This women’s fiction short story features Cordelia, a character from my debut novel, ONE TOUGH COOKIE.
Premise: A woman who lives for her husband is confronted with how lost she is while he’s away on a business trip.
Cordelia’s world was collapsing. She watched helplessly as her husband, Charlie, packed for a three-day work trip to Chicago.
“Are you sure you can’t take me with you?” Cordelia asked.
“We’ve been through this, hon. It’s only for a few days. You’ll be fine.”
“But we haven’t spent this much time apart since the wedding. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep without you next to me.” They’d only been married for five months and hadn’t lived together before then. She was so used to him; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept alone.
He took her by both shoulders. “Relax. It’ll be okay. I’ll call you before you go to bed and it’ll be as if I were here with you.”
“That’s not the same.”
“If you’re scared to be alone, why don’t you ask one of your friends to stay over? You could have a sleepover.”
“I’m not fourteen.”
“You know what I mean. Maybe it’ll be good to spend some time apart.”
“I hope you’re joking. We’re married and we should always be together.” She paused. “This won’t become a regular thing, will it?”
He sighed. “If I handle the meeting well, I may have to go again in a few months.”
“Are you being honest with me right now? Is this really about work or are you just making an excuse to go away?”
“What, you think I’m having an affair? Cordi, how can you think that?”
“What do you want me to think? You’re leaving all of a sudden, you won’t take me with you—”
“Here.” He slapped his cell phone in her hand. “Call my boss. He’s coming with me, so unless he’s also cheating on his wife, you can trust him.”
Cordelia stared down at her phone. She knew she shouldn’t do this, but she couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. She dialed the boss’s number.
She asked him specific details about the trip, who they were meeting, why couldn’t it be anyone else but her husband, and why she couldn’t come along. He answered every question patiently, and when she hung up, there was no doubt it was legit.
“Happy?” Charlie asked.
“No.” She wrapped her arms around him. “I don’t want you to go. I want you to stay here, with me.”
He held her tight. “What do you say after I finish packing, we take a bubble bath and afterward I give you a massage?”
Charlie was great at massages, and he knew she could never resist an offer for one. She nodded into his chest.
After the bubble bath and massage, they made love and cuddled to sleep. That gnawing feeling came back. Tomorrow when she got home from work, there wouldn’t be anyone to cook for or look forward to seeing, no one to cuddle with in front of the TV, and an empty bed. How would she be able to manage not only one night like this but three? It was unimaginable.
The next day at work, she tried to act normal. Her friends, especially Karina, would make fun of her for not being able to handle one night alone without her husband. She’d been alone before, she’d manage it.
But when she returned home, knowing Charlie wouldn’t walk in the door at any moment, the loneliness weighed down on her. She picked up her cat, Mousy, and sat on her favorite chair, hugging her to her, but then the cat squirmed and jumped out of her lap. Typical. Just when she needed some comfort.
Cordelia looked around the empty house. Usually, around this time, she’d start cooking a nice meal for when Charlie came home, so that’s what she’d do. She needed to eat anyway and cooking usually relaxed her.
She prepared his favorite meal: meatloaf with scalloped potatoes. Just smelling it made her feel closer to him. Her phone rang and she ran to grab it from her purse, taking a deep breath before answering. Charlie needed to think everything was fine. She couldn’t be a wimp.
“Hi, honey!” she said in the most cheerful voice she could muster. “How was the meeting?”
“It went well. Tomorrow we’ll meet with the other partners, and if we can agree on a deal with them, we’re golden. How’s everything at home? Are you managing okay?”
“Well, I haven’t been here that long, but so far so good. I’m making your favorite. I’ll freeze some for when you come home.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet. I wish I could eat some right now. I’m starving. I should go now and find something to eat.”
He was already hanging up? “Okay. Enjoy your meal. Will you call me later?”
“I’ll try. We’re going out for drinks. I may stay up late.”
“Is this a business thing or are you at a frat house?”
He laughed. “You know how my boss is. We both need to be relaxed for tomorrow. Take care, okay? Give a kiss to Mousy for me. I’ll call you tomorrow. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
So much for calling before she went to bed. The smell of burning meat brought her back to the present, and she rushed to take the meatloaf out of the oven.
Cordelia ate in front of the TV and watched the news. She and Charlie usually sat at the dinner table and talked about their day. She cherished their meals together, rehashing all the gossip from work. He always criticized her for gossiping but always asked for more. He also shared some from his workplace, although he wasn’t as nosy as she was. She’d have to wait until Thursday to hear what had gone on during this trip.
After she ate, she cleaned the kitchen and then looked around the room. This was the time when they watched a show together, but she couldn’t continue without him, so what was she supposed to do now? Watch a movie, start another show, read? They always did those things together. Charlie enjoyed for her to read to him from her romance novels. She couldn’t do it without him. There had to be something else she could do. Maybe bake a cake? Why not? It would take her a few hours and she could bring it to work the next day. Everyone loved her cakes.
She searched through her cookbooks and found the most complicated recipe she could find, from the ones she hadn’t done because they took time and she’d rather spend it with Charlie. She settled on a coconut cake made with fresh coconut, then made a list of ingredients and headed to the supermarket.
The cake took four hours to make but by the end, it was gorgeous. And huge. She had no idea how she would carry it to work or how to even store it. She’d have to cut it into pieces but she didn’t have the heart to do it, so she made space in the refrigerator and put it there. She would share it with Charlie when he got home.
After everything was clean and back in its place, there was nothing left to do but go to bed. She took a warm shower (also something she did every night with Charlie) and settled in. It was too cold without him. Her cat couldn’t keep her warm enough. She got his pajama shirt, put it on one of the pillows, then put more pillows to be Charlie-sized and held them to her. She inhaled the scent from his shirt and felt better, but it was nowhere near the same. She needed his arms around her, the feel of his body next to hers, the wetness of a goodnight kiss.
Cordelia didn’t sleep a wink.
Are you sick, Cordelia?” Karina asked the next day at lunch.
Cordelia’s head shot up. “Hmm? Oh, I didn’t sleep well.”
She couldn’t admit the truth. Karina would rub it in her face that she was right, that Cordelia had no life apart from her husband. Cordelia had always dismissed her; Karina had never had a serious relationship. She had no idea what it took to be a good wife. But maybe there was some truth to it? Cordelia had always thought a wife’s place was by her husband’s side, but what happened when the husband was not there?
Cordelia picked at the fast-food Karina had brought her. She always brought leftovers for lunch but she’d left them at home for when Charlie came back. Why hadn’t she brought them? It would’ve been better than eating this crap. But then again, she’d never loved meatloaf. That was Charlie’s favorite meal, not hers. She should’ve cooked something she liked but he didn’t, like bollitos, the green plantain dumplings her mom used to make for her. A little treat for herself. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
She couldn’t face another night alone. And she couldn’t kill the hours baking another cake. Yesterday’s coconut cake was still in the refrigerator where she’d left it. There was no space for another one. The cake needed to be eaten.
“I baked a cake last night,” Cordelia said. “You girls want to come over after work and share it with me?”
Karina raised an eyebrow. “What about your hubby?”
“He’s, um … he’s on a business trip until Thursday.”
“Is that why you couldn’t sleep?” Karina asked.
Cordelia rolled her eyes. “Will you come or not? We could have a sleepover. I don’t want to spend the night alone. I’ll cook something for us. What do you say?” She bit her lip and looked at them expectantly.
“That’s so nice of you,” Marisa said. “Of course, we’ll come.”
“Yeah,” Natalie said.
“You know if there’s food, I’m there,” Karina said.
Cordelia whimpered and reached for their hands. “¡Ay, gracias, mil gracias!”
When Cordelia got home, she got to work immediately. She wanted to make everything perfect for her friends. After all, hosting was one of her specialties. How come she didn’t do it more often? Had she really drifted from the girl she had been before settling down? It was too disturbing to consider.
They’d agreed to meet there by six, so that gave her enough time to do some groceries and cook. She called her mom to get the recipe for the bollitos. They were supposed to be cooked together with gandules guisados and eaten with rice. When the girls arrived, she was in the middle of making the stewed pigeon peas.
Cordelia served them wine, and they sat on the stools by the breakfast bar while Cordelia tended to the food.
“I hope these bollitos turn out well,” Cordelia said. “It’s my first time making them.”
“I’m sure they will,” Marisa said. “Everything you make always tastes so good.”
“It’s not necessarily about the taste, but the texture. If the green banana mass is too soft, the bollitos will crumble. If it’s too tough, they’ll be hard to eat. My mom talked me through it, and I followed her instructions to the letter, but you never know.” She peeked into the pot, then grabbed her glass of wine and turned to them. “So what’s new with everyone.”
They chatted for a few minutes about their work and their lives, when all of a sudden, Karina said, “I think I made a mistake,” and burst into tears.
Cordelia’s jaw dropped. She’d never seen Karina cry. She was so tough; Cordelia hadn’t even thought she could cry. “What is happening?” she asked the others, as they all patted Karina’s back.
After a few minutes, the sobs subsided and Karina straightened.
“What was that about?” Cordelia asked. “I almost died of fright.”
Karina sniffled. “Ian. He hates me, and I…” Her lip trembled. “It hurts.”
“But I thought you were over Ian,” Marisa said gently.
“I’m not.” Karina wiped her nose. “I love him.”
Cordelia spilled her wine all over her apron. When the others stood to help her, she raised her hands to stop them and dabbed herself with a napkin. “Pérate, pérate, are you telling us you broke up with Ian even though you’re in love with him? Why would you do that?” When Karina had stayed with Ian longer than with any other guy she’d been with, they’d thought she’d been finally ready to settle down, and they’d been disappointed when she’d broken it off a month ago.
“I don’t know,” Karina said. “I think there’s something wrong with me.” More tears.
The lid of the pot with the stew rattled. “¡Ay, mis bollitos!” Cordelia rushed to check on them, dipping a spoon and biting into a dumpling. “They’re done! Quick, let’s serve them before they get too soft. One of you, grab the rice.” She took the pot to the dining table.
Marisa served a spoonful of rice into each plate, and Cordelia followed with a ladle of stew on top.
“Sit, all of you,” Cordelia said. “Karina, this will make you feel better, you’ll see.” She mixed everything and then put a forkful in her mouth.
“They’re incredible,” Marisa said.
“Divine,” Natalie followed.
Cordelia pressed her palm to her chest and closed her eyes. The taste took her back home to Puerto Rico, to afternoons after school and family dinners. Tears fell as she opened her eyes. “Ay, Dios mío. This reminds me so much of my mom. They’re not exactly like hers, but almost.” She chewed and moaned. “It was my favorite meal growing up. I’ve never tried making it because Charlie doesn’t like it.”
“But if it’s your favorite meal, why wouldn’t you make it?” Marisa asked.
Yes, why hadn’t she? Was she really that lost? “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” She took another bite. Mmm, so good. “So, Karina, what happened? Why have you been pretending not to feel anything for Ian?”
“I just … didn’t want you guys to think I was weak.”
“For loving a man?” Cordelia scoffed. “Then we’re all weaklings.”
“But that’s what I see when I look at all of you. Marisa was willing to stay with someone who didn’t deserve her. Natalie was obsessed with finding ‘the one.’ And you can’t stop living for your husband, to the point where you won’t make your favorite meal because he doesn’t like it.”
Cordelia’s mouth fell open. It was true; she couldn’t deny it anymore. She took a sip of wine. “Maybe I overdo it. I always put Charlie first, even if he doesn’t ask me to. My mom is like that. She does everything for my dad, and that’s how she raised me to be. ‘A good wife puts her husband’s interests over her own.’” She air-quoted, then moved her fork around her plate. Cordelia had never considered there could be something wrong with that. She loved taking care of Charlie and turning their house into a home. But maybe she’d strayed too far. Was there still time to course-correct? “Charlie’s probably already spoiled. If I claim my independence now, our relationship will suffer.”
“Not if you talk to him about it,” Karina said. “Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”
“You’re right. Maybe I should.”
After trying to convince Karina to give Ian another chance, Karina shook her head. “I’ve hurt him too much. Face it, guys, I’m not good for him. I think I’m damaged somehow. He deserves someone better.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Cordelia said.
“Am I? I tried to be serious with Ian. I really did, and I felt trapped. Suffocated. My mom … She’s just like you, Cordelia. She can only think about her husband and not herself. She says she’s happy, but how can she be if she puts her identity to the side? I don’t want to be like you or her. I want to be free to do whatever and not be a slave to love.”
Cordelia held up her hands. “Un momento, mamita, I’m not a slave. Yes, I clean the house and cook for Charlie, but he takes care of the garden and the trash. He fixes anything that breaks down and takes care of the finances. He fixes me baths, cracks jokes when I’m sad, dances with me even when he’s not in the mood.” She grinned. “A relationship is hard work, but if you love each other, you’ll get through it.”
And she loved Charlie so much. But maybe it was time to love herself a little more, too.
They cleared the table, and settled in the living room to watch Girls Trip and eat cake. Cordelia should invite them over more often, host more dinner parties, go out with them, and get away from Charlie once in a while. Her marriage could handle it, as long as she and Charlie were honest with each other and remained connected. Their relationship could even become stronger.
Halfway through the movie, Charlie called and Cordelia excused herself.
“Hey, you,” he said. “Are your friends over? I hear voices.”
“Yes. I invited them over for dinner. They’re spending the night.”
“That’s great, sweetie.”
“I realized … I’ve doted too much on you and I’ve lost who I was.”
He sighed. “Cordi, I love you, and I love spending time with you, but you go overboard sometimes. I always tell you to hang out with your friends.”
“I know. And I will. If these business trips will happen more often, I need to be able to be alone without you. But not too much. I don’t want us to drift apart, either.”
“We won’t. I won’t let us.”
Something Karina had said gnawed at her so she asked in a tentative voice. “Charlie … Have you … Felt suffocated by me?”
He expelled a breath. “Uh … A little, maybe? Look, Cordi, I love spending time with you. We’re still in that newlywed stage, after all. But sometimes … I’ve wanted to hang out with my friends but haven’t because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings. They’re always making fun of how the old ball and chain won’t let me do anything.”
“Really? You’ve never told me that.”
“I didn’t want you to feel bad.”
This was worse than she’d thought. How could she have been so blind? “Well, from now on we’ll make plans with other people. I don’t want you to end up resenting me. I want us to last.”
“We will. Hey, my boss is calling me. Just know that I love you and I miss you. I can’t wait to get home.”
After hanging up, Cordelia returned to the living room and smiled at her friends. They were the link between Single Cordelia and Married Cordelia, and would hopefully help her reconcile those two sides so that she never lost herself again.
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