James and I sit at the kitchen table on a rainy Saturday afternoon going through the mail, drinking Bloody Marys, half-heartedly making a grocery list and teasing each other. We are just back from celebrating our two-year anniversary in Kauai: waterfalls and rope swings and beaches so empty it was like we were shipwrecked.
James has a deep tan and his hair is messy, like it still has the ocean in it. He’s wearing the bracelet he bought there—beads suspended on hemp—and his flip-flops are flecked with sand. He opens bills, lingers over the Victoria’s Secret catalog, trashes grocery store coupons. Laughing, he picks up a real estate advertisement depicting a woman with a painted face. Her red hair is obviously dyed; her curls hard, unnatural. Underneath her face, a banner reads Experience You Can Trust.
“Do you trust Patty Gilstrap?” he says in an affected tone.
I laugh and wish this post-vacation high would last, that we could continue as adolescent versions of ourselves, our relationship safely in the realm of entertainment and escape. James picks up a manila envelope from my cousin Bill. He offers it to me, but I’m reading an anniversary card so he tears into it. Inside is a card, a book on Dreamweaver, and an envelope containing photos. The pictures are from Bill’s wedding six months ago. James flips through them, showing me the highlights. Bill and Anna kissing in front of floor-to-ceiling glass; Anna sniffing a rose, lips parted; Bill and his groomsmen shirtless, only ties, drinks in hand. Then comes to one and stops.
James didn’t attend Bill’s wedding; his copy editor job had him scheduled weekends, and his father was in town. I filled him in after I returned: bridesmaids in hot pink, Aunt Mary’s tiara, the tower of Krispy Kreme donuts instead of a cake. He’d nodded as I spoke, exhaustion dimming his face at the very mention of L.A.
James tosses the photos toward me, gets up, and pours a glass of water.
The photo on top is Lauren and me. I’m smiling, head tilted down, obviously drunk. Lauren’s mouth is closed so you can’t see her big teeth. Her cleavage is ample. Our faces are pressed together, filling the frame, and we’d look like innocent teenagers—lips puckered, kissing the air—if it wasn’t for my brazenly lustful stare, the deep shine to my eyes. James didn’t recognize Lauren—how could he, they never met—but instead recognized my expression. My sex face.
“I forgot about her,” I say, and reach under the table for Isabelle, our Italian Greyhound, and realize she’s still at the kennel. We bought her at a mall pet store in Florida on vacation a few years ago. James calls her puppy mill, a joke. She’s still not completely housetrained and James can’t stand the surprise. I miss her tiny face, her delicate bones, the way guilt makes her crawl-waddle over to confess an accident.
Through the kitchen window, the rain is falling in sheets, making everything darker. It’s a typical late summer shower after which the streets will turn to saunas. DC was built on a swamp and the rain, heat, and mosquitoes are reminders.
“Why would he send us a picture with her in it?” James says finally, leaning against the counter.
“He didn’t know.”
James laughs, but this time it’s a different kind of laugh. Not our goofy post-vacation laugh. “Didn’t know?” He has to clear his throat after he says it.
“It didn’t happen in front of everyone,” I say.
He opens the refrigerator, picks up a beer then replaces it. He closes the door and eyes the postcard tacked to the door. New River, West Virginia. In it, low-lying clouds fill the gorge and the bridge looks as if it is resting on stringy wads of cotton. A Piece of Heaven it says in loopy script.
“Y’all should check out Bridge Day,” he says.
“What could be better?” I say—an old joke between us.
He laughs a little, shakes his head like he can’t believe it.
“It wasn’t that bad of a weekend,” I say.
“How is Bill anyway,” he says.
“Good.” I pretend to scrutinize the cable bill. “Him and Anna are going on a cruise.”
James walks out of the room and when he returns he is wearing shorts and a t-shirt he got on vacation.
“I need a run,” he says.
“It’s raining,” I say, but he kisses my cheek and leaves.
I would have told James about my night with Lauren, but my head still buzzed when I returned the day after the wedding. I came home and looked at James but thought of her tongue, fingers, mouth. The night returned in splotches: the elevator kiss, her body like soft, lumpy pillows, rust-colored cool sheets, and her smell—baby powder tinged with chocolate.
A month later, on our drive to West Virginia, I confessed. Isabelle was on my lap, burrowed under a blanket, breathing damp and hot on my leg. James was watching the road with a calm satisfaction that seemed to have within it all of our potential. I looked out and saw nothing but a soft blur of trees, green that shivered in the light. It made me urgently truthful.
I withheld details but admitted Lauren and I ended up in bed together. I didn’t mention she had sent thousands of tiny pinpricks through me, how she was masculine and strange, yet familiar at the same time. I said it meant nothing.
Suddenly we were fighting—I don’t remember about what, but it wasn’t about the cheating. Just as suddenly, we were quiet. I do remember the car smelled of fast food, the radio played bluegrass. A strong wind shook our Honda Civic like trucks did on the highway and James sipped his soda, adjusted the air conditioning.
“I was so drunk,” I said.
“That’s not an excuse.”
“I’m never a lesbian sober,” I said, but he didn’t laugh. He inhaled through his nose, a big nostril-clearing signal that the conversation was over.
Except for me telling him where to turn, we didn’t speak. Our log cabin beside a lake had rocking chairs on the porch, a picnic table and decaying tractor in the yard. The beds were covered with homemade quilts and the floor sloped in the living room. It smelled of moth balls and wood smoke and incense. James unloaded the car while I explored and wondered if our marriage was over.
I found him in the kitchen, putting the steaks in the refrigerator. I picked up a cast iron skillet off the wall, felt its weight. “Quaint,” I said, but James continued transferring food from the cooler.
“Want some help?” I said.
“Nope.” The back of his university t-shirt had darkened with sweat, the same t-shirt he’d worn when we started dating five years ago. “Why don’t you see about the lake?” he said.
I went down the thin wooden steps into the yard, Isabelle close behind. The blanched grass crunched underfoot. I kept my eyes down, my hand shading my face from the bright sun as Isabelle ran ahead, her tiny body getting smaller in the distance.
James and I met right after graduation, both of us shaky-legged without the shelter of academia. James lucked into an internship at The Post and I was a staff assistant for a Senator. We were career minded, harbored a need to line things up. Meeting him was like checking something off my list.
“Alex,” James shouted, his voice tiny, like it was coming from the bottom of a well.
He stood behind the car door. I waved and walked quickly in his direction.
“Heading to the store,” he yelled.
“Wait,” I shouted.
I was certain he saw me jogging toward him, heard my voice, but the door slammed and the engine started. I stopped in the center of the field and watched as the window on the passenger side slowly rose, and then was sealed shut.
James and I moved here, to our current house on Capitol Hill, two years before we tied the knot. It’s a three bedroom with a small deck, a parking space, and a refinished kitchen and decorated with James’ furniture—the dark dining table and wine cabinet, full leather chairs that seem like they should carry the smell of cigars and cologne. It’s elegant: our walls a deep sage, the carpet Persian.
I put the photos of Lauren in one of the end table drawers—under birthday cards and instruction manuals and recipes—with the sick feeling I am burying something alive. When James returns from his run, we work on chores but keep to ourselves. He pays bills and responds to emails while I sort the laundry and tidy the kitchen, both of us devoted to restoring life to its regimented order.
I make grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch in the pans we recently purchased. We’ve taken up cooking as a tandem hobby, but I’m more like his assistant, relegated to chopping or draining. Mostly I stick to college staples. We eat on the couch and watch the news. A twelve-year-old committed suicide across the city, in a neighborhood we’d heard of but never seen.
“Jesus,” I say.
“My father thought about it every day,” James says absently. His voice has the bare quality of reporting. Not a trace of sympathy.
“When he lost his job. Thought about using a shotgun. Felt too guilty though. Funny how much guilt keeps some of us in line.”
I rub his knee, sit rigidly on the couch. I wonder what our relationship would be like if I’d never admitted my one night with Lauren, if instead I kept it as only mine to possess. I wonder how much better our marriage might be if we weren’t so hell bent on being honest.
James stands, walks toward the window. The rain pounds the roof and thunder rumbles somewhere far off.
“It was noble of him not to do it,” I say and know this sounds puny.
James’ father lives in Louisville and used to come to DC to visit us as much as for the fine dining. He paid enormous restaurant tabs and told us farm stories and his regrets about divorcing James’ mom while sipping Bordeaux or Dewar’s or Absolute tonics. He bought our time, and we listened, absorbing both what he was saying and what he was not—the engorged blood vessels on his nose and his glassy eyes had voices all their own. When he called to say the bank had fired him that morning, he was already drunk. Then he was on a plane and James was free from attending Bill’s wedding. I was alone, ready to make a mistake.
Later, James does the dishes and I check my email. I’m deleting the junk when James comes up behind me and swoops his head in to look.
“Any from Lauren?”
I laugh and search his face but he is looking intently at the computer.
I move the cursor around to avoid opening my emails.
“You ever think about her?” he says.
I think about her all the time. But it isn’t with longing or desire. It is with a fondness with which you might regard something magnificent, like art or an ancient ruin. Something you see once and that’s enough. It’s still yours to recall for the rest of your life.
“No,” I say.
He smirks and I want to punch him.
“Strange she turned up again.” He moves to the back door, rests his head against the window. Our small wooden porch is mocha-colored, slick with rain.
“She didn’t turn up. It’s just a picture.” I open a new tab and type in a celebrity gossip website to make him leave.
“I’m going upstairs to finish unpacking,” he says.
I open a file of photos, from our weekend in West Virginia, the destination chosen because there was a heritage festival that sounded charming.
The day after we arrived, we’d leashed Isabelle and gone into town, found The Appalachian String Band and local artisans selling dream catchers. We’d had cotton candy, tried on cowboy hats, and perused an entire store selling only stained glass. For lunch we stopped at Dirty Ernie’s, dogs welcome.
As we sat there, our eyes adjusting to the dim light in the restaurant, our waitress had asked if we’d seen the bridge yet.
We eyed each other. Typical us: coasting by something spectacular.
“Where?” I said.
“Other side of town,” She looked pleased to be useful. “You should come back in October, for Bridge Day,” she said. She had dyed black hair, penciled eyebrows. She smelled of cold cream and cigarettes.
“Bridge Day?” I said, stirring my sweet tea.
James studied his menu.
“People jump off the side with parachutes and everything. It’s lots of fun.” The front door bells chimed, and a little girl with pigtails ran in ahead of her family. I cleared my throat, the waitress nodded again, then walked away.
James stared evenly at me.
“I bet it’s beautiful in October,” I ventured.
“And what could be better than watching West Virginians throw themselves off a bridge?” he said.
We laughed, the first time since I’d told him about Lauren.
Our waitress brought our sandwiches and we spoke comfortably, watched the crowd.
After lunch James said, “Let’s check out this little bridge” and took my hand as we walked to the car. On the way, I read him highlights from our book. It officially opened in 1977. It’s an 876 foot drop from the bridge to the rapids below, second highest bridge in the country.
The mile-and-a-half walk promised to lead us to the best view, and the shady trail cooled our necks. Everything looked rich and smelled of mud. We walked in silence over damp ground, heard a stream somewhere but couldn’t see it. The path became rockier and we slowed, descending quietly, as though trying not to disturb something asleep. Soon, we came to the clearing. The huge steel-arch bridge loomed, connecting the two sides of the gorge. Below, the river was a streak of silver paint.
“What the hell would have to go through your head to jump off that thing?” he said.
“I don’t know. Excitement? Adventure?”
James came up behind me and put his arms around my waist. A small sign explained that the arch extends 1700 feet. I sighed, thinking how well our bodies fit. Then James turned me around and looked at me with some difficulty.
“That’s what it was with her too? The thrill?”
“Of course not,” I said, then added. “I hope you can forgive me.”
He toed the ground, looked at me and back down.
“I hope you can forgive me too,” he said.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” I said, rubbing his arm.
“No. I mean, I did cheat. A long time ago. Before we were engaged,” he said.
A weird sickness washed through my gut and the air was suddenly moving in waves.
“With who?” I wasn’t sure if I had the right to react at all. What worried me, though, was how I didn’t feel surprised. “When?” I pressed.
“A long time ago. We hadn’t been dating that long. Maybe a year.”
“A year is a long time,” I said.
He looked over his left shoulder, as if he expected someone.
“Why?” I said.
“Alex. Come on. You know the answers to these questions now.”
A couple appeared out of the woods. The girl wore a white University of Maryland visor and her blonde hair swung in a ponytail. Her boyfriend was flushed, had a full head of gray hair. James and I looked at each other and headed silently back down the path.
The next morning on the drive home James passed in and out of sleep. We’d stayed up late the night before, talking about why people stray from marriages, why we both did. Mostly James talked, and I listened, sometimes chiming in to reassure him that it meant nothing, or to remind him that I’d never do it again. He told me his affair happened with a woman from work. Carrie. The more we talked the less strange it seemed, and the less it seemed like it was even our lives we were discussing. People had affairs all the time. It was human nature. We all crave that shock of new vitality, that powerlessness against what felt preordained. It wasn’t about us, not in the deepest sense.
As I drove, I thought about having babies; the strange stretch of life in houses like the ones we passed, perched atop long driveways, sheltered behind the canopies of trees. Ahead, the road was never-ending, and this comforted me.
“I love you,” I said softly to him at one point as he stirred, getting more comfortable. And I did love him. I knew with certainty that we possessed a desperate need to understand each other, that he made me laugh, that our lives made sense. We even understood why we hurt each other, and what, if not love, is this?
After James finishes unpacking and I’m done checking email, making tomorrow’s to-do list, and throwing in another load of laundry, I tell him that I’m going to get the dog. The rain has stopped and the kennel closes in thirty minutes.
“Can’t you get her tomorrow?” he says as I’m lacing up my shoes.
“I miss her nose leather,” I say.
He smiles, and his expression changes to a far-away look of recollection.
I walk four blocks to doggy daycare thinking how mysterious houses are, how you can’t predict whose inside. The house next to ours has overhanging eaves and pedestal-like tapered columns; the one on the corner is Victorian: an octagonal tower and a wraparound porch. Some tilt in disrepair, others have manicured gardens, with tiny sectioned lawns. But none of that tells you who lives there.
Steam rises from the sidewalk and light will hang on for a few more hours, but the day is over. Most people are having their dinner, settling in. People pass: a man and a black lab, an older woman in a modest flowered dress, the goateed man I always see at the metro. A funeral procession rides down Constitution, slow-rolling SUVs, lights on. Above, the voices of invisible birds.
On Monday I will call in sick to work and James will go back to copy-editing until 11:30 at night and sleeping until one in the afternoon. Days will pass and blur together. The leaves will fall without me noticing and when the trees are bare, stripped to the bone, I’ll hardly notice that either. For Christmas, we’ll travel to Florida and spend time with James’ family. We’ll golf, walk on the beach, play Triopli at night. In February, my sister will tell me she is pregnant again, her third, but I won’t tell her we’ve decided against children. She’ll email me sonograms, modern ones with little arrows to indicate “heart,” or “baby’s nose,” and I will hang them on the refrigerator.
Spring will be beautiful, the cherry blossoms like pink snow against blue skies. During April and May, James will often stay out all night, saying he went for drinks with co-workers then crashed on their couch. A year later, James will decide he can’t come home anymore at all, and he will move out. He will call frequently at first and set up coffee dates, but each one will be canceled, and he’ll end each call the same, “We’ll catch up soon,” he’ll say, and part of me will want to believe him.
I turn the corner and slip in before the kennel closes. The fluorescent lights buzz and it smells like wet dog and kibble. Frank, the owner, lets Isabelle out and she runs to me, bounces on her hind legs until I’ve scooped her up. She covers me with kisses, her nine pounds squirming, her skinny tongue and dragon breath squeezing my eyes shut. Her claws dig into my chest and I stroke her fur, kiss her salty black nose. I hold her and wonder if I can teach her to stop moving, if she will ever learn to be still.