Rules of Combat

by Katie Cortese

When I wake on the couch to his hand on my hip, he’s already wok-fried the shrimp. I watch him roll the sushi, my face creased by the cushions of his couch. “I was studying before you got home,” I say, “really.” But he only feeds me wasabi peas, rolling them onto my tongue one at a time with rice-sticky fingers. Each pea is a lightning strike to the back of my brain, lips left sizzling. Between us, we drink two carafes of sweet plum wine.

I’m only here tonight because his wife is at a conference in Seattle. All the way across the country. 2,500 dentists in a fancy hotel arguing for composite fillings over silver caps.

I put the children to bed an hour ago with improvised bedtime stories and fresh flashlight batteries for under-the-cover reading, but the last time I checked they were sleeping. Still, I imagine the oldest with her ear pressed to a vent, listening as we argue over the rules of checkers, a silly dispute she could solve in an instant. A board is out on the floor, but instead of lining up the markers, red and black, against their squares, he presses me flat to floor, slides my shirt up the steppes of my ribs, advances his red battalion across my stomach, flushes my breasts to air like pheasants from underbrush.

The plastic checkers are rough-edged and cool. He kisses each disk into place while my fingers separate his oil-slick curls. My parents think I’m studying for the SATs with Sharon. I’ve even brought my workbook and a change of clothes.

Outside it is past midnight, and his body is swooping and smooth as a hawk with the game pieces caught tight between us. I feel the whole circumference of each individual rim. But when the landline rings, he scrambles to elbows and knees with pink rabbit eyes.

“Shit, it’s her,” he says, handing me the contoured gray cordless, heavy in my hand.

“Hello,” I say, voice high and deferential, getting back my breath, fuzzy on the time.

“Lily?” comes the voice of his wife, a rush of maroon velvet. She’s in a bar or a restaurant, a tangle of voices behind her. “Dan’s not home yet? How are the kids?”

“Sleeping,” I say. He has gone now to the kitchen. I hear the hiss of kitchen drawers sliding on their tracks and the subtle snick of a lighter. “They’re fine.”

“He’ll be home soon,” she says, and clears her throat, a slight uncertain catch of phlegm.

I watch the checkers on my stomach rise and fall with each breath. Tomorrow I will trace the bruises they’ve left behind, deep and ridged and none of them overlapping. “I’ll wait up,” I say, then listen for too long to the flatline of her dial tone. She is cold, according to him. She is needy. She is brittle. She is everything I am not.

“You did great,” he says, smoke from his cigarette erasing the scent of sesame shrimp and sex. Tonight his wife will hop a red eye and arrive home before I’ve slipped from her bed. She will drop her purse in the doorway and on my way out I’ll step over dozens of glossy pamphlets on enamel erosion and decay. Now, though, he flicks his filter in the sink, crosses the polished floor and mounts what neither of us know will be his final assault. “King me, king me, king me,” he begs, until I let my white flag fly once again.

Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf CoastThird Coast, Crab Orachard Review, Word Riot, and Monkeybicycle, among other print and online journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.