It was times like this when Danielle would let her mind wander, inching its way back to an evening that had been ripe with possibility, with chances.
Actually, it wasn’t just times like this. It wasn’t just on days when Alec was drunk and maudlin, or the nights when he didn’t come home and she lay awake, her bleary eyes trained to the window, waiting for his headlights. It wasn’t only in the scary moments, when he reminded her that every aspect of her cushy lifestyle was because of him. It wasn’t just the moments when she found hotel key cards in his pockets, knowing he didn’t care enough to hide it.
It was the normal moments too. Dinnertime, when she sat at the table with the girls and he took his plate into the living room, snapping the seventy-inch flat screen to life. It was the moments that should have been shared—Addison’s first dance recital, Ella’s first steps. The morning after Addison’s birth, when she unwrapped her baby and felt his absence profoundly.
In these moments, Danielle plucked Alec right out of her life and slipped Jamie into his shadow. She imagined that one unseasonably warm October night had changed everything. She imagined Jamie—who would never have left her side after she’d just given birth. Jamie, who she could have shared wine with like a normal person, laughing and getting sloppy without the fear of danger or death or being slammed up against a door by a man with unresolved childhood trauma.
Yes, all times, Danielle thought, as she leaned back into the cushioned loungers that lined the inground pool. It was supposed to be Sunday Funday, and it was a gorgeous day indeed—warm, with a slight breeze, zero humidity. The blue sky blazed so stunningly it was nearly chrome. Addison and Ella were splashing in the water, playing some game called Sharks and Minnows, and the entire day stretched lazily in front of them. Alec was in bed, of course. Danielle had no idea what time he’d gotten in, only that she’d instantly fallen into the sleep she’d been denying while waiting for him to make it home. The broken glass on the floor in the morning let her know he’d continued drinking long after he'd come home.
Alec wasn’t going to be joining them anytime soon, if at all. They had talked about inviting the neighbors over for an impromptu cookout, but that plan was squashed. There was no way to tell what Alec’s mood would be like—hungover and miserable or still drunk and dodgy. Neither was good, and so Danielle hadn’t bothered to text the Albertsons. She had been looking forward to hanging out with them, but it wasn’t worth the risk. So much for Sunday Funday.
In these moments: Danielle imagined Jamie. She imagined the father he would be, one who would never trade a precious family day for sleeping off a hangover. She envisioned him in the deep end with the girls, doing cannonballs off the diving board. She imagined him next to her, wolf whistles and private looks of flirtation, kissing her openly in front of their kids while they cried out, ewwww. A voice in her head, which sounded an awful lot like Alec, reminded her that you wouldn’t have this house or this pool or the freedom to be lazy and lounge about every day if you were with Jamie. If you were with Jamie, you’d be a starving artist’s wife, waiting tables and slinging drinks at a bar.
Danielle acknowledged this was possibly true, but she would argue back. At least I would be loved. And appreciated. At least it would be someone who'd acknowledge my existence, who would never hurt me. Jamie would have always been on the same team as me.
She was well aware she was arguing with a voice in her head, and that maybe she was crazy. Sometimes it worried her, how deeply she went into her fantasy world. Other times, she didn’t give a shit. It was all she had.
The girls got out of the water and sat cross-legged on their towels, an endless supply of beads and string spread out on the concrete before them. Knowing they would be engrossed in bracelet making for a bit, Danielle allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment. She was going back in time, and she was going to rewrite the narrative.
Jamie had been more than just her high school boyfriend. He’d been her first love, her only love. He had been the first person to crack her open, to get inside her heart. He had been the one to champion the things she thought she might be good at, but was afraid to take chances with—mostly, her art. When Jamie first saw the sketches she made, his jaw dropped in awe at her talent. Jamie was an artist too—a painter. It just made sense for them to fall together.
They began dating in the middle of their senior year. Jamie turned the keys in her soul, opened the doors, pushed her just a bit. He was the reason she changed her major in college from Communications to Art Studio, much to her parents’ chagrin. He was the one who encouraged her to be herself and follow her heart. But, like most young loves, something changed and halfway through college they broke up. Danielle didn’t even know why anymore…was she too needy? Had Jamie grown distant? Whatever the reason they parted ways with a crushing sense of finality. She spent the remainder of her higher education years avoiding him.
And then she met Alec. And he was smart and dynamic and on a fast track for success. He was cultured in a different way—he liked eclectic jazz bands with a door charge that made Danielle cringe, expensive wines and suits that cost more than she made in two months serving drinks at the bar. Before she knew it, life slipped by, and they were married. Then Addison was born, and she stopped working (Alec had never liked her being a bartender.) Then Ella came along, and she stopped sketching—there was just no time. She and Alec grew further apart, his drinking escalated, and now here she was. Her identity nothing but a ghost. Trapped in a marriage that felt like a horror show, her waking hours spent disguising it, pulling wool over everyone’s eyes and letting her daughters think that Daddy’s just tired.
But that night, the one she always went back to. It was some alumni fundraiser, something in their college town that for whatever reason, she had attended without Alec. She supposed she went to socialize, to catch up with old friends, to escape the long, lonely days of marriage. She had never expected to run into Jamie—she hadn’t even known he was still around. Danielle wasn’t dreaming of him yet, in fact, it was the opposite. She had all but erased him from her history, a piece of her life story she couldn’t bear to touch. He was a wound that had never quite scabbed over.
But there he was. After the dinner and the event, she and her friends had made their way to their first bar of the night, the place they had spent many an evening dancing and doing shots, playing songs from an old-fashioned jukebox that was a relic of the past. She had intended to do just that tonight, to scoop up a bit of her youth and immerse herself in it when suddenly, there he was. Jamie.
He turned and saw her at the same moment she spotted him from behind—she would have known him anywhere. Her stomach turned to ice and her throat felt like it wasn’t working. She stared at him, their eyes locking for half a second, the longest half a second ever, before Jamie’s slow, sleepy smile started to form.
Danielle’s heart was thudding in her chest, her hands shaky. The thought that was grabbing her brain and shaking it was so unexpected, so raw and sorrowful: you forgot what this feels like. In that moment, Danielle wanted to weep. Alec has never loved you the same way Jamie did. It was as if that one half second of Jamie’s gaze reminded her of a love story. It was as if something inside of her woke up. Alec, who was once a master of charm and romance back when he cared, had never set her on fire like this. Not once.
When the half second ended, Jamie made his way over to her and before she knew what was happening, embraced her. It was as if he hadn’t broken her heart when they separated, as if it hadn’t been years. Everything about him was achingly real. She squeezed him back, feeling the differences in his body. He was heavier now, no longer a skinny, lanky boy. He had a beard, and his dark, shiny hair was shorter. He was impossibly handsome.
“Jamie. What are you doing here?”
They slid onto two barstools that opened up, seemingly by magic in the crowded bar. They started to talk as if no time had passed. Jamie caught her up on his happenings…he was an art teacher at the local middle school. He shrugged good naturedly—because the Jamie of their youth would never have succumbed to such a structured life—but told her he also liked eating and being able to pay rent, so teaching was a good fit. He told her how much he loved the kids. She learned that he was single—that he’d been single since they separated, which broke her a little bit. He talked about his cat, about his side gig of selling tiny watercolors at the little Saturday vendor market downtown. He talked and she listened until she realized that her friends were leaving.
“Danielle, you coming? We’re going to Pat’s!” Pat’s, the bar next door and the next stop on their drinking tour.
“In a minute,” she told them, and they paid her and Jamie no mind, a herd of twenty-something women reliving their youth, already smashed.
Jamie grinned at her. “I have a better idea,” he said. “Are you still up for adventure?”
“Um…when was I ever up for adventure?” Danielle asked, too many thoughts flowing through her mind. With Jamie, she had hiked a lot, and they’d learned to kayak together. They had camped and he convinced her to do things she would never have done otherwise: smoking pot, skinny-dipping in the lake on sweltering summer nights, spending spring break driving west with no destination. She supposed, with Jamie, she had been some version of Adventurous Danielle.
The other thought? Was the one that would eventually claim Alec’s voice. You’re married. What exactly do you think you're doing?
And still, she followed Jamie out of the bar. She would have followed him anywhere to keep the feeling inside of her flowing. It felt like love, and she couldn’t inhale it fast enough.
Jamie led her to the lake. It was a few blocks away from the bar, and she instantly knew where they were going. The evening was warm—the Indian summer had given them an October night where no coat was needed. Jamie led her to the house at the end of the street that circled the lake, the one that had always been occupied by an old couple who never opened their blinds. Which also meant they never noticed when kids snuck down on to their private dock that looked over the water.
“Jamie, no. This is trespassing!” Danielle had said. “We’re not kids anymore.”
Jamie looked back at her, smiling that smile that undid her, that made her want to crawl inside him and stay there forever. Married, married, married her brain said, but when Jamie held out his hand, she took it without hesitation. He helped her down over the bank, her dressy boots slipping on the grass, and she stepped onto the dock with him.
“We’re not hurting anything,” he said.
Danielle realized this was true. She wasn’t cheating on Alec. She wasn’t behaving in any sort of maliciousness. She was walking down memory lane, purposefully and intently, but she was only walking.
They sat, and Jamie turned the subject to her. Danielle tried to describe her life as she wanted others to see it, the happy, young, working-their-way-up couple, but it was pointless with Jamie. He didn’t say anything, but she could see it in his eyes—the disappointment? Sadness?—as she brightly talked about Alec’s job and their new house and realized the gaping hole of anything substantial. She let her words drift to an end and stared out over the water.
Jamie said nothing for a bit, and then he looked at her. It was dark, but there was moonlight and somewhere in those shadows, Danielle slipped her hand into his and slipped herself right back in time.
“Are you happy?” Jamie asked. He kept his eyes on hers, but she didn’t answer. She couldn’t.
“I’m sorry…for the way things ended with us,” Jamie said. “I’ve wanted to say that for a long time, but we drifted apart. But we had something special, and I think…I think I should have treated that more carefully, you know?”
Danielle’s breathing sped up, and a sudden rush of bravery hit her. This was her old life, resurrected in this one moment. It was mutually exclusive of her other life, the one where she was married to Alec. And yet somehow, on the dock, both lives were suspended, as if they canceled one another out. She put her hand on Jamie’s face and leaned in, as she had done so often, so long ago. The familiarity of the gesture loosened any remaining hesitation, and she let herself kiss him. It was a kiss of romance novels, of love stories: soft and slow, fragile with hope.
She pulled away, knowing if she didn’t leave now, she never would. “I’d better find my friends,” she said. “Want to go to Pat’s?”
They walked back to town, holding hands in the darkness of the side streets, falling apart as they reached the main drag. At Pat’s, she turned to face him with every question in the world pulsing just beneath what she was capable of saying.
“You coming in?” she asked him.
Jamie put his hands in his pockets, again catching her eye, but there was a confident sadness this time.
“I don’t think so. I should probably go home. You know? Thanks for a lovely evening, Danielle.”
“You too,” she said, her voice stuck in her throat. She watched him turn and walk, with hesitance and uncertainty, and her mind screamed out, turn back, turn back.
Jamie turned back. “Do you want to come with me?” he asked. Tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to the words to be said. One question, but it disclosed so much more. It could have meant anything. There was so much unsaid. The nearly full moon was behind him, shining over the town and the wind was warm. Everything was out of place, and it was on the tip of her tongue to say yes.
Instead, she resisted adventure. “I don’t think I should.”
Jamie nodded, ruefully. “You’re right. You’re right.” He came back and hugged her again, briefly and forcefully, and turned off and walked into the night, leaving her breathless and regretful. Regretful that she’d said no. Regretful that she was married. Regretful that she couldn’t just…make her feet move, run after him, throw caution to the wind.
A splash snapped Danielle out of her daydream, and she felt a moment of irritation. Addison and Ella were back in the water. Danielle took a sip of her lemonade and checked her phone—it was after lunchtime, and still no sign of Alec. She settled back again, always at the uncomfortable part in the memory.
Why hadn’t she gone after him? Here was where the real fantasy came. She imagined so many different versions. Where she showed up at his apartment later, drunk with liquor and courage. Where she ran down the street after him. Where she never left the lake, stripping her clothes off right there on the dock. She imagined talking all night with him, planning a future. She imagined what it would have felt like to let him touch her again.
She imagined how she could have avoided all of this, her miserable life with Alec, if she’d only been as brave and adventurous as Jamie thought she was. If she’d only understood that it was her one chance at love. If she hadn’t been naïve enough to believe that Alec would change, that not every marriage was a romance novel. If she had only believed she deserved better.
Her phone buzzed. Alec. He was texting her from bed, and her heart sped up, unsure as to what to expect. But the text was congenial in nature: Getting in the shower. Did you text the Albertsons? Are they in? I’ll get steaks.
Danielle sighed a deep breath of relief. This was rare: Alec waking up pleasant. She would take it though. She would take it. It was one great day slipped inside a million terrible ones and she wasn't going to waste it. She excitedly texted the Albertsons, who were agreeable to the spontaneous invitation. She told the girls to get out of the water and she hurriedly went inside to look for the Bloody Mary mix. It was going to be a good day, after all.
Still, she couldn’t help dreaming just a bit more. With Jamie, this wouldn’t be a rarity, this happy, lighthearted Sunday Funday. With Jamie, the day’s potential wouldn’t be hinged on his alcoholism.
With Jamie, this might have been every day. With Jamie, this surge of happiness might have been her whole life.