Ana shook her head, taking a step back. “No way! I’m afraid of heights.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll hold you,” he emboldened her.
“No, I don’t want to.”
“Don’t ever say no to me!” he snapped at her.
When Michael looked into her eyes, Ana felt confronted by a different person. Her lover’s usually warm and flirtatious gaze now drilled straight through her. “Why are you talking to me like that?” she asked him, taken aback.
Michael abruptly changed his demeanor. “I’ll help you up,” he offered with a gracious smile, leaning over and extending his arm to her. “Come on, you little scardy cat,” he taunted her from above.
Ana had an uneasy feeling that her lover was playing a cat and mouse game with her, pawing her around, to see if she’d yield to his will. For a moment, she imagined that Michael was trying to lure her to her death, asking her to climb up on the roof with him only so that he could push her off. With a shudder, Ana dismissed such a crazy idea. “Stop insisting,” she said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked up at him, leaning over, his boyish face glowing, his dark hair glossy from the shimmering rays. “You look as beautiful as a god,” she remarked, hoping that flattery would appease him.
“Then come up here with me, my sweet Aphrodite.”
“Adonis, I can’t,” Ana held her ground, glad that it still lay under her feet. Michael motioned her up with his index finger, with the same gesture with which he brought her closer and closer as she drove towards him during their rendezvous. A force from within magnetically drew Ana to her lover, nearly overcoming her instinctive prudence. She took a few hesitant steps towards the ladder. She placed her hands on the rims and her right foot on the first rung. When she looked up, she saw Michael’s angelic face foregrounded like a beautiful portrait by the stretch of blue sky tinged only by thin wisps of pale clouds. Ana climbed up one step, then another.
“That’s my girl!” he encouraged her.
By the third rung, she felt dizzy. “I can’t do it,” she retreated backwards to safety.
“You really are a little chicken, you know that?” Michael didn’t know whether to feel amused or annoyed by her fear. “Can’t you do this for me?” he insisted, determined to push her beyond her comfort zone.
“I’m absolutely terrified of heights!” Ana repeated. His stern expression told her that he wasn’t about to give up. “Listen, if you’re going to be like this, I’m going home,” she threatened.
Michael finally relented. He climbed down the ladder and took Ana into his arms. “You make such a big deal out of nothing,” he whispered into her ear. His bodily warmth began to melt her anxiety.
“But you already knew that about me,” Ana defended herself.
“I sure did. You’re my nervous little Baby,” Michael confirmed, rocking her gently back and forth.
“And will you take care of me?” she looked up at him.
“I promise,” Michael replied. “But I need your cooperation. I can’t do this alone,” he said, suddenly aware of the fact that his asking Ana to climb up to the roof with him represented a challenge that tested more than just her nerve.
“What do you mean?”
“We need to present a united front.”
“Is this about the divorce issue again?”
“Not necessarily. But we need to remain united whatever we decide to do.”
“And what will we decide?” she asked him, genuinely uncertain.
Michael guided his girlfriend into the house, his hand upon her back. He felt the protrusions of her delicate shoulder blades. “It all depends on our strength,” he said, acutely aware of her frailty.
“Are you moving to Phoenix this summer?” Ana turned to him suddenly, sensing an implicit threat in his comment.
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily, little girl!”
“But Karen will be doing her best to get you to move there with her,” she reminded him.
Michael shrugged. “So what? Once I’ve made up my mind about something, nobody can change it,” he said smugly.
“Besides, she has no effect on me anymore. She’s as familiar as an old shoe.”
“Just how many pairs of shoes do you need?” she asked him nervously.
“Only this one,” he said, pulling her towards him. “And I want to wear it ‘till the day I die.”
“Or until you wear it out,” Ana would have liked to respond. Once they stepped into the house, she removed her shoes and placed them parallel on the threshold. Michael watched his girlfriend walk barefoot ahead of him to the living room, her gait strangely unsteady, a cross between the walk of a child and that of an old woman. She fell unto the sofa, allowing herself to melt into it as if her muscles had given way to a debilitating torpor. “I’m so worried about our future,” she said, gazing at his tranquil features. “How come you’re not?”
“Because I care more about the present,” Michael serenely replied.
For her part, Ana found it both reassuring and disturbing that her lover never seemed to worry about anything. Although his carefree attitude offered her some comfort at times, it also made her increasingly aware of a fundamental difference between them. “Will you love me tomorrow as much as you do today?” she tried to bridge the gap through the notion of commitment.
“That sounds like a sixties song,” Michael replied with a smile.
Ana took note of his evasiveness. “I’m asking you a serious question. You want me to leave my husband. Why? What will you offer me in exchange? Will you give me love and security ten years from now? Or are we in the midst of a fleeting infatuation that will soon burn itself out?”
“What do you think I am? A fortuneteller? You’re asking me to look into a crystal ball and predict the future.”
Ana was disappointed by his reply. “I just need to know that there’s something more to us than this passion. Because passion’s not enough.”
“I thought you lived for passion and art.”
“There’s more to life than that.”
Ana was surprised by his question. “Well, for one thing, there’s love for one’s children. And a sense of human decency and responsibility towards others. How can feelings based on pure selfishness bring anything good to anyone?”
“You think that what I feel for you is selfish? Then why the hell am I waiting for you? Why am I putting up with all your mood swings and wishy-washiness? Why aren’t I pressuring you to divorce right away or moving on, since you won’t agree to it? Why does my whole world revolve around you, woman?” he asked, becoming increasingly agitated.
“Because I bring you a lot of pleasure,” she answered simply.
“Have I ever behaved in any way that makes you doubt my feelings for you?” Michael’s tone wavered between tenderness and reproach.
“You have, indeed,” Ana decided to unleash the doubts that had been troubling her for awhile. “You want me to hurt my husband. You want me to hurt my children. And you have been ruthless to your own fiancée. Even though you say your love for her is dead, you’re still dragging her along with us. Is that how you’ll treat me once you tire of our relationship? Will I be your next back-up?”
Michael wasn’t prepared for such an onslaught. “Cut the crap! You know very well that I’ve never loved Karen like I love you.”
“Then why don’t you tell her that?” Ana asked him point blank.
His gaze shifted. “Yeah, right. So that if you decide to stay with Rob, I’ll be left all alone.”
Ana couldn’t see the logic behind his statement. “If you decided you don’t love Karen before we met, then it shouldn’t matter what I decide. Why are you holding on to a woman who’s definitely not right for you? Why are you leading her on?” There must be more to their relationship than he’s letting on, she speculated.
“Hey, we’re in the same boat here. If we’re hurting the people we love, it’s only because we love each other most. We belong together,” Michael reinforced his main message.
Ana’s nod reflected irony rather than agreement. “That’ll be our excuse when we fall in love the next time. And the time after that. You can’t build anything good in life upon the destruction of others.”
“I already told you what I think about that. Happiness always comes with a price,” he harked back to their earlier discussion.
“Funny how it never seems to cost you anything. Right now, it’s mostly Rob and Karen who are footing the bill for our happiness,” she commented dryly.
“That’s because they aren’t as lucky as us. They haven’t found the right person yet,” Michael retorted, unperturbed. “You need to get your priorities straight and know what you want from life. I certainly do.”
Ana gazed at him, struck once again by the contradiction between the angelic sweetness of his features and the callousness of his attitude. “Why is it always about what you want?” she wondered out loud. “I’ve never once heard you explain that you did something because someone else wanted it.”
“Now that’s not fair,” Michael objected. “I go to movies you or Karen want to see, or to restaurants you like, even if I think they’re crappy.”
Ana shook her head. “These are trivial compromises and you know it. You always do what you want in anything that really counts.”
“Hey, what can I say? I have a mind of my own. I guess that makes me a selfish bastard, doesn’t it?” he laughed out loud deeply, from the gut. “And you love me that way, admit it!” he added in response to her disapproving expression.
“I’m not sure that I like that about you.”
“Fine, then go ahead and leave me,” he said. When put on the defensive or asked to consider the consequences of his actions, Michael instantly retreated into his shell, shutting down. Ana would either be his, or she didn’t count, he had decided early on in their affair. After all, he thought, I’m not going to waste my time and energy pursuing a woman who doesn’t really want me. I’ll be fine without her, Michael told himself whenever confronted with the possibility of losing his girlfriend. The ability to detach with great ease even from the closest human bonds filled him with a sense of autonomy, which translated into the carefree and confident attitude that magnetically drew women to him in the first place.
Ana was no exception. “I can’t,” she settled back passively unto the sofa.
“Why not?” he approached her stealthily, sensing, like an animal circling its wounded prey, her imminent capitulation.
“Because I’m torn,” she replied with a sense of resignation.
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