"Company" by Whitney Horn


“Remember the girl from work?” My voice doesn’t shake. It shouldn’t, not at this point in our marriage. God, don’t worry so much, Sasha. I hold my knife and fork in midair, waiting for my husband to look at me rather than the TV over my shoulder. “Josh?”

“Sleep with her yet?” His eyes still stare past me. The fork misses his mouth, and he has to try again. He chews slowly.

I reach around and turn the damn television off. “Wolf Blitzer can wait.”

He blinks. “It’s Jim Cramer. Finance, not just news.”

“Josh, dammit—”

“Jeez, Ladybug, don’t bite; I’m listening. The girl at work…” He looks down at his plate, creates another strip of chicken to spear, swirls it around in teriyaki sauce.

“Her name is Vanessa. She’s cute, just your type.” 

“Blue eyes is your type, Bug, not mine.” How does he know that I’m thinking of her blue eyes tightening right before she orgasms? And his blue eyes when he does the same, how they’re two different shades, hers a little darker than his, and that if I focus on just the eyes when I’m sleeping with either of them, sometimes I forget which one is inside of me. “Keep in mind that you have brown eyes,” he says. His glasses slip down his nose as he goes for the potatoes, and he slides them back into place. If only he would get contacts like I tell him to. But damn, his dimples and that plaid button down he’s wearing, a slight variation of every other after-work shirt he owns, mixed with those thick-rimmed glasses, make for a nerdy look that he knows drives me crazy. I’ve wondered before why he refuses the contacts, and if it’s for my benefit or my annoyance.

If he got contacts, I could see his eyes the way I get to in bed: clear, unobstructed.

“Everyone loves blue eyes.”

“If you say so.” 

I chew through an especially rubbery bite of chicken and then say, “She’s coming over next week. It’s my day off, and her last flight of the day lands here. Can you stay out late on Wednesday?”

“Sure. Making her dinner?”

“Yes. Don’t you dare say anything about my cooking.”

“Just don’t make her chicken, and you’ll be fine, Bug.”

“When I want your advice on dating, I’ll ask for it.” I smile to let him know that I don’t really mean that, and the crinkles that escape out from under the frames of his glasses prove that he understands.

I turn to hand her the wine glass and find Vanessa with her fingers intertwined below her chin, forming a shelf for her face. Gentle curls, loose from her ponytail, frame the heart shape of her face. On it, her freckles dance like paint splatter across her round cheeks each time she smiles, and the smile infects her eyes too, the dabs of sky blue bordered by thick, thick eyelashes. Those curved wisps cast shadows across the freckles, almost down to her lips, themselves two careful streaks of peachy pink that cut different angles, depending upon her mood. Everything must be arranged with intention on that face.

She blinks and takes the glass from me. I watch Vanessa’s fingers run down the neck of her glass, up and down. Her grip is just tight enough. I shiver. Vanessa must like the wine because she takes a first gulp, then follows it with a few more sips in quick succession.

I put my glass to the side, untouched, and arrange the thawed chicken breast on the cutting board to begin creating strips. Peeking through my bangs, I catch Vanessa staring down the hallway.

She turns back to me. Our eyes meet. “Is that a Georgia O’Keeffe?” she asks, pointing at the oil painting of a cavernous bull skull.

 “Um, yeah. Josh bought that at an art show in Indianapolis a few years ago. Nearly emptied his personal bank account to get it.” Leave it to Josh to hijack my date without even needing to be here. Maybe I should have taken Vanessa out instead.

 “You have an original painting by one of America’s most recognizable artists of the last century in your house?” Vanessa walks over to the painting, reaching a hand out, but not quite touching it. I follow her, and wrap my arms around her waist. Please don’t think about the money, what Josh does with his money. It doesn’t matter, I’ve learned. That lesson has been taught a few times already. My fingers trace lines across her blouse under her belly button, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She’s still staring at the painting.

“Don’t you think her flowers always look like vaginas?”

She’s not even looking at a flower painting, so her mind isn’t even entirely here. She’s somewhere else, with past viewings of past paintings with past people. Get her here. “And what do her skulls look like?”

 “Bones.” She doesn’t laugh, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to. Josh would know, and Josh wouldn’t let Vanessa slip out of his arms and go back to the kitchen, leaving me in front of a painting that I see every day and never really think about. Now I will.

Back in my kitchen, I pull out four, no five, potatoes and wash them in the sink, attacking the skins with my scrubber.

“Here, Sasha, let me peel them?” she offers, hands extended across the bar. I dig around for the potato peeler and bring the trashcan next to her seat.

She peels the potatoes with efficiency. The insides are white, newly touching the air and her fingertips as she dices while I marinate the chicken. There’s something in the way she undresses the potatoes with careful hands. She’s never careful when she undresses me or herself.  It’s always rushed, and something always gets torn – usually a buttonhole.

Vanessa describes the museums she’s visited using her free miles on her off-days. She shows me a pixelated version of her favorite Edward Hopper on her phone.  I tell her that the center of the painting is a plain white wall. “Can’t he paint something a little more difficult to master?” I ask, thinking that even I, who hasn’t taken an art class since elementary school, would have trouble messing up a cream-colored square.

“But that’s the best part. His aim is turned away from everything – the sea outside, the living room where the action happens, where the people live. Plus, if you don’t get a wall right, people really notice. You know that straight lines are the hardest thing to draw, Sasha?”

I just nod and turn to my chicken again.  We could talk about anything else. Art and finance, that’s all I ever get from Josh, and our arrangement means that I can get something else from the women I date, but this is just the same.

Right as the chicken is losing its pink, the garage door opens. Fuck, Josh. Just one night, which you agreed to, was all I asked, and I can’t even get that.

 “I’ll be right back,” I tell Vanessa and rush to the garage door.

I cross my arms as he opens the door. Josh’s head is already ducked down. As he tries to walk around me, he must see how mad I am. I get in his way, grab the doorframe, examine his shoes, his features, his hands that can’t seem to figure out what they should be doing. They start clenched, then decide that, no, palms outward is more pleading when forgiveness needs to be asked for. Damn right, he should beg. I always respect his boundaries, his other women, his dates.

“It’s only eight, Josh.”

“I know that.”

“What are you doing home?”

“I left some reports on my desk. I didn’t mean to interrupt your date. Let me grab a few things, and I’ll leave again.” He pauses. I stare. He stares back. “Okay, look.” Josh exhales and reaches out toward me. I recede. He tugs on his sleeves; he tugs on my nerves.

He let his curiosity get to him. I knew I’d regret asking for the house some way or another. Thanks, Josh, for being that reason.

“Sasha, if I promise to not come back until you text me, can I please get the reports? I’ll sleep in my car if you want, Bug.”

 “Fuck it. I’ll just get them. Where are they?”

He describes where in his office I should look, and I stare at my tapping foot while he talks. As I glance up, I notice his gaze is on my tapping foot too. Good. He should know that I’m done with his shit and whatever convoluted idea he has that has driven him here.

“Josh, stay here,” I say. So what if I sound like I’m talking to a dog.

I head back down the hallway, making my naked feet beat against the carpet as loudly as possible. It isn’t very successful. As I round the corner, Vanessa scurries away from the wall, and she must want me to know she was listening, because she easily could have escaped back to her chair in time.

I want to say something, I do, and I think about it. But, no, be alluring, be kind. This is still my date. Instead, I mold my face into the mask I wear for aggravating passengers at work and hope that Vanessa doesn’t notice the similarities.

“Everything okay?” she asks.

I shrug, and in the motion, try to push out my breasts. “Josh just needs some stuff for work. Then he’s leaving.”

I am mid-step on my way to the office when she responds, “Can I meet him?”

“Do you want to?” She couldn’t possibly. None of my girlfriends have ever, would ever.

Before I can make my brain work correctly again, Josh has either gotten impatient or heard Vanessa’s request because he walks into the kitchen and comes to a halt upon seeing her.  We get it. You’re both hot. I have good taste. This is awful.

He reaches his hand out to her and says, “You must be Vanessa. I’m Josh. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

He must remember how Claire hated that I told my husband so much about her. It wasn’t even the sex details that she was concerned about.

“And I hear that you’re a fan of Georgia O’Keeffe,” she says

Josh looks over to the painting, as do I. And we’re back to this again. “Art in general, but yeah, she’s a good one.” He laughs, and it sounds like he’s flirting. Looks like it too, as I tune out their art talk and analyze his leaning across the counter toward her, and how she props her hand against her face, leaning toward him too. If Josh and I were out and saw a couple like this, he would tell them to get a room.

Vanessa asks if he’s staying for dinner. Her smile is genuine and full. I’ve seen her work smile, and this isn’t it. Josh needs to leave.

 “Of course not,” I say.

 “Why not?”  He stands up. If he’s trying to be intimidating, he’s failing, and if Vanessa weren’t here, I would tell him so.

 “Josh.” I layer the one word with a warning that I know he can’t miss, so neither will Vanessa, but I’ll have to live with that.

“What? You’re drinking my wine, in my kitchen, and your guest asked me to stay.”

I remind Josh that it’s our wine and our kitchen.

“Ladybug,” he says. “You’re just hungry. We should all eat. I’m already here.”

Josh asks Vanessa to pass over my wine glass, which he then hands to me with a private wink. I down what’s in my glass and fill it up again, not registering the taste at all, or the wetness, just the cool heat the drink shoots down my throat.

Vanessa asks about more of the artwork in our house, which Josh describes to her while I finish the chicken. She refuses my offer to show her around the house after Josh tells her that the O’Keeffe is the only original. That’s a little bit of a lie, but I’d look like a bitch correcting him.

Finally, Vanessa turns away from him. “What’s your favorite piece in the house?” she asks me.

That’s easy, at least. “There’s a picture Josh hung in the hallway upstairs. It’s a spiral staircase lined with gold, extending two or three stories.”

Josh had forced me along with him to an art show in Sioux Falls a little after our one-year anniversary. Most vendors had at least a few potential buyers, and one woman in particular had a swarm around her booth, which looked to me as if she was selling bland pictures of the ocean, but hey, if that’s what bland Midwesterners craved to replace the green and yellow sea, I could at least feel validated in my good taste.

The vendor next to her was an old man wearing a gray golf cap, and his stall was empty. He didn’t have a theme like the popular lady, so I encouraged Josh to go take a look. After all, fewer people meant more chances that something great had been overlooked.

A few-minute search found a picture of a solitary staircase, and I asked how much it was. The old man waved his hand and explained the importance of the piece.

“He said that he took the picture in a hotel in Brussels. The locals had told him that the hotel was the most beautiful building in the city, especially the ballroom. He had gone to take pictures in the ballroom, but got caught on the stairway. It was magnificent, he said, and he spent a few hours capturing it perfectly.” I grab Vanessa above the knee and squeeze. The blue fabric of her dress glides between her skin and mine. She leans into me, resting her chin in her hand and smiling. It feels good, the way I had wanted to feel when I suggested an official date, so I weave the story more artfully:

“‘So when you got upstairs,’ I asked, ‘what did it look like?’”

“‘I never found out,’ he told me. ‘I decided that whatever was up there couldn’t be more lovely than my imagination. You decide,’ he said, and I was sold. We would have bought the picture no matter how much it cost.’”

Josh is pulling plates out of the cupboard. “That was the most excited I have ever seen Sasha about art,” he says through a smile.

“Oh, shut up. The food’s done.” I’m starving and done talking about art.

My eyes turn back to find Vanessa staring at Josh. She waits a moment, and there’s the tension I was hoping for tonight, but it’s not my tension to feel. Vanessa barely flashes her eyes in my direction before rotating back to Josh again. “It smells delicious, doesn’t it?”

He chuckles, and I notice Vanessa seems to be examining his shoulders. “My wife, master chef.” I wonder if Vanessa catches his sarcasm and if I care either way.

I had planned on Vanessa and I eating at our dinner table, but with Josh’s arrival, I haven’t set it up, and I don’t really want to work out sharing the table three ways anyway. We can eat at the bar; we’ve been congregating around there anyway.

I make Vanessa a plate first, and then myself. Josh gets his plate last, and offers to stand since we only own two high chairs. Works for me. I can sit in between them.

My first bite doesn’t taste like anything, but Josh adds basil to his own chicken, and after a bite, to our plates as well. So the meal isn’t perfect.

“So, Josh, you don’t mind that your wife dates women?” Vanessa asks.

“Not if she brings around beautiful women like you.” He winks at her, and she blushes.

I drop my fork. It clatters onto the counter. “Stop it.  Just stop it, Josh. Stop flirting with my date, and stop hijacking my night, and stop making my food taste better, and stop being so charming, and stop being good at talking about art.”

Vanessa takes another bite of chicken, and before she finishes chewing that one, she stuffs more potatoes into her mouth.

“Calm down, Bug. I’m not trying to steal your thunder or anything. I’m just being friendly.” He reaches his hand out toward my arm, but drops it before he touches me. He does not even want to know what would happen if he did that.

I take a deep breath. It doesn’t help. “I am calm.” If I can’t even manage one freaking date with Vanessa, if all we ever do is fuck late at night in a new hotel room each time, then why are we even here?

“I didn’t mean to start anything,” Vanessa says, her mouth finally clear. Her chicken is gone, and she has her hands folded in her lap. Her thighs are pressed tight together, the least inviting pose she could possibly present.

“Then you shouldn’t have flirted with my husband,” I snap at her. There is no delay between the thought and the vocalization, and I can imagine that her raised eyebrows and tight lips reflect my own features.

“I’m a lesbian, Sasha. I wasn’t flirting with him. I was being nice. Which is apparently too much for you tonight. I’d like to go to the hotel room the airline assigned me now.” She stands up, leaving her fork resting against her half-full plate.

“I can drive you,” Josh offers. Of course he can. At least that comment stays in my head.  Or under my breath.

Josh looks at me, and he’s not angry, or even annoyed. His frown is a warning that I’ve said enough.

I let them leave in silence, and then I sit there.

And I sit there.

And I sit there.

I stare at my plate, her plate, his plate, our plates all together, and I can’t even balance two people in my kitchen at the same time if I’ve slept with both of them.

The bed sounds perfect, but I only make it to the couch before I slump over, one leg curled up, the other extending off over the arm of the sofa. I throw my arm over my eyes and my head pounds, from the wine or the fight or both.

Time passes. The garage door opens, and I know that I’ll always think of this night at the sound of it. Josh finds me on the couch and looks at me. He sits down on the floor near my head, reaches for my hair and pets it. I let him because I don’t have the will to fight him.

If I were him, I’d make it worse. I’d tell him, “Look what you’ve done.” It’s what keeps playing in my mind.

Josh doesn’t say anything.

In the morning, the sun hits my face, and I wake to find Josh slumped over on the floor, his arms bent under his head. Sleep sounds better than being awake, so I drift off again.

Josh is in the kitchen doing the dishes when I wake for a second time. I wander in. There are two glasses of milk on the counter. Josh drinks from one, the sweat of the glass remaining on his palm after he sets it back down.

“Drink it, Sasha,” he says to me, and I notice he doesn’t use his nickname for me. It’s that bad.