Choices

A short story about a man, his lover, his wife, and Dial soap. When attorneys had “car phones.”

Rated: PG

Porn trolls might want to visit xxxchurch.com instead. :-)

As published on the Web 20 April 1996. (view archive.org copy)


The silence in the house was interrupted only by the rattle of the large, clumsy wall clock’s second hand in the study. He slouched in his reading chair and listened to that cheap, annoying timekeeper. It was a wedding gift from his sister, so he continued to display it, but he had always despised the way the clock had fragmented his thoughts as he worked or read. Now he sat trying to make sense of his life and the path of action that defined it. Clunk. Clunk. He loosened his tie as he stood and approached the clock. The sound stopped. He held the clock’s battery in his hand. But his life was no clearer, no easier to comprehend in pure silence.

He knew the betrayal wouldn’t be forgiven. Now there would be meetings to divide property, attorneys’ fees to pay; and he might procrastinate many times, but he would someday have to sign the papers making the divorce official. Tonight he was grieving the death of his marriage, as helpless to bring it back as he had been to save the innocent birds he thoughtlessly and carelessly killed as a boy, watching them gasp and expire in his hand after a mortal blow from his slingshot’s ammunition.

Three days ago, he killed his marriage. On that day, he was finishing a letter thanking a client for continued patronage when the phone rang.

“James Fleming.” It was his custom to let the other party know his name unceremoniously whenever he picked up the phone.

“James! How have you been?”

“Sarah?” His heart pumped as he mouthed her name; his breath got short. He felt like a giddy law student again, when he had been so thrilled that such a bright and beautiful woman would want to call him back after what he thought had been a disastrous introduction at the Wellesley mixer.

She heard the emotion in his shocked reply and laughed to relieve her own tension. “That’s right. I’m so glad I found your number. Don’t you have a secretary to answer your phone for you?”

“Donna prefers the title, ‘Administrative Assistant,’ and I like to answer my own phone.” That wasn’t the only reason. Associates didn’t always have the luxury of someone to screen their calls — Donna worked for all twelve of them. “Never know when one of my college flames is going to ring and make me pant like a puppy dog.” He flirted as if they had never stopped seeing each other.

“Well, Rover. Did I get enough stars in your little black book to treat me to dinner tonight? My aunt is poor company at meals what with the tube up her nose and all.”

James laughed at the morbid sense of humor he had forgotten she possessed, and Sarah went on to explain that her aunt was recovering from surgery. Sarah was in town to help her uncle at their new Denver gallery. It took some more explaining for James to figure out that this was the same aunt and uncle who inspired Sarah to get an Art History degree while working for them in Scottsdale. “They were too happy with all that boring sunshine and decided to retire where they would be assured of breaking their old hips on an icy sidewalk,” she said.

He arranged to meet her at his favorite Denver restaurant. It overlooked the whole city from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The lights spread out across the plain to the horizon. The restaurant was bustling with activity even though it was a weeknight. Waiters were carrying food from the kitchen to the bar. The smell of steaks and spicy southwestern dishes connected with the rumbling sound of the bar crowd to suddenly remind James of nights before he was married. Other women he’d met for dinner. He was a little late. He looked for his date. There were skiers taking a break from the mountains eating and drinking. James was the only man in a suit. He saw men and women wearing ski sweaters or nylon warm-up pants and jackets. Some locals were distinguished by their cowboy-cut sport coats or suede jackets. Then he saw Sarah at the window, admiring the view.

The phone conversation had started an illusion that no time had passed since their college romance, and seeing her reinforced it — she hadn’t changed at all in five years. She still wore her brown hair straight past her shoulders, with the sides pulled and held with a comb in back. Her face was round, as were her brown eyes. Her high, model’s cheekbones and a beauty queen’s smile assured her of attention from men whenever she entered a room. He greeted her with a loving kiss just as he had done so many times in Boston and Cambridge. She kissed him back.

At the table Sarah folded her hands in front of herself and stared at James fondly. Her eyes said that she was happy to see him. James reached across the table and put his hands over hers.

“Sarah, I’ve missed you.” He looked at her hands to gather his thoughts and noticed her silver wedding band. Caught off-guard, he switched subjects. “You’re married!”

“Almost a year now.” She coyly tapped his ring. “And when did you tie the knot?”

“Emily and I met four years ago. We got married six months later.”

They traded histories. She had married a southwestern artist who was madly in love with her from the start, but she held out to be sure she was sure. He met Emily at a downtown watering hole frequented by attorneys. They walked out of the bar that night talking about what their childrens’ names would be. Neither couple had kids, yet, though. James shared with Sarah his grief about the baby Emily lost so late in the pregnancy two years ago. They hadn’t planned to start a family so soon but quickly accepted the new reality and got excited about starting a new life together as parents. Emily decorated the nursery, they both attended Lamaze classes, and a month before the due date they had their bags ready for the hospital stay. Then Emily woke up one morning with her gown soaked in blood and their anticipation was replaced with sudden emptiness.

Sarah’s eyes lost some of their eager brightness and her face became solemn and sympathetic. At that moment James missed Emily. He excused himself to try to call her. The machine answered at home. Her car phone was off. Where could she be? Before leaving his office, he had tried calling her but was told she was out, so he had left her a message that he was entertaining an old friend and wouldn’t be home for dinner. Now James didn’t call the house back to leave another message — he was no longer sure what he wanted to tell her.

“Did you get ahold of Emily?”

“No. She must be running a little late, that’s all.”

“I’m so sorry. About your … loss.” Sarah was frowning and seemed on the verge of tears.

“Thank you, Sarah. It’s alright. Really. In fact, we’ve been trying to start a family again.”

The waiter served their dinners. “Well, they say practice makes perfect.” Sarah’s thoughtless joke fell flat with James. She realized her faux pas and quickly changed the subject. “Tom and I are looking at houses. It’s hard to find one in Santa Fe that doesn’t have a studio. Tom’s very picky about the lighting, though, so I don’t have my hopes up that we’ll own a place anytime soon. He keeps grumbling that he has to build his own house to get close enough to what he needs for his work.” Sarah dramatically emphasized the word “needs,” mocking her husband’s pickiness.

“I wouldn’t do that,” James said. “Two different couples that Emily and I know went through it and neither was as happy with the result as they expected. Emily and I did it right. We wanted a house no one had lived in, so we tracked down builders working on speculative construction.” James was eating and talking, waving his fork. “We shopped from all the models going up and made an offer before they laid carpet or painted. Then Emily went wild with samples and magazine ideas. She did a different room every month after we moved in. We held a holiday party after she finished, and you could tell that some of the partners’ wives were uncomfortable that an associate’s home should look so glamorous.” James grinned, recalling the envy of the insecure women burning through their toothless smiles and cocktail compliments.

“So, you married an artist of sorts, too.” Sarah was playing again, and James found himself wanting to believe it was a genuine jealous reaction to his wife. He thought he heard a subtle tone in her voice telling him she desired him for herself. He wanted to hear Sarah say, “Stop trying to make a baby with your wife — take me instead. I want you to please me; Emily only wants to be fertilized like a prize filly.”

He was distracted by the recollection of their chaste college dates. At first James was ashamed by and still contagious with the Clap he had contracted from his former, unfaithful girlfriend. It was Sarah who suggested they sleep together, and James told her he was “still getting over the pain caused by a previous sexual relationship.” Sarah didn’t bring it up again. Instead, they went to concerts, films, and poetry readings. They would talk and argue on the T all the way back to Harvard Square. Then Emily would kiss him and step onto the last Wellesley College bus of the night that routinely shuttled the women between the isolation of that country campus and the vast diversity of social opportunities afforded by men at Wellesley’s cross-registered academic partners, Harvard and MIT.

They never argued at the art galleries. James fell in love with art while he was falling in love with Sarah. Neither of them had creative talent, but they both liked to analyze the work of masters. They purchased memberships to the Museum of Fine Arts, and the guards at the Gardner museum came to know their names. But they never got around to spending the night together. James’ doctor gave him a clean bill of health the day after Sarah graduated and moved back to Scottsdale. James took a summer apprenticeship and never took the time to write or call. His career — and other women — helped him forget about Sarah.

Now James resolved to consummate that relationship. True, the timing was unconventional, but unfinished business was at stake. His wife was using him as a stud horse and this flower of the desert stepped back into his life at a juncture when he wanted to be reminded what sex was like when he was trying to avoid becoming a father.

James poured the last two glasses of wine from the bottle. “When can I see you again?” he asked.


As she left the obstetrician’s office, Emily resolved to tell James the news at home. With the first pregnancy she interrupted him at work. He thought she wanted to share a secret about her office politics. Logical, since that’s always what it was about when she had acted so furtively on previous visits. But the first time he heard the news that he was to be a father, she could see on his face the grinding gears in his mind as he shifted from professional to personal reaction. He actually looked disappointed that she had no news about which partner stabbed whom in the back this time.

So this time Emily would wait until they were both home. Could she wait until she could open a bottle of their favorite Auslesse after dinner, or should she chill some champagne and meet him at the door? Oh, God! She almost poisoned her unborn baby! She couldn’t drink wine! This would take planning. She canceled her appointments using the phone in her Volvo and went shopping for food.

Emily knew James wasn’t expecting any news today. She never told him when her period was late; she just went and had a test done. But surely she could persuade him to come home early for a romantic dinner. She’d tell him she was “fertile.” That was sure to get him home in the right frame of mind. She pressed the speed number for his office on her phone as she merged into rush hour freeway traffic.

“Reins, Uberrof and Trotsky. Mr. Fleming’s office.”

“Donna, this is Emily. How are you?” Why didn’t James answer his own phone, Emily wondered.

“Anxious to go home, thanks Emily,” Donna replied cordially, “And you?”

Emily was teary-eyed with joy, but she didn’t want to tell Donna her news before James. Where was he? So she maneuvered around a direct answer. “I’ve had a wonderful day and was calling to see if I could entice my husband away from the office at a civilized hour.”

James had made no mystery of his plans to Donna, and she quickly replied, “He left for a dinner appointment about twenty minutes ago.”

Emily was disoriented. She was accustomed to James’ long hours. They were both determined to stay in line for partnerships, and that kept them busy twelve hours a day. But as an associate, James did little entertaining, and when he did, it was planned — and he always kept her informed. “He … didn’t tell me about that,” she answered weakly. Then with composure she added, “Donna, I’ll check my voice mail. Bye.”

Emily’s office system allowed her to pick up messages with her touch-tone phone. She listened to James ask her not to expect him for dinner because he was out with a friend he hadn’t seen since law school. She hung up and took a deep breath while she decided how jealous to be. James was no philanderer, but she knew when a man said he was with an old “friend” and gave no hint about gender, it was a woman. Her rage grew as she thought of her shattered plans for the evening and of James reminiscing over wine this very moment while his son or daughter grew inside her. Her changing hormones wouldn’t let her focus her anger, though, and so she began to cry.

Emily wiped her eyes as she drove home. She parked in the garage and opened the car door. Was that the phone? She listened. Silence. She walked into the kitchen and checked the machine. No messages. She turned on the television to fill the house with noise and warmed a meal for herself in the microwave. She had several hours to become jealous.


James was still wearing an “I got laid” grin on his face as he pulled into the driveway. He felt vital again. A woman had wanted him for her own pleasure and had summarily taken him to bed tonight.

Sarah hadn’t wanted to wait for a second reunion to make her own feelings known. When James asked to see her again, she bluntly said, “Let’s find somewhere we can be alone now.” The memories played through his mind over and over again: the kissing and touching, Sarah’s perfume on her soft neck, the way she shook her full head of hair after she slid the comb out of place, the smell of her clothes as he patiently but passionately removed them, her moans and squeals, and the coupling, oh, the coupling! He was drunk from the intense liquor of all the carnal sensations.

It was past midnight. James wondered now for the first time what he would tell Emily. Emily already knew he had dinner with a friend. To avoid a complicated lie, he would have to distract her so she wouldn’t ask the friend’s name. But better not to admit it was a woman. Just in case she asked, he picked a name and biography of someone he might have known at Harvard. He could easily account for the time after dinner with some story about office work. Now he was quite satisfied with his cover-up plan.

There was a light shining in the bedroom. Emily was waiting up for him. Not unusual so far. They both often kept late hours. James strolled into the room removing his tie for the second time that day. Emily was sitting in bed watching an old movie on TV. “What’s the flick, Em?” he asked, testing her mood.

“Did you sleep with her?”

James’ mind raced, and he blushed. So much for the man’s name, he thought. Emily sounded like she knew. Women. How do they know? Quick, pick a new path for the story, he told himself. “Of course not.” Well-done, he thought. Indignant, but not provocative. He stood in front of her with a puzzled look and removed his suit coat. Then she just glared at him, her eyes narrowing and then relaxing. It was the same expression she used in court when she was prying the truth out of a witness. James knew the look. When they were dating he taught her that mannerism after she complained about being intimidated in the courtroom. James was a poor trial lawyer and had spent his career avoiding the courtroom, but a woman in law school from a family of lawyers had taught him the trick while they were in tort class.

He had to lie up front, and that changed his strategy, but there was no reason to complicate the story. James spoke with confidence as he relayed the simple truth. “I guess you got my message. I hadn’t seen Sarah since law school.” Then he casually lobbed another lie. “We just had dinner.” He watched her expression soften. She wanted to believe it was “just” dinner.

“You must have closed down the restaurant,” she said, testing him.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Em. I should have called. We finished before eight, then I realized I had to go back to the office for a report due tomorrow morning. Since I was there, I finished it instead of bringing work home.”

Emily ran her hands through her sandy hair as if she was combing the anxiety out of her mind. “Oh, Jay. It was going to be a perfect evening, and then I had to sit here alone all night imagining the worst. My hormones won’t let me think clearly right now.”

Now James had a new complication. His wife had blamed her hormones during only one other time in their marriage — her first pregnancy. Any old lust he harbored for Sarah was melted with the immediate realization he might be a father. “Emily, are we having a baby?”

Emily saw the genuine enthusiasm in her husband’s expression. He was a handsome man, but she most loved his smile. Now he was smiling at her with all the love of the father of her child. She got off the bed and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Yes, James, I’m pregnant.”

He laughed and lifted her off the floor. “Em, I couldn’t be happier than I am right now.” He held her close. Emily nuzzled against his neck and inhaled slowly as she hugged him. She loved the smell of his cologne and shampoo. But her husband’s scent was different tonight. Was that perfume? She couldn’t tell. She had been about to cry with joy, but now she sniffed to be sure of what she was imagining. There was no mistaking that he’d recently bathed, and he had used Dial soap. She recognized its distinctive fragrance. She hated scented soaps. She never bought them, and they never used them. But now James had. She caught her husband in adultery because of Dial soap!

“You liar!” she blurted out as she pushed him away. Now she cried out of anger. “You slept with her tonight, and you thought you could wash away your sin in the shower like, like Lady Macbeth! Or did you rent a suite somewhere and have a leisurely bath with her, too? Your child is growing inside me, and you … oh, God …” Suddenly, she ran to the bathroom to throw up.

James was stunned. She caught him. He tried to think up another explanation, but he couldn’t come up with a lie to account for the shower. He knew the longer he was silent, the more certain she would be of her own conclusions, but he couldn’t think of a diversion. He should have said he went to the club after dinner to work out. Then he’d have had an excuse for the shower. He hadn’t counted on her ability to isolate such a small detail to put the facts together. After his tryst, he had begun to get dressed but realized he couldn’t hope to hide his activity that night without a shower. He wanted to hide the sex, and he didn’t think about hiding the shower. He sincerely thought he would get away with this. It was only a one night stand, after all. Now his deception of his wife was over only minutes after it began.

He was going to be a father, and his son or daughter might someday learn that he had cheated on their mother. His shame ran deep. He thought of his own father. He and Emily had driven to his parents’ retirement home in Pagosa Springs to tell them they were getting married. He and his dad were on the golf course. “Jimmy, I want you to know I’ve always been faithful to your mother. That’s important, son. The woman you marry needs to know she can trust you.”

While James wallowed in his shame, Emily was crying and packing a bag. James returned from his inner world to live through a waking nightmare as he realized what his wife was doing in front of him. She was packing some of her suits! He was afraid to speak. It seemed so futile to plead with her. Maybe they could talk tomorrow. Emily brought her toiletries out of the bathroom and spoke coldly to James. “I’m going to stay with your sister. Don’t call me.” She finished packing.

Yeah, you’re the sister Karen never had, he thought. Then he tried to be magnanimous. “Em, please stay. This is your house. I’ll go away for a while so you can be alone.”

Her tears had stopped. She sighed. “James, I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to be alone, but I certainly don’t want to be with you.” She didn’t wait for him to reply. She dragged the bag behind her and left through the garage door. James didn’t know what else to do. He was confused and embarrassed. He and Sarah had tried some athletic maneuvers, and now his thighs were hurting. He laid on the bed, exhausted and paralyzed.

When he woke up the next morning, the seriousness of his situation pressed on him like a tequila hangover. In fact, his head did hurt. Last night he hadn’t thought about the consequences of being caught. He wasn’t going to get caught. Now he came to terms with his wife’s position on infidelity. More than once she had told him that one of the things she appreciated about him was his naturally monogamous character. He hadn’t dated more than one woman at a time before they were married, and he hadn’t strayed since. Until now. How do all those men get away with it? Why couldn’t he do it once? Em had to forgive him. He could assure her it wouldn’t happen again. He could make it up to her. Fly with her to the Caribbean. Pamper her. They had a child to raise, after all.

James decided he should honor Emily’s command to leave her alone, at least for a day or two, so he went to work. It was Wednesday. Meetings, lunch with a client, research for a partner. James was alone all day. He had some friends at the office — associates like himself. But associates playing musical chairs for the coveted seat as a partner were cautious about close friendships. For some, like James, it started at Harvard, where competition was keen and scruples were situational. Others were more naive. They needed the scar of betrayal before they learned to keep a shield up against insincere or transient intimacy around the office. But they all eventually picked up the rules of the game. And so today James had no one to talk to for advice or support.

Thursday was equally bland. James was not eating well. He couldn’t sleep, either, and Friday he canceled his appointments to take the day off. Then he called Emily at work. He had to get through her secretary. Emily didn’t share Pam, and she never answered her own phone. James was relieved to be unceremoniously put through. Maybe that was because Pam didn’t know. James was surprised that he cared whether Pam knew, but in fact he couldn’t forgive himself, and his shame would be worse if God and everyone else also knew he cheated on his wife.

Emily picked up the phone, and James, desperate, opened the conversation. “Hi, Emily. How are you?”

“James, we need to talk.” She was using her attorney voice with him.

“Alright. Can we meet at home tonight?”

“No. Let’s just meet at The Palace.”

He located the restaurant on his mental map. It was close to Em’s office. We’ll be on her turf. Well, this is a domestic reconciliation, not a merger negotiation, he thought.

“OK. Em? I’ve missed you.”

Emily was silent, then she said, “Six thirty,” and hung up.

James was there at six dressed in a suit Emily had bought for him. He reserved a table and waited in the bar. He hadn’t eaten all day, but the thought of being with Emily got his appetite going again. He didn’t want to risk a drink upsetting his empty stomach, though, so he was sipping soda water when Emily arrived. The restaurant was subdued, which was typical. With dinners costing about twice the common price, the crowds left The Palace to the couples with a special occasion to celebrate. There was hardly anyone around, and the only sounds were muffled conversations and the delicate ringing of glasses and silverware at the tables. James spotted Emily from the bar as she was asking about a table, and he dashed to greet her. He helped her with her coat.

“I’m glad to see you, Emily.” She turned so he had to kiss her on the cheek.

“You look handsome tonight, James. Oh, you’re wearing the tie I gave you.”

He was glad she noticed the tie. It was a bright, abstract print. Not conservative enough to wear to work, and she hadn’t seen him in it until tonight. He wanted her to know he was fully hers. What would it take to make up his mistake to her?

They were quiet as they decided what to have for dinner. The only conversation was centered on the menu. They both declined the wine list from the waiter, and Emily added, “I can’t drink wine right now.” That was an opening for James to ask Emily how she felt.

She replied cordially. “A little sick in the mornings. Like last time. I suppose that means I’ll feel worse in a week or two.”

They talked about plans for the baby. Emily even started smiling as James recalled the girls’ names they were considering. James knew there was something distant about Emily now, though. She wasn’t sharing her hopes and dreams about their new family the way she did during the first pregnancy.

Their talk avoided the matter of their separation until after their plates had been cleared away. Then Emily took a deep breath and said, “James, I can’t forgive you.”

“Emily, I know I can’t change what I did, but I only love you. It’s behind me. I’ll never see her again.”

“You don’t understand, James. You’ve betrayed my trust. I sat at home all night wondering what you were doing; who you were with. I asked you to tell me that the worst thing I could imagine wasn’t true. And you almost convinced me that it wasn’t. Then when I smelled that soap on you, all I could think about was that my husband had tried to deceive me. You flat-out lied to me, James. You lied three times! How can I ever believe you again when you say you’ve been at the office? Or anywhere else? I’ll always remember how easy it was for you to fabricate that story, and how easy it was for me to believe it.”

James thought he had to convince her to forgive his one act of adultery. Now he realized she wasn’t even dealing with that issue, yet. To her, he was just another storyteller. She dealt with clients like that every day. She had almost stopped practicing law more than once when a client’s fabrications fell apart under the scrutiny of the opposition and she found out the truth along with the rest of the courtroom. Emily hated liars before she had ever loved her monogamous husband. This wasn’t about the one-night stand that he had. That fact couldn’t be erased, but the memory would fade. After all, both of them had slept with other people before they got married. But their whole married life together had been untainted by the ugly betrayal that comes with an unraveled falsehood. Until now.

All the negotiations, all the apologizing, all the reassurance that James had planned to use to win Emily back were of absolutely no use. Why didn’t he see this coming? Had his own practice numbed him to right and wrong? He worked every day in a maze of facts, putting together deals, drawing up business plans that relied on discretion and careful, selective sharing of the truth with the competition.

James had overestimated his wife’s capacity for forgiveness, and he had misjudged the nature of the issue that would seal his fate.

He was again speechless. Emily’s eyes filled with water, but she didn’t cry. “I’m coming home tomorrow to finish packing. I suggest you find someone to represent you, because I’m filing for a divorce next week. Goodbye, James.” She left him sitting alone at the table.

It started to snow as James drove home. He dropped his keys on the dining room table and went to the study. I hate that clock, he thought, and he ripped the battery from its place like he was ripping his own heart out. At what point had he utterly destroyed his life? There must have been a point of no return. Emily made her position clear on the matter. But for James, it was more subtle. Somewhere along the way he chose to do something that couldn’t be undone. Somewhere during the evening last Tuesday, he had made the wrong choice.


Imported from home.pcisys.net.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.