She measured her day in tasks. Lunches made and counters cleaned until they shone. Fresh, desperate breakfasts which she served with a gleeful aplomb, ignoring the sleep-glazed expressions of her family as she dished up crisp bacon and thick pancakes. Her husband and son were a reflection on her, and she had established herself as a cheerful dictator. Carl was solid, unassuming and gentle in a nervous, concerned manner which meant he came home to meals sober and on time. They had sex when they felt they should.
‘She can’t even make a pot of coffee, but everyone seems to like her.’ Carl said.
He was talking about Taylor, the new secretary and her ineptitude alongside the bland, amiable monologues he used to fill the space.
Erica flashed him a bright smile as she poured him another coffee. He smiled back and carried on talking whilst Tommy shoveled cereal into his mouth and chewed with his mouth closed. She felt a small burst of pride, took it like medicine against the guilt and the powerlessness.
‘She sounds like a klutz, honey.’ she said.
Carl’s face turned red and he nodded, a beat too quick for her liking but he wasn’t good with women. He went to great pains to hide his fear, by being at great pains to remain benign and professional around them. Carl’s virtue was he would never leave her.
Tommy made it to the bus, independent and brusque with his efforts to prove childhood was tucked in the storage space along with the undersized clothes and garish plastic toys. Once Carl had left, the only sounds were the scheduled breathing of the house – the hum of the refrigerator, pipes and floorboards eased or contracted by the temperature and the babbling excited chatter beneath her skin which sent her rushing around the house like a pinball in play. The air was clean, conditioned with a small bouquet of faint cooking smells and the lemon wax polish she used on the weekends. She did a final circuit of the house then went upstairs to change.
She wore a white shirt, pencil skirt, stockings and a purple brasserie, without panties. He had told her not to when she came to see him, and hearing him order her around in his low, soft growl made her flutter with anticipation. Erica allowed an hour to prepare, but with each slow stroke of the hairbrush, she knew it would adhere into a single lock at the back of her head where he would grab her as they wrestled with one another. Her strokes were awkward as she thought of him, the gentle burn of his beard against her skin and how he handled her with a brutish ease, then afterwards would hold her so tight she couldn’t breathe. The guilt came later, but these moments were a song she couldn’t get out of her head no matter how much she tried. Her heart hammered in her chest and she messaged him, asking permission to touch herself.
No, he replied. She bit her bottom lip and put the phone down. Erica looked in the mirror and saw herself, flushed and expectant, before she finished brushing her hair. The drive to him was quick and she sang along with the radio, girlish and flushed with excitement as she drove to her lover.
These moments were the anaesthetic. Pain came later, and it made her studious at home. She laid beneath Carl, stroking his back as he pumped inside her and closed her eyes, willing herself not to think about her lover and failing, opening to the present with a fervour which made Carl come in reflex. She read to Tommy, helped with his homework and cleaned the house, made the lunches and kept her tears private. She wished she could split herself in two, and the pull between him and her family wore on her nerves like a disease which worried at her psyche until it was translucent.
She knew it was coming but these times with him paid for it all. They went out, but her favourite thing was to come to his home, then his bed and after a shower and food, they would sit on his couch, her feet up on his lap as he massaged her feet until she made low, purring noises in the back of her throat. He worked from home in a studio building on the grounds of his house, was there most of the time. It had been how they had met, when she came in with a coupon from the local newsletter, blushing at his jokes and staying for a coffee afterwards, when an appointment cancelled on him.
He answered the door in a white t-shirt and faded blue jeans. His smile made her bubble with glee and excitement, a narcotic rush which reduced her senses to the promise of his skin against hers. Erica stepped through the door and he took her in his arms. The height difference meant she fit into his chest, small and safe in the space they created together.
They whispered hello to one another, chuckled at the dichotomy between the feverish need which animated their hands and mouths alongside the delicate greeting. He stopped kissing her and took her to the bedroom, his hand around hers, looking back at her with a dark, primal want which resembled anger or irritation to the uninformed, but she knew the want. Carl was a good man but beneath her lover’s fingers and tongue, his worth drowned in the deluge of sensation which bloomed in her soul like hothouse orchids. He undressed her, sighing with lust as she pressed herself against him.
She guided his hand to her throat, and when his fingers pressed against her arteries whilst his other hand was at play between her legs, she asked, between gritted teeth, permission to come. His casual shake of the head made her whimper and her impending orgasm thrashed and bucked inside her as she asked him again. She asked him but he denied her until she shook with the intensity of it and cried out as she came in juddering, celestial spasms of joy.
Afterwards, he fucked her like a prisoner on a conjugal visit, rough in a way Carl would be horrified by. She stopped asking permission when she could not speak, gushing over his cock where his strokes imposed themselves on the deepest points of sensation inside her. He verged on brutal when he fucked her, all at her behest, and the intensity of it resisted the moral argument she had with herself whilst she was with him.
Erica loved him. She wished she hadn’t, but the time with him was simple and comfortable without being dull. He got things about her without having them explained to him, and she opened to him, let him into parts of herself even Carl hadn’t found. The pleasant inertia grated on her, and when she tried to end things, he had accepted it with a stoic, wounded grace which made her feel awful afterwards.
She was proud of herself for managing six months. If anyone had included not thinking of him, then she had managed nothing close to cutting off contact with him.
The cycle was relentless on her nerves but she clung on, and when she left, part of her stayed with him. She tested him about it, why he wasn’t seeing other women, and she hid the relief when he shrugged his shoulders and said he was happy with her. The unspoken, artificial nature of it hung between them, unspoken except in her moments of anguish. She was sick without him, but she was frightened this too, was an addiction, no matter how solicitous and gentle he was with her.
HIs primacy was magnetic to her, and she had tried so hard to pull away.
Erica stopped at a nearby mall for her alibi and she was grateful for the anonymous mass of people, losing herself for a time amongst them, shopping in a pleasant daze when she wandered into the food court.
It was out of the way here, but not so far as to require a story.
She stood there, looked at the couple holding hands across the table.
Carl had the same idea.
The woman, younger than Erica, with pale green eyes and white blonde hair. She exuded a tanned, excited youth as she looked at Carl with fervour. Her hands were in his, and he stroked the backs of her fingers in slow, hungry strokes. He was clumsy in passion, yet the woman sat across from him was flush with desire and Erica turned away, stunned and relieved at the same time.
His hair looked different, she thought, but then she had not noticed him in a while.
She drove home in a daze, and later, she wondered how there hadn’t been an accident. Tommy would be home soon, she told herself, an hour, no more and she had looked ahead when she walked in the door.
The note on the kitchen table.
Her hands shook with too much feeling to contain. She went upstairs to use the bathroom.His half of the wardrobe was empty and he had left his bank cards and house keys. It was organised with a feminine efficacy which she knew hadn’t come from Carl.
She scratched a small itch on her nose, caught the faint amber warmth of Jon’s skin on her fingers and stopped herself from rushing to wash her hands.
Erica got out her phone. She should have rung her husband, asked for an explanation, even begged him to come back to her, negotiate a desire which had been throttled by anxiety and duty but she did not.
Jon answered the phone by saying her name.
‘I need you.’ she said.
It felt right to admit it inside her home. She told him the rest through her tears, and before Tommy came home, he was on his way.