So many things suddenly made sense. How could I have been so blind? How could my husband have let me stumble in the dark, let me abase myself, let me wallow and flagellate in shame? The arc of Stephanie's questions, of her emotions, of her actions - it all fit together now. And Rick, the noble facade, deigning to accept the obscene perversity of his spouse, playing the innocent. The priest in the confessional, listening to the prurient sins of his flock while the alter boy kneels between his legs, little mouth stuffed full of God's Forgiveness.
That things now made sense didn't make them any easier to accept.
"How long, Rick?"
He was sitting on the bed. I was pacing, wrapped in a towel, the pattern of dripped water from my hair tracing a figure eight on the floor. The symbol of infinity. Perhaps I'd be walking in this loop forever.
"Months. Since shortly after we started going to the club. Carol... I..."
I held up my hand. "My turn, Rick. Just answer." He swallowed. Nodded. "How far?"
"Mostly what you saw in the shower."
"Don't fuck with me. Don't you dare, right now. Don't say words like mostly. You've been oh so clever, with your words."
"Oral. A little. Recently."
"Fuck. You on her."
"Her on you."
I went into the bathroom and closed the door. Dried myself. Put on a robe. Went back to the bedroom and started to pack a bag.
"Carol. Please. Can I..."
"No. You can't. Not right now. I'm too ashamed of myself to listen to you. Ashamed and humiliated by the one person who I thought... who I knew... would never do that to me. The person who would always protect me, even from myself. You let me think I was alone when the one thing I needed more than anything was to not be alone. You let me feel afraid, degenerate, even as you said it was all okay. You let yourself be better than me. Even though you weren't. I thought we were equals, Rick. That's the deepest cut. That you thought it was okay to play the saint, to let me imagine you as my redeemer, when in fact your were just leading me... where? Where were you leading me, Rick? Leading our family? What were you imagining? I can't even..."
"I was never leading. I was as much along for the ride as you."
"Do you really expect me to believe that? If that was true, why the hiding? Why the silence? You must have told Stephanie to hide too. You conspired against me, you and she. When you should have been talking to me, telling me the truth, instead you fucked me into silence. I remember that day, when it was an odd time to fuck. When in my shame, you shut me up with your cock. You said it was an act of acceptance. I guess you were just horny from hearing about me and Caroline. A fucking lie. Literally."
He was quiet. I stopped packing. "This doesn't make sense," I said.
"I know, Carol. It's not... like me."
"No, Rick. What doesn't make sense is for me to leave the house. That won't work. There's too much to do here. The girls have school. What makes sense is for you to leave the house."
"Carol. No. You can't mean that."
"I can and I do. I need time to think, about all of this. I'm not going to be able to do that with you here. And this thing you said... It's not like me. People sometimes do things that aren't like them. I see it in court. Impulsive acts. Crimes of passion. Those don't go on for months, Rick. They happen and then they're over. So I have to say, I think this must be just exactly like you. It's just a part of you that somehow I never knew. Get out. Now."
I left. There wasn't another choice.
When I finally was alone and had time to think, I couldn't blame Carol in the least. She hadn't condemned me for what I'd done with Stephanie. She's not a hypocrite. It was the deception that violated our trust. That's the sacred part of a marriage, of any relationship. For us, it was also equality, a matching need. We subjugated ourselves to our dependence on each other. Somehow I'd lost that.
Perhaps it was how I saw Carol in Stephanie. I wallowed in a memory, let myself revisit twelve-year-old me, hoped to evoke the intensity of that first blush of love. I craved the indelible searing heat that brands its mark deep into your flesh at the start of things. I got hard the first time I kissed ten-year-old Carol. It changed me forever. The echo of it became compelling and needful as I looked forward to coming years. It was juvenile of me. I regressed to adolescence, with all the selfish, unthinking stupidity that implies.
Mommy was sitting on the bed. I only heard some of what happened but I knew it was bad. She was crying.
"Where's Daddy?" I asked.
"You would ask that, wouldn't you?"
Her voice was mean. I felt like I was going to throw up. I started to go back to my room.
I looked back from the door.
"It's not your fault. I'm not... angry with you."
"Ya you are. I can tell."
"Okay. I guess I am. I don't want to be."
"Mommy. I'm s-sorry. I didn't... I mean... Daddy said you wouldn't understand. Not yet. But he said that you would, sometime. I thought that was now. But I guess not."
"Daddy's going to be away for a while."
"Why?" My knees were shaking. This time I really did ruin everything.
"Because he hid from me. And you did."
"So now he's hiding?"
"Maybe I'm hiding."
"You said when we're angry we don't hide. We talk."
She laughed in a weird way. "That's easy to say, Stephanie. I'm sorry that I made that sound easy. Sometimes it's not easy."
"When's he coming back?"
"I don't know. Stephanie... sweetheart..." Her voice got softer. "Did he... make you?"
"Did he make you... do those things?"
I guess I looked at her like she was crazy. "Daddy loves me. I love him. I wanted to."
"But did he... tell you?"
"No. I kinda told him."
She looked like she didn't understand. "When we went to that room at the pool. I was shy and scared and you told me I was being a baby so finally I went there with Daddy and when we took off our stuff... I dunno. It felt nice. I looked at him twice. He looked at me twice."
She covered her face in her hands. I went to my room and rolled up in a ball like one of those bugs you find under a rock and I cried til I couldn't anymore.
Alone in my hotel room, I replayed my relationship with Carol. How we'd built our deep, seamless trust over the years. The memories made it all the more obvious how badly I'd just shit all over it. How I'd forgotten how we'd always shared everything.
One afternoon in high school I found her in her bedroom, crying uncontrollably. I honestly thought that perhaps one of her parents had died. Instead, she just handed me the book she'd been reading. Persuasion by Jane Austen.
"It's just... the most... beautiful thing..." she managed to sob. I had to stop myself from laughing. But as with many of our moments, that one was a blessing. I read the book, and eventually most of Austen's work. We read them together. Her words taught me how to love openly, to better understand what it means to be devoted, and how bad it is to be a scoundrel.
Lots of movies have been made of Austen's novels. Some are lovely, others horrible saccharine schmaltz. The Jane Austen Book Club is one that we saw together. There's a line in that movie that always stuck with me, as it seems to go to the core of so many of her plots.
"Let us never underestimate the power of a well-written letter."
Writing is words that stay. Persistent words can sometimes bridge the seemingly impossible gulf that separates true lovers from their destined bliss. Darcy to Elizabeth. Wentworth to Anne. I was just desperate enough to believe that such a thing was possible.
So, I started to write. To type, I should say. This would need some editing, as I intended to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Whatever the consequences, Carol would know that I wasn't hiding anything anymore.
This is how I began:
My dearest Carol,
This is an explanation, not an excuse. I have no excuse, only abject regret at my impossibly selfish abuse of your trust. I want you to know what happened, and what I was thinking, and what I was feeling. So here it is, all of it.
'Family Changing Room.' I kept reading the sign on the door over and over. It had a stick-figure icon of a tall person holding the hands of two small people, one on each side.
We were taking a tour of our new local health club. It's a beautiful place, with two pools, indoor and out, and every modern exercise facility you can imagine. I was with my wife, and our two daughters. Stephanie was eight and three-quarters (never to be confused with just eight) and Caroline was six. They were very excited about the possibility of having a pool to go to regularly...
I didn't want to read the letter. What a stupid prank, thinking he could make up to me with words. He'd fooled me with words, careful clever words.
But words are such a part of us. I had to read the first word, and the second. And as the others followed, I saw that they weren't careful words. They felt real. I recognized every word we said, every twist and turn, every feeling. I couldn't stop until the last.
And then I couldn't stop writing. I poured myself out onto the page, telling my story, echoing the truth. And I went to my daughters, and I held them, and we talked. I didn't hide. They told me their parts of the story and they fit and they made Rick's words more real and I helped to write them down. And we sent them back, all of our words.
"Will this bring Daddy back?" asked Caroline. I couldn't answer.
The words helped me to understand. There was clarity, for what it was worth. But still I knew not how I felt, or what would happen.
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