The Lavender Haze: Three Stories of Flirting with an Affair
Published by Paul Hina at Shakespir
Copyright ©2017 by Paul Hina
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Table of Contents
The Lavender Haze
Stacey sees the shine of headlights move across the living room window. She rises from the couch and pulls the curtain aside to see if it’s Michael.
“Who is it?” Kelly asks.
“About time. Does he always work this late?”
“Just this week. They’ve been on a deadline,” Stacey says, moving toward the front door.
She walks out onto the porch and down to the bottom stair near the driveway. “You’re late,” she says as he climbs out of the car.
“I know. Sorry, I should’ve called,” he says, approaching her.
“It’s alright. I could’ve called you if I were too worried.”
“She still here?” he asks, motioning toward the red rental car in their driveway.
“For how long?”
“I told her she could stay the night.”
“Stacey, no. I thought we decided—”
“I know, but it’s getting late and she’s been drinking.”
“I’ll take her back to the hotel,” he says. “I could take her car to her in the morning, and have Gary bring me home after work.”
“What? No, that’s silly. You’re not going to feel like doing that in the morning.”
“What’s that got to do with it? I have to drive downtown for work anyway.”
“Don’t worry about it. I already told her she could stay.”
“You guys talking about me?” Kelly asks, leaning against the front doorway, a drink resting a little too casually in her hand.
“It’s good to see you again, Kelly,” Michael says as he moves toward the door.
“Say it like you mean it, Mike,” she says.
“I thought I did,” he says, walking by her, trying hard not to look her in the eyes.
Stacey follows closely behind him.
“Look, if my staying here is a problem, I can still—”
“No, it’s fine. That’s why we have the guest room,” Stacey says to Kelly while looking at Michael.
“You’re sure? I don’t mind calling a cab if you’re worried about me driving.”
“Really, Kelly, I want you to stay.”
“How was your trip?” Michael asks, trying to end their inane back-and-forth.
“What an original question.”
“Kelly, come on.” Stacey says.
“Tiresome and dehumanizing.”
“So, pretty standard then,” Michael says.
“That’s the Michael, I remember—always quick with a joke.”
“There’s some dinner in the oven,” Stacey says. “It’s been in there awhile. You’ll probably want to warm it up.”
“I’ll get it in a minute,” he says, sliding out of his blazer and draping it over his arm. “Is Jacob asleep?”
“Do you think I’ll wake him if I go up and say good night?”
“I wouldn’t risk it,” Kelly says. “Kid’s a screamer.”
“Bad night?” Michael asks.
“You could say that. I think he’s starting to teethe.”
“Well, I’ll just take my stuff up and look in on him real quick,” he says, climbing the stairs.
“He looks as tired as you do,” Kelly says, moving back into the living room and returning to her spot on the couch.
“Why wouldn’t he? Feels like we haven’t slept in six months.”
“I probably could’ve picked a better time to come.”
“You didn’t pick Philadelphia for the convention,” Stacey says, taking a spot near Kelly on the couch. “You’re here because you have to be here. And, besides, I’m glad you’re here.”
“The kids teething, you guys haven’t been sleeping, and Michael’s on a deadline. It’s just bad timing,” Kelly says. “Look, you don’t have to entertain me. Go to bed. We’ll have plenty of time to talk before I leave on Friday.”
“I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it.”
“I think I might. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be much fun anyway.”
“You’ve never been much fun.”
Stacey smiles at her.
“There it is,” Kelly says. “First evidence tonight that there’s still real happiness there.”
“Oh, come on.”
“I missed you, Stacey,” Kelly says, leaning up to press her hand on the fleshy part of Stacey’s arm.
“I missed you, too,” Stacey says, obviously touched by this sudden show of intimacy.
“Now, go to bed. Just looking at you is making me tired, and it’s barely nine o’clock.”
“God, I’m so lame.”
“I’m glad you said it.”
Stacey gets up from the couch and goes to the stairs, stops, turns back toward Kelly. “You sure you don’t need anything?”
“I think I’ve got it covered, Mom.”
Stacey smiles again, shakes her head and quietly climbs the stairs.
Michael is standing in the darkened doorway of Jacob’s room. Stacey approaches him, wraps her arms around him, and rests her head on his back.
“Tired?” he asks.
“I’m on the other side of tired—the side where I feel half here, half not.”
“He looks so peaceful when he’s sleeping. You’d have no idea from looking at him now how much of a maniac he is when he’s awake,” Michael says, watching the hallway light softly shines across his son’s face.
“We should kill the light before we rouse the little maniac.”
“What are you going to do about Kelly?”
“She can fend for herself. I’m going to bed.”
“Now?” he says, a little above a whisper.
“Shhh,” she says, backing away from him and walking into their bedroom.
He shuts off the hallway light and follows in behind her. He sits his satchel by the door, and walks over to the closet to hang up his blazer.
“So, she’s just going to hang out down there?”
“I don’t know. Until she decides to go to bed, I guess.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Go about your evening. Have dinner. Watch T.V. Get some work done. Whatever you were planning on doing, do that.”
“And you don’t think that would seem rude?”
“I don’t think she expects you to entertain her, if that’s what you’re asking.”
He sits on the bed and wrestles out of his shoes.
“I’m exhausted, and yet I don’t want to go to bed,” he says. “I know I’ll just end up lying here, staring up at the ceiling. It always takes me a couple hours to wind down after work. Plus, I’m so worried about this project, it’s going to keep me up one way or another.”
“I know,” she says, running her fingers over his forearm. “Go down and have a drink with your dinner. Relax. I’ll get up with Jacob tonight.”
“Eventually, he’ll sleep through the night, right?”
“It’s bound to happen sooner or later.”
“I don’t even remember what it was like to sleep through the night. It seems like a luxury at this point,” he says, looking over at her. She’s nodding off but manages to pry her eyes open for him.
“Sorry. I’m just so out of it.”
“I understand,” he says, and gets up from the bed, leans over her and kisses her forehead. “I love you. Try to have a good night.”
“Love you, too,” she says, pulling the sheet up over her shoulders.
Kelly is sitting at the kitchen table, looking out at the well-lit suburban neighborhood, swirling ice around in her empty glass.
“It’s not the big city,” Michael says, standing at the kitchen counter.
She hadn’t even heard him come in the room.
“It’s too quiet,” she says, not missing a beat.
“I suppose it is.”
“How do you sleep in a quiet like this?”
“Sleep? I vaguely remember something about that.”
“Right,” she says. “Sounds like that kid is more than you guys bargained for.”
“It’s funny, everyone tells you that you won’t sleep after the kid is born. The whole time Stacey was pregnant, it’s the one thing almost everyone said to us. People said it so often it got downright irritating. And we believed it. But no amount of warnings can prepare you for the actual experience of not sleeping.
“Don’t get me wrong though, it’s been beautiful. But it definitely has its trade-offs. And sleep is a big one.”
Michael grabs his dinner plate from the oven. He takes a bite of the mashed potatoes—still warm.
“Do you think Stacey’s happy?” Kelly asks, looking out the window again.
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“She doesn’t seem happy.”
“Some people take to parenting better than others. There’s no question it’s been a struggle for us.”
“I always thought Stacey would make a good mother.”
“She is. She definitely is. But being a good mother does not always mean being a happy mother.”
“Who decided that she would be the one to stay at home with the baby?”
“We both did.”
“How convenient for you.”
“It wasn’t like that. She had an opportunity to take a year off. I had no such opportunity.”
“But she’s supposed to be working on the book.”
“And she is.”
“That’s not what she says.”
“Well, that’s not what she’s been telling me,” Michael says.
“Do you even care?” Kelly asks, turning back to look at him.
“Sure I care,” Michael says, putting his plate down on the counter. “What’s up with the interrogation?”
“Just worried about her, that’s all.”
Michael grabs a glass from the cabinet near his head, and reaches for a bottle of scotch from the top of the fridge.
“What are you drinking?” he asks.
“Rum and Coke,” she says, sitting her empty glass on the table in front of her.
He grabs the rum from the counter, holds the bottle up to the light. “How many of these have you had?”
“Who’s counting?” she says as he starts to pour.
“Not you, apparently,” he says, and holds the bottle up a bit after the pour. “Is that good?”
“That’s fine,” she says.
He grabs a Coke from the fridge, sits it on its side and rolls it across the table to her.
“If you were so worried about her, you sure have a funny way of showing it,” he says. “She’s missed you, you know.”
She cracks open the Coke. “And you?”
“What about me?” he asks, turning away from her. He grabs the scotch and starts to pour himself a drink.
“Have you missed me?” she asks, pouring the Coke in her glass.
“I thought we were talking about Stacey.”
“I know we were, but I—”
“Whatever happened between you and I shouldn’t have anything to do with you and Stacey.”
“How could that possibly be?”
“Why can’t it be?”
“It’s just not how it works,” she says and takes a long, slow drink from her full glass.
“So, you’re here for a conference?” he asks, clearly trying to change the subject.
“There’s a conference, yes.”
“It starts tomorrow?”
“Yeah, but that’s not the reason I’m here. It’s just the happy excuse I used to get here.”
“Why did you wait so long to come?”
“Why do you think?”
“I think you’re making too big a deal out of it.”
“I’m sorry to hear you say that.”
“Because I’d like to think that you were as affected by it as I was.”
“You don’t think I’ve missed you?”
“Doesn’t sound like it.”
“Well, I have.”
“Do you know how hard it was for me to come here—even now, after all this time?”
“I have an idea. But you should’ve come earlier—for her.”
“You never told her?”
“Of course not.”
“You don’t think she should know?”
“No, I don’t. Do you?”
“Not really. It wouldn’t help anything, I suppose.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” he says, poking around at the food on his plate.
She looks out the window again and a few long seconds pass. “God, the quiet,” she says.
“You get used to it,” he says, staring into nothing. “But sometimes you notice it, and, when I do, I keep waiting for something to interrupt it. But then when something does interrupt it, it’s jarring—frightening.”
A few long seconds pass as they both sit in the silence, waiting for some sound, any sound.
“You ever think about me?” Stacey asks.
“Of course I do. Sometimes. But, in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been pretty busy these days.”
“Is that what we’re supposed to do—keep ourselves busy, pretend we’re not in love?”
“Kelly, please,” he says, looking toward the kitchen doorway. “What if she heard you?”
“Did you see how tired she was?”
“Just keep it down.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?”
“We’re both keeping ourselves busy so we don’t have to think about the life we don’t have.”
“I’m getting the feeling that that’s more true for you than it is for me.”
“So, you don’t love me anymore?”
“I didn’t say that, but I’ve got other things to think about,” he says. “And I love Stacey. I love our family.”
“You made that clear when you picked her.”
“Picked her? We were weeks from the wedding. And I wanted… I don’t know what more you expected from me.”
“I don’t know.”
“Besides, it was you who rejected me.”
“That’s not the way I’d put it.”
“But when I asked you—”
“I know what I said, but I hoped you’d…,” she says, but then just trails off.
“This is crazy, Kelly. It’s been nearly two years. What’s done is done. Why are we still talking about this?”
“Because it’s not done. It hasn’t gone away.”
“Maybe you just haven’t let it go.”
“I’ve been trying,” he says, dropping his fork on his plate.
“I’m trying too, but I can’t.”
“I know it’s hard,” he says. “I thought I was doing better until…”
“Until I saw you again.”
“So, you do still love me.”
“I do, yes. But what that amounts to, I don’t know.”
“It amounts to something to me.”
“It means I’ve not been alone, that you’ve been feeing it, too.”
“I don’t feel empty.”
“I do,” she says, looking at him. “I’ve felt empty since the last time I saw you. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t stay busy enough to forget you.”
“Kelly,” he says, approaching her, kneeling down in front of her. “I’m so sorry.”
“You know how hard it is to be in love, to lose that love, and not be able to tell anyone about the pain of it.”
“I do know, but we’ve got to find a way to move on.”
“Is that what you want me to do?”
“Easier said than done.”
“I know,” he says, reaching up and pushing a dangle of hair from her face.
“Please, Michael, don’t,” she says, looking straight in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he says, standing up, putting his hands in his pockets and walking back to the counter.
“Can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure,” he says, taking another quick drink of his scotch.
“Meet with me once before I head back.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s a—”
“Michael, please,” she says, and he can tell from the tremble in her voice how important this is to her.
“Where would we meet?”
“I’m staying at the Radisson downtown.”
“I can’t meet you in your hotel.”
“At the bar off the lobby—not in my room.”
“Can you make it Friday afternoon?”
“Depends. I have a deadline on Friday, and our presentation is in the afternoon.”
“When’s the presentation?”
“Three, I think.”
“Then after that.”
“At the hotel bar?”
“At the bar.”
“I won’t be able to stay long.”
“I’ll have to get back home. Stacey will be expecting me.”
“It won’t matter anyway. I need to catch the train back before it gets too late.”
“Will I see you again before then?”
“Probably not. I’m coming back here to see Stacey on Thursday, but I’m guessing you’ll be at work.”
“So, no,” she says, and takes the last drink of her Rum and Coke.
“You want another?”
“No, I should go to bed before I get too drunk and say more things that will embarrass me in the light of day.”
“You haven’t said anything embarrassing.”
“I’ll pretend that’s true,” she says. “It’ll help me get to sleep.”
“No, I’m not,” Kelly says, rising from her chair, carefully walking up to him. “But I’ll survive.”
“You have everything you need?”
“Stacey’s got me all set up in the guest room.”
“If you need anything, just—”
“Give me a hug?”
“Alright,” he says and wraps his arms around her.
She wraps her arms over his shoulders and looks at him. “I’ve missed your broad shoulders.”
Her face is inches from his face. Her eyes are filled with tears, and he wants to say something, but he’s struck dumb by the nearness of her. She’s so close that he can almost taste her kiss again. And he remembers the taste of it so clearly—her mouth on his mouth—that he immediately wants to know it again. But, as soon as the impulse falls over him, she unwinds herself from his body.
“Good night, Mike.”
“Where are you?” Stacey asks.
“I’m on my way to the reception hall,” Michael says, talking to Stacey through his car’s dashboard phone system. “Why? Am I late? I thought you said four.”
“No, I did,” she says. “I got caught in a meeting with a student and there’s no way I’m going to make it on time.”
“So, how long will you be?”
“I can’t make it.”
“Did you call and cancel?”
“No, you’re almost there, right?”
“Sure, but I don’t know what to look for in these places. What if I like it but then you hate it when you see it?”
“Don’t worry about it. I sent Kelly to meet you there. She knows what I’m looking for.”
“Kelly, my maid of honor.”
“Yeah, I know who she is,” he says. “But if she’s going, then why do I need to be there.”
“Because I want to know what you think of the place, too. Your opinion counts as much as mine does.”
“One reception hall is as good as another to me.”
“That’s not true and you know it. We’ve seen some real dumps recently.”
“Right, but we’ve already seen this place from the outside. It’s the perfect location, and it’s what we wanted from the start. And now that it’s available, I kind of thought this visit was just a formality.”
“It probably is, but it doesn’t hurt to see what we’re walking into.”
“Anything in particular I should be looking for.”
“Not really. Just be sure it’s clean and spacious and that there’s no weird smells like in that last place.”
“Do you want me to call you when we’re done?”
“Yeah, if you would.”
He takes an audible breath.
“It’ll last fifteen minutes. You’ll survive,” she says.
“I suppose I will,” he says. “Talk to you in a bit.”
“Okay, love you.”
“Love you too,” he says.
As he pulls into the driveway of the resort and parks his car, he sees two women standing by the doors of the reception hall chatting away like old friends. One of them is Kelly. The other is an older woman holding a clipboard and wearing a painted-on smile.
Michael gets out of the car and approaches them.
“Honey, where were you?” Kelly says, rushing toward him.
He stops and looks at her, furrowing his brow. He’s confused. Did she just call him honey? Then she looks him straight in the eye, winks at him and then tenderly embraces his arm.
“Am I late?” he says, not quite knowing what else to say.
“No, not at all. Just excited to see you, that’s all,” Kelly says, not missing a beat.
“I was telling your fiancée that you were the lucky beneficiaries of our first cancellation in nearly five years,” the lady with the clipboard says. The name tag on her navy blue jacket’s lapel says that her name is Cheryl, and that she’s the facilities manager at the resort.
“Is that right?” Michael says, still trying to regain his equilibrium. Kelly’s certainly not making it easy on him. Her body is still pressed up against his body. His heart is racing and he’s doing the very best job he can to pretend that this is normal. It crosses his mind to end this little game, to just call her out, but the inevitable awkwardness that would follow makes it seem easier to just go along with whatever charade she’s concocted.
“We’re so excited. This was our first choice from the beginning, and we were heartbroken that it was booked. But now, we can hardly believe our luck,” Kelly says. “Isn’t that right, Mike?”
“That’s right,” he says, painting on a smile.
“Well, shall we have a look inside?” Cheryl says, opening the door to the reception hall for them.
Kelly releases his arm as she moves into the hall, and Michael finally feels enough room to breathe and mentally adjust to this strange situation he’s walked into. He wonders what Stacey would think of what Kelly is doing, but he’s pretty sure she’d just shake her head and laugh. From the stories he’s heard, Stacey’s grown accustomed to this kind of behavior from Kelly.
There are already half a dozen or so people in the hall. They are hanging large white window treatments around the windows and placing thick linen tablecloths over the large circle of tables that go around the entire perimeter of the room.
“Sorry about the chaos. This is for this weekend’s wedding reception. We usually like to have prospective clients look at the space while it’s clean and empty, when you can look at the space and let your imagination fill the hall, but, because of the cancellation, we were under certain time constraints.”
“No, It’s nice. It gives us an idea of what it’ll look like when we’re here,” Kelly says, putting her hands together near her mouth as if she were actually imagining what it would be like that day.
“I hoped you would see things that way,” Cheryl says. “Now, of course, this is the setup that this particular group has chosen. We’ll set the room up for you in whatever way you choose, decorate it in whatever way you wish—to a point. And, on the day before the reception, we’ll give you the keys and you can come in and add whatever personal touches you’d like.”
“This is nice, don’t you think, Mike?” Kelly asks, moving among the tables, letting her fingers caress the linen dangling over the tables.
“I do. It’s just what we thought it would be.”
“Good, I’m glad you like it,” Cheryl says.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” Kelly says, moving toward Michael and grabbing his hand with both her hands and squeezing up against him again.
“Aren’t you two just precious?” Cheryl says, smiling, hugging her clipboard to her chest.
Michael’s heart is pounding again. He tries to move away from Kelly, but she follows him, not letting him pull away.
“Can we reserve the space now and get back to you about the decorating details?” Michael says.
“Whatever is most convenient for you,” she says. “We will, however, need the deposit in order to reserve the space.”
“Is this where we would have our first dance?” Kelly asks Cheryl, staring into the empty space at the center of the circle of tables.
“That’s the spot.”
Kelly pulls Michael to the center of the room, drapes her arms over his shoulders and starts to sway slowly back and forth. She stares up into Michael’s eyes, and then she rests her head on his chest. This kind of stark social incongruity would normally be too awkward a moment for Michael to tolerate, but he’s hypnotized by the moment: the smell of her hair, the warmth of her soft body against his. He even finds himself swaying with her—his hands on her hips. There’s a sudden charge around them that seems to isolate them from the room.
“Shall we sign some papers then?” Cheryl asks, trying as hard as she can to maintain that strained smile.
Michael looks up. Everyone else in the room has stopped what they’re doing and is dumbly staring at them.
Michael stops dancing.
Kelly keeps going.
Michael’s staring out his office window, thinking about last night. He wasn’t expecting Kelly’s return to affect him this much. So much time had past since he last saw her, he really thought all those old feelings would remain as far away as he had pushed them after he married Stacey.
But as soon as he saw her, he could feel everything he thought was safely away swell up again. And, though he tried to deny it, tried to stay as straight and rigid as he could in the face of her presence, it was difficult to keep that wall up, to pretend he’d moved on.
But last night, sleeping in the room next to where she was sleeping—feeling her in the house, thinking of her body so near his body—collapsed the space that had been built between him and his desire.
Until yesterday, he felt sure he had moved on. As one month past into another, he thought of her less and less, and his desire for her—the pain of not seeing her—had faded into a dull ache that he had learned to ignore. In this way, having Jacob was a rescue of sorts. Michael and Stacey had become so busy with parenthood, he hardly had the mental space or the energy to contribute to the ‘what could’ve been?’ of Kelly.
Even as tending to Jacob demanded more of his time, he found ways for work to fill every other empty space. And work has definitely fulfilled that need. Kelly was right when she said that they had been keeping themselves just busy enough to keep from thinking about the life they might have had together.
Gary snaps his fingers at Michael. “Hey, you there?”
“Yeah, sorry,” Michael says, turning away from the window, looking at Gary with widened eyes.
Gary is Michael’s best friend. They’ve known each other since their first day of junior high school, and they’ve done pretty much everything together these past twenty years. Besides going to the same schools, they also worked the same summer jobs, went to the same college, took most of the same classes, and, after college, they started a web development business together.
They share a small office in a building full of much bigger offices in a high rise in downtown Philadelphia. Their business has grown a lot over the past seven years, but they’ve managed to keep their operation relatively small throughout its growth. They’ve added only two employees over the years: a business manager and a receptionist.
Their office is a four hundred square foot space looking over downtown. The office is split into three rooms. There is a small office for each of their two employees in the front, and Gary and Michael share the larger office in the back. They also share a very large desk that rests right in front of the office’s large picture window.
“You working with the images I sent you?” Gary asks, staring at Michael from across the desk.
“Yeah, I got ‘em.”
“I didn’t ask if you got them. I asked if you were working on them.”
Michael puts his head in his hands, tries to pry his eyes open in hopes that it’ll give him some clarity of mind.
“Okay, let’s take a break,” Gary says, getting up from the desk and walking toward a tiny kitchenette area near their office door. “You want a cup of coffee?”
“That’d be good.”
“So, what’s up?” Gary asks, pouring coffee into their mugs.
“Just tired, that’s all.”
“When’s that kid of yours going to start sleeping through the night?”
“Someday, I hope.”
“Come on, Mike,” Gary says, sitting the cup by Michael’s computer. “What’s really bothering you?”
“It’s true. I didn’t sleep well.”
“But this isn’t about that, is it?” Gary says, leaning against the desktop, sipping his coffee.
“Not exactly, no,” he says, turning back toward their view of downtown.
“So, what is it?”
Michael takes a big breath. “You ever thought about having an affair?” he asks, still not looking at Gary.
“Christ, Mike, are you having an affair?”
“No.” he says. “No, I’m asking if you’ve ever thought about it.”
“Sure, I’ve thought about it, but in a very generic, masterbatory sort of way. I’ve never seriously entertained the possibility.”
“What’s this about? You meet somebody?”
“Stacey’s friend Kelly came down from New York yesterday, and she spent the night last night,” he says. “But don’t get the wrong idea. Nothing happened.”
“Seems like something happened.”
“She’s in love with me, Gary.”
“She said that?”
“I’ve known for awhile now.”
“Since before Stacey and I were married.”
“No kidding. And this is Stacey’s best friend—her maid of honor from the wedding.”
“And how do you feel about her?”
Michael looks at Gary, bites his bottom lip, raises his eyebrows, and then turns back toward the window again.
“I thought I was over it. I hadn’t seen her since the wedding, and I was sure things had past. I thought I had moved on, and I just assumed that she had too.”
“But she hasn’t.”
“If you would have asked me yesterday, before I saw her again, I would’ve said yes. Today, the answer is most definitely no.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is she still staying at your place?”
“No, just last night. She’s staying at a hotel for the next couple of nights. She’s in town for a conference.”
“So, you’re not going to see her again before she leaves?”
“She asked me to meet her for drinks on Friday afternoon.”
“And you said no. Please tell me you said no.”
“Probably should have.”
“What are you thinking?” Gary asks. “You can’t go.”
“I already told her I’d go.”
“You’ve got to figure a way out of it.”
“I’m not sure I want to find a way out. I want to see her again. I think I have to. It’s all I’ve been able to think about since last night.”
“Did you ever sleep with this girl?”
“Does it matter?”
“I think it does.”
“I did—weeks before the wedding.”
“Christ, Mike. How did I not know about this? I had absolutely no idea.”
“Nobody did. It wasn’t something I was broadcasting. It wasn’t something I was eager to share. I was ashamed.”
“And since the wedding?”
“Like I said, I haven’t seen her.”
“Have you talked?’
“She tried to reach me by email and text for a few months, but I never responded. And there’s been no attempts to communicate at all for almost a year, I’d say.”
“So, as far as you were concerned, it was over.”
“Then why meet her and risk starting it up again?”
A long silence hovers over the room as the question just kind of hangs in the air waiting for an answer.
“Would you say that you’re still in love with Gwen?” Michael asks Gary, crossing his arms across his chest.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just answer the question.”
“Yes, I would,” Gary says. “I mean, it’s not the same as it was in the beginning, but no relationship can maintain that kind of emotional height. It couldn’t. The kind of intensity that starts a relationship would eventually eat two people alive.”
“But don’t you wonder if it can exist? You know, what if that kind of intensity is sustainable?”
“It’s a fool’s errand,” Gary says and leans forward, placing both his hands flat on the desk. “This isn’t the one, Mike.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I don’t believe there is a one that you can love the same way, every day, throughout a life. Every relationship ebbs and flows. It’s who we are. We’re all too deeply flawed. We’re inconsistent. We’re not built for evenness. We can adore somebody one day and then have nothing but contempt for them the next. And it’s not necessarily a weakness in the relationship, or the fault of your partner. It’s just how our moods naturally change from day to day. Besides, love is a series of illusions anyway. The view changes from every new direction you look.”
“Like a kaleidoscope.”
“That’s right,” Gary says, and leans back in his chair. “I remember something my grandma said to me once.
“About a year before she died, I had visited her in Minnesota. I had just met Gwen maybe a month earlier, and I was really in love. I couldn’t believe how much in love with her I was. You remember how I was then. She was all I ever thought about and every minute away from her was a minute I was trying to get back to her.
“And my grandma could see this when she saw me. And this memory is so clear, I can still hear the sound of her voice as she said, ‘You’ve got the lavender haze.’ I must’ve given her a confused look that let her know I wasn’t sure what she meant. So, she smiled, touched my cheek and said, ‘You’ve fallen in love.’
“She asked me to tell her about Gwen. I talked about her the way you would talk to your grandma about a girlfriend, and she said, ‘I know you don’t want to hear this now, but eventually the haze will fade, and you need to be sure that Gwen is someone you find agreeable after the fade. If she’s not agreeable, if your moods and hopes and values aren’t in sync, all will look well as long as you’re looking at those problems through the lavender haze. But once the haze is gone, nothing bad will be forgotten, nothing will be forgiven. All those disagreeables will build a new haze and make things as ugly as they ever were beautiful.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I think you and Stacey are agreeable. You’ve come out of the haze with her and you still love her. You get along well. It’s not something you should let go of so easily.”
“I’m not planning on it.”
“Also, if you’re determined to meet this girl tomorrow, I hope you try to think of how things would be with her after the intensity clears, and if things would be as good with her as they are now with Stacey.”
“I’ll take it into consideration.”
“Now, can we get back to work? The clock’s ticking. This project is due in twenty-four hours, and we’re sitting here talking about girls like a couple teenagers.”
Michael is staring at the door of the bar, tracing the rim of his glass with his finger. He checks his watch against the clock on the wall. She’s definitely late. Maybe she’s not coming. She should’ve been here five minutes ago. He takes a long slug from his glass and starts nervously drumming his fingers on the tabletop.
A few seconds later, the late May light swarms the dim bar with daytime, and her silhouette decorates the doorway. He watches as she scans the room for him, and, when she spots him, she looks away. The look on her face is a look he’s never seen on her before. It’s a look that contains heartbreaking vulnerabilities, and it reminds him of how delicate this moment is for both of them.
He’s only met Kelly a few times, and even those meetings were incredibly brief, but she’s always struck him as someone who was full of self-confidence. Even as she walks toward the bar, her steps seem more reserved than usual, and she seems determined not to look in his direction.
She orders a drink from the bartender, and Michael can’t keep his eyes off her. It’s hard to believe that this is even happening. It was no more than a week ago that Kelly was just Stacey’s best friend, and not someone that Michael spent anytime thinking about. But he’s been unable to think about anything other than this moment since their last meeting at the reception hall—the day she pretended to be Stacey. He hasn’t been able to keep his mind on anything but her since that day, and now that she’s here, his gut is swimming with self-doubt. He’s not sure what he’s going to say when she sits down, but he is as excited as he is sick about what’s to come.
She approaches the table, drink in hand, and sits. She still hasn’t looked at him. She’s just staring into her drink.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” he says.
“I almost didn’t.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“I’ve been outside for the past five minutes, pacing back and forth, wondering whether or not to actually go through with this.”
“Go through with what exactly?’
“Come on, Michael. We both know what this is.”
“But you still came.”
“It looks that way.”
“So, you’re feeling it to.”
“What exactly am I feeling?”
“If it’s anything near what I’ve been feeling, there’s no way you couldn’t have come tonight.”
“What are we doing?” she asks, looking at him for the first time.
He takes a breath, leans toward her and grabs her hand.
“Michael,” she says, looking at her hand in his hand.
“Let’s not think about anything else,” he says.
“But you’re getting married in less than a month—to my best friend. How do we not think about it?”
“We do the best we can,” he says, smiling at her.
“This is very difficult for me. I love Stacey.”
“I love Stacey too,” he says, letting go of her hand, leaning back in his chair. “It is difficult. But I didn’t know what else to do. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you. I had to do something.”
“I shouldn’t have pretended to be Stacey at the reception hall. That’s how this started. I was only having some fun, but it became too intimate. We became too familiar. It changed our frame of reference somehow.”
“It doesn’t matter how it happened.”
“But what about Stacey?”
“What about her?”
“We can’t do this to her.”
“It’s already done,” he says. “We’ve already been thinking about it. We’re having these desires, these thoughts. Right?”
“Then what’s worse, the thought or the act?”
“Neither is good, but the act is definitely worse—no question.”
“Yeah, but the betrayal is already there,” he says.
“Betrayal. Wow. That’s a punch of a word.”
“What word would you prefer?”
“No, betrayal just about sums it up.”
“But don’t you think—”
“I think I should go,” Kelly says, grabbing her glass, taking a long, slow drink from it as she stands from the table.
“But you just got here.”
“I shouldn’t have come at all,” she says, as she turns away and walks toward the door.
“Can I at least walk you to your car?” he asks, following her.
“If you’d like,” she says.
He opens the door for her, and the light from outside is overwhelming after the bar’s darkness.
“So, what do we do with this?” he asks, following her as she moves quickly down the sidewalk.
“We deal with it.”
“You mean we repress it, pretend we never felt this way about each other.”
She stops suddenly and turns toward him. “What do you think we should do, Mike? Maybe tomorrow you can come pick me up and we’ll go out to dinner. Then we can catch a movie before we go to my house for some small talk and, possibly, sex. Do we treat this like people do when they normally feel this way about somebody?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never felt this way before.”
“Really,” he says. “Have you?”
“You’re getting married in a month,” she says, walking back down the sidewalk. “We don’t have time to test drive this thing to see if it works. Neither of us is willing to hurt Stacey, and neither of us seems particularly ready to gamble on this, to see if it’s what it might be. Am I right?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if you don’t know, and I don’t know, then we should stop now before this gets any worse. Because I also haven’t been able to think of anything but you for the past week, and you’re right that I couldn’t stop myself from coming here tonight even though I knew it was wrong.”
“So, that’s it then? We’re done?”
“It has to be done.”
“So, I won’t see you again until—”
“The wedding,” she says and stops at her car.
“It’s going to be hard seeing you that day,” he says, looking at her. “It’s going to be even tougher having thought about you every minute of every day before then.”
“Will we?” he asks, leaning against her car door.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“Michael, please,” she says, looking away from him. And it looks as though she might start to cry.
“I’m sorry, “ he says, taking a step away from her car. “I didn’t mean to—”
She falls into him with a kiss, soft at first—the softest kiss he could ever imagine. And when she looks in his eyes after, they both fall into each other and go somewhere neither of them had ever been—a shared, happy delirium. And time passes without them, and before they know it, they’re in the back seat of her car, wrestling with their clothes, fully convinced they’re in a world away from wherever they are.
“Do you want more tea?” Stacey asks Kelly, grabbing the kettle from the stove.
“No, I’m fine,” Kelly says, watching Stacey. “Look at you. Using a kettle like you don’t own a microwave.”
“Yeah, it seems silly, I know. But I like the process of it,” Stacey says. “Heating the kettle isn’t as fast as the microwave, but I like it for its slowness. It’s a meditation of sorts, making a proper cup of tea.”
“How very British of you.”
“There’s probably not much patience for slowness in your world these days,” Stacey says, as she places her cup on the table. She takes her seat and rhythmically lifts and drops the tea bag in her cup like a ritual.
“Not in the city, no. Nothing feels slow in the city. Especially during the day, while I’m at work. But there is slowness at night, in my apartment. And the slowness becomes stillness. But I don’t appreciate it the way that you seem to.”
“Don’t you think you appreciate the slowness or the stillness of things because you know it’s temporary?” Kelly asks, motioning toward the baby monitor on the table as she takes a sip from her tea.
“You mean, I like it for its impermanence, that I’m in a constant state of waiting, a place of imminent interruption.”
“That is what I mean, though I wouldn’t have put it in so Zen a way.”
“So, are you saying you’re lonely?”
“When I’m faced with the stillness of the night, I can be.”
“Have you been seeing anybody?”
“I probably should be more socially active, put myself out there more. But, for the most part, as impatient as I am about being alone, I worry that I’ll have even less patience to bend my life around someone else’s life in the traditional way.”
“I can see that about you. You’ve always cherished your independence.”
“How about you?” Kelly asks, sipping her tea. “Have you been happy?”
Stacey wraps both her hands around her warm cup of tea. “I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s reassuring.”
“No, I don’t mean that I’m not happy necessarily. Truth is, I haven’t thought about happiness lately. I know it sounds like I’m being all Zen again, but I guess I’ve just been feeling very present these past months. My days are too busy to think about it, and when I do have time to think about it, I’m too tired to focus on it. All my time seems accounted for in some way. Even the few moments of downtime I get seem filled with appreciating it for what it is. And any concerns and complaints I have about the state of things are all so self-contained that I just don’t feel the chaos I used to feel. In other words, everything feels very much within my control.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Ask me next year.”
“And you’re definitely going back to Temple after this year?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And the book?”
“There’s plenty of time for me to finish the book.”
“I have eight months. Besides, if I’m not done by then, I’m sure I can get an extension.”
“But when I asked you about it the other day, you said—”
“I know what I said, but I just meant that I hadn’t started putting it all together. I’ve done the research and have a completed outline. The hardest part is done.”
“Everything except for that whole writing thing.”
“I’m not worried about it.”
“Do you even have the time to work on it?”
“Sure I do. I have time on the weekends, and I have little stretches of time during the day.”
“And do you feel like Michael’s contributing as much as you’d hoped?”
“When he’s not up against a deadline, he contributes. Lately, though, it’s been more difficult.”
“But you think things will be better after the deadline?”
“I think so. He’ll be back on a regular schedule again.”
“And is this about how you thought things would go after you had a baby?”
“It doesn’t matter what I thought or what I planned. The baby was always going to have different plans for how our lives would change.”
“Do you miss your independence?”
“Sure I do,” Stacey says. “But all your questions seem to be leading me down this path where I feel like you want me to tell you that I wish I were still working at the university or zipping through my book. You seem to want me to be frustrated with Michael or with my life as a mother in some way. I half expect you want me to be unhappy.”
“God, Stacey. I didn’t—”
“I made a choice. I chose to have a family. Michael and I worked things out the way we wanted, how we believed things would work best for us,” Stacey says, trying hard to keep an even tone of voice. “And we’re dealing with those choices the same way everyone else deals with those choices. Yes, it means sacrifice. And, yes, sometimes it means being frustrated. But I’m not some traditional housewife, and, even If I were, that would be a choice too. But yes, I’ve taken time away from teaching to be with my son and finish a book, and I feel perfectly at peace with that despite what you think I should be feeling.”
“You done?” Kelly asks after a moment of silence descends over the room.
Stacey nods and takes a drink of her tea.
“I didn’t mean to knock you from your Zen pedestal. I was just asking questions. I was curious how things were going, that’s all.”
“Well, I hope I’ve answered your questions about the suburban, middle-class quandary you’ve built up around me,” Stacey says, looking into her cup as if she might find her equilibrium again at the bottom of the cup.
Kelly takes a deep breath, crosses her arms, and looks at the tea kettle. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you, and I’ve got to say it before I leave. But I’m worried how you’ll react.”
“What?” Stacey asks, sitting her cup down and grabbing the edges of the table.
“Jeff called me a couple months after the wedding.”
“Oh, god. What’d he want?” Stacey asks, seeming to relax.
“He wanted me to talk to you.”
“What’d you tell him?”
“I told him that you were married now, and that I didn’t want to get in the middle of… Whatever was going on.”
“Have you had any contact with him since the wedding?”
“I’d really rather not talk about this.”
“Come on, Stacey,” Kelly says, clearly growing frustrated. “Quit acting like some delicate flower that might fall apart at the slightest unpleasantness.”
Stacey glares at her. “He works in the same building as I do. Of course, we’ve been in contact. I was seeing him everyday.”
“And you guys ever…? You know? After you were married?”
“No,” Stacey says. “I ended things for good.”
“And you never wondered?”
“Of course I wondered, but not enough to do anything about it.”
“Well, as you know, since he called you, he was heartbroken. I’m sorry for that.”
“And were you heartbroken?”
“Maybe a little at first, but time passes. I’ve moved on.”
“That easy, huh?”
“It may sound that way, but it wasn’t easy at all.”
“You still think about him?”
“You miss him?”
And as soon as Kelly asks the question, the baby monitor spills a cry across the table.
Michael sits on the bed and watches Stacey’s shadow play in the light from their bathroom. She is running water, and he focuses on the sound, staring at the dancing light of her, ignoring the shine that beckons him from his laptop.
The water stops.
“Do you want me to keep the light on?” she asks, leaning out of the bathroom.
“Yeah, just close the door a bit, if you don’t mind,” he says.
She leaves the bathroom door halfway open and moves across the room to her side of the bed.
“God, I’m tired,” she says, climbing into bed. “You going to be up for a bit?”
“A bit longer, I think. If the light from the laptop is bothering you, I can go downstairs.”
“I’m much too tired to let anything bother me.”
“If he gets up anytime in the next couple of hours, I’ll get him.”
“You’re going to be up that long?”
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
“You worried about the presentation tomorrow?” she asks, turning toward him.
“A little, I suppose.”
“I’m sure you guys will be great. You always are.”
“I guess so,” he says.
“Anything else bothering you?”
“You’re tired. We can talk about this some other time.”
“No, it’s alright. What’s on your mind?”
“I’ve been wondering lately if I…,” he stops himself. He closes his eyes and takes a breath. “Are you happy?”
“Happy. Have you been happy lately?”
“That’s strange that you’d ask me that. Kelly asked me that same thing earlier today.”
“What’d you tell her?”
“That I’ve been too busy to think about it.”
“But when you hear the question, it must make you consider it.”
“I have been considering it. I’ve been thinking about it all day.”
“Things are tough, no question about it. And I’m not sure I’d ever want to go through this again, but I love Jacob so much, and, though I am crazy busy now, my hope is that things will get a little easier, and eventually I’ll go back to my life as I knew it—with a slightly different shape, I suppose.”
He looks at her and smiles. “I think you’re right.”
“What about you?”
“Other than the stress from work, I’m doing fine,” he lied.
“Well, I’m going to let myself fall asleep now.”
He leans down and kisses her forehead. “Good night.”
Maybe, he’s being selfish when he thinks of happiness. It is telling that when she’s asked about happiness, she automatically falls to her role as a mother. When he wonders about happiness, he internalizes it in such a way that his role as a father is only one angle in a myriad of other angles. He thinks about his work life, his friends, his home life, his emotional comfort, and the equilibrium of it all. He thinks about how, up until a couple days ago, he was growing pretty well content with his world. Now, Kelly has come and turned everything upside-down, and he feels as though he’s been living only half a life, half a happiness.
And, now, all he can see is the half that’s missing and feels nothing but dissatisfaction with the half he has.
Michael sits up, swings his legs over the edge of the bed, and buries his face in his hands.
“What is it?” Kelly asks.
“What are we going to do?”
“So much for the afterglow, I guess.”
“Kelly, I’m serious.”
“What can we do?” she asks, wrapping the sheet tight around her breasts and sitting up against the headboard.
“We have to figure something out.”
“Why do you keep torturing yourself about this?”
“So, you’ve come to terms with it then?” he asks, grabbing his pants from the floor and climbing into them.
“Are you kidding?” she asks, and her expression shifts into a sadness that even she wasn’t prepared for. “I’m still in denial about it, which is why I’m not particularly wild about talking about it.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, pacing in front of the bed. “It’s just that… I don’t know… Are we supposed to be done now? Is this it?”
“It has to be,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.
“It can’t be,” he says, sitting beside her on the bed.
“I know it’s hard,” she says, embracing him.
“I’ll call the wedding off.”
“No. Absolutely not,” Kelly says, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands, trying to be as unemotional as she can manage.
“You don’t even want to be with me, do you?”
“Of course I do. But we both know it’s too late for you to walk away now. Besides, Stacey is my best friend, has been since we were in diapers. Our families have been close for longer than we’ve existed. If you walked away from her to be with me, it would be a disaster—for everybody.”
“It’s already a disaster,” he says, getting up and standing at the large picture window of their hotel room. The afternoon light of June is shining on his body.
“I just want to remember you like that—standing shirtless in the sun. I swear you’re glowing. You’re beautiful.”
“This was when you were mine,” she says, and her face begins to break.
“I could be yours forever,” he says, going back to her on the bed.
“You don’t know that.”
“I would try.”
“The wedding is Saturday.”
“It could be our wedding.”
“Oh, Michael,” she says, smiling through the tears. She touches his face with tenderness hands. “I know you mean it, too.”
“But we barely know each other.”
“But I know I’m in love with you.”
“And I love you,” she says. “I’ve never felt something so right and true about anything in my entire life. I never understood what it meant to fall in love before I met you, but it does feel like falling. It’s so scary and exhilarating. When I’m not with you, I feel sick for you. And when I’m with you, I feel sick anticipating not being with you.”
“And it feels too cruel to just walk away from this hotel room tonight and spend the rest of my life pretending that I’m not in love with my best friend’s husband.”
“It is cruel.”
“But that’s what I have to do,” she says. “And it’s the right thing to do.”
He stands in the hotel lobby, near the entrance of the bar. He’s looking for her. She’s not sitting at the bar. He moves ever so slightly into the entryway and spots her sitting alone at a table for four, looking down into her drink. She’s the only one in the place that’s not sitting at the bar, and it’s a lonely picture seeing her sitting there like that in the darkened room—the lone figure sitting in the center of a sea of empty tables.
She’s professionally dressed in a dark suit, and looks even more beautiful than she did the other night. And looking at her now, any determination he’d built up to resist her is suddenly trumped by his intense attraction to her.
And he can feel all those old butterflies swirling in his gut.
He checks his watch—still five minutes early. Feeling the way he feels right now, he might benefit from every additional second he has to steel himself before he goes in there. He’s barely slept for three nights, spending each night running through every conceivable scenario about this meeting, creating so many simulations of conversation, he hardly knows what to expect.
Without even thinking about it, he’s turned away from the bar and has begun pacing back and forth across the floor of the lobby, staring into the lacquered wood flooring beneath his feet, concentrating on the pattern, counting the planks. He looks over at the front desk, and the clerk is staring at him. Michael ignores him, looks down and keeps pacing.
“Will you just get in here already?” Kelly says from the entrance of the bar.
He looks up, clearly startled by her. He starts to say something, but she turns around and disappears into the bar. He follows closely behind her.
And he can’t help but watch her move as she traverses the small maze of tables back to her seat. She wears skirts very nicely and moves her hips like she knows it. Her legs were always one of her most attractive features, and she’s always had a beautiful, self-confident stride. She’s tall—five foot ten, he’d say—and those legs are long. She’s definitely kept herself in shape over the past year and a half. It was harder for him to see this about her the other night since she was dressed more casually in a baggy sweatshirt and pajama pants.
He turns toward the bar to try and shift his attention from her swinging those hips back and forth, trying to prevent himself from being further hypnotized by her allure.
“I already ordered you a drink,” she says, sounding impatient as she takes her seat.
He goes to her and takes a seat at one of the three remaining chairs at the table—grabbing the one where his drink already sits. He’s beside her now—not across from her as he imagined it would be—and they’re very close. They’re so close that he can smell her subtle perfume, and the sensory flood of memories it creates washes him firmly back to her. And a rush of blood fills his head with dizziness as he stares at her wet, reddened lips.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he says, looking at the small, flameless candle at the center of their table. “Sorry about not coming in right away.”
“It’s alright. You’re nervous.”
“I guess I am.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“It’s the uncertainty of this. I’m not really sure what we’re doing here.”
“It’s alright. I’m nervous too,” she says and takes a slow sip of her drink. “You look nice.”
“You too. You look great.”
“Thanks,” she says, looking down at herself as if she needed to remind herself what she was wearing. “I had to give a talk earlier. So… What about you? Why are you dressed up?”
“We had a presentation this afternoon.”
“That’s right. How’d it go?”
“Fine. Gary did a great job.”
“What about you?”
“I did my part. Didn’t mess anything up as far as I know. But, then again, my mind hasn’t been at its sharpest the past few days.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I thought I was past this, you know.”
“I’m glad you’re not,” she says, looking at him and smiling.
That smile. It’s a smile he hasn’t seen in a long time—didn’t see it the other night. It’s a flirtatious smile. It’s the same playful smile that made him fall in love with her. And it stirs something so rich inside him that he has to look away.
“What are we doing?” he asks.
“Having a drink.”
“You know what I mean. Why’d you ask me to come?”
“Because I made a mistake when I let you go.”
“There’s not been a day since the wedding that I’ve ever doubted it.”
“And how would that have worked out for us—if things had gone our way?”
“I have no idea, but at least we’d know. At least, the question of it, the regret of it, would be gone.”
“We were in a tough spot. It was the worst possible time for us to have found each other.”
“We don’t get to choose when we meet the ones we love,” she says and reaches out to him, places her hand on his hand. “But we can choose when to right a wrong, when to give ourselves second chances.”
She’s looking right at him again, into him, but now he can’t look away.
“Kelly, I can’t—”
“I’m not asking you to run away with me. I’m not even asking you to leave Stacey.”
“What are you asking me?”
“One of the things that held us back in the beginning was the question of whether or not this thing we have—this love—would sustain an actual day-to-day relationship. We spent hours together, not days. And the risk of destroying our good relations with Stacey for something unproven was just too high a risk to take. We always wondered if what we had would fizzle if we tried to be together more permanently.”
“Well, I’m convinced it would fizzle out,” she says, pulling her hand back. “The kind of love we knew, the love for you I’ve carried these many months, could never sustain the daily routine of a traditional couple’s life. I don’t want to know the domestic side of you. In fact, one thing I’ve accepted about myself, I don’t want to know the domestic side of anyone.”
“So, what is—?”
“I’m a peculiar person. I know that. I believe it’s important to except the hard truths about one’s self—to see one’s own peculiarities and limitations. The simple fact is, I like to live alone. I like my private space and really don’t want to give it up. For the most part, I like not having to worry about trying to be something for someone else all the time. I want something simple. I just want to know you’re here, loving me, pining for me. And I want you to know I’m, wherever I am, loving you, pining for you.”
“But what would that—?”
“And I’d like to meet a few times a year, either here or in New York.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,” he says, shaking his head. “The sneaking around. The guilt. It’d be too much.”
“Well, I guess that’s it then,” she says, grabbing her purse from the empty chair beside her.
“Hold on. I didn’t say that.”
“No, if you don’t want to—”
“I didn’t say that either.”
“Then say you will.”
“What about Stacey? Wouldn’t you feel guilty?”
“Stacey and I have changed. Not just as individuals, but our connection to each other has changed. We’ll always be friends, but I don’t think we’ll ever be as close as we once were.”
He looks away from her, bites his bottom lip, balls his hand into a fist and sits it on the table like it holds an answer he’s afraid to let loose.
“Michael,” she says, sitting her purse aside and placing her hand over his fist. “I love you so much, more than I ever thought I could love anyone. I don’t want to continue living without you. I don’t want to keep pretending that things are okay without you. Things haven’t been okay.”
He loosens his fist, grabs her hand, and caresses her long fingers with his thumb.
“So, what now?” he asks.
“My train doesn’t leave for a couple hours, and I still have my room.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I should really think—”
“No, don’t think,” she says as she moves to the edge of her seat, her knees intertwined with his knees. She takes his hand and moves it under the table, places it under her skirt—just above the knee. Then she pushes his hand slightly higher on her thigh, resting it on her stocking top.
“God, Kelly. This is crazy.”
She turns slightly away from him and releases his hand. She grabs her purse again, reaches inside and pulls out a card. “This is my key—room 223. I’ll be there when you’re done thinking,” she says and rises from the table.
“Wait,” he says, but she ignores him. She lets her hand tenderly linger over his neck and shoulder as she walks by.
The smell of her perfume rushes by him again, and he closes his eyes, let’s himself swim in her fragrance. It takes him back to that first day at the resort, watching her dance in the middle of that dance floor. It reminds him of the recklessness of her.
And it’s clear to him, more now than maybe ever before, how much he loves and desires her.
He grabs the card from the table and moves to the edge of the bar’s entryway. From the lobby, he looks out the glass doors to the street. He watches all the men and women move by on the sidewalk outside. He thinks of how often most people only go where they’re supposed to go, as if they’re programmed, trained somehow. They just move obediently from one expectancy to another. He never wanted to be the guy that felt apart of the crowd—an other in a sea of others.
He slaps the card up and down on his thumb as he turns toward the elevator. His heart is racing. He closes his eyes for a second, remembers the smell of her, the warmth of her thigh, her fingers moving over his neck and shoulder.
They’re dancing again.
Kelly pokes her head into the room where Michael is sitting with Gary and his other groomsmen.
“The photographer is done with us, I hope. He wants you guys out there in ten minutes.”
A moment passes, and Michael just stares at her.
“Okay,” Gary says after waiting too long for Michael to respond. “Thanks.”
Kelly shuts the door. Michael gets up.
“Where you going, Mike? We’ve got a couple minutes yet,” Gary says, looking at his watch.
“I need to ask her something. Be right back,” he says, leaving the room.
“Kelly,” he calls after her.
She turns toward him. She’s about twenty feet away from him, standing in the middle of the hall in her long, lavender gown. She’s pulled her skirt up a bit so as not to let it drag on the floor, and it’s up just enough for him to see that she’s not wearing shoes—they’re dangling from her left hand.
“Michael, I don’t want…,” she starts to say as he approaches her. “This isn’t the time to—”
He pulls her into a room off the hall. It’s a janitor’s closet.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“I had to see you before… I just had to see you.”
“Well, here I am.”
“You’re beautiful,” he says and kisses her—a long, breathless kiss.
“Michael, we can’t,” she whispers, catching her breath, resting her cheek on his cheek.
“I’ve missed you so much.”
“I know, but we can’t—”
“I wish you’d run away with me,” he says, looking her straight in the eyes
“Look at you in your little bow tie,” she says, reaching up and lightly tugging at it. He can see that she’s trying to change the subject.
“I know you are,” she says and kisses him on the mouth with the tenderness of sincerity, and he can see a cover of tears fall over her eyes. “And I’ve missed you too. Too much. So much that it scares the hell out of me.”
“Kelly,” he says, tracing his fingers softly from the corner of her eye, down her cheek to her chin.
“Oh, Michael,” she says. “I have to go. And you have a meeting with a photographer.”
“I’ll always be here for you, you know. I’ll never forget this… This love,” he says as she opens the door of the closet.
“I hope you don’t,” she says, walking out.
When he steps out into the hall, he watches her run away, barefoot, her shoes in one hand and her skirt bunched up in the other.
Lost to the Lake
In the pouring rain, Ray’s standing alone in a mostly empty parking lot. He’s standing by Regina’s car, looking around for her. Just a minute ago, standing at the office’s fifth floor window, he saw her standing where he’s standing now.
“Ray,” she says. “Over here.”
He looks around, eyes darting through the noise of the rain.
“Under the trees,” she says.
Regina is standing under the line of evergreens that separate this parking lot from the parking lot on the other side.
“What are you doing?” he says, joining her under the canopy of the trees.
“Escaping the rain,” she says.
“Why aren’t you in your car?”
“I’m locked out. I forgot my keys inside.”
“Why didn’t you come up and get them?”
“I didn’t want… Why did you come looking for me?”
“I came to see why you were standing out in the rain.”
“You saw me?”
He’s staring at her face, watches drops of rain drip from her hair and roll down her cheeks. There’s a string of wet, dark hair hanging across her jaw, touching her mouth at its end. He starts to reach his hand out to push it back but stops himself. He wants to remember her just like this—hair hanging near her slightly shivering lips. He so badly wants to kiss her, wants to taste her mouth—feel the warmth of it, learn its tenderness.
“Let’s go inside,” he says. “We’ll get your keys.”
“I was hiding from you, Ray.”
“Just now. Under the trees. I saw you coming out and I came here to hide from you.”
“I didn’t want you to see me.”
A wave of hurt flashes across his eyes. “I don’t understand,” he says.
“Yes, you do.”
Ray closes his eyes. He does know.
“I can’t keep this up,” she says. “It’s too much. I don’t know what to do with myself. There’s no way we can continue like this.”
“I wish I could… I wish I had—”
“We’ve been through this,” she says. “If all we have is wishes, we don’t have much.”
“We have hope. A wish is just hope all dressed up.”
“Hope for what? For you to leave your family?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, but your idea of hope seems like an abstract, distant thing—a thing wrapped in fantasy. I can’t afford to be someone’s fantasy. A fantasy can’t hold me in its arms at night. And we can’t just pretend it will pass. It won’t get better.”
“I know it won’t.”
“I could barely get any work done today.”
“I’ve barely got anything done all week.”
“I feel it all the time. It never goes away, you know?”
“Of course I do. It’s with me when I go to bed at night and it’s the first thing I think of when I wake up. You follow me all day long.”
“And I can’t eat, Ray,” she says, looking at him. And he can see the heartbreak in her eyes. “I never thought this kind of thing was real. The idea of being lovesick always sounded like some pop song invention to me, and yet here I am hiding from you under the trees in the rain.”
He takes her hand and rests his forehead on her forehead.
“Be careful,” she says. “Don’t do anything you can’t follow through on. Once we cross that line, we can’t go back. This thing is too strong. I don’t think we could control it.”
The sound of the rain is like static rising in his ears, and he tries to focus on it so that he can calm that now familiar swirl in his gut. But she’s so close. He can smell her breath—so warm and so sweet. And for a second he imagines that the buzz of the rain is coming from inside himself, replacing the tension of this moment, washing away all the sickness he’s felt for her.
“So, what do we do?” he asks.
“That sounds like a question for you to answer. I’m here, and I’m free. You’re not.”
“This has just happened so fast. I never planned for this.”
“Who did? I didn’t. I wouldn’t even know how to plan for this wreck inside myself. I have a feeling these kinds of things just blindside a person. It certainly did me,” she says, taking her hand back from him and walking out into the parking lot. She turns back to him. “I won’t wait long, Ray. I can’t. This whole thing is swallowing me up more and more each day.”
As she runs back toward their office building with her arms crossed and her head down, he so badly wants to follow her inside and surrender to this desire, to calm this feeling that’s given his life new meaning these past few days—a hope and an excitement he thought had all but disappeared for him.
He’d give anything to be with her—almost anything.
The rain shows no signs of letting up, but he ignores it. He moves to the edge of the pine’s umbrella and looks up at the office windows. For several minutes, he watches for her shadow to interrupt the flow of fluorescent lights inside.
As he waits, he runs his thumb against the flesh of his other fingers—a nervous habit of his. He remembers the weight of her hand in his and the smell of her breath in his face.
Once she gets her keys, he thinks, she’ll be back—any second now. But one minute passes into the next and she hasn’t returned. No hint of her shadow has passed across the office, and he’s left with no companion but hope and the rain. And he doesn’t know what to do with himself. For a moment, he considers going inside after her. He’d like nothing more than to surrender to the grand romantic gesture he’s been imagining. He’d like to run inside and tell her he’s ready to leave his wife, to walk away from his marriage and his home and start a new life with her.
But he thinks of Kate, sweet Kate, the woman he’s loved for nearly fourteen years—the woman he still loves. Sure, their love is not the same as this new rush he feels for Regina. What he feels for Regina is a tidal wave that’s suddenly swept him up. What he has with Kate is settled water, moving naturally the way water does after the initial storms of passion. Their love is consistent, moving in and moving out, like breathing. Easy, expected.
When he finally sees Regina’s shadow move across the room, he squeezes his hand into a fist and rhythmically hits his thigh—another nervous habit. He’s doing all he can to expel this nervous energy before he pulls his brain in a thousand different directions. He wants so badly to go inside to her, or to just stand here under these pines for as long as it takes and wait for her.
She moves to one of the office windows, looks out for him. Once she spots him, she places her hand against the window.
His phone vibrates.
He takes his phone out of his pocket and looks at the screen. She’s texted, ‘Please go.’
Now, the static of the rain seems to flood into his ears, and he’s more aware of its intensity. It seems suddenly cruel. The chill of the wet on his clothes is all over him. There’s just no avoiding this rain. When he looks around, there’s a line of pine trees to the left and right of him, and parking lots—both almost entirely empty—in front and behind him. He doesn’t quite know where to go. His car is on the other side of the lot he’s facing, but he doesn’t feel like driving. He wants to escape anything that’s attached to his life as he knows it. He’d happily go out-of-body if reality would allow for it.
Not quite a block away, there are a string of businesses, and he hopes he can tuck himself inside one and pretend himself away. He feels like a raw nerve, but as he focuses on the sound of the rain, a numbness pushes him down the string of pines. When he reaches the end of the tree line, he looks up at the nearest streetlight and chases the lines of falling rain to the ground. He keeps his head down as he moves from the protection of the trees to the sidewalk—exposed to the rain in full.
The late October breeze rolls up the street causing a headwind that whips him with sheets of wet, stinging rain. He pushes his body forward, propelled by the quick zip of cars that fly by him on the road.
He turns his head back toward the office and can just see the lights of the fifth floor windows over the tops of the pines behind him. She’s no longer standing at the window, and he wonders if she’s already left the building. Maybe she’s already returned to her car, drove by him on the road. If so, did she think of stopping?
He can’t help but think of the opportunity he’d just had with her. He could’ve drawn a line in the sand between his old life and his new one. He could’ve changed his life tonight, and it would’ve been so easy. At least the first step would’ve been easy. Each step after the first would be more difficult. But that first kiss would have been just about the easiest thing he’s ever done. And it was the perfect moment for it: caught in the rain, having her call to him from under the pines. Once he was there with her, they could’ve just gave into whatever has been pulling them together these past few days.
But something was in the way. It’s not difficult to figure out what. He’s a thirty-six year old man who’s made entanglements—promises. There are people that depend on him to keep those promises. If he were to cross that line with Regina, it doesn’t just change he and Regina’s life. It changes other lives that never got to choose whether or not that line would be crossed. It might not seem reckless in the moment to follow through on such an easy desire, but it is reckless when you consider how easy it is to play with the fate of others.
Just as he enters the business district, a small blue neon sign shines in his periphery. The sign simply reads, ‘Tavern,’ and he pushes on the door to escape the rain. The overcast twilight from outside is the perfect analogue to the soft light of the bar. It’s the kind of place that’s easily tucked away, almost hidden. It barely announces itself. Even the neon sign outside was so small and low in the window that it seemed to want to hide from the drivers on the street.
As he stands inside the door, dripping from the rain, he pushes his hands through his hair to smear it back and keep it from dripping down his face. He shakes the excess water from his hands and arms onto the mat in front of the door and unbuttons his oxford shirt before hanging it on the coat rack beside him.
Standing in his stark white undershirt, he looks to the empty tables at his left, and then to the tables on the right. There is one table of three people on his right. They haven’t taken any notice of him. The bar in front of him has little in the way of decor other than the bottles that line the wall behind the bar, and even those don’t seem to be organized for display’s sake. They’re just scattered across a shelf on the back wall, and the shelf is bookended with two speakers. Through these speakers, the jangle of a guitar from an old folk song is playing. He doesn’t recognize the song, but it seems somehow familiar.
There’s not a television anywhere in sight.
Two guys sit one stool apart on the left side of the bar. He takes a stool on the bar’s empty right side, leaving about three stools between he and the first guy to his left.
“You alright?” asks the bear of a man standing behind the bar. He has the easy demeanor of a bartender with his thick wave of gray hair and an affable, nonjudgmental face.
“Just got caught in the rain,” Ray says. He can tell water is dripping from his pants and shoes onto the floor. He looks back and can see the wet trail he’s brought with him to the stool. “I’m getting your floor all wet.”
“It’s only water,” the bartender says, standing only a few feet from Ray now, leaning into the bar. “This floor’s seen worse.”
“I’ll bet,” Ray says, resting his arms up on the bar and feeling every bit of the cold on his skin from the wet of the rain.
“You need a towel?”
“That’d be nice, if you have one handy.”
The bartender hands him a small white hand towel from under the bar.
“What can I get you to drink?”
“Whatever you have on tap is fine.”
The bartender grabs a glass from a row of glasses under the beer taps and fills it. He sits the beer in front of Ray without a word and just kind of fades away. Ray runs the towel over his face and hair and up and down his arms. It won’t do much for the wet on his clothes.
He tries not to think of the cold as he leans into the bar and takes a long, slow drink of beer. He looks around and wonders how long he can put off going home. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone and turns the power off, wants the world around him to disappear.
Weeks before he met Regina, Ray and Kate and their seven-year-old daughter, Leah, had just come home from a weeklong trip to his in-law’s near the beach in North Carolina. It was a busy week, and it gave Ray little time for idle thinking—by Kate’s design. It was clear that she sensed Ray’s restlessness growing at home. She was sensitive to the fact that he was turning thirty-six—the age his father was when he died. More than anyone else, she knew the shadow his dad’s death cast over Ray’s life. Ray wasn’t one to admit such things out loud, but it was certainly something he’d been thinking about as that October day approached.
Ray was only seven when his dad died. His memories of him are so sparse that he can barely construct believable recollections of him that aren’t stolen from old photos or stories heard secondhand. What he does know is that one minute his father was married with a home and a family, and the next his wife, Ray’s mom, was telling him she didn’t love him anymore—turning his life upside-down.
The one clear memory Ray has of his dad is from the last time he saw him. Ray and his mom had just returned from a long bus trip from his grandma’s house—his mother’s mom. When they got home, it was clear things were different. His mother’s demeanor was tense and guarded as they approached the house, and Ray could sense something was amiss. His mom was sure to keep him behind her—at arm’s length, as if she were protecting him from some unknown danger.
When they reached the back patio door of the house, Ray could see his dad standing in the partially open sliding door. From outside, the inside of the house seemed darker than the daytime would allow, and his father didn’t look normal. He was unshaven—several day’s of growth on his face—and his face was pale. His hair was uncombed and oily, and he was wearing only an undershirt and boxer shorts. And it’s certainly possible—even likely—that Ray’s memory of this scene has been greatly exaggerated, but in that moment, his dad was the most vulnerable creature Ray had ever seen.
This image of his dad’s face that day has been forever burned into Ray’s mind. Of course, it’s been colored by time and circumstances, but it might as well have happened yesterday. And whenever Ray thinks back on it(more often lately), he’s as frightened for that man as he ever was.
Ray remembers his mom turning to him, crouching down to look in his seven-year-old eyes, and asking him to go play. ‘Why can’t I go inside and play?’ he thought. He remembers how suddenly strange it was that the home he’d known all his life had suddenly become something different, a thing separate from himself. He moved to the edge of the house and stood just around the corner, just about ten feet from the patio door where his mother and father stood. They were still separated by the patio door’s threshold, and he can hear his father’s words, pleading and desperate, “Please, Stacy. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep.”
Ray doesn’t remember what happened immediately after that. He thinks he and his mom got right back on a bus and went back to his grandma’s house. Ultimately, they left his dad and their home behind, and his dad was dead less than a week later.
Though he always kind of knew, it wasn’t until years later that Ray knew his dad had taken his own life. He remembers hearing people at the funeral say, ‘He was lost to the lake.’ This is what Ray’s grandma, his dad’s mom, would always say when it came up, and eventually Ray learned not to bring it up. Later in life, he learned that losing someone to the lake was a kind of upper-midwestern shorthand for saying that you lost someone to drink. Of course, drink was only part of what took his father. The drink made it easier to take the pills, which is what he did. They found his body on a fishing boat in Lake Michigan. So, the shorthand was never quite a lie—just a way to avoid the truth of the truth.
Since then, the idea that life was a stable force was gone. The fact that his foundation, his family, his home, could be so vulnerable to a single event—his mother deciding to tell his father that she didn’t love him anymore—was life-defining. From then on, Ray understood the illusion of permanence, and he’s always been at the ready for the ground to shift beneath his feet. He’s always been acutely aware of how quickly and how easily things can change on the simple whims of another.
With all this in mind, Kate arranged a trip to her parent’s beach house in North Carolina to keep him occupied, and she successfully kept him busy right though his thirty-sixth birthday. And it worked. Ray didn’t obsess over all the psychological baggage the day carried, and he mostly forgot the restlessness and hopelessness he’d been feeling at home the previous month.
But once they returned home, everything he’d left behind was there waiting for him.
It was clear his problems were deeper than the fact that he had turned thirty-six. The parallels of that age with his dad’s death were just window dressing for something more personal. He’d hit a wall lately. At first, he chalked his general sense of unease up to a simple bout of depression that would soon pass—the same kind of minor depression that anyone goes through from time to time. But it didn’t pass. One week turned into a month and one month was turning into two.
There are metrics he had set out for himself as a young man—the same metrics that most people measure themselves against. He wanted to graduate college. He did that. He wanted a steady, good paying job. He got that. He wanted to get married. He met Kate, and they married. He wanted to buy a house and start a family. They bought a house while Kate was pregnant for Leah. He’s gotten everything he ever wanted from his life, but he never stopped to consider what would happen once he got it all.
To be sure, it’s an enviable position to be in and he’s more than aware of his good fortune. It’s this fear of ingratitude that’s caused him to deny his uneasiness these past couple months. But there’s no denying that he’s stuck with the gnawing sense of ‘Is that all there is?’-ness lately. It’s not that he’s unhappy with any single aspect of his life. He’s happily married and still very much in love with Kate. He’s proud of Leah and feels satisfied with his role as her father. He has few complaints with his job, and he and Kate make enough money to quiet the worry of regular expenses.
All this means he’s a very lucky man. And he knows it. But knowing his good luck doesn’t end the numbness he’s been feeling. None of his security has changed the fact that, even though each individual segment of his life is unquestionably good, his macro view of self feels askew. As he looks to the future, there’s only a great void where hope used to be.
These past few months he’s felt trapped by the very things that should be making him happy. He’s become a prisoner to all the things he should be grateful for.
It’s not as if this is something he can talk over with anyone. He doesn’t have an analyst and has no plans to attain one. To him, analysis has always seemed an indulgent luxury—used only as a last resort. And if he were to open up to his friends, they would rightly call him out for his privilege and his sense of entitlement. Besides, he already knows all the remedies other people would recommend. Someone might say he needs to get away, get some perspective. He’s done that. It helped, but only temporarily. He could try for a promotion at work or look for a new job. Problem is, he’s not unhappy in his position at work, really, and quitting a job he’s mostly satisfied with seems needlessly reckless. He could concentrate more on being Leah’s father. This might be fine for him, but Leah seems happy, and he doubts she needs the burden of having to fulfill any lofty expectations he might create for her. If he were the kind of person who finds a great deal of personal satisfaction in material things, he could treat himself to something big and frivolous for a momentary boost. If this long existential episode is merely a mid-life crisis, that would be the stereotypical thing for him to do. But he’d like to believe he’s not that shallow.
All these thoughts were looming over him on his first morning back to work after a week on the beaches of North Carolina. Going back to work after a vacation is a difficult adjustment under the best of circumstances, but his poor state of mind made his return seem more dire than usual.
As he parked his car in the same parking lot he’s been parking in for ten years, he wondered if he’ll still be parking in this lot ten years from now, or twenty years from now. Will he be walking through these same front doors and riding this same elevator at forty-six? At fifty-six? Will he be walking down this same hallway, smelling that same smell of hot paper and silicon as the office churns out superfluous memos from a single brain of computers? Will he be nodding and smiling the same nod and smile to the same sorts of people when he’s old and beaten into submission?
The break room is filled with the same stale coffee smell it’s filled with every morning. He grabs his mug, the one with his name on it, from the cabinet and pours himself a cup of coffee. When he turns, his friend Dave is standing in front of him talking, but Ray’s barely heard a word he’s said.
“Sorry?” Ray asks.
“Your vacation? How was it?”
“Fine. It was fine,” he says, moving away, though he’s vaguely aware that Dave’s still talking.
When he turns the corner from the break room and faces the office, a dread falls over him. He stops and takes a deep breath. It’s demeaning how easily he has reentered his captivity. It saddens him to look out at the evidence of how tame he has become and knowing there’s no end in sight.
But he finds his body moving toward his desk with the same easiness as ever before. All the while, he’s telling himself that it’s not that bad, reminding himself how lucky he is to have this job at all. He knows it’s not as bad as it seems in the moment, but it doesn’t change how bad it feels.
As he gets closer to his desk, the air suddenly gets sweeter. He turns toward this sweetness and sees a girl he’s never seen before. She has lazy brown hair, light and wavy and clean, that falls easily over her shoulders to just below her shoulder blades. She’s wearing a floral top that is made from a fine, thin material that strikes him as the perfect compliment to the soft slopes of her shoulders and chest. The bright colors of the flowers on her top, the sweetness of the air around her, and the light she’s suddenly swept into the room fills the office with more vibrancy and whimsy than it’s ever known. The normally drab tans and browns of the walls and desks simply fade away as she emerges like a flower through the concrete of the world around them.
His knee suddenly hits the corner desk at his row of desks, and he spills a little coffee on his hand. He suppresses a curse as the hot coffee pools in the place between his thumb and forefinger. He tries to pretend that nothing’s happened as he switches the coffee into his free hand and shakes the coffee off and wipes his hand on his coffee-colored pants. He’s barely taken his eyes off her, but he quickly returns to her to see if she saw his clumsiness on display. She hadn’t.
The office has an open floor plan. There are no walls between desks, no partitions for cubicles. The enormous room is split into eight sections of nine desks apiece—each one made up of three rows, three desks in every row. Each individual section’s desks face in the same direction, looking at the faces of the desk occupants in their corresponding section. These corresponding sections are separated by an aisle about eight feet wide. Ray sits in the first row of his section, at the third desk. The new girl happens to sit in the opposing section, the corresponding section that faces his section, in the first row, second desk. Her desk is the one desk in the entire office that he looks at all day. The monitor of his computer is in the direction where she sits, and she’s just right of his normal working eye line.
He sits his coffee down and watches her with as much subtlety as he can pretend. She’s staring at her computer screen. The pale glow from the screen illuminates her face with soft light. And what a face it is. It’s so easily pleasing—the simple, symmetrical way the features are placed on her face. That face is so familiar to him that he spends several minutes trying to remember where he’s seen her before, but he’s relatively sure they’ve never met. It’s a face of a woman he feels that he will know, or that he’s always known somehow. She’s so pretty that when he finally does look away from her, it’s only to look around the room to see if every one else is seeing what he’s seeing, or if in his earlier fugue state, he’d willed himself into some other dimension, a parallel universe of dreams or half-awake fantasy.
Her nameplate reads ‘Regina Claiborne,’ and he hears himself whispering her name out loud, slowly, annunciating each syllable with the utmost care, as he turns his computer on.
Ray’s known for awhile that the company was about to hire several new graphic designers for the upcoming site redesign that’s long been in the planning stages. He just wasn’t prepared to notice, really. Ray hasn’t always been the most observant person. Most days, he gets his coffee, plants himself in front of the computer and codes until lunch, or when someone comes to remind him that he should take a lunch. Time usually tends to get away from him when he’s programming.
But now, staring at this singularly beautiful girl, he can’t quite get himself to do anything. He tries to look away from her and focus on his computer screen, but there she is decorating his periphery. He just can’t escape her, even if he wanted to. But he very much doesn’t want to escape her.
Most new designers the company hires have the look of someone that’s just graduated art school. They often seem to announce their creativity in their dress and demeanor. There’s an affected unconventionality about them that begs to be noticed. And they tend to carry a holier than thou attitude around the office and segregate themselves from the programmers unless otherwise directed for a project.
Regina looks different. She’s still young, probably in her late-twenties, but she doesn’t look like she’s trying to be apart from the crowd, though to him she’s very much apart from the crowd. She’s dressed more professionally than most of the designers—not calling attention to herself. As he said, she’s wearing a floral top, and he can’t quite see her full body behind the desk, but she appears to be wearing a black skirt and dark stockings. And though he lingers a little too long on her legs, he blinks himself back to his computer screen. He doesn’t want to be caught staring.
It’s not that she blends in with the crowd. She doesn’t need to call attention to herself like the other designers. She’s the only color in the room, the only light that shines.
The cursor on his computer screen seems to tick, tick, tick. It’s been more than a week since he stared at that cursor and made it move. He had gotten so far away form his work life last week that he half-forgets where he left off. He surveys his desk as a distraction, sees the stack of memos in the basket on the corner of his desk and starts rummaging through the papers. It’s always been a source of embarrassment that a tech company where each employee sits at a computer all day long, still sends out paper memos. It’s obviously an edict passed down from the executive structure of the company, and it’s not particularly surprising that a company that provides secure web services to health care providers would be run by those cautious enough to want a paper trail..
The memos are full of mostly standard fare, though he does run across the document that announces the arrival of four new employees. He scans the page until he finds Regina’s name, but there’s barely any information provided about her, other than the usual muddy language from HR with her title and job description.
As he tosses the pages back into the basket, a couple papers fall to the floor of the aisle in front of his desk. He walks around his desk and bends over to pick up the fallen pages, and when he stands, she’s looking at him. He catches her eyes and freezes for a second. Then she smiles at him—a big, friendly smile.
And her light shines even brighter, and he is ashine in it.
Staring out the window, looking into the lunchtime traffic of downtown, he barely notices the world that passes by. The people and cars that go by are only a screen to project his thoughts of Regina on.
He’s at a small restaurant with Dave and Nick, two of his closest friends at work. This is the place they come every Monday. They’ve developed a kind of unspoken routine about their lunches. No one even asks anymore where they’re going to have lunch. If it’s Monday, this restaurant is where they go.
Ray’s known these guys since they all started at the company nearly ten years ago. They were three of the first employees to be hired. Still, their friendships have hardly transcended the confines of the workplace. They do occasionally, though rarely, get together after work for drinks, but there seems to be a border between their work lives and their personal lives that they seem hesitant to cross. They’re just not that kind of friends.
Ray likes them well enough, but in the way you accept people under fixed circumstances. He knows full well that they wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t work together, but it’s nice to have company for lunch most days.
Today, though, he hardly acknowledges that they’re at the table at all. He keeps trying to snap out of the distracted state he’s in by turning toward them, pretending to be engaged in their conversation, but finds himself unable to hold a single thread of what they’re saying. Their words simply become background noise as he turns back toward the window and imagines Regina.
He has no idea what he accomplished this morning. Usually, he’s a productive worker. He’s not the kind of guy who sits at his computer and plays around online, only occasionally stopping what he’s doing to write a little code. There’s never been a problem with him moving code at work. He’s never had issues concentrating before today. He just knows that this morning went much like this lunch: something in front of him that needs his attention, and he tries to give it his attention with little success. He would start typing only to fade away, allowing his wandering eyes to drift to the right of his computer screen to catch a glimpse of Regina.
Even since she’d noticed him earlier and smiled, she’d started looking over at him at a similar rate he found himself looking at her. And these looks kept him distracted enough that he couldn’t concentrate on anything other than keeping her in his periphery, pretending he was busy at something other than her presence.
“Are you going to eat?” Nick asks.
Ray turns toward Nick and Dave, looking half-surprised to see they’re still there.
“You alright?” Dave asks.
“I’m fine,” Ray says. “I was just thinking about something.”
“It always takes a couple days for me to snap back from vacation,” Nick says.
“That’s probably it,” Ray says, looking down at his sandwich and fries. He takes a bite of his sandwich, though being hungry has barely occurred to him. “Did I miss anything while I was gone?”
“The new designers started.”
“I saw that,” he said, anxious to see if they might offer any unsolicited information about Regina.
“Seem about the same as the other designers,” Nick says. “Just more of them now.”
“But now that they’re here,” Dave says, “it means we finally start the redesign, including an app refresh.”
“What? No one’s said anything to me about it,” Ray says.
“You weren’t here,” Dave says. “It was probably in a memo. Didn’t you get the minutes from last week’s meeting?”
“I don’t know. I barely looked at the memos.”
He should’ve guessed the new redesign would include an app refresh, but since it had never come up, he thought he might be home-free. He was the original app developer and has been in charge of updates since they launched. But, other than minor bug fixes here and there, it’s kind of been on auto-pilot the past couple years. He kind of hoped it could stay that way a little longer.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nick says. “Maybe they’ll pair you up with that new designer—the blonde that sits over by Dave. What’s her name?”
“Allison,” Dave says.
“I’m married, Nick,” Ray says, balling up his napkin and tossing it on his plate.
“Relax, Ray. I was only kidding.”
“You finished with that?” Dave asks, pulling Ray’s plate across the table and grabbing some fries. “You barely touched it.”
“Not hungry, I guess.”
That night, on the drive home, his head was swimming. He felt dizzy but couldn’t quite decide if this lightheadedness felt wonderful or awful. He decided it was a little of both. The dizziness was accompanied by a little nausea, but he told himself that this was mostly because he had all but skipped lunch. But he knew the real reason he was feeling this way.
After lunch, the afternoon progressed much like the morning had. He was unable to get into his normal working groove. He was coming in and out of his code like water. As soon as would sink into the code, he would have to pop out of it for a breath of her, often realizing that she, too, had been looking his way.
He toyed with the idea of orchestrating his day’s exit with hers so that he could introduce himself. But at a little before five, Dave messaged him to come to his desk. If Ray had known it was just to watch some inane video more suited for adolescent boys, he would’ve spared himself the frustration of having missed her. When he got back to his desk, she was gone.
He walked over to the wall of windows that face the parking lot and looked for her. He spotted her as she was opening the door of her silver hatchback. Before she got into the car, she looked up at the office and saw him looking out at her. Instinctively, he wanted to back away from the windows, hide from the moment. But he didn’t. He was caught. And he just stood there, his hands in his pockets, looking at her looking at him. And she smiled that warm smile again and put her hand up as if to say hello—a sort of recognition of the moment. He also raised his hand for a moment as she got into her car. Then, he placed his hand on the window and pushed himself away from it.
Now, driving home, the fullness has been all hollowed out, but even this hollowness is alive inside him. He’s just never felt anything like it before. He’s never been great at expressing eternal complexities, but he’s never been afraid of his emotions, or reticent to be emotionally expressive in concrete ways. He likes to think of himself as a warm and giving person—an affectionate husband and father.
But this is new to him—more complex and abstract that he can comprehend, let alone express.
Of course, he knows how ridiculous this might seem to an outsider. These feelings could be confused for some kind of adolescent infatuation—a silly delusion. After all, he knows little to nothing about her, and if he didn’t know better, even he’d reject the whole thing as an affection invented from his recent life crisis—a simple projection for self-preservation. But that’s not what it is. He can’t help but feel that this is something else, something more physical and emotionally complex than a psychological indulgence. And even though it may seem silly, he thinks what he’s been feeling all day fits more in the realm of the mystical. It’s like he saw her and a bell inside him—a bell he didn’t know he had—began to ring, and it just kept ringing. All day it’s been ringing, filling him with a vibration that’s still buzzing inside him now. There are almost no words to describe the connection he feels to her, or how immediately the switch of that connection was flipped. If he had to attach an articulation to it, it might be that it was love at first sight. Whatever one calls it, it’s real, and he’s been in the middle of a cloud of its gauzy dust all day.
Ray met Kate just over fourteen years ago. He’d just graduated from college and took a job at a small tech startup. It wasn’t necessarily the job he’d envisioned for himself, but big tech jobs were on a bit of a reset in those days. When he first started his undergraduate studies in the late nineties, the tech industry was booming. He turned down more jobs in his early undergraduate days than he was offered after graduation. Post-graduation, after the tech bubble popped, the idea was to take whatever you could get out the door and keep your eyes open for better opportunities to come.
This particular startup planned to sell used and rare books online. The goal was to empower a struggling community of booksellers with a unified platform to match the oncoming digital retail space. At the time though, things were so in flux in the tech world, no one was certain how long it would take for the population to grow comfortable with buying things online. Five years earlier, everyone thought the sky was the limit, but after the bubble burst people feared they hadn’t yet hit the floor.
Things were so uncertain and startups were often short lived in those days, Ray never believed the job would last beyond the one-year contract he was offered, but he wasn’t particularly worried about it. In those days, he was less worried about finding longterm stability than he was of just finding a way to support himself from moment to moment.
Kate was the team coordinator of the company. She had gone to school with the founders and was the first employee of the startup. By the time Ray was hired, the company had grown to more than twenty employees, and, like most of these new tech firms, the website had a launch date that they all worked toward meeting. And since they were all in their twenties—most of them straight out of school—and mostly untethered to the family obligations that were yet to come, they worked long hours together to reach that launch goal.
Ray barely noticed Kate at first. It was certainly not love at first sight. It wasn’t that he didn’t notice her at all. She was his boss after all. It was just that he didn’t think about her in any elevated way. She was just one of the people he worked with everyday. She was just one face—albeit a pleasant one—of twenty or so other faces.
But, slowly over time, she began to reveal herself to him. There were little pieces of her that made her stand out a bit more everyday. He liked how she was the only one in the office who took notes with pen and paper, which seemed so antiquated to him at the time, but, in her, he found it endearing. He liked how she sat on her desk during meetings, propped up on her arms—locked at the elbows, causing her shoulders to rise up. And he liked the habit she had of crossing her legs and her arms at the same time when someone had been talking too long, an unconscious tell she couldn’t resist. He liked how easily tiredKate laughed. He liked how worriedKate tended to talk fast and gesture more with her hands. He liked how happyKate’s smile started in her eyes and then just grew and grew across her whole face. He loved how she would sing under her breath when she thought no one was listening, and then when she discovered someone was listening, she wouldn’t stop but would sing louder and start to sway along to her song, unashamed. She was just such a truthful, honest person. She seemed more purely herself than anyone he’d ever known. She never seemed to be hiding anything.
As these feelings became stronger and more developed, he didn’t know how to react to them. He worried that if he tried to act on what he was feeling, it might disrupt the office dynamic they’d all developed over time. Or, if he asked her out, would he be violating some code of office politics. It seemed inappropriate to ask her out at the office, but that’s where everyone spent all their time. Besides, when would they go out? There was no time. No one had a private life.
But they got closer and closer anyway, and it became clear to everyone that something was happening between them. They just hadn’t acknowledged it to each other yet.
On the night the site was to launch, everyone stuck around for the countdown. At midnight, after several months of work, the site would officially go live. Ray remembers looking around the room, seeing everyone’s face glowing in the light of their monitors and taking the opportunity, while everyone was distracted, to go to Kate’s desk. He stood there staring at her until she looked at him. He took her hand and they walked out of the office and into the building’s stairwell. He started to stumble his way through a speech he’d been practicing in his head for weeks, but she shut him up with a kiss that felt like a too tight spring suddenly sprung.
As they wrestled with hands on faces and smears of hair, tugging at clothes and clumsily climbing each other’s body, they could hear their co-workers start the countdown.
“Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven…”
They laughed, and he was happy in a way he hadn’t known happiness before.
And, honestly, for the most part, he’s been happy ever since. Happy in a way he never really questioned—not until recently.
He’s staring up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. It’s after two a.m. and he can’t help but be excited by the prospect of seeing Regina tomorrow. And, yet, the strength of his anticipation still surprises him. He’s spent the last several hours sifting through he and Kate’s beginnings to see if he ever felt anything remotely close to this kind of anticipation for her.
He and Kate have always been passionate for one another. That’s never been a problem. Their sexual attraction has remained even if the space between the fulfillment of that attraction has widened over the years. But the depth of the emotion seemed to have started with a superficial sexual attraction and grew deeper slowly over time.
And their emotional connection did eventually grow deep. It’s still quite deep. But it seems to be an emotion made from simple togetherness. There was always sexual desire, but how much of that was connected to emotional desire? Are these desires mutually exclusive?
When he and Kate met, he had very little romantic context. He was barely twenty-two and the number of girls he’d been with before her could’ve been counted on one hand. And those earlier relationships had very little emotional depth—if any at all. He just assumed that the relative strength of what he felt for Kate, compared to what he’d felt in the past, might as well have been love. It was an assumption. His feelings for her were the strongest he’d ever felt, and he liked being with her sexually as well as casually. He was equally interested in her body and her mind. He liked the way she thought and talked and looked, and that seemed to be all he needed to know when he proposed to her on the day his contract expired at the startup.
He knew they’d be seeing less of each other, and though he hadn’t yet had a chance to miss her, really, he didn’t want to suffer the possibility. It seemed the natural next step.
Now, listening to her breathing next to him—the same breathing he’s heard for close to fourteen years—he wonders if he could’ve lived without her. It’s a dumb question. Of course, he could’ve lived without her. He just knows he didn’t want to try. But this wasn’t borne out of some desperate need to be with her as is so often described in love stories. He never felt the way his dad looked like he felt that last day he saw him—desperate and dying without the woman he loved. He never quite felt like his whole being cried out for the sustenance only Kate offered him.
And he always assumed that these kinds of feelings were inventions of stories and movies, or were only a reality for people that were emotionally damaged and relied on love as a crutch.
But as his stomach churns with hope, and his heart jumps at the possibility of tomorrow, he’s convinced that he feels more alive than ever before.
But he’s terrified too.
He’s sure that his life is about to change. The future taking a different course that he’d planned is scary enough, but what really frightens him is the possibility that the story of his past is not written the way he always believed.
Ray woke up feeling tired and heavy from lack of sleep. But as soon as he remembered what the day offered, he shot up out of bed. He wasted no time getting ready for work, and was so distracted by the prospect of seeing Regina again that he barely acknowledged Kate and Leah at breakfast. Their presence and chatter was barely a hum of background noise as he moved seamlessly through his morning routine.
“Ray,” Kate says.
He looks at her. She and Leah are staring at him. “What?”
“You’re drumming your fingers on the table,” she says.
“So I am,” he says, relaxing his drumming hand and wrapping it around his warm coffee.
They’re all sitting at the kitchen table. He’s having a bagel and a cup of coffee, but it might as well be news to him. Just as much as he didn’t realize he was drumming his fingers on the table, he can hardly remember the steps he took to get to the table. And though some of his bagel is gone, he can’t remember eating any of it.
“I need to get going. We have a meeting this morning about the redesign,” he says, finishing what’s left of his coffee.
“You’re not going to finish your breakfast?” Kate asks as he stands above her, kissing her forehead.
“I’ll take it with me,” he says, smiling at Leah, placing his hand warmly on top of her head before he grabs his bagel and heads out the patio door. “Love you guys. Have a great day.”
He was no more out of the driveway before he chucked his half-eaten bagel out his window into the trees. He’s just not hungry. He still has that same hollow in his gut from yesterday, only now it’s paired with the nervous excitement and the half-dream quality of the world after a night of little sleep.
He arrives at work much the same way he moved through the rest of his morning—stumbling through it with the barest of awareness. After he parked his car, he was suddenly surprised that he was already here. And he’s early.
The difference between his mood yesterday and today is stark. Whereas yesterday he was moving with a sad deliberateness, today he’s moving with a happy determination. His head is high and he’s ready for every ‘good morning’ that comes his way as he wades through the easy flicker of fluorescent lights.
He stands just outside the break room door and surveys the office. She’s not here yet.
He turns into the break room, and she’s standing right in front of him, staring him in the face. She’s taller than he thought she’d be, and her eyes are larger and clearer than he remembers from yesterday. Every bit of her is more perfect than he remembered. He’s so startled by the sight of her for a second that he freezes and is stuck in her stare. He tries to wipe the startle from his expression, but has to fake it instead.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Was I blocking the door?”
“It’s alright,” she says. “I’m in no hurry.”
God, her voice. It’s a song—a cool, even sound that whispers across his ears.
He steps aside from the doorway and she moves past him, but then turns back.
“I’m Regina, by the way,” she says, holding out her hand. “I think you were gone last week when I started.”
“Ray,” he says and takes her hand. And maybe it was the anticipation of the touch, but as his hand collapsed around her hand, he was genuinely enveloped in a warm comfort that his whole body seemed to grow softly around like a melting.
And her eyes changed, became suddenly softer.
She started to say something but stopped and kind of shook her head, or tilted it a little in surrender to a confusion.
Their hands were still together.
“I’m sorry,” she says, taking back her hand.
“I just… Nothing,” she says and turns to walk away, turning back once more to him with a self-conscious look on her face. He can tell she’s slightly embarrassed and this makes him embarrassed.
What just happened? And what is it about her that makes him want to be near her so damn badly?
After he gets his coffee, he hovers in the break room. He’s not ready to go out there and face her yet. He’s still flustered after being so close to her. He can still smell her in the air around him, and it’s making him feel as if he’s slipping even deeper into the half-dream he’s been living in this morning already.
The lack of sleep could be contributing to this, and he starts to worry about how he’s going to make it through the day without it affecting him too much. But even if he had a bed at his feet at the moment, it wouldn’t matter. There’s no way he could sleep now. His heart and his mind are racing too fast—mostly in circles.
Yesterday was a series of simple indulgences toward fantasy. Today is different. Now, he feels as though he’s slipped into the fantasy. She’s real now. He’s held her hand and heard her voice. He’s entered a new level of reality with this attraction, and it’s unquestionably different from anything he’s ever felt before. It’s beyond physical attraction. There’s something about her—all of her—that he craves so totally that it frightens him.
As people come in and out of the break room, exchanging the friendly morning chatter they usually trade in, he hears it as background noise to the endless looping replay of her voice as she introduced herself—the sound of her saying her own name.
He doesn’t recall ever knowing another Regina. It’s not an exceptional name in any way, and it’s never struck him as name he thought was beautiful. But now, it’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. The way it slides from the mouth like a song makes him want to say it over and over again.
The clock on the wall reads eight-thirty. He should be at his desk typing away, but instead he moves from the break room to the conference room, never once looking in her direction. There’s an eight forty-five staff meeting, and he doesn’t want to spend the remaining minutes sitting at his desk trying not to stare at her. And he knows, at the moment, there’s little else he would do.
The long wall by the large conference room table is almost entirely glass. He stands in front of the windows and stares out at the city in front of him, watches the slow frenzy of the city coming alive in the October fog of morning. Maybe it’s the fog, or the deliberate and steady flow of traffic on the roads below him, but something about the view calms him, clears the noise of his anxiety. He closes his eyes and takes a breath. When he opens them again, he’s staring at the inevitable question: Would he go through with it? If he already can’t think of anything but her, he’ll have to reckon with the possibility. If his feelings are this strong now, what will he do if he finds out those feelings are reciprocated?
Behind him, he can hear other people around the table now. He turns and sits at the closest open seat. There are already papers in front of each place at the table: financial reports, user statistics, the latest security news. This is the standard fare for a Tuesday morning meeting. But for the first time since he’s been here, he’s grateful for the distraction.
The room is filling up. There are only a few empty seats left around the table. The seat on his right is still available and she’s not here yet. He can’t decide if he desperately wants her to take the seat or if he wants her to sit anywhere else.
When she does enter the room, it might as well happen in slow motion. Everything in him revs up to such a speed that the rest of the world can’t keep up. His heart races. His breaths grow faster and deeper. His thoughts spin with probabilities.
She walks around the conference table with no hesitation and takes the seat next to him. She was always going to sit there. It’s just the way it was supposed to happen.
And now he’s in the flood, and the current has got him.
He looks at her and smiles what he imagines to be a courteous smile, but inside he’s overwhelmed. He can feel himself starting to sweat and looks at the door as if he might be planning an escape. But there’s no escape from this sudden infatuation. He spends his days in this office, and she’s going to be there everyday, sitting across from him. And this feeling of overwhelming is not just going to fade away on its own. Decisions are going to have to be made.
This is one of the problems Ray always has with changes in his life. His mind is always moving several steps ahead of the now. This habit makes him a very good programmer. He can anticipate problems and bugs that other programmers might miss. This anticipatory nature of his makes him faster and more efficient at dealing with the paperwork of life, but will often leave him scrambling when unanticipated events pop up. In those situations, he finds the mental work of catching up taxing, and, in life more than work, this idea of the creeping unknown often prevents him from enjoying the moment.
As Doug, the projects manager for the company, starts the meeting, Ray turns his chair toward the front of the room, away from Regina. He half-listens as Doug delivers the company’s financial and user data in his usual monotone. He looks at the papers in his hands and acts as though he’s following along, nods when the talk turns to retention numbers. But really he’s spinning out possible scenarios in his head.
These scenarios quickly unravel though as he looks at his wedding ring. He rubs its surface with his thumb. At first, he panics. He hadn’t even thought about his ring. Had Regina seen it earlier? He suddenly wonders if he should hide it, or if he should take it off altogether, put it in his pocket.
He pulls at it but it’s on his finger pretty well. He twists at it, trying hard to wind it away without calling attention to himself.
“Ray,” Doug says.
“Yeah,” Ray says, letting go of his ring.
“As far as the app is concerned, we’d like to streamline the login process, add two-factor authentication, and change the design to a more modern, less busy UI. I’ve had Regina look at this, and I assume you have some ideas, Regina.”
“I do,” she says.
“Good. You guys can get together later today and go over some of your plans. Then, over the next few weeks you can get something together for us to review. Sound good?”
Ray just nods along as the panic rises in his throat. He suddenly feels like he might throw up. He swallows hard, takes a deep breath and tries to steady himself by placing his hand flat on the table before it spins away from him.
Of all the designers they could pair him with, they chose her.
And did she already know this? She obviously knew she was going to be working with the mobile developer. Did she know Ray was the mobile developer?
Suddenly, he’s second guessing all her looks in his direction yesterday, even the wave from the parking lot and this morning’s awkward introduction by the break room. No wonder she seemed embarrassed. He was probably staring at her with desiring eyes and totally creeped her out. Maybe, she was just curious about the guy she was going to work with over the coming weeks, and he made it weird. But, then again, if that were the case, and he had scared her off earlier, why would she come and grab the seat next to him? It’s not as if there weren’t other seats available.
As the meeting comes to an end, he nervously shuffles the papers in his hands as he stands up and waits for the crowd in the room to disperse before moving from his spot.
“When do you want to get together today?” Regina asks. She’s standing too now, and she’s bent closer to him to make herself better heard over the noise in the room as everyone chatters and shuffles to leave. She could be described as uncomfortably close.
“I’ve got a few things I’d like to finish up this morning,” he says, though he has nothing particularly important to do. He just desperately needs to figure this thing out, put her off for a few more hours. “Is this afternoon alright? I could be free any time after lunch.”
“Sounds good,” she says and turns away from him.
He remains standing by his chair, staring at the door of the conference room, watching it empty out one person at a time. He’s grasping at the edge of the table as if it’s the only thing holding him up.
Ray’s not the kind of guy who keeps a lot of personal stuff on his desk. He doesn’t have a picture of Kate and Leah staring at him all day. And thank goodness. He can hardly bear the thought of the guilt their stares would fill him with on a day like today. The only thing on his desk, other than his computer and his paper inbox, is an old, worn out baseball. He grabs it from its ball stand and clutches it, rubs it into his palm and raises it to his face to smell the leather. It’s something he handles freely most days. It’s a bit of a stress reliever and generally an object he finds himself unconsciously holding and playing with whenever he’s trying to work himself through a difficult problem.
The ball was a gift from his dad when Ray first started tee ball as a kid. It’s the only keepsake he has from his dad, and he’s kept it close all his life.
He turns away from his computer and rolls the ball over the desktop, catches it just as it falls from the edge. Outside the windows of the office, the blue of the sky is interrupted by the wispy October clouds that point toward the horizon. He focuses on anything and everything he can to put off the thought that in a few hours he’ll be meeting with Regina to talk about the app. But he knows that no matter what they talk about, there will only be one thing on his mind.
The clock in the office reads eleven forty-five. He throws the ball high in the air, caches it and sits it back on its stand. It’s a little early for lunch, but he knows he needs to get out of the office. Besides, if he leaves now, he can escape Dave and Nick. He doesn’t think he can sit through another lunch with them, trying to pretend that everything is normal.
He rushes down the five flights of stairs to the ground floor and bursts out into the perfect October air. He passes his car in the lot and keeps walking. The further he walks, the further he disappears into himself. His attention on the world around him is all but gone. One thought trails into another thought until each one lands again on Regina’s face or Regina’s voice.
But then Kate enters his mind again, and he wonders how hurt she’d be by all this. It’s not as though he planned this attraction. Nothing that has happened was premeditated. Still, he knows if Kate were to have a similar situation—and particularly if he knew the intensity of the thing—he’d be devastated. The intent or absence of premeditation would be irrelevant to the fact that she desperately desired the attention of another man.
But if she were to act on that attraction, it would be… It’s unthinkable.
These emotions, this imaginary fit of jealousy, reminds him again how much he loves Kate. And it’s not out of some duty, or because of promises they’ve made that makes him want to avoid the risk of disrupting things. His attraction to her, physically and emotionally, is still strong and present—true and full. Sure, things have settled in the places love naturally settles over time, but it doesn’t make their connection to one another seem any less unbreakable.
So why can’t he stop thinking about Regina? Why is she dominating his thoughts? Why does he feel like he wants nothing more than to be in her company? Look into her face? Hear her voice? Why does he so badly want to know what it means to touch her? To kiss her?
He stops walking, tries to get his bearings in the world again. He’s probably walked seven, eight blocks without knowing where he’s going. He’s barely slept or eaten in the last day and a half. Maybe some of these cloudy uncertainties are due to his hunger and fatigue.
He ducks into a small cafe he’s never been to before and sits at the lunch counter. He orders a sandwich and stops trying to make sense of anything, just lets every thought and feeling roll over him.
He thinks of how attraction is a dissociative state to start. Relationships are not. Attraction isn’t a choice as much as an impulse. Acting on this impulse is when choice emerges, but it’s easy to see how easily confused someone can become while moving between impulse and action. This must be how people who have affairs rationalize the decision.
Consider how easy it is to separate everyday life into segmented pieces. There’s the married, domestic life that a person operates in during large portions of the day. It’s a known space—a clearly defined series of rudimentary equations where things are rarely spontaneous and are usually routine and practical. This segment of life is risk-averse by its very nature, and it seems reckless to treat this part of life any other way.
Then there’s the life of the affair. It’s a series of equations that are full of variables. Beyond the illicit nature of sex outside the bonds of marriage, there’s a secretive nature implicit in the thing. It’s not just the hiding or a private celebration of desire. It’s the unordinariness of the thing. It’s the call of a life outside your other, more traditional life—a separate segment where recklessness isn’t just a part of the thing, but the thing itself.
Ray doesn’t know anyone who’s had an affair. He always suspected his mother was having an affair when she and his dad split. It always seemed too convenient that she bounced so quickly into a new relationship after their separation.
But Ray imagines that most people who have affairs have no intention of ending their marriages. It also seems wrong to assume that affairs happen because something has gone wrong in a marriage. It’s probably just the case that an opportunity, an attraction, opens itself up to an individual—regardless of their status as married or happy. This attraction opens up a window to another view of life that’s suddenly made available to them, and they decide to have a look. They confuse the impulse to look out that window with the action of walking into the world and experiencing the view firsthand.
Even if you’re happy in your marriage, your attraction to other people doesn’t die. That’s an accepted and unprovocative idea. Attraction still lives inside us. And if an attraction seems exceptional or extraordinary then this other view of life becomes all the more alluring and more difficult to ignore. Then you ask yourself the question: Do you choose to risk a stable, decent existence for the possibility of tasting a little bliss? The temptation really is akin to the apple in the Garden of Eden. Once you partake in the bliss, there’s no going back. Down this path is endless other paths, all paved with uncertainty. If Ray were to fall deeply in love with Regina and decide to start a life with her, then he also chooses to forever alter the lives of Kate and Leah, all because he decided to have a bite of temptation. And if he decides to throw away his marriage, then the affair also becomes something merely ordinary. At that point, he and Regina would enter into the same kind of settled, easy love that he currently has with Kate—if they’re lucky. So, he ends up where he started, really. Or if they have the affair, and one or the other decides to break it off for whatever reason, they break the heart of the other person. This is bad enough on it’s own, but, regardless of who ended it, Ray still has to spend the rest of his life wearing the guilt of knowing he betrayed Kate and his marriage for nothing. He’ll always know he risked his family for a taste, for a view to a bliss.
There are no good scenarios for him here. The problem is, even knowing all this, even if it’s all plain as day, bliss is still calling his name in Regina’s voice. The mere idea of her, the thought of cradling her in his arms, breathing the air of her hair, skimming over the surface of her naked skin, is all so intoxicating. It’s not so easy to abandon something so breathtakingly delicious out of simple rationality. There is no rationality while you’re wading knee-deep in the kind of elevation he’s been feeling. The call of bliss is luring him with its bright lights and secret whispers. When you look back at the path you’ve travelled, even if life has been wonderful, or even if it’s just perfectly pleasant where you’re currently standing, it’s almost irresistibly enticing to go see what’s in the light, what’s being revealed in the whispers or what’s written on the secret.
She’s hasn’t returned from lunch. He’s only been back ten minutes or so, but it feels like he’s been waiting an eternity for her return. He’s still not ready for this meeting, doesn’t quite know what he’s going to say. He only just found out that they were updating the app, and he hasn’t done much thinking about anything other than Regina since then. But he’s resigned to the fact that this meeting is happening whether he’s ready or not.
Of course, he has no idea if this meeting will happen right after she returns, or if it’ll happen later in the afternoon. They didn’t settle on a specific time, just agreed to the amorphous afternoon. He looks away from the pulse of his blinking cursor and peers over the top of his computer into the larger office. He spots her leaving the break room. His posture straightens as he retunes his eyes to his screen. He takes a deep breath and watches out of the corner of his eye as she moves to her desk. She places her purse in her desk drawer and removes her laptop. She opens the laptop and starts typing.
His computer chirps. It’s the office messaging system, and he just assumes it’s David sending him something sophomoric, or asking him where he was at lunch. He minimizes his text editor and sees that the message is from Regina.
The ball of tension that had been tightening in his gut all morning now begins to unravel and flutter around his chest as he types.
He immediately feels the weight of his wedding ring on his finger. He looks at it, reaches for it and pulls it off. It came off without a struggle this time. It was too easy. He stares at it for a second. That golden ring symbolizes more than just a marriage. It says something about Kate and the twelve years they’ve been married. It says something about a home, a family, a child. It says something about loyalty, about truth.
“Can I sit this here?” Regina asks, standing beside him with her laptop hovering over the corner of his desk.
“That’s fine,” he says, placing his ring back on his finger in one quick motion. “We should get you a chair. Or you can have mine.”
“No, it’s alright. I’m good,” she says, and crouches down in front of her laptop. She is so close to the screen that it’s glow shines across her face.
He turns his chair toward her and catches her scent again. It’s a subtle sweetness that he can’t quite put his finger on. It reminds him of the magnolia tree that used to be in his backyard when he was a kid. He remembers in early spring the tree would explode with clumsy, fat, white flowers and would flood the yard with its fragrance. He wants to lean in and let the scent wash over him, but he grabs his baseball and leans back in his chair instead.
“I’ve got some side-by-side mockups comparing the old app to what I was thinking about for the new one,” she says, turning the laptop toward him. “This is what I was thinking we might do for the launch page.”
As he leans toward the laptop, he doesn’t realize how close he’s gotten to her. But when she turns her body ever-so-slightly to him, they are now face-to-face with one another, and he can see so clearly into her eyes that he momentarily gets lost and stops breathing. The whole world seems to disappear and his mind spins away into stutters of a language that has no words to attach to their meaning. She takes a breath and pulls her lips a little into her mouth. He blinks, tries to pull himself from the brink. He looks at her laptop screen, slowly fades back into a semblance of reality.
“It’s nice,” he says, trying to break out of the spell she’s cast on him. “It loses most of the texture of the old launch, but the color isn’t just flat, it’s warm. I like your font choice here too. It’s lighter, less severe. You’ve taken some of the brutalism out of it.”
“So, you like it?”
“Yeah, it’s good,” he says, looking at her again. She’s smiling—a big, warm smile. She’s proud of her work, and he’s happy to please her.
“Okay. That was the easy part,” she says. “Let’s move to the login screen.”
“It’s consistent with the launch screen,” he says, looking at the mockup. “It looks a little like a bank’s login—not in a bad way. It suggests security, which the board will like. And since most of this stuff will be easy for me to hook up to the old code, I’ll like it too. So far, so good, I think.”
“This is where things get a little more ambitious in the UI. Some of these new elements were not my idea. I’m only implementing what I was told they want for the future of the site,” she says as she opens the mockup of the user’s landing page.
“Yeah, that’s definitely more robust.”
“Well, it’s not that it’s particularly difficult to implement. All of this social networking stuff is easy to hook into the existing database. It just gets a bit more thorny as you get into what should be shareable and what we should silo and keep private.”
“I think the idea was since health, diet, and exercise data has become so integrated into a user’s mobile environment, we should offer easy access to that data. I was led to believe they wanted us to add access to peer rewards for challenges and goals from the user’s health app, along with the potential for bonuses or additional benefits from providers. The idea is to get people to come visit the app for reasons other than itemized bills and test results.”
As she continues her explanation, he watches the smooth white skin of her neck as it smears softly into her shoulder—a puddle of perfect flesh between the collarbone and muscle. Her blouse is hanging a little loosely around her shoulders and it hangs even more loosely on the shoulder that’s staring him in the face. The flesh is almost completely exposed. The sleeves of her blouse is made from a slightly sheer material, and he follows the delicate black material down her arm until he gets to the sleeve’s end, just below the elbow. The soft fuzz on her arm is just a whisper of translucent hair that hovers around the skin like a glowing. He’s never knowingly admired a woman’s wrist before, but hers is heartbreakingly admirable. It’s so thin—not in an unhealthy way. On the contrary, it’s intricately constructed. Even the bump of bone on the outer edge is so subtle and perfectly shaped. He takes a moment to imagine handling that wrist, moving up the perfect flesh of her hands, kissing the bends of her long fingers, turning that hand over, pressing his palm to her palm, and taking the underside of that perfect wrist and caressing it with softest fingers, pressing his lips against the place where her life moves its blood, feeling the rhythm of her pulse against his kiss.
“What do you think?” she asks, turning to him.
“It’s a lot to take in, a lot of new information to add,” he says, doing his best to recover. “We’re going to have some difficult decisions to make as far as peer-to-peer sharing is concerned. Our clients—I can tell you from experience—are going to have a ton of questions about privacy and security. Even so, I know this is the direction the board has been heading for awhile.”
“But it’s not too much, too soon?”
“No, the design is fine. Everything looks great,” he says, placing his hand near her laptop, leaning closer to her now, continuing to talk. He’s using all his best corporate tech-speak about efficient design and prioritizing security over openness. He gets the sense that she’s fading away into the same places he was fading into while she spoke.
He hears her take an audible breath.
He continues to talk about the power networking can have in retaining user presence, and he looks over at her to finish his point. She’s staring at him with eyes that look caught in a dream, and he feels strongly now that they’re both caught in the same web.
“Know what I mean?” he asks.
“Yeah, I think so,” she says, still staring at him. And they are close. They’re faces are only about a foot apart, and he can smell her sweetly sour breath. He so badly wants to taste her. And, other than her, everything else in the world has all but disappeared. The noise of the office might as well be static in his ears, and everyone around them might as well exist on another planet for as far away as they seem now.
She looks away.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what that was. Let me…”
He tries to scoot his chair back a bit but she must’ve been leaning on the chair’s arm because she falls over into his lap. He grabs her bare shoulder with his right hand to catch her, and reflexively puts his left hand on the fleshy part of her other arm.
“Oh, God, I’m so… I guess my foot fell asleep,” she says, trying to get to her feet.
He stands up from his chair with her, his hands are still on her body. He doesn’t want to let her go, loves feeling the warmth and the shape of her.
“Why don’t you sit in my chair? I should’ve offered it to you earlier.”
“No, I’m fine. Besides, you did offer me a chair,” she says. “Like I said, my foot just fell asleep, but I did get a little lightheaded there. I guess I haven’t been eating well lately.”
“Right. I think something might be going around,” he says, standing face-to-face with her again.
Now, they suddenly seem aware that they’re fully exposed in the middle of a busy office. And the sound of the place rises again in his ears as they both look around the room.
“I should just…,” she says, grabbing her laptop. “Maybe we can continue this tomorrow.”
“We’ll reserve a conference room.”
“Good idea,” she says, stopping to turn around at the front of his desk. “Listen, I’m really sorry about falling into you like that. I really don’t know—”
“Don’t be, please,” he says. “It’s alright.”
She nods a little and moves back to her desk, sits her laptop down and moves toward the bathroom near the break room. He sits back down on his chair and waits until she disappears. Then he turns his chair back toward his computer and replays every second of the past few minutes in a flood of sensory details.
The feelings are so clear, and have shaken him so much that a wave of nausea washes over him. He stands up and moves to the men’s room. He goes straight to a stall and throws up. And the whole time, staring into the bowl, he feels separate from himself, and his voice rolls like a loop in his head, saying, ‘So, so sick in love.’
That night, over dinner, Ray rolls his asparagus back and forth on his plate like a picky child. He looks at his wife and daughter across the table and smiles even as his thoughts are a world away. They speak as they normally do, and he consciously gathers bits and pieces of the conversation before he trails back inside himself. Leah talks about a spelling test and recounts something that happened during music class. Ray looks to Kate for cues to smile and laugh in the proper places. He even finds an opportunity or two to ask follow-up questions to help pretend he’s involved in the conversation.
He’s playacting the part of father and husband as best he can, but inside he knows that it’s a role he’s unable to embody. His heart’s just not in it.
As Kate starts to tell Leah a story about her school days, he retreats further inside himself and replays his time with Regina today. He starts to sweat as he relives the moment where she fell into his lap. He remembers the weight of her body against him, the feel of her bare shoulder in his hand—the shape and softness of her arm as he tried to help her get her balance. He closes his eyes and can suddenly smell that smell of her again, can see that magnolia tree from his youth as it slowly drops it’s fat, white petals like enormous snowdrops softly descending, and he can hear her voice ringing in his ears like from a distance, and her eyes are right there, staring into him again.
Then the nausea returns.
When he opens his eyes, Kate is just finishing up her story and looks at him. He smiles as if he’d heard everything she said.
“What about you?” she asks.
“What about me?”
“Didn’t you ever have a bad teacher in elementary school?”
“Sure I did, but I can’t remember anything specific that stands out. Most my bad teachers were bad generally, not specifically,” he says, almost dismissively. When he looks over at Leah, she’s looking at him with confusion.
“You alright, honey?” Kate asks him.
“I’m fine,” he says, half-smiling, starting to feel that his act is crumbling around him.
“You’ve barely touched your food,” she says.
He looks at Kate and Leah’s plates, and they’re more than halfway finished with their dinners. He’s barely touched his.
“I haven’t had much of an appetite the past few days.”
“Something happen at work?”
At first, he absorbed her question with a rise of panic in his throat. Not that she might suspect something, but more that he had to look at her and give her an answer that was a modification of the truth.
“I have to completely rework the app, and I suppose that’s weighing on me a bit, but I might just be coming down with something.”
Kate reaches out and touches his hand. It’s a gesture of true sympathy, and her warm, tender touch reminds him how unfair he’s being to his family by not being present for them.
“Do you want me to get you something else to eat?”
“No. No, this is fine. It’s not the food, honestly,” he says. Then he takes a bite of the lukewarm roasted potatoes as if to prove the point. He looks at the plate of roast pork, potatoes, and asparagus in front of him. It’s the same meal they’ve had every two weeks or so for years, but the thought of food doesn’t interest him much right now. It’s almost as if he’s grown to enjoy the hunger he’s been feeling—craves it more than food. Besides, the hunger doesn’t seem to go away even when he eats. All of it—the hunger, the dizziness. the churning in his chest—is for Regina. Everything is colored by her now.
But he looks at Kate and dutifully eats a little more just to deflect the attention from him, trying to reenter his family role with a little more conviction.
“I’ll be fine. I just need to stop thinking about work,” he says, smiling at Kate and squeezing her hand.
It wasn’t entirely a lie. It was just slightly less than the truth.
Ray stares into the darkness of night. As he looks for sleep, the silence of the house is all around him. He turns toward Kate. She’s turned away from him, and he watches her body rise and fall with breathing. He tries to calm himself with the repetition of it, counts each breath and tries to match it with his own.
Still, his mind won’t calm, and he feels miles from sleep.
He traces the outline of Kate’s body as it hides under the glow of their white sheet. There’s a trickle of moonlight in the room, and he follows the thin light of her silhouette to the highest slope of hip and scoots as close as he can without disturbing her—close enough to feel the warmth from her body.
Kate’s a beautiful woman, and he knows her so well. He knows the shape of her, knows the rhythm of her breath. It makes him wonder if it’s the mystery and newness of Regina that’s caught him so off-guard—mesmerized him. Really, though, he knows it’s not that simple. His attraction to Regina is something more than physical. It’s obviously not superficial, and it runs deeper than he can comprehend—so deep that he’s still trying to come to terms with what it means.
But he starts to think how unfair it is that he met Regina at this point in his life. It doesn’t seem right that he’s been so thunderstruck by a woman so long after he’s been made unavailable. What is he supposed to do when he’s learned there’s a miracle of a woman in the world that makes his whole body buzz with life? The question gnaws at him, particularly because he’s been feeling that he’d lost that buzz for life.
He thinks about how we push ourselves toward a pairing at too young an age. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to intertwine ourselves to someone so completely in our early to mid-twenties. In programmer’s parlance, it’s a bug, not a feature. Perhaps, it’s an innate need, a biological push toward optimal family planning. It is true that there is a small window for us to build a family. But once you’re married and begin a family, you lock yourself out from a part of the world that is still very much available to you. It seems like an arbitrary exclusion. Monogamy seems like the perfect system until a viable alternative presents itself.
Ray remembers the night before his wedding, sitting at a bar with his groomsmen. They had skipped the traditional bachelor party and just went for a few drinks instead. It was Ray, his cousin Ben, and a few of his college friends. He remembers very clearly, while the other guys were playing pool, Ben, in a moment of seriousness, looked at Ray and soberly said, ‘So, no more first kisses?’
At the time, Ray just smiled and tried to laugh it off, but it hung above him like a cartoon balloon for the rest of the night. It wasn’t something he’d thought about before in quite so stark a way. He’d always thought of marriage as simple addition, never considered that it could actually be subtraction. But once Ben introduced the idea of subtraction into the marriage equation, it was the first time he entertained doubts about the whole construct.
Luckily for Ray, those doubts stayed mostly silent all these years. But, now, looking at Kate’s body, watching her breathe, he wonders about all the what-ifs. What if, when the story of his life is told, Kate was just the woman to get him to now—a conduit to Regina? What if she was simply a placeholder, lovely as she may be, for Regina?
It troubles him to think how he’s betraying Kate’s trust by even asking such questions. He concentrates again on the moonlight cresting over her hip. She looks so small under that sheet, so delicate.
Affairs are awful things. There’s no question about it. They are deceitful and dirty. He wants no part of an affair. He never wants to think of himself as the kind of person that could commit such deceit, and he doesn’t want anyone—particularly his daughter—to see him as a cheater. So, his only recourse, if he ever wants to be with Regina, is to make a clean break from Kate. He knows that.
But he is so intertwined with her. His life, his self-identity, is almost inextricable from her. He still loves her—the shape of her, the rhythm of her. He’s still attracted to the outline of her hip in the moonlight, still craves the warmth of her body.
But there’s no question this new obsession with Regina isn’t just going to fade away as long as she remains in his life. He can’t simply escape her. They are, after all, about to work closely together on a long project. And she will continue to work across from him even after they complete the project.
And since leaving Kate is unimaginable to him, he’s stuck. No matter what path he looks down for the future, it’s full of darkness. All directions lead to pain. Someone’s getting hurt in every scenario, and he’s no exception. In fact, he’s the only one who gets hurt no matter which path he chooses.
Regina is standing at the opposite side of a long, warm room. The room is about the size of the office, but instead of all the people and office furniture, he and Regina are separated by a giant pool of liquid. This pool moves and breathes like water, but it isn’t water. It moves slow like a lake during coldest winter, but the room is very warm. He can feel the steam rising from the pool like a sauna.
And it’s a heat made for comfort. It beckons him.
The only light in the room comes from the light on the surface of the pool, but it isn’t reflecting any light source he can detect. It seems to emanate from beneath the surface, but it shines its erratic, electric waves of light all over the room. She’s on the other side of this pool, and he wants to go to her but is frightened to cross the liquid. Her arms are crossed and she’s pacing back and forth from one side of the room to the other. She looks as frightened as he feels.
He wants to help her, to comfort her, but he can’t. He tries to yell to her, but there’s no shout in his voice.
Then he realizes that he’s been backed up against the wall by the liquid as it spreads and rises. It takes his feet first. Then it slowly crawls up his legs like a living thing. It feels good though. It’s as warm and comfortable as a second skin, as intimate as a whisper. And as it continues to rise, it slowly pulls him away from the wall and toward Regina. As the warmth rises over his hips and then swallows his hands, he looks back at the wall where he stood only seconds before, and sees his childhood home floating there. His dad is standing at the slightly opened patio door, unshaven and pale, just as he was the last day he saw him. He can hear his dad’s voice ringing in his ears, saying over and over again, “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep.”
And as the liquid tickles his chin, he tries to fight it, tries to yell out, but he knows he’s all but gone. He’s being erased.
He opens his eyes and, for a moment, he barely knows he’s slept. Only after a couple quick, confused breaths does the web of sleep part enough for him to acknowledge having drifted off.
The trickle of moonlight in the room from last night has been replaced by the blue yawn of morning. He turns away from Kate and lays flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling. And, as he remembers his dream, he contemplates the powerlessness he felt. He still feels it. It’s all over him.
Outside their bedroom window, a bird starts to sing— a quick three-note chirping that it repeats again and again. To him, it sounds like ‘Re-gi-na, Re-gi-na.’ It’s a beautiful song, a calming whistle, a nice distraction from last night’s dream. He slides out of bed—careful not to disturb Kate.
As he goes to the bathroom to start his morning routine, about forty-five minutes earlier than usual, he hums the bird’s song. This humming eventually turns into the Bob Dylan song, “Corrina, Corrina.” He hasn’t heard the song in years, but it was right there as clear as if he were listening to it on the radio. ‘Corrina, Corrina. Where have you been so long?’ He replaces Corrina with Regina as he softly sings these two lines on repeat while he shaves.
He brushes his teeth and makes some coffee before reentering the bedroom to grab his clothes. He goes back to the bathroom to dress to avoid waking Kate. When he comes out from the bathroom though, he sees Kate sitting on the edge of the bed. She’s staring out the window. She looks as if she’d been stolen from an Edward Hopper painting in that intense box of morning light coming from the window—a sad image of cool isolation.
“What are you doing?” she asks, turning to him.
“I’m going to go in a little early this morning.”
“Yeah, I’ve got some work to finish. There’s a meeting about the app today, and I’m a little behind,” he says.
“Well, I guess I’ll see you when—”
He interrupts her with a kiss.
“Your sure you’re alright?” she asks, and even through her sleepy eyes, he can see her concern.
“I’m fine. It’s just a busy time right now.”
“You seem so distracted the last couple days, so distant.”
“I don’t mean to be,” he says, buttoning his shirt.
“It’s alright,” she says, sounding resigned. “I understand you’re busy.”
“Things will calm down after this week. Things just stacked up on me over vacation, but things will clear up soon enough,” he says, not sure anything he’s saying is true.
“I hope so,” she says as she reaches out to grab his hand. “I’ve missed you.”
“How can you miss me? I’ve been right here.”
Moving into the office, he’s left all his worry and anxiety behind him. His mind is running on a single track to Regina like an unseen force were pulling him toward her, and he can hardly wait to see her again. He moves into the elevator, hits the button for the fifth floor but when the doors don’t shut quick enough, he moves out of the elevator and into the stairwell. He runs up all five flights of stairs without a second thought. His energy is high, but he knows he’s running on fumes. He has no idea how much sleep he got last night, but for now he feels awake and full of the promise of a new day. He can’t remember the last time he felt so much naked hope. It’s like he can sense a new beginning—something amazing being born within him.
He goes right to the break room. It’s empty. He had forgotten the time. It’s still early. She probably won’t be here for at least another half an hour. He looks at the coffee maker. Nothing’s been made, yet.
After he makes the coffee and gets himself a cup, he moves out into the office. Once he’s near her desk, he lingers there for a minute. Other than her plastic mail basket and her nameplate, there is only her desktop computer and a small notebook with a little black pouch beside it. The little black pouch is unzipped and he assumes that it’s a make-up bag, but his curiosity is too strong to let this assumption pass for truth. He looks around the room.
Outside of a couple bleary-eyed faces sitting in the pale glow of their computer screens, the rest of the office is empty, and all the desks around Regina’s are deserted.
He takes a drink of his coffee and sits on the edge of her desk as if he belongs there. He reaches out and pulls the small pouch open with his thumb and forefinger and peeks inside. It’s a pouch of pencils, drawing pencils—good ones. He then opens the small notebook to a random page, and there’s a drawing staring back at him. It’s a sketch of an older woman sitting at a table with a teacup in both her hands. It’s very good. The features of her face are strong and clear. The shading on the face and the neck seem perfect, and the hands over the teacup show a delicacy and trust of line that’s astonishing. The detail on the cup shows a carefulness of craft that clearly takes experience and time. It’s remarkable, really. He turns again to a random page toward the end, but it’s blank. He keeps turning back, one page at a time, until he finds the last drawing.
It’s a drawing of Ray sitting at his computer, staring at the monitor. It’s uncanny, if not a little on the flattering side. She’s gotten every detail just right with strong, confident lines. She captures the contrast of his dark hair and his light skin, and she’s gotten the shape of his nose just right. This was probably done during all those times he felt her stealing looks at him over the last couple days. He knew he could feel her starting at him.
At the bottom of the page is written, ‘Who are you, Ray?’ A shiver runs over him as he stares at these words, written softly in her beautiful hand. When he thinks that she’s been spinning over the same question he’s been spinning over about her, he knows that she must be feeling at least a little of what he’s been feeling.
“Not your desk, Ray.”
Ray shuts the book, sits it back down on the desk and looks up. It’s Nick.
“Just looking over some of the notes Regina left for me about the app,” Ray says.
“I was only kidding,” Nick says, seeing the embarrassment on Ray’s face. “You’re here early.”
“I’ve got a lot of work to do today,” Ray says, standing up and moving away from Regina’s desk.
“Lunch today?” Nick asks as he walks away.
“Maybe. We’ll see,” Ray calls to him as he crosses over to his own desk.
He sits down and turns his computer on, grabs his old baseball and rubs it with both hands. When the computer is on, he checks his email, reads over the minutes from yesterday’s meeting just to pass the time, all the while watching Regina’s empty chair out of the corner of his eye. Five minutes pass, and her chair’s still empty. Five minutes turn into fifteen minutes, and she’s still not there.
Ray looks around the office. The normal morning buzz is coming alive in the room. Almost everyone is here by now—talking or hovering near their desks, taking advantage of every spare minute before work officially begins.
Once the clock hits eight-thirty, the noise in the room falls to little more than a murmur as the hum of computers rises and everyone takes their seat—everyone except Regina. Her chair is still empty. He stops even pretending to work and turns his full attention to the break room and the bathroom, waiting for her to appear.
Eight-thirty turns into eight thirty-five. Eight thirty-five runs into eight forty-five, eight fifty-five. Still, she’s nowhere to be seen.
He’s sweating now. He gets up to go to the bathroom but walks by the break room first just to be sure she’s not there. When he gets to the bathroom, he checks under the doors of the stalls to be sure he’s alone. He leans over the sink, runs some water in the cups of his hands and splashes it over his face. He stares at himself in the mirror. His wet face, dripping with water, is pale and gaunt. He needs to try and make himself eat today, even if his hunger hasn’t returned.
“She’s late, that’s all,” he says, quietly to himself. “Don’t let this ruin you today. You’ve been here without her for years. Why should today be any different?”
But today is different, and he knows it. He’s reasonably sure he won’t be able to convince himself otherwise. As he wipes his face with a paper towel, he thinks to go ask Doug about her absence. He could say something about their scheduled meeting and ask if he should reschedule—anything to get a better idea of when he might see her again. But once he’s out of the bathroom and starts moving toward Doug’s office, he realizes this is a bad idea. He doesn’t want to call unnecessary attention to her absence. She is new after all, and her being here or not being here is barely his business. They do, as a company, offer every employee a generous number of telecommuting days each year. She may just be taking advantage of one today.
He goes back to his desk, tries to clear his mind of all the different possibilities for her absence, but he’s just generally sick at the prospect of not seeing her. All his hope for the day was resting on her presence, and now the prospect of a day without her places a thousand pounds of doubt on his shoulders. And he feels every ounce of it too.
He bumps his mouse to wake up his computer. There are two messages on his screen.
Regina_P: Sorry to miss our meeting today. I was feeling a little under the weather and thought I’d better work from home.
Regina_P: You there?
His whole body lights up at the sight of the messages. She’s still out there in the world thinking about him. And this joy really did light him up. He could feel it wash over his body as those thousand pounds of doubt evaporated at the evidence of her. The whole world seemed to brighten suddenly, and it occurs to him that he doesn’t know how he can go back to life without her, and the mere idea of it becomes more and more unthinkable each second.
Ray_O: I’m here. Just stepped away from my desk for a minute.
Ray_O: I’ve not been feeling quite right lately either.
Regina_P: We might have the same bug.
Ray_O: I think we might.
Regina_P: I really am sorry. I’ll be there tomorrow, no matter what.
Ray_O: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. There’s no hurry, really. We can get back to this whenever you get back.
Even as he typed the message, he was dying inside at the thought of her being gone any longer than a day. He was dying inside already at the confirmation that she’d be gone the remainder of the day.
Regina_P: No, really. Although I’m not feeling great, I should’ve come anyway. If anything, I feel worse being away from…
He looked at the screen, read her message again.
Ray_O: Away from what?
He’s staring at the message window, waiting for the ‘Regina_P is typing…’ prompt, but it’s not there. It seems to take forever before it pops up, and even longer before her message appears.
Regina_P: Away from work, I’ll say.
Regina_P: I’ll see you tomorrow.
Ray_O: I’ll be here.
He looks at her messages, hopes that she’ll start typing again, but she doesn’t. He can’t help but think she was sending him a signal stopping mid-sentence the way she did. It’s definitely possible he’s deluding himself with wishful thinking, but he doesn’t think so. When she wrote, ‘Away from work, I’ll say,’ she was clearly signaling that she meant something else. Besides, if she were sending him a signal, it would have to be somewhat opaque. This is, after all, a work messaging system. There are no private messages here.
After several minutes of staring at his cursor in the text box of the messaging program, he grudgingly comes to terms with the fact that she’s not sending him anymore messages.
It’s foolish for him to pretend that he’s going to get much work done today, and even more foolish to believe that any work he does get done will be worth anything. He knows enough after the past few days to know he’ll spend the day more distracted than productive. So, he shuts his computer down.
He walks to Doug’s office and pokes his head in the doorway.
“Doug, you busy?”
“A little, but what’s up?”
“My dentist’s office just called. I’ve been on a waiting list there for awhile and they had an opening come up, and I was wondering—”
“That’s fine, Ray,” he says, barely even looking up from his computer. “You’ll be back later today or not?”
“Depends, I guess,” Ray says.
“Either way, don’t worry about it,” Doug says.
“Thanks,” Ray says. He feels a little guilty for lying, but he’s only used a couple sick days—maybe two or three—in all the years he’s been here. What does it matter what reason he gives?
He walks by the conference rooms that line the back wall of the office and checks the sign-in sheets for an opening tomorrow. The third conference room’s sign-in sheet is blank. He borrows a pen from one of the employees in the zone nearest the conference room and writes his name in the morning. Then he draws a line through the rest of the day. He wants her all to himself tomorrow.
After he got home, he kicked his shoes off by his bed, looked at the clock on his nightstand(barely eleven a.m.), and pulled the covers up over his head. He kept telling himself that the longer he slept, the sooner he’d be near her again.
And then he slept.
When he got up, he was surprised to hear Kate and Leah in the house. He must have been out all afternoon. He explained to Kate how he’d come down with something and how much better he felt after coming home to sleep it off.
He spent the rest of that evening trying to make up for his recent semi-absences by using every ounce of energy he had to play the attentive father and husband. He asked what he felt were the proper questions and dutifully played the part of a good listener. He tried his best to eat his dinner without the previous night’s distraction, and this was no easy feat since his lovesickness was still omnipresent. Still he ate and kept his stomach intact with a level of fortitude that was emblematic of the entire evening—every minute an exercise in mind over matter. And though his act seemed to fool Leah by playing a board game and watching cartoons with her, he could sense that Kate knew he wasn’t fully present.
And after they put Leah to bed for the night, Kate sat on the couch and looked at him with continued concern.
“So, you just left work today?”
“What’d you tell them?”
“That I had a dentist’s appointment.”
“That’s not like you.”
“Sorry if I’ve disappointed you,” he says, but his tone was more patronizing than he’d anticipated.
“I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. One day you’re stressed because you’re so busy, and the next day you’re not too busy to duck out early to have a nap.”
“I am busy. And I’ve not been feeling well. Everything I’ve said to you is true. I just—”
“Are you still feeling depressed?”
“Please, let me finish,” he says, looking at her. The exhaustion he’d spent the evening hiding has now landed on him and it’s all over him now, though he can’t quite believe he’s this wore out after sleeping as long as he did. “I was supposed to start working on the app today with one of the new designers, but she didn’t come in. There was little I could get done without her, especially at the early stages like this when the designer is so important. And, since I wasn’t feeling well anyway, I took the opportunity to come home and try to sleep off whatever it is I’ve been feeling lately.”
“What have you been feeling?”
“Sick. I’ve been feeling sick. I’ve had no appetite, and I’ve barely been able to sleep at night.”
“For how long?”
“The past few days. I’m sure it’ll pass.”
After their talk, Kate faded away into the house to do other things. He stayed on the couch and let the light from the television dance around the living room as he was realizing he couldn’t let his life continue down this path. He had to do something. If he continued living this way, this obsession was going to blow up all other aspects of his life.
By the time he got into bed that night, Kate had long been asleep. He didn’t even remember her saying good night to him, and she always says good night. But he couldn’t blame her if she was upset. He’s been so distant, and she doesn’t deserve his distance. She doesn’t deserve any of what’s happening right now. And, as he stared at the moonlit outline of her body for the second straight night, the hours passed as he mentally rehearsed all the conversations he planned to have with Regina, spinning one fantasy into another.
When the morning moved into the room, he barely remembered sleeping, but was sure he found sleep as one fantasy fell into a dream and woke up in the arms of a new fantasy.
He wasted no time in the morning, as far as his family was concerned. He kissed Kate and Leah goodbye on his way out the door without the courtesy of his company at the breakfast table. Again, he was in that frame of mind where he was moving only toward her.
Today was going to be the day the fever would break or burn him alive.
He arrives at work early again, but he takes a moment to sit in the car, staring out at the line of tall pines that separate one corporate building’s parking lot from the next. It’s a breezy morning and the fog of dawn is hovering halfway up the trees, clouding the world with its cottony fingers. And he thinks of how whimsical the world seems on these hazy mornings. There’s something half-awake about the scene as if reality were just waking up and moving in slow motion from its night’s bed. And as the trees sway back and forth in the breeze, the long arms of each limb bending left to right and back again, he opens the driver’s side window and lets the cool air breathe into his face.
When he finally gets out of his car, it’s about eight-twenty. He stands by his car with the door open and surveys the parking lot. Regina’s car is parked on the opposite side of the lot, facing the line of pines on that side. He shuts his car door and moves toward the office but not before seeing that she’s still sitting in her car, staring at the pines just as he was moments before.
He takes the stairs again just to break out of the meditation of the morning, get his heart racing. He heads straight for the break room, ignores everyone as he gets his coffee. Outside the break room, he stands by the doorway and turns toward the elevators. He watches one elevator door open and then another, as he waits for her. When she’s finally standing in the center of one, she spots him right away. She smiles that big smile of hers—the same big smile he’s been imagining on her face these past few days. The other people on the elevator file out, but she’s still standing there frozen in his stare. The doors start to close before she snaps out of it and thrusts her arm out just in time to stop the doors from shutting her away again.
As she approaches him, the whole world seems to disappear, everything around him fades into a blur, and nothing else means anything. Her face is his only clarity. He is barely aware enough to remind himself that this feeling, this clarity, is something he might want to remember.
“You made it,” he says.
“I made it,” she says, hugging her bag against her body. “I need to—”
“How are—,” he says, unintentionally stepping on her words. “I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“I need to talk to you about something,” she says as her smile fades. Her voice is suddenly serious.
He can sense that she’s nervous, can see that she’s about to expose herself and her feelings to him. Everything is suddenly so transparent, written so clearly on her vulnerability. Not a single one of his fantasies last night had things playing out this way. In every scenario, he was the one revealing his feelings to her, not the other way around.
“I reserved Conference Room 3 for us—for the day. So, if you want to meet me there… We can talk then.”
“Good. That’s good,” she says, and a look of relief passes over her face as she realizes she’s been given a momentary reprieve. “Just give me a second to gather my stuff and I’ll meet you there.”
She passes closely by him, and he closes his eyes and breathes the air of her. He then follows closely behind her until they split off at their desks. He reaches into his drawer and grabs his company laptop before moving to the conference room.
The lights of the conference room buzz to life and then flicker a bit. It’s cold in the room, and it’s no wonder. There’s only one small vent above the door and all the daylight has been shut out by the closed blinds of the picture window that lines the outside wall. He sits his laptop down on the table and goes to the side of the window. He pulls the cord that turns the long vertical slats of the blinds, and the light from outside comes fully into the room.
There’s not much sun today. It’s overcast, and in between the grayer skies and the fog that still hangs over the city, the view is obscured.
And it’s going to start raining any minute now.
He grabs a chair close to the window and opens his laptop. He swivels the chair back to the window and stares outside, waiting for Regina.
His thoughts are too noisy for him to remember all the things he rehearsed saying to her as he laid awake in bed last night. Every word unravels into mumbles and stutters as he tries to piece the threads of any of those imagined conversations together. A panic rises in his throat and his heart begins to race, but then he calmly focuses on a single blinking light on top of one of the high-rises in the distance. He watches the light like it’s a slow breath in the fog, clearing away all his cobwebs.
“It’s cold in here,” she says from the doorway.
“Yeah, hopefully letting a little light in will help,” he says, turning his chair toward her.
“What light? There’s not much out there,” she says, moving to his side of the conference table and sitting her laptop down two places away from his. A single chair separates them from one another.
“It’s going to rain, and I doubt we’ll see much light today.”
“Should I shut the door while I’m up?” she asks.
“Maybe we should give it a little bit. I think most the heat comes from outside the room.”
She shrugs and takes her seat. Now that she’s sitting, the chair between them feels like a wall or a bit of noise that’s obscuring his focus on her. He’s not sure things would be better if she’d taken the seat next to him. It might’ve been too close, but the chair is an obstacle that exaggerates the distance between them.
“You mind if I push this chair away?” he asks, pushing the chair out of the way before she has a chance to answer.
“That’s fine,” she says, turning her chair toward him, crossing her legs in a kind of easy, thoughtless way that he finds exhilarating.
He turns his attention back to that blinking light outside, afraid of being caught looking at her long legs, made longer as her knee length skirt crawled up her thighs a bit.
“You said earlier there was something you wanted to talk to me about,” he says.
“I did,” she says before looking away from him. She turns toward her laptop and then shuffles through some papers. It’s clear she’s lost her nerve and is trying to think of something to say to cover her tracks as best she can. She flips through the notebook to some sketches she’s made of the app. “I wanted to show you some mockups I made, some quick sketches I thought might clarify some of the things we talked about the other day.”
She leans toward him, sliding the notebook across the table to him and points to the sketches in the book as she explains her plans. She obviously took some time to sketch these mock screenshots and to color them in with care. But all he can do is watch her mouth as she speaks. He concentrates on the rhythm of her words and the sound of her voice more than the meaning of what she’s saying. He’s transfixed by the raising of her hand to push her hair off her ear as she fiddles with her earring.
“I’ve been sick, too,” he says, interrupting her.
“Sorry?” she asks, not nearly as surprised by his words—completely out-of-context—as he is that he’s said them.
“I’ve had this thing in my stomach all week. I don’t quite know how to explain it, other than to say that it’s both a hunger and a fullness that squirms inside me all the time. I’m never quite been able to forget it’s there.”
Her hand drops from her ear, and she sits back in her chair and crosses her arms. He swears her eyes are sparkling with new tears.
“I’ve barely been able to sleep,” he continues. “And when I do sleep, it’s hardly distinguishable from the reality I’ve been existing in the past couple days.”
“Like you’re walking in a dream,” she says.
“Exactly,” he says and rises from his chair. He walks toward the door and starts to shut it. He stops. “Is this alright?”
“So, I’ve been sick with something I hardly understand and haven’t really known what to do about it,” he says. “But one thing I’ve known all along is that you’re the reason I’ve been feeling this way.”
“And I’ve been sick. For you,” she says. “Everything you’ve said, I’ve been feeling, too.”
“I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” he says as he sits on the edge of the table right by her laptop. “Not that you’ve been sick, but that you—,” he stops himself, shakes his head. “But it doesn’t exactly solve our problem.”
“Because you’re married.”
“So, what do we do about it?”
“I was hoping you might know.”
“I wish I could help you, but I’m not sure you need rescuing,” she says.
He turns toward the window. The fog has noticeably cleared, and the city is spread out before him—cast in the gray light from the sky.
“I saw you that first day and my whole world lit up,” he says. “It was like everything in front of me had been so dim for so long that I didn’t know where I was going or what I was going to do with myself. I was jumping out of my skin for something, anything. Then there you were and everything came alive again. My world changed from winter to spring in a single moment. It was like I willed you into life to give things some meaning again. And the cruel irony is, though every fiber of my being is telling me that you’re everything I’ve ever wanted, I feel helpless to change my life as it is.”
She stands up—barely a hair’s breath between them now—and softly places her fingers over his fingers. Her body is turned toward him and he can feel the heat of her. He’s looking at her face, and her eyes are so full of love.
“When I first saw you,” she says, “I immediately felt like I’d known you forever, like you had always been a part of my world somehow. It was as if there was a vital part of myself that I didn’t know existed, a part that had been sleeping, and then you were there, and that part of myself woke up.”
“If only we’d met… Before.”
“But we didn’t.”
“I know, but I’ve made promises. There are other people to consider.”
“My wife and daughter.”
“You have a daughter?”
She backs away from him and sits back in her chair like the wind had been knocked out of her. She rests her elbow on the arm of the chair and allows her head to fall on her hand.
“I wish we could be together,” he says. “I really do. You can’t believe how much I’d like to see how this plays out. And I mean it when I say I’ve never felt anything close to what I’ve been feeling the past couple days.”
“Neither have I.”
“I know next to nothing about you, yet I feel sick in love.”
“But I don’t want to be the kind of person who has an affair.”
“Neither do I,” she says. “But I wish I could stop the world for just a little while, remove whatever entanglements we have and just be together in a world all our own.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice?”
“It would be,” she says. “Right now, it feels like the only thing I’ve ever wanted.”
“I wish I could give it to you,” he says, turning and kneeling down to her.
“Wishes seem like all we’re left with.”
As he reaches the bottom of his third glass of beer, he sits the glass down and looks at the clock above the bar. He’s been sitting here recounting the past few days for close to an hour. Still, he’s no closer to knowing what he’s going to do about his situation than he was before he got here.
After their meeting in the conference room, Regina told him that, though she wanted to stay more than anything in the world, she couldn’t be alone with him for the rest of the day. He wanted her to stay, but he knew she was right to leave. He spent the rest of the day trying, but mostly failing, to get some work done from the conference room. Still, he couldn’t help himself from getting up and looking out into the office at her, waiting for her to look up at him. She sent him some notes and images for the new app over the messenger service, and he did eventually clear the mental clutter enough to get a little done—the first real work he’d gotten done since he’d come back from vacation.
It started raining before lunch and never stopped. It rained hard all day long. At one point, hypnotized by the rain and drifting into fantasies of what his life would be if he and Regina let themselves fall into a relationship, time got away from him. When he next checked the clock, it was almost five-thirty. The office was nearly deserted, and she was gone from her desk.
He grabbed his laptop, rushed to his desk, dropped the laptop in its drawer and ran to the window that looked over the parking lot. She was standing near her car in the rain.
That’s when they had their moment under the pines.
Now, mostly dry from the rain, he watches the last remaining suds drip down his beer glass. He throws some money on the bar and nods to the bartender. He goes to the coatrack and grabs his button-up shirt. It’s still too cold and wet to put on.
He walks outside into the cool, October air of early evening. The rain, for the most part, has stopped. There’s still the slightest drizzle, which casts a misty gauze over the city. He walks as quickly as he can through the mist to try and escape the cold on his face and bare arms. It should still be light out but the darkness of the overcast day has left the city in a permanent state of twilight. And even though the lights of the city give the remaining day the quality of night, the traffic is normal for early evening—fast and busy.
As he passes the row of pines into the vast empty space of his work parking lot, he sees that her car is still in the lot. She’s still here, and she’s sitting in her car. She hasn’t seen him yet. She’s just staring forward into the wet of her windshield.
He approaches her car, and she spots him out of the corner of her eye, smiles an embarrassed smile as she rolls down her window.
“You’re still here,” he says.
“I saw your car,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave until I was sure you were alright.”
“I went to get a drink,” he says, placing his arm across the top of her door and bending into the frame of the open window.
“I also wanted to tell you that I’m going back to my old job,” she says.
“What?” he asks as the inside of his chest shrivels up and drops in his stomach.
“I didn’t want you to come in tomorrow, not see me, and not know what was going on.”
“You don’t have to do that. We can figure this out.”
“No, we can’t,” she says. “I don’t want to be the cause of chaos in your family life, and if I stay, we both know we won’t be able to avoid it. This thing we have, whatever it is, it’s inevitable if we stay close. It’s unavoidable.”
“I really… I could’ve loved you,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.
“I wish I’d had the chance to know your love,” she says, tearing up now, too.
He reaches out and places his hand on her cheek. “I do love you. I don’t know how it happened or why, but it’s true.”
“I know,” she says, leaning into his hand. “I can feel it.”
“We could’ve had something so… So—”
“I know,” she says and grabs his hand, softly kisses his palm. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
“I suppose I’ll never see you again.”
“Who knows? It’s not that big a city,” she says, grabbing his wrist and squeezing it.
He slides his hand across that beautiful, delicate shoulder of hers one last time and then let’s go of her. When he stands up away from the window, she starts her car.
“I’m going to miss you,” he says, barely getting the words out. “I’ll never forget.”
“Neither will I. I don’t ever want to forget. I’ve never felt so alive,” she says and pulls out from her parking spot.
As he watches possibly the great love of his life pull away from him, his mind is screaming out for him to chase her, not let her go. But his body just stands there in the mist and dumbly watches her disappear behind the towering walls of pine on either side of him.
He looks over at his car, realizes he’s had too much to drink to drive anywhere. He reaches in his pocket, opens up the app for a car service and requests a ride. Then he walks under the pines, where they stood together a little over an hour earlier. He sits on the ground against one of the trees, grabs some of those delicate fallen needles from around the tree’s floor and rolls them around in his hand. And then he cries as he slowly realizes there was a whole other life open in front of him that he just threw away.
On the ride home, Ray sits in the back with his head resting against the passenger side window, looking up at the passing city lights. Luckily, the driver is quiet and the radio is barely a hum of old music—a nostalgia reaching out to him.
As they get on the freeway and enter the corporate center of the city, a billboard catches Ray’s attention. It shows a young woman sitting in bed, covering her apparently naked body with a white bed sheet as a guy at the foot of the bed, standing in his clean white underwear, is tugging at the sheet, trying to pull it away from her. They’re both smiling, having fun, playing. On the side of this image, in big, bold blue letters, it says, “Take the Bliss.” “Bliss” is written on a pack of gum, presumably called Bliss.
In moments of such seminal vulnerability, it’s hard not to see such signs as a sort of serendipity. And he has to wonder if he’s made a monumental mistake. It’s hard for him not to think of the parallel life he could have had with Regina. Could he have kept a secret like Regina from Kate for a time? Maybe he could have, though he knows the guilt would’ve eventually eaten him alive—not just during the affair, but for the rest of his life. Besides, Regina made it clear that she would’ve never felt satisfied with such an arrangement.
As they move from the freeway and ease onto the maze of suburban streets that will eventually lead Ray home, he knows he’ll spend the rest of his life weighing the regrets of this day, wondering if he let a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass through his fingers. Maybe there’ll even be moments where he’s so weakened by the monotony of life, as he has been recently, that he’ll try to look her up, find out what she’s been doing. Maybe, even, he’ll entertain the fantasy of rekindling what they never quite let burn. But he knows he’ll never let those fantasies move beyond simple entertainments.
The car stops in front of Ray’s house. Ray thanks the driver and gets out of the car. He stands on the sidewalk and stares at the house. It’s a similar house to the other houses on either side of this block, as well as the block before and after this one. And yet it’s so much different to him. It means so much more. He approaches the glow of the internal lights of his house with their orange warmth. He walks around the side of the house toward the back, where he usually enters after parking in the driveway.
He stops at the back patio door. As usual, the outside light is on for him, and he stands there, looking into the house. Kate is at the kitchen counter, leaning over a book with Leah. She must be helping her with some kind of school assignment.
Then he sees his own reflection in the glass of the patio door, and it might as well be his father staring back at him. He looks as pale and gaunt as his father did all those years ago. And he feels so sad about what’s become of him and how close he came to throwing all this away.
And here he is, standing outside a family home. He was once so worried that he’d never know the miracle of a real family home again. He lost that feeling when he was a child and never knew it again, and there it is, sitting at the counter inside his warm house, waiting for him. And all he has to do is open the door.
It was a choice he was deprived of when he was Leah’s age, but it’s a choice he can make now for both of them. And he did choose it, but didn’t fully appreciate the gift of the life he has until now. It’s purely because of how lucky he is that he was ever able to entertain such rich fantasies at all—the indulgences of a man who has everything. Not that the emotion he felt this past week was anything other than genuine. It was real as real can be, but those emotions could’ve just as easily have become a fleeting thing.
What’s waiting for him inside is not fleeting. It’s as reliable and as full of love as anything he could’ve ever hoped for himself.
He slides the door open.
Leah, turns toward him and yells, “Daddy!” She runs up to him and hugs him around the waist.
“You’re late,” Kate says, looking tired.
“I know. I stopped and had a drink.”
“You should’ve called.”
He walks over to her at the counter and embraces her as warmly as he can, as warmly as he feels at the moment. “I know,” he says and kisses her on the neck, breathes in that lovely, familiar scent of the flesh beneath the waves of her auburn hair.
“Are you alright?”
“I am,” he says, pulling away from her a bit, just enough to look her in the face. “I really am.”
On the Terrace
It’s a sunny morning on the terrace at the rear of this university building—a split level building where the terrace opens up from a coffee house on the fourth floor.
He skips his usual trip inside the coffee house, having brought some coffee from home, and moves to the terrace from a side entrance. He walks to the edge of the terrace and leans into the four-foot high railing that stands at its edge. He looks out at the scene in front of him, marvels at the beauty of the area where he lives and counts himself lucky that he doesn’t have to contend with the congestion of a larger, busier city.
He turns from the view and moves toward his usual table and takes a chair. He sits his coffee down and organizes his materials—his legal pads and his pen—on the tabletop.
When he looks around the terrace, he spots her standing inside the coffee house, waiting for her order. This is the same woman he’s seen everyday for the past several weeks. She’s been pushing him toward poems everyday, and he’s been doing this long enough to know not to take any inspiration for granted.
Once she’s gotten her coffee, she moves to the terrace. She grabs a table two tables away from him. After a couple minutes, she’s peered above her laptop screen and caught his eye. For a moment, he thought he caught a glimpse of recognition in her eyes, a familiarity. But not just a simple, ‘I’ve seen you before.’ No. It was more than that.
Or, perhaps, he simply imagined the small, imperceptible bend at the corners of her mouth, a ‘finally’ air about her.
No. He is romanticizing the scene.
Though the sun is brightly shining, reflecting off the metallic tabletops in a way that radiates her face, he can’t help but be astonished at his good luck. Not only has he been given such a beautiful day to sit outside and work, but his muse, this radiant beauty, is sitting only two tables away, pouring words over his brain.
He slides his pen across the page without effort. It’s all there right in front of him. He just grabs the words that are flashing in the screen of his mind. He wants to record it all, embody her lightness to paper, capture all the divinity he feels as he swims in the light of her creation. It’s in these moments, these effortless trances, that he becomes a messenger for whatever light it was that shined her into existence. It is bigger than him, and yet apart of him, and he tries to catch all the words he can with his pen, gathers as many as he can and tries to paint them all in their proper places.
When he stops, he looks up to see her again, but she’s not there. Her seat is empty. She’s standing at the railing of the terrace, only a few feet from his table.
And suddenly, he is painfully self-aware. They’re the only two on the terrace, and she’s only about six or seven feet from him now.
You were looking at me, she says.
You were looking at me.
Just a minute ago?
The other day. I walked into the café from the terrace, thought I left something on my table out here, looked back to see, and I caught you watching me.
She was right. This had happened. She walked into the coffee house, looked back through the double doors and saw him looking. He didn’t look away. They shared a moment where he was okay with the fact that she knew he was looking.
Why was I looking at you?
Probably the same reason any man might look at you.
You think I’m pretty?
You like to look at me?
I suppose I do.
Then why aren’t you looking at me now.
He looks up and she’s staring at him. She smiles. She moves from the railing to his table and grabs a chair. He shifts in his seat a bit, finding it hard to hide his discomfort.
Sorry. Am I making you uncomfortable? she asks.
No. It’s fine.
So, were you writing something?
Is that what you do?
That is what I do.
Do you do it well?
I’d like to think so.
Can I ask if you—?
Were writing about you?
Can I? She reaches for his legal pad. He grabs it and pushes the old pages that had been folded behind the pad over top the current page.
I don’t think so.
What? Are you ashamed?
I wouldn’t say that.
A little, maybe.
Because this is all very…
Are you sure I’m not making you uncomfortable?
You are rather forward.
I was curious. Here’s this guy who keeps looking at me and then writing things down. Should I be concerned about you?
You’re not a stalker or anything?
Are you kidding?
I am, a little.
You’re married? she asks, looking at his ring.
Then why are you looking at me?
No harm in looking at someone.
Depends on how you look.
How would you say I was looking?
Well, you weren’t leering, exactly. I didn’t get the impression that you were undressing me with your eyes or anything. You weren’t, were you?
No, I wasn’t.
Would you like to?
What are you doing right now? he asks.
I’m sorry. I am making you uncomfortable.
It’s alright. It’s just… Well, no, I don’t want to undress you with my eyes. You are perfectly wonderful to look at as you are.
What do you think of when you look at me?
This is a dangerous game were playing.
We’re just talking.
It doesn’t feel like just talking.
What’s it feel like?
It feels like I’m saying things I shouldn’t be saying.
My wife, yes.
Do you want me to go?
Do I want you to go? No. Would it be better if you did? Yes.
If you don’t want me to go then I’m not going, she says, folding her hands together on the table. So, what do you think of when you look at me?
I think of a poem.
The one seeing you makes me want to write.
She unfolds her hands and sits back in her chair. That would be sickeningly sweet, she says, if you didn’t sound so sincere.
No, I like it. You’re for real, aren’t you?
As far as I know.
No, I mean, you’re not a poseur. You’re not just some hack. You really are a writer.
I do write, yes.
I have to say I am… My curiosity about that poem you’ve written about me is just about killing me.
What do you think it says?
Oh, now you’re the provocateur?
No, just curious.
So, you get to feed your curiosity, but you won’t feed mine by letting me see it.
I’m shy. Besides, I just wrote it, and quickly. You can’t possibly expect it to be very good.
Somehow I do.
Well, now I’m definitely not going to show it to you.
Don’t be cruel, she says.
I don’t mean to be.
She stands up again, approaches the terrace railing and leans over it. He gets up, too, picks up the legal pad and leans over the railing and looks into the pond four floors below them.
It can’t be about me in any particularly probing way, she says.
Because you don’t know me.
I could guess.
What would you guess?
I’d guess that you’re much more vulnerable than you let on.
Aren’t we all more vulnerable than we let on?
I suppose so. But some more than others.
They are quiet for a second.
It’s probably more a description of my physical characteristics.
Were you objectifying me? she says with a playful smile.
I don’t think so. But, maybe. I’d hate to think I was.
How do you know?
You’re too sensitive.
You were watching me walk the other day.
Do you like watching me walk?
Why? What does it make you think of?
You have a swing about you.
Lovely hips, yes.
She smiles and looks out into the distant trees. My legs?
I do have nice legs.
My wrists? Really?
They’re very thin. Not too thin, though. Just perfect.
I wouldn’t have guessed that.
I’m full of surprises.
It’s perfectly symmetrical.
It’s a nice face.
And your hair—the way you fight with it.
Fight with it?
You’re always pulling your fingers through it, tying it up, or winding it up and letting it fall again. It’s like a nervous habit.
So, you really have been watching me? I don’t know whether to be creeped out or flattered.
You do this thing with your mouth sometimes, too.
You twist it in a strange way, not with your fingers, but you twist it in a kind of confused expression.
Yeah, it’s probably just some unconscious tic. It’s not particularly attractive, not as feminine as your hands running through your hair, but still endearing.
Is that it?
So, now that you’ve told me everything, why not show me the poem? she asks as she moves a step toward him.
Because it was a one-off, a quick effort. It doesn’t represent the best of my work.
I’ll read it with that in mind, she says, nearing him. She reaches her hand down toward the legal pad. Come on.
I know it’s not… But no one’s ever written a poem about me before.
That’s not true.
It’s not? How would you…? Oh, you have?
Now, I want to see them all.
Well, at least let me have this one.
Have it? No, I’m not giving it to you.
She touches the pad of paper. Both their hands are on the paper.
Just let me read it.
What if you hate it?
What if you do?
He let’s go. She takes it.
He grabs it back.
Come on, she says.
Just let me get it to the right page.
Oh, she says.
He flips through the pages. Stops. Hands the pad back to her.
She looks at it, and she’s doing that thing she does with her mouth—that confused thing. It makes him smile as he tries to forget that she’s reading his words. She bites her lip, clearly trying to stifle a smile as she reads. Her eyes become wet, but he can tell she won’t cry.
She hands it back to him. Her face has grown serious, almost somber.
I wish I hadn’t read it.
You hated it.
No, I loved it. Too much. I want more. Now, I want to see every page.
I want to see every page of every notebook.
That would take awhile.
I’d gladly make the time.
We don’t have the time.
I know, that’s why I wish I hadn’t read it.
They stand silently next to each other and turn their backs to the railing, looking at nothing in particular—the bliss of an uncertain future, maybe.
Do you think the other poems you’ve written about me are as good as that one?
I didn’t think that one was very good. So, maybe I’m not the best judge.
How does it feel to write something like that?
In the moment, it feels euphoric.
She looks at him. I could feel that, she says.
I didn’t want it to end.
Why do you think I do it?
Did you come looking for me?
No, just in general.
I’m always looking.
I’m always looking for that thing that will send me to poems.
Yeah, I guess.
And I’m your muse?
Today you were.
And every other day you’ve seen me?
Yeah, pretty much.
Don’t you feel like you owe me something?
I let you read the poem, didn’t I?
I want more.
More of that feeling it gave me, more of this feeling I’m feeling right now.
Well, I’ll try to keep it going for as long as we’re out here together.
And then? she asks.
And then, what?
What if I never feel it again?
Haven’t you ever felt it before?
No, I can’t say that I have.
How would you describe it?
I don’t know. You’re the poet.
She turns back toward the great expanse in front of them—into the mess of trees beyond. It was like something was lightly crawling over my skin, she says, like a warm caress falling over me, or like a snow suddenly falling.
Sounds like you’re the poet.
It was you.
You gave it to me.
Who gave it to you?
I’m not sure. One day I heard a poem that made me feel the way you just described, and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
And you chase it by chasing muses.
I don’t know a writer who’s not chasing muses.
But don’t you think for some, they’re chasing ideas or something less concrete than what they’ll find in the physical world? Whereas, you seem to be chasing girls. Girls like me, she says, placing her chin on her shoulder in a moment that is so fraught with flirtation that he feels he should look away. But he doesn’t. They just stand there looking at each other a little too long.
She walks to where he was sitting at the table earlier. He ignores her, watches the water move on the pond. When he does finally turn to her, she’s standing beside him on his right, and she’s very close now. The sun is shining brightly over her face.
You’re staring again, she says.
No. It’s good. I like to be looked at by you.
So it seems.
It makes you uncomfortable—me moving here. Standing so close.
She leans closer still. She’s so close that her shoulder touches his upper arm.
It does make me nervous.
Because I want you to get closer. I want to be close to you, and yet I can’t be as close to you as I want.
Why? she asks.
He looks at her.
Right. You’re married.
So you keep saying.
They look out into the trees.
You smell nice, he says.
You’re skin looks softer the closer we get.
Do you want to touch me?
Yes. But I won’t.
Because if I start, and you let me, I won’t want to stop.
I won’t want you to stop.
I was afraid you might say that.
You know, outside of the world we’ve made today, in your world, you’re happily married. But right now, in this world, there’s nothing standing between us.
That’s just not true.
It is if you want it to be.
I wish it were that simple.
Why isn’t it?
Because I can live in this place, this world we’ve made, and maybe even allow myself to drink up this delirium with you, but I can’t let the delusion take over. It’ll follow me into whatever world I end up in next.
Is that what you’d call this, a delusion?
It hardly feels real.
That’s what I mean. Maybe, it’s not.
But I’ll be the one carrying the planet of guilt from this world into the next. It’s too heavy a burden.
Planet of guilt? Sounds pretty dramatic.
That’s why I said it.
You’re saying you don’t want to go home and lie to your wife.
It would never go away.
But you’re lying now by pretending you don’t want to be with me.
Pretending? How am I pretending? I’ve said that I want to be with you.
Then the doing is just following through on your desire—a betrayal that’s already taken place.
I’m afraid my wife wouldn’t see it that way.
But she’s okay with you writing poems about other girls?
I think she is, yes.
And she’s okay with you having conversations like the one we’re having?
No, I don’t think she would be.
So, should we stop?
We probably should.
But I don’t want to stop.
Neither do I.
So, what now?
He faces all the empty tables on the terrace, and then looks over at her. I don’t know, he says.
She moves in front of him and is facing him now.
What are you doing? he asks.
What? Too close?
Getting there, yeah.
She inches even closer. Now, they’re close enough to kiss.
Yes, too close. Dangerously close.
She leans in.
I can’t, he says.
She stops, close her eyes, and breathes in his air slowly.
I’m not going to kiss you, don’t worry.
She leans in, pressing—ever-so-slightly—her body against his body. She leans her head against his shoulder, and places her hand on his chest.
They are silent for a moment… or Two… or Three.
What are you doing? he asks.
Just feeling you, listening to your heart.
He puts his arms around her, and she smiles and looks up at him.
We should stop, he says, inches from her face.
Right. Now, you want to stop.
It’s too close.
You don’t like it? she asks, easing off him a bit.
No, I like it.
Then what’s the problem?
I can feel the danger. We only have a certain amount of time, and then I’ll miss you. It’ll be dangerous if I start missing you.
You’ll miss me?
We’ve already gotten too close.
What if I want to see you again? she asks.
You will, I’m sure. I come here everyday.
But that’s it?
Do you ever wonder if you married the wrong woman?
No doubts at all?
So, you really love her.
Then I don’t understand what’s happening today.
I can’t quite put my finger on it, either.
Well, try, would you? It might help me find my equilibrium.
You’ve lost your equilibrium?
That’s a good thing, he says.
It’s good now, but what’s left when it’s gone, when you’re gone, and there’s no hope.
But you were the one—
What am I deflecting?
You were supposed to help me understand what this is, what’s happening to us, and why this is all happening even though you still love your wife.
I can’t help you understand something I don’t understand.
So, both of us have lost our balance, then?
I guess so.
And you’re looking forward to going back to the real world? Just letting all this fade away?
If I were, I’d be gone by now.
Then why have you stayed?
Because you’re still here.
And what if I were to stay—never leave.
I’d have to leave… Eventually.
And tomorrow? she asks.
I’ll be here.
Then so will I.
Then we’ll have that.
It’s too far away, she says.
Closer than never.
Besides we’re still here now.
I’m going to kiss you, she says, pressing into him again.
I don’t think that’s—
Not a long kiss. I just want—
You should stop.
Hold on, she says, standing up, moving toward his mouth.
No, you won’t
I will, he says. He can smell her breath—so sweet.
Please don’t, she says as she moves her face closer to his.
I’m asking you not to do this.
You won’t stop me.
I won’t kiss you back.
Then I can still touch your lips? she asks, holding up her middle and index fingers of her right hand.
If you like.
She places her fingers on his lips and presses her lips on her fingers—just for a moment.
You have beautiful lips for a man.
I’ll take your word for it, he mumbles through her fingers.
I like to feel you breathe.
She stands there for a long moment, and then moves her fingers away. Today has done something to me, she says.
Right. I wonder if I should’ve approached you.
Do you regret it?
No. Well, not now.
But you think you might?
When you’re gone, yes.
But I thought we still had tomorrow.
I told you, it’s too long.
What do you want me to do?
Why don’t you give me some poems?
No, I don’t think… I couldn’t do that.
I don’t have hard copies of any of these.
You don’t trust me.
It has nothing to do with trust.
Sure it does.
You might consider the fact that I could be insecure about handing over a notebook full of rough, unfinished poems.
You’ll have company tonight. What will I have?
You want my poems to keep you company?
I’d like to, but—
Don’t say no. Not yet.
Would you let me read the poem again?
The same one.
Would you read it to me?
Reading poems aloud always comes off so dramatic.
That’s a good thing.
Okay, but I’m just letting you know, it’s going to sound—
Okay. No apologies.
He flips through the notebook, finds the page.
wisps of the muddy gossamer veil of your hair
hang into the heartbreak of your face,
and when you press a finger—practiced—on that
smear and stretch the streak behind your ear,
the sun finds your face,
and your smile falls into a breathy laugh
and i lose myself in the waterfalls of memory,
in the mayhem of ecstatic mists of mud and
breath and secrets
Perfect, she says. That was perfect.
I always feel so—
It was perfect.
It’s not finished.
You should leave it.
Yes. There’s something so truthful and naked about it the way it is. To change it would be to steal its truth.
I’ve never thought about it like that.
Would you read me one more ?
I think we—
Please. I won’t ask again, I promise.
Okay, but this is the last one.
He starts rummaging throughout his legal pad.
Just pick one. Don’t think about it.
That could be dangerous.
That’s exactly how I feel, she says as she sits on the edge of the table in front of him, her exposed thighs a little too close too him.
she’s a quiet poem, dug deep within me,
whispering words in the wind, rubbing shivery
sentences against me, raining inspiration on
my heart places, waiting to remind me of her
spring, the sunshine on her face, her voice like
a flute vibrating in my chest, pouring slow secrets
over my stutters of syllables
Was that one…?
There were some similarities.
Right. I told you they aren’t done. They’re little more than notes for future poems. I haven’t shaped them yet.
But they feel good.
They do to me. They feel real. Even the redundancy of the sunshine on the face and the secrets… It’s real. I get the impression that it’s exactly what you saw in me.
I’m happy you like them, but—
What do you think I’m hiding?
In two poems—both about me—you talked about secrets. What secrets do you think I have?
I don’t know.
Come on. Just play along.
I don’t really want to know, he says. The mystery of the secret—if there is any—is what keeps you interesting.
So, what? You get to know me and the secrets go away and I’m not as interesting?
That’s what I’m afraid of, yes.
And you’d prefer to keep your distance from the girls you write poems about?
That’s what I said.
Because you’re married.
Happily married, yes.
Why don’t you write poems about your wife if she makes you so happy?
I do, but not as often as I used to.
She’s given me all her secrets, I guess.
So, you’d prefer I remain a mystery?
That’s a shame. I bet you’d like me.
You’re probably right.
I bet you’d love me, even.
What do you think it would be like to fall in love with me?
Wonderful and terrifying.
Falling in love is always terrifying. You’re giving yourself over to someone so completely.
That’s true. I guess there’s always some fear about losing your independence.
No, it was never about that for me. It was always more about the fear that it wouldn’t last.
Would you worry about that with me?
I guess I would, but we’ll never know. I’m not with you.
You are right now.
Well, I’m not technically with my wife right now, but I am thinking about her.
You’re thinking about her right now?
Yeah, if I weren’t, I’d probably be reacting more to your being this close.
Do you want to react?
I’m conflicted, but not so much that I could forget I love her.
Anything I could do to help you forget?
Would you really want to do that?
Get you to forget your wife?
I don’t know, she says and moves away from him. What are we doing here?
But it feels like more.
I mean, I talk to people everyday and don’t really take special notice of the conversation, really. But this… This talking… I’ll remember this. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time.
Then why don’t we let ourselves dig deeper?
We can dig deeper.
Just not physically.
Right. Not physically.
You know, I have to say, and I know how naïve this might sound, but honestly, I’ve never felt like this before. I mean, yes, I’ve been in love. I’ve felt the need to be with someone, to want to be with them all the time. But the nearness of you… You’re right there, and I so badly want to be closer, lean my head on your shoulder again—breathe in the smell of you.
The smell of me?
Yes, you have a smell.
That’s a good thing, I hope.
It was for me. I’ll be trying to keep hold of it all day long.
I want all those things, too, he says, leaning against the terrace’s railing. He’s right beside her—so close their arms touch again.
Did you feel that?
What? he asks.
When your arm touched my arm?
That was nice.
It was, she says.
See, I want more things like that, too. But if I react to all the things I want to do, I can’t take them back. If I cheat—
Right. If I cheat, I’m always a cheater, and I’ll never forget it.
Well, could you do me a favor?
Don’t forget this day. I don’t want you to forget.
I don’t think I could If I wanted to.
Good. If we both remember then it—this thing we feel—will still be alive somehow.
I’ll keep it alive.
With my help.
With your help.
They look away from each other, stare out into the world below them.
But I’ll still see you here, right? he asks.
What do you mean, maybe?
Summer’s coming soon.
And I’m leaving.
Does it matter?
Of course it does, he says.
Day after tomorrow.
But you’ll be back in the fall.
I don’t think I will.
Why didn’t you say something?
I don’t know. Same reason you haven’t asked my name.
But what would you ave done, if I…?
What? If you weren’t married?
Right. If I were more available.
I don’t know.
It probably wouldn’t haven’t changed anything.
You’d still be leaving?
Maybe you’d be coming with me.
Wow. I wasn’t expecting this.
To feel so desperate all of a sudden. I’ve been seeing you here everyday for weeks. I expected you to be around… I don’t know. Longer. Now that you won’t be, I—
Want to reconsider that kiss?
Yes, of course. It makes me want to reconsider everything.
But it still won’t happen, will it?
It can’t. I wish it could, but it just can’t.
So, what now?
Will I see you tomorrow?
It’s possible. I’ll be busy getting everything ready.
But what if I don’t see you? I don’t even know your—
No, you don’t. Do you want to know?
Yes. But no.
Please come tomorrow, he says.
It’ll be difficult. I’m not sure.
Do your best.
I should…, he says, making a move to the table where his coffee and his notebooks still sit.
He gathers up his papers.
Here, he says, ripping out a page from his legal pad. Let me give you the poem from today.
No, I couldn’t.
If you don’t want it—
No, I do. Of course I do. But won’t you miss it?
I will. But I have a feeling you’ll be giving me a ton more.
They’ll write themselves.
I wish I could see them all—hear you read them.
Well, then…, he says, moving from the table.
Wait. Can I…? she says, moving toward him. The back of her hand caresses his face.
What are you doing?
I just wanted to touch you one last time. I want to remember your face, your mouth, your eyes.
You’re making me doubt I’ll see you tomorrow.
Will you do me a favor? she asks. If you do see me tomorrow, forget for five minutes that you’re married.
Just think about it. Just think about me.
I don’t think that’ll be a problem.
Goodbye, she says, whatever your name is.
He walks away from the terrace and back into the coffee shop. He stops just inside the doors and turns around and looks at her looking at him. He starts to say something, but stops. She’d never hear him anyway.
In the title story of The Lavender Haze: Three Stories of Flirting with an Affair, Micheal comes home to find Kelly, his wife's best friend, has come for a visit. Through the evening, we learn that he and Kelly had a brief affair before the wedding that, to Michael's surprise, still lingers. In our second story, Lost to the Lake, Ray is going through a life crisis that he can't shake. When he returns to work from a vacation that wasn't as restorative as he hoped, he sees Regina, a new employee, and experiences a lovesickness he's never known. He finds himself caught between the allure of love at first sight and his established life with his family. On the Terrace, the final story, offers a window to a tantalizing conversation between a poet and his muse after she confronts him one morning.