One easy push and the door floated open. The light from their bedroom splayed in a wide V across the living room. Behind her, Mike snuffled in his sleep. Ahead of her, Mike’s cousin lifted his head from the sofa bed.
“Hey there,” he said.
The cousin’s bare arms and shoulders blossomed out of the sheets. Her heart flicked in her chest. Usually he was dressed at this time of night, clicking away on his laptop, the sofa bed still a sofa.
“Hey.” She tightened the sash of her bathrobe. Wished away the heat creeping into her cheeks. Stepped forward, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her so slowly, so gently, that even she couldn’t hear when it closed.
“I wanted a small bowl of cereal,” she said. “You know. My late-night habit.”
“Sure.” He smiled, broad and easy. “Don’t let me get in your way.”
She scooted around the sofa bed’s jutting end, its metal legs, stumbled against the coffee table they’d moved over to make room, landed in the duplex’s kitchen on one tottering foot. It was 11 p.m.
The bowls clattered as she pulled one from the shelf. The cereal boxes rustled as she chose among them. This was her home, after all. If he wanted to fall asleep earlier, he could always find somewhere else to stay.
Anyway, he’d be gone by the end of the week. Thank God.
“Did I wake you?” She spoke to the back of his head, the kitchen separated from the living room by a half-wall. “I’m sorry if I—“
“Naw.” He held up the phone in his hand. “I was just texting Helaine.”
She paused, about to pour the milk. Good, he still communicates with his wife. “What is it – 2 a.m. her time?” She dunked her spoon into the bowl.
“She gets insomnia, so I talk her through it.”
“Oh, I see.” Insomnia, among Helaine’s other issues. In her own marital sanctuary, not more than a few steps away, Mike snored his way into a second hour of slumber .As for her, she liked the night and its encompassing darkness more than she should.
“May I join you?” Somehow he’d materialized in the doorway, his heels on the living room carpet, his toes on the kitchen linoleum; his chest bare, his flannel pajama pants hanging from his hips. Every morning, he did fifty sit-ups and fifty push-ups. She could hear him, huffing and puffing, as she got dressed for work in the bedroom.
Now, she wished he’d wear a shirt. She did not know where to put her eyes.
“Of course.” She slid over to the breakfast table and sat down.
He made himself a bowl of cornflakes, and slipped into the chair across from hers. “So, what happened with that article you were writing? Did the developer ever call you back?”
He remembered her. Late at night, when she should be going to bed — or early in the morning, one foot out the door for work – she’d find herself talking to him. He’d catalog all the details in that head of his, then pull a snatch of it back out again later, like a card trick.
She shrugged, and answered the question. She witnessed her sentences flowing longer and more descriptive. Her arms embellishing. Damn if she wasn’t asking him about his screenplay, the one he’d been trying to sell, all over town. He was due to fly home day after tomorrow; but, he said, it looked like he had a lead or two.
“Do you think it would be possible to stay on another week?” He tilted forward, inching into the space between their cereal bowls. She pressed her shoulder blades against the back of her chair.
He said, “I think I might be ready to close this deal, you know?”
Mike would say yes, just like he’d done before. This was his cousin, and family trumped all discussion, such as what a grown man was doing, camping out on a sofa bed in L.A. for six weeks while his wife twiddled her thumbs back in Boston.
But he wasn’t asking Mike.
She clicked her nails on the tabletop. They were garnet red, just painted that morning.
“Nice manicure,” he said, as he reached out his own hand and slipped it underneath hers, lifting her fingertips from the table, forcing her to hold them still.
Oh, yes. Mmm hmm. This story, this sweet familiar story she had not lived for so long. The story of tingly firsts: the first time you locked eyes, the first time his breath puffed against your cheek, the first time his lips lay on yours. The first time you traded secrets.
Only he was her secret. And didn’t they have this unspoken pact: just flirt, no contact? Just so far, and no farther. Because his father was Mike’s mother’s sister. Because Mike placed this ring on her finger, and Helaine placed that gold band on his.
Apparently, no. Because – she knew, had known with growing certainty these past six weeks — he thought adult was a verb, and something other suckers did.
She snatched her hand back. His eyes opened wide, startled. He looked away, Down. The moment smashed to shards. But her life intact.
She stood up, the chair legs scraping against the linoleum floor. “I’ll – um – talk to Mike,” she said. “In the morning.” He had the decency to blush, but not, apparently, to offer to leave as planned. Apparently, she would have to finesse the delicate matter of removing him without revealing herself.
Then there was the indelicate matter of doing their dishes. He went and laid down on the couch. She rinsed the bowls, put away the cornflakes, cleaned up the mess they’d made.
Constance Sommer is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. This is her first published short story.