“I would sell my soul just to make something different happen,” Eleanor said loudly to herself.
She had been talking to herself more and more lately. With each new gray hair she found in the mirror, with every new wrinkly on her husband’s face, with every bang echoing in the hall when their teenage daughter slammed the door, she became more vocal. Sometimes she cried out during simple chores, like a drowning woman, the sheer mundanity of life filling up her lungs.
She was getting old and had little to show for it. Peeling wallpaper, dishes with a tinge of yellow, a tedious job and a slightly crooked family life. The man she had married wasn’t the one she had cared about the most. And as much as she loved Isabella, the title of “mother” still felt as uncomfortable as a sweater several sizes too small. It turned to ashes in her mouth.
Most people don’t live extraordinary lives, she thought, flicking idly through the channels on TV.
And then it happened. She never got texts from unknown numbers. It was either Bella or Dan or somebody from work, usually. She frowned at the signature, unable to believe her eyes. Could it be…? Oh no, no, no. Even after all these years, she wasn’t ready.
She had nothing to wear, not to an occasion like this. All those years ago, when they were together, god and goddess of their own intoxicating universe, she used to be cool. Rebellious and wild and young. Had they really ever been so young? Or so happy?
Eleanor told the taxi driver to drop her off a few streets away from their old high school. There was nothing to feel guilty about, not really. She didn’t intend to do anything to endanger her marriage. Still, she didn’t want anybody to witness their reunion if she could prevent it. She even sighed with relief at the thought that it was summer and there wouldn’t be any children around.
This is silly, I’m not still in love with him, I can’t be. But her legs were trembling and she had trouble breathing while she forced herself to walk the rest of the way and the windows she passed were blinking and laughing at her. A sadistic laugh.
This was the love of her life, the one who had been there at the best of times and at the worst of times, when she was ill. Eleanor found herself wishing it hadn’t all been about her back then. She wished she had asked him how he was for a change, comforted him, said ‘I love you’ more often.
Regrets are useless now, she thought bitterly. I’m happily married. Or at least, I’m married. I won’t hurt Dan. But this was him. It was so strange, going to meet him again, that she could have sworn the birds overhead were flying backwards and the sun was setting in the east.
Eleanor stopped to take a few deep breaths before turning the corner, suddenly aware that there would be no going back after this. And then all the doubts, the pangs of guilt, the feelings of dizziness and shortness of breath, everything vanished as if it had been a distant dream and elation filled every cell of her body. There he was, beaming at her as though no time had passed. And he hadn’t aged a day. Effortlessly handsome, he looked like he had jumped out from between the pages of a romance novel.
I still love you, Eleanor thought, before she had a chance to stop herself.
The next few hours were a blur. He was still a drug, a fantasy come to life, hypnotic and impossible to escape. He had seeped into her skin from the first moment, his very first smile shattering all her self-control.
“This was a mistake,” she forced herself to say. She looked around the hotel room for the first time, to avoid looking into his eyes. If I get lost in there again, I won’t find my way out.
The room was dingy and smelled like shame. Marco looked at her with the same patience and warmth from ages ago, that seemed to say he would agree and stand by her through anything, even if she was being irrational. Eleanor wished she could get mad at him.
“The mistake was mine,” he said softly. His voice made Eleanor quiver. “I shouldn’t have left, back then. I was selfish.”
He hesitated, as if he wanted to say more, but couldn’t find the words. Eleanor felt a sudden rush of affection towards him. Out of the two of them, she had usually done most of the talking in the past.
“No,” she said. “I was the one who didn’t come with you. It’s not your fault that you wanted to make something of yourself.”
She didn’t ask whether he had. He nodded.
“We were kids. But we grew up in the meantime. We can try again. It will be just like before.”
A small laugh escaped Eleanor. The same optimism radiated from him in waves. She could almost see the stars in his eyes. It was funny how people changed but also managed to stay the same.
“I can’t.” Even though I want to. God, I want to. “I’m married and I have a daughter.”
He smiled again. His cursed, hypnotic, inescapable smile.
“I’d love to meet her.”
Panic. Alarm bells. The push she needed to wake up. It was dark outside and Dan would be wondering where she was. The sheer magnitude of what she had done threatened to crush her. And the resolution to do what was right, what she thought was right, took hold of her. Cold and implacable, a shield against the fantasy that had wrapped her tightly, against the siren’s song threatening to draw her to her own personal shipwreck.
“I have to go. Don’t call me again. We had our chance, but time wasn’t on our side. And it will never be. Goodbye.”
She rushed out of the room, down the stairs and past the reception, barefoot, shoes in hand. She didn’t want to waste any time in getting away from him. The streetlights flickered as one.
“You can’t escape what you’ve done,” they snickered sardonically.
“Shut up!” Eleanor bellowed. I have to do the right thing. The stupid right thing, for Bella.
The next few days were torturous. Marco texted and called, each time from a different number that Eleanor blocked, but not without feeling like she was digging a grave around herself with her bare hands. She had felt many different kinds of pain in her life, but probably none as insidious as this. Is fate throwing me a lifeline? Am I going to regret not grabbing it for the rest of my life? She had been drying the same plate for a very long time.
“I wouldn’t let him get away again if I were you,” the plate whispered.
Eleanor dropped it with a loud scream.
“Are you all right?”
Dan had come running, his glasses lopsided, his stained T-Shirt not quite able to cover his protruding stomach. She looked him up and down with sudden calm, trying to pinpoint how she felt about him.
There was affection there, and camaraderie; they had been partners for a long time after all. And something akin to pity. But no love and certainly no passion. Dan was kind, loyal and reliable, but he was far from being a drug. If anything, he was a weak cup of tea.
“I’m fine, I just broke a plate.”
Dan nodded, as if he understood the entire situation perfectly, when in fact, he was completely oblivious, as always.
“You must be tired. Go rest and I’ll finish cleaning up.”
Eleanor took him up on his offer, if only to get away from him and contemplate on the fact that she was feeling much less guilt than was proper with him in the same room. Her struggle was abstract. As though she was trying to save the concept of family, not necessarily her family.
She had barely closed the door to the kitchen when her phone beeped again. She had come to hate that sound more than anything. The sound of fate pricking her, asking her one more time if she was sure she didn’t want to take what was maybe her one last chance of experiencing something different. But the sound turned out to be only a slight annoyance compared to the sheer terror that washed over her when she read the text.
I’m outside. Give me five minutes. Marco.
Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. For a few seconds that felt like years, she froze, unable to move or think. The only possible course of action was to let the earth swallow her whole, right then and there. But the earth was concerned with more important matters than her life. It kept on sleeping. Eleanor swallowed the lump in her throat and remembered how to put one foot in front of the other. Slowly and unsteadily, she moved towards the front door and swung it open.
He was there, in her yard, leaning against the fence and looking every bit the rebellious teenager, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. Why does he always have to look like he’s posing for a magazine?
“Are you crazy? Why are you here? How do you even know where I live?”
“I have my ways of finding out things, as you probably remember,” he said calmly. “It’s good to see you again.” His face split into a childish grin.
Does it mean nothing to him? That he can ruin my family? Eleanor thought, as cold sweat rolled down her back.
“You have to go.” She had meant to sound firm, but panic was threatening to break her voice.
“Not until we’ve talked this through.”
If we talk it through, you’ll talk me into it. Why can’t you understand that I want to do the right thing for once in my life?
“No! Please, you have to go, before-”
“Mom? What are you doing?”
Marco’s eyes widened at the sight of Isabella standing in the doorway, as if it had just dawned on him that she was a real person.
I wish you looked less like me and more like your father. Eleanor frowned. What a strange thing to think about at such a moment.
“Bella, go back inside, please,” she said, with all the authority she could muster. “This doesn’t concern you.”
Bella rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. Before the door closed though, Eleanor could hear what she yelled.
“Dad, mom’s talking to herself out in the yard again!”