MERRY GENTLEMEN by Jacqueline Doyle
THEY RAN INTO LINDSAY and Adam at the mall, all of them laden with bags of Christmas gifts. Johanna was the first to see them—Lindsay tall and angular, elegant in an off-white cashmere jacket, Adam in a dark Italian turtleneck and sport coat. She was tired, and felt underdressed in her jeans and parka. She tried to pull John into the nearest store, but Adam and Lindsay had spotted them. After joyful exclamations—"Hey, what a surprise!" "Long time no see!" "’Tis the season, right?"—they decided to go somewhere for a drink. Johanna was uncomfortable ("Now? In the mall?"), but swept along by the high spirits of the others. Overhead, giant snowflakes and red and green Christmas balls glittered in the stark fluorescent lights. A muzak version of "God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay" blared over the loudspeakers.
"We are just done in," Lindsay told them. They'd agreed. The holiday sales, the damn Christmas carols, the long lines at the registers. "Can you believe Macy's this year?" They were all just done in. A quick drink would be just the thing.
Applebee's was crowded and noisy, but then all the restaurants were crowded and noisy. It seemed to Johanna to be filled with twenty-somethings. They were out of place, she and John in their late thirties, Adam and Lindsay in their late forties. But the other three didn’t appear to notice. They slid into a booth, arranging piles of bags, with many jokes about who was not to look into what bag. They talked about the thefts in the mall parking lots they'd been reading about in the local newspaper. There were jokes about the time Johanna lost her car, and the time Lindsay thought she was going to get mugged but wasn't. "I think it was just some suburban dad, but he was wearing a black hoodie with the hood up, for God's sake."
They ordered four dirty martinis and toasted their friendship. They weren't really friends, Johanna thought. They just went to the same parties a few times a year, knew some of the same people. Adam and Lindsay had moved out of their comfortable neighborhood into a wealthier one some five years ago. It was the kind of gated community that she and John might move into after their next promotions, or maybe not, since they'd be saving for the kids' colleges. Adam and Lindsay didn't have kids. He traveled abroad frequently as a consultant. Lindsay had a high-powered job in publishing in the city. Both had been married before. Sometimes Johanna felt worn out by her kids and her job at the bank, but the au pair did a lot of the work. Drove them to soccer and dance lessons and sleepovers and cooked for them. "We should get home soon," she said to John. "The kids will want us to tuck them in at least."
But when they finished their first drinks, Adam ordered another round. It had been so long since they'd been together like this, just the four of them. Was it John who said that? Or Lindsay? It was hard to hear over the hubbub in the restaurant, and Johanna was beginning to relax into the warmth and pleasant blur of the gin. They were on their third drinks when Lindsay leaned forward and said, "It's just like the Carver story 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.'" She gave Johanna a conspiratorial sideways glance that said, you know what I mean, you were an English major too, then added for Adam and John’s benefit. “You know, the Carver story in that movie ‘Birdman.’”
But they weren't talking about love, Johanna thought. They were talking about everything but that. She'd been trying not to make eye contact with Adam but the booth was uncomfortably intimate. She felt a tingle when her knee brushed his and pulled it away.
No, Johanna thought, it was more like Fitzgerald than Carver. The long afternoon of drinking in Gatsby, the scene at the hotel on the very hot day when Tom and Gatsby and Daisy and Jordan and Nick drank gin, and Tom confronted Gatsby about the affair, and Daisy couldn't say she'd never loved Tom, and Daisy ended up in a drunken hit and run. Nobody knew about Johanna's affair with Adam. It was over now, had been over for a while. Still, it felt like they were headed for a hit and run, only she didn't know when it would happen, or who the driver would be, or the victim.
She felt Adam’s knee against hers again. He gave her an amused look when she shifted away and crossed her legs.
Johanna had engaged in several infidelities, and John had suspected at least one of them, with a branch manager at her bank who'd been transferred somewhere else. She didn't think John had ever cheated on her. Really, he was a good husband and father. Just sort of dull. He'd graduated near the top of his MBA class, worked hard. He talked a lot about investments and the stock market. Not the kind of guy she'd dated in college, when she'd been drawn to more dangerous types. Frat boys dealing cocaine, party 'til you drop guys, once in a while a leather-jacketed townie with a stash of drugs. After college, when she was ready to settle down and have kids, John had seemed perfect. He was. And so good looking. She squeezed John's arm. Lindsay turned to Adam with a smile, like, aren't they the cutest couple? Adam didn't smile back.
Johanna figured that Adam was still having affairs. He was the type. That had been part of his allure. He was experienced, he'd made it easy—hotel reservations in advance, room service champagne, no emotional demands. He made her feel attractive and special while hinting that he'd had a lot of women. She kept her eyes on her drink, afraid Lindsay would notice something. She didn’t know, did she? Lindsay was so fashionable, so together. A bit cold. Once Johanna might have enjoyed the hidden sexual tension. She’d slept with her roommate’s fiancé a few times. She’d slept with a lot of guys. But she was a wife, a mother now. She didn’t feel bad about her infidelities, exactly. They weren’t love affairs, just pleasurable distractions. A habit. But she didn’t feel good about them either.
"Bottoms up. Johanna's wanting to get back to the kiddies," Adam said, raising his martini glass to her.
Johanna blanched. "Bottoms up" had been part of Adam's private sex talk. Along with stupid nicknames like “little pussy," an aspect of his lovemaking that she hadn’t particularly enjoyed. Adam was a competitive asshole. He hadn't wanted to hear about John when she tried to explain that she loved her husband—dismissed John, and her marriage, as insignificant.
Johanna swayed and braced herself on the edge of the table as she stood up. Three martinis after all that Christmas shopping had been a bad idea. They should have gone home instead. She pictured the children in their pajamas, rosy and damp from their baths. They'd be in bed now. She turned away from Adam's lazy stare, struggling into her jacket as she and John sorted through the Christmas bags, separating theirs from Lindsay and Adam's. "Looks like we shop at the same places," Lindsay said brightly, and Johanna wondered again what she knew, and whether it mattered to her. Johanna had a lot more to lose. She'd always had a lot more to lose than Adam did. But when he called tomorrow, she'd probably say yes.
As they exited Applebee’s into the brightly lit mall entryway, John said, "We'll have to hide the bags in the trunk so the kids don't see them.” An instrumental version of "Jingle Bells" played over the loudspeakers. The stores were still crowded.
"We need wrapping paper and bows," she said. "Maybe I'll get out tomorrow to pick some up."
He held the glass doors open for her.
It had gotten dark outside while they were drinking in the dim artificial light of Applebee's, and the cold air and sudden silence hit Johanna with a shock. The brief glow from the drinks had passed anyway. Once she'd believed she was adventurous, living life to the hilt, but now it all seemed sad and pointless. The party was over. She kept her eyes focused on John's dark shape ahead of her. She couldn't remember where the car was, but he knew. The bags of Christmas presents were heavy, and she hoped it wouldn't be a long walk.
JACQUELINE DOYLE used to write scholarly articles about literature, until she started writing literature herself. Her short prose has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Tampa Review Online, Monkeybicycle, and other fine publications. You can find more of her writing at jacquelinedoyle.com.