Sarah was chosen as the winner of the short story category during our February 2017 Love Stinks writing contest.
He knows when he walks in through the door that something’s wrong.
Maybe it’s the way she’s sitting on the couch, hunched over, with her head buried in her hands, the lights in the room dim and the week-old flowers on the coffee table shedding petals like scabs. Maybe it’s the way she doesn’t look up at him, the way her shoulders tense and she takes a deep breath. Maybe it’s the way she doesn’t say anything, even as he settles on the other end of the couch, waiting.
Maybe it’s the way she doesn’t have to say anything at all.
The silence is perfect, listless, stilly, cutting through their thoughts, the air around them, sharpening their awareness of each other. Finally, she speaks. “We need to talk.”
He clenches his teeth, traps the sigh inside of his lips, swallows it down. “I know.”
“I did something.” She says it like a question, like she’s waiting for him to answer her, but he says nothing, doesn’t even move to look at her. “I didn’t mean to. You have to believe me.”
“I do.” It isn’t even a lie, not this time. “It’s okay.”
“No,” the venom in the word draws his gaze like it’s a compulsion, an obligation so ingrained inside of himself that he can’t think of anything else to do. She shakes her head, hands moving with the immense effort of cradling her skull. “It’s not.” She lifts her forehead from its fleshy throne of fingers to look at over at him, the ghosts in her eyes dancing like they’re in a prison made of red iron slippers. “I’m trying to tell you I’ve been having an affair.”
The dancing ghosts crawl into his chest, their greedy hands wrapping around his heart—pulling, squeezing—until he can’t breathe, head heavy, foggy eyes unseeing; he closes them, opens the prison of his mouth and swallows down air that tastes toxic. “I know. I’ve known for a while.” His voice doesn’t break; he opens his eyes.
Silent voices, words unsaid, shaking hands.
“I never meant for this to happen. I never meant to hurt you.”
Platitudes, platitudes, platitudes.
At last, he lets out his sigh, feeling it all the way to his bones, deeper still, like he and it have become one, as if he could expel himself from his life as easily as air expelled from lungs. “I know. I know.” Neither speaks again for a while longer, until he looks back to his former lover. He once thought that they would spend their lives together: he once thought they’d built a boat together; cast their hearts to sea. Like they’d be able to overcome the waves and the tide and the current that would rage against them, like the wind would never be able to shift them from their course. But this must be the part where their ship wrecks, where he’s left stranded and alone. He’ll be the castaway, left drifting. “How did this happen?”
It’s rhetorical, of course, but she answers with a shake of her head. “I wasn’t happy.”
He nods, pretends to be steady while everything inside of him quakes apart. “I wasn’t either.” He steels his nerves. “When did we become so unhappy together?”
It hangs in the air, souring their already rainy expressions, until she mutters a soft—so soft that he can barely hear it—“I don’t know.”
And that’s it. That’s the most important thing either one of them has said so far, because it’s honest, and real, and so painful that he feels the hand on his heart constrict again, again, a nagging, bitter thing that he can’t escape.
Deep breaths, clasping fingers, wet cheeks.
Recompense, recompense, recompense.
Time passes, like it must, but slowly. Minutes gradually bleeding into minutes under the cruel hand of the antique grandfather clock in the next room—ticking, ticking, ticking—like it’s chained up to his heartbeat.
“I’m going to keep loving you for a little while longer, if that’s okay.” His voice breaks and he drops his head into his hands, tries to hide from this, from her, from the knowledge that this was always the inevitable outcome. Fingers smooth a line down his back—hers—and even now, after everything, her touch is nothing but a comfort.
“Yes.” She breathes, whispers, voice breaking. “It’s okay, of course it’s okay. I never stopped loving you.” He nods into his hands. He knows; he believes. “I still love you.”
That’s the worst part, really. That they love each other enough to walk away, to let each other find the happiness they no longer have together. The sting of her betrayal is nothing compared to how he feels about himself; the slow agony of knowing his love isn’t enough, maybe never was.
“I hope you’re happy with him. I really do.”
Maybe they’re the first words he’s really meant all night, the truth of them the only thought flitting through his mind. Maybe it’s because he does love her, still, and after everything, still wants this person he loves to be happy, even if it’s without him. Not having her anymore will be like losing a limb or an organ and he doesn’t think he’ll be able to figure out how to survive without it, without her, but he knows he has to try.
“I wish it could be you.” She whispers, the words catching in her throat, quivering, voice breaking, the but it’s not hanging heavy in the air.
He holds her hand when his fingers start to tremble, wipes her tears when they start to trail out, holds her close one last time when the sound of her aching sobs sinks into his bones.
The ghost of what they had exists inside of him, pounding, raging against its cage of flesh like it could beat its way out through his chest, like it could rip apart the scattered pieces of their shipwrecked vessel. He knows he’ll keep picking up all those pieces for as long as he keeps loving her, navigating those dark, stilly waters until he’s finally free from the storm. It won’t be easy—might even be the hardest thing he’ll ever have to do—but he’ll do it.
New waters, setting sail, all alone.
He knows when he walks out through the door that something’s right.