Marya and Richard
Fiction by Tess LeBlanc
The first boy Marya ever had sex with told her that every girl’s pussy smelled like either fish or cheese. “You’re cheese,” he’d said, and then, “Oh come on don’t take it like that.” Apart from that he’d been an alright boyfriend.
She couldn’t believe that was four years ago now. She hated being twenty.
“This is a great restaurant,” Richard was saying. “A client recommended it to me ages ago and now I come back whenever I’m in London. They make the most amazing steak.”
“Yeah, you told me the last time we came.”
“Doesn’t make it any less true.”
The waitress, a tall girl with bags under her eyes that made her look older than she probably was, sidled up to the table. “Are you ready to order, or would you like more time to choose?”
“No, I think we’re ready,” Richard decided. While he ordered his steak, Marya watched the way the waitress looked at him. She was so transparent: leaning closer to him than she needed, eyes going gooey as they darted to the line of his shoulders, the cut of his chest. It was annoying, but Marya didn’t resent it. She’d been the same way. On her first date with Richard, soft off sweet cocktails, she’d called him a silver fox. It was embarrassing to even think about now, how stupid thrilled she’d been to meet a man on that website who happened to be handsome. She remembered grabbing her phone when he went to the bathroom and frantically texting all her friends: I’m on a sugar date with the best guy ever!!! I really really like him I’m screaming!!! That was two phones ago, now.
Marya realized the waitress was looking at her. “I’ll have the salmon.”
Richard smiled to dismiss her, and she scurried off.
“You can get better salmon at home, you know,” he said to Marya. He was still looking at the waitress in her little black dress.
“How was I supposed to know that? You said this was a great restaurant.”
“It’s common sense. I told you it’s the steak that’s good. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t complain if you don’t like it. I don’t want another scene.”
Marya scowled. She hadn’t made a scene at the hotel. “I won’t complain.”
“I know you won’t, baby. I knew I just had to get you out and about and you’d brighten up.”
She hated when he switched tones like that, but she took his hand stretched across the table anyway. The restaurant was dimly lit and looked exactly like every other restaurant they’d been in together. No matter where they went, it felt like she only ever saw the insides of restaurants and taxis. “I’m super bright,” she said.
“Just a moody little girl. I’m crazy about you, Marya.”
“I know, baby.” Marya spotted a girl across the room staring at them with a slightly repulsed expression. People were always looking at her like that: Oh, that kind of girl. The smug little look as they wrote her and Richard off together. That kind of couple, if you can even call them a couple.
It used to make her feel awkward, but now Marya stared right back, made eye contact and held it. Call me a gold digger, bitch, she willed. Say it to my face.
The girl busied herself with her linguine, letting her thin hair hide her face. For a moment Marya felt exultant, but it ran through her quickly. Then she wanted to lie down and wail.
Elise shrieked when she saw Richard and Marya. She was already drunk. “Richard Anastas, you skinny bitch! Finally! Come here.” She threw her arms around his waist and didn’t let go. “Finally the two of us back in London, right? And Mariah, ugh, you little sweetheart.”
Elise knew “Marya” was pronounced like it was spelled, but insisted on Mariah as a personal nickname. It wasn’t worth protesting.
“So good to see you two again,” said Dennis, Elise’s husband. The last time Marya had seen Dennis he’d had a huge bald spot. Now that spot had hair again, though it was patchy. She curled her lip and he smiled broadly. “Marya, wow, it’s been too long. You look great.”
“Thanks. Can I have a drink? A gin and tonic?”
“Coming right up.”
Dennis and Elise lived on the sixteenth floor of a very tall building in some posh neighborhood with a name Marya couldn’t remember. Their apartment was small but attractive; the cream-coloured walls hung with bland modern art and Elise’s modeling photos from the nineties. Marya slumped down on the white couch. She was jet-lagged and too full from dinner; Dennis and Elise bothered her. London slouched beyond the window, dark and unfamiliar. Dennis brought over the gin and tonic, and Marya started gulping, trying to quell the nerves twisting her stomach. It didn’t feel like nighttime at all but it was, and so she was going to die.
No. Just drink. She squeezed the lime slice dry, and licked her fingers. Dennis stared at her mouth. He was always smiling, like an accessory that didn’t match the outfit. “I haven’t seen you since we moved out here.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy. What has it been, a year?”
“Year and a half.” He glugged from his glass of red wine and sat so that they were pressed against each other. Every goddamn time. After Marya first met Dennis she’d quietly pulled Richard aside and asked him to tell his friend to stop feeling her up, but the next time she’d pulled away from Dennis’ arm around her waist, hand hanging over her ass, Richard had just laughed. “Sorry,” he’d said. “Y’see, my new girlfriend’s a bit of a Puritan.”
“Really though, how are you?” Dennis asked.
“I’m okay. I’m in my third year of school now.”
“What are you studying again?”
“Anthropology. I guess.”
“Oh shit. So you’re going to be going out and digging stuff up, then?”
“That’s archaeology. Hi, Richard.”
Dennis immediately slid to the other side of the couch to let Richard get to Marya. He slid his arm around her, languid, legs spread, and rum in hand. He really was so handsome. Marya looked into her lap. “This is a good day,” he declared. “Here with my friends and my girlfriend. And Marya was saying she didn’t want to come.”
“What?” Elise yelled from the kitchen. “No way Marya didn’t want to see us!”
“He’s just kidding.” Marya fingered the antacids in her purse. “No way I could stay away. I think I’m gonna join you in there, actually.”
In the kitchen, Elise slapped her hand away from the tonic. “No, fuck that mixed drink shit. God, you’re the young one, you’re supposed to be getting me to do shots. Here. We’ve got this banana liqueur and it goes down like a goddamn dream.”
They did two shots each, vodka topped with liqueur, and then Elise grabbed Marya’s hand and pouted, stroking her face. “Beautiful girl. I mean, I’m beautiful too, I know. I don’t know what you see in Richard.”
“Didn’t you used to date him?”
“Oh, don’t remind me. Way back, when we both lived in London. Let’s do another.”
Sometimes Elise lapsed into a little English accent that set Marya’s teeth on edge. They did some more shots, she lost count how many. Everything was buzzy and soft around the edges, but her stomach was still spelling No at her, squirming Get out. Marya stumbled over to the balcony where Richard and Dennis were out smoking. Richard lit her cigarette and Dennis laid his arm across her shoulder.
Every time she looked at the tip of a lit cigarette she imagined it going into someone’s eye. Anyone’s eye. The image came unbidden, but she didn’t push it away. It would hiss and they would scream. Marya sucked on the cigarette and let her vision blur.
“I have a little coke,” Dennis said. “Molly, too. Anyone interested?”
“Oh, you’re a good man! Let’s stick to coke, though. Marya doesn’t like MDMA. Can’t handle it.”
“You’re kidding me!”
Richard laughed. “She likes it a little too much, then she comes down, cries for two days, and says it’s all my fault.”
Marya stubbed out her cigarette on the balcony glass and let some hot ash smudge across her fingers. “Yeah, if we stick to sober sex it’s the same result, but it only lasts one day.”
She could tell Richard was pissed, but Dennis and Marya both laughed so he acted like he thought it was funny too. He was a bad actor and she was a good actor, she decided. She could tell in a second when a person in a movie was doing a bad job, so she should be able to tell when someone in real life was doing a bad job too—doing charming and generous all wrong.
Dennis went and got the coke.
“What I’m saying is that women shouldn’t lie.” Elise gestured with a wine glass full of champagne. “Like me, I turned forty-two this year and I don’t fucking lie about it. I mean, I’m a grown woman, I take care of myself, I have my career so who cares if I’m forty-two? If you’ve done nothing, fucking let yourself go, maybe you feel like you’ve got to be young, but who’s going to respect you if you lie?”
Marya had done too much and was shaking. She grabbed Richard’s arm, then clamped her hands between her legs. Dennis put his hand on her knee and she jerked away, sloshing her drink on him. He was still smiling. Elise eyed the scene and continued.
“Personally I would never want to go back and be twenty. I love my life, right? I love my husband. You’ve got to get on the right track, Mariah.”
“Excuse me,” Marya muttered, and rushed to the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She was dying dying dying and splashing water on her face didn’t help and sitting in the bathtub didn’t help and she was dying. You hate everything, Richard had said as she’d lain half-naked in the hotel bed, having one of her miserable fits – a scene, fine. I don’t know why I take you anywhere. She couldn’t remember why she’d shrieked at him that he was a liar – she fully agreed with him now, threw her heart into it. She fucking hated all of this, everything, everyone. Hated London and hated this apartment, and hated that the last time she’d gone to the bathroom in Dennis and Elise’s house, before they moved, she hadn’t locked the door, and Richard had waltzed in and started fucking her from behind against the sink with no warning, then acted like it was nothing. It was always happening and she was always supposed to say nothing. All of it was so stupid and she was going to fail her biology midterm. Her face was hot and wet.
Twenty was old, ancient. She missed being eighteen, when everything with Richard was easier to brush off. It hadn’t accumulated yet. Everyone she knew was so old.
Marya did the deep breathing techniques she’d read about on the internet. She tried to ground herself in the bathroom, on the beautiful, clean tiles.
It was horrible to feel this way. Things with Richard were fine, they were good. A trip to London. Her school paid for. Crazy about her. She was lucky; she had to stop ruining things. Marya massaged her hands until she couldn’t hear her heartbeat anymore.
When she came back to the living room Richard and Dennis were gone and Elise was doing a line off the glass coffee table.
“Where’d the guys go?”
Elise sniffed. “Oh, they don’t tell me anything. Might be getting more coke. Are you sick? You were in the bathroom for a long time.”
“No, I’m good. I think I just need a cigarette.”
Marya loved smoking when she was drunk and by herself. She settled into one of the balcony chairs and smoked and smoked – warmth coming in, warmth going out. She liked sex, everyone liked sex. And she liked Richard. So that was that.
She heard the men’s loud voices coming back into the apartment and settled further into the chair. She couldn’t make out words, just voices and footsteps towards the balcony.
Sliding the glass door closed behind him, Dennis joined her. He took the other chair and dragged it close to her, so that when he sat down he faced her as well he could.
Marya didn’t look him in the eye. She met the gaze of the blank space to the left of his head. She could see, however, that he was no longer smiling.
“Are you going to talk to me?”
“What a great conversation. You don’t like me.”
“Sure I do.”
“I don’t get it,” Dennis said. “Why are you always pulling away from me?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re not even looking at me right now. You think you’re better than me.”
“Sounds like you do get it, then.”
“Fuck you. That’s what I’m talking about. You’re always looking at me like you hate me. But what do you care? That’s the part I don’t get. The only difference between Richard and me is that he got to you on that website.”
“Oh, you know what website. Man, my wife’s always going on about how cute you are and how much she likes you, but you’re a fuckin’ whore. And you still think you’re better than me.”
Marya imagined being so strong she could break his legs. Break his back. “It’s not that hard to be better than you,” she hissed. “Fucking bald asshole. Hair plugs like we all can’t tell. Fuck you.”
He spat, but it barely dribbled from his mouth. Instead it landed in the space between them. “Wouldn’t talk like that if I was the one paying you.”
It might have gotten worse than that, but God, it was so funny. As if she hadn’t said worse to Richard, and he to her. She got up and stepped over Dennis’ legs to the doorway, grabbing his hair for balance. In the living room, Richard was drinking a cocktail and fiddling with something in his pocket. Elise was passed out. Marya strode up and kissed her boyfriend full on the mouth, making sure Dennis could see.
“Take me back to the hotel, baby,” she said. “This is getting boring.”
“You acted nice tonight.” Richard ran a rough hand down her back. “Socializing. I knew you could do it if you just tried.”
“I guess so.” Marya hated looking into his eyes when he was drunk or high, or both. They got so blank, not glassy so much as turned off, dead. She focused on the big bed, soft sheets, so nice that he would take her here. The music playing on the TV, slow jazz. Maybe they would dance together later. He always let her stand on his feet while he led. “I know I get weird sometimes.”
“Nah, I love it. There’s nothing like a crazy girl to drive you crazy.”
Marya hesitated for a moment. “Hey, tonight Dennis told me he knew about how we met.”
“That website? I didn’t know it was a secret.”
“He called me a whore.”
“Oh Christ. Listen, don’t pay any attention to Dennis. He’s my friend, but he’s an idiot. You and me both signed up for fun. It’s not like that with us. Dennis is just mad that his wife isn’t attracted to him anymore. Sham marriage, like I told you.”
“Yeah, I know. I just don’t want to hang out with Dennis anymore.”
“Done. We make a better couple than those two ever did. I think I needed someone like you, someone to really bring me back, you know.” He stroked her face. “I have something to show you.”
Richard reached into his pocket and pulled out a diamond ring. “Let’s get married. Let’s just do it. I’ve never been married before and I think you’re the one.”
“Jesus!” She smacked his chest. “Are you joking?”
“Not at all. I bought it tonight, I just decided.”
“You were high. You’re still high.”
He shook his head, but his eyes were still blank. “I know what I want.”
“I’m only twenty. And we don’t…”
“I’m forty-seven and a goddamn bachelor. And like I said, Marya, you drive me crazy. My little twenty-year-old girlfriend. It’s a spark.”
When they first started dating he used to call her his little eighteen-year-old girlfriend, and it had been such a thrill, in spite of everything else. He’d never said the word twenty in reference to her except on her actual birthday. It was nice to hear. “I don’t know.”
“Marya.” Richard grabbed her wrist. “I’m serious about you. I’m serious about this. But I can’t be serious unless you are too. I’m willing to let everything go if you’re not.”
The ring was beautiful. Marya realized she had never imagined herself in an adult life without Richard. She wouldn’t even know where to start.
She held out her hand and he slid on the ring. Then he ordered champagne up to the room even though they were both still drunk. The clerk who brought them the bottle expressed nothing when Richard explained what they were celebrating. “Congratulations to both of you,” he said in that prim accent, then left very quick.
They had sex and it wasn’t as bad as it sometimes was. He held her by the jaw and groaned how she was going to be his wife. “I’m so in love with you,” he said. “I’m crazy about you.” She said it all back, thought he would hit her but no, he was too in love for that. Afterwards he fell asleep spooning her and she examined the engagement ring.
It was pretty. A tastefully-sized stone set in a silver band. Marya realized she wasn’t sure whether engagement rings and wedding rings were different. Would she get a second one at the wedding? Her mother wore only one ring. Her parents might not even come; they hated Richard.
She bit back a tremor of the anxiety that she was sober enough now to feel, and examined the wavy little engravings on the band. Pretty pretty pretty ring, and it felt wrong on her hand. Her fingers were too stubby and there was hair on her knuckles. Terribly wrong.
Richard stirred and wrapped his arms around her middle. “Goddamn, I must still be dreaming.”
“Nope,” Marya said. “It’s all real.”
“Then I’m just the luckiest man in the world. I can’t believe I’m gonna wake up next to you every morning of my life. He kissed her. She’d always loved kissing him; that was never bad.
Their marriage would be until the end of his life. Marya imagined herself as a fifty-year-old widow who had always had a rich husband. No – a thirty-year-old divorcee with loose skin and a lined face.
“I have a question,” she said softly. “Do you ever think about our fourth date?”
“I can’t say I really remember which date was our fourth.”
“When we drove up to your cabin. You remember. When I blocked your number in my phone for a little bit, after.”
He stiffened against her. “I don’t see why you’re bringing that up now.”
“I still want – I still want to get married, of course. It’s not a big deal, it just did hurt. And there have been things like that since. I just wondered if you ever thought about it.”
“We’ve always done this. I like what I like. Of course you bring this up now.”
“You’re right.” Marya kissed him. She felt like she’d swallowed a stone. “Seriously, you’re right. We’re getting married, I’m going to be better. Let’s not talk about it.”
Richard relaxed. “All right. Well, good. You know, I’ve always been committed to you. I’m going to show it better, so you won’t be so insecure.”
“Thank you, baby.” Marya leaned her head against his chest. He was warm, but his chest hair was rough against her face. She tried to will herself back to their first date, how happy she’d been, how thrilled to be with a real grown-up man. She hadn’t been able to stop looking at him, touching him, smelling him, like he might disappear if she didn’t. The whole thing had felt so unreal. Marya kissed him again, and now his lips felt hard and strange. She started to pull on her dress.
“I think I need a little walk,” she said. “I feel kinda gross from last night.”
“Well, hurry back. I need you in this bed with me.”
She slid on her runners and rifled through her purse. “I can’t wait.”
In London, the sky was barely pink and Marya felt like a foreigner in her own body. Everything was too real: the drizzling rain practically steaming off her skin, her shoes squishy in the puddles, the fabric of her clothes against her skin, so tight, all around her. Everything on the outside wanted in. She didn’t know what time it should be, but this wasn’t it. Her head buzzed. She walked faster.
The drive from the cabin to the city had been endless. All that had existed had been his suddenly dangerous body in the next seat and the car’s metal caging them together and the cement and dark trees skidding by outside, and Marya had shrunk to a tiny commander that lived in the front of her head. The commander gave orders to the unattached rest of her. Smile now. Laugh now. Say what a beautiful place he has. Face numb but still always, endlessly, talking bullshit. Back in the city, he took her shopping because that had been the plan and the salesboy whispered to her, “I’m so jealous,” and she’d wanted to slap him. No, she’d wanted to stroke his cheek and tell him he shouldn’t be. No, she’d wanted to rip up the expensive dresses and bolt.
Marya kept turning corners at random. She saw herself from outside her body, the way a stranger would. Her small, pinched face. The big cringe of her posture.
After Richard had finally, mercifully taken her home, she’d shoved all those shopping bags into her closet and blocked his number on her phone. It had been practically instinctual. For a week she didn’t think in words, didn’t talk to her parents, barely left the house. The stinging made it humiliating to take a bath, so she didn’t bathe, just sat underneath the shower’s spray with her knees against her chest. Soap made her feel scummy. She only wanted the water.
She remembered lying in bed for hours, submerged in an immense loneliness she’d never felt before, one that blanketed everything. Marya had lain in her little bed and pictured the calls and text Richard must be sending. Her phone was eating them, but they still existed somewhere, words meant to flatten her. They were still there. Richard had loomed enormous in her head. There he was, tall and handsome, striding across city after city with beautiful women. He was crushing the world under his leather shoes. He was twisting men’s flesh with every handshake. He was cajoling and stroking and paying for dinners, telling stories about who he’d met in the Caribbean and what he had bargained out of other rich men. He was kissing her on her first date, and all she felt was thrilled. He was all over the world and all of it belonged to him, so pleased with what surrounded him; and she was alone in her bed like a mousy, ugly bitch who had nothing and never would. She was ashamed of her cowardly pillbug self.
When Marya started to think in words again, the first were, Nothing could be worse than this. Her body didn’t hurt anymore, and she was disgusted by her own greasy hair and stubbly legs. Maya had felt overwhelming hatred for the pillbug girl. She still did, sometimes.
So she had called Richard to apologize, and he had brushed it away so easy and clean that the week in bed might as well have not happened at all. The fourth date she just kept for herself, in her head.
Marya ached with memory. She felt very tired and small. The sun was mostly risen now, and people were starting to fill the street. She realized she was lost.
Marya sat on a bench and pulled out her phone. What was the name of the hotel? She would have to call Richard. He would think it was cute. His flaky young wife-to-be, wandering off again. Or not. She would have to call him.
The diamond caught the light. It seemed more gaudy than tasteful now. Marya hated it. She was paralyzed with hatred for the ring. Her hands, like white spiders with a ridiculous accessory, clutched the phone tight, and her fingers would not move to dial his number. She could not will them to press down on his name.
Marya remembered with a start that this was really the second time Richard had proposed. The first time was only on their second date. “I need to know you’re serious,” he’d said. “I need to be around serious people.” She’d said she’d let him know.
A deep laugh burst from her mouth. More of a cackle, really – loud, ugly, unfeminine. It heaved out of her, and Marya, so exhausted she was almost drunk, leaned into all of it. She couldn’t stop giggling. She got off the bench and started jogging, then running as fast as she could, arms out, coat billowing behind her, still screaming with laughter, doubling over sometimes but always running, running, running. She imagined herself being shoved away from the hotel by a powerful magnet, polarities reversed, untouchable. She was spinning in circles. She was making animal noises, screams and cries and words that didn’t make sense.
She was trembling. She leaned against the crumbling wall of a brick building for support, clutching it as well as she could, giggling. She pulled out her phone and found that her fingers could move again. They could block Richard. They could delete his number. Easy and clean, they could do it.
“Fuck you, lady!” yelled a homeless woman who Marya had woken up with all her noise. The woman spit in Marya’s direction.
Marya couldn’t stop giggling. “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, I don’t think this is funny.” She pulled the ring off her finger and held it out to the woman. “Here, you can have this. I don’t want it.”
The woman looked suspicious. “Are you taking the piss?”
“Swear to God I’m not. Take it. I’m sorry again to wake you up. I hope you have the most amazing day.”
As Marya tottered down the street, she felt a tenderness towards everyone she saw. The lady in a powder-blue pantsuit with beautiful cornrows and a slight, tense smile. The mother at the bus stop listening to her little daughter’s babble with a look of exhausted delight. The two girls a little older than Marya, gesturing wildly with the hands they weren’t holding. She couldn’t stop staring, imagining. She wanted to know all of them.
It was raining harder with every passing step, soaking Marya’s coat and shoes, but that was okay. Marya was so light without the ring that she was practically hovering in the air. She was practically floating in a straight path towards home.