artwork for Cezarija Abartis's story

Cezarija Abartis

Caroline had packed the bottle of merlot in her carry-on luggage. She needed to make a quick connecting flight, so she didn’t check a suitcase. It was only for a weekend.

The airport’s climate control was steady. Not too hot, not too cold, she said to herself. Thanks, Goldilocks. But she didn’t feel as if she were in a fairytale. The cab had dropped her off at the airport, yet she felt like a heretic being led to the stake. She pushed her hair back from her hot forehead and patted her skirt. What kind of adulteress goes to a rendezvous wearing a frowzy pleated skirt and long-sleeved sweater that she now noticed had pilling? She wore it because her mother had given it to her for her fortieth birthday last year. She had another sweater, soft and blue, in her carry-on, wrapped around the contraband bottle.

Officially, she was going to visit her mother. But really, it was for Lenny. She knew she shouldn’t be seeing him, yet here she was. Adulteress, she said to herself. Sinner. Taking pleasure in what? Driven by something no more consequential than a sneeze. Well, it did have consequences. Could. Lovers had babies. But she was on The Pill: there would be no babies. Homewrecker. She winced at the old-fashioned word. She had almost forgotten that term. Well, nobody knew, so she and Lenny were safe.

She scrubbed her hands in the airport restroom sink and watched the soapy water circling around the drain. She rinsed her hands, keeping the faucet on until the water ran clean.

If her mother knew, she would scold, would call her something worse than “homewrecker.” What could be worse? Adulteress. Sinner. Slut. Damned.

That was her own voice. Probably her mother would turn away, her shoulders hunched, and sigh.

Cosi fan tutte, Italians said. Everybody does it. Until Lenny, she had never had an affair—and certainly not with a married man. She had assumed at first that he was happily married. She shook his hand at the wedding reception—warm, dry palm; freckles high on his cheekbones; silky hair flopping to one side. He was not even that tall. They were at the wedding of mutual friends, eating small bites of vanilla cake from small plates.

“Come here often?” she asked.

“Not often,” he answered seriously. His eyes traveled around the room, but he was not looking for someone better to talk to; he seemed to be appraising her question, examining the bright wedding hall, the laughing guests clinking their champagne glasses together, leaning into each other, everyone enjoying being here.

She’d wanted him to say, “All the time,” or “Only when Don gets married.” Something like that.

He smelled of soap. She imagined she smelled the candle wax of Easter Mass. He wore a wedding ring, but she wondered if he had come alone. He later told her that his wife was visiting her crisis-prone brother. Nothing serious, but Becky had wanted to be there. They had agreed on it. “I mean, he’s an addict and that’s serious, but he’s been in rehab before.” He put his hand up. “OK, I’m telling you more than you want to know.”

Caroline wondered if Lenny was a heartless man because he didn’t go to comfort and support his addict brother-in-law. He came to this celebration, away from his wife and her troubled brother. Perhaps Lenny was shy or repressed or perhaps he despaired of converting an addict. He bowed his head uncomfortably and excused himself to congratulate the bride’s parents. After a few minutes, Caroline sauntered over, but he left to shake hands with the groom’s parents. She curled one hand into her palm and stood posed in front of the bride’s parents speaking the expected compliments. “Your daughter is beautiful. The wedding is beautiful. The ceremony was beautiful.”

They beamed. The father bobbed his head several times, awkward and proud. “We feel lucky to have her. She’s our baby girl. And now we’re sharing her with Don. Of course, we’re gaining a son.”

Don’s new mother-in-law wore a shiny pink dress that tulipped down to the floor. The dress was adorned with a giant corsage of spiky flowers pinned to the sequined breast.

Caroline pulled at her own dress, at the waist where it bunched around her plump middle. It was the brown flounced dress she'd worn to the divorce lawyer’s office, and Eric, avoiding her eyes, had slumped in his gray suit. He'd seemed ashamed even though they both had agreed to the divorce. Now across the hall, the bride floated in her white taffeta cloud, her debonair young husband at her side. The bride was a colleague from the ad agency. Caroline had been such a beauty once. But Eric now belonged to someone else. When she turned away, she bumped into Lenny’s shoulder and said, “Sorry.”

“It’s my fault. I should watch where I’m going.”

The band started playing “My Favorite Things”—strange song for a wedding. She had always thought The Sound of Music corny.

“Would you like to dance?”

How did anybody dance to “My Favorite Things”? A waltz that sounded like a polka. But couples were in the middle of the floor, and she took Lenny’s hand.

She leaned into the safety of his chest. Her heart pounded. She had not realized she was afraid. Or perhaps she carried a sawtooth bayonet inside or a flaming sword. Did she think she was protecting the garden of Eden? She was afraid she could harm him. He was warm. She pulled away.

He let go of her hand. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” He drew his head back. They were at the same eye level.

“What? No.” She couldn’t suppose how he might have offended her, gentle as he was with his blue eyes and elegant in his white shirt.

That night they were in bed together, and the next night, and the next. It was quite a thing they had. She thought it was just the wedding and she’d never see him again. But here she was flying to Pittsburgh, where he was attending a conference, to the city of her youth where her mother still lived. Caroline would break away from her mother to fornicate with this married man at his hotel. Adulterate? Had she no shame? Her mother would wonder about Caroline’s spending so much time out of the house but she would accept what Caroline said. Caroline would have to think up a plausible lie.

She had anticipated goodness when she was young, had aimed at being a saint, even though she remembered that a vague sense of guilt had permeated her First Friday Confessions. And now, here she was.

A teacher friend of hers had said she didn’t understand why students plagiarized when they would easily and certainly be caught. Caroline thought they didn’t mean harm, didn’t mean to steal. They just felt their own efforts would never be good enough.

She dabbed perfume on her wrists and sniffed the still-sharp smell sliding across her pulse point. Lenny had said his wife didn’t love him, was on the way out of the marriage. Surely, Caroline was not an unforgivable person. Maybe she could stop, should stop, end the affair. Mary Magdalene reformed, was forgiven. Lots of saints were once sinners.

But she wanted to give Lenny her heart. She imagined she was a beauty of 21 again, no divorce behind her, no Eric, no endings. How glorious. How perfect.

She stood in the TSA line and lifted her carry-on onto the conveyor belt. It didn’t weigh much even with the bottle of cheap wine. She had drunk a similar wine the night before, when she finally decided to see Lenny again. She must’ve known it wouldn’t pass through TSA. She knew the rules. No liquids.

The carry-on rolled on the conveyor belt and the worker, a large man with a belly, scanned it on the X-ray machine. He asked her to step aside and lifted her bag to a counter, unzipped it, and paused his gloved hands over her swirled clothes. “Anything sharp?” he asked. She shook her head and picked at loose fuzz on the sweater sleeve. He studied the screen, bent closer, and with a polite face, pulled the wine out from her clothes, straightened up and explained that nothing over three-point-four ounces was allowed. He gave her a choice: she could have it confiscated, or take it back to her driver, or put it in her checked luggage.

“No,” she said. She didn’t have checked luggage. No driver was waiting here. She took the bag from the counter; it felt lighter.

The loudspeaker told her to get in line for her flight. She pulled the carry-on behind her. One wheel clattered on the hard tiles.

She walked past another TSA worker, a wilted blonde about her age, sitting at the end of the conveyor belt, who said, “I could use a drink—we’re not supposed to keep it.” The woman looked longingly as the man with the paunch carried the bottle away.

Caroline said in a low voice, “It’s not opened.” She was trying to seem innocent, but her forehead tingled with heat and embarrassment. She jerked the carry-on to straighten out the wheel.

The blonde shifted on the plastic chair. It creaked. She rubbed her face and lips. “We’re not allowed to keep it. They’ll just pour it down the drain. It’s a shame.”

Caroline moved toward the gate and said under her breath, “Everything is a shame.”

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 48 | The Shame Issue | Spring/Summer 2016