“Noise from Within” by Rachel Fuld

The humming of the coffee machine made her want to pry every strawberry-red strand from her neatly-groomed head. Why he insisted on using that thing to make their morning headache-canceling beverage was beyond her. Nothing gave her a bigger migraine than that scarlet-colored espresso machine given to them by their best friends Jim and Gary. 

Ahh. Jim and Gary. How their lives were so different before those drama kings came into their lives. First came Jim. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Carmen couldn’t believe he played for the other team. Was she even allowed to think that? She was constantly learning what the whole world apparently already knew. What was okay to say, what was offensive?. He dressed well. But so did Alex, and there wasn’t a gay bone in his body. Gay was acceptable. That she knew. But was it okay to refer to bones as gay? What about if they belonged to a straight man? She would have to think about it. 

Then came Gary, just a few short weeks after meeting Jim. Carmen, intrigued by his quiet manner, struck up a conversation with him only to be severely disappointed minutes later when he clarified that despite being beautiful, Carmen would never be the male heartbreaker he lusted after. Even though she and Alex had been married for years, Carmen could never say no to male attention. Perhaps because Alex did not give her enough of it. 

That was when she had the brilliant idea of setting up the only two gay men she knew with one another. Jim was in from the minute Carmen said, “I think I have someone for you.” Gary needed convincing. 

“Would you set up one of your girlfriends with a guy just because they both have brown eyes? Do you not understand there’s more to me than my sexuality?” Gary had said, exasperated, and slightly hurt.

But it was Gary who was swept off his feet in a way that made him second guess how well he knew himself. Jim was slightly turned off by Gary’s excess confidence fused with his puppy dog attitude toward him from the start. 

They became a couple despite their differences. The chemistry they encountered when alone was impossible to ignore. It was as though they had always known each other. Met somewhere else, sometime else. Both Jim and Gary clued Carmen in regarding the progress of their courtship, each sensing a confidant in their female friend. 

Before their relationship became physical, being in the same room together made them feel a combination of extremely comfortable and incredibly aroused. Serious conversations took place alongside permanent goosebumps, racing hearts, and limbs that begged to become intertwined. 

The heat between them was so strong it hurt. When they finally felt each other’s skin upon their own, they both cried. Two grown men weeping in lust and desire amid the steamed mirrors of the hideously decorated room. Jim defied stereotypes with his severe lack of taste in decor. He made straight men look good if that was an acceptable statement to make.

Alex, despite being somewhat homophobic, was able to make conversation with Jim and Gary as a couple as well as with each one individually although Gary was more his type given their shared passion for sports. Sometimes Carmen would envy the time they spent together and even questioned Alex’s sexuality but was reassured by Gary’s distaste for him despite their common interests. 

For quite some time now, Alex had been incredibly distant. Even more than usual. His moods went up and down; Carmen couldn’t keep up. The pain caused by these moods quickly turned to annoyance with every single one of Alex’s shortcomings. From his compulsive flossing to his complete disregard of the unbearable racket he would create accidentally or intentionally. 

When Alex’s habits began to draw her to the point where she would beg for death via the painful removal of every strand of her ferocious hair, Carmen knew something was wrong. They had long passed the safe/normal zone of couples’ quarrels and entered the dangerous region of dysfunctional relationships headed for doom. The only question that lingered like a nagging fingernail was when it would all blow up.

Being exposed to her newest sensory nightmare, the espresso machine, along with dwelling on her gay best friends’ perfect relationship, highlighted Carmen’s suffering even more. She knew it wasn’t about the noise. It wasn’t about the small things. It was the lack of the big things that were supposed to keep them together, like a glue. Jim and Gary’s glue was authentic and not the knockoff type. There was no room for generic sticking material when it came to love. Jim gave her a hard time about Alex, every chance he got, calling him a dog when he crossed the line with Carmen. “Don’t call him that,” Carmen would constantly chastise him, even though, somehow, having Jim protect her made her feel better.  

Something was simply not right between Carmen and Alex. Carmen knew that even Jim and Gary’s love affair had calmed down once they were together for a while, but the love and respect were apparent in every look, touch, and comment. Their fights were chock-full of pain from being in a bad place, but also love because they knew arguments were needed to bridge gaps and heal wounds. Hers and Alex’s fights were lightyears apart. They consisted of Alex finding some way to blame Carmen, avoiding all responsibility, and not bothering to make amends. He avoided anything that involved showing his weakness or could potentially expose him to hurt. A typical argument would taper off, with Alex holding the reins, until he subconsciously decided that all was well in the world again.

But when life gives you lemons…you’re supposed to make lemonade, even though they weren’t really lemons, to begin with. That is what made it so difficult and unbearable for Carmen. They were originally oranges. Sweet, ripe, luscious oranges bursting with juice. She didn’t like lemons and would have never accepted one. But she also liked to make the most out of every situation. So, Carmen squeezed the life out of those lemons and added all the sugar she could find in order to quench her never-ending thirst with something that wasn’t terribly bitter.

It worked for years. Her sugar was her job. The splash of orange juice she always added secretly was her kids. And the dash of surprising cinnamon, her secret ingredient, was the cushy lifestyle both Alex and Carmen’s job allowed. At some point though, she knew deep down that there weren’t enough Louis Vuitton bags in the world that would bring her true happiness. Not even the sexiest stilettos by Jimmy Choo could stop her from wanting a different life. 

Alex used to say she watched too many sappy movies, which filled her head with unrealistic ideas. Then he claimed all of their friends were just as miserable as they were; that it was normal. Desperately wanting to be happy, adamant about appreciating her blessings, Carmen listened obediently, swallowed his words without first chewing them properly.

When she finally did, it was too late. At least it felt that way. So much time had gone by with her accepting her situation as her permanent reality, as did Alex. He didn’t seem to mind it at all and only complained when she finally came around now and then and made her feelings and needs heard. But he always did that. Respond with his own critique once criticized. You had to be blind not to see this as being defensive, so that’s what he was. Either unintentionally or intentionally blind to his destructive behavior. Changes could never be made because he never left room for self-reflection. 

Carmen had been thinking about her predicament over and over in her head. The constant bickering. The severe lack of sex. The cold, unloving behavior. She found herself sharing this personal information with Sandra, her manicurist, and then with Adele, her hairdresser. They had always talked to her about her marital issues but when she shared her intimate woes, they were both equally shocked, horrified, and mostly, suspicious.

“I’m sorry to break this to you, hun,” Sandra said, carefully spreading a thick layer of bright red nail polish over her freshly shaped fingernails. “But every guy has got to get some, somewhere. What man wouldn’t want you? Look at you! You’re gorgeous. I’m just saying, if he’s saying no to all of this, he’s got to be saying yes to something or someone else.”

Carmen sat there stunned, internalizing what Sandra was saying, but couldn’t accept it.

“Alex would never cheat,” Carmen responded confidently.

When Adele had a similar reaction, it became increasingly difficult to maintain her position on the matter. 

“It just doesn’t sound right,” Adele said, trying to be as gentle as possible. Carmen had continued to brush it off, not allowing herself to even entertain the idea. In her mind, he cared too much about his reputation and would never take the risk.

But after a few months without any change, Carmen’s impatience began to grow, as did her suspicions. She suddenly had something entirely new to chew on.

She thought about it once again as she finally got her quiet back, after Alex left to work, kids in tow. Of course, he left her the coffee machine mess to clean up. While she emptied the capsules from the machine and wiped down the counter, Carmen realized Alex had forgotten his phone next to the microwave.

He never left his phone. That was her job – she was constantly forgetting hers. He, on the other hand, was attached to it by the hip, mostly because he was married to his job, but now Carmen wondered if there was another reason. 

She glanced over at the screen; it wasn’t locked. Her curiosity piqued. She tapped on the messages icon, bringing her to a long list of correspondences. She quickly scrolled down and saw a few names of work-related acquaintances until a photo of a woman paired with the name of a man caught her eye. The message contained only two comments. The woman had simply sent a smiley while he had written something that could have been explained innocently, or less so. 

There was only one way to find out. Carmen summoned every ounce of courage from her deep pool of pain, anxiety, and regret, and wrote:

“I’m alone now, just left to work. What are you up to?”

She held her breath not knowing what to expect. Carmen put down the phone and fumbled with her hair. When she found the guts to look at the phone again, there was a little number next to the message icon indicating a new message. She opened it hesitantly and almost fainted.

A tag line accompanying a nude photo of a very curvaceous woman in the shower read, “This is what I’m up to. Wish you were here.”

Carmen nearly dropped the phone. She allowed herself to collapse onto the kitchen floor instead. That was the exact moment she heard a key turn in the front door. Alex stomped in shouting, “I forgot my phone, this is all I need right now.”

When he saw Carmen slumped on the floor, he immediately scanned the room for his phone. He grabbed it and started playing around before his face went white. He then composed himself and looked disapprovingly at Carmen.

“What’s wrong with you? Why are you sitting on the floor like that?”

Carmen didn’t have the energy to reply. Instead, she just shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head back against the cabinet. 

They stayed like that for what felt like an eternity. 

Finally, Alex spoke.

“Well, I got to go. Have a good day.” He put his phone in his pocket and left, slamming the door behind him. 

Carmen didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Her wails were caught in a tight lump in her throat but were softened by the utter ridiculousness of the situation.

Instead of going upstairs to pack Alex’s bag, she stripped right in the middle of the kitchen and held her phone camera in front of her, looking for the best angle. She smiled her sexiest smile and hit the button. 

She wrote, “Your girl’s got curves but she’s got nothing on me. You just made the biggest mistake of your life.” Once sent, she waited for a reply. When she didn’t get one, she picked up the phone to call Jim and Garry. 

Jim answered. “What’s up Care Bear?” He said affectionately, using the nickname Alex originally gave her but never bothered to use anymore. 

“You were right. Alex is a dog.” Carmen held back tears as she forced out the last word.

“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” Jim’s heartfelt feelings vibrated through the static of the phone. Gary joined the call and picked up on the tension right away. 

“What’s wrong this time?” he asked grimly. 

Jim answered in one word. “Alex.”

“That bastard!” Gary said, sounding like he was punching the wall with his fist. “That guy has got some nerve. A gay guy wouldn’t go near him, and no offense to you Carmen, but I’m not sure what kind of woman would either. He has let himself go and doesn’t even know what he has right at his fingertips.”

Carmen’s eyes welled up upon hearing her exact feelings being confirmed. Instead of crying, she dried her tears and held her head upright.

“So, boys, what do I do next?”