Instead of writing a toast for Jocelyn Feingold’s rehearsal dinner, Mara wasted the flight from St. Louis to Chicago thinking about Mr. Feingold—Jocelyn’s dad and the intermittent object of Mara’s fantasies for two decades. You’re ridiculous, she told herself while glancing at her husband, Aaron, asleep in the next seat.
“The fantasies aren’t about Mr. Feingold,” their marriage counselor, Lorraine, claimed during a recent appointment, the one Aaron couldn’t make at the last minute.
“He’s the lead every night,” Mara said.
Lorraine shook her head. “But in a roundabout way, Aaron’s the star.”
“Actually, he’s not,” Mara said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.” She’d unnecessarily added, “We haven’t had sex in a year.” As if Lorraine wasn’t highly aware that her vanishing physical relationship with Aaron was the reason she’d found Lorraine in the first place.
“A change of scenery is a good opportunity to start fresh,” Lorraine said when Mara mentioned their weekend away. “But the pressure could also backfire,” she said.
She and Aaron took a cab from Midway Airport to their hotel on Michigan Avenue. “Perfect,” Mara said when they stepped inside their room—a luxurious, quiet respite from the crowded lobby and February chill.
Aaron stood next to the armoire, his black, down-filled jacket still zipped to his chin. “This is an upgrade?” he said. “It’s small.”
Don’t be ungrateful, Mara thought, wanting to remind him that Jocelyn’s parents were covering the cost of the weekend for the bridesmaids. But in her attempt not to ruin their first trip without the kids in years or give Aaron cause to report “a negative attitude” to Lorraine, Mara only smiled.
She said, “I think it’s cozy. And look, the Wifi password is lovenest.” She’d made that up but Aaron didn’t laugh. She was so happy to get away she didn’t even care about his inability to get her humor. Mara’s part-time job at one of the few stationery stores left in St. Louis gave her no reason to travel. Aside from her 20-year high school reunion, she couldn’t think of the last time she’d been on a plane. They always drove from St. Louis to Chicago when they brought the girls to see her parents, and of course the four of them stayed with Mara’s parents in the suburbs the entire time.
“Try claustrophobic,” Aaron said.
Try taking off that heavy coat, she thought while walking to the window. She opened the thick curtains, revealing the city view with its twinkling lights.
“Better?” She forced her tone to imply patience.
An intimate moment starts long before you’re in the bedroom, Lorraine reminded them in one of their first sessions. Mara, always a good student, clung to the hope that she and Aaron would simply follow Lorraine’s directions, get naked, and move on with their lives.
She put her wool coat on the back of the desk chair and fell onto the thick comforter. Your coat isn’t warm enough for Chicago, her mother-in-law said that morning when Mara dropped off the kids. Mara, a Chicago native, hardly needed anyone’s advice on staying warm, but she refrained from repeating that subtle bit of criticism to Aaron as well as his mother’s comment about the snarls in the girls’ hair. The truth was she felt grateful for his parents’ willingness to take the kids, even if their unusual eagerness to help meant Aaron must have hinted at how desperately the two of them needed time away from the kids.
“What do you want to do?” Aaron asked as he unpacked. “I’d be up for that caramel corn place you like.”
“The line’s always crazy. And I didn’t write a toast for the rehearsal dinner yet.”
“What happened to finishing it on the plane?”
“I fell asleep.” A half-truth. She’d closed her eyes for a few minutes, but spent most of the time thinking of herself, microphone in hand, standing in front of Jocelyn and Antonio’s guests while Mr. Feingold watched from somewhere in the crowd.
Aaron started unpacking her suitcase next, a gesture she’d always found simultaneously thoughtful and invasive. He looked up at her and smiled when she thanked him, his expression quickly changing as he placed her bridesmaid dress on a hanger.
“You don’t like it?” she asked.
“You think it’s appropriate?” He touched the slivers of satin designed to barely cover her breasts. “Standing two feet from the rabbi?”
“I’ll look twice as modest as Jocelyn,” she said, laughing to mask her disappointment that Aaron would never ask her to wear the dress just for him, that he wasn’t likely to feel the desire to rip it off her when she put it on for the wedding the next day. Desire like that hadn’t been part of their relationship for a while, not since that one time—before they had kids—when they’d pretended Aaron was picking her up at a bar. He’d actually suggested trying it again, but when she found it impossible to keep a straight face and stay in character, he told her to forget it.
He let the satin run through his fingers again. “You’ll be standing under the chuppah. It’s a religious space.”
“Antonio isn’t even Jewish.”
“That’s not the point.”
“And the Feingolds aren’t religious.”
“Still not the point,” Aaron said. “It just… not classy.”
She kept her face hidden to avoid rolling her eyes and “demonstrating contempt,” which Lorraine told them contributed more than anything else to “intimacy problems in a marriage.” Her mind wandered to Mr. Feingold again, to him seeing her in that dress, which in fairness to Aaron was an unusual choice for bridesmaids and not something she would ever pick out for herself. Jocelyn was the last of Mara’s old friends to get married and she didn’t want her bridesmaids in a repeat of the gowns they’d worn a decade or more in the past.
“What time are we supposed to be downstairs?” Aaron asked.
She sat up and grabbed the hospitality bag the Feingolds created for the out-of-town guests, every item stamped with Jocelyn and Antonio’s wedding hashtag—#aLoveSoFein. Underneath the bottles of water, chocolates, almonds, and mints was a schedule for the weekend.
“We don’t have as much time as I thought,” she said, smiling when she noticed the label on the tin of breath mints. Jocelyn and Antonio: Take My Breath Away.
“I don’t get it,” Aaron said when she was still grinning.
“Take my Breath Away, from Top Gun. It’s 80s themed for the rehearsal dinner. I know I told you.”
“I did. You don’t listen.” She held the mints in her hand, determined to avoid a fight. “Want one?” She raised an eyebrow in an exaggerated, suggestive gesture.
“Now?” he asked, his eyes wide with what Mara interpreted as terror.
“How about I put them in my purse for later?” Mara maintained it was impossible to get in the mood when your partner looked uninterested, a fact she’d said to Aaron’s face in front of Lorraine. Aaron said Mara was projecting or at the very least making assumptions.
“Later sounds good,” he said.
Later, always later. See you later, they used to say to each other when they were first dating. In one of their first sessions with Lorraine, Mara asked if she and Aaron should’ve recognized the problem with “see you later” from the beginning. Why could they always wait? Where was the urgency, the ache to be together? In the movies with your unrealistic expectations, Aaron had offered. Lorraine didn’t disagree. This is real life, Lorraine warned her. Relationships are hard work.
Before that particular appointment Mara hadn’t dwelled on Mr. Feingold in many months, but that same night, she started thinking about him again, about a time when the very real, not-out-of-the-movies Mr. Feingold made her feel urgently craved. When Jocelyn’s wedding invitation arrived soon after, she couldn’t get him out of her mind. Every time she hung one of the kid’s drawings on the refrigerator she’d see the words Mr. and Mrs. Michael Feingold request the pleasure of your company and she’d feel anxious for Jocelyn’s dad to see her, certain he’d find her surprisingly thinner after having two kids than when he’d known her as a girl.
When it was time to go to the rehearsal dinner, they left their jackets in the room since the dinner was at the hotel, a convenience for guests unaccustomed to Chicago’s winters like the groom’s parents and cousins who’d traveled from Peru.
“I’ll have to wing it,” Mara said while they waited for the elevator: she in her best attempt at an 80s ensemble, he in the black slacks and grey cashmere sweater he’d worn on the plane.
“Share a few nice memories. You’ll be great.”
She squeezed his hand as they walked onto the elevator, hating herself for knowing that her most vivid memories about Jocelyn had more to do with her father than anything else. Call me Michael, he’d insisted when Mara was in college. She never did.
Aaron held the elevator door open at the lobby, allowing Mara and everyone else to walk out first.
“What about their summer house on Lake Geneva?” he suggested. “You can talk about your memories from there.”
Mara made some noise, indicating that she’d consider his idea. The only lake memory that came to mind was the rainy afternoon when she and Jocelyn were 21, when they’d gone along with Jocelyn’s parents to see Armageddon or some other disaster is heading to Earth movie. She’d barely paid attention to the movie.
It wasn’t like she could deliver a speech describing how Mr. Feingold sat next to her, how during every suspense-filled scene with a meteor he’d squeezed her thigh too quickly for anybody else to notice.
She couldn’t regale Jocelyn and Antonio’s guests with how she’d assumed his quick touches were an accident, reflexes maybe. She couldn’t deliver a witty toast about eventually realizing he was caressing her leg on purpose, or about how she found herself inexplicably making her thigh easier for him to reach.
She couldn’t talk about the morning in the lake house when she ended up alone with him in the main room, how he’d asked her intimate questions about the things she’d done with the guys she’d dated, questions that alone should’ve made her feel violated. She couldn’t justify how instead of driving home or at least going into another room and finding him excessively sleazy like most other women probably had before her and since, she’d looked Mr. Feingold in the eye and answered his questions, adding salacious, fictional details to gauge their effect.
She couldn’t admit in front of Aaron and everyone else that the prospect of what probably would’ve happened if she had made herself available had been the specific fantasy exciting her and plaguing her since the moment Aaron and Lorraine insisted that desire like that wasn’t real.
Mara and Aaron followed the signs in the lobby directing wedding guests to the Seville Ballroom, decorated, for the Feingold/Garcia soiree with yards of neon drapery across the ceiling and table centerpieces fashioned out of cassette tapes, Pop Rocks, and Fun Dip. The 80s cover band blasted an early Madonna song from the album Mara and Jocelyn worshipped in seventh grade.
Jocelyn and Antonio, both a full head taller than Mara and Aaron, took turns bending down slightly to kiss Mara on the cheek. Jocelyn squealed with excitement at seeing Mara for the first time since the wedding shower earlier in the year.
“You’re wasting away!” Jocelyn said, wrapping her hand around Mara’s upper arm and pretending her fingers could touch.
“Please,” Mara said, shaking her arm free. “You’re one to talk.” Then struggling to focus on Jocelyn instead of placing Jocelyn’s father in the room, Mara made all the obligatory comments expected of the bridesmaid who had done nothing to help to plan the bachelorette party or arrange snacks for their hair appointments before the wedding.
Jocelyn, ever the graceful, easy friend, changed the subject to the honeymoon plans, a trip to Italy and Paris postponed until the summer when Antonio, a Spanish professor at Northwestern, could take off enough time. As usual, Jocelyn’s life seemed glamorous and charmed.
If you don’t factor in a father who was beyond inappropriate with your friends and likely many others, Mara knew a more rational person would believe. She considered the possibility that she’d developed an attraction to Jocelyn’s dad because in a way she’d always been jealous of her friend. Lorraine would probably nod enthusiastically at the suggestion, but Mara knew she’d be skirting the real issue if she allowed the conversation to go in that direction. Jocelyn wasn’t a factor anymore either way. The problem involved Aaron now, and their marriage, and her desperation to feel wanted again.
“Let’s not hog the bride and groom,” Aaron said. Mara let him lead her towards the bar where Mr. Feingold was standing with his back to the room.
“What do you want?” Aaron asked.
She heard Mr. Feingold telling the bartender to mix another batch of Long Island Iced Teas. God bless the 80s, he shouted over the music.
“Jocelyn’s dad,” she mouthed to Aaron.
Working hard to breathe at a reasonable pace, she watched Mr. Feingold, taller than any other man in the room, hand out drinks to the people all around him. He looked only slightly older than her frozen images.
“I assume you’d rather have wine,” Aaron said.
She nodded, her armpits sticky, her hands moist. The people ahead of her and Aaron took their drinks and left the crowded area while Mr. Feingold faced the bar to grab more glasses. Knowing she’d be in front of him when he turned around, she sucked in her stomach, ran her fingers through her hair, and prepared to seem unmoved by his presence.
“Mazel tov!” Aaron said before Mr. Feingold had a chance to notice her. Mara quickly introduced her husband, silently praying she’d be spared the humiliation of reminding him of her name. She supposed that’d been a deep fear all along—facing the likelihood that what for her had been the only memorable experience with lust was for him one of many mindless chases in a long, carefree life.
“Mara,” she shouted over the noise before he could crush her by not remembering.
He chuckled, leaning in to greet her. “I know.” He handed her a drink then put one in Aaron’s hand. “Careful with those. I ordered them strong.” He winked at her, turning around to grab more glasses. He continued to hand them out, smiling at everyone in the same way he’d smiled at her.
“Nice guy,” Aaron said when they walked away, both of them forgetting about her wine.
They went to the round table they’d passed earlier, the one with the seating cards. More than anything else, Mara felt relieved. Mr. Feingold remembered her. And now she could—she’d have to—let go of the idea of him the same way she’d forced herself to stop thinking about him numerous other times. Mr. Feingold, the man and the fantasy, had never been a presence in her life that led to any good.
“Where’d they put us?” Aaron asked.
“You think they put us with anyone we know?”
“I don’t care.” She slipped the card into the pocket of his pants. “I think I’ll enjoy ignoring everyone else and talking to you.”
He put his arm around her waist, yanking her so tight against him that she almost spilled part of her drink on his sweater.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I like the sound of that.”
“For us to talk?”
“For you to enjoy it,” he said. “You almost never want to talk.”
They found two empty seats at their assigned table where she permitted herself one final glance towards Mr. Feingold who was still laughing at the bar with an audience of women who were not his wife. She wondered how many of them measured their husband’s desire against the insatiable look in Michael Feingold’s eyes. She didn’t want to be one of them anymore.
“Aaron you said your name was, right?”
He looked at her, confused at first.
“Listen, I should’ve told you this earlier.” She took a deep, dramatic breath. “I’m married.”
He inched towards her until their legs touched. “Don’t worry. So am I.” He put his hand on her bare knee under the neon green tablecloth. “But my wife’s giving a toast tonight. She won’t be looking for me until later. How about you keep me company until then?”
“How much later?”
He took the room key out of his pocket and stood, holding out his hand for her to join him. “We better make it quick,” he said.
Her half-smile floated in the air between them, residual lust held aloft in a dissipating cloud of desire.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was selected from entries submitted to our Creative Challenge Series #3: Last Sentences, which required that the last sentence in the text must be used as given.