By Sharon Leach
She feels the mattress sag under the weight of him. His movement is deliberately coordinated, meant to not interrupt her slumber. Only, she is awake. She lies perfectly still.
His breath is shaky with the effort of removing his clothes while sitting on the edge of the bed. She hears the sigh of his trousers onto the floor, the dull thud of his belt buckle. In almost 22 years of marriage, this is the lazy way he’s undressed when he is bone tired. This is how he pisses, too, when he’s exhausted: sitting down.
He’s been with his woman again, she thinks. She can smell her sex on him. He’s clever enough to know he dare not shower before coming home. Her ears prick up and she listens intently. For what, though? Is she nutters, imagining that adulterers breathe differently?
She’d never thought she would end up as one of those pathetic wives everybody laughed at behind their backs. The kind of wife her mother had been—unaware that her own husband been involved with a white woman who lived in a council flat for almost the entire time they’d been married and with whom he’d fathered two half-breeds. After her father’s infidelity had come to light she’d vowed eternal vigilance so that she would not end up in similar circumstances as her mother, who’d been left broken and bitter. During the year it had taken to plan her wedding and prepare herself for marriage she’d been determined to be the kind of wife who knew everything that was happening with her husband. They were each other’s best friend; she would be militant that nothing would change, except that their bond would get stronger.
And yet, here she is.
She can’t pinpoint when it was, exactly, that the drifting had begun. The wife is always the last to know. She’s been busy raising their children, cooking his meals, tending their home. Fulfilling the marriage vows. All while managing to hold down a demanding job. Sometimes militancy falls by the wayside.
Perhaps it had begun when their household started to contract. One child had gotten married; another had gone to live in Europe. Perhaps things had begun to cool long before. The vagaries of marriage, and all that. Were they even still in love? No, clearly they weren’t. But surely they still loved each other, at least, even if they weren’t in love, per se. Anyway, at their age, was it even important to be in love? Wasn’t there something to be said for simple companionship and understanding?
Who is she fooling? Companionship? Understanding? The very words strike fear into her. Those are words of compromise old people used to make themselves feel better about the inevitable. The amble to decrepitude. She is still a long way off from that. After the children left, she’d fooled herself into thinking perhaps they could be close again. The spark in their marriage had dimmed but it was ignitable again, wasn’t it? All marriages go through highs and lows propelled by the tedium of domesticity. Was this necessarily a death knell in a marriage? She thought about the morning after the last child, Astrid, her baby, had left home for college, how they’d both sat staring at each other over breakfast at the dining table, two strangers with no words to say to each other.
She’d suggested they try to have another child. Women were having children later and later these days, she said. Her gynecologist had confirmed that the risks would be relatively low since it wouldn’t be her first child, she told him. He’d laughed right in her face. Sweetheart, you’re no spring chicken, he said, with a dismissive chuckle. Get a hobby, he suggested. And when she’d looked at him, stung by his unawareness of the void created by his indifference, he’d added, You love to read. Why don’t you join a book club? Look how popular Oprah’s is.
How quickly a year has gone by! His breathing now reminds her of the sensuous, slow strokes of lovemaking. When she was younger and they’d had all the time in the world. Before the children had started coming and they’d been reduced to doing it on the sly. Sexual need gnaws at her. She can’t remember the last time they shagged. Yes, wait a bit. It was that night after Astrid’s high school graduation, over a year ago. He’d got a little tipsy after the celebration at the restaurant and had fallen on her with an intoxicated fervor that night. She can’t recall the last time they made love before that. Made love satisfactorily, is probably what she should specify. What was it? Three, maybe four, years ago?
Their bouts of intimacy had become less and less frequent over the years. For some inexplicable reason, husbands seemed to think their wives grew uninterested. ‘Sexless marriages’, that’s what the five-page article submission she’d read last week calls it. They are more prevalent than you would imagine. The society is becoming saturated with horny husbands whose needs had to be met elsewhere. What absolute shite. The writer, some Ivy League-educated twat, even had the nerve to suggest that childbearing seemed to be the cause and effect of female indifference. Indifference? Hardly. The wives she knew still wanted to have sex. Some of them even wanted it just as much now as they did before they were married, perhaps even more. Even the ones who, like her, were staring down the barrel of The Change. What did this writer know about women? About the physical and emotional strain of raising children to have values that reflected your own?
Things must change. Her friend Roxanne says she must decide whether she can stand being a single wife. Isn’t it better to be a single mum? There are more fish in the sea.
All those years ago when she’d returned home from London, where she’d gone to school, she’d met her husband and within a year had married, but her relatives and close friends all still lived in England. In Jamaica, she did not have many friends — between raising her girls and having a demanding job, there hadn’t been much time to make anything other than superficial friend. Her friends were mostly her husband’s friends’ superficial wives. Thank God for Roxanne. When she moved in down the street, about a year ago, she’d gravitated towards her. Roxanne was younger, and gorgeous, a real knock-out. The women in the neighborhood hated her. They immediately mistrusted her beauty and singleness.
But Roxie is a real pussycat. She flirts with her when her husband isn’t around. Compliments her on her clothes, her cooking, her accent, the way she’s raised her children. This used to make her uncomfortable, at first, but appreciation is appreciation; Roxie makes her feel, well, appreciated.
Somewhere outside, a lizard croaks. At least, she hopes it’s outside and not inside the house. She realizes she’s now not keen on even asking her husband for help getting it out, if it turns out to be inside the house.
Her mind wanders to Roxie again, and a dull ache forms in her groin. Their relationship is quite possibly on the verge of evolving. Well, it has begun already, hasn’t it? The other night they’d sat side by side on the sofa watching DVDs in the living room. Outside rain, which had started early that morning, fell on the roof like people loudly whispering secrets, and as the night grew colder she had brought out a comforter that she threw around them both. As they snuggled closer together, the sound of the rain making them drowsy, at one point Roxie had taken her hand and lightly begun caressing the palm in concentric circles with her index finger. The gesture had been shocking, sending electricity down her spine; the meaning had been obvious enough. She hadn’t stopped Roxie, and if her husband hadn’t come home shortly after, she didn’t know what would have happened. And when she’d gone to the bathroom later, after Roxanne had left, she been surprised to find that her knickers were completely soaked. And, there on the toilet, closing her eyes to conjure up Roxie’s image, she had stroked herself until she was panting, rocked by an ever widening pool of spasms that had left her spent and devastated.
The following day Roxie called and she’d agreed to go for a drive to the country with her on the weekend; she knows what can—and likely will—happen if she gives in. And why shouldn’t she give in? Since that night she’s constantly thought about Roxanne’s fingers against her skin. All these years, she’s been a dutiful and faithful wife. Why shouldn’t she allow herself a little selfishness now? An adventure. An indulgence. Besides, the truth was, she is no longer as upset by the idea of him having an affair. What she’d been afraid of, really, was the thought of him leaving her, and of her being alone. But after being alone in her marriage for so long, wasn’t she used to it by now? The bigger question was: does he deserve her loyalty, this man she may not even still love?
Shivering with the deliciousness of the possibilities, she allows herself to be sweetly claimed by sleep.
He exhales a shaky breath. She’s asleep, thank God. He wouldn’t have been able to explain why he was late again. He hates the look of hurt he sees in her eyes. As if she knows what’s been going on, even though he’s convinced she does not. The morning after Astrid left home, she had suggested they have another child. At her age! Well, he supposed it wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility. The McMorrises, the couple they’d befriended at their eldest daughter’s first high school parent/teachers’ conference, had just welcomed a new addition to their family. And Janet McMorris was the same age, maybe even a year or two older than her.
He refuses to feel guilty, though. Roxanne said she was just experiencing Empty Nest Syndrome. They had a name for everything these days, he thinks with wry amusement. Empty Nest Syndrome, Battered Wife Syndrome. Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. She didn’t really want another child. She was simply feeling adrift since the children were all gone now. And it was compounded by the state of the economy and the fact that her job as an editor was daily threatened by the surfeit of perky, 24-year-olds with master’s degrees willing to work for half of what she makes.
If he’s being completely honest, though, there’s something else. Of late, there’s been a restlessness in her manner, a dullness behind her eyes. As if, maybe, she’s slowly stopped caring.
But no, it’s impossible. She loves him. Roxie’s assessment is correct: It’s Empty Nest Syndrome, that’s all. Roxie herself does not have children, but she understands what women with children who grow up and leave can go through. According to her, if she can find a distraction, she’ll be OK.
At the thought of Roxanne, he becomes hard again, in spite of himself.
He’d never considered himself a cliché. She was his wife’s best friend, for God’s sake. She had moved into the house down the street; a younger woman. Something that had never appealed to him. He’d watched some of his friends embarrass themselves with younger women and he’d felt a smug superiority at how bulletproof he was regarding that particular type of moral failing.
But then Roxie had arrived. She’d turned up the week after Astrid moved out, while his wife was in the middle of her mini breakdown. He’d stood watching her, Roxie, in her teeny, teeny shorts and see-through midriff top, her black hair cascading down her shoulders in glossy waves, as she peremptorily issued instructions to the movers. Later, she’d come over to where he stood clipping the hedge in his front yard, smiled at him when she introduced herself. Their dog Bullet had escaped and had run into her garden. She’d stood before him, clutching the dog to her chest. “I think this little guy belongs to you.” She smiled again and he noticed her teeth were white and even. Her dark chocolate skin was unblemished; she was beautiful. He had a vague sense of looking at an eclipse of the sun when he looked at her.
He let his eyes travel downwards, and as he stared at her bellybutton he noticed that, despite how she was dressed, she did not come across as trashy. Not that it mattered; he wasn’t trying to start something. That was the last thing on his mind. And his wife, who only ever saw the good in people, had taken her in under her wing, inviting her over for a meal at every chance. “Poor Roxanne,” she would cluck sadly. “Do you know every woman on the street hates her? They think she’s after their husbands! It’s hard on single women, especially when they’re pretty!”
The irony was that it wasn’t long before Roxanne had begun to flirt with him, right under her nose. Footsies under the table when they invited her over to dinner. Rubbing up against him in the narrow hallway leading to the guest bathroom. He’d resisted her at first, of course. Then she’d called on him one night, to drill some holes and hang pictures over at her house. When he’d successfully avoided anything physical occurring between them it was perhaps a misplaced sense of self-confidence that had made him drop his guard. Before long, they’d exchanged cell phone numbers and had developed a relationship independent of his wife. Strangely enough, she revealed herself to be a good conversationalist. Roxie was a cosmetologist and he’d assumed she lacked depth. But he was pleasantly surprised to discover she was articulate and thoughtful. Soon, he began looking forward to their daily calls. He appreciated that she was a keen listener; she didn’t feel compelled to fill every silence. And when he invited her to see a movie in the middle of the afternoon one day, he’d left his office pretending to not know that the day would end with them checked into a hotel overrun by Chinese businessmen and athletes on the island for some national games from which they did not check out until after midnight.
It was nothing more than a gentleman’s intermission, this thing with Roxie, he thinks now. Men did what he’d done every day. Blame evolution; it made them promiscuous. He was rationalizing, even if he does not want to admit it. Then Roxanne began pushing for more. She wanted some sort of a commitment from him. She wanted him to leave his wife. Roxanne had been meant to be a mere distraction; but it had gone on for way too long. A more permanent situation would destroy everything. He wasn’t the kind of man who left his wife for a mistress. Besides, as improbable as it seemed, he’d begun to grow weary of the sex, which Roxanne always seemed to want him to top every time they got together, as though it was some kind of game.
But it’s over now. Tonight, he’d broken it off with her. They’d eaten a meal and then made love. After, as they’d lain catching their breath on the floor in the dark, her leg thrown over his as she absently tangled her fingers through his pubic hair, she’d surprised him by admitting she’d found somebody else. He wondered if she was playing head games with him, trying to make him jealous. But it didn’t matter; he wasn’t. While he got dressed, she’d assured him she wouldn’t make trouble. He believed her.
He glances at his wife now. He tries to remember how it feels when he is inside her, it’s been so long. And suddenly he is flooded with a rush of tenderness. With Roxie it has always been animalistic, whereas with his wife it was always sweet; after, he would feel deeply loved again. She is a good woman; she deserves better than him, he thinks. But the universe has given him a second chance. The fling is out of his system now. Nobody got hurt. No harm, no foul. On the eve of their 22nd wedding anniversary, he’s been presented with this golden opportunity to start over. He will do better. He’s neglected her for too long, treated her unfairly. Maybe he’ll surprise her with a nice present: a new car, perhaps. He’s had his eye on a sleek German number at the auto dealership, something he knew she’d always wanted. His credit is still good, although this may be his last major purchase for a long time. But he’ll worry about that later.
He closes his eyes, exhales, and feels a sense of well-being settle over him like a blanket. Without opening his eyes he moves closer to his wife. Yes, he thinks sleepily as he presses into her softness, it will be all right now.
Copyright Leach 2016