“How come you didn’t tell me about it earlier, when I asked you if you had any homework?” Ana asked the poster board with legs that was rapidly approaching.
“Because that’s not really homework. It’s only for Show and Tell,” the boy found a loophole.
“But isn’t it mandatory and due tomorrow?” his mother didn’t let him off the hook on a technicality.
“I hate doing this stupid junk. School reeks!” he declared, plopping down the poster board on the kitchen table.
“Hold on. Let’s clean this up first,” Ana rushed to save the pristine poster board, first wiping the table with a moist paper towel, then drying it with a dishrag. “Okay, so what do we need to do?”
“I need to paste pictures of myself on here. So I can show my class what I like to do for fun,” Allen replied, his lips turning slightly downward, his staple expression before throwing a temper tantrum.
“This project sounds like fun,” his mother tried to preempt the upcoming storm. “We can look over the vacation photos Daddy printed last weekend from his digital camera. Do you also need to write a report?”
“No. All I have to do is talk about the pictures.”
“Well then, why don’t you pick out some of your favorite pictures from this pile,” Ana proposed. She brought out a shoebox filled with recent family photographs and placed it in front of Allen. “Let’s glue them on the poster board and see what you remember about each one.”
The boy began digging through the box with both hands. He was so absorbed in his task that his tongue stuck out from the side of his mouth. After about ten minutes, Allen showed his mother eleven pictures he had selected.
“Can you try to narrow it down to six or seven?” she proposed, going to get the glue stick and a black marker from the kitchen counter.
When Ana returned to the table, Allen was holding six pictures in his hand. “These are my favorites.”
“Do you remember where these pictures were taken?” his mother peered over his shoulder at the photographs.
“I’ll help jog your memory,” she told him.
“But Mama, I don’t like to run,” Allen joked, beginning to relax.
“This one here was taken in Alabama at Grandma Jenny’s,” Ana pointed to a photograph of her and Allen sitting on a porch at her mother-in-law’s house. Both of them squinted to block off the intense afternoon light. “We barely have our eyes open. How come you picked it?”
“Because Almond’s in it,” Allen placed his index finger below a little black poodle, which, for several years, had been the love of his life.
“How could I forget! What about this one?” she pointed to a picture of Allen and Michelle at the beach. “Do you remember where we took it?”
“At the beach,” the boy answered brilliantly.
“Remember where we went on Memorial Day?” his mother jogged his memory.
Allen shook his head.
“To Traverse City, where we stayed at that nice, expensive inn by the beach.” Ana recalled how much the kids loved playing in the waves, jumping with a mixture of shock and delight whenever the ice-cold water lapped at their bare feet.
“Oh, yeah,” Allen said. “My favorite part was when we went on the motorboat ride. Daddy let me and Michelle drive it for awhile.”
Ana felt quite certain that the jet skiers they almost hit didn’t forget that day either. “How about these ones? They go together,” she moved on to the next set of images. The first one featured Allen riding a mechanical bull, holding on for dear life. The second displayed him falling flat on his behind. “Daddy took these photos on spring break, when we went to that bull show in Tennessee.”
“Ha, ha!” Allen laughed at the recollection. “That was fun. And I wasn’t scared at all. It didn’t even hurt when I fell down. They put straw on the ground,” he boasted.
“You’re so courageous,” Ana patted the little boy on his soft, closely cropped hair. It occurred to her that each of these trips had been carefully orchestrated by her husband. Rob spent hours organizing each family vacation so the kids would have fun. Ana’s attention was caught by the striking contrast between the last two photographs Allen lay down on the poster board. The first one was taken during their summer vacation in New Hampshire. Rob had asked a stranger to take their picture when Ana had protested that he, being the one who took most of the family photos, was hardly in any of them. The four of them looked so happy together, all smiles and, miraculously, with their eyes open—since usually at least one of them blinked at the flash. Ana recalled how much they had enjoyed that short, easy hike. She also remembered the vicarious pleasure, even complicity, she and her husband had shared in seeing the kids skip down the trails like mountain goats. She felt a tinge of regret when she realized that, given her infidelity, she might never relive such untainted pleasure with her family again.
The second photograph confirmed this intuition. It was taken earlier that fall in their back yard, right after she had become involved with Michael. The whole family was raking leaves. Their next-door neighbor, a quiet, retired fellow, offered to take their picture. Although Rob, Allen and Michelle smiled for the camera, their smiles appeared forced. Ana, herself, looked sullen. Her jaw line was set and rectangular. She gazed at the camera with a strange combination of shame and reproach. Before and after Michael, Ana silently observed, her eyes passing back and forth between the last two images her son was gluing to the poster board. The two pictures, lying side by side, captured her emotional oscillations ever since meeting her lover.
Whenever she was with Rob, Ana couldn’t help but focus on the accumulation of lies and excuses she had to tell her husband in order to see her lover. Rob was pleasantly surprised that even in the midst of the recession, his wife’s paintings were becoming increasingly successful. Ana met with more clients and gallery owners interested in her artwork than before. The fact that she had deposited nearly $ 7,000 during the past few months into their bank account after Michael purchased two of her paintings, made her case appear more credible. Yet Ana couldn’t help but feel remorse when she looked into Rob’s eyes and told him such blatant lies.
At the same time, an overwhelming force had drawn her towards Michael from the day they met. Although their mutual attraction excited her, it also frightened her, making her feel like she had fallen under a spell so powerful that nothing, not even love for her children, would be able to break. Ana sometimes wished she could swallow a pill to forget her lover. Oblivion, she speculated, was the only way to resist Michael’s inexplicable hold on her. No matter how often she went over her husband’s attributes—his loyalty, fidelity, culture, intelligence and sense of duty—they couldn’t move her in the way Michael’s puzzling combination of angelic and devilish characteristics did. There was something about the fact that she knew her lover had a dark side which made all of his qualities—his boyish charm, intelligence, humor, fierce sensuality and intense passion—pop out all the more, in full relief.
When she had asked Michael one day over lunch to explain to her why good girls fall for bad boys, he had shrugged with the confidence of a man who’s expressing a self-evident truth: “Pure goodness is boring. Besides,” he grinned, “I’m a good boy, I swear.”
Michael looked so clean-cut, youthful and innocent that, looking at him, Ana almost believed him. Almost. “No you’re not,” she playfully contradicted him.
He frowned like a child. “Me? I wouldn’t even hurt a fly.”
She had to laugh. “If you want to convince me that you’re a nice guy, please don’t quote Psycho.”
Michael smiled in response, then adopted a more serious demeanor. “My personal hunch is that women want to feel like they have something to tame in a man. If he’s already domesticated, it’s no fun. You always have to have a challenge. Otherwise life gets too boring and predictable.” Ana recalled how Michael had looked at her, with a mixture of indulgence and intensity. “But don’t flatter yourself,” he said. “You’re not a good girl either. Because if you were, you wouldn’t be here with me, now would you?” Ana had to concede that her lover had a point. The same one, in fact, that her husband had made when they first got engaged and were discussing their previous relationships. “Nice guys always finish last,” Rob had commented. He was referring to his ex-girlfriend, who had left him for a womanizer. Never in a million years, Ana thought, would Rob have suspected that she, the woman he loved, married and had children with, would one day similarly betray him.
Quite often Ana succeeded in deflecting her guilt by painting Rob as an incompatible mate in a comatose marriage. During those moments, she felt entitled to pursue happiness with her lover. Yet as she looked at Rob’s face in their family photos, his smile seemed that of an unjustly wronged man. She was drawn to his rounded lips, his triangularly shaped head, his high cheekbones and even to his slightly crooked nose, the result of a deviated septum that he had been afraid to fix. She had always relied upon her husband’s loyalty, sturdiness and good character. Whatever his faults may have been, Ana felt, he didn’t deserve this betrayal.
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