Soft jazz rippled through the air, warmed by the fake fire emanating from the electric foyer. It smelled like pumpkin spice, thanks to the scented candle that was lit atop. Together, they casted a warm orange colour on the woman huddled underneath a white throw. Absorbed, she bit the skin on her right thumb as she read. Her mug filled with pomegranate tea sat on the table, cold and forgotten.
She shivered when a gust of air from the slightly open window blew in. It was raining that night, adding a hint of wet soil to the sweet smell.
Her cell phone rang noisily.
“Lina, baby, how are you?” Her husband’s voice sounded tired, despite his efforts to appear joyous.
“I’m okay, just reading, and you? Are you done work?”
“Yeah just about so for the day. Listen baby, I don’t think I’ll be able to come back tonight after all. There are changes coming, and I need to get ahead. I’ll grab a plane the second I get out of here tomorrow.”
She could hear him shuffle papers around.
“It’s okay babe. Have you eaten yet?” She reached for her mug and brought it to her lips. When the cold tea touched her mouth, she scrunched her nose, in that particular way that had charmed Hamza when they had begun meeting years before.
“Uhh not yet.” She heard the zipper of his messenger bag being drawn. “Going out with a couple of guys from the office to a pub down the street.”
“Sounds fun. I think I’ll go to bed soon, so I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I’ll message you when I get back to the hotel room. Good night, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
The air was heavy with sweat. The techno music from the loudspeakers was barely audible under the grunts and screams of the people in the boxing gym.
“Com’on Lina - jab, jab, dab.” Each hit stung, even through her gloves. Her coach shouted, she followed obediently.
“Let’s stop for today. Go stretch.”
Water rolled off her back, her brow. One drip dropped on her lips, her sweat was salty and bitter.
“Can you go for another half hour, Ben?”
Her coach analyzed her from behind the punching bag.
He nodded. “Just 30 minutes, Lina.”
And they continued their dance.
She sat at the bar of the restaurant a block away from her gym, freshened up and changed into a dress purchased earlier that week meant for a dinner with friends that weekend. But, if no one saw her wearing it, that meant she could wear it again days later.
The restaurant was lush with fake plants that looked very real. Maybe they were.
Ages ago, Adelina would have come with her sister, and then conversations with strangers were easy to start thanks to their similar appearances. That was how she had met Hamza.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked her.
She stumbled, fumbled with the drink menu. He chuckled. “I’ll give you a minute to think.”
A businessman sat two seats down from her. She could tell he was from out of town because he had not brought a jacket. It was 4 in the afternoon - still sunny and warm outside for a thick sweater. But as night would fall, the weather would considerably chill and the man would regret his omission.
That, and he had a stricken up a conversation with the sommelier in a Southern French accent.
“Made a choice?” the bartender smiled.
“I’ll have a Cosmo, please.” She was 18 again.
The counter was fake marble. Real marble chips away, and is triple the price, she noted mentally. Running her hand over the smooth surface, she risked another glance at the businessman. He had ordered a bottle of wine by himself.
He must have sensed she was staring. He looked up at her and smiled.The man wasn’t particularly good looking to warrant such a reaction. Adelina just wanted to in the moment. And so, instead of looking away politely, she smiled, with her entire body and took a sip of her drink.
Under the counter, her fingers toyed with her marriage band. It slipped through and fell to the floor. When she bent to pick it up, without a second thought, she slipped the band in the pocket of her purse.
Oddly appeased by her weightless hand, she sat upright, as if she had dropped heavy luggage, slightly stretching her tired muscles.
But when the bartender approached her again, a glint in his eyes, she recoiled. That light feeling had lasted only a second before the weight came back, doubled by the guilt of her minor action.
“Anything else?” She shook her head no and mumbled for the check.
The reusable grocery bag hung heavy by her side. She propped it against her hip, holding it like one would a toddler, and dug her hand into her purse. She shuffled things around until she felt the cold metal of her keys.
As she opened the door, the mailman ran up the short flight of stairs to her house.
“Bonjour Mme Mykene! J’ai quelques colis pour vous.” He handed her one small-sized box and another larger one along with several letters: her latest online shopping trip. “Voila.”
She dropped the grocery bag inside the house and quickly grabbed the packages. “Merci, bonne journee.”
He waved at her, “bonne journee!”
She closed the door behind her with her leg, staring at the brown boxes. The short time the door had been opened was enough to chill the air in the living room. Coat still on her back and groceries left by the door, she sat on the floor, in front of the new vintage coffee table she had picked alone two weeks before.
Key still in hand, she used it to rip open the boxes. The smaller one contained two books: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches and Agatha Christie’s Nemesis. She brought the latter to her nose. As she flipped the pages, she breathed in the smell of the new book. Undiscovered stories and their endless possibilities filled her with happiness and a sense of belonging. She hadn’t always been the avid reader she was now. Adelina had always enjoyed books, but she had only started using them to escape after getting married, as Hamza was often away on business trips. They kept her company, rain or shine, and helped her ride out the often long otherwise empty days.
At some point during her marriage, it had become a game for her. How long could she go without feeling the physical ache of not seeing him, not feeling him next to her? As life got busier, as they both got used to it, one day became three. One fateful week, she had not seen the time pass. He had appeared, hugging her, before she had time to miss him.
Then the game changed. What could she do to miss him quicker? That was when her favourite genre switched from murder mysteries to romance. The house had filled up with candles, sweet songs, and nights of romantic comedies that she hoped would make her long her own significant other.
She set her two new companions on the bookshelf by her self-proclaimed couch where her reading plaid rested. Her tea and book from the night before had been left on the table. She picked up the mug as well as the grocery bag and made her way to the kitchen.
Before unloading the contents, she propped up her iPad and opened a messenger app. She called her sister - it was 5pm in Dublin finally.
The first ring didn’t have the time to resonate. Her sister’s voice rang clear in her kitchen. “Adee! Adelina, how are you?”
It almost felt like Ellie was sitting at the counter, ready to talk about the latest ordeal in her life.
“Ellie, Elena! I’m okay. And you? Where are you?”
Her sister’s face was a bit flushed. There seemed to be a lot going on behind her. Ellie wore headphones and talked in the microphone, but Adelina could still hear the voices around.
“At a pub! We went for drinks after work. Here Max says hi!” She panned her phone to her right to reveal her coworker, smiling from ear to ear and waving a pint of beer. Adelina shyly waved back. “So, what’s going on? I saw you called last night! All’s good?”
“Yeah, I was just feeling a bit lonely.”
Her sister understood. “When’s he coming back?”
“Tonight he said.” She paused and stared at her sister drinking from a pint of Guinness. “I feel like I should join you in your drinking.” Lina opened the door of the wine cellar (this one she and Hamza had shopped around for) and, without looking, took out a random bottle. Hamza filled the cellar with wines he meticulously picked. Most were good, some were interesting.
She only noticed the wine was white when the content was in her glass. Her sister raised an eyebrow. “Lina is getting wild tonight! Or should I say, today?”
Adelina raised the glass to the tablet’s camera. “Cheers!”
“Big plans for the evening?”
“I was just going to prepare supper, make some dessert. I was thinking panna cotta. And… yeah, read until Hamza flies in.”
“Adelina, ever the dutiful wife! Don’t know how you do it. By the way, did you order something for me online? Lonan told me I got a package today.”
“Yes, hope you like it! Take pictures. Anyway, I should let you go. Enjoy your evening! Call me tomorrow!”
“Love you, Adee-Adelina!” Ellie blew kisses at the camera and hung up. Adelina’s kitchen, and in turn, her whole house, was yet again plunged into silence. She connected her phone to the sound system. Frank Sinatra serenaded her as she unpacked the groceries.
Night fell, quickly too. The food she had cautiously prepared had already been wrapped and placed in the fridge. The panna cotta untouched.
Adelina slept. She had fallen asleep reading. In the shuffles of her slumber, she had ungraciously kicked the book out of bed.
A creak resonated, still she slept. The front door opened to darkness and lingering smells of a dinner. Hamza, shivering, quickly closed the door behind him.
He walked into his house, setting his black carry-on by the stairs. With agile movements, he unwrapped the scarf around his neck, folded it in two and hung it on a hanger. His coat was treated with the same dignity.
The bedside light was still on when he entered the bedroom. The book in the pictures was sprawled open on the floor by the foot of the bed. Adelina was curled up on one side. Hamza picked up the book and placed it on the bedside table. He turned off the light.
And he curled up next to Adelina, wrapping his arm around her. He felt her body relax and warm into him.
He sighed. A faint smile drew on her face.
He was finally home.
The next morning, Hamza woke up to the smell of buttery crepes and freshly brewed coffee. It was 8:30. He had slept in, Lina had apparently not.
He quietly walked behind her, and wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Good morning lovely,” he nuzzled his face in the crook of her neck.
“Good morning to you. How was your flight?” She moved quickly, flipping the thin crepe and filling a white mug with Turkish coffee.
“Pleasant.” He brought the mug to his nose; the rich smell tickled all his senses. That first sip warmed him against the colder fall weather that permeated. “Are you feeding an army?”
“Well, I don’t get to feed you very often. Got to make sure you don’t run away,” she stuffed a sweet crepe in his mouth. The lemon drizzle mixed in invigorated him.
“Impossible. Where would I run off to?” He stole another one from the plate.
“The home of one of your many mistresses.”
“None of them cook as well as you.” He joked.
She tapped his arm. He grabbed her, pulling her to him a bit too forcely, almost spilling the coffee. “I missed you,” he whispered with a low growl.
Before she registered, his lips were on hers, eager, too eager for her. But she relinquished. It was part of the welcome back package. A part of the game she usually happily played.
Breakfast. Sex. Groceries. Meeting with friends. Sex - maybe? Sleep. Brunch with his parents. A walk, maybe the museum or a movie. Dinner with her parents. Early flight out for Hamza.
And that was exactly how the weekend had gone. Except that Saturday, she had hosted the dinner for their friends. She wore that dress. Hamza complimented her. She smiled a smile that never reached her eyes.
When she felt her husband leave the bed, then the bedroom, then the house that early Monday morning for another five days, she felt as she hadn’t the last several weeks - sad.
The cold seeped through the empty spot he had left. She drew the covers closer to her body, curling up. And laid there awake, staring at the blank wall, breath cut short. 5 days of gearing up to miss him. 5 days of ramping up the angst to do it all over again.