The night my colleagues and I sat around the bistro table and stockpiled our grief—I couldn’t get out of bed, said one; I cried to strangers, replied another—the night we compared the protests we’d attended and petitions we’d signed and officials we’d called; the night we declared we were going broke from our impulsive, panicked donations; the night we marveled at how many specials our waiter had memorized—scores of sauces and sides; the night we failed to retain a single one; the night I showed pictures of my son scrawling “Love Wins” on pink paper; the night we traded stats like playing cards—how many women, how many stayed home—even though stats were the thing that sparked our grief in the first place; the night we realized, with fright, that we didn’t know what or whom to trust: this, my friend, is the night you learned I’d betrayed you.
I didn’t do anything! I said. I thought it was true: when you called me on my drive home from dinner, none of it sounded familiar. (Me and M.? Gossiping? About you? I hardly even see M., I said.) Maybe I was too immersed in the present to recall the past. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, scrolling through headlines of round-ups and registries and ostensibly suspicious neighbors, I remembered.
A weekday morning over two years ago. I was pacing the halls of our building, hushing the newborn pressed to my chest, when your lover appeared in the stairwell. “Hey,” he said with extra gusto. We shared tight smiles. He was en route to your apartment upstairs and was out of breath. Too eager, I suppose, to wait for the elevator. A text from your husband still burned on my phone from the night before. He wanted to know your whereabouts. I hadn’t replied. Even my silence was a lie.
Your lover pointed his chin at my son. “Man,” he said. “Congrats.”
I met you when you were like me: eyes frosted with sleeplessness, hair uncombed, breasts inflamed. I was kidless then and fell hard for yours. I was unmarried, too; your family was my template. I took impatient mental notes as you and your husband and children wrote your own jokes and traditions—your own language. From you I learned how to organize an apartment closet that doesn’t expand, even as your family does. It was to you that I ran sock-footed down the hall to examine the mark on my pregnancy test. You knew before my spouse that I was expecting.
Then your kids were older, off at school. And you were home alone.
It was true your husband drank too much. Once he gave the babysitter an erotic massage while you looked on. Another time he cursed in your face in front of guests. You didn’t love him, you told me. You didn’t even like him. I think I believed you.
Your lover scratched his beard. “See you soon,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied, but wished I hadn’t. I wasn’t sure of anything.
At M.’s, where I convened for coffee minutes later, the words tumbled out of my mouth unbidden. She’s having an affair, I said. It hardly mattered in the moment that it was M., our mutual friend with the wayward son. She’d just moved to the neighborhood; neither of us even knew her well. She’s having an affair, I said, with a married man. M. placed a hand over her mouth. My infant shrieked.
Leave your husband, I’d pleaded over the months. You cried constantly, ravaged by the future you foresaw. Your husband did everything wrong and you told him so and now your children, who listened, thought so, too. End it, I said. Your kids deserve a house of love. I can’t, you replied. You had little savings, no job. She needs to leave him, I told your mother when she called concerned. Your mother, of course, had stayed married to your philandering father for most of your childhood. Tell him to stop, you used to beg her. Won’t you?
Here’s what I could finally hear: If the marriage dissolved, you said, how much time with my children would I lose? How could I risk losing any? These are my babies.
I sipped M.’s coffee while I nursed my son and studied her giant plants. He’s at her place right now, I said. Divulging felt devious. Righteous. M. shook her head. I can’t believe it, she said, who would’ve thought. I pictured your living room, Legos strewn about, scribbles taped to the walls. Were you on the couch where your children curled up after school? In the bed where the sheets still held your husband’s shape? Once I babysat your kids so you could run an errand. I learned later you’d been at his place. Outrage hard-boiled in my gut. I wanted M. to feel it, too.
Two years later, in the election aftermath, I spooned bittersweet tiramisu while you and M. dined in her kitchen miles away. Surely you were you discussing the country, too, weren’t you? Railing against treachery overwhelming Washington? The only account I have is the one you supplied: her indictment came out of the blue. I know you were unfaithful, she said to you. By then, the affair was long over, your lover across the country, your husband sober. You were still married, planned to stay that way. You’d acquiesced to discontent—as so many of us will have to. I could see M.’s elbows on the counter, envisioned you in the same plastic chair I’d occupied when I disclosed your private life. M. has a young daughter now. Maybe that emboldened her. Maybe you were discussing how we mothers—we caretakers, we protectors—understood each other, and she demurred. (“Do we really?”) Or maybe she suspected her own husband, a man she met at a nightclub, had someone on the side. I know you were unfaithful. I couldn’t swallow, you told me after the fact. You were stunned. Ashamed. I’m sorry, I said, but the words were feather-light and flitted between us, never landing. I felt like I had the week before when confessing to my son in his sleep-creased “H” shirt that we’d lost. That the country was lost. His eyes combed mine—first for sincerity, then for explanation. My hug could not console either of us. Forgive me, I said. I made a mistake.
I studied the numbers, heard the experts, read the reports. I banked on symbols whose black ink looked indelible. But we weren’t one in those booths. In those bedrooms. In those kitchens.
How many claimed their decision surprised them? How many will regret the choice they made? Who knows the betrayals they carry?
We can’t trust, I thought, ourselves.
– for J.
Courtney Zoffness won the 2016 American Literary Review Prize in Fiction and her work has appeared recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Drew University.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Nodigio