I am in bed when you let yourself in with the key I gave you, the key you never wanted to have. I listen to each step as you ascend, heavy, the staircase. Though the book, poised on my chest, remains open I am no longer reading. Only the appearance of apathy. Already I am absorbed in you.
I allow myself a glance when the door creaks open. For a second I catch your eye, a sliver of green. Sharp as a forest on fire. Then I go back to pretending to read. Listening. For that hitch in your breath as you slip off your shoes and almost fall. The rustle of your shirt as it slides from your shoulders. Then the springs cry with the dip of the bed, and you are lifting the book from my fingers and tossing it across the room and kissing my mouth before I can protest.
You still taste of your husband.
We don’t even have a good origin story. Not like Superman, discovered in a smoldering crater two kindly, old hicks in Kansas. Couldn’t tell my friends that we met in some sleazy bar, or better yet, a sex club. How much easier if, the first time I’d seen you, you’d been decked in leather and wearing a mask. How simple, then, to forgive.
The park sweltered. I remember the sweat dampening the back of my shorts and how my head felt hot beneath my hat (that hat, which you later told me you hated, and which I haven’t worn since). But you smiled cool at me, and your laugh felt like dipping your feet into a stream. I remember looking at your nails and wanting to bite them, even then wanting to break off a little piece of you. Already I had it bad.
Why does it surprise you even now how much I remember about that day? What I wore, the stories about college and our families that we shared, sitting on the bench, the way your mouth tasted when I finally, foolishly, kissed you. How could every word you spoke not be imprinted on my heart?
You are crazy.
This, my best friend tells me when I announce I am moving to be closer to you.
You are being a stupid bitch.
I do not argue with her because I know I cannot change her mind, and also because she is a little right.
He’s married. He’ll never truly be with you.
My condo was built on a budget. A small one. Nothing fits quite right. The cabinets in my kitchen do not fully close, and you have to push, hard, on my bedroom door to get it open. The windows are painted shut, and if you don’t tug just right on them, the blind will topple down on top of your head.
But the rent is cheap and close to the highway, so my long-ass commute to work is a little less long-ass. And your house is only minutes away.
That first night, when I was dusty and sweaty from unpacking, with boxes still piled in the corners, I cooked us dinner in my Spartan kitchen while you sat in the dining room. You told me all the things wrong with my new place, what I needed to change or fix. This had not yet begun to bother me.
Or maybe it had. Maybe that is why I picked the fight that night, when you said you couldn’t stay over.
That night, awake, alone in my bed, I counted the cracks in the wall.
You found me work at a local library. Local, in the broadest sense of the word. Nothing but farmland for miles all around. Most of my time spent helping patrons send faxes or get onto the internet. None of them ever having set foot outside the state. But then, neither had you.
When we were slow, I’d roam the stacks, running my finger along the glossy spines of the books. An armful home with me each night.
When I couldn’t be with you, I read.
I did not mean to get drunk. But we hadn’t fought in days, and you smiled easy so I could see all your teeth, and I wanted to be a little reckless. So I poured myself a second, then a third and fourth. Till the ground grew soft beneath my feet and the world brightened and grew hazy round the edges. Threw my arm around your neck, kissed your face, both of us laughing about we didn’t even know.
Why did I ask you about the wedding? Maybe I felt invincible, the same type of foolish, imperviousness that makes people drive their cars off overpasses.
But I insisted. I needed to know. How many people. When. Where. Tell me about the honeymoon.
I pictured you, that first morning after the ceremony, waking up in the little B&B on the outskirts of town. How your eyes must have found his body, next you yours, curled like a comma on the bed. I could see that glint in them, that shine, when you realized it was no longer your boyfriend you were watching, but your husband. As if seeing him for the first time.
It wasn’t until the next morning when I stumbled into consciousness, that I realized you’d never look at me that way. I ran the shower extra loud, so you wouldn’t hear me cry.
It was always about the sex. Now, with the clarity of distance, I can claim what I knew then to be true. What I tried, so hard, to explain to my friends when they’d ask me why, why, why, with a married man?
Because after every fight, every time I’d shout myself hoarse or sob myself sick, when you’d slink back to your husband and slide, slick as oil, in between the sheets of the bed you shared, the bed you’d brought me into when he was out of town, always, always you’d make your way back to me, wrap your arms around me and kiss all the parts of my body I found unbeautiful as if they were marble and gold.
Because every hair and inch of skin thrilled when you touched me and I felt like all those romance novels little old ladies would check out on languid Saturday afternoons at the library. The way you looked at me, as if I were meat lain out on the bed, and you, a tiger, waiting to rip into me with teeth and claw.
Every bite, every mark, would be admired in the mirror for days. I’d close my eyes, fingers trailing the dark, purplish circles, and recreate you.
Surely, I thought, you could not love your husband in this way.
To make up for all the years I’d missed with you, for all the years I could never capture or fully, you told me, comprehend, I tried to understand you through reading. By traversing the spines and stories of your favorite books. The ones you grew up with, the ones, you claimed, “changed” you in college, the ones you lent out to friends (but never to me).
For an instant, I glimpsed you in Franny and Zooey. Then I lost you in the turning of a page.
I know no one here. Not personally. Only as names in stories you have told me, characters populating your life. I do not remember the fight that led me here—something stupid, surely, like how you wouldn’t hold my hand at the grocery store—which culminated in the invitation, the compromise to involve me more in your life.
It’s one of those everyone knows everyone but me situations. I find myself pressed into a corner, a drink—my third—in my hands. I feel cagey, like an animal ready for a fight. My tongue feels wet and heavy in my mouth, and I worry it’ll slip lose.
I spend the first hour watching your friends interact with you. Trying to see what you see in them. What they see in you.
It’s like someone turned the volume all the way up on you, heightened the contrast. Painted you in negative shades of yourself. I recognize the base elements I fell in love with—the sharp edge of your wit, the dazzling charm of your yellowed teeth, your endless opinions—but now they’ve been focused as if through a prism and distorted. Normally so jovial, there’s now a mean streak to your humor, a bite behind your words that frightens me. I blame it on the flush of your cheeks. I stay out of your way.
“Having fun?” I look up from the hole my toe had been worrying into your carpet and look at your husband for the first time. Of course I’d noticed him when I’d first arrived. Like a car wreck my eyes had been drawn to him, but they could never settle on his face, never look too closely at the stretched and the white sheet pulled across it. Afraid of what I’d see underneath.
“Of course!” Even I feel unconvinced. I smile, but it comes across as pained. I finish my drink and excuse myself to pour another.
Hours trickle by and your guests fade like memories. It is 4am and I am too drunk to drive home, so you offer your couch for the night. Your husband insists when I politely refuse.
After he has fallen asleep, you sneak out to the living room, and we make love on the floor. I know I should feel bad, should recognize this as a betrayal, a risk, but I want desperately so to claim this as a victory.
Once we are finished and you’ve gone to bed, I throw up in the bathroom. My hangover lasts for days.
Nights that you are not with me, nights you are with him, I scroll through job postings far away.
Technical engineer in Seattle. Tour guide in Paris. English teacher in Dubai. Each an escape from you. I fill out pages and pages of applications, deforest a state with my resumes. I’ve had a few glasses of wine.
I dream of you, again.
After we fuck, you lie on your side and dance your fingers across my spine. My skin tingles, hums, comes alive beneath the scythe of your nail.
“How would you propose to me?” My words surprise you, and me. Your hands stills, palm flat against my lower back. You do not know what to say, of course. I’ve rallied too long against the patriarchal institution of marriage for you to be anything but wary. Perhaps this is a trap.
“I’d take you to the park where we first met. And I’d do it in French.” You punctuate your words with kisses to my shoulder blade. Some part of me blossoms with hope. I kill it.
It is a Wednesday and we haven’t spoken for days. The bottles line my kitchen counter; I cannot be bothered to throw them away. I’m quickly running through my sick days at work.
I call you till your voicemail is full, then you switch off your phone. For some reason I don’t think to text you—it seems too casual.
Silence like this is deafening. After so many days speaking with you, after our ubiquitous conversations, suddenly this seems unbearable.
I don’t seriously contemplate suicide—not really—but I think about it more than I did.
Telling my friends and family feels like coming out, like revealing some dark, terrible secret. I am worried some of them, through compassion, will cry. I have seen enough tears by now.
Most are sympathetic. There are the usual I told you so’s. Some shock me with their apathy.
None of it make me feel any better.
You tried to extend an olive branch. At least, this is how you justified it to yourself. Explained why it would never work, your duty to your husband, all the same, tired excuses that have been string along countless times before.
You offer to answer any questions I might have. Say that you want us to remain friends.
If I could, I’d spit in your face.
The box greets me when I come home that night. I feel the cardboard corner cut into my hip when I heft it up the stairs. It’s heavier than I’d imagined.
On the pink of my bedspread I lay out the contents; a catalogue of our love. I count the love letters and birthday cards. The mints (orange) I bought for your car. And at the bottom, folded, the blanket I bought you for Christmas. Your favorite.
Held against my cheek, I inhale you.
After he found out everything, your husband made you end it. At least, this I surmised after the fact. You avoided me till I confronted you in your car, leaving the bar. It was the last clear day for weeks. The sun dying.
“I don’t want you in my life anymore. I’ll grab my things and go.”
Simple as that. Erased from my life.
I felt like a handful of dust blown away.
For days I wasted. Eating seemed impossible; everything tasteless in my mouth. Morning I would decay in bed, feeling my limbs atrophy and go numb. In endless cycles I would call your phone ceaselessly, then I’d delete your number, burry my phone under the ever increasing piles of dirty clothes.
My mouth fills up with words unspoken—every though that is birthed comes attached to you, a umbilical cord that I cannot sever. Leaving the house is out of the question; every street corner holds a memory of you.
Hollowed out, like a shell. My mind rattles around inside my skull. More than anything I want to feel nothing.
Slowly, like pulling a bandage off a festering wound, I tell people. First those closest to the fallout, the parents and dearest friends who cradled me as I sobbed hysterically. Those tender enough not to judge just yet. These are the ones for whom explanations are superfluous.
But eventually my coworkers notice. Instead of meeting you at a restaurant I start taking my lunch break earlier, warming up a Tupperware container of day old pasta in the break room microwave.
They are all of them sympathetic, their condolence dipped words the right mixture of heartfelt and sincere. But they don’t understand, not truly. Not even half of them knew you were married, and even those who did can’t fully comprehend. They sling insults and wounding epitaphs, thinking this is what I want to hear. But hearing your name hurts me more than they realize. I have not yet begun to hate you.
I am cleaning when you call me. I’d been dumping out the contexts of each dresser drawer, scouring for your fingerprints—everything you’ve touched gets thrown out (except, of course, for myself, but there are simpler ways of shedding your own skin).
A wave crashes over me when I see your number flashing on the screen. For a moment I panic, forget how to breathe. Would you have left a voicemail if I’d let you? Would I have ever listened to it?
I try and make my voice as firm as possible when I answer.
“I don’t want to speak to you anymore.”
Silence. We are both surprised by my words. I hang up before you have the chance to respond.
That night I replay the sound of the breathing, the cadence of your inhalation, till I fall asleep.
Slowly, I put myself back together. Each day feels like being born; I must relearn each step without you now. I am struck by the enormity of your part in my life—a tinge of you stains every thought and action.
But gradually you fade. You know better than to try and call me now. Perhaps you are still scared I will tell your husband. This fear shows how little you actually know me.
When I was with you I had become a stranger to myself, a recluse, secluded in the cavern of our delusional love. My friends greet me as if I’d been away for many years, their speech cautious and slow. Soon I am having drinks with them nearly every night, but I am so different from the desperate drunk I’d been when I was with you. I surprise myself, one night out at a bar, when I catch myself laughing. A true, genuine laugh, that bubbles up from my stomach and cascades out of my mouth. I feel high and dizzy with the thrill of simple, authentic joy.
The job offer came while I was at yoga. When I check my phone the voicemail icon flashes. Research position in Paris. Starting next month. I’d forgotten even that I’d applied, one night when we weren’t speaking. Suddenly now my life seems full of possibilities. Before I even pull into my driveway I have accepted the offer.
“You look nice.” These, your first words to me in months, as you take your seat across from me in the coffee shop. I do not like how my chest swells at the compliment—I take a needle to my plume. “I’m really glad you agreed to see me.”
“I don’t hate you—” Your eyes, big as a deer’s, when you hear this. Some part of me likes what is to come, “—because I feel nothing towards you.” A moment of uncertainty in the orbits of your eyes, a frightened unrecognition.
Some part of me will always love you. Some part of me will always mourn you. An ever-loving grief. You shaped my heart with your hands like wet clay. I am changed, some part of my DNA rearranged by the misfortune of loving you. I cannot look into a mirror of my past and find myself—you have shattered the mirror. You have hurt me, wounded me, deep, in a deep place, and always I fear I shall feel the stinging twine of every pull, every beating second. I must borrow a poet’s words to adequately describe the love I could have given you, the love I strove to give you. “Meals you would cook for them, poems you would write for them.” But you will never know. You traded my love against that of another’s and you always found my scale lacking. How heavy is your heart to twist my love into little paper flowers and just let them die. Set fire to every bridge we ever built for each other. Now you are a stranger to me, I blink back tearful recognition at the caricature I always knew you were. Love is blind and also pretty fucking stupid. I opened my chest like a surgeon so you could cut at your leisure till my heart was only dangling by a thread. I would bleed to let you love me. But you decided my time and my hurt weren’t worth the effort, so you broke my dreams with a short sentence in a car before a bar the night before our weekend away. And no amount of words or anger could patch our lost connection, all night I hugged my phone hoping from a signal from you, but all I got was radio silence. When I finally heard your voice again I got angry, demanded back everything gift I’d ever given you—you take away something I love I’ll take away something you love—but all the poems and blankets and pictures could never buy back the hours I’d spend thinking of you, could never dry the tears I had wept for you. And for days I thought nothing of you and waiting, wishing, hoping, praying you’d walk through my door again and take it all back. But the days grew to weeks and the memories faded till I was left with only the cold string of truth: you would never love me the way I needed to be loved. Slowly I rebuilt myself back to something glorious, I danced beneath the pale blue moon as music pumped in my blood, I remembered what it was to laugh again. Joy like you’d never given me. So yes, you have cursed and blessed me, set fire to all my hopes and dreams. But I am only just brushing the ashes off my wings.
You do not cry when I get up and walk away. Neither do I.
Alex Franco lives in Athens, GA, where he works at a spa. His fiction has appeared in Polychrome Ink. He is moving to Paris.