You see the painter standing outside the book store, smoking, one hand shoved into the pocket of his jeans, a hooded sweatshirt giving him the squat, neckless look of a bodybuilder. But you know, from the opening/reading the night before—he wore a short-sleeved, double-pocketed shirt like the one your father used to wear bowling—that his arms are thin, muscle tone soft. Four months later, when he sends you a picture of himself naked, six muscle-pounds heavier, leaning back in his office chair to better display (you assume) the newly articulate abdominal lines, you will tell him you remember noticing, that first night, the paunch of his stomach beneath the bowling shirt.
It was the sexiest thing about you, you’ll say. That small imperfection.
The one part of my body I’m never happy with, he’ll say.
He’ll ask you to send him a picture of a body part you wish you could change, and you’ll send him a close-up of your smile: coffee stains on the front teeth, concentric lines arcing outward on either side of the lips.
You’d gone to the joint opening/reading at the Hunter Museum to hear a poet known for her ability to make married sex sound sexy by way of the well-placed ellipsis. The painter—an abstract expressionist making a foray into what he called narrative lithography—introduced his work first. Before he began, he paid homage to the poet, called her an undisputed genius, spoke at length of the cosmic events leading up to the present moment: how the phone call inviting him to join the poet came in at the very minute—the very second—he lifted her book from his shelf. I mean the phone rang three times, he said; I pulled her book from the shelf on the first two, answered on the third. The Law of Attraction at work, he said. The Universe ordained this joint event. What a privilege to bow to the wishes of the Universe.
Excessive praise, you’d been thinking, presumptuous, self-congratulatory, but then he began to discuss a series of prints: a man and a woman lying in a field of waving grasses, a needle entering the musculature of a hip, followed by a scene of drugged, violent sex, a sheathed knife held to the woman’s throat.
When your distance affair with the painter has ended—when you’re lying, again, beneath your husband’s touches, which fall and fall like tiny, wounded questions—you will wonder if those prints were the original locus, the beginning of things, the fact that the painter could speak with such ease about sexual control and surrender; some dormant electron inside of you charged, a particle observed and measured; the collapse of wavefunction into the lineaments of time and space, body and desire.
And the quantum must play a role in this chance encounter, you think, walking past the man, into the bookstore. (That morning, one of your boys, shirtless and wearing flannel pajama pants, climbed into bed with you and your husband to show you a Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Calvin suggests going to the zoo. Hobbes agrees, as long as Calvin promises to visit a prison afterward, and your husband said, Let’s take them to the zoo, but you begged off, you wanted—needed—a quiet Saturday morning alone. You’d planned to buy Brian Greene’s newest book, ponder the illusion of time’s forward-motion arrow, then sit at the piano in your studio at the university. You had a composition in mind, something surreal and atonal in which the arrow would reverse: glass unbreaking, gases released from an opened Coke bottle re-coalescing. Daddy day, your husband said. Who wants funnel cakes for breakfast?) Of course you recognize the painter from the night before, but there’s a deeper recognition in your exchange of glances; he reminds you of someone you’ve known in the past, or else he’s a particular type of person you’ve known before, or else there are—his suggestion, months later—past lives involved, a forced separation during a world war, or even a split in a soul cluster before your primary incarnations.
Inside the bookstore, you try to remember the man’s last name. Something with a B, something monosyllabic. Brandt, Beck? Then you see his face on a poster: Adam Blunt, Booksigning, Saturday 9/13, 10 a.m. Beside the poster is a stack of art books on a table, a light blue cover with a painting of a sheer curtain and a vase with three daffodils, one of them dead. A title that’s both a question and a demand—a duality you notice, exiting the store, in the deliberate way he stubs out his cigarette and steps forward.
Do I know you, he says. I mean, have we—
I was at the opening last night. I actually just bought your book.
Thank you. Not many people do. Adam, he says.
Then, giving in to a tendency you’ve had your entire life, an almost compulsive need to give away more about yourself than is necessary: It was my mother’s maiden name.
Because you check his hand (married) and see him check yours, notice the slight lowering of his eyelids subsequent to the glance—because you intuit a certain amount of safety in the fact that you’re both married, and both check—you let yourself take him in openly, top to bottom: fair hair, glasses, thin lips obscured by a scruffy beard. A prominent nose, humped across the bridge; an Irish cross tattoo on the side of his neck, beneath an earlobe holding a tiny golden hoop. You guess he’s your age, thirty-six, thirty-seven. Later that morning, over coffee, you’ll learn you were born in the same year, your birthdays only three weeks apart. His clothing is monotone—navy sweatshirt, dark jeans—so that the bright red Pumas startle you as something private, a body part exposed. Like his nose, his feet relative to his height—five-nine or -ten—are disproportionately long. Flutter in your abdomen, soft pulse in the groin.
If the others in the bookstore café—college student with laptop, mother with kicking baby in stroller, man in a suit and baseball cap, talking on his phone; not to mention the girl with the pierced lower lip who works here and is standing behind the glass pastry display, uploading photos to Instagram—had looked at the man and the woman sitting at the two-top beside the front window, they would have noticed the woman leaning in too closely, her torso inclined forward beyond forty-five degrees, and the man’s left knee bobbing up and down, up and down, the way he keeps shifting his weight and wiping his palm along his thigh.
But no one observes the man and woman beyond a passing acknowledgment of the presence of two bodies in this particular airspace, and so they are permitted—they permit themselves—to assume the shape and mien of a couple. They discuss the poet from the night before, their families. He: married eight years, no kids; she: married fourteen, two boys, two girls. They discuss art, books, piano, running. He: truly, the smoking has never interfered, though I’ve yet to do anything longer than a half-marathon; she: I started out as a composer, but then the kids came, and, well, I teach now, play weddings, do some accompanying; a way to contribute—financially, you know. They discuss Eckhart Tolle and Joel Osteen, Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis. They talk about their respective upbringings—he, Boston, she, Phoenix—and shared childhood fears.
At three-thirty her husband calls.
No fires yet, he says. But we’re starting to miss you.
Be there in twenty, she says.
The painter stands. He tells her he plans to stay in Chattanooga another day or two, do some sightseeing before heading back up to New York. She tells him she knows some good running routes.
A tentative plan is made, cell phone numbers exchanged.
Blame it on the earring, tattoo, stomach, sneakers. Blame the nose like your father’s, a dignified, a substantive nose; a nose you can’t help thinking would be especially loved by women who would love what such a nose could do, in such-and-such a context. Blame the smell of coffee, the juxtaposition of light and shadow on the sidewalk, early autumn slant of sunlight around corners of brick. Blame your latent desire to be handled in a way that would both elicit and demand surrender. Blame the thin lips obscured by the beard, patchy near the cheekbones—flecked, in places, with silver.
Ihave panic attacks, the man is saying. Large crowds, classrooms.
Monday morning. Kids in school, husband at work. You’re taking the painter on a day tour, starting with a walk through Rock City, just blocks away from your house on Lookout Mountain. You tell him the place is a must-see (I know it sounds like one of those giant-ball-of-twine traps, but truly, it’s stunning, the rock formations, the views; and there’s, well, this drug-trip room with glow-in-the-dark fairy-tale statues, all black light, just one of those things you’ve got to see) but there’s something more, in your desire to bring him precisely here: an attempt to graft him, somehow, onto the familiar landscape.
It’s eight, an hour before opening. You access the Enchanted Trail from a neighbor’s yard at the back of the property.
My college professors made special arrangements with my parents, the man says, walking behind you on the narrow path through the boulders at Needle’s Eye. I could leave the classroom at any time, without explanation, if I started to panic, as long as I got the notes and made up the work.
If the anxiety hit while I was driving, he says, I would punch the dashboard till my knuckles bled.
You tell him about your premature ventricular contractions, a benign condition—the pause, the rush of blood into the ventricles, the heavy expelling flub, It’s like my heart takes this breath, and in the pause I feel a sinking sensation, a slipping into my own head. Just enough time to think, implosion. When my heart starts up again it races, and the racing can induce panic. Which exacerbates the racing. And so forth.
It used to hit when I was performing, you tell him. Now it comes in yoga, in shavasana. Just lying there, you know?
The worst, he says. I run with headphones so I don’t hear my own heartbeat. I’ve lost hearing in my right ear because of turning the volume up too high.
In the Rainbow Hall—a tunnel carved into the east-facing side of the cliff above the corn maze and old plantation properties, eight square windows cut into the rock face, each stained a different color—you tell him you love the way the landscape changes depending on the window.
But not your typical Jungian color correlations, you say. I think of them as musical terms. Like, dynamics notes.
The man stops at the red square and looks at you, eyebrows raised.
Pesante, you say. Heavy, dense. Chopin’s note for the opening measures of the Premiere Ballade.
Keep going, he says, moving to orange.
You tell him orange is con brio, yellow poco a poco morendo, green subito pianissimo, a slipping underwater. Before you finish, the man turns to face you. He grabs your upper arms and pins you against the opposite wall, then lifts your shirt so that your entire stomach is illuminated beneath your sports bra.
Hold still, he says, his mouth against your ear. I want to fuck you in blue.
Attempt to go back and locate your earliest sexual yearnings. Suspicion that an explanation for why you will take up the distance affair—if there is an explanation—lies in the past. A recurring dream, when you were ten or eleven: a dusty Sunday school classroom at the back of a church. You’re alone, lying on a cot, looking up at a high window cut into the adobe brick. Typical desert construction, windows sized long and rectangular to let in light but keep out heat. A slurred sunlight comes through the window—red-orange, either just-rising or just-setting—while somewhere far off, on a tinny piano, someone plays “The House of the Rising Sun.” A death song, you’d think when you woke. A song they might play at a funeral, possibly yours. You lie on the cot, though sometimes, in the dream, you’re slung into a wheelchair. Your legs are spread, you’re unable to move while the old light shifts down the wall and along the floor toward you—a deep pleasure in the paralysis, the inability to fight off the color now sliding up your thighs.
The painter goes back to New York and your relationship takes on its particular shape: e-mails, telephone calls, handwritten letters. You admit the thrill of it is in the continued exchange of words. You read an Irish proverb about conversation as a shared meal: the placing of words into a bowl between two parties, the removal of the kind words, each to the other, so that by the end of the conversation the bowl is empty and both parties are full.
There are also synchronicities—neither of you can help noticing or commenting on this fact—long-range connections bypassing spatial separation, instantaneous links between what happens at widely separated locations. (But who knows how many were real, and how many we made up out of wanting? you will tell your husband the night you confess.) A poem you e-mail to the man is highlighted in a book he pulls randomly from a shelf in Barnes & Noble. His name on a tiny square of paper your daughter cut from a magazine while working on a collage for art class. He says to you, on the phone, “I need more time with you,” and even as he says it, a song with that lyric plays over the grocery store speakers. Even the date you met him—September 13—has significance. It’s your grandmother’s birthday, the grandmother who fell in love with a man who wasn’t her husband and kept loving him, from a distance, until she died at 96. When the relationship has ended the date will continue to hold out surprises: a boarding student will come to live with your family for a semester and will turn out to be from the same small town as the painter. Her birthday will be September 13.
Ten years after you and the man stop talking, you’ll take your grandmother’s diamond-rimmed watch to a pawn shop—surely she’d want you to use the cash to help pay your kids’ college tuition—but at the counter, when the Russian woman opens the bakelite case, the original sales slip will fall out and you will see the name of the town where the watch was made: the town in New York where the painter and his wife still, presumably, live. You will keep the watch. You will bury it deep in a drawer.
Assumptions from the outside, which you project, as the guilty do, onto friends and neighbors: Your marriage went bad. One party disengaged emotionally or sexually. An imbalance between the needs of one spouse and the adequacy and/or willingness of the other to meet them. And all those children—the financial burden alone!
But you will know the truth, which will present itself, during the ten months you and the painter spend in near constant contact, as a succession of images: your husband retrieving a dead fish from the lake with his bare hands because your daughter refuses to swim until it’s gone; your husband out past midnight, searching for the family cat—Persian, declawed—and finding her huddled inside a drainage ditch, eyes caught in the beam of his flashlight; your husband speaking to your oldest son in quiet, firm tones after he kicks in an anthill; your husband holding back your daughter’s hair while she vomits, then taking the sheets outside to hose them down before putting them into the washing machine.
The truth: his students at the college adore him. Most of the girls have crushes. He has a rich baritone voice and sings at some of the weddings you play for. Sang to you at yours fourteen years ago.
In bed, you ask him to turn you over. To pull back on your hair, hard.
I could never hurt you, he says.
The truth: if there is an imbalance, the weight sits on your end of the scale.
God wants your holiness, not your happiness—this from a pastor who, in a sermon, said that at least three times a month an unhappy spouse would come to his office and say: This marriage can’t be God’s will for me. God wants me to be happy. And the pastor would say, Show me where it says that in the Bible.
Uncomfortable laughter, a hand pulled through hair.
I mean it, the pastor would say, sitting back as if to wait the person out. Open the Bible and show me the verse.
We can’t have children, the man tells you. My wife had uterine cancer when she was seven.
She still has her ovaries, he says. Surrogacy is an option, if we want biological children.
I’m sorry, you say. I had no idea.
Biology is overrated anyhow, he says. What if your kids inherit all your worst characteristics?
I mean, fuck biology, he says.
The next day on the phone, just before you reach orgasm, you will tell the man you’re willing to be their surrogate. You’ll tell him you’ve done it before, four times before. That your body knows its way. You’ll tell him that you love him, and love his wife through him. That you would feel better about what the two of you were doing if you knew, in the end, there was something redemptive waiting.
But he will say, just before his orgasm, that the only child he wants is yours.
It will be this particular betrayal, more than any other, that will make you pick up the phone three years later and call his wife to ask her forgiveness, though you won’t tell her what her husband said that day on the phone, while you were bent facedown over the edge of your so-called marriage bed, topless, skirt and panties pulled halfway down your thighs, old-fashioned phone receiver—your land line—on the bed beside your ear, to leave both your hands free.
Never, his wife will say.
Go back further. Outcomes, you think, lie in the exigencies of the past. Toledo, Ohio, 1957. Your father and his twin brother, your uncle, ten years old. They take turns playing the piano all afternoon and evening while their mother, your grandmother, keeps time with a pencil. Tap tap tap, tap tap tap. Upstairs, her mother—their grandmother, your great-grandmother—is dying. She wants to hear the piano, the sound of young fingers on keys drifting up the steep carpeted staircase and down the hallway into the dim room with the giant four-poster bed and dusty afternoon light coming between the slats in the blinds. The twins play Bach. When they tire, one boy plays the left hand, one the right, trying to match tone for tone, until the grandmother calls down Irish love songs a sonata a nocturne for God’s sake play something else so one twin digs for music while the other tries to play by ear, as loudly as possible, not for the grandmother’s sake but to drown out the guttural sounds she makes when her medicine begins to wear off. Their wrists aching, fingers growing stiff into the night—the price your father paid to grow up in that house, to finally leave and get married to your mother and raise you, paying for your piano lessons, sending you to Oberlin and, eventually, out into the world so you could get married and have your own children and give them a happier, a more stable life than he had.
Every morning, your father once told you, I woke up hoping she’d died while I slept.
You anger easily toward the end. It’s a generalized thing, an underlying buzz. You cannot say what it is you’re angry about. The children are too often in front of screens, your daughter’s music is too loud, the Silly Bandz you buy for your son won’t take shape out of the bag. You rip them apart. Your husband’s need for sex becomes inordinate—not just sex, but mutually satisfying sex—meaning you must have an orgasm or the act itself will bead off and simply create more need.
You stop going upstairs to look at your children when they’re asleep.
I feel more love for them when I imagine them sleeping, you tell the painter.
One day you get into child’s pose beside your bed, the wood floor cold against your forearms and shins. This is where you will scream profanities at God. Under the bed—you know it’s there, though you don’t look—is the unmarked cardboard box your husband handed to you a week earlier. Inside is a small electric device with a rubberized nodule at its tip. He wants you to try it, alone; and then, if you’re comfortable, together. You haven’t removed it from the packaging. You plan to send it back.
When Jesus is walking toward the boat, not calming the storm, it’s because he wants his disciples to stay in the storm and see him. He waits till they are overwhelmed with their own inadequacy before acting. And Peter? This story isn’t about his lack of faith. It isn’t about how he took his eyes off Jesus and sank. It’s about how Jesus kept his eyes on Peter.
If you think about it, Peter was closer to Jesus when he sank than when he walked.
After the sermon, you go to see a counselor. You tell her about the anger. You say it’s because you can’t be with the man, because you can’t—as the two of you say—merge your lives, but the counselor says the anger is, must be, related to something deeper, something from your childhood. Some absence of something. But the day you scream Fuck fuck fuck you to God, you know the anger is at Him, for allowing—what, the fiery darts of the enemy?—to penetrate your heart. For the fact that the burning feels good. For exposing your domestic armaments as useless, the elements of your life you assumed, but didn’t know you assumed, were protection from baser desires: the finely decorated house with its beveled paned windows; the yoga, the running, your music; the large backyard, basil in the stone planter beneath the butterfly bush which bends, at a certain hour of the afternoon, with monarchs—all of it betrays you. Even the light feels conspiratorial, when the leaves have left the trees, coming fast between the pines on your drives down the mountain, flipping across your face like pages in a book.
Find yourself, one afternoon just before school pickup, with the Grandmother Remembers journal you asked her to fill out just before she died. The handwriting wavery but still hers, beautiful and angular and looped. You search for the name of the man she fell in love with while married to your grandfather. You forget to pick up the children until the school calls thirty minutes after you should have been there.
I knew, when I married him, that I was doing it because he made me want to be a better person, you tell the man.
There are worse reasons for getting married, the man says.
You knew he’d be at the bookstore that Saturday morning. You admit this to your husband a year after your confession, after you and the man and your husband and the man’s wife have agreed that there will be no further contact, ever. (No e-mails, no Facebook connections. You will never, you all agree, speak of it with artist or musician friends who could possibly be mutual.) You’d seen the poster at the opening, had taken it in subconsciously, just a glance, so that the next morning, in bed with your husband and son, the suggestion of going to the zoo produced a slight irritation, a modicum of unrest, instantaneously assimilated and reordered by the mind, which replaced the irritation with reasoning: to want alone-time is really just the natural inclination of a full-time mother. Healthy, too, for a father to have alone-time with his children. You admit, a year later, that between the suggestion of the trip to the zoo and your beg-off, there was a moment in which you made the conscious choice to go back for the painter’s signing because you’d been aroused by his particular version, or vision, of the sex act, and wanted to put yourself in its path. But immediately you built up layers of defense, layer upon layer, so that even in the moment, the authentic and ultimately inimical reason you begged off spending the day with your family wasn’t obvious, even to you.
Above all the heart is deceitful: a cunning machine, keeping you alive, deceiving you into becoming a deceiver.
Hold still, I want to fuck you in blue—the moment you’ll come back to, over and over, and attempt to revise the outcome: he slides his hand beneath the elastic on your running shorts. Pulls them down your legs, tells you to step out of your panties.
Instead you’re left with the deep regret: you let him run his hand over the outside of your sports bra before you pulled his hand away.
Wait wait wait, you said.
Many years later—who can say how far into the future this will happen?—your husband’s body will be pressed into yours from behind, his hand circling your navel, fingertips hooking over the rim of your hipbone. And you will feel it: a widening sense of the universe offering itself up to you—repercussion for your decision, or choice, or whatever—a kind of payoff, not just for the moment you said Wait, but for the night you decided to admit to your husband, standing beside the deer enclosure at Rock City, the truth about the ten months that followed. And you do think this way, that what you send out will come back, you’ll reap what you sow, as they say. You will, somewhere in the future, begin to feel gratitude for your younger self, the girl who, in the midst of an overwhelming ardor, chose the right path against the desires of her heart. It will be only a glimpse, a falling-from-you, a vanishing. But you will accept the vision as a kind of token, a deposit guaranteeing what’s to come. Have faith that it will widen. It’s enough, for now, you’ll think. Enough to know that none of it has been a mistake.
Like this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.