Story Excerpt

The Seven-Day Itch

by Eve Fisher

Seven_Day_itch_HankBlausteinArt by Hank Blaustein

Carol sat up on the top deck of the cruise ship with a cup of coffee, watching the people below her disembarking and going on shore. Above them, mountains slashed with snow cut into an aching blue sky. Cool air, hot sun, dazzling light, and she had it all to herself.

Almost. Wyatt, one of the ship’s entertainers, had already stopped and chatted with her. Now he stood by the railing on the far side, smoking another cigarette, which accounted for his husky voice. Now here came Amanda Mason, running up the stairs. What was she doing up so early? Of course. She and Wyatt had to meet somewhere, away from husband Kent and Janice, Wyatt’s music partner.

Did she really want to watch them make out? Should she leave? Then again, this was a public place; she had a right to be here. But Wyatt was looking uncomfortable, and she and Russ had long agreed that one rule was to never embarrass or piss off the staff.

She went down the steps thinking about Wyatt’s last glance toward her. He’d been nervous, but why? Poor Wyatt, always getting hit on, and almost always by the wrong woman. The hazard of the performing arts. He must be tired of it by now.

Of course, it might be her. Russ had let him into a game back in Cadiz. (Once, and only once: “There he was, looking around the table for the sucker, and it was him the whole time.”) So Wyatt might be nervous that she’d tell Russ, and that Russ would tell Kent, not that Russ ever would do that. Not in a game. Not even at brunch.

 

Russ was power-brunching with Kent, Farley, Cameron, and Paul. The four men exuded wealth, power, strength, which took time and effort to achieve. At this time of the morning the image wasn’t entirely set. Dinner might be a gourmet’s delight, but breakfast was fiber, fruit, egg whites, and pills. Hands trembled. Eyes watered. “A quick run to the men’s room” was often done with a limp or a hobble.

After the table was cleared, they played cards. While the late night games in one of the suites were serious and silent, these were just to pass the time, and they talked freely about stocks, sports, and women.

Kent and Cameron had trophy wives. Farley was still with his first, although he sometimes cheated on sales trips and at conventions. Kent (Amanda was his third wife) was snide when Russ said that he was perfectly happy with Carol, but Cameron (married to stylish Nicole) went sentimental, and Paul (a widower, remarried to the exhausting thirtyish Jessica) had nodded and quit watching Russ’s hands every time he dealt.

Kent and Cameron were investment counselors, Farley an insurance salesman. They were all from Connecticut and had known each other for years. Paul was a quiet banker from California. Kent was said to be the wealthiest of the group, although Russ bet privately that Farley had the most actual liquid assets. Speaking of liquid, Cameron’s yellow skin and puffy face came from a day that began with a three–Bloody Mary breakfast. Farley and Paul were both obsessed with golf. Kent was a braggart, about everything from his wealth to his potency. Even his endless bitching about Amanda—expensive, wasteful, flirtatious—seemed more like bragging than complaint. He was also a know-it-all, who, when challenged, just kept on spouting. By now Russ doubted anything Kent said, and was glad that only cash was allowed at the late night sessions, even if it was sometimes inconvenient.

They were all amused that Russ was truly retired. In their world, a man stayed on forever as an advisor, because it provided extra income for very little work and there was no such thing as enough money. They were bewildered, and slightly envious, that Russ and Carol had no home, but lived on cruise ships.

“It’s no more expensive than a retirement center,” Russ explained, looking at his hand. “Of course, by now we get pretty good discounts.” The table rippled with discontent as each man wondered how much of a discount Russ got. “Three, please. We get gourmet food, maid service, housecleaning, entertainment, and world travel.” He took the three cards and smiled. “And good company as well.”

Everyone laughed uncomfortably. They knew that Russ wouldn’t and couldn’t have run in their circles back home, but here he seemed infinitely beyond them . . . How had that happened?

 

Janice also wondered about Russ. She was in the spa’s yoga class: On the left was a wall of mirrors, where she checked her pose and adjusted as needed. Janice loved anything that involved stretching or stamina, especially sex, which was one reason she didn’t have any fears about Amanda. Although she might have to take the bitch outside at some point ... Cheeks flushed, she rose up and spread her arms wide. She had to remember what Wyatt always said: Jealousy was for the weak. And she was strong, not weak. He was always right.

She glanced at Karen, next to her: the Pillsbury Doughgirl in Warrior Pose. Flexible for so much fat. Why didn’t she go on a diet? Why did Farley stay with her? People like Karen just made Janice mad: Anyone that size should have been replaced years ago, and it wasn’t right that she hadn’t. And Carol was another one, living the life that Janice should be living. Cruising year-round, in a suite, not having to do endless sets of corny country music for drunks, with that dashing riverboat gambler of a husband. How had Carol pulled it off? How did she rate? Unless, as Wyatt had suggested, maybe Carol had money. Maybe she was just another of Russ’s winning bets.

Well, someday she and Wyatt would have it all too. Someday he’d hit the big time, and Janice would be right there with him: graceful, flexible, accommodating, sensual, thin. Janice tucked herself into Crow and lifted. Practice made perfect.

 

Jessica also knew that it was important to stay slim and trim and athletic, which was why she was on the five-mile hike and kayak excursion with a group (mostly under thirty). It was refreshing not to have to hold back, to have people surge ahead of her naturally, easily. At the gourmet spread (billed as a picnic lunch), they sat by the water and discussed their careers. Jessica was doing a post-doc in psychology and discussed her latest idea, a study of sexual behavior on cruise ships.

“Of course, a lot of single people hook up the very first night because that’s why they come on cruises in the first place.” Everyone laughed. “But married people . . . my prediction is that it’ll turn out to be a classic bell curve. First through third or fourth days, looking around and establishing interest; fourth through sixth or even seventh, flirting.” Jessica didn’t say that she’d gotten the time line from Carol the first night they saw Amanda go after Wyatt. “That means that, on a seven-day cruise, all most married people do is flirt. But after seven days—which is why I’m going to call it ‘The Seven-Day Itch’—” another of Carol’s phrases, more laughter, “things get more heated. And then it splits between those who stick with flirting because it’s so hard to find the privacy for anything more.”

“Yeah. You can’t ask a husband to let you have the cabin for an hour or so the way you can ask a roommate.” More laughter.

“Exactly. Outside of a cabin, where do you find a really private place on a ship?”

Her companions started making suggestions. Most were inane, but some obviously knew their way around the omnipresent cameras. Those she wrote down, but not for herself: She was perfectly satisfied with Paul. No, she wanted to see if Amanda—now that they’d passed the key seventh day—would be stupid enough to move on from flirting. Really, Amanda gave second wives a bad name. She deserved whatever she got.

 

Nicole was starting to feel the same way, mostly because Cameron was using Amanda as an excuse to keep her on a tight leash. He had to know where she was going and with whom and where after that. And he checked! It was infuriating, and insulting to her loyalty, her love, and her basic intelligence.

That morning, Nicole told him—again—that if he kept this up, she was leaving. “I’m not Barbara,” she said, referring to Cameron’s first wife. “I have my own business. We signed a prenup. I don’t have to put up with this crap.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Cameron snarled. “I don’t beat you. I don’t hit you. I don’t do anything to you! I’m the one who’s being mistreated here. You ignore me. You don’t spend any time with me. You’re always off somewhere, God knows where, with God knows who. All you do with me is eat and sleep, and then you tell me you don’t have to put up with this crap?” Suddenly he lunged for her, but only to hold her as he sobbed, “It’s just that I’m so crazy about you. I can’t stand it if you’re not with me. I need you. I love you. You’re all I’ve ever wanted.”

Later, after sex, he left. Nicole showered, dressed, and went up to the top deck, where she sat with a Bloody Mary and a Greek omelet. Cameron had always been jealous, but it was getting worse, along with his drinking. Which was increasing the other? How much of it was business? Something was happening with Cameron’s clients, and Nicole wasn’t sure how much was Kent, whom she’d never trusted. But she knew exactly where Cameron was right now: down in that dark, smelly Captain’s Bar where he could smoke cigars and drink all afternoon. She had to get him to go to treatment.

 

Cameron had thought about treatment, but Kent had told him that would ruin him in the investment business.

“Word gets out, you’ll lose all your clients. This business is all about confidence. Once it’s gone, you’re gone.”

“So what do I do?”

“Cut down or quit, but don’t be a wimp about it.”

That was classic Kent, full of advice with a threat in it: If he went into treatment, Kent would leak the information and take his clients. And if his drinking increased, Kent would let everyone know and take his clients. And he had to listen to Kent: He was the one who’d gotten Cameron into the firm in the first place. Kent had been leading him, guiding him, pushing him, goading him since college. Back then, Kent had been his best friend. That was something else that had gone wrong, and Cameron couldn’t figure out how or why. It was to the point where thinking about any of it made him reach for another drink, which was another brick in the wall between him and safety, security, happiness . . .

He saw Russ and Carol walk by. Russ, who had a magic hand with the cards. Russ, who didn’t have a care in the world. Russ, cruising around the world forever with his middle-aged, average, undemanding wife. Russ, who had all the luck.

 

“Cameron’s in there,” Carol commented as they passed the Captain’s Bar. “Anyone with him?”

“Nope.”

Russ shook his head. “He’s a decent loser, but I’ll be glad when this cruise is over and he’s gone. You can never trust a drunk. They lose their cool at all the wrong times.”

“Two more weeks. I’ll be glad too. Not because of him, but the whole Bridges of Madison County thing his friend’s wife is doing.”

“Mmm. It is obvious. Kent must not mind very much.”

“Maybe not, but everyone else does.” Carol settled herself down in a comfortable armchair in the Tea Room. “Earl Grey, please,” she said to the waiter.

“The same, Agung,” Russ said. “Who’s everybody else?”

“Well, Janice for one. And that Nicole. Probably others. It sends up a disturbance in the atmosphere. Thanks, Agung. Uneasiness all around.” She looked up from buttering a scone. “Why do you say he doesn’t mind? They’re always fighting.”

“Because,” Russ said, “he hasn’t killed her yet.”

 

Kent kept telling himself that he didn’t mind, that he didn’t want Amanda anymore. She was his third wife, and he had an eye out for his fourth. Sometimes he admitted to himself that he might not be cut out to be married, but he liked having someone around twenty-four seven. And the only way to guarantee that was to marry them. With an iron prenup, of course. That way, when it was time—and he’d had Amanda for almost five years—he could get out clean.

But he did mind. A lot. The way Amanda had thrown herself at that aging cowboy . . . Sure, it would give him rock solid grounds for divorce, if and when the two got down to brass tacks. But it was also an insult. Wayne wasn’t that talented or good-looking. Some hot young tennis bum or yoga teacher he could understand. But this jerk? Wayne, Wheedon, Wyatt—that was his name. Yeah, and even his girlfriend wasn’t that good-looking. He could tell she was steaming about it. Maybe she’d raise hell, maybe he could get her to raise hell, make everything fall into place. He’d get a no-cost divorce, Amanda would be out on her keister, and Wygums would be out of a job.

Hey, a guy could dream. And maybe make it happen before he went nuts . . .

 

Five days across the Pacific, and people were getting restless. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2019. The Seven-Day Itch by Eve Fisher