Submitted to Literotica, but here it is while we wait for it to clear...
Sometimes I hate him. It’s a strange feeling, particularly because I often feel like he is my only ally. He knows me, inside and out. He senses my feelings. He has experienced what I have. He knows what bitterness, betrayal and hatred tastes like.
On mornings like this, when I wake before the alarm and nothing can help me fall back asleep, I watch him. I hate him on mornings like this because I know he has found some semblance of peace, and –worst of all—he believes he’s found it in me.
He sleeps deeply because he knows he’s found a reflection of himself. A slightly more imperfect, angrier, colder reflection, but a reflection, nonetheless.
His eyes open when light filters through the windows and rests in stripes against the sheets. Those eyes settle calmly on me, like always. He is never surprised when he finds me awake and staring. I wonder if he senses the irrational hatred that sometimes churns in my stomach. If he does, he says nothing.
I look away. Nuzzle into his chest. Wrap a leg around his. I don’t want the day to start. I don’t want to go home. His heavy hand slides down my back.
“You could stay here.” It’s an offer he makes every morning we wake together. His voice is still full of sleep.
I could. I really could. But I won’t.
I shift and slip out of bed, finding my clothes. I shimmy into my underwear, slide my jeans up. My t-shirt is cold when it covers my skin.
He’s still in bed when I come out of the bathroom, hair brushed and teeth cleaned.
“I’ll call you later,” I whisper. I probably won’t. He’ll probably call me first, giving me a few days before chasing.
Nick nods. He sits up, resting his head against the headboard. “You don’t have to go, Claire.” A slow smile spreads across his face. “I’ll make you pancakes. Leave them a little undone, like you like them.”
I can feel my phone buzzing in my purse. The alarm. I’m not sure why I bother setting it; I’m always awake before 5.
“That sounds tempting. Next time?” A fake smile flashes across my face.
“Next time,” Nick repeats.
We both know I’ll never stay for pancakes.
It snowed in the night. It wasn’t in the forecast. It takes me at least ten minutes to wipe all the snow off my car as the neighborhood wakes up. I used to worry about being spotted by Nick’s neighbors; now I’m too cold to give a shit.
I’m fairly certain Nick is watching me from his bedroom window. If I was a normal person, I’d turn right back around and melt into the heat he promises. But I’m not normal, and there’s too much snow on my car. The sky keeps sprinkling more all over me.
By the time I get to my house, there is easily another two inches on the ground. I’m torn between glaring at the sky and at the man inside my house.
I think maybe he’ll cancel it. He’s practical. Calculated. He is probably sitting on the couch, elbows on his knees, hands clasped beneath his chin, ready to tell me we will have to reschedule. He’ll appear disappointed, and I’ll just nod and go off to read or something. My idea of a perfect day.
I unlock the door, shivering and unhappy. I forgot gloves.
I glance at our couch. Mike isn’t sitting there, meaning he’s brooding in the kitchen with a pot of coffee.
Our dog, Brooklyn, comes running to greet me. He is a little Chihuahua mix. I’m closer to him than any of the humans in my life. I pick him up and hug him to me, the smell of his fur and the warm beating of his heart steadying me. His jittery body wants to be let down after a moment, so I let him go.
It takes me forever to pull my boots off before venturing into my quiet house. It took me three years to decorate it. I painstakingly planned the colors of the walls, the way the furniture should be placed, what paintings should be hung. I’d loved the quaint domestic vibe that eventually evolved from my efforts. It was the first time I’d felt home.
Today it is just a foreign shell to me. It holds my clothes and my husband. There is nothing homey about it now.
Mike is in the kitchen brooding with a pot of coffee. I’m not psychic, but I just seem to be surrounded by people who are determined to stick to routines. Or roles. Myself included. Mike is playing the part of depressed husband and I tell myself not to feed into it.
“Are we going or rescheduling?” I sigh, pouring myself a cup of coffee.
He doesn’t answer until I sit across from him. He crisply folds his newspaper before lifting his dark eyes to mine. There is a jolt when we meet eyes. There probably always will be. I consider it a curse. He considers it a sign we have a chance.
I remember him telling me one cold morning that our relationship was like a tree in the winter. Seemingly dead. But if we were to cut off a branch, we’d see a hint of green inside, meaning the tree was still alive. I told him he was an asshole and I hoped his students bought his bullshit better than I did. Unfortunately he’d told the analogy to our therapist and she loved it, and she uses it constantly in our sessions.
“Don’t forget that winter thaws, Claire,” she repeats solemnly whenever we are getting ready to leave.
Now, Mike peeks out the window. “We’re still going. It’s not that bad out.”
“I skidded three times. We should reschedule.”
He looks at me defiantly. Even after all that’s happened, he won’t let a slick road get the best of him. “No. I already told Joy we are coming.”
“Did you walk Brooklyn?”
Mike sits back in his chair, his eyes looking me over. He’s been doing that lately. Analyzing. Cataloguing. Why he does it to himself, I don’t know. I guess he enjoys feeling punished. I almost asked him once if he missed her. The words were right there, dying to be let out. He stared at me as if he knew what I was going to ask and actually wanted to hear the words. But I stifled them, and he’d looked disappointed.
“Brooklyn has been out, of course. You know I take him out every morning.”
He has rolls and butter on the table. I take one and busy myself buttering it, making sure every inch of it is covered. It’s time-consuming, and I hog the butter. It used to drive Mike crazy. Now he studies the process and I get the distinct impression that my own routines comfort him.
“Did you have a good night?” he asks. There is no blame in his tone. No accusation. No anger. A hint of resignation and sadness, maybe, but he’s not mad at me.
“It was good to see Sara.”
Mike lets out a puff of amusement through his nose. He knows I wasn’t with Sara. And I know that he knows. But routines, and roles, are still very important, as I’ve said, and the truth was never our forte.
I get up and say I’m bringing Brooklyn back out into the yard with me before we leave. Mike doesn’t respond.
Brooklyn hops around in snow that’s getting a bit too deep for him. I note distractedly that my coat isn’t warm enough. My mother had said so when she first saw me wear it.
Mother knows best, and all that. I thought I’d be a mother by now, but maybe it’s best I’m not.
I stuff my hands in my pockets and shiver. It’s freezing and lonely in our silent backyard, but it’s still better than sitting with Michael in that abandoned kitchen, playing pretend.
A few people were brave enough to ask why I still stayed with him. My mother tells me at least once a week that I should cut my losses. Nick hasn’t asked. He knows.
I lift my face to the gently dropping snow. The sky is that beautiful gray that is indescribable. The flakes of snow are bigger now, meaning that it will probably stop snowing soon. I wish it would snow forever and cover everything until people were forced to stay put.
A grim thought skips into my mind. It’s not the first time.
I wonder if she can see me. I’m not an idiot to presume that if there is a heaven, that it’s in the clouds where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops. But there is something about staring at the sky when thinking of the dead—that open expanse of sky leading to an empty, distant, unknown universe.
If she can see me, is she sorry? The fallout must be darker than any possible regret she felt while doing it. Can she see us all, playing our parts and pretending to live?
Brooklyn runs past me towards the door. Mike is there, holding my gloves and hat. “We should go now. Go a little early in case we have to drive slowly. Meet you out there in a sec.”
Wordlessly I walk inside, grab the keys and head to the car. I wait in the driver’s seat, looking up at the sky once again. I give it the middle finger, and then I laugh because I’m an idiot. There is no reply from the sky, and wherever Jessica is, it’s better than here. I wouldn’t be watching me if I were her, either,
3 MONTHS EARLIER
I was leaving work when I got the call. I almost missed it, walking out of school with my bags and paperwork. The number was one I didn’t recognize and I nearly let it go to voicemail. But I answered, and my world changed forever.
I don’t remember driving to the hospital. I don’t remember telling the people at the desk who I was, or being guided to the waiting room. I vaguely recall that a nurse brought me a cup of water. She had red hair. Then the doctor came out, a tall thin man with a thin mustache. I stared at his mustache while he spoke. His lips were thin, too. He told me my husband had been in an accident. He told me where.
“But that’s not even by his job. He works at the middle school. That’s not even close….”
The doctor shifted uncomfortably on his feet. I thought it was because I was questioning where the accident was instead of how my husband was doing. I thought of Mike. Beautiful, wonderful, funny Mike, and asked how he was.
“Critical,” the doctor reported. He was still uncomfortable. He nudged me away from the nurses’ station and only then did I realize everyone was staring at me. He was holding my elbow gently. His fingers were the thinnest part of him.
“Is he going to die?” Tears welled in my eyes but didn’t fall. It was as if they, too, were in suspense.
“We’re working on him, doing what we can. He is a fighter.”
I smiled a little. “He is.”
I was overwhelmed by the need to see him. Before I could ask anything else, however, the doctor continued.
“There was another person involved in the accident.”
Immediately I thought he meant the other car. “Oh, God. The person in the other car? Are they….”
But the doctor interrupted me with a shake of his head. “There was no other car. They ran into a tree. Into two trees. Skidded off the road in the rain, probably over leaves.”
“Okay.” So many odd thoughts went through my mind during the strangest conversation I ever had; I don’t even remember half of them. “Who was injured?”
“Her husband is here.” The doctor looked at a place behind us. “Her name was Jessica Kirk. He tells us you were friends. We did everything we could but unfortunately she didn’t make it.”
Hands clasped around my arms from behind. I turned and saw Nick there. He’d been crying, but he wasn’t, anymore. His eyes were red, his face white. He looked exhausted. I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it. The doctor quietly excused himself.
The only thing I knew how to do in that moment was hug. So I hugged Nick hard and whispered that I was there, that we were going to get through this, that Jessica was a wonderful person.
“Claire,” he said thickly. He cleared his throat. Stepped back and looked down at me. He shook me. “Claire. Don’t you get it?”
“What? Get what?”
He told me then. He told me everything. That they’d been at the hotel. That they crashed just a few yards away. Everything. He spoke the words, his eyes bugged, his voice brittle and desperate. He told me every single thing so fast and so loud, as if by somehow getting it all out, he could get it out of his head. His fingers tightened around my arms.
What he was saying finally clicked after a few minutes. My mouth opened but no sound would come out. His eyes moved over my face.
“Do you get it now?”
Joy comes into the waiting room with a flourish, gesturing us to come into her office with shiny red nails and at least two diamond rings.
It isn’t that I dislike her. There are a lot of things I like about her, actually, when we meet one-on-one. But when Mike and I come in together, it’s like she sides with him, that she wants us to just get over everything and heal together.
I mentioned seeing a different therapist to Mike once. He got aggravated with me and I didn’t bring it up again.
Today, Joy is wearing bright pink. She is probably the bubbliest person I know, and therefore she couldn’t have a more perfect name.
I told her that one day when she was pissing me off but she ignored my snarkiness and gushed over the backhanded compliment.
She rests into her chair with a long sigh and flips her gray hair out of her face. She thumbs through a few files sitting next to us and finds ours with gleeful surprise, as if she hadn’t put it there before we came.
“So. How are the two of you on this beautiful winter day?”
Mike answers first, predictably. He knows if he doesn’t, there will just be silence. “Frustrated.”
Joy scribbles something on her notepad and then looks up at us over her glasses. “Frustrated? Interesting choice. We’ll come back to that. And you, Claire?”
She smirks and jots something else down in her notepad. One or two…or fifty…times I’ve debated stealing that goddamn notepad. She can’t seriously be taking notes for our entire session. She’s probably doodling. I would be doodling if I had access to a pen and paper during these bullshit sessions.
“Is that a literal cold, or a figurative cold? Or both?”
I roll my eyes and sigh with exasperation. “Can’t I just be cold? It’s a cold day. Why does that simple thing have to be analyzed?”
“Because there’s a reason you said it,” Joy flippantly replies.
“The snow. The snow would be the reason.”
Mike shifts uncomfortably beside me. I’m sure he’s rolling his eyes. For the millionth time, I wonder why the fuck I do this. I know why Mike does. The punishment thing must get him off. As for me, I have put three months into this. I have stuck around while he went through rehab. God knows I’ve done my part.
“You seem like you have a lot on your mind this morning, Claire. Can we talk about that for a few minutes?”
For the first time since we’ve come to these sessions, I’m tempted to just tell Mike off. To say all of the things I think and rid myself of this baggage. Joy must smell a breakthrough because she keeps pushing.
“Why don’t we go over feeling cold, Claire? What else are you feeling? I’d really like to explore what you—”
“I’m feeling nostalgic.” I say it simply. Emotionlessly. Mike stiffens beside me.
Joy tilts her head. “Nostalgic,” she repeats slowly, as if she’s never heard the word. “For?”
I cross my leg and my arms. “No idea. That just seemed like a good adjective. Can we move on?”
Joy eyes me in a way that tells me she’s only temporarily dropping the subject. “So, Michael. Frustrated. Let’s go into that.”
He clears his throat. Opens his mouth. Clears his throat again. Then he begins. “I feel like I am the only one trying in this marriage. I am home all the time, while Claire is constantly out. I mean, constantly. She only comes home to change and see the dog. She sees through me like I’m not there. And I get why. I get that I put us in this position. We agreed, though, to try. To really repair whatever needs repairing in our marriage. I am here, going through the steps, really trying. I really, really am.”
Joy opens her mouth but Mike continues.
“Not to mention that we don’t acknowledge where she goes when she doesn’t come home. I know where she’s going, and she knows that I know. I even get it. I do. This whole situation is totally fucked up. I just thought that at this point we’d start getting over it, that we would be on the mend. Instead she comes home from a night out with him, and I sit waiting. And I pretend when she gets back that I don’t know and that it’s not killing me. So all of that is frustrating.” He turns his head and his dark brown eyes focus on mine. “I hate all of the things we don’t say. I hate that we can’t say them.”
Our therapist waits a moment. Mike keeps his eyes on me, those intense eyes that I fell in love with five years before. They’re both waiting for me, it would seem, but I still can’t muster up the emotion they want. In many ways, I feel like that dead tree they talk about. But I think if you cut off a twig or a branch or whatever and looked at what was inside, you’d just see gray.
Mike’s words settle and Joy rubs the side of her forehead. “Claire. Is there anything you’d like to say to your husband?”
I turn away from Mike and focus on the window. It’s snowing again. “No.”
“Can we talk about the nostalgia you’re feeling?”
My thumb runs over my ring finger, but I haven’t worn my rings since I brought Mike home. “Sure, Joy. Seems like an excellent idea.”
“Is it nostalgia for the way things used to be in your marriage?” she prompts, ignoring my sarcasm like she does every session. “When the two of you used to say the things that now go unsaid?”
I look at Joy. Really look at her. “But that’s the funny thing, isn’t it? There was apparently a lot of shit that went unsaid. So I think it’s absolutely hilarious that we’re talking about this like it’s a new problem. My husband had an affair with my best friend for almost as long as we were married. So, no. It’s not nostalgia for how things were, but how I thought they were. I miss my best friend. I miss my husband. I miss the life I had. I miss being completely ignorant. I miss my house, too. Jesus. I miss looking forward to coming home. I miss the person I used to be. Now I’m this hateful being who sees no joy in anything. And do you know why that is, Joy? Because of the asshole sitting next to me. This frustrated, selfish asshole. That’s why. Because he spent years filled with words he wouldn’t and couldn’t say.” I take a deep breath and a sip from the cup of water Joy puts out for us. I don’t look at either of them, and neither of them disturbs the silence. “I think a big part of me died that day. I don’t think I’m whole enough to be a part of any relationship, especially one as fucked up as the one I’m in now. I don’t want to hear bullshit about me not trying. I tried every day of our marriage. Now I’m just trying to survive. So, I feel just awful for you, Mike. Frustration is just such a terrible thing to be feeling. Must be terrible not to have everything go just the way you want it to.”
He’s not looking at me when I turn my head. Joy taps her pen against her pad. Her expression is scrunched up like she’s trying to solve a difficult math problem. She doesn’t seem to get we’re beyond saving.
“Claire? May I speak with Michael alone for a moment? Then it will be your turn.”
I get up and walk out, trying not to slam the door. I’m angry, I realize. Really angry. I sit in the waiting room and stew. I pull my phone out to text Nick.
You were right this morning.
A few seconds later my phone vibrates.
Hate to say it but I usually am. Coming over later?
I sigh and close my eyes. I go to Nick’s most of the time because I have no place else to go.
I’m using him. Is he using me?
Many times when I’ve watched him before he woke up, I wondered if I ever wanted him before. Before before. I remember being so happy for Jessica when she met him. He was so good looking in the strangest way—all scratches and scars and messy hair. I thought he was attractive. Flirtatious. But I never let myself think about him because I didn’t think of anyone that way. I was married to a very gorgeous, humble man; he was everything I didn’t know I wanted, and I was happy.
What an idiot I was.
And many times during those lonely contemplative mornings, I’ve wondered if Nick and I would have ever found out our partners’ secrets if that crash had never happened. Did Mike love Jessica? Did she love him? I never asked.
I listen to horrible instrumental music as I wait for Joy and Mike to finish and text Nick.
Magic 8-Ball says Signs Point to Yes.
The door opens and Mike walks out. He still limps a little from the accident but he refuses to use crutches. He won’t look at me when he plops into a chair across the room.
“Claire?” Joy’s voice calls.
I go into the small room, smiling a little when I see Joy sitting on the ledge by the window. Her box of cigarettes is open and she’s tapping one against the window. I close the door behind me and she gratefully breathes out, lighting the cigarette and leaning against the slightly open window.
She only relaxes herself in front of me. She told me one day she just had to have a cigarette, and I didn’t react. She said it wasn’t very professional of her. I told her I couldn’t care less.
I’m not entirely blind. I know she considers me a tough egg to crack and so she thinks that by conspiring together, I might open up a bit more to her. The crazy thing is it usually works.
“Forgive me for smoking, but after today’s session…. I need one.”
I sit on the ledge beside her.
“And how is Nick?” she asks once I’m sitting.
I shrug a shoulder. “As dysfunctional as I am.”
“Still craving you all the time?”
“He doesn’t crave me.” I roll my eyes and then watch her smoke, wishing I could take up the habit. She does it with a certain finesse that I admire. Plus, it’s so deliciously self-destructive.
Joy shakes her head and her green eyes watch me carefully. “You are the human morphine to his pain.”
“You are like my husband and his fond use of metaphors.” I stretch out my legs and try to think of a way to change the topic. I don’t like discussing Nick with her. Unfortunately he’s her favorite subject. “I don’t want to talk about Nick.”
“What do you want to talk about?” she sighs, exhaling her last puff of smoke. “Have you been sleeping better?”
“Yes. I don’t have to get up and give Mike his pills anymore; he can do it himself.”
Her eyes are shrewd, suspicious. “No more nightmares?”
“Jesus Christ. No. I don’t even remember my dreams.”
“Claire. You are coming to a point now where you have to make a decision.” Joy shuts the window and hops off the ledge. Her eyes never leave mine. “You have two men who need you, for very different reasons. It’s unhealthy not to address this and figure out what you want. Not just for you.” She sits and I don’t like the expression on her face when she asks, “Do you think you’re punishing both of them?”
My pulse quickens. “What? No.” I think about Mike for a second. Sure, it could be a form of punishment to stay with him and not hide my affair, but I’ve been taking care of him ever since he came home from the accident. And I’m certainly not punishing Nick. Were hugs and orgasms punishment?
As if she can read my thoughts, Joy smiles sadly. “Are you having an affair with Nick to get back at Jessica?”
“No,” I whisper. “No. Of course not. We… We need each other. We are in this together.”
“Do you really need him?”
I think of Nick’s face. The scar on his shoulder. The way he looks at me. When he grabs me in the middle of the night and quietly sobs against my back.
Joy is unconvinced as she scribbles something in her notepad. “I think that’ll be all for today. We’ll pick up where we left off next week, okay?”
I stand up and practically run to the door. I feel stiff, exhausted.
My hand is on the doorknob when I peek over my shoulder.
“Call me.” Joy is playing the part of sad confidante again. “If you need to. Any time. Okay?”
5 YEARS EARLIER
I was at a BBQ, and far too sober to enjoy myself. I listened to stoned people contemplate politics, pretended to listen to strangers’ long-winded stories, and said the potato salad was amazing when asked. My friend Shane was flirting with a girl who couldn’t have been less interested, and he kept asking for my advice. Problem was, he was wasted and the girl—and the entire party—could hear him. She left at some point, so Shane prowled the BBQ for his next victim with another full Solo cup.
My other friends were either in private conversations with their significant others—it was that time of the night—or dancing to the terrible music coming out of a tinny speaker. Someone stepped on my foot at one point and I was nearly positive he broke my toe. I cursed loudly and was embarrassed when half the BBQ looked over at me. I was about to tell my friends I was leaving when it happened.
Freezing, pungent beer ran down my chest, soaking my dress and sticking to my skin. It happened so fast I hadn’t even had a chance to watch it happen. Some drunken moron was heaved up by an apologetic friend. “Sorry. I’m so sorry. He’s wasted.”
“Then maybe it’s time to go home, huh?” a voice asked close to my ear.
I turned so fast that my hair softly brushed across his face. I had never laid eyes on him before. The man handed me a bunch of paper towels but stared at the two guys.
“Should I call you a cab or are you okay to drive him back?”
The apologetic friend bobbed his head in a nod. “Yeah, I can drive.” His eyes swept to me. “So sorry.”
I cleared my throat, trying to pretend like my beer-soaked dress wasn’t plastered to my body. “Not your fault.”
The two disappeared and I was left with the stranger. He watched me awkwardly dab at myself.
“Don’t think that’s doing the job, honey. Maybe you better go home.” I looked up and he grinned; I fell halfway in love right there, I think. “Sorry. Don’t mean to be rude. Just sayin’. And now you’re limping. These things come in threes, right?”
I cleared my throat and tried to think of something clever and not humiliating to say, but I went with simple. “Uh, yeah. You’re probably right. I should actually go before someone drops a house on me or something. Ha.”
Well, there went not humiliating myself, I thought.
He had a confused expression on his face.
“You know. The Wizard of Oz. It wasn’t very funny, anyway.”
He leaned against the apartment building, his mouth softening into an amused smile. “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
I stopped furiously dabbing my dress and my mouth dropped as my wide eyes focused on his. “Excuse me?”
“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
He was playing along, I realized, but I wasn’t sure if he was hitting on me or if something incredibly kinky might be happening.
I opened my mouth to say something before he thankfully interrupted. “How are you getting home?”
He was seriously confusing me. I felt drunk all of a sudden, and a little too focused on his face.
After a moment, he asked again. I was ten different kinds of moron.
“I’m walking,” I eventually replied. “I just live five blocks away.”
“Perfect,” he laughed. “I could use a walk.”
When we walked through the gate and out on the sidewalk, he touched my upper arm and I paused. We were in complete darkness, and I could only see the hint of light in his eyes.
“I really am sorry about the beer, by the way. A friend of mine. We’ll pay for it, okay? The dress.”
I blushed and thanked all the gods ever created that he couldn’t see it. “That’s really not necessary.”
I could hear the smile in his voice when he said, “Yeah, it kind of is. At least for me. Plus, it’s a pretty dress.” I opened my mouth to say something but he interrupted me with a squeeze on my arm. “I’m Mike, by the way.”
Mike. For some reason, I was giddy. Mike. He was Mike, and he was a very nice guy. I could tell. I’d been looking for one.
“Claire,” he repeated, and though I couldn’t be certain, I thought he was feeling the same bizarre giddiness bubbling in my chest. He took my hand and it wasn’t awkward or cheesy or uncomfortable. “Nice to meet you, Claire.”
And the rest was history, as they say.
The snow is heavy when we leave our session. Mike watches it from his window, determined not to look at me. It suits me fine; I just wish we could get home faster.
I’m thinking of the first time we met. Of how I looked at his eyes and just knew. I was so certain that first night, in a way I’d never been certain before. Our relationship had been so easy. It was obvious we were going to get married. When he proposed, I wasn’t surprised. Thrilled, but not surprised. Was that bad? Should I have been? Should we have had a healthy dose of insecurity here or there?
As I slowly pull up our driveway, I can feel Mike’s impatient energy. He wants to burst into the house and get as far away from me as he can. And why? Because I actually told the truth for once?
He waits as I unlock the front door and then bolts for the kitchen. I’m itchy. Craving something. I want to drive to Nick’s and have angry, rough sex and collapse into an unfeeling bundle of flesh and blood in the familiar cocoon of his bed. But then I think about craving and of what Joy said, and I’m irritated. Fucking psychology.
I want to go there. But I don’t want to be craved, and I’m not sure why.
What I really want to do is fight. So I decide to pick a fight with Mike.
He is fiddling with stuff in the fridge, studiously avoiding my presence.
“Did you love her?”
He stops. Inhales so deeply that his whole body rises, and then exhales like a tremendous weight has been lifted. Cliché and all. It’s the question he’s been waiting for, or at least one of them.
He closes the fridge and turns without looking for me, sitting at the table. “Will you sit with me?”
“I don’t want to have a soul-searching conversation with you. I asked you a simple question.”
I’m not sure why, but I’m shaking. It’s adrenaline. Fear. I shouldn’t be asking him this because I don’t think I want to know the answer, but it’s something I need to ask now. Now.
“Claire,” he sighs, like he’s incredibly tired. I look at his profile. He probably is very, very tired. I have no idea what his sleeping habits are like anymore. I’m either at Nick’s or in the guest room. He probably has nightmares. He mentioned that once to Joy. That he dreams of the accident. Sometimes he dreams I’m in the car. I snidely mentioned that must’ve been the guilt creeping in and he stopped talking about it.
I sit across from him. His tired eyes eventually meet mine, but it’s a slow and tortured journey. As much as he’s longed for this question, he’s clearly dreading the answer. Which tells me all I need to know. What I always knew.
I breathe. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath.
The answer hurts. How can a positive word like “yes” hurt so badly? And why does it hurt?
I’m crying. Softly. Things are happening to my body I hadn’t expected.
He looks crushed. I can’t even derive any satisfaction from that.
This was a mistake. Except that it wasn’t a mistake at all. I had to ask. I had to know. Especially today, when I am nostalgic and fragile.
“Can I explain?” he asks after a while.
I wipe my eyes and laugh. “Sure.”
“I loved you, too. I did. I mean that. We just couldn’t… stop. We tried a thousand times. We knew what we were doing was wrong.”
“And you didn’t divorce me? I mean, you loved her. Clearly more than me.”
He doesn’t know what to say, but I’m sure he has an answer.
“Why are we doing this to ourselves, Mike?”
Those eyes catch mine, only this time I don’t feel a jolt. The first time in five years.
The strangest, most persistent thought in my mind is—why does that make me sad?
“I’m not going to make you go to sessions anymore.” He is uncomfortable and devastated. “I understand there’s no way to fix this. I’m going to release you from everything, okay? Whatever you want.”
I don’t know what to say. Thanks or fuck you seem off.
“I’m going out tonight,” I say. I’m numb again. No more tears. The words have no emotion.
Mike nods once. “I thought you might.”
I get up and collect my things, but before I walk out of the room, Mike tries to grip one last piece of candor before the moment is gone.
“Do you love him, Claire?” He traces an invisible line on the kitchen table with his finger, not looking at me. “Most of the time, I hope you really do. I hope he makes you happy.”
I never think about that. Ever. It’s as if Nick is a ghost, who exists only when I’m with him. I don’t think of him when I leave him, even if I can still smell him on me. In spite of everything, it still feels like betrayal. It also feels like an added complication to an already difficult situation.
Nick is my morphine, too.
I watch Mike. There’s nothing left to say. He doesn’t really want an answer, and I don’t have one to give. So I say the only thing I can. “Goodnight.”
I should go to Nick’s. I should sink into his caresses and lose a few days in his arms.
Joy’s words, however, are on a continuous loop in my mind and I can’t see him. I’m still fresh from my conversation with Mike, and thoughts of Jessica keep poking in, too.
Like how I’d always been fascinated by her. Enamored with her, quite frankly. She was glittery sunshine. She was never pessimistic, or unsure, or mean. She loved everyone. Including my husband, it seemed.
I know she loved him.
Nick gave me her diary. I don’t know why he did that; I told him it was the last thing I wanted to read. But he said he’d found it and he couldn’t stop himself, and he thought he would share it. I guess it was like whenever you find out a disturbing fact, or when you see something unbelievable or horrible, you have to share it with someone to somehow make it more manageable, or make them as scared or horrified as you. He was successful on that front. I read her journal in twelve hours, and then the other two he provided the following day. My emotions ranged from uncontrollable rage to impenetrable sadness. I mourned her as deeply as I hated her.
She never said why they didn’t just break up with Nick and me. That haunts Nick. I know it does. It haunts me, too. Were they afraid of what people would think of them? Were our relationships with them lies?
Mike can’t provide an answer, which probably means I don’t want to know it.
I drive around for nearly an hour. I hear my phone vibrating and know it’s Nick without looking.
So I go to my parents’ house. They don’t seem surprised when I come in, stomping the snow off my boots.
“Have you eaten?” my mother asks. My father lifts himself off the couch to make tea.
I’m home. A variation of home, but home. My mother looks at me and sees me. And so she hugs me. She hugs me hard, and for a long time. She hugs me so intensely that time vanishes and I sink into the human touch that has no strings attached whatsoever. She finally pulls back, and unconditional love sparkles in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” She looks me up and down and doesn’t react, so I must look okay.
“I need to stay here for a few nights,” I whisper. “Just until I figure things out.”
Mom rubs my arms. She is as delighted as she is sad. “Of course. For as long as you need.”
Brooklyn is unimpressed by my reappearance the next morning. He doesn’t seem interested in a walk, and begrudgingly gets off the couch when I dangle the leash. I’m not sure where Mike is; I’m just relieved he’s not home.
We go a few blocks. It isn’t snowing anymore, but it is unbelievably freezing. I see Brooklyn shivering and head back. I try not to think about the possibility of Mike being home, but of course I do. And he is.
When I come in the front door, I shake the snow off my boots and ignore him sitting on the couch. Brooklyn takes a treat after I unleash him.
“You didn’t go to Nick’s last night.”
I stare at my husband. He doesn’t wait for me to answer.
“He came here looking for you. He wouldn’t leave, at first. Said he’d been calling you nonstop. That you were supposed to come over. After he left, I got worried. I drove past your parents’ house and saw you were there.”
I don’t know what to say. I can only mumble, “Okay.”
He fiddles with his wedding ring. “Remember when we first met?”
“You said you won me over by promising me a new dress.”
Half of his mouth quirks up in a smile. Then it fades as we stare into each other’s eyes. “I wish I could give you a better explanation. You deserve one. Jessica and I would never have made it. We both knew that. We both we knew we had better with our spouses, but we were greedy. That’s why we couldn’t just go run off together. I loved her. I did.” He clears his throat.
Mesmerized, I cross the room and sit next to him. He rubs his bad leg unconsciously and keeps eye contact.
“One day we were going to tell you. Both of you. We had it planned. It was going to be when we all got home from work. But you were cooking dinner when I got home, and you were in that dress. You laughed when you saw me staring, and you were just like, ‘Look what I found!’, all giddy and happy. You were beautiful. Then I remembered that night like I was reliving it. I watched you all night, waited for my move. Well, you know the story. It was perfect. I just knew I couldn’t tell you that night. I called Jessica. She was not happy. I promised soon. Soon turned into months. Soon turned into the car accident.”
I let his words sink in. “I narrowly avoided being walked out on because I wore that old dress? Mike, it has a permanent Merlot stain in it. And it’s two sizes too small now. I was being goofy.”
He laughs. It’s throaty and real, and I haven’t heard it in so long. “Yeah. I guess if you put it that way. Yeah.”
I look away. It is a dreary Sunday; the older man across the street is slowly shoveling his driveway. Everything is the same, and yet it’s not.
Mike takes my hand. “I miss her sometimes. I miss that little bit of unpredictable excitement she always brought around. I miss Nick, too. God, I miss Nick. I don’t even know who he is anymore, and I did that. I know that. I know that I’ve changed you, too, and there will never be enough words to tell you how I sorry I am.”
“Would that ‘soon’ you promised her ever have come a reality?”
He knows what I’m asking. Would I have found out? Would he have left me?
He thinks hard, his dark eyes peering into mine as if they hold all the answers. “I don’t know,” he finally rasps. “I want to give you an honest answer. When I look back on it now, we were completely high. We didn’t think about tangibles.”
“But Jessica was pushing, you said.”
Mike roughens up his hair a bit and looks away from me for the first time since I walked in. “I can’t speak for Jessica or her marriage with Nick. I know she loved him. I know she loved me more.”
“What about me?” I notice tears are trailing down my cheeks. “What did she think about me?”
Mike’s eyes swing back to mine. “She always thought you would inevitably understand.”
I wipe my cheeks and look around the room, feeling displaced. “How?”
“Claire. People can rationalize plenty of things. Jessica was good at that.”
Nodding, I stand. I don’t want to know anymore. Not today.
I pick up a book. “I’m going to read in the guestroom. I’ll order dinner out, if you’re interested. I’m staying here tonight.”
I see his body jolt with surprise out of the corner of my eye, but I don’t react and I certainly don’t look back.
6 MONTHS EARLIER
“Do you think I’d be a good mom?”
I looked up from the dress I was inspecting. We were having a dinner party in a week and I wanted to look perfect.
Jessica’s thoughts were on motherhood, however. She carelessly flipped through dresses on the rack, her mind obviously elsewhere.
“Of course. Why? Something you’re not telling me?”
She looked up at me and then smiled, her dimples deepening. “No, silly. I tell you everything. I’m not knocked up, yet. Just thinking about it.”
“Well, does Nick want a kid? You’ve said in the past that kids were definitely in the future.”
Something passed over her face but she was smiling sunnily again before I could put my finger on what it was. “Yeah, I guess. I’m just thinking about how much my mom sucked, and that I could possibly suck just as much. Imagine if I had a mini Jessica running around?”
Jessica’s relationship with her mother was a touchy one. Her mother was an alcoholic that only called when feeling sentimental or in need of money. Jess could never be like that. She was a bit flighty when she wanted to be, but her heart was always in the right place.
I put down the dress I’d been eyeing and bumped my body into hers. “A mini Jessica sounds excellent.”
Her large gray eyes focused on my face. Her smile softened. “Yeah?”
“Totally. You’d be the cool mom. I can so see it.”
I gave her hand a squeeze and went back to searching for a dress. I knew Jessica didn’t like dwelling on shit like this, and knowing her she’d really want to change the subject. I was surprised when I felt arms wrapping around me from behind.
“Thank you, Claire.”
She let me go and then walked around to face me. Her eyes were shiny. “Nick wants a kid. Badly.”
“Well, don’t you?”
Her eyes danced around the store before meeting mine. “It’s complicated. And it’s a huge step.”
“Don’t you want a baby?”
I thought of the miscarriage I’d had a few months before that only Mike knew about. And the one the year before that mostly everyone knew about because it happened a few months in, and it was fucking awful. She saw me flinch and bit her lip.
“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“It’s okay. I guess you’ll know you want one when you just… know. I’m taking a break from the whole baby thing. Hopefully it’ll just naturally happen that way.”
“You guys are in a bit of a dry spell now, though, right?” She watched me warily, afraid she was hurting my feelings.
“Yes. He’s not into it. I’m not into it. I’m pretty sure it’s just a phase. We love each other. It’ll be fine.”
She toyed with a dress, pulling the zipper up and down. “Do you ever think that maybe it just has to be with the right person?”
I stepped back. “Of course I do. What do you mean? That Mike isn’t the right person? Or that Nick isn’t the right one for you?”
“No,” she said, but she wasn’t looking at me. “I meant it generally. Don’t mind me today. I’m just in a mood. I’m bloated and all these dresses look horrendous on me.”
Shaking my head, I handed her the dress I thought was outstanding. “Try this on. It’s stunning.”
“No, you’ve been holding onto that thing ever since we walked in here!”
“Try it on, asshole!” I laughed. “It’ll look better on you.”
“You haven’t even tried it on, yet,” she pointed out.
I pushed her into a dressing room. “I better not try it on now. It’ll only make me jealous. Let me know if you need me to zip it for you.”
A few minutes later, she stepped out and looked just as I predicted—outstanding. I made her buy it and, a week later, watched her proudly walk into my house with it on.
Nick was looking at her with shining eyes like he was the luckiest guy in the world. I thought that a baby wouldn’t be far off, and I meant it when I said a mini Jessica would be priceless. Nick and I both loved Jessica enough to convince her of that.
She walked over to Mike and me.
“You look beautiful,” I said. I kissed her cheek.
Mike cleared his throat. He appeared to be blushing. Ha! I’d make fun of him for that later. “Yes. Very.”
Jessica smiled sweetly at him and reached over for a big hug. She whispered something in his ear. Then she hugged me.
“Thanks for making me get the dress, Claire.”
Many months after I would find out she whispered, “I can’t wait to fuck you with this dress on later,” into my husband’s ear.