Love-Line

by Kenneth Nichols


“Look, Brien. There are points in every marriage where people question if they are still right for their mate. There are also times when one partner wonders if she should break up with you — I mean, her partner... What I’m trying to say is that I think I want a divorce.”

Julia’s monologue sounded with finality as she spoke to the steam-fogged mirror. “I want a divorce.”

Maybe soon she would say it when Brien was in earshot.

Julia fixed and ate her breakfast alone, wearing only her robe and a towel around her head. The towel was force of habit from ancient times when she’d had long, gorgeous hair instead of her current shock of unruly locks she could only tame with gel the consistency of paraffin.

She thought about telling Brien the second he entered the room. This plan was immediately dashed as he happily bounded into the room. “What a beautiful day, Julia. Can you believe how nice it is outside?”

It wouldn’t happen so seldom if you hadn’t made us move to upstate New York. We get nine months of winter... Julia had plenty of practice in subduing her inner monologue. “It’s a great day for a walk,” she said.

“That sounds like a great idea. Why don’t we make up a picnic basket this evening and go down to the lake for a few hours?”

“No!” Had he noticed how insistent she was? “I just mean that... I have a hair appointment today when I get out. Then I’m supposed to see Kristin.”

Brien shrugged and kissed her on the cheek. “Another day, then. I guess I’ll just have a nice afternoon in. Love you.” He double-checked the clasps on his briefcase and said goodbye.

She watched his car leave, and sighed. She couldn’t stop herself from looking to the pictures on the wall beside the window. They were all from a happier time (not a difficult feat, as she had never been more miserable), young Brien and Julia smiling happily with no knowledge of the future they were courting.

Soon after they were engaged, a friend had surprised them as they relaxed at a party. To their amusement, the photographer’s flash had hit her brand-new ring just right, causing a supernatural starburst glint. Julia tapped the bottom of the sweetest photograph, sending it askew. “Shut up, you.”

* * *

Julia hadn’t gotten much work done before lunch, and she was quite sure that she wouldn’t get much done after. Her mind was all over the place. The distant look in her eyes as she nibbled her salad was not her friend’s only clue that something was amiss.

Kristin was an empathetic person. She set down her fork and asked what was wrong.

“Nothing!” Julia said it too quickly. She darted her eyes about, looking for an overseer who wasn’t there. “I’m just excited. I’m meeting Stefan today. After work.”

“Oh, not again!” Kristin said. “You can’t keep cheating. You’re hurting yourself and you’re hurting Brien.”

“Hey,” Julia said. “You’re not going to rat on me, are you? You’re my friend, right?”

Kristin kept her gaze on her salad. “No... I won’t. It’s not my place. Just promise me that you’re going to end it soon.”

“What do you think I’m doing? I’m just not sure what to do. I married so young. How am I supposed to know what I was meant for? Believe me... I’m learning a lot of things from Stefan.”

Kristin winced. “Well, you took the ‘forever’ vows, right?”

“It was the romantic thing to do... I was just out of college. The ten-year trial marriage just didn’t make me feel like a princess.”

“Well, sorry,” Kristin said. She keyed into her PDA, then held it to face Julia. “This is what you promised, until death do you part.”

The couple looked so happy, hand in hand, bodies fitting so perfectly beside each other. Kristin supposed all wedding pictures were so immaculate, but there was something disturbingly perfect about hers. Their smiles beamed, and the optimism of youth seemed imbued in every angle. Julia’s Botticelli hair, done in delicate ringlets, shone about her as a protective aura. The clothes were a decade out of date, but that is part of the charm of a wedding picture. “Don’t show me that. You know, I am having this affair for a very good reason.”

“Some kind of perverse tax break I don’t know about?”

Julia hated when her friend challenged her. “No. Since you insist on bringing it up, look at this picture. Do I look anything like that now? I don’t. I’m a completely different person. Why should I be held to an agreement I didn’t make?”

“It’s not fair to Brien. That’s all.” She had discussed this more times than she cared to remember, and she was as close as she ever could be to throwing up her hands. “Well, you know what you should do. I heard about it on the vids, and it looks very reputable.”

“’Love-Line’? Are you serious? You can’t be. How can taking a picture tell who I’m supposed to be with forever?”

Kristin sighed. Sarcastically, she said, “You’re right. It makes more sense to fool around.”

The waiter brought their entrees, perfectly balanced on one arm. “See,” Julia said as the waiter presented her grilled chicken breast with mixed vegetables. “We’re different. You’re sensible and reliable and boring grilled chicken.” She got her own dish, relishing the aroma. “I’m excitement. I’m spicy hot gourmet burritos.”

Kristin was unashamed by her choice. “ ‘Spicy hot gourmet burrito’... is that what Stefan calls you?”

“No,” Julia smiled. “But he would if I wanted him to.”

* * *

The middle-of-the-summer sun was gentle and clear on the couple playfully fighting on the grass. There were plenty of spectators with the same idea to take advantage of the cool breeze coming off the lake. Speedbladers, and walkers and freestyle Segway riders saw these two in love and were softened in their own hearts.

Even though he was tall and athletic, an Adonis with perpetually tanned skin, he had never worn Speedblades, and was having quite a bit of trouble with the concept. He would strap them on, power them up, and immediately suffer a balance meltdown, falling into the grass. Julia fell down with him, giggling despite his frustration. “I just can’t do it! Why can’t you accept that?”

“I love how your accent gets thicker when you get upset.” Julia said. As she sat up on her elbows, her hair stalactites shook like a chandelier.

“Well, perhaps I should not speak at all so you won’t find me cute anymore.” Indeed, he pursed his lips and attacked hers, as modest an open-mouth kiss as being in public will allow.

Julia had always kissed with her eyes closed, but a pang in the back of her mind encouraged her to open them. The eyes grew wide, and she tried hiding under Stefan as though his big body were a blanket.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I can’t believe it... It’s my husband. Shhh... ”

Julia’s heart tripped into overdrive, and if she had the time, she would have been disappointed to notice that Stefan’s heartbeat was steady and calm.

“Julia?” The voice was familiar.

“Julia? Is that you?” The voice was closer.

“Julia?”

There was no longer a point in hiding. Her head emerged from its hiding spot. “Brien... ”

Brien’s hands were on his hips; his heart on his sleeve. Stefan turned over, and laid back, relaxing in the sun. The incipit shock wore away, and Julia turned to a woman’s last resort and best weapon: anger.

“What are you doing here? You said you were staying at home!” Brien shook his finger. “No, no. Don’t turn this around on me. I decided to go for a walk, and I see you kissing this... brute!”

Stefan raised an eyebrow. “ ‘Brute’? You need more practice at this, pal.”

“I didn’t ask you anything, homewrecker.”

Standing, Stefan’s body unfurled, dwarfing poor Brien. “ ‘Homewrecker’? Oh, I didn’t know your name was ‘home’,” he said, drawing back a fist. With biceps that large, you’re allowed to say dumb things.

Brien retreated. “How long have you been doing this to me?” Julia raised an accusatory finger. “You shouldn’t make me choose. Do you know how long it’s been since you told me that you loved me?”

“This morning!”

“Well...” Julia stammered. “It’s what women are supposed to say."

The age-old rage of the cuckold was building in Brien,. His primal side briefly considered measuring his chest against Stefan’s, before the practical side showed him that was a terrible idea. “Julia... I’m going home. To our home. I don’t know if you ever want to return, but that’s where I’ll be.”

Julia watched as her husband walked away, doing his best to keep his head high. When he was out of sight, she eased into Stefan’s strong grip. “Wow,” he said. “What a wimp.”

They enjoyed the sunlight while it was still there. Julia owed Stefan that much before she broke up with him. After all, the thrill was gone.

Stefan was heartbroken. He didn’t make love with another woman until that evening.

* * *

These hours tried Brien’s soul. He considered calling his sister, but didn’t. He would look weak. He thought about drinking, then remembered he kept the liquor cabinet empty.

Julia found him alone in the bedroom they shared. It was big and beautiful, something out of Architectural Digest. He was a wonderful designer. “What are you doing?” she asked. For the first time, she was scared. Brien was snapping a suitcase shut. Was he going to ask her to leave?

“I just don’t know if I can be here with you. I might go to a hotel for a couple days.”

She was relieved. “Look, Brien. Put that down. Let’s talk about this.”

“I don’t know what there is to talk about. I’m obviously not making you happy. I should go. I’ll tell the house not to recognize me on my way out.”

Julia dashed to the doorway. “No. Wait. Let me talk.” That glint was back in his eyes. That endearing helplessness that had held her captive in the first place. “I did a lot of thinking.”

“What about?” Julia took his hand, and he could almost feel Stefan’s fingerprints upon her skin.

“I was thinking about you, and how sweet it was when we took the ‘forever’ vows. Remember that? We didn’t even consider the temporary ones.”

He smiled weakly and nodded.

“I know I’ve done wrong, and I want to make a commitment to you... again. Have you heard of ‘Love-Line’?”

“A little bit, only what’s been on the news.”

Julia took his other hand. “I’d like us to try it.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You hurt me, Julia. In ways I never thought —”

“Yes or no, Brien?”

“Okay. Yes.”

She snared the suitcase out of his hand, and put it back in the closet. “Why don’t we call for an appointment, and then have a nice dinner, okay?”

He wanted to resist her. After all she done, and had failed to do, but the little things held him in thrall. The blue eyes, the same color as the Pacific Ocean had been on their honeymoon, the little wisps of abruptly-ending hair in front of her ears. He had no chance. He accepted by falling into her arms.

* * *

The sun had long ago set in Love-Line’s neighborhood. A few blocks back, the buildings were bright and new. Now, the brick walls were pitted with soot and there were more dead animals on the street than could be a coincidence. Brien was obviously focused on the change, while Julia was wondering if she was holding him close for protection, or as a shield.

The ‘Love-Line’ office was on the seventh floor of the nicest building in this run-down area. The elevator bucked and squealed, and Brien wasn’t sure they were going to make it. At last, the doors opened, and Julia and Brien entered Love-Line. “Oh my,” Brien said.

It was something to behold. The walls and high ceilings were a pleasant off-white, allowing the few light fixtures to light the whole room. Past a secretary’s desk was a long hall, stopped by a heavy-looking door, riveted with supports.

The secretary put down her knitting. She must have been working on a pair of booties. She was an old woman with a face that smiled no matter its expression, and eyes that glinted in even the waning light. “Hello there. Do you have an appointment?”

Julia stepped forward. “Mrs. and Mr. Copland. I called earlier today.”

“Ah, yes,” she flipped through the appointments on her screen. “You’re lucky. Usually the doctor doesn’t see anyone after five. He must have heard something in your voice. You seem like a nice couple.”

“Thank you... ” Julia said.

“Go ahead. Have a seat.”

Brien’s hand searched for hers as they sat in silence. The high ceiling was an echo chamber. At first, all they could hear were the knitting needles clacking together, amplified to disturbing volume. Through the single, dark window, they could tell the clouds were gathering.

Without warning, the floor began to rumble, and the sound was loud as an earthquake. Brien squeezed Julia’s hand harder. The secretary put down her knitting, and began working the mouse at her computer. As she worked, Brien and Julia stiffened in their seats.

The secretary noticed. “Oh, don’t worry, kids. It’s normal. The doctor’s doing an aurograph. The same thing will happen for you. It’s nothing to worry about.”

The rumble built to a slow crescendo, a high-pitched wail splitting their ears. The wail stopped, and the secretary resumed her knitting. Down the hall, the heavy door squealed open on rusty hinges. The voices carried through the empty hall.

“I’m so sorry,” a woman said. “I just want to let the past go.”

A man’s voice answered. “I was so wrong to question our love...”

The man and woman appeared from the hall. They were middle-aged, and it was clear to Brien that they were recovering from a mid-life crisis. It wasn’t often that Brien saw a man with distinct grey roots under the rest of his hair, a vital brown. They resembled schoolchildren bouncing through the playground as they left with the paper in their hands. “I knew we were meant to be,” the man said.

Brien considered asking to see the paper, but there was no time. The receptionist called his name. “The doctor is ready for you,” she said.

As they walked down the tunnel, the low hum increased.

Julia squeezed his hand — something she hadn’t done in years. Darkness and darkness and darkness until there was a dim light focused on a sliding door labeled ‘Aurography by Love-Line’. It opened for them, and they entered.

“Hello,” Brien’s voice echoed in the giant space. The only light came from the flickering capsule in the middle of the room, big enough for two people.

The wild-eyed man in doctor’s whites emerged from behind the capsule. If not for the Einsteinesque playfulness to his features, it would have been frightening. “Welcome,” he said. “to Love-Line.”

“We came because I’m not sure about our relationship,” Julia said.

“Is my wife meant to love me forever?” Brien asked. With a graceful wave of his arms, the old man indicated the capsule. “My name is Flavius Entrada. This machine is my life’s work. I was a young man who doubted he would ever find someone to love him unceasingly. So I built a machine that peers into forever. I tell everyone, I cannot guarantee what the results shall be. Sometimes, happy couples are told they will separate horribly, and they don’t believe it, and they tell everyone that I’m a fraud. But in the end, they separate. Sometimes, of course, the opposite happens, and those who doubt stay together.”

Julia rolled her eyes. “I think we’re a case of —”

Flavius smiled. “I don’t want to know. This is not superstition. This is science.”

The capsule opened automatically, with two seats facing each other. Brien and Julia stepped inside, full of trepidation that Flavius tried to alleviate. “Just relax. This won’t hurt at all.”

The capsule closed, and the married couple was forced to look into each other’s eyes. “I’d forgotten how light your eyes are,” Julia said. “I always liked that. Lighter than a baby’s.”

Brien grinned from one side of his mouth before the world ended in supernova and thunder.

* * *

“Everyone has a frequency that can be measured and quantified. When your frequencies are combined, this is what happens.” Flavius handed them the aurograph. Brien realized it was a scene from their honeymoon. Hand in hand, they walked the white-sand beaches of the Bahamas, staring into the dynamic green horizon. Around each of their bodies was a violet glow — an aura — that was the same color, the very same hue.

“Those were nice times... ” Julia said.

“It seems,” Flavius said. “You two were created for each other. Look how perfectly your auras match!”

Brien knew that his worries were forever in the past.

On their way out, Julia and Brien didn’t notice the elderly secretary closing up the place and didn’t remember they were the last appointment of the day. After they left, the secretary locked the door as Flavius appeared from the hall, sighing and shaking off a long day of work. “Good work today, Dr. Entrada,” she said.

He smiled and took her into his arms. “Same to you, Mrs. Entrada. Just one last thing to do.” From his pocket he pulled an aurograph that was neither sunny nor sandy. Brien, shrouded in green, and Julia, shrouded in maroon, stood on shag carpeting, surrounded by shattered fragments of dishes and furniture. The grimaces on their faces said more than words ever could.

Mrs. Entrada took the aurograph and fed it to the shredder with all the others. “I hate the real ones like this. At least we give them a chance.”

“If even one of those couples ends up as we have, it’s worth it,” Flavius said.

As they left, their bodies touched. They kissed as the lights went out.


Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Nichols

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