, the champagne. The faint scent of Jimmy’s cologne, whatever was left that he had not danced away. How could she smell this? His face was coming closer. That must be the reason.
And then his lips were on hers. Part of her did not believe it was happening. Or rather, it was happening, but not through any fault of her own. This was all a big misunderstanding. She could push him away; Jimmy was not aggressive. And yet she did not. It was so thrilling, and it was so wrong and horrible and triumphant. It was like being caught in a riptide. There was no way to get out of it. You have to swim with it. Yes, that was the key. Go along with it, and eventually, you’ll be alright. An indeterminate amount of time passed. Then Jimmy slowly pulled away and rose from the couch.
“Come with me,” he said calmly, his hand outstretched.
It was the way he said this, as though it were a foregone conclusion that she would take his hand. If he had faltered, if he had appeared at all nervous or indecisive, she would have balked.
Jimmy’s room was in a different part of the resort, but the layout was identical to her own. He closed the door and turned towards her, his hands resting lightly on her hips.
“Don’t move a muscle,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He went into the bathroom and closed the door; Jackie stood exactly where he left her. Her vantage point allowed her to survey the room. Even with the aid of the housekeepers, Jackie could see that he was a messy person. There was a bottle of aspirin beside the bed, the top missing. Several little white pills were sprinkled around the table, where he had been too lazy to return them to the bottle. Jackie had the urge to put them back.
Jimmy emerged, his dress shirt unbuttoned. He wore a white tank top underneath, his dark chest hair sprouting from the scoop neck. He looked like a wicked husband in a made for TV movie. Robert wore sensible V-neck undershirts. And, in that singular moment, Jackie returned to herself.
Maybe she said something, like “I can’t,” or perhaps, “I don’t think I can.” Jackie was not sure; she was not in control as she hurried to the door.
“Jackie,” he said. “Just wait.”
But she only rushed into the hallway. She didn’t wait to see if Jimmy came after her. She hurtled down the stairs and onto the dark paths.
Jackie finally understood what Amy was talking about, the moment that her friend glimpsed her future life and knew the affair was not the magical elixir she so longed for. Jackie could see it so clearly. What would happen if she booked a return flight to Los Angeles instead of Baltimore? There would be a small apartment. Nice, but small. And how exciting it would be at first, being an actor’s wife, until the anxiety set in. Always wondering where the next job would come from, always waiting for that one phone call.
Meanwhile, Jackie would spend her days cleaning up after this messy man. But this realization wasn’t depressing, the way Amy claimed it was. No, no, the opposite was true. It was freeing.
Jackie imagined Robert roaming the halls, angry and suspicious, she opened the door, expecting the worst. And there was her husband, snoring peacefully. Jackie was so grateful she nearly broke down. She climbed into bed and lay on her back, hands chastely folded across her chest. She knew Jimmy would not look for her. He was probably shaking his head at her, another cowardly mom from the suburbs.
At some point in the deep night, Robert rolled over and pulled Jackie towards him, so that her body was cradled in his, her back to his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured into her ear.
“Me too,” she said.
They fell asleep this way.
They rose the next morning and smiled sheepishly at each other. They made their flight. They picked up the girls from camp. They resumed their normal lives.
Jackie finished her lesson plans, and Robert returned to his patients. School started, for Jackie and the girls. There were birthdays to plan, papers to grade, dinners to make, and dentist appointments to keep. And all the while, Jackie kept her newfound knowledge tucked away, to be brought out when the moment called for it. When she felt her life becoming colorless and dull when the busyness threatened to swallow her whole, Jackie would remember: She was free.