The look she saw in his eyes, however, was one of voracious desire. “You and all your worries. Get in the car!” he opened the door for her.
Ana didn’t step in, however. “We need to talk,” she insisted.
Michael’s desire morphed into impatience. “About what?” Ever since Ana had spilled the beans to her husband, she needed his reassurance ten times a day. He hadn’t had so many damn “us conversations” with Karen in three years as he’d had with his girlfriend during the past three weeks.
“My love, don’t be annoyed with me,” Ana pleaded. “We’ve been going through a tough time lately. Please remember that my situation’s more complicated than yours.”
Michael looked away, to contain his mounting irritation. “How many times have I heard this sob story already?”
“It’s not a sob story, Michael. It’s our lives.” Ana walked over to cling to him, hoping that their physical contact could somehow translate into emotional intimacy, as before.
“What is it that you want from me?” he asked her, exasperated.
“A little empathy.”
“Get a hold of yourself, woman! Show some god damn strength!” he shook Ana by the shoulders, using both hands.
“That’s so much easier for you to say. I need your support. After all, we’re supposed to be life partners now!”
“I’m sorry, Baby,” he folded her into his arms. “I had forgotten I was dealing with my little Powderpuff.”
Feeling safer, Ana reiterated her request: “Can we please talk about this?”
“Talk to me,” Michael obligingly agreed this time, guiding her into the car.
“I had a nightmare about what you said to me last night. You mentioned joining a dating website,” she went straight to the point.
“What about it?”
“That comment really bothered me.”
Michael made a dismissive gesture: “It was just a silly idea. I wanted to see if they’d find us compatible. You always make such a big deal out of nothing.”
“Not this time,” Ana disagreed. “I sensed something in you yesterday,” she gesticulated, struggling to express her troubling intuitions. “You were like a bull about to charge. Or like a vulture smelling death. I don’t know how else to describe it. But something in your attitude said to me that your hunger for other women was about to resurge. It was just a matter of time as to when.” She looked into Michael’s eyes, hoping that her lover would deny these charges and that she’d be entirely convinced by his claims.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Michael responded, annoyed. “What kind of a marriage will we have if you can’t even trust me? If every time I make some stupid remark about other women, you automatically suspect me of infidelity? A relationship can’t exist without trust,” he turned the blame back unto her jealous ways.
“You must admit, you don’t have a very good track record.”
“Hot damn! That was before we fell in love! Since we met, I’ve only had eyes for you. What more do you want from me, woman?”
To Ana’s ears, her lover’s words sounded more like a violent outburst than the declaration of love she needed to hear. Not daring to provoke him any further, however, she retreated into the seat and stared at him, perplexed. Who was the real Michael? she asked herself, feeling torn again. This man yelling at her or the man who held her tenderly in his arms only a few moments earlier? Now Michael was looking straight ahead at the windshield and, it occurred to Ana, with the same air of apparent unawareness with which he had caressed her during the first days of their affair, he now tapped the dashboard with the palm of his hand.
His gesture seemed vaguely familiar. She tried to recall when she had seen it before. Ah, yes…. It was during one of his phone conversations with Karen that she had witnessed, when she was lying naked next to him on the kitchen floor. As the conversation began, Michael was his usual charming self, bantering with Karen while gently caressing Ana’s naked breast. But at some point, when he tried to cut the conversation short, Karen began reproaching him for not wanting to talk to her. Although that was obviously true, he became furious and defensive, as if his fiancée had accused him of something of which he was entirely innocent. He abruptly stood up and began tapping the kitchen counter with a steady staccato motion and later hung up the phone, annoyed. Yet only a few seconds after the altercation with Karen, Ana recalled, Michael’s mood changed. He playfully took her into his arms to make love to her again. At the time, Ana took that conversation as yet another confirmation that her boyfriend loved her, not his fiancée. But now that she was observing his defensive aggression when confronted with her own charges, she began to believe that her misgivings couldn’t have been that far off the mark. Ana made a conscious decision to voice them bluntly, to push Michael to reveal his true colors, whatever they turned out to be: real love for her, as part of her still hoped, or the callous indifference he manifested towards Karen.
“It was terminal,” she enigmatically observed.
“Our fight over the baby issue. It started the whole domino effect.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The moment I refused to have a baby with you, I was history. You began looking for my replacement,” Ana stated calmly.
Michael breathed in, a little impatient sniff, like a hound following a trail of trouble. “How the sound of your voice turns me on, Baby,” he reached out to stroke her shoulder, hoping to distract her.
Ana backed away from him with a self-protective gesture, as if he were about to deliver a blow, not a caress. “It’s very important that we settle this right now,” she said with a sense of urgency.
“Alright,” he relented, stung by her withdrawal. “But don’t be so defensive. It’s not like I was going to bite you.”
Even the way he said this, with a flash of a smile and a malicious glimmer in his eyes, reminded Ana of all the kisses Michael had planted on the softest and most vulnerable part of her neck, leaving bluish green spots, like a vampire. She no longer recalled the pleasure of those kisses, the tingles of desire she had felt when he pressed her skin between his tongue, teeth and lips. She only remembered the fierce, possessive look in Michael’s eyes afterwards, when he gazed with satisfaction at the bluish patches that spread like a rash all over her neck. “Come on, admit this much at least. You’re much too selfish and much too poor to want to take care of a newborn baby, on top of my two kids. You wanted to make sure that I’m completely tied to you. The bonds of love weren’t enough for you. You wanted to create bonds of blood between us.”
“Yeah, so? What the hell’s wrong with that?” Michael asked with a dismissive shrug. “Many couples become even closer after they have a baby together. The fact I wanted a kid with you rather than Karen should flatter you. It only proves I love you more.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Ana vehemently contradicted him. “Because I suspect that if I had really wanted a child with you, you’d feel trapped, like you did with Karen, and you wouldn’t want it anymore. You want to have a child with me only because I don’t want one with you.” As she was saying this, a sound bite echoed in her mind, when Michael had snapped at her “Don’t you ever say ‘no’ to me!” when she had refused to climb up on the roof of his house with him. “If I say ‘no’ to something you want,” she articulated her intuitions, “you see it as an act of defiance and you feel unloved. Because for you, love means getting everything you want from someone. And even then, when you get a really compliant person like Karen, you’re still not satisfied. You still want better and you still want more. That’s why our fight about having a baby turned out to be so important. You want to control me completely, if possible, even more so than you did Karen. If I’m not under your thumb, then I’m totally worthless to you. But if I am under your thumb, like Karen obviously was, then I’m disposable too, the way she is. There’s no way to win with you. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
“You’re completely paranoid!” Michael exclaimed.
Part of her wanted to back down, to dissipate the tension and restore their precarious harmony, as so often before. But a dominant part of her told her to allow her fears to rise to the surface, pushing them to their logical conclusion. “Am I? Or is it that I’m finally starting to open my eyes and see the truth about you? All those castles in the air you promised me, about lifelong faithfulness and happiness together, were nothing but a house of cards,” she said, placing her hands together in the form of a triangle. “Flat and easy to topple,” Ana folded one hand upon the other. “All it took is me saying ‘no’ to you once and our whole relationship crumbled.”
“You’re quite a magician yourself, I must say, since you’re amazingly good at creating drama out of nothing!” Michael became animated, as if engaged in a game that finally got interesting, with a real opponent. “I’ve noticed this for quite some time now. You’re constantly provoking Rob, provoking me and provoking your kids. You’ve been doing everything in your powers to alienate everyone around you. It’s like you’re looking for excuses to destroy our love. Hey, let’s face it. When it comes right down to it, you’re too much of a coward to take a leap of faith and live with me the passion you’ve always wanted.”
Ana contemplated Michael’s features. Initially, they seemed expressive and alive. But by the end of his statement, they became incongruously calm, given the intensity of their exchange. It was as if his voice came from behind a mask. “You know what I think? I think that pursuing me was just a game for you. Now that you won the match against Rob, you’ve grown tired of me and are eager to move on to your next conquest,” she continued baiting him.
“Oh yeah? You think if all I wanted was some piece of ass, I couldn’t have gone after easier targets?”
“I didn’t say all you wanted was sex,” Ana corrected him, trying to contain her raw emotions. “I said you viewed me as a challenge. I was a prize to be won. Just like you saw Karen, at first. She was a challenge to you because she was colder and more virtuous than the other women you pursued. You viewed making her enjoy romance and sex like a game. But you didn’t succeed, so you went on the prowl for a more hot-blooded woman. That’s when you found me. But now that you finally have me, you’ve stopped wanting me as well. You’ve come to the conclusion that I’m too much of a headache, especially under the circumstances. Now you’re ready to move on and play the field again, as you did before we met.”
Ana half-expected Michael to refute her narrative, which seemed to emerge out of her with the automatism of an unwitting revelation rather than the clarity of a logically thought-out conclusion. She waited for him to deny her charges and declare, as before, how deeply he loved her; how special she was in his eyes; how engaging in loveless sex with loose women was the furthest thing from his mind now that they were finally about to marry, as he had wanted all along.
But Michael didn’t deny anything at all. Instead, he just smiled at her with the silly grin of a naughty child caught in the middle of a harmless prank. There was no trace of anger, irritation or even mild embarrassment reflected in his tranquil features. The former show of emotion, when he was furiously tapping on the dashboard in response to a much milder challenge from his girlfriend, magically disappeared once he was faced with this more serious accusation. “I didn’t expect it would happen so soon,” he said quietly, as if speaking mostly to himself.
“You didn’t expect what would happen so soon?”
“Any of this,” he gestured vaguely.
“You mean you expected us to break up?”
Michael didn’t reply.
“But then,” Ana pursued, becoming increasingly perturbed by the implications of his silence, “why did you pressure me to get a divorce in the first place? Why put me, my husband and my children through all that pain?”
“Like I told you from the start, I don’t share.”
“Why did you ask me to make such huge sacrifices for you?” Ana insisted with a sense of desperation, hoping against hope that sooner or later her lover would offer some kind of a satisfactory explanation for his inexplicable behavior. “What comparable sacrifices are you making for me?”
As if she had pushed a hot button, Michael suddenly switched from passive to active mode: “Cut the crap! You can’t tell me I wasn’t doing anything for you when I was going to do my best to support you and to be a decent stepfather to your kids.”
Ana shook her head, unconvinced. “You’re comparing my real life sacrifices to your mere promises. You were promising me that you’d support me or try to be a good stepfather to my kids,” she emphasized. “But in divorcing my husband and seeing my children only half the time, I was making a real sacrifice for you. The moment I told Rob about our affair and asked him for a divorce I began making that sacrifice for you, for the sake of our relationship,” she insisted upon their underlying asymmetry.
“Noblesse oblige!” Michael replied cheerfully. “I guess you’re a much nobler creature than I am. I bend down to kiss your little feet, princess. Hey! I hope you cut those toenails!”
Ana looked at her lover in utter disbelief. She was stunned by Michael’s playful insolence, when her whole life and the lives of her children were at stake. She felt anger slowly rising into her throat, then something snapped inside her brain: “You never loved me at all. You never loved any woman in your life because you’re utterly incapable of love. To you, love’s only a weakness that you can exploit in others. You’re a selfish, heartless bastard and I never want to see you again!”
In response, Michael continued to smile at her, with that impudent Cheshire cat grin. “Then get the hell out,” he said coolly, opening the car door in anything but the gentlemanly manner he usually assumed with her. “If you can’t keep up, get out of the way!” he added louder.
Ana lunged out of his car, overcome by the mixture of confusion, anger and dread that a small critter must feel after having just been swallowed whole and regurgitated alive by a snake.
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