"There is more hunger for love and appreciation in this world than for bread."
Justine Samuels sipped at the small glass of champagne she allowed herself on special occasions. This, she supposed, qualified. She'd just won the biggest case of her career--a multi-client personal injury case against a major business that'd tried to cover up, rather than fix, a problem known by the highest-level employees in order to save money. Her clients were thrilled with her; her law firm--Adams, Samuels & Gosnik General Practice--even more so. Though they mainly drafted wills, negotiated tax settlements with the IRS and handled various family law claims, they'd done a few personal injury cases. Nothing like this one. This was one most small-town lawyers avoided as out of their league. Justine had viewed it as a challenge in which she could garner success with hard work and determination. After ten long months, she'd finally done just that. Hence the celebration party her partners had thrown her at the only swanky restaurant in town, The Pier.
A few feet away, Justine watched her husband surreptitiously glance around, clearly not enamored of her partners' conversation. Will Gosnik and Harry Adams shared little in common with a man who'd been married as long as Joshua had. At fifty-three, Harry had decided his recent divorce put his life in permanent bachelor status. Will had never married, never wanted to. Both were playboys who came on to everything with a shapely turn of leg. Justine unwillingly qualified. The only reason she could ignore their playful advances came down to their genuine respect for her and her work.
When Joshua's dark gaze drifted to her, she didn't have the fortitude to hold their shared glance for longer than a few seconds. She stirred the olive she'd specially requested in her glass and nodded at something one of the six legal assistants the firm employed said. Warmth filled her cheeks. She knew Joshua's eyes lingered on her. She could feel them like heat-seeking missiles.
While her company get-togethers were rare, Joshua always put on a suit that inevitably made him look both uncomfortable and gorgeous. And after all these years, he still attended every one of her trials. She had no clue why he did that. But since he owned his own business and set his own hours, it was no doubt easy for him to fit them in. It just wasn't easy for her to imagine why he would adjust his schedule to attend. Did he have any idea how much she appreciated the efforts he made to attend her trials and come to her firm's shindigs with her?
Does he have the slightest clue that I can't take my eyes off him when I see him in a suit? It reminds me of the tuxedo he wore at our wedding. I kept looking at him, losing my place as his father performed the ceremony, convinced it was all a dream. In what world would I be marrying the man of my every fantasy? But almost eighteen years later, I still can't get myself to believe we're married. Because I don't have a clue why he married me outside of his unwavering sense of responsibility.
Justine swallowed, continuing to feel the fire rage in her face, and lifted her gaze to again skirt it over Joshua.
Your cologne smelled so good in the car on the way over here. What I wouldn't have done to bury my face against your shoulder...
"So how many years has it been, Josh my man? You've had Justine on the hook for...what? Two decades?" Harry asked, mostly sloshed by now, and Justine's attention riveted to the trio of men close enough to easily overhear.
"Eighteen years on the twenty-fifth," Joshua said. His voice sounded thick with discomfort.
Linda and Arabelle were talking about the latest fashion trends, and Justine only half heard them as Harry slapped her husband on the back, exclaiming, "How do ya keep the romance alive, fella? What's the secret to keepin' love strong? Could barely look at my hag of a wife--thankfully ex-wife--toward the end. Sometimes thought I hated everything about her. Got so sick of her face..."
"Not that Justine is anywhere near a hag," Will added with a lurid chuckle. "Nowhere near. Can't be too hard to wake up next to her every day. So what's the secret, Josh? How do you keep it going?"
Justine found herself holding her breath for Joshua's answer. Without love... how did Joshua stay with her? She wanted to know almost as badly as she didn't want to know.
His face is so serious. Utterly serious. Is he actually going to answer them?
Arabelle's voice drifted to her. "...but are they comfortable all day? I love a sexy shoe as much as the next girl, but..."
"I'd have to say the secret to a good relationship is..." Joshua started.
Will and Harry seemed as enraptured about hearing his answer as Justine did. She was almost leaning toward them. Arabelle glanced at her, and Justine quickly lifted her glass to her mouth to avoid having to speak.
"Never...and I mean never..." Joshua paused, his expression intense, then continued, "...pick your nose when you're alone together."
Justine burst out laughing...which wasn't a good thing to do when she had a mouthful of champagne. The drink came out of her nose, too, and Linda grabbed at napkins at the bar nearby, looking a little uncertain about what had prompted the reaction in her boss. After setting her glass down and grasping the napkins, Justine mopped her face and chin. Quickly, she excused herself. With her purse in hand, she charged into the ladies' restroom like a bull.
When Joshua doesn't know what to say--and that isn't often--he leans toward the outrageous. What was he supposed to say? What did I expect him to say? He could hardly say the truth, "I love my daughter and wanted her to have a stable home life growing up," in answer to how he kept his marriage going strong after all this time.
Disgusted with herself, Justine blew her nose, then went to work repairing the damage to her makeup. As she cleared her smeared mascara from the tears of laughter that filled her eyes at Joshua's off-the-wall humor, she looked at herself the way she'd done countless times in the years they'd been together. What did he see when he looked at her? Did he find her attractive? Logically, he must. But then she recalled Harry's words about his ex-wife. Toward the end of their marriage, he'd barely been able to look at his wife, considered her a hag and hated every familiar curve and line that made up her face.
She shook her head at her reflection. Shoving her makeup back in her clutch, she took a deep breath to re-fortify herself for another entrance. The last thing she expected to find was Joshua waiting alone in the hall outside the restrooms. She knew he hated these parties. He wasn't the type to be comfortable in crowds of people. Even with his large family, he had a tendency to withdraw to the sidelines.
"You okay?" he asked, and she couldn't help wondering if he'd seen her response to his tension-relieving joke.
"Fine. I think we've been sociable enough," she said, giving him the out she knew he wanted.
"That mean we can make a graceful exit?"
"The quicker, the better."
The effort of disengaging herself from the congratulations and well-wishing wasn't easy, but they finally made it out to the car. Being alone together inside the confines of the vehicle that smelled of his cologne made her at once relieved and nervous. She could feel his tension as he drove across the town they'd both been born and grown up in.
Peaceful was an apt name for the friendly Midwestern town located in central Wisconsin with a population of around thirty-five hundred citizens. Filled with old-fashioned, barely modernized business fronts along the main street, lush green grass, and an abundance of brightly colored trees lined most of the residential roads, the town had nevertheless had many new commercial and private businesses crop up to make it much more self-sufficient in the last few years. Justine often thought that it had to be one of last places in the world that remained utterly safe, even after dark.
Tonight, the drive seemed endless. Her mind produced and discarded a dozen things to say to ease the discomfort. Surprising her, Joshua broke the silence. "Congratulations on the case. Must be a relief to have it over with."
She laughed, a wavering little thing that embarrassed her. "I don't know what I'll do with myself now."
He paused only an instant. "You always find something."
In that, he knew her well. "La Crosse main branch has asked me to join their firm," she said softly, looking across the seat at him. She hadn't intended to tell him because she'd had no plans to accept.
He met her gaze across the car. "As a partner?"
"Full partner. I'm happy as a full partner here."
"It'd mean more money, more prestige, better cases. Wouldn't it?"
Though he faced the road, she nodded. "My place here is completely satisfying."
Did it matter to him? Did he want her to take the job? She understood through and through, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he'd never leave Peaceful. His family was here, his work. Everything he loved held him firmly rooted here. Yet he wouldn't try to hold her with him.
Should that bother me? I've known it from the beginning. We're strangers. We have been even when we were... Ugh! After eighteen years, we're still so uncomfortable with each other, it isn't funny. Without our daughter here to act as our net, we're hopeless together. And even when she gets home... Well, in a few months, she'll be going off to college in Minnesota. What will Joshua and I do then? Beyond avoid each other as much as we have in the past few weeks she's been gone.
Somehow, Justine couldn't bear to hear him encourage her to leave him for her career if she wanted to. Not tonight. "Vashti called," she said, changing the subject. "She gave me her flight information for Sunday."
His hmm was both noncommittal and enough to make Justine crazy. Did hmm mean "Okay, whatever" or "Take the job in La Crosse. Save me the trouble of leaving you after Vashti heads to college?"
In the excruciating silence that followed, Justine thought about what, if anything Joshua was feeling about her chance for promotion and re-location. She thought about their daughter's usual course--she'd want to throw them an anniversary party, one they'd always wanted to avoid, claiming they preferred a quiet, intimate celebration... one spent on opposite sides of the house. She thought about Joshua's outrageous humor with Will and Harry. Obviously her partners believed in the façade she and Joshua had carefully constructed to reveal a perfect marriage. It was only perfect by virtue of the fact that they'd lasted as long as they had. They'd done it for Vashti.
What will happen when we no longer have to stay married for the sake of our daughter?
Turning her head just slightly toward him, Justine observed her husband with a lump the size of a baseball in her throat. Outside of their mutual faith and walk with the Lord, outside of Vashti, they had nothing in common. No practical reason at all to stay together.
So why does the idea of being separate from him torment me?
A light rain had begun to fall by the time they pulled into the driveway of the house Justine grew up in and inherited after her father's death. They parked in the detached garage near his workshop. Joshua came around to the passenger's side to open the door for her the way he'd insisted on doing all their years together. As she stepped out, he put his suit jacket around her shoulders. The tender gesture felt like a white-hot knife straight into her heart, and she couldn't even begin to say why merciless tears stung her eyes.
He was raised a gentleman... and I was his downfall.
When they rushed together inside their home, a circa 1910 American Foursquare, remodeled in Craftsman style, she suddenly felt like the arms of shame embraced her, squeezing her hard.
In this house, I betrayed the trust and respect of Daddy, betrayed a dying man who had nothing and no one in this world except his love for God and a daughter who'd acted the part of a selfless giver in every way except one. The one way he'd feared. But he'd readily allowed us to assure him with uneasy lies that he was wrong.
"I need to shower," she murmured in the almost shocking silence filling the otherwise cozy kitchen. "That champagne went right to my head."
"I'll lock up."
Only when she stepped into their bedroom on the second floor did she breathe in anguished relief. Her hands in the pockets of his suit jacket still draped over her shoulders, she closed her fingers around the tie he'd taken off before leaving The Pier. She slipped into the master bathroom and closed the door behind her. With her back against the oak, she wrapped herself completely in the jacket, bringing the collar to her nose and inhaling deeply. The very slight intoxication she'd gotten from the champagne after dinner couldn't begin to equal what she got from being immersed in her husband's scent.
He went straight to my head when I was a lonely teenage girl. When he returned my uninitiated kisses... Ahh. The thought of taking the bull by the horns myself and being the first one to reach for him, then waiting for him to respond... It's why we haven't made love even once in the two weeks since Vashti left for her trip to Israel. Because he's waiting for me to show him I want him.
Justine snorted a laugh that held no humor, shaking her head at her thoughts. She'd grow old waiting for him. Every single time they came together, she made the first move. Only then would he reach for her. Only then did he take the wheel.
She slid the coat off and hung it on the hook on back of the door. Undressing, she stepped into the shower lined with multicolored slate tile. Her thoughts became consumed by one fact: Vashti would be home this Sunday. Tomorrow was Saturday. They had no time. Tonight was nearly the last opportunity they'd have until their daughter left for college in September. If she had to initiate it, she would. Even if it took every ounce of her courage this time.
She barely felt the hot spray on her overheated skin or smelled the jasmine body soap she lathered and rinsed by rote. Why did she have to remember her youthful sins? Why did they have to blot out everything else?
She turned off the water and reached for the thick towel waiting for her on a nearby hook.
Work a miracle, Lord... I know even asking You for this is as horribly wrong as what I did back then. But please, please work a miracle in Joshua. Make him reach for me tonight.
Her chest heart-attack tight, Justine walked straight from the shower to the dark bedroom, aware of her husband's presence even in the shadows. She was barely breathing by the time she eased under the thin blanket. For an instant, she hovered in the trepidation she always experienced at this moment, just before she made her move. Waiting, praying that he would touch her or whisper her name in a way that made her certain of his desire for her.
A sob filled her throat, painful and raw, when nothing happened, but she couldn't let it go. She couldn't show him her vulnerability any more than she could turn from the course she'd decided on. If she didn't do this, she wouldn't sleep. The anguish of what she'd missed would torment her endlessly.
His back was turned to her, and she felt it like a roadblock, a do-not-pass zone painted right through the center of their bed. Ignoring the tears burning behind her eyes, she glided across the satin sheets without hesitating. With her front to his back, her head on his muscular arm, she felt him go rigid. For a split second, he did absolutely nothing--didn't even breathe. She could have just as easily been at the edge of the world, completely alone and abandoned. But then his arm lifted, carefully, and she knew her place, knew the move that would bring her what she needed. She slid under his arm, and he shifted onto his back.
Dizzy, Justine closed her eyes and let herself believe that their lips came together mutually, at the same time. It wasn't hard to convince herself of it. Not when his hands cradled her face, his mouth opening and demanding all she had to give. Every nerve ending in her body fired at the knowledge of what was happening, what would happen when he eased her to her back. He would make love to her. She would give of herself without inhibition in this stolen time that never felt completely real and yet burned into her memories so she always wanted to return here. She never wanted to leave this place.
Even with frantic caresses and endless kisses, their bodies straining together, breathing ragged and measured, she recognized poignantly that no words were spoken, no love or even need was expressed between them. Here, even here, in the forbidden place they looked for but were never able to find each other in, neither of them could lose all control or expose too much vulnerability.
She dreaded the moment of their last shudders and raw cries, holding fiercely to each other, his lips still against hers, bestowing an imminently final tenderness.
Don't leave me. Hold me. Make me believe you love me. That what we just satisfied was love, not base need alone.
She held herself shatteringly stiff, knowing their parts by heart. Though she wanted the exact opposite, she let her limbs go slack, allowing him to go or stay, his choice. He hesitated, then pressed a kiss to her forehead. He lifted himself from her, rising from their bed, and strode in the dark to the bathroom. She lay on his side of the bed in a state of shock, only able to cry in her mind, What do you do in there? Hide from me? Hide from the intimacy that both belies our marriage and contradictorily mirrors it?
Something inside her broke. For the first time ever, she couldn't rein in the devastation and remain silent. The sob that started before she reached for him remained larger than life and now spilled over, a tsunami, making her gasp at its upward force. Horrified at her weakness, she nevertheless didn't have the control to recall it. She knew he heard it...ignored it...when the bathroom door closed softly behind him.
"Love cannot endure indifference. It needs to be wanted. Like a lamp, it needs to be fed out of the oil of another's heart, or its flame burns low."
~Henry Ward Beecher
Joshua woke up on his stomach, facing his wife. She lay asleep, curled into a protective ball firmly on her side of the bed. It was her way of holding everyone at a distance, he'd understood, from the moment he became truly aware of her. Everyone except their daughter. After nearly two decades of being with Justine, he'd long since given up on getting more than a piece of this woman at a time, never the whole of her.
His heart felt heavy as he looked at her, but that did nothing to detract from the arousal he experienced just looking at her. On a completely superficial level, who could compare to her in beauty? He'd never seen her equal, with her Titian-red hair spread out around her on the white satin pillowcase. Like the woman, bold and unique. Her thick, long lashes fanned out against her golden cheekbones, arms crossed over her torso, one hand delicately beneath her cheek. His gaze slid down her luscious body, exposed as usual in the night, when she kicked off the covers. At sixteen, she'd been an awkward, yet thoroughly effective, temptress. Now she was a goddess, and the thought of touching her without a scepter of permission... No, the one thing he'd never been able to get himself to face was her rejection. Easier to wait for her to let him know what she wanted than to risk that.
She belonged to him for such a short time. An hour in his arms. One single hour in excruciatingly long weeks had nearly killed him. Last night hadn't satisfied him even a little. For that reason, he almost gave in to the urge to touch her again. The only thing that stayed his hand was knowing that, if he woke her, she'd tense immediately, especially in the light of day.
Last thing I wanna see now is her guard drop into place...even if she'd accept my attention. Even if I know she would.
Since he couldn't go against his better judgment, he rolled out of bed and soundlessly pulled on loose jogging pants and a tank top. A two mile jog and prayer would clear his head. But all he could think about was last night, even as he set up the coffeepot then greeted the ideal summer morning with a few stretches to warm up.
Had he heard her gasp last night, just after they made love? She always let him go easily enough, but last night...shoot, last night he'd wondered if she was crying. Unlikely, considering that Justine only cried for others, never for herself. If she cried for herself these days, he suspected she cried alone. She didn't need to talk about it for him to know she'd never forgive herself for the way they'd lied to her dad on his death bed. As teenagers, he'd been all thumbs at the sight of her in tears. Back then, she came to be in his arms somehow, and they ended up having sex. After her father's funeral and their hasty wedding--back-to-back events--that'd happened too many times.
He tried to focus on the sidewalk under his feet as he jogged, but the bitter heat of embarrassment and shame made him too aware of past sins.
Why did she reach for me last night? It's been so long since she's done that. It could've been a year for how long it's felt.
Ever since Vashti left two weeks ago, they'd gone to bed early and he'd waited eagerly for her sign. It hadn't come. Sleep hadn't come in consequence. For either of them. So why last night? He wondered if the champagne really had gone to her head. Neither of them drank often enough to get used to the effects of alcohol. But even the few sips she'd had wouldn't be enough to make her lose all inhibition.
Vash is coming home tomorrow. Justine reached for me last night 'cause Vashti's presence in the house'll make it harder for us, especially after we've been distant with each other for so long. Unless she does the same tonight, it's gonna be a looong wait until September, when Vashti leaves for college.
By then, the distance between them would grow to epic proportions. Not making love to Justine for two weeks had been enough to make him insane. What would two months bring?
When he remembered her job promotion, the changes in their lives it could bring if she was just delaying the announcement until after Vashti left home, he found himself praying without any words. Just as he usually didn't, he couldn't understand the grief inside of himself. Justine was independent. She didn't need him, never had. That much he couldn't doubt. And he'd known she'd realize that truth sooner or later.
The house remained quiet when he got back and ducked into the downstairs shower. He remembered a time when Justine got up early even on the weekends. Lately, she'd been sleeping long hours. It wasn't like her, but he didn't doubt for a minute she'd rebuff any concerns he expressed about it. She didn't like him or anyone else to worry about her.
After pouring himself a tank-sized travel mug of coffee, he went outside and back to his workshop on the other side of the garage. He'd built the medium-size building himself just after he and Justine married. The scents were old and familiar, and he felt comfortable here, the way he didn't anywhere else.
This morning, the memory of being in Justine's old man's garage as a teenager was almost too fresh. He'd always been mowing the lawn, shoveling snow or any other task he could think of to be around her. Everyone thought he'd done it for a sick old man of God. Maybe. Partly. But what he remembered most was the anticipation he'd felt of Justine coming out to see him. Even over the strong smell of gasoline in the garage next door to his workshop, her distinctive musk perfume put him in high gear. He'd never forget the first time she kissed him. From that moment on, her first touch gave him permission to surrender himself to what they both needed, to the exclusion of all else.
He couldn't remember the last time Justine entered his workshop. Back when they were first married, she would come out here. He'd show her all his finished items and works in progress. Her attention had always gone straight to his head. Sometimes, she'd come home from school or work with some item she picked up from an antique shop--something she hoped would inspire him for new projects. While she'd never said it, the implication that she thought about him gave him confidence. It was a shaft of light to indicate that the distance between them wasn't as wide as it felt sometimes.
Another thing she hadn't done in long years.
The wish that she would enter his private sanctuary came and went. He sat before the stained-glass wood project he'd started yesterday. The decorative items he created sold out almost faster than he could make them for his shop and the local businesses that took them on commission.
With a final, reluctant acceptance that Justine would go to work, the way she did most Saturdays when their daughter wasn't around, that they'd spend the day apart without hope that they'd come together tonight either, he gave himself over to one of the few things that brought him contentment in life.