“It’s me,” she said.
“Hey, you! What’s up?” he attempted to sound chipper.
But Ana noticed traces of anxiety in his tone. She suspected that Karen must have been working on him again. “What’s the matter? Did I catch you at a bad time? Were you in the middle of another one of those ‘us conversation’ with her?”
“We had a tough day,” Michael confirmed. “We went through our photo albums and split up the pictures. She’s letting me have most of them. She doesn’t want to be reminded of our past. It’s too painful for her.”
“Is she trying to persuade you to stay with her?” Ana asked, threatened by Karen’s unshakable attachment to her lover.
“Nope. She’s just upset. She’s been crying so much that the whole area around her nose is red, like she has the flu or something.”
Ana detected a note of pride, but no sadness whatsoever, in Michael’s voice. “She must really love you,” Ana articulated the logical conclusion to his statements.
“Yup. She keeps on telling me that she wishes she could fall out of love with me or love me less.”
Once again, Ana was struck by Michael’s smugness. She reminded herself that his emotionless reaction to Karen’s pain was the result of his having fallen out of love with his fiancée long ago. Yet part of her refused to believe that her lover could experience such utter indifference towards a woman that he used to love. Perhaps he was hiding something… “Did you try to comfort her?”
“Of course. I’m not an ogre you know,” Michael ignored her innuendo. “There were a couple of times when I was in tears myself and had to look away.”
“Why did you have to look away?”
“So as not to be inconsiderate, of course,” he calmly informed her. “I mean, we’re the ones who caused this whole mess. Our pain’s nothing compared to theirs. The least we can do is not rub it in their face.”
“It’s not a matter of respect or disrespect. I’m genuinely upset about leaving Rob.”
“Are you changing your mind?”
“No,” Ana was quick to reassure him. “But the situation we’ve created is painful for everyone involved. Including ourselves.”
“Yes, but we’re the ones who created it,” Michael underscored their complicity.
Ana had noticed her lover’s “us” versus “them” mentality when it came to his outlook on the world. They were the passionate free spirits, while the others followed conventions like sheep. They were the ones who conspired against their partners, so they couldn’t pretend to share their feelings of pain, nostalgia or regret. Although she generally sided with Michael, his “us” versus “them” dichotomy didn’t fully capture her emotional landscape. “Sometimes it’s really difficult to stay strong, if by strength you mean lack of emotion.” She decided to come clean with what was really bothering her. “Rob told me that he’s starting to look for another partner on a dating website.”
“So what? Are you jealous?”
“No. Well… Maybe a little bit,” she reconsidered. “But, in a way, I’m also happy for him. I mean, I think it’s healthy that he’s moving on. He obviously deserves a better wife than me.”
Michael remained silent for a moment. “Our partners definitely aren’t made of the same stuff. Karen just told me that she’d wait for me however long it takes.”
“However long what takes?”
“For our relationship to end.” He hoped that telling Ana that Karen saw their relationship as a short-term fling would rile up her competitive spirit.
“But I was under the impression that we were marrying for life.”
“I know that. You know that. But Karen doesn’t. She hopes against hope that I’ll soon wake up and see the error of my ways,” he released an ironic little laugh.
Ana was not amused, however. “So I’m a mistake in her mind?”
“She thinks I’m with you mostly because of our physical attraction. But she believes that on a deeper level I’m more compatible with her.”
“How come you didn’t refute that assumption?”
She could almost see Michael shrug in the momentary pause, before he replied: “She wouldn’t understand if I tried to explain the nature of our relationship. Besides, what does it matter what our partners think about us? Let them believe whatever the hell they wish if it makes them feel better. The only thing that matters is how we feel.”
“Right now, I feel sad,” Ana took the cue.
“What is it this time?”
“I miss Rob even though haven’t even left him yet. He’ll be a great catch for just about any woman. He’s a wonderful family man. Responsible, principled, has a good, stable job and a decent income. Let’s face it, he’s a divorcée’s dream come true! He’ll fare better on those dating websites than the rest of us put together.” Ana could hear Michael’s deliberate, controlled breathing. She stopped herself, realizing a little too late that she was being tactless.
“Oh yeah? How much do you want to bet that I could beat him?” her lover asked her in a tone that, surprisingly, showed no trace of irritation or anger whatsoever: only eagerness.
“Beat him at what?”
“At how many women we can get on the dating website.”
“I’m sure you could get more women quantitatively since you currently hold the world record of one night stands,” she conceded. “But Rob will treat the woman he loves better in the long run. Because he’s a decent human being.”
“So you don’t think I could fake decency?” Michael asked her with such earnestness that it made Ana smile.
“If you have to fake it, you ain’t got it.”
“Don’t play dangerous liaisons games with me, little girl!” he taunted her.
“What games are you talking about?” she asked, troubled by his cavalier attitude. “I was just telling you that my husband’s trying to move on with his life. I wasn’t daring you to enter a dating contest!”
“I know. I was just kidding, Baby,” Michael said. However, he was unable to let go of the idea. An instinctive surge of vanity coupled with the perverse need for preemptive vengeance welled up into his throat, like acid reflex. “Get this! You know what we could do? Put ourselves on one of these dating websites. Out of curiosity, to see if they'll match us up,” he proposed, deciding that he’d had enough of Ana’s whining and negativity and paving the way for finding her replacement, with her unwitting consent no less.
Fasten your seatbelts ladies, because the player’s back in the game! Michael thought, feeling completely justified in his shift of attitude towards his girlfriend. If she considered her husband the better man, he reasoned, then there’d be literally hundreds of women eager to take her place, who’d appreciate him far more than she did. Ana’s thoughtless remark, coupled with the tedium of her constant complaining, had just bought her a one-way ticket to the end of the line, replacing Karen as his backup, in case he couldn’t find a better mate. Besides, now that even her own husband no longer wanted her, his girlfriend was much less desirable in his eyes as well. If Rob was enjoying the benefit of seeking new women, Michael thought, then why the hell shouldn’t I, when I’m so much better than him? Why should I end up with some other man’s reject?
Ana took a few moments to process Michael’s suggestion, which struck her as bizarre. Even the way he had introduced his statement, “Get this!” rang unpleasantly familiar to her. That was the verbal tick he used with Karen on the phone before spinning his web of lies. “Since I’m divorcing Rob and you’re leaving Karen so we can marry, as you’ve insisted all along, I think it’s safe to assume that we’re already matched up. Besides, I thought that you were Mr. Independent. Who cares if some impersonal dating website deems us compatible?”
“It was just a silly idea. I was curious to see how we’d match up according to so-called objective criteria, that’s all,” Michael replied matter-of-factly, to avoid raising any more red flags.
“It’s the subjective ones that count,” Ana retorted. With that comment, she hoped to close the debate. “When’s Karen moving out?” she changed the subject to a more pressing concern.
“In a week. I’m helping her move her furniture from her parents’ house to her apartment in Phoenix.” Since Ana remained disapprovingly silent, he added, by way of explanation, “It’s the least I can do after breaking her heart.”
“I’ll be so relieved once we can be together,” Ana focused solely on the fact that her rival would soon be thousands of miles away from her lover, where she belonged. “This situation of us living apart and still being with our significant others is very difficult on all of us.”
“Just remember: especially on them,” Michael reiterated his main point. “So don’t be heavy-handed about showing emotion in front of Rob. He’s suffered enough already. You’re only pouring salt on his wounds.”
“Alright,” Ana replied wearily. “I better go to bed now since I’m tired.”
“Try to chill out, Babe. Get some rest,” he advised her. “We only have a few more days of this drama, after which it will be smooth sailing for us.”
“Thanks for putting everything in perspective,” Ana felt momentarily grateful to have a partner who kept his cool in such heated times.
“Stay positive and focused. Keep your eyes on the prize at all times,” Michael repeated his mantra.
That night, Ana fell asleep picturing her lover’s angelic features, which used to sooth and reassure her. As she slipped into the visual richness of the R.E.M cycle, Michael’s face became transposed unto a computer screen, along with a description of his assets, the languages he spoke and the sports he enjoyed. Michael had chosen to display the portrait of himself where he resembled a Romantic hero: his dark hair swept away from his brow; his cocky, playful smile appearing like a flirtatious challenge; his penetrating gaze oozing sensuality. Ana moaned in her sleep as she realized that literally hundreds of women could be contacting him on dating websites. In the agitation of her troubling dream, she heard the echo of her lover’s voice declare, “I keep my eyes on the prize at all times.” She relived the moment he triumphantly lifted her high up into the air like a trophy on the day she announced to him that she was divorcing Rob. The image vanished, leaving as its only somatic trace the impression of a sharp sting in her side.
To ease the discomfort, Ana shifted her position in bed. She lay flat on her stomach, her head turned to the side upon the pillow. “You’re my little doll, Papusica,” she heard Michael’s voice once again. A collage of images of their numerous shopping trips together unfolded with the visual richness of a Chinese fan. Ana’s eyelids fluttered restlessly like butterfly wings as various scenes of making love with Michael in public places—parks, malls, parking lots, cars, garages—danced before her mind’s eye. She was dressed up in his gifts—the schoolgirl plaid miniskirt, the shoestring black dress, the variously colored corsets and thigh-highs her lover had offered her—and moved about in various places and positions to his liking, like a marionette. “Just be a good little doll,” Michael said as he cradled her into his arms on his couch, proceeding to unwrap like a gift the layers of clothing.
As this scene faded out, another took its place. “You’re my fragile little bird,” her lover said, only not lovingly as usual, but hissing between his teeth as he pinned her down under the weight of his athletic body. Ana felt nearly suffocated in her sleep as she pictured herself struggling underneath him, her arms and legs helplessly flailing about. Once she managed to free herself from his grasp enough to look to the side, she recognized pieces of furniture from his house: the tan sofa, the cherry wood dining room table, and the mattress lying in the middle of the bedroom floor. When Michael finally released her, Ana ran towards the entrance. The door was shut with a golden lock. Looking for another escape route, she noticed that every piece of furniture in his house had turned to gold. She, herself, hopped around like a wounded bird from one room to the next, trapped inside her lover’s gilded cage.
A picture of Karen and Michael on the day of their engagement flashed next before her eyes. Michael looked cheerful and happy but Karen seemed weary and dejected. Ana recalled that the photograph was positioned on a counter between several athletic trophies that Michael had won in college. The image of Karen and Michael then dissolved, to be replaced by a picture of herself and her lover on their future wedding day. The couple wasn’t wearing wedding any clothes. Michael was smiling, but Ana’s eyes were closed.
The scene shifted again. In the next image, Michael and Rob were engaged in some kind of a race. Ana waited at the end of a road while both men were running as fast as possible towards her. At some point, Michael cheated. He tripped Rob and the latter fell down. Her lover exerted his athletic body to its limits and reached Ana first, sweeping her up into his arms. When he put her back down again, she noticed a throng of women crowding around her lover, perhaps to congratulate him for his victory. As Michael talked and flirted with them, Ana stood alone on the side of the road, watching her husband hobbling away. “Please don’t go!” she shouted, but Rob kept on moving ahead, as if he couldn’t even hear her anymore.
“You know what we could do? Put ourselves on a dating website just for fun, you know, to see if they match us up,” Ana had an instant replay of Michael’s suggestion earlier that evening. “I keep my eyes on the prize at all times,” her lover repeated as he sat down calmly at his computer to answer emails from dozens of women, with Ana perched upon his lap like a kitten. The pictures poured all over her, in an avalanche of images.
She couldn’t take it anymore. She tore away the blanket and stood up from bed, her heart racing and her brow covered with sweat. As she woke up from her nightmare, Ana was tormented by a single thought, which emerged with a painful thrust from the folds of her unconscious. Everything’s a game to Michael. EVERYTHING. Including our love!
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