When the final divorce decree arrived in her mailbox, she shed herself of any and all connections to what she called her “previous life.”
She began with her first name, which she never really liked. Nothing against other people sharing it, but Mary always sounded too pure to her. Goody two shoes. Apple pie on a gingham picnic tablecloth on the Fourth of July. People expected Marys to earn straight A’s and volunteer at hospitals.
Mary had to go.
Her middle name… well, she also thought it more suitable for a shawl-knitting granny than an independent woman of mystery, but she didn’t hate it. Rose evoked thoughts of beauty and sensuality, especially when stretched out in a deep voice calling her to bed.
Rose stayed, but she returned her married surname to her former husband. Along with the ring. The disintegration of her marriage aided in her gradual detachment from objects. Souvenir magnets and shot glasses and t-shirts with trite sayings meant less to her now; she preferred experiences to dust-catching gifts. She booked a European river cruise after finalizing her divorce because she longed to travel. Her ex’s idea of following a country singer on tour, in her mind, didn’t count.
If asked about regrets, she’d admit to one–losing Candace. She adored her former mother-in-law, and her feelings weren’t likely to change. To continue a relationship with the woman, however, went against everything Rose wanted for her reset. Candace had sided with her son in the divorce, as Rose expected. She’d miss their monthly brunches–they never got to the one in midtown at the drag club, but Rose finally went with friends. She hoped Candace found a crew to call her own, and go wild.
Yes. Candace, sadly, also had to go. Into the metaphorical cardboard box with the rest of her memories. When the final divorce decree arrived in her mailbox, she performed a cleansing ritual of sorts. A long, hot bath to erase her ex-husband’s phantom kisses and caresses from her skin. A solo dinner out complete with martini and her own dessert, no sharing. A binge watch of a show he hated. A wishlist of clothes to wear on her cruise.
That’s how Mary R. Fortner shuffled off the mortal coil, and Rose Tico emerged in her place.
Rose intended to give dating a pass, at least for a year. In the last two decades of her life, she identified as one half of a whole. The high school sweetheart possessively gripping her waist in the hallways, the college boyfriend who took her virginity and offered little in return, the rebound she wanted to forget. Of course, there was Sam Fortner. The One, but eventually not.
Deep down, she still loved Sam but they both knew ‘til death couldn’t be realized physically. While they shared strong chemistry in certain aspects of their lives, the attraction wasn’t strong enough to sustain a long commitment. It wasn’t the long hours Sam kept at work, or his fanatical devotion to Kenny Chesney, or even his determination to live child-free. Sam’s reluctance to open himself to her when either or both of them required it broke down their bond.
Some nights, while Rose relaxed at home with a mug of hot tea, she’d glance at the empty side of her sofa and imagine Sam sitting and staring into space.
What’s on your mind? If she had a nickel for every time she asked it…
Nothing, sweetheart. Then he’d flip on CMT, or instigate lovemaking, or both. Whatever worked to distract her. Rose never learned the truth behind the shadows turning Sam’s bright eyes clouded and opaque. If he refused to let Rose in, she saw no reason to keep knocking.
After twenty years of failure with the male species, Rose wanted a break. “Well-meaning” friends believed differently. In the months following the finalization of her divorce, it seemed every eligible man within her age range crossed her path. Jannah’s neighbor was a veterinarian–come on, Rose, you love animals. Rey’s cousin owned a chain of luxury car dealerships. Kay’s husband had a friend who didn’t chew with his mouth open and he had big hands. You know what that means!
Rose wanted a break; the universe planned her life differently. This night saw her on an interminable outing with the closed-mouth chewer, scrolling Twitter under the table while he complained about the cafe’s service, prices, and ambiance. She falsified a need to be home before ten for an early business call overseas, and thankfully he bought it.
When her date slowed his car along the curb of her home, Rose groaned a bit at the sight of a familiar pickup truck.
“You got a roommate?” her date asked as he idled behind Sam’s truck.
“I live alone.” Rose watched the back window of the truck’s cab for movement. Sam’s darkened profile came into view briefly. Her date arrived at six-thirty, which meant he could have been parked here–at the most–for three hours. “That’s my ex-husband.”
Her date scoffed. “Aren’t you divorced?”
Good lord. Rose decided to give Kay hell later for this. “I am,” she said. “Sam isn’t one to just pop in, either. This might be an emergency, so I’m afraid I must give you a rain check on the nightcap.” Yet, this turn of events relieved Rose. She’d rather deal with whatever crisis Sam brought to the house than endure an extension to this awful date.
Rose managed to exit the car without a kiss and a promise to call. Her date was slow to roll away, so she flashed him a thumbs up to indicate all was well. One needy man in her driveway was plenty.
She approached the driver’s side door of Sam’s truck. The windows were up, the dashboard lighted, and Kenny Chesney’s “Get Along” blared. Sam’s eyes were closed and he mouthed the lyrics, rolling side to side against the headrest. It amused Rose that Mr. Chesney’s songs burned more prominently in her mind than those of her favorite artist. She much preferred Fleetwood Mac, but if asked to sing “Second Hand News” this ditty would likely overpower it.
Call your mom. Buy a boat. Drink a beer. Sing a song. Can’t we all get along…
Something in the lyrics triggered her, and Rose’s heart thumped hard. She rapped on the glass and broke the spell. Sam blinked awake and turned down the music as the window slid down.
“Sam, what’s wrong? Is it Candace?” she demanded. “Is your mom okay?”
“Hey, Mary.” Sam got the memo about Rose’s name change; he simply ignored it for reasons. He leaned out the window but made no move to reach for her. Rose stared him down, looking for any hint of intoxication. His eyes were rimmed red, maybe from crying, but he seemed sober. Vacant, but sober. Much like the last few months of their marriage. This automaton act of his annoyed and worried her.
“Sam,” Rose tried again. The lack of urgency in his mannerisms suggested all was well with Candace, but she wanted confirmation. “Is something wrong with your mother?”
He shook his head. “No, she’s fine.”
“Then why are you here? It’s late.” Rose panned her gaze up and down the street. She wasn’t close with any of her neighbors, now or when Sam lived here. Nonetheless, one or two might find this scene worth watching.
“So, you have a boyfriend now?”
Rose turned back to the truck. Sam nodded in the direction where her date drove. “No,” she said. “That was an aberration, and to be honest I’m glad you helped bring it to an end. But you know to call first if you want something, right?”
“I know, Mary. This was an impromptu thing,” Sam told her. “Something happened at work today and…” He bit his lip and shot his gaze in every direction but at her. The sky, the pavement, back to the radio as though wanting Kenny Chesney to soothe his nerves. “I just needed to see you.”
Rose’s heart panged for Sam. He excelled at his job. His co-workers looked up to him. His supervisors, for the most part, held him as the gold standard. She knew that much from past holiday parties where spouses and employees mingled. Something major had to have occurred to inspire this mood.
Rose hurried around the front of the truck, wincing in the headlights, and opened the side door. The move caused Sam to rear back.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Drive.” Rose fastened her seat belt. Sam was obviously in a funk, and they were going to talk it out and drive it out of him.
In the Dunkin’ drive-thru, Sam ordered his usual and what had once been hers.
“Actually,” Rose cut in, “could I get the iced vanilla cold brew and the French cruller?”
Sam rested his elbow out the open window. He looked at her, eyebrows high. He waited until after collecting the order–Rose treated–to say something.
“You changed your name, you changed your usual Dunkin’ order…” Sam handed her the bag. “Your hair’s different, too. Why?”
Sam expressed more curiosity than hurt or upset. Less awkwardness for their late night snack, Rose figured. “It’s nothing against you, Sam,” she said, and handed Sam his donut. “I’ve lived most of my life conforming to other people’s perceptions of who I should be. I wanted this for myself. I want to choose how I dress and how people ought to address me. I went from my father’s house to the sorority house to our house, and now I get to call the shots. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing.” Sam sipped from his mile-high to-go cup. Rose predicted he’d ask to come in for the bathroom when he drove her back. “It’s extreme, but it’s your life and you’re not hurting anybody,” he said, then broke into a small smile. “Have you changed favorite singers, too?”
“Stevie Nicks, now and forever. Tell Kenny I’m sorry.”
That got a laugh. Imagine that. “Worth a try,” he said.
Sam idled the truck in the empty Dunkin’ lot. Kenny sang in very low volume and they ate in companionable silence until Rose licked off the sticky sugar flakes of her cruller from her fingers. She noticed Sam kept his donut on his thigh, atop a napkin, which left his right hand free.
She reached out to cover it. Against all instincts, she sought a physical connection. A friendly touch, nothing more to suggest a reconciliation. Whatever transpired at the job must have bothered Sam greatly for him to seek solace in her company rather than his mother’s, or perhaps somebody like-minded.
When they split, Rose’s friends were confident she would find love again, sooner than Sam. She suspected the opposite might occur. Somewhere in the city lived a lonely, lovely Kenny Chesney fan in want of a concert buddy. Sam should be off in No Shoes Nation looking for her.
Instead they were together again, eating Dunkin’ well past their bedtimes. Like their first date.
Sam flinched at first but soon relaxed under her touch. He stared at their connection for several seconds before speaking.
“I’m seeing a therapist.”
That took her by surprise. “Really?” Rose asked. Counseling never entered their pre-divorce conversations. They mutually agreed what remained of their relationship was beyond saving and not worth the expense. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“I thought so in the beginning. Mom suggested it. We’ve had a few sessions and it didn’t seem to be working.” Sam pushed his cup into a holder and shifted in his seat to face Rose. “I reached out to him to help me with some issues I’m having at work. It’s not about me trying to win you back, if you’re concerned about that.”
“Okay.” Rose wouldn’t admit it to Sam, but the idea of him working on himself for her benefit flattered her. Theirs hadn’t been a terrible marriage. Yes, she tolerated his quirks and conceded to a few Kenny Chesney concerts to make him happy, but it worked both ways. She annoyed him in some respects, naturally, and Sam somehow managed to dodge the few opportunities to see Stevie Nicks live.
“Is it still not working? Am I allowed to ask that?”
Sam nodded. “Funny you should ask. I was talking to him not long ago. It was his idea for me to come see you.”
“Huh,” Rose said. Well, that answered the question in her head. Why stake out her house on date night with a therapist at his disposal? “Is that part of your therapy, some kind of reparations exercise?”
“No. He said he believed it would make me feel better if I saw you in person.” Sam met her gaze as he said this, allowing Rose to face him head on for the first time tonight. He still looked as though he wasn’t sleeping well. The redness around his eyes, she now decided, resulted from his insomnia rather than tears. His skin was forever smooth and pale, but his lips usually gave him some color. Not so much now.
He’d let his hair grow out a bit, too. Starting before they married, Rose trimmed his bangs and around his ears. He wiped them away now to look at her. How was he able to get away with this at work? Sam said she changed; it was fair to assume the same of him.
“Anyway,” Sam continued, “he suggested I talk to you, I guess, as a means of helping me through this current rough patch.” He finished his donut and stuffed his trash with hers into the bag. Nothing more was said for about a minute, all the while Rose watched Sam pinch his hand where the thumb and forefinger joined. A habit for years, done in extreme times of stress. It worried Rose, as this tic tended to precede other actions. In their married life, Sam would leave the house without a word, then return without speaking of his whereabouts. The Dunkin’ cups he brought home only told part of the story.
He’d brush his teeth, have a long piss. Wash his hands. Come to bed and make love to her. Toss and turn all night afterward.
“Sam,” Rose began.
Sam popped out of his trance and put the truck into gear. “I should get you home, Mary. Sorry, Rose. It’s late.”
Sam rolled up the driveway, stopping within inches of the garage door, and killed the engine. “I need to use the bathroom. Do you mind?”
I knew it. “It’s fine,” she said. “The guest one, though? I’d feel more comfortable.”
Sam side-eyed her. “Would I find another man's shaving kit in our old room?”
“Lord, no.” Rose laughed. No more cohabitation for her, married or otherwise. “That room is mine now, and technically you are a guest.”
“I get it. I’m just yanking your chain.” Sam settled the truck into park and followed her. He remarked how little the decor changed since he moved out. He insisted Rose keep all the old wedding gifts, then took only what he brought to their union. His clothes, his CDs, his books. Rose supposed Sam was a minimalist at heart. He walked straight to the guest bathroom without pausing to call up a memory.
He said nothing about the bare spots on the wall where their wedding photos once hung. Rose put them in a plastic bin on the floor of the closet he once used. Initially, she offered them all to Candace, but her mother-in-law had albums of her own to treasure. With no children to inherit, Rose figured the memories would end up in a landfill or as part of some thrift store’s decor.
Rose busied herself in the kitchen, unwilling to listen to her ex-husband urinate from the other side of the bathroom door. Sam found her at the sink rinsing the morning dishes. He stood hunched with his hands in his jeans pockets, not really looking at her. “Thanks for putting up with me tonight,” he said. “I am feeling better.”
She nodded, stopping herself from saying Any time. Best not to encourage further surprise visits from Sam. This was not his home anymore, and allowing him to come and go as he pleased disrupted the healing process.
Yet, the thought of sending Sam out into the world mussed and morose nettled at her. The wifely instincts kicked in too quickly. “Before you go,” she said, pointing at his head, “can I take care of that? So you’re not constantly brushing it out of your eyes.”
Sam hesitated, touching his fingertips to his forehead. When he brought them back down to eye level he stared at the pads as though finding an anomaly. Rose thought it curious, but as this represented the least of her ex-husband’s quirks she let it slide.
Finally, he nodded and met her eyes. “Sure,” he said, his voice soft. “I’d like that.”
Rose pulled one of the kitchen chairs away from the table and had Sam remove his jacket, tie, and shirt. She wouldn’t clip away too much hair, but if Sam left with even one cut strand on his person he’d spend the entire drive home brushing for it.
After Sam folded his clothes and placed them out of the way, Rose draped two kitchen towels over Sam’s bare shoulders as he sat upright, facing the refrigerator. She spritzed some water onto her target areas, combed out the tangles, and got to work. She offered to put on some music, something to fill the silence, but to her surprise he declined.
Sam fixated on the refrigerator door and said, “The magnets are gone.”
“Hm?” Their absence, he noticed. Once upon a time, the souvenir magnets covered nearly every square inch of the chrome surface. Each represented a city where Sam had attended a Kenny Chesney show. Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit, Toronto, Little Rock, and so on. None for this city, host of the only two concerts Rose saw. She was fine with Sam traveling alone to shows. Those weekends served as a nice reset for her, and she never suspected Sam of cheating on her with a fellow No Shoes Nation citizen.
“Yes,” she said. “It was getting to be too much. I’d open the door and the movement would misalign them. I got tired of straightening each one, so I pared them down to a select few.” Magnets purchased after the divorce made the cut. “I have the rest in a small bin if you want them. They were your concert memories.”
“I bought those for you,” Sam said. “I have t-shirts and programs from all the shows. Those are my souvenirs. Mom has enough magnets on the fridge at home.”
His voice stayed at a calm level, but Rose sensed rising tension. Over magnets. Not the absence of their wedding photos–the “souvenirs” that ought to have mattered.
Rose finished with the back of his head and moved to clip his bangs. She blocked his view of the kitchen. “I still have them, Sam, they’re just not out,” she said, firmly this time. “I will find a place for them. It’s a big enough house.”
Sam shrugged. “They’re yours, M– Rose. Put ‘em out, throw ‘em out. Whatever you want to do with them is fine.”
“It was just a surprise to not see them, is all,” he said.
Funny what changes in a person’s life triggered surprise, shock. They fell silent again, save for the slow rasp of Rose cutting Sam’s hair with her tiny, sharp scissors. It must have annoyed Sam, for he spoke up again.
“I inspected a new Vietnamese restaurant yesterday.”
Rose tilted back and waited for Sam to stop moving. “Any good?”
“They passed. Food’s not stellar but the service is good. I’d give them time.” Sam flicked his gaze up to her eyes. “I’d put your grandmother’s Bánh Xèo against theirs easily.”
Rose smiled. Her bà had loved Sam, and the idea of having an in-law nearly twice her height. The old woman hoped for an NBA all-star great-grand and courtside tickets one day. Neither one of them told her about Sam’s vasectomy.
“I’ll wait until they iron out the wrinkles then,” Rose said, then laid the scissors on the counter before wetting a paper towel. “Almost done here. I can see your eyebrows now.”
She wiped tiny hair specks from his temple, from behind his hair, and from the nape of his neck. The towels around his neck were destined for the laundry, in the room adjacent to the kitchen. Rose left Sam to dress, all the while thinking of a nice, long bath to cap off the night. Hot water, one of her lavender bath bombs, a replay of Rumors in the background to soothe her. She wanted to rinse off this very strange rollercoaster of a day.
“I’ll see you out,” Rose was saying as she tossed the towels on a pile of laundry just outside the door. “Tell Candace I said–”
Rose turned right into a still bare-chested Sam and gasped. He stood so close, Rose grasped at his belt loops to steady herself. “You shouldn’t creep up on me like that,” she scolded. Not the first time, either, for his stealthiness and her warnings. “What if I was holding something sharp?”
“I’m sorry… Rose.”
His saying her name chilled her. This, this was the low-registered call to bed she wanted for the next stage of her life, the seductive plea designed to encourage the wild rose. She should have backed off a step and let go of his belt, but his heavy-lidded gaze and the slow draw of his tongue across his pouty lower lip drew her back into a place she thought no longer held interest for her.
A woman could chew on a lip like that for days. Bless her unfiltered bà for invading her mind. The old woman loved Sam, yes, and loved joking about stealing him from Rose. You don’t let a man like that get away.
Her bà had only seen the holiday Sam Fortner, though, and never the full portrait. Although, this sight enticed Rose too well for her own damn good.
“Sam.” Rose placed both palms on his pecs, as though to push him away. His skin prickled under her touch, gooseflesh and tight nipples. Deep breaths like a gentle wave. She meant to ease him gently away but this reminder of happier times kept her rooted to the spot.
Until Sam bent down to kiss her.
Until Sam cradled his hands under Rose’s bottom and lifted her to wrap her legs around his waist.
Until Sam walked them to the washing machine and set her on top. Rose arched her feet and her heels slipped off and hit the shag mat beneath them. Sam kissed her hungrily, widening his jaw and groaning, all the while sliding his hands underneath her skirt. Rose parted her legs to let him move closer, and pivoted her hips as he picked at the micro-thin waist of her thong.
Mary wore full coverage briefs, Rose wore sexy underthings. One more thing for Sam to process, but Wild Rose prayed for him to wait until much later for that. Her dull as dishwater blind date left her wanting, and Sam remembered which buttons to push, which spots to stroke, to rev her engine.
He caressed the narrow gusset covering her pussy– so you shave down there now?-before easing two long fingers into her slick cunt. With his other hand, he unzipped the dress and helped her shove it down her shoulders–demi cups and a front hook … you said you didn’t have a boyfriend. No complaints, though. Only Sam’s opened mouth skating down her throat and licking a trail to her breasts.
Rose freed him of his belt, his fly, his tight whites. No surprises, just the same old Sam…but not really. Sam in their married life fucked with caution, missionary and searching her face for signs of approval and pleasure. Dutiful, almost. Divorce Sam was… oh.
She grasped the edges of the washing machine but quickly lost purchase when he suddenly reared back. He growled something unintelligible before pulling her to the ground and turning her to face the dials. When the realization of what Sam intended hit her, Rose tried to protest.
“Sam, I don’t know–” Sam was taller, and Rose tapped along the floor for her heels to at least even the height difference between them. Sam held her from behind and nipped her earlobe.
“I got you,” he whispered, and bent her over the closed machine lid with her feet suspended before pushing his cock into her slick heat.
They rocked the machine out of its drip tray, they fucked so hard. Sam curled over Rose’s body and braced one arm around her breasts while supporting her hip with the other. Her dress, certainly ruined now, bunched up around her waist. The pressure of the cool metal against her bare mound helped intensify the sensations. Every other thrust from Sam, she felt in her clit, and when she came she grabbed blindly for the control panel and accidentally hit the start button.
Fuck. Imagine if they’d turned the damn thing on…
Rose killed the cycle and collapsed on the lid, Sam panting on top of her after coming. About a minute passed, then he kissed her shoulder and behind her ear.
“Thank you,” he said, sounding more like himself again.
“Any time.” Because fuck it, she’d be down for the occasional post-divorce lay if they were all this good. “Your therapist had the right idea when he sent you over.”
“Well, he’s Jewish. He knows his stuff.” Sam helped her to stand. Rose tested her feet, then turned around and kissed him. The invitation to stay the night dissolved on her tongue when Sam immediately tucked himself back into his jeans and zipped up.
The automaton returned. The doors shut, leaving Rose out in the cold. “I should go. It’s late,” he said, his voice bland. Like shutting off a faucet. Wham bam.
Rose straightened her dress, searching for the straps among the wrinkled fabric. “Okay. Well, uh, thanks for coming…by?”
Sam kicked over one of her heels, and held her hand as she stepped into them. “You don’t have to see me out, and I will call next time. I promise.” Once he saw her righted he turned to go but paused at the kitchen doorway.
“I have tickets to see Kenny Chesney in Chicago,” he said, not looking at her. “I’m taking the day off… Mom was coming but had to cancel, would you like to go? If you came we could make a weekend of it.”
Tempting. Sam knew she loved Chicago. Alone, he’d simply attend the show as a round trip. “Send me a text?” she asked. “I need to see about my work schedule.” Neither a yes nor a no, but a good buffer for her to gently decline at a distance.
“Sure, sure.” Sam nodded and said goodnight. Rose waited a full minute, breathing to steady herself, before she moved.
Rose arrived at work the next morning feeling like a country song–ridden hard and hung up wet. Baby steps carried her to her desk, and co-worker Kay misinterpreted her dreamy pauses as a successful match with whatshisface.
“You’re welcome,” Kay said in an aside after the morning, and winked.
Yeah, thanks for nothing. As Rose spent the day recovering, she considered giving some credit to Kay. Had Rose not conceded to the blind date, she might not have welcomed Sam in her driveway and eventually her home. It was necessary, though, that her interactions with Sam filed into the “Sometimes” folder. Some relationship gurus might champion regular sex with the ex, but Rose wanted her independence. Sam needed his.
More than that, Rose contemplated the need for therapy herself. Last night proved to her how important it was to sort out her feelings for Sam before the trickle of lust escalated to a full-on landslide.
Kay took orders for lunch today, the Greek place with the Asian fusion dishes. Rose liked their special gyoza and lentil soup. She slipped Kay some cash after receiving her containers.
“Did you hear?” Kay asked her, her face pale. “The owners’ son went missing the other day. He closed up by himself and never came home.”
What sad news, but Rose threw out some positive energy. Maybe the young man was stressed and went off by himself for a bit. People were ghosting work for similar reasons; it happened here. Hopefully he’d turn up.
Rose ate, and called up a search on her phone for area therapists. She clicked the phone icon on the name with the most positive reviews, and left a message.
“Dr. Strauss, my name is Rose Tico. I am interested in an introductory session with you, to discuss some issues I am having with my ex-husband,” she said. “If you could return my call I’d like to set up an appointment. Thank you.”