Choice by Edward Lee

With a calmness in his voice that is almost soothing, a calmness that collides viciously with the words he is speaking, he tells her that if she want him to stay she will have to get rid of it. And with that ultimatum given he sits back in his chair beside the kitchen table, the fingers of his left hand tap-tapping on the wood, the only indication that he might be feeling any anger, if he is feeling any anger at all, because despite all she has told him, he has displayed no sign of anger, not even raising his voice, nothing bar his fingers tap-tapping on the table top. He simply sits there and waits for her answer, an answer it seems she, sitting across the table from him, her own fingers picking at each other, must give now, no handful of days to consider it, no few hours to make a decision that will last a lifetime. He sits there waiting, his fingers tap-tapping.

Did she expect him to be demonstrably angry, to roar, to punch the wall or throw something, when in the past she has never known him to do any of those things, not even when they’ve argued? She’s the one who shouts, and, on more than one occasion, throws things, while he states his case calmly, firmly, his voice never rising above its normal level. So why is she expecting it from now? And why is she disappointed that he hasn’t delivered on that expectation?

She has just told him she is pregnant and that he is not the father, that she has been having an affair for the past four months, and his response was to stare at her, his face expressionless, for a long moment, before turning away and looking at the kitchen door which is partial open and through which part of the hallway leading to the front door can be seen; for a brief moment she thinks he is considering just standing up and walking out, but then he turns back to her and asks who it is. She tells him it is no one he knows, a man from work, but again he asks who it is, so she tells him, and he nods as though he already knew this, then looks back at the kitchen door, his lips moving soundlessly.

Too long passes like this so she tells him it’s over now and she is sorry, both statements true, the former more so than the latter; she is not as sorry as she should be, or suspects she should be, because being with this other man has made her feel more alive than she has felt in years, which she know sounds like the worse kind of cliche, though it doesn’t make it any less true. Of course she doesn’t say this, knowing there are some things her husband doesn’t need to know, especially things which would only cause him more hurt, if he is hurt, which he shows no sign of being, just as he shows no sign of anger; she wonders if he is in shock, or doesn’t care. Might he be having an affair of his own? No, not him, she knows that. He’s not that kind of person. Just as she would not have been, right up until she was.

He turns to look at her and asks is she leaving him, and in that question she sees a glimmer of hope that her marriage isn’t over, and she is glad because, despite how good the affair made her feel, she doesn’t want her marriage to be over, she doesn’t want to lose her husband of fifteen years; she loves him, she does, as hard as that it to believe, and that is where most, if not all, her sorrow is directed, that she had to risk hurting him by having this affair, and now, because she had to tell him, she has hurt him – surely she has hurt him – yes, she does feel sorry for that. For that. She remembers reading something somewhere about there being different kinds of love, a statement she had found trite and self-serving when she’d first come across it, but now makes sense to her. Yes, there are different kinds of love, the love she has for her husband, and the love she has for herself and the need to reward that love she feels for herself, a reward she couldn’t obtain from her husband, but from another man. They weren’t always compatible, the love of her husband and its attending need to be faithful and her love for herself, its resulting reward being the need to feel something, some pleasure, some fresh breath of air.

They hadn’t had sex for three years. She doesn’t know how it happened, but she knows, however it did happen, that she is partially to blame, because there are two people in this marriage, two minds, two opinions, two voices; somehow, with the two of them paying attention to other aspects of their life, they had gone to having sex once a week to once a fortnight to once a month and then, suddenly three years had passed and…

She isn’t making excuses. She isn’t laying blame where it does not belong. It was she who slept with another man, and continued to sleep with this man over the course of four months, and enjoyed sleeping with him. Yes, she has been the unfaithful one, but if the pleasure she sought had already been at home, then she would not have sought it else where, and she would not have revelled in that pleasure. She will still stand by what she has done. She will not be ashamed or embarrassed. She will not feel guilt, though at the beginning she had felt guilty, sometimes to the point of weeping, but that guilt had eased each time this other man moved inside her, until towards the end of their four months she felt little to no guilt whatsoever.

If she could change anything about what has happened, she would change becoming pregnant, and this conversation that it has led to, or at least she tells herself this, even as she recalls how her stomach seemed to explode with cold water when her husband gave her his ultimatum: him or the baby.

“Do you want me to answer now?” she asks, knowing he does, but wanting to give herself time to think, refusing to acknowledge there isn’t enough time in the world.

He just looks at her impassively, his eyes seemingly lacking their natural blueness. Again she feels disappointed that he is reacting like this, that he isn’t roaring his head off, calling her names. That he isn’t being someone other than who is is. She opens her mouth to say something, but has no idea what she is going to say, so closes it again. This time it is her who looks at the partial open kitchen door, and she fleetingly, yet seriously, considers getting up and walking out.

Her husband or the baby? What else did she expect was going to happen? That she would tell him and he would forgive her and raise the baby as his own? Yes, yes, she did, in a semi-hopeful way, because when they first got married, they both wanted children, but it was discovered that he had a low sperm count. They spent many years trying IVF, spending money they didn’t have, but to no avail. They considered adoption, but neither of them could commit themselves to rising a child that wasn’t theirs, and maybe that was selfish, but that was how both of them felt.

And of course, there is the reason they stopped sleeping together, those years of timetables and tests, the coldness of regimented procreation; all the warmth and pleasures of flesh against flesh had been excised. Foolish to have tried to deny this to herself only moments ago. Just as foolish to wonder why she had denied it.

She shudders inwardly as she recalls one of her first thoughts after discovering she was pregnant. She would sleep with her husband, wait a week or two and tell him she was pregnant. The doctors had said it was possible she could get her pregnant, extremely unlikely, but possible. Thankfully, almost as soon as the thought entered her head, she pushed it away with little effort, knowing, no matter what kind of person she was, she wasn’t that.

She turns back to her husband and sees his eyes still on her, and in their colourless depths she sees a coldness she has never seen before, and realises, at that moment, that he is feeling something: hatred; he has bypassed hurt and anger and landed squarely in hatred, hatred for her and for what she has done with another man.

Michael. Michael was his name, the man from work, the other man. The father of her unborn child.  And… but does that matter now? All that matters is that it happened, and now it is over. She ended it, almost immediately after discovering she was pregnant. Still shaking from what the pregnancy test had confirmed for her, her period two weeks late, she had left the toilets and returned to her office and from there had rang him and asked him to come by as soon as he could.

Five minutes later he came in, a smile on his face, his blue eyes sparkling with delight. She felt her heart move in her chest seeing him and smiled warmly despite everything. He turned the lock on the door, their regular routine, and walked towards her, ready to pull her into him, but she held up her hand and firmly said no.

He stopped, frowning, and before he could ask what was wrong she told him she couldn’t do this anymore, that it was over, her voice sounding cruelly cold to her ears, the voice of someone who cared for no one but themselves.

He seemed to stagger, as though she had hit him a blow, which, she supposed, she had. He asked why and she told him she loved her husband, nothing else, nothing more.

“I thought you loved me?” he said, and he looked all of his twenty-two years, younger even, younger than she herself had looked when she was that age, sixteen years ago; he looked like a teenager with his heart being broken for the very first time, a heartbreak he believed he would never recover from.

She told him no, she didn’t love him, which was and wasn’t true. She had never told him she loved him, had always been careful not to say that, and the few times he had told her he loved her, the words so fresh and earnest on his soft lips, she would shake her head and say “don’t”. She had, once, with two much wine, and a hotel room booked, told him she could fall in love with him, but nothing more than that; it wasn’t her fault if he had taken more meaning from it than she had intended.

Except, she could have fallen in love him, and given enough time she probably, definitively would have. She could imagine a life with him, if she hadn’t been married to a man she loved as well, a man she had a history with, a man she had been with since they met in college eighteen years before, the man that now sat across from her, waiting for an answer she didn’t want to give, because no matter what answer she gave it would be the wrong answer, if not for her husband, then for herself.

And what of the baby? Which answer would cause the less pain for that possible boy, that possible girl?

She feels her heart tighten in her chest as she remembers Michael turning away from her and pulling on the office door, confusion on his face that it wouldn’t open. He pulled on it two more times before remembering he’d locked it, or maybe that had been his way of showing anger, pulling hard at the door, not someone prone to losing his temper, just like her husband; they were both very alike, her husband and Michael, and very different too.

She wonders, not for the first time, what would have happened is she hadn’t become pregnant. Would she still be having her affair, seeing as the only reason she ended it is because of that pregnancy? Yes, probably. And what would happen then? Would she really fall in love with Michael? Would she fall somewhat out of love with her husband? Would she…

Her husband says her name, and there is a tenderness in his voice that makes her believe that he has changed his mind, that it isn’t him or the baby, but his fingers are still tap-tapping and that hatred is still in his eyes, and she knows nothing has changed. She has broken his heart, she has hurt him, and now…

She opens her mouth to speak, yet doesn’t know what she is about to say.

 

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen and Smiths Knoll. He is currently working on a novel. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Lewis Milne, Orson Carroll, Blinded Architect, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

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