My dinner party is a semi-formal affair for my friends. We’re having a good time remarking upon the sheep cheese and the deals we found on these secondhand dresses and suits, and we pour wine for each other often so we can practice that delicate turning of the wrist, that technique we learned in tastings. That’s what people do when they finish college. We are determined to live elegant lives now. Then it’s Ken, as he spills biscotti crumbs over the table and fumbles a chunk into his coffee, who abruptly remarks, “Your clock’s broken, Lilith,” and his wife whom I don’t know that well but already know well enough, who echoes, “Yeah, Lil, what’s up with that?”
A few of them pick up their glasses of coffee and brandy and wait for my answer. How long has that clock been broken, that’s what they want to know. I explain to them that it is not actually broken. It’s still ticking—hang on, let me pause the record for a moment—see? It is just a problem of the hands. The hands stopped one evening at 6:14. Which evening, I do not know. I confess I have been distracted recently.
“With Jack?” Emma asks, and my friends smile, and there are coos—like little old quilting ladies, all of them—rising up around the table.
I am going to meet Jack tonight later for drinks. They all know this, as they know how unfortunately he couldn’t make it to my dinner party because of work. This is acceptable because Jack and I are only on our third date and he is not required to meet anyone yet. “Barely courting,” that’s what Emma calls it. Ken puts on the last record and people gather their coats to leave and after helping me pile the dishes into a hot full sink, Ken’s wife gives me one of those good-luck squealing hugs that women our age give each other when they’re lost for sincerity, and goes to scoop her husband up and out of my house.
Everyone is gone. The record stops and the needle returns in a plunk. I change into something sexier, a black sheath dress and long silver earrings and pumps. I slick baby oil over my legs. The clock keeps ticking softly in the other room. As I lean over the bathroom sink to touch up my makeup I take inventory on what I’ve told them about Jack. Jack is a twenty-seven-year-old business consultant who is fairly handsome, travels a lot, and who shares my sense of humor. Jack and I both like butter pecan ice cream (date number one). Jack is a good kisser (date number two). But Jack does not actually exist.
The story is that Jack and I met in a coffee shop and that he passed me a napkin with a sweet message and his number. The man whom I am really going to see tonight is named Hugh.
We met at my first photography exhibition over a year ago, in the gallery where I work on Livingston Street. Hugh is an artist, a well-known painter living in New York, and two decades older than me. When we met he was vacationing with his wife, Susan, on their twentieth anniversary. He came into the gallery alone. Later, once our affair began, I learned Susan was merely next door the entire time. His wife’s desire to buy a shawl changed everything, for after fifteen minutes of walking around my exhibition Hugh purchased one photograph, procured my phone number, and placed his ringed hand upon the small of my back and said very low, very intensely, like something out of an old movie, “You are one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in this life.”
I’m on my way tonight to the Haywood Hotel. It is the only landmark that’s considered “charming” in our small Pennsylvania town, and although the accommodations are overpriced and it’s in the middle of the main thoroughfare where we could both be spotted, he refuses to book a room anywhere else. He enjoys calling himself a “tourist” and wants to stay at the oldest place available. “You can be my guide,” he said at first, unclasping my bra. “Show me hidden things.”
He likes the architectural details. There is a history buried in the walls, he says. Wars between lovers and people killing themselves and first-night wedding ecstasies and more human emotion in one room than we could ever know. It inspires him to paint—he paints these skewed visions of kitchens, baths, hallways and bedrooms, he never feels the need to explain why—and he always has materials set up in the suite whenever I arrive. Tonight the odds are in our favor. Even though Hugh was just featured in the Times, no one would recognize him here, in some place twenty minutes outside of Philly. I don’t have to worry about running into my friends. They’re all married and have probably concluded the dinner party a successful evening out, and are now home in matching sweatpants watching movies together or reading in bed. This is their early marital bliss. Each couple has the knot tied two years at most. As much as I want to confide in one of them, at least my best friend Emma, about my own happiness as a mistress and talk as excitedly about my lover as they do about their dates, I can’t. Hugh and I just passed our one-year anniversary. Not that we celebrated it, nor would there be a congratulations from my group. I sit among them as their perpetually single friend.
He called me earlier this week. “I need to see you, Lilith.”
He loves saying my real name. I try to go by Lily Shapiro instead. It’s a graceful yet professional name for a photographer. But he insists on using Lilith. “That name is a force of nature,” he tells me. “Don’t be ashamed of it.”
He arrived this afternoon, which means he already has a bottle of bourbon in his suite and glasses with ice laid out for both of us, no need to go out and be formal. Drinking informally is when we are at our best anyway, one of us with our head in the other’s lap, resting as if from a long day and carrying on about our lives. “So relaxed, so beautiful,” he tells me, and strokes my hair like a child. There is no rule that states I have to pose for him like a work of art, a tableau vivant as I do—and with pleasure—at dinner, over cocktails, sitting together on a bench, waiting for a stoplight to turn. He never explicitly requested it. I just knew it was what he wanted, what he had been searching for, what he had seen exactly when he saw me bent over studying invoices in that gallery. So I ceaselessly keep it up for him. I pose on every hotel bed, lying down and listening to his day and breathing carefully so my chest rises and falls to remind him of an ocean, some space that is ours alone.
I knock on the door. When it opens, the light from the hotel adds golden tones to Hugh’s graying hair and I can see the outline of his body beneath his T-shirt. He has lost weight. His arms are still big and sinewy and there are the usual streaks of paint on hands large enough to engulf my face.
“Hi.” I step into him for a hug, put my arms around his neck. Always a hug first. We’re friends, we say with our bodies, even if that has never been true. I can count three times this past year in which we forgot, for only moments, our glamor of each other. We never talk about it. These bits of weakness occurred in those hours before we were awake, after spending a whole night together instead of an afternoon. No meals to structure around my arrival or departure. No wife, no commissions, no job. In our sleepiness we held hands under the blanket. I rolled into him or he rolled into me and we kissed with mossy teeth and didn’t tense at smells emitting from all over our surfaces. We let our waists balloon out. He held a breast that didn’t even bother to harden in his fingers. We were lazy, enjoying all that domesticity we dipped into for just a second. We fell back to sleep like that. Then eventually we woke and remembered that domesticity was for the birds and while we waited for room service to arrive, Hugh would place pillows under my stomach to raise my ass high in the air and fuck me from behind.
He leads me into the hotel suite. “How is the gallery?”
“Good. We have a new local exhibit. You’d dig some of the pieces.”
“And your boss?”
“He’s the same. You know, spastic. But we’re both excited for this show. It might draw some new clients.”
His wife is a therapist. I know this because I researched every last thing I could about her. Her office is in Brooklyn and she is noted for her work with trauma victims, the practice is as successful as his individual work is. They seem to make a decent power couple, even in New York. But what do I know about power coupling in New York. He gestures for me to sit on the bed and pours us some drinks. In between sips I tell him about some of the new show’s concepts.
“Well,” he says, clinking his glass with mine, “here’s to new art.”
In the beginning of us, Hugh spoke very slowly. He seemed nervous. He took great care in choosing what to reveal about his life to me. I wondered whether he slept with other women during his marriage to Susan. It was apparent he had never stretched out an affair like this one, maybe not even longer than one night. But I never ask about his past. That’s the basic rule. The only woman allowed to be in the room with him is me. Instead, at the time, I studied his mouth as he talked. I wanted to photograph it. He had impeccable hygiene, a wolfish jaw, bright white teeth, a desirable absence of “um’s” and “uh’s” and “you know’s.” His sigh—a hum behind his lips as if I weren’t there—was the most sensual comma, punctuating my adoration with a rush. I sat poised like his student, my ribcage held in. My tongue flickered on edge. As his point unfolded, I ripped out and restitched responses that would be nothing less than brilliant, once he finally paused. And when he did: I debated, I laughed, I contemplated. He smiled approvingly and undressed me while I talked. Our conversations soon loosened up and I found he could talk to me for hours like a teenager. The more commonalities we unearthed, the more excited we grew. Banter turned to jokes, jokes turned to ranting, ranting turned to confessing, and then we didn’t want to talk anymore, we just went at it. Our moans weren’t even cohesive with obscenities.
He pauses again tonight. His responses are short. Latest commissioned work is demanding. Friends are well. Family is busy.
“Tell me more about what’s going on with you,” he says.
“Well,” I start, “you would have been impressed with my dinner party this evening…” I go on and on about the menu, all of its delicate courses and processes—remind me, Hugh, to send you my recipe for fig and chèvre tarts, I twisted them a little—and as I talk, he nods and just stares at a half-washed canvas in the corner.
He interrupts. “Susan’s sick.”
“She went to the doctor recently.” His face is slack, eyes ahead, as if he’s repeating something that has already been told to countless others. “And there were a lot of tests. Turns out she has liver cancer, and it spread to other places.”
“Wow.” This has to be the dumbest response I’ve come up with in the history of our affair. I sip my watered-down bourbon and gather talking points. “I am so sorry, Hugh. What about chemo? Radiation?”
He looks at me. Was this the response he wanted? A kind of concern for his wife? Or did he want something else from me? I can’t tell.
“We’re starting aggressive treatments on Monday. It should last for the next six weeks. Surgery. I’ll be pretty much living in the hospital with her,” he says.
We drink in silence.
“Is this why you needed to see me?” I ask.
There is a pause. “Yes. I needed to see you.” He puts down his glass and reaches up to stroke the back of my neck. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again. At least not during the treatments. I have to help her with this.”
I’m quiet for a minute. What can I do but agree? “Okay.”
“I love her, Lilith.”
I’d rather not fall in love. Falling, you see, connotes an accident: a stumble, a fight against gravity, a rough collapse into another person, scraping against the contours of their bones and then checking for breath, feeling pain, and often leaving nothing behind but chalk outlines of people tragically trying to reach one another. This is a side of Hugh I’ve never seen. Of course a little part of me wants to see him kneel before me and me alone, but not all vulnerable and in love for fuck’s sake. And certainly not weak with love for his wife. What is the purpose of us? To help Hugh escape from that world. Now he has dragged me across a line that neither of us could have predicted would be drawn, at least not this way. Susan. God damn it.
I step back and undress slowly for him. I can’t tell Hugh it is because I’m not ready for him to touch me yet. We enter the bed from opposite sides and take a while with foreplay before anything. The sex is long and intense. After a while I am desperate to come. I just want to feel something. This is going to be the last time, I think, so I try helping with my fingers, but it doesn’t work. I feel him push harder, then pull out to come on top of me. Together we are quiet. I’m usually the one to lazily get out of bed first, saunter into the bathroom to find a towel and a glass of water for us, but this time Hugh does not stay to rest with me. He quickly slides from the sheets and returns in half a minute, towel in hand. When he looks at my face I notice the deep lines around his eyes. Hugh, captured at half a century. Everything slows down. With soft, sweeping motions he wipes himself off my stomach. The same motions my mother used to clean my face whenever I was sick. We sleep and maybe we let ourselves go in the middle of the night and hold each other, but I don’t remember.
The next morning, after returning home to slump on my couch, I look at the clock over the dining room table. The hands still frozen. Why would they have changed in less than 24 hours? Staring at them, staring hard, I mentally will them to inch forward. It is not 6:14. It ticks and ticks but the hands remain still. Hugh is checking out at noon. I go to shower before work at the gallery.
Like my previous suitors, Jack will never ask me out after this third date. I’ll find something wrong with him and we will end the whole thing amicably, and I’ll schedule a condolence night with my girlfriends and sigh, “Well, that’s how the game is played,” and continue the search for an appropriate man.
There are a lot of rules to follow if you become a mistress. The day after my first time with Hugh, I started researching movies and books, anything I could get my hands on that explored this word “mistress,” to understand its talent for arousing me. Always look polished yet sexy. Balance a blend of madonna and whore, keep yourself trimmed down there and rotate your collection of lingerie. Never mention his wife. If you must, never mention her by name. Do not call him. He will call you. Do not detail anywhere in writing the state of your affair lest it return to haunt both of you in court. Do not frequent those places where he and his wife are patrons. Cash only. Make sure she will never find receipts on him. Double-check his coat for your earrings before he leaves. You’re allowed to be emotionally stressed outside of the affair, and you can talk about it, but don’t count on your lover for counsel. He is not your therapist. He will never be your spouse.
Five weeks have passed. Five weeks, and where there had once been letters from Hugh every two days now there is nothing. Bewildered and alone, I pace through my house. I check the computer. I go to work, to coffee dates, and out to the movies with Emma. I open the broken clock, grow scared of all those tiny pieces, and shut it again. I check the computer one more time. Like conversations, in the beginning our correspondence had been polite, too. Very formal and hesitant. But I wrote him about how silly that was. What was the point of a long-distance affair if we weren’t going to talk, really talk? So the frequency of Hugh’s emails increased after only a few dates. And writing to one another was extremely delightful, lengthening our sexual tension by gamely ignoring it. We wrote each other about politics, what we read in the news, philosophy, books, religion, emerging artists, established greats, what we wanted to do with our own work, frustration with our current projects. He gossiped about his friends’ dramas and I returned with juicy bits of my own. We never discussed lovers, whether we had any.
Susan’s position between Hugh and myself was crucial. I’m not grandstanding when I say my photographs were better than anyone else’s here in town, but I was still an amateur artist. And for my age I was not ugly, but not exquisitely pretty. Certainly not like the models they want in front of the camera. I was only twenty-five but there were fine lines setting already into my eyelids, and silver hairs coming in among the black ones. I was not a socialite, not one to go get ‘em and climb ladders, but to accept whatever was put before me with grace and stature. My predictable life was highlighted by occasional trips into Philly to see an opera or a play.
But To Hugh, I was not a mere Lily. I was Lilith. By sole opposition to his wife I was that force of a nature—young, supple, throbbing, a person to be desired, a woman who, for all he knew, burned at the forefront of many men’s minds. The worst thing to happen would be for Hugh to leave Susan. And up until now, I was confident that he never would. What he and I longed for, what we needed was the constant dedication to the affair itself. It has been a creation, an exquisite work of art. There are guidelines to obey and rules to fashion for ourselves. We have built it up, adding brushstrokes to it, holding it in different positions, under different lights. We maintain it like some secret legacy.
Now that bitch is ruining everything. I hate her. Hugh is slowly leaving me, but not because Susan has become greater than myself. She’s ill. That’s it. This frail thing. This was supposed to be my piece of bliss. I ache to see him. Everything feels like it’s falling apart, he is going to forget what he was doing with me, and after Susan gets better, when the cancer goes into remission there might be such a chasm between Hugh and me that we will never return to what we were. Or worse, what if he chooses to be with his wife again because he thinks some higher power has given him a second chance?
Whenever I take my short trips to New York, I tell my friends I am going to visit acquaintances, to build my portfolio, to research for work. If I pay for the train ride out of Philly, Hugh pays for my hotel. Most of the time I traveled to meet him in the middle of the week. We could see each other during the day, some place in Midtown or the Village, while his wife was working with her clients.
Two months since our separation. This time I book everything myself. I dip into my savings for a Midtown hotel. The morning of my departure I quickly dash off an email to Hugh: In NYC for a couple of days. Visiting friends. Staying at the Eastgate. Would love to see you, but I know you have a lot going on right now. Call me and let me know.
It’s around five that evening when the telephone next to the hotel bed rings. I have been checked in, settled and watching the television run for hours.
“It’s Hugh. I’m downstairs. May I come up?”
“Yes, of course.”
I quickly run a brush through my hair, swish some mouthwash and throw on a bathrobe. Hugh always loved it when I straddled him in a bathrobe, allowing him to undo the sash and throw it back just enough to see my skin as we did it.
When I open the door, the Hugh that stands before me is a pathetic sight, bent over from grief. Dark circles under the eyes. No paint on his hands. He steps into me and we hug. I smell laundry detergent but something else, something new, another disinfectant rising up from his skin. His arms wrap around me tightly and squeeze just before he lets me go. I sweep aside for him to come in.
“Did you want me to order us some dinner?” I ask.
“I’m not really hungry. Drinks?”
“Yes.” I pull a bottle of scotch from a paper bag and pick up a bucket. “I’ll go grab some ice. Make yourself comfortable.”
I walk out into the hall and tighten my robe around me. He’s heard those same words from the nurses at waiting lounges, at the insurance desk, in the room where his wife probably now lies resting from all the drugs coursing through her body. Dammit, Hugh, come back to me. Be a man that I actually want. I decide to take control.
When I return, I pour us doubles and we sit across from each other on the king bed, its white sheets a field between us. He drinks it quickly and asks for another. Fifteen minutes later, he’s relaxed and unfolds his body out, propping up several pillows and leaning against the headboard.
He smiles at me “I missed you.”
“I missed you, too.”
“This whole thing is such a mess. I’m sorry.”
“Shhh,” I lean over to him, put my hand on his. “Don’t apologize. This isn’t your fault. We’ve had a great time, haven’t we?”
He smiles again. “Yes, we have.”
I stand up and place my drink on the table. Sliding off the robe, I let it fall into a bunch around my ankles and stand naked in front of him. “I want to take care of you, Hugh. Can I do that?” I get on all fours and crawl across the bed to him. His hand goes up in protest as I start unbuttoning his pants.
“You don’t have to do this, Lilith. It’s a strange time.”
I motion for him to sit up so I can pull off his shirt. Then I smooth down his hair, and say to him, “I want you, Hugh. Now. Can you feel this?” I take his protesting hand and put it between my legs. He rolls over, removes his jeans and boxers and climbs back on top of me. I reach for him.
“Oh. Not ready?”
“Give me a minute.” He continues kissing me, and I stroke him, alternating speed, spitting into my hand. He’s still soft. I turn him over onto his back and inch down until I am at his thighs and put my mouth on him. I hear him sigh, “Lilith,” and now there is a new sound, a choking sound from his throat. I can’t see his face but his body shudders. And then it is rocking. I sit up. Hugh is sobbing, his arm over his face.
“Hey,” I say gently. I reach for that aging, wrinkled hand and bring his arm away from his eyes. I notice his crow’s feet. His cheeks are smeared wet.
“Please don’t touch me,” he says. He sits up and on the edge of the bed with his back to me, heaving sobs. He runs his fingers through his hair over and over, while I pick up my robe from the floor to drape it over his naked body.
Once, when Susan was visiting family in New Hampshire, Hugh and I enjoyed a long weekend together. We got so drunk that instead of returning to my hotel he led me instinctively back to his own front door on the Upper West Side. We stumbled together into the foyer. “Let me give you a tour!” he shouted and threw his arm around me like we were old chums and whooshed me through the neat living room, the kitchen—where we stopped for slices of cheese and bread—and then to the patio where we ate in a drunken, laughing state, half-choking on rye. Then he led me down the hall into the study. “Be right back,” he said, and left me there. I heard him cross the floor to the bathroom and unzip his pants.
The study was a combination of Hugh’s and Susan’s offices. Two oak desks on opposite walls with papers, bills, cups of pens. A laptop rested on an ottoman. On the bookcases were pictures of their life. Hugh and Susan in Southampton. Hugh and Susan on his birthday. Hugh and Susan fishing at a family reunion. I noticed she had brown hair that seemed hard to tame. It was piled on top of her head and flying out in pieces in every picture. When I looked closer I noticed she had green eyes and thick shoulders and curvy arms, dark skin, generous breasts. Hugh’s wife looked very much like an older version of me.
Suddenly Hugh grabbed me from behind—”Surprise!”—and tugged my shirt gently, laughing, and led me down to the master bedroom.
Hugh did not stay overnight at the Eastgate. Shortly after I placed the robe over him, he left, somewhat composed, fully dressed, and without apology.
This morning I leave the hotel with my pack and my camera and head north. It is a Thursday, and the early morning traffic pushes up against me. Everyone is rushing to where they need to be. I don’t know where to go. I’m pushed out into crosswalks and puddles and the people just keep walking. We don’t look each other in the eye. Every time I visit New York I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies, all of their heads down as if shamed. I wonder whether any of the women I pass are on their way to “work,” but are actually going to meet their lovers. How many of us stroll among the rest? And who among them are the ailing wives? The subway doors gasp open and shut. They carry me along to the Upper West Side, where I step off in Hugh’s neighborhood.
I walk up and down the streets, taking my time. Maybe Hugh is around the corner, but something tells me he is downtown in his studio. He always said it felt like more of a home than his apartment. I stop to photograph a stand of roses behind a gate. I meander around to where Hugh lives, stop across the street in front of number 26 and their place a few flights up. Their building has curling marble, chipped edges, deep engraved lettering. Those details which Hugh finds enchanting. I suppose I am here because I don’t really know anyone in the city except him. I long to see what he sees every day when he comes out of his apartment. What makes him tired and restless and pushes him down the highway to another state, into the arms of a young woman? It is a pleasant street, and not too busy but the noise never stops.
That’s when I see Susan. She steps out onto the landing in a light spring coat and a scarf wrapped around her head, but I recognize her face. Everything else about the woman is different from her pictures; she has gone slack and thin except around her hips, as if all the flesh migrated down to the warmest part of her. She takes the steps slowly and doesn’t notice me as she starts walking up the sidewalk. I follow.
We walk several blocks, me keeping an appropriate distance between us, my camera up as if I am scouting subjects. At a light we both wait for the crosswalk. I push my camera into my pack and pull out a paperback. She glances down at the cover with interest, and as the walk sign turns she smiles politely at me and we keep walking. This is the first pair of eyes to meet mine today. I can feel my face growing hot, and suddenly I am afraid so I fall behind again, stopping to look in a few shop windows, but eventually we both arrive in Central Park.
Susan proceeds with determination. If she were younger, the way in which she turns out her toes would be endearing. Her arms always at her sides. One hand clutching a large purse. She does not look down. Susan is heading for a definite spot somewhere in the park. We come to a line of benches, and here Susan stops and I keep walking past her, craning my neck and looking for someone else. A few yards away I stop, turn to pull out my phone and stare at a blank screen in concentration. Hmmm, it appears the someone else I was supposed to meet is running late. It would be best for me to sit here and read a bit. I sit down. Susan has not noticed. Then I pull my pack onto my lap, open my book to some random page and study my lover’s poor wife.
Her thick brown hair is gone. There is only a scarf tightly knotted around her skull. Her neck is a pale, delicate thing stretched like chicken skin down into the hollows above her clavicle. I imagine Hugh kissing her in that spot.
She sits in her coat and stares ahead, it seems, at nothing in particular. I am very still on my bench, careful to turn a page every minute. This is ridiculous. But when I look down at the words, all I see is Susan is sick you are here Hugh is gone. Once in a while someone passes—a runner, a dog-walker—and I notice they greet her with a wave or a nod. “How are you today?” they call out. I cannot hear her answer. Then I realize that Susan has been coming to this same bench, every day at the same time, much longer than she has been sick. She probably sat here, eating a sandwich, while I begged her husband to go harder.
The sun comes through the trees, making them very bright green. Kids create a game to step around the sidewalk’s shadows. Here everything is still rolling by Susan and myself like nothing out of the ordinary. I look down at my book. Maybe she knew something, but she obviously never knew me.
If I stood now and walked over to her and said, “I am not just a girl reading a book,” would she run from me? Probably not. I mean, this is New York. I would run, but Susan has seen much more, been much more, is a woman who is too busy accepting the possibility of death in her mid-fifties to be bothered. And if she asked who I was, what would I say? Who am I? I am the reason why your husband tells you that you look so beautiful in your anniversary shawl. I am the woman who laughed delightedly when your husband pinned me under him, and you sat in this park alone among a thousand other people. I am a magnet far away, the thief of your comfort.
I want to kneel in front of her like Hugh buckled in front of me last night. I want to feel something like remorse, and then break down and weep. I want to beg her to salvage something from me for herself. But I am just a girl reading a book.
When I glance up again from the page, Susan is far away from me, already several yards down the park, swallowed by spring coat and traveling back the way she came.
Two months later, Susan is dead. An announcement is posted on her therapy practice website, which I have checked every day since I saw her in the park. I tried to track any news of her health returning. Thank you Susan for all you did for us is printed across the main page. I click on the link and read her obituary. Hugh wrote it. I read it as though it were his last letter to me, as if we were just writing again about our worlds. He has constructed a portrait out of these details: she really enjoyed gummy bears. She went to double features at Film Forum. She gave her patients little potted plants to care for. She was once a dancer in a small company. This is how Hugh found her, asked her to be his model. All the answers are here. Two columns’ worth. Susan’s mother is still alive, and resides upstate in a home. Susan is survived only by her mother and loving husband.
Turning to my boss, I ask if I can take a couple days off work.
“Okay,” he frowns. “What’s up?”
“A friend of the family died.”
His face softens. “Oh. Sorry to hear that. Were you close to him or her?”
How can I explain that she slept on the right side of the bed? When Hugh and I fucked that night in his apartment, I found her hairs gathered on one pillow. I dozed for a minute with my face turned in the same direction her face must have turned for so many years, away from her husband, gazing toward the bathroom before dropping into another sexless sleep. “Yes,” I say. “She and I were very close.”
After work I go home, pace around. Eventually I lift the antique clock off the wall. Nothing can be done. I buckle it into the back seat of my car and drive across town to the Goodwill store. My parents gave it to me, but would they miss something so irreparable? Neither would I. I walk up to the doors of the Donations bay. They are already locked for the night. I could just leave it here, to be carried inside once morning comes. It’s almost 6:15pm. The hands are in the right positions.
At home, I hang the clock back in its place. “You win.”
Three days off work. I hang out in pajamas. To pass the time I study my portfolios from over the years, finding that I haven’t really improved at all. On the third night, I break my rule and call Hugh. It doesn’t matter now.
I have no idea what I am going to say to him. What can you possibly say when you’re the mistress of a man whose wife—a woman he greeted every morning and said goodnight to for as long as you have been alive—is dead? Is there anything out there I can grab and give to him now? I am not Lilith anymore. Susan had been Lilith, the force of nature. She had been the thing that drove both of us all along. I listen to the ring four times. The answering machine picks up. Damn it. I only concentrated on saying hello. Susan’s voice informs me sweetly that they’re not home and to please leave a short message. The beep sounds.
“Hi,” I say. “It’s me.”
I take a deep breath. “I’m really sorry. For everything, I guess. I am sure she was an amazing woman. I won’t call you again. I’m sorry for your lo—”
The answering machine cuts off. I don’t dial back. I put down the phone and walk through my house, pausing in each doorway, looking around at what little is mine. In the dining room the clock ticks softly, then loudly, then softly again, and I wonder where these oscillations come from, deep inside the body. I pull out one of the dining chairs and sit down. Only here am I a guest of honor. I lift my feet and cross them upon an empty table.
Catherine Campbell‘s work appears in PANK Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, matchbook and other journals, and is forthcoming in Drunken Boat. She resides in Asheville, NC.