By Timothy Herrick
Preschoolers giggled in the playground at the other end of the park. The thick pollen made Kyle sneeze. It was mid-morning and he was sitting on a bench drinking coffee from a cardboard cup. He lit a cigarette. After five years nicotine free, his favorite deadly habit was now officially revived.
Two days ago while drinking, Kyle decided he needed to smoke and bought a ten dollar pack in a cigarette machine at the bar. He hadn’t smoked at all when Jeanette moved out. Two days ago was not even the first time he had gotten drunk since her leaving, that happened several times, like the night after the moving men came to remove her boxes and her few items of furniture. But, two days ago was the first time Kyle couldn’t unequivocally deny that getting drunk was solely due to her no longer being there. He couldn’t even explain why he smoked yesterday, it didn’t help him endure the especially severe hangover.
Today was his first sober, clear-headed cigarette. It tasted great, awesome in fact. He promised he would go to the gym again tomorrow morning.
Now it was April. Winter had gone by in a hectic blur. He barely celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Years or Valentine’s Day. He had written two articles on his legal specialty, insurance reimbursement for healthcare providers, and headed the legal team on a court case on the same topic. Weekends 10, 12, 16 hour days. The whole bit. Then, the moment when work seemed to ease its grip on his attention, Jeanette announced the news she had found a job and apartment in Boston. She didn’t want to wait around for his time off, wasn’t enticed by promises of a long weekend in a Florida Hotel or a New England Bed and Breakfast. It wasn’t just this time or the last time, she said. She needed a change, she said. She used the word pattern when she cited the old excuses of him holding back and taking her for granted, never engaging in a significant commitment to their future. Pattern. You can’t break the pattern and I can’t live with the pattern anymore. I feel alone when I’m with you and I don’t want to feel alone anymore.
No more anymore now. Instead of relaxing in a romantic setting with a woman he said I love you to, the woman he spent the last four years living with, he was in his neighborhood park, smoking, alone. He no longer had to worry about what her mood would be like, what comment of his would piss her off, what comment would force her to weep. His apartment depressed him, he despised basking in its emptiness, which was why today he dawdled in the park, listening to the children and sniffling from the pollen.
His cell-phone buzzed. He immediately recognized Sheila’s phone number on the Caller ID. They hadn’t been together since November.
“Hey, this is a surprise.”
“I heard about the case. Congratulations by the way. I have the afternoon off and I’m near your neighborhood. Are you busy?”
“In fact.” He hesitated, lodging the smoldering butt between the tip of his index finger and the middle of this thumb, instinctively resuming the familiar motion of his pack-a-day teens and twenties. He flicked the butt in a perfect arc, clearing the sidewalk and landing near an oblivious pigeon. “I’m not working today.”
“Want to do one of our lunches?” She was driving, he could hear the clattering hum of traffic, the engine of her car. Short static bursts sporadically interrupted the cell-phone connection. But, no noise could dampen the natural sensuality of her voice, the inescapable saturation of innuendo, the seductive coyness that inspired irrevocable flurries of erotic memories. “I’ve missed you and I’m sorry I couldn’t call but you know why, you understand. The holidays and Valentines and there was a lot of work. You understand. Family. Marriage. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about you… are you there?”
They had always met in the afternoon, not every day, and usually not even every week, although there were times, when her husband was out of town and Jeanette was on a business trip, they met a lot. Usually at his apartment, sometimes in a hotel. Like now, several months might pass between rendezvous; but more often than not, it had been two, three afternoons a month. Just because it was sex on the side for both, separate they thought from their everyday lives, their real lives, their desire was like any couple’s desire, it ebbed and flowed. It wasn’t just desire, it wasn’t just inspiring appetite then indulging and fulfilling that appetite. They liked each other. Pursuing their attraction was separate from their friendship, just as that attraction and that friendship were separate from their everyday lives, those real lives.
Sheila was his age and a healthcare law litigator. They never lacked for topics to discuss, which intensified enticement. Once, after they had finished their pasta and were waiting for the check, she said in a voice that wasn’t a whisper but was not loud enough for any one else in the restaurant to hear, “I would now like to spend the rest of the day helping you think of ways to make me come.”
Being with her never meant he didn’t love Jeanette. She never suspected anything, and when he made love with Sheila at the apartment, they made sure not to leave any clues. Sheila never demanded anything else from him, she was happily married anyway. It was something secret, something for ourselves. And, always after a tryst, he would take Jeanette to her favorite restaurant, surprise her with flowers or some other gift. In fact, he always felt more amorous towards Jeanette after fornicating with Sheila. Maybe part of it was guilt, maybe part of it was a means to prevent Jeanette from feeling any suspicion. That part worked. In the last argument the night before she left infidelity was never mentioned, not even hinted.
The main reason he felt compelled to show Jeanette more devotion after being with Sheila was that he did love Jeanette. He was able to rationalize that he could love her and still have another lover too. Everything compartmentalized. It was a great situation. Being desired by two different women, never going long wanting for sex, filled him not with guilt, but self-confidence. He felt on top of the world. Now he felt on the bottom of that same world.
He made coffee every morning and yesterday, hung-over, there were tears in his eyes when he realized that he didn’t remember how to make enough coffee for one. The large amount of coffee left in the Mr. Coffee pot was just another reminder of abandonment, another figment of emptiness.
After Sheila’s call, he went back to his apartment to shower and shave and put on clean clothes. When he glanced at the empty Mr. Coffee, he briefly sobbed. With two heavy coffee drinkers, the glass pot was never clear when Jeanette was home. He could not escape her absence.
Seeing Sheila enter the restaurant from a block away only made him more nervous. He remembered something about her, a tendency he never mentioned. Whenever she was early meant she really wanted it. Hornier. They usually met at this restaurant, a quiet, slightly upscale Italian joint. Kyle was compulsively punctual, ten minutes early to everything. The times she arrived first and waited for him she would be louder, uninhibited, more passionate.
He stopped, lit a cigarette. The anticipation became fear, apprehension.
Only a few months ago, they were still talking about having children, about getting married and moving to the suburbs. They attended each other’s family gatherings together, even co-signed Christmas Cards. He not only lied to Jeanette, he never told her that he lied to her. She would never know that. He could never be hated or forgiven. Intense Sheila sex would not make him forget that, it would just make it more apparent. His hand had a tremor when he sailed the butt towards the curb.
In spite of the anxiety, he decided being with Sheila had to be better than being alone.
Sheila was seated, fiddling with her cell-phone. The restaurant door opening made her look up and she smiled at him and he was keenly, immediately aware that he had to try to smile. In her countenance he recognized her wanting him—that reflection of sex memories—the variety of instances of desire and satisfaction fueling the anticipation to renew that desire and satisfaction. She wanted to relive those memories in order to make new memories. The way she looked at him made him gasp. Inside him was dread—an inexplicable type of dread—how would he tell her about Jeanette? He couldn’t hide his feelings from Sheila, he knew their intimacy made that impossible.
He felt something similar to shame. He didn’t blame Jeanette for breaking up with him, and if you don’t resent the other the only one that leaves to resent is yourself.
They never showed overt affection in public, so Sheila just stood up and gave him her usual close but quick hug, her lips pecked his cheek. When they sat down she squinted at him, “you smell like smoke.”
“Sorry. I had a cigarette.”
“I didn’t know you were a smoker.”
“I’m not. Well, I used to be. The other night I was out drinking, after the case, I couldn’t resist and I guess I bought a pack. When it’s done I’ll go another five, ten years.”
“I smoke a cigarette once in a while, but I don’t really get it. Sometimes I like the smell, but I usually don’t.”
“How do you feel about the smell now.”
“I can still smell your after-shave, so I don’t mind.” Her fingers rubbed the knuckles of his hand. “You have sexy after shave. I’ve missed you. Let’s order.”
She wanted a glass of red wine and he suggested a bottle. The waitress, a bored college student, came over and dropped the menus on the table. He ordered a California Cabernet. Sheila didn’t even wait for the waitress to fetch the bottle or recite the specials. She didn’t even open the menu, just ordered the shrimp pasta dish that she ordered nearly every time here. He went with the veal meatballs, not that he really wanted it. He had no specific craving in mind, wasn’t even hungry. The dish was something he had here before and remembered that he liked it well enough and going with that meant one less thing to think about.
After the waitress removed the unread menus and walked away, Sheila asked, “how are you?”
“Okay.” It was the simplest answer. Removing things to think about seemed the best strategy for now.
“I saw your law review article, you cited a case that I referenced in a brief last week…” Shop-talk meant another thing he didn’t have to think about, actually it took away his mental anguish entirely. Using the lawyer voice was his only sanctuary now. Work was easy to focus on, and because she was both a lawyer and practiced in related areas, she never grew bored. In fact, today she was filled with questions. She wanted his opinions. The case she was assigned to was big, involving a large hospital and a large insurance company and the state and case law in which he had expertise. She needed ideas and input, the progress was stalled, he could tell. He wondered if her call was as much about his legal knowledge as the sex, but that didn’t matter, talking law meant he wasn’t thinking about the loss of Jeanette in his life. The conversation persisted throughout the salad, but as the first bites were taken from the entrees, there was a lull that soon felt awkward. She said, “Are you okay? I’m sorry, you just sort of got quiet and you seem… haggard.”
He sipped his wine. “I’m a little out of sorts. Jeanette left me.”
“I didn’t know you two were having problems.”
“Neither did I. She got another job, in Boston.”
“There’s no hope, then, for a reconciliation?”
“There was a lot of strain, and the problem was, I didn’t notice the strain. She said I was taking her for granted. I think I was taking the strain for granted.”
“We both know you cared about her.”
“She was nice at first, you know, we had good times. We clicked. I love her, I care for her, and I miss her.”
“It’s like death, you’re grieving.” She sounded chipper. “You’ll be fine, don’t worry about that. You’re going to get over it. You’re a good guy, you’re good at your job.”
As he rubbed his eyes, he was able to squeak out one syllable, “thanks.”
Very little else was said as she finished her pasta. He couldn’t eat, so he just finished the bottle of wine.
She placed her fork against the dish, picked the cloth napkin up from her lap, dabbed the corners of her mouth, then dropped it over the fork. “I’m going to go.”
“It was really great seeing you, and I’ll call you soon, but I think it’s better that I go.”
“You don’t want to come over.”
“I think you’re a great lover, don’t get me wrong. But you’re a little fragile right now. I love what we have together, but one thing that I love about it, is there was no risk of it interfering. We both had somebody we didn’t want to hurt. We both had something else that we didn’t want to mess with. Now, that equation has changed. Now there is a risk I can’t take. I’m not available to you that way, to help with your emotions. Please, understand. You’re going to be fine, it’s probably the best thing to happen, you’ll see.”
Ignoring his protests, she dropped a twenty dollar bill on the table and left. He asked for the check, asked the waitress if he could smoke, and since nobody was in the restaurant, she brought over an ashtray.
Two years from now, his next girlfriend he will marry. He will tell her he will never lie to her and he will keep that promise. Five years from now, he will run into Sheila in the hallway of the Trenton State House where she works as a lobbyist and he was testifying at a committee hearing. They will have coffee together, enjoy each other’s company and show each other pictures of their children. She has a boy and he has a girl and they are the same age and neither mention they are glad they no longer live in the same part of the state because that makes it much less likely their kids will ever date.
Today though, inebriated and queasy, he walked to the park, sat on a bench. There weren’t as many children, their sounds were softer. There were two robins among a small herd of pigeons who vigilantly poked their beaks in the grass. A bumble bee hovered around wilting forsythia. The sun on his face felt warm. He would remember every detail about this moment, more often and more intensely, than this lunch with Sheila, or the morning when Jeanette walked to her car, the last glimpse of her he would ever have. Instead of a cigarette, he tried to remember some prayers from childhood, but as he folded his hands, all he could mutter was help me.
Copyright 2011, held by author