For ten years, I had an affair with a married man. It's over now. I look back and can't believe the waste. "A waste of spirit in an expense of shame," is that it? So if I had paid more attention in my high school English classes I might have foreseen all this.
He was the principal and I was the kindergarten teacher. Year one: I noticed him becuase he rarely emerged from his office and people -- women -- changed their tone when they talked about him. Everyone else could be laughed at, but not him. Ciriticized, perhaps, but not laughed at. He didn't seem terribly good-looking.
Year two: I atteneded a few meetings with him and other school officials, most of them men. The women who liked him seemed to have a pattern of making fools of themselves, and then leaving. When he walked past my room, he looked in and waved slightly.
Year three: he stopped in at my room several times a week. He seemed better-looking. We chatted about nothing, children, my career. About gardens, even.
Year four: he stopped by my room every day, occasionally twice a day. We served on school committees together. I met his wife, who ran the PTA and sat on the boards of half the organizations in town. She was a lovely, plump, and happy woman, a big piece of handmade jewelry alaways sparkling about her. Her eyes bulged out, blue and glistening cold. She loved me, as she loved everyone, but didn't like me quite as well as she might.
One weekend, I knew she would be away. I drove to his house late at night. He let me in. They lived on an acre and a half of land. There was snow on my boots, and on my coat and in my hair, where I had ducked beneath the branches of his trees. He let me in, and in the dark foyer we kissed. I dropped my coat and scarf and gloves on the real tiled floor. Four hours the dakness and quiet and privacy made the house as much mine as hers. No one else could fill my place. Our whispers and our laughter filled the rooms, secretly, filtered and swirled like incense around the wallpaper and curtains, and into the space behind the glass doors of the beautiful china cabinets. I thought, let her hear them when she comes home.
In the spring I planted my garden with the flowers he liked. I walked the earth in a glow of happiness, believed I understood what it meant to be a woman. We couldn't be blamed if we had found our soulmates now. We had moments of pure felicity, like the old story of Josephine's tears falling on her hands in Notre Dame as Napoleon crowned her.
Year five: ditto.
Year six: ditto. People seemed to go out of their way to talk to me about what a great job I had. Other women around the school discussed parties they had been to at his house -- his and his wife's house. I thought, well, I'm more special than that.
And all this time, I pracatically lived with Harold, my friend. Harold, whom I wasn't cheating on because we were not married, although we may as well have been. Harold, whom I didn't scream with because it would have embarrassed both of us. I thought my other love, my noble love, was above this. I thought how overripe and elegant it was to make good men happy.
Year seven: he stopped visiting my kindergarten room. Stopped, suddenly. A little after, I gave him the code that always meant "tonight?" and he answered plain No. He accompanied his wife on one of those weekend trips she used to take alone, and then on another and another. We had small quiet fights more bitter than those of a married couple, because the bitterness had no outlet. Their grown children were brilliant and successful, and other people heard all the news about them. One afternoon I approached hm at a ameeting. He was polite, but clearly wanted to talk to the man he was with. I died, excused myself, kept smiling professionally, and left. At home, I talked to Harold about his day.
Year eight: ditto. People said he had mentioned me at a meeting, or in a report. I read in a poem: "for hearts of truest mettle, absence doth join."
This year, he and his wife made a new friend, a woman social worker new to the area. She came to our school constantly. Whenever I saw him at any professional function, she was there, too. She sat next to him, she told him her health problems, she told him to ask her what was new and he did, smiling and poking his salad. They talked about politics, about the district's finances, about her adventure-travel vacations. His wife had long since taken her completely to heart. The newcomer, fancy free, changed her plans about moving back to her hometown; they helped her buy a house near their lot.
Year nine: ditto. I had a terrible night. It didn't help that a book I was reading outlined the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. "It's not that he's bad, or that it wasn't real," I thought again and again. My hands and the soles of my feet were sweating. "It's just that ... it's just that ...."
He and his wife became grandparents. They probably had a party. She was jubilant all the time now, her whole face relaxed and light and almost ageless. Her clothes seemed to be always silk, always bright blue.
Year ten: I was sweeping the floor when I thought, he's no earthly use to me. He's no earthly use to me. At the laundromat with Harold, I first pretneded to have a coughing jag and then I started crying. I told him everything. I had to go to the bathroom and when I came back, at first he was silent. Then he said, "You were over twenty-one. Althought I think two guys on a string might have been a bit much." We stayed together. We're even talking about getting married. The relief, despite the awkwardness of someone else's knowing your sin, is better than deceit and just going on an on, while other people live, and are happy.
Waiting in line for a movie with my mother, I overheard a middle-aged woman grimly mutter, "Honey, his wife's girlfriends will see more of him than you do. Ever notice how that works out? And that suits him just fine." Once in a while he looked in on my kindergarten room, and we waved or smiled slightly. I won a Golden Apple award, and he didn't say anything to me about it. That fall I looked, and realized my garden was a mess of mauve and cream.
And that was the end. A door closed. My body, the weight of me and the corner of my eye still remembered trembling for him. My face and fingertips still remembered the flattery of pursuit, pursuit when young. I kept watch for him to avoid him now -- not to be thrillingly discreet, but to avoid him -- and when that made me unhappy and disgusted with myself, when I knew it was still a kind of stupid endless powerlessness, I left. Harold's promotion came through; we move next week.