by Ada Carter
There are people in life we ponder, imagine, expect; shells waiting to be filled with flesh, eyes, lips, and fingers. Your mentor. Your child. Your first boss. Your mother-in-law. Your best friend. Their forms are uncertain but their arrival is anticipated.
At 18, I had dated but never really cared for the people I’d been with. Shortly before leaving for college, I drew a picture in my sketchbook: the man I imagined meeting. He was tall. A little older. I pictured him lying beside me on crisp white bed sheets, a breeze tousling his golden hair as he slept, an arm slung around my waist.
In real life he was tall (6’1”) and older (by fifteen years). His hair was golden brown and he did keep white sheets on his bed–the bed that he shared with his wife. He was a graduate student at my university, teaching a class I signed up for on a whim. “Who’s taken the prerequisites?” he asked the first day. I sat in the back; a freshman in bell-bottom yoga pants and sneakers, breathless from running across the quad. I was among a few who didn’t raise their hands. He let us stay.
As children, we believe we are allowed a certain number of mistakes; three strikes before we’re banished to time-out, always a second chance before our toys are taken away. As adults, we learn that no number of transgressions is sanctioned; we simply transgress, hoping to be granted forgiveness later. I didn’t know he was married until I did and by then my thoughts were consumed by him in a way that was unfamiliar to me. When he talked I had the feeling that constellations were being drawn, his sentences creating lines between abstract ideas that I had intuited but never set to words. As a girl who rarely made bad decisions–a straight A student, varsity soccer player at fourteen, always the designated driver, a perennial lifeguard–I told myself I was allowed one mistake. Looking back, my reasoning is how I know I was still a child.
May came and the school year ended. We kept in touch, eventually deciding to catch up over the flimsy pretext of coffee. When the day arrived, he had to work late; we ended up eating dumplings in his living room. “Where’s your wife?” I asked after I had perhaps sat a bit too close to him on the couch, after he asked me what I wanted from him, after I realized that I had never wanted the evening to end any other way. “She’s away,” he said. “I don’t want to think about her anymore tonight.”
We lived four blocks from each other, I in undergraduate housing, him in a grad school apartment. With the ever-looming threat of his wife and infant son nearby we carved our own spaces, retreated to these secret dens. We began to call our dates “fox dates,” so named for the fox’s words in The Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” We saw each other every day and messaged constantly while he worked, while I attended classes mere blocks away. We bonded over our similar upbringings–hippie parents who had given us unusual names and fed us tinctures instead of medicine when we were sick. We read and edited each other’s stories, danced in our underwear, drank whiskey in the dark corners of jazz clubs. While his wife worked we rollerbladed in the park, his son in a stroller. “I’ve never met anyone like you,” he’d say, his mouth warm on my throat. We lay in my bed for hours every Thursday night, talking and laughing and venturing to the kitchen for snacks, where my roommates (tall, quiet girls who must have known or thought they knew) did homework in their pajamas, eyes down, occasionally saying hello. We began using the word love. We were shimmering, essential, invisible.
In April, over a year after we first met, his wife and son went to the sea and we fucked over and over on his big bed with the white sheets. We went out to dinner and ordered only appetizers, a tableful of them–octopus and seaweed salad, sushi and more of it. We slept in, woke up, and fucked again; dreamily, me riding him in his white t-shirt, the fabric slipping over my head and pooling around my wrists, a breeze rasping in through the open windows. We showered and he combed his wife’s conditioner through my hair, shucked pieces of fruit and made juice for breakfast: French toast piled high with melted chocolate and sliced strawberries, honey and jam and syrup and slivered nuts. We outran our moral transgressions with gustatory decadence. Nothing was too rich, too much, too exorbitant. “Good-bye, my love,” he said when I left to go home at the end of the day, a few hours before his wife’s train was due back. I walked the four blocks, moving more and more slowly until I was nearly doubled over, dizzy, a veil of purple spots sliding over the street in front of me. When I got to my apartment I ran to the bathroom and threw everything up.
I had been raised to prize autonomy, to take pride in my ability to need no one. I was not used to partnership, not accustomed to being cared for without seeing myself as weak. He brought me tea and Ibuprofen when I was sick, massaged me when I couldn’t sleep, rented an Airbnb where we both dressed up to eat the fancy shrimp risotto he spent hours cooking for my birthday. He was a husband, a father; he was used to being a caretaker. But I was new to this. “What are you doing?” I asked one night as he handed me Chapstick, saying he had bought it after noticing my lip bleeding earlier in the day. “I’m trying to take care of you!” He was shocked by my reaction. “Just take the damn Chapstick.” I took it while he looked at me, shaking his head. “You never ask me for anything,” he said. Of course not, I thought. I already want you. It would be too dangerous to need you, as well.
By May I was falling apart. First it was an invisible rash that seemed to cover my entire body. I stayed in bed missing classes, a bucket of ice on my nightstand, an industrial fan pointed towards my bed, windows open to the cold spring air. Shortly after the itching quieted, I hurt my back; then it was my insomnia that worsened, followed by a series of mishaps with sharp objects (a wine glass that broke in my hand, a knife that slipped while I was cutting bagels for brunch). During a morning walk I showed him the flap of skin that had been separated from my finger by a shard of glass. “You’re falling apart,” he moaned. “It’s all my fault.” Looking back, I see that most of it was his fault. The responsibility I felt never took into account the inherently uneven power dynamic between a 19-year-old and a 34-year-old, between a student and her former teacher. Still, I shielded him from the extent of my guilt. He wasn’t there for the mornings I walked down to the river, the frost freezing my tears, ragged at the fact that I was tearing a family apart, that I would never have all of him, that my daily life had become cobwebbed with lies, that I was sure I was too dark inside to deserve an uncomplicated love.
Little kids learn that all true love stories are tragic. I thought this was mine, that the suffering made it real. And it was mine and it was real, but its tragedy was both its force and its undoing. “If it’s ever more bad than good, promise you’ll tell me,” he said one winter evening as we lay in bed, his fingers tracing circles over my stomach. How to tell him that this line was one I traversed many times each day, the border growing more faint each time I crossed it? I didn’t have words to convey my feelings when I prepared to leave his house and he asked me to do one last “dummy check,” scouring the rooms for dropped bobby pins (mine were black, his wife’s a coppery brown), underwear, anything she might find and recognize as foreign. I didn’t tell him that my friends, oblivious to my situation, wondered why I was never interested in any of the boys I met. When I sat up in his bed halfway through the night, slick with sweat, I didn’t share the nightmare from which I’d awakened: his wife coming home early to find me curled in her bed, her husband’s body forming a crescent around my own.
In moments of clarity I would tell him we should end it. And for a time we would. We said goodbye, we cried, we tried to stay away; but he always ended up wooing me back. “You’re relentless,” I’d tell him. “I can’t help it,” he’d say. “No one will ever love you as much as me. It’s not possible.” He saw only the passion and never the cruelty that colored his words, yet he was naming one of my largest fears, one of the reasons I always returned. His son grew from a baby into a toddler, smiling when he saw me approaching, holding out his arms to be picked up. I moved, he moved, I moved again. His wife remained oblivious (“But she must know,” I’d say. “No,” he’d answer. “I’m careful.”) We ate, always we ate.
Suddenly it was the end of my third year of college. We were at the park one day, playing with his son on the playground when he bent over to kiss me. “Don’t touch me in public,” I said, always surprised by how unconcerned he was at the prospect of being discovered. “You should be more careful.” “You worry enough for both of us,” he said. Behind him, his wife materialized and waved, seeing her husband speaking to a former student. I had only met her twice, before anything had happened between her husband and me. She was a shapeshifter; often tall, occasionally short, blonde sometimes, brown-haired others, at times blindingly beautiful, just as often long in the teeth and beaky. While I could always recognize her, I could never describe her.
As she waited to cross the street I walked away quickly, sure that she had caught us, that I would never see him again. Back home, I went for a run, took a shower, and then lay on my floor, trying not to panic. When three silent hours had passed I finally texted him: “Everything OK?” “Yes,” he replied after a few minutes. “All good here.” Every time we escaped discovery only proved him right, made my fear seem more frivolous. Why was I fighting to protect his marriage when he seemed so reticent to do so himself? While we often daydreamed of our life together, the small Lower East Side apartment we’d share, the books we’d co-write and the art we’d make, I didn’t want to set his life aflame because deep down I knew I would never be able to follow through. I wouldn’t be able to fill a wife-sized hole in his life, wasn’t ready to become a stepmom at twenty, to settle down with a man who was capable of splitting himself into so many pieces.
Our affair ended three years after it began, a ragged undoing, the end of a thread shredded and torn, left dangling. He had moved to the other side of the country by then, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for me to devour in the form of Instagram photos; washed-out images of him and his son in front of their rented U-Haul, the moon rising over a dusky highway. “I can’t stay here and not see you,” he’d written in what he’d intended to be his last letter to me. “So I’m removing myself.” It was useless. His wife discovered the few texts he’d hoarded shortly after they uprooted themselves. I imagined the light of his phone illuminating her skin as she read our undestroyed messages, her anger seeping into the lace of her dress. They were at her best friend’s wedding, I later learned. About to leave for the ceremony.
Three weeks later he texted me to say he had decided to stay and try to make it work. I had spent the interval at my childhood home, barely sleeping, weeding the garden at 3 a.m., mosquito bites lining my collarbones, earth decorating my fingernails. When I realized we had finally reached the end I sobbed loudly for three hours and then stopped. All was quiet. The waves inside me had finally stopped crashing.
Upstairs in the attic was my old sketchbook, in it the drawing I’d made over four years ago. The lines were simple, more like suggestions when I traced them. Yet the man I thought I conjured had been shaded and stippled when he had come to me; a live person with warm skin and real flaws. I had drawn him but had not thought to pen his story, had not been aware of the baggage stored beneath the bed I outlined. I knew if I climbed up to the attic I could find my sketchbook, rip out the drawing, crumple it and place it in the trash. Yet it would be an empty ode. The story that accompanied it was unwritten, invisible, like everything else we carry.
Ada Carter is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn.