Maybe you know this one already.
I was a double adulterer. Meaning he was married, I was married. We were—all four of us—married. I like marriage.
I do. I trust it. Not the old, woman-as-chattel-type marriage nor the swinging polyamory of artists and gurus, but modern, agile, mutual-respect-and-comfort-type marriage. I am good at it. When I am at it. It’s still the best thing going. The ocean swells are temperate and smooth enough to ride to shore. A seaward glance can tell you all (or most) of what the atmosphere is planning. In the so-called wedded state I am as devoted as the next devoted person. Don’t look at me like that.
A good marriage calms the redwing blackbirds in the hedges. Be tranquil, it says. Becalm your feathers; refill your nests. I had one of those. I have one now. Raise a glass to second chances.
Maybe you know this one already? Once there was a woman.
Life was not all fun and games, not even on TV. She strung bi-polar swings like cranberry garlands. Popcorn, berry, popcorn, berry, Tom and Jerry, Sugar Plum Fairy. I mean, she came with risks, was unpredictable as Christmas. This woman loved her husband. How much, you say, how many years? I can tell you it was lots, it was many. Then one day she—okay, I—fell into an affair. An apt phrase, fell into, like “so-and-so fell into a well,” “into despair,” “the wrong hands” (spoken with mild schadenfreude: the muted frisson of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God). None of which compares with falling in—in line or in love. Don’t ask me to speak of falling for.
If you must know, the affair was ugly and
glamourous, like writing poetry on a train and catching your reflection in the window watching pornography on a train. We were industrious and sordid and pleased with ourselves. Friends said I’d lost my senses. They were right. I’d lost the ability to see my husband or hear his voice or smell the candle burning in the window or feel its coaxing warmth against the sudden chill and daily losses. I was numb to my husband’s fading grasp, while the other man draped an asp across my breast (because he could and just to see what happened).
This man had many names. Sceneshifter. Crapshooter. Counterfeiter. Epicenter. Master. Disaster. A doer, he was busy.
Don’t look at me that way. I can tell what you are thinking and of course I must agree. But that was years and another continent ago.
This is one I never tell: There is a woman
—may I hide behind the safe remove of third-person?—
she is on a plane. She is watching the picture of the little plane moving across the little map on the little screen above her Bloody Mary. There it goes, traveling east off the coast of Newfoundland, and there, an inch or so south, is a tiny ship stamped like a hallmark on the sea at the location of the RMS Titanic wreckage. The mapmakers have marked all the major shipwrecks on all the oceans all over the little map. Titanic. Atlantic. Delight. Each a subliminal message: Travel by air if you know what’s good for you! These days the woman heeds even the glossiest cautions, open to accident but no longer catastrophe.
Onward, slowly, arcing east across the North Atlantic into the hastening night, the plane and its little representation progress together like mind readers and the woman thinks of herself and all the passengers tucked inside amongst their carefully measured bags. She asks herself the Big Questions. Why do we die and Who wrote the book of love and When are we at last forgiven and Where do the icebergs go when they melt? Maybe the woman seated beside her asks them. Maybe everyone does, together in the low murmur of risking their lives together.
The woman begins to sob. The little plane standing in for the big plane slips across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and, on the map at least, is split: tail in North America; nose in Eurasia. She feels the tectonic shift between the diverging continental plates with a sudden, seismic, release of grief’s stored energy. Nothing had prepared her for this—not the packing or tearful goodbyes, not the charity drops, not even the day she flung her dead dog’s ashes in silver woods she’ll likely never see again. Nothing had prepared her for the violence of this perforation.
The cabin is dark except for the seatbelt/no-smoking signs glowing dim like party lights overhead, and here and there a reading lamp and the little screens of nearby passengers that through her tears seem to float unmoored. Her seatmate is asleep or feigning sleep. The woman unbuckles, rises like a reflex. She means to flee, to hide from her dozing seatmate and ride the aftershocks in private (if she can find privacy) while she gets a grip on herself (if she can get a grip). But there is something now. A hand on her arm holding her back. The seatmate is awake after all. The hand is gentle and the woman lets herself be guided by it, lowering herself back down into her seat, averting her face but otherwise compliant.
The seatmate says I knew you were in trouble as soon as you sat down. She leans in close, chin almost touching the woman’s shoulder. Her breath is warm and peppermint (she is chewing gum, as people do on planes). She stage-whispers into the woman’s ear, fogging it with moisture.
I once was lost.
The hand is on the woman’s knee now. It pats and rubs and clutches.
Let Jesus be your guide.
Faith will wash away your sins.
You’ll never walk alone.
The woman is grateful in a way for the seatmate’s soothing tones but strikes her anyway, flat across the face: her adept fervor and shrewd puppet mouth. It crumples inward like in a cartoon.
The seatmate lets out a squeak of surprise, removes her hand from the woman’s knee and covers her mouth with it. She says nothing. They are both surprised and dumb and locked now into lives with uncertain outlines: the seatmate might turn the woman in; somebody might have seen; the seatmate deserved what she got, exploiting the woman’s grief to sell religion. At least now the truth—someone’s truth—is out.
This time the woman really does flee. Panic floods her legs, fortifying them, and she is up and gone. Up the aisle, holding onto seatbacks, she blunders through a pocket of turbulence. The plane bucks and she staggers, hip-checks passengers on both sides—Pardon me, Pardon me—upsetting empty cups and miniature wine bottles. A flight attendant sees her and scolds, calling Ma’am! (calling attention), and the woman braces herself for arrest, detainment, whatever happens in such cases. The attendant, however, is gesturing at the seatbelt sign. Return to your seat, Ma’am! Ma’am? You need to take your seat immediately.
The woman recalculates the possible outcomes. As far as she can tell there has been no outcry from the seatmate. But does the seatmate’s lack of outcry erase assault? No, but it may erase the consequences. Except. The woman will have to face the seatmate and, further, is not ready to apologize.
She will, of course. But she intends to keep her in suspense. The seatbelt buckle clinks and snaps. She will make the seatmate suffer for her opportunism, her missionary position, her plastered Angels hawking salvation to the pious and gullible. The plane bumps along potholes in the sky. She tightens the belt and waits.
Yet what is the seatmate selling, really, but Grace? What is she granting if not permission to start again?
The woman turns to the seatmate and sees a small, blonde woman with a Nordic face that bears a fading slap mark on the left side of the mouth but with eyes nearly smiling, regarding the woman with a mother’s mixed feelings of love and disappointment. Then, as if waiting her entire life for the opportunity, the seatmate turns the other cheek. The woman hears her own voice requesting forgiveness.
Forgive me, it says, please. Forgive me. Thank you. Please forgive me. Thank you. The seatmate says nothing, but takes the woman’s hand—takes my hand—and squeezes it, just enough to hurt, then pats it with her free hand (like tenderly cupped blessings) and releases. She has nothing further to say. She has done her duty to a stranger. Shipwrecks accumulate across the little map.
Almeda Star, 1941. Carpathia, 1918. La Girona, 1588.
A rosary of disaster. Sunk by war or weather, hubris or miscalculation. Each its own consequence.
Empress of Britain. Lusitania. Creekirk. Athenia.
Forgive us, Athenia. We rumble high above you and fast—faster and higher than our capabilities—through lighter elements. What have you become?
I imagine hull bones on the spreading ocean floor refashioned into habitat. Starfish, algae, urchins. Schools of swimmers flash from portholes. Scuttlers hunt in shifts. Primitive stalks, unfurling, feed on passing debris. Trappers conceal themselves beneath the sand between the ribs. Everyone reinvents their camouflage. Shame is nothing to my losses are nothing to my shame. But
it’s easier now, years on, the shifting elements, the continental drift. Marriage exceeds love. It swells the gifted landscapes and frames the portrait I move from wall to wall to get the lighting right. We’ve come clean together. You’ve learned my fish and war stories off by heart and share your bed with all my possible shapes and the sunken bones of my first marriage. Forgive me. Thank you.
Ten years ago
in Amsterdam the woman disembarked and soon lost sight of the seatmate. She bought tulip bulbs in Schiphol Airport, browsing away the early hours before the final leg to England. Where you were unknown to her and waiting.
All my stories end like this. They go, Please
say you will never leave me.