Separate Vacations

One of my friends recently traveled to South America. She posted a photo which was ABSOLUTELY the cover for this short story (from the collection Day-of-the-Not-So-Dead and other Morbid Little Holiday Tales) I am posting this story JUST so I can post her photo!

 

Separate Vacations

There is such a thing as too much togetherness. Kristina had discovered that fact soon after her honeymoon. A trip to Tahiti with every minute scheduled. At the time snorkeling and kayaking and hiking and taking a dance class and a cooking class and a watercolor class were all part of the adventure.

“How about we just lay on the beach tomorrow?” She rolled over and kissed her brand new husband’s ear. The stars in her eyes were so bright for Thomas that even sheer exhaustion hadn’t stopped her from jumping into all his activities with two excited feet. But a break would be nice.

“Oh, Hon. We only have three more days here. Dive class today.” He threw back the thin sheet that covered them and jumped out of bed. “In fact, if we don’t get a move on we’re going to be late.”

After that it was kiteboards and a fishing trip. She never did get to slather herself with sunscreen and listen to the birds and the soft slap of the waves.

Kristina loved Thomas, she really did. He was a dream husband; cooking, cleaning, paying the bills. Not like her best friend Gloria’s husband, who had never touched the dish soap bottle or Elizabeth’s partner who threw up his hands in defense when he spent their rent money on a new bike.

Not only was Thomas energetic and responsible, he was romantic. He brought bouquets of her favorite purple iris or yellow roses for no special reason. Not for an anniversary or to apologize or get her in the mood. Just because he loved her.

There was such a thing as too much romance.

Last year, when they were in Vegas, she had made the excuse that she needed a spa day and done her best to send him off to the blackjack table.

“Sounds good. What time should we schedule our massages?”

Not exactly what she had imagined, but massages were quiet by nature, so it couldn’t be too bad, could it? “Two o’clock?”

When they arrived at the spa Thomas waved at the hall that led to the massage rooms.

“Can you move two tables into one room? We want this to be romantic.”

“Uh…” The two masseurs looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay. Give us a minute.”

“Really, Thomas? Why make them go to so much work?” Kristina had rubbed his arm, hoping he would see reason.

“Those tables are portable. It’s not that much trouble.” And when they had gone to the massage room, crowded now with two tables, He pulled out a CD.

“Hey, how about you play this instead of that airy stuff? This is what I can really relax to.”

Soft country. That’s what her husband called it. Kristina had sighed, rolled her eyes at the therapist and shrugged.

Thomas wasn’t finished. Flowers and chocolates delivered to her right there in the spa. She felt like a total glutton, embarrassment replaced flattery as she hauled the stash up to their room.

“Oooo. Someone has a special event,” cooed the two old women who shared the elevator. “Anniversary?”

Kristina forced a smile and looked away.

She wanted some distance. Just a few feet. Just for a minute.

For their one year anniversary it had been Europe. Six countries in fourteen days. Her memory was of train stations and castles, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember which museum had the wonderful Egyptian display and which was so cold she couldn’t take her hands out of her pockets or see much because of the scarf wrapped around her face. England, France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and one more. Damn, she couldn’t remember the sixth country.

Year two was the Hawaiian tour. Thomas had just been promoted at work and he surprised her with a package deal. She hoped the pace would be slower, but no such luck.

“Okay, let’s take a look at our schedule.” The plane hadn’t even left the airport and Thomas had his iPad out and was tapping away. “Helicopter tour on Monday, surf lessons on Tuesday, there’s a full day bus tour on Wednesday so we can’t add anything on that day, but on Thursday we can sail. I hope I didn’t make a mistake signing with a tour. They don’t leave us much of our own time.”

By year three, Kristina had a plan. She would choose a vacation her husband would hate. Then he would say “You go and I’ll stay. No problem.”

Thomas had a severe allergy to equine dander. She picked a dude ranch in Montana. With a three day cattle drive. She would be on the horse all day and camping at night.  She thought she had convinced him to let her go alone with her tirade of excuses—it was a dream of hers since childhood and it was too good to pass up, such a deal, Gloria had been there and recommended it, it was only offered in June, during his busy time, close of the fiscal year and all, and she would miss him terribly but she really didn’t see any other way than to go it alone.

Two days after she made her reservation Thomas burst her bubble. Make that shot down her dirigible in an explosion of flames that rocked the house.

“Good news! They have wagons. I’m signed on as cook’s assistant. I won’t have to touch a horse at all.” He hadn’t noticed she didn’t return his all enveloping hug.

She signed up for a trip to Paris with a well known fashion designer. Women would sew, buy fabric, and visit the famous “Little Black Dress” shop in the Palais Royal. They all shared rooms. Fashion field trips every day.

Thomas called her at work. “Hey, Kris. Good news. Husbands go all the time. They hang out together while the ladies do their thing. The evenings are free. You won’t have to sleep with some snoring dowager.”

“Why don’t you just tell him?” Her best friend Gloria bit into the health muffin and wrinkled her nose. “Ug. These are nasty. What did you say was in them?”

“Pumpkin seeds and flax. I have tried, believe me I have tried. Last year I used a migraine to get out of the cheese tasting tour and I even stuck my finger far enough to vomit when we were headed for the puppet museum. I spent the next four hours in bed with Thomas stroking my head and heating chicken soup in the microwave. Spooning it into my mouth.” The soup had been so salty and her failure so extreme that she had vomited again. Authentically.

“Tell him.” Gloria leaned forward and exaggerated every word, as if speaking to a small child. “Thomas-I-don’t-want-to-do-so-many-things-when-we-are-on-vacation. I want to sit and watch the sunset. The sunrise. The waves fall on the sand. I want two hours each day by myself.”

Kristina shook her head. “I tried that too. He cried, Gloria. Actual tears and sobs. Then he asked me if I was having an affair.”

She came up with an infallible plan. Six long weeks touring Peru with a quick jaunt to the Galapagos. There was no way Thomas would take that much time off. No one could be gone that long and expect to keep their job, especially someone who loved his job as much as her husband did. Even if being a consultant allowed him some flexibility and he had worked his way up to a high level position in just five years. There was no way he would go. Kristina—on the other hand—could leave her at-home-editing job whenever she wanted. At the rate she charged missing six weeks would take a bite out of their income, but they were both doing well so it really wouldn’t matter. She scheduled their vacation for May, when she knew Thomas would be in the middle of a new contract. He would have to be on the job, making sure everything went right.

She was wrong. Apparently Thomas was high level enough so that he could take six weeks away. As long as he kept in touch. Monitored his underlings with his smart phone.

Kristina rolled her green sweater into a tight spiral and tucked it next to her black jeans and two long sleeve T-shirts. She missed the pre-vacation jitters—that feeling of breathless anticipation she used to get before she and Thomas traveled together—that excitement had been replaced with a dull dread. Not only did she unplug the television and close all the curtains to prepare the house for six weeks of vacancy, she unplugged herself as well. Sleep mode for 42 days was the only way she would manage Thomas in such close proximity—non-stop if he had his way.

Kristina pictured this vacation alone. She would take lots of luggage and pay the fifty dollar baggage fees, filling a huge suitcase with dresses and extra underwear and her favorite coat. Books and watercolor supplies. Five star hotels and plenty of smiling staff to haul her luggage for a thank you and a ten dollar bill.

Not six weeks worth of life in a carry-on.

“Hey, Kris. We can share toothpaste, right? It will save room.” Thomas waved two tiny bottles, shampoo and conditioner, in front of her face. “I have these.”

“I can’t use that shampoo. It makes my hair frizz.”

“I’ll take a shower right now and use this stuff up. You can fill them with your brand.”

She shook her head and snorted, but only in her mind. Thomas wouldn’t notice her chin move and he wouldn’t hear the slight puff of air leaving her nose. Did he actually think two tablespoons of shampoo would last her six weeks?

Kristina slumped onto the bed, pushing her suitcase to the side. Thomas sang in the shower. Loud. But of course he had a great voice so who was she to complain?

The phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hello, may I speak to Kristina Brown?”

“Speaking.”

“Hi, Miss Brown. This is Andy from the local…”

She put the phone back in it’s cradle, not even bothering to respond to the tele-market call. It instantly rang again. The nerve of him for calling back.

“Listen—”

“Is Thomas Brown available?” The caller interrupted Kristina before she could give Andy a scolding.

“Who may I say is calling?”

“Marsha Martin, from Tiger Realty. I’m calling about listing the house.”

So much for the Do-Not-Call list. “Please remove our name from your list. We have no intention of selling our house.”

Admittedly Kristina slammed the phone down a bit too hard, her anger at Thomas spilling onto some hard-up realtor resorting to cold calls.

“I reserved us a cab.” Thomas set his backpack in the front hall a full two hours before they needed to leave for the airport.

He had bought a pack for her too, but she refused to use it. Good practice for standing her ground, because that was what she was going to do. If she had to travel with him she would make it right. She would speak her mind, plan her time, eat what she wanted and only participate in those activities she had chosen. She would follow Gloria’s advice. Two days ago she had set Thomas down and had “the talk.” He looked crushed, but that hadn’t stopped her.

“Uber is cheaper and I already have one reserved.” She smiled and kissed his cheek. “Remember our agreement? I take care of the plans this time.”

“Honey, I don’t want you to do all the work. This is our vacation, remember?”

She did remember. And she remembered his agreement to let her handle things, which seemed to have quickly vanished from his mind. “Which cab did you call? I’ll cancel it.”

They got to Lima—and the five-star-hotel she had splurged on—without a hitch.

“Let’s eat now and then we have some time to look around. A stroll on the boulevard will keep us awake. Have to beat that jet lag!” Kristina kept her voice light and cheery, although she felt a migraine coming on. It had been a very long trip, even without any delays or layovers.

“Sounds like a good idea.” Thomas was agreeable. “I’ll take the first shower while you unpack.”

She had expected him to try to take charge. Even prepared herself for a battle over dinner first or no walk or cocktails instead. Maybe this trip would be different. Kristina opened her suitcase to unroll her single dress. The steam from Thomas’s shower should take out all the wrinkles.

The dress wasn’t there. Neither was her extra long-sleeve t-shirt or two pairs of her underwear. Her whole suitcase had been unpacked and repacked.

“Oh my God! The airport security robbed me. I didn’t even have anything valuable, but they took my clothes.”

Thomas sang old rock songs from the shower. He hadn’t heard her. He never heard her.

Kristina took inventory. What else had been stolen?

A paperback and her journal. A bottle of conditioner, although the shampoo was still tucked neatly inside a plastic bag and stowed in the bottom pocket.

Why in the world would an airport employee take her dress, her underwear and her shirts and then take the time to repack everything so neatly? Everything re-rolled and color coordinated.

“Heard it through the….la la la.”

Thomas.

He had repacked her suitcase.

Heat frothed in her stomach, building up to her throat with a sour acid taste. Her chest spasmed into a tight bowling ball of anger. She would yell at Thomas loud enough to burst through his stupid grapevine song.

Something stopped her. Swallowing hard, she closed her eyes and squeezed the bottle of shampoo. Had he missed it in the hidden pocket or had he simply decided she needed to wash her hair but not condition it?

Not this time. No way. Jumping to her feet, Kristina grabbed her wallet and rushed downstairs. Five star hotels had shops. If she couldn’t find a dress there she would head out to the strip down the block.

It took her only thirty minutes to find the perfect small black dress. This really was a nice hotel, with a five star boutique. She added a pair of soft leather pumps and a cobalt rolling suitcase to her bill. She would fill it before the sun set again. Unlike trips Thomas planned, she had included an “adjustment to jet lag” day, which had just morphed into a shopping day.

Thomas was on his phone when she got back to the room.

“That sounds like a decent offer. Go for it.” He barely glanced at her as she tucked the new suitcase in the closet and plopped down on the bed. “Hey, listen. I’ve got to go, we’re headed out to dinner. I’ll talk to you soon.” He slid his phone into the pocket of his very wrinkled jacket. That’s what happened when you rolled it tightly into a plastic bag and sucked all the air out—her husband’s great space saving trick.

“Working already? They didn’t leave you alone for long.”

“No…yes…nothing big. Don’t worry. I promise it won’t impact our time.” Thomas stood and straightened his tie. “You ready?”

“Ready? Of course not. My turn to shower.” Whatever his office wanted it must have been big to distract him enough so that he never even asked where she had been.

Twenty minutes later she twirled in front of the mirrored closet door and smiled at Thomas who was seated on the edge of the bed clicking through television stations. “Do you like my new dress?”

If only she could have had a video of Thomas’s face and the story it told. His need to take control—tight jaw. His realization that he would have to admit to meddling—pressed lips. His anger that she had gone out shopping—raised eyebrow. His decision not to say a word because of a delayed sense of guilt—tongue sneaking out of the corner of his mouth for a split second.

“You look nice.” Thomas pushed her hair behind her ear as he kissed the smooth spot on her cheek. “Smell nice too. Excited?”

“Come on, I’m hungry.” She pulled him out the door and down the hall.

Kristina smiled as the elevator carried them to the rooftop restaurant. As they rose, her doubts slid down the shaft. She was happy. She forgave her husband for his interference with her packing and she twined her fingers in his. She liked this version of Thomas.

This version—Calm Thomas—stuck around for three days. Kristina had spent all day Tuesday at the shops while he relaxed at the hotel pool. Although she suspected he was working, and not just relaxing because his phone never left his side. Last night they had walked down the avenue—hand in hand again— to a small restaurant recommended by the manager of the hotel: no ambience, he warned, but the best Choritos a la Chalaca in Lima.

On Thursday Calm Thomas dimmed.

“I signed us up for a great adventure tomorrow, Kris. A boat ride and this cool truck—like a Mercedes jeep—takes us to this crazy zip-line.”

“What? Tomorrow we visit Santo Domingo and I arranged for an authentic dinner with a local family.”

“Come on. We have to get away from the city for a day.”

“We’ll be away from the city on Friday. Tomorrow is our last day here and I want to see the cathedral.”

“All cathedrals are the same. Besides, I already paid and it’s non-refundable.”

Kristina might have enjoyed the boat ride and the zip line, even the crazy vehicle which bounced them through the countryside. But she couldn’t. The smile on her husband’s face should have made up for the phone call to the local family she made—so sorry, we have to cancel, we’ll pay anyway, of course—and the blue skies and breathtaking views were amazing, but Kristina sulked. The real kicker came the next morning, when she started to pack for their move to Trujillo. They were heading north today.

“Hey Baby.” Thomas stood behind her and circled his arms around her. “You don’t need to pack yet. We’re staying here an extra day.”

She wrenched herself from his grip and spun around. “What did you do now?”

Hands up, as if to ward off blows, Thomas stepped back. “You wanted to see that church so bad. I booked us another night, that’s all.  Not the end of the world, I promise.”

Maybe not to him, but for Kristina it meant rescheduling their bus, canceling the next hotel—non-refundable at this point in time—and figuring out how this impacted the next few days of her itinerary. If she hadn’t built in lots of unscheduled time it would have been a disaster.

“I can’t call Marcus. We stood up his family yesterday and that can’t be un-done.”

“Who the hell is Marcus?”

“The guide, the one I had yesterday. I told you. It was his aunt and uncle who were cooking dinner for us. That was all part of visiting Santo Domingo. Not only that, but I made plans for Trujillo.”

“Whatever. I’ll see you downstairs. I need coffee.” Thomas had stalked away.

In Chiclayo Thomas pulled another fast one.

“Are you ready? The bus leaves in fifteen minutes.” Kristina slung her day pack over her shoulder. She was excited about finally seeing Túcume, with it’s supposed magic aura and so many pyramids. The website said visitors felt energized and happy after visiting—something she could use right now.

Thomas glanced at his phone. “Umm. Babe. I can’t go.”

“What?” A soft thump of her heart.

“I know I said work wouldn’t interfere, but there’s a kind of crisis going on, and I need to take care of it.”

She stepped forward and kissed his cheek. “Don’t worry. It’s okay.” With a quick pivot, Kristina kept her husband from glimpsing the smile that covered her face.

The day was amazing and Túcume was grand. Walking at her own pace, stopping when she wanted to take a picture, sitting on a boulder for an hour simply to look at the view, everything was perfect. She hoped the crisis at his job would last a few more days.

Calm Thomas disappeared completely. As they traveled back to the south Kristina listened to the him complain about every single thing. No, not everything: just what she planned or did. Listening to his voice was like a high pitch noise that assaulted your eardrums, only slightly relieved by pressing your palms to the side of your head.

“Really, Kristina. Do you have to drink that every morning? It smells disgusting.” Thomas didn’t care for the new tea she had picked up in Trujillo.

“I think visiting another plaza is a waste of time. I talked to the concierge and there is a balloon trip over the Sacred Valley. I scheduled it for tomorrow.”

And when she reminded him of their agreement he got angry.

“Do you have to interrupt me all the time? Can’t I even finish a sentence before you disagree with what I want to do? This is my vacation too, you know.”

She gave up. It would be his vacation from now on. What was the point in arguing? The crazy thing was he didn’t seem to enjoy all the new things he forced on her. His phone buzzed and beeped and rang endlessly.

On Thursday, six days after the disappearance of Calm Thomas, Kristina decided that she would tell her husband they had to go home. The thought of four more weeks of this pinch and pull—Thomas refusing to give up control and she refusing to let go of her resolution that she wouldn’t be pushed around—made her stomach burn and her head shimmer with pain.

I’ll tell him at lunch, she decided. The airline tickets were in his pack. He had asked for them last night and after ten minutes of argument she slammed the envelope on the tiny desk in the corner of the hotel room. He treated her like a fourteen-year-old, not even trusting her to manage something as simple as the tickets.

“Of course I trust you, Kris. But you didn’t even know where the tickets were. You had to search through all those pockets. That’s the problem with having more than one suitcase.”

She should have known her purchases where stewing deep down in his mission control center. Like a rogue meteor that would likely miss earth, but who knows, we better explode it anyway.

This morning he was out for a run. Something new on this trip—he hadn’t asked her to go with him. Happy for a short break each morning she slept in, ordered room service and watched the news. In Spanish, which she found enjoyable, watching the faces of the newscasters, noting raised eyebrows, smiles, shaking heads, waving hands. Put these together with the video footage and she could usually surmise the story with no problem.

Today she used the time to get the tickets out of his backpack. She would call and see what the penalty was for rescheduling their return flight. She unzipped the front pocket where she had watched him tuck the envelope.

Her hand bumped something rigid. It wasn’t in the pocket, but behind it. Kristina opened the top of the pack and reached down.

Thomas’s iPad? He had insisted that neither of them needed tablets because they had their phones. What else had he smuggled along?

She peered into the pack and pushed a few things around. Shoes, socks, pants, shirts, nothing else that she could see. There wasn’t really time to unpack the entire bag, although she wanted to.

A thought came to her. He had been so terrible, right from the beginning. The Calm Thomas phase had been brief, really. When you think about the fact that he had started interfering before they even left the states. Unpacking her bag, taking her things, calling that cab. She quickly slipped the iPad back to its hidden spot. Thomas was hiding something. That must be why he had gone from sweet to sour, not the fact that she was in charge.

“There’s something we need to talk about.” Kristina set the spoon down without tasting the cream of asparagus soup.

Thomas slurped a mouthful and nodded for her to continue.

“I want—” An unfamiliar ring tone interrupted her.

“Sorry.” Thomas grabbed his phone and looked at the screen. “I have to take this. Work. Sorry, but it’s important.” He jumped up and hurried out to the lobby.

When had he programed “Baby, What a Big Surprise” into his phone? Who’s ring was that?

She stirred the soup without tasting it. Something was off. True to form Thomas wanted to be in charge. But when had he ever been so negative about things? It was impossible for her to complain when he treated her as if she was the most important thing in his world, but his emotional flopping around, snapping at her, rushing off to answer his phone? It wouldn’t be hard to tell him she wanted to cut the vacation short if he kept acting like a jerk.

Maybe he was having an affair.

The thought made her laugh, but she choked. Maybe he was. So much romance in that man and she had been denying him his chance to shower her with attention.

In the ten minutes Thomas was away she lost her resolve. If she told him she wanted to go home he would promise to do better, to “lay off” as he always put it. For a few days she would get what she wanted and then things would slide back to the torture of traveling with a man who closed his eyes to her needs. But what if he agreed? Wouldn’t that mean he wanted to get back to her, whoever she was? The mystery woman?

Maybe she shouldn’t even consult him, just change the air travel tickets and slam them down with the firm directive this trip was over and they were headed home. Or maybe she should just change her ticket, and disappear while he was out running, send him a text message from the airport, leave him to figure out what he wanted to do, each of them in charge of their own destiny.

“Uh, Kristina?” Thomas stood next to the table, clutching his phone.

She snapped out of her daze. “What is it?”

“Bad news, I’m afraid. Things have really fallen apart with the Simpson contract. I have to go home.”

“Home?”

“But you can stay. I want you to stay, to do the climb, to see…uh…all those things you have planned.”

The “Baby” of the new ring tone must be insisting she couldn’t live without him.

“That’s what I—” Wait. Why should she tell him now? That she hated this trip, hated the way he smothered her, wanted to go home. Hadn’t Thomas just dropped the way out straight into her lap? If he was having an affair she would find out sooner or later, right? Why not take advantage of this bizarre situation?

“Oh, Thomas. Really? Do you really have to go?” Kristina pushed her lips out in a pout to keep the smile suppressed.

“Believe me, Sweetheart, if I could I would pass this off. But it’s too big a contract to let Brad screw up. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to fire him when I get there and I don’t want to do that over the phone. The damage he could do? If I don’t protect the files and you know, change his access…all that stuff.”

His face was bright red and he was breathing hard. Go for it, buddy. Run off to her. I hope you don’t really fire Brad to keep your cover story safe.

“Sit down, Thomas. Finish your lunch at least.”

Kristina kept her eyes closed as she stretched her neck, rolling it to the right and rubbing her cheek against the cool pillow. When all the kinks were out she let the filtered sunlight creep into her consciousness and greeted the day. Two days without Thomas and she had never felt better. No headaches, no queasy stomach, no aches and pains at all. Not even after a seven hour hike yesterday.

Today she would leave this hotel. She did love the luxury of 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets but she craved the unknown. Without Thomas she was free to play it by ear. Tomorrow she boarded the bus for the ten days of Matchu Pichu adventure and then it was on to the Galapagos. But there was lots of unscheduled time in between. Unscheduled, unencumbered days that were hers and hers alone. On the original itinerary, carved in stone, they were going to go see canyons and volcanoes in Arequipa, but now? She just might find her isolated beach.

“There are plenty of extra seats, this is a small group, so feel free to spread out. If you sit on the right side of the bus you will see…”

Kristina quit listening to the drone of Margie, the tour guide, and made her way to the rear of the bus. She had expected the tour to be mostly couples, but out of the twenty-seven people only eight were attached. This left a lot of singles. And they all seemed to want to pair up—men and women alike.

No more chatting for me. She slipped into a seat and placed her purse and sweater next to her. For a split second she wished she had a day pack to effectively send the message she wanted to be left alone. To add punch to her communiqué she turned to the window and rested her head, eyes closed.

Someone stopped anyway. She could hear heavy breathing, a gulp, a shift in gait. Eyes tight she waited.

Great. Whoever had considered disturbing her had moved back toward the front of the bus.

Meals were worse. The group was seated at large tables. When Kristina tried to slip off to a table by herself, Jim, a grizzled guy with a comb-over made himself at home.

“Where are you from?”

“Here alone?”

“Mind if I join you?”

“Us single women have to stick together, right?”

She was tired of everyone trying to be her friend. Had she traded Thomas for something worse? Calling up her resolve she put people off. Nice didn’t seem to work, so she switch tactics.

“Yes, I am alone because I prefer to travel that way. I think there’s room for you over at that table.”

Eventually most of the tour group got her message. They paired up nicely and kept out of her way.

Today was the day of the big climb. Kristina was excited and glad she hadn’t gone home with Thomas. The weather was clear, just cool enough to be comfortable. She had reviewed the instructions for the new camera—another item that had been on Thomas’s taboo list—and was ready to spend the day taking amazing photos.

Margie’s voice interrupted the breakfast chatter. “Okay gang. Finish up that coffee and head out front. Today’s bus is small, so please move all the way to the back and put your stuff under the seat. We’ll be snug, but we can zip up there in no time.”

She would have to share. Kristina debated the strategy of waiting to get on last, thus reducing the odds Jim would sit next to her, or getting on first so that she would be sure to have a window seat. She decided the best strategy would be to join the middle of the group.

Everyone had the same idea. All but one of the window seats were taken. This left her with a choice of seat mates, but at the last minute she slipped next to the last window space. Better to have a view and live with who ever sat next to her.

“Is this seat taken?”

Kristina didn’t turn from the window, just shrugged. “No.” She didn’t recognize the voice, but at least it wasn’t Jim. She waited for the person to make idle conversation, but all she heard—and felt—was a body settling in next to her. Two minutes later she couldn’t resist the temptation to turn and look.

A man. She had never seen him before.

A very handsome man.

He smiled.

“Hi. I’m Kristina. You…I’ve…” Great, now she was making small talk.

“George. And yes, I’m new to the tour.” He offered his hand.

A smooth, cool, strong hand.

When the group reached Machu Pitchu, Margie held forth with more instructions. They had already decided which hike—tickets had to be purchased in advance—but there were headsets to pass out and meeting times to be discussed. Kristina told Margie she would be taking the hike alone so she didn’t need the guided headsets. She found the ladies room and made her way to the trailhead.

George stood next to the wooden sign—Bienvenidos from the Minsterio del Ambiente—studying the map. It looked like he had made the decision to go solo as well. Kristina smiled briefly as she moved past him.

“Kristina. I think you might be the type who likes to go it alone, and you can tell me to get lost if you want, but can I join you?” George really did have the sparkliest eyes she had ever seen.

“Why yes. You are right on that account…but I would love it if you joined me.” Kristina instantly regretted her words. Why had she said that? She had been planning this day alone ever since Thomas flew home.

Within twenty minutes she knew this would now be the best day of her vacation.

George was nothing like Thomas. He was nothing like anyone she had ever met. There was something about him, a pheromone or a past life or something, but never had Kristina felt so warm with pleasure. She didn’t even try to put her finger on what it was—the way he listened, laughed, smiled, held her elbow when they had to perch at the edge of the trail for another group to pass. Maybe it was the calm manner in which he waited for her to set up a photo shot—she wouldn’t even describe it as patient because there was absolutely no sense of impatience.

He was real. Even when he asked for something.

“That looks great. You picked the ham, didn’t you?” George eyed her lunch.

They were settled on a large stone outcropping, the sun warm enough so that Kristina had removed her sweater and basked like a lizard.

“I did.”

“I picked the turkey.” He sniffed at his sandwich. “It has pesto, I think. Smells good.”

“Hmmm.” She took a bite of her ham and swiss. “This is good.”

“Can I convince you to go halves?”

“Sure.” She handed him half her sandwich.

She liked sharing with George.

She shared a lot with George over the next few days. He had joined the tour late because he had missed his flight from the states. A friend had a crisis and he had stayed to help him move his mother into a retirement home. Kristina was very happy when she discovered he was also booked on the Galapagos tour.

Then she spoke with Thomas.

“Can you come home? You’ve been gone so long. Maybe we could do those islands some other time. Together.”

Had his girlfriend dumped him?

“I miss you too, honey.” Hopefully her voice didn’t sound as insincere to him as it did to her. “Did you get everything taken care of?”

“How did—oh, you mean Brad and all that. Sure. Most of it anyway.”

The goddesses were smiling down on her, because Thomas didn’t suggest he fly out to meet her. And she simply refused to consider cutting her trip short.

Marcie was Kristina’s favorite Uber driver and she was happy when the quiet woman and her clean Subaru were available for her drive home from the airport. Thomas hadn’t returned her calls yesterday and this morning there was only a brief text. Sorry, can’t pick you up. Things still out of control here. Maybe mystery woman was back in the picture.

“Can you wait?” Kristina asked Marcie. She didn’t have a key: one more thing Thomas had insisted she didn’t need to bring on their vacation. He had his, so why double up? There was a hide-a-key but it had been months, maybe even a year, since she had used it.

Something was off about the yard. The potted geranium wasn’t next to the porch. The ceramic planter with the hidden key was empty. No geranium left at all. What had happened to her plants?

She hoped Thomas had realized she didn’t have her key and left the back unlocked. She headed around the side of the house.

A voice interrupted her attempts to open the sticky wooden gate, always a challenge after a rain storm.

“Excuse me. Can I help you?”

A tall woman in a silk robe stood behind her.

Where had she come from?

“No. It’s fine. I’m locked out and just checking ‘round back.”

“I have to say, you don’t look like my idea of a burglar.”

Kristina stopped fumbling with the latch and turned to fully face the woman. Who in the world was she? Walking around the neighborhood looking like she just got off a lounger.

“Are you new?”

“Who are you?”

The two women simultaneously shot harsh glares along with their questions.

“I’m Kristina and this is my house. As I said, I’ve locked myself out.”

“Nice try.” The tall woman shook her head. “If you leave now, I’ll—wait, did you say Kristina? Kristina as in Kristina and Thomas Brown?” The woman laughed. “I can’t believe it.”

“Can’t believe what?” This crazy woman continued to laugh and Kristina’s puzzled confusion slowly turned to dread. Something was going on. Was this the mystery woman? Had Thomas messed up? Failed to get her to leave before she, his wife, came home?

“You were in South America? I thought it was weird, you taking off when the deal was finally closing. All those digital signatures.”

“Digital signatures?”

The woman snorted. “I’m Carmen Dyson. I own this house. You sold it to me.”

“What are you saying?” The confusion that had been building turned to dread. Thomas’ quick forays out of hearing distance, rapid goodbyes, sudden departure for home. It hadn’t been another woman. Well, it had. There was this woman, Carmen, but she wasn’t the mystery woman.

The iPad. Digital signatures.

Thomas had sold their house.

Her husband had moved off with a newer, pliable younger woman. Taking everything.

“Sorry. Don’t look so stricken. Come round, he left something for you.”

Carmen didn’t invite her in, just reached inside, grabbed something off the window ledge and turned back. She handed Kristina a thick white envelope. Square and plumped, like a wedding invitation ripe with return reply and directions to the reception. Then she said “I really have to go get dressed” and abruptly shut the door in Kristina’s face.

Kristina slid her fingernail under the flap and opened the envelope. Had Thomas actually left her a “Dear John” letter?

There was a card, with a photo inside. She looked at the picture first.

A craftsman style home made of beautiful stone, the wide front porch a smiling mouth and the windows two shining eyes. The yard was full of blooming flowers, lending the whole thing a past era feel. She noticed the potted geranium next to the stairs.

“My dearest Kristina,

Don’t take your luggage from the car. Give your driver this address: 4396 Pippen Rd. I’m waiting here for you, here in our new home.

Your loving husband, Thomas”

Her hands shook and her mouth went dry. Was this even possible? Had Thomas actually sold their house and bought a new one? She looked at the photo. The house was stunning, everything she had ever claimed to want in a home. But it just couldn’t be. What kind of husband, what kind of man, no, what kind of person thought it was normal to relocate someone without even asking for their opinion on the matter?

She was frozen by the realization that her things were not here anymore. Closets of coats and sweaters, drawers filled with art supplies, kitchen cabinets with her grandmother’s cast iron fry pan. Carmen’s things, like those terrible olive colored curtains, had taken place of all that was hers. Kristina pulled her dried lips apart and moved her tongue around, trying to get moisture back into her mouth.

As suddenly as the air had left her body she felt her lungs fill and warmth creep back into her limbs. Her heart peeked out from behind the dark cloud, a tentative child checking to see if the coast was clear.

She pictured Thomas waiting in the new house. He had likely cooked a dinner and their blond maple table, filling a new dining room, was covered with a white linen cloth, candles waiting to be lit, wine ready to be poured. She was sure he had checked her arrival time, planned everything down to the minute, his romantic surprise burning a hole in his head as he wondered why she wasn’t there yet.

She turned to the street and smiled. Waving the card, she rushed back to the car.

“You’re never going to guess what happened,” she said as she slipped into George’s waiting arms.