Reply and Destroy

Steven Ostrowski

Lauren caresses her elbow. She touches her right cheekbone. Wherever she touches herself, the skin feels sensitive and charged. I would drive through this blizzard just to kiss you. She stands up from the dining room table, leaving Matt’s email undestroyed, and walks to the front window. Still five feet away, she feels the cold air. Outside, snow blows sideways: everything’s covered in a thick foam of white. The gusts, muted by the walls and glass, sound like a gossip party for ghosts.  

It was his idea that they use emails, not texts, and that they respond as immediately as possible and then delete—or, rather, “destroy.” Cautious and reckless, that’s Matt Hollinger. At first, Lauren resisted the “destroy” part; it was exciting to reread messages that made her heart pound and her cheeks burn, that filled her mind with fantasies of some wildly different kind of life. 

He’ll be waiting for her to reply, but how could he even think they could get together tonight, even if she were willing? He should know that Chris would be home at this hour–at least under normal circumstances. And the kids, too, though it happens that they’re both at sleepovers.

She wraps a strand of her hair around her finger, stares at the white obliteration. She isn’t some evil person. Any woman—any woman who is honest with herself, who finds herself wanted this badly by a man so handsome and sexy and smart and successful—would feel exactly the same way. Yes, some women would deny themselves the thrill, the experience, but most wouldn’t have put up as much resistance as she has. In six months, she’s slept with Matt twice. She could be doing it every week—which is what he’s practically begging for.  

She walks toward the kitchen table, where her cell lies charging. Suddenly all the lights flicker. Don’t go out. There’s a generator in the garage, but Chris takes care of that kind of thing.

No text from him, no voicemail. Weird. He always lets her know his whereabouts, especially if he’s running late. Could he be stranded somewhere in the snow? But without his phone? Could he be so busy at work that he hasn’t had time to contact her? He always has time to contact her.

it was exciting to reread messages that made her heart pound and her cheeks burn; that filled her mind with fantasies of some wildly different kind of life.

Maybe he’s in one of his moods. The night after she admitted to him that, stressed and drunker than she’d realized, she gave in and had sex with someone she didn’t know (she couldn’t tell him it was his men’s league teammate), Chris stormed out of the house and stayed in one of those dumpy motels on River Avenue. He told her later that he’d spent the night slapping the walls of the shower, bawling his eyes out. She tried to explain how stressed she felt over Tanya’s spine issues, especially after the doctor told her that an operation with real risks was probably going to be necessary. And she’d had too many drinks, she tried to explain, more than she usually allowed herself. And he, Chris, had left the party because one of his important clients had called and needed to meet with him pronto or something about their case was going to go wrong. And Matt Hollinger offered to drive her home. Matt was a man she’d met before at parties and at a few hockey games and who she found incredibly attractive, smart, and in great shape. He was also super attentive to her, witty, and charismatic.

She puts her phone down on the counter, goes back to the living room. Chris is a good man, a good father, a hard worker. They’ve been together for a long time. It’s been fine. She has no complaints. It’s just that it starts to feel like nothing about the marriage is ever going to change. Lauren wants something to change; she wants to feel excited, wants to wake up in the morning with the prospect of an adventure on her mind. As a girl, she had the reputation of being daring and dangerous. Her friends called her “Wild Thing.” What happened to that girl? You see so many women who become jaded in their marriages. Going through the motions. Lauren doesn’t want to become that woman. It amazes her how Chris thinks—or thought—they had some storybook marriage. Didn’t he feel restless, too? Didn’t he fantasize about something, or someone, else? She didn’t think he did. And no, it wasn’t a storybook marriage, but for a long time it had been good enough. Before Matt, Lauren had never had an affair—if this even counts as one—but, truthfully, she’s always been just a tiny bit open to the possibility. And that doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her a person who wants a full, exciting life.  

The lights flicker, steady, then flicker again. Matt is waiting for her reply. If for some reason Chris were to not come home tonight, that man really would drive here through the blizzard. She smiles, imagining that the danger of it would only whet his appetite, make the whole secret, thrilling adventure even more thrilling.

For a kiss.   

She goes back to the counter and picks up her phone and composes a hasty text to ask Chris if he’s okay and when he plans to be home. A few minutes later, the phone rings.

“Hi, hon.” She works her voice for casual. “So, where are you?”

“On a highway in Massachusetts,” he says. His voice sounds deeper than usual. ‘Not moving. There are accidents everywhere.”

Massachusetts?” Her own voice amps up, despite herself. “Why are you in Massachusetts?”

“Do you want the truth?”

Ever since Lauren’s confession, Chris has used the word “truth” like a loaded gun. “Yes, Chris. I do.”

“’I do,’” he says. “Where have I heard those words before?”

“Stop. Just tell me why you’re on a highway in Massachusetts in a blizzard.”

“I’d planned to go to work this morning, but instead I drove right past the office and got on the highway. Only figured out where I was going when I crossed the border.”

He’ll be sure to let her know, again, that he can’t focus these days, that all he can think about is what happened and how it’s changed everything. Outside, tires squeal; there’s a thud.

“I went to see Lia,” Chris says.

“Lia?”

“Yes.”

“Lia Remowski? Your high school girlfriend? That Lia?”

“I needed somebody to talk to, Lauren. Whatever else she was, she was always a good listener. We became Facebook friends a few months ago; you know how they suggest friends for you? They suggested her. Though we’ve barely said a word to each other on Facebook, I did look at her profile and saw that she moved up here. And today I just…I drove here. What can I say, I’m desperate.”

Lauren hasn’t friended Matt. She doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s married and has a son. Nor that he plays on the same damn men’s hockey team as Chris. She says, “Those profiles can be really helpful, can’t they?”  

“I know you regret what happened, but I can’t get past it. It’s the fucking image stuck in my head. You fucking some guy you don’t even know. I…”

“You’re never going to forgive me, are you?” For not being afraid to take a risk. For the fact that I want to be excited about my life.

“Lauren, I have to be honest with you.”

Here we go. More recrimination. More heaping on of the guilt. “Go ahead. Be honest.”

“I slept with her.”

“What? What?”

“I slept with Lia.”

The phone drifts away from Lauren’s mouth.

“We drank a lot of wine, Laur. We got drunk. Just like you did that night. She convinced me that if we slept together, it would make you wake up and see what you stand to lose.”

“Did she?” Lauren says through a small cough.

“I tried to pretend she was you.”

“Oh, Christ, Chris.  Please.” Though she believes him. Chris would do that. He would.

“I betrayed you, Lauren. It feels awful.”

She hears another thud. The sound of his fist slamming the wheel? “I fucking betrayed you, Lauren. I hate that you betrayed me and then I go and do it to you.”

Shut up! Grow up. This is real life, for God’s sake. This is not about “betrayal.” This is about something that happens to people all the time in real life. I don’t care. I don’t care if you slept with her.

“Are you gonna say something, Laur?” His voice is barely audible. And there are sirens blaring in the background, too.  

She breathes in chilly air, murmurs, “I’m okay with it.”

“You’re okay with it?”

“Yes.”

“You’re okay with the fact that I had sex with Lia?”

Something about his incredulity chills her. “We’ll talk,” Lauren says. “But not now. You need to get off the highway and find a motel for the night so you don’t die out there. Or if you want, go back and spend the night with Lia.”

“You’re not serious.”

“She’ll be thrilled to have you back.”

His voice whispery and distant, Chris says, “Who are you?”

Lauren walks to the window. It’s just white fury. Their mailbox, she sees, has been knocked over. “I’m a woman who is trying to be reasonable, that’s who I am.”

“All the years, Laur. The kids. Building a life together…”

She listens to the sirens inside the phone, and to the gales beyond the wall. “Come home tomorrow when it’s safe. We’ll talk then.”

“You think it will be safe for me tomorrow, Laur? I don’t. What a mess we’ve made, huh?”

“We’re living our lives, Chris.”

“Well, we were. Bye, Lauren.”

“Damn you, Chris,” she says to the ended conversation. “Why can’t you just understand me?”

***

After a good cry, Lauren feels a little better. Standing beside the table, she rereads Matt’s email one more time, then types:

Guess what? Chris is away for the night and the kids are at friends’ houses. If you’re crazy enough to risk your life for one tiny little kiss, I’m here 😉 

With a quivering finger, she presses SEND.

She is not an evil person. She is a woman who won’t shut herself off to what’s new and exciting. It’s just that she wishes she could hear someone else say it, too. Just a little confirmation. She doesn’t have the kind of understanding friends who could empathize with her; they’re settled into predictable lives, they’d be scandalized, or pretend to be. Her older sister is judgmental and narrow-minded, just like their mother was.  

Don't forget to destroy.

What she would give to hear Chris say, I understand, Laur. This is the way life is. Attractions to other people happen. Having sex with another person is natural. It’s a sweet thing and it doesn’t have to hurt anyone else. I don’t blame you. I agree that it’s good to feel thrilled, alive, excited. I completely understand.   

She’s replied; now it’s time to destroy. As soon as she does, Matt’s next email appears in her inbox.

I wish I could, Lauren. But realistically, there’s no way I’d make it in this mess. Not without killing myself. (I don’t think you want that, right?) Besides, Sherri is home. She’d be beyond suspicious if I left the house tonight. Can we try for tomorrow when things clear up? I’m desperate to taste your lips again. Please! Tomorrow can’t come soon enough!!! No need to reply, I’ll email you in the morning. Don’t forget to destroy. 😉

She sits and with both hands touches her cheekbones. Sure. Of course. He’d be insane to drive in this. Besides, Sherri’s home. What would he say to her? Going out for milk, honey.

Who knows, maybe he’ll make love to her. Even couples on the rocks feel romantic on wintry nights like this.

Lauren’s head feels light, too loosely attached to her neck. What a night. She laughs, glances around the house. It feels so uncozy. She keeps expecting the power to go out at any time.

And Chris made love to his old girlfriend, and he may be headed back to her right now.

And that’s only fair, isn’t it? It is. It’s only fair.

Outside, gales roar and whine and pound the windows. The ghosts want in. For six months she’s been enjoying her life inside a bright, sizzling bubble of thrill and possibility. Don’t forget to destroy, he always says. And winks. God forbid she should forget to destroy. God forbid their spouses find out.

Lauren stabs the DELETE key. Okay, Matt? Message destroyed. Go enjoy your wife.

Another sustained flickering of the lights; again they steady themselves. Who cares? If they do go out, she’ll get a goddamn flashlight and go into the garage and figure out the generator and get them back on.

Steven Ostrowski is a fiction writer, poet and songwriter. His work appears widely in literary journals, magazines and anthologies. He is the author of three published chapbooks–two of poems and one of stories. A fourth chapbook, a poetry collaboration titled Seen/unseen, written with his son Ben Ostrowski, will be published in late 2017 by Cervena Barva Press.

Before the Razor

Inside the Creative Process of “Reply and Destroy”

The story “Reply and Destroy” is one of fifteen stories that form a kind of novel-in-stories. I’ve written multiple drafts of all fifteen stories, and have so far published three of them—“R&D” being the third. They are all, in one way or another, about infidelities, or rather, about the varieties of infidelity. “Reply and Destroy” is about infidelity in a blizzard.

The subject of infidelity fascinates human beings. It seems to provide inexhaustible subject matter. Like fingerprints, no two infidelities are alike. I think our fascination with infidelity is, spiritually and psychologically-speaking, much closer to our fascination with death than to our fascination with sex. Perhaps very, very secure people are not interested in the subject of infidelity. I’ve never been a very, very secure person. On most days, I’m just secure enough to be happy, grateful and awestruck.

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