Mark Murphy eyed the baseball game projected on the big screen television across the bar. He eyed his beer as he drank it down notch by notch. But mostly he eyed the single blond sitting by herself three seats to his left.
Most nights he came here in his exile. A beer or two, five or six innings, and then back home to climb into a cold bed with a cold wife and reset himself for the next day. During those nights he had seen this woman a time or two. She drank alone, smiled politely to the bartender, paid her tab promptly after a single drink, then left her seat to walk back out to the street. She was in her forties, as was Mark, or so he surmised. Nothing about her was extreme or flashy, but she carried an aura, an intrigue that piqued Mark’s curiosity. Attractive enough, with hair tied back from a softly rounded, calm face. And at this point, what was there to lose?
She had finished more than half her drink and the home team trailed badly. What, indeed, was there to lose?
Mark slid off his seat and walked two seats down to sit next to her. “Excuse me for being bold, but I just wanted to introduce myself. I’ve seen you here before, and always alone. I thought maybe you could use a friend. I’m Mark.”
The woman turned her head to face him. With no expression she said, “You’re the first person to speak to me here. Where have all the real men gone?’ She sipped her drink, a vodka tonic. “Laura.”
“Any chance I can tempt you with a second drink?”
And so it began that night, a casual dalliance that salved a festering void with anticipation, romanticism and a hint of risk. All of it proved more exciting than rational as Mark and Laura met nightly to sit no longer at the bar but at a small table near the corner where they exchanged stories, frustrations, abandonment and despair.
Laura no longer stopped at one drink, or even two. In the second week she placed her hand on Mark’s knee, leaned into him and licked his ear, and so the assignations began. From the bar they would head back to Laura’s apartment nearby, where she lived alone and had a wide bed which they put to good use, testing the limits of their own athleticism with lust that had been subliminated far too long.
Mark came home later and later. Gwen Murphy, ever loyal, ever the faithful wife, came to dread the sound of Mark’s key in the lock. An interruption, it was, and a return to a normality that wore her down. She had no issue with Mark’s absences, which cleared her time with her daughter of any complications or deflections. Mother and daughter were fine by themselves. Better by themselves.
At one point a few weeks past their first coupling, Laura rolled to her side, propped herself on an elbow and with a rare smile asked, “Why do you do this?”
“What do you mean? Why do I do what?”
“Why do you risk everything? A wife and a daughter. Maybe even a job. And don’t tell me I’m irresistible. I know I’m not. To you, sweet baby, I’m probably no more than meat. So don’t tell me that. Just tell me why you’re doing this. Why every few nights I can bring you to my bed.”
Mark rose and pulled a sheet around his nakedness, then walked to look out the bedroom window onto the small courtyard between the buildings. He thought in silence, then spoke slowly. “Did you ever look closely at a geode?” he said.
“What the hell is a geode?”
“A geode is a rock, I guess. Just a rock. But it’s hollow inside, and lined with crystals. Quite beautiful, actually, when you break it apart and look inside. It’s all sparkly and pure, like something that doesn’t quite belong in your hands. Something almost magical. You never know what colors will sparkle back at you when you crack it open.
“So,” he continued slowly, “I feel like that geode. Hollow inside, with all this empty space. Big parts of the center missing. And it took me years to get that way, with all this pressure pushing everything out of the middle.
“But there’s still some beauty there. There’s still something that sparkles when you look at it closely. Something that changes in the way the light plays with those crystals and makes new colors. Something that coats the edges of all that emptiness. All you have to do is crack it open and look.
“That’s why I do this, Laura.” He turned back to her, threw the sheet to the floor, and climbed back into the bed. It wasn’t yet time to go home.