The Beginnings, short fiction from W. Jack Savage
The beginnings were hard to see then. When I was young and things were always happening, it seemed as though every other day brought a new start. But they had become few and far between. I remember this had been on my mind that day. I was winding down. That’s what I was feeling anyway.
I don’t know exactly why I decided to go into the hall for coffee after church. But I suppose it’s because I wanted something to happen. I was simply availing myself of every opportunity to connect. Of course, nothing ever happened. And nothing seemed as though it would that morning. In fact, I was having a nice conversation about golf with somebody’s husband. I was not in the state of waiting for something to happen, when it did. As I’ve imagined for many years, the only moment when things do happen is when you least expect it.
After finishing my coffee, I headed to the men’s room. On the way out I saw her and smiled as I passed. Just one of those “hi, how are you” smiles that said nothing more than that. As I passed into the courtyard on the way to the parking lot, she caught up with me.
“Excuse me,” she said.
I turned and looked around as if she were addressing someone else. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry, but I was hoping to get a chance to talk to you. I’m Emily Young.”
I don’t remember, but I’m sure I uttered some response and shook her hand. I don’t remember exactly because I was far ahead in terms of wondering why this woman was talking to me. Not what she was saying, but what she really wanted. I must have seemed quite awkward because in thinking back, I couldn’t remember a woman stopping me this way. I seemed to be quite at a loss for anything to say as well.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really not this scattered normally. What were you saying?”
“Well, it’s just that Tom, your pastor, said you were a writer. I write myself, and I thought maybe we could have coffee sometime and talk about it.”
“Sure,” I said, but ‘a beginning’ is what I was thinking. So, as a writer, I decided to share it with her.
“Mind you,” I continued, “I’m not saying that you and I are beginning anything more than a simple exchange of views on writing. But it is a beginning of sorts and they—beginnings I mean—don’t happen as often as they did when I was younger. That’s why I seemed so tongue tied for a moment there. I was imagining all the implications I guess.”
She smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Do you have any plans today?”
“No, not really; I’m freedom’s prisoner as they say.” I immediately regretted doing so.
“I’m sure you’re not,” she said. “Do you think we could get together today?”
“Sure,” I said. “Would you like to come over to my place or would you be more comfortable at say Starbucks or some similar establishment?”
She surprised me by saying my place would be fine, and before I could get the place in order, she was at my door. Naturally I apologized for the mess, but she not only didn’t seem to mind, she didn’t seem to notice either. There was no sizing up of my home the way women usually do. I found this curious because a nesting instinct commonly demands this sort of curiosity in the women I’ve known.
I had put the coffee on when I got home, so it was ready as I put away the last of the magazines I had strewn about. I was finding her more curious by the moment and told her so.
“I imagine you’re a lot more interesting than I am,” she offered.
I smiled. “Not to me. Are you married?”
“Yes, my husband is an engineer. He travels a great deal.”
“That must be tough on you both?”
“Neither one of us actually. We’re both used to it, and we have an understanding about the realities of living apart most of the time.”
I nodded as I processed her response.
“And you?” she began, “Tom said you were divorced, I think. Anyone special in your life?”
“I’m thinking that as a writer,” I said, “you might clearly discern that there are none in evidence.”
She smiled and replied, “None in evidence doesn’t necessarily mean none.”
“Thank you for the benefit of the doubt, but there is no one. There is everyone and no one, none in my real world, certainly.”
We continued for a while, and strange as it seemed, I did feel she was interested in me. As I became more comfortable with her, I began to feel more comfortable with myself. Her looks were not daunting in any real sense, but she was attractive. And while I doubted anything would actually come of it, she was providing me with wonderful material to fantasize about later. Still, there were yearnings of company missed in our exchange. I was enjoying our conversation and, in an effort to keep it from ending, asked if she’d allow me to make her dinner. “I assure you that I’m a better cook than I am a housekeeper.”
“Yes, I’d like that; maybe I can help.”
It was a most pleasant departure from my usual Sunday routine. We went shopping, and I made her my famous spaghetti. It was playing house, and as the day wound down, I noticed the little things that I hadn’t straightened out before she arrived, had magically been taken care of with her around. She even made the bed. With the dishes done, I poured out the last of the wine, and we settled in the living room.
“That was the best spaghetti I ever ate,” she said enthusiastically.
I must have smiled too sadly because she picked up on it at once.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I dropped my head and shook it. “I’m sorry, but I found myself wishing I had something else to offer you. The dinner is over, and I’ve enjoyed your company and the day we’ve had. I just had the feeling for a moment that it was ending or going to end. You’re very perceptive. I hadn’t meant to be that obvious.”
“Nothing is ending,” she assured me. “In fact the interesting part is just beginning… don’t you think?”
“Again, I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t usually allow myself to think that. I lack optimism, I suppose. But it’s nice to hear you’re not running off.”
I got up and stood there for a moment. I wanted to ask several questions really. But I felt I shouldn’t, if only in the interest of not looking the gift horse in the mouth. But in the absence of her questioning me as a writer, which she hadn’t really done much of, I sensed a minor agenda. This again seemed absurd, but I supposed that with the signs all there, she must have found me interesting at some level.
“Should I put on some music?” I asked.
“That would be nice; you seem to want to ask me something. Do you?”
“No, I don’t think so, not really. It’s just that I seem to have myself at a disadvantage. I didn’t think I missed the company or minded being alone. It seems I was wrong. In a way it’s keeping me from enjoying your company in a more complete way, you know? The sadness that it will end kind of hangs in the air. I’m sorry.”
She got up and came over to the CD player so silently that when I turned around and she was standing there, it startled me. She moved very close.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked.
“I really like you, and I have no intention of going or ending anything unless you do.”
She kissed me lightly on the lips and lingered there until I kissed her back. I did so with all the panic I was feeling. Later, as we kissed some more, she commented how my kissing and my mood had seemed to improve. It was all true and mostly wonderful. She stayed the night, and all the fears that prospect might have held for me earlier seemed to evaporate in her arms. She was passionate and wonderful, and I made her my famous pineapple pancakes in the morning. We made a date for dinner that night, and after she left, I knew that beginnings needn’t be as scary as this one began.
I spent the day writing and got a lot done. In the afternoon I took myself out for an iced frapachino and stopped by church on the way home. Pastor Tom was just leaving as I pulled in and paused by his car when he saw me.
“I just called you,” he said shaking my hand. “You snuck off yesterday, like you usually do, and I wanted to introduce you to someone.”
“It wasn’t Emily Young, was it?” I asked. “We met.”
He seemed delighted. “Oh, I’m glad. She’s a budding writer and said she wanted to meet you.”
“Well, she did and I must say that she’s a wonderful lady.”
He attempted to fill me in on her life. “Husband is gone a lot, I understand. He’s some kind of engineer. I thought you two might get on.”
“Given up on the single women, have you?” I asked. “Is this some new age ecumenical match making that I’m not aware of?”
“Why not at all,” he said with a wry smile. “Why do you ask? Did your interests find other avenues apart from writing?”
“If they did,” I began, “I’ll come looking for you when it starts feeling like a swift kick in the nuts.”
“You usually do,” he called out while getting into his car. “After all, that’s what I’m here for.”
I drove home and used my caffeine buzz to clean my house. By seven thirty I dressed for dinner and waited to hear from Emily. By ten to eight, I gave her a call. When a man answered, I said that I had dialed the wrong number. But I hadn’t dialed the wrong number and, assuming the man was her husband, figured dinner was off. I confess that I was a little disappointed. But she was, after all, married, and the reality of that fact that I had conveniently been ignoring finally came to the fore.
I sat there for ten more minutes and decided that since I was dressed for dinner, I’d take myself out. So I headed to Chili’s and thought I’d get a sandwich and watch the Angel’s game in the bar. I no sooner walked in when I came face to face with Emily.
“Hi,” she said and the man swung around and smiled. He was a good-looking fellow whom I guessed to be around forty.
I returned her greeting. “Hi.”
She turned to him and introduced me as the “writer I was telling you about” and before I knew it and in spite of trying to get out of it, I was sitting with Emily and Terry and getting ready to order dinner. Emily got up to go to the restroom, and Terry and I were alone.
“What happened tonight?” he asked. “Emily told me you two had a date.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t that shocked.
“I never heard from her and assumed something had come up.”
“Was it you who called?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Sorry. But when you answered I thought it best.”
“I understand,” he said. “Anyway, it worked out fine for me. I got to go out to dinner.”
An urbane response, I thought given the circumstances. Then a thought occurred to me.
“How long have you two been married?” I asked.
His smile was instantaneous. “I thought that might be it,” he said. “We’re not married. I guess you didn’t hear her. I’m Emily’s friend, basically. We saw each other when we first met but that was long ago.”
Emily returned and Terry, who was now enjoying himself more then ever, related the mix-up, and after we ordered, he went to the restroom.
“I’m sorry about this,” I began, “but when you didn’t call…”
“No, it was my fault. I got behind, and I should have called you earlier. I’m glad we got together anyway. Yesterday was so wonderful, and I thought about you all day.”
Terry came back and we ate and talked about this and that, and I confess to wondering how this would all shake out when we left. I didn’t wonder long because Terry announced he’d be going home and would I be good enough to take care of Emily and so on and so forth. As we broke up, he shook my hand and hugged Emily, and however strange it had all began, we were finally alone and together. Driving back to my place, I reflected on all of it and shared some of my thoughts with her.
“Mind you,” I said, “when I was younger, I’m sure I would have reacted differently.”
“In what way,” she asked.
“More impatience,” I answered. “Disappointment and probably a feeling that I’d allowed myself to get too attached too soon. As you said, yesterday was wonderful, and I’d been looking forward to seeing you all day.”
She smiled and looked ahead. “I’m so glad we ran into you; I was so upset that I missed you.”
I don’t know why, but when we arrived at my place and I saw no message on the machine, it rather bothered me. After fixing us drinks, I finally asked.
“You know,” I began, “I know why I said I had the wrong number when Terry answered your phone, but why didn’t you leave me a message when you called here?”
“I was upset, I suppose,” she explained. “I was mad at myself mostly, but when you weren’t there only ten minutes after you called, I think I was a little mad at you, too.”
“Well, that was largely defensive. I didn’t want to sit there and stew over it. I was dressed, hungry, and didn’t want to let my disappointment turn into something else. Anyway, I’m glad you’re here now.”
But as she smiled an affirmative response, I could see my explanation wasn’t quite what the doctor ordered. Naturally, after only one day and a minor mix-up that had seemingly ended well, I found this subtext of a snit, somewhat odd. Still, I didn’t know her very well.
I put on some music and fixed us both a drink, but soon after, she seemed to close up a bit. Her body language began to suggest that I was no longer quite as interesting and had somehow been grouped in a category of men. It wasn’t exactly a red flag, but I confess to wondering if any of this was going to be worth it in the long run. As I did, I began thinking that this was the perfect time to end anything that was going to turn out badly in the long term.
I decided to be forthright. “There seems to be a distance between us tonight. Is anything wrong?”
She shook her head and got up. “Yes, and it’s my fault. I was going to be mad at you because you hadn’t waited. In fact I was mad when we saw you at Chili’s. With Terry there I felt like I was deprived of the chance to vent a little. Now, I’m in a mood. I looked so forward to seeing you tonight. I’m not usually this neurotic. But you haven’t even kissed me and I’m just wondering if we both shared the same experience yesterday.”
I’m a bit slow on the uptake, I suppose, but I immediately got up, took her in my arms, and kissed her. It was wonderful because she was showing me this demure, uncertainty that I was being invited to overcome. Our kissing was tentative at first and brooding and finally passionate and hopeful. We continued, and soon we were fumbling to undress each other and moving toward the bedroom where it seemed I was making love to a different woman. It was now urgent with longing, and it frightened me a little. Afterward, as we rested there together, it had seemed that so much had occurred so fast. I knew that I could risk spoiling it with irresistible questions as to where this might go. But I did resist. I didn’t want it to end.
I got up and retrieved our drinks from the living room and rejoined her in my bed.
“I like you more than I thought I would,” she murmured, with a playful smile. “I’m mad at you for that, too.”
“Yes, I apologize for that. But if you really want to be pissed at someone, go look in the mirror. You’re inspiring these heights in me. You’re to blame in the end.”
It was again comfortable and marvelous, and day two seemed to be ending better then the day before. Perhaps, though I was feeling less panic, I should have been feeling more. But I allowed our sex to keep making me feel like the man I never was, and as we fell off to sleep in each other’s arms, all seemed right in the world.
We woke up and made love again, showered together, and went out to breakfast. Over the last of our coffee, she began asking me questions I might have asked her, but hadn’t.
“Where do you think this might go?” she asked.
“With you being married, it seems like that should be my line. Where would you like it to go, Emily?”
“That’s not at all fair, and you know it.” She sounded distressed.
“Yes, you’re right. I have loved every moment that I’ve spent with you. It’s almost overwhelming. You’ve built me up in such a way that, while I should be terrified, I’m really not.”
“Terrified of what?” she asked.
“Of falling in love with you…what else? After all, two days ago I was on my own, alone in my world. That seems long ago now. But, in fairness, your situation poses the main questions.”
She looked down. When she looked up I could tell she was weighing something.
“Emily, let me ask you something. You approached me about my being a writer. You said you wrote as well. We haven’t really talked about that much at all. We both know I’m not attractive enough for you to go after were it not for your interest in me as a writer. And yet, here we are. You’re beautiful, wonderful and married. I was wondering what future you might see for us.”
“You are very attractive,” she said. “But you’re right. My questions always seem to get in the way. Alright, I’ll tell you what I could see. I could see you and me together: a couple, living together and loving each other.”
“As man and wife?”
“Is that important?” she asked.
I chose my words carefully. “Not in the sense that marriage is necessary. Not to me anyway. But it’s not our marriage that I wonder about. It’s yours.”
She looked away with a gesture that told me this argument had come up several times before. But I didn’t push it and said that for as far up the road as I could see, I wanted her in my life. That seemed to lighten things up again, and we finished up and left the restaurant.
On the way to the car, she took my arm and looked at it as she did. It was as if she was trying it on the way one might try on a hat. Several times that day, she made similar gestures. For example, she made a late lunch for us and frequently invited me to taste things during her preparations. Little familiarities I imagined, and it had seemed I was passing every test. For my part, life with Emily seemed somewhere between a dream and some parallel universe that I’d been living in all along. It was that comfortable.
As evening came on, I decided to see what, if any, rules for continuing this relationship on her terms might hold. “Assuming you would like to continue this, as I would, what should I expect in the way of limitations when your husband is in town?”
“None at all,” she said. “We can see each other as often as we like. Other than maintaining our home, Bill and I have very little in common. Tell me, what was your impression of Terry?”
“Seemed like a nice guy, I guess. Why?”
“No other impressions?” she asked. “As a writer I think you can do better than that.”
“Okay,” I said. “He appears to be very personable, friendly. His stare held a certain subtext: some underlying agenda of sorts. He seemed very comfortable in the situation; therefore, I imagine that whatever there was between you two was over long ago. I’m slow to pick up on these things, but while he didn’t appear effeminate, if you were to tell me he was gay, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
She smiled and said, “Pretty good. And Terry is gay. Of course, he hasn’t quite given into it yet. He calls himself bisexual, but his preference is clearly for men. He and I were casual lovers. One day he dropped by when Bill was home and I wasn’t. Not long after that, Terry suggested we all get together sometime, and I knew immediately what had happened. It had happened before. Bill is gay and always has been. He can sense that sort of thing in other men and draw it out. That was the end for Terry and me as lovers, but we stayed friends.”
“I see,” I said. “Why the pretense?”
“Bill’s family,” she said. “They all know, but marrying me made it seem less objectionable to them. There’s quite a bit of money there, and Bill’s grandfather was very old school. His will held the condition of marriage in order for Bill to receive his share. After he died, there seemed no reason not to continue. I have my life and he has his.”
“If I may ask, why did you agree to the arrangement?”
“I didn’t know it was an arrangement at first. We dated, and he was nice. He seduced me and asked me to marry him. I thought I was getting married. He slept with me for the first year. But he seemed so unhappy that I finally asked him about it. He cried and carried on. It had been torture for him, and in other ways we had grown very close. I made a decision. I said I’d remain his wife as long as he liked and that we could lead our separate lives as adults. I have at times regretted it. But I’ve come to believe that if someone can’t accept my circumstance, they can’t accept me.”
“I can see that,” I said. “I’d suppose the arrangement works to Bill’s advantage in some way?”
“Yes, Bill likes being gay. He’s somewhat promiscuous and being married to me, he avoids any talk of being exclusive to someone.”
“Quite a story,” I said. “You should write it someday.”
She looked directly into my eyes. “Now you know; do you think you can accept my life as it is?”
I nodded and said, “Yes, I think I can. But after only two days, I still wonder if you can accept mine. It’s not nearly as intriguing as yours. In fact, it’s quite boring by comparison. We’ll see, I guess.”
We smiled at each other a lot that night. Emily made no audible sigh but a weight for her had been lifted. She stayed the night and went home in the morning to pack some things. That day she pretty much moved in, and by Friday I realized I hadn’t done any writing. I told her I needed my space while I was working on a project, but I must not have meant it because all I seemed to want to do was be with her. It was truly marvelous, and I seemed to grow by inches daily. I became agreeable almost to a fault, and on that subject came the first of the red flags. On Saturday she asked if we would go to church together. I told her I didn’t attend every Sunday and hadn’t thought much about it at all.
“Well I’d like to go,” she said.
I agreed and said “fine.” But my answer didn’t seem sufficient to her.
“Is that all?” she asked. “I mean shouldn’t we talk about this?”
“We can if you like,” I said, “but I don’t see what there is to talk about. You want to go to church, and I said fine. Was there something else?”
“I guess I’m wondering how it would look.”
I looked at her with amazement and repeated, “How it would look? I don’t give a damn what those people think. I don’t go to church for that. Why? Do you think we should go separately or something?”
“I was just wondering how you felt, that’s all.”
I gave her an uncompromising look. “Well now you know.”
She looked down and away, and I knew something else was bothering her.
“Tell me what’s on your mind Emily; clearly, something is bothering you.”
“It’s Tom,” she said.
I didn’t immediately pick up on “Tom” as opposed to “Pastor Tom” or even “Father Tom.” As an Episcopal Priest any of those were fine with him. I knew that he was divorced and saw one gal in our congregation for a while—at least that’s what I heard. But, as she began her further explanation, it suddenly occurred to me.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I think I’ve got it now. You and he saw each other? That’s it, isn’t it?”
I could tell right away that was it.
“Just for a while,” she admitted. “A few times. He was helping me reconcile my crazy life in a spiritual sense. It was nothing really. I was just lonely, and he was nice to me.”
“Out of curiosity, I’d like to know when my name came up.”
“It never did, really,” she said. “I told him I was writing, and he mentioned you were a writer. He offered to introduce me.”
“Was that while you two were being intimate?” I asked.
“Not really; it was before that. Then you didn’t come to church that Sunday and well, we got together the following week. Why?”
My answer was truthful. “I’m not sure. So whose feelings are we worried about here—his?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It does seem a little awkward. I just thought we could talk about it.”
“Well, to begin with,” I said. “I’ve got Sunday solved. You go to church, and I’ll stay home. That way you can tell Tom who you ran into Monday and that we’re involved. Run it by him that way. I’ll stay here and get some writing done, and if you like, we can go out to breakfast later.”
Nothing she had said was that upsetting really. But I felt annoyed just the same. Several times over the next few hours, she changed her mind and said that we should just go together. But I held firm. Then she said that maybe she wouldn’t go herself until I finally just told her to drop it. She did, but as I said it, I could see just the trace of a sense of satisfaction on her face. She seemed to want to push it that far and did. I drank a bit more then usual that night, and for the first time, we didn’t make love.
After she left for church, I got up and worked on my notes for a while. By the time church was ending, I was at the computer and back working. On such a day I have always been thankful for the ability to lose myself at the keyboard. I was that day. That is, until I finally looked up and saw it was nearly noon. Church with coffee time was over by ten thirty at the latest. So I went on with my work but the rhythm had been broken. Besides, I was hungry, and I knew that if I took myself out for breakfast, it would only be for the purpose of seeing if Emily’s car was still in the parking lot at church. So I made some toast and had another cup of coffee. I showered and got dressed for the day and just as I was about to sit back down at the computer, Emily came in. It was one fifteen.
“Hi,” I responded, but I was pissed.
She came into the study and gave me a kiss. I returned her kiss and stretched as I got back up.
The next question was “how was church?” but I refused to ask it.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
“Yeah, an hour ago. How about you?”
“Uh huh, I went out to breakfast with Tom and Mrs. Travis—Helen Travis.”
After that I had nothing to say at all. The blush was off the rose, and I was thinking it would be wonderful if she’d just go home. But I didn’t want a fight so I just went back in the study and sat down to work. She changed out of her church clothes and busied herself in the kitchen for a while. Finally, she came into the study and kissed me on the cheek.
“Do you want to do anything today?” she asked. “Or should I just leave you alone?”
It was her polite “nothing is wrong in the world” questions, and my response surprised me. I stood up, kissed her, took her in the bedroom and basically took her with a vengeance. I did things I could never remember doing. I slapped her ass and pinned her arms and pulled her hair and altogether felt it to be an out-of-body experience. Afterwards, we remained on the bed, two separate people for a few moments. What seemed like only minutes later, our embrace turned into passion again, and I began taking her once more. But at my age and relative inexperience at this new unbridled passion I was feeling, I began to wear down halfway through. Emily, now caught up in the whole thing, took over, and when it was over, I felt spent beyond anything I’d experienced. We never said much during the act and even her voice seemed foreign when she did finally break the silence.
“You’re mad about Tom and me, aren’t you?”
“I guess I am; any other ex-lovers I should know about: my druggist, my doctor?”
She got up on her elbow and smiled.
“No, no others. I knew last night you were mad. I’m sorry, but I thought you should know sooner rather than later.”
“Yes,” I said, “and you seemed to take a certain satisfaction in making me mad. What was that all about?”
She lay back down and said, “Well, it was nice to know you cared.”
“Geez,” I muttered. “You women and your little tests. I don’t like games, you know. Games bore me and take me out of myself in ways you wouldn’t find flattering. It’s the reason why I’m a divorced man instead of a married one.”
I got up and walked to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and felt the sex had built me up to a degree where a confrontation was something. I suddenly felt up, too. Better to get things straight now is what I was thinking. As I started back toward the bedroom, the phone rang. I put the receiver to my ear. “Hello.”
“Is Emily there?” It was a man’s voice.
“Yes,” I said. “Can I tell her who’s calling?”
“Her husband,” he answered with a smile in his voice.
We spent the afternoon separately: me watching the golf tournament and Emily playing on my computer. By five thirty I was dressed for a casual dinner with Emily and her husband Bill. I was rather calm, I thought. Under the circumstances, which seemed like the basis for a goofy short story, my manner might have been different. But Emily had built me up, and I felt equal to whatever the evening held. Besides, the whole thing seemed so crazy, what could one do but simply go with it.
The restaurant was a good steak house with a very fine reputation. Bill, I learned was a vegetarian, and I rather supposed a flamboyant homosexual as Emily had intimated. I might have guessed he’d have kept us laughing with his gay wit while wondering out loud how anyone could eat red meat, all the time sizing me up as a match for his wife. I was wrong. He seemed a very down-to-earth fellow, and upon first meeting him, I couldn’t imagine anyone taking him for being gay. He was not particularly good looking but had a polished ease about him that was very appealing. During cocktails I imagined had anyone been observing us, they’d have taken all of us as old friends. Just before Emily excused herself to the restroom, I thought I saw something pass between them—a sign perhaps.
“I’ve read your work,” he said. “You’re very good. You write women particularly well.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I enjoy writing in the woman’s voice. A lady at one of my book signings was quite disappointed that I wasn’t a woman, writing under a man’s name. I took that as a compliment.”
“Why do you enjoy the woman’s voice?’ he asked.
“Well, apart from the challenge, I suppose it has something to do with exploring that side of my personality. One can’t know women, really. I can’t anyway. But based on the women I’ve known and observed, it gives me a chance to be that which I’ll never know myself, in a literary sense that is.”
He nodded. “Very candid of you, I must say. It’s clear why you’re successful. Ever write anything concerning the gay lifestyle?”
“Not specifically,” I said. “But several of the characters I have created were or have been gay. But for the same reasons I’m fond of writing women and my admiration for them in general, gay men in particular haven’t been a problem for me to write.”
“You don’t find the parallels confusing?” he asked.
“Not for my purposes,” I replied. “Women are better than men in most ways. Men who have found a sexual component in their feminine side are emulating that in my estimation. And men who find those men attractive are reacting to that same appeal. We’re all chasing the same thing in some ways.”
“Yes,” he said. “I think you may be right.”
Emily returned, and Bill nursed his salad through our main course with such ease that you’d never have known you were dining with a vegetarian. I normally never take desert, but Bill’s enthusiasm for the cheesecake won me over, and during coffee, he finally made reference to our seeing each other.
“I’m so glad to meet you,” he began “and to know that you’re the kind of man I’d want anyone I cared for to be seeing.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I care for Emily a great deal, and our arrangement is not something every man could be comfortable with.”
It wasn’t framed as a question but that’s what it was nevertheless.
After a brief pause, I spoke. “As a man and I suppose from a writer’s perspective, I’ve always found that women pretty much choose us. I try not to delude myself with judgments. Life is more interesting that way. But Emily has become a big part of my life in a very short time. I feel I’m the lucky one.”
Emily had been rather quiet through dinner. But then, this was my interview. Nearly the same look they shared before Emily went to the ladies room passed between them again, and I excused myself to the men’s room. Washing my hands, it occurred to me that while it hadn’t been important what he thought of me before dinner, I rather wanted to pass muster with this guy for myself and not just for Emily’s sake. Still, while he had clearly taken me off guard with his friendly confidence, I was feeling I should be careful somehow. The feeling continued as Emily and I drove back to my place.
“So,” she began, “what did you think of him?”
Speaking honestly, I admitted, “Not at all what I’d imagined—a very impressive guy.”
“He was taken a bit off guard by you also,” she said. “That doesn’t happen often.”
“Well, it’s funny you should put it just that way,” I said. “I was wondering how many of these little interviews you two have shared.”
Her voice was defensive. “There was only one other time. Why?”
“Was that Terry?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Bill wanted to meet you. He’d read some of your work and said he wanted to meet you. And it was not an interview; it was dinner.”
“And a very lovely dinner it was, too,” I commented. “But it was an interview of sorts. Tell me, how much sway does Bill’s opinion hold for you?”
“None,” she said. “Besides, he thought you were wonderful.”
“I’m more wonderful for knowing you, but wonderful is rarely used to describe me. Anyway, it was fun. I enjoyed it.”
We went home and made love. Emily held me with more urgency, and I began to imagine that she’d been quite in love with Bill. But having fulfilled his needs by allowing him a separate lifestyle, she still needed someone to want her. And so I held her back with the same urgency. It was too late for me by then anyway. I was already in love with her.
Questions can kill. I had many, of course, but didn’t want to spoil what we had. She’d consulted my pastor on spiritual matters and wound up bedding him. She’d approached me on writing, and we were now living together. Coupled with what I guessed was some lingering insecurity about Bill and then Terry, I was sure there had been others. Perhaps even others, still. As long as I didn’t know, nor wonder too often, I couldn’t see a problem.
As the weeks began to approach two months, our routine had become very comfortable. I began getting up earlier and writing until noon. Emily had filled the place with little comforts of her own. She’d go off in the afternoon to check on her house and collect mail. We ate out on Friday’s mainly and usually rented a video afterward. I stayed away from church. Emily went every Sunday. Finally, Pastor Tom called me and asked if we could have lunch. It turned out to be a very strange meeting, indeed.
“I know I haven’t been to church much,” I said.
“You never were regular. You’ll show up again when it suits you. That’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I ah, I’m involved with a woman in the parish.”
“Yeah,” I said, “so?”
“It’s ah, gotten to be a bit much; I think it’s been a mistake.”
“Of course, it’s a mistake for Christ’s sake. I would have thought you learned that lesson with what’s her name. Who is she? Anyone I know?”
“No,” he shook his head and then paused. “Maybe. You said you met her. Emily Young?”
I looked at him as if searching my memory.
“The writer, yeah,” I said. “Nice looking woman.”
He went on to say that she had first wanted to talk about her husband and their arrangement. But there was no mention of Bill’s being gay. They met a couple of times for lunch, and finally she invited him over. He confirmed what she had said about being lonely, and when she broke down, he comforted her and that’s how it began. But it hadn’t ended there, and what I realized was that Emily’s afternoons were frequently spent in Tom’s office at the church, and as often as not, her place. Three or four times a week, he said. But she wouldn’t see him at night leading him to suspect that—arrangement or not—she was still seeing her husband.
“Well, this sounds nuttier by the minute, Tom. Why don’t you break it off?”
He sighed and said, “I’ve tried. But then she shows up at the church and it gets started again. I’ll lose my job, you know. I’ll lose the parish.”
“Do you think she’s psychotic?” I asked.
“I don’t know; do you think that’s possible?”
The laugh jumped out of me so fast it rather startled Tom. I apologized and told him things weren’t so bad and that I was sure it would be okay. After lunch I told him the key was for him was to stay away from her as much as possible.
“Alter your schedule for a while,” I suggested. “Come in early and take afternoons off for the time being. Stop back in the evenings if you like, and most of all, stay away from her place.”
I could tell he was in pain, which made what there was of mine, more vengeful. I went home, driving by the church. I had few illusions really. I knew Emily would stay with me until she got bored and found someone else. After all, her arrangement with Bill was to her benefit as well. Until she got tired of me, she knew that I’d enjoy her attentions and love her as I did. That was over now, but the real pain wouldn’t fully land until she was gone. First would be the matter of getting her to move out. The answer came in the form of a phone call.
“Yes,” I said into the phone. “I’ll catch a plane tonight. Thank you.”
“What’s wrong?” she asked with concern.
“My uncle passed away this morning.”
“Oh, I’m sorry” she said.
“Thank you but he was 99. It was a good run. I’m glad his pain is over. I’m flying out tonight.”
For some reason, I began framing what I might have said next as if in the context of dialogue in a story. “Would you come with me?” or “Would you like to come with me? were wrong. “Will you come with me,” was what I might have said, supposing I hadn’t just had lunch with Tom. And so I began by sharing those thoughts with Emily.
“Will you, is what I’d have said,” I began, “and you would have said ‘yes’ and we would have gone back to Minnesota and buried my uncle. Instead, what I’d like you to do is move back home while I’m gone. I’m sorry but what we had has ended, and I think it would be best.”
She looked shocked, but this quickly turned to anger as well.
“And I have one other request. I want you to stop seeing my pastor, and we’d prefer it if you found another church to attend. He doesn’t know about you and me, but I think it would be the best for both of us. He could lose the parish if this gets out, and I’d hate to see that.”
It was quite a performance, really. She went back and forth between anger and pleading with a certain ease, and I began wondering if it was possible that she did have mental problems.
I remained firm. “No,” I said. I’m not doing this. That’s why I’m happily divorced. I won’t fight about things that have already happened and have irrevocably ended this relationship. All that’s left is to begin getting over it, which I intend to do beginning now.”
“But I love you,” she pleaded.
“I suggest you start getting over that now, as well. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to leave now because I have to pack. Keep your key and move your things out while I’m gone. And if you persist with Tom, I assure you that I will whisper this in the ear of one lady on the alter guild who will see to it that you are not welcomed in my church ever again.”
She left and came back ten minutes later. I refused to speak to her, and so she vented for a few minutes and finally left for good.
The funeral for my uncle was a comfort of sorts. Surrounded by what was left of my family, I was able to see a larger meaning in life and that helped. Those duties performed, I got on the plane and came home. Driving in from the airport, I was hoping she had simply taken her things and left. I knew it was seldom that easy, and the possibility of another confrontation was very real. But I was wrong.
There were three messages on the machine. The first was a hang up. The second was Pastor Tom and sounded rather urgent. And the final message was from Bill, asking me to call as “soon as I got in.” I unpacked and as I did I noticed Emily had taken her things. I saw the key on the dining room table with a note that simply said, “I’m sorry.”
“Hello Bill; you wanted me to call?”
“Yes, I was sorry to hear about you and Emily. I thought you made a wonderful couple. She’s very upset it ended.”
“Under the circumstances, Bill,” I said, “I’m afraid that can’t be helped. I’m rather upset myself, but we’ll just have to go on.”
There was a pause.
“Are you there?” I asked.
“Yes, sorry,” he said. “Well, if you’re sure there’s no going back, then I’ll not try to persuade you. But, could we get together for a drink?”
“For what purpose?” I asked.
“As I said,” he began. “I won’t try to persuade you. What’s done is done. However, I would like to explain a few things to you. It might help if you knew the rest of the story, so to speak.”
“Who would it help?” I said. “No, I don’t think I need to know more than I know now in order to get on with my life.”
“For me then,” he said.
I have no idea why I agreed. I barely knew this guy, and my relationship with his wife was over. There was no point to it at all. On my way to the bar, I thought it was at least possible that being gay, if indeed he was, he might want to hit on me. These people seemed like something out of a swinger’s novel. I saw him in a booth, and he waved me over. I ordered a beer and a shot, and we settled in.
“Thank you for coming.”
“Ah, what the hell. I needed a drink anyway.”
He spoke with sincerity. “I was sorry to hear about your uncle; he was quite old?”
I nodded and said, “Yes. He had been in the nursing home for years. I’m glad it’s over for him. What did you want to talk about?”
Just then my beer and shot arrived.
“Have your shot.”
I immediately thought something was wrong. I took the shot and washed it down with a sip of beer. As I did, I’m afraid I was getting ahead of this conversation.
“Something is wrong, isn’t it?” I said. “What’s happened?”
“Emily will be fine,” he began. “She tried to take her life last night with sleeping pills. It wasn’t the first time. She suffers from depression. It overwhelms her sometimes.”
I felt terrible and nothing he was going to say would make me feel better.
“You’re not the cause of this; she went off her medication a while back. We saw this coming in some respects. I’m not her husband, and I’m not gay. I’m her brother and we do live together. She goes off her medication because it lowers her libido to practically nothing, and there are other side effects as well. When she does and her sexual desire returns, she goes a little crazy with it. It’s happened before, and it ended the same way before. Fortunately, she’s going to be all right. She’ll go back on the medication now, and it’ll probably start all over again. But you are not to blame.”
I felt the beginning of a response, but it never quite landed.
I stared at him, trying to absorb what he was telling me. “I wish I had known this earlier.”
“Would you have entered into a relationship with her if you had?” he asked. “Believe me I’ve been down this road before. The next thing you’ll wonder about is trying again with her on the medication. Trust me, it’s not worth it. She will go off it again, and a desire to please you would be her main reason. Without you, she’ll find a reason anyway. I love my sister, and I’ll be there for her.”
“Let me ask you this, Bill. What if she stayed off her medication for a prolonged period? Isn’t it possible she could learn to control those urges and become, well, monogamous?”
He shook his head and paused. “I don’t know, but I do know that the downside of waiting for some crisis to pull her back into suicidal depression is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to blame yourself in any way. This was coming; if not with you, then with someone else.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it seems to me that managing her depression in some other way hasn’t been tried. Armed with this knowledge going in, there could be a different outcome. What hospital is she at?”
I wanted to go right then, but visiting hours were over. Bill made me promise to at least think overnight about all he had said before going to the hospital. He said he wouldn’t tell her we had talked, and if I decided it was all too much for me, he would understand. I went home and called Tom. He had heard and was calling to tell me when he got my machine. I told him that I was the other guy, what I had learned, and that had I understood any of this, my reaction might have been different. I loved Emily and felt that somehow, not knowing about her situation, I had let her down. Getting over that love would have been hard enough. But abandoning her over something as trivial as sex with my pastor, under these new circumstances, was something I felt I couldn’t do.
The next morning I picked up a dozen roses and went to the hospital. Emily was sitting up looking out the window when I walked in.
“Good morning,” I said. She saw me and began crying. I put down the roses and hugged her from the edge of the bed.
“It’s going to be alright Emily,” I promise. “Thank God you’re okay.”
She continued crying for some time, and I kept trying to comfort her. Her tears were broken with intermittent apologies about this and that. I kept telling her it was all right and that I wanted her to come home with me when she was well enough. That seemed to cheer her and just then her doctor walked in. I introduced and excused myself and went out into the hall while he attended to Emily. When he came out, I asked if I could talk to him for a moment. I presented my “what if” scenario regarding her medication, and he surprised me by saying it was worth a try.
“She will eventually kill herself if she continues to yoyo like this, but I caution you that living with someone who suffers from depression can make you a prisoner. It’s not very pleasant. Let me give you some advice. Everyone feels guilty after something like this. Don’t get caught up in that to the point where you’re willing to do something that may be over your head.”
“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m home all day, and I can do this. I want to try.”
“And what if you find you can’t?” he asked plainly. “Then Emily, without her medication to get her through it, will face another crisis just like this one. Think about what I’m saying before you commit to too much.”
There was Bill, and Emily’s doctor, and as I recall, Tom chimed in with his two cents as well. But I had made my decision. The next day I picked up Emily and drove her home. We packed her things and headed for my place. I never sat her down and listed any ground rules. When she’d bring it up, I’d simply say that as long as she loved me, I’d love her back. Anything else we could work through. Over time, I’m sure there were a few indiscretions: that first year in particular. But after that, we settled into a life that both of us could live with. If I saw she was feeling low in any way, we’d get away for a while. Her brother Bill, now free from his caretaking duties, finally married and began a family of his own. I never married Emily though I would have if it seemed important to her. I felt that, as my wife, she would look on any slip she might have with some guy as a major betrayal of me. Over time, new drugs were developed that promised few side effects but, after discussing it, we decided to stay our course. Looking back, I was no more a prisoner of Emily’s affliction than I had been in my solitude.
I had always been able to eke out a living as a writer. Some years ago I won a prestigious award, and the adulation and the money that came with it made me more secure than I had ever imagined. Emily was so proud of me, but I sensed that giving into my new celebrity could put her at risk. And so I wisely backed off. As I think of it now, Emily was the great blessing of my life, and I’ve never written about any of this before. Reading back, a strange thing occurred to me. I haven’t identified myself in these pages. I could use another name I suppose, but none of what I described here has been fiction. You’d recognize my name. I don’t want that. I don’t want anyone to think of me as noble or to suggest in any way that our life was a burden to me in any sense. You see, I’ve always been a bit of an odd duck. But long ago I realized that the beginnings I wrote of earlier and my lament at having thought they had passed in my life were, in fact, the beginning of a depression of my own. In Emily I found a salvation of sorts, and I am certain she prolonged and enriched my life beyond measure. She’s gone now, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I feel more alone then I ever have and “winding down” is an insufficient phrase to describe my state. Still, I see that my life has been more interesting then I ever had cause to expect, and I have Emily to thank for that. And yet, knowing for a certainty that my decision never gave me one moment of regret fills me with more sadness then I feel I can bear. And now the gray drizzle of depression that afflicted Emily is visited on me.
I might have seen it coming, I suppose. But I simply wouldn’t allow any option but getting through a crisis. Her brother Bill was tragically killed in an accident, and through it all, I was diligent in my support and absolutely steadfast in my assertion that we would, indeed, get through it. I thought we had. But Emily left one day and never came back. She never called, and she never wrote; the police and the private detective I hired couldn’t find her. Nearly six months had passed when Joyce, Bill’s widow, called and said Emily had sent a birthday card to her nephew Billy. There was no return address though it was postmarked “Toronto.” It was strange. I began worrying about the climate up there and those long, cold and cloudy winters and how she was getting on. The slide into my present state began that day.
We had fifteen wonderful years together, Emily and I. It ended as strangely as it began I suppose. But while I know she’s still alive, I’ll never allow this state to end in my taking my life. My celebrity status would be cause for a news account of it. I allow myself to think that whatever went wrong, news of my death would bring her to a crisis. I can’t bring myself to take that chance.