Something Stronger by Marissa Fox

“I’m sorry, could you say your name for me again, please?” Mr. Grossman asked, not looking up from unscrewing the cork. It came loose with a pop and she watched the air escape for a moment before she answered.

“Raimy,” she said. She watched more carefully than he did as he poured the wine in her glass. The bottle from her and Chuck sat idly on the counter, looking pale behind its label. The red, Mr. Grossman had said, would go better with the meal.

“One more time, please.” Mr. Grossman filled his wife’s glass before moving on to Chuck’s and his own.

“Raimy. Rye-me.”

“Raimy,” he nodded, still not saying it right, drawing out the “A” like he would in “frame”. Mr. Grossman sat down adjacent to her at the four-place setting and lifted his wine glass before taking a drink.

Raimy glanced next to her at Chuck, who smiled at his new employer and followed suit.  Raimy looked past Mr. Grossman to the window, where green curtains had been pulled back to reveal the first snowflakes of the Boston winter. Inside the Grossman’s house was warm and bright, and the candles in the centerpiece smelled a bit like apples, making her hungry.

Francesca Grossman, Mr. Grossman’s second wife and younger by half, looked at Raimy with interest. She had set the dining room and prepared the meal herself. “Now, where do you get a name like that?”

“From a mother or a father, same as any other name.”

Chuck laughed and took Raimy’s hand while she swallowed down a drink. The wine was too bitter for her taste, as she only ever drank white. “Raimy’s from the Philippines.”

Francesca nodded, her pearl earrings bobbing in and out of her hair. “I thought you had an accent. Oh, I bet it’s beautiful there.”

“Warm,” Raimy replied, thinking of the Boston cold and how unpleasant it had become to walk from her city apartment to work every day. She was feeling a bit uncomfortable to be sitting in between Chuck and Mr. Grossman at the square, four-person table. Francesca smiled primly directly across from her. Raimy thought of the card games she and Chuck used to play with their friends, and wished she was there.

“Were you born there?”

“Yes.”

“Think you’ll ever head back that direction?” Mr. Grossman asked with sharp eyes. He still wore his suit from work, the shirt buttoned all the way to the top and the tie fastened securely around his neck.

“Hard to say. I am liking it here, so far.” Raimy let go of her glass and touched the pendant at her neck, resting her hand on the swell of her breasts and pressing her fingertips in the points of the butterfly’s wing. It was a habit she found comfort in.

“Chessa’s always wanted to take a trip down that direction,” Mr. Grossman said, placing an arm over the back of his wife’s chair. Between the candles and lights on the bar to his left, Raimy could see much more gray in his hair than brown. “Anywhere you’d suggest?”

“I don’t know of any places you might want to see.” Raimy took a bit more than a sip from her glass. Her stomach was empty and the wine tasted better than the words. “Dinner smells good.”

Mr. Grossman addressed Chuck before anyone could answer her. “Talk to me, Charlie. How was your first week?”

Chuck’s blush was not difficult to see in the candlelight. Raimy looked at him sideways; she had never heard anyone call him ‘Charlie’ before.

“No business at the table,” Francesca chided in round tones that reminded Raimy of a musical instrument that she had never learned to play. “And in France, no one eats before you drink at least one glass of wine together.”

“I’d like to go there,” Chuck said and Mr. Grossman laughed with him.

—–

The glass of wine before dinner left Raimy’s mouth bitter and her stomach swirling. She hadn’t much of a head for wine and did not drink it often. Her family had never had the money to spare. But around the table were relaxed smiles and easy talk. The meal was good and warm and Raimy wanted to eat, but Francesca kept the conversation going. The snow was falling harder now and Raimy did not mind looking at it through the safety of a window.

Francesca twisted around to see what Raimy was looking at. She studied the window, looking at her reflection and the snow behind it. “My family used to ski in the Alps. The snow here is not so fun, I think. Do you ski?”

“I never have before.”

“Where do you work, Raimy?” Mr. Grossman asked, still careless with her name. Francesca frowned at him around her mouthful, but he shrugged. “It’s not business; it’s a question.”

She reached up to touch the butterfly again. “I work at a tile manufacturing plant.”

Francesca’s pretty eyebrows rose. “A warehouse?”

Raimy pressed her fingertips harder on the butterfly and gripped her wine glass with the other hand. That was only one of her jobs, the other an early morning slot at a bakery. She had needed to help her mother pay her rent, and now she simply needed to pay her own bills. Much different than Chuck’s job.

Chuck’s laughter cut over into Raimy’s sentence. “She’s a secretary. At a tile plant.”

Patrick nodded politely. “How long have you two been together?”

“Just over a year,” Raimy answered for them.

“Oh,” Francesca said knowingly. “A lot can happen in a year. The first year is the hardest, I think.”

“My parents always said the first forty years were the hardest.” Chuck laughed a bit too loud at his own joke and Francesca joined in.

“France has many of the best things, but not all of them. After all, I married American. Think you will, too?” Francesca winked at Raimy.

Patrick put his hand on his wife’s arm and said, “Not everyone wants to talk about their marriage.”

“Fine, fine.” Francesca sat back in her chair and smiled around the table.

“Another bottle?” Mr. Grossman asked, pushing out of his chair when he saw Raimy finish her second glass.

“Something stronger, if you have it,” Chuck said.

“If I have it,” Mr. Grossman repeated with a laugh, striding to the bar.

—–

The air was warmer and more comfortable than Raimy could remember in months. Mr. Grossman – “Patrick!” Francesca told Raimy, “You don’t work for him. Call him Patrick!” – had removed his tie and undone his top button, but still kept the jacket. Dinner sat discarded in the kitchen, no one bothering themselves with the dishes or leftover food. A decanter, half empty, sat next to Patrick, close enough to Raimy that a careless elbow may knock it off the table. The candles in the centerpiece had burned low, but Raimy could still smell the apples. They laughed, taking turns calling out subjects for the quickest mouth to answer. Politics and film and art and –

“Your first love,” Francesca laughed. “What? We all had one.” She laughed and kissed Patrick’s cheek, leaving a bright pink smudge of lipstick that he didn’t wipe away. She smiled at him. “You were not mine.”

“I married my first love,” Patrick said, looking at the table.

Francesca winked at Raimy. “He doesn’t mean me.”

We met on holiday in England,” Francesca recounted fondly, twining her fingers with his. “I was just learning to speak English fluently then. He laughed at my pronunciations. Still does.”

“You were on holiday,” Patrick said. He unhooked their fingers and refilled his tumbler.

“Stop it,” Chuck said, taking Raimy’s hand when she reached for her butterfly again.

Francesca pouted. “Oh, leave her alone.” She peered in interest at Raimy’s chest and fingered the pearl on the long silver chain hanging from her neck. “I think it is pretty.”

Raimy’s hand went to her necklace, pressing the pads of her fingers into the wingtips again. Her necklace was more than pretty. “In the Philippines, butterflies are special. They carry the souls of the dead come back to visit the living.” She immediately felt silly, seeing the way Francesca’s lips pressed into a line. Patrick looked hard at her. “In the Philippines, anyway.”

“Why visit?” Francesca asked, gesturing with her glass. “You are dead, move on.”

Chuck laughed. Raimy was used to him making light. “Spy on your loved ones, see what they’re up to?”

Francesca slid up from her chair and picked up a lighter from the bar. “I am tired of dead things.”

“We don’t smoke in the house,” Patrick said, not looking when she lit up a cigarette anyway and sat back down at the table.

“Everybody smokes in France. You share a meal together, you smoke together.” She exhaled languidly and broke into a winning smile.

“Oh, we don’t mind,” Chuck waved his hand through the smoke.

“They don’t mind,” Francesca shrugged. Patrick didn’t answer his wife, but finished off his glass of wine. Raimy had lost count, but knew they had opened up a third bottle for the women, who both declined the stronger stuff.

“Thank you, love. Get yourself a cigar.” Francesca stroked the underside of his chin as she pulled him in for a kiss. Then she blew Chuck a kiss in thanks. “Get one for Charles, too.”

“I don’t smoke,” Raimy said; Chuck didn’t either. Patrick went behind the bar again, and appeared with two cigars. He stopped to open the window before he sat back down and the cold air pushed against the sweet apple candle.

“You used to, didn’t you?” Chuck said, taking the cigar Patrick offered and placing it between his teeth. He looked foolish with it.

“Used to, Charlie.” Not since she’d taken a second job three years ago to help her mother pay the rent. She had never called him Charlie before, either, but he winked back at Francesca as though Charlie were the name he had always been known by.

Francesca laughed and offered her a cigarette anyway, reaching out across the table with slender fingers and bright eyes. Raimy was suddenly aware of her breasts, how much larger they were than Francesca’s, how much more covered. She accepted the cigarette and allowed Francesca to light it for her.

“And when will you be getting married?” Francesca’s eyes were a little too bright.

“No time soon.” Chuck finished his drink with purpose. “Not me.”

“He’s ambitious,” Patrick said, looking at Raimy. The heat in her cheeks was not just from the wine.

“Tell me, then, Charlie.” Francesca leaned in close to him, smiling in anticipation. “Your first love.”

“My college girlfriend. I went home with her for Christmas break once. She had some kind of family. I didn’t miss them after I left.” Raimy tilted her head to the side, trying to listen, wondering why she had never heard this story before. “Her dad worked all day, her mom spent all his money. Went out drinking, left their son at home. They fought all the time, all of them. She didn’t care. We broke up after that. I don’t want that.”

Francesca scoffed. “No reason not to get married! Her family doesn’t mean it will be your family.”

Charlie shook his head. “You never met the woman. She was obviously just leeching. Getting married got her in America.”

“I am from France,” Francesca defended.

Charlie pointed a finger at Francesca. “You could get on just fine if you didn’t get married. This woman had a fifth grade education!”

“Where was she from?” Patrick asked but Raimy wanted to know as well.

Charlie waved a hand as he thought. “Brazil, Mexico – I don’t know. She needed him more than he wanted her.”

Francesca made an offended sound. “Not true. They were still married; he must have wanted something from her just as much.”

“I do want kids, though,” Charlie tried.

“The children without the marriage? Good luck, Chuck.” It was the first time all night anyone but Raimy had called him Chuck, and it made Raimy’s stomach turn the way Francesca said it. She found it difficult to pull her eyes away from the way Francesca was leaning slightly towards Charlie.

“And you, Raimy?” Patrick asked, catching her as she lowered her glass.

“I want kids,” she answered quickly, trying not to appear lost in herself.

“I never have,” Francesca answered, and Raimy wanted to point out that no one had asked her. “Patrick says I would make a great mother, but I love myself too much, I think. That, and I do not know if my hips are wide enough.”

“I don’t believe any of that,” Charlie interrupted. “I hear it all the time, but I still don’t know what it means.”

“And your first love, Raimy?” Francesca’s smile turned inward as she answered her own question. “A beautiful young man from before you left the Philippines? Dark eyes and dark skin? Long goodbyes?”

“His name was Ralph and we met at work. Before I worked at the tile plant. He was from Pennsylvania.” She was thankful now to have accepted the cigarette. It made something useful for her to focus on.

“Oh. My guess was more exciting.” Francesca sipped her wine again. “You want to get married, though?”

“Yes.” Raimy laughed for the first time all night, and it was not a sound of happiness. “The marriage before the children. My mother wouldn’t stand for anything else.”

“There – you understand. Charlie, take notes. Marriage is the purpose of a man and a woman.” Francesca tapped her husband affectionately. “Patrick liked it so much he did it twice.”

“Twice?” Raimy’s head was cloudy but this seemed important. She touched her butterfly again, the last gift she had before her mother passed away.

“His first wife died.” Francesca frowned.

“What did she die of?” Under the table, Chuck’s hand was on her knee, squeezing too tight, but she had already asked the question and would have asked again, now wondering why Chuck had kept so much from her.

“She had cancer,” Francesca answered. “It was a difficult time. We do not like to speak about it.”

“I’m sorry,” Chuck offered, touching her hand in sympathy. Patrick poured himself another drink.

—–

Raimy sat in the bathroom, breathing deeply. She closed her eyes and sank down, letting her head rest against the cool white back of the toilet. The alcohol was strong. She could still smell apples and now they made her want to vomit, but her gut clenched and she closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids she saw Charlie leaning in closer to Francesca, the way they had been all night, closer and closer together. Her fingers skimmed his arm and she imagined his hand under the table, touching Francesca’s knee much more gently than he had hers. Charlie smiling when Francesca smiled and laughing when she laughed. Their laughter, real and thick, filtered in from beyond the closed door. She imagined them as they kissed and touched and Patrick watched and Raimy wanted to cry.

The door handle jerked and Raimy opened her eyes, surprised at once to find a bathroom and that she had locked the door. She yanked the door open and turned towards the light of the dining room, embarrassed and inflamed. She needed to be there with Charlie.

Raimy hit a body in the hallway, tall and warm. She grabbed his arm and pulled him close. She kissed him as she imagined Francesca would, touched him the way she had seen them do. Charlie, she said. Charlie.

But he didn’t kiss like Charlie and he didn’t touch like Charlie. Strong and desperate touches of a man getting something that isn’t his but that he can’t yet seem to find. He kissed her long and deep and sad. She touched him frantically. It made perfect sense to her. Patrick, she said. Patrick.

Patrick coughed at the taste of her and wiped his mouth. “I stopped smoking.”

Raimy grabbed at the bookshelf behind her to stop the spinning world and said the only thing she could manage. “Francesca seems lovely.”

Patrick’s voice was quiet and far away. He was looking at her breasts, something Charlie hadn’t done all night. “I was with her for a year before my wife died. No one else was there.”

He reached out to touch her chest and Raimy pushed herself up to meet him. Who was Charlie? No, not her breasts. Her butterfly.

Raimy looked at him again and wondered if his eyes had always been blue and, if so, why she hadn’t seen them blue before. They were the only things she saw now. The longer they stood together, smelling of each other’s vodka breath and dinner after-taste, the less perfectly sensible they became. She could taste bitterness when she swallowed.

Patrick turned and walked away, back towards the dining room and the sound of Francesca’s laughter.

—–

Standing outside, Raimy looked up to see Francesca in the window pulling the green curtains shut. Her blonde hair was mussed and Raimy was certain she could see the woman’s nipples through her dress. But the curtain closed and the lights dimmed on her and the ground looked dark even with a mounting layer of snow. They had said their goodbyes quickly, Francesca kissing Charlie on the cheek and Patrick not saying a word. Raimy knew instinctively that she had never met Charlie before tonight.

It was still snowing but Raimy wasn’t cold. She looked around at Charlie; the snow in his hair made her think of Patrick’s gray. Charlie pulled the door of his car open and gestured half-heartedly. He sounded tired. “Get in.”

“I’ll walk.” Raimy leaned against the mailbox and the snow melted against the sleeve of her coat, making her shiver.

“You’ll freeze.” His tone was empty and dry.

“You shouldn’t be driving.” She still felt dizzy.

“I drive fine.” He looked in the direction of the window, where Raimy had last seen Francesca and her smile and her breasts.

“You shouldn’t be driving!” Raimy lurched forward, grabbing Charlie’s arm for balance. She snatched his keys and hurled them away from her, some part of her hoping to hear them crack a window of his car. But she didn’t hear anything and hadn’t looked which direction she’d thrown them in. Charlie yelled something at her and kicked the side panel of his car.

Raimy turned and walked away, grateful for the first time to find a healthy layer of snow on the ground. So different from home.

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