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Published: Fri Oct 15 1999
Eva LundsagerUnder Constant Still (detail), 2017–2021, oil on canvas
The Serial Lover

This one, the one with James now, her name is Rita. I never knew James liked those Latin American women (or wherever she’s from). Even though I heard James say her name into the hall phone—the phone under the beveled mirror his parents gave us for our wedding—I didn’t put together that she was Latin American. She could be Spanish. Or it could be that the salsa music and the rum are making me think she’s Spanish.

James sees me and his face goes flat.

“I’m sorry, Marion,” he says to me. “I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

James kisses me on the cheek. He’s been smoking cigars.

“Barbara decided she didn’t want to see a movie,” I tell him. “So this place popped into my mind. I didn’t know you were going to be here, though. Isn’t that remarkable?”

A smile comes across James’s thin lips.

“It is remarkable,” he says.

“Well, I’m going,” I say, hopping off the tall chair at the bar.

“Will you be up later?” James asks.

“I’m pretty tired,” I admit.

“Okay,” James says and turns back toward his table, back toward Rita, who I think now might be Cuban.

A glass breaks behind the bar and everyone looks. It feels like everyone is looking at me, the same feeling I had when James first brought me here, ten years ago. We strolled through the low door together, arm in arm. James wore a new suit borrowed from H.T. Crouch & Sons, the clothier he started working for right out of high school. He still buys all his suits through them. He’s their number one salesman.

James had a friend, Patricia somebody, who worked in the women’s department at Sak’s Fifth Avenue and she fit me with a beautiful strapless silk dress. When I reached for my purse this Patricia somebody shook her head.

“This dress was lost in shipping,” she said.

It was like that. James knows a lot of women and these women, most of whom I only know by name, are friendly and giving as sisters if we meet. Even Patricia touched me in a familiar way and I figured out later what I didn’t know then: she was more than likely one of James’s mistresses.

“You can’t fault a man like James for his fine sensibilities,” Barbara says. “The man simply appreciates beauty. He has an eye for it. He saw you, didn’t he?”

He did see me. But that was in high school. The world is full of endless possibilities which provide freedom and excitement, James is always saying. James wasn’t much in high school—by that I mean he wasn’t known like other boys were. He seemed shy to me and I was shy, too. (My mother said I was weak in a social way. “It’ll be your end,” she used to say.)

My mother was strong. Like me, she married right out of high school. My father was a wanderer who didn’t go anywhere. That’s what he used to say about himself. He itched to be in the world like James but for his own reasons he never went out. For his own reasons, too, he hanged himself in the garage.

“It seems like the only possible ending,” my mother said when it happened. I understood then she knew more about loss than I imagined I ever would, or that I ever wanted to. Still she wouldn’t park our car in the garage and gave it to me and James when we got married.

Barbara’s been with James, too, a few years after we were married. James apologized though—the only time he has.

“It really wasn’t right,” he said. “But it was just casual. Have you noticed how deep Barbara’s eyes are?”

I had noticed and told him so. He likes this about me. He likes that I can see what he sees. I see beauty, too. I understand how it fills James up to take in beautiful things. He’s no good when he’s run down.

Once he sat on the back porch looking at the rotting oak in the corner of our yard. I was taking care of the things around the house that never seem to take care of themselves no matter how long I leave them. I’d check on James now and again but I didn’t bother him with foolish questions like some wives do. If he wanted something to drink, he’d get up and get it. Or he’d ask me. I pride myself on not bothering James with silliness.

So I went to check on James again and he was gone. I peeked into the backyard but he wasn’t there. Peeking out the front window I saw him in the neighbor’s flowerbed, trampling the petunias and daisies. A look of complete concentration was drawn across his face. The neighbors were away on summer vacation so I didn’t rush out and stop him or ask him what he was doing. I can sense when he is run down.

Someone at the bar makes a joke about Juan, the bartender, being drunk.

“If you want to stay, we’ll leave,” James says. “She isn’t feeling well anyway.”

“What’s wrong with her?” I ask.

James shrugs. “You know, it’s just general.”

Rita is slumped over their table watching the flame of the candle flicker inside the clear candle holder. She tips the glass to one side and the candle floats from one side to the other on an ocean of melted wax. Suddenly Rita stands up and rushes into the ladies’ room.

James follows her with his eyes and strains to see after the ladies’ room door closes. He looks at me and I can tell he wants to ask me if I’ll go see if she’s okay, but he knows he can’t ask me that.

“I think I’ll freshen up before I go,” I say.

James smiles his appreciation.

Rita is running water down the sink and spitting into the rushing water.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

She looks at me in the mirror and what can only be described as real terror comes across her face. I’ve seen the look before. They always assume they’ve been caught in an elaborate lie but the truth is more elaborate than they could understand. James doesn’t make a show of his women, but he doesn’t dishonor me by telling lies.

I know the corrosive power of a lie. Every year H.T. Crouch sends James to Phoenix for a convention where James catches up on everything new in the world of clothing. It’s a small convention, the attendees don’t even fill a hotel to capacity and the gathering is really a fraternity. Men need that. They need to come together once in a while, leave their familiar surroundings and entertain their thoughts in a new, wild environment. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain anxiety every year when the convention nears, but trying to guess what James is doing when he’s out of my sight is a losing game. I have to rely on James’s account when he returns, an account filled with the extreme behavior of Charlie from St. Louis, or Harry from Pennsylvania. Sometimes I wonder if James exaggerates the others’ behavior to make his own seem small and rational. I’ve never been able to know how James considers himself.

James took me to the first convention, a gesture of kindness and a show of solidarity in the face of the scowls of the others. None of them wanted to be reminded of marriage, reminded that there was such a thing as a wife.

The others started going out at night without James.

“You can go if you want,” I remember telling him.

“I don’t want to go with them,” he said. He meant it, too. Whenever I am alone with James I am the only one anywhere around. But I feared James would regret bringing me so I volunteered to visit my sister Arlene, who lives in Payson, north of Phoenix. I live in fear of regret of any kind.

“I can drive you,” James offered.

I assured him the bus was fine. I like looking out the window, I told him.

The most powerful lie in my relationship with James is my own. But it’s too late now to confess. It would only reveal my deceit. Maybe I really felt put out by what happened in Phoenix. I’m like that. I sometimes say things I don’t mean. I sometimes don’t stand up for what I’m thinking because I don’t trust myself. Maybe I was tired—for the moment at least—of James and his women. The ramifications of that thought are unthinkable. I sometimes get upset thinking about Barbara.

Whatever it was I let the guy at the Pine Tree Inn waltz me around the dance floor while my sister watched from our table. She’s lived her whole life without a husband. “But I love men,” she says. “The older I get, the more I love them.”

I let the guy at the Pine Tree Inn take me up to his room, too. It’s so easy when there isn’t anyone to check your actions. My sister certainly wasn’t going to say anything and like I’ve already said, I don’t verbalize what I’m thinking until I’ve had a chance to think it to death. I was thinking it to death while the guy did what he did to me in his room at the Pine Tree Inn.

After, the guy offered to drive me home and I said I wanted him to take me to my sister’s house. I wasn’t too clear on the directions but Payson is small enough you can drive around and find everything sooner or later. We made a wrong turn at first and ended up on a dark stretch of highway that led back toward Phoenix. The guy pulled the car over to check his map and we got out. My eyes adjusted and even though there were no streetlights, the moon was so bright everything appeared fluorescent. It was the first time all night either of us had stopped the locomotion of our actions and the unexpected moment made me appreciate the guy for the first time that evening. What he said and did to get me to his room at the Pine Tree Inn was what every woman expects a man to say and do. And women need men to say and do those things so that a familiar, comfortable atmosphere is maintained. Ask any man who is unsuccessful at romance and you’ll find out he is trying too hard to be original. All men should know this. James knows this.

Rita shuts off the faucet. Excuses are working their way down from her brain to her lips but she’s too stunned from being seen in the light to say anything. She mumbles something about a bad dinner, an incomplete sentence of simple nouns and verbs and the thought occurs to me that Rita might not speak English that well.

“Look, it’s okay,” I say. “I know who you are.”

Rita’s eyes grow wide.

“Do you know who I am?” I ask.

She nods and it seems she doesn’t speak English until she says, “Yes, I know who you are.” The words are clear and cool as an October night.

“James is worried about you,” I say.

“Aren’t you worried about him?” Rita asks. Her question seems confrontational.

I stare into Rita’s face and see her incredible youth. At a distance she looks like a woman of about thirty. Up close, however, she has the face of an angelic child, a girl who might draw a hopscotch game in colored chalk on the sidewalk in front of her house.

“How long have you been seeing James?” I ask. I already know the answer, two months, but this is always a good test to see how on the level they’re going to be with me.

“I don’t think I should answer that,” Rita says. Her child-like beauty is momentarily erased, replaced by hard edges. She wants to push past me but I’m blocking the door.

“Two months, right?” I ask.

Rita stares at me incredulously.

“It’s not a secret between me and James,” I tell her.

“He tells you everything?” The question is more like a gasp.

A young black woman bursts through the bathroom door, drunk. She catches herself on the sink and Rita is pushed aside so that I can see myself in the mirror. My reflection is angrier than I imagined I looked and I’m unsettled by what I’m giving away. Rita pretends to be watching the drunk woman, who is checking her makeup, but Rita is really staring into the sink, wondering what she’s going to say next.

The woman keeps glancing up at me in the mirror and the uncomfortable silence makes her turn away from the sink without her purse.

Rita sighs heavily, perhaps surrendering herself to me.

The small brown leather purse spreads like a stain on the corner of the sink.

“Don’t go in there,” the drunk woman says to someone outside the door.

“Did James tell you about me?” I ask, asserting my superior position. As confident as I’m feeling, I never know the answer to this question.

Rita nods tentatively.

I expected the answer to be No, so my curiosity overwhelms me. “What did he tell you?” I ask coolly.

Outside the door we both hear the drunk woman say, “Shit, I forgot my purse in there.”

“Just go in there and get it,” a voice, another woman, says.

Rita glances at the purse. “He was very complimentary,” she manages to say, her coolness matching mine. “He said he loves you. Don’t you think that’s shitty? That he can be with me and he still has the nerve to say he loves you.”

Oh, my dear Rita. My dear, simple Rita. I’m dialing up the words to make Rita understand, trying to come up with something she can get her tiny thoughts around that will illuminate for her how complex relationships can be when she starts to fidget with the paper towel dispenser. “How do you know James and I aren’t planning to run away together?” she asks without looking up at me.

I stifle a laugh. I’m not sure if Rita is trying to be mean or if she is under a delusion. “James is married to me,” I say. “And he always will be.”

“I’ll go in and get it for you,” a voice says.

The door opens and Rita and I are expecting a stranger but James walks in, startling us both. He appears like a giant in the fluorescent light. He shifts uncomfortably. “There’s a line outside and Juan says he’s going to have to come in if you two don’t come out.” James looks at me when he says this and Rita stares at him, waiting for acknowledgment.

James backs out of the bathroom without looking once in Rita’s direction and I’ll admit this gives me a small pleasure. Rita charges after him and they’re both lost beyond the crowd waiting outside the bathroom door. By the time I make my way to the door, they’ve vanished.

On the way home I can’t stop thinking about my mother. No words about my father’s affair were ever spoken between us but we both know the other knows. I actually knew first. My father and Candy Howard were caught by the innocent interruption of a child sent home sick from school. I knew right away that the naked body under my father wasn’t my mother and the enormity of Candy’s bare feet frightened me. The callused underside of her feet made me gasp and my father scrambled to find clothes for the both of them. When I think of my father’s affair, Candy Howard’s callused feet and my father wrapped in my mother’s robe remain as the images of what can result from elaborate lies and deceit.

It’s more complicated than that, I know. My mother wouldn’t have been able to live with Candy Howard in her life. And Mr. Howard wouldn’t have stood for it, either. I love my mother and I didn’t want my parents to divorce like everybody else’s parents, but there was something dishonorable in the way my father scrambled when he was caught. I’ll admit to dishonor, too, when I used his secret for favor and personal gain. In that instance, everyone behaved badly.

At the stop sign two blocks from our house, I hear Rita’s question again. I’m thinking about that ugly robe and those callused feet and suddenly I’m hearing Rita asking me how I don’t know she’s not going to run away with my husband. A mild alarm colors my perception and not only can I not answer that question, I can’t figure out how James and Rita disappeared so quickly outside the ladies’ room at the club.

I narrowly avoid a trash can the wind has blown into the street as I race home. I can see the driveway a million miles before I get there and I’m disappointed that James isn’t home but surprised at the strange station wagon in the driveway.

“Hello?” A small man emerges from the dark shadows the house is casting under the moonlight.

“Can I help you?” I ask officiously. The sight of this dwarfen man is startling. He keeps putting his hands in his pocket and pulling them out.

“You don’t know me,” he says.

“Do you know me?” I ask.

“No,” he admits.

“What are you doing at my house?”

The small man looks at the ground. “I’m looking for my wife.”

I try not to give away what I know but the picture of this small man and Rita on their wedding day appears in my imagination and I think of Rita and think: it’s no wonder.

“I can’t see what I have to do with your wife,” I say. “Do I know her?”

The small man locks his gaze on a cement seam in the driveway. He’s trying to be delicate. He doesn’t know how to say what he has to say. The air of weakness around the small man actually shrinks him until he is so pitiable I am about to tell him that his wife is, in fact, with my husband but that there isn’t anything going on that he should be worried about when the small man says, “I found this.”

He hands me a square of paper that falls open at its worn folds.

“I’m running away,” is all the note says.

“And this,” he says, handing me a folded over photo. A crease runs across James’s face, giving him a double smile. Rita is standing next to him, looking off as if someone called her name right as the camera flashed. A small, one-armed totem pole stands like a sentry in a curio cabinet behind them. “That’s in my house,” the small man says. “After I found that I started following her around and the man in that picture lives here.” He jams a thumb violently in the air.

Calmly, without allowing an awkward pause, I redeem the currency of the graceless note. “Is Rita your wife?”

The sound of his wife’s name startles him and he involuntarily leans forward.

“I just had dinner with her,” I say. “And with my husband, James. She’s a very charming woman.” This cover, this lie will be the small man’s only compensation for his devotion to Rita and it fills me up to pay him.

Unanswerable questions fill the small man’s mind but instead of asking them he just stands still, looking past me into the street. He knows I’m lying, probably could produce more proof than the photograph but he realizes it’s useless and doesn’t try to persuade me further about my husband. If James and I stand together, we can resist all accusations.

My mind drifts to Rita and James, the postcard perfect picture of them hanging off the bow of a ship, sailing into a yellow horizon but somehow sailing towards me. My lie is still floating in the air and I have to say, it never occurred to me that the small man’s reward might be mine, too.

James pulls up in his car, the one he got when he traded in my father’s old car, the passenger side empty.

“Hi, honey,” James says to me, kissing me loosely on the mouth.

“Honey, this is Rita’s husband,” I say.

“Oh, hello,” James says, powerfully shaking the small man’s hand. The small man wants to make a protest, wants to take back his hand and point and accuse, but James’s charm overwhelms him and all he can say is, “Well, okay….goodnight.”

James watches the small man drive away and I tell him about the note.

“She’s left him,” he admits.

I feel sorry for the small man as his car disappears at the end of our street. The streetlights flicker once and then snap out, leaving James and me standing in the darkness outside our house. Before my eyes adjust, James’s figure is as unrecognizable as a stranger. I remember the name of the guy from the Pine Tree Inn, Michael, and the same thought occurs to me now that occurred to me then, standing among the moonlit trees: I don’t find freedom and excitement in these endless possibilities.

See what's inside AGNI 50

Jaime Clarke is the co-founding editor of the literary magazine Post Road and author of the novel We’re So Famous (Bloomsbury USA). He is the editor of the anthologies Don’t You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes (S&S), No Near Exit: Writers Select Their Favorite Work from Post Road Magazine (Dzanc), and Conversations with Jonathan Lethem (University Press of Mississippi). He is also the co-editor of Boston Noir 2: The Classics (Akashic) with Dennis Lehane and Mary Cotton. Clarke and his wife own Newtonville Books, an independent bookstore in Boston. (updated 7/2012)

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