They both claim happy marriages. They meet in innocent circumstances surrounded by others. A class.
He teaches the class. In an instant, she loves it. All he has to do is open his mouth. He speaks a-mile-a-minute: an idea, another idea, a branching idea—his ideas spring and dangle and bounce and ping. He thinks as fast as she. She recognizes her own style of brain. He mirrors her crazy connectings. He dazzles the rest of the class, but none of them clicks with him in the same way. She feels it, and he feels it. In short order, their ideas hook up, dance jigs, spelunk, and ski black-diamond runs.
When she leaves that first session, she raves to her husband about the content. She interrupts herself to dash to the computer, explaining over her shoulder, “I said I’d email him that article about deep-ocean bivalves,” and her husband chuckles. He knows his wife’s brain. He enjoys her exhilaration. It lasts beyond the weeks of the course.
The wife and the instructor become friends in a business-y way. They work projects together. They study the products of the other—critique, inspire, conspire. Their friendship proves useful to each. Both advance their plans. He knows more higher-ups in the field; she has influential friends with deep pockets. They mix and trade.
Their spouses feel no jealousy. Nor should they. All is amicable, professional.
One day, she visits his office to pick up his latest endeavor for a once-over. Ordinarily, they rendezvous at a café, but today he cannot leave his desk.
She sneaks up on him, rests her hand on his shoulder. They have never touched before. His shoulder resembles all other shoulders in the world except that it belongs to him and holds his pulse. For a fraction of a second, she thus holds his heart in her hand. He startles, sees her expression, and laughs.
She remains standing over him. He must complete a quick task before he can give her his full attention and turns back to his desk. She studies its surface … his computer, a pad of legal-lined yellow paper, a couple of ballpoints, a box of tissue, a glass of water—half-full, (she grins as she thinks this because he would say, “Half glass,” to avoid philosophical positions), and a framed photograph of him and his wife standing mid-belly in a tropical sea—enormous happiness on their faces. He’s handsome. Could this be the first time she notices? Or has he become handsome as she has grown to know him? It helps that he looks naked in the photograph. His chest has a fair amount of hair. More than my husband’s. She believes her friend should always wear that happiness.
He claps his hands. “Done. Here.” He passes her a stack of papers which she slides into her satchel.
“Have time for a cup of coffee?” she asks.
“You know I don’t. I wish.”
He smiles good-bye, but she says, “Where was that taken?”
Life proceeds as before, except. Except, when she looks over his work, she pictures him bobbing in the salty water, pictures him clothing-free, imagines herself swimming with him in the photo rather than his wife. Her thoughts drift into the sea and bob along. Does he imagine me in a bathing suit? Does he think of her at all, in this way? She hesitates, even in the silence of her own brain, to name what way, as if her own mind will transform into a dangerous place, if she does. Naming the way introduces the way or furthers the way. Bobbing around it keeps her faithful and safe.
They meet next at their regular coffee shop. Ever since the day of the shoulder touch, they have exchanged some form of tactile greeting—a finger or two on an arm, a quick whole-body nudge. Both recognize the change.
The meeting moves at pace, as usual. She passes him a lengthy proposal. He reads, and she jots notes on another topic.
When he looks up, mid-page, his eyes pierce hers. “You’ve never fired a gun.” It is a statement, not a question. He turns back to read.
She studies his profile. Even when engaged in this quiet activity he exudes an impression of high energy. He reins in some zippy power or, perhaps, it is about the photograph again—bobbing in the warm sea, his bare chest accepting the warmth of the sun, his broad smile matching it, glow for glow. She forgets about his wife bobbing in the frame beside him, revealing almost as much of her skin.
They wrap up. Each leaves with grand ideas, additions to ideas, smart plans, and modifications of plans. Both turn away to their vehicles when she turns back.
“Do you think …?”
He spins to face her again.
“Do you think you could show me how to shoot a gun?”
A week later they meet at the firing range. Many times she has passed this building, smack in the middle of town, without realizing such a thing existed in her city.
For each of them, he chooses a gun and the accoutrements. She stands back from the counter as if proximity to weapons acts like radiation, closer to the source, more likely to kill or be killed. More likely to become another type of person than the person she has been all her life.
Not all her life. As a child on her grandparents’ farm, she heard the occasional shot to scare deer out of the vegetable garden. What if the deer died? What happened to its body? Once, her favorite elderly man, a family friend on whom she had a teenage crush, took her to his rifle club for lunch. She sat on a boulder to watch him shoot clay pigeons—hard discs painted the black and yellow of street tarmac and dividing lines, rather than the soft and chatoyant grays of the cooing creatures. For souvenirs she brought home a couple of clay pigeons and cherishes them still. Then, she was held up at gun-point, and her nightmares starred grotesque stocking-masked boys, never their guns, yet she harbored a fresh dread of the objects.
Handguns, pistols, rifles—she has never known the difference between them although she adores reading murder mysteries and political thrillers which feature various arms. Her husband teases her when she mixes them up. He had “rifle practice” at summer camp and has visited a shooting range. Why didn’t she ask him for lessons? She would tell him, because you make fun of me.
She wants to understand a gun. Her fingers have never touched one. She imagines that it hurts to shoot, with the gun pushing against her, trying to fly from her grasp. She wants the coldness of the metal to become warm in her hands.
Uncertain, ready to dash, she stands behind her friend a few paces.
She comes forward, takes the proffered earmuffs, and plops them on. His hands blur as they approach her face. He adjusts her ear pieces, smiles, and gives her a thumb’s up. Her return smile matches his only because it is him. She slips the earmuffs off and hooks them over her arm.
The surroundings take over again. She looks at a case of guns to her right, hears the bangs from the next room—loud even while muffled by walls and passages—and smells carbon, —or is it sulfur?—something metallic and sharp.
But that smile, still on his face, leads her mind to the warm sea, to this scenario away from her husband. Her husband knows only that his wife has gone to meet her one-time teacher. Always, she and her husband have encouraged the other to own an individual life, complete with friendships and expeditions. But her husband cannot know how her mind travels to the warm sea where her friend stands waist-high and so looks naked—is naked—and how his warm-water happiness has her imagine kissing him, joining him in the warm sea, linking in the salt and nakedness.
Her friend stretches his arm to her, not to lead her into a blue-green sea, but to give her a hunk of dense steel and plastic. “See how this one feels.”
Toward him and the gun she stretches her arm but snatches it back before touching either and finds herself gasping for air, a drowning person. Where’s the women’s room? He must not see her cry. She runs past him down the fluorescent-lit hallway and crashes open the door. She is a puny shrimp escaping a tentacled octopus.
What was she thinking? If she touches the gun, she will sleep with this man, her friend, and he will no longer be a friend, and his wife will no longer be a friend, and her husband—
Under her hot grip, the porcelain basin lends some of its cool. She thinks she thinks too much. Too much about possibility. Not enough about the present and simply experiencing her life.
Outside the washroom her friend calls her name. “Are you ok?”
Am I ok? Am I ruining marriages? Am I over-analyzing each step and breath? Is she a victim of her imagination? She wants to touch a gun, for pity’s sake. A gun is not adultery. Before confronting her friend, she calms her blotchy red face with a wet paper towel. She allows the moisture to sit on her skin for the evaporative effects. Ready, she marches to the door, inhales to her toes, swings the door wide, and smacks, chest-to-chest, into her friend.
This is not the warm sea. But it is warm. His body is close beside hers. And her face is damp.
“You’ve been crying,” he accuses.
“Your face is all wet.” He touches her cheek with a finger. “We don’t have to do this.” He puts his arms around her.
“Don’t.” Now the tears come.
“There’s no requirement about firing a gun. I won’t think any less of you because guns scare you.” He pulls her head against his chest and strokes her hair as if she were a child who had run to him with a scraped knee.
She leans into him. She wants to ask, Do you ever think about me, in the way that I think about you, swimming in salt water, free of clothing, free of spouses, free and in the sea? Are you thinking of it now with me pressed against you? Are you only comforting a friend who is gun-shy? If she lets her arms encircle him now, it will not be, Thanks for caring about me. It will be, Where do we go from here? It will be, Kiss me first, so I know what is true. Her arms hang at her sides.
“I want to do it,” she says into his shirt.
After the lesson the two hover in the parking lot before returning home.
“Do you feel tainted?” he asks.
“Not yet, but I lied about where I was going today.”
He laughs. “So did I. Why did we have to lie?”
“Were we at the café?”
She takes a step closer to him. “Did we get a lot done?”
“More than usual.” He quits grinning, takes a step closer.
“I just want to know if you think about …” She stops.
He drops a kiss on an innocuous spot, her forehead or her cheek, and they take the last step into each other’s arms and hang on to the hug knowing that if they let go, they will see into the eyes of the other, and the warm salt water will be all around them.
Pamela Hobart Carter used to be a teacher who wrote on the side. Now she is a writer who teaches on the side. Seattle has been her home for more than half her life.