Not a Love Story continued
She fell in love with the other woman - the idea of the other woman, the woman she would choose for him, the woman whom she would send to his bed and his heart and fix everything that had gone wrong in hers.
"Let me find you another woman," she tells him, cajoling. "Someone who will make you smile and speak to you in your language and remind you of what it's like to be happy."
"You make me happy," he says stubbornly.
"No, I don't!” she snarls in frustration. “I make you upset and think about everything you wanted, everything you can't have. I know you, I know you better than you know yourself."
She takes a deep breath, wrestles her emotions under control, strokes his cheek pityingly. "Please. Let me find you a woman whom you can love, a woman who will love you the way you deserve to be loved."
She places his hands over her stomach, his fingers stroking her bare skin gently. "Let me find you a woman who will give you the children you want. Me... I would rather die than have another baby growing inside of me. I would rather kill myself." Her voice is neutral, distant, as though she's talking about the weather.
He flinches, but his hands slide to her waist, clutch at her tightly, refusing to let go. "I don't care. I only want you. I don't want any other woman."
"But I don't want you!" she snaps at him, pulling away from him, irritably swatting his hands away from her waist. "Don't you see? You are driving me mad - you suffocate me - you hold onto me so tightly that I can't think, I can't breathe, I don't even remember what it's like to be myself anymore."
She closes her eyes, the anger gone, weary beyond belief. "Let me find her for you," she whispered. "Let me find the woman who wants you, as you are, who will love you, who will make you fall in love with her. And then let me go. Please."
His hands slide up her back, pulling her closer, wrapping her in his arms. For a moment, she lets him hold her, allowing herself to be comforted, to be loved against her will. She breathes him in, her throat closing at the thought of losing him, of leaving him, of finding herself again, missing him already, wanting to run from him, wanting to protect him from herself.
"I can't," he says finally, murmuring in her ear. "I love you too much."
He kisses her neck, soft and insistent, and her eyes burn, unable to shed tears.
The day she leaves, she kneels before him, cupping his face in her hands, kissing his cheeks, his forehead; more tender in these moments than she has ever been in all the time that they were together.
She does not apologize or explain.
He stares blankly, blindly, unseeing.
She has left - the only promise she's ever kept - not like "I'll love you forever," not like "I'll call you when I get there," not like, "I won't do it again."
He kneels on the floor, gritting his teeth as he touches her things - the flannel pajamas she used to burrow in, burying herself in blankets and rubbing her cold nose into his warm neck; the blouse that used slip off her shoulder and make her huff in irritation and make him kiss the place where her bra strap dug into her skin.
He flinches when he came to the dirty laundry, the pile she always left in the corner of their room, the unwashed underwear thrown carelessly on the floor from the last time he'd held her in his arms and begged, with his tongue and his fingers and his heart, begged her to stay and let him keep loving her.
She'd laughed, kissed his tears and then his mouth, his cheeks, wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her heels into his back, whispered "don't stop - yes - like that," and then, when it was all over, sweetly murmured that she hated him.
Nobody told her that freedom tasted like heartbreak, that it felt like stomach cramps driving her to bend over the toilet bowl until she finally threw up, realizing with a shock that she had to hold up her own hair out of the way, that he wouldn't be there, irritated and loyal, to wipe her forehead and wash her mouth.
Nobody told her that freedom was more terrifying than imprisonment in a golden cage, that the world was empty but too full for her, that at the end of the day, there would be no prison warden to stroke her wounds and remind her why it was safer for her to be bound to him with silken manacles.
Nobody told her that freedom would be so painfully lonely, that her every instinct would scream at her to go back, to run back, to hide her face in his shoulder and let him make empty promises that were still comforting in their familiarity.
Nobody told her that freedom was saltier than it was sweet, with the unmistakable metal tang of blood, more painful than tying elastic bands around her wrist to pierce a plump vein, more addictive than any chemical oblivion.
Nobody told her that freedom is nothing and everything like what she expected, and that she won't know whether it was worth it until much, much later.
He struggles to tell them what he feels, that he is bereft, that he misses her, that he is heart-broken, that he knew she didn't love him but that he couldn't stop loving her, that it is all his fault, that he wants to run after her and bring her back, that when he thinks of her, it is as beloved, and not by the harsh syllables of her name.
His father spits to the side in disgust. She is worthless, he says coldly. You're a man, don't cry. You don't need a woman like that. There are a thousand better women, younger, beautiful, silent.
His mother touches his cheek and shakes her head. She is evil, she says decisively. I know other girls, other women. I will find someone for you. Forget about her.
He doesn't cry, and he lets his mother find another woman for him, younger, more beautiful, silent.
He never forgets her.
She feels the loneliness echo in her skull, the empty room whispering to her, voices clattering in her mind with the ceaseless sound of memories.
I'm better off without him, she reminds herself firmly. Better off without cold shoulders and colder words, without mocking smiles and cutting glances.
Better off without him, she agrees with herself, pretending she doesn't miss his smell, or his lips brushing across her forehead in hard-earned approval, or his fingers tangled gently in her hair.
Better off without him, she repeats.
But as she sits on the bed, the only arms around her are her own.
It wasn't the empty bed that he missed, or the lack of fresh cooked food, or even having a clean bathroom that he didn't have to scrub himself, but the sheepish look on her face when he would walk through the door and find her curled up in a patch of sunlight, hair tousled and eyes blinking away the last scraps of sleep-visions.
Even then, he had known that her dreams were of life without him.
He still misses her.
She misses the way he kissed her, soft and slow and delicate and deliberate as the words he used to shred her soul.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, heart in her throat, until it plummets again because she is, once again, alone.
She's not sure which is worse: that she searches for him in her dreams every single night, this close to finding him, already smiling, lips parted to tease him that he can't hide from her, ready to be swept up in his familiar embrace - or waking up and remembering that the man she dreams of never really existed.
This is his second: second woman, second wife, second wedding night. He should be better at it this time than he was the first. Certainly, he knows that this woman - this wife - will be better for him than the last; they speak the same language, and she knows which cues to follow, the unspoken rules that society neatly wraps them both in, the good-husband and the good-wife. He will not have to fight this one every day, in every way, each day an exhausting battle that didn't even make sense.
Not like the other one. Not like her.
He is a gentleman: He smiles, takes her hand, gallantly raises it to his lips, smiles again when he sees that she is pleased, her cheeks pink, her eyes modestly averted. It is nice, these neat roles of gentleman and lady, groom and bride, smooth and easy and undisturbed.
Unbidden, he remembers the first time he did such a thing, with the first one - with her, and the way she'd grinned, pretending to be audacious even though she was flustered, and raised her eyebrows at him saucily. There was no modesty in that one; though she had been as shy as any virgin, she'd simply refused to admit it. It had been confusing and more than a little exasperating.
Now, he watches her, tries to make her comfortable, does not rush in a way that would betray how long he had been without a woman. In turn, she looks at him from beneath her lashes, measuring his movements, whether he is the type of man who wants to get to the point as quickly as possible, or not: a good wife, thinking about how to please her husband. As it happens, he is at heart a romantic soul, and he quietly enjoys making a slow dance out of it, approaching her courteously, increasing her anticipation.
It is not like the first time, when she had been the one to pounce on him eagerly, stunning him with her enthusiasm, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing him with all the untutored ardor of a young woman's dramatic ideas of what a first kiss ought to be. He had disappointed her, naturally, being as virginal as she but significantly less polluted by the influences of chick flicks and fairy tales, but she hadn't held it against him, and decided that practice made perfect. She had excelled in kisses, and taught him insistently, willing or not.
This is his second first kiss, and he makes sure that he executes it perfectly and leaves this bride pleasantly surprised and ready for more. He is surprised at how easy it is to murmur sweet nothings in his mother tongue - not like before, when he'd stumbled over almost-foreign words, stripping the romance out of them and leaving her amused rather than impressed, rendering him red-eared and embarrassed - and how it is a relief to find that this bride's beauty conforms to his standards, satisfied and without any of the disappointment he'd felt the first time, when there had been impish prettiness and pertness, but none of the curvy, seductive femininity he'd come to associate with womanhood.
He knows that this time, despite his lack of practice, he is still restrained and careful and pays meticulous attention to his bride's body, intrigued by how female anatomy, despite being theoretically the same, could still be so gloriously different. There is no virginal fumbling or awkward confusion or inappropriate giggles if he accidentally touched a ticklish spot; just the smooth, mature movements of adults exploring each other, content in knowing that they had plenty of time, an unspoken understanding of physical pleasure, an enjoyment of newness without the discomfort or pressure to prove themselves in a hurry.
He is happy that his wife is smiling and satisfied, that he himself is pleased and content, but though she nestles against him and his arms are wondrously full, something doesn't feel quite right.
He is almost asleep when he sees her face imprinted behind his eyelids, winking at him mischievously, and he awakes with a jolt, appalled to realize that he misses her. He closes his eyes again, feeling sick and incomplete.
In her dreams, she slips to his side as he lies sleeping in bed, strokes his forehead, noting the blemishes new and old, remembering how they were once so familiar; brushes her lips against high cheekbones, the full mouth that used to kiss her most intimately, that used to speak cruel words so casually that she was never quite sure if she'd heard them right.
She uses his hand, with its deft fingers, to stroke the raw gashes of her heart, biting her lip at how the pain evoked past pleasures, a heat searing in similarity that was at once so strange.
She tastes him, the taste of the desert, the bitterness that had pervaded every moment between them, and the sweetness of honey, the sweetness of his kisses and promises of anguished love, the stinging salt of tears dripping into an open wound.
She wishes he would open his eyes so that she could see herself mirrored in his pupils, see his anger and hurt and remind herself why she was mad, mad, mad to miss him, to want him, to ache for him, to love him, to hate him.
She forces herself, finally, to look at the woman beside him, all soft curves and innocence and free of living ghosts; pressed her mouth to the other woman's ear, hesitated –
"Take care of him," she whispers, then kisses her dimpled pink mouth with her own chapped, bleeding lips –
She always comes back.
She was the first person he had ever loved, the one whom he had waited to fall in love with, whom he had loved falling in love with,
And though she broke his heart once, twice, three times over and left him with a perfunctory kiss that tasted of her hunger for freedom, and though he never forgave her, and though he moved on with his life and married a woman more beautiful and more malleable and more lovable, and though he made his life picture-perfect,
He still loved her, just a little bit, and dreamed of her more than he would ever admit.
She finds him, unexpectedly - a man who coaxes her to smile, hesitantly; a man who teases her lightly and takes her seriously; a man who kisses her without making her taste disappointment; a man who loves honestly without hiding hurt or making her flinch in fear of silent judgment.
She lets herself trust him and he does nothing to destroy it.
She wonders why her dreams are always about her walking away from him and into his arms instead, to be held in an embrace all the more familiar for its promise to make her remember past pain.
He used to wonder if he would ever forget her, if he would ever stop being surprised when he turned to his wife and found a face that was not hers looking back at him, if he would ever turn over in his sleep and be startled awake by the lack of her arms snaking around his waist and pulling him back to her.
She used to wonder if she would ever stop thinking of him, if she would ever look at herself in the mirror and not remember his slow, shy smile; if she would ever open her closet and stop feeling shocked when she couldn't smell his scent on her clothes, or her skin.
He never thinks of her now - she is not even a memory, not even a flare of anger or strange pinprick longing; she cannot recall his eyes even if she tries, cannot find that small hollow hidden in her ribs where she used to keep the taste of his kiss.
At night, though, their bodies ache from the muscle memory of love and hate and hurt and loss; their skins prickle, remembering the ghostly stroking of forgotten fingertips filled with sadness and frustration and pleasure.
They wake up every morning, dreamless and soul-weary, to kiss mouths that will never taste quite as bittersweet as they unknowingly desire.