We strayed in far corners of your library, slow-dancing in a wood-paneled and wool-carpeted room. The paintings stared at us in disapproval, even the canvases with nothing but inanimate objects painted on their once bare bodies.
I can just see a paintbrush tickling the white rough surface. The brush’s ends are stained a deep purple, the color of your favorite kind of grapes. Once purple meets white, there is no returning, no going back to a blank slate. You finish what you started or you get a new canvas.
But new canvases are expensive. And a waste. You could always paint over the purple if it really felt wrong. It’s a hard color to hide, but you could make it a part of your new landscape, blend it so thoroughly into a backdrop it simply fades from view. Or you could have kept the purple dot, a symbol of imperfection, of triumph, victory. The unwanted color made its mark.
Is that what I did?
I read one of the books in your library once, when I had nothing else to do. I know you told me not to touch your books. This one had yellow pages that nearly turned to dust in my greedy fingers, and the leather spine was soft and worn. It practically invited me to read it, to soak in the words you denied me. The book was about symbolism. You had a lot of those, those books about symbols and anaphoras and diction. You were an English professor and had a way with words, although perhaps you simply learned and studied and imitated the art of speech from these books. This book, the one about symbolism, told me purple was not just a color. It was a personality trait, a noun, a virtue, a three-syllable word.
It was suddenly very strange to sit in your library, reading your book on your brown cushion in front of your glass cabinet with your expensive stemware and your foreign drinks, the ones you would only share with me in secret when we were protected by the cover of night and the promise of good-bye. The only lights came from the full moon framed by the window and the spark in your eyes. I want to believe it meant something, but maybe you just looked at me that way because you had too much to drink.
Loyalty. It fits very well in your library, doesn’t it? This book, this word, sat three feet away from you when you leaned over the table and kissed my lips and told me, “Of course there’s no one else” — you made a sweeping motion to represent the house, and then you gestured to your heart — but that I had to leave anyway.
And the brightness of the moon, and the endearment in your eyes, well, they blinded me. I left through the back door and when I looked back at the library’s arch windows, I couldn’t see you.
I crouched in a corner by your front door. Your iron gate was cold and foreboding and did nothing to hide me. I thought the woman who stepped out of the car in the driveway would spot me, destroy your secret in a matter of seconds, but her pumps clicked against the walkway and up the steps. I could picture manicured nails and a skinny wrist turning that pristine glass doorknob. I heard her call your name and then the door shut.
You were quite content, I imagine. Your stray puppy had scattered around the corner, out of sight, as soon as the alpha dog returned. No competition, no carnage, everyone where they belonged. She would ignore you and breezily drink your liquor straight from the bottle, but you wouldn’t mind tonight. You might have even bitten down a smile, because she had no way of knowing that same Champagne had slithered across another woman’s tongue an hour ago. You always loved collecting secrets like they were pretty little diamonds in a net you couldn’t wait to cast again.
It wasn’t fair. You had this house, a castle really, with rugged stone on the outside and delicate glass and books inside. You had prestigious colleagues swayed by your sycophancy and an expensive car paid with the checks they bestowed to you. You had me, and you had her. And I was just another pauper trying to take advantage of the system you’d seized. You humored me by donating your empty feelings and words for a couple hours a week, but a bill always came back to haunt me and I would be the one paying in desolation because you would forever choose her over me.
I had enough, that night I read your book about loyalty. I wondered if you had ever read it yourself. Maybe you had, but you disregarded it, saw symbolism as pretension and loyalty as nothing more than a device used to wed characters in a dippy novel. Or maybe you simply liked the way it looked on your shelf and placed no importance on the words it held inside.
I wanted to leave you. I wanted to simply disappear from your life and leave you with nothing but a wife who dog-eared your pages like they were cheap magazines. But that wouldn’t have been a satisfying ending. There were thousands like me. You could, you would find another one. It was wrong.
I held my breath as the two of you came outside and slid into the car. I watched you lock the front door, but silly, silly you, you forgot about the back one. I returned to your library and laid your loyalty book on the antique table. I ran my finger over the combination lock on your liquor cabinet. Sniffed the sweet oil of the grape-bowl painting. I immersed myself in this luxury a final time, and then I struck a match and held it up to the book and left your home.
I don’t think you were very surprised to find your library on fire when you returned. I wonder if your wife was confused when you uttered my name to the police, picked me out of the lineup so quickly and called me those names to the jury as I looked in your extinguished eyes: stalker, student, storyteller, every word chosen to minimize who I was to you and draw me as simply a wretched wounded woman.
But maybe she didn’t care at all. She didn’t seem the type to appreciate literature very much anyway.
So now, I close this letter, one you might never read, quite like your book about loyalty. It was just a concept in a book and a book is nothing but words. This letter is just ink on a page of scrap paper stamped from a prison cell. And the loving odes you recite to your wife, to whoever is sitting oblivious in your renovated library, those are just words too, just a slash of color on a canvas, one that you will again paint over and rid of the blemishes.