“I told Rob about our affair,” Ana announced right away.
“You what?” Michael’s eyes opened wide. A rush of emotion rose to his head and his ears turned crimson with heat. He had finally defeated his rival and won over his girlfriend, as he always knew he would. He just didn’t think it would happen so soon...
“I had to,” she said almost apologetically. Michael led her into the house, one hand placed upon the small of her back, the other opening the door for her. “It’s been weighing on me for months. I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Are you mad at me?” she asked him, unsettled by his silence.
Michael stopped in the middle of the living room. “Are you kidding? You’re finally mine!” He picked Ana up and began twirling her, spinning around faster and faster, holding her high above his head, like a trophy.
The walls mixed in with the brown of the furniture and the white of the ceiling as the whole room became a dizzying whirl.
“Michael, stop it!” she exclaimed, feeling like she was no longer in control of her senses.
After a couple of more revolutions, Michael put her down, in front of him. As he admired her bright eyes and flushed cheeks, he couldn’t help but smile.
Ana looked at her lover indulgently, as she did whenever he acted so young. Michael beamed with delight, like a child receiving a much-awaited Christmas gift. His pleasure made her smile too, only with traces of sadness. “It was pretty tough on Rob. And we haven’t even told the kids yet.”
“We’ll deal with all that later. Now it’s time to celebrate!” Michael rushed into the kitchen to uncork the bottle of champagne he had saved for a special occasion.
Ana followed him there. She accepted the drink, sipping it gingerly while examining his expression. “I’m happy that you’re happy.”
“Aren’t you happy for yourself?” Michael asked her, his own bubble of elation punctured by her somber mood.
She hesitated a moment before replying, “Yes, I am.”
Michael grabbed her free hand and pulled her to him. “What’s wrong, Baby? You don’t seem that happy,” he commented, becoming attuned to her guarded reaction.
Ana looked to the side, focusing on the diamond pattern of the linoleum floor, to distract herself from her own mixed emotions. “I dread telling the kids about this,” she said quietly.
Michael placed his wine glass on the kitchen counter and took a seat, pulling Ana unto his lap. “Look at me,” he gently commanded. “You need to get a hold of yourself. What’s done is done. We finally took the plunge. Now we need to stay united. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize at all times, alright?”
“I’m worried that it’s going to be hard on them.”
“So where’s the news here? We already knew it wouldn’t be easy. But are you going to fall apart at the finish line? Or are you going to carry the day for us, like a champ?” he slipped into life coach mode.
“I’ll do my best,” she said without much conviction.
“Did you discuss with Rob any of the practical details yet?” Michael asked, a sense of pragmatism displacing his initial elation.
“Like the custody issue.”
Ana nodded. “It’s one of the first things we agreed upon this morning. We’re going to draft a divorce settlement that stipulates joint custody. Fifty-fifty, with alternating weekends and split vacations. That way Michelle and Allen can feel at home in both places. But they’re staying at their current schools, since that’s where all their friends are. We don’t want to uproot them.”
“Good,” Michael approved, in a business-like manner. “What about the money?”
“Since we just bought the house, we don’t have that much left in savings. But we co-own it, so I’ll probably get half its value. I’m not really sure yet.”
“How much will you get?”
“About 150,000 dollars,” she estimated.
“Not bad… We can use part of that for our vacation,” Michael proposed. His eyes lit up at the prospect of traveling again. “I was thinking this summer we could spend a few days in Paris. And maybe also visit Provence for a few weeks, since it’s cheaper and less crowded.”
“Actually, I was planning to put those funds in a money market account. I wasn’t going to touch them until we buy a bigger house. You know, so that the kids can each have their own room,” Ana shared with him her own plans.
“Nah, they’ll be fine,” Michael brushed off her suggestion. “At any rate, they’re not mutually exclusive, the new house and a nice vacation.” He approached Ana until she could feel the warmth of his breath tickle her cheek. “Our little honeymoon,” he enticed her. It suddenly occurred to him that he might even be able to get Ana to fall in love with Arizona. “We don’t even have to travel abroad. I know this wonderful little place in Arizona, which I’m sure you’d love. Have you ever heard of Sedona? It’s an artists’ town filled with galleries and surrounded by mountains and canyons. It’s really spectacular. The landscape changes color with the sun.” Maybe once Ana saw the beauty of Sedona and got her paintings into a gallery or two down there, she’d be instantly seduced by it. Rob would be just fine taking care of the kids on his own. After all, hadn’t she told him ad nauseum that he was a responsible father?
“We can’t count on the settlement money,” Ana proceeded with caution, oblivious to the reference to Sedona. “First of all, because the divorce might not go through by this summer. Plus, even though Rob and I co-own our house, I don’t really know how much of it is actually mine.”
“Why not?” Michael frowned.
“Because I bring in less income than he does. At any rate, we never discussed these matters before. We weren’t planning to divorce,” she directed him a meaningful glance.
“That kind of crap, not having a clue about who gets what, won’t happen if we ever get divorced!” Michael assumed an air of authority. “We’ll draft a nice prenup, so that it’s clear that my house stays in my name, no matter what happens with us.”
Ana’s gaze clouded. “Why do we need a prenup?”
“To protect our assets. Even when madly in love, one has to keep one’s feet firmly on the ground.”
It occurred to Ana that before, during all those months of courtship, her lover had made the opposite argument. He had tried to persuade her, through both words and actions, that when one’s passionately in love, reality itself is lifted unto a higher plane of existence. “I just can’t believe that you’re already thinking about divorce when we haven’t even gotten married yet.”
“Hey, if you don’t like the deal, then the marriage’s off!” Michael retorted. “We can always live together, if you prefer,” he added, adopting a cavalier tone that he had never used with her before. But it sounded very familiar to Ana because she had heard him talk that way to Karen on the phone.
She jumped off his lap and stood facing him, with arms akimbo. “All these months you’ve been pressuring me to divorce Rob so that we could marry. Honorably, with lifelong commitment. You never once mentioned anything to me about a prenup or cohabitation. I’d have never agreed to any of that! I certainly didn’t want to leave my husband, whom I still love despite our problems, and traumatize my kids, just so that the two of us could live together, with no commitment, no nothing, like a couple of hippies.”
Ana’s voice had a high-pitched edge that grated on Michael’s nerves. He had never noticed it before, during their previous disagreements. “Calm down, alright? We’re not Romanian peasants and this isn’t the nineteenth century! Cohabitation isn’t a dishonor in this country. I assure you that they won’t stone us for it here.”
“You never mentioned any of this to me before. I’d have never agreed to it!” Ana insisted. She couldn’t help but think that her lover had dangled the marriage proposal, along with the promise of lifelong commitment, as bait, to lure her to divorce her husband.
“That’s because we never discussed any of these practical details before. The best relationships are those where both parties choose to be together on a daily basis.”
For Ana, his answer felt like a slap in the face. And a brazen lie at that, since she recalled that Michael had certainly discussed the practical details of their marriage, even telling her how they’d buy a house in the same neighborhood, what a loving husband and stepfather he’d be and what activities they’d do together as a family. She scrutinized his face, attempting to pierce through to the core of his innermost thoughts and feelings. But Michael’s expression remained perfectly serene, except for a glimmer in his eyes that struck Ana as more malicious than mischievous. He’s enjoying toying with my feelings, she observed. “Not for me. For me, the best relationships are based on mutual trust and commitment. I trusted your offer to marry me and I can’t accept having a relationship with you under these changed conditions.”
Michael appeared suspended, like someone in a video right after you press “pause.” Given that, so far, Ana had always given in to his wishes, he hadn’t expected such a vehement negative reaction from her. “I guess then I’ll just have to go through with my original plan and move to Phoenix. Or maybe even try out California,” he mumbled. During one of Ana’s spells of ambivalence about divorce, he had looked up Amy, his first girlfriend, on the internet. He found out that she lived in a small town in California and still looked pretty hot. If things didn’t work out with Ana, he had made a quick mental note, he might be tempted to give Amy a second try. And if that wasn’t an option anymore, he calculated two moves ahead, then perhaps the combination of Karen and Phoenix might not be so bad after all. Michael mentally congratulated himself for not having burned that bridge just yet.
“What are you talking about?” Ana asked, in a daze.
“I was just thinking out loud about what I’d do if we broke up.”
“At this point, shouldn’t you be thinking about how to make our relationship work?”
“Hey, don’t try to pin this one on me! I’m not the one backing out on us. You are.”
“That’s only because you’re backing out of our commitment!” Ana protested. Michael looked away to hide a sardonic smile. “Look at me!” she commanded. “From the very beginning, you pressured me to marry you. You always said marriage. You never said anything to me about living together. I’d have never agreed to it,” she tapped the floor with her foot.
She’s having a freaking meltdown, Michael noted with irritation. Not willing to give up on Ana right at the moment when he had finally seized her from her husband, however, he felt obliged to back down momentarily. “Baby, chill out, okay? I still want to marry you,” he reassured her. “But I refuse to get myself in the situation Rob’s in right now, not sure as to how to divide our property. This house is mine and it will stay mine,” Michael defended his main point, his eyes shining with the possessiveness dogs have towards their food dish when they perceive another dog approaching it.
Ana looked at him with dismay. It’s as if she couldn’t recognize her lover anymore. She had definitely expected that telling Rob and the kids would be a challenge. But she didn’t imagine that Michael himself would suddenly back down from his seemingly rock-solid commitment the very instant when the reality of marriage displaced the fantasy of their affair. He had always told her that he lived in expectation of that reality. But now that they were about to live together, Michael was hedging, protecting himself from her. Erecting a barrier between them. A wall made of qualifications, divided assets and, worst of all, divided interests. Ana couldn’t help but smile at one of the sad, self-defeating ironies of human nature. As soon as you finally get what you want in life, you no longer want it.
“What are you smirking about?” Michael asked her.
“It just seems a little strange that you already had a backup plan all lined up in case our plans fell through.”
“Hey, you know me! I always come prepared,” he replied, it occurred to him, in the same way he had to Karen when she made the same charge.
“Would you forget me that easily?” Ana struggled to contain her emotions.
“Of course not,” Michael replied more tenderly. “I was only talking like that in self-defense, because you’re pushing me away. But, quite frankly, I feel like if you ever decide to leave me, I’ll be spending the rest of my life searching for another you. Let’s face it. If we ever make the colossal mistake of breaking up, neither of us will find this kind of passion again. As they say, lightning doesn’t strike twice.”
Michael’s tone was so warm and his demeanor so gentle that Ana really wanted to believe what he was saying. Even a day earlier she’d have believed him. But on that afternoon, the mood had changed. She couldn’t dispel a sense of unease. “I don’t know,” she replied, still shaken by the perfunctory manner in which Michael had withdrawn his earlier promises. “It seems to me like you loved me so much more when you didn’t have me,” she said with a note of regret. Ana thought about what Michael had told her months earlier; about the protective bubble that surrounded him ever since he was a child. “All of a sudden, I feel like I’m not in your bubble anymore.”
“That’s a low blow and you know it!” Michael protested. “I had always envisioned drafting a prenup to protect my assets. I just never mentioned it to you before because I saw no point in it. Our marriage was just an abstraction then. Now it’s becoming real. Hey, speaking of reality, do you want to get a new living room set? That nice, bordello red micro fiber sofa and love chair we looked at a few months ago? I wouldn’t mind making love on it right there at the store, when nobody’s looking, to test it. What do you say?” he added playfully, hoping to lighten her mood.
Ana had a flashback to the early days of their affair, to her own fantasy at the furniture store, of sitting in Michael’s lap in the love chair in the same position she occupied a few moments ago on the kitchen chair. Only in her mind they weren’t arguing about cohabitation, prenups or money. They were watching movies together and planning fun activities with the kids.
“Is Rob giving you money for your half of the furniture?” Michael interrupted her pleasant reminiscence.
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Because we could use it to buy new furniture.”
“I’m glad to see you have your priorities straight,” Ana remarked coldly. It occurred to her that her generous lover was rapidly morphing into Karen’s stingy fiancé.
Noticing her defensive attitude, Michael decided it was time to switch gears, back to romantic mode. “I can’t wait for us to move in together!” he declared excitedly.
His statement struck Ana as incongruous with their earlier exchange. “Are you sure about that?”
“Of course, Baby. I’ve been trying to get my paws on you for almost a year now,” Michael said, his hand slipping surreptitiously underneath Ana’s shirt and gently fingering her nipple. Inspired by the giving softness of her skin hardening under his touch, he recalled his own vision of their future, which he had turned over and over in his head during the long, frustrating months when they were obliged to live apart. “I’ll call you from school at lunch, to let you know ahead of time what I want you to wear when I come home and in what position you should wait for me,” he whispered breathlessly, barely containing his arousal. “On some days, I’ll ask you to wear the thigh highs and corset I bought you and wait for me by the door, with your legs open,” he motioned apart her thighs with the tips of his fingers, “while on others, I may want you to wait for me wearing nothing but a pair of black lace gloves, bent over our new red micro fiber sofa,” he added, attempting to remove her shirt.
But Ana resisted, keeping it firmly in place with both hands. “Hold on a sec. You expect me to wait home for you wearing certain clothes and in certain positions?” she repeated with an air of incredulity.
“Hey, it will be my little treat for bringing in the dough for our family,” he crudely articulated what so far had been only an implicit assumption.
Ana was troubled not so much by what her lover was asking her to do as by his peremptory manner. Michael had never behaved this way with her before. It’s true that sometimes he bought her lingerie or sexy outfits that he wanted her to wear when they were together. But they were always offered as a gift and accompanied by kisses, caresses and sweet nothings whispered in her ear, which made her happy to wear them, just to please him. “Michael, what did you think I’d become once we lived together? Your kept woman? I’ll be your partner, your wife. I hope that you’ll continue to treat me with respect.”
At that moment, she realized that, up to now, she’d have done almost anything for this man. Just because of the manner in which he asked her, so cajoling, tender and seductive. Just because of the manner in which she loved him, so completely, with such ardor. She’d have sold her soul to please Michael, since he seemed to love her like she had never been loved before. But now that he was practically giving her orders, treating her as if she had no mind of her own, for the first time in their relationship, Ana felt her will tighten inside of her like a muscle being flexed, resisting overt domination.
“Of course I’ll respect you,” Michael moved her chin up with his hand, to look into her eyes again. “Haven’t I treated you well?”
“So far you have,” she cautiously admitted. “Let’s keep it that way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, not pleased with her qualified response.
“You’ve spoiled me as a girlfriend, that much is true,” she acknowledged. “But it’s a whole different story to treat me well as your life partner, once we actually move in together.”
“Just tell me what you want and I’ll grant your wishes in an instant,” Michael responded with an air of indulgence, like Santa Claus asking a little girl what she wanted for Christmas.
Ana was encouraged by his receptiveness. “I was thinking that during the weekends when we’ll have the kids over at our house, we could have one day in which we cart them around to their lessons. Allen has guitar and Michelle has horseback riding on Saturday mornings. Then we’ll drive them to their various play dates with their friends, which are really important to them. We could make Sunday our special family day, you know, go to the zoo or the movies and have fun together. That way the kids can grow to like you and adjust to our situation.”
“Like that will ever happen!” Michael snapped back. He had expected that Ana would share with him her sexual fantasies, not all the freaking errands he was supposed to run for her brats.
“What do you mean? You always told me that you’d do your best be a good stepfather to Michelle and Allen.”
“Sure, I’ll try,” Michael said unconvincingly, with a shrug. “But no matter what I do, they’ll still hate my guts. Especially Michelle, since she’s older and a girl. Girls are more precocious and sensitive than boys. Plus they tend to worship their real dads. So I guess, I’ll be shit out of luck with her.”
“Michael, don’t be so negative!” Ana protested. “You never used to talk like this before.”
“Yeah, well, before none of this crap was real.”
“But you wanted it to be real. You insisted on making it real,” she reminded him. For her, Michael’s attitude towards her children functioned as a litmus test. “If you love me, you’ll be good to my kids.”
“Of course, Baby, I’ll do my best. It’s just that my best may not be good enough. I’m more realistic than you are,” Michael smiled gently and stroked Ana’s hip with a circular motion. “I was thinking that the nights we don’t have the kids over at our house, we could go out to clubs.”
“To clubs?” she repeated, with obvious disappointment. “I don’t get into that modern stuff, rap, hip-hop or whatever they call it. I’m too old for it and even when I wasn’t, back in college, I still didn’t like it. Earlier, we were talking about taking salsa lessons together, remember? What happened to that idea?”
“Hey, why waste the money on lessons when we can go dancing for free, right?” Michael countered cheerfully.
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
Michael realized he had to say something to preempt her withdrawal before they reached the finish line. Her took Ana by the hand and gazed steadily into her eyes. “Listen to me, Baby. After everything we’ve sacrificed to be together, let’s make sure that we’re still on the same page. If you agreed to divorce Rob, given your misgivings, it’s obviously because you love me more. You told me you want to spend the rest of your life with me. I feel the same way about you. Nobody’s more important to me than you are. We may face some difficulties at first in adjusting to our new circumstances. That’s only to be expected. Nobody said divorce was going to be easy. But if we stay united, we’ll make it. This is our one chance in life to really live out passion in marriage. Let’s not blow it, alright?”
“I don’t intend to,” she assured him.
Yet as she drove back home, Ana couldn’t help but dwell upon Michael’s earlier comment, about dancing for free. It sounded analogous to the popular saying, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, which seemed to sum up her lover’s reaction to her news. It also reminded her of a scene she witnessed quite often at the beach, where a man sucks in his stomach when a pretty young woman walks by, only to let it go back to its natural beer gut in front of his own good old wife. Before Ana had been the girlfriend to impress. But now she had become the future wife in front of whom Michael could let all his flaws hang out, his flabby selfishness and unbecoming stinginess. Above all, it was the suddenness of his transformation that made her feel uneasy.
Ana recalled how one day, early into their relationship, Michael had described to her his game-like attitude towards one-night stands. Before he scored, he explained, all of his energy was focused on seducing a given woman. But after he had sex with her, he lost all interest and didn’t “waste” an ounce of energy on pleasing her anymore. One anecdote stuck out in Ana’s mind. Michael had told her about his date with a girl with wavy, auburn hair whom he had picked up at a bar and invited to a movie. It took him more than half the movie to coax her gradually, kiss by kiss and caress by caress, into eliminating the divide between them, crouch unto his lap in the back row of the movie theater and make love, in the blend of semi-obscurity and public display that never failed to arouse him. But as soon as they consummated the act, Michael disconnected. When the girl tried to caress him again, he moved her hand away with the impatience with which one swats off an annoying fly. Once his sexual desire was satisfied, he wanted to watch in peace the rest of the movie. “But how can you switch just like that, from charming and seductive to cold and disinterested, in a matter of seconds?” Ana had asked him. “Because I was done with her,” he replied with a shrug. “And didn’t you ever become attached, you know, because of the sexual intimacy, to any of the women you dated?” she pursued. “To those sluts? No freaking way! I just used them and tossed them away like a bunch of dirty condoms. Back then, before we met, it was all about the scoring, Baby!” he boasted with an air of smugness that bordered on cruelty.
In some ways, this episode reminded Ana of how Michael had acted with Karen. Although his relationship with his fiancée had been more serious, a similar pattern of behavior emerged. Once Michael decided he was done with a woman, her needs, her actions and her entire personhood no longer mattered to him. Initially, Ana had felt a certain pride that her lover had placed her in a different category of women, since he had often told her that he had never loved anyone so passionately or needed anyone as much as her. She was the exception that confirmed the rule, he had repeatedly assured her. No doubt, part of her enjoyed the challenge of taming a man who had been so wild with every other woman in his life.
Yet now that she had observed her lover’s reaction to the news that she’d finally become his partner, Ana began to wonder if she, herself, wasn’t just a score for him. A different kind of score, a seduction of body, mind and soul. One that took more time, energy and patience, but with the same inevitable end result. Once he had won the match, Michael would move on to the next challenge. This idea greatly perturbed Ana, hitting too close to her husband’s warning. For that very reason, she tried to dismiss it. Michael loves me, she told herself. He wooed me for months. He gave me all of his attention and affection. He promised to take care of me and the kids.
By the end of this rehearsal of Michael’s loving words and gestures, Ana felt somewhat pacified. But a trace of distrust towards her lover lingered. She was now on the alert for any future warning signals. Because she knew that when he was really interested in a woman, his focus on her and on everything associated with her was total and intense. It resembled a powerful beam of light that illuminated only one spot at a time. For almost a year, Ana had been that spot. But now she began to wonder for how long she’d continue to attract his undivided attention.
Because once Michael’s interest diminished, the light dispersed. Afterwards, there was no energy left in the relationship, except perhaps for the unreciprocated, desperate efforts of a discarded partner: which is to say, a total waste of energy. Emotions poured into a black hole. Although Michael may not have been honest with anybody else, Ana sensed, he always remained true to himself. He lied disturbingly well, with an uncanny glibness and ease. But he was much too selfish and, in that sense, much too honest, about his own needs to convincingly fake interest in someone else. Which is why, despite his seductiveness, deceitfulness and charm, Michael was actually quite transparent if you were willing to open your eyes and take a good look at him. And once you did, you saw the man Ana was beginning to see. You saw the seducer.
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