“Corset” by Sally Bellerose from Saints and Sinners 2014: New Fiction from the Festival (Bold Strokes Books). Contest winner.

Full disclosure: I have a story in this anthology.

Jackie and Regina have been together for forty years. In fact, tonight is their anniversary, and Jackie doesn’t have a gift for Regina yet. It’s what she’s supposed to be out doing: getting a gift and picking up some Chinese takeout, only the store was sold out of the CD player she could afford to buy. At the start of the story she’s at the restaurant counter, placing her order with the proprietor, Mac, and having a silent war with herself. Mac confirms what she already knows is true: there’s a poker game going on in the back room. He tries to warn her away, reminds her that she doesn’t gamble anymore, but Jackie feels the unspent cash burning a hole in her pocket. She argues with herself, points out that if she played and won, she could get the nicer model of CD player for Regina, and wouldn’t that be a good thing? Wouldn’t that justify the decision to give in to old urges?

The scene is so vividly drawn that you can hear the voices in the back room and feel Jackie’s shortness of breath and rapid heartbeat. You know she’s going to sit down at that card table, and you know there’s going to be hell to pay because of it. The other players are interesting, fully drawn characters with back stories of their own. I could read a lot more about Jackie’s dealings with them.

And when she does, finally, get home? Well, then we get a portrait of true love, because the bloom doesn’t stay on the rose forever. At some point you look around and it’s not new and exciting anymore. Maybe the other person has habits that drive you a little crazy, and not in any good way. Maybe they have habits that are flat out dangerous, that could bankrupt you and put you both out on the street. That’s when you find out if you really, truly love them. It’s not the “for better” part, it’s the “for worse”*. Regina must love Jackie because she still sees the good in her beyond the bad, the dangerous. And Jackie sees the positive side of Regina, who embodies the word “irascible.” They’re each far from perfect, and committed to one another for the duration.

Saints and sinners indeed.

* Yes, here I am referencing marriage. I consider these two characters to be just as much married as any two persons ever have been. As you might imagine, I am eager for our government to stop bowing to the religious beliefs of one rapidly decreasing segment of our population and start granting full citizenship to all citizens.