Rob looked quizzingly into her eyes as he tore open the envelope. “What’s the occasion?”
She shrugged. “There isn’t one. It’s just because you’re so sweet.”
Rob didn’t know whether to be grateful or weary as he peered down at the card. It had a picture of a little kitten and a sleepy puppy with its floppy ear over the kitten’s head, protecting her underneath it like a cozy cover. The caption read, “And yet it works….” He smiled at her. “Thanks.”
Ana approached him to give him a hug, then a peck on the cheek. “You really are a good person,” she repeated and this time she meant it, unlike during the days she was planning to leave him for another man, when her husband’s good character was just an abstraction to her. Rob sensed the difference. He heard in Ana’s voice a sense of conviction, which perhaps accompanied the freshness of a new discovery, of falling in love all over again with the person you have ignored for too long. As Rob reciprocated, wrapping his arms around Ana, he felt her soft breast upon his chest and sensed her rapid heartbeat through the thin texture of their shirts.
When she looked up at him gratefully with her lively brown eyes, he bent down to kiss her. He explored her mouth with his tongue, as if she were simultaneously distant and familiar, a stranger and his wife, the new woman he desired and the one he had always loved. Rob led Ana by the hand to the bedroom and locked the door. She leaned back on the bed and he pulled her towards him by the feet and dove into her body, which had a clingy, viscous sweetness of honey that, at the moment, could make him forget the past. The rhythm of her quickened breathing merged with his accelerated movements, as her moist lips periodically met his cheek, his lips, and his ear. “I love you,” he said, letting go of the hurt, releasing the betrayal, allowing it to flow back into her and become reassimilated into their love.
That night, the aura of distance that had separated them even during sleep melted away. They lay side by side, spooning each other, his arm crossed over her naked waist, as he cradled her body protectively into his own. Ana couldn’t even close her eyes, she felt so excited. The man she thought could never desire her again had made her feel both wanted and loved. Unlike the other one, who, she now realized through the contrast between her lover and husband, had made her feel so intensely wanted that she had confused lust with love.
Ana recalled the feral look in Michael’s eyes whenever they made love, especially when he twisted her into a position that hurt or asked her to try something new to reignite his senses, never satisfied with the same, always needing more. She closed her eyes to make those images disappear. Go to sleep, forget about him, she advised herself. But the fugue of memories persisted, paradoxically reignited by the renewed intimacy with her husband, which made her see her experiences with her lover in a new light.
Ana recalled how once, when they had stopped by a hotel, she had noticed a stain on the bedspread and commented to Michael that she’d remove the blanket, since there was no telling who had done what on that bed. Before she even had a chance to pull away the dirty cover, he gently pushed her body into it, face down, lifted her skirt and took her from behind. At the time, she had interpreted his gesture as a sign of his arousal. But later, as he coaxed his way into getting her to accept unacceptable acts, she realized that what excited Michael most was bending her to his will and pushing the envelope.
Where would it have stopped? she now wondered.
“Please try this for me, Baby. I promise it won’t hurt,” he had once told her as he slipped a smooth, anointed finger into her, then quickly removed it and attempted to inch his way in. But he had lied, as usual. Because it did hurt, as much as when Nicu took her against her will the first time and almost as much as when she was giving birth, only without the reward.
“Stop it!” she kept crying out until the searing pain drowned out both her own protests and his inducements. Through tear-stained eyes she could see that Michael’s expression was disgruntled.
“It wasn’t too much to ask of you,” he said to her afterwards. “Lots of women get into it.”
“Well I don’t,” she countered, still aching. “It hurts.”
“Only at first, Baby. Just like when you first made love. But with proper lubrication, it doesn’t hurt anymore. I promise.”
“I don’t want to do that again.”
Michael looked her in the eyes and said, “Karen said no to me. I don’t want to hear you talk like her. We’re too much in love to deny each other these little pleasures. We’ll take it nice and slow next time.”
Even back then, Ana began to suspect that her lover’s desire to engage in a given act grew in direct proportion to the vehemence of her refusal. “There won’t be a next time,” she maintained.
It looked as if Michael was about to get angry, but then he changed his mind. “You say that now. But you’ll see. One eventually gets used to everything in life.”
“There are some things that I don’t want to get used to,” she had replied. Ana vaguely imagined her lover asking her to do more and more painful acts just to please him. She dismissed those disturbing visions, since after all, she wanted to believe that Michael loved her and wouldn’t want to harm her. “If something you enjoy causes me pain why would you want to do it at my expense? Why would you want to hurt me?” she asked him.
Michael approached stealthily and whisked her into his arms. His mouth was pressed to her ear when he said, “Because I like to feel your tightness against my shaft.” As he spoke, she felt the heat of his breath through the strands of her hair.
“But is your pleasure worth my pain?” she backed away to look probingly into his eyes.
And then Michael had smiled with a disarming air of boyish innocence and replied, “Of course not, Baby. You’re my frail little doll. I’d never want to break my little Papusica.”
Afterwards, they made love the way she liked it, softly and tenderly, with the unbearable sensuality that made caresses feel like kisses and kisses feel like the cool gentleness of an evening breeze against naked warm skin. But now she understood that Michael had misled her as usual on that afternoon. Because, in his eyes, even his slightest pleasure would be worth her greatest pain.
Poor Karen! Ana whispered to herself, thinking that her lover’s perversion would now become her rival’s misfortune. “You two deserve each other,” Michael had told her that Karen had commented when she had discovered Ana’s lingerie in his drawer. That may very well be, Ana now felt like answering her, but once we saw the real Michael, I’m the one who left him and you’re the one who kept him, honey. Because in spite of everything he had done to her, Karen still colluded with him, Ana thought, her sympathy diluted by bitterness. She filled his head with warnings and criticisms of me. And he, in turn, filled hers with false promises framed as conditionals--if only you had done this, that or the other thing, we’d have never found ourselves in this situation--so that she’d be there in reserve for him, a safety net to his spills and a slave to his wishes.
They’d never let go of each other, it dawned upon Ana. She feels incomplete without him and he never fully releases a willing target. I’d be caught between them like in a vice. A cold shiver traveled down the curve of her spine. “A vice in both senses of the term,” she said under her breath, almost forgetting that she lay safely in her own bed, beside a loving husband, with her children sleeping peacefully next door. “What?” Rob mumbled, awakened by her voice. “Nothing. I love you,” Ana nestled into him, seeking his body’s protection against the nightmare she would have endured.