“I love you so much, Baby,” Michael wrapped his arms around Ana’s naked waist, his voice raspy and sweet, filled with nectar.
This is the man I know and love, Ana reminded herself, beginning to feel safe again. “Should we go out for lunch to the Joyful House?” she suggested the ambiguously named Chinese restaurant they used to frequent, located only a few blocks away from his house.
Michael’s well-disposed smile was replaced by a scowl: “I hate that place!” he said with a vehemence that startled her. “It’s so freaking expensive and the food’s too greasy. Plus it’s dim as hell in there. I can hardly see you when you’re sitting across the table.”
Ana didn’t recall her lover ever complaining about that restaurant before, the scores of times they had eaten there together. “Why didn’t you tell me that you didn’t like it?”
“I went there just to please you.”
Ana was left to conclude that Michael wasn’t that concerned with pleasing her anymore. But she refrained from reproaching him, for fear that his reply would only confirm her growing suspicion that their best times were already behind them, the honeymoon over before it began. “We don’t have to go there,” she relented, stepping into the bedroom to dress.
“You’re wearing that skirt again?” Michael directed her a disapproving look as she slipped on her pencil skirt.
This question, too, took her by surprise. She recalled that only a few weeks earlier, when they were having lunch together at Panera’s, Michael had asked her very sweetly to get him a fountain drink. He said he wanted to watch her walking in that “hot, tight skirt” that, he had claimed, made him “drool with desire.” “It may come as a shock to you, but sometimes I wear what I want,” Ana retorted. He should buy himself a lap dog if he needs someone to obey his commands, she thought.
Michael took a deep breath, in and out, as if this small act of defiance was part of a larger, and much more significant, battle of wills that he fully intended to win. For now, however, he didn’t insist. He chose instead to bide his time and lose this battle in order to win the war: “We can go to the Chinese restaurant if you like. One last time. Because if it were up to me, we’d have never gone there in the first place.”
“How kind of you!” Ana no longer bothered to contain her sarcasm. Michael’s bossy attitude bothered her less than his growing indifference, which cast a pall over their lives. It’s too late to turn back, Ana reminded herself. We’ve already taken the plunge, jumped over the precipice together. Now I have to do whatever it takes to land safely on the other side. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, Michael had warned her. In a sense, Ana felt that he was right. She had lost her parents long ago. She had alienated her husband and in-laws. Her own children felt betrayed by her actions. Michael was the only ally she had left. Besides, having chosen her lover based on their spell of all-consuming passion, Ana now wanted to rise to the challenge. She wanted to prove to herself that she could care about a man and remain loyal to him when they lived through the real-life difficulties of an actual relationship, not just the pleasant diversions of a love affair. Even small compromises, she hoped, might reflect a mutual willingness to make their relationship work. “We don’t have to go there just for me. We can go anywhere you like,” she told him.
Michael felt obliged to exhibit some graciousness as well: “No, let’s go to the Chinese restaurant.”
“Thanks,” Ana forced a smile.
They put on their coats and walked hand in hand to the restaurant in silence. As of late, they had little left to say to each other. Most of the substantive topics of conversation—their relationship, the kids, money, the divorce, their current partners, their future activities together, the pain they were causing or felt—had become subjects of contention. Michael opened the door for his girlfriend. As Ana stepped into the familiar restaurant, it occurred to her that, in this instance, her lover was right. Its atmosphere was redolent with the smell of sauce wafting up to the sticky ceiling. The dim light of the Chinese lanterns oozed a sense of cheapness. Ana had never noticed any of this before. But then again, she told herself, when we were happy together, even a greasy joint like this became a place where you flirted and fed each other with chopsticks bits of chicken and rice. She marveled at how her concept of time had become so elastic. They had told their partners about the affair only two weeks earlier, which now felt to her more like two months, or even two years. From that moment on, everything between them changed dramatically for the worse.
When is she finally going to get over it and stop bitching about the breakup with Rob? Michael wondered, noticing Ana’s sullen expression. He was annoyed that the woman he fell in love with, his doting and sensual girlfriend, had been replaced by a depressed neurotic who drove him daily to the end of his rope. Seeking a welcome diversion from Ana’s company, his gaze surveyed the restaurant. It lingered upon a cute little blonde with the loveliest blue eyes who sat across from a plain looking boyfriend who’d certainly be no rival for him, Michael speculated. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Ana looking at him reproachfully. “That girl’s so annoying. She’s got the most irritating giggle,” he remarked in a conspiratorial whisper, moving his head in the direction of the blond who had caught his attention.
“I didn’t hear her laugh even once,” Ana commented dryly. “I guess I’m not as observant as you are.”
Michael wondered where this ever-present sourness he had never noticed in her before came from. It reminded him of Karen, when she was in one of her passive aggressive moods. He wasn’t too thrilled that his girlfriend was turning into his fiancée.
A family of four, the mother being a petite brunette about Ana’s age, the father somewhat older, and two small kids, one a toddler, the other still a baby, sat down at an adjacent table. The mother struggled to situate the baby in a highchair. When the latter began complaining, the mother quickly removed a pacifier from a napkin in her pocket and swiftly placed it into the baby’s mouth, which quieted her down.
“That’s what I should do to you when you get fussy. Only not with a pacifier,” Michael said suggestively. Suddenly, he was overcome by a rush of newfound hope. “That’s what we need!” he exclaimed, excited by the epiphany.
“What? A pacifier?”
“No. A baby. Our baby,” he emphasized. “That way we can create our own family.” His eyes glimmered as he looked at his girlfriend as his future wife, with complicity and affection again.
Ana winced as if Michael had mentioned the unmentionable, what she had feared all along. “You want me to have a baby with you to separate me from my own children!”
“Our baby would be your child too,” Michael pointed out, irritated by her defensive attitude. He was sick and tired of women telling him what to do, of women saying ‘no’ to him and frustrating his desires. He was sick and tired of having freaking jokes of imaginary animals instead of real children, his own kids. “I decide if and when we have a baby,” he said under his breath.
But Ana barely heard his statement. Preoccupied with her own thoughts, she nervously twirled a napkin between her thumb and forefinger. “When will the waitress take our order? We’ve been waiting for fifteen minutes already,” she commented with impatience.
“What’s really bugging you?”
“Come on. Out with it!” Michael urged.
“Lately I’ve been filled with doubt,” Ana obliged, not one to contain her emotions for long. “And not just about the divorce. About our relationship too. Ever since we told our partners about our affair, everything between us has changed. Haven’t you noticed? Before, pretty much everything I said and did used to please you. You were so ecstatic about me, it was almost embarrassing since, God knows, I’m far from perfect.” She paused to regain her breath, then went on. “But now you’re so cold and aloof that I can hardly recognize you anymore. Every night I go to sleep worried about my family and about whether or not you still want me or love me.”
“That’s your fault, not mine,” Michael commented dryly, unmoved. “You choose to focus on the negative. You create all this drama over nothing.”
“It’s not over nothing, Michael!” Ana protested. “It’s over everything. Because if we’re going to leave our partners and traumatize my kids, it better be for a damn good reason!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me,” he said sternly.
“And that’s another thing,” she continued, undaunted. “Your tone with me is different too. You don’t ask me sweetly anymore. You command me. And I don’t like it one bit,” she tapped her foot on the floor, for emphasis.
This Latin gesture used to remind Michael of his favorite opera, Carmen. Now it just annoyed him. “Yeah, well, right now you’re the one who’s screaming at me.”
Ana sighed, feeling exasperated. “Thanks for the reminder. You just brought up another excellent point,” she went on, on a roll. “You don’t listen to my issues anymore. You automatically dismiss them. It’s as if my feelings were completely irrelevant to you. Meanwhile, I wake up every morning worried about what you might want from me and about how to make you happy. I’m starting to feel like Karen, bending over backwards for you. What in the world’s happened to us, Michael?” By the end of her statement, which cascaded out of her unstoppably, Ana was downright hysterical. She cried into her napkin, her shoulders heaving with irregular convulsions.
As if confirming her charges, Michael didn’t rush to console her. Instead, he observed her coldly, with undisguised disdain. Even Karen doesn’t lose it like this, he observed. And she certainly has more class than to do it in public. Looking at Ana now, with her features distorted by tears, Michael couldn’t help but see her as a defeated woman. He could hardly believe that he had wanted her so badly for all those months. “Get a hold of yourself, alright?” he said in the patronizing tone with which one chastises a volatile child in the midst of a temper tantrum. “I don’t know what lines Rob’s been feeding you lately or where all these stupid accusations are coming from. But I’ll go ahead and refute them one by one, just to make you happy,” he deliberately mimicked her phrase. “First of all, you wanted this affair as much as I did. So don’t play Little Ms. Innocent with me cause I ain’t buying it. Second, you enjoy the sex as much as I do. So cut the crap and don’t play the prude either. It’s not a role that suits you. Third, you, yourself made the decision to tell Rob about us and ask him for a divorce. I didn’t even know you were going to do it when you did. Personally, I think it was a bit rash. We didn’t get the chance to work out all the practical details first. Finally, as far as my own behavior’s concerned, I’m a little more stressed nowadays because of our circumstances. That’s all there is to it. As usual, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” Michael was about to conclude, but he noticed Ana’s skeptical expression and decided to pursue his argument further. “And while we’re still on the subject, I certainly don’t find your behavior the same as before either. There’s always something with you lately. You’re worried or stressed or hysterical or cranky or, more often than not, all of the above. I realize that it’s tough to divorce a man you’ve been with for so long. But I can’t have much sympathy for you when you bring most of the stress upon yourself. Like all of the crazy things you’re accusing me of. They’re all in your head. None of them are real. I wanted to find a solution to your worries, a way to prove to you my commitment. I thought that starting our own family would bring us closer than ever. Remind me never to make any constructive suggestions again, okay?”
Ana glared at him. All of her former gushing feelings of love that had overflowed into their relationship condensed into an all-pervasive sense of resentment that bordered on hatred. “Michelle told me you’d do this. She warned me that you’d ask me to replace my own children.”
“You’re completely nuts! How the hell did the two of you geniuses come up with such a crazy idea?” Michael exploded. “I can understand how an immature kid might say something that preposterous. But you, Ana? How could you possibly think that I’d want you to replace your kids? I’ve never heard of anything so absurd in my whole life!”
Thinking that she might have overstated her case, Ana attempted to calm down. “I’m not saying that I’d ever abandon my kids. Nobody and nothing could make me do that. I’m just saying that they, themselves, would feel replaced if we had a baby. Think about it. Put yourself in their shoes,” she pursued, more reasonably. “Even as things are, since Rob and I will share custody, I’ll be with Michelle and Allan only half the time. If on top of that my time’s taken by our new baby, my kids will feel like I’m not giving them the love and attention they deserve. And could you really blame them?”
“Bogus!” Michael retorted. “Many couples divorce and start their own families. That’s very common. It doesn’t mean that you’re replacing the kids you had from a previous marriage. That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“That may very well be, but that’s how Michelle, and to some degree Allen too, would see it. And given how much I’ve hurt them already, I don’t want to risk doing anything to damage our relationship further,” Ana explained, appealing to his sympathy.
“Children are malleable and their perceptions can change. Parents have influence over them,” Michael countered in the staccato tone he generally assumed whenever his innermost desires were frustrated. “I’m not going to let your kids rule our lives. We’re the adults here. We’ll make decisions for them.”
“You used the plural form, ‘parents,’” Ana coolly observed. “That obviously means that your Royal Highness acknowledges that I, too, have some say in whether or not we have a baby together. Especially since, presumably, I’d be the one getting pregnant. And I say NO. I don’t want to have a child with you.”
Well then, the rules of the game have just changed little lady, Michael decided, telling himself that if Ana wouldn’t always put him first, then he no longer owed her anything at all. Through her obvious disregard for his wishes, she had removed whatever trace of good will he had left. “If that’s the way you want it, then that’s how it will be,” he said in a deeper voice, coming from his chest and the back of his throat. This statement, uttered as a concession but delivered as a threat, rang ominously in Ana’s ears.
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