This story is inspired by my friend Trevor O’Brien. Trevor is a fellow writer and member of the Kava Writer’s Collective (the best critique group in all the world). He is a poet. And I don’t use that word loosely. He is gifted. I truly hope that one of these days you’ll be able to experience his poetry.
Okay…here’s Trevor’s idea…
“Character: A quiet, reserved woman from a small town. The kind that would never cause a fuss and hates being the center of attention.
Setting: A large, Manhattan office.
Conflict: Everyone in the office finds out that she has been having an affair with the Department Manager, who is a married man.”
I got married last week. No one from our families were there. The pastor ran the ceremony in his very small church and our witnesses were the secretary and janitor. I wore my outfit from work. He wore his dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, and slacks. We ate dinner in my small apartment. Just some food we picked up from the Thai restaurant across the street.
I didn’t know what to say to him. He expected us to be intimate. After all, it was only fair. I’d told him that I wouldn’t do that unless we were married. So, he arranged for it. But as I sat across the table from him, I realized that I barely knew him. And that, for some reason, it all seemed very, very wrong.
He insisted. Said that if we didn’t consummate the marriage that he would be forced to find another woman to take my place for the night. I knew that what he said was cruel. That it wasn’t right of him to say that or even to think it. But I was also afraid. I didn’t want to have him leave me the very night we married.
I obeyed. He left quickly afterward.
“See you at the office tomorrow,” he’d said. “And don’t forget, this is just between us. No one else needs to know.”
I stayed in the bed. Dressed under the covers. Turned on the television and watched the glow, not understanding what the people said or what the shapes made on the screen. My eyes closed against the brightness of the television. But I didn’t sleep. Just tried to forget that I’d just given myself to that man. And that he left like he did.
The next morning I saw him at work. He, in his Department Manager’s office. Me, at my administrative assistant’s desk. He wouldn’t acknowledge me. I spun the little gold ring around and around on my finger.
He came over every night that week. Smelling like sweat and beer.
“One of these days, we’ll be together all the time,” he would say before he came to my bed. “It’s just complicated with work.”
“I understand,” I’d lie. “One day it will be perfect.”
“Just be careful of those other women in the office. You can’t be friends with them. They’re vipers.”
And, so, I obeyed my husband. I made no friends. Told no one. I pretended that I understood. But I didn’t understand. Not at all.
One night, he stopped coming over. He didn’t call. Wouldn’t answer his phone. When I saw him at work he ignored me, pretended I wasn’t there. It was like nothing had happened. I was heartbroken. Work went undone. I became nauseous. Anxious. Unable to sleep.
“Abe, may I talk to you for a minute?” I asked him, stepping just inside his office.
“Oh, right, Deborah,” he said. “Come in. Go ahead and shut the door.”
I obeyed. It was all I knew how to do. That’s what I’d watched my mother do. Obey her husband. I obeyed my husband. It was what wives did.
“I’ve missed you.”
“Well, things are busy.”
“Too busy for me?”
“Listen, this thing isn’t working for me.”
I looked at him, wondering what he meant.
Someone knocked on the door. I jumped up and opened it, pushing past the woman who stood in front of me.
“Hey, Geena,” Abe said. His voice was charming, deep, attractive. Like the way he once spoke to me. “Come on in, have yourself a seat.”
He was onto someone new.
I rushed to the bathroom. I heard someone walking behind me. My only hope was that it wasn’t Abe or Geena. The stall door slammed shut behind me and I twisted the lock.
“Hey, are you okay?” Leigh asked. She worked in the office next to Abe’s.
“I’m fine,” I answered.
“You know, he does this to a lot of girls.” She sighed. “I hear everything that goes on in that office. Trust me. I know what the guy is up to.”
“I really can’t talk to you about this.”
“Have it your way. Just know that this isn’t going to end well. It never does.”
She left me alone.
I washed my face. Patted it dry with a towel. Looked at my reflection. Nothing special. That’s what I saw. That and an incredibly stupid girl.
Walking into the office, I noticed the looks. They knew something. Or at least they thought they did. Their faces were down, but their eyes followed me. Watching. Waiting to see what I would do.
So different from when I left the bonnet and dark cotton dress and my mother and father behind. My family had turned their whole body away from me. Never to look at me again. At least that day they were honest about their dismissal of me.
No one in that office had an ounce of truth. All they wanted was to see someone else fail, fall, break. It freed them from being that person.
I barged into Abe’s office. He had his hand on Geena’s knee. He looked up and didn’t move his hand.
“Excuse me, um, Deborah, was it?” he said. “Don’t walk into my office uninvited again.”
“Was it real?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Our wedding. Our marriage. Remember? The one you insisted we consummate.” Fire burned in my gut. “Was it fake?”
“Geena,” he looked at her, pretending to be confused. “We’ll continue this discussion later. Dinner?”
Geena stood up, “I don’t think so.”
“Then close the door behind you.” He stood. “Thanks. Do you always have to ruin everything?”
“It wasn’t a real pastor, was it?”
“He was real. And he has dementia. He doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore. And the secretary and janitor play along so he doesn’t feel bad.”
“It wasn’t real,” I said, slumping in a chair. “I was so stupid.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. We did have fun, right?”
“Not even for a moment. Abe. It was terrible. Why would you go to all that trouble?”
“It’s all about the chase. If you hadn’t played so hard to get it wouldn’t have gotten that far. It was just a game. Come one. You knew that all along.”
I hadn’t known that. I’d grown up watching arranged marriages between people who had never met. I watched them grow in love. That’s what I believed would happen between me and Abe. I’d been gullible, vulnerable, foolish.
“Are you married? To someone else?”
“Don’t act like you didn’t know.”
“But I didn’t.”
“Yup. I’ve got three kids. All girls. And a fat, horrible, ugly wife.”
“You are the most terrible person I’ve ever met.”
“It sure gets me what I want.”
“Do you want to be happy?”
“Sure. Doesn’t everybody?”
“Do you want to destroy your daughters’ lives?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Do you want to be alone?”
“Seriously, Deb. This is stupid.”
“Your wife might be horrible. But I think it’s because of how nasty you are. I’m sure you treat her awfully.”
“That’s not your business.”
“And you’ll never be happy. You’ll always be looking for something better than what you’ve got. And that isn’t happiness.”
He sat at his desk.
“And, Abe, I don’t care if you’re happy. I hope you aren’t. The deepest, most angry part of me hopes that you’re never happy again. Never. But even the angry part of me wants your daughters to have good lives.”
“You don’t know them.”
“I know them better than you’d think.” I leaned forward. “Listen to me. If you don’t stop this, your daughters will end up being just like me. Used and ashamed. They will hate themselves. They’ll think they’re fat and ugly. And they will never, ever feel good enough. Never good enough to keep their father faithful. Never good enough to deserve a good man. They’ll believe that every time they are hit it is their fault. They will hate you for that. And they will bury you with that hate clouding their hearts.”
“Don’t talk to me like that…”
“Shut up. I’m not done.” I swallowed down the bile of anxiety. “You could have a different woman every week. You could be surrounded by people. You might have your wife and daughters. But, believe me, you will always be alone.”
I stood. Turned my back on him and waited. Bowing my head. I slowly opened the door and walked out.
The last thing I saw as I walked out of the office were the eyes of three women. Their look was of gratitude.