The man sits across from me in the leather coffee shop chair, tall, lanky, something European about his mouth, the way it curves down and then up at the edges, you know he has an accent. Very dark hair, medium-pale skin, with a bit of scruff around the chin. The right kind of jeans, snug, but not tight. He is wearing plaid, and that’s off-putting. A plaid shirt is casual day default, or else lumberjack. It never works. Plaid sheets maybe. I could sleep on plaid sheets, if they weren’t mine.
My husband is having an affair. Ongoing encounter might be a better word, because it’s not about love. This time, he’s gone every Thursday and Monday night. All night. In the past, it’s been more sporadic. Something’s different this time. It’s not about love, though. We are as together as ever. I think he wants me to acknowledge that I know, that he’s giving all of the evidence I need to confront him with his beliefs versus my beliefs, and yet I don’t. Won’t. He’ll never come out and say it. That’s not his way. But he’s showing me that I’ve got an option here. That he’s being stupid so I’ll say something, do something. But I can’t. Won’t.
He has headphones on, the man across from me, the big ones with the sound-blocking qualities that would make me oblivious enough to sing out loud except the barista would hear me, and the line of people waiting for their preordered coffees, and the people already at tables, unwrapping the waxed paper wrappings of pastry and breakfast muffins. The man is not listening to music—he’s not doing any of the head nodding or swaying, no lip syncing or involuntary air drums.
Tanari says I need to find someone, too. A Tuesday and Wednesday man. Or at least a fling. Or even a one-night stand. A one-night stand would help me see it all more clearly, show me how this marriage was the right one after all. Show me that this is how people make it to the golden anniversary, not by looking the other way, but by experiencing the buffet of sexual partners that are out there. “It’s so Fifties,” Tanari says. “You at home, him doing whatever he pleases.” I remind her I’m not at home. I litigate fair housing law every day. I don’t want to do the same in my marriage.
He’s listening to something intensely, the man is. Concentration lines pucker around his eyes, on his forehead, as if he can see into what he hears. His shoes, white-soled, black-topped, round grommets shining, rest flat-footed on the ground. His toes point inward, slightly inward. This is unusual. Isn’t it unusual? All I know is Dom, whose toes skew outward.
We are a good match, Dom and I. We fit. We like the small city theatre, and the annual month in Hawke’s Bay. The house, with the perfect mesh of his and my styles. On my own, I’d be too spare, too wide open space. He finds the unique pieces, the knickknacks. Without me, he’d be a clutter maven. But together it works. It makes the place look more ours, less House Beautiful.
The man shifts forward, adjusts the laptop on his lap, his knees jutting out into the aisle between us. He sips his coffee, his eyes never wavering from his screen.
It isn’t a question of leaving. It is a contest of sustaining. I had a vision, of us, two old wrinkled gray shortened people, knowing each other, taking care of each other. What did sexual beliefs matter in that scenario? We’d have moved past, we’d have made it through all of that, and we’d still know each other, we’d know perfectly what each other needed, wanted, what would make the old age arthritis and endless appointments bearable. We’d have all the history, all the stuff that a second or third marriage couldn’t have experienced. It’s something we both wanted. The thrill of the new never lasted long.
The man leans into my space. “Hey, would you mind watching my stuff?” He does have an accent. Belgian, maybe. I nod, and he saunters toward the back of the shop. I look at his stuff. A black leather bag. A tag on it for some hip company of undiscernible nature, hip because it replaced a ‘c’ with a ‘k’ in a backslash leaning sans serif font and the shape of the thing resembles a retro luggage tag. Two laptops are visible through the open top of the bag, big heavy laptops with expensive looking ports. The padded headphones are on the wide windowsill and some other electronic piece of equipment, a rectangular box of matte black and plus/minus buttons, a row of knobs running across the top. Something technical, expensive.
I try to finish my documentation. If I do this in the office, I will inevitably take appointments instead. Tyrone will knock and say, “Sorry. I know this is blocked off time. But Ms. Blankety-Blank called. It’s an imminent matter.” Everyone’s needs are important. And Blankety-Blank is grateful and relieved to run over and have me set her on the path to legal relief. This is what I love best about my career, and also what I would do endlessly, draining myself of me. The only way to insist on no interruptions is to be here, in this coffee shop. Tyrone is an option, too, Tanari says. Tanari thinks any man I approach will immediately show me his bed. I wonder, are there men who are the equivalent of me, who are content with one lover? One life-long lover? Never any fantasies of another. Craving the honing of one body to another, revising the patterns that some call predictable, but I call perfection, because those small adjustments, learning someone else’s body over years and the body itself changing over years, become the striving and yearning, the desire. Dom’s back flashes in my mind, the way his torso twists when he’s taking off his t-shirt. The dim light of the salt lamp giving his skin a warmer hue.
The man in plaid returns, and I see a glint of Dom in his dark eyes. He puts on his headphones, reaches for the rectangular electronic box, and plugs in a cord. He looks up and sees me watching. “Portable synthesizer,” he says. I’m confused for a moment, and he reads this in my eyes. He waves his hand over the rectangular box, and I understand. I smile. He smiles back. He has that look, the one that knows I was staring at him for some other reason than wondering about his technical equipment, and he likes what he thinks I was thinking. He shuffles in the leather chair a bit, opens one of the laptops, and taps the trackpad, but now I see how when he’s looking at his screen, he also glances at my shoes, the suede two-tone pumps with the funky wood heel. His face doesn’t register any reaction. He looks back at his screen, but now I see his gaze flit intermittently to my knees, my arms, my hair, my shoes again. He shifts ever so slightly toward me, a leaning in. I turn and look out the window. Tanari might be right.
A woman and two young children, bundled in colorful matching scarves and pompommed hats, walk across the parking lot. She moves with energy, eyes bright in the cold. The door opens behind me, the rush of cold Michigan winter cools my neck. The man across from me looks up, first at my face, full-on, an inquisitive, anticipating look. Blatantly desiring, though not in a grotesque, merely sexual way. In a knowing way. A tingling way. And then he looks up as the woman rounds the corner of the empty leather chair beside me and says hello to him. He stands and embraces her. Kisses her lips in a quick press. They talk about moving to a table, and he takes the younger child in his arms while she goes to the counter with the older one. He packs up his things, murmurs to the child, and the child points to a round table.
Work. This is how I always function, how I dull my senses. Spiral inward. I am engrossed in my work again, when I feel his jeans brush against my legs. He looks at me, apologizes, pushes his laptop case behind his back, and a card drops from between his two fingers onto my keyboard. I keep typing, the business card bouncing with the keys. His name, his number, jostle. He doesn’t turn to look at me again. I push the card to the top of my keyboard where I can watch it while I type.