The confusion of cell phone alarms and plug-in clocks battling each other with beeps and MIDI ringtones woke them five hours later. She kicked off the duvet, jumping up to make coffee.
While he showered, she cooked an egg for herself, and pulled out a box of cereal out for him, then poured a glass of orange juice for herself. They traded places in the bathroom as soon as he walked out. When he entered the kitchen, he realized that she hadn’t set out the bowl, spoon, or milk. Yesterday she kissed him, last night they’d had sex, and today, she forgot to leave his food on the counter. Just when he thought he was beginning to read her again, she would forget things that had been routine for the past several years that even though they were mundane, foregoing them seemed like sacrilege. It was childish, he knew, to expect such service to continue forever, but it seemed that she had been purposeful—defiant, even—in doing something so incompletely that was for him.
He could only remember one other morning when she had forgotten breakfast. They were late for work and had run from their tiny apartment down the stairs because they realized it was nearly eight, and though they didn’t know much about the area, they knew the difference between the printed and the actual train schedule: what should take an hour would always take more. Having smoothly pressed pants took precedence over a healthy first meal of the day. To remedy the omission, as they were speed walking to the bus stop that drove them to the train, she insisted that he wait just a minute while she exchanged a handful of quarters for a cup of coffee poured into a Styrofoam cup and a huge, sticky glazed doughnut to a nearby vendor.
Grinning, she hustled to keep up with him and balanced the pastry atop the cup. They barely caught the bus but were lucky to find a seat open. She took the window seat, jamming her tote between her legs and the wall to free her hands for distributing the elements. The edible lid kept most of the coffee from sloshing out, but the coffee soaked the underside of the doughnut so much that by the time they could eat it, it had half-dissolved. Giving him their cup to hold, she broke their bread in haste, dividing it equally as possible. While he sipped the burnt and already chilling coffee, she licked the glaze from her fingers. They took turns passing the coffee between them, both commenting on how bad it was, yet she insisted it was “romantic” to eat breakfast on the bus. He agreed with her, and reached into her space, grabbing for the remaining soggy bit of doughnut that she held in her right hand. Immediately, she popped it in her mouth and swallowed it, trying to keep from snorting it while she laughed at her victory and their play.
It was such a nice memory. It was the better than the kiss from the previous morning. He’d thought yesterday should have taken care of everything, but breaking things off with Chelsea hadn’t done nearly what he thought it might.
At work, he didn’t get much done. During the hours he spent at his desk, he watched the clock and scribbled meandering notes in his agenda book with a low-level poesy about rattling rays of light in opaque, gray office buildings that asked where to bend and burn. Until it was time to go home, he recorded long paragraphs describing the stale smell of expensive perfumes mingling with the greased humidity generated by cooked bags of microwave popcorn brought to work by the same women who crammed the office refrigerator full of quilted designer lunch bags.
In the car, he thought about how when you tell a woman “It’s over,” she’d like to think that it’s not. (He wished he could write this down, but he couldn’t, so he began to mumble).
She wants to think you’re fighting against your reckless id or churning sexual desires with all that you have just to stick to your word when you repeat, “Really, it’s over.”
It will never cross her mind that you hate yourself for being such a low-life because to her, your wife is the “other woman.” If she weren’t, then she couldn’t adore you. She would see you for the scum that you are and herself as the Jezebel. She wouldn’t have been able to construct the story that you were just some guy who wanted an ego boost because his wife wasn’t giving him “what he really needs.”
Yet, Chelsea had never been a temptress. She was cute but nothing exciting or scandalous. Her desk was three rows over, and she’d been assigned to his project last year as the internal auditor. So, she’d started out as a bad guy, which was a joke then. Now she would hate him because he had made it true.
The traffic light turned from yellow to red and he had to press firmly on the breaks to avoid slamming into the hunter green Honda in front of him. His folders stacked on the passenger seat flew forward onto the floor, but he didn’t swear.
He’d have a lot of time to sort them because he was submitting his notice of resignation Monday. Between drafting phrases about the atmospheric pressure of the air inside his firm’s building earlier that day, he’d finalized his letter. He’d decided that he’d even risk his reputation by being honest with his boss if any questions had been raised.
Now he could admit it to anyone because it had just happened when he let himself get carried away. He wasn’t careful, and he fell into the doldrums of your mid-thirties when you work and have nothing but a nice apartment and a slowly growing 401k to show for yourself. He couldn’t totally discredit himself. There had been some minor accomplishments along the way: receiving two promotions, getting ahead on decade-old school loans, and improving the household credit score.
Then Chelsea happened—until he realized she couldn’t keep happening. He had been scheduling her into a longer workday for the past ten months, often meeting her at the gym and going to her place after that. She had never asked if his wife knew, and over time that progressively wore at his nerves. Why didn’t she ask? How could she not care about her?
The line of cars lurched forward as the light flashed “go” and he remembered how Chelsea looked when he told her yesterday. Her eyes kept blinking yellow between her lashes. “Careful,” they seemed to say.
But he had already run reds with her. He’d skipped the caution signs long ago. So here he was running past another to break it off, receiving threats of reported sexual harassment and misappropriated company funds, and—
The crunch of two fenders smashing into an accident in the left-hand lane jolted him. He thought of the night before and that unreal popping of her hip when they were together in bed. She reassured him that she was fine, that they could keep going, but he was afraid.
He thought he might break her.
This is a scene from of “The Fault,” a short fiction about infidelity I wrote five years ago. I’m just now posting it in segments. Check out the beginning, second scene, a previous installment, one about cracking bones, and failing to make up for reference.