The Seven Month Itch
Olivia awoke in the dimness before morning arrived, her sheets kicked off her bare legs again. Lines of light from a streetlamp filtered through the blinds, projected on her skin where she could still feel a ghost of a touch from long ago. She turned to see if her husband was still next to her, to curl into his back. When she moved, he shifted closer to the edge of the bed and pulled the brown blanket around him. He faced the wall, just out of reach.
They’d been in shelter-in-place for seven months when Olivia started to dream about another man. Dreams filled with passion and decades-old desire. She jolted awake, aroused and jittery, with nowhere to put the energy. She looked at her phone to see what time it was. Her daughter would start calling over the baby monitor within half an hour. Not enough time to go back to sleep, even if she wasn’t feeling wired.
Olivia closed her eyes and thought about the first dream she had of Cormac a month ago. She hadn’t thought of him in years, but they were back in Portstewart, near where she spent a semester abroad in Northern Ireland. They were walking home in the dark, hand in hand, the water lapping against the sea break along the strand. The swirled scent of salt water and rain filled her lungs with each cold inhalation, and the warmth from his skin spread to hers.
And then in the way that dreams can suddenly change scenes, like a director making bad jump cuts, she and Cormac were in her dorm room. Not the room she had in Ireland, but the single room she’d had back in California her last year of college. The year she tacked his photo up on her corkboard, when she checked her email anxiously for any word from him. He was there in that room on the edge of her bed and he kissed her decisively, in a way he never had in real life. He touched her breasts with his warm hands and pulled her shirt up over her head before he leaned her back against the black and white comforter. “I’ve wanted you for so long.”
She looked the way she did now, with gray streaking her brown hair, a softer belly and breasts, the pregnancy and months of nursing etched permanently onto her frame. Cormac looked older, too. More time worn on his face, crow’s feet around his eyes and his five o’clock shadow marked with white stubble.
Olivia pulled Cormac closer and then she stumbled out of sleep back into her own bed, her body shuddering with satisfaction. Guilt hit her and she pulled her knees up into the fetal position, for a second unsure if it was reality. As she waded out of the in between phase, from dream to awake, she realized she hadn’t done anything wrong. Except until that night, her sexy dreams had always featured her husband, Leo.
When she went off the pill four years ago so they could try for a baby, her dreams started to fill with images of seducing Leo, like clockwork, around the 15th of the month. She didn’t need the basal temperature thermometer or the ovulation kits; her body and brain worked together to signal it was time for procreation. Back then she would slip out of bed and brush her teeth, then slide back in under the covers, with her shirt off, and press her body against Leo’s. He’d wake up and sleepily make love to her.
It didn’t happen like that anymore. It was scheduled or postponed, worked around availability of babysitters and their daughter’s unreliable sleep patterns. Then the pandemic started and Leo stopped touching her altogether.
Summer came and the virus didn’t subside. The season change brought with it a flurry of wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the eastern foothills, adding to their constant anxiety.
“We need to be prepared, just in case,” Leo said, filling a backpack and buckets with emergency supplies. “Pack a bag for the baby. Get all our important documents in a folder.”
A line of fire trucks rolled into the park across from their house the next morning, a staging ground for crews from across the Western U.S. to fight all the nearby blazes.
“They wouldn’t be setting up here if we were in the line of the fire. I think we’re safe,” Olivia said.
In September, the skies turned orange with a haze as thick as marmalade. Soot fell like snowflakes onto their cars. They couldn’t go outside.
Olivia kicked a soccer ball down the long entryway toward her toddler who giggled and fell to her knees to stop the ball. Olivia caught a glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror, out of breath, unkempt hair sticking to the sweat on her forehead, her breasts drooping down in a nursing bra. She needed to take up running again. It was an old habit, one she only found her way back to when she was heartbroken.
“I’m going for a run,” she told her husband the first day the air quality forecast predicted clearer skies. “Watch Lily until the babysitter gets here.”
“Momma, momma, momma,” her daughter called, following her to the front door. She slipped in her headphones and continued moving forward.
It was October, an early morning, and a band of pink sky showed just over the tree line in the distance. The air chilled her hands and cheeks, turning them a rosy red. Flocks of Canada geese flew overhead in a V formation, up high where no plague could reach them. She ran south into the empty parking lot, her feet landing out of sync with the music piping into her ears, then turned left at the soccer field with its overgrown grass and looped back toward home.
Olivia slowed to a walk, her breath coming out in uneven exhales. She checked an app and saw she’d only managed just over a mile. Her calves and back muscles spasmed with the unexpected exertion. But the run made her sit up taller and stand up straighter, as though her core muscles remembered they existed. She kept running, three times a week and worked up to three miles at a time.
The tension in Olivia’s back retreated. The sexy dreams starring Leo returned. She looked at herself in the mirror now and could see the glimpse of the woman she used to be, before the pandemic, or further back, before they were married seven years ago.
She searched for new lingerie online. When the package arrived, she snuck into the second bathroom to try on the red, lacy undergarments. She looked at her reflection surrounded by bath toys and baby shampoo bottles. The J-hook on the bra created the illusion of the cleavage she used to have, before her breasts manufactured milk or knew the indignity of a pump. The lace against her skin made her feel sexier than she had in months, maybe in years.
When she and Leo headed up to bed, she revealed the red bra and underwear slowly, as though she were wrapped in a red bow for him.
“I got a new bra. It’s kind of sexy.”
“Yeah?” Leo said, rinsing toothpaste out of his mouth without turning in her direction. “Can you grab my laptop and start up Netflix?”
Olivia gave up and decided to wait for the weekend. On Saturday, she dropped Lily off at her sister’s, the only other person in their small social bubble.
“The baby’s gone for a few hours. We have the house to ourselves, if you want to come upstairs with me,” she told Leo.
“Liv, I’ve got a deadline. Maybe tomorrow morning.”
But she knew in the morning he’d be out of bed before she woke up or Lily would be calling over the baby monitor before they had time to start anything.
And that’s when Cormac showed up as she slept, quite uninvited and unexpected. Olivia had known him when she was 20. He’d cast a long shadow over her life. Or not a shadow, the opposite of a shadow, a ray of light.
Her journals from the months when she knew him were filled with fickle opuses to other boys she’d wanted first, the boy from Limerick and the one from Ballymena, and one from Scotland. Boys who got drunk and got her drunk, and pressed their bodies and their mouths into hers on darkened dance floors and then turned to the next girl when she wouldn’t sleep with them at the end of the night.
Cormac was 27 and she never would have noticed him if he hadn’t asked her for help in the computer lab one night. “These footnotes have me stumped. Can you take a look?” he said from the monitor next to hers.
“Um, yeah sure. I can help you with that.” She rolled her chair over and his breath smelled like mint gum.
“You’re not Irish,” he said after she spoke.
“I’m from California. I’m just here for a semester.”
Cormac hummed a few notes from the old Beach Boys song and the lyrics for California Girls ran through her head as she showed him how to navigate to the footnote toolbar.
“Thank you,” he said, and the word sounded more like ‘tank.’ “I owe you a cup of tea.”
She saw him next in the library. She was hunched forward over a binder full of history notes, in preparation for a test the next day, the only reason she wasn’t out with one of the other boys.
“Hey, California Girl. Mind if I join you in studying?”
She looked up and recognized Cormac from the lab. He was wearing the same black sweater and red shirt he had on before, his hair still a bit disheveled.
He sat down and pulled out a giant chemistry book. Cormac showed up often after that when she was at the computer lab or in the library. He always sat next to her if a seat was open nearby and he flashed her a sweet, sober smile. It wasn’t the romantic backdrop she expected for falling in love. But when she looked back now, sometimes she thought it had been love, or something close to it when he said one night as he walked her back to his flat for tea, “It’s cold outside. Let me keep you warm.” And he slipped his hand into hers.
Like the kettle sitting on the stovetop full of lukewarm water in his kitchen, waiting for Cormac to turn the burner on, her feelings simmered up at his touch.
“Would you like to go to the cinema with me on Saturday?” he asked as he set a cup in front of her.
He sat next to her. He smelled like he’d been for a run earlier in the day and let his sweat dry into his clothes, a manly, testosterone-laced scent that swept away thoughts of the other boys. She wanted him to take her hand, but he kept his fingers clasped together in his lap, his eyebrows raised as he waited for her answer.
“Yes,” she said. Yes to the movies. To kissing, to touching, to loving. And then her roommate tagged along on the movie date, an anti-wing woman who ruined the mood. Cormac didn’t ask Olivia for the parts of herself she wanted to give him.
On her last night they went out with a group of friends. He interlaced his fingers in hers and led her to the dance floor. In the crowd, she moved her body close to his. She ran her hand down the front of his clean polo shirt, the hard angles of his abdomen contracting at her touch. He pulled her close and she clasped her hands together behind his neck, the scent of fabric softener coming off his freshly laundered shirt mixed with a little bit of sweat from the dancing.
At the end of the night at her doorstep he leaned down toward her and his lips grazed the top of her head imperceptibly.
“California Girl, I’ll write you soon.”
Cormac had sent her emails, a few times, and she wrote back but never told him how much she missed him or cared about him. And then in his last message before he graduated, he said he couldn’t keep his university email address but he’d be in touch as soon as he had a new one. She never heard from him again and nowadays people would say she was ghosted but it was 1998 then, and people could still get lost.
Whenever things went wrong with a new boyfriend or fling, she thought back to Cormac, the one man who’d been so careful with her heart. And then she started dating Leo when she was 28 and he banished thoughts of old flames. They had just celebrated the copper anniversary midway through the pandemic with a grocery store bottle of champagne.
The timing of the dreams wasn’t lost on Olivia. She’d seen that old Marilyn Monroe movie, The Seven-Year Itch, at some retro film festival when she and Leo were first together. Leo looped his arm around her shoulders as they exited the theater. “I’ll never get turned around by a buxom blond,” he said, stooping down to kiss her lips. “You know I only go for brunettes.”
Olivia never thought she would lose interest in Leo. She had a crush on him for a year before they hung out together at a work holiday party. He handed her a glass of champagne and grazed the soft flesh on the palm of her hand. He smiled at her, his rosy lips parting to show his perfect straight white teeth. He touched her elbow slightly with his broad hand, his long fingers cool like piano keys against her bare skin. A chill ran from her arm straight to her core.
She didn’t go home with Leo that night. Olivia made him take her out on dates for two months and then finally texted him, “I can stay at your place this weekend, if you want.” He texted back in seconds. “Yes, please.”
They’d fallen in love easily and quickly, and she never worried that he would cheat on her. But she had never considered what it would feel like if he stopped wanting her. She never felt his cool fingers on her anymore and she was dreaming about someone else nightly. What she was feeling now, it wasn’t a seven-year itch. It was a seven-month one.
The world she lived in could be some alternative universe in a bad sci-fi movie, where a reality TV star had been elected president, and a virus had spread across the world in a matter of months. But she started to think of another universe, one in which she had stayed in Ireland longer, and really fallen in love with Cormac, and he’d fallen in love with her, too. One where he came back with her to California and they built a life together, a world where someone else had been elected in 2016, and scientists had detected an emerging virus in time to quash it.
Olivia got up out of bed in the middle of the night and sat in the office when she couldn’t sleep, the blue glow from the monitor shining on her face. She typed Cormac’s name into Google search for the first time in a dozen years. She pulled a cardigan around her shoulders, her body shivering a bit because of the vent overhead that trickled cold air down on her from the crawl space. Nothing showed up in the search. Then she tried Google Images and a low-resolution photo turned up that looked like it might be him.
She clicked on it and it took her to a website for a tennis club near Cormac’s hometown. The page had dozens of photo albums dating back eight years. She opened one of the most recent photos. Cormac’s hair was shorter and his eyebrows lighter. He wore glasses and he had lines under his eyes, but the smile was the same. And his hands, the ones that held hers in another time, looked like they’d still fit interlocked with hers. He didn’t have a wedding band on his left ring finger.
But more than the photos, the most precious thing, she found an email address for Cormac who sat on the board of the tennis club. Olivia had an overwhelming urge to tell him what he had meant to her all those years ago, that she was still thinking about him 20 years on. But she kept her message simple.
Hi Cormac, I don’t know if you remember me, but I studied for a semester at university with you. I’d love to catch up if you are interested. I hope to hear from you soon.–Olivia
Olivia sent the email and waited, not really sure of what she wanted. In the morning, she laced up her running shoes and headed out into the dawn.
Turkey vultures flew overhead in the distance, circling some carrion on the horizon ahead of her. The wake of birds gathered outside her house at least once or twice a week, a reminder that life is precarious, even when the world is not in the clutches of a global pandemic. Her phone dinged with a notification of a new message, but she didn’t slow down to check it. She kept moving forward, away from the house and her family, and then she circled back toward home.
Melissa Flores Anderson is a Latinx Californian whose creative pieces have been published by Vois Stories, the Placing Poems project, sPARKLE&bLINK, Rigorous Magazine, and Moss Puppy Magazine. Her work “Not a Gardener” was featured in City Lights Theater Company’s The Next Stage and Play on Words San Jose. She has read pieces in the Flash Fiction Forum and Quiet Lightning reading series. She has a poem forthcoming in Pile Press.