Monday, October 29, 2007

The Last One

A story I wrote a few years back...

Looking back, she couldn’t quite decide what it was that caught her; his laugh, his eyes, the flash of his teeth. It could have been his voice; they’d spoken the day before on the telephone. She had liked the way he spoke clearly and deliberately. When she actually met him in person, there had been a recognition of sorts.

He was a consultant, known to be one of the best in his field. The decision to bring him in wasn’t hers, but when she realized she’d be working with him on a project, she was excited; she felt she’d learn a great deal from him.

The flirting started almost immediately but she didn’t take it seriously. Her home and work life had always been separate. She had taken pride in that; Separation of Church and State, she joked to herself. But she began to find that she looked forward to coming to work and that the attention he paid her made her realize she’d been without that kind of attention for quite a while.

To her friends she had lamented that she felt miserably jaded. She didn’t believe in love anymore, in “Happy Ever After”. She wondered if she were the only one in the world who felt that way. She watched how young girls giggled over engagement rings and pored over pictures of wedding gowns in magazines. She wanted to scream at them “don’t do it! Don’t give up your soul like that” but she didn’t. She knew that they wouldn’t believe her anyhow, would feel pity for her and think that she was an unhappy older woman whose fairy-tale dream never came true. Her friends consoled her; but afterwhile she stopped lamenting to them; too… they all seemed happy in their lives. Either they had made themselves believe in the fairytale, or she was missing something. She preferred not to think about it.

The flirting developed into long talks. She discovered she loved talking to him; he was the most intelligent man she’d spoken to in a long while. She enjoyed that she respected him. No doubt he was good at what he did, and he knew it, but when he showed her samples of his work there was shyness and she found it incredibly endearing. As they talked, they revealed the inner layers of themselves to each other. She told him things about her home life that she hadn’t really shared with anyone. It seemed as though he did the same. They shared music with each other, songs from their childhood. One night, after working late, he played a song for her from the Old Country he said reminded him of his mother. She began to fall despite her self, but she held on.

One day, the words “I love you” appeared in the Inbox of her email. Her first reaction was anger. It wasn’t fair. She felt manipulated, as if he were judging her by what her reaction would be. And she didn’t want to admit to herself how she might be feeling. But over the ensuing weeks, the words kept appearing, and slowly she began to allow herself to believe. And allowed herself the luxury of the feeling. She said it back to him.

They decided that their feelings would remain cerebral; they wouldn’t bring the physical into it. Their situations were impossible, it would never work. She told him her idea of love didn’t include ducking into doorways for stolen kisses. There was no way they could blend their families, their respective Significant Others would never go quietly. When she looked ahead to the ending, she saw death and destruction, and she told him so. This will end badly, she said, but he ignored her.

They worked late one evening, and afterwards went out for a drink. She had several, and the walls came tumbling down. She found herself asking him for just once. Just one moment. One chance at being swept away, to feel what Happy Ever After must be like.

Sweet. Like honey is sweet, or how one is surprised by yellow daffodils when the world is still winter-grey. The smell of him filled her, his hair was soft in her fingers, his lips gentle, his embrace was warm. And though he kept wondering what was to become of them, she honestly didn’t care. For that moment no one else existed in their world but He and She. No Significant Others, no children, no houses, bills or responsibilities. Just the two of them in a blue-scented room.

And so she fell. She allowed herself the fantasy of running away together. But even as she dreamed it, she knew it would never be. Would the children get along? What of all the in-laws and cousins and co-workers? And the Significant Others would never go quietly. His would haunt him and seek to destroy. Hers would make her life unbearable. More than anything was the thought of how their children would suffer.

So painfully, she settled on the devil she knew, her home and her children. Before him, she had prayed that she feel something, anything, to let her know that she could still feel, that she hadn’t gone completely numb. And now she prayed for that same numbness to overtake her.

His assignment was over and he left. He was angry that she had gone back. She knew it was all she could do. She hoped he would know that she went back because it seemed the only way. Still, he left without saying goodbye. She went by his desk one day and realized he had gone.

On the way to the subway that evening the pain roared up behind her and hit her in the throat. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. She turned up the music in her headphones as loud as she could to drown out the noise in her ears. For a moment, dodging the evening pedestrians on Lexington Avenue, she prayed for a bus she wouldn’t see to come up behind her and mow her down, putting her out of her misery.

Ohgodhelpmei’vefallenandican’tgetup.

But her sons needed their mother, and so she blinked her eyes clear and looked both ways before she crossed the street to descend into the subway.

The pain sat with her all the way to her stop. When she came up out of the subway; she slowed her steps and told her self she had no right to cry. She collected her children from the sitter. The older one told her excitedly of his music lesson that day, and the younger one, perched on her lap, grabbed her face with dirty hands and demanded kisses. She breathed into his hair how much she missed them both that day and how much she needed them, and then she took her babies home.

The months wore on. At first there would be an occasional “hello” email in her inbox and she looked for them joyously. But they got progressively more infrequent and the tone progressively distant. In her heart she could hear his voice fading, and she began to doubt that he ever loved her. For the first time she could feel the ones that came before her, the others that would come after her, and she felt like an old fool. She knew that for her, he was the last one.

Over dinner, on a rare night out, her husband told her of a friend of his who was dating a girl. The girl had been in love with someone else, and had tried to pursue it. But when the girl realized that her love would be unrequited, she turned her attention back to her husband’s friend. Her husband didn’t understand why the girl would make that decision. It made his friend seem to be the second, lesser choice.

The Pina Colada she was drinking had softened the edges in her mind, and she was able to keep her face from crumpling. She shrugged her shoulders I Don’t Know, and let the conversation fade.

But she understood perfectly.

No comments: