By Friday at least three people had called my wife to tell her that Jeremy was coming back for a visit. I hated the way Caitlin smiled every time someone mentioned him, a private, inward smile, like a child with a secret. But I knew we wouldn’t talk about it. One more thing on a long and growing list.
That day I got home from work before she did. From the kitchen I watched her bend her head over the answering machine on the shelves in our hall, and saw her frown at the lack of messages. But she marched into the kitchen and said brightly, “Let’s go out!”
So we did, and she put on a dark red dress and new shoes.
“Tell me I look nice,” she commanded, twirling around in front of me. And for a little while it was possible to believe in us again; to believe that any couple would have rough patches, but that we’d find our way, somehow, to the other side.
When we got out of the car, she looped her arm through mine, teetering in her heels, and pulling me close. But I couldn’t help noticing the way she was scanning the street, which was home to half the bars and restaurants in town. And I knew whom she was looking for, and realized that this warm, flirty, giggly routine was an act for someone else’s benefit.
So I wasn’t much in the mood for dinner. But the waitress was Caitlin’s old high-school friend Elaine, who spent far too much time at our table fussing over us. When Caitlin’s around these people, the ones she’s known her whole life, even I can see a little of that old high-school luster, the glow of the smart, pretty, ambitious girl who’s going places. But as I sat back and stared at the two of them, I thought that it must be clear even to Caitlin that if you’re going places you have to actually go somewhere, or do something important. And she hasn’t, and probably never will.
And Elaine mentioned Jeremy too. “I keep expecting him to stop by,” she said.
“Have you seen him tonight?” Caitlin too-casually asked.
“Not yet. How about you? Has he called you? I know he was telling Jeff he wants a chance to catch up. You haven’t seen him since you got married, right?”
With that last, Elaine flicked a quick glance in my direction, but turned right back to Caitlin.
At home, the message light on our answering machine was blinking. It cast a narrow band of cherry-colored light over Caitlin’s coat, over her hand as she reached for the button.
I didn’t step away, because technically the message could be for me. But we both knew it wasn’t. I got the look I always get whenever I break one of her multitude of unspoken rules – a delicate glance of quiet distaste, as if I’d embarrassed myself.
But her face changed when she heard Jeremy’s voice on the machine. There was that smile again.
“Listen, kiddo, I really wanted to see you while I was down here,” he said. “But I think I’m going to head back tonight, so I’ll catch you next time, OK? Say hi to that husband of yours for me.”
A moment of quiet between us, as her eyes met mine. Then I saw her face crumple as she gave one great, heaving sob. And then she was crying in earnest, tears pouring down her face. But her hands were pressed over her mouth, and she looked at me with a horrified expression.
She may be many things, but Caitlin isn’t dishonest. She had only now realized that if Jeremy had sought her out, she would have run right to him, for the night or however long he wanted, without giving me a second thought. And she knew all of that was showing on her face, and she wasn’t going to try to pretend otherwise.
And the first thing I felt, oddly, was indignation, not on my behalf but on hers. Who the hell does Jeremy think he is, that my wife isn’t good enough for him to sleep with? He could have had her but he’d thrown her back like a fish too small to keep.
I knew I wasn’t following the proper script for a husband scorned. I poked around in the hollow left by the anger and jealousy I should be feeling. Like a tongue poking at the bloody hole left by a tooth torn away. I wonder if this means I’m free of her. And if I want to be.
Not long ago, after one too many glasses of Chablis at an after-work happy hour, my coworker Margo had snapped at me. “But you don’t want them to hire someone good as the new boss, right? Because you like to be bitter. It’s your gimmick.”
And I looked at my wife. Why am I always the injured party, I wondered. Why am I so sure that her unhappiness has nothing to do with me?
My throat hurt, my chest hurt, and I couldn’t bear to look at the awful honesty on her face. I headed for the kitchen to make us both drinks. We’re not going anywhere.
Deirdre Coles lives in Seattle, where she likes to come up with story ideas while running unnecessarily long distances. Her stories have appeared in Every Day Fiction, Free Flash Fiction, MicroHorror, Infective Ink and Kazka Press Fantasy Flash Fiction.
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