What they knew about being alone kept them drinking late into the night. They made toasts to the snowstorm that closed the interstate and cancelled her flight. The stranger was barrel chested, a little thick around the middle. Barb told him that he looked like a doctor she used to date before she met her husband. He smiled and said he would make a lousy doctor. She's a well kept, older woman, fair skinned from generations of long Ohio winters. He told her he just came from Florida. His brother needed help after a heart procedure. Everyone in the family has of a problem with their heart. He said the last time he went to Florida his sons were little. He wanted to do something special to make the boys happy. It was a terrible year. All kinds of problems. He drove long hours through wet snow in the dark.
The boys dragged him and his wife by the hand all over the amusement park until he felt exhausted and needed to lay down. The hotel double booked their room. His wife threw a fit that he endured in front of a hotel clerk. They found a room at the Howard Johnson two blocks away and ate dinner in the lounge. She cut him down in front of the boys. You should’ve called about the room before we left. I told you to call. I told you over and over. She made certain he knew his vacation was over.
That night the youngest caught a fever that spiked to 105. They rushed to the emergency room. The boy was pale and light as kindling in his arms. His wife pleaded with the nurse at triage to find a doctor right away. They pumped him full of Tylenol and fluids; the fever broke and his color came back. That night after the boys fell asleep he heard his wife sobbing in the bathroom. By morning everyone was sick.
Barb started to tell a story about her husband but instead she asked about the age of his boys, where they lived, if they had any children, what became of his wife.
Hours later Barb drifted in the afterglow of sex. She peeked outside the window into the parking lot for anything familiar, but there were only vague mounds of snow where there used to be cars. A blue chandelier of ice rose from the motel fountain. She drew the curtain further back and snow cast a blue light across the room. It was hard to tell if the stranger was breathing. She panicked. She wanted to call home. She wanted her husband to answer and say he couldn’t sleep when she's not there. She wanted to hear him say that the doctor called with good news, but the phone lines were down.
They had undressed each other in such a hurry that she lost a button from her blouse. When she settled on top of him and straddled his waist, he closed his eyes like he was praying. Both of them happy to be lost in the moment of touching.
She wanted to wake the stranger and talk about her husband. As a boy he'd learned to sail and loved the ocean. One winter he planned a trip for them to the Keys. He poured over brochures of impossibly blue water and divers surrounded by schools of neon striped fish. He promised to teach her how to snorkel and she nodded yes but never spoke the actual word. She never cared for the beach. The sand annoyed her. She feared all the things the ocean hid, sharks, riptides and stinging rays.
The first morning he tried to wake her for a snorkeling lesson, but she faked a headache and sent him on his way. She stayed in bed, ordered room service, and watched soap operas. He returned that afternoon and said there is no language on earth capable of describing the fish and the coral and how the salt water made him feel. The next morning he rented a catamaran and begged her to come. He promised to stay close to the shore but instead pointed the sails to take them deep into the gulf. She panicked as the shore disappeared. He teased her, laughing as they cut across the ocean. When the joke had gone on long enough, he dropped the sails and they slowed to a drift. All along his intention was for them to make love under the big sky. He imagined them naked and taking their time as they moved together with the passing swells. But instead she turned pale and threw up. She never before felt so angry and betrayed in her life and called him a selfish son of a bitch and a lying bastard in between heaving and puking.
That was the story Barb always told when she felt spiteful at a dinner party or when she wanted to knock him down a peg or two in the eyes of their friends.
What she didn’t tell them was how she wore her bitterness like a scar. The rest of the trip he tried to make things right. He promised her anything she wanted but she stayed hurt. She told him with trembling in her voice that she never wanted to come to Florida in the first place, but she had tried to act happy so that he would be happy.
On the last day he found a jewelry store and dashed in and came out with a black pearl the size of a dime hanging on a silver chain. She held it up to her throat and let the black pearl slip between her breasts. She softened and smiled and told him this would be a nice down payment on how he might begin to make things right again. She kissed him. A small, reserved peck on the cheek.
She looked older in the dark with the snowlight behind her. She wanted the stranger to wake up so she could ask him about the terrible year he mentioned. Barb wanted him to know that her husband was dying. She wanted to know how it feels to go home to an empty house and sleep alone. She checked the lines again. They were still dead. She held the receiver to her ear and dialed the number anyway.
Barb needed to crawl into bed with her husband and say Do you remember that day in Florida and say it had been a grave mistake and apologize about losing the black pearl necklace when they moved from the little house. She ached to go back to the day at the ocean and instead of getting sick and acting hateful. She'd let him undress her and move as the ocean moved and love her husband the way her husband had tried his best to love her. That’s the story she'd like to tell her close friends so they'd always be jealous of her, so they'd know the kind of person she could be and the kind of man he once was.