Toward the end of my affair, I became obsessed with my lover’s wife. I had met her only once the previous autumn, at the house of a mutual friend. This friend knew all about the affair, but he was a discreet fellow and quite amiable, and I think he was interested — in a somewhat prurient but civil way —in the dynamics of an evening spent with all of us in one room. We had been invited to watch a baseball game, the participants in which, I knew, were meaningful to the men — to my lover, Josef A., to my friend Carter R., and to my husband, David E.
When my husband and I arrived, she was sitting on the sofa wearing a long skirt of brilliant red and a black leotard top that scooped across her freckled shoulders. I had seen photographs of her on the mantel of my lover’s house. I knew the way her dark hair swept down in dramatic waves, partially obscuring her blue-gray eyes. Even from the photos I could sense the sullen force of the woman, the way her gaze would not meet the camera, the way her arms folded into their own grasp. I had stared at the collection of earrings and necklaces that hung from the wall of her bedroom, at the hanging pendants and heavy tourmaline and amethyst baubles. Here she was wearing a pair of earrings I recognized, ancient-looking coins in swinging columns that brushed against her neck.
She was staring into the TV as we were introduced, her eyes barely glancing up at me before returning to the set. “Outside and high,” she said. “Ball three.”
Josef and I exchanged an awkward look, and he shrugged his shoulders slightly.
Our friend Carter had laid out a lavish spread of chips, salsa and dip on the low glass table in front of the television. Josef’s wife had positioned herself for optimal access, and she ate steadily and rapidly, somehow discouraging — through the proprietary way she went at it — the others of us from eating quite as much as we would have liked.
“Pass the guacamole, Sheila, please,” Josef said to her after a time.
“Strrike three,” she said triumphantly, looking into the TV.
“Sheila? The guacamole?” He indicated with an upturned palm. Sheila shook her head gleefully. “Poor bastard’s 0 for 26.”
Josef walked around the table, blocking her view of the television. She strained her neck to see around him. He grabbed the bowl and, glaring at her, returned to his seat.
It became clear that Sheila knew much more about baseball than any of the rest of us. She was not sociable, but could provide statistics at appropriate moments with the efficiency of a computer, and she seemed to enjoy correcting the announcers when they made some misstatements of fact. “Jim Rice did it in ’67,” she would say, her voice edged with scorn, and a few seconds later the announcer would say, “Pardon me Monty, Jim Rice did it in 1967.” The men in the room seemed a bit awed by this performance. They were uncharacteristically quiet.
I noticed that my husband asked her a lot of questions, though — who the top ten batting champions were, what ERA this or that pitcher had acquired, when the designated hitter rule had been established. He would nod too vigorously at her replies, his sandy red bangs flopping in his face. The knowledge of my betrayal could confer to my husband a sense of poignancy at times, but at this moment he seemed ridiculous and I was glad to have a lover.
The game did not interest me, neither the one we were watching, nor the game of baseball as a whole. It seemed dull and indolent, presided over by chaw-chomping, ball-scratching men in tight uniforms who were pressed into action in fits and starts, only to relapse into inertia again at the next opportunity. I gave up the pretense of attention and began skimming a copy of The Mill on the Floss that Carter had on his bookshelf. During a commercial break, Sheila tapped the cover dismissively with a Dorito. “Not her best,” she said. “You’re better off with Middlemarch.”
“We read Silas Marner in high school,” my husband said, to which remark Sheila bared her teeth.
That was almost a year ago, when the affair was still surprising to me. Josef had been a colleague of my husband’s for many years, a familiar presence at those few functions where business was mixed with pleasure, and spouses made their biannual appearances. Josef always attended these occasions alone, discussing the history of tea or the business of cigar manufacture or the life and work of some obscure nineteenth century English poet – whatever subject he was taken with at the time — tossing his long, dark hair from off his protruding brow and gesturing forcefully toward his listener. He was an East European, an émigré, and had craggy, handsome features, with searing brown eyes softened by sleepy lashes. He’d been a smoker for almost two decades, and his hands retained that lost look, sweeping through space as if brandishing phantom cigarettes. Being in the center of his regard was like being pinned to the spot, held captive by a pirate, but he was sufficiently interesting for it not to be altogether unpleasant.
Our affair began quickly. At a Christmas party, we talked for a long time, tucked behind a mass of poinsettias and a spruce in full regalia. We had been drinking eggnog spiked with Barbadian rum and I felt a reggae pulse at my temples that strobed pleasantly along the nerve endings of my body.
He was telling me a long story about a Buddhist monk he had consulted in a temple in Kyoto nine years earlier. “He was a grim fellow with a shaved head and rotting teeth,” Josef said. “In his black robes, he looked emaciated; his wrists were like twigs. But I’ll never forget the strength of his hand on my arm, and the look of utter conviction on his face when he told me that I was going to die within the year. He had just read my I Ching, you see, consulting slips of rice paper he had stashed in a special cabinet. He said he was telling me so I could use the knowledge to make my last days beautiful. When he smiled, I could see gold.
“All that year I was alternately convinced I would die — these mystic Oriental prophecies have a resonance, you know — and contemptuous of my superstition. But it took a toll, as you might imagine. I kept anticipating death, thinking about it, wondering, as I got behind the wheel of a car, or boarded a plane, whether today was the day.” Here Josef knocked back some more eggnog and flashed me a wry smile. “And, you know, Claire, a funny thing happened as I waited for the prediction to come true. I became accustomed to the idea of death. I began to not fear it. It was like waiting for the rain. It would either happen or not; I had no control. Death lost all mystery for me, and hence all power. The year ended and I did not die, and here I am nine years later — at age forty-two — and already I’ve cheated death!”
“You must appreciate life more,” I said, inanely. I was taken by his voice, its rasping intimacy drawing me further inside the prickly-needled spruce, and into the blinking Christmas lights.
Josef tilted his head and stared at me a moment with hawklike Intensity. “My dear,” he said, “you cannot imagine! I am voracious, voracious!”
Later he leaned toward me unsteadily, so close I could smell the sweet liquor in his breath. “Tell me, Claire,” he whispered, “are you in love?”
“With David?” I answered.
He shrugged. “With anyone at all,” he said.
We began to meet for lunch at the less popular restaurants around town. We would talk and drink wine and laugh, and flirt more and more meaningfully. And one day, after lunch, we went to his house. I am not the kind of woman for whom this kind of thing happens — or at least, I had not been. My marriage to David had survived eight years on general good humor and accommodation. Nothing, it seemed to me, was missing from my life; there was only the sense that the whole thing was smaller than I thought it should be, reduced, like an old, familiar shirt that has shrunk in the wash. There was something about Josef that made our association dangerous from the start; he had an intensity, a fire, fronting a sadness so deep and distant that it was a kind of rage. Part of me wanted to soothe the sadness, to be its comfort; another part wanted to be the one who made him sad.
Josef’s house was made of faded brick in Georgian style, with a black wrought iron fence that enclosed the front porch, and black shutters on white windows. The inside was stuffed with fat, upholstered chairs and dark, heavy wooden furniture, worn carpet remnants and threadbare lace curtains. An old orange dog got slowly to his feet to greet us in the hall. There was a miniature lop-eared rabbit in a pen in the kitchen. In the living room, two parakeets chittered in a hanging cage.
“You’ve got a lot of pets,” I said, catching sight of photographs in ornate silver frames above the fireplace. A beautiful woman, flamboyantly dressed, stared formidably from several angles.
Josef came up behind me. “They’re my wife’s,” he said, and kissed me before I could make a reply.
We made love, that first time, on the living room floor without fully removing our clothes. The parakeets, agitated by our movements, squawked and fluttered in their cage. It was strange, rolling around in that unfamiliar place, the hard discomfort of the floor giving to the act a curiously ascetic flavor. Josef was skillful in ways that surprised me, his style of lovemaking was like that of his conversation: ardent, unorthodox, exhausting.
Examining myself afterwards, I noted that the back of my skirt was shaggy with dog hair, my panties were ripped at the waistband, and there were scratches on my back where I had rolled onto a pet grooming brush. There was something satisfying about this evidence, though it incriminated me in adultery. I wanted the proof of Josef on me. The fact that he had a wife made the whole thing more exciting in some way; I felt the sense of triumph over a vanquished competitor, this photo-woman with serious expression and wary stance.
The beginning of an affair is like a walking dream, what becomes important is not the surface action of your life, but the hidden vibration, the force from beneath. We had so little time together, and yet we were always connected, quivering like opposite ends of an elastic. Because we could never sleep together over the course of a night, our lovemaking was lavish but quick, interrupted at its drowsy, most delicious point by the need to reassemble normalcy. Time stood still, then speeded up around us, and the jerk and start of it kept us off-balance, bleary.
Romance contains its own entropy, and so it was with Josef and me — we made love more and more and talked less, and even the deceiving nature of our affair began to take on a routine. We were together on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from twelve to two-thirty, when Sheila taught her classes at the junior college. Sometimes on Sunday mornings we met for a clandestine hour while Sheila went out to brunch with her friends and David attended church. If we had to phone one another during the week, we would adopt a jovial, distanced tone, and if we saw each other with David around, we smiled bashfully and did not meet eyes.
Then Josef began canceling our Tuesdays, scheduling work for once-sacred hours. He seemed distracted when we were together, absently brushing my hair from my face as though I were a mannequin. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Nothing,” but again with that far-off aspect. It was as if the sun had suddenly gone into eclipse; I felt abandoned to the dark.
I started to become aware of his wife’s presence in that house, attuned to the smell of her perfume (jasmine and patchouli), to the backward slant of her handwriting on the shopping list attached to the refrigerator door, to the rumpled pile of dirty laundry in the basket in the corner of the bedroom. It may have been jealousy that first led to this curiosity about my lover’s wife — the need to know a rival — but it turned quickly to admiration. Her shoes were two sizes smaller than mine, high-heeled and sharp as weapons; she read Flaubert and Balzac in French, in beige-covered paperbacks with thick, hand-cut pages; the clothes in her closet were colorful, diaphanous, like the wardrobe of a perpetual prom
One day there were a pair of madras-plaid falsies lying, one cupped inside the other, on the top of her dresser. I touched them gingerly, awed by their brazenness, their sheer impracticality. I caught sight of my naked breasts in the oval mirror; they stared like eyes. I held the false cups to them and observed my shameful face. Later, when Josef and I made love, I tried to imagine her face in ecstasy, the way she might cry out and clutch at his haunches. I began to listen for any information Josef might let slip about his wife. She was originally from California, somewhere near the Tehachapi Mountains; her birthday was in May; she was a vegetarian but ate fish; they had met at a poetry workshop in Sewanee, Tennessee. Porgy and Bess was her favorite piece of music, To the Lighthouse was her favorite book. Her favorite movie, and this I found interesting, was Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
“Do you love her?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Love . . .” he said.
He frowned and turned from me in bed.
“How about her? How does she feel about you?”
There was a silence. He looked unhappy, sullen like a child. I saw real pain, though he tried to hide it with a mocking look.
“You still sleep together?” I asked.
Josef seemed startled. We were lying in their bed, after all, with Marimekko sheets and the Indian print bedspread with the elephants and their howdahs. “Of course,” he said, hesitantly. Then, “Not very often.” He reached for me under the covers and kissed me. “Not like this,” he said.
I sent her a dozen yellow roses with a card that said FOREVER. They were in a vase on the living room table the last Thursday I went to Josef’s house.
“Where did these come from?” I asked.
“Some admirer of my wife’s,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “She won’t tell me.”
“Ah,” I smiled. “So, she has a lover?”
Josef sneered unhappily. “He wouldn’t be the first.”
“Poor Josef,” I said, and was surprised at my genuine sympathy.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. He shrugged. ”She wanted to throw them away; I had to rescue them from the garbage. She hates cut flowers. She thinks they’re a waste, sentimental and commercial. You should hear her on the subject. The poor sap doesn’t even know her.”
We went up to the bedroom, but the mood was off. I noticed that the perfume bottles had been straightened on her bureau, that a sea green skirt with batik fern patterns was lying across the back of the chair. There was a long, dark hair on the pillow, and the air smelled of her. Josef fumbled and tried, and apologized into my breasts, but we both realized that it was no good, and I don’t think either of us was too sad.
I left after taking a quick shower in their claw-footed bathtub with the green water ring. I used her soap, that smelled of honey, and her shampoo that smelled of apples. When I kissed Josef good-bye I had the illusion that I was her and gave a last haughty push against his lips.
A week later I was browsing at a garage sale and found a shoebox of old baseball cards. I began going through them for some reason, looking at the players’ haircuts, at the colors of their socks. The man who was selling the stuff wore a maroon jacket with a football insignia. He leaned over the table and tapped the face of the card. “This is a rare one,” he said. “So-and-so in a Yankee uniform. Gonna be worth a fortune one day.”
I had never heard of the player he named, and something in the way the man squinted at me as he said it made me suspect it wasn’t true. “How much?” I asked.
“Seeing how it’s you,” he said. “Five bucks.”
I paid my money and dropped the card into an envelope with a note. “For Sheila,” I wrote. “Love, T.”
Over the next few months I sent her a pair of unusual earrings I found in a boutique downtown — tiny little dried flowers set in clear acrylic inside Victorian-looking silver frames; a black velvet cloche hat with two peacock feathers stuck in the back; a small bottle of sandalwood perfume; an antique fountain pen marbled green and gold; and a Siamese fighting fish in a round cut-glass bowl with bits of coral at the bottom. This last I assembled myself and left on the front porch of the house with the standard note. I called that night and hung up the phone when she answered. The gifts had not given to her cool voice the smoothing tones of forgiveness. Josef was wild with jealousy. He called to tell me when each new item appeared.
“A fish,” he said. “A fucking fish, in a tank!” “In a tank?”
“Well, in a bowl. One of those old-fashioned goldfish bowls.” “Any idea who it is?”
“She says she doesn’t know. I don’t believe her. I thought it might be David.”
“My David?” I laughed.
“Well, who then?”
“An admirer,” I said. “Really, Josef, what a hypocrite you are. You’ve had lovers.”
“But not like this,” he said. “This guy is crazy about her. He’s serious.”
I kept my laughter light. “That is different then,” I said.
I saw them three months later, coming out of a movie theater hand in hand, leaning in as though dependent on each other for balance. She had a light scarf, embroidered in gold and black, slung loosely around her neck; there were ten or twelve silver bracelets jangling on each arm. Josef was laughing, his intense face at ease for once, making him seem years younger. The movie they had gone to see was The 400 Blows and I thought about how little of Josef I knew, though we had had an affair, and how much I felt I knew about his wife.
I was on the other side of the street watching the two of them come closer, when she stopped and looked at me. Josef nodded, an acquaintance nod, and seemed ready to go on, but Sheila broke from his grasp and crossed the street. Her hair was shorter than it had been that night at Carter’s, cut to just below her ears. Her face was pensive, her skin porcelain-pale and as smooth; she was biting her lower lip. As she came closer, I saw she was wearing the earrings I’d given her, the ones from Provence with the tiny dried flowers.
“We’ve met,” she said.
I nodded, looking at the sidewalk. I was conscious of Josef on the other side of the street, hands in his pockets, rocking awkwardly on his heels.
“You know who I am?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said. She was studying my face and it made me self-conscious. I thought of Josef’s monk and the prophecy that had not come true, for love, too, loses mystery. She continued to watch me. I saw the understanding lit in her eyes like tiny satellites. She whirled in my orbit. It was like the night she stared into the television screen, calling balls and strikes; she was attuned to some sign. And finally she must have seen it, because she held her hand out. It was thin and singing with jewelry. I took it and we shook.
“Thanks for the presents,” she said, and ran back across the road.
My marriage broke up soon after. Good humor and accommodation were not enough to counter the shrunkenness I’d been feeling. David was a good choice for a certain kind of woman, a woman I may have been at one time — full of virtue and strong surface optimism. I thought about my affair and could not remember what it was about Josef that had seduced me, that had lulled me over the edge of a settled life. The details of his body, his face, the things we had said to one another, were indistinct, like my memory of high school chemistry.
Instead I remembered earrings and necklaces hanging from tiny nails on both sides of a beveled mirror, the chattering of parakeets, the odor of jasmine; the unexpected gaiety of a pair of madras falsies, curved like spoons the one upon the other.
I’ve moved to a different state recently, to a small town where I have rented a tiny white house on a square of lawn. I have a new lover, a large man with thinning hair. His wife is tall and blond and wears flowing caftans in African prints. She keeps a magnificent flower garden in the back of their yard, filled with purple salvia, columbine and lupine. When she is not weeding, or watering, or tending, she sits curled up in a chair on the terrace with her tanned feet peeking out from under, toenails frosted pink. She smells of expensive perfume and does crossword puzzles in green ink, and once I saw her naked, stepping out from a pool.
We share the same man, in the same bed, in the same house, our selves missing by a matter of a few minutes, brushing by, closing in on one another like overlapping shadows. I love what she has loved; what she has left, I have picked up, and this merry-go-round arrangement mesmerizes me, has made me see myself in her and want to treat her kindly.
My Lover’s Wife was published in Prairie Schooner in Winter 1995.