Cowards

After this, there are what she can only refer to as ‘other times.’ The time in his car, a rare day when he drives himself to work and picks her up. There, in an alley a few blocks away, in broad, new daylight. The time in the woods behind the park, treetops which were visible from his office door. And why are they other? Why are they not simply harder, faster, more? Because the distance doesn’t decrease between them any further, not truly. It is simply a function of parallel recklessness.

And then the last time, when he allows her body to fall backwards, absents his grip. She hits the wall, then sinks to her knees on the soft, wet turf. He lets her go as if she is garbage. As if she is simply a sack of guts and bones.
He can see that she’s wasted, nearly gone, that she needs his help, he should really call a cab — and then there’s one other thought at the back of his mind, tempting him —

He turns and makes his way across the parking lot, toward the headlights of the bus. When he reaches the platform he smiles and calls his wife. She’ll be alright, he thinks. She’s tough.

He knows this is not true; that kissing her is like kissing the softest most fragile part of a person that he has ever known.

Later, this will be the source of her humiliation, the final rift that makes her want to put as much distance between their bodies as she can.

“Don’t hate me,” he’d said before he left.

But she does. She hates cowards. She hates men with more than one face, with separate postures for what they need and what they want. After that first time, in the humid darkness of the meeting room, all the softness had gone out of his face. When he gets close to her now, it is different, smothered, a function of quiet rage. He’d have a few drinks and then all he’d want — the only thought that was perfectly clear — was her. Her legs wrapped around his hips, her mouth pressed against his neck, one hand underneath her, the other gripping the door for support. Bearing down on her, succumbing to her.

She thought the expression on his face that time had been more like a murderer. And she had responded by loving this part of him; the ugliness, everything. By wanting to set him free.

But cowards can’t be set free. Not from themselves, not from anyone.

This is the first foggy thought of the morning after, surprising in its clarity. She is lying in her winter boots and coat in the hall of her apartment building. She is exactly one arm’s length from her door. The length of one strong arm.

He turns onto his street. The porch lights glare in their same neon pattern. He pauses at the foot of his driveway. Resolves to stay away. The light in the front room is on; he can see the shadow of his wife shifting back and forth inside.

The metamorphosis of guilt is what surprises him the most; the more he has to carry it, the more it is like a painless, secret part of him. Less like pain and more as if some winged creature has alighted on his back and is lifting him off the ground, releasing him from the grip of gravity, his body dangling weightless and free –

He curses her silently before mounting the steps. That she had been anywhere near the verge of toppling this empire. Here he has everything he could ever want or need. People who truly love him. His wife’s arms around his neck feel brittle and tired. She asks what’s on his mind.

He pauses for a moment. What’s a lie between the best of friends? Between the people who really know you?

Twenty miles away Ava wakes up and reaches for the door. Her arm is wobbly; it takes several tries to insert the key into the lock. She collapses there, moaning softly, wondering what time it is or if anyone will come out of the elevators and see her.

He sits in his den drinking a beer, his little boy asleep with his head on his lap. He tries again to push the image out of his mind. How good just that one kiss had been. How foolish, too, out in the open where anyone could see.

No doubt she had loved him, that was clear, anyone could see that she felt more than he did. That look she’d get when he’d lock eyes with her. Controlled exhilaration.

She was passionate though, she must feel all things more deeply –

He hadn’t stopped to consider that really it was like comparing foreign creatures — birds, roses, oranges, walls. Not all of them could be bitten into, inhaled, caged, broken down, set free.

That night, miles apart, they both dream of shattered glass. He does not remember the dream, but upon waking she thinks that love too leaves a mark that’s real and physical; the opposite effect. Reassembles for one shining moment the beauty in the universe. Makes everything whole again.