“Hi,” she answered curtly.
“Listen, I’m sorry about how I behaved the other day. Believe me, I’m painfully aware of how difficult it must be for you.”
“Actually, I was going to call you if you didn’t call me,” Ana quickly warmed up.
They agreed to meet at Huron Park. As soon as she saw Michael, Ana felt reassured that all was well between them again. Michael wrapped his arms protectively around Ana to feel her heartbeat through every pore. He rocked gently sideways back and forth, to soothe her nerves. “You’re in my bubble now. I won’t let anything hurt you.” His voice was tender, buttery.
Ana looked up at him. “Your bubble?”
“Yeah. Ever since I was a little kid I imagined that I had this bubble around me. It kept me safe.” Michael’s features became animated. “Just this past summer for example, I went to a convenience store in Phoenix. That evening, when I was watching the local news, I found out that it was robbed at gunpoint only an hour after I left. The bubble kept me out of harm’s way. Now you’re in my bubble too. It will keep both of us safe.”
She felt like asking him: What about my children? Are they in your bubble too? But she was afraid to spoil their reconciliation.
“Your kids also,” Michael read her mind. “I’ll take care of them, if it ever comes to that.”
They began walking hand in hand along the cement path. But Ana wasn’t chipper as usual. She recalled that the last time they were in that park together, she had run ahead of Michael and he had playfully chased after her. The lightness of their courtship was beginning to sink under the weight of pressure. Her gaze was disoriented, scattered like the dead leaves swept away by the autumn wind.
“There’s something on your mind,” Michael remarked.
She nodded in silence.
“You want to talk about it?” They stopped by a nearby bench and took a seat. He motioned her to sit on his lap, with her legs wrapped up around his torso.
“It’s the same old problem. But there’s no good solution to it,” Ana said quietly.
“Look,” Michael began, “I know you don’t want to hurt your kids. But even if I weren’t directly involved in this, I’d give you the same piece of advice.” He swept the bangs away from Ana’s forehead, to better gaze into her eyes. “I’d tell you, don’t bullshit your kids. Because sooner or later they’ll find out about us. Believe me, they’ll be much more hurt by the all the lying and sneaking around. You’re only compounding the future harm.”
“You expect me to tell an eight and a nine year old about our affair?” Ana asked, taken aback.
“Not necessarily. I’m just saying, don’t think you can fool them for much longer. Have the courage to reach a decision. I’ll understand either way. But you can’t sit on the fence forever. In the long run, your indecision will hurt everyone, including yourself.”
By way of contrast to their earlier altercation, Michael’s words now sounded to Ana like the voice of reason. “I know I’m not a moral person,” she replied. “I’ve wronged my husband and I’m not treating him or the kids fairly. I fell so madly in love with you so fast that I didn’t even have the chance to put on the brakes. And my marriage was weak, weaker even than my will. But I know that I don’t want to hurt my kids. Just like I don’t want to lose you. I’m stuck in an impossible double bind and I don’t really know how to escape it.”
“I know Baby,” Michael pulled her head towards him, so that it nestled upon his chest. She felt comforted by the steady rhythm of his heartbeat. “But it’s your kids that I have in mind when I tell you to be honest.”
Ana looked up at him again, as he gently stroked her hair. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t want them to lose respect for you. Or for us, in the long run. You know, to discover what’s going on by accident and then realize that their mom was a cheater and a liar. If you have the courage to tell them the truth, then at least then at least they can’t blame you for pulling the wool over their eyes.”
Ana felt that what her lover was saying made sense. But the risk of harm was greater than Michael was willing to admit. “Divorce isn’t easy on kids their age,” she countered. “It can leave emotional scars for life. Especially since they have a stable home environment, with loving parents. I mean, it’s not like Rob’s ever abusive or anything. He’s a good husband and a great father. It’s tough to break up our family for purely selfish reasons.”
Michael had to fight his visceral irritation at her stubbornness. “I realize that. But we can’t live in limbo forever. Look, there’s no way to avoid hurting people in our situation,” he pursued. “In cheating on our partners, we’ve done a lot of damage already. The only question we need to answer at this point is how we can minimize the harm, not how to avoid it altogether,” he reasoned with her. “That’s what we’ve been quibbling about lately. You claim we’ll minimize it by continuing with the lying and the cheating. I say it’s by fessing up and embracing our new life together with dignity and courage. The kids would adjust so much better to our situation if we told them the truth right away.”
“What about Rob? I don’t have the heart to hurt him either.”
“But that’s exactly what you’re doing.”
“Yes, but at least he doesn’t know it,” Ana said, nervously shifting about.
“That’s sheer hypocrisy,” Michael countered. “They say what you don’t know won’t hurt you. But they’re dead ass wrong about that. It’s the lies that hurt most.” He sensed Ana’s hesitation so he expanded upon his point. “Think of it as hurting Rob now in order to spare him more pain in the long run. Kind of like a father who breaks his son’s leg so that he won’t be drafted into the war. It hurts the son to have his leg broken. But the risk of worse harm—serious injuries and maybe even death—is so much greater if he goes to war than if he doesn’t. At least honesty will give Rob a chance to heal and move on with his life.”
“I hate to be in this position,” Ana said. “No matter what I do, it feels wrong.”
Michael was about to tell her, hey, you decided of your own free will to have an affair with me. Nobody forced you into it. But instead of inculpating her further, he remained diplomatic, to lighten the burden of guilt that continued to pose a barrier between them. “In life it’s impossible to avoid harming others,” he said philosophically. “Every choice we make is, in some way, at the expense of someone else. Even if you did nothing at all and continued in the lukewarm relationship you have with your husband, you’d still be hurting each other. Because you’d both be losing out on real love with people with whom you’re much more compatible. You found someone who’s better for you,” he said, closely observing her reaction. “Right?” Ana confirmed his statement with a nod. “Well then, don’t blow it for us, Baby. You only have one life to live. You owe yourself a chance for real happiness. You owe me that as well. And Rob too. He deserves to be loved as well.”
“But I do love him,” she protested.
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
“I know. That’s part of what makes me feel so bad.”
Michael gazed lovingly into her eyes. “Ana, I need you much more than Rob does. Because I love you so much more than he does,” he said with conviction.
Although Ana didn’t reply, Michael felt quite confident that this conversation struck a chord with her. If not now, then in a week, or a month, or maybe even a couple of months. Slowly but surely, he’d chip away at her misguided scruples and misplaced loyalties. Soon enough, his girlfriend would revolve solely around him, just as Karen did.
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