She spotted her fiancée in the crowd, as radiant and disarmingly handsome as always. He waved to her and flashed a bright white smile. He’s still so friendly to me, Karen noted, surprised by this unexpectedly positive reaction. What should I do? she wondered. Shake hands with him? Do nothing? Michael quickly resolved the matter by giving her a peck on the cheek and hugging her, as if nothing happened. Although Karen had mentally prepared herself a cold reception, his warmth threw her off. “I’m… why are we hugging?” she managed to stutter.
“Why not?” he smiled unctuously at her. “We’re not enemies, are we?”
Is he flirting with me? she wondered, with genuine confusion. “I don’t know what we are anymore.”
Michael noticed that Karen was carrying only a small tote bag. “Where’s your suitcase?”
“This is all I brought,” she shrugged. “I didn’t know how long I’d stay. Plus, I still have some clothes left at my mother’s house.”
“You can stay with me for a few days. Maybe as long as one or two weeks,” Michael informed her, still planning to part ways with her on the best of terms. “However long it takes us to sort things out.”
“Is your girlfriend okay with this?” Karen asked him, surprised that Ana would accept such an unusual arrangement.
“I’ve told her that you’re coming so we can discuss everything in person.”
“And what did she say?”
“She wasn’t too thrilled about it, as you can imagine. But in the end, she understood. I didn’t tell her how long you’d stay with me though,” he made a slight grimace, to claim ignorance. “We hadn’t worked out the details yet.”
“I doubt that she’ll put up with it,” Karen commented, feeling slightly triumphant. Through this tiny and seemingly innocuous deception, the solidarity between the two lovers was beginning to crack.
Despite this note of optimism, however, once Karen and Michael stepped into the car, an air of awkwardness settled between them. On the drive back, they hardly exchanged a word. Karen, herself, didn’t know what to say. She was overcome by the painful awareness that this was the first time she and Michael sat so close together without being romantically involved. She gazed out the window at the scenery they had passed so many times before, in happier circumstances. Her mood shifted from sadness to jealousy. As soon as they arrived at his house, Karen asked him: “Do you have any pictures of her?”
Michael looked at her with apparent compassion. “Yeah. But are you sure you want to do this to yourself?”
“I want to know everything.”
Michael deposited Karen’s tote bag in the guest room. He then went into his office, to take out a bunch of photographs of Ana from his desk drawer. “Here she is,” he extended her the pictures.
Karen examined each one closely: one in front of their house, with Ana standing between the two largest pine trees; another taken in a parking lot near a Chinese restaurant; the third inside the revolving restaurant where, she became painfully aware, Michael had always taken her on special occasions. Without making any comments, Karen returned the photographs to him with a look of disgust. She didn’t just feel betrayed. She felt replaced.
Michael placed the pictures back neatly into his desk drawer. “Have you had dinner yet?” he asked her matter-of-factly.
“I’m not hungry.” Karen thought that Ana was pretty but not stunning. Looking at her, you wouldn’t have thought she was the home wrecker type. Nonetheless, as she had suspected all along, it was all physical between them. Yet, somehow, this assumption didn’t make things any easier for her. “You did me a favor. I’ve lost five pounds just since you told me,” she tried to make light of her own distress.
“I’m sorry,” Michael apologized, gazing steadily into her eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
His apology only stirred up Karen’s anger, however. “Yeah, well, you obviously did.”
He approached her and took her hand in his tenderly. “I didn’t mean to hurt you and I’m sorry,” he repeated. “You’re a great person. You deserve better.” His gaze remained steady, to recapture her emotionally.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Karen threw back at him the phrase he had often used himself, to reproach her for occasionally rebuffing his sexual advances. “I want to find out more about the situation with Ana,” she gathered the strength to return to her original strategy.
Michael led her to the sofa, where they sat next to one another. “Anything you wish. What would you like to know?”
“Is she worth sacrificing our whole future together? Do you really love her?” Her unsteady gaze trembled with emotion.
“What is it that you have with her that we didn’t have?” she persisted, trying to figure out the secret recipe to his heart.
Michael had a dreamy look. “She’s creative and intense. She’s really passionate and not just in bed, but in every way and everywhere. As you know, I usually go for tall, athletic type. But Ana’s frail and small yet still turns me on. I don’t want to blow this unique opportunity. I feel this is my one chance in life to really seize passion and see how long I can make it last.”
A mental image of Michael twirling his petite girlfriend flashed before Karen’s eyes. “I bet you love cradling her in your arms,” she said, feeling all of a sudden inadequate for being so tall and large-framed, even though that was what drew Michael to her in the first place.
“She’s like a little doll,” he confirmed. “In fact, that’s one of the pet names I gave her.”
Although Karen had asked for more information, once presented with it, it was more than she could handle. “That’s enough,” she stopped him. “I guess I’m not ready to hear about this woman after all.” A knot of emotion constricted her throat. “I thought we really had something special,” she said, as tears rolled down her pale cheeks. “You made me feel like you really loved me.”
“I did, Baby, I did,” he replied in a buttery voice. “It’s just that life’s difficult to predict sometimes.”
“Don’t blame this on life, Michael! For once, take responsibility for your actions,” she burst out, infuriated by his subterfuge.
“Fair enough,” he agreed, to pacify her.
Although feeling more discouraged now than when she was working out everything in her own head, Karen wasn’t prepared to give up just yet. She knew from experience that every relationship had its soft spots. “I must say, I’m a little surprised by your selection,” she said, pursing her lips as she often did whenever she expressed what she considered to be perceptive criticism.
Michael hadn’t expected this reaction; not after he had spoken so highly of Ana. “Why?”
Karen began to feel more in her element, like the discussion was back on her turf. “Well, for one thing, I thought that you’d pick someone who was free, not a married woman with two kids,” she began with the facts.
“You don’t really choose who you fall in love with,” Michael countered fatalistically.
“How does her husband feel about this?”
“What about her kids? What was their reaction? She has a girl and a boy, right?” she pursued, on a roll.
“Yup,” he confirmed. “Eight and nine years old. From what Ana tells me, the girl’s angry about the whole situation. The boy’s a guy, so he’s more or less okay with it.”
“You’ll see once you become their stepfather. Neither of them will be okay with it, that’s for sure!”
“I realize that,” Michael reluctantly agreed. “But I’ll do my best. What else can I possibly do?” he raised his shoulders with an air of resignation.
“Maybe chose a partner who isn’t already married with kids?” Karen suggested. “Anyway,” she moved on, feeling like she had made her point, “how does Ana herself feel about the divorce?”
“She’s kind of ambivalent about it,” Michael was obliged to admit. “In fact, at first she didn’t want to go through with it. Because even in the best of circumstances, it would still mean shuttling the kids back and forth between parents and having them only half the time,” he elaborated, to highlight the fact that his girlfriend’s misgivings had nothing to do with him or the quality of their relationship.
“Sure. Divorce is always tough on the kids. Unless the relationship between the parents is so bad that separation’s preferable,” Karen reverted to the objective approach she generally adopted when discussing the lives of others. “Is she ambivalent even now?” she probed another promising weakness.
“Somewhat. I mean, she’s still shaken up about it. In fact, she sometimes gets downright hysterical.”
“I see… A regular diva!”
“Kind of,” he said with an indulgent smile. “She tends to be very dramatic.”
Karen peered straight into his eyes: “Are you sure that’s the kind of woman you need? I thought you enjoyed your peace and quiet.”
“It gets me so hot, Baby!” Michael quipped. “Not a dull moment.”
Karen, however, duly ignored his facetious remark. She preferred to stick to a no-nonsense perspective. “Yeah, but if she’s so emotional and ambivalent about getting a divorce, they’ll soon be trouble in paradise,” she helpfully predicted.
Michael didn’t reply.
Confident that she had driven home the previous point, Karen moved on to the next. “Does Ana plan to work? Other than on her art, I mean?”
“Nope. That was one of the things we agreed on from the very beginning. She wants to devote herself entirely to painting.” Karen didn’t comment, so Michael went on. “As a matter of fact, that was one of the sore spots in her marriage. Rob complained that she didn’t make enough money from art. So I told her this wouldn’t be an issue between us. It was a major selling point for her.”
“Well then, for your sake, I hope that she becomes wildly successful real soon. Cause it’s hard to imagine how you’ll manage to support a wife and two kids on your current teaching assistant fellowship,” Karen assumed an air of maternal wisdom, alluding to the fact that so far, in their relationship, she had been the main breadwinner.
“I’ll be looking for a teaching job in the spring,” Michael reminded her.
“And I pray that you find it,” Karen retorted. “But even if you do, money will be a problem. Didn’t you say the prep schools pay only 50,000 dollars a year? For a family of four, that’s a little tight, don’t you think?” She didn’t wait for his reply, however, since the question was purely rhetorical. “Is Ana a big spender?” she smoothly transitioned to her next point.
“Yup,” Michael reluctantly admitted. In the past, he had contrasted his fiancée’s plain attire to Ana’s understated elegance. But now it suddenly occurred to him that these qualities came, quite literally, at a cost. Ana loved spending money on clothes, shoes and jewelry. Especially his money, since he’d been quite generous with her, spoiling her with all kinds of gifts while she was his girlfriend. But, then again, he didn’t have to support two kids before. “We’ll have to renegotiate her spending habits,” he articulated his conclusion out loud.
“As you’d say, Mazeltov Baby!” Karen said almost cheerfully. “Let’s see if I’ve got this right. You’re leaving a responsible, loyal and faithful woman for a volatile artistic diva type who’s already cheated on her husband.”
Although not one prone to worrying, Michael was somewhat perturbed by some of the points raised by his former fiancée. Given Karen’s insecurity, he had been fully prepared for another sort of conversation with her. He thought that she’d ask him details about his affair, see that Ana was a better match for him and conclude, much as he had, that he couldn’t really be blamed for following his heart and choosing his girlfriend. He was also prepared for Karen becoming upset and insulting Ana, out of jealousy and spite. But he hadn’t expected that their conversation would deftly turn to Ana’s flaws and the weak spots in their relationship. Preferring to focus on the here and now, the future was something Michael rarely contemplated. However, since living with Ana would become his reality within a matter of days, Karen’s arguments sounded ominously relevant.
Would he be able to support an artistic diva and her two kids? Michael began to wonder. Would Ana’s children ever view him as anything other than the unwelcome intruder who broke up their family? Would he be able to get her to become more fiscally responsible, perhaps even frugal, like his fiancée? Could he ever really trust her? If Ana had cheated with him, what would guarantee that she wouldn’t cheat on him? After all, sometimes even players got played. That evening the rosy picture of the future he had envisioned with his girlfriend dimmed somewhat, as if he were seeing it through a pair of dark sunglasses. “Eh, what the hell! We’ll manage,” he said out loud to Karen. Yet, in his own mind, the idealized image of his girlfriend began to fissure, like the fine, hardly detectible wrinkles of a beautiful woman on the cusp of the bloom of femininity and the wilting of maturity.
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