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Cheating Hearts



Maria Pollack

 We take turns driving as we wind our way through Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York on the coffee house circuit during the winter.  Whoever drives has control of the radio.  When it’s my turn, I switch the dial to the country music stations.  I like the old songs best, the ones sung by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, or Loretta Lynn.  They’re the songs my parents grew up on, songs in which people who’ve done you wrong will come to regret it.  Of course, that never happened with my husband Daniel.
He just went and waltzed right on with his life, as if one woman was as good as the next.  I guess in a way it’s true.  She and I were always together, sitting on tall stools across from long, silvered mirrors, leaning across the dark mahogany of the bar, and chewing on swizzle sticks from our gin and tonics while discussing all the men we knew.  We were best friends.  “Dark eyed beauties,” he used to call us.  She must have gotten tired of listening to all my complaints and decided to trade places with me.  After all, she’d probably thought that she was doing me a favor.
Yet, even with being divorced and all, it wasn’t quite an even exchange.  After all, I’ve always got Matt, Johnny, and Nick--three tall men who tower over me when we’re on stage.  Matt plays the bass; Johnny, the guitar; Nick, the banjo.  I play fiddle.  We all take turns with lead vocals and background harmonies.  We play traditional bluegrass and some stuff Matt writes.  But, then there’s also the stuff I do from the days when I played the bar scene.  I wasn’t much of a guitar player back then, but I have a voice that stops men dead in their tacks. 
I think the women like it too when I sing all those old sulky, sexy songs because for a moment they seem to think about what their lives could have been like if they had held themselves tight and two-stepped their way through those aching times of wanting to care for someone.  There would be no husband, no children, no home.  They’re sixteen, seventeen, eighteen again, and with a twitch of their skirts and a bold stare, they have the power of choosing.  I know because I have these thoughts all the time when I come across some woman, whose voice is honey-rich, singing in some smoky bar.  There was a power in that stuff when we were younger, a power most of us came to waste.  I know I did.
Everyone wanted Daniel.  The woman who could get him to marry her had to be skillful.  She couldn’t be weepy or pouty.  She had to be aloof, uncaring.  She couldn’t notice his attentions or act flattered.  It’s like playing tag.  If you run from the boys, they chase you.  If you chase them, they run from you.  It’s a game and at seventeen I was real good at playing it.  I have two older brothers and for the longest time I watched them and their girlfriends.  I noticed that when these girls started to do things like sew buttons onto my brothers’ shirts or drift past jewelry store windows with dreamy looks in their eyes, they were doomed.  They let themselves be caught too soon.  The chase was over and my brothers had become bored.  I don’t really blame them.  It’s like playing poker.  If you win too quick, the money’s not too good.  These girls had learned their mothers’ lessons too well.  No one appreciates a loving wife and a good cook.  That’s the way it is.  Men value themselves and their prowess above anything else.  A good girl is worth nothing.
I know it doesn’t seem fair to say, but that’s the way I see it.  If you sleep with them and are icy cool, they only want you more.  I was stupid and careless.  I let my guard down and began to really love Daniel, to think about having a baby, to want to stop traveling with the band.
Sweet Mountain Laurel is what we call ourselves.  That was Nick’s idea.  He said he liked the sound of my name and he would role it off the tip of his tongue, Laurel.  It made a lilting sound.  But, too many times, he’s put his arm around my shoulder, his hand on my thigh, and whispered it in my ear.  It’s all too easy.  I know he loves me.
I was named for my grandmother who died before I was born.  My mother said the name meant a mark of honor.  She was an English teacher and she had expected me to become a classical musician.  She wanted me to play in a symphony orchestra, go to Europe, leave our small town behind.  She used to say, “Laurel, don’t cheat yourself.”
She’d sent me for violin lessons since I was four until a week before my eighteenth birthday.  That’s the day I married Daniel.  My mother cried at our wedding.
I guess I was a disappointment to her, but she never said it.  She never scolded me.  She’d made mistakes in her own life, too.  After all, my father was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was twelve.  I think my mother felt guilty about her own relief at his death.  Sometimes, I would hear her late at night walking the floor, just the way I’ve come to do.
Bio:  Maria Pollack has had short fiction published in The Detroit Jewish News, The Little Magazine, The Loyalhanna Review, Wings, Quantum Tao, Art Times, Urban Desires, and The Ghost in the Gazebo:  An Anthology of New England Ghost Stories.