Small Cuts (9) James

To find links to all parts of the story, please visit the Small Cuts page. Here is James again:

I hated these golf outings. Not that I hated golf —I actually thought it was kind of Zen to follow the ball over the terrain of the course— but I hated having to make small talk and show the appropriate balance of humble gratitude and ambitious hunger to the partners who sponsored the excursion. I had asked Elaine to join me. All the spouses were invited. She had declined and I didn’t press her. I couldn’t blame her for not wanting to waste 5 hours of her day listening to the false bonhomie of young lawyers eager to impress their bosses. I couldn’t remember the last time Elaine and I had golfed together. Had it been two years, maybe three? Was this one more thing she had gone along with just to please me when our relationship was new?

Sleep eluded me. I listened to the sounds of Elaine not being able to sleep either. She tossed and turned, sighed heavily, rearranged her pillow, got up for water and then a second time for the bathroom. At some point, I must have drifted off because a rumble of thunder startled me awake. I’d been dreaming, but the vision dissipated immediately when I opened my eyes. Nevertheless, it left me with an overwhelming sense of dread. When the storm abated, dark finally gave way to grey scale, and I abandoned further hope of slumber and threw off the covers. After a shower and shave, I quietly relocated to the kitchen for coffee. Elaine never stirred.

After three strong cups of coffee for fortification, I loaded my clubs into the car and went back upstairs to let her know I was leaving. I touched her bare shoulder and she opened an eye.

“Hey. What are you up to today?” I asked her.

She rubbed her eyes, looking as tired and drawn as I felt. “I don’t know. Get in a workout, maybe. I feel fat after that dinner last night.”

“Yeah. Let’s keep it light tonight. Salads or something,” I replied.

She murmured something under her breath and burrowed under the covers again. I asked, “You want me to pick something up on the way home?”

“Sure, whatever.”

“Ok. I…” I paused. “I’ll see you tonight.” I kissed her cheek and backed out of the room.

I didn’t know how to fix this. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was exactly. I never took Oliver’s flirting with Elaine seriously until recently. Until I saw how she had begun to bask in his attention. Maybe that was my fault. If Elaine wasn’t getting what she needed from me, she would look for it elsewhere. The trouble was, I wasn’t getting what I needed either, but I didn’t know how to tell her that without sounding like I was casting the blame. I didn’t want to lose Elaine. I wanted the Elaine I had married, though. The woman who shared all my interests had been replaced by a woman I barely knew.

As I backed out of the garage, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. Had I misled Elaine? Had she married a different man from the one who stared back at me now? Or had she known and hoped somehow that I would change? That was surely a recipe for disaster. I paused at the end of the driveway to let a car pass and wondered if there was any way for Elaine to be happy with me. The road ahead was neither smooth nor straight.

Illustration my own.

Small Cuts (7) Oliver Again #fiction

Read the opening thoughts of each of them: James, Elaine, Oliver and Genevieve. Then James again, Elaine continues and now Oliver again…

It happens this way in dreams: Once in a while in the midst of the dense fog, there is a brief moment of clarity. A parting of the mist where for an instant the terrain of the road ahead is visible and navigable. With confidence, you forge ahead until once again the clouds descend and the view is obscured. And not only is the way now hidden but the lay of the land forgotten, rendering you immobile and impotent to act.

This was the state of my mind now and really, it had been for the past few weeks, months —maybe even a year. The obstacles between Gen and me seemed insurmountable. How do two married people on opposite sides of the issue of starting a family manage to come to terms? How do you possibly compromise on that? It’s not like I could do this without her… Even if I offered to be a stay-at-home-dad, it would still be her body carrying our child, she —the vessel bringing another being into the horror that was this world we lived in.

And now, with the added variable of Elaine in the mix, I was no longer certain I wanted to fix the issues between my wife and myself. I felt like throwing everything into the fire and starting over. And yet, and yet… Without knowing for sure if Elaine shared my feelings —which to be honest were intensely strong but vague in scope— I didn’t dare make a move that could destroy not one, but two marriages, and a best friendship that had lasted decades.

Ironically, Genevieve had seemed happy on the way home from the restaurant. She actually talked animatedly about her conversation with James. Apparently, James had decided to read his way through some classic literature and she had been delighted to give him advice.

I should be jealous, I thought to myself. I was positive Elaine wouldn’t be babbling away about the things we had talked about tonight. James would have been jealous. Wouldn’t he? Or was he really that oblivious to his wife’s beauty and my attention to her? Of course the devilish solution to the whole problem whirled around in my head: James with Gen, me with Elaine. I’m sure it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing happened. It just seemed so … unsavory didn’t quite cover it. Could new love be founded on the bones of betrayal? Because if nothing else, I was sure of my love for Elaine. If she loved me too, was it fair to deny it? This where the fog descended and I became most disoriented. Somewhere ahead was a cliff or a gradual slope, the step I chose could be disastrous or easy to transverse. I couldn’t act rashly.

Later that evening, as I brushed my teeth, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. Which man stared back at me from the glass? The husband or the adulterer? A man bound for happiness or misery, love or loathing, and which of those men was which?

I set my toothbrush into the ceramic mug beside Gen’s and flipped the light off on my way out. The bedroom was dark, save for the reading light on my bedside table. Gen was already sleeping when I came into the bedroom. She looked so beautiful, so delicate with her porcelain skin and long, slender limbs curled beneath the heavy duvet. Her blonde mane fanned out over her pillow like a tawny silk shawl in the wind. She was facing away from me, so I touched one soft strand, wound it around my finger then let it drop, as I climbed in beside her. In the dark, after the lamp was extinguished, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. Only then did I become aware that her rhythmic breathing sounded forced and I wondered if her sleep was feigned. I wondered if we would both lay awake tonight thinking about the future.

Tomorrow, my fate would be decided.

Header illustration: Man In the Mirror ~ Meg Sorick, 2018

Small Cuts (5) James Again #fiction

This is a continuation of a series I started a long time ago. Maybe you remember it: two couples out for dinner together, the internal thoughts of each one? Read the opening thoughts of each of them: James, Elaine, Oliver and Genevieve. And now back to James again…

It always begins with words. Some will try to tell you it’s the sight of someone that brings on those first feelings of love, but that’s just lust, hormones, chemicals. Love, genuine affection, true feelings —they begin with words. The problems arise when the words are lies.

The ride home from the restaurant was quiet. I made several attempts at conversation, but gave up after receiving one or two word answers in return. I thought Elaine would say something about the way Genevieve and I talked for once. I wondered if she had noticed our hands touch across the table, or if she had been too enthralled with Ollie’s fawning. Whatever the case, she had no more words for me. Not tonight anyway.

I stole a quick glance at her out of the corner of my eye. Her pretty face was lighted from the glow of her phone’s screen. Facebook or Instagram, no doubt. She could spend hours scrolling through the newsfeed. Watching cooking videos for recipes she’d never try, taking trivia quizzes and commenting on all her many friends’ posts. Everyone’s highlight reel. I couldn’t understand it. It was fake life. By the time we got home, she would have posted photos of our meals, the selfie she took as soon as we got to our table and maybe a shot of me when I wasn’t looking. It was our fake life, too.

I met Elaine the old fashioned way —in a bar. I had gone out with a couple of other guys from the firm to celebrate winning a hard fought and highly lucrative settlement for our clients. The Bar was so named to attract the lawyers who had situated their offices strategically near the center city courthouse. Tonight my colleagues and I bought rounds of drinks for the house, toasted each other on our performances and got joyfully wasted in short order. So that was the state of things when Elaine and her friends walked in and settled at a table in the back. She was lovely. Flawless skin, dark hair she had piled in a loose bun with tendrils framing her face, dimples that appeared when she smiled —and she smiled often as I watched her.

For a man who needs to display unassailable confidence in front of the court, I am not especially outgoing when it comes to people in general. I am not unfriendly, just choosy about whom I decide to call a friend. So if not for alcohol fueled courage, I might never have approached the table of four women. Might never have talked with Elaine way past the time our friends had left for the night. All those words…

Sometimes, when that initial lust, those hormones and chemicals make the brain function poorly, you pretend. You pretend that every word the other person says to you is the most interesting thing in the world. You agree about everything. You like all the same things. You fake your way through topics of conversation in which you haven’t a clue. You hope the other person doesn’t notice.

I didn’t notice. Out of character, I did most of the talking, Elaine smiled, nodded, agreed, seemed genuinely interested. In retrospect, I realized that she asked questions to keep me talking —a deflection so I would’t catch on that she knew nothing about history, the law, classical music, Renaissance art. When last call came I was besotted. I asked her if we could see each other again and she readily agreed. I kissed her goodnight as she got into a taxi.

On our first date, I took her to the art museum. She had seemed enthusiastic that night at The Bar when I told her about the exhibit I wanted to see. She played the part perfectly that day and the next time we went out and for all the times after that as well. We fell in love. I proposed. We got married.

When in a relationship do the blinders come off? Or for that matter, when do we take our masks off and show our true selves? It’s never abrupt, rather more like a subtle slippage over time. Begging off on the gallery opening, staring at her iPad instead of the film on TV, playing her streaming music instead of mine. I can’t remember ever really noticing, not until I saw how she was with Oliver. It was the way we used to be in the beginning. Except this time, it didn’t feel like she was pretending.