MUSCLES • by Cheryl S. Levinson

I watch my husband, Nick, lift weights at the gym. His muscles bulge, and I hear him grunting. Good pain, he calls it. His veins have become prominent from pumping iron. They form bluish highways under his skin.

I go to my aerobic class, where I step, squat and jump in the hopes of toning my lumpy body. Nick always peers at me through the floor-to-ceiling windows that separate the classroom from the rest of the gym. This morning is no different.

“You didn’t push yourself hard enough,” he says when the class disperses.

“Really, Nick?” I wipe the sweat off my forehead, even though I feel uncharacteristically cold.

He shakes his head, a familiar gesture. I imagine myself slapping him so hard that everyone around hears it and applauds.

My reaction is strange even to me. This is a man I am crazy for. This is a man I yearn to please, but I’ve failed almost every attempt. He enjoys the externals of life: toned bodies, sleek cars, gourmet food, well decorated hotel rooms. I am not of his ilk. My body is far from lithe; my cooking skills amount to soups and a variety of potato dishes; my fulfillment comes from writing romance novels and connecting with dogs. What in this vast universe brought Nick and me together?

“You are so easy to talk to,” he once said as he told the story of the love of his life. She had left him a month earlier for another guy who could give her more — materially that is. At this point, Nick and I were just friends, but he knew of my inheritance. My parents perished years before in a car crash and left me with a fortune.

The more I listened to him, the closer we grew. After all, I knew something about loss and grief. I also knew how to help him with his financial struggles.

“Hey, let’s catch a movie. My treat,” I would say.

“No, let’s not. Once in a while I’d like to take you out, but right now, I can barely pay my rent.”

“No problem,” I said. “We can’t just sit around. Let’s have some fun.”

And fun we had: a trip to the Bahamas, gourmet dinners in posh restaurants, and some pretty wild sex in my rented San Francisco condo.

“We might as well make this legal,” Nick said over Chateauneuf Du Pape, which we sipped on the terrace of the Culinary Institute in Napa Valley at sunset. He took a small box out of his pocket and gave me the diamond ring, the one he bought for the love of his life. After she had deserted him, he stashed it in a dark corner of his underwear drawer, where it waited for another opportunity to sparkle.

I just went with it all — allowed him to steer the boat, so to speak, while I sat back infatuated with his blue eyes and hard, decisive edge. I believed my romantic prowess would soften him. I fantasized about the day he would embrace me and murmur his adoration while kissing me with such tenderness that I would cry joyful tears.

Even so, I held out in one area — the pre-nuptial agreement, which I gently but firmly insisted upon.

“I’ll share my money with you, Hon,” I said, when I saw the shock on his face. “Not to worry. You’re my man and I’ll take care of you. For starters, Nick, I’m changing the lease on our apartment to your name only.” I hoped this would send a message that he was kind of in charge of our living space. He had forced a smile then, grabbed my hand, and held on tight for the desperate ride called marriage-to-the-wrong-woman. I sensed this at the time, but turned away as one does when choosing desire over truth.

Today, Nick drives us home from the gym, showers, and pecks my cheek as he leaves for work.

“Do something productive today,” he says.

Apparently, he doesn’t think it’s at all important that I volunteer at the Humane Society, and help homeless dogs find forever homes. He clearly doesn’t consider that my well-received romance novels are proof that I exercise my artistic muscle daily. Who the hell does he think he is?

I drag my suitcase out from the back of the hall closet. I pack and sob with the truth of it. Why today? Why not last month or last year? It’s impossible to explain what triggers an awakening.  Today, his disdain crossed a red line in my heart. His muscles that I know and love choke me; they cut off my voice; they blind me to the person I am.

I write a “this-no-longer-works-for-me” note, and imagine his sadness, particularly about the money. He’ll want to know that I’m okay and he’ll probably call begging me to come back. There’s something sad and beautiful about saying no to him. It’s good pain. Once again he’ll struggle day-to-day with the minutia of dollars and cents. I look around the bedroom for the last time and see my firm, dense pillow on our bed. He can have it.  I’ll buy a softer, more billowy one wherever I land.

Cheryl S. Levinson writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Over the years, her writings have appeared in small press magazines, The San Jose Mercury News, The Christian Science Monitor, the 2012 Sand Hill Review and Fault Zone, an anthology of stories. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Cheryl is a retired Marriage, Family Therapist. She lives in San Jose with her husband, Ellis. Together, they have written and recently published a book, Enough of Us: Why we should think twice before making children.

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