Read an Excerpt
Let me start by explaining.
I know you might see this as incendiary, malicious, even creepy. Call it what you will. But believe me, nothing is further from the truth. The fact is I’ve been to see a therapist, just as you advised me. So thoughtful of you to think of it. “I know you think it’s mumbo jumbo, so did I, but believe me you’ll see the benefits,” you urged me in your most concerned voice right after York Way Friday when you were still in full guilt mode. And how right you were. I’m seeing the benefits already, I really am. Anyway, she told me—incidentally her name is Helen Bunion, can you believe that? And she tilts her head to the side when I talk, like a little sparrow. I think it’s supposed to let me know I have her complete undivided attention—she told me that getting it all “out there” would be a vital part of my recovery process.
That’s exactly how she said it: “a vital part of your recovery process.” So what can I do? I don’t want to impede my recovery process, and Helen Bunion really is so very concerned about my welfare, so out there it shall get!
Now, I’m aware you will worry about the risk of other people reading this and it all becoming public, and believe me if I can get this out there without risking exposure and all the problems that will bring, of course I will do it. I have only your best interests at heart. You know that. But I’m sure you understand, having experienced the benefits of therapy yourself, that one has to be totally honest (no, what’s that word they use instead these days? “Transparent.” Totally transparent) no matter how painful. So that’s what I shall be. As part of my recovery process. I can feel it working already. Thank you so much for suggesting it.
Helen Bunion—she wants me to call her Helen, and you can quite understand why, but I find it so difficult. It’s like calling a teacher by her first name, quite wrong somehow—has told me I should be journaling my emotions.
Did you know that was a verb now? “To journal”? It’s one of those funny made-up verbs that really ought to remain nouns, like “to impact.” Helen used that one too, funnily enough. She said you’d “impacted catastrophically” on my life. “Catastrophically” is a very strong word, don’t you think? Still, you’d imagine a trained therapist would know what they were talking about, wouldn’t you, so I’ll have to assume she has some basis.
So now I’m to journal my emotions. This too will be a fundamental part of my recovery process, or so I’m led to believe. I’m actually quite looking forward to it. Since you’ve been gone, I’ve missed having someone to talk to. Remember how we used to dissect every last detail of our lives in those interminable emails we pinged back and forth between ourselves all day long? “Our relationship would never have got off the ground if we’d had ‘proper’ jobs,” you often said, making the phrase “proper jobs” sound like something black and slimy you’d found in your salad. And you were of course right. Fifty, seventy, a hundred emails a day, only possible because we both spend so much time online, sitting solitarily in front of computer screens for hours at a stretch—you at the swanky Fitzrovia offices of the record company where you were both boss and star producer, or else in your small but perfectly formed study converted from the box room at the top of your detached, pale pink St. John’s Wood villa—(I know you’ve always maintained you like the view over the gardens and the rooftops, but that room, little more than a jumped-up cupboard, always seemed such a perverse choice when you could have had the run of the house. “Sad fuck in a box” you used to head your emails); me, largely staring into space in my partitioned cubbyhole in my shabby, three-bed terrace.
“Musings of a sad fuck in a box.” The message would ping into my inbox. That heading would go back and forth as the thread grew longer—“musings of a sad fuck in a box no. 99” or I’d change it to “musings of an invisible woman in a cubbyhole.” Longer and longer, more and more messages, cataloguing the minutiae of our lives. Every incident in my day was jealously hoarded to be given to you later in an email as a gift. Locking myself out while putting out the rubbish! Buying a Saturday Guardian in Tesco only to find someone had already swiped the Guide section! Only now when there is no one to give them to, and no one who would want them anyway, do I realize how worthless these mundanities were all along.
Who else would be interested in the disastrous meals I make for the kids (yes, still stuck on fajitas I’m afraid—how amusing you always found my two-dish culinary repertoire) or the fact that the grumpy old man who came to read the gas meter told me off for having so many boxes and bags cluttering the cupboard under the stairs? “You’re putting me at risk,” he told me. Isn’t that hysterical? Putting him at risk.
I suppose I could tell these things to Helen Bunion and she would tilt her birdie head at me and listen intently and nod a bit and go “mmmm” in an encouraging and eminently empathetic way, but it wouldn’t be quite the same. And not a very efficient use of £75 an hour! I must say it was very good of you to make me feel there was value in my nonsense. I wonder what you do with all that free time you must have now you no longer have to read it.
This journaling is a marvelous thing. Really, I don’t know where I’d be without it. It’s making me see that honesty, sorry—transparency—really is the key. I feel lighter already. Of course, you were always the big advocate of honesty. “I feel like telling Susan everything,” you’d declare impetuously. “I don’t want this to be a hidden thing. That’s not the way I feel about you. I want the whole world to know about ‘us.’” The truth would set us free, you always said. And yet, in the end when I suggested (okay, begged, I’ll admit, is probably more strictly accurate) that we come completely clean and let your wife and my “partner” (was there ever a more mealymouthed term?) make up their own minds based on all the facts, the truth was suddenly something else, some destructive force that Susan and Daniel needed protecting from. Such a good handle you have on all those subtle nuances. Left to my own devices I’d never really understand the difference.
* * *
Sian called in again today. She does that a lot these days. I think she’s trying to catch me out, trying to catch me not coping.
“I feel so responsible,” was her constant refrain after York Way Friday. “I colluded in your affair. I was an enabler.”
She actually used that word as well. Enabler. When did we all become so fluent in therapy-speak, I wonder?
Still, she had a point I suppose. Where would we have been without Sian acting as an alibi while I swept off into the night to meet you, or joining us for dinner and pretending not to notice as the two of us held hands under the table?
“She’s getting a vicarious thrill out of this,” you used to tell me, and undoubtedly there was an element of truth in that.
You never could really see the point of Sian, could you? In a sense you are right. She’s the one college friend I have who, long past the point where I outgrew the rest, has somehow managed to remain stuck onto my life like a stray Post-it note clinging to the back of a suit jacket. Until the affair started we had precious few points of connection left, she and I. I’ve often said that Sian wears her long-term single status like an aggressive T-shirt slogan, still insisting that hers is a lifestyle choice. Remember your TV producer friend’s dinner party that you took the two of us to, where she flirted with all the men and regaled the rest of us with lurid tales of twenty-five-year-olds she has slept with (funny how they are always “gorgeous,” these young lovers, though nobody ever seems to meet any of them), then ended up slumped in a beanbag and had to be deposited home in a taxi? Happy to collude with anything that challenged the prevailing Couple Mafia, as she calls it, she was glad at first to enable our affair. That’s why, in spite of her oft-declared affection for Daniel (“we get each other completely,” she once told you. Do you remember that? How scathing you were?) she encouraged us along, you and I, swept up in the breathless illusion of romance with its reassuring elevation of passion over partnership.
“If it’s any consolation, Sally, he had me fooled as well,” she told me today, shaking her head sadly. “I was totally deceived by him. I feel let down.”
Does that surprise you, Clive, the indirect effect of your betrayal? The way even my best friend feels let down by proxy?
To her credit, Sian has been through a lot over the past few months—scraped me off the floor more than once, if that’s not too hackneyed an analogy. (Imagine me a bit like congealing fat on the kitchen linoleum, the kind of thing you’d have to dig at vigorously with a sharp knife.) Sian first reacted to news of the York Way Friday bombshell with stunned disbelief. “He couldn’t have...,” “surely he can’t have...,” “I can’t believe he has....” But that soon passed into anger. “How could he have...,” “how dare he have....” She feels her faith in human nature, never terribly robust, has been severely tested. She feels misled.
“You’ll get over him soon,” she told me today. “You’ll see him for what he is and then, pffff, the scales will fall from your eyes.”
Pffff. As easy as that.
I told her I couldn’t wait. And then, because it would make her happy and because I wanted it to be true, I told her it was starting to happen already. “I’m really making progress,” I said.
And of course I am making progress. Really, I am. Some days I go for long minutes without thinking about you at all.
Sian looked pleased when I told her the thing about the progress.
“I have to be honest, I’ve been worried about you,” she told me. “You haven’t been yourself recently.”
I didn’t bother telling her that myself was the very last person I’d want to be.
Sian was still here when Tilly and Jamie came home from school.
Do you know, more and more, I find myself surprised each day when they burst in through the door? Does that sound awful? It’s like as soon as my children go out in the mornings, and I’m left here on my own, they cease to exist, and when they come back in the afternoon, I have to relearn them all over again. Does everyone feel like that? Well, you’d know, I suppose, as you’ve been through it all before. I miss asking your advice on things like that.
Jamie was very keen to tell me that Mr. Henshaw was still off with an undisclosed mystery ailment. He seemed to think I should know all about Mr. Henshaw, so I nodded fervently and hoped nothing more would be required.
Tilly gave me one of those looks. Do all girls do them, I wonder? Those withering looks that make you feel like you’ve just done something utterly, hopelessly stupid? I expect your Emily spared you those. She’s such a Daddy’s girl, isn’t she? She saves them for the rest of us.
“I don’t know why you bother talking to Mum about that stuff,” Tilly told Jamie. “She hasn’t got a clue what you’re talking about.”
“Yes she does!” Jamie’s face turned a little red. “I told her about it yesterday.”
“Go on then.” Tilly was looking straight at me, thirteen-year-old eyes fixed unflinchingly on mine. “Tell us who Mr. Henshaw is?”
Helen Bunion talked to me once about engaging with the children and I tried to remember what she said. I knew it had something to do with distracting them by answering their question with a question. Or maybe that’s what you’re definitely not supposed to do. I have to admit I must have looked a bit vacant, standing there trying to work out whether to distract or not distract, because Sian, who tends to treat children like none-too-bright delivery men who require precise instructions and firm handling, broke in:
“Your mum’s not been feeling too good recently.”
Two young sets of eyes fixed on me with sudden interest.
“What’s wrong with her then?” It struck me as a little bit bizarre that Tilly was talking about me as if I wasn’t even there. But part of me was also relieved. If I wasn’t being directly addressed, I couldn’t be expected to answer.
“She looks all right to me.”
Jamie wasn’t so sure.
“Her eyes do look sort of smaller, like they’ve been shrunk.”
“I’m not sleeping well, that’s all,” I told them. That’s an appropriate motherly response, isn’t it? To try to diminish your own problems so as not to worry your children. (So often these days I have to ask myself what’s appropriate and what isn’t. It’s as if I’m understudying the role of mother for the first time, without any real vocation for playing it.)
Jamie came and gave me a hug, one eye on Sian looking for approval. Tilly stayed where she was, twisting a strand of hair slowly around her finger.
“You must have a guilty conscience,” she said.
Sian shot me a meaningful look. That word “guilty” of course eliciting Pavlovian response. But it’s quite clear to me Tilly was just being provocative. And the truth is I don’t feel guilty. Not about any of it. I’m sure I ought to, but I actually don’t. “Guilt is so plebeian,” you used to say dismissively. You always thought of it as a wasted emotion. And of course you were right. So clever of you to classify emotions like that—according to their usefulness. I must start doing the same, I really must. Cutting out the emotional chaff must make your inner life so much more efficient. You must have the Volkswagen of inner lives, Clive. I’ve got to hand it to you.
You know, I can forgive the fact I begged you to warn me in advance if you were dumping me and you still let me turn up at that restaurant on York Way Friday with a jaunty impatience and un-washed hair and only my second-best jeans. I can forgive the way you told me it was over before I’d even taken off my coat and then somehow expected we’d find a way of filling the next three tortuous hours, me with my arm still halfway in my sleeve. I can forgive that awful, excruciating, pain-ridden lunch while the waitress hovered uncertainly around the uneaten food, a smile stretching her face as if it might snap, and I tried not to meet anyone’s eye. I can even forgive you asking for a receipt (even good-byes it seems are tax deductible). But what I can’t forgive is the way you scurried off so gratefully when we got outside and I told you to go. You were halfway down York Way, your laptop bag bouncing insistently against your back, before I realized you really were going to leave me there crying in the rain.
Silleeeee Salleeeee, you used to write in your emails.
* * *
Now, before you say anything, I know you’re cross with me. I got your email last night and I’m doing my absolute best to understand how you feel. This journaling is really improving my understanding skills. I think you’d be pleased. “Please try to understand just a little,” you pleaded shortly before you left me crying on York Way Friday. “Just try to see things from my point of view.” I think I might just be starting to get the hang of it now, this empathizing thing, this seeing things from other people’s points of view. It has a lot to recommend it.
So now I’m asking you to see this from my perspective just a little. Show a little empathy. You must have picked up a lot of that from your own therapist. Goodness knows you’ve had enough sessions. Mind you, you always did like to hear yourself talk. I remember you coming back from that first meeting with the therapist so pleased with yourself. “I had her completely wrong-footed,” you crowed. “She had no idea what to make of me. I didn’t fit into any of her neat little boxes, you see?” But still, you’d think something would have rubbed off from all those sessions, some sort of self-awareness. So I hope you’ll try to understand.
There I was last night and I started thinking about Susan and wondering how she was. I know Susan and I haven’t exactly been best friends—that Aussie accent can get in the way rather, don’t you think, softened though it undoubtedly is by nearly three decades in the UK. More like close acquaintances. But I always liked her. Sometimes I used to think I liked her more than you did. “I don’t want Susan to end up lonely,” I’d say magnanimously. “She doesn’t deserve it.” Or “How can we build our happiness on Susan’s misery?”
You’d always make a pained face when I talked like that. “I feel just awful about Susan,” you’d say (those were the words you always used to describe your guilt about her—“awful,” “dreadful,” “wretched”). “But when two people are as much in love as we are, surely we have a duty to be together, to be happy?” And anyway, “Susan will be okay,” you’d always say. She was so very capable, so terribly resourceful. You made her sound like a library.
Now I have to admit that word “bitch” in last night’s email did hurt. Do you know, I had to break off from reading that email and actually look up other emails from the past, cheerier ones, like the one in which you’d said you would kill anyone who ever hurt me? “I know that sounds naff but that’s how you make me feel,” you’d written. “It’s something very primeval.”
Primeval. What an interesting choice of words. You know, now I come to think about it, that’s kind of how I feel a lot of the time at the moment. Primeval.
You know, the interesting thing is that subconsciously I believe I was actually hoping the you who wrote the first email would protect me from the you who wrote the second. Isn’t that ridiculous? I should probably save that up and tell it to Helen at the next session. She’s really big on the subconscious. It’d be like taking an apple to the teacher.
Anyway, last night I was thinking about Susan. I do that quite a lot since you painted such a vivid picture of your life together. It’s been so useful because now I can picture what she’s doing at any time of the day. It makes me feel closer to her somehow. I know that after dinner, the two of you tend to slope off together to the second floor of your lovely St. John’s Wood house where you have a huge duck-egg-blue sitting room with French windows leading out onto a private roof terrace. Not that I’ve seen it for myself, of course, but you described it so well I almost feel that I’ve been there. There you lounge on the vast designer daybed with Susan’s ancient, flatulent dachshund and read the papers and watch the telly and comment on the things you’ve seen or read.
“Just chitty chat really,” you’d assured me. “Nothing like the range and depth of the things you and I talk about.”
So last night, I was just a teeny bit at a loose end. These evenings are so long, don’t you find? That yawning gap between dinner and oblivion? And I started imagining Susan and you relaxing among the plump, velvet cushions. In my head I’d already followed you through your usual routine. I knew that you’d eat in your gleaming double-height glass-roofed kitchen, sitting around the blond wood square table where Daniel and I enjoyed several dinner parties—so strange to think of it now. You’d probably have eaten in the company of your son Liam who I never got to meet and one of his gorgeous, big-toothed, shiny-haired Sloaney girlfriends with their impossibly long legs. After you’d done the cleaning up—your way of showing appreciation for whatever culinary delights Susan had brought home from her up-market catering firm (successful businesswoman, former model, wife, mother, so very, very capable)—the two of you would have made your way upstairs.
And suddenly this idea came to me to call Susan. Don’t laugh but I’ve always thought the two of us would be closer if circumstances were different. Sometimes I’ve allowed myself to imagine dropping in for coffee on Susan’s days off, and sitting chatting over the kitchen table while you sit working at your computer in your top-floor office. Maybe the three of us could go off and get a bite of lunch a little later on.
So I called Susan’s number. “Hello stranger,” she said, and I imagined her meeting your mildly quizzical gaze and mouthing the word “Sally” before lying back on the cushions so she didn’t see how your mouth froze into an O shape, or your fingers shook as they gripped the edges of the Times.
I didn’t even know what I was planning to say to her until I actually heard her voice. That unfortunate Down Under accent gives her a rather no-nonsense type of voice, doesn’t it, to match her tall, athletic frame, like I imagine a PE mistress might have. “Take a deep breath and run a couple of times around the quad and we’ll soon have you feeling tip top,” is the kind of thing a voice like that might say. Susan probably wouldn’t have much time for journaling. “Go out and buy yourself a nice dress, or take yourself off to Marrakech for the weekend,” she’d probably say. “Much better than sitting in a darkened room wallowing in your own misery.”
I remember once, very early on when we hadn’t known the two of you long. We were all out somewhere and Susan had been talking about pensions and how she’d be entitled to a big chunk of yours, no matter what. “You have to protect yourself, you know,” she’d said. “If Clive and I ever divorced I’d take him to the cleaners.” You’d laughed along with everyone else, even though one sensed you’d heard this speech a hundred times before. I wonder if maybe being taken to the cleaners was something that flashed quickly through your mind when you heard me on the phone last night, saw Susan’s mouth stretch soundlessly into the shapes that make Sal-leeeee. I do hope it didn’t cause you too much anxiety. Worry is such a futile emotion, Helen always says. I don’t bother telling her that futility is one of my specialist subjects.
How did it feel, I wonder, lolling on that designer daybed, listening to your wife chat away to your mistress? Oops, I mean ex-mistress of course. I can’t imagine it was terribly comfortable, although I’m sure you carried it off with your usual insouciance. I expect you were wondering what it was I was saying every time there was a silence (which, let’s face it, isn’t that often when having a conversation with Susan, although I did my best to hold my own). I expect your heart was rather painfully hammering, despite those warnings your doctor gave you to keep stress to a minimum. (That was one of the reasons you gave me for ending it, do you remember? That all the stress of your double life was taking its toll on your health? You even rolled up your sleeve to show me the little raised patch of stress-induced eczema in the crook of your arm. “I must start putting myself first,” you said without even a flicker of irony.)
I must say, Susan was very friendly on the phone, very voluble, as if I’d caught her at a loose end and she was glad of the interruption. She wanted to know all about how I’d been.
“It’s such a long time since we last got together with you and Daniel,” she said warmly. “You must both come to our house for dinner one night.”
I could imagine the look on your face. I’d have paid good money to see it, I really would.
“I would love that,” I told her, truthfully. “But in the meantime why don’t we go out together, just the two of us for a girlie night out?”
“Good idea. Men are so boring, aren’t they? I don’t know about Daniel, but Clive’s such a grumpy old bastard.”
“At least we’ll be able to have a proper chat,” said Susan.
An hour and a half later your email popped up. It had that “sent from my iPhone” tag along the bottom and I imagined you barricaded in your master bath, running the cold tap in the sink to cover the tapping of the keyboard.
I must say, you sounded terribly out of sorts in that email (which, incidentally, contained more typos than I’ve ever seen in such a short message—don’t iPhones have a spell check function?). I can, of course, see why that phone conversation with Susan might have bothered you. Believe me, I’m not as insensitive as you seem to think. But I still think “bitch” was a little strong.
© 2011 Tamar Cohen