I want to eat peaches,
sweet, chilled peaches
stained red by the leaking juice
I want to eat BLTs by the ocean,
only no L but add some avocado
I want to drink lemon martinis
that sparkle in my mouth
and pucker my lips
and soften life’s harsh edges.
I want to dare the sea
to come to my chair,
to wet my towel,
to swallow my feet in its foamy embrace.
I want tank tops and flip flops
beach bags and the smell of Coppertone
and sandy children
laughing and squinting into the sun.
I want to listen to music
made by actual living, broken people…
drifting to me, my eyes closed
my heart open.
I want to read your true story
I want to hear your deepest darkest
I want to hold your hand
I want peaches, stained by berries, sweet and juicy in my mouth.
I try not to make New Year’s Resolutions because, you know, no one ever keeps those. So I found this list of “Things to Do” instead. I like the tone of it. See what you think:
Break a bad habit.
Learn a new skill.
Do a good deed.
Visit a new place.
Read a difficult book.
Write something important.
Try a new food.
Do something for someone who can never pay you back.
Take an important risk.
These things – they are doable, but they aren’t necessarily easy. And that’s the goal, right? Stretching beyond where you are and seeing where growth can happen.
I wish there were 12 so I could do one a month, because my brain likes that level of organization. But not all of these tasks should be done in exactly one month. So I am going to work on things until I am done and then move on to the next one (though it’s possible, because life, I may be doing some concurrently). First up:
Break a bad habit.
I uh, I may have more than one.
The two I want to work on are: Fresca and making my bed. My bad habits are drinking Fresca mindlessly and never, ever making my bed. So I instituted soda rules for me and the girls, and we are definitely going to get this under control.
1. Bottles of soda stay in the kitchen. You must come to the kitchen for a refill.
2. Drink an equivalent amount of water between each soda.
3. No soda at bedtime – take milk, water or tea to bed with you.
So far, one day in, not too many complaints, and my older daughter volunteered to be responsible for refilling the water pitcher. Excellent.
As for making my bed- I bought some new sheets and I am spending part of my day today sprucing up my room. Of course no room looks fully spruced until the bed is made. Then I will just make it as I get out of it and hopefully break my slovenly, frat boy-like habit of leaving my bed unmade for weeks on end.
Kaizen, the practice of taking small steps to change a bigger thing, really works for me, so I will be using it on many issues that need work. I’ll keep you posted.
I sat on the couch, curled up in a little ball, for hours. There was no way to fix this. Johnny would have to know the truth – my son had set wheels in motion that could not be stopped, and I would be the one to pay the price.
Finally I stretched out and slept, still in the clothes I wore home from the Y. Johnny came downstairs at his usual early hour and turned on the coffee maker. I sat up, blinked. My eyes settled on Johnny and I smiled a very small smile. Maybe he would let this go.
“What are you smiling at? Are you ready to talk?”
Apparently he was not going to let this go.
I closed my eyes, shook my head. I heard him open the refrigerator, get the cream out. “Jenn, you know, no matter what it is, you can tell me. I can’t imagine anything that would make me stop loving you. Are you in trouble with money? Drugs? Having an affair? I’m not saying I won’t be mad, but I am saying we can work through it. No matter what it is.”
I felt tears leak from my eyes, run down my face, drip onto my shirt. I tried to speak, but it came out as a whisper. “I’m sorry, Johnny, I just can’t.”
“I hope you can figure it out, Jenn. This is important.”
I nodded. I couldn’t speak.
As soon as Johnny left, I texted my boss and said I had a migraine and I wouldn’t be in. There was no way I could work today. I closed my eyes again and tried to imagine how this was going to go. I could not imagine any good ending. I wanted my mom, my dad, someone to make this better, someone to help me make him understand it wasn’t all my decision, it was what had to happen. I couldn’t risk another breakdown. i couldn’t go through a pregnancy worried that the hormones would throw my delicate balance off.
Wait! I thought. My dad!
I picked up the phone and tapped his picture. “Daddy.” I said when he answered.
“Oh, God, Jennifer, no.”
He thought I was pregnant. That actually could be the only thing that was worse than this.
“No, Dad. I’m not pregnant. But there is a kind of, well, situation. I need your help.”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
I sighed. “It’s…can you just come over?” I asked him, whining a little. It seemed so complicated to go into over the phone. And I needed him to be there with me, physically present. I needed to see his face when I told him so I could figure out how bad this really was. I needed him to tell me it was going to be ok anyway.
“I’m on my way. I’ll see you in 20 minutes. Put on the coffee, dear. This is going to be a long day I think.”
“Thanks Dad.” I got up and started a new pot of coffee, did a little straightening up around the house. I brushed my teeth and hair and folded my blanket.
Hmmm, I didn’t remember getting out a blanket. Had Johnny gotten it for me, covered me up, even though he was so mad he could barely speak to me?
I shook my head. We had to figure this out, dad and I, and make Johnny calm down. This just had to be ok, one way or another.
My dad didn’t even ring the doorbell, he just used his emergency key to let himself in. “Jenn? Jennifer?” he called. I met him as he headed into the kitchen and hugged him, burying my face in his chest. I was a grown woman with a job and a mortgage and a husband and sometimes I still just needed my dad.
“What’s wrong? Come on, pour us a cup, sit down, and tell me what the hell has you in such a state.”
I pulled myself together and did as he asked. I took a deep breath and dove in.
“Someone has been writing me letters for the last 2 years. Once a month, the letter shows up. The return address is Lakewood Drive. The handwriting is definitely male.”
I stopped, waiting for his outrage. None came.
“And, yesterday I was at the gym late and Johnny came home and got the mail before I did. One of the letters was in there. He took it up to our room, put it on my nightstand, and noticed that the drawer wouldn’t shut. He pulled it open and found all the letters – and he freaked out.”
Dad was starting to look concerned.
“He was really drunk and mad by the time I made it home. He said I have 24 hours to tell him what it’s all about, or we will open the letters one by one and read them together. I’m pretty sure they are from…him…my son. And Dad, if they are from him from my – my son, Johnny will know that I lied to him. That we all lied to him.That I AM able to have children, I just refused to…”
Dad stood up and started pacing. This was a very bad sign indeed.
The last time he had paced like this was when I told him I was pregnant.
“Where are the letters now?”
I shook my head. “Johnny has them. He was afraid I would burn them.”
“How do you know that they are from…him?”
I shrugged. “I just assume they are. I mean – the timing is right. He’s in his 20’s now, there is no reason for him not to look for me. And what else could they be? I have no other secrets. There is no other reason for someone to write me letters.”
“Still, maybe it’s something else.”
I was doubtful. And I wanted to just come clean and let the chips fall where they may. As horrible as it was to imagine what my evening would be like, at least this would be over. I just wanted it to be over in a way that I could live with. I wanted Johnny to know the truth and still love me, still want me, still be married to me. I wanted him to understand that I loved him, but that I absolutely could not get pregnant and risk my life for him.
“Dad, what exactly did you tell Johnny before we got married?”
He thought for a minute. “I told him that you had a medical condition that prevented you from having children, and that if he wanted to marry you he needed to be aware that children were not possible.”
“OK, well, that is what I told him, almost word for word. And what’s wrong with me is, in fact, a medical condition.”
“Yes, but you did also have a child that he knows nothing about. A child who is now grown and apparently wants to find you for some reason.”
I chewed my thumbnail, trying to find a way to tell the story without losing my husband. “Dad, could you…”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’ll back you up, I will corroborate anything you want to tell him, but you have to do this on your own.
Of course I did. It wasn’t really fair of me to even ask.
“So, Jenn, what are you going to say? Let’s practice.”
I thought for a few minutes. I paced. I studied my nails, the floor. Eventually I took a deep breath. “Johnny, I told you the truth when I told you, and my parents told you, that I have a medical condition that prevents me from having children. You see, when I am pregnant, my body reacts very badly to the hormones and causes me to go into a deep depression with suicidal ideation, and in fact, a history of a suicide attempt.” I held out my wrists, the scars pale and silvery, almost invisible. Almost, but not quite. If we were in the kitchen, where the light was bright and focused, he would see them. “You see Johnny, we know this because before I met you, I had a baby. I got pregnant and I had the baby when I was 17 and I gave him away. And in the midst of my pregnancy, I attempted to kill myself by slitting my wrists. My father found me and saved me and I promised him that I would never have another baby, that I would never put him through that again – the worry that he would find me, bleeding, again.”
My dad was crying, remembering.
I could only hope that Johnny would cry in his imagining.
“So the letters are from, well, I think they are from, the son that I gave up. I don’t know why he would be writing to me, or how he could have possibly found me. But that’s who I think they are from, and that’s why I couldn’t open them, and that’s why I couldn’t burn them. They are all I have of him, and I don’t want them but I can’t part with them, and I’m sorry.” By now, I was crying too. I was crying for all I had lost, all I had done, all I had lied about and protected us from. I put my head down on the table and for the first time since I found out I was having a baby, I cried for that baby. I cried for the hurt and the loss and the wonderful, terrible beauty of the whole damn horrible thing.
My dad consoled me, his hand rubbing my back. “I’m sorry, Jenn. I am sorry I made you promise me, I’m sorry I made you do it. I should have saved you with no conditions. I should have just…”
I hugged him, my old, grizzled father. “None of this was your fault, dad. We were all doing the best that we could.”
He nodded, and backed away, and wiped his eyes and blew his nose. I went into the powder room and washed my face. When I came back out, he was holding my phone. “Call Johnny. Tell him to come home and get this over with. If I need to move you out of here today, I want to do it before it gets dark.”
My dad, ever practical. He hugged me one last time and told me to let him know what I needed. I nodded, and watched him leave. And I texted my husband.
“I am ready to talk. Can you come home?”
No reply for a few minutes.
Then, finally, “Yes.”
I stood in front of the locker room mirror at the YMCA and checked out my ass. It wasn’t sagging; it looked great. My relentless routine, my relentless fight against gravity was working. Spin class, running, weights, yoga and swimming had my ass as perky and round as it had been when I first met Johnny 23 years ago as a college freshman. My tummy was flat, my boobs were doing as well as could be expected – big boobs always had a little sag – and I was generally happy with what I saw. I peeled my sweaty clothes off and I headed to the shower.
The warm water relaxed my muscles, made tight by work stress and working out. It was late, almost closing time for the Y, and I knew I needed to hurry. Unlike most people, I preferred working out after work. It was a tangible barrier between work and home, and an excuse to skip dinner and late night snacking and burn some calories at the same time.
Johnny worked late most nights anyway, so we usually got home around the same time. It was important to me that he not know how hard I worked to maintain my figure. I really preferred for him to think I just went for a quick walk most days. I thought he would object, for some reason, to my punishing fitness routine.
I put my clean yoga pants and t-shirt on and headed home. I was a little surprised to see Johnny’s car in the driveway, but it wasn’t totally abnormal. It’s possible I could have worked out a little longer than usual, or maybe the time I spent admiring myself in the mirror had caught up with me. I walked inside, a smile on my face, hoping Johnny was in a decent mood. It was hard to tell – he worked so much and sometimes he got so stressed. I relieved my stress at the gym, but he usually ate and drank his stress. It was not ideal, but I tried to work with it as much as I could.
Johnny’s back was to me as he poured himself a scotch. I stifled the sigh that almost escaped and instead greeted him as though nothing was bothering me. “Hey, honey. How was your day?”
He turned to look at me, his eyes red and stormy. “You’re late, and there’s no dinner.”
“I’m sorry, I must have walked a little longer than usual. And you usually just eat dinner at the office so I was going to make a quick sandwich or something.”
“There’s something I want to show you.” He led me to the family room and there, on the coffee table, was the stack of unopened letters. All addressed in the same hesitant hand. One a month for the last two years. 24 letters, all addressed to me. All unopened. All with a return address of Lakewood Drive.
“Care to explain?” Johnny asked.
I fell to the couch, my hand over my mouth. “How did you find these?”
“This one came today.” He held up the letter with yesterday’s postmark. I took it up to your nightstand, and I noticed the drawer wasn’t closed all the way. I tried to close it, but it was stuck. I pulled it out to fix it and I found the rest.”
He bent down, his face right in front of mine, many hours of scotch on his breath. “Again, Jenn, care to explain?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. There was no explanation.
“I can wait all night, Jenn. You’re my wife and I want to know who the fuck is writing you a letter every month. A letter that you won’t open, but you keep. A letter addressed to you, mailed from across town. Every month for the last two years.”
“This has nothing to do with you, Johnny. I’m begging you to put those letters back where you found them and pretend this never happened. Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to know what this is about.”
He took a deep breath and put his drink down. He closed his eyes and when he opened them, the anger between us was practically palpable. “I want to know and I want to know now.”
The endorphins from my work out wore off instantly, but my fight or flight hormones were raging. I wanted to run, but I knew I couldn’t. Not yet. “Johnny, back off. This is not about you. We can discuss it later when you’re not…when you’re feeling better. But we are not doing this now.”
He stood up, stepped back. “I don’t like this, Jenn. I am not happy about this. You have twenty four hours to tell me what this is about or I start opening and reading the letters. This is my house and I will not have secrets in my house.”
He picked up the stack of unopened letters and banded them together. “I’ll keep these with me, in case you thought you’d burn them by tomorrow. You will tell me what this is about, or I’ll find out, because either you’re going to come clean or we’re going to open these letters, one by one, and read them together. So figure out what you’re going to say, because you have one day to say it.”
And with that, he took the letters and he stomped upstairs.
I pulled my knees under my chin and hugged them to me. I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted him to find out. I should have burned the letters when they arrived. Or sent them back. Or something. Even though I didn’t want them, didn’t want to deal with them, didn’t want to read them, I had to keep them. Unwanted as they were, unwanted as he had been, his letters were all I had of him.
Which would be worse, to tell Johnny the letters were from an old boyfriend who couldn’t let go, or to tell him the truth? If I lied I to my husband, made up some believable story about the letters and then he read the letters anyway, he would find out that I was lying, and it would be devastating. I sighed, It didn’t matter what I said now, he would find out the truth. Wheels were in motion and I would have to eventually tell the truth and let him know that I had been lying to him since we met. I couldn’t imagine that he would stay. I may as well spend my 24 hours packing my things and finding a new place to live because this lie was too big to get over. It was too much to expect that he would be ok with it, that he would even be willing to try to work through it.
Because, you see, the letters were from my son.
The son I had borne at 17. The son I had been encouraged by my parents to abort, and when I wouldn’t, to give away. The son I had been carrying when I had a breakdown and tried to kill myself. The son who had survived anyway, and had thrived, and was now in his 20s and had found me and was living on Lakewood Drive and wanted, I’m sure, to meet me.
The son I had never told Johnny I had had.
I told Johnny when we met that I had been born with a medical condition that prevented me from having children. I told him that if he wanted to be with me, we would not be having children because I couldn’t. Now he would know it was because I wouldn’t. He would know that I had carried and borne a child, with someone else. I had given another man this gift that he hadn’t wanted, and had then withheld that same gift from my husband, who wanted it desperately, even to this day.
So you see why I could never tell him my secret. It was too much, too deep, too devastating. I had never told anyone – not Cindy, not Lauren, and not even Lissa, my very closest friend, about this child. My parents knew, because they had to know. They guided my hand as I signed the papers giving up my parental rights, they accepted the pay off from the father’s family and put it in my college fund, they agreed to never speak of it again. My father found me when I had cut my wrists but before I bled out. My father found a plastic surgeon to keep the scarring to a minimum. His fee was huge, unimaginable. When I was in the psych ward, and the call came that the surgeon would take a look at my wrists, my father took me by the shoulders, and looked me in the eye, and said “Jennifer, if I do this for you, you have to promise me that you will never have another child. You are not meant to be a mother. Your body and your chemistry is all wrong for this, and you have to swear to me that you will never, ever do this to yourself or me or your mother again.” And I nodded, and he saved me, and he made sure no one would be able to look at me and tell what I had done, and we never spoke of it again.
When I met Johnny in college, and I brought him home to meet my parents, and then brought him home a few more times and they figured out it was serious, my father took him out to play golf and had a talk with him. I had already told him, when we started sleeping together, that I couldn’t have children. And when he started talking about marriage and forever and ever I reminded him that I was damaged, that I couldn’t have children, that I would never make him a father. And when my dad took him out for a golf game, he said the same thing, and encouraged Johnny to think really hard about whether or not I was worth sacrificing the chance to be a father. And my mom talked to him the next morning over coffee, before I got up, and Johnny told them both that it didn’t matter, that he loved me, that children weren’t a deal breaker, And he kept saying it, to them and to me, until we all believed him, and they acquiesced and allowed us to get married.
As he walked me down the aisle, my father was perfect. And when he leaned over to life my veil and kiss me on the cheek, his finger grazed my wrist, a secret reminder.
No children. Just tell him you can’t.
Just keep telling him you can’t. And just don’t.
It’s not like I thought about it every day, maybe not even every week. But way in the back of my closet is the box of Stuart’s things that the police brought me after his accident. His watch, his wallet, his cell phone, a few coins, his wedding ring. Not things I could just get rid of, obviously, but also not things I wanted to deal with. So, clearly, I just had to shove it in the back of the closet and let them stay there. For a few days after the accident, as I would lie in our bed, now only half-full, I swore I could hear the phone vibrating. I had no desire, at that moment, to see who was calling or texting him, and I knew eventually it would stop, the battery would die, the person trying to reach him would hear of his death and stop calling or would just give up because he wasn’t answering.
Today, though, and for the last few days, the box was haunting the edges of my thoughts. Whenever I looked at my cell phone, I thought of his. When I gave the kids money for the ice cream man, I wondered how much money was in his wallet. It must have been the incident at Mom’s Night that put Stuart and the box of his things back in my mind. Seeing the way Cindy treated Josh, and hearing her horrible story of throwing shoes at him because he fell asleep in the chair reminded me of Stuart. I would never have done that to him, even if I hadn’t known he was going to die, even if he hadn’t died I would still say that I loved him and I wanted to make him happy for all the days of his life, no matter how short. No matter how long.
I was outside on my screened in porch, drinking a glass of wine and smoking a bowl. It helped with the pain and the grief, the physical pain and the emotional. My doctor had said it was not the worst idea. My shrink wasn’t thrilled, but what was he really going to say? I was already doing it by the time we talked about it, and he knew I wasn’t going to stop. There was no medication that would help me relax enough to sleep like a glass of wine and some weed, so that was what I did now, every night, after the kids were sound asleep.
Stuart’s death was not a complete surprise to me. I am sure it was to him, but I had a feeling it was coming. It was my own stupidity not to make sure he had paid the life insurance before he crashed and burned. Of course that was before, when I wasn’t sure I could trust my feelings, premonitions, visions, inklings, shining – whatever you wanted to call them. Now I knew. I knew all to well that the things I dreamt or saw or hallucinated or imagined or felt, deep down in my bones, were true. Would come true. Were already true and would soon come to light. Like Danny Torrance’s Shining, I really just wanted it to stop, to go away. I wanted my truth, the true thing I knew about my own body, to be a lie. But I knew it wasn’t.
I sighed, a deep, heavy, old lady kind of sigh. There was nothing to be done. All the pink ribbons on yogurt lids and mayonnaise jars and football jerseys weren’t going to save me. Only God could do that, and since I was sitting outside, alone in the dark, breaking the law and neglecting my children, I was not optimistic about a miracle headed in my direction.
My doctor said we needed to decide something soon. Move forward with treatment, whatever slim chance it had of working. Call in the troops again to wrangle child care and drive me back and forth and make meals for my family, meals that I likely would have neither the desire nor the capacity to eat, draw up living wills and guardianships and ask someone I knew – a friend – to raise my children. My parents were both dead, my husband was dead and I had been an only child. I had no cousins, no distant relatives. This, I guess, was the danger of small families and moving around a lot and never really connecting with another person. Stuart and I had each other, and for so long, that had been enough. When we were young and establishing the rules of what our lives would be like, what our life together would be like, we never imagined that we wouldn’t have each other, and we certainly never imagined that neither of us would be here to see our kids through to adulthood. It wasn’t until my first pregnancy that the visions, the knowing, started to happen with any regularity, with any reliability. And by then, the rules of how we were going to be with the world were set, and it was pretty much impossible for us to change. I resigned myself, my children to this fate, as cruel as it was. I had known what I was doing, and I went ahead and I did it anyway.
Could there be any more selfish act?
I drew another hit of smoke into my lungs and held it, letting all the chemicals and carcinogens and THC hit my bloodstream. I could almost feel the drug move from my core to my limbs, tiny waves of relaxation moving out from the center of my body, eventually to my mind. Quieting my mind was the part I couldn’t do on my own, even with yoga and meditation and running and xanax. I blew the smoke out and I took another sip of wine, and I envisioned the alcohol and the THC traveling together to the part of my brain that regulated my anxious thoughts, and I pictured them like windshield wipers, clearing away the things I worried about incessantly, the spirals of thoughts that played over and over. I pictured them letting the thoughts escape so that I could relax, and sleep, and dream of nothing.
Soon I felt that drifting, that disconnection from the world around me. I turned off the light and the ceiling fan, I took my wine glass and my pipe inside and washed them out, putting the glass back in the cabinet and carrying the pipe up with me to its hiding place. I climbed into bed, fixed my favorite pillow just so, and I let myself sleep. Morning would come early; it always did. But between now and then was my body’s chance to fight itself, and my mind’s chance to calm itself, so that I could function the next day.
Usually this routine left me dreamless, thoughtless, just a floating collection of cells and neurons and receptors, which was the only way I could sleep and wake up refreshed. Since Stuart’s death, dreams were nightmares, and I would wake up sweaty, shaken, disoriented. It scared the kids, seeing me wild-eyed and afraid, when they came in to ask for breakfast. So I had tried, over the past months, to just not dream. I tried not to think before I went to sleep, I tried to make my mind blank, empty of emotions or pictures or anything that could spark a nightmare.
Tonight though. Tonight I hadn’t gotten it exactly right and just as I drifted off, I thought of the box of his things at the back of the closet. I thought of the cell phone that vibrated for days after his death. I thought of the money that could be in his wallet. I thought of the clues I might be able to find, the footpath that could lead me from wondering why he was where he was at the time he was there to knowing, to understanding. I decided that tomorrow I would start looking. I would charge his phone and look at the missed calls, read the texts he had never read, connect the dots between his office and Lakewood Drive.
What was he doing? Who was he seeing? What had been so important that he had ignored my impassioned, repeated pleas to come straight home, to bring me Diet Coke, to rescue me from misbehaving kids? I had seen him die in my dreams, I knew it was coming. I tried to keep him off of Lakewood Drive, because I had seen where and how it would happen, and I foolishly thought I could change his destiny by changing his location – and in the end, I wasn’t even able to change his location. I had known when, and where, and how, but the why of Stuart’s death had eluded me. Before my own death, I needed to know why. I needed to know what pulled him there, I needed to know why he was in that exact place at that exact time.
And so I dreamt, wild, vivid dreams of Stuart and I, dreams of running and chasing and falling, him holding my hand as I slipped, letting it go. me watching him fall, unable to stop him from crashing, screaming silently as he bled and died. I saw myself, scarred and disfigured, patches of hair missing and sunken cheeks. I awoke exhausted, but determined.
I had to find the why. I took down the box of his things and I opened it. The unmistakable smell of Stuart drifted out as soon as I lifted the lid. My eyes filled, my breathing changed. I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder, reassuring and strong. I remembered the beautiful Stuart, the man I had loved since I was 15 years old – young, handsome, smart, kind. The image of his dental records beside a corpse’s x-rays was far from my consciousness. I wiped my tears and steeled my courage. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that going on a wild goose chase to figure out why Stuart was across town on the night he died was doing nothing but distracting me from my own impending death, and giving me something to focus on besides the decisions and plans I needed to be making. But maybe, I reasoned, just maybe, this was the last gift Stuart had to offer me.
I pulled out his cell phone, and I attached it to my charger, and I went to make coffee. I knew something, some clue, would be waiting for me when I came back. I knew I would have to accept Stuart’s secret, whatever it had been, because I was the one who had conjured it.
I tried to forget about Josh not kissing me at the car, trying instead to focus on the hour or so we spent in the woods, fooling around like teenagers. He kissed me like no one had kissed me before, or at least in a long time, and I felt a glow just below my skin. I couldn’t stop smiling. But I knew that the kids were coming home and my husband was coming home and I needed to pull it together. If I was too happy and my family saw it, they would know something was up. They may not know what was up, but they would definitely be watching. And them watching was something I couldn’t afford.
The other thing I couldn’t afford was guilt, but the guilt was crushing. Even though I wanted more, even though I was trying to talk myself into believing that I deserved this happiness I could picture Josh giving me, I could feel the guilt curling in my stomach, something dark and dangerous, the kind of thing that would lead me to make a misstep, to show my hand. I decided at the last minute to stop at the grocery store and get something great for dinner. I had just enough time to make a roast if I started it the moment I got home and roasted the veggies later.My family was not used to such hearty meals during the week – they would feel loved and I would have done something special for them. A beautiful meal for my family cancelled out my afternoon betrayal. I felt the guilt recede, a little.
I made it home in record time, threw the roast in the oven and took a deep breath. This was fine. I took a shower and made it to the bus stop just as my youngest got off and yelled “Mommy your hair is wet! Why is your hair wet? Did you just take a shower?” I blushed, and said yes, honey, I ran at lunch time and just took a shower. My older daughter said “Good thing cause I do NOT want you picking us up all sweaty and stinky. That would be so embarrassing!” I rolled my eyes. Eleven was turning out to be a much more difficult age to navigate than either of us had anticipated.
I walked the girls home and supervised snack, homework and lunch packing for the next day, then sent them gleefully outside for a few minutes to play before dinner. Just as I pulled the roast out of the oven and set the table and wiped the counters down, my husband got home.
“Hey, dinner’s almost ready!” I said to him, my face arranged carefully into a small smile -not a grin, but not scowling, like I feared I usually did. I knew he really liked it when I played my part in the 50’s marriage script that played in his head, and I had made an effort to have a decent dinner that I knew he would enjoy ready when he got home from work. Even though I brought in a paycheck, I worked from home and definitely had more of an opportunity to cook and clean up and manage the laundry than he did. I wasn’t sure why I resisted this obvious approach so many days of the week, but I did. Today, however, of all days, I worked to get it right. Guilt, perhaps, it had a positive effect, so was there any harm done, really?
“Smells great!” he declared, smiling.
“Thanks!” I said, a little taken aback by his jovial mood. “How was your day?”
“Not bad, not bad at all. It was long but not bad. How long until dinner?”
“Well, the meat could rest for about 10 more minutes, just enough time to..”
He finished my sentence, “change into something else and wash up. I’ll tell the kids to come in.” He disappeared upstairs, and I heard him wash his face and go into the bedroom, presumably to change clothes, and then to the office, presumably to set up his laptop for the work he would do before bedtime. I heard him open the front door and yell at the girls cheerfully to come inside and wash up for dinner, then I heard them all chattering and laughing and moving towards the kitchen. I put the roast on the table, stuck a spoon in the mashed potatoes and smiled at my family.
Everyone smiled back.
And took their seats without complaint. And said grace. And passed dishes of food to the right and ate with forks and used their napkins and spoke agreeably to one another.
Was this my family? No one was yelling, or fighting, or pouting. My husband brought up a story he had heard on NPR and we were able to discuss it rationally, respectfully. And when dinner was done was when the most amazing thing happened.
“Honey, you cooked. The girls and I will clean up. Why don’t you pour your glass of wine and go upstairs and have some time to yourself?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, incredulous.
“Sure. Go. We’ve got this.”
I did as he suggested, and poured a glass of wine and took my phone upstairs. I assumed I would have to come back down and finish the clean up later, but I thought maybe I could settle my next date with Josh before that had to happen. I stole away to my room, pulled out a book I was reading but had long neglected, and set my phone where it would catch my eye if he texted me.
I read about two paragraphs and picked up my phone. I checked it – no text. I put it on my thigh, so I could feel it vibrate. Finally it did.
It was Josh. I let out a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding.
“hey there you”
“What are you doing?”
I hesitated – I definitely shouldn’t tell him I had been I had been waiting for him to text me. “Just reading. You?”
“Waiting until everyone disappeared and left me alone for 2 minutes so I could text you. :)”
Hmmm, he was being direct. I wonder now if he was saying what he thought I wanted to hear. At the time, I thought he was being sincere and the fact that it was what I wanted him to say was a happy coincidence, further evidence that we were meant to be. It never crossed that mind that he would need to manipulate me. I thought…well…never mind what I thought. I thought the same thing every woman in my position thinks. That we both chose poorly when we were choosing mates and had we just been patient enough to wait for one another and lucky enough to meet, things would be different – and maybe this was our chance to right the universe’s wrong.
I texted back, “So how has your night been?”
“Long, boring. I don’t want to talk about that. Let’s talk about us.”
Us!! He said us!
“What about us?” I asked.
“When can I see you again?”
“Depends. When can you see me again?”
It took a minute for him to respond. “I’m free on Tuesday.”
I looked at my calendar – Tuesday wasn’t great for me, I had a conference call I really needed to be on, but I really needed to see Josh more. Besides, they would archive the call and I could catch up Tuesday night. “Tuesday is good for me too. What time? Where?”
“Afternoon I guess – let me get back to you on place. I think I have an idea. ” I smiled.
“What can I…expect to be doing on Tuesday?” I asked.
“I think, my dear, that you can expect a delightful afternoon.”
He texted again before I could respond. “Do your bra and panties match?”
“i…uh…right now? No.”
“Please make sure they do on Tuesday. That really makes me hot.”
Crap. I’d have to go shopping. Matching lingerie had not exactly been a priority lately. “You got it.”
“And make sure you are all trimmed up…I want to taste you.”
Oh my God who talked like this?
“Mmmmmmmm,” I replied. What was I supposed to say to that?
“I’ll let you know details on Monday, ok? I just need to make sure my plan will work.”
“Ok. Sounds good.”
“Enough logistics, Lissa. I miss you.”
“I miss you too, Josh.”
“tell me your deepest fantasy.”
“I..I’d like to meet a really hot soccer dad and have a torrid affair with him.”
“Ha ha. Other than that. Tell me something specific.”
“I don’t even know, it’s been so long since I thought about what I’d want if I could have anything. What about you? What’s your top fantasy? Other than 2 women because I’m not going there. :)”
“Hmmm, maybe a woman showing up somewhere with a trenchcoat on, and matching bra and panties and garter belt and stockings underneath and nothing else, and for her to show me, and then let me lose myself in her.”
Hmm, I might need to buy a trenchcoat.
“You’re delicious, Lissa. You have no idea how delicious you are.”
“Why thank you, sir.”
“Sir? Are you going to call me sir?”
Just then, my husband walked in. “How was your ‘me’ time?” he asked, smiling.
I it the button on my phone to turn off the text screen and looked up. I smiled back, hoping I didn’t look as shaky as I felt. “It was great – thanks so much for cleaning up the kitchen.”
My phone buzzed, two short buzzes, and I turned it upside down against my thigh so my husband wouldn’t see the next text in the conversation as he bent down to kiss me. I kissed him back and he put his arms around me. This was unexpected to say the least. I stood up and stuffed my phone in my pocket. I gave my husband a quick peck on the cheek and headed downstairs to see what additional clean up needed to be done. As I walked out, my husband said, “I love you.” I turned and looked at him, puzzled. It had been many months since he had said those words to be, and many more since I felt he meant them. I wasn’t sure what to say back – I didn’t want to lie and say I loved him too, because I wasn’t sure, at that moment, what I felt for him. I also didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not saying anything, so I compromised. “You too!” I called as I hurried out of the room.
I hoped that would work.
I got to the kitchen and everything looked great. I pulled out my phone. Josh had texted : “I didn’t know you were a ‘sir’ kind of girl.”
Then, after I didn’t answer for awhile, “Everything ok?”
I texted him “Yes, just got interrupted. Gotta run. TTYS.”
And then I deleted our conversation. And then I put a passcode on my phone. And then I put my phone away.
I headed back upstairs to the bedroom I shared with my husband. And when I saw him lying on top of the covers, his tented boxers seemingly a flag of surrender, for me to win whatever fight I didn’t know we had been having for the last several months, I realized I was in way over my head.
I sat at my desk, a blank piece of beautiful stationery in front of me, my favorite pen in hand, and tried to answer Josh. I wanted him to know that what I saw in him was broken, beautiful, compelling. But men – do they want to hear that? Or did he just want to hear that I lusted after his body? That I wanted to do unspeakable things to him, that I could scarcely think of anything else, that my family and job and running were mere distractions from my main focus – getting the two of us naked in the same place at the same time?
His letter was so sensual, so soft. Not overtly dirty – and I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. I was stuck.
I put my pen down and put my running clothes on and headed out to the greenway. I ran with the express purpose of clearing my head and figuring out at least the first sentence of my reply to Josh. I was determined not to stop until I knew how I was going to begin, even if I had to run all day and meet the bus in my dri-fit shirt and shorts, sweaty and red-faced but satisfied with the opening of my letter.
I had been running for about an hour when I felt my phone buzz with a text.
It was from Josh. Of course it was from Josh.
“Stop what?” I replied.
“Stop running. Stop trying so hard. Stop not answering me. If I know you at all, I know you are avoiding answering me because you’re trying to make it perfect.”
I smiled to myself, shook my head.
How did he know? He knew because he knew me. I don’t know how, but he understood me. Which meant one of three things: either he made a great guess; or I was a cliche and every woman he began an affair with tried to write him a perfect reply, that every woman every man began an affair with tried to write her would-be lover a perfect reply; or that we truly were something special.
Wasn’t it possible, I reasoned with myself, that we were soulmates, that we were meant to be, that we deserved to have something together because he got me? My husband didn’t get me. My mom didn’t get me. I didn’t even get myself sometimes. I owed myself, the two of us, a chance. Didn’t I?
Of course I did.
The only possibility that made sense was that Josh understood me in ways I had never imagined and so therefore this wasn’t wrong.
“You’re right. I want my reply to be perfect.”
“So if I told you the perfect answer was ‘yes, Josh, I want to see. I want you’ what would you say?”
“I would say”
“I want to see”
“I want you.”
I held my breath and sat down on a bench. What if he didn’t answer? What if this was a trap, that he had done all this because my husband asked him to see if I would cheat, and he was going to show all of this to him, and I would end up losing everything? Including Josh, if I had ever really had him?
Was that even possible, reasonable? My husband had shown little to no interest in anything I did, other than spend money on running gear or let the kids leave their rooms messy, in years. Why would he suddenly care if I was seeing another man? I was paranoid, ridiculous. Josh really had some sort of feelings for me, and I had some sort of feelings for him, and we were discussing the possibility of exploring those feelings. This had nothing to do with my marriage.
I put my head between my legs, breathing deeply, trying to slow my pounding heart and calm the panic that swirled through my head and my blood and my loins. I sat back up, pulled out my phone, ready to text him back and tell him no, I couldn’t do it. I wanted him but I couldn’t have him, that jeopardizing two families was too much.
It buzzed. My phone burst with two short buzzes, and Josh’s words popped up on my screen.
“I am so happy right now.”
“I can’t wait to see you again.”
Before I could stop myself I texted back:
“Mile 6, Bench by the lake.”
He texted me back a smiley face.
I didn’t move. I stared at the trees, I looked up and I watched the clouds through the lush green leaves. I lost myself in the breeze, in the beauty around me. I was mesmerized for that moment, and then I felt a gentle finger stroke my cheek.
I looked up, both surprised and not surprised to see Josh.
My face tingled where he had touched me. It tingled for a long time. It tingled until he kissed me. It tingled until his tongue licked my lips, entered my mouth, It tingled until he touched my cheek again, until he used his whole hand to hold my face, and the other hand on the back of my sweaty neck to pull me to him and melt me into him and kiss me harder. I felt myself wanting to straddle him, facing him, grinding against him. I felt myself wanting things I should not have been ready to want, I found myself wanting him, right there on a bench on a greenway in the center of the suburbs where we both lived, in the middle of a mostly sunny day when the kids were at school and the world twirled on around us.
I managed to break our kiss, to back away enough to catch my breath, to open my eyes and find myself blinded by the brightness and dizzy from heat and lust and breathless from the rush of recklessness.
I knew better.
I couldn’t make myself do better, but I knew better.
“Wow” I breathed, or he breathed. I don’t really know, it seemed like our breaths had we were breathing and thinking and speaking as one.
He stood and pulled me up to him, looked in my eyes and took my hand. He led me to the woods, off the trail, deep between the trees. He let go of my hand and for the first time I noticed that he had a backpack. He bent down and unzipped it, pulling out a blanket, cold water, trail mix with chocolate chips in it. He spread the blanket on the ground. He handed me the water.
He laid down on the blanket, he patted the space next to him. I sat cross legged beside him and guzzled the water. He handed me the trail mix and I ate a handful.
“How far did you run?”
I checked my FitBit. “6! Holy crap! I ran 6 miles!”
I had never run that far without stopping before. He watched me smile. “What were you thinking about? What made you run?”
I laid down beside him, facing him but not looking him in the eye. “You.”
“What about me?” he traced lazy circles on my shoulder with the tip of his finger. It tickled but I didn’t want him to stop.
“i was, well, I was trying to figure out how to answer your letter.”
I could feel him smile. I could feel him grow warmer, move closer. He put his finger under my chin and lifted my face to him. i couldn’t help but look him in the eye now.
“And what did you figure out in 6 miles?”
“I figured out the first line.”
“Oh yeah? And what was it?”
I laughed. “Dear Josh.”
He kissed me as I laughed, and he ran his fingers through my hair as he kissed me, and I pressed my body against him as he ran his fingers through my hair.
His phone rang and he ignored it.
“I want you, Lissa. But not today, not like this. I want it to be perfect. I want it to be in a bed, in a room, in a place where you can scream when I make you scream and moan when I make you moan and when we have time to explore – I want to see and touch and lick and kiss every inch of your beautiful body and I want it all, Lissa. I don’t want to leave anything undone. I want you to be exhausted from being satisfied and burning up with lust to start all over again.”
I tried to answer him, to say that this was perfect, that anything with him would be perfect, that we would never have enough time or space for all the things he wanted so we better just take what we had when we had it, but he kissed me again. His fingers found their way under my shirt and stroked my stomach, slowly, rhythmically. He found the spot on my side that’s super sensitive, and he exploited the sensitivity, gently. “Does that feel good, or do you want me to stop?” he whispered.
“Both” I said, my body quivering, “it feels good and you have to stop.”
He didn’t ask any questions, he didn’t protest or pout or whine or stomp away. He moved his hand away from the spot on my side and he kept kissing me. And whether he ever said he loved me or not, that small act, that tiny acquiescence to something I asked of him made me feel like he loved me. And that was enough.
One small moment of feeling as though I had been loved in contrast to the million ways every day in which I felt like I was absolutely not loved was enough to make the difference. It was enough to tip the balance, the very careful balance I had held for all these years. And it was, in that moment, that I fell completely.
Men think it takes candles and fine dining and sparkly rings and trips to Mexico to win a woman. And women think they deserve all of those things in order to give their love. But in reality it only takes small things to win a woman. Bringing her cold water when she’s been running. Not pushing when the time isn’t right. Bringing a blanket to spread on the ground so you can make out with her in a park without either of you getting dirty.
Letting her answer be yes, even if that yes is straightforward and ineloquent and reeks of need. Touching her face in a way that still tingles hours later.
Moving your hand away when she asks you to, but still kissing her until your phone rings again.
He picked it up and looked at the screen. He simultaneously answered and stood up and walked a few feet away from the blanket. He came back a few moments later. “Work stuff. I really need to get back, Lissa. I’m sorry.”
I checked the time. “I should probably get cleaned up before the kids get off the bus.”
“I’m really sorry – I planned to spend as much time with you as you needed because I wanted to be sure you know…” I placed my finger over his lips and looked him in the eye.
“It’s ok. I know. Go to work, do your work thing, and we’ll pick this up where we left off.”
“Text me tonight. We’ll figure it out.”
He smiled, and we worked together to fold up the blanket. he put it back in his backpack and handed me the rest of the trail mix and another bottle of water. He walked me back to my car and touched my cheek again. “I will definitely text you later. Have a good afternoon – I’ll be thinking about you.”
I blushed. “Same here, Josh. Same here.”
I hoped without knowing I was hoping that he would kiss me goodbye. I thought he would kiss me. I knew it would be foolish, that we could be seen, caught. But I thought he would kiss me anyway. I thought what he felt transcended foolishness. I thought his need for me would overrule his good sense.
When it didn’t, when he didn’t kiss me, I was sad. Disappointed. Disillusioned, a little. But, I chided myself, this had been our first official meeting or date or session or whatever the hell you call it when people decide to begin an affair. Maybe in time he would kiss me as we parted. Or maybe it was too painful to kiss me, knowing it was possible he would have to kiss her and/or I would have to kiss him later that same day.
Or maybe he was just being smart.
Or maybe he had an uncanny ability to put me in a box in his mind. In the woods, in a hotel, in a spare bedroom at his fraternity brother’s house, I was his, and I was all he thought about. But in the light of day, in the parking lot – we were friends. Our families were friendly. But out there in the world, I was not his, he was not mine. Maybe he could put me and his feelings for me in a little box in the back of his mind and pretend like everything was normal. I realized in that moment, when the excitement over touching him and him touching me, the excitement over the beginning of something new, the excitement over all the firsts we still had to experience together was tinged with a faint but very real flush of disappointment, that I could not put my feelings for him in a box. This would bleed over and alter my view of everyone and everything in my world.
But what I didn’t realize was how damaging, how dangerous, that could be.
But I waved goodbye, I didn’t insist on further contact between us in that moment, I played it cool. He waved, and he nodded, and he got into his car, and he left.