I found her nude and on Zoom, curled atop the covers. Chatting with some, some, some dude. Understand I won’t engage in name calling. Dude was of average height, medium build, not unathletic; his cock hung half-hard on screen. He had a trim beard, big brown eyes, longish-hair. All this I saw for maybe four seconds. Really I pieced it together later, once I knew his name and took to the web. If you know where to look, the internet holds all sorts of things. On the internet you can learn about a job called environmental engineering, learn that it can be done in a variety of places, including, if you wish, the faintly distinguished sections of Westchester.
Diane screamed. I screamed. Chances are, on the other side of the screen, the guy screamed. But Diane’s laptop was flipped shut already. She turned to face me. Or, I turned to face her, to watch her watch me move us to the next moment.
Over the following days my heart was bludgeoned in all the customary ways.
Diane did not want a divorce. She was mighty generous in this, she might add. Given that it was her who paid the bills. It was true she was prettier, better-employed. It was true too that I saw some slight pride in being the uglier one. In my twenties, I imagined people would think that meant I was funny. Now it indicates I’m rich, and I play it well, aloof and carefree. I spend afternoons at the park with the old people and children, letting my sneakers dirty in the grass.
Diane is my wife, speaking of. She is many things. She curls her hair in the old way, and she loves me, loves the boys in the manner of a woman who never trusted what the world would give. The boys we named after her parents, Darla and Robert, who each died early and in quick succession. So the boys are Robert and Darling. The two are twins, a slight seven; and tethered to the other always.
Diane said what’s done is done. She said that there’s no object in stopping seeing him now. After the harm is already inflicted. I let that thought sit, pondered the pain. None of what she said stuck. Then she said, You’ll get through this. She flattered me as a martyr. I took it, bathed in it. I had her bring me a glass of wine in the tub, had her reach over to whisk it away when finished.
Each night before bed I have her massage my achy wrist. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but there’s something, and there’s something too in having a reason for her touch.
After a week passed she told me his name. I told her that was my condition. I said it, and later I wondered which way I meant it. Condition. In those first days I was still portioned for some other life. But I had to know. Eliot. Eliot Rastro, though she confided in me that his last name could be fake. Something about the past.
When she leaves for work, I pull out my computer. There is, of course, plenty to be known. He was schooled passably, at a decent place, with, seemingly, decent marks. Probably he didn’t study much but had some natural aptitude. Probably was in a band, or a collective. Before succumbing to parental pressure to find a suitable profession. Still he’d have the band’s logo inked on his arm, a reminder.
But I don’t even know what a collective is. And I can’t remember if he had tattoos. Would that matter? Could he be buried in a Jewish cemetery? I’ve been mining my memory for the image of him on screen, but it tweaks each time. Sometimes his penis is sheathed in a sock, or pixelated. I wonder which is preferable. And which word for penis best conveys my pain.
Later I find the typical pay range for an environmental engineer of medium tenure, mild renown. I guess it’s what I expected.
I haven’t been too burdened by the ways the days leave me alone. I read books, try to. Typically I’ll tender some brief and feverish epiphany, then will find myself gazing, as one does, at the birds that fly outside my window. Pigeons, almost all of them. I heard that there was a bald eagle spotted in Central Park. I consider whether I should walk the two blocks to the park, lurk the lake to look for it.
As darkness falls I calculate the delta between us. Hour to hour, day to day, as the pay adds. Man to man, I mean. I better ask for something in return. But what?
From our apartment on the Upper West Side I plod to a hotel, a nice one on a quiet street. I put down a card and take a room. I’ll do my thinking better here.
A couple weeks go with my life still pitted inward. I organize it through visits to the wrist doctor, a slim and vicious man always reminding me of his title. He is or should be Swiss; and of vague middle fifties, and having a wife, two daughters hung in frames above his desk.
Photos, that is, and they are good ones. Sometimes you see a photo and know it was shot for pay by a man donning a bowler hat, weird pants hitched high on his waist. Weird facial hair, too, in sharp and vulgar lines.
The doctor takes liberties. He pilfers me. I gladly swipe the balance, let myself feel some falling at the price. Then return as soon as he’ll have me.
Evenings I spend at the bar at the hotel, waiting for Diane’s calls. They don’t come. I talk to the travelers, the businessmen. I talk to the bartender. I tell them all the same thing. I tell them that this is my youth. My late, mislaid, arthritic youth.
So another day flees, easily. I watch dogs play at the park and joggers totter in the coldening air. Idly I run the numbers on the hotel bill I’ve accrued. I wonder why this is sickening. I stand, I shake, I kick myself into gear. That’s how I play it in my mind.
I retrieve my bag from the hotel and I return home. The boys are happy to have me back. I wonder what they know.
Diane’s password is my birthday. Fitting. And she made no effort to hide the photos, though I guess what’s the point. I guess that’s the point. I find pictures, more. The first was sent four months ago. It shows him with one leg raised, foot braced on a composite vanity. The mirror is fogged and heart-drawn. He’s full tilt, holding himself taut with one hand, veined blue and dilated. He’s waxed, it seems. But his chest is hairy and dense. I wonder if he’s Greek. I wonder if that’s offensive.
I stand, find my hand in my pants. I walk to the bathroom to kick something, then think twice. Then go sit at my desk. Okay, this life. I’ve made myself spreadable. I pick a book and I look dumbly at it. Diane’s. She reads all sorts of good and strange things. This one tells me I’m okay in all this, or nearly. That’s what I imagine it says.
I put it down unopened.
That night some of Diane’s friends come over. A dinner party. She’d told me, I forgot. It was before all this, so. SO. But I guess they’re my friends too. The one I sit next to is an activist. That means she tweets twenty, sometimes thirty times a day. I ask her how it’s going, how the world is changing, bettering. She looks at me like I’m a lizard. I tell her that’s a trope, a dog-whistle; she doesn’t laugh.
I busy myself with unnecessary tasks. I wonder who here Diane has confided in. I wonder what she might have said. I play out conversations in my mind, envision these people standing up for me. As a kid, a teenager, I’d watch music videos and see myself there, singing. I’d back it up, watch me write those songs. I did it, I believed it. If only they hadn’t been written already.
I tell a man, an architect, about my wrist troubles. He questions whether the guy I’m seeing is a real doctor. I don’t know, I say, but he has the requisite diplomas mounted on the wall. I’m not sure, he says, I guess I didn’t know there was a doctor just for wrists?
I ask him if he’s designed anything cool lately and he says mostly he brutalizes old homes, tearing out walls and flattening molding. Everyone wants an ensuite, he says, that’s the issue.
If you take the keys for the car your wife keeps in a dim and dipping garage and drive north out of the city, you’ll see many things. Think of a town, and let it sit creviced against some moderate hill. Wonder why all the roads here are slant.
You’ll see outposts of middling local chains proffering bagels, sandwiches, celery sodas. You’ll see men in ergonomic sneakers strutting, accompanied by dogs; by, on one occasion, a potbelly pig. Probably you’ll wonder if it wasn’t just some exotic and pursy sort of dog. But it wasn’t. This thing was a pig, and the guy walking it wore orange shorts and a heather-gray tee proclaiming his allegiance to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I used to live not far from that school. I never was good at saying its name, the name of the place it was in, the name of that whole county. I was back then not so good at talking but better at other things, like glaring askance at passersby, attracting intrigue from young and similarly uncertain types.
After you park on a thin suburban street, you’ll see the man you were looking for, watch him wander from his split-level to his old Saab. A cool car, you might think, showing taste, individuality. Showing too a readiness to devote himself to the upkeep of a fickle machine no longer produced. It’s a good sign, which means it’s a bad one. It seems that he is like many men around, but, you know, cooler. You wonder how his jeans just fall like that; if his coffee is brewed tediously, carefully, poured over.
I know he cares about coffee, know it as I set my own on the dash. I bought it an hour before from Dunkin and the ice has melted, has diluted the whole of it. I still sip. It is just that the large is only thirty cents more. I pull out my binoculars, watch. As he drives out, I catch a glimpse of his license plate. I write the number down, in case. Then I follow, slowly, for a mile or two; I veer off, wondering why I would follow, what there was left to know. He is only going to work.
I almost and do not take a u-turn. Instead I pull into the lot of a bagel shop and I park, I buy a bag of chips and a new coffee. I know I will be jittery and I think that’s good, probably. It pays to be fast. Then I pull back out and return to the house, to the driveway now Saab-less. I park in it. The home is allotted on a hill, probably infill. A little bit for the driveway to rise, a better of view of nothing. I walk to the door, wonder. Nobody seems home. Instagram showed no family, ample friends.
At the door, I pause. I call Tony. He is my friend, or was. In college we were paired perfectly. Sometimes he lied; he told me he was recruited to the FBI on account of his ambitious and distinctive mind, his loosely borne morality. I knew soon this wasn’t true. I knew too that there was a sense of possibility, that he had the capacity for such a role.
Tony answers. I brief him on the situation. I use the term cucked, for the very first time. It feels cold and coppery on my tongue. I ask him how I should enter. He says I should not.
I say, That doesn’t answer the question.
Okay, I say something less cool. I say, Uhhh, well….
And Tony tells me how. And I enter, through the sliding side door. It was left open already. Tony reminds me to wear gloves, and I pretend to have them.
The place is normal. It’s nice, I guess. The man has taste.
Then, just as I’m apprising myself of his record collection, there comes a knock. I see a man at the door. And a woman, behind, peeling eyes at my car. They are both wearing glasses, both short and thin. I’m glad at that.
The best tactic, I think, is to be cool. Be casual. Be the correct quotient of caffeinated, upbeat but not shaky. Nothing to be nervous over. I open the door. I say, Hello! I’m a friend of Eliot’s! I say it with one L, so they know I really know him.
The man says he saw me go around back and thought it was funny. I agree. It was funny, I say, communing with this man. I’m a funny guy, I almost say. I’m a funny guy, but in the right ways.
But I don’t need to. The man just says Okay, well, good to meet you, and he walks to his wife, and both wave and I wave and I know I’m good, I’m really fucking good. I walk back to the kitchen. I’m thirsty, or something, I want a drink. And sure enough, he’s got it all. Belgian beer, French wine. Any liquor you could hope for. Would you say he drinks too much, Diane? Because he’s got suitable supplies to make a negroni. So I do.
As noontime crests I sip the negroni and I watch the sky widen.
I return to the apartment, to Diane back from work. I ask her how it went. I kiss her, brashly. She kisses me back.
Then she says, Where were you? I need to head out. I was waiting for you to be back, to watch the boys.
I say, Well, I’m back!
She shimmies through the kitchen, gathering items into a purse, and leaves. I find Darling and Robbie in their room. I think to myself that it's so special they have each other, so helpful they’re happy to share a room. I wonder if they want to see a movie. Probably. Dad’s got a fun plan for tonight, I say, and I see their eyes scram in focus. I feel my mind rush. We’ll see whichever movie you want, I say, then get Italian food, and you’ll have to tell me about what your mom was up to while I was away.
Of course, they know nothing. Diane’s good at this. I shouldn't have doubted that. I’m already asleep when she returns, slides into bed beside me, and stirring awake I think I smell wood-smoke in her hair.
I can’t say why I’m back here a second day. There’s no mystery to solve. Nothing left to find out. I guess I’m just curious, always have been a curious guy. Finally I feel vindicated in my intrusion into some other life. This time I open a beer and pour it slowly into a round glass. I drink on the couch. I put on a record, Red House Painters. That’s a guy who knows what I’m going through, I’m sure of it.
Below me is a shaggy carpet, made from what looks like little shards of fabric. The coffee table is sleek and teak, probably vintage. I put my glass down on a coaster.
I’m thinking, and listening to the music. He’s got good speakers. I peek through a thick book on venerable old homes by the shore. They’re beautiful, propped in the dunes. Some show overhead photos of the landscape moon-like and undulating, dropping off to the ocean. I wonder if their foundations are swamped by storm surge. It occurs to me that that’s the type of thing Eliot might know, might do.
I was consumed. I don’t hear the door open. Didn’t hear the car pull up, either. But I do hear Hello, in a deep and shaking voice, and hear it again, hear it as he sheds the shakiness and strengthens. I could try to escape, but he’d see me on the way out. Besides, this all isn’t so unexplainable. Besides, he might recognize the car. So what else is there to do but respond?
So I do. I yell, I’m in here, Eliot, I’m on the couch. Thirty seconds pass, I hear something bang. Then he’s there, in the doorway, clutching a metal lamp in his hand. He must’ve pulled it from the table at the entry. What the fuck—he begins, and I see his face quiver, see some recognition begin to cohere.
I know who you are, he says. But what the fuck are you doing here?
I’m not sure, I say. I wasn’t going to lie. He places the lamp down, eases up. Either I’m nonthreatening or he knows he could take me.
I want to say, We’re not so different, you and I. I’d say it like in a movie. But I don’t. I just ask him if he wants to talk. He doesn’t, it seems, but he obliges, stays standing, listing front and back. Why?, I ask, and he responds. He says, You know I can’t answer that. It’s a feeling, he says.
I ask him if the feeling is enough to throw all caution to the wind, to wreck your fellow man. I like that phrase, like the way it draws out my humanity for him. And feels all grand and old-timey.
But he just looks at me. He says, It’s not love, if that’s what you're asking. And honestly I didn’t know Di was married until our third date.
I’m not sure if I feel better or worse. I ask him if he’d have a beer with me, offer him one of his own. He says, Fine. And he sits on the leather sling chair and he compliments my choice of album. Then we drink quietly until our glasses are empty, and I stand, I tell him goodbye.
On the drive home I mind the narrows of the road, wondering what I’ve done.
Back at the apartment I see Diane and she’s looking at me, and I wonder if she knows. If he told her, if she guessed. But she says nothing to the effect. We read beside one another for an hour, for two, and then she stands to leave. I ask her if she’s going to see him, and she says, Don’t embarrass yourself.
Say hi for me, I say, and she says, Fuck you, as the door swings shut.
I pour myself some wine left open in the fridge. I turn on a Knicks game and watch them lose, thoughtless. The bottle is empty and I grab a new one, and then walk to the boys’ room and stand at the door, studying their chests rise in harmony, sink again. They’re strange boys, lovely, and as I think it I feel some impossible tinge of togetherness.
I’m lonely, I know. But—But! Look at what this world holds. Outside the window the other buildings stand upright and lights flicker off and the boys are safe, are in no danger. They have each other, and the night looks perfect and I leave, I descend the four floors to the street level and I wander.
I’m no good at maintaining hate. That’s my issue. I want to see him again, I guess. Have some beers, watch the game. Or probably he’s not a sports guy. Maybe we could saunter beside one another through a museum that showcases, like, vintage chairs, or rare textiles. He’d have so much to tell me.
A week goes by, typically. I’m not so numb anymore. I am crying on benches for whole afternoons. It is what it is. The old people at the park shed tissues and well-wishes, and I like it, to feel this communal something.
One morning as she showered I texted myself the photos from Diane’s phone, promptly deleted the evidence. Is it banal to comment on the strangeness of seeing your texts from the opposite vantage? On park benches, on the toilet, in the empty subway cars I return to the photos. I’m not sure why. He’s a good looking guy, it’s true. And there seems to be something earnest in his face. He takes the photos all over his house, and though the object is the same there’s power in repetition, in the devotion of it. It’s not love, he said, and I believed him. Now I’m not sure if I should.
Most days I walk the boys the ten blocks to school. They do seem different. I do not know what it is about them, what they sense. They’ve always been in a world alone, together. Not that I mind. But I do worry they know something’s up, of course they do.
I’m thinking about this, circling the neighborhood in mid-morning quiet, and a block away from our building I see him. Eliot. He’s walking back to his Saab, engine left running in the bus lane.
I call out. I rush across the street. Hi, he says. What are you doing here?, I ask.
He says he was only dropping something off for Di. My mind swirls, thinking of what it could be. Lingerie, or a book, or a set of hand-thrown mugs. Two, to share. I feel some uncategorized anger, acknowledge it, let it fester. My hands are clenched together, and the wind begins, and I’m talking, I’m saying I don’t even know what. And in a moment some gust tears through the street, gathering trash and leaves, and my mind clears. I’m mad at him, yes, but at what angle? I want that, that affection. I envy the gift, the something lovely waiting at home. For so long our marriage has been bereft of any material love.
I’m hollow, I know, but I want a present. I want some surface affection. I sit with that thought, as Eliot stares on. I let it tumble, move. I want a present!
My feet are fast and flighty. My mind is pointy and sure.
And then, as my eyes sputter into focus, as I see his face rise and near, I realize something. I want a present, yes, and I want it from him. From Eliot.
What can I say? So I say nothing, but I pull him close. For just a hug, for now. And I tell him that I’ll forgive him. I’ll forgive him, even if that’s not what he wants. I’ll forgive him, but for now, for today, he has to leave the car here untended and follow me up. I’ll pour him a drink, and I’ll assemble some fruit in a bowl. We’ll eat it all, together, and I’ll touch the sunken part of his back.
And later, once the day, the month is done, he’ll confess to me that he thought I was bringing him up here to kill him, to try to. Why did you come?, I’ll ask, but he won’t answer. In time the light will sink, and darkness will fill the room, and all will be still.
And then that stillness will be broken by Diane’s voice, by her yell.