The first thing I see when I wake is the wedding ring on the bedside locker. I don’t remember it being there last night, but we’d had more to drink than usual, and, after making love, sleep had come quickly for both of us, Amanda’s eyes fluttering closed, her breathing growing deep mere moments before my own eyes closed, my usual habit of watching her sleep for a few extra minutes, soaking up as much of her as it could, cut short.
My vision seems to narrow to a needle-eye point as the ring becomes all I can see, and I have to fight the urge to flick it onto the bedroom floor, out of sight. But instead I turn my back to it to look at Amanda who lies beside me, still asleep, her face turned to me, her chest rising and falling in easy sleep.
My heart tightens in my chest at the sight of her, a combined sensation of love and fear, love for her and fear that someday I will lose her, a sensation exacerbated by the stabbing weight of the wedding ring I feel between my shoulder blades; out of sight but certainly not out of mind. Never out of mind.
I reach over and push a strand of Amanda’s burning red haired off her forehead, letting my fingertips linger on her temple for a brief moment. She stirs slightly but doesn’t wake, a small frown crossing her forehead for a second, then nothing but the steady rise and fall of her chest; if only she could stay asleep and I could stay lying here beside her, looking at her, this moment lasting forever.
We were never meant to fall in love. Or more to the point, I was never meant to fall in love with her. It was something never directly discussed but it didn’t need to be. It simply wasn’t an option. She was married after all. But I had fallen in love with her, deeply, completely, almost from the very first moment I had seen her across the distance of the canteen at work, though I had never told her this, not even after we became lovers, in case it might scare her away. Seeing the wedding ring on her finger a week later when we were introduced at someone’s leaving party had been a physical blow to my stomach, almost equal to the sensation of seeing it on the bedside locker just now. After a few minutes of small talk I knew I needed this woman in my life, even if only as a friend. What else could there be? She was married after all, and in my own parent’s marriage I had seen the jagged repercussions of affairs, and could not fathom how someone would be so willing to risk everything for the lips or limbs of another when the reward is ultimately so savage; Amanda did not strike me as someone who would endanger her marriage, so anything more than friendship with her wasn’t attainable, and I doubted that I could bring myself to potentially become the catalyst of a marriage’s destruction, if the opportunity presented itself.
But I was wrong. On both counts.
I get out of bed, quietly so as to not wake Amanda, and pick up my t-shirt off the floor. I place it gently on the bedside locker, covering the ring, hoping that the pressing weight between my shoulder blades lessens.
As I ease myself back into bed I see that Amanda is awake, her blue eyes softly studying me.
“Sorry,” she says, her eyes moving from me to the ring and back again. “I meant to put it in my bag last night, but…”
“It’s okay,” I say, as though I hadn’t just covered it up with my t-shirt, and she hadn’t just seen me do so. But I believe I was attempting to convince myself more than her; it wasn’t as though this morning was the first time I had seen it. Yes, whenever she took it off she put it out of sight in her bag, but not all the time; sometimes it had been left in view, and many a time she hadn’t even taken it off. So distracted by each other’s skin, it was the furthest thing from our minds, and I would faintly feel it scraping it up and down my back as I moved inside her, her breath wet on my neck, like a ghost whispering unknown words across my spine.
All those times, and yet, this time, seeing it there, feeling its presence, being so violently aware of its presence, silent yet deafening, unnerves me more than at any time in our four month affair.
“No, it isn’t,” she says, half smiling.
“No. It isn’t,” I agree, fighting the urge to start crying, a cold wave of sadness shaking my body.
“Kiss me,” she says, reaching her hand across the back of my neck and pulling my lips to hers, kissing me deeply, her tongue dancing with mine, her other hand sliding down my chest and gripping my suddenly hard dick, pulling me on top of her, into her, banishing my sudden sadness to the edges of my awareness.
I don’t know if Amanda loved me. She cared for me, I know that much, but love? She never said the words to me and I never asked, though the thought was never far from my mind, the question always on the tip of my tongue, waiting for a burst of courage to force it out of my mouth; a surge of courage that never came because what if her answer was one I didn’t want to hear, or the asking of it might push her away from me. Those few times I’d told her I loved her she would reply “don’t,” her voice so gentle it was almost a whisper, her eyes flickering away from mine, toward something only she could see, something behind and beyond me, before shaking her head and looking back at me, smiling, and I would nod my head and tell myself not to say it again, because just as the question of her love for me might push her away, so too might the declaration of my love for her.
But of course I would tell her again and she would say “don’t” and…
I could only hope she loved me. I wished for it, even if she couldn’t say it. The smallest amount of love would have been enough for me, if such a thing as love could be measured in weights or amounts. Surely there was some love. She was cheating on her husband with me. That had to mean something. She’d told me she’d never done anything like this before, and I believed her. I was happy to believe her. I would have forced myself to believe her even if I didn’t. And wasn’t the fact that she was engaged in an affair with me a subtle declaration of love, and shouldn’t that small unuttered admittance have been enough for me, when, for all intents and purposes, it would have to be? Does love need to be verbalised for it to have meaning, to have substance? In a perfect world, no. But the world, or at least my place in it, was far from perfect; to hear Amanda tell me she loved me… If I believed in such things as the soul, I would gladly exchange it to hear those words from her mouth.
Two weeks after we first kissed, and eight days after we slept together for the first time, Amanda turned to me as we lay in a hotel bed during an extended lunch break, and said that I must think her a horrible person because she was cheating on her husband, the man she had vowed to spend her life with. I told her no, that was far from the truth, I could never think such a thing of her, and was about to tell her I loved her, even if it was to be followed by her “don’t”, when she shook her head and sat up in the bed.
“I love my husband,” she said, staring at the far wall, her words snapping me in two. “I do, as hard as that is to believe. But there’s different kinds of love.”
She turned round to look at me then, a half smile on her face, tears threatening in her eyes. I could find no words to reply so instead held out my arms, and she lay back down beside me, in my arms, and I pulled her tight into me and felt her own arms tighten around me, and the two of us lay there, like that, until it was time to get dressed and return to work, the hotel room to remain empty until the check-out time the next morning when the room would be cleaned and made ready for the next occupants, whoever they might be; and I thought about those people, thought about how long they might use the room for, how it would probably be for a far longer time than we had used it, thought about them and that room until I had the chance to be with Amanda again, this time in my apartment, though for the same amount of time that we had used the hotel room, Amanda needing to be home before her husband returned from working late.
Amanda rises from the bed and walks to the bathroom, closing the door after her. A moment later I hear the shower come on and I sit up in bed, turning to look at my t-shirt on the locker. I lift it up and look at the wedding ring. Holding my breath, I pick it up and hold it close to my eye, scrutinising it as though I am searching for clues, a jeweller without his loupe having to rely on his naked eye, knowing he will miss what it is he needs to see.
I don’t know how long I stare at the ring – a few seconds, a minute – but eventually I put it back down on the locker, letting my breath out as soon as my skin breaks contact with it, my lungs tight with the need for air. I stand up and put on my boxer-shorts, thinking I’ll go downstairs and make Amanda some breakfast, but instead I sit back down on the edge of my bed and stare at my feet.
“It’s over,” I whisper to myself, the two small words like razor blades to my heart.
I turn and look at the bathroom door, listen to the sound of the shower, imagine the hot water falling onto Amanda’s slim body, like my hands and tongue and mouth have fallen on her so many times over the past four months, how they did only minutes ago, and now will never again; the sight of her naked back as she disappeared into the bathroom to wash our mingled sweat off her pale skin might well be the last time I see her naked.
I shake my head, telling myself I’m just being paranoid. There’s nothing to tell me she’s finishing our affair, bar the ring left on the locker, and that means nothing, absolutely nothing. I’m being paranoid, as I always am when the fear of Amanda leaving me rises its head, as it does almost every time we’re together, or when she’s late to meet up, or when she doesn’t answer a text, or doesn’t ring me when she said she would. All the time, because she is married, and guilt might overtake whatever it is she feels for me, might turn her face from me as she rises to return to her husband and never come back to me, might even confess all to him and be forced to completely sever all ties with me, ignore me at work, in the corridors or the canteen; she might even change jobs, either to lessen the remains of guilt, or at her husband’s instruction.
I stand up and walk to the bedroom window, look down to the courtyard that is shared by all the apartments, though only ever used when the weather is good. It is empty now but for a black cat that sits on one of the wooden benches, lazily washing itself with its sandpaper tongue.
For the past year, maybe a little bit more, I have found myself constantly feeling alone, even when in the company of others. Even with friends I can never think of anything to say, and simply sit in my own silence in pubs and restaurants, wondering why I came at all. It has got to the stage when I rarely go out, even when friends call me up to go for a drink, or a meal, and now I see very few of them, and their attempts to meet up have decreased. I don’t call them either. I would rather sit alone in the comfort of my home, than be lonely surrounded by many, feeling my loneliness all the more because I am surrounded by many.
I don’t know what has happened to me. I used to be always up for going out, having a few drinks, having a laugh. Living. But now? Now, I sometimes feel as though I have no future, or at least not one I wish to have; one of constant loneliness, of not belonging.
I feel adrift, in a vast, dark ocean, the only light coming from stars a billion miles away, most of them, if not all, dead. And while I started to experience this shift in myself before I even met Amanda, I was already deep in my vast ocean; it is only when I’m with her that I feel comfortable, when I feel not alone.
And now, now, is she leaving me? Is she going? Is what was always a possibility, is always a possibility in any relationship, I know, but more so in this one, finally coming to pass? I feel ill with the thought, and trying to convince myself that it is simply paranoia does not lessen the feeling.
“I brought that book in,” Amanda said to me, over cups of coffee in the canteen at work, and there was something in the way she said it, an unspoken code hidden amongst those five words, that made my head swim and my heart race, though I immediately doubted my discovery and deciphering of this code and wishful thinking; it would not be the first time I had heard more in a woman’s words, or seen more in her eyes and gestures. But mere moments later our affair began, the two of us kissing like explorers in her office, a copy of A.S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale held tightly in my right hand, my left hand gentle on the curve of Amanda’s back, my entire body tingling with the effects of sated anticipation.
Five months had passed since my first sighting of her, and in that time we got to know each other through lunch times, coffee breaks and after-work drinks, mostly with colleagues, though sometimes on our own, conversations ranging from politics to literature and most things in between. In each conversation we had we both realised how our interests and opinions complimented each other, how, in some cases, our thoughts and opinions, our likes and dislikes, were exactly the same. Also, each conversation reinforced my desire, both physical and mental, for Amanda, while, paradoxically, reminding me that she was forever out of my reach. Her friendship was as close as I could be with her, which I was learning to, if not necessarily live with, at least accept, because both relationships I had been in over the last five months had ended pathetically as the women involved realised that neither my heart nor mind were at all interested in them beyond using them in an attempt to lose myself with someone, anyone; bury myself in the body of another so I might avoid my growing sense of loneliness. But it was doomed to fail, right from the start, and not just because my loneliness would reassert itself immediately after we had sex, but guilt would join it for using these woman as I was, and of course the only woman I was truly interested in was Amanda, and the body of another woman simply reminded me that she, Amanda, was completely out of reach. When the second woman finished with me, contempt and hurt competing on her face, while anger raged through her words, I decided it was best to accept my loneliness and not drag someone’s heart through the dirt for the sake of easing mine for a handful of hours at a time.
A week after that first kiss we went back to my apartment and made quick, hungry love, as though this might be the only time we might ever make love and were filling ourselves with each other, storing away excesses of each other, Amanda leaving shortly after to get home, her excuse of being out with some work friends only buying her so much time before her husband might ask questions she didn’t want to answer. Not for the first time I wondered what kind of man he was, and, as I did every time this thought arose, I threw it quickly from my mind, not wanting to know, nor wanting to dwell on what he might or might not be like; I did not want to think of him as a man like me, with his own worries and concerns, with his own life, with his own love for Amanda, his heart possibly singing a song similar to my own heart’s song every time he saw her.
A few days after that, as we stood in her office kissing, a fabricated meeting allowing us to justify locking the door if anyone came calling, I asked her when she’d decided she wanted to be with me. “I’m with you now,” is all she said, and I found, surprisingly, that that answer was enough for me.
The shower stops, but I remain staring out the window, seeing nothing but all those yesterdays with her, falling on top of each other, four months of yesterdays that my heart, overruling my paranoid mind, knows will not be added to.
I feel sick, seeing tomorrow, and all the days after. All of them without Amanda.
A month after we became lovers I met her husband at a work colleague’s wedding and surprised myself by not feeling as guilty as I thought I would, shaking his hand, my nervousness of the preceding days, knowing that I was going to meet him, disappearing instantly. I did find I was unable to hold my gaze in his for long, instead looking over his shoulder at Amanda who was trying not to look at either of us, her own nervousness making her pale; she had been dreading this meeting as much as I had, possibly more.
As the day progressed, any vestige of guilt that I might have felt faded away, but, unfortunately, was quickly replaced by a hard combination of anger and jealousy when we sat down for the meal, our work colleague, the groom, of course not knowing about myself and Amanda, placing us at the same table, Amanda beside me, her husband on her other side. I ate very little and drank too much, attempting to block out seeing her husband holding her hand, touching her back, Amanda, in turn, smiling and laughing with him, both of them, to all eyes, a happily married couple. And then, the most painful blow, a barb of cold ice in my heart, seeing him holding her close as they slow-danced on the dance floor, Amanda’s head resting on his shoulder, her still expression revealing nothing at all.
There and then I decided to end it between us. This was a pain I could do without, no matter how much I loved her.
Thankfully I wasn’t drunk enough to approach her there and then, though the idea did briefly, and, I must admit, somewhat gleefully, flash across my mind; only the thought of how much it might hurt and embarrass her in front of all these people stopped me from drunkenly rising from my seat and striding over to them. I told myself I would do it when I saw her next in work. But, back in my hotel room — the wedding being a country one, and most of us finding it easier to book rooms in the hotel than endure the one hundred and twenty-two miles journey back to Dublin – just as I was about to drunkenly fall asleep fully dressed, I heard a knock at the door. When I opened the door, there stood Amanda, crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, suddenly feeling fearful and joyful at the same time that her husband had found out about us and swiftly ended their marriage by throwing her out of their hotel room; a nonsensical notion given more credence than it deserved by my drunken state.
“Can I come in?” she asked, and I stepped aside to let her in, closing the door, then taking her in my arms until she stopped crying, and, with no more words spoken we slowly undressed each other and climbed into bed to make gentle, silent love.
When I woke the next morning she was gone, but her smell still lingered in the room, and I imagined I could still taste the salt from her tears on my lips. Her absence there beside me, even though I knew she’d be gone when I woke, filled me with a soft sadness; to have woaken beside her and been able to go downstairs and have breakfast together, to laugh and joke together, to whisper delicately to each other, in front of the eyes of everyone. To have been the man that she danced with last night, and not the man watching, getting drunk as quickly as possible…
I knew I could never end it between us. If it were to ever end, and how I wished that would never happen, it would be by her hand, her words. Only she could bring about our ending.
Driving home to Dublin later that day, the sky a lonely shade of grey, the threat of rain filling the air, I could still smell her on my skin.
The bathroom door opens, and something unheard but felt in its sound confirms what I already know: we are over, all our stolen kisses and touches in her office, my office, our quick hours and long nights in my apartment, in hotel rooms, our whispered words and secret texts. Our affair of four months is done.
“Michael?” Amanda says behind me, and I turn around to face her as she stands in the bathroom doorway, a blue towel wrapped tightly around her body, her right hand clutching the double fold of it across her breasts, holding it in place, her naked body no longer mine to look upon.
“Yes?” I say, surprised at how steady my voice sounds to my ears.
“I can’t… I can’t do this anymore,” she says, looking from me to something over my shoulder, then back to me. “I’m falling in love with you, but…”
“But there’s different kinds of love,” I finish for her, trying to leash my heart as it shakes in my chest at her admittance of falling in love with me, those hoped for, longed for words finally jumping from her tongue, while also trying to make it as easy as possible for her, because no matter how much this is hurting me, no matter how much I want to roar and cry and beg her not to leave me, please, please, don’t leave me, I love her with all my heart and there is nothing I would willingly do to cause her pain.
“No,” she says. “No. Not that. No. I just… I can’t leave my husband. But I can’t keep doing this. Me and him…we have a history, and…”
She stares at the ceiling, as though looking for words that might be written there. I notice that her eyes are red, though whether this is from the shower or she’s been crying, I can’t tell. I would ask, but would the answer be of any benefit to me? Is it likely to change anything about what is happening?
“I’m sorry,” she says, her eyes coming back down to me.
“I understand,” I say, even though I don’t, not really. Yes, she has a history with her husband, but does she have a future? Is it a solid future, or just a repeat of their history, every day the same? What might she have with me? She might have a real future, a future of possibility. The unknown against the known. And the answer might be in there, in the unknown against the know, the familiar against the unfamiliar, the reason she is staying with him, the comfort of it all.
I want to say this to her, convince her that the best future belongs with me, because it is an unknown future, it is something different, something new that we can both build. There is more living to be found in this unknown. There is more life. Yes, I want to tell her all this, I want to convince her that I understand all her fears, but that staying with me will be worth it, and those fears will be quickly pacified because, simply, I love her, I love her, but the painful struggle on her face kills me, and so I swallow all my possible words and simply repeat, “I understand,” trying not to think how much I will dwell upon this moment in the future, my future, without her, and how much I will berate myself for not speaking, for so calmly letting her go.
She smiles then, a thankful smile mixed with relief, as though she had been expecting me to wail and cry and argue and beg and plead and… all the things I wanted to do, still want to do, my tongue seeming to swell in my mouth with the need to say all I want to say, all that she doesn’t want me to say. But I don’t, I seal my mouth, and hold my tears behind my eyes, and she nods her head, and my heart breaks all the more, and I look away so that she can’t see my face, my skin suddenly feeling too small for my skull, my cheekbones like hot razor blades beneath my eyes.
She dresses quickly and when she’s done I pick up her wedding ring and hold it out to her. She looks at it for a moment, then at me. Seconds pass like hours, and it seems like she won’t take it, but then she reaches out and takes it from me, her fingers grazing mine. And with that quick touch of skin I remember all the times we have touched, holding hands under the table in pubs and restaurants, skin pressing against skin in the privacy of offices and bedrooms, all those times reaching to last night and this morning when the eagerness of her body was more than it had ever been, even that first night in my apartment those too few months ago.
I blink quickly, again and again, sealing my tears in, forcing those memories back.
“Thank you,” she says, putting the ring on her finger, reclaiming its hold upon her, and it sits there as though it has never been taken off. As though it will never be taken off.
Eleven seconds pass. I count them. Amanda opens her mouth to say something, but closes it again, either not finding the words, or not wanting to speak the words she has. She shakes her head slowly before turning and walking out the bedroom door.
A lifetime passes as I wait to hear the front door open and close, but instead she walks back into the bedroom.
I feel hope rise like a wet pressure in my chest.
“I’m going to miss… more than this,” she says, gesturing towards the bed.
“Me too,” I say, my voice so weak the words barely reach my ear, and she turns and is gone.
I remain standing there, staring at where she’d just been standing, wondering if she’s going to walk back in again, or am I finally going to hear the front door open and close.
Another lifetime passes and I finally hear what I don’t want to hear; the front door opens, and then I count seven seconds before I hear it close, knowing she is on the other side of it now, her steps taking her away from me and back to her husband. I fall back on the bed and stare at the ceiling as though I have never seen it before.
When we were two months into our affair I told my friend Paul. I had to tell someone, I don’t know why. Amanda had been adamant that no one could ever know about us. What we had, what we were building, whatever it was we were building, had to be secret, or else it could never happen, and I swore that I would tell no one.
Maybe I had to tell someone to make it more real? Or simply just to tell someone, anyone, because sometimes, the not telling of it made it feel as though it was going to eat my heart, and Paul was the last of my friends, the last one to not lose patience with me, though shortly after that conversation he did, telling me I had more time for Amanda than I’d ever had for anyone else, himself include, which looking back at, was true, even if the time i did spend with Amanda was never enough time at all. He had listened to me as I told him everything about Amanda, how we got together, how I felt about her, and he had listened without judgement, asking the occasional question, before adding, after I’d finished, “No matter how much time she spends with you, no matter how many nights you spend together, and no matter what she says to you, when she leaves you she goes home to him. She will always go home to him”.
I knew what he meant, but it hadn’t bothered me too much, not then when he said it, and not at any of those times when Amanda’s phone would ring and she’d have to answer it, no matter what we were doing, guilt and sadness blooming in her eyes, not all those times she would have to leave after we made love, because I was getting some of her. I was getting some of her time, time that she could have been spending with friends, even some of the time she might have spent with her husband, and while never as much as I wanted, it was better than no time at all. It was time with a woman I loved, a woman I never imagined I would ever get to spend time with.
Now, lying on my bed, my eyes on fire, unable to even see the ceiling anymore, I feel as though the hard truth of Paul’s words will kill, me as the silence of my empty apartment wraps me in its indifferent arms.
About the author
Edward Lee's poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on a novel.