Loving Someone Else

by Sarah Evans

 

 

I spot you, your lean body bent forward in merriment, a tangle of fair hair. A wave of nausea sweeps through me.

 

Iíve thought Iíve seen you before Ė walking the street, sitting half a tube-carriage down Ė provoking a fleeting remembrance of a long lost time, as if some part of me is still on watch, still seeking you. Always itís turned out not to be, not even close.

 

But this time I feel a sinking certainty. I steal a glance again, not wanting to be observed by you, or questioned by my companions. Youíre facing away, but that hunched disguise for unusual height, the way youíre drawing the others into your amusement, is undeniable. My ears strain to distil the familiar resonance of your laughter amidst the clamour of a hundred different conversations.

 

I flush hot and slink off the jacket which just seconds ago I pulled closer, complaining about the chill.

 

"What did you think, Tania?" Mark asks, a question furrowing his brow, and I wonder how much heís noticed. I shrug off the need to offer an opinion, imbibe a large mouthful of very dry, not-quite-cold, white wine and say, "Iím just going to the Ladies."

 

My face burns back at me from the mirror as I decide what this woman is going to do. Iím grown up now, I try to convince myself.

 

You can no longer touch me. But it would be a pity to pass over the opportunity to catch up with an old college friend.

 

I fiddle with already tidy hair, uncurl my spineís slouch; jittery fingers smooth the day-old creases of my blouse, undo then redo the top button. I practise a surprised smile and try to deep-breathe away the thumping of my heart.

 

I have a momentary loss of nerve as I draw close. Perhaps it isnít you after all. Then you spin my way. The passing of twenty years has added lines, sharpened those already classic features, added gravity behind still sparkling eyes. "Hugh? It is, isnít it?" I see your momentary confusion before the recognition is returned.

 

"Tania!" You get up awkwardly, sending the chair flying backwards. Your smile is wide and open, but I canít tell if you are really pleased to see me. "How are you?" We both say it simultaneously, then laugh.

 

"You first," I insist.

 

"Iím great. Really great."

 

So I echo back: "Iím pretty good too."

 

Itís hard then, knowing how to proceed. Filling in two decades has seemed to require only four words. The next level of detail would demand days and weeks. "What a coincidence," we chime together, grinning again at the unexpected accord.

 

"Iím here with people from work. We were just thinking of moving on," you explain. Iím unaccountably pleased that the glossy-haired woman next to you is just a colleague. I gesture to the table where Mark is looking over quizzically. "Out with my husband, and friends."

 

I want to interrogate you Ė are you married, partnered? Ė but what can it matter? You fumble in your pocket and produce a crumpled business card. "Ring me sometime," you insist. "We could have lunch. Catch up properly." I curse that I have no card on me and canít bat the initiative back.

 

Mark is absorbed in conversation as I reclaim my place beside him, but later he turns to question, "Who was that?"

 

"Just someone I knew at college." I hesitate a fraction before adding: "Hugh." I canít detect if the name registers on Markís still-boyish face. Thereís no reason that it should. I never explored this history with Mark, not properly, because even then Ė two years after you had dropped all contact Ė I still ached, more than I wanted to disclose. So in those early unravellings of the past for one another, Iíd diminished you to a passing reference, "I thought I was in love with a boy at college." The phrase breezed strangely. After all, what is love if not a feeling; what are feelings if not thoughts?

 

Mark and I make our excuses early, bound by babysitter curfews. The night air cuts through my layers of wool as we bend our heads into the biting wind. "You seem a bit distracted tonight," Mark observes.

 

"Iím tired." Iím always tired. I dream of tunnelling down, layer upon soft layer of duvet, sleeping through the winter.

 

*****

 

The card irritates my jacket pocket for a week. My fingers worry away at te edges till it begins to fray and crumble into pulp. Why shouldnít I ring?

 

I devise my strategy. I go in early to work; Iíve things to catch up on anyway. I ring at eight, before you are likely to be there. I plan to leave a brief efficient message and my number. You may or may not ring me back.

 

The phone is picked up on the first buzz. The music of your "Hello!" catches me unprepared. Damn! I nearly put the phone down, remember just in time that you could use ring-back.

 

"Itís me. Tania. I just wonderedÖ I mean. You said to ring." I sound pathetic.

 

"I did." I catch merriment in your voice; you often seemed to be amused, and I was never sure if you were laughing with or at me.

 

Seconds stretch unbearably into breath-holding hours. It should be you who speaks first! I feel irked at being forced to ask, "So how about lunch sometime?"

 

"Yes. That would be good."

 

I sense uncertainty.

 

"But if youíre busyÖ" I start to make excuses, to provide you with the let-out.

 

"No. No," you insist. "Let me find my diary." I hear the impatient shuffling of papers. I remember how hopelessly disorganised you always were. There is a louder clunk.

 

"Hello?" I query into the ether.

 

Then youíre there again. "Tania. Are you still there? I dropped the phone! How about ThursÖ, no, Friday perhaps?"

 

Iíd like to say Iím otherwise engaged, but the fact is Iím not, and I donít have the energy for games.

 

"Fridayís fine." I mark the appointment in my diary as tentative and personal. I have three days to ponder what it is Iím doing. And to mention it to Mark.

 

Except I donít. Itís not exactly deliberate. I donít need to go out of my way to announce it, and no natural opportunity presents itself. We donít have time for idle conversation. Our passing exchanges are brief, the imparting of factual information. "Everything OK?" We question one another, barely waiting for the reply.

 

I wake on Friday with fear gripping at my insides; big black moths bat their wings and prevent me from eating breakfast. Cancel it! Donít turn up! I scold myself. But I know I wonít; I will.

 

I intend to be ten minutes late, so it isnít me left waiting, and to demonstrate a certain nonchalance, emphasise Iím fitting this in around more pressing matters. But years of always being anxiously early mean Iím dead on time. The cold wraps around me, finding its way through cracks in my defences. Itís twenty past the appointed hour when my scanning eyes detect you loping towards me, hair and clothes characteristically dishevelled. You grin lopsidedly, revealing crooked teeth, the single flaw, which always seemed to enhance, not detract, from Hollywood good looks.

 

"Sorry! I got too absorbed in what I was doing."

 

"It doesnít matter." Your excuse is feeble, making it clear how low on your priorities I am. "I only just got here," I lie, giving up the opportunity to be aggrieved. "How about a sandwich shop?" I propose, because it will be light and airy, quick; because Iím not sure my moths leave room for food, and besides Mark is taking me out for dinner tonight. But somehow your choice prevails and we end up in a restaurant.

 

Itís awkward. Knowing where to start. How to continue. This stranger / not-a-stranger before me.

 

I chat through the superficialities of my life. "Mark and I have been together for twenty years. Heís an accountant. Yes I know, an accountant married to an auditor!" My face contorts into a mock grimace. "Weíve two girls. Sophieís nearly eleven and Laurenís nine. I work four days a week. But even with the extra day, thereís always so much to do, Iím always busy." I grimace again. "But itís good," I add, hoping the brightness of my voice belies the unbearable dullness of my litany.

 

"You look amazingly well," you say, as you stare at me with unabashed admiration. And itís true. Iíve transformed in ways I could never have imagined, from that tongue-tied puppy of a girl, with her wild hair and clothes from Oxfam, who blushed so easily, to a self-assured wife and working mother, who keeps her hair stylishly short, buys sharp suits and feminine blouses to impress her clients, whoís known to be a tough but fair auditor, not letting anything slip her attention.

 

"What about you?" I ask.

 

"I stuck with the research. I seem to have become quite well known." One side of your mouth curls up in self-deprecation. "I travel a lot. Conferences here, there and everywhere. They like the odd controversial speaker. Iím trying to debunk Strings." Your life sounds so much more interesting than mine.

 

You try to explain your labour of delving down into the nature of the universe, and we end up laughing as you have to simplify it more and more.

 

"I still insult audiences with my singing when I get the chance," you say, and I recall going to your concerts, imagining I could pick out your voice amongst the chorus.

 

"And still single. I never seemed to find the right girl."

 

You look directly at me. I have no way to explain the rush of adrenaline, my somersaulting stomach.

 

"Really?" Iím transported back in time and my mind and body flood with memory: the agony of longing and of unquenched desire.

 

Cornflower-blue eyes bore into mine. Your voice is muted so I struggle to catch the words that are perhaps best lost. "Iíve thought about you, you know. Looking back I think I made a big mistake."

 

And as my blood bleaches white, I know I understand. But I need it to be spelled out, not left to future interpretation.

 

"What do you mean?"

 

You back away. "Iím sorry. I shouldnít have said that. Not when youíre happily married."

 

I think how Mark and I jog along alongside one another. Weíre content in the way of twenty-year-old marriages, comfortable in our assumptions that we already know everything worth knowing about the other. Routine substitutes for happiness.

 

"I donít know," I reflect. What is happiness anyway, a fleeting mood, not something to be relied on. "Iím not sure I am. Not really." I deny Mark, my daughters. Because all of what I have, the quiet ease of my life, Iím willing to risk now, just as I risked everything once before: my dignity, my pride. "I never stopped thinking about you."

 

This is true and not true. Youíve been a background sort of thought, an intermittent recollection of the bittersweet pain of first love, which resurfaces at unexpected moments, providing a melancholy pause amidst the bustle of my life.

 

"Do you remember that card?" you ask. As if that moment is not forever forged into memory.

 

Weíd been thrown together by the proximity of our college rooms, and you had taken to dropping by at odd moments of the day to chat. Iíd make coffee, though you never stayed long enough to drink it. You left teasing notes, "Hello gorgeous!" on the note pad stuck to my door.

 

It meant something; it had to.

 

I lacked the courage to declare myself face to face, knew my endless stream of words would tangle in my mouth. I transferred my feelings into borrowed poetry, penned by an anonymous hand in a Valentineís card with a bold red rose. I flush now as overblown phrases are retrieved from dust covered corners of my brain. Passion in my heart. Canít bear to be apart.

 

The last words were my own: Iíll never love anyone else. The sheer strength of my wanting made it impossible you should not return it. I left the card in your pigeonhole. An hour later I tried to retrieve it, but the pink envelope had already disappeared. All day, my ears strained for the sound of footsteps along the echoing corridor.

 

That evening, I joined Alice and her crowd, franticly embarrassed, desperate suddenly to flee my room and the possibility of you knocking at my door. We invaded the Turf, our favourite haunt, sat outside on uneven wooden benches, drinking hot mulled wine and huddling close to keep out February air, while the low-beamed bar teemed with bodies. You turned up alone and made straight for me. All the oxygen was sucked out of the cold clear night.

 

"I think we need to talk," you said.

 

We split off from the others, anonymous amidst the hubbub of chat. I smiled bravely in a momentís heady hopefulness. But then you looked embarrassed and turned away. "I need to tell you something. Last weekendÖ I slept with Alice." Alice, who was chic and sleekly blond, who had always struck me as superficial, with that posh voice and designer label clothes.

 

"I didnít mean to mislead you. I think youíre a really nice person." As if niceness might be some compensation for the absence of desire. "I hope weíll still be friends."

 

I tried to say that it was fine, the card wasnít serious. My body gave me away: the unwanted flow of stupid tears; the vice closing in upon my throat, preventing me from speaking.

 

I wanted to die. I wanted the ground beneath that bench to gape open just for me.

 

But even the greatest humiliation is not fatal. I lived. And in my weakness, we continued as we were: friends. You confided your ups and downs with Alice, poured out your hurt when she ended it. I hung on. Waiting. Hoping. Yearning. Enduring your other infatuations, other lovers. Until finally we left university, and your glib promises to keep in touch faded away. I looked to busyness to provide healing.

 

Then I met Mark. It wasnít that I loved him less; I loved you first. In the pain of unfulfillment, passion lived on, untested by time and its disappointments.

 

*****

 

Weíre sitting in a cosy corner of the dimmed restaurant. The heat is like a drug, lulling me into recklessness. Weíre concealed in a wooden booth from the waiters and other scattered diners. The narrow table between us is easily bridged.

 

I meet your gaze, defying you to take what was always yours. Iím still that love-struck teenager.

 

You bend your long spine, lean across, and as a married mother of two I should back away. But I donít. Perhaps I should have resisted the glass of wine. Perhaps it is the alcohol which is sending crazy thoughts careering round, and which blocks the thoughts of loyalty and consequences. The seasons roll giddily back. My nineteen-year-old mouth reaches for yours, accepting the kiss which is mine by rights. I linger, absorbing the warmth. The meeting of slightly parted lips is fairly ordinary, somewhat awkward. But I havenít kissed anyone but Mark for twenty years. And this is you.

 

My forty-year-old body kicks into life, with the thrill of the illicit.

 

Iím lost.

 

I pull back, or is it you who does? I glance at my watch, exclaim over the meeting Iím now late for. "Iíll see you again?" Your voice lets slip uncertainty.

 

"Ring me." Iím noncommittal, telling myself this has gone far enough, that you probably wonít ring anyway, while some ditzy side of me, outgrown by several decades, wants to skip and grin at every passing stranger.

 

I still love Mark. Both feelings exist independent of each other, operating on different frequencies. Itís not as if a person has a fixed amount of love to give; loving someone new does not mean taking love from someone else. I think of the girls. Iím lying when I say I love them both the same: I love them differently, each of them unique in being themselves. The love for one was not diminished when they became two. In this wild expansive moment, I donít see why I canít love both men.

*

The smell of garlic pervades air heated by real wood ovens. Mark and I sit across from one another on hard wooden chairs. Our local restaurant is high ceilinged; candles burn purely for show under bright lights. The service with an Italian accent is good, the food predictable. This is our proxy anniversary. We both agreed it was pointless going out on the night itself when we would face work the following day.

 

Weíre lulled into the usual pattern of conversation, which Iíd thought would be difficult, but in fact is not. Mark recounts the minutiae of his day. "It ended up a somewhat extended lunch hour." He grins like a naughty schoolboy. "Geoff, Chris and I ended up having a liquid lunch. Chris has got woman-problems again!" Surely he knows I donít share his amusement at Chrisís laddish exploits.

 

"Iím not terribly hungry." I explain why Iíve chosen only salad, "I went out for lunch too." My heartbeat rises. It seems impossible it isnít audible to everyone, because I know that if Mark asks, ĎWho with?í Iíll tell him. And by saying it out loud it will become mundane, just two old friends; the kiss will have no consequence. But if left unspoken, it will be hidden, perhaps something to repeat, take further. My mind is willing him to ask. But the choice is unfairly his. A chance encounter. A chance resolution. Iíve never been capricious, but now I let my future rest on the throwing of a dice.

 

Markís face creases up as he relives another overly involved anecdote. My pulse races ever faster as I fear for him, for us. I smile and make appropriate responses, as each sentence takes me further along that road of deception, to a double life.

 

By the time weíre waiting for the bill Iíve concluded this is meant to be.

 

Itís then I become aware that Mark is watching me. "Iím sorry," he explores slowly. "It feels as if Iíve been doing all the talking. Are you OK?"

 

"Why shouldnít I be?" I defend myself, before conceding. "Iím just tired." I reel out my usual excuse. Iíve never felt less tired.

 

Mark is still observing me, some animal instinct alerting him to the danger.

 

The practical realities are starting to oppress me. Because if love is something that can be multiplied, time is not. Markís had only half my attention this evening; half my thoughts have been with someone else. I sense the beginnings of resentment for the questions he has the right to ask, demanding accountability for my presence.

 

Outside, the night air is cold and clarifying.

 

We pause to look up at the sky, which is strewn with stars; the moon is a perfect white crescent painted on a pitch-black cloth. Mark puts his arm around me, drawing me into his bodyís warmth. Nuzzling down into my carefully tinted hair, he breathes the promise of familiar intimacy, the slow unravelling of pleasure in this body that heís never tired examining every crease of. That will lack the urgent need of something new. I pull back.

 

We start to stroll, he takes my arm, and from habit I lean in towards his shelter. "Why donít we take the girls out for the day tomorrow? Remember how they loved Legoland last year?" he asks.

 

"I thought we were visiting your mother."

 

I canít see his smile, the cover for that deeper disquiet, but I hear it in his voice: "Legoland would be more fun." I know what he is doing. This isnít about letting me off some tedious chore.

 

He senses the need to avoid the tenseness that might erupt when weíve been forced to sit all afternoon, while his mother implies Iím too soft with the girls, because their exuberant energy hates the confinement of her genteel house. Heís stealing from me the opportunity for grudge, in which I might justify replying to that text message Ė "When can I see you again?" Ė which is weighing down my phone.

 

"Weíll see."

 

I picture the girlsí faces lit up with joy as Mark drops easily down to their level, teasing them, seeking out the fun rides, binding us together in a cocoon of laughter. I think of the penetrating scrutiny of your eyes as we pulled apart, melting me down inside.

 

"I was thinking how Sophie has such a look of you these days," Mark says.

 

Everyone has always said sheís the image of her dad. But this isnít about surface resemblance. Heís playing his strongest card, reminding me of what we share, the interweaving of the two of us, spiralling round in every cell of our daughtersí bodies. He battles his unknown adversary, using the same instinct, which all those years ago made him know that the way to mend a broken heart was not to dissect it, lay open the cause, but to encase it with a new love, different and unconditional.

 

I breathe in the chill, sobering air. "Really? I donít see it." I deny him, but I feel the pull back to the present, urging me to let go this thing Iíve spent half a lifetime wanting.

 

Beneath his usual cloak of optimism, I feel Markís despondency; he doesnít know what else to try. He searches for something trifling to say, so we can drift back to comfortable companionship. "Look!" He points at the bare branches of the trees just starting to come into bud. Something in me starts to soften, like an end of winter thaw.

 

My hand moves as if of its own accord, curling round his back, burrowing its way under layers of cloth, instinctive in its mammalian comfort. It knows before I do.

 

We start to talk simultaneously.

 

"Perhaps London zoo?" I suggest.

 

"I donít think you told me who you had lunch with?"

 

 

###

 

 

Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines, competition anthologies and online, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Earlyworks Press, Writersí Forum and Unthank Books. Several of her stories have been top contenders for The Glass Woman Prize. Most recently, her story "The Tipping Point" won the Rubery Short Story Competition (http://www.ruberybookaward.com/winning-stories.html). She lives in Welwyn Garden City, UK, with her husband and is interested in reading, opera, hill walking and ballroom dancing.