I put my hand to his lips, his voice has been rising and I don’t need a string of expletives to wake Ollie up.
It’s okay Joe I say but it isn’t, because my fingertip pulses when I touch him and suddenly, inexplicably, I imagine placing it in his mouth. A flush rises up my neck at the thought and I press my thumb hard against my finger in an attempt to focus on something, anything other than what just happened.
It’s perfectly normal. I tell myself this over and over after Joe shuffles home, after his boyish grin takes my breath away when he waves goodbye from the driveway. When he kissed my cheek as he was leaving I could smell the sharp mint of vodka on his breath, and a smoky remnant of cologne that settled on my skin. It’s hormones, it’s just pregnancy hormones making me tune in to this frequency, suddenly, inexplicably. And he looks enough like you, just enough that I’m obviously mixing up the signals, crossing and jumping wires in my head. That has to be it. It can’t be anything more. This is Joe, your Joe, my Joe. The white knight of this tragedy.
I want him to come back. Ah, fuck. It has to be the hormones.
I lay in bed with his smell on my lip, the way his scent feels like a hand at my neck. I run my own down and over my full breasts, these little hills of flesh that have taken on a life of their own these days. They ache from the centre out when I run my fingers across them, but I am used to this now, the fine line between pain and pleasure. My body traffics both, growing this child of ours, and doing it without you.
Joe. The first man I have touched who isn’t you. The thrill of it does not escape me tonight, laying here with my hands resting under my belly. I will allow myself the thoughts that have crested in, I will let them wash over me because it’s just hormones, and I’m lonely and he looks enough like you for this to be okay.
I have not thought of sex since you died. And yet I have been saturated in it all the same. Your affair, it permeates my life, it settles over my sleep and flares throughout the day. I have re-read those emails a hundred times these past few weeks, it is like I have my hands on one of those illicit novels we used to pass around in school, only this time I’m in it somehow, it’s my own story too even when I only appear as narration.
I am jealous of you Ben. I am angry and jealous of your second life, lived so fully and successfully on the side. Did it feel like that, the first time? Did your finger pulse when you first touched her, the way mine turned to an electric current tonight? Did you back away like I did, but feel it just the same? That inexplicable something, the realization that there is another layer under the skin – for everybody. Are we all just waiting our turn to betray? Have we betrayed ourselves first by settling for only one kind of love when there are other worlds waiting to open up? Fuck. I don’t want to understand this. I don’t want to see how easy it could be.
How long before you pursued it, this something? Did you fight it, or did you lay in bed next to me and roll the memory between your fingers, did you play it out across your skin the way I am now? I have my hand between my legs, it is the first time I have done this in years. The sin of it sits tight in my chest and throat, yet the heat feels like some kind of preparation as my fingers move in slow circles and I close my eyes against their pattern. Is that what happened, Ben? Did you solidify the experience by coming against an image of her face, did this imprint on your brain so that one little spark turned into an explosion and you were there burning away at its centre? I can see Joe’s face now as the waves begin, I have my hand on his lip and it isn’t you as my orgasm is wrenched out of me. I do not even bother to stifle the guttural cry that comes up out of me. My body has betrayed me for the first time in my life and I feel a kind of triumphant terror as my eyes re-adjust to the dark.
It is just the hormones. I am flush with pregnancy hormones. It is nothing else and it is not an understanding. I do not understand what you did, Ben. I do not forgive what you did. We are not the same.
A certain calm settles over me when my breathing finally slows. It is as if I have dived into the ocean, the way the shock of what I did gives over to a yielding, to a silk-like feeling of surrender.
I used to love opening my eyes under water, searching through the deep. I liked to swim away from the sureness of the world, out into the endlessness awaiting. I never looked back to the shallows where feet churned sand and bodies broke the surface. I would hold my breath and swim out as far as I could go before the tug of fear pulled me back. The endless blue sometimes felt safer than the shore.
This kind of calm, it is a return to that feeling. A remembering of how to swim out and away, to fix my eyes on a limitless unknown. You are behind me, Ben. I sense the turbid waters you have created, the way you thrash against the waves. You struggled against this safety so long you inevitably went down with the ship, Ben. I see now what happens when you don’t take that breath, when you won’t dive under. So many people drown in the shallows because they are afraid of the deep. Why did you never once swim out to where I was waiting Ben?
We are not the same. Now I know we are not the same. I was always going to love you better. Your best offering – your wedding dance, your earnest vows, your dedication – that is how I did it every day. And I would have loved you in this way forever – it is easy enough when you do not fear it. That is my love, and that is not how you did it. It is my swimming into the depths whilst you broke against the shore.
I am not the same as you, Ben. This certain calm reminds me. I will send Jane a card tomorrow, a thank you for all of the love and support her family has given us since your passing. I will gently remind her to love her husband because he is a good man. And I will never, ever think of this night again.
A little more of Anna’s story to share today. Thanks as ever for reading these drafts!