“Reality Check” by Ann Liska

I pulled up outside my villa. There’s a covered space where you’re supposed to park, but most people use it as a terrace instead. There are lounge chairs, plants and so forth, even hot tubs. 

Emma, the ten-year-old neighbor girl, waved to me as she rode her bike in slow circles around the compound. Her red curls were tucked up under a sparkly pink helmet. Emma’s parents, Rob and Kate, were in their garage-terrace, sheltering from the heat with Emma’s baby brother. When I moved here to the Middle East, Rob and Kate were newlyweds.

Martha’s car was in its place next door. Her villa looked closed up, the curtains drawn, but I knew she was probably behind them, looking out at me. 

My cat, Boris, greeted me at the door the way a dog will do. 

Martha waited half an hour before she rang the doorbell. Usually, she just walked in.

“Why this formality?” I asked her. 

“Do you have anything to drink?”

“No alcohol, if that’s what you mean.”

“Of course it’s what I mean! Jesus,” Martha said. “Never mind, I brought my own.” She took a bottle of gin, a bottle of tonic, and three limes out of her beach bag. “Do you have ice, at least?”

“You don’t have to be so hostile,” I said. We moved to the kitchen. I gave her a glass filled with ice, and a paring knife for the limes. “Don’t try and stab me, now.”

The bottle glugged as she poured herself a large measure of gin. She topped it off with some tonic water and a slice of lime. “Aren’t you having any?”

“I haven’t had gin in years. If I recall correctly, it causes wicked hangovers. But it does look good.” The scent of juniper and lime filled the kitchen. I got myself a glass. “We’d better order some food.”

“I’m not staying,” Martha said.

“Oh, come on. We have to talk about it. Don’t we?”

“Not unless you’ve changed your mind.”

I hadn’t, but I ordered the food anyway.

By the time the biryanis arrived, Martha was on her third G&T. Her green eyes glittered; her dangly earrings sparkled. I was nursing my second drink, already feeling the headache that was to come, and dreading our conversation almost as much. 

Martha picked at her food and then shoved it aside. “You should leave him,” she said.

“Well, I won’t. He’s my husband.”

“You’re denying your true nature.” Martha leaned toward me, and I pulled away.

“Let’s sit outside,” I suggested.

“Too many mosquitoes, and neighbors.”

“Ok, the living room then.” I picked up my glass and the ice bucket. Martha followed me, carrying the gin bottle in one hand and her glass in the other. She seemed quite steady. Maybe her tolerance was greater than I thought.

Martha sank down on the couch and patted the seat beside her. Instead, I moved to the lounge chair where Boris likes to sit. 

Martha laughed and shook her head. “I guess you mean it, then,” she said. Her laugh was hollow, mirthless.

“I mean it. I’ve been here twelve years. I’m married, and my husband wants me to come home,” I said. “I’m sorry if I’ve…disappointed you, Martha. I never meant to hurt you. Truly, I didn’t.”

“Are you telling me that those nights weren’t real?” she demanded. She set down her glass, lowered her head. Martha is younger than me by five years. She is beautiful. If she liked men, there would be no problem getting one. But in that moment, she looked old and tired.

Boris crawled into my lap. I petted him, and in a low voice I acknowledged, “They were real.”

“Well then? You don’t see that you are denying who you really are?”

“What I see is that we were in an unusual situation, and something happened that normally wouldn’t have. We wouldn’t have been in each other’s lives at all, back home. Would we?”

She shook her head. “No, probably not.” 

“We should stop drinking this,” I said, holding up the gin bottle. To my surprise, she agreed.

Across the way at Kate and Rob’s place, the lights went out. There was the sound of Boris leaving through the cat flap. 

Martha and I sat in the dark, sipping ginger tea. She reached over and patted my thigh. “Once more for old times’ sake?” she asked, but there was a lightness in her tone. 

I drank my tea. We sat there a while longer. I never answered Martha’s question.

Ann Liska is a 2020 graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing, University of Tampa. Her work has been published by Dark Alley Press, Pure Slush, The Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop, and others. She has previously worked as a teacher and a higher education administrator.

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