The first real sun of spring streams through the living room windows, revealing dust long hidden during the dark days of winter. I am on the couch, my trusty laptop before me; my favorite toy.
It is Sunday. This morning dawned, which is more than can be said for most days of the last six months. At this latitude, in this climatic region, the days of winter are short and the rain stays, mainly. With the flat light of the rising sun visible through the backyards of the neighborhood and with my first cup of coffee in hand, I called my mother, got cleaned up and dressed, picked her up shortly thereafter and drove to the beach to look back across the water at the skyline of the city. A glorious morning by the vast inland sea.
Here in the living room, it is now afternoon. I am auditioning music to add to my mp3 collection, waiting for the washer to finish its spin cycle.
Jeni is in the kitchen. I wander in and see green onions on the cutting board. Eggs come out of the fridge. This is enough evidence for me to know that it won’t be long before there will be tuna salad, served in a mixing bowl, with a freshly opened bag of Fritos. Just like many times before. An old tradition. Something we share.
Jeni brings the mixing bowl and the Fritos to the couch and cuddles close; Pat Metheny is playing “Watercolors”, the title track of his 1977 album. She and I; tuna and Fritos; jeans and bare feet; familiar music and Sunday afternoon.
This is where we began.
Our first Sunday afternoon together could have been last weekend, instead of the 30 years that it actually has been. This moment is a clone of those first days, those first few weekends spent together. It has arrived unbidden, unexpected. We probably couldn’t have done this on purpose. No effort of our own could conjure this serendipitous recreation, could capture the magic that filled those earliest days of our life together. I am moved beyond my ability to contain it. The reality that Jeni is here with me, that we are together, this afternoon, exactly as we were then, consumes me. I am overcome.
* * *
I am at my desk at the office. I have an appointment to interview an applicant for an open position in the group I supervise but a supplier problem has come up. My boss, Dave, says work the problem, he will take the interview. I’m on the phone with the supplier when I see Dave come out of his office head across to the 5th floor reception area, around the corner, out of view. I’m still on the phone when I see Dave come back into view, followed by a slender black dress wearing four-inch spike heels. I notice. It’s as though I’m supposed to notice. And I do.
She accepts the job. She joins in my group. I am her supervisor.
She’s good. Tough when business demands she be tough. Personable with suppliers and everyone in the company, like she’s been there forever. An ease in business and social situations. And she’s fascinating. A laugh I can hear from across the 5th floor. Bold. And, just as easily, delicate. She has won over the whole office, with her smile, with her sometimes brashness, with her results. The women gather her into their group. The guys want to date her.
Sometimes I think she is just a little too much of everything. Sometimes I think she doesn’t have the right sense of proportion for the open-format office. Sometimes she seems dangerous; I find the danger exciting.
She works projects for everyone in the department, including many of mine. I could leave the work to her. But instead, I find reasons to come to her desk. Her jangling jewelry, her trademark Aliage perfume, that amazing smile, and her exotic eyes, eyes that seem to see things in ways I could never even imagine. Detail by detail, I am beginning to take her in, to enjoy being around her.
A frequency that has never been present in the office, a tone, felt but not heard, has set in. She brings me information on some project. We discuss possible solutions. We talk about the work. Gradually, we talk about other things. She is remarkable. Disciplined but glamorous. Petite but strong. Determined. Resolute. Her voice is music to me. That great smile. Witty. Quick to laugh. Tough but not hard. I am taken by moments she probably never notices. A movement, a word, a gesture, a glance. She can take a tone of deliberateness, giving me her assessment of a business situation, showing me how firm a grasp she has on what is going on. She is unlike any woman I have ever know, complex, mysterious, so many different things in so many situations, all going on at once. Symphonic. Bold, bright, radiant. I listen to her describe some action she’d taken with a supplier, looking at the order as she speaks, feeling her eyes move to mine, and suddenly everything washes out of my mind. She looks at me. Me. I feel myself at the center of her attention. For an instant, there’s nothing else; it’s just Jeni.
By degrees, over time, I begin to allow myself to believe that maybe she enjoys being around me as well, that the attention she shows to me is something more than she shows to everyone else in the office. And with it comes this incredible domination of my feelings. Each morning I carefully select what I will wear, because I will see her soon. I want to look good for her. Each day it’s the same, the tantalizing pull toward the office, not because that’s what I do for a living, or where I’m expected to be, but because Jeni will be there. On days when she is not, I am devastated. Every waking thought is of Jeni, of when I will next see Jeni. I can think of nothing else. I walk the grocery aisle, I mow the lawn, but it’s all Jeni. The anticipation is exquisite. I am visited by palpable visions of Jeni, and I become lost in them, losing the ability to conduct my work or concentrate on my responsibilities. And the growing obsession comes with an equal sense of resistance, disbelief.
I tell myself this is not happening. I will myself to wake up in the morning unaffected, feeling like I did before, return to my life. But I do not. I feel giddy. I do what I can to stay near her. I lie to myself, trying to convince myself that my interest is no more than honest concern for a new employee. She’s new to the city. She has no friends here. I tell myself that what I’m doing is the same I would do for any other employee under the circumstances. I try to help familiarize her with the city. I take her to the park for lunch, so see can see the views of the city with the bay beyond. When she fails to show up for work, I call her at home. When she is worried about how to get her sick kitten to the vet, I come to her apartment to give her a ride. I feel chivalrous. In this city, maybe in this life, there’s no one else for her but me. Whatever has brought her here, whatever has happened to her before now, she wants me to be the next part of her life. And that’s exactly what I want.
When I’m alone again, I tell myself I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t be this involved, I shouldn’t be involved at all. Besides being married, there are other reasons that I should run away. Who is she? How much do I really know about her? There may be trouble in her life I know nothing of. When we talk, I hear the trouble in her voice. But I’ve never known anyone like her before. All I want to do is protect her.
Reason fails. In a moment I cannot contain, standing with her at the filing cabinet in the office, I tell her I love her. We find ourselves in the elevator alone and I kiss her. I want to be with Jeni more than anything I’ve ever wanted. And I cannot. I am not free to be.
The idea of Jeni, more than the reality, is on me every waking moment. I begin to notice changes in my behavior, in my life. They begin to take hold, manifest themselves in myriad ways.
Like my whole relationship with music. I am captivated by Debussy’s Nocturnes, an impressionistic piece which, when I listen, now under Jeni’s spell, sounds romantic and heroic in a way it never has. In the third movement, Sirènes, the cyclic, timeless undulation is not the sea, as Debussy intended; to my imagination it is a galloping horse, with me as the rider, riding, riding through the night, to be at Jeni’s side. Rock music is suddenly important to me again, after some absence. I’m listening to lyrics. They all say something about how I feel about Jeni. Like Dr. Hook: “I looked up, what did I see? Sexy eyes, movin’ cross the floor, got me wantin’ more, sexy eyes”.
I find myself riding the bike a lot more. It serves several purposes, one being to get me away, away from the house, away from the marriage that I now wish did not exist, away from the life I no longer want. Uncontained, I ride on and on, open to the world. With it comes expansiveness, encouraging me to imagine a different reality, something beyond anything I have so far experienced. During these rides, in town, along county roads, long stretches of valley pavement, up hills and down, I see life, vibrant and colorful. I see other people, doing things, leading lives different from my own, and I think to myself, see? It’s so easy. See them? They’re doing it. I could change it all, I could be like them, I could start over, make my life into whatever I choose, anything but what it has become. I imagine having my own place, something I’ve never had. I imagine the furniture I would choose, quite unlike anything I have now. I see myself in my apartment, listening to music that I have chosen to satisfy only myself. It can be that way, I think. I just don’t know how to stop this life, so I can start that one.
With each revolution of the pedals, I try to bleed off my anger at being deprived.
Riding is also a conduit for running off energy, anxiety, the frustration of not being able to be with Jeni whenever I want. My drivers license shows my weight at 160. Between the bike and not eating, I’m closer to 130. I have never been particularly athletic but now, without intending it, I am more fit than I have ever been, better than I ever was in high school. I walk through the city on my way to work, I stand in checkout lines at the grocery and I catch the eyes of women. I allow myself to think they are checking me out. Whether they are matters not. I’ve never felt like this, I’ve never felt attractive.
When not on the bike, I am likely to seek refuge behind the wheel of my VW camper bus, driving aimlessly, or parked some place, lounging in the back, trying to think of anything but Jeni. More often, though, I drive by her apartment. She is on the 5th floor so all I can do is see if her car is there and wonder what she’s doing. Being close to where she lives is precious little satisfaction, but it’s all I have.
Weekends are the enemy. Two days without even so much as the sight of her, no trace of her voice, no scent of her perfume, to which I am addicted. Each weekend I am in withdrawal, left with only the idea of her and the memory of our last moment together before the separation enforced by the calendar, the last words she spoke to me, which ring in my ears, which I grasp, desperate to make them last until Monday. It is entirely insufficient.
A new week begins but seeing her at work is not enough. In the office, we pretend we are supervisor and employee, just doing our jobs, no more than cordial. We exchange glances. We pass notes. We believe that no one in the office suspects. I feel like a junior high kid struck with his first case of puppy love. Seeing her at the office is so restrictive. I cannot speak the things I want. So there are phone calls. Cell phones are another ten years in the future, so I spend time in phone booths. A lot of time. I become conscious of always having correct change.
My life is consumed with my passion for Jeni, but not joy. Every moment is turmoil. Weeks pass. Exhilaration turns to anguish. I start sessions with a psychologist, hoping he will tell me the answer to this conundrum. Answers are not what I get. I think if I can’t shut it off, maybe she can. I take her with me to the shrink. I give her a book, “How to Survive the Loss of a Love”. My only success is dragging her further into my chaos, heaping my irrationality upon her already considerable distress.
There is a schizophrenic split in me; my life at home and my life when I can be near Jeni. At home, I am numb. We do not speak, scarcely spending time in the same room. For almost eight years, she has accused me of infidelities. I have never been unfaithful, but it doesn’t matter, her suspicion preceded my appearance in her life and is unabated. It poisoned us long ago. To my great discredit, I have relentlessly tried time and again to change her, to convince her to see the goodness in me, to make her over into a different person than she is, to help her see the wisdom of being the way I think she should be, never acknowledging or accepting her as herself. She has spent so much time with me in her face about how she should feel and how she should think and how she should behave, that she has taken the only rational path open to her; she has withdrawn. And so have I. No wonder we have been steadily growing apart. She has her interests; fashion design, the University. I spend more time out of the house.
I have the ponderous weight of guilt. “Till death do us part”, I had said. I can’t become a divorce statistic. I have to think of my parents. My mother was the only one of her siblings that never was divorced, a point she has made to her children and of which she is justifiably proud. But nothing about this marriage is working. Even so, I try to think of ways I can turn back time, to a time before Jeni came into the office in that dress and those heels, a time before this marriage had tuned us into unpleasant roommates. In desperation, I try to think of ways to make the marriage into the thrill that is my love for Jeni, but trying to shut off my passion for Jeni and transfer it to my marriage is pure madness. I am shattered, devastated, torn by the insanity of trying to feel hopeful in the midst of something that feels like it has already died, of trying to make myself feel infatuation with someone who doesn’t trust me and doesn’t care to be around me, trying, by white-knuckled will alone, to twist and warp my emotions, to change them from what they so clearly are, into a version that will perpetuate that which has become intolerable. In certain moments, I think I am losing my sanity.
One afternoon, I am in the car, downtown, in midday traffic, the first car in line at a red light in a busy intersection. Cross street traffic has the green, cars and trucks pass in front of me, charging through town, turning, changing lanes, jockeying for position. Pedestrians cross in front of my bumper, cars heading my direction come to a stop behind and alongside me. And as I wait for the light to change, an idea comes on me, an idea which, with each second, consumes me. All I have to do, I reason, is open the car door. All I have to do, right here, right now, at this red light in the middle of the weekday bustle, is open the door, and with the engine still running and the light still red, walk away. Just walk away. Walk away from the car, the red light, the career, the marriage, my family. This is it. This is the solution I’ve wished for, longed for. This is the answer to everything. Why didn’t I think of this before? I can do this. I can walk away from my life. No one will ever know what became of me. The car will sit there idling with the key in the ignition and the door open, but no one inside. Someone will call the cops about this still-running car, blocking traffic. They will tow the car. They will check the registration and, a couple of days later, maybe initiate a missing person search. But I’ll be long gone. They’ll never find me. I’ll ditch my credit cards and drivers license. I’ll take a new job, somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never been, use another name. I can remake myself, my life, into anything I wish it to be. I will be free.
And just then, the light turns green. I let out the clutch and drive through the intersection, back into my life, my chance missed.
I expend anguished hours and energy trying hard to unwind and reverse all that has happened. I engage in endless bouts of self-talk, trying to use logic on myself, using reason as my instrument to turn emotion into something other than what it has become. I tell myself and I tell Jeni that it would be wonderful, if only. In some other version of life, I would be with her. The dual messages begin; I tell her repeatedly I cannot see her and yet I repeatedly continue to find ways to see her anyway. She cries. She says she can’t live like this, she’s going to leave the job, leave the city, go back to California.
But I can’t let her go.
On an August Saturday morning, I leave the house early on my ten-speed, before my wife is awake, on the pretext of joining a group for a day-long bike ride on one of the islands. I ride through the city in the cool morning fog. I ride hard, with purpose, through neighborhoods, past shops not yet open. I know the way to the ferryboat dock, the boat that goes to the island. But that’s not where I aim my bike. I ride with but a single thought, a thought that has consumed me for weeks. I have to know. Today. I’m running out of time.
All I want is to be able to know what it would be like to spend one day with Jeni.
I finally get off the bike in the same park where we had lunch. There is a pay phone. I call her and tell her where I am. She drives to the park, I stuff the bike into her car and she drives me back to her apartment. I know where this is going. I refuse to stop it from happening.
After the ride, I am shivering. In her apartment it is warm, as the sun begins to burn through the fog and come through the windows. We are talking. There is a gathering in the air, a racing current of feeling. I have left my other life outside her door. Time stops. The talking ends. She is in my arms. I cannot let go. I kiss her, for the first time without any reason to stop. No elevator doors will open now, no reason for us to hide ourselves from others, no reason to look over my shoulder, no reason to hang up the phone, no reason to tell myself that I cannot feel for her as I do. We are finally alone. We drift into each other with weeks of pent up emotion, now filling the room. There is music, there is the relentless pounding of traffic from the interstate outside her window, yet I hear nothing. Her apartment is a small studio, which she has made into a reflection of herself, but I see nothing. This moment exists out of time, no yesterday, no tomorrow. There is only Jeni and I am finally with her. I have dreamed of this. I have ached for it. I don’t want this moment to end. I have to know what it would be like to spend one day with Jeni.
It is evening as I steer her car into a featureless, empty downtown parking lot, the sun just setting over the mountains across the vast inland sea. We have just driven off the ferryboat, returned from the island where the bike ride was to take place. I suppose my reason for going anyway was to perfect my alibi. Yes, I spent the day on the island. I am an unconvincing liar.
With the bike still in the car, me behind the wheel and she beside me, I had driven away from her apartment and made my way through the city to the ferry dock. Conscious of being in the city where I have spent my entire life, it occurred to me that someone I know might see me with her. Another good reason to take the ferryboat to the island. I’ve never been to the island. There, I know no one. No one there knows either of us. Just another couple in their car, out for the weekend, on the boat to the island.
The ferry docks at the island, the ramp is lowered into position and I steer the car off the boat and up the hill, a winding two-lane road leading away from the dock. I know that this road will lead to the village in the center of the island, but that’s not my destination. I want to get lost. After a mile or so, I see a “Y” in the road. I have no idea where this leads but I veer off and down a narrow lane, away from the main traffic. As we continue, I veer off again and again, taking roads that seem to lead in the general direction of the water. The roads become narrower, passing fewer houses, more trees, less open land. It resolves itself into a single lane and dives down a steep hillside, finally flattening at the waters edge and comes to an end. There is barely room to turn around. A square featureless clapboard building sits on piling over the beach. Just before the end of the road are two houses, cabins really, also overhanging the beach. I switch off the engine, we get out, walk down the bank and onto the pebble beach. Yachts and work boats ply the channel between the island and the peninsula. The wakes of the boats lap at the shore, adding music of water to this secret and serene place, far away. We are safe here. We are together.
The talking has begun again. Now, here, outside the city, alone on this beach, we pour forth all the things we have felt for months but could not say. We sit on the beach, we lean back against drift logs. We tell each other about our lives, our dreams, our hopes. We laugh. We cry. We hold hands. We hold each other for dear life. The sun is warm. The salt water breeze washes over us like the waves on this shore, washing away the tension we have felt in the office, relieving us both of the last bit of pretense that we have kept up for the world, designed to show our peers that we are merely coworkers, nothing more. Now, here, there is no pretense, no posturing, no energy spent keeping up the illusion that we are anything but wholly lost in love with each other.
In all my romantic fantasies, I have never experienced anything like being with Jeni on this anonymous beach, I know not where, someplace on this island in the middle of the vast inland sea. This reality eclipses any fantasy I could think up. I never want to leave.
By degrees, the talk and the emotion subside. We walk and pick up shells and beach rock, showing each other our treasures. We sit quiet at times and watch boats go by. We look at the cabins over the beach and talk about how wonderful it would be to live together in a cabin over a beach. On this island. And with every mention of the future, I grow silent.
But as we sit in the downtown parking lot at the end of the day, and as I finally remove my bike from her car, kiss her again, turn away and begin my ride north to the house that now seems strange to me, the last place I want to go, today or ever, I am as certain as I have ever been of anything that this day will end, but Jeni and I will not. I have the gift I wished for, one day with Jeni, and I know now with a certainty I have never felt before that one day with Jeni will never be enough. I cannot go back to any life I had before today. I don’t know how to do this but I must find out. I must change everything. I have no way to know if we’re good for anymore than just one day, but it doesn’t matter.
I have to be with Jeni.