Throughout my childhood, my mother was the affair woman, the woman men wanted, but never committed to. After separating and divorcing my father, she looked for another man to love her. Instead, what she got was a series of one-night stands, men who lurked on our front porch hoping she’d let them in, men who wanted to sleep with her, but not marry. I remember them―a heavyset pot user she met through a newspaper ad, a forty-year-old with dentures who was on the verge of bankruptcy. Only one remained a constant, the one she fell in love with. I nicknamed him Deacon because he went to our church. He was married with a daughter my age. We became friends, and both our parents used that as an excuse to see each other more.
Deacon was tall, thickly built, the kind of man that appeared to fill up all the space of a room. He always came to visit late at night after eating dinner and spending time with his own family. He knocked on the door as if it was eleven in the morning and not eleven at night. Before he came over, my mother told me to stay quietly in my bedroom and when I heard the knocking I’d slink low against the wall and listen to the footsteps. I’d listen to my mother’s tinkling laughter and the sounds of movement, of bodies knocking. I’d wait until I’d hear her bedroom door close, and I knew then it was okay to leave. I’d go into the kitchen to see what was there. Sometimes, he brought food―fast food: burgers or tacos, the grease visible from the bag. I’d tiptoe back to my room and watch Nickelodeon while eating Big Macs and cold, soggy fries. On holidays, he made it a point to bring me gifts. For Christmas one year he bought me a snow globe the size of my fist. It sat on our mantle collecting dust.
My mother waited years for Deacon to leave his wife, but he never did. I could count whole afternoons watching her as she laid on her bed, her eyes staring up at the ceiling fan waiting for him to call. Then there were the evenings when she expected him to come over. She spent those evenings getting herself ready. Normally, not one to wear make-up except for job interviews and church, she’d open the tube of red lipstick and slide the color over her lips. I’d watch her go through this wasted effort only to later spend the night waiting in our living room with her lipstick smudged, the thick curls of her hair a darkened halo around her face.
One night she gathered me in her arms and we made the forty minute drive to where he lived. When she passed his house she slowed the car so that she could see inside the lighted windows. “How much longer?” I had asked, half-asleep.
“Hush.” My mother reached the end of the street and turned the car around, driving back a second, third, fourth time. “Hush and sleep,” she said.
I’ve lived my life trying to avoid this same fate. On dates I looked for the signs―he only wants to meet at certain times, he wants to visit my place and not take me to his, he doesn’t let me meet any of his friends. I looked for the tan line, the tell-tale sign of the absence of a ring. Despite this, a man can do many things to hide the fact that he’s married, or has another girlfriend, or is seeing other women besides you.
I once came close to having an affair. He was from Seattle and flew to Boston every few weeks for business. He was a good-looking, and older by a good ten years. He had the look and ease of a man who had settled into his life. He was self-assured and confident in the things he said. When I asked a question, he rarely, if ever, paused for longer than a few seconds to think of the answer. He took me to La Sel De La Terre, an upscale French restaurant, and when the waiter came he ordered for me. We had Island Creek oysters to start, and seared diver scallops with melted foie gras, bacon wrapped rabbit, roasted shallots and confit baby Yukons. The decadent words rolled off his tongue, and as he said them I stared at the glint of gold on his finger. He saw me looking and smiled. “There must be something you want to ask me. That you want to know,” he said.
“What does it matter if I did?” I said. I didn’t want to know his reasons. He had a wife somewhere, maybe children. I could guess that and it was all I needed to know. Anything more would ruin who he was because in that moment he was a man who merely wanted to be with me.
Afterwards, he said he wanted to see the city. We took a cab rides from neighborhood to neighborhood, passing through Back Bay to the Theater District, Chinatown and the Italian North End. He continued telling the driver to let the meter run as we went up and down the darkened streets. It went like that for hours, until finally, lastly, we stopped at his hotel.
“It’s your decision,” he said, “you can come with me, or I can take you home.”
He sat so close that our knees touched. It was everything for me to keep from moving over, to keep myself from slowly running my leg up his. I had the urge to touch his face, to trace my fingers over the creases in his skin and over the fine corners of his mouth. Sitting in the car with him I knew why my mother had carried on for so long. We are human beings. We long to be touched, to be held. I wanted this man because the desire to fill that need was so strong that I didn’t care if he was a stranger, or that he was married, or that come morning, he wouldn’t want me anymore.
I don’t know how I did it, but I told him no. He paid the driver enough money to take me home. I watched him walk back to the entrance, waited until he disappeared behind the double glass doors.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened had I said yes. Every now and then I think about how in the cab his hand had rested on my thigh, as if we were already familiar, already lovers. I think about what it would have taken to let myself say yes. I think about how far I would have let myself fall if given the chance.
I’ve never had an affair, but I’ve known what it’s like to be in love with a man who doesn’t love me back, and in many ways, the experience is the same. The experience of both can feel masochistic and cruel. Both can demean you to the point of being unable to recognize yourself. The woman you are disappears. Instead, you become a woman who waits for a man to change his mind.
In movies women are told to wait. There is an entire genre devoted to this and the lessons derived are always the same. Wait long enough and the man will choose you. Before the end comes the man will always choose you. Right when you’ve begun to give up, to start the process of picking up the pieces of your life, he’ll come. Watching these films, it becomes easy to convince yourself that the same could happen to you. My mother believed it. She thought the man she loved would leave his wife. We’re conditioned to believe that the man will leave and even though it does happen, more often than not, it doesn’t. Sometimes the man never comes, or he chooses another woman. Sometimes we never get what we’ve been waiting for, sometimes we die before ever getting the happy ending we were promised, and sometimes we end up alone.
The man that I’m in love with is my best friend. For over the past year he has been seeing someone else. The two of them forged a relationship despite the fact that she lives in another state. I thought that because of this it would never last, but it has lasted―is lasting, and when I talk to him he swears that he’s in love.
I met her for dinner once, this girl he’s been seeing. During a layover on a train back to Boston, we met for dinner. At the restaurant I couldn’t help but think of easy exits, of restaurants within walking distance and nearby taxi cabs conveniently parked for dramatic getaways. I wanted to hate her and I did, but for all the wrong reasons. She bought me dinner and dessert, could afford it without thinking twice. She was unapologetically nice, and beautiful, and meeting her I could understand how easy it was for him to fall for her.
He is my world, I thought but didn’t say. I wanted to throw down our history, tell her every story. I wanted to detail every crevice of who we’d been to each other so that she would know that I was someone worth reckoning. I knew him in ways she would only think of knowing, because she lived eight states away and neither of them believed they loved the other enough to move and be together.
Yes, I know him, but she has known the taste of his mouth and the feel of his tongue gliding against hers. She knows what he murmurs to her the morning after. She has seen him humbled and naked, and these are things I will never know. He could stay with her another month, or a year, or forever, and it won’t matter, because I’ll never be what she has been to him.
My mother finally did meet a man who left his wife for her. They both worked the night shift as security guards at a mental institution for inmates. They’d get off work and he’d take her to Cracker Barrel to buy her pancakes. In the mornings, I’d see their leftovers in the fridge and I knew that it was just like before.
Except this time it wasn’t. He was a religious man who believed in doing the right thing. He divorced his wife and made promises to be with my mother. They were going to get married and move to Florida. I told her Florida was for old people. I said that it was filled with alligators and the days were humid hot to the point of suffocation. She ignored me, saying that she wanted to spend her retired days lolling by the beach. She wanted to feel the sand squish between her toes. She wanted the rest of her life to be like living inside a postcard.
None of this ever happened. Before they could get married my mother was diagnosed with liver and colon cancer. The man who left his wife for my mother took care of her up until she died, doing everything no one else, not even I, could do. He helped her to the bathroom when she was too sick from chemo treatments. He fed her ice chips and gave her medications and even helped pay for her medical bills. Her car broke down and he bought her a new one, the one I inherited, the one that I drive now. When my mother died, he was the one that held her hand and watched her leave this earth while I was miles away at college living in purposeful denial. Over the course of the following year when I learned the true extent of what he’d done, I realized that my mother finally found what she had searched so hard for.
My whole life all I’ve ever wanted was for someone to love me in the way that he loved her.
He eventually went back to his wife. This man, this man who had once told me he’d always love my mother, the man who kept my mother’s ashes out of his own grief, decided one day that he didn’t want to live the rest of his life alone. In the same month my mother’s urn was finally buried, he got remarried and moved to the west coast. Shortly after, he sent me a postcard from the state of Washington. “You would not believe the weather here!” he wrote. “Hope all is well.”
I have not heard from him since. For weeks after, I cried reliving old wounds. I told myself that I shouldn’t have been surprised, because that’s what happens in the end.
You tell yourself that you don’t have a choice, but you always have a choice. My mother chose to fall in love with a married man. She chose to have an affair, and a large part of her unhappiness was because of this one decision. She could have let it go. She could have found a way to move on.
Like my mother I fell for someone that I’ll never end up with because he’s in love with someone else, and like my mother, I live with the consequences of this choice. He talks about her on the phone and each time I find the muscles in my body tense up. He tells me he’s in love, and I try not to listen even though I need to hear the words.
“I know,” I say in response, then try to change the subject. Within a few minutes I make a point of picking a fight. I am angry at him when I have no right to be. I try not to think about how much like my mother I’ve become. I resort to guilt-trips over why he hasn’t called sooner. I ask if he’s gotten any of my messages. I am needy and apologetic, saying how it feels like I’ve been waiting forever to hear his voice.
“I’ve been busy,” he says. “Why do you have to take everything so personally?”
Because I am in love with you. Because I love you and I miss you and I am tired of waiting. It is always the same argument manifested in different ways, and each time I hope for a different answer even though I know the truth.
“You’re not saying anything,” he says after a while. “Can you hear me?”
Enough now, I tell myself. The truth is that like my mother, I would wait years if it came to it, if there was the slightest possibility. The heart will do anything for just the possibility of happiness. Still, there has to be an end. He is not my lover but my very best friend, and I’ve learned to convince myself that it’s enough.
“Are you there?”
I’m here, I think, and over and over the words go—I am here I am here I am here. I am here if you need me. I will be here for you. I will always be here for you.
“Yes, I’m here,” I finally say. “I’m here.”
About LaTanya: LaTanya McQueen is a PhD student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her most recent publications include stories in Nimrod, Fourteen Hills, The North American Review, Potomac Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. This is her first nonfiction publication.