The man I’d once believed was my soulmate was moving into the apartment below mine. If the circumstances had been wildly different, this would’ve been exciting – I’d drop my popsicle on the deck, throw a t-shirt on over my bathing suit, rush down the stairs of my deck to greet him, and throw my arms around him, like a long lost lover, or a reunion, the great love of my life I thought I’d lost forever. But the circumstances weren’t different, they were what they were, and presently he was moving boxes into the apartment with his wife and young son.
The realization was a gut punch. I’d been laying on a towel on my deck, which was one of the main selling points of this second floor apartment, that I could have a porch garden and grow tomatoes or cucumbers or peppers. So far, I’d grown none of these things, hadn’t even bought pots or seeds or soil, but I still had time, summer wasn’t over yet. In the meantime, I found an old bikini in my dresser and marched out onto the deck to lay out and get some color on my skin, melanoma be damned. And I’d been laying there, somewhat uncomfortably on the wooden deck, slowly eating a cherry popsicle and scrolling through my phone, not giving a fuck that I was way too chubby for a two piece bathing suit, when I heard a truck pull the up driveway.
My previous downstairs neighbors, a hipster couple who smoked a lot of weed, had moved out a few weeks before, so I knew I’d be getting new neighbors eventually, and in the meantime I enjoyed the relative peace of being the only person on the property. That day, it was so quiet that the noise of a large vehicle lumbering up the driveway startled me out of my reverie. When I rose to take a peek, there was a moving van and white Ford SUV parked in the spaces next to my sedan.
And holy shit. I recognized that white SUV. I’d been inside it more times than I could count. I’d sat in the passenger seat almost every day two summers ago, the hot leather seat burning my thighs, with the wind in my hair and his hand on the back of my neck. I’d been horizontal and nearly naked in the backseat with his body on top of mine, connected at the lips, locked in passion. And here it was in front of me again, two years after it ended, two years after he decided to stay with his wife and leave me behind, and I could hear his voice, talking distantly to his wife as the popsicle I was holding melted and dripped slowly down my hand.
I should’ve been smarter. I’ve watched movies and TV. I’ve read books. I know how affairs happen, and I know how they end, and this one was almost painfully typical, although at the time I didn’t see it that way. I thought this was the great love of my life.
As almost all affair partners meet, we met at work, when we were partnered on an assignment. We spent a lot of time working together, and we got along so well that our friendship was nearly instantaneous. Also, I thought he was hot, but I knew he was married. There was a photo of his infant son on his desk, so I couldn’t ignore the fact that he had a family, and that my secret fantasies about making out with him in a supply closet would, sadly, never become reality.
We started eating lunch together nearly every day. Our friendship deepened, and it became something more. He confided in me. He wasn’t happy, he said. He wasn’t in love with his wife anymore, but felt too guilty to leave her and his son. I told him that he deserved happiness. He confessed that they hadn’t had sex since their son was born, that they had a “dead bedroom.” And in turn, I told him how lonely I was, how I felt like I was last single twenty-something woman in the world, surrounded by happy couples and engagement parties and baby showers, the invites plastered all over my fridge, and every morning I’d see them and remember how alone I was.
It was during this conversation, a particularly emotional one, when we were sitting in his parked SUV after work. It was a Friday, so everyone else was long gone, excited to start their weekends. We’d been chatting in the parking lot about more casual things, movies and weekend plans, and suddenly it was two hours later, and we were sitting there at dusk, the radio playing softly in the background.
It was restlessness and unhappiness that bonded us that first night. He reached over and took my hand. I took this as a friendly gesture, meant to be comforting and nothing more, but when I held his hand back, we stared at each other in the eyes, and his hand moved to my leg. I kept my eyes on him, didn’t push him away or protest or say “What about your wife?”, and he leaned in and kissed me. We spent almost another full hour kissing in the car, slowly, intimately, passionately, not coming up for air until his phone rang. I could’ve kissed him like that forever.
After that, my life was like goddamn romance novel. The secret, longing stares at work. Meeting in parking lots or hotels. He always chose the hotel, and he’d splurge on the best rooms, and we’d order room service – lobster, filet mignon, ice cream sundaes, champagne. We’d strip naked and use the hot tubs in our room, turning on all the jets, playing in the bubbles, laughing hysterically at nothing. Before bed, we’d sit outside and share a joint, marveling at our luck, until the next day when he’d have to go back to his wife.
Those moments when he left me, alone in our hotel room, were devastating. I felt that were truly star crossed lovers. Every night that he spent with his wife, away from me, I’d fall asleep crying, and when I woke up, my eyes would still be heavy with salt; I’d be so thirsty that I’d drink three glasses of water in the morning and never feel like it was enough to rehydrate me. But the good moments – the ones where we were laying in bed together, talking about the future, or when we’d be in the car together and he’d reach over and take my hand – made it feel worth it.
The future that we’d imagined didn’t happen. Or maybe it was just me who’d imagined it.
We’d become careless, and one day, walking around a grocery store, casually holding hands, someone saw us, and someone told his wife. She confronted him, and he came clean. He found another job, so I rarely saw him, and slowly our communication dwindled. I’d spend days staring at my phone, waiting for it to light up, making plans and then canceling them just in case, but she was reading his text messages, he told me during the last time we met. She read his emails, tracked his phone to make sure he was where he said he was.
“So basically you have no privacy,” I’d said. We met at a coffee shop in the middle of the work day. I’d ordered black coffee. It matched my mood.
“Basically,” he agreed. He took a sip of his coffee and looked away from me. I could sense his distance. I was losing him.
“So…what now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said darkly. His whole being was different now. He’d lost his luster.
“What’s going on?” I asked, frowning, reaching out to place my hand on his arm. He looked like he wanted to pull away, but didn’t.
“I just have to accept this,” he said, his voice tight.
He sighed and shook his head. “My life,” he said.
“You do not have to accept it,” I argued, as I had before, because he seemed so intent on the idea that leaving a woman he didn’t love would ruin her life.
“You don’t understand. You don’t have a family,” he said.
I jerked back like I’d been slapped.
“I don’t mean it like that,” he said, realizing what he’d said and how he said it.
“Yes you do,” I snapped. I stood up and picked up my bag. “Thanks for the coffee. Oh wait, I bought my own coffee, because your wife reads your receipts like a fucking tax auditor.”
“I made her do that,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I said. I stormed out of the coffee shop, not caring who saw me. He followed me.
“I just meant that I have different responsibilities,” he said to my back, as I walked to my car.
I didn’t respond, just kept walking. He continued to chase me. I walked faster.
“We’re moving,” he finally said as I unlocked my car door.
I turned around then. “To where?”
“Back home,” he said. “To Minnesota. To be with family while we…resolve things.”
“Dude, just get a fucking divorce,” I said. It was mid August, and I was sweating from trying to walk fast in heels. “I don’t understand why you’re doing any of this,” I went on, and I felt myself wanting to cry. “You’re not happy, you’re not doing yourself or her or your kid any favors by staying. It’s fucking insane. You’re insane. And I’m over it.” I opened my car door. The inside felt like a sauna. I put the windows down to let the air in. He stood to the side, watching me, and for the first time in months I couldn’t read his expression. He looked bewildered, relieved, hurt, confused, all at once, and in all honesty, I felt the same way. I needed it to be over, I just didn’t know how much I needed it until this exact moment.
When I started my car, flicking on the air conditioner, he approached, placing his hands on the side of my car. “When will I see you again?” he asked.
“Hopefully never,” I replied, and I drove away. When I glanced in my rearview mirror to see if he was watching me go, he was already gone.
Moving on took time. I lost a bunch of weight because I was too sad to eat, but gained it all back plus another five pounds when I started to feel better and food became a comfort to me instead of a hindrance. I spent a lot of nights alone on the couch, eating popcorn with extra butter, rewatching Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix for the thousandth time, not washing my hair, and avoiding my mother’s phone calls. And then I spent a lot of time not alone – getting dressed up, going to upscale bars in the city, ordering a dirty martini and feeling extremely grown up and classy, and then letting a man take me home. At first, I never spent the night, preferring to go home and be alone again, but as time went on I began to not want to wake up alone anymore. I liked the feeling of a body next mine, an arm draped across me.
I’d moved into this apartment six months ago. My old apartment had too many memories attached to it, memories primarily of me spending hours, days, texting him back and forth, and after, of me spending hours on the couch. It felt stale, and I needed air.
The apartment was a steal. It was newly renovated, it had a washer and dryer in the unit, new appliances, and, of course, the deck. Where I was currently still standing, holding my melting popsicle.
I crouched down so I was out of the sight, but it was quiet down below. They must’ve been inside, unpacking.
At that point, I realized that I was still in a way too revealing bikini, and I hadn’t showered or shaved my legs or armpits, so I quickly went back inside. My popsicle, which had tasted like perfect sugary summer refreshment minutes before, was now a lost cause. I dropped the stick in the sink and rinsed the last of the popsicle away with warm water.
Now, I was stuck. They would definitely see me if I left, so that was out. The car I’d driven when we were together had died last year, so at least he wouldn’t recognize my new one. He had no idea I was here. What a strange feeling – seeing someone who had once been so important to me, who still felt important sometimes, knowing he was just outside and down the stairs, while I was millions of miles away from his thoughts. I sat inside my bedroom with the door closed, blasting the air conditioning, occasionally peeking out my window to look at him. He looked mostly the same, maybe a tiny bit heavier, but he was wearing a baseball cap, so it was hard to tell for sure. His wife was exactly as he had described her to me, tall and wide, with a bland, slightly annoyed expression on her face. Their son was cute. I wished, more than anything else, that I could hear what they were saying. Neither of them smiled at all, but they were clearly still together. What were they doing back here?
Eventually it was dark out, and I couldn’t see them anymore. I fell asleep slumped against the window, my eyes tired from straining to see in the darkness.
The next day, the white SUV was gone, and just her car was there, an old Honda. They seemed to be done moving their stuff in, and I didn’t see them outside at all, so I assumed they were unpacking and setting up their apartment.
I didn’t want to leave, but I needed groceries and had been too busy hiding and spying from my bedroom window to go to the store yesterday, so today I had no choice. I briefly considered taking matters into my own hands by dyeing and cutting my own hair so at least that part of me would be unrecognizable, but I talked myself out if it when I realized I’d have to explain my new look at work. So instead, I pulled my hair into a ponytail, put on an old baseball hat, and put on my biggest, most obnoxious sunglasses, before hurrying to my car and driving away before I even had my seatbelt on, so anxious was I to get away before they saw me.
Okay, so where was his SUV? It was Sunday. Did he work weekends now? I felt unrightfully confused. I hurried through my grocery shopping so that I could get home and see if he was back, forgetting to buy bread in the process. The SUV was still missing when I returned.
I didn’t see the white SUV again for two weeks. By then, I’d sort of given up on it, figuring that maybe they had sold it for some reason, or maybe it was in the shop. Then, two weekends later, as I was making my morning coffee, I happened to glimpse something white out of the corner of my eye, and when I went to the window there it was.
I instinctively went to the bathroom to check my hair in the mirror. I brushed my hair and teeth, put on mascara. When I went back to the window, the SUV was gone.
That evening, in the middle of cleaning my apartment, I decided to take out the trash. After I’d tossed it in the dump, I turned and saw his wife coming in my direction, carrying her own bag of trash.
My immediate instinct was to hurry away, but by the time the instinct kicked in, it was too late. “Hi,” she said as she approached. “I’m Lucy. I just moved in downstairs.”
“Hi,” I said back, shaking her hand. “Jenna.” Then immediately my stomach dropped, because I didn’t know if he had ever told her my name.
“Nice to meet you,” Lucy said. She tossed her trash in the dump, and we slowly walked back toward the house together. “Have you lived here long?” she asked.
“Six months,” I replied.
“How is it?”
“I like it. It’s quiet,” I managed to say. “So is it just you?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I have a son. He’s three.” Then, to my surprise, she sighed and said, “To be honest with you, I’m going through a divorce, and my husband wants to live in the area, so here I am.”
I’d never been so shocked in my entire life. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said dumbly.
She shrugged. “Eh, it’s okay. What’re you gonna do, right?”
“That must be hard,” I said, trying to sound kind and sympathetic instead of nosy.
“Yeah, it sucks,” she agreed. “He cheated on me with some whore a couple of years ago, claims to still love her, blah blah blah. But he got some big job opportunity, so here we are, I guess.” She forced a smile, but it wasn’t a happy smile.
My heart was pounding. We were back at the house now, going our separate ways, to our individual sanctuaries. “I am so sorry,” I said, and I was.
“Thanks.” She lifted a hand. “I’ll see you around.
“Yeah,” I said. “See you around.”
She went into her apartment. When the door clicked shut behind her, I hurried up the stairs. Inside, I grabbed my phone from the table, found the number, and dialed. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest as it rang.
“Hello?” he said.
I took a deep breath. “It’s me,” I said.