The Price of Her Pride
by Mark Eller
part 1 of 2
Jane tugged on her ankle-length blue dress. She looked in the mirror, dissatisfied with the tight fit and the short V that displayed more cleavage than she cared for others to see. She shifted herself around, tugged on the dress once again, and admitted that she had outgrown the last dress she owned. Sighing, she looked out the open half-bath door to see reflected light from the flickering holo-tube.
“Are you ready yet?” She called.
“I’ll only be a short while.”
Jane breathed out a quick hiss of frustration. She checked her auburn hair in the mirror one last time, put a recalcitrant lock back into its place, and considered becoming a blond once again. She hung her brush back on its hook, then touched up the light blue flares radiating from the corners of her eyes. She studied herself in the mirror and frowned unhappily at the sight of her double chin. Someday, she promised herself. Someday. She turned the half-bath’s light off when she left.
Sydney, she discovered once she returned to the bedroom, was anything but ready. Shirtless, hair mussed, he sat in front of the holo, his eyes glued enviously to the screen. She tapped her toes irritably on the hardwood floor three times to capture his attention, failed. Sighing exasperation, she trod over to him to look at the scenes occupying his mind.
She peered at the screen and her frown deepened. A couple stood in their kitchen, she with a grease-laden spatula held upright in her hand. Smoke drifted throughout the room and a crisp steak lay in a dark pan.
“You should have seen them a few minutes ago,” Sydney said. “They were really something then. I thought she was going to hit him with the steak.”
He clicked a few keys and the scene shifted. A woman, Helen Keys, entertained a male in her living room. These two, Jane saw, were still decent. She had no doubt that the happy condition would soon end, since Helen put herself on display whenever an opportunity offered, though Jane did not understand why. Helen’s body was no better than a thousand others Jane had seen flash across this screen these last few years.
Helen’s face turned toward the camera and her lips curved in a seductive smile. The man reached for the top buttons of her blouse.
Disgusted, Jane reached forward and hit the off button. Sydney jerked his head around. “What did you do that for?”
“You promised to take me to see Hamlet. It starts in less than two hours and I will not be late.”
“Two hours,” he said. “That’s plenty of time.”
“Only if we don’t have to wait an hour or more for our mag-tube to arrive.”
“I suppose I have to make you happy or you won‘t stop carping at me. ” Sydney gave the blank console a longing glance. He rose. “I’ll be ready in twenty minutes.” He went to the closet, pulled out a rumpled shirt, and slipped it on before he headed for the half-bath.
“I wish you would wait until you’ve applied your make-up before you put on your shirt,” Jane complained. “You know how clumsy you are. You always stain everything.”
Sydney’s voice was half muffled. “Do you want to be on time, or not? Why don’t we form a smaller co-op and buy our own mag-tube? I think we could afford it.”
“We could afford it if you didn’t spend so much money on Voyeur Cam,” Jane retorted. She pulled their filter masks from the hook by the door and started changing out the cartridges, a task that had fallen to her because Sydney was too absent-minded to remember that cartridges had to be changed regularly. Only three years ago he had spent two days in the hospital with a serious case of lung burn because his cartridge had developed a minuscule tear.
“Yeah, well,” Sydney’s voice sang bitterly from the half-bath, “those whose wives won’t, watch those whose wives do.”
Jane stiffened with guilt, and then she shoved a new cartridge into her filter mask.
True to his word, Sydney was ready to walk out the door in twenty minutes. He posed for her, showing off the cut of his almost new, dark blue suit. Jane stifled her irritation long enough to admit that the suit looked good on him. He was fit and he had managed to keep most of his hair. Unlike her, Sydney wore not an once of extra poundage, but then he had always been an interesting bit of eye candy. It was only his courage and character that were lacking.
“Wait,” he said before they opened their apartment door. His palm gently cupped her chin, turned her head. “I love you.” He lowered his head and tried a gentle kiss.
Jane jerked her face free of his grasp. She slapped the hand that fumbled near her waist. Sydney took a step back and abruptly brushed imaginary dust from his clothes. His hands slashed more than they patted. The single glimpse she caught of his eyes showed moist pain.
Jane thinned her lips and ground her teeth while her heart bled inside her. This was a game they had played thousands of times before, one that threatened to tear her and them apart, but despite how desperately she loved him, Jane could not force herself to accept Sydney’s touch, because she was no longer so young and beautiful as Helen Key. She was a middle-aged woman with a growing behind and two chins. Jane refused to pretend otherwise.
But, oh gods, the price of her pride was killing her.
“We better get going,” Sydney said, his voice thick with emotion. He grabbed his mask from the hook where she had hung it. Slipping it over his face, he opened the door and was on the other side before Jane had time to say “I’m sorry.”
Jane took a moment to throw on her wrap and grab her mask before she stepped through the doorway. The door locked behind her. She stood there, watching her husband walk away, and she prayed that she could somehow find the courage to pretend she was the person he wanted her to be.
“I’ll diet,” Jane promised herself, knowing all the while that her words were a lie. Diets had tested her tens of times these last seven years, and each test she had deliberately failed because the only armour she possessed was the fat she wore and a temper she seldom controlled.
* * *
Penrose Transport Station was more than a mile from their apartment building’s front door. The city’s streets were nearly empty, fossil burners having long since become too expensive for the unprivileged to own. The evening light was dim, making tall shadows of the buildings lining the street and the walkway. Some few, those buildings lucky enough to own efficient solar collectors and banks of working storage batteries, showed a few random lights from their windows.
They walked in silence. Jane tried to slip her fingers into Sydney’s hand but the steady swing of his arm did not slow. She dropped her arm to her side, refusing to make a show of herself for the cameras lining the street, because she did not know who looked out from those flat black eyes. The cameras were portals for ten thousand voyeur eyes.
Jane shuddered. She gathered her wrap about her, arranging it so that the material obscured her heavy lines. Her pause allowed Sydney to walk away from her. His stride was purposeful; his back was stiff and his head was still. Already, there were three people between them, and that on a day when pedestrians were almost nonexistent.
Her gentle man, Jane thought unhappily, was still in pain. A fresh wash of guilt ran through her. She had no doubt that she was the most loved woman in all of New York, because she could think of no other man who would remain with a wife who had given him nothing but denial and anger for more than six years. The day would soon come, she knew, when he would decide that he had no choice but to move on. She dreaded and courted that day. She hated the knowledge that she was ruining their marriage, but she longed for an end to this forever tune.
They passed a camera on a pole and she refused to look at it. She refused to acknowledge the existence of those people who sat at home, their eyes glued to Voyeur Cam, living their lives by watching others. She refused to cater to their need for a vicarious thrill.
Then, against her will, she stopped, looked back to gaze into that unblinking eye. The camera lens, inanimate, unfeeling, reflected shadows and light. It demanded nothing and wanted everything. It was never satisfied with less than its million and a half pictures a day. That camera was, Jane knew, the ever-present focus of her life.
I cannot allow these things to control me, she thought. I cannot.
Face set with determination, Jane increased her pace, click-heeling her way past and around the four interlopers that were now between her and her husband. A young cat-masked woman, dressed in tight shorts and a half sized halter, gave Jane a glare as Jane pushed her way by. Jane returned the glare for a brief moment, hating the sight of this woman’s clear skin, despising her flat belly and rounded muscles.
The bint’s eyes were bright, lively. The set of her shoulders and the swing of her hip said she was a display for all to see. Her cocky walk combined with the masculine way she flung her too-large purse around when her feet struck the ground told Jane that this woman cared nothing for the opinion of others.
Jane instantly hated the bint’s self-confidence, knowing all the while that this young woman possessed nothing except youth that Jane had not wilfully thrown away. This is the type of woman Sydney will run toward, Jane thought. This is the type of woman he deserves.
She left the bint behind, worked her way past two men in rough workmen’s clothing and a boy who was barely in his teens.
One of the workmen gave her a nod as she passed him by. “In a hurry?” he asked, his voice muffled behind his poor quality mask.
She ignored him and tried to hurry on her way. His hand reached out to grab her by her arm. “Now don’t you go and leave us behind, honey. I think we could be friends.”
“Duane,” his taller friend warned, gesturing toward a camera that lay far behind.
Duane grimaced and released her arm. Jane hurried faster, brushing his touch off her arm with her other hand. She caught up to Sydney two dozen paces later. She deliberately hooked her violated arm through his, for once, not caring what the cameras saw. He stumbled, stopped, and looked at her in surprise. Jane pursed her lips, feeling smaller inside when she saw fading hurt and budding hope. Another camera peered at her from the other side of the street. A camera was mounted to a light pole just a dozen feet away. The one behind them was lost to view.
Jane looked into her husband’s eyes and she deliberately tried to ignore the presence of those cameras. She refused to think about the workmen and the boy and the bint. She raised her free hand and slipped her wrap from her shoulders. She blushed when Sydney’s gaze instantly fell toward the V of her neckline, but she squared her shoulders and told herself that she owed him this much and more. Her hands trembled and her jaw quivered, making her double chin shake to her jaw’s vibrations.
She watched his eyes flicker from her own, down to the accidental cleavage that she showed, and back to meet her gaze. His eyes were questioning, unsure, doubting. Jane blinked and cried inside. She tried to lie to him with her eyes while the imagined weight of those damned cameras threatened to press her soul into the cracked walkway.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Eller