That Certain Sense of Complicity
(A Story of Love)
by Gaither Stewart
He grazed her shoulder with his hand so that she saw him in the instant before his fingers touched her cheek. His legs were like jelly. He felt the sweat under his arms. His heart was pounding.
She started. “Oh! Jason!… I’ve been waiting for so long.” Her melodious British accent rose and fell against the background of city traffic. Her huge eyes seemed to leap from their sockets as her hands reached toward his shoulders.
She looked as he had remembered -- her crooked half-smile, her turned-up nose and the inquisitive expression in her wide-spaced blue eyes. With hesitant fingertips he stroked her neck. He could smell her familiar perfume.
The sun breaking through the low clouds launched shards of pale light onto the wet streets and turned the gray buildings to silver. Silence hung over the metropolis. He took her hand. Unseeing they walked up the boulevard making small talk to overcome their shyness.
Since they had separated he had dreamed of meeting her like this on a street in one of the cities that were theirs -- in Paris or Rome, London or Munich. Hildegard was standing at the newsstand near the Madelaine metro station that drizzly September afternoon. Holding a magazine in one hand, with her other hand she struck her light blond hair upward from the nape of her long neck. A flimsy miniskirt displayed her velvety thighs. She was wearing the white boots that she had worn during the rains in Munich.
Hildegard was the obsessive love of his life.
They went into a café and took a table in the rear. It was easier to touch rather than talk.
He had often wondered how it would be when they met again. Would their lives of today destroy their old love? Or would their former love destroy their present? Could they recapture their past and at the same time conserve their present? In the intervening 15 years he had imagined them together as they were then in Munich -- as if their present didn’t exist. Those who share your youth, he told himself, never grow old. Yet, he knew, time doesn’t stand still. And love dies.
His arms went around her. She put her head on his chest. Their lips met. Their hands wandered over the other -- caressing, touching, testing, and rekindling old sensations.
“How I wanted you, Hildy, that last time we met in Rome,” he murmured.
“But Meredith was waiting for me. Remember? How I wanted you the time before, in London. I could never wait to feel your hands on me again.”
“But that time Jennifer was nearby waiting for me.” They laughed.
“We were lucky to have had what we had,” she said.
“Those magical months! I’ve always dreamed of repeating them.”
Like restless raindrops her fingertips glided down his back. “I always think of your hardness,” she whispered in his ear. “It was always so tactile, our togetherness.”
After Rome, he told her, his newspaper had sent him to Moscow. Then to Berlin, before coming here. He and Jennifer had after all stayed together.
“Remember I told you that if you separated from her that I would never forgive you.” She took his hands in hers and kissed his palms. “These hands of a pianist! It was always your touch!”
He stroked her thighs. Her hand was under his shirt. At first, she had liked the idea of returning home to Cape Town -- just to get over Munich. But Meredith’s banking career suffered, and by then her first daughter was on the way. Her own career as a literary translator blossomed after they transferred back to London.
“Together we had something special.” He began confusing the tenses. Those nine months with her had marked his life, past, present and future. “How could we have separated, Hildy?” he murmured, drawing her toward him.
“You ask me?” she said, and ran her fingers across his lips.
They both remembered the beginning the same way. Hildegard Foster was 22, a student of literature at Munich University, abroad for the first time in her mother’s native Germany. Then 30, Jason Alden was a student and a stringer for an American newspaper. Things weren’t going well between he and his wife who had taken little Danny back to her parents’ home in Berkeley.
It was Shrove Tuesday at a Carnival ball. Jason stared at her standing near a wide doorway. Provocative in a black miniskirt, her blond hair piled on top of her head, she fixed her gaze in his. The man of medium height, the lithe athletic body of a tennis player, short brown hair, and a wary intensity about him, stood in front of her. They were both tipsy. In her eyes he read the words love me. He touched her lips that said take me. She touched his long hands. He began kissing her. She kissed him back. Never had there been a kiss like that one in his controlled life.
“It was the great moment of my life.”
“We abandoned everything,” Hildegard said.
“I’d never known a person like you,” Jason said, “putting all the rules to the test.”
Emotions had consumed them in the mad crazy Munich of music and dancing and flowing beer. Hildegard was the opposite of the picture she painted of her staid South African family – conservative English father and strict German mother. She was happiest at a Strauss opera or in the Alte Pinakothek; but above all, in bed in his studio apartment.
“Your love for life infected me!” he said. “We were like two children. You simplified the things that for me were complex. I’ve always loved you for your love for me.”
“I taught you to love. And we thought it would never end.”
“But I knew Jennifer would return.”
Their love never needed seduction. No subtle offers. No rebuffs. One look, and they knew. They took a room in a hotel behind the Madelaine. In the elevator cage she pressed his slim arms. He perceived the lightness of her nearly nude body.
The lovers undressed each other, grinning at each other all the time.
“Seems like Turkenstrasse,” he said, catching a fleeting glimpse of them after their morning classes, throwing clothes on the floor and leaping for the bed.
“You look the same.” Her eyes raced over his body. “That flat stomach and legs as shapely as a woman’s.”
“You look the same too,” he said with a spurious leer, “those exotic hips of Latin women.”
She fell on her back. And he was inside her, again, frantic to recapture lost time.
“That’s what I always want first,” she said after the first intense moments. “It drives me crazy how you want me so much. It’s that violence. Your arms crushing me and your pianist hands pulling me to you.”
“Oh Christ! I love you most when your eyes are like this!”
They relived Munich. They were in Salzburg and Vienna, on Lake Constance, in all their places. He watched her agile body her eyes closed her face flushed her head thrown backward. His hands and lips roamed over her body. She wallowed in his intensity. Their passion had its own rhythm. No studied poses for them. No rituals or taboos. No acrobatics. No hygiene. No repulsion. No rules. Lips teeth hands feet kisses violent and tender up and down their bodies into every crevice eyes closed eyes open rivers of sweat.
“Oh, fellatio is wunderbar!” she whispered from far away.
“Cunnilingus ist vielmals besser.” Then: “Oh God that aphrodisiac smell of sweat and sperm and your sweet fluids!”
“I’m filled with you up to my throat,” she said, sitting up and swiping with her hand from her thighs to her fiery neck. “Ich liebe Dich Ich will Dich Ich brauche Dich.”
“You remember!” He whispered back the litany they had repeated to each other. With you I never know whether I’m coming -- or going.”
“I always walk the streets looking for you.” With the back of his hand he stroked rhythmically her stomach so filmy downy soft in the ray of light reaching through a cracked blind. “What an obsession! One time I returned to Munich from Moscow and went straight to the Leopoldgastaette to look for you. Erinnerst Du Dich?”
“Remember? You almost fucked me there in a booth once while our friends were sitting opposite us – all of us drunk as lords. Remember what I did to you then?”
“Remember? You wanted to do that everywhere! The more public the place, the better.”
“You wanted me everywhere.” A sensual peace leapt from her glowing eyes. The flush was gradually vanishing from her face.
“Is it only sex then?”
“Much much more! ” Hildegard sat up and spread her arms wide. “Our sex is a vehicle. To go to that no-man’s land. I don’t have the words to describe the magic regions that are in us. Our sex is that one word we’re always looking for - you in a story, I in a book.”
Hours or only minutes later, holding him in a vise of arms and legs, she said the unfamiliar words, “I have to go.”
“I’m drunk but I have to go,” she said again later, lifting her head from his groin.
“I have to go,” she said again later in a normal tone. She was sitting in the middle of the bed, her legs crossed Indian fashion, pinning up her hair.
“I love to see you do that,” he whispered. Jason sat up in a daze. Their lightness swirled through their room. Yet, he felt something else – that thing that always returned. No! I don’t want it. No! Not that again.
Hildegard looked at him and leaned toward the floor for her dress. “I can read it in your eyes, Jason. You’re feeling guilty. Ah, my great love, your fundamentalist background is raising its ugly head.”
“You know it’s not making love with you. It’s loving you so intensely. It makes me love Jenny less. As if I had a certain quantity of love to be dispensed. It seems like a violation of loyalty.”
But, he knew, not only Jennifer was the impediment. He evoked the old resentment of Hildegard that he had created during the first years of missing her. Sometimes he had held it against Hildegard that he fell in love with her. He had blamed her for loving him the way she did. As if she had wronged him. Her love seemed to be the cul de sac of his life.
“Don’t you feel something like that?” he asked.
“Not at all. I love you both. You in one way, Meredith in another.”
“I too want you both. But how can I be faithful to both? I can’t love you as I did and love Jenny as I have all these years. Being with you makes me want to leave her, leave everything. But can we ever do that?”
“Mein armer Liebhaber! It’s your monogamous spirit.” Then after a moment, “and that sense of guilt that hangs over men like you.”
“You love Meredith, I love Jennifer. I feel guilty but you don’t. Why is that? Or,” he said with a weak grin, “are you just callous?”
Each began dressing, now separately, now awkwardly. Jason perceived a certain sense of complicity surrounding them. Hildegard smiled her secret smile and pulled her dress over her head. Out the window night was falling.
“Women are just different,” she said, a note of finality in her voice.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that ... Jason, please, let’s talk about it later. The girls will be waiting for me.”
“Oh Jason! Tomorrow? Tomorrow, no. Thursdays I take the girls to riding lessons.”
“No-o-o!” she said, pulling on a rubber boot. “Meredith is bringing a business associate home for dinner. And then there’s the weekend, you know, family and all that.”
“So next week, huh?” How could they wait now that he had found her again? Yet he felt a salve to his conscience. During the upcoming days he would devote himself to Jenny. A film or the theater. Walks in the Bois. Friends to dinner. Maybe drive to the Dordogne over the weekend. Would Jenny detect the difference in him?
“What about the same day?” she said. “Wednesdays I go to my office.”
“So I’m your Wednesday man!”
“You are my love, period.”
When she kissed him at the metro gates he touched her hair and said, “see you at the kiosk.”
At three o’clock she was there, in an even flimsier dress. He grinned. Does Meredith know she goes out like that? Her hair was silky in the rare Paris sunshine. He ran toward her. Hildegard ran toward him. He lifted her into the air. Again she was his.
They had the same room. She waited for him to throw himself on her. “Yes yes yes,” she cried. “It’s never enough,” he said, and waited for her to cry out her passion again and again.
He knew. She knew.
And in the intervals, tenderness, caresses and their favorite words in their own mellifluous language that flowed between them like musical accompaniment.
“It’s like coming home from a voyage,” she said when the room returned. She lay in his arms, her right arm and right leg crossed over him. She checked his nervous eyes. He stroked her hair. The first shadows of the afternoon crept across their room.
“O.K. Hildy,” he said. “You don’t feel guilty while I do. I want you as before. Yet our relationship defies everything that’s happened to us since Munich. Our past is running all over us. As if we hadn’t lived our real lives. Tell me, how are women different?”
She raised herself on her elbow. “I’m not sure about this. It’s more intuition. But, after childbirth and years of marriage women lose those feelings of guilt they had when they were girls. They feel liberated. Sex becomes something different for women.”
“So it’s a matter of age and experience? You get used to anything? You mean you could fuck anyone now and not feel guilt?”
“Very funny! I mean some women learn to take sex lightly -- like those on TV shows. But I’m not one of them. I can’t be seduced. And anyway I’ve never been sexually repressed. How can I explain? Look, Meredith is the father of my children. My life companion. He’s with me on birthdays and holidays. With him I know how children sound in the house. Together we know children’s illnesses, their school grades, their parties. We experience the raw roast and the burned cookies. Even the frequent squalor of married life - and motherhood too. I don’t betray that. That part of me is true, loyal and inviolable.”
“So then what am I to you?”
“The part of me that I share with you is another me. Meredith doesn’t know that me. He doesn’t even know it exists. I hardly know it myself.”
“You make it sound like something sick! Is that what you think of us?”
“Jason, you don’t want to understand. No! It’s that part of me reaching beyond myself. There’s nothing sick in that. It’s part of my womanhood. Doesn’t that make sense? I mean that I share that self with you.”
She put her head on his chest. “That’s the most anyone can give. And that’s your role in my life. I could never share that me with him. So there’s no betrayal. And no guilt.”
“But all the things we do together?” He clasped his hands behind his head and looked toward the ceiling. His body was stiff in her arms.
“The sex, the sex! Jason! Our sex is the ultimate pleasure but that’s not happiness either. It’s a question of fulfillment. And of something spiritual. I’ve never been with another man besides Meredith -- since you, in Munich. If this were just sex we would find satisfaction. But with us it’s never enough.”
She looked straight into his eyes and put a finger in his mouth. “Men think penetration is everything. Hah! Penetration! Men think it’s the ultimate gift from women. Sacred! It’s not that much! Women are different than men think they are.”
She raised her eyes to the ceiling and lay down on her back. “Women forget. Penetration rolls off them like water. But men gloat as if penetration were possession! Women submit, but that’s not possession. The real penetration for you and me is the belonging. Our sex, Jason, is love! Just be sensitive to your inner voices, mein Liebhaber, and that’s where you’ll have me.”
Her lips were parted. Her wide eyes seemed fixed on something far away. Crazy, he thought, the dream of her was so realistic. But the reality is like a dream.
Again she moved down his body. Jason waited. He was nervous. Then after several minutes of licking his stomach she said playfully, “Certainly what we do together is not about penetration.” She grinned up at him and practically swallowed his limp sex.
He watched the shadows advancing and listened to the dripping of a faulty shower in the bathroom. He would telephone Jenny as soon as he got back to his office. He knew that Hildegard too was thinking about the time.
Fucking time! he thought. He sat up on the side of the bed.
“But why were you never jealous of Jennifer? You should’ve been. How could you have even suggested staying with me in Munich -- to be forever the other woman?”
“Jason, I know that I have another you. I don’t give a damn if that public you has Jennifer. The same goes for me. You have all of the me that I give you. I’m free to give the everyday me to Meredith and the children. And in that life I’m wife and mother.”
“But if I am one of your lives then I should count for more. I want to do everyday things with you too. Go to a film or dinner in a restaurant. Don’t you miss that part – with me?”
“No! That’s where unfaithfulness would come in. We made our choice in Munich.”
“Hmm! Hildy, tell me this. During all these years did you ever think that I loved you less than you loved me -- because I made that choice?”
“I was disappointed. But there was never any question of who loves whom more. Because our kind of love is so certain -- within its limitations. As time passed I understood the reason -- we want for each other what is good for us.”
“You’ve never interfered with me. Everyone wants you to be someone else. You’ve always wanted me just as I am -- or as I would like to be.”
Hildegard sat up, turned her knees under her and put her arms around him.
“Your love is greater than my fears,” he said. “You’re willing to risk. I play it safe.”
Jason arranged his travels around Wednesdays. Hildegard regulated her life so that at three o’clock she was at the kiosk. Yet Jason had come to hate the time between Wednesdays. Men, he concluded, are more lonely than women. And like a latent tumor the suspicion was festering that their time would soon run out. Time had always been their enemy.
In Munich their love was music. A romantic symphony. Now it had become a story. Romantic and sad. Her story of love. His story of an obsession. But he didn’t understand the real meaning of the story. He was living in it. Too close to see the real action.
Evenings from the balcony of his top floor apartment he gazed at the naked limbs of the trees in the little park, lifeless in the lingering winter. The distant city sounds, monotonous and indifferent to him, reminded him that he counted for so much less than his life had led him to believe. He would like to return to the equanimity he had acquired over the years after their breakup -- scrupulous with himself, intent on emotional accuracy.
Before he found her again he had felt at home here. Now he felt like a refugee. The cafés on Boulevard Saint Germain no longer attracted him. Sunday cinemas on the Champs Elysées bored him. Sad life images resounded in his brain -- winter walks along the Seine, the Bora blowing from Trieste, mistrals from the desert, humid tropical nights, empty hotel restaurants, rotted November leaves and nostalgia, melancholy, solitude, lonesomeness. His life had changed. He seemed to be standing on the edge of an abyss; if he moved he would tumble, definitively.
It was frustrating to realize that Hildegard could live two lives and two loves -- one open together with Meredith and another hidden in a circumscribed world with him. Was she not just trying to ennoble their trysts with her facile use of the word love?
“Then you’re living a lie with Meredith,” he said one Wednesday in spring, his voice and eyes brutal in his frustration. He was sitting nude in the chair near the window. Hildegard was in her position in the middle of the bed.
“There are two possibilities,” he said coldly. “You’re either with me for the thrills of an extramarital affair or your public life is a charade.”
“That’s mean, Jason! You just want to hurt me. Do you think of our love as illicit?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” But she was right. He did want to hurt her. He perceived a desire for revenge. As if she had wronged him. She shouldn’t have loved him at all. Her love wasn’t fair. He gave up too much for her - his affection for Jenny, for Danny, maybe even part of his career. But she had the thrills gratuitously. She surrendered nothing. She was intangible, integral, and forever unpossessed.
“It’s not. The bond I have with Meredith is solid. My bond with my children is fundamental. My life, Jason, is about two things -- motherhood and womanhood. And they’re not synonymous. I’m a good mother but at a certain point I have to separate myself from it - for my womanhood.”
“But don’t you feel a sense of transgression against your family’s love for you?”
“Not at all,” she retorted. “I have to live also that part of my womanhood that is with you.”
“Betrayal is, after all, betrayal.”
“No! Public knowledge would make our love sordid. As if we thought it fashionable to have an affair. This way it’s pure. My two lives are two dimensions of one life. Surely human beings are more than one-dimensional!”
He cocked his head to one side and gazed at her. Her rationalizations were absurd. Was she simply amoral? Was hers even love? He was beginning to loath that word.
“Everybody would like to have more than one life.”
“I think we’re entitled to more than one.”
“O.K. So you and I, together, are one of your dimensions - whatever that is! Yet you say that it’s not just sex. So what is it that you love in me?” Jason said sarcastically. “My inner being?”
“Yes, your sensitivity so different from mine -- maybe even your guilt that leaps from your worried eyes. But above all I love you in our togetherness.”
Hildegard was sitting on top of her crossed legs. His eyes wandered from her small breasts with the huge brown nipples to the blond hair between her thighs. “And besides,” she said, an enigmatic smile at the corners of her mouth, “I only have to look at you wanting me to want you.”
“That’s not fair! I’m just a case of low resistance and high guilt. I know I should resist temptation, as my devout Catholic mother preaches. But when I don’t, I feel guilty. That’s the penalty. Besides, if there’s anything of value in all this, in us, it’s hardly accessible to either of us -- in our double lives.”
“That’s where our sex comes in!” She laughed in that way he both loved and now detested. “It’s our salvation, mein einziger und ewiger Liebhaber!”
Her eternal lover! She doesn’t even mention the names of her children, she denies she’s with me for sex, but she doesn’t really know why she’s here. If only I’d never met her!
“It’s just that no one but me can cross between my two worlds. Since you know of the existence of my public world I can allude to it to you. But seen from here my public world is shadowy. And no one out there even knows of our existence. Sometimes I think that here we’re almost godlike because we can see the others while they can’t see us.”
“For Christ’s sake! Now we’re gods.” Jason sat down on the edge of the bed. He stared at her hand reaching for him. For a moment he had the urge to hit her. “But what if ¼ what would’ve happened if you and I had stayed together? What about your two dimensions then?” That image, he thought, opened up unexpected vistas into the domestic life they had never known together.
“Oh, how I wanted that. But I also offered to go along with you -- everywhere -- as the second woman, hidden, secret.”
“That was passion speaking! That couldn’t have lasted long. Imagine, you, a hidden woman, in some secret apartment in the Old Town! Waiting for me!”
“Of course not. I’m not some literary heroine ready to sacrifice my other life for erotic love. Like in the bestseller novel I’m translating about a woman in a mountain village in the Schwarzwald who loves one man all her life. But they’re young and he must roam the world. While she waits in the village for the return of her erotic love she spurns the marriage proposals from other villagers. When years later he returns as a cripple he finds an old woman, wilted and philosophical, and uninterested in their old love. She had no life at all -- but she could have had everything. No! That’s not for me.”
Hildegard reached for his hand, which he withdrew.
“What would’ve happened if we’d married?” she said. “Maybe what happens in most marriages. But you have to admit that secrecy has been generous with us. Our secret love is my one treasure in life.”
“Secrecy is a great aphrodisiac,” Jason said. “An open affair would have a touch of banality!”
Jason often walked along the Grands Boulevards. The trees were green, the flowers in the Palais-Royal and the Jardins des Tuileries in bloom, but he hardly saw them. He had taken to ogling lovers embracing on park benches or strolling with their arms around each other. He tried to perceive their love. Feeling like a voyeur in a romantic novel he observed them until they stared back at him.
While Jason searched for justification of their relationship, Hildegard hoped for continuation. She said their love didn’t have to threaten their lives of today. Yet their Wednesdays were undergoing a subtle mutation. Last fall’s predominance of sex and joy was giving way to discussion and debate
Sometimes when she spoke of their love, he wanted to slap her. She spoke of his possessiveness; he thought instead of his obsession. If Hildegard seemed content with the dichotomy between their public lives and their secret Wednesdays, Jason felt more outsider than ever before. The lines between reality and illusion were blurred.
When one Wednesday in May Hildegard announced that she was speaking at a congress of literary translators in Salzburg, Jason said he could arrange a trip there and they could spend those days and nights together, and maybe a weekend in Vienna, as they used to.
“Oh Jason, that won’t be possible,” she said. “Meredith and the children are joining me. We’re going to the mountains for spring skiing. I promised the girls to show them Austria.”
Jason was relieved. For an instant he had only hoped for some expression of regret. That it was a birthday. Or an anniversary. Yet Hildegard never apologized for anything. And she was right. He was used to Wednesday guilt. He could manipulate it in his conscience, but five days together in Austria would mean a psychological expenditure of which he doubted he was capable.
“We’ll have to skip next Wednesday,” she added.
“We’ll make it up the next week here,” he said, pointing at the bed, and with an inflection of malice in his voice that she didn’t notice. He admitted to himself that he wanted to hurt her.
June was cool and rainy. Jason ambled down Boulevard des Capucines toward the Madeleine. Lights blinked red and blue and green in the mist. Everything seemed hollow. He barely lifted his eyes at a flash of lightening over Montmartre.
His situation was untenable. In theory he could separate from Jennifer, and Hildegard from Meredith. It was done everyday. But then Jenny’s life and mine are so intertwined. Our past together counts. The future counts -- my assignment in another year or so to New York or Washington. Danny’s college. Better to leave things to sort themselves out.
Few cars were passing. He waited for the green light anyway. They regarded each other across the narrow street. Jason put a blank expression on his face. He gripped his briefcase. A perplexed look clouded Hildegard’s face. An umbrella hung on her arm. She was wearing business-like striped pants, a beige jacket and red pumps. A huge satchel lay at her feet.
He knew that she too perceived the lack of spontaneity in their embrace.
He looked around their room. Wasn’t it bigger before? The ceiling was so low, the windows dusty, the carpet worn. Hildegard held her satchel in her hands. He took it from her.
He held her and stroked her hair. Her arms circled his neck.
Then she began to cry. At first a sniffle, gradually becoming a slow sobbing. He held her and waited until she pulled away from him. Her face was splotched red, her hair hung over her ears.
“Oh Jason! What’s happening?”
“Yesterday I went to the Bois,” he said. “I hadn’t been there since the storm. The devastation is unbearable. Nature is not fair. Instead of the forest, there’s jungle.”
“Is that a metaphor for something?”
“The jungle of my soul,” he said with a curt laugh and began unbuttoning her unfamiliar white silk blouse. “Two weeks is an eternity without you.”
“And fifteen years? Why didn’t you find me before?”
“I’ve been waiting for you to ask that. At first after we separated my dreams were filled with you. Then, less frequently. Later so rarely that in the dream I hardly recognized you. Just living life took over.”
The undressing was lonely. They tried not to look at each other. But he noticed the faint lines creasing her forehead and the corners of her mouth. When he bent to take off a sock her thighs seemed thicker than before. He sucked in his nascent paunch.
“Then suddenly,” he was saying, “maybe a face in a film or a line in a book, and you were there again. Something like your two dimensional theory. I went about everyday life with that knowledge tucked away. Being without you got to be habit. I didn’t need to look for you always.”
Tenderly he drew her down to the bed. Her body lay against his. His passion had vanished. He thought that penetrating her now would be rape. He held her fast against him. Her arms circled his neck. Her leg swung over his body.
“Wednesdays aren’t enough, Hildy. One Wednesday is too much and a hundred of them too little.”
“Jason, what does that mean?”
“Most people in our situation would consider separating from their spouses -- or just admit defeat and quit.”
His suggestion, he knew, was dishonest. If he hadn’t been able to leave Jenny 15 years ago, today he was even less capable. It was slippery terrain. Except for his insane obsession for Hildegard he had never put himself ahead of Jenny or of his career. Oh, yes, he would like to be able to say, ‘enough of living life for the happiness of others,’ yet the very articulation of the temptation immobilized him and brought him back into the fold.
“I’ve thought of that too,” Hildegard said, sitting up on his legs. “Oh yes, our love is strong enough to overturn our new lives. But something deviated us from that back then. Maybe it was our fear of normalization. Admit it, we’ve both always wanted the extraordinary.”
“But it’s a giddy feeling. I feel like I’m standing on the lid of the crater of Mount Etna. And thinking of a jump. Yet we can’t go on like this.”
He looked at her naked body in front of him. But his sexuality was as if anesthetized by a sense of defeat and a growing anxiety about a future without her. There seemed to be no place for them. The dream of her seemed better than the reality.
“I can! You can’t go on like this. Just look at you, that miserable look in your eyes. And you don’t even want me today! Anyway, I know that I want what’s good for both of us.”
The perplexed expression in her eyes belied the pungent self-assurance of her words. Hildegard was anxious. Was it revenge that he wanted? How could she not feel guilt? Should he perhaps help her to alleviate her sense of transgression? And what then was the right path to his own fulfillment? Certainly, he thought, not through betrayal of Jenny and continuation of his double life.
An effulgence of a mid-afternoon sun momentarily filled their room and quickly faded, leaving dull shadows behind. The red and yellow petals of the tulips in the vase on the windowsill hung limp. The Impressionist prints on the walls were lifeless. Her white blouse on the table and his shirt on the chair near the door seemed lonely.
Hildegard looked into his eyes. He didn’t have to pronounce the words. It was all or nothing.
“I’m already beginning to miss you,” she said. “What are you going to do without me?”
“Miss you the rest of my life.”
In that moment he perceived the distance between them widening, as if she were already fading from his memory. As if something were dying in him. He could hear the defeat in her voice too, but he was not in her mind any longer. He could no more imagine her real thoughts in this moment than that of -- of his dog Musetta. What had she expected anyway?
All at once he was conscious of a siren down toward the Madelaine. He heard a roll of thunder, probably from up at Montmartre. In the silence of the room no longer theirs, he listened to the dripping of the faulty shower.
Gaither Stewart can be reached at GaitherStewart@libero.it