In the quiet of a summer night, crickets chirping and sun setting, sipping a glass of American Honey on the back patio with my husband, I text my colleague to see if he wants to swing by and pick me up to grab a drink.
“Sure, I’ll be there in a few mins. Still at WalMart.”
He is in town for a few weeks for a conference, and besides our regular emails and Facebook messages, it’s been a while since we’ve had a face-to-face conversation. I’m eager to catch up in person, ready to talk about the rumors that his marriage might be falling apart. We have been friends for years now; we exchange witty back-and-forths and like each other’s Facebook posts. How are things at home? I ask in a Google chat window, Do your kids sense the tension? I ask in a Facebook message. I want to encourage him to stick it out.
Brandon scrolls through his Twitter feed in the patio chair across from me until the night sky is dark, our glasses empty, and we wander back inside. When my colleague finally arrives, our other friend isn’t with him, and a small ping of a warning bell dings inside my head. He comes in through the front door and shakes hands with Brandon. The three of us talk and joke in the dining room, where I have hung half a dozen photos of our wedding day and pictures of the kids, before we head toward the door.
“I’ll be back soon,” I say, hugging my husband, “I love you.”
“Love you too, babe.” And the door swings closed on its loud hinges, clasps shut, the front stoop light glowing orange in the night.
My friend and I drive to the dive-iest of dive bars in town to talk and drink. I order a whiskey, neat. He thinks it’s crazy that I like whiskey. I drink it. I order another. All we do is talk and talk, talk and talk. I don’t feel as if I’m saying anything different than I normally would, but he says, “I’m seeing a whole other side of you, Swells,” laughs, looks me in the eyes too long. Maybe it’s because I’m looser with my opinions, freer with our usual wit and banter, the things I say about my job and my writing and my life a little bit funnier, a little bit sassier, and all of this taking place mostly in email, until now. I grin like a little kid and turn back to the bar.
In a candid email about work earlier in the spring, I made a joke about why the school keeps me around, and my friend said, “Not just eye candy then?” Eye candy? I had frowned. Oh. That’s right. I am a female. He is a male. “Let’s stick to the nickname ‘Swells’,” I replied, but it had been so long since I had felt physically attractive, coming off eight years of being pregnant and then not being pregnant and then trying to be pregnant, over and over again. Now, Henry was nine months old. I ran a half marathon the previous fall with my mom, shedding baby weight and building muscle. Brandon and I changed our eating habits in the spring and I lost ten more pounds, just five away from what I weighed on my wedding day. People commented on how good I looked. Eye candy? Really? Later, he apologized for crossing the line, that invisible line between friendly chiding and flirtation, the small fissure in the wall patched for now.
But here in the bar, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m not really sure where this is going, except that I like this guy, I’ve liked this guy for a long time, he’s a great friend, so fun to talk to, so fun to be with. But eye candy buzzes and lands like a fly on my thigh. I spin back and forth on the barstool; I ask again about his marriage, his kids. What’s happening? Why is it falling apart? “It’s my fault,” he says, “Yeah, the kids can tell. They sense the tension.”
I order another drink and a large glass of water. Where is the line between friendly conversation and flirtation once you’re married, once you are on a barstool next to a male friend? With several whiskeys behind me, I don’t know when it crosses over. The talk simply blurs until suddenly it leaks out, he’s crushed on me for years—“but I was pregnant at that conference!”—I protest, still smiling, grinning too broadly, surprised to be desired.
“’Just so you know, I’m married,’” Brandon says to me, flashing his ring, “That’s the first thing I say to women when I’m on the road.” We laugh. It would be so easy to slip off the ring he holds up for their inspection.
“The trouble is,” I tell him over dinner in Lost River, West Virginia, “I prefer to talk to men,” and he says between bites, “I know exactly what you mean. I enjoy talking to women.” We leave the restaurant holding hands, turn on James Taylor, slip into the bed at the B&B and kick off the sheets, broad daylight flitting through the blinds.
We’re just friends as long as I hold up my end, I tell myself, as long as I hold up the bar with my forearms, as long as I keep shooing his palm off of my thigh. “No!” I screech, grinning. I’m insistent. I can’t believe that he is touching me, that he could be so bold as to touch me that way, me, married, me, children, me. “You have to stop touching me,” I tell him. I love my husband. As his confessions start to whir, I say again, “You forget that I am happy in my marriage,” and again, “You know, you are married too, sir” (it is his left hand he keeps trying to place on my leg).
“Are you going to tell Brandon about this, the way you told him about the other guy?” he asks. I blush and immediately regret my stupid alcohol confessional moments earlier, my open mouth and rambling on about what happened last year at this time, how blindsided by affection I had been.
“There’s nothing to tell Brandon because nothing is happening!” I tell him. Nothing is happening. “So what’s your wife up to tonight?” I ask. He rolls his eyes.
“I love my husband.” If I emphasize a new word each time I say it, I think, maybe it will buzz into his ear canal and nest.
He rolls his eyes again and looks down at his phone, which lights up now and then. His face falls into a shadow as he replies and then turns back to me, neon bar lights shining.
Happily married. Three kids. Thirty years old. I pay bills. I have a garden. My name is on the primary health insurance card. I love my husband. What on God’s green Earth am I doing out without my husband, wearing these tight blue jeans and low-cut blouse laughing too much, gripping the edge of the bar?
He wonders this, too. “I was a little surprised when Brandon answered the door,” he says, and it never occurred to me it would be awkward, because we’re just friends—because we’re just friends, because we’re just friends—it runs like a train through my head. “Why are you here with me?” he asks.
“Because I wanted to talk to you about your marriage, because we’re friends, because I enjoy your company.” Because we’re just friends!
I spin my rings around my finger with my thumb, feel the friction of flesh against metal, the weight of diamonds in a little row. I watch the bands as I twist them around my finger. They are counterfeit and real; my discount engagement ring against a wedding band with five tiny diamonds I insisted on. Of course I love my husband. Of course I am happy. My marriage isn’t perfect. Who is happy all of the time? Whose marriage isn’t both specks of gold and chunks of pyrite, specks of pyrite and chunks of gold, purified and refined and melted and molded? The whiskey in me disrupts these weaknesses, these places of tenderness in my marriage, the path a slow spiral of “it’s just that Brandon is gone a lot” and “there are things he doesn’t say, things he doesn’t do, that I miss sometimes…” and then,
“Careful, Sarah,” not-my-husband says, “You don’t want to go there.” I blink out of my reverie and surface again, no, of course, I love my husband. And we’re just friends.
This can’t be me sitting on the barstool next to not-my-husband. I am standing next to the barmaid watching myself now, the alcohol separating brain from body, spirits exorcising spirit, the way it does when I’ve had too much, when I’ve gone too far. I watch this giddy thing spin on her barstool, drink whiskey too quickly. I watch this broad man, older than her, clean-cut, professional, stare too long into her eyes, his hand occasionally leaping beyond the boundary of their friendship and landing on her leg. He stands up to play some music. She follows him to the juke box and remarks about the posters on the walls, NASCAR paraphernalia, and beer signs; all so much like the ones in the bar her dad took her to when she was young. She keeps her distance from him, just out of arm’s reach, and he croons to a song. He isn’t drunk. They are married. They aren’t married. They come back to their barstools and sip more water, pick up their phones and stare at the bright screens for a few seconds before they walk out the door. She sways a little but maintains control. He follows her, watches her from behind, and then the bar’s door closes.
With the rush of summer air my spirit catches up with my body just as the car remote lock clicks open.
Thank you for a fun night, yes, good night good night a hug good night and then out of the passenger door, eyes watching every step, every blade of grass to the concrete sidewalk and up into the porch light, door unlocked, house dark, wedding photo in shadow on the wall, turn and watch his headlights highlight the driveway, the tree, the street and then nothing. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Nothing. Except laughing and drinking and hours talking. Alone. With not-my-husband.
How much power do I have over this situation, how much control? Am I even attracted to this man? I wonder, Of course not, because we’re just friends. Of course not! I love my husband.
“You look nice,” my husband says as I head toward the door in my favorite dress, the one I wore to dinner with him in Lost River, West Virginia, a quick peck on the lips and a smile.
I keep thinking about you in that dress, says the text from not-my-husband that flashes on my phone. Heat rises. I run the hem of it between my fingers, the dotted line that holds the dress together.
After he is gone away, out of town, I breathe relief. Done. Gone. Away. But then we text and send messages online. He says things that make me blush and I reply with neutral words, never a yes, never a no, just passive resistance, a shhh while I try to hide my phone and Facebook posts, delete the thread when it’s over. But you’re married! I’m happy! I keep protesting. I carry my phone close, panic if I left my laptop open on the dining room table. Brandon has to know; I’m distant, irritable, lost in my own thoughts.
I know what I’m supposed to do. I’ve been here before. My best friend Lisa’s words rattle around in my head. I’m supposed to suck it up and turn it off, turn away from temptation and back to my husband who loves me even if it’s quiet, who shows it in subtle ways, whom I love and respect and sleep next to and with each night in our bed in our house with our three young children we made who are sleeping in their beds, our three young children who know only our love and laughter, who do not know that strangers can take up residence in dreams and dark bars and computers, how even temptation resisted can cause rifts. It is no sin to be tempted, but is it one to dwell in temptation, to pick out a dress you know will be flattering to your thinner figure, to want to feel attractive and beautiful after all these years of making babies—swelling and shrinking and swelling and shrinking and swelling and shrinking again—to laugh and then to worry that you are asking for something you don’t want, not really, anyway?
Brandon and I plan weekly date nights, or bi-weekly when it gets too busy, an evening a week when we get to be husband and wife instead of mother and father or employee or chauffeur. We budget for a babysitter and overspend on dinner and drinks, but it is worth it to ride alone together in the car, to sit across from each other over steak and salads and talk about something other than when the kids’ next soccer practice is, who will pick them up, what we’re cooking for dinner. From the time the sitter arrives until we reluctantly pull in the drive, he is mine, all mine, husband I get to enjoy, husband who opens doors, reaches for my hand, husband who exchanges movie lines and sings song lyrics with me, husband whose feet wander under covers to rub against mine. “Well, hello,” he says, or I say, “Are you really tired?”
We drive to Medina for line dancing at the Thirsty Cowboy, this week’s date night destination. We drink whiskey together, like we do, and I laugh and sway. I’ve drunk too quickly to keep up with my body, and it’s been a long time since we last line danced. I don’t altogether remember the steps, but I can still cha-cha, the rhythm and turn and rock step instinctual on the hardwood. As usual, I wonder if he’s watching my body, wonder if he admires his wife. When Brandon leaves me on my barstool to close our tab, I lean heavy against the bar and watch the older couples waltz, watch the drunk girls dance out of line, watch the regulars soar across the floor as if the dance was invented for them. A 20-something male approaches on my right. I turn my head and grin, my eyes slow to keep up with the motion of my head.
“Hey there, how are you doing tonight?” he asks with a smile.
“Oh, I’m fine!” I grin toothily. He glances down at my hands, which have taken up their dutiful position of holding up the bar.
“Oh, you’re married! I’m sorry,” he says, stepping back as if a magnetic field has just been breached, the glint of metal and stone repelling his advance.
I keep grinning, “Yup,” I say. Brandon, my knight in shining armor, returns with a clear plastic glass of water and nods at the bashful guy backing away, his hands raised shoulder-level as if to say, sorry, I didn’t know.
I snicker, “He was going to hit on me!” I am wide-eyed and still grinning.
“Yup,” Brandon says, his hand on the small of my back, “I could tell that’s what was happening.” He pushes the water my way and I gulp it hungrily. “Ready to go, Tiny Dancer?”
“Uhhmm, yes,” I say, “with your assistance.” We mosey toward the door, every brain cell and neuron focused on placing one foot in front of the other, ever-confident that, even though I am drunk, I am an amazing actress, and surely no one, especially not the bouncer checking IDs at the door, has any inclination of how much alcohol I’ve consumed in this very short time. I grin and say goodnight to him. We walk, my arm wrapped tightly around my husband’s waist, his firm grip supporting me all the way to our car, and we drive the highway home, the dark world spinning.
When Brandon leaves for work each weekend, I sit in the quiet of my living room, watch romantic comedies and write, scroll through Facebook posts, and wonder if he’ll send me a note. Wonder if he’s thinking about me. Either one—Brandon or not-my-husband. There’s a YouTube video on his Facebook wall. It’s about a girl he wants to see who’s far away from him. Him—not-my-husband—not my husband. A message pops up on the screen. “Swells…” it says. My fingers hover over the keyboard.
It could be so easy. Look how easy it could be! So easy. So fast. So immediately painless. It could just happen. How could this happen to me?
Just weeks before, Brandon and I had returned from Lost River, West Virginia, navigated together nine years of marriage and three children, four miscarriages, three houses, three dogs, career changes, church crises, new friendships, new diets. We spent the trip reminiscing and predicting the future, the bright and uncertain and beautiful future we imagined always with us together. Married. Forever. Love. In love. Totally hot, mountaintop high, West Virginia country roads love.
And then this. Sly words and posts and pictures and songs that all seem to whisper, I’m over here, I’m thinking of you. All you have to do is say, ‘yes.’ It’s like a pebble in my shoe; no, eating potato chips at the beach, the risk of gritty sand mixed in with each bite. Each line delivered makes me question whether I actually want this, whether I actually invited this, whether I’m happy with what I have, whether I want something else. Crunch. Maybe I’m not as happy as I could be in my marriage. Crunch crunch. Maybe I like hearing these things. Maybe I’m flattered. Crunch crunch crunch. Why doesn’t Brandon say these things to me? Why isn’t Brandon flirting with me? Why do other men notice me and my own husband seems oblivious? I slide quickly down the scale of contentment to resentment. Sure, my husband loves me. I know this. But he isn’t making me happy. Not right this second.
The trouble is I’m assuming that any person—not just a lover, not just a spouse, no child, no parent—is responsible for my happiness. My contentment in life depends upon one person alone. Me. My choices. My faith. My hope for the future. Expecting anyone—spouse included—to fill my every need every minute of the day in order to secure happiness is unreasonable. Selfish. So why go looking elsewhere for someone else to fill your happiness when most of the time, it’s you who needs to refocus, to find contentment within, peace with God, love for one’s self?
Why? Because it’s easier. The bag of chips is filled with salt and sand, and it’s easier to keep eating than to retrieve a clean bag from the beach house above. Easier right this instant, to text, to message, to poke, to flirt, to feel that thrill of lust and desire, to treat the symptom instead of the disease… until you zoom out beyond this instant and focus in on the possible wreckage ahead.
With all of this passive resistance, this loose-armed stop sign and smile, I could be the one to drive us into a guardrail. Even though my husband and I had talked about temptation, about bar scenes and dinners out when he’s on the road for work, (“Just so you know, I’m married…”) I thought we were talking about him and his temptations. Not me. I am infidelity-proof. I’ve had three children, after all! This could never happen to me; I love him too much to ever be tempted, value my family and my three children and these painted walls and framed portraits of smiling faces far more than any fling, far more than any other man’s advances.
But it hasn’t just “happened” to me. Maybe it landed unexpected in my lap, or on my thigh, but I am making a choice by allowing it to continue, the flirting and the compliments disguised by friendship in email messages and texts, I let them arrive, I receive them. Go away, I say, Hey, how are you doing, I say. I have the power to protect my marriage or to maim it beyond recognition, to the point that reconstructive surgery or, God forbid, amputation might be necessary. I am a threat.
It is date night again. We take the county roads to Paradise Hills, a cow pasture of a golf course, and walk the back nine. The light on the course in autumn is golden and we squint. In the rays of the setting sun, it’s impossible to think or aim and so I swing my driver by instinct, hear the club connect with the ball, the whistle of it sailing through the air, and try to shield my eyes to see where it lands, but it is lost in the light.
“Nice shot,” Brandon says, and we carry our clubs toward the greens, walking a yard or two apart. “You have to swing the pitching wedge a little harder there to get it out of the rough,” he says.
Ten years ago, we golfed together for the first time. I giggled and pranced around the tee box, gripped my club too tight, broke my wrists, dipped when I swung, and gophered the ball across the rough. “It’s all in the hips,” I teased, swaying back and forth. This is the way I had behaved with other boys, golf something like foreplay until the cover of night could be drawn. It seemed to be what the boys wanted: a sexy caddy in a polo shirt, not an actual competitor.
“You need to keep your eye on the ball,” Brandon instructed, “Do you even want to play better?” I wasn’t really interested in playing better. I was interested in getting and keeping his attention, taking a long walk under the sycamores, admiring the landscaping job the maintenance crew had done. Golf was an accessory. “Bend your knees. Keep your arms straight. The tee is too low in the ground.”
“It’s all in the hips,” I grinned.
Ten years later, we walk the course together. I adjust my stance, judge the distance between me and the greens, take a practice swing, and listen. Silence. Brandon watches. I stop choking the club, inhale, bend my knees and swing, rotating at the waist, pacing the pull back and follow through like a pendulum, connect and watch the ball lift into sunlight.
“Nice one,” Brandon says, smiling, “It’s all in the hips.”
“I have found you pretty darn compelling, Sarah Wells,” he says after a dozen or more safe back-and-forths about the writing life one afternoon at work. It burns in my gut and rushes to my cheeks, my nerve endings flare. I don’t know what to say, so I cut off the thread with a smiley-faced emoticon and “I try.” I try? That’s what I type? I am trying all kinds of things. I write blog posts about temptation and resisting temptation, loaded with Bible verses I’ve used to buttress myself, prayed through and wrestled with and clung to that he’s replied to, “Thanks for throwing all those Bible verses at me.” I’m trying. Trying to maintain a work friendship. Trying to avoid a scandal. Trying to be engaged with my kids. Trying to love my husband. Trying to keep up appearances. Trying to keep all of the pieces together, separate. Trying to do it alone.
On a night I’m feeling particularly insecure, particularly needy, remembering the flirtatious exchanges on Facebook and email that have dwindled at my request, I wait for the compliments from my husband. I look for his gaze to settle a little while longer on my figure, dissect every distracted glance away from our conversation. Nothing meets my expectations. I want him to admire me, say sweet things about my body. I even ask, “What is it you love about me?” and he doesn’t know how to answer.
“You know I’m not good at this kind of thing.” He sits back on the couch, exasperated. I stand up and storm around the kitchen, stomp down the basement stairs to switch loads, itching for something, anything, to distract me. Brandon comes downstairs.
“What’s the matter with you?”
I swallow and sigh. I want to say, “Nothing,” to stay cold and safe in my carapace of indifference. I want to say, “I’m fine.” I don’t want to confess my neediness. It all feels so self-absorbed, this desire to be adored, this hunting for signs of love. I lift the damp clothes from the washer and fling them into the dryer, avoiding his question.
“Stop doing laundry and look at me.”
I should trust this man by now. He loves me. I know this. We have known each other for ten years and still the fear boils in me that I will be denied the right to feel, that my emotions will be discarded as wrong, that something will short circuit in our conversation, he will deflect and accuse me of always making him out to be the bad guy, launch into a tirade of past hurts and offenses. I have known plenty of men who have done this.
But not my husband. He has always considered my words, swallowed them and digested them, humbled himself and answered with love, even when he doesn’t understand, incredulous that I could think such things or feel so low, even faced with the ugliest side of me. And yet here I am, avoiding the opportunity to tell him how I feel, how his words can shore up my borders, protect, serve as ammunition in the silent, needy moments, when the living room is dark and I am alone, approaching lonely.
I finish the load of laundry and face him. I feel like I look hungry, hopeful, afraid.
He puts his hands on either side of my face and our eyes connect, “I love how much you love God. You are a great mother and an amazing wife. I love how patient you are with the kids and with me. I love how you make me feel loved and needed.” These are not the words I had expected, and my heart cracks open, my throat closes. I sob and tremble. He continues on as he holds me, whispers reasons in my ear, reasons why he loves me, reasons that have nothing to do with my body and everything to do with me. He loves me.
“I had to unfriend someone on Facebook,” I tell Brandon over drinks one night at a bar in Pittsburgh. His crew is working the noon game Saturday, and Pittsburgh is close enough to drive. The kids are with our parents, and it’s just us. We just finished dinner and debated dessert while we drank, talking about Facebook and hiding annoying posts by people we hardly know. This is the first time I have felt compelled to say something to him about not-my-husband.
“Really? Who?” he asks, and I tell him.
“He was saying things he shouldn’t, and I needed to stop it,” I say, aloof, smiling, as if I am not reeling and roiling inside, this thing that caused me to unfriend a friend clearly not penetrating the fortress I’ve built around my heart.
“Wow,” he says. “Okay. I don’t know what to think about that.” I smile, and we each take a sip of our drinks, look in opposite directions. I don’t know that I can say anymore. He doesn’t ask, and I don’t continue.
But it continues, random moments when an email turns from professional to flirtatious, sudden reminders when a Google chat window pops open, quiet times weeks apart when I remember what he said and it quakes and lurches in my gut.
I tell Lisa. I tell another friend. I tell another friend. “Nothing has happened,” I say, “but he won’t go away. I want him to go away.”
I hear, “He is an arrogant asshole.”
“Yes, but, I liked to hear those things, so what am I supposed to do with that?”
I hear, “Wow, Sarah, I’m sorry that’s been happening.”
“I don’t think I can have male friends.”
I hear, “You are strong.”
“I would rather walk around with my heart on-empty occasionally,” I blather, “than fill it with this grit.” Each one is a rope thrown to a rescuer in case I start to fall.
An innocent email takes a turn. Sometimes I poke the bear, Hey, how are you doing? hoping it will just be friendly banter again. Sometimes the messages come unprovoked. It persists, even after an email plea, please, respect my marriage and my family, which feels a little silly, a little over-dramatic. But I know my weakness.
“Oh Swells,” he writes back an hour later, “It’s all games. Fear not.” I blink and stare at the screen. It is after the workday is over, and I keep his reply open on my phone, glance at it every minute or two as I pick up my kids from the sitter, a pizza from Little Caesar’s. As the kids and I eat dinner forty-five minutes later, I reply, “Just making sure we are clear.”
Why couldn’t I just take these little asides as “all games?” Why did they feel like such a huge threat to me? I find myself wondering if I’ve built this all up in my head on this side of the computer, if I’ve made this into an untamable monster when really, it’s just a silly puppy playing tricks and pulling strings. Have I imagined this pursuit to be more than what it actually is? And if so, why? Why am I wired this way? Why is maintaining this friendship and evading his affection so important to me? How could other women not even blink an eye while mine widen in shock, while I recoil and run as if I am Joseph standing in Potiphar’s wife’s bedroom, fleeing from a lustful advance as if my life depended on it?
Maybe it’s because my life depends on it. Everything in my life I value depends upon me fleeing. I can see the tender places where I bruise easily. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to run away from what I know is a certain stumbling block, to take the flat asphalt path instead of the sidewalk interrupted by the roots of trees pushing the concrete up in uneven steps? It doesn’t matter if other women can take it in stride, accept the advances of other men without it affecting their marriages. I can’t.
On a weekday night after a spring softball game, Brandon goes out with the guys to eat wings, drink beer, and sing karaoke. He comes home late and wakes me up. He is shaking.
“You know Hannah, Lisa’s friend? You remember meeting her, right?”
“Yes,” I mumble, still blinking away the sleep, “I remember her.” When we met Hannah last summer, I could tell there was chemistry between them. I teased him afterward about it.
“She was there tonight, and she was coming on to me. I told the guys to keep her away from me. Nothing happened,” he starts to weep and shudder, “Your essay about resisting temptation was posted just this morning and here I am, in a bar, with a girl I find attractive, and I understand now, I understand,” he says, and I am wide-eyed at this strange timing, this strange mercy, this strange grace.
In the morning, Lisa sends a text, “Before he left the bar he told me to never bring Hannah around him again. You have a great man.”
I’m nervous when he comes back to town. It’s been a year. I can feel it creeping up my chest, even though I feel confident there is no way I will betray Brandon. There is no way. I worry that it won’t matter. Maybe in a weak moment, not-my-husband, whose emails still sting in half-truths and one-liners, who says he would never do anything to hurt me because “you’re so good, and I know it would destroy you,” who says he is looking forward to seeing me, Is that okay?, maybe he would disregard the things I’ve said and try something anyway. Maybe in a moment in a bar after we’ve had a few to drink, our spirits blurred, he would forget.
I want to know for myself that I am strong enough, that the temptation is dead, or at the least, just a little puppy. I want to prove to myself that I am master of my emotions, I am in control. I am also stupid and curious and afraid and confident. Brandon is out of town; the kids are with my in-laws. We go for drinks in a bar that’s brightly lit this time, with other people around. His hand travels toward my thigh and again I say, “No!” again I push his hand away, and he smiles sheepishly. The bartender is younger, and I wonder if she thinks there’s something going on here. Does the rest of the bar also think the same, do any of these people know me, have they seen me, do they know my husband and know that this is not my husband and know that I am my husband’s wife and what is she doing in this bar with this man who keeps trying to touch her thigh, and why is she smiling like that? My nerves are on edge. I am smiling to hide it.
Nothing has changed on his end, except his wife has issued him divorce papers. I’m sorry for him, sorry they didn’t make it work. But what do I know about their marriage? I only know about my marriage. He has a new girlfriend. This is really good news for him and for me, except he’s still here, and I’m still here, with his wandering hand, without his wedding band. Because I invited him out to talk. Because we’re just friends.
Why am I here again? I drink my Smirnoff Ice. I wasn’t going to order whiskey; I drink whiskey too quickly. I ask about his new girlfriend. He shows me her picture and adores her and then looks at me and groans and then looks at her picture again. He asks how things are between me and Brandon, and I tell him they are good; it was a rough spring with a busy travel season, but things are good now. They are good. I love my husband. I remind him that my story has not changed—I have always loved my husband. He doesn’t believe that I am happy for him and his new girlfriend; he doesn’t believe that I do not want him. I do want him—I want him to be a friend again, I want to step into his car and not wonder whether he will reach over the armrest, I want to be normal around him and not worry that he is taking everything I do as flirtatious, desirous.
We leave the bar. He drives me around. I don’t want to go home, but I don’t want to keep leading him on. I guess that’s what I’m doing, too, leading him on. The trouble is he’s still fun to talk to, fun to laugh with, fun to drink with, still a friend, I guess, and maybe I’m just being ridiculous, just being naïve, just being weak. All of this rolls around my brain as we drive. I’m still grinning, still amazed that any other man could be so taken by me, me.
This is the tension between my brain and soul, body and spirit warring.
He keeps saying he wants to kiss me, just once, just to see what it would be like. He thinks it’s amazing that I haven’t kissed anyone since I met Brandon. Not once has it ever occurred to me to kiss another person besides my husband. “I bet it would be great, I bet we would be great together,” he says. We pull in my driveway. I hesitate.
I wonder if the neighbors are looking out their living room window. My heart races. What if they are? What would they think? What would they assume about me sitting in this car with this not-my-husband? I rest my head upon my knees and groan. How do I keep letting this happen? I pray, What am I doing here, Lord. I don’t want this man. I don’t want to destroy my life. Help me. Not-my-husband starts to rub my back and my muscles relax. I feel my body wanting more, loosening. This frightens me. Suddenly a voice loud and true roars through every nerve and I hear it clear as the night sky, clear as anything I’ve ever known or heard, Get out of this car, Sarah, get out now!
I throw open the passenger door, “I have to get out of here,” I say, stepping out in a rush, “I’ll see you later.” He doesn’t want to be just friends. He can’t.
In that moment, something snaps. Whatever had a hold on me relaxes and I am free, suddenly so free, unburdened of this fear, strong against this man, any man, every man. No more. Never again. I skip quick from brick to brick on the path my husband laid across the lawn early this winter so we wouldn’t have to trudge in the sludge made from melting snow in the grass, skip up the front steps and through the front door and into the darkened living room where our marriage photo hangs framed in bright white. My veil is lifted and draped behind my head, alight from afternoon sun. Brandon angles inward toward me and my shoulder tucks under his in the picture as the headlights sweep across our front window, pause and then spread across the lawn, across the maples, arcing like a pendulum swing and then away down Morgan Avenue. I do not watch him pull away.
Brandon and the kids come home from his parents’ house and we take a short walk. It is tomorrow. The afternoon is sunny and mild; it is summer but the weather is behaving like fall. The leaves on the trees rustle and stir. Henry is marching down the sidewalk, pumping his arms and throwing his feet out in front of him to try to keep up with his siblings. Lydia and Elvis race each other to the white bench around the tall pin oak, squeal and giggle and glow. Everything is glistening, everything is shining, everything is reflecting light that penetrates my breastbone so that my chest aches, burns my eyes so that I have to squint in order to see. So much could be lost in the glare. Mercy is everywhere.
No more. Never again, I repeat in my head, so free I feel like I’m emitting rays of light refracted through shattered glass. I know the depths of these cracks. Daily, there will be decisions, daily, I have a choice. No more. Never again. I reach for Brandon’s hand and squeeze.