The third time Roger came home with his hair disheveled, wearing that other woman's perfume and a faint smear of lipstick beneath his chin like the dying rind of a rainbow—the third time this happened, Cheryl started keeping a tally in her purple notebook. There wasn't much else she could do. Both her brain and her heart urged her to say something, to do something drastic, but each time she thought of this, her throat fought back, closing in on her so her heart could not escape; her skull, too, fought against her, rattling the brain stem, lobes, pituitary gland in a headache of explosions, flashing lights, nothing she had ever experienced before. So instead of doing anything, she bought a purple notebook, opened it, smoothed the first page. She drew three thin, lonely lines like starved soldiers.
The next evening, she was making lasagna when he walked in. She smelled him almost as soon as she heard the door close. He reeked; the scent permeated the kitchen, beat the lasagna smell out the window to the street. She imagined neighbors passing by, sniffing, thinking of the good, happy things that happened inside her house. So she held her smile, and after they had eaten and she rinsed the dishes, she drew a fourth tally mark in the notebook.
At night, he went out again. The clock cast neon shadows on her face: three a.m. She lay on her back, flat against the mattress; the pillows had fallen off hours ago, but she had not bothered to pick them up. On the other side of the bed, not touching her and leaving some two feet of empty wrinkled sheet between them, Roger swung his legs over the side and shuffled to his dresser. He pulled a stiff pair of jeans over his underwear, a jacket from the closet, and he was gone.
Cheryl listened to the door click, that quick and quiet meeting between latch and frame that brings to mind all sorts of secrets. She waited a moment until she was sure he'd had enough time to get out of the house, and then made her way to the kitchen for a glass of water. She paused at the window, an uneven hole in the rotting wood over which mosquito netting had been carelessly stapled. She drank, then placed her glass on the top of a teetering pile of dirty dishes that consumed the small sink, and wandered into the tiny living room where she had stashed the purple notebook between a trashy novel and an old atlas.
Cheryl took out the notebook, dragged a pencil diagonally across the other four lines, then stared at the marks. They looked like some kind of haunted symbol, a ghost calling. She snapped the book shut before she could wonder how long it would take for Roger to have her fill each page.
Sarah found the notebook. In the blue shadows of insomnia, she had wandered from her room at the end of the hall and stood in front of the living room bookshelf at four in the morning. She had pulled out a book, glanced at its cover, pushed it back toward the wall. Again. Again. Then something caught her eye. It was purple.
A journal. She brought it to the couch, which was pushed against the open window. A milky light dripped from the glass. She opened the book.
The first page was filled front and back with straggly lines that formed a total of forty-nine tally marks. She flipped through the rest of the book. Empty. She turned to the last page, thinking that perhaps something had been printed there, maybe an entry in a backward diary. Nothing.
Then Roger walked in. He pushed the front door open quietly, eased it closed as silently as though the frame were lined in velvet. He maneuvered his shoes off his feet, pushed them into the closet. His daughter watched from the shadows, shrinking from the moonlight so he wouldn't see her. She needn't have been so careful. Roger didn't even glance her way. He shuffled down the hall to his bedroom, lay across the mattress exactly as he had been before, and closed his eyes. Cheryl squeezed her own shut even tighter.
In the living room, Sarah finally exhaled. It seemed as if her breath hung about her in an invisible cloud, something too delicate to even see, but it had a strange scent: something bottled and clean. She sniffed. No. That was not her breath.
One night in the sixth month of their affair, Roger shrank from Adèle as she dabbed perfume onto her shoulder blades, the insides of her thighs. The bottle was spun glass, a tiny fragile dome that glinted purple in the light.
"Don't, Adèle." He reached for the bottle.
"This is the finest scent in France," she told him. Her voice was beautiful, her French accent like a slight, lovely limp to her words. It made him want to kiss her mouth, the wound that began the velvet path to her larynx. "I use it only for you."
"My wife ..."
"You said you didn't love her anymore." She put down the bottle. "We can go back to France."
He shook his head, a feeble attempt to clear the confusion. What had seemed so simple and right in his mind was melting away in the clouds of her beauty, her accent.
"You don't want to leave?" She arched one perfect eyebrow, gestured out her window toward the rolling miles of sand, the scattered trailers covered in peeling yellow and brown paint. Somewhere above the falling, rotting gray roofs and tired trees, a crow was swinging on an invisible thread of sky, shrieking, plummeting. Mixed in with the hot sand, empty cans and bits of old paper swirled in the wind like part of a twisted, ugly dance. Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico. Roger bit his lip.
"You know I hate this place."
"I've almost saved up enough for two tickets ... in France, we will live a different life. No trailers. No sand." She fingered his palm, crept her hand up his arm to his neck. "Paris ..." She massaged his shoulders for a moment, then pulled his shirt off his back. He let himself become lost to the familiar rhythms of forbidden comfort and dangerous pleasure, the paradoxes of his life and his mind. Like an empty can trailing on the ground from a little boy's string, he lost himself to her pulls and jerks, her tongue, hands, spaces, and her poisonous, beautiful words.
Roger looked like a man someone would want to paint, especially now, his strong chin tilted only slightly, his large clear eyes staring unwaveringly at his daughter. Sarah, too, was lovely, her pale hair pushed around her shoulders by the wind. She was on the cusp of adolescence, poised with one foot cautiously poking off the cliff of childhood, half-ready to jump toward whatever lay beyond, half clinging to the things she knew.
They stood barefoot on the sand, some three hundred miles from home, watching the sea fold and unfold itself against the land. Roger's rusted pickup truck, with its bruised bumper and broken headlights, sat near them on the gravel road. It, too, gazed wearily at the ocean, its punched-out lights grimacing at the dark blue water and white breaking waves.
They made this trip twice a year, just the two of them. Sarah and Roger had always loved the sea, the giant wet umbrellas of waves. Cheryl, wildly afraid of any bodies of water larger than the tiny tub in their single bathroom, preferred to stay at home. So father and daughter traveled five hours on dirt and gravel roads in the rusted pickup truck to see the ocean. Usually, they talked the entire five hours–about school, Europe, the sea. Roger would admire her dimples, her clear voice, and he always thought that she didn't belong there, in the rusted truck bumping along a narrow road surrounded on all sides by the gritty sand. She didn't belong, deserved more than what he and Cheryl could give her–a slender bed, two battered trunks for her clothing, the sand particles that permeated everything and rolled down the slant of her bedroom floor, found their way into her food, her shoes, her hair. What she deserved, he mused now, watching her watch the water, was what Adèle had been promising him. To fly over these waves, far from the heat and the sand and the peeling paint, and, like a dream, to land somewhere else–a city like Paris. He wanted it so badly for himself. He wanted it even more for his daughter.
Roger noticed that Sarah's face had changed recently, had become longer, thinner, older-looking. She had grown taller, too. And there was something in the wetness of her eyes that looked hurt and tired. He sighed. He thought of everything that would come to her, the changes and pains of growing, the distance she would soon ask from him. He thought of the boys with their dirt bikes and outdated CD players who would let their wide eyes fall on her body; of the houses she would dream of living in, free of sand and smells and cheap narrow beds; of the loneliness that would bite at her as she grew. Something in him ached to think of her having to do these things on her own.
And then he panicked. He imagined what would happen if she ever found out about Adèle, that he and Cheryl weren't sleeping together anymore, or talking to each other, that they even avoided looking at one another when they could.
Roger glanced at Sarah again, and he noticed a deep, permanent furrow in her brow that hadn't been there the last time they'd taken the trip.
"Sarah?" He placed a warm hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. The sun glinted off the waves and threw purple specks into Sarah's eyes. A cold, inexplicable wave of fear hit him; he tasted salt beneath his tongue and knew that she knew.
That night, Cheryl reached out to stop her husband as he began to swing his legs over the bed and search for his shoes. She placed her fingers gently on his chest.
"Cheryl?" He pretended to be confused. "That you?" She sat up, twisted the lamp on. They both blinked in the harsh, crude light.
"Roger, for whatever reasons, you don't care about me anymore." She smoothed the blanket on her lap and looked at the soft shadows on the wall behind his shoulder. "But what about Sarah? She's going to find out. And when she does, she'll be ..."
He knew this. He slumped his shoulders, leaned his head against the wall. Fatigue washed over him; he was so tired of waking up in the middle of each night, tired of Adèle's promises, as empty and hopeless as her purple bottle of perfume. Then he thought of Sarah and he was flooded with a sudden, different kind of energy. He sat up again.
"All right. I'm not going to see her anymore."
"Or I'll leave. I will. I'll take Sarah with me, I'm not going to let her live in this trash with her father ..." Her voice trailed away. "Right in front of her. She can't grow up like that."
"So come back to bed," Cheryl said.
Roger looked at her face, at the worn cheekbones and bed hair of his wife. So different from Adèle. He saw something of his daughter's changing face in his wife's tired one.
"I'm going to get some cigarettes. I can't sleep." He pulled his shoes on, tied the laces with hard, angry jerks. Cheryl got to her knees on the bed.
"I'm just going to get a pack of cigarettes. I promise."
She bit her lip. "If you don't come back with cigarettes, I'm leaving."
He nodded. "I swear. I swear to God, Cheryl. I'm just going for cigarettes."
"No more of this woman. Ever."
"Or you won't see your daughter again. Come back with the cigarettes. Roger."
He grabbed his keys and left.
Roger's truck grunted as he pulled into the parking lot of the only gas station in town. The lights inside were off; it looked closed.
"Fuck." He got out anyway, and jogged up to the battered door of the store. He pulled at the handle. Locked.
"Mother fucker!" He rattled the door in frustration, then jumped back in his truck. There were no other stores nearby; the closest open supermarket or gas station was a good fifteen minute drive. He considered going back to Cheryl and telling her the gas station had been closed, but decided against it. He really needed a cigarette. So he started the truck again and tore out of the parking lot, the wheels spitting gravel and small stones.
When reached the next town, he jumped out of the truck and pulled open the doors to the A&P.
"Pack of Camels," he told the black-eyed man behind the counter.
"Softpack O.K.?" The man asked. Roger nodded. The man retrieved the cigarettes and placed them next to the cash register.
Roger grabbed a lighter from a counter display and dropped it next to the Camels. "Those two. That's it." He inhaled sharply.
Roger reached into his pants pocket, then froze.
"Shit." The man stared blankly at him, waiting for his five. "I left my wallet in my jacket at home."
"Sorry." The man shrugged, and reached for the Camels to put them back.
Roger put out a hand to stop him. "No. Wait."
"Do you have money, or not?"
"I need those."
"Not if you can't pay for them."
"Please, sir, I really need those cigarettes."
"They cost four dollars and fifty cents."
"Please! They're very important to me. Look, I ..."
"You can't pay for them."
"Fuck," Roger muttered under his breath. He kicked the counter. "Fuck!"
"I'm going to have to ask you to leave if you don't stop."
"Can't you just give me the pack, and I'll come back tomorrow with the money. I will, I swear it."
"I can't do that."
He looked at his watch. Cheryl would never believe he had not been with Adèle if he came home without the cigarettes. "I need them. I'll do anything."
"I'm sorry." The man put the cigarettes back in their slot behind the counter.
"I'll work for them. I'll ... I'll sell you something." He tore his watch off his wrist. "Here. Take my watch. I need those cigarettes."
The man shook his head. "If you have no money to buy anything, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"I can't leave. I need cigarettes. Shit, give me your cheapest pack. Take my watch, I don't care. Take my shirt, I don't need it. I just need those cigarettes."
"I can't do that, I'm sorry."
"I'll do anything ... anything!" He heard his voice rise in desperation, and felt a flood in the back of his throat, his eyes. It seemed as though he were drowning. There was nothing to be done; Cheryl would not believe he could not get the cigarettes; this man refused to give him any; she would be gone before breakfast, Sarah with her, maybe swinging a few belongings in plastic bags. All was lost. He could not go back to Adèle. He would never make it to France, or even out of this trailer park. No, if there were ever a purpose to his life, it was now gone.
"Please," he heard himself say in a cracked, wet voice that was his and not his. "Just give me one. Give me half of one cigarette ..."
Several minutes later, Roger left the A&P, followed by threatening shouts to call the police if he came back inside without money and the intention to actually pay for his purchases. He opened the door to his truck and stuck his head between the passenger seat and the dashboard, searching for loose change. He found a dime, gripped it in his sweaty palm.
Maybe, he thought, just maybe, he could scrounge up enough money from the dusty floor of his truck and the crevices of the sidewalk outside to buy a cheap pack of cigarettes. He spotted two nickels and a penny, closed his fist around the hot, dirty metal and squeezed the coins as though he held hope itself between his fingers.
Copyright © Mariel Boyarsky 2005. Title graphic: "Addicted" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.