Amanda Muir has previously published both fiction and non-fiction in the Gila River Review. She lives in the desert and, when not writing, enjoys spicy Thai food, riding her bike and taking gratuitious advantage of free admission nights at the local art museum.
Besotted. The feel of the word on her tongue conveyed her situation better than any Romantic sonnet. Considering their relationship, Abby could pinpoint the exact moment she became ensnared. Months ago, he had her at “Fever 103,” when Ross tilted his head and smiled at Sylvia Plath’s “pure, acetylene virgin.” It progressed from there in a ritual of shared poetry, trading Forough Farrokhzad for Ai, Galway Kinnell for Kabir.
“What’s Persian for sin?”
In class, he would meet her eyes only briefly, as she read excerpts of The Great Gatsby, one finger twirling the chain around her neck. Once or twice they nearly collided in the hall, but never touched. He would come to her only at the close of the day, when she was certain to be alone, his tone ironic and his cheeks flushed.
That December it failed to snow. Yet the temperature continued to descend and roads became slick with ice, tree limbs creaking under the weight of it. Even the holly berries outside her door became trapped in frozen cocoons. The cat spent days curled close to the radiator atop socks and a lone knit mitten. If it weren’t for Ross, Abby would have remained indoors indefinitely – a seasonal hermit surviving on coffee, Ritz crackers and the same Isabelle Allende novels again and again. Of course, there was her husband so she couldn’t properly be classified a hermit, not quite.
Greg was impervious to extremes of temperature. Abby’s husband swaddled himself in thick sweaters, chugging beef stew by the gallons. He baptized the driveway with layers of salt and rose 30 minutes early to defrost his Civic. He kept to a daily routine, skimming the Inquirer before work and returning home to his acoustic guitar and Red Wings games on TV. Tuesday nights were reserved for poker with friends and Fridays were microbrews and fried fish.
Their evenings together a pace of habit, Abby would leave him sunk into the sofa and pad gently up the stairs to the spare room. Locking the door behind her, she would burrow into a womb of quilts, curving her body around the laptop and email Ross. Their messages spanned the breadth of human experience, but returned always to literature.
“The words we know, the words available to us – descriptors like extraordinary and miraculous – can’t even begin to describe the mysterious. Which is what it all is, really. Life, loss, people, connection, God… all of it.”
“I am attaching three poems by Rumi and two by Hafez.”
When he didn’t respond she would draw feverishly on any surface available, exhausting her supply of pastels and resorting to magic marker. Neon roses bloomed on the walls and raspberry birds alighted on the bookcase. Days passed unaccounted for, Abby darting from one room to the next, picking at her nails and the calluses on her feet. Greg complained of her nightly teeth-grinding, so she trained herself to awaken and lap circles around the house before collapsing at dawn. In the morning he thanked her for a good night’s rest, kissing her forehead and reminding her to check the furnace.
Enduring the silence of her email inbox, Abby read and reread Ross’s messages. The urge to nudge him back into communication bubbled hot and as she sat before the blank screen her stomach muscles clenched with resistance. What did he mean when he ended his messages with “truly,” or “honestly,” or “take care?” What could he be telling her when he opened himself, sharing his thoughts on relationships and God? She imagined him slouched over his computer, or laughing at a joke, or laying on his bed, his limbs akimbo. Abby felt his cheek cool against her own, sensed the beat of his heart as their bodies pressed together, her legs around his waist. Indulging, she imagined his fantasies of her, saw the temptation of her own body as irresistible. She had hardly been able to concentrate in class so intense were the images that came to her. Now, alone with her husband and cat, such thoughts were stifling. Her body wooden, the effort to move, to breathe, to eat, was monumental.
It went on for weeks. A bounty of messages and then nothing. Abby cycled through all methods of distraction, waiting for his words to resume. Hauling flour and sugar from the cupboard, she abandoned the hunger for pastry at the first reading of the recipe. Greg complained of having to clean up after her. Retreating to the bath, she sank into steaming water, polishing her limbs with oil. Greg remarked that his bathroom had morphed into a sauna. She opened her laptop every hour on the hour and Greg commented on her obsession with email. And then suddenly a missive of 5,000 words, a heap of introspection, would appear on her screen. Ross the sinner and she his confessor, his thoughts dissections of addiction, ex-girlfriends and unrealized potential.
“That complete absorption, that connection between two people is dangerous. It’s like thermonuclear fusion. Extremely luminous, but incinerating.”
Abby pictured a supernova as the tones of Greg’s guitar lifted from the room below. She repaid Ross in careful admissions of her own, her life re-worked as a recommended reading list: Horton Hears a Who, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, One Hundred Years of Solitude and a decade condensed as her confessional poet period. He rewarded her candor with his own.
“Women impress me. I am awed by their innate power and resilience. Sometimes, I experience moments of terror that I’m not living life fully, being who I could be, worthy of that other half of the species. Ha ha.”
“Have you read any Adrienne Rich? I will lend you Diving Into the Wreck.”
They agreed to meet for coffee at the shop down the street. That morning, Abby lingered before the bedroom mirror. She pirouetted and moved into a grand-plie, smiling at the resiliency of muscle memory. She smoothed her hair into a ponytail and glided perfumed hands up the length of her legs, cupping her breasts. Rejecting wool skirts and turtlenecks, pragmatic khaki pants and sweaters, she settled on blue jeans and a buttery silk blouse. She puckered her lips, dotting balm into the lines and shaded her cheeks with rouge. Stealing from the house, forgetting gloves or a scarf, Abby arrived trembling. It was not their first meeting and she knew he would be late. She placed an order and slid into a booth.
“Hello there.” Ross seemed taller in person than she remembered and more substantial. Sitting across from her, his knee grazing hers, he slid a book in her direction.
“Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried.”
She bowed her head and pulled a thin volume from her bag. Reaching across, she placed it near his palm.
“The God of Small Things. Arundhati Roy.”
They spoke for hours of books, faith and the nature of the universe. Abby stretched her body cat-like as his hands twitched and his eyes met hers. Later she would think of this moment hearing different words cascade from his mouth, heat flooding her body.
“How long has it been?” Ross was suddenly alert, his eyes focused beyond the window, towards the interstate.
“Gosh, I don’t know.” Abby glanced at her watch, a gift from Greg she never liked. “4 hours?”
Ross smiled, “That’s pretty good.”
Abby nodded, her fingers tracing rotations around a napkin advertisement for First Taste coffee, the words “From first to last, the taste that keeps you going” printed in bold lime.
“I have to go. I’m supposed to catch a movie with some friends.”
She nodded again, sipping the dregs of her latte. “I’m going to stay for a while and read.”
Abby watched him depart, his shoulders pulling at the seams of his t-shirt, his hands folded into the pockets of his jeans.
Returning home, she headed for the spare room intent on emailing Ross a final comment on their conversation. But she was halted, her hand on the banister and her foot poised above the first step. Greg had begun to notice his wife’s absence.
“What do you do in that room? Why don’t you watch some TV with me?”
She turned toward him. “Art. Reading.” It wasn’t untrue. She thought of Ross then, squeezing her legs together and exhaling slowly.
“Come over here.” Greg patted the cushion next to his, turning to smile at his wife.
Abby crossed the room in a bound and straddled his lap. Their hips locked together and she was suddenly sorry she hadn’t shaved her legs. As she crushed her chest against his, she held her breath and closed her eyes.
“We should’ve tried for a baby,” she murmured, surprising herself.
Greg stroked his wife’s back. “C’mon now,” his voice was steady, cheerful. “We have a great life.”
Abby sighed, squeezing Greg’s arms, “I know.” She settled next to him, resting her head on his shoulder, remaining through 2 hours of hockey and then the news. Suddenly lightheaded, she moved into the kitchen pulling ingredients from shelves and setting water to boil.
“What are you making?” Greg called from the living room.
“I don’t know.” Abby bit her lip, taking inventory of the refrigerator.
“For me, too?” He sounded hopeful.
It was macaroni and cheese, a blend of whole wheat noodles and sharp Wisconsin cheddar. She picked at the meal, the pasta catching in her throat. She was finished after only three bites. Abby watched her husband chew, bits of cheese clinging to his teeth. His thin lips curled back from the fork as he slid the prongs into his mouth, his throat working furiously.
Abby excused herself, muttering about feeling ill. In bed, her mind electric with the memory of that afternoon, she prayed for unconsciousness. But with sleep arrived dreams and she found herself bobbing in a netherworld, Ross a figment swimming in and out of view. Their faces pressed together, her lips on his, her hands on his chest and then drifting lower. She awoke to Greg’s heavy breathing, a pool of saliva on his pillow.
Abby rubbed her eyes and stared at the ceiling. Her mind blank, she tried to match her breathing to her husband’s, the rise and fall of their chests a synchronized harmony. But she missed one beat, and then another, and then it was over and she was rising from bed and feeling her way in the darkness to the kitchen. Sighing, she surveyed the room. The residue of boiled water marred the stovetop and the dinner dishes had been left stacked in the sink. She leaned forward on the counter, its edge cutting crosswise into her belly, and pulled the knife block to her chest. The wood was worn, stained from decades left near boiling sauces and soups. A wedding gift? An anniversary present? She couldn’t remember.
She ran her fingers along each handle, hesitating over one and then another. Frowning, she settled on a thin, serrated blade, drawing it from the holder. Raising the hem of her nightgown, she stretched her left leg, and perched her heel on the counter. As she’d aged, the risk of scarring had increased, and she took care to select a spot generally hidden from view. Abby rubbed the flesh of her thigh, kneading the skin until it bloomed pink in the half-light. She paused then, flexing her fingers open and closed against the knife handle. She pictured Ross smiling, the curve of his hands, his arm touching hers. She saw the green swirl of his eyes, his pink lips open, and his shaggy blond hair. Abby sawed the first line into her skin. Bubbles of blood beaded on the blade, but the pain would come later. Her mind clear, a waffle pattern emerged with each cut. As her hand moved mechanically, having an affair struck her as a very good idea. The serrations pressed deep, so much more friction than a smoother blade. Ross must make the first move. She would have to succumb, she couldn’t seduce.
In the morning, her leg aflame and her hand cramping, she emailed Ross suggesting a meeting. His response was almost instantaneous, a sign she interpreted as promising. In anticipation, she colored her nails and invested in a cashmere cardigan. She bathed her hands in lotion and nibbled on raw vegetables for three days straight. Abby arrived for their meeting weakened and pale.
Ross grinned when he saw her. Abby returned his gaze and gently touched his arm. They fell into their familiar groove of conversation, though this day he seemed distracted. His eyes rarely rested on her face, darting from his Americano to the cars streaming past the window. He had come with no offering, no volume of treasured prose, his hands empty.
Abby’s fingers brushed his as she reached for her mug and she caught the scent of her own perfume. He was saying something about The God of Small Things, something about his parents, something about the holidays. Her mind on his face, on his eyes and hands, the potential of his body, she couldn’t keep up.
She cleared her throat, “You seem distracted today.” She needed him to slow down, to meet her focus.
“I’m sorry,” Ross looked at her squarely. “I have a date tonight. I’m a little nervous.”
“Oh,” her voice rising. “Anyone I know?”
“Yeah, Hailey Kasen.”
Abby nodded. “She’s a lovely girl.”
Ross leaned forward. She could see the shadow of his beard, his pupils black spear points. “I want you to know,” he began slowly, “I really appreciate your help over winter break. You know, with my English lit homework and everything. You’re a great teacher, Mrs. O’Brien…” His voice trailed away. She knew she had lost him.
As he made his exit, she didn’t hear him murmur goodbye or see him slip through the door. Her throat tight, she swallowed hard and drummed her nails against the table, thinking of her students. The girls with their flip-flops, gum-snapping judgments and bathroom meltdowns. The boys like badly-trained dogs and her, alone at her desk, confronting their derision. Her jaw clenched, she shredded the receipt for her coffee into strips. It would be different this time. No more private tutoring sessions or projects for extra credit. No more accepting late work or banned books week celebrations. No more group assignments or relief from homework on the weekends. She folded her arms across her body. Still, how long could Hailey Kasen really last? Surely not through graduation. He couldn’t possibly trust her more than he did Abby. She couldn’t imagine him sharing his thoughts with Hailey the way he’d been so willing, so eager, to do with her. Exhaling loudly, Abby licked her lips. No, she still had time. She crossed her right leg over her left and bore down, pressing into the knife wounds. Eyes watering, she gasped as pain gripped her body. After all, time was the only thing she’d really ever had. Time and more time, waiting for her life to begin.