How Not To Be Unfaithful
by Sarah Evans
What kind of woman are you?
As you stand in front of the long mirror, you ponder this. What kind of woman falls in love with her sister’s partner? Ex-partner. The ‘ex’ ameliorates things, but only slightly.
You are dressed up, for you. A pale denim skirt drops to a handkerchief hem around your calves. A silk blouse flutters against your skin.
You stare at yourself hard.
Your blue eyes are startled wide, above a slightly cleaved nose. Thick hair, the colour of wholemeal bread, is threaded by strands of grey. Your features have never amalgamated into beauty; your curves do not divide into ideal ratios. Not like your sister Jessie. The man—Ben—is as tall and dark as a doctor from Holby City.
It is not as if you intend acting on your love.
You have a husband and a seven year old daughter. You love them both. You even love your sister, in the way of siblings who share nothing but their history and some genes. And you love Ben. There is no contradiction. Love does not come in a fixed supply, not like brain cells, or ova. It does not gradually get used up, like the perfume you dab behind your ears. Spreading it more widely does not diminish each person’s share.
In any case, he is not in love with you.
The door bell chimes. Your heart batters frantically in its cage of ribs, like a trapped mouse. The man you love is at the door. The house is empty.
You did not plan this, not exactly.
It was several days ago he rang. Your husband answered, and handed the phone over, mouthing: ‘It’s Ben,’ and you both grimaced. Him, because he thinks Ben is a nuisance. You, because it suits you that he thinks that.
‘Ben,’ you said, your voice flat, your heart performing acrobatic leaps and bounds.
‘I need to speak to you,’ he said.
‘OK. When would be good?’
‘Yes. I’ve nothing much planned for Saturday. Alan’s travelling this weekend with work. And Susie is having a sleepover with friends. But I’m free.’
All of this was arranged with your husband listening.
‘Better when you’re not around,’ you said afterwards. ‘He only irritates you. Pity Susie will miss him. She likes seeing the baby.’
This is what you are like now, blending fractions of truth with partial lies.
The bell chimes a second time. You are filled with a helium happiness, making you feel that you could sky-dive down the stairs. The panelled skirt sways outwards then hugs your thighs as you take the steps with a wider hip-swing than is necessary. You kiss your lips together. They are slick with unaccustomed lipstick.
You open the door.
The physical reality is a shock, even though you expect him.
Ben’s shoulders are hunched up and he wears an anxious frown. The battering of the last twelve months is scarred onto his face, turning his smooth good looks to something more complex and interesting. You remember how you used not to like him.
‘Come in, you’ll freeze.’ You adopt a maternal fussiness to cover up the yearning to reach your mouth to his. What does he see? A friend who has administered in his hour of need. But it is not quite that simple.
Inside, with the door shut against the ice-bearing wind, and neighbours’ eyes, you exchange a social hug. His tall frame is bent downwards; his hands casually brush your hips through the shimmying skirt. You tilt your head back. Your blood-warm cheek is pressed against the chill of his weathered skin as you puck your lips to the air. His scarf chafes against your neck and you inhale the scent of sandalwood, the damp peat of outdoors, and his feral musk. You do not allow yourself to linger.
‘I thought you were bringing Willow.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Not today.’
And this makes you anxious and happy.
I need to speak to you. He did not tell you why. ‘I doubt it’s anything much,’ you told your husband. ‘Advice about the baby probably.’
‘He takes advantage,’ Alan said.
You have spent the last few days anxiously practising what he might have to say. If you are prepared, it will make it easier. He has met someone. Someone who is not your sister. Who is not you. You will reassure him that you think that that is great, it is time for him to move on. He already knows that Jessie does not want him back.
‘Coffee?’ you offer.
‘You know me too well.’
But you do not, not really. Love does not require knowledge. Love simply is: unexpected, unlooked for, inconvenient. He is here. The house is empty. He will stay and drink a cup of coffee. Inside of you the helium takes hold again, promising to float you up and away.
He follows you into the kitchen.
‘No Susie today?’ Has he forgotten? Was the detail of the empty house too insignificant to register?
You hear your voice, as bright and false as the lipstick you applied then rubbed three-quarters off, telling him about her little friends and the things they will get up to.
What did you want to talk about? you think of saying, but you do not. You do not want to hurry things along, and arrive where there is no further reason for him to stay, the point where he will have told you about this other woman. Maybe. Or maybe not. Perhaps he has simply found a new way to feel the hurt of Jessie’s betrayal. There is some fresh bruising to his heart for you to soothe.
This is how it started.
He turned up the night Jessie booted him out. You found him on your doorstep, a stray cat, starved and abused, needing someone to offer warm care.
‘What’s he doing here?’ Alan whispered in the hallway.
‘I’ll deal with it,’ you whispered back.
You told Ben not to worry. Jessie was prone to wild argument and extravagant gestures; hormones had just heightened it. She would come round. You sounded more confident than you felt, wanting to believe it to be true, because the man, who you had previously not liked—yet another of Jessie’s men, too suave, too cool—had seemed so broken. And because even Jessie would not be so irresponsible as to have a baby by a man whom she did not plan to keep.
You were wrong.
He kept coming back, a stray that now felt adopted. You sat up late, you listened, fed him whisky. There was little you could say; he just wanted to talk. ‘It’s my baby. I still want to be part of its life.’ And you reassured him, there was no reason why he should not be.
‘Doesn’t he have anyone else to go to?’ Alan complained, the times he was at home to observe it. ‘You’ll exhaust yourself, staying up all hours.’
‘I can’t just kick him out.’ Not like Jessie had.
You were still not in love with Ben. Not then. But you had started to like him. What kind of woman are you that you liked him injured when you had not liked him whole?
You put wedding-gift mugs and a plate of crumbling home-made biscuits on a tray.
‘Susie helped me bake them. But they’re quite edible.’ Earlier today you enlisted your daughter’s help to feed the man you love with raisin cookies. Since he split with Jessie he has lost weight; he has gained hard edged definition. It suits him.
‘Shall I?’ he asks, reaching for the tray. You are grateful to cede control. Inside your bones chatter as he stands within an arm’s reach, accessible and not. You tremble in his shadow, as you breathe in the air he breathes out. You do not know if the inner fluster will manifest itself in shaking hands.
In the living room, the lamp casts a rose-tinted haze. You crouch to light the fire. The flames leap tamely around the fake coals. You go to draw the velvet curtains, keeping out the falling night.
You turn. He has chosen Alan’s chair to sit in. If you allow that, what else? The question is academic. Alan is already betrayed. Faithfulness is not fidelity, if it is only through lack of opportunity.
‘How’s everything?’ you ask. The question is wide, he can answer it as he pleases. Who ever tells everything?
‘OK,’ he says thoughtfully. ‘OK. I’ve been offered a new job in Manchester.’
‘Manchester?’ You cannot keep the shock out of your voice. Is it this he has come to tell you?
He smiles, a slow curving upwards of his dark lips, in which the right side always ends higher than the left.
‘It’s not the other end of the universe.’
‘No. Of course not.’ It is only a couple of hours away. It does not necessarily change anything. ‘What sort of job?’
It does not mean anything to you, the corporate language that he uses. But you like listening to the cadence of his voice. You like the fact that he assumes you understand, and that he does not condescend or talk down to you. Just as you have never talked down to him, as you delivered your patient instructions on how to take care of the baby that his and Jessie’s.
This was how it carried on.
He had negotiated visiting rights. He did not mind paying alimony, though it meant he had to give up his two bed flat for a cold and musty bed-sit. In turn this left him with nowhere suitable to take a baby, and besides what did he know about caring for something so small and fragile? He could not just visit at Jessie’s, because seeing her still hurt, and because, even so newly a mother, she was already seeing someone else.
‘You can bring the baby here,’ you said.
‘You offered what?’ Alan asked later.
‘It means I get to see her too. After all she is my niece. And it’s nice for Susie to see her baby cousin.’ And it makes up for her not having a baby sister. You did not add that, but you know Alan heard it, leaving him with only one more avenue of protest.
‘Won’t Jessie mind?’
‘Jessie doesn’t mind as long as she has babysitters.’
It has become quite regular. On Saturday afternoons, and stretching into evenings too when Alan is away, Ben comes round. He brings Willow. The four of you go to the park. You bought ice-cream in the summer and now hot chocolate as the days have closed in. Back home, you feed and bathe and play with the baby. Just like a regular family.
You are sitting now with the man you love, and you let him talk. Then it is his turn to ask, ‘and how are you?’
You tell him the things that it is safe to. Susie and her ups and downs at school. Alan and his travels with the firm. You say nothing that might be deemed disloyal, but maybe he deduces how difficult it is, Alan being away so much. There is little to tell about your part-time job, receptionist at the local surgery, but you have stored up the anecdotes that might amuse him. You are rewarded by the laughter that lightens his face, and makes his body slack. You wonder if he knows just how beautiful he is, this Greek study in casual grace, with his sculpted arms, his narrow waist, his blend of strength and vulnerability.
You look round the room. Susie’s works of art from school are displayed on the shelves. Your heart contracts as you recall her innocent pride in them. The Gaudi-style clock ticks on the mantelpiece. You and Alan bought it on holiday in Barcelona a year after you were married. One of Susie’s lego blocks is lodged under Alan’s chair and you must remember to retrieve it. This is your family home. Across from you the man you are in love with leans back.
You remember the night it happened, the night between the starting and the carrying on: the night Willow came.
Jessie had asked you to be there with her for the birth. You had endured your own labour; you did not want to endure hers. But it was not a request you could say ‘no’ to.
So you stayed, through the contractions, screams and blood. You told her to focus on her breathing, while she yelled at you to fuck off. You did not complain when she gripped your hand so tightly it left red wheals that did not fade for weeks. Then finally, a baby, newly made, curled against the curve of her mother’s breast.
Ben had spent the night on the orange plastic chairs in the waiting room with grimy walls and stained floor, drinking coffee that smelled like Bovril from the machine. It was you who insisted he be allowed in.
He held the baby cautiously, his eyes gazing down with such tender longing. And in that instant, you fell.
Perhaps it was the exhaustion of the twelve hours of your sister’s labour. Love wheedled its way in through your weakened defences, like a virus. Perhaps it was the accumulation of all those drinking nights of his despair. Perhaps the conception was earlier still, your initial hostility was simply a cover for the fact that you fancied your little sister’s bloke. Or perhaps more simply, love engenders love. It was his love for Willow that allowed your stock of love to grow. In any case, the reason does not matter.
Jessie had fallen out; you fell in. As always, you were out of phase.
You have exhausted now your usual topics of conversation, and the cosiness and the not knowing are beginning to suffocate you.
‘You had something you wanted to talk about?’ you say. You want to hear him say it: I’ve met someone.
You look at him, and he looks back at you with fierce concentration. I’ve fallen in love with you. That is not what he will say. His face is much more handsome in anguish than it ever was in his happy infatuation with Jessie. What sort of woman are you, that you prefer people when they are miserable?
‘Would you mind if I have a proper drink?’
You breathe out. This postpones things, just a little while.
‘No of course not. Help yourself.’ He knows by now exactly where you keep your booze. Alan complains about how quickly the Glenfiddich disappears.
‘Did you want something?’
He stands in the corner by the glass-fronted drinks cabinet. It is disconcerting to see his slender elegance standing in place of your husband’s middle-aged spread.
You glance at your watch. It is still early, though the dark and wind outside make it feel much later.
‘I’ll have what you have.’ It is not the alcohol you want; you are already high just on the presence of him. You want the intimacy of drinking together in an empty house.
He pours too much. You have never told him that you do not like whisky. Alan would know to choose something sweeter. He holds the glass out towards you. Light from the fire shimmers in the amber liquid. The liquid burns your throat as you sip. The alcohol goes straight to your brain, which is already dizzy with longing. In this moment anything seems possible.
‘This is difficult,’ he says. Of course it is. Loving your sister’s partner, even her ex, is not easy. And you are married, and a mother. ‘I can’t do this any more.’
He pauses. You say nothing. He will explain further when he is ready, just as he did on all those other nights of halting exploration.
‘I’m giving up Willow. I thought I could do it, be a father to her. But I can’t. It’s too difficult with her just being a baby. I need to make the break now. It will only get harder if I delay.’
You let the words rest a while, and try to absorb their meaning.
‘I understand,’ you say quietly. And you do. It has strained your heart to see him with Willow, to know, as he must, that he will have such small fragments of her, to know that she binds him still to Jessie. He needs to move on, to re-become the sort of man you do not like, confident and in control, sleeping with women who are like Jessie and are not like you.
‘Nicola.’ He says your name. It is a plea for you to raise your eyes and look at him.
You do not want to. This time you know exactly what he is going to say. You think of Susie, the way she puts sticky fingers over your mouth to stop you saying ‘bedtime’, as if by preventing you from speaking the word it will not be true. You want to put your hand over his mouth, to feel the suppleness of his lips, and stop him saying it.
‘I understand,’ you say again. Stubbornly you stare down into the glowing glass. But the force of his gaze is too much. You raise your eyes, and look into his.
‘I’m not going to keep in touch. I won’t see you again.’
It is said. Of course you understand. You wish that you could stop the tight hurt accumulating at the back of your throat, which is threatening to spill over into messy tears and mucus.
‘It’s not…’ And his throat seems to be constricted too. ‘It’s not that I won’t miss you. It’s meant a lot to me, our friendship. I don’t know what I’d have done without you. But I need to make a new start.’
You place your glass back on the table and stare at the way the flames cavort within it.
‘It wouldn’t have to be about Willow and Jessie.’ Keeping your voice from cracking feels like the hardest thing you have ever done. Why is loving someone who does not love you so humiliating? ‘We could still meet up from time to time. As friends.’
‘No,’ he says slowly. ‘It isn’t I haven’t thought that too. But it would be too artificial not to talk about Jess and Willow. I wouldn’t feel I’d let go. I’d still be involved.’
You close your eyes. It hurts too much to keep them open. A tear has spilled over from one corner and is trickling down your cheek. You feel it trail into the groove at the side of your nose. You taste salt. You try to breathe: deep and slow; slow and deep. It will pass, you think, this intensity. You listen to the signs of life going on all around: a yell from the street, the passing cars, the whirr from the boiler. You need to get on with your life too. You count slowly, one to ten. Then you open your eyes. He is watching you.
‘Yes,’ you say. ‘I’m sure you’re right. I think you should go now.’
You stand too abruptly. You have to reach out with a hand for the back of the sofa to steady yourself. Your head is filled with hydrogen; it might explode any minute. If only he would go quickly.
You see him move over to where he slung his jacket over the chair-back earlier. You stand very still, staring down at the worn threads of the carpet. In a minute he will have gone and you can start to bring order to your mess of thoughts, like clearing up one of Susie’s games, slotting things back into their proper compartments.
If only he does not try to touch you.
He is very near now; his tall presence looms above you. It is not his body heat, just the fire that is burning your cheeks, causing them to flame up. You can hold back from crying for another few seconds.
‘Nicola.’ His voice is soft and tender. Just go! ‘Don’t.’
You feel his hand touch one shoulder. He steps in front of you, his other hand resting on your hip. Slowly he pulls your body towards his. This is the closest you have ever had of him. Every fibre in you is stretched taut, like a violin string. Then you snap, slumping forward into his chest. You are convulsed with great hiccuping sobs. Your eyes stream, and your nose. Your mouth is open; your teeth are biting against the rough wool of his jumper. You have never cried in someone’s arms before. Even when your mother died, your tears made Alan uncomfortable, so you cried alone.
How long do you stand there?
Gradually, your breathing resumes a more normal pattern. The streams of wetness stop. You sniff upwards, the way Susie does when she has a cold. You feel the bulk of his body against yours, the soothing of his fingers through the silk across your back, the tease of his breath on your skin. Any minute now you will have to draw away and let him go. This is the last time.
The hoot of laughter from the street makes you startle. You step back. His hand still rests loosely on your hip. You reach into your pocket for a tissue. It feels awkward blowing your nose at such proximity. You hope you have not left slug-trails of mucus on his jumper.
‘I’m sorry,’ you say as you raise your eyes. His eyes are wet too. His forehead is tightly drawn into furrows. Is it parting from you that he is grieving for, or giving up Jessie and Willow?
‘I don’t know what else to do,’ he says.
‘I’m sure you’re right. This is for the best.’ Your eyes are still locked into his. He bends in towards you. His lips press against yours, warm and yielding. Too close to be chaste. Too fleeting to be intimate.
He pulls away, but only a fraction. His body still curves downwards like a question mark. His eyes are hungry and uncertain as a fifteen year old’s. This is the moment when you could lift your weight onto your toes, float up and kiss him back. And you know then what would happen. Not here in the family living room. Clearly not in the marital bed. But the guest room is made up with freshly laundered linen. Your mind is already planning this.
Afterwards, you feel blunt and heavy. You sit and watch the flames dance. The scarf he left behind is pressed against your face, the fibres tickle your nose. The evening stretches out before you.
Susie will be back early tomorrow. Alan is due back Tuesday. You have time to recompose yourself back into your role of mother and wife.
You think of the husband who you still say you love, but the word is not enclosed by in and with. The daughter, your love for whom would suffocate her, if you did not reign it back. The sister, where love does not come into it: sisters simply are. And the man you are in love with, who you will not see again.
Later you will be able to tell yourself that nothing happened because you are not that kind of woman. Not the type to sleep with a man who is not her husband, and who is the ex-partner of her sister. But as you stare into the flickering flames, you cannot yet salve over the truth. What kind of woman are you? The sort who bears the guilt, but foregoes the pleasure. Who lacked the courage to grasp the moment, even though she wanted to.
Sarah Evans has had a number of stories published in magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Momaya Press, Earlyworks and Tonto Press. This is the second time one of her stories has appeared on The Glass Woman website. She lives in Welwyn Garden City, UK with her husband, and is part of a small writers’ circle who meet regularly in London.