House of Cards, Part 1

(by AZ-Man, 03 October 1998)


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    The following story is a sequel to "A Second Chance" (posted 19 January
1998). While it is not necessary to read "A Second Chance" before reading the
story below, it provides some background that may not be supplied below in
"House of Cards".

    Also, a special thanks to SSTORYMAN -- for providing me with the
motivation to keep going and all the help during the rigorous editing process.


    House of Cards - Part 1/5


    1. The Sighting

    The white Jeep Grand Cherokee (Limited Edition) had just stopped at the
red light as I pulled up on its left side and stopped my own car. What a day
it had been! The air wasn't too hot outside but the car was getting stuffy. I
was tired and struggling just to keep my attention on the road during the late
afternoon commute home. The radio droned softly in the background. Ever so
casually I moved my head to the right and slowly blinked. When I opened my
eyes, I couldn't believe my luck. After practically a week of dry spell, I was
being treated to probably my best 'sighting' in years. She was nearly my
perfect vision, a fetisher's dream. And she was sitting next to me at this
intersection only seven feet away in her late model sport utility vehicle. She
held her newly lit cigarette just above the 9 o'clock position on the steering
wheel in her left hand. The window was down only a crack. Her shoulder length
blond hair was combed straight and glistened in the autumn sun. She had a
somewhat petite profile and a cute little nose that turned up just slightly at
the end. Her lips were full and parted ever so slightly. Her eyes were hidden
behind a pair of stylish sunglasses. My quick guess pegged her age to be about
30 - very wholesome, girl-next-door-ish yet so seductive looking as she held
that long white cigarette. God, I hoped the light would not change anytime
soon. I wanted, no, needed to see her take one, just one puff before she
accelerated away probably never to be seen again.

    Damn, here come the on-coming left turn cars - that means our light is
getting ready to turn green. Come on, come on, sweetie, pleeeease.

    She must've also noticed that the light would change soon. She quickly
flicked the ash from her cigarette near the window then raised it to her
barely open mouth. Her lips closed around the white filter and her rosy cheeks
hollowed in very slightly. The puff lasted only a couple of seconds but when
it ended she gave a perfect visible 'pop' with the smoke in her mouth just
before inhaling it deeply. The traffic light changed to green. She turned her
head only a few degrees left and exhaled a perfect stream towards the window
as her Jeep pulled from the intersection. Smoke came from both her mouth and
nose. I just sat there with my mouth hanging open in a hypnotic stare as my
vehicle moved forward with hers.

    This was just too good to let end just yet so I did something I'd never
done in previous car sightings. I let her get ahead of me then slipped into
the gap between her car and the one behind. I remember thinking, what am I
doing? Visions of Dudley Moore chasing Bo Derek in his car in the movie '10'
flashed to my mind.

    This isn't going to work.

    I couldn't help myself. It was almost reflexive. I had to know more about
her. Where was she going? Where did she live? What brand did she smoke? I
certainly had no expectations of meeting her but I couldn't break my current
fixation. The signal up ahead was turning yellow.

    Perfecto!

    Her brake lights came on in front of me as we slowed in unison. Then, all
of a sudden without using her blinker she made a double lane change to the
left and ended up in the far-left turn lane. It was hopeless. I could not
follow her after that quick move. After a few seconds, she got her green turn
arrow and was moving again. My last view of her, as I sat there careening my
neck to the left over the top of my steering wheel, was of her raising her
cigarette to her lips again. Then, poof, she was gone. All I could see was her
white Jeep disappearing west on State Route 120. I was tempted to make a quick
right then hang a U-turn to try to catch her. That's how desperate I was to
see her again. But I stayed put. Damn, I just wanted a view of one more puff,
that was all.


    2. Soccer Mom

    Diane turned her vehicle onto the long slopping driveway that lead up to
the house. She punched the garage door opener button in the overhead console.
As it lifted, she stopped to avoid Charlie, their yellow Labrador, as he
darted out from under the moving door. The dog headed towards the driver's
side to greet her. Charlie was jumping up and down wagging his tail. She loved
the dog but felt she needed to sit quietly and compose herself before getting
out of the car and heading inside. Diane looked up from her lap and pushed her
sunglasses up off of her face. She scanned the front yard and smiled softly.
The auto-sprinklers were running and the lawn and garden had just been
trimmed. Actually, manicured was the word. The new yard service she'd hired
had done a splendid job, much better than the one she was forced to fire
earlier this spring after she caught one of the workers inside their garage
eyeing their bicycles and power tools. And I was the one that had to deal with
that, she thought. Again while Steve was out of town. She frowned.

    Steve wasn't out of town now. In fact, he and the girls were inside as she
sat there in the driveway. Diane's attention was again drawn to the garden.
The maple tree she and Steve had planted almost six years ago when the house
was new was beginning to turn slightly red. A sure sign that autumn was on the
way. Six years ago she mused, mere newlyweds -- just coming off a divorce from
Ron, on the rebound with Steve and married less than two months later. Was
that a mistake? She wondered. A couple of years ago, the answer to that
question would have been an unequivocal no. She pondered it again here in the
driveway.

    The Grand Cherokee still had a trace of cigarette smoke lingering in it.
Diane pushed the button on the armrest and brought her window to the fully
closed position. She breathed in deeply and let out a sigh. She lamented the
fact that she wouldn't be able to smoke again until tomorrow morning, not
until Kristen got on her school bus and she dropped Amy at her pre-school. She
was certain that Steve would smell smoke on her as soon as she came in and
kissed him, but she stopped caring last summer. They had reached an agreement.

    Charlie was now jumping on the car door peering inside hoping to catch
Diane's attention. I wonder if Kristen remembered to feed him, she thought.
Charlie seemed more persistent than usual.

    "Okay, Moosey," Diane said cheerfully as she opened the driver's door and
stepped out.

    She placed her hand on the bottom of the dog's muzzle and shook it
playfully. "Have they fed you, huh?" Moosey was the dog's nickname because of
his grand size and appetite for any type of food. The nickname was Steve's
idea and it just stuck. The dog acted even crazier when Diane mentioned the
word 'fed'.

    "Okay, okay, calm down. Just let me get my pur.....".

    As Diane turned to shut the car door, she pulled her purse from the seat
and her pack of cigarettes slid out, hit the Cherokee's doorframe then bounced
to the driveway. "Whoa, just a sec, Charlie. Get back in there." She quickly
scooped up her box of Virginia Slims Menthol Lights and dropped it back in her
purse all in one smooth move. Can't leave those behind, she thought to
herself. The memory of Amy, at three, reaching in the seat one morning on her
ride to pre-school and asking, 'What's this Mommy?' still shook Diane.
Thankfully, due in part to the dearth of cigarette advertising, Amy didn't
have a clue what the pack of cigarettes was. Diane was supposed to never let
the children see her (or let them know that) she smoked -- it was also part of
the agreement.

    Steve caught Diane just as she was coming into the kitchen carrying a bag
of groceries. "Hey, there you are," he said pleasantly. He leaned over the bag
and kissed her on the lips just a little more passionately than usual. She
took notice and smiled back at him.

    "There's about ten more just like this in the car. Can you give me a
hand?"

    "Sure. Oh, did you remember my Powerbars?"

    Shit, she thought. He did ask her to grab a half dozen of the energy
snacks, didn't he? "No, I forgot hon, sorry. Oh, there's some granola bars in
the pantry aren't there?" she added.

    "Yeah, I guess," he said just mildly disappointed. Granola bars were a
poor substitute. Plus they had about five times the fat.

    Diane wondered what was going on. Normally Steve didn't greet her that
expressively when he could tell she'd been smoking. And normally he would've
been more upset about her forgetting the Powerbars. A more expected response
for the times was 'Great, I guess I'LL have to go back and get them now.' But
it never came.

    Steve pitched in and helped with the bags of groceries as Diane stayed in
the kitchen and supervised Kristen feeding the dog. The atmosphere was fairly
upbeat as she got ready to prepare dinner. Steve was happy. The dog was happy.
The kids were happy, as they always were. Maybe I'll get laid tonight, she
thought and then smiled at her crude phrasing.

    As Steve entered the kitchen with the last two bags, Diane could see
something had clearly changed his mood. It was a subtle change. His smile was
intact but his voice had lost the previous animated timber he greeted her
with. Diane just rolled with it. She had an idea what had caused the change
but wasn't going to bring it up. He'd have to.

    Dinner ended pleasantly enough. It was the family's first true sit-down
meal they had had in five days due to Steve's schedule and the kid's
activities. Everyone was laughing and teasing each other. All seemed fine and
Diane was feeling mild relief from her familiar depression.
     
    It was now 10:30 PM and Diane was sitting at her vanity in the master
bathroom brushing her hair. Steve was doing sit-ups using the baseboard of the
bed to hold his feet. She thought he was truly obsessed with working out. It
seemed the less she exercised the more Steve did. He's not doing this on
purpose, she told herself, to make me feel more guilty, but that was the
general effect he was creating, sitting there grunting with each crunch. And
damn it, she did feel guilty sitting there gently stroking her hair and
watching him in the mirror. The uneasy twinge that had been lifted at dinner
returned to her stomach.

    Finally, Steve rose from the floor, walked into the bathroom and picked up
a towel to wipe his face and neck. Diane thought to herself, this is the
moment of truth - either he'll kiss me gently from behind and then we'll make
love or he'll just walk by and begin to brush his teeth. Steve walked by and
opened the medicine cabinet.

    "Were the Powerbars on your list when you left for the store today?" he
asked as he dragged the toothpaste across his brush.

    "I didn't make a list this time."

    "Ten bags of groceries and you didn't make a list?"

    "Steve, I didn't have time. I'm busy. I've got things to do. I just winged
it at the store today." Without looking, Diane could see the face he was
making. All of this was his very astute way of manipulating her. She knew
where he was going with this little inquisition.

    "You couldn't remember my Powerbars but you did remember your....," he
stopped abruptly as if planned.

    "My what?" Diane said after about five seconds of silence.

    "You know." He paused slightly. "I saw the carton in one of the bags. How
much are you smoking now? I thought you were off buying the cartons."

    Diane couldn't possibly tell him the truth. It violated their agreement.
On the other hand, she was sick of having to keep track all the time. She just
wanted to be left alone. "Six, just like we talked about."

    "Why the carton then? It just adds more risk with Kristen. After all,
she's almost seven now. She'll be catching on if you aren't more careful."

    "Is that the only concern here?" she asked, showing more than slight
irritation.

    "What?"

    "I don't know Steve. I feel I'm staying well inside our agreement yet I
feel like even when you don't say it, I'm getting the third degree about the
small amount of smoking that I do during the day. I don't give you grief about
all the time you're gone when you're running or riding your bike with your
buddies".

    "There's a difference Diane and you know it."

    "Yeah, there's a difference all right. Your attitude is the difference.
You knew I smoked when we got married and you said you could live with it. In
fact, you said you liked it. It was all 'part of the package' as you put it.
Now, I'm being called on it when I still feel like I've done nothing wrong."

    Diane looked up at him after her last sentence. She could see he was not
in the mood for an argument.

    He looked back at her and said, "I just wanted you to remember my
Powerbars, that's all." After walking away, he turned off the bedroom light
and crawled into bed.

    Diane in turn shut off the bathroom lights and also got into their
king-size bed. She leaned over, offered a token goodnight kiss quickly on the
lips then pretended to go to sleep. It was ironic. Instead of getting to make
love, she would only be able lay in bed and focus on what her first cigarette
of tomorrow would be like. She couldn't wait. In fact, it would equal the sex
she missed tonight with Steve. She would see to that.
    _________________

    The traffic on I-285 was still heavy despite the late morning hour. Some
leftover rain was coming down from last night's shower but it looked like it
would end soon. Diane expertly maneuvered the Cherokee into the right lane as
she saw the Camp Creek Parkway exit sign approaching. Steve was riding next to
her. They were heading to the Hartsfield airport so she could drop him off for
his flight. Steve was flying to the London Gatwick airport again on his
normally assigned route with Delta. He had moved up to the first officer
position on the MD-11 crew and had some extra duties to take care of before
the scheduled late afternoon departure. This suited Diane just fine. He had
been hanging around the house long enough over the past few days. The only
inconvenience was having to drive him because his car was in the shop.

    The conversation between them was sporadic and superficial as the wipers
provided a steady background beat. They both were feeling distant due to last
night yet neither wanted to bring attention to it as they talked.

    "So, where're you headed after the airport?" spoke Steve after about five
minutes of silence.

    Diane pondered the question. What does he want to hear, she asked herself.
Why's he asking me this? Her only thoughts during the silence were of her
cigarettes tucked away in her purse. She couldn't wait to drop him off so she
could have one. In their earlier years, she'd have smoked all the way to the
airport with him in the car. But things had changed...so had she, she noted.
"Well, I've got an exciting trip to the dry cleaners, then I've got to get the
downstairs cleaned up, then I've got to pick up Amy at 2:30 and get her to
gymnastics, then I meet Kristen and take her to soccer practice at 4,
then.....," her voice trailed off.

    "I get the picture," he said smiling back at her to ease the tension.

    "I'm sorry Steve, it's just that you know what I do. It doesn't change
much."

    "So you're heading straight home after this?" Steve said indicating 'this'
by waving his hand around the car.

    "No, I told you I was heading to the dry cleaners," Diane answered in a
monotone voice.

    "You know what I mean...."

    They were now at the curbside check-in on the South Terminal. Diane didn't
bother responding. She stopped the car, put it in park and waited for Steve to
make the next move. He sensed her moodiness and didn't press. She probably
just needs a cigarette, he suspected. He grabbed his overnight bag and chart
case from the backseat.

    "Anything you want in London?" he asked after he kissed her.
    ________________

    Diane was pleased with herself. At the moment, a large volume of smoke was
exiting her mouth during a long, leisurely exhale. She was experiencing a
wonderful nicotine high, the result of three consecutive puffs with no visible
exhale until now. She let out her smoke slowly, eager to watch the stream
leave her body in a series of measured bursts. Despite Steve, she knew that
she couldn't possibly quit smoking, not ever. This was just simply too good.
She sighed as she sipped her coffee and took notice of the small amount of
smoke still coming from her nose.

    Diane had been patient. She hadn't smoked since yesterday on her ride home
from the grocery store. She had gotten up early this morning making the kids
breakfast, feeding the pets, getting laundry started all the while Steve was
out on his morning run. Now, just after dropping him off, she had headed
straight to the Starbucks near their neighborhood and gotten herself a large
cappuccino. The light rain had stopped so she grabbed a table out front on the
makeshift terrace and opened a fresh pack of Virginia Slims Menthol Lights.

    The initial buzz she received from her multiple puffs was gently
subsiding. She quickly raised her cigarette and took a long single puff
consciously reminding herself to slow down, that there was plenty of time. She
had no immediate plan to head to the dry cleaners right away. In fact, sitting
here for the next several hours sipping coffee and smoking sounded like a much
better plan. She told herself she needed some time to relax. Steve would be
out of town for the next three nights and, if she had her way, she'd have a
cigarette in her hand every minute he was gone. She knew this would be
impossible though, what with the kids and all. I'm a 'soccer mom' she reminded
herself as she frowned. It wasn't that she didn't love Amy and Kristen. She
certainly did. It was just that these damn rules were making it very stressful
on her -- rules very similar to what she lived under with Ron in her first
marriage. No, she corrected herself, this is nothing like the bizarre marriage
and agreement I had with Ron.

    Ron was an outright fetisher yet a nonsmoker himself. He was also a major
control freak. In fact, he had concocted a very intricate plan using a close
female friend that had gotten Diane to start smoking in the first place. Then,
when he grew tired of her, and practically without notice, he pulled the rug
out by edicting that she couldn't smoke anymore...a dirty trick because she
had gotten herself unintentionally addicted because of him. Steve on the other
hand didn't seem bothered by Diane's smoking at all. At least, not at first.
When they first met, she was standing on her front porch smoking. At the time,
Diane took it as a very positive sign. Sitting here at Starbucks though, it
had just occurred to her that if there was to ever be a 'next' relationship,
it would have to be with a smoker, a fully committed, no excuses, outright
smoker. It seemed strange to her that this would matter so much. Never before
would she have suspected that's what it'd take, but now, after two rocky
relationships, it made perfect sense.

    Diane slid a second cigarette from the green and gray striped box, placed
it between her lips and quickly lit it. Ah, satisfying the need for more, she
thought as she inhaled deeply. 'Soccer mom' entered her mind again. She hated
that term. It blatantly suggested the instant stereotype of the perfect
mother, wife, homemaker and organizer -- it was the perky mom with the bouncy
blond hair pulling up in her minivan with the bumper sticker on back ('My
Child Made the Honor Role at Sunrise Middle School'), waving to the other
mothers from the driver's seat, letting her child out for practice, speeding
off to pick up cupcakes for the team, doing the grocery shopping, laundry and
ironing all before little Justin or Jenny would need to be shuttled to his or
her next activity. OR, staying at practice, standing on the grassy field
wearing a trendy pair of Reebok cross trainers and white shorts during the
practice and carrying on the superficial banter with the other moms while
casually insinuating that everything with life was just so ordered and
perfect. "Oh yes, Ken and I are just doing great. We're off to Europe next
month to cruise the Mediterranean. Of course mother will be coming to watch
our little Johnny. We are simply just so proud of him making the baseball team
this year AND being picked as the lead in the school play all the while making
straight A's. And how is your little Amy and, is it Chrissy, doing?" It wasn't
enough that you had to listen to all this nonsense but 'soccer mom' also meant
doing this all the while putting your own dreams and passions on hold until
the kids were gone. No, a life of your own was out of the question. Besides,
when little Cindy scores a goal or little Jacob gets an 'A' on a test, that's
all that matters, right? It's all the satisfaction I can ask for.

    What a bunch of bullshit, Diane thought. She could hear the lyrics of a
popular country song come into her head.

    "She does the car pool, she PTA's.
    Doctors and dentists, she drives all day...."

    Ah, yes. Mary Chapin Carpenter had hit the nail on the head with that one,
"He Thinks He'll Keep Her". It was a sad yet empowering commentary about a
woman who without complaint gave all she could to her husband and children for
years until she could give no more. It was about the soccer mom who was a
soccer mom long before Al Gore and the democrats invented the term. The song
continued:

    "When she was 36 she met him at the door.
    She said I'm sorry, I don't love you anymore...."

    Has it come to that? She was certain that she still loved Steve. She knew
she absolutely adored her children. There's just got to be more to life than
being a mom. Christ, I'm 31 and I have no career, hobby or passion of my own.
No track record of doing anything on my own or for myself.

    Diane was recognizing the onset of yet another wave in her cyclic
depression. It was becoming a familiar routine but nonetheless always
unbearable. She knew her day was over. No chores would get done today. If she
was lucky, she'd remember to pick up Amy and get her to gym, that'd be about
it. Tears crossed her cheeks as she lit her third cigarette. She didn't care
if anyone saw her cry. She was going to sit here and smoke until she could get
up enough strength to drive home and crawl into bed. She rested her elbow on
the table and held the cigarette only inches from her lips. This gave her
perfect position to take puff after puff without time for a clear breath in
between. She continued this pleasant indulgence until her cigarette was gone
in less than five short minutes. Lighting another, she began to recall what
had driven her to Steve in the first place. She wasn't sure but it probably
was a combination of running from Ron and needing approval quickly from a new
man -- a man that accepted her just the way she was (or so I thought). Oh, I
don't know....what a fuckin' mess, she whispered during one of her exhales.


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