the affair

She couldn’t remember her father ever looking at her before in the same way he had when she told him. And she thought, this is the way we live now, this is being an adult child. You can’t just always spill your guts when you want relief.

But it was too late—the words had already dropped into the world. It hadn’t sounded so bad, she thought, when she said it to herself.

“I know daddy, I’ve done a horrible thing to him.”

Her father shook his head and stood up to leave the room, turning back only to say, “you’ve done a horrible thing to yourself.”

She had been living in his extremely comfortable apartment on the Upper West Side for nearly three weeks now. She hadn’t even seen her apartment since he’d picked up in his Jeep on a Saturday afternoon in November when he roommates had gone to meet their friends to watch the Lehigh/Lafayette football game. She left them a note.

She had been happy with him, rejoicing in being worshipped and well fed. It was only when he met her at the Port Authority on her way back from visiting her folks that her feelings about their situation began to change. Even when her father was looking at her like she’d stabbed him in the front, she was still feeling indignant about the whole thing. When Dan greeted her, taking her duffel bag from her instantly, she indulged the delusion that the people in the terminal thought he was a father whose beloved daughter had come home from college for the weekend. And then he kissed her forcefully and she had to swallow hard to defend herself from the muted expression of revulsion of a woman standing nearby. She suddenly noticed that this was becoming a familiar experience: actually seeing people change their minds about her. That was the moment—the first time she ever resented Dan, the first time a woman in nylon pants and a start jacket pitied her.

I am not some lost girl, she reminded herself as they walked toward the subway. And Dan is not that man. Dan was not indelicate. But she was twenty-two! There was nothing even wrong with them being together. Nevertheless, Dan was not distinguished from her other lovers only by his age. He didn’t need the things that they needed, he didn’t expect the things that she believed all men expect. Maybe it was because he had been married, but he certainly didn’t expect sex all the time. This she wanted to run back through the terminal and scream in the face of the nylon woman, but instead, later that night, she simply rolled over when he crawled toward her in bed.

Her head was extremely heavy when she woke up and she called in sick to work. He stayed around and made her breakfast, which was pretty standard. His heart, she knew, was chained to a sadness so expansive that he would do almost anything to keep her around and save him from being alone with it. He would kiss her or not kiss her, depending on her mood, he would feed her (dining in or out), he would make love to her the way he must have wanted to do to his dying wife. The last of these attempts to please was satisfying or heartbreaking, depending on factors as unsympathetic as the weather or the direction of the wind. When it was rainy, she took some vindictive pleasure in how close to the skin his feelings were during sex. When it was nighttime, she wasn’t responsible to reality, he wasn’t a man who’d lost his wife to cancer, who she’d met when she was working for his wife’s doctor. At night she would crawl on top of him and lovingly draw letters on his chest, trying to make him guess them in the dark, a game she had played with others before him almost as a rule. The rule in this quiet household was the indulgence of all things that interested or amused her, and that she rewarded easily at night. When his windowed bedroom was full of afternoon light, however, she couldn’t bare to touch him and would take a bath while he busied himself by changing the sheets.

He brought eggs and the paper in to her, and leaned down to kiss her on the head before leaving, a gesture which felt sickening akin to something her own father would have done, if he didn’t hate because she was fucking a forty-year-old.

“Dan,” she drew a deep breath. “I’m beginning to feel disgusting.” He sat down on the bed next to her. She was lying flat on her back on the dark blue sheets, staring straight up at the ceiling. “You know—half your neighbors think I’m your niece and half of them think I’m a hooker.” She saw his mouth tighten. She was beginning to hate his endless tolerance of her, how he didn’t just stand up and scream like a normal person, “I’m not that fucking old.” He could have said a million things, could have drawn a flow chart about they were both adults, how they were lucky to have met each other after a tragedy, how she had been the one who said her favorite movie was “Harold and Maude.” How she had said she wasn’t beholden to other people’s standards. Instead he looked at her with earnest, even interested tolerance, like he felt sure the tantrum would pass.

So she kept talking. “I feel like, so…sad.” Suddenly she was overcome by a wave of emotion and was over on her stomach, crying into the pillow. Anger surprised her—how much had she missed since they’d been together? She felt that she had robbed herself of an unforgettable afternoon of watching football with people her age, and going to bars where she didn’t know anyone and waiting to see if anyone talked to her, and sleeping in her bed, her very own bed, and totally alone. She wanted her parents back, wanted to be able to cry to them about this mistake. All this time, she had been hiding their relationship because she thought of how insensitive they were being to the memory of Rita, who had been her patient and her friend too. But it wasn’t that at all that made her hate to see him crawling over her while warm light from the window danced upon their every move and sway. It was her—she hated to see herself in bright light at that moment, giving herself to man whom she didn’t love.

It hadn’t always been like that. She had been tricked. When they first started to talk, while Rita was in with the doctor, their friendship had been sincere and uncomplicated. One day, the doctor had asked her to tell Dan how long Rita had to live. She called him, and haltingly read from her doctor’s note the devastating prognosis. Rita was living on borrowed time as it was, they all knew, but saying so was quite a different thing. “I just didn’t think this day would come,” he said quietly. It was a gift, she had begun to see, to give a little bit of yourself to someone like that, without hope of returned affection.

But she had gone and ruined that. The realization of her own immaturity invaded her now. She had needed to be loved back if she was going to give anything at all, it seemed. At the time, she had thought it was just talking on the phone. She knew he needed a distraction, needed to pretend for five minutes that his life wasn’t collapsing into hell. And so she thought, there was nothing wrong with flirting a little, because she cared for him and she knew—or indulged the idea that he needed it. It had been easy to feel righteous, but that was over now.

How she got from there to being made breakfast on the upper west side she did not care to fully examine. Regardless, now that she had figured it out, she knew she needed to be gone fast. It broke her heart a little bit, and as she climbed on top of him for the first time since the first time they had made love during the day, she regretted the chasm between them honestly, not because someone was judging her for it. The day that they had cried together on the phone, she had really felt what she could only describe as an affinity. She had actually been jealous of a woman with cancer that day, because she got to be loved by him. But it wasn’t that, she saw now, and as his expression of pain dissolved—was submerged by an expression of pleasure, she knew that she no longer wanted to give herself up to lead a life that had already been decided. She resisted the thought, but it came crawling back to her, sinking into her like her dread at afternoon sex with him had been. She defended herself from it by relinquishing her conscious mind to the act of fucking him one last time, one for the road and to make up for potentially ruining his life more. But as she rolled over, warm and tired, the old man came creeping back to her; and that, she knew, was what she had done to herself.

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