Marsha paused at the top of the two-lane road leading up from the beach, taking great, deep breaths.The hill descended sharply behind her. In front of her were two flights of wide concrete steps up to the main road. John, old fool that he was, had walked up the hill as fast as he could and was already cresting the first flight of stairs. She was pleased she’d made it up the incline but her heart pounded like a bass drum, her rib cage too small to contain it. No matter how she tried to gulp in more air, it felt like she’d never get enough.
John was determined to make her look old, which she was, but not as old as him, and fat, which she was, much fatter than him. She hated him for that. Hated him. He thought his thin physique made him look younger. He was oblivious to the weakened skin that gave him a small spindly belly spilling over the elastic edge of his shorts. Oblivious to the chicken quality of his legs, and oblivious to how he was hurting her. What kind of man went out of his way to humiliate his wife in front of strangers?
While she tried to give her lungs what they wanted, John propelled himself up the second flight of stairs, taking them two at a time, as he passed the two young women who were descending, ponytails bouncing.
The girls crossed the street. As they approached, Marsha smiled. “I’m a flatlander,” she said to the first girl, a woman with dark hair, wearing spandex pants that showed nothing but muscle and healthy flesh.
“It’s a rough climb,” said the girl.
The other girl said nothing. She glanced at her friend and began dancing on the balls of her feet, eager to start jogging.
Marsha’s breath was labored as she searched for enough oxygen to offer a response.
“Are you okay?” the dark-haired one asked.
“Fine.” Marsha’s breath was sharp.
“Don’t overdo it. Is that your husband?” She nodded toward the stairs.
“How’d you know?” Marsha said.
“We don’t match. He’s skinny, I’m fat. He’s a hiker, I’m a flatlander.”
“So you said.” The blonde broke her silence.
“Do you need to sit down?” The brunette glanced at the stairs.
John had disappeared from view. For all he cared, she could have dropped dead. These two girls, well one of them, certainly, cared more about her well-being than John did. If she worked harder, climbed the hill with more enthusiasm, pushed away the plate of cookies after dinner and stopped spooning creamy Ranch salad dressing onto her greens, it wouldn’t be like this.
“Well then, I’m glad you’re okay.” The blonde grabbed her ponytail and tightened the elastic. “We’ll let you get going.”
Marsha glanced left and crossed the street. She took a deep breath and put her foot on the first step. She dragged her other foot up to its level. She stepped up again. Putting both feet on each step, she made her way to the top of the first fifteen steps. Another steep incline connected the two flights of stairs. She would not collapse in front of those two. Just because her heart was pounding did not mean a heart attack was imminent.
John reappeared at the top of the second flight of stairs. His t-shirt billowed around his thin frame. He cupped his hand around his mouth and called down. “Do you need help?”
She shook her head, bent forward, and trudged upward. When she reached the top, she would kill him. For making her take this walk every day, for not loving her the way she was, for prancing about in front of those women, smiling with that coy duck of his head to show he wasn’t flirting. She gasped for air. She raised her left foot to the first step and paused. The edge of her vision pulsated. All she could see was the concrete step, stippled with mud. She lifted her right foot. There was no railing to steady her.
Eleven more. Her feet grew heavier with each step. On the fourth from the top, she put her hand under her thigh, lacing her fingers, lifting the weight of her leg to plant her foot on the next step. When she neared the top, John was in front of her, jogging in place, keeping his heart-rate up while he waited.
He jogged to the edge of the stairs, increasing his manic activity, going in small circles now. “Doing okay?”
“I think so,” Marsha said as she mounted the next to final step, taking slow deep breaths, trying to satisfy the demands of her lungs. Her heart was really in fine shape. More battered by John than it was by the weight of her body. “Why do you do that?” she said.
“Race ahead of me.” She looked behind her. The two young women were nowhere in sight. She raised her face toward him. He still hadn’t answered, in fact the focus of his eyes, on some point far down the hill, said he wasn’t planning to answer, hadn’t heard her speak. She lifted her hand, “Help me up.”
He extended his hand, still bobbling from foot to foot. She grabbed his hand and pulled. The momentum of his slow jog propelled him up and over her leg. He fell hard on his shoulder, cried out, and kept falling. He rolled shoulder over hip, his unsheltered bones snapping like twigs as he tumbled down the first flight, slid head first down the short space between both flights, and then rolled to the flat ground at the bottom, where he was silent.
Marsha lifted her foot onto the final step, took a long, shallow breath, and walked with ease along the level path lined with small trees and shrubs, tangled with Mexican sage and ivy. As she approached the main road, her heart regained its footing.