A cylindrical lamp spins above my head. It hangs precariously, attached by a thread of black wire. It lights up the spot I sit in, with a muted yellow tone, and is flecked with yellow and brown spots. Something out of a Pottery Barn catalog. It circles my head slowly. One of the lights halos my face. I feel the opposite of innocent just now. My marine has a girlfriend, of course. I have just discovered her photo stowed underneath the bedside table. Amazing what secrets you can find when you are clumsy and drop a pen. I was drawing Dan a picture of a wolf running away from a pigeon. I had just gotten to the eyes, when I dropped the pen, which rolled its way to the photo, as if pointing the way. At first glance, I hoped that this was a cousin, an unmentioned sister, a friend who happens to be married. But the back of the frame is inscribed with a love note from Allison. It’s worse if you know the name of the other victim.
The handwriting is feminine but not girly. It’s the penmanship of a woman. An adult. She is not a naïf. We look to be about the same age. She may be slightly older.
Dan does not know that I know. Instead, he is humming to himself in the bathroom, while he brushes his teeth. I suppose he thinks it’s polite to groom himself for me before he comes to bed. We’ve spent the day walking around Boston, stuffing ourselves with oysters from a paper bag bought at a place by the docks, and kissing each other on street corners. His family and friends, his brother, the house he is staying in, are all too perfect to be true. We’ve just finished dinner and have said our polite goodnights to the rest of the household. These intimacies are worse than if we had slept together.
“Do you want to go to the park tomorrow?” He calls out to me.
“Mmm,” I mumble and stare at the pretty brunette in the photo.
She looks like a good person. Her face is attractive, but no more so than mine. I pride myself on my ability to be objective while studying her photo. She smiles as though someone has caught her in the middle of a laugh and Dan is probably that someone.
“And then I’ll show you where I went to school.” He spits toothpaste into the sink. It reminds me of what just happened in the bedroom and I feel my stomach turn to iron but not before it churns.
“Sure,” I tell him, my voice flat.
He has yet to notice the change. I should think he would feel how cold the room is. I shiver, and run my hands along my arms, now ridden with goosebumps. I stare back at the woman and decide that I’m the luckier of the two of us, and leave her on the bed to repack the suitcase on the floor.
“My brother loves you, by the way. He says you’re hilarious.” He says. He says. My thoughts skip a beat like a broken record.
“Yeah, I’m a real riot,” I say.
Clothes are piled neatly back inside the suitcase, and I snap everything back into place. Order is restored.
His brother. Did he lie to me too, or does he think Allison is out of the picture? I calculate the ‘what ifs’ in my head, and lose count of how many there are. What will it matter if; what will happen or be the result if? My mind is full of one long if, set on repeat. If. If. If. If.
Dan continues to speak. It sounds like prattling to me now.
I sit on the armchair in the corner of the bedroom, coat and purse stacked neatly on my lap, along with folded hands and wait for him to walk out of the bathroom. He struts into the room like a rooster, leading with his pelvis. I roll my eyes at him and wait for him to figure out the next scene.
“So, we should . . . uh.” He stops in his tracks. He is plain to me now.
“Yes?” I ask him.
“Caroline?” He moves forward, sees the photo, and stumbles over his next lines.
Bingo. Lights out.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I decide not to replay the night in my head too much. Of course, in the quiet of my hotel room, lying alone in the bed, on a mattress that is too hard to be called comfortable, it comes back to me.
The excuses disguised flimsily as reasons are not ones that I can digest. There isn’t any substance there. Their relationship has changed, shifted, distance has been put between them. She wants something else. So does he, but they’re afraid to call it quits. They are comfortable with each other. She’s his safe bet; he is hers. I stare at the off-white ceiling and shiver.
“I will not be anyone’s safe bet,” I tell myself in a fierce voice.
“You’re so different from her. You’re so full of life! You’re fun, and you make me laugh. You make me breathe easy. It’s like you’ve lit me up inside. I don’t know how to explain it.”
I scoffed at him when he said these things. They felt like lines at the time, with her photo lying on the spot of the bed where I would have slept.
I shut off my phone with a decisive click of a button. This is when I hate technology. Relationships in the modern age suck. It’s too easy to get sucked back into the bad ones with the danger of texts and emails. This one counts as a bad almost. I count my blessings for only having slept with him once. I shift him off to the side. I tell myself the memory of him will fade away soon enough, because I’m good at cleaning up messes. I send Anne a quick “Not The One” text and let my mind clap hands as if to say “that’s that then.”
“Enough. Enough for now,” I tell myself. But a new thought crosses my path.
Others in my shoes would have stayed the night and ignored the consequences. Some would have found Allison and told her everything. I wonder if my inaction is the right thing to do, or the easiest. I wage a silent battle of morals for the rest of the night. It continues in my sleep. A tiger chases me down an empty street at night. Its eyes glitter like emeralds. They light up the night, like two beams pointed at me as I run the other way. When I wake up the next morning, I can not remember if I escape or am caught.
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