It had been a terrible day, but it had been a worse eleven months. If not for the previous eleven months, the day would have just been annoying. Annoying days are simply standard operating procedure within the corporate event industry. Between obnoxious vendors and even more obnoxious clients, the long hours, the shitty food, the inevitable equipment failure, and staff who let the Las Vegas culture get to them a bit too much, every day onsite has the tendency to be a headache. Today would have been yet another headache if it weren’t for the terrible day eleven months ago that changed everything.
Today would have just been a misunderstanding if Celia weren’t still so fragile. Women within a corporate setting are so competitive despite touting a mantra of sisterhood and building each other up. In reality—at least in this particular environment—women are cutthroat and merciless in their need to prove themselves amidst attempting to claw their way up the corporate ladder. It’s still a man’s world, a boys’ club, and your fellow sisters will not hesitate to throw you under the bus if they think they can get a leg up from your metaphoric corpse.
Laney, the special projects director for the Venetian’s conference center, is one of those women (but weren’t they all?); one of those well-dressed, pin-thin, sharp women in sharp stilettos, who march around the venue as if they own both it and the entire conference. And Laney, for whatever reason, didn’t like the tone Celia had used to communicate with Laney’s husband in a few of the group emails that had gone around during the last minute preparations. Laney’s husband Max, being the event manager, essentially does own the entire conference, and it’s part of Celia’s job as the project manager for the marketing analytics provider to talk to him. But Laney thought Celia had been flirtatious—apparently, politeness is so rare these days that it comes off as flirtation—and Laney had made that painfully obvious to Celia that morning. All while fellow event staff and a large handful of conference attendees had been watching.
So there she’d stood that very morning, next to the registration desk, trying not to make a scene, when Laney had reprimanded her loudly and pointedly enough that now a bunch of people probably believe Celia is a wannabe homewrecker. What sent the confrontation over the edge from annoying and embarrassing to humiliating and heartbreaking was when Laney cited the lack of Celia’s spectacular, yet understated wedding rings, which had been present at last year’s conference and were now suspiciously absent. How such a small change had been so noticeable was beyond Celia, but it seemed Laney was looking for evidence and found it in the missing rings. And that was when Josh appeared from out of nowhere.
Sweet Josh. Nice Josh. Quiet Josh, who’d never confronted anyone that Celia had ever seen, at least not in the three years she’s been working this conference. Friendly Josh, whom Celia had spoken to all of maybe five or six times in those three years. Subtly handsome Josh, whom Celia had never really noticed was subtly handsome until she woke up at 4:45 AM just now. Now, as she’s studying his sleeping face.
Josh, who is the director of conventions and corporate events for the Venetian, Palazzo, and the Sands, which makes him Laney’s superior, but not Celia’s. With endless vendors and clients, the hierarchy within the corporate event industry can get a bit confusing and muddy, so Celia can’t help wondering whether Josh being asleep in her hotel room at quarter ‘til five in the morning is a conflict of interest. If it is, he certainly hadn’t acted like it. But then again, it had been a terrible day for both of them and maybe the terrible day is justification for what they did in here.
How Josh had known that the topic of the missing rings was an emotional sticking point for Celia was also beyond her, but apparently he’d noticed her a lot more than she’d noticed him. Because there he suddenly was, telling Laney to shut it down and act like a damned professional, before hooking Celia’s elbow and ushering her into one of the session rooms that wouldn’t be in use for another couple of hours.
Eleven months, which had crawled along slower than molasses in January, suddenly felt like eleven minutes ago and Celia nearly cried like she did when she got the awful news. But she couldn’t cry like that. Not right then. Not while Josh was standing there, his presence suddenly mammoth when it had previously never more than barely registered in her consciousness. Instead of crying, she sat in one of the empty chairs, staring at the gaudy pattern on the carpet, breathing, and attempting to steady her shaking hands. She would have been fine—relatively fine—but then he had to go and open his mouth.
“That wasn’t about you,” Josh began. “She and Max had some kind of an issue earlier this year and she’s rattled. She doesn’t know about your um… your loss.”
Celia glanced up briefly in surprise. “But you do?” There wasn’t any way to ask without sounding almost offensive or rude, but Josh didn’t appear to be fazed.
He slipped his hands in his pockets and looked apprehensive, as if he was suddenly struck by the intimate nature of the environment he’d placed them both in. “Ted was meeting with some of the people from your team during a site visit early in the year. They told him you were supposed to be there, but you were still on a leave of absence. Afterward, he mentioned it to me because I guess he felt the information was something I’d find relevant. Or maybe relatable. I don’t know. Maybe he was just gossiping.” He tried to laugh casually, but it came out forced and awkward. “You know how people in these circles like to gossip.”
Celia huffed. “I do.” Gossip in the events industry is a sport that everyone plays.
He slid a chair in front of her at a respectable distance and sat, spinning the platinum band on his left hand. “I know that it’s not really what Laney accused you of. I know it’s more like, you’re still getting used to the idea of not having that person in your corner. You were married… how long?”
She swallowed and set her chin in a feeble attempt to hold herself together. “Seven.” She had to pause. “Seven years.”
“Seven years,” he acknowledged, nodding. “That’s a long time. So it was like, you guys were together through a lot of stuff. Probably college and starting your careers and everything people do when they’re, you know… young adults who grow into older adults. If that makes sense.”
It does, she wanted to say, but she couldn’t say anything because, my god, this was not a time when she wanted to cry. Instead, she settled for nodding back at him.
“And you’re used to having them to call and vent to when you have a really shitty day. Like when someone onsite is being an asshole and you just need to be like, ‘Babe,’” he said, holding his hand up to his ear, mimicking a phone call, “‘you wouldn’t believe what this guy said to me today.’ And then they’re like, ‘wow, what a piece of shit.’” He laughed again, but it was a blatantly sad-sounding laugh. “And you guys have this little pep rally over the phone and you feel better. But suddenly, you can’t make that call anymore and it makes what the asshole said or did that much worse because you don’t have anyone to confide in who can help you build yourself back up afterward. And you miss a lot of things, but right then you miss that the most. You miss your partner. The person who’s always had your back no matter what.”
And then, Celia might as well have been alone in the big, empty session room because—Josh or no Josh—she had to cry. How he’d known exactly what the whole situation felt like was beyond her, but it seemed less than important. She leaned over her knees, clutching her face, trying to be discreet, even though she knew it wasn’t very discreet, but that also felt less than important.
“That’s what’s so hard,” he went on. “And that’s what always hurts and always makes you feel more alone than anything else. Having to go through the mundane, day-to-day shitty stuff alone. And that’s why Laney’s stupid ranting is more than just stupid ranting, and that’s why it bothers you more than it would have.”
He placed his hand on one of her shoulders for all of one second before retracting it and exhaling loudly. “I never used to work this conference because it always falls during the week of my anniversary. So my wife and I were always as far away from Vegas as possible. We usually went to California to hike. One of our bucket list items was to hike the entire John Muir Trail. That’s like… probably three to four weeks of hiking, so it wasn’t something we’d be able to do for a while. We usually just hiked portions of it.”
She was suddenly distracted from crying and glanced up again. “You’ve been here every year since I was assigned this event.”
“Yeah,” he said quickly and then cleared his throat. “Misty… my wife… she got sick three and a half years ago. She caught the flu. The flu, right? You don’t think the flu is that big of a deal, especially not for a twenty-nine year old person in really good health. But she caught a secondary infection, caught pneumonia, and it was all downhill from there. She was just fine, and then over the course of about a month and a half she was just gone.”
Celia covered her mouth and her eyes widened. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, well.” He gave another defeated laugh. “Always get your flu shot, right?”
She nodded. “Flu shots are important.” After all, what else are you supposed to say to something like that? “So this is your anniversary week?”
“Yeah. Today is actually my… or our…” He paused and looked at her through red-tinged hazel eyes for a moment before he looked back at the floor. “Anyway. Today’s the shittiest day of a really shitty week, and I heard Laney running her mouth, and I knew you were like… you know. But to answer your question, yes. And work is a good distraction, so now I always work this event.”
“I’m so sorry, Josh. Truly.” He nodded again, but continued to stare at the floor and said nothing, so she added, “Micah was a runner. He always ran before work before it got too hot. He basically ran in the dark and I always told him that was so stupid because drivers couldn’t see him very well. But he was stubborn and I was right. And here I am. That was eleven months ago.”
“Ted mentioned it was something along those lines. How ironic, right? You think eating right and staying active will give you longevity, but sometimes shit just happens. It sucks.”
“It totally sucks. Have you gone to like… meetings and stuff?” she asked cautiously. All those ridiculous meetings for widows. Absurd. A widow at thirty years old.
“I went to a few. I was the only person there under forty-five and I couldn’t relate to those people. They all looked at me with pity, which annoyed me and made me feel like a child. So I stopped going. I’d rather just work.”
“I went to them for about three weeks before I couldn’t go anymore,” she said. “I’ve been seeing a therapist. About six months ago, she told me to set a goal date to take off my rings. She said it was a ‘practical step in moving forward,’ but I don’t know about that. But I did it anyway. Two weeks ago, I put them in my jewelry box.” A lump formed in her throat and her eyes spilled over again. “I didn’t exactly have a chance to explain that to Lane—” She couldn’t even finish saying the woman’s name before she had to stifle another sob.
He placed his hand on her shoulder again and let it linger there that time. “Laney’s an asshole. She’s taking out her personal problems on you.”
Celia shook her head. “She just doesn’t know.”
“I know. But I’m sorry she unloaded on you.”
They went silent and she found them looking at each other. Her sniffling back sobs and him with his eyes red. They shared a similar look several hours later when they stood outside her hotel room, and it was what compelled her to invite him in. And that’s how he ended up asleep in her bed right now.
Back in the empty session room, the look lasted until Celia’s radio chirped.
“Celia!” came a voice over the tiny speaker. “The kiosks on level three all have the blue screen of death!”
She groaned as she stood up and lifted to radio to her mouth. “I’ll be right there.”
Josh stood as well. “Never a dull moment. You okay?”
“Of course. Thank you for that.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ll have a word with Laney.”
“You don’t need to do that. I’m fine.”
“Okay.” He slipped his hands into his pockets and took a step away from her. “Well if you need anything, just holler.” He pulled a radio out of his pocket. “I’m on here, too.”
“Thanks. I’ll probably see you around the floor.”
He hesitated for a moment. “You guys are planning to be at the reception tonight, right? CVI ordered lead retrieval, didn’t they?”
She nodded, suddenly wondering if it was strictly work-related question or if it was more her-related. “Yes, we’ll be there until after the reception ends.”
“Sounds good. Then I’ll see you there.”
“I’ll see you there, too.”
She didn’t actually see him there, at least not until it was almost over. She was swapping out chargers for the lead retrieval scanners while most of her staff was sneaking off to the open bar, and he’d approached the booth expertly balancing two plastic cups of wine in one hand, a small plate of food in the other, and what appeared to be a small book under one arm.
“Celia,” he’d said over the obnoxiously loud music, setting the plate and cups down on the counter. “I’m guessing you didn’t grab a bite yet.”
She smiled gratefully. “I didn’t. I didn’t get much lunch either. Thank you, you’re a lifesaver.”
“No problem.” He pulled the book from under his arm and held it against his chest. “Are you feeling any better?”
“I am. Sometimes you just need a moment, I guess.” They both picked up the cups of wine and she gestured toward him, feeling like a toast of sorts was politely obligatory. “To um, having someone to commiserate with.”
“And to the people we commiserate over,” he added, and she had to immediately drink, because damn.
She noticed she unintentionally downed the cup. “Today sucks.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Fuck today.”
She had to laugh. “Fuck today, indeed.”
He pulled the book away from his chest, tilted it toward her, and started saying something just as the announcer boomed overhead, “Ladies and gentlemen, please remember to return your lead retrieval devices to the rental booth prior to leaving the show floor. Thank you.”
“What was that?” Celia asked, leaning across the counter and glancing at the book.
“I was just saying this book is something that really helped me when I—”
“What’s up Joshua!” AJ, one of her staff hollered as he, Stephanie, Todd, Sandra, and David descended upon the booth again, all double-fisting cups of free wine.
“Not much,” Josh said, placing the book back under his arm and shaking AJ’s hand. “How’s it going? Working hard or hardly working?”
AJ laughed and lifted his cup. “You know how we do!”
“Yeah, I know how we do, too,” Celia butted in. “And unless all of you want to get a late start at the blackjack tables, you might want to get back here and help me charge batteries. Or start going to the booths and pick up devices so we don’t have to wait for everyone to come here.”
“Yes, ma’am!” AJ said before downing his drink and disappearing behind the back curtain with Stephanie and Todd. Sandra and David picked up checklists and meandered back out into the crowd, leaving Celia and Josh alone again.
“So what were you saying?” Celia tried again.
“Oh yeah.” Josh pulled the book out from under his arm a second time. “So anyway, about six months or so after… after, um…”
“Just after,” she finished for him.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “This book… it was really helpful. It’s not just about, you know, all that, but it has one section that—”
“Celia!” Stephanie hollered from behind the curtain. “This entire charging station isn’t getting any power!”
Celia briefly lifted her gaze to the ceiling in exasperation just as David returned wearing a look that told her there was an issue with one of the lead retrieval devices.
“Celia,” David said. “Beta Tech says their device isn’t showing any of their scans from today.”
Josh slipped the book under his arm and smiled with understanding and good humour. “This is a bad time. I’ll let you handle up.”
“Okay, I’m so sorry,” she said genuinely. “Can I try to find you later? I’d like to hear about the book.”
“Yeah, I’ll be around. I’m sure I’ll bump into you guys.”
The book. It’s a beautiful book. Right now, it’s sitting on the nightstand and Celia sets her phone back down next to it after checking the time. Her movement causes Josh to stir and he reaches for her, pulls her close to him, and she’s almost one hundred percent positive he’s merely acting on his subconscious, possibly his dreams, where he’s undoubtedly reaching for his wife.
“What time is it?” he murmurs, eyes still closed.
“Early,” she says. “Not even five yet.”
He hums and tilts his head, resting his cheek on her forehead, and his breathing becomes long and deep once again. Her ear is on his chest and she closes her eyes. Eleven months ago, she did this. Rather, eleven months ago, she stopped doing this. Her heart aches again for the umpteenth time that day, a tear spills onto his chest, and she lets herself pretend she’s listening to Micah’s heartbeat.
Earlier, when her team had been securing everything for the night, they kept running post-work plans by her, and Celia couldn’t help noticing she wondered about how conducive each idea would be to bumping into Josh. And then, of course, she couldn’t help wondering about her own motivation. Did she just want to hear about the book? Or did she suddenly have a thing for Josh? Josh, who’d barely registered in her mind prior to the Laney incident. Or was she just lonely? Attention and affection starved? And if that was the case, was that really the best idea? After all, even if she did suddenly have a thing for him, he clearly still had a thing for his wife. The face and behavior of a person whose grief is still open and raw is distinctive and Josh’s person was riddled with it even three years after the fact.
No, Celia told herself repeatedly as she followed her group through the casino. No, no, no, in time with the chimes and jingles of slot machines. No… no… no… with each of sip of her martini while she sat with her colleagues around a blackjack table.
She doesn’t even play blackjack. It’s always just a place to be so she doesn’t have to be by herself. She gets enough of that at home and she still doesn’t like it. The conferences are a good escape from reality, which was why, after she returned from her leave of absence, she asked for an increase in her workload. Now, she manages and travels to three conferences each month, which, truthfully, borders on too much work. She constantly feels like she’s on the cusp of either dropping the ball or losing her sanity completely.
As she pondered all of this, she thought again of Josh and the book. He said the book helped him, but he still seemed so sad. Maybe he’d been even sadder. Or maybe the book didn’t really help him, but he thought, maybe, it could help her.
And then, as if thoughts had the ability to materialize people and things, her radio chirped inside her pocket. She pulled it out and saw the screen read, “Joshua D.” She placed it next to her mouth and pressed the button, telling herself the call was likely work-related.
“You don’t have to call me that.”
“Sorry. Is something going on?”
“Are you busy?”
“Not at all.”
“Want to meet me somewhere?”
Actually, yes, she wanted to say. “Sure. Where?”
“Are you staying at the Venetian or the Palazzo?”
“There’s a casino bar halfway between the lobby and the main escalator. It’s blue. Meet me there in ten minutes.”
It took longer than ten minutes to walk from the blackjack table in the Palazzo to the blue bar in the Venetian. While she was still a couple dozen yards away, she spotted him. He’d shed his tie, but still wore his jacket, and even from across the room she could tell he looked somber. In spite of that, he smiled cordially when she joined him.
“Celia,” he greeted her, offering his hand and she politely shook it before he gestured at one of the stools.
She sat, shifting slightly to face him and he sat as well. “Hi, Josh. How’s it going?”
“It’s going. Another long day.”
“Very long as usual,” she agreed.
He gestured at the shelves of bottles. “Whatcha drinking?”
“Maybe just a beer. I already had that wine earlier and a martini about a half hour ago, and at least one person on my team needs to show up tomorrow morning without a hangover.” Truthfully, she didn’t want to get drunk and do something stupid, like invite him up to her room. But apparently, she hadn’t needed to be drunk for that to happen.
Josh chuckled as he placed the order and then turned back to her. “Then you’ll be the only person on the entire event staff who’s not hungover. Maybe the only person at the event, period. You know how the attendees like to tie one on.”
“They certainly do, but hey. When in Rome, right?”
He gestured around the room grandly. “Or in Venice.”
She laughed, feeling more than a bit appalled at the fact she found him to be concerning levels of cute. That was both old and new. Old, because the last time she’d thought about a guy as being cute was way back in college, and then she married him. New, because of the same reason. And whether it was the old or the new, or simply because it was different, she felt a stab in her heart and suddenly longed fiercely for the wedding rings back home in her jewelry box. Or more specifically, the man who’d given them to her.
The bartender set down the bottles and Celia suddenly couldn’t decide whether to down hers and then politely leave or feign fatigue and excuse herself right away. She felt her eye rims begin to prickle and hastily took a sip in an effort to wash down the lump in her throat. As she did, she noticed Josh picking at the label on his bottle with his thumbnail, which caused his wedding band to reflect flashes of the blue neon lights into her eyes, and she wondered what on earth they were both doing there like this. It suddenly felt like an emotional affair, because the both of them were clearly still emotionally unavailable. That is, if that was even what they were doing there. What was this? She didn’t know, she was afraid to find out, and subsequently wanted to evaporate into the air along with all of the cigarette smoke that hung in the atmosphere.
“You look like you did earlier,” Josh said, shaking her out of her thoughts.
“What do you mean?”
“When Laney was laying you out, you had that same look on your face.”
She closed her eyes briefly as she shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just having a day.” She paused. “Still having a day, I guess.”
“I hear you,” he said, leaning into his elbows against the bar. “Do you ever notice they seem to practice age discrimination in this industry?”
She crinkled her brow. “Not really. I feel like there’s more of a problem being a woman. The events industry is a total boys’ club. If I’ve had any problem, it’s been with not being taken seriously because I’m not one of the guys. I’ve had event managers walk right past me to talk to guys on my staff because they assumed they were in charge.”
“I guess I’ve seen that too.”
“And,” she added, “it’s what makes women act like Laney. This morning isn’t the first problem I’ve had with her, and she’s not the first woman I’ve had a problem with.”
“That’s sort of the same thing I deal with constantly. People will go over my head when they don’t like an answer I’ve given them or whatever. And it’s actually pretty hard to go over my head. Within the convention arm of the Sands, there’s really only two people above me and they don’t really give a shit about what these clients typically want to whine about. But clients have trouble hearing no from someone younger than them, even though I basically run all of this,” he said, flipping his hand in the air.
She smirked to herself before taking another sip. “Big man on campus. I feel so sorry for you.”
“I don’t need you to feel sorry for me,” he said defensively. “I’m just saying I hate my job sometimes. I busted my ass to get to this position and people still walk all over me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. That’s exactly what I deal with, too. It’s annoying and it’s just the way things are, and there’s not really anything anyone can do to change it,” she said, absently patting his hand. He glanced at their hands and then at her face, and she pulled away.
“Sorry. I’m too touchy-feely. It’s not really appropriate.”
“It’s okay. That wasn’t inappropriate.”
“Well, I’m sure if Laney saw it, she’d think otherwise.”
“Laney’s just not happy. Not everyone has a great marriage.”
“That’s really sad,” Celia said before pursing her lips and turning her gaze toward the shelves of bottles. “I had a great marriage.”
He nodded as he sipped his beer. “So did I.”
“Not that we never had our problems,” she added. “Everyone has problems sometimes. The difference is how you deal with it.”
“Exactly. When we’d have a fight or something, we wouldn’t go to bed without resolving it. That was a rule she insisted on since the very beginning. Never go to bed mad.”
“Oh yes,” she said enthusiastically, turning to him again. “We had that rule too. And sometimes we’d be up until all hours of the morning hashing through stuff.”
“Yup. The major fight we seemed to have was about kids. There was a period of time when we lost a lot of sleep over that one.”
Celia lifted her eyebrows. “You have kids?”
“No, and that was the thing. I wanted kids and she was always on the fence. As time passed, she decided she didn’t. She was really career-driven. Not a workaholic, just ambitious. And like you were saying, it’s sometimes harder for women to get promoted specifically because of things like having kids. Taking maternity leave and all that. She didn’t want to do that. And I was always saying, but what about beyond our careers? Someday we’re going to be old and we won’t be able to devote all this time to work or traveling or hiking, and what’s going to happen when we’re really old and one of us dies? The other one would just be alone.” He paused, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth while he picked at the label again. “We’re both only children and we’re not really close with our parents and our jobs don’t really lend themselves well to cultivating close friendships. I was constantly saying we needed something more, and truthfully it was because I hated the idea of her being totally alone one day. I was older, and I was the man, and for some reason I always believed I’d be the first to go. But she said I worried too much. And now I’m the one who’s alone in a Vegas casino bar on my anniversary.”
He cast a sad sidelong glance at Celia. “It’s pathetic.”
“Well,” she said, lifting her shoulders slightly, “I’m alone in a Vegas casino bar too. Because I am a workaholic, and I’m a workaholic because I don’t want to be alone in my empty house. All I have is my job, too. So I guess that makes me pathetic also.”
He let his chin sink into his palm while he stared at his beer, so she stared at hers.
“We were planning to have kids,” she said, mostly to herself. “I was concerned about work too, so I wanted to put a good five to seven years in at my company. I’d been reading all of these articles about how pregnancy in your thirties isn’t as bad as everyone seems to believe. It’s actually better to be more established in your work and finances and stuff, and in your thirties you’re more emotionally prepared for parenthood because you’re more mature. So we said we’d start trying after my thirtieth birthday.” She pressed her lips together as she swallowed and then took a deep breath. “I turned thirty four months ago. And it just came and went. No more husband. No pregnancy. Nothing. Except for work. Pathetic indeed.”
“Maybe pathetic is the wrong word,” he finally said. “Maybe it’s just sad.”
She nodded. “Sad. Yeah.”
That time, he was the one who placed his hand on hers and she decided he was right. It wasn’t inappropriate. Or if it was, that didn’t seem to matter because right then what she wanted more than anything in the world was someone to hold her hand. And maybe that’s what he wanted more than anything too, and maybe that’s why he did it. And maybe they weren’t the people they each wanted to be holding hands with, but they each were the only person there for and with the other.
“Not how I pictured ‘til death do us part,” he muttered.
He said it quietly enough that she knew he wasn’t talking to her, rather just saying it because he needed to. She wondered which anniversary this would have been for them. How many years ago had they said that to each other? She and Micah had said it about seven and a half years ago, and she had to agree. This wasn’t what she pictured either. Not that she’d really pictured it. But when saying it, a quick mental picture flashed in her mind. Old and gray. Maybe in bed together. At the same time, of course, even though that wasn’t realistic.
Josh rubbed his thumb over hers and she had a sudden realization that this was exactly what ‘til death do us part looks like. If their souls left the earth at the same time, would they really be parted from one another? She didn’t believe that. Death do us part meant one leaves before the other. And that’s what happened.
Her breath hitched in her throat, but it was concealed by a stomach-pounding thud of bass from the speakers in the bar and an auto-tuned voice repeatedly booming the words, “Welcome to Las Vegas!” The kicker was when the cocktail waitresses all climbed onto the bar and began twerking only a couple of feet from where she sat.
“Okay,” she said, pulling her hand away. “I think I need to call it a night.”
“Yeah,” he agreed as he stood with her. They stepped out of the raucous bar, heading toward the escalator and when they reached it, she turned to him to say thank you or goodnight, but he spoke before she could. “Want me to walk you to your room?”
Was that a loaded question? Possibly, but she still said, “Sure.”
The elevator ride was silent as she continued to ponder the question, continued to wonder what exactly was happening between them, or if there even was something happening between them, and if there was, how she felt about it. All of the questions in her mind returned unanswered. And yet, when they stood next to her door, she looked at him and he looked at her, and his eyes were so sad, and she found herself asking another question, but this time she asked it outloud.
“Do you want to come in?”
Why? Why had she asked that? And why would he come in? She tried to tell herself this is what single thirty-something year old adults did. Especially in a place like Las Vegas. That was part of the reason there are so many relationships and marriages amongst people in their industry. People came to Las Vegas for a week at a time several months out of the year and they saw the same people and found companionship with those people. But this wasn’t exactly like that, because she and Josh weren’t single. Not really. Single meant unattached. She and Josh weren’t exactly unattached.
Nevertheless, after a hesitation, he gave a single nod. “Sure.”
Inside the room, Celia slipped out of the jacket of her skirt suit, draped it over the chair at the desk in the corner, and turned to face him in a way that she felt was blatantly expectant. Expectant of what, she wasn’t sure, but she was suddenly very nervous, as if she’d irrevocably signed up for something that she wasn’t convinced she wanted.
He crossed the room with distinctive intention, holding her gaze, and stopped right in front of her. He stood there for a moment and she was sure she looked terrified. And maybe that’s why he didn’t kiss her, rather slipped off his own jacket, draped it next to hers, and pulled a book—the book—out of the inside pocket.
He held it against his chest and said, “Let’s read this. I think you’ll like it.”
She nearly passed out from relief. “Okay.”
They stepped out of their shoes and sat on the bed next to each other, propped against the headboard, and he held the book between them.
Kahlil Gibran’s Masterpiece: The Prophet.
“This is basically a collection of philosophical poems about some of life’s great experiences and other facets of the human experience. Love, marriage, joy and sorrow, freedom, friendship, children, death,” he said. “At our wedding, Misty read the passages about love and marriage. And so reading it on our anniversary became an unofficial tradition of ours. You know, to remind us of what we had promised each other and signed up for. After she died, I couldn’t even look at it for about six months. But when our first anniversary after that came around, I was so desperate for something. Just some kind of connection to what we had that I picked it up again. I sometimes read the whole thing, but at the very least I always read the sections on love, marriage, and death.”
“Is it a religious book?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s just about life. It doesn’t really tell you right from wrong, or what to do. It just makes you think.” He opened it, flipped to a page, paused, and glanced at her. “May I?”
And he began to read:
“Then Almitra spoke again and said, And what of Marriage, master?
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
You shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of heavens dance between you.”
As he read, Celia picked up a pillow, pressed it to her mouth, and drew her knees to her chest. Her mascara smudged on the pillowcase and she turned her face toward the opposite wall. But he continued to read. His voice was quiet and held just a hint of fragility. He read for several minutes until he stopped and she was still wiping her eyes on the pillowcase. They sat in silence for a while until she spoke without even thinking, not really even to him.
“That is so beautiful.”
“Yeah,” he said, quieter and more fragile. Silence resumed for several more minutes when Josh reached for a tissue from the box on the nightstand and handed it to her.
“I really wish,” she started to say and her breath hitched. “I wish I’d known about that book. I wish I could read it to him.”
He nodded. “I wish she could read it to me. She always did.”
“What anniversary is this?”
“It would’ve been number twelve.”
She reached for his hand and he not only let her hold it, but also slipped his fingers between hers, interlacing them together.
“Happy Anniversary, Josh.”
“Thank you, Celia.”
Silence resumed for another beat or two, when he broke it by speaking quietly. “Want me to read from the beginning?”
And he did. And that’s the last thing she remembered before waking up at 4:45 to check the time, when she suddenly found herself with her head on his chest and his cheek resting on her forehead. When she fell asleep to the sound of his heart while pretending it was that of her husband.
The next thing she knows, a hand is stroking hers and she peels her eyes open to see a desert sunrise.
“Celia,” he is saying. “Celia. Celia, it’s almost seven. I have to get going and you probably do too.”
She sits up and sees he’s once again wearing his jacket and shoes, but now he’s also wearing splotches of smudged mascara just to the left of the white shirt’s buttons. She wonders if she should try not to think about the fact that he slept in here. Thinking about it too much would surely complicate something that wasn’t really complicated. She tells herself there are worse things. Worse things like kissing him or sleeping with him in the other sense of the phrase. Somehow, it seems what actually did happen between them in her hotel room last night was far more intimate than those things. And that is what she definitely needs to avoid thinking about.
She walks him to the door and he pauses just outside, facing her.
“I was kind of having a terrible day yesterday and… um,” he starts to say, but settles for, “Thanks for humoring me.”
“If I humored you, then you humored me, so thanks for that.”
He cracks a smile and then leans down to kiss her cheek as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, but it doesn’t feel that way and his faces suddenly says as much. Her eyes dart back and forth between his eyes and his lips and for a second she wonders, but then he drops his gaze to the floor.
“Have a good day, Celia,” he says to the carpet as he turns and starts down the hall.
“You too,” she says, barely loud enough for him to hear, but it seems he hears her anyway because he abruptly stops and returns.
He stands in front of her again and holds the book out, but she can’t bring herself to take it.
“I’ve read this so many times that I’ve memorized it,” he says. “I want you to have it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Completely. This isn’t the original copy I’ve always had, it’s just the one I carry with me.”
Hesitantly, she takes it from him and holds it against her chest. “Thank you.”
He nods and turns to head back down the hall, and she wonders if that’s it. If that was the extent of their emotional affair. But when he reaches the corner at the end of the hall, he pauses again as he glances back at her.
He smiles. And she wonders.
If you liked this story, let me know! If I get enough interest, I’ll write the full novel