I keep my ex-lover’s secret; safe as the house we once shared. On her side of the bed, another sates the curiosity I now regret. Not her fault. Mine.
Did I start it? Maybe, maybe not. I had known for years that it would come to this; sitting next to him, knowing she was marking me down by increments. The three of us, such good times, but always the air riven with the knowledge that she was slowly choosing him.
There were clouds in her eyes sometimes. I would see them when we made love, or just after, when I had to call her back to my embrace. How often I retrieved my love from the shadows.
Yet, things could have gone another way. She had made her pledge to me, and although I felt the minute tremors of her desire straying, she never did anything about it until I broke the seal.
Neither did he.
It is a savagely purifying thing to realise that you are the maker of your own cross.
While I was hatching plans to ward off the night, she was living her splendour in sunshine, renting the freedom I was saving to buy. This house was my palace for her. Part of my plan to be as liberated as she was. If I invested wisely, built up the portfolio and did not need a wage, we could surf and make music and leave the dishes piled high.
I was trying to grow up, take responsibility. Hoping to find the nascent man waiting in line behind the lucky adolescent, that surfer strapling who woke one morning next to an angel and cooked her breakfast in the hope she might stay. The man inside me was slowly figuring out that he would need to do something more if he was ever going to buy back the lightness of childhood.
Just like she was doing with him, and their band that never quite paid the bills. Three nights a week to be amazing and keep the ordinary at bay.
At first, I used to watch them play whenever I could. Was it a way to be a part of it? I soon learnt not to bother. She would be coming home at 2am as it was, to plant her kiss on my shoulder and splay her hair on the pillow. I would eat breakfast alone, careful not to wake her; though sometimes I would drink my tea at the foot of the bed and listen to the calm tempo of her breathing. More than once I wondered who was kissing her behind those eyes.
She was there with me, though, and he was under his roof with the fiancée we rarely heard a good word about. And there the river ran, deep below. Buried beneath all but the occasional thought. A disaster foretold in whispers.
Nothing stirred, until I realised that while my lover of years slept till noon I was flirting with one of our lodgers in the kitchen. Younger, less improbable, waiting in the next room.
She was no more beautiful but her eyes were never ambiguous. They let me see what she wanted. I enjoyed the confirmation, the lack of comparison with the smarter, fitter, more easily charismatic doppelganger.
Soon, it was my turn to compare, sitting at the dinner table working out who I really wanted to be with that night, knowing all along where my true love resided. I hated those evenings. Hated it when she would get ready to go out with him and leave me at home with torment, and hands that knew how to untie me. I prayed for sleep and distraction, hoping the itch would scratch itself or the lodger pack her bags.
Was it revenge? Did I wake her one morning to confess where my gaze had fallen, so that she would know what it was I had tolerated in silence?
I think about it now and I feel betrayed. A little by her, but mostly by myself. Though I prefer to believe I was being honest, that I was asking for her help, I cannot escape the idea that I wanted her to redouble her love for me, for the idea of us.
She was reasonable, yet ruthless; the very image of the combative queen I had enthroned. Her line was, “I have passed the test of desire.”
To others she said, “We’re having a bit of trouble right now.”
There must have been other words too because there were sideways eyes, hints of judgement.
It was an awful Christmas. The house was full of relaxed, seasonal spirit but the chord was stretched tight. My thoughts were hard to keep track of – lust, terror, self reproach – yet each tide cast me further adrift. I can still hear her saying, “Be careful who you fall in love with.”
My ex-lover took no time at all to make her mind up, refusing to fight like I had hoped. I was not truly ready to decide, but she was.
When she went, our friends followed. My house emptied of its lodgers, scared off by the thought of complicity. They all knew what I had somehow missed. The new tenants have no idea, just fragments of a cautionary tale.
I know she cried, but not for long. She turned the tears off and cut me out. I could tell right away. Her memories had been stripped of their pain. It was clear I had opened the door for her heart to burn for another. I knew that the next time she called out my name, it would be his back arching. The language of intimacy unchanged, only the voice in response sounding different.
Perhaps a name is just a word, after all.
Yet whatever the vicissitudes of hunger, she comes to see me. But not for love. For secrets.
We live in a small town, and he is still engaged. She wonders why he will not leave yet does not push. She enjoys the delicious, subterranean tryst they have yet dislikes the need for a public front. There are rumours, questions, but she smiles through it, and so does he. It does not take long for a veil of collusion to settle in over their friends. My friends.
I see his fiancée in the main street. The pretty blonde girl with disturbed eyes. We are careful not to get too close. Things would have to be said, and it seems we have all opted for silence. Even he won’t talk about it, though he knows I know.
Yet, she tells me what I assume is nearly everything. She spares me certain details but I understand the mechanics. I would know when and where to catch them. I can decipher parts of their coded language. The three of us sit in her new house some mornings and I know that when I leave they will make love.
I wait in my car outside, shaking. Am I listening, or keeping an eye out for them, still looking after my girl?
I would like to pass the secret on, maybe in pillow talk, but I dare not, for I know that to break the surface would reveal the shipwrecks below. The lover I have lately chosen does not deserve to be snared by submerged rubble. She knows I do not love her, and she seems to accept it, but she does not need to be reminded. Thus, the secret remains, guarded by divided loyalties, stored alongside ridiculous hope. Is this my final act of honouring her?
In this pregnant hush I bleed. The red ink in the rent book, the red dye in her hair, all sanguinary metaphors. If I could write letters, what scarlet calligraphy they would be. Some days I am a husk, pale from loss of blood, standing behind my counter praying to see her, so glad when she does not show.
When people ask me, ‘hey, are they on together?’ I lie for her. And for him. I know he is painted into a corner. She tells me this. I understand that if it ever got out, the shrapnel would eviscerate them both. Me too, and the blonde, quarantined fiancée who walks home alone; with whom he never has lunch.
I know that my ex lover wonders about her. She speculates about what she might know and tries to guess her motives. I think the same of her. If he is supposed to love her, why is he keeping his intended on the side? When will he give her the signal to declare her love openly, rather whispering it to me.
Once, I said, “You told me you would never love a man whose focus wasn’t on you, but now that’s what you’re doing.”
She knows this is true, does not deny it. She tells me, “He knows I’ll drop everything if he asks, but he also knows that I’ll drop him if he doesn’t.”
I long to ask her how much time my namesake has, but these things do not have ready answers. I want to know how long I have to wait. In truth, I already have the numbers for that.
Recently, she came to visit me at work and, in between customers, she told me she was drawing a line of sorts. His wife to be has suffered a misfortune (which she is not at liberty to disclose) and she realises that she cannot continue to divert his gaze. “I don’t want him to abandon her now,” she said. What she meant was that it would be a bad omen, a sign of what he was capable of.
I know him. He is a good man. He will extend his hand back towards the blonde girl, make a little peace with her. Even a little love.
Meanwhile, the rumours will continue to percolate under the town’s collective breath. Each time his car is seen outside her house, or worse, her motorbike in his driveway, the birds will report their findings. Surely the blonde will look at her engagement ring and wonder.
“I’m not proud of my behaviour,” he is supposed to have said.
I remember how it felt to be trapped by longing, to stumble into another’s embrace, and I have some sympathy. Then I recall the beautiful days when she smiled for me and I was the king of the world, and I am a little less tolerant.
Funny how patterns repeat. I am starting to think my life is looped, each repetition disguised as forward momentum. For all the bittersweet growing up I have had to do over the last few months, I am feeling propelled again by circumstance. Ready to do what I think I am supposed to. What she wants.
I am looking at the fiancée across the street, lining up at the juice bar, her long locks catching sunlight. I know she loves a man who looks elsewhere, though he swears she does not. She carries the pain of her fairy tale engagement across her lovely shoulders. I can just about smell her anguish from here. Or is it my own?
She is notoriously difficult, though. Everyone says so. I have witnessed it myself. I feel sorry for him. It is easy to see why he prefers to risk damnation. I think the whole town would like him to be free of her.
The fiancée has her juice now. She will be crossing the road at an angle, sweeping past me with her head turned away.
What if I waved, caught her attention, called her over? I know she would come. Would my angel be watching over me, knowing I was a handful syllables from…?
Oh, pretty blonde girl, lift up thine injured eyes. Imagine the things we could say. About the man with the same name.