tagRomanceNever Again?

Never Again?

bywill_4_rp©

By will_4_rp and SecretEpiphany

***

And here she is.

I stare at the screen. After a few moments of stillness, I realise I am actually holding my breath. I let it out. Slowly.

She's found me. OK, so, not such a miraculous act to perform nowadays, although there was a time when I was in hiding from her, and from the world, and when hiding was almost straightforwards. But that's just not an option anymore. "Join Facebook, have a MySpace, do some Tweeting, get some Friends and Followers: it'll all help the book, you know", my agent had enthused. Had I known even then, when I'd relented to his request, what would happen? Had this all been a bid, secret unto myself - well, maybe not so secret, given the topic of my novel - to find her or to have her find me?

Well, through the wonder of social networking, here she is: Sheila Quinn Covey, 33, I quickly guess. Or maybe 34. In one guise, Sheila has become a Fan of "Will Schumann - author"; in another, Sheila wants to be my "Friend".

Sheila wants to be my friend.

A line of text and a few pixels passing for a photograph. It's hard to tell it's her, I kid myself. It's obviously her: even at this poor resolution, I can see her rosy lips, the tantalising arch of her brow, the blur, perhaps, of freckles bursting out instead of a tan. She's still beautiful, then. Of course. Damn.

I move the cursor over to the picture and circle her face, the arrow tip brushing her lips, tracing a raised eyebrow, the curve of her jaw. Some kind of caress?

At the thought, I catch my breath again and close my eyes, images rushing my mind in a flurry: snapshots of companionship, openness, the endless tease of anticipation, and then the rapture of sudden release - before the cold smack of shock, numbness, guilt and rejection. And then flight. My flight.

I remember her mouth, _feel_ her mouth, crushing into mine, breaking that last barrier as our hands sought a dozen refuges, all at once, from the rain in that dark, secret alleyway, hidden away in the night of another city, another decade, another life. And then that same mouth, days later, thinning and then hardening as I said goodbye, forever. At least, it was meant to be forever.

I move the cursor closer to "Accept?".

Accept. What does that mean, in this context? Accept what I did, what it meant, what it's always meant to me, if truth be told? Accept the possibility that my world will turn upside down, once again, if I let her through this crack into my life? Accept the possibility - far worse - that my life probably won't turn a backflip and that, instead, like so many "friendships" one renews online, a few nostalgic messages down the line and all there will be left is the acknowledgement that we're strangers with nothing to share but the recognition that we're not the people we once knew, and perhaps we never were - and, by the way, in the time we've just wasted working that all out, we're getting even closer to death?

Yet I already know what I'm going to do. The mind makes decisions about six seconds before one's actions actually take place, carrying out calculations far more intricate that the conscious machinations of a guilt-ridden Facebooker thinking, once again, about the face that changed his life. The face, and the woman, I'd wanted to share that life with, to have children with, maybe, to see the world with, to love a thousand and one times over, to grow old and die with. The one I'd known that, save for that single, lightning-torn night, I could never really have.

I click 'Accept'.

***

It's a pretty well known fact that drunken e-mailing is a bad idea. In the new age of social networking, drunken facebook-ing is also a bad idea. "What have I done?" I whispered when the notification came through on my blackberry. The message read 'Will Schumann accepted your friend request.'

Will Schumann. I had a death grip on my phone now, and I swallowed hard against the surge of nausea that hit me from just looking at his name—at least from looking at his name while I was sober.

"Sheila, are you okay?" Melinda, one of my co-workers, stared at me with concern. "Bad news or something? Is it Steven?"

I shook my head and snapped out of my panic. "No, no. It's nothing. Just... something I wasn't expecting. Nothing's wrong. Steven's fine. I'm sorry to give you a scare." I pasted on my calm and professional smile and picked up the stack of papers I needed for this afternoon's presentation. "Ready to get to our meeting?"

Melinda still cast suspicious looks at me throughout the three hours we spent in the boardroom, but I was determined not to give anything away. No one at work knew that my marriage was on the rocks. No one at work knew much about my personal life at all. And I liked it that way.

The one time I'd let myself get personal with a co-worker... Well, I still bore the scars from my mistakes with Will Schumann. So I didn't get personal with anyone at work anymore. I kept my personal life personal and my professional life professional. I didn't even think about personal things while I was at the office. Now, the opposite wasn't exactly true. I did deal with professional stuff at home—much to Steven's chagrin. My husband resented my job.

And my husband would resent the fact that I had sent a facebook friend request to a man I had an affair with a decade ago. He would resent that very much. Even more so if he knew I'd sent the request after downing a half a bottle of wine to try and numb the raw emotions ripping through me after we'd had yet another baby argument. Alcohol was not my friend. It never had been. Drinking the wine was stupid. Getting on facebook after drinking the wine was stupider.

"So, do you and Steven have big plans for the weekend?" Melinda asked as we walked down the corridor after the meeting.

"No, nothing big. Just relaxing at home. I'm sure he'll go play a few rounds of golf."

Melinda nodded. "John and I are taking the girls to the aquarium on Saturday. I can't wait. I'll show you all the pictures next week." She winked at me. "You know, you and Steven better get busy on having a couple of your own or mine will be too old to be playmates with yours."

I smiled weakly. "Maybe someday."

Melinda blushed and seemed to realize she'd overstepped her bounds. "Well, it's past five and I'm ready to get out of here. I'm sure you are too. See you Monday!" She waved and hurried to her office.

I collected my things, but paused before shutting down my computer. "Personal stuff belongs at home," I told myself. But I sat down anyway, and within seconds I had logged into my facebook account.

I poured over Will's pages. I'd done the same last night, but then I'd read everything through a wine-induced fog, and I'd only been able to see what he had set to public access. He looked good in his pictures. Older, with shaggier hair, but still good. He had the same piercing green eyes. They showed up especially well on his book jacket photo where he posed in front of a window draped with green velvet curtains. His expression seemed...soulful? Sad even. I didn't remember him being a sad sort of person.

But then time changed things. It had certainly changed me. And maybe I was just projecting my own sadness on his picture.

His book was titled The Broken. A sad sort of title. Suddenly, I was desperate to read it. I made a mental note to run by the bookstore on my way home and see if they had a copy.

I found myself clicking the message button. It was a bad idea. I had several people friended on facebook whom I'd never messaged. I'd never even written on their walls. Will was best left in that category, I knew that. But I wrote him a note anyway.

"Will, it's been a long time. Your book looks interesting. I'm glad you followed your dream. I hope to read it soon. --Sheila"

***

I went to the bookshelf and found the remains of my best single malt, sandwiched between some dog-eared favorites and other books that had belonged to Emma-Louise, and that I'd kept long after she'd gone, even though I still hated some of the novelists she'd liked the most. How we'd argued. Then, I'd read those books obsessively in the months after it had happened, searching for clues. Failing to find them.

The dirty upturned glass capping the bottle would do for tonight's drinking. The whiskey would sterilize anything creeping therein. The first sip coating my mouth and throat with a warm fuzz, I turned back to the glow of my laptop screen. I raised my glass: "To Shelia Quinn. Oh, sorry - Quinn Covey. Now fuck off and leave me alone."

Wow. Where had that come from? The bitterness in my own words and tone caught me off-guard. It was me who'd been most deeply in the wrong, back then, and she who had the right to be the angry one now. Yet I was kidding myself, of course, once again. I knew exactly why I'd felt that surge of anger. I'd written a book about it, after all, and paid my therapist several thousands to scrape the bottom of that barrel. Can a single mistake subtly re-engineer the universe, causing it to topple in on its occupants, breaking one and all? In my novel, the hero has a fling that ignites at the precise moment his partner discovers a lump in her breast: she dies, but as a result of what? The cancer, or his cheating, even though she never discovers it? For a while, in the hallucinatory depths of my grief, when I was most deeply lost after Emma-Louise's suicide, I'd felt that my affair with Sheila -- my half-hour, knee-trembler, life-changer of a fling with Sheila -- had started a chain of events that had led to my wife taking her own life, even though she'd known nothing about Sheila and me, and never would. Her death was, I'd come to accept, entirely her own concern, like so much else in her life. Writing the hallucinations out in the book had helped me rationalize them, like reporting a nightmare to a friend in the morning and revealing it to be ridiculous. But sometimes, I relapsed into bad, old habits. Like grief, those habits died hard.

I took a longer drink.

Now that I'd allowed myself to be Friended, I figured there was no harm in accessing Sheila's profile. No longer working at the same firm, I noted immediately: two or three upwardly mobile moves had occurred since we'd last seen each other. I felt glad for Sheila, but also disappointed. Hadn't we clicked, back then, because I'd felt something she wanted to release in herself: an escape from the rat race realm into something purer? Hell, I guess not. Her status updates were the usual depressing assortment of upbeat boasts and faux-modesty. Ooh, a big presentation coming up and she's nervous; phew, it went well, 'as you always knew it would', her friends/colleagues mock-protest in the comments). All the correct kinds of safe Likes and Pages seem present, alongside various trivial apps and silly gifts. It read like an online extension of her CV. "Hey, you could suggest a few more Likes for her", the baser part of my brain chipped in. I couldn't help smiling at that one.

Her info confirmed she is married, although not to whom she is hitched (perhaps he stays off Facebook -- smart guy, I almost liked him). I decided to search the photos for evidence of his existence, beyond the double-barrel of her surname. Seeking out a competitor to size him up? I cast that thought aside.

As I clicked through her photos, the cynicism inside me finally began to melt. There were older photos in abundance, and while no guy appeared therein, there was obviously a special recipient of the disarming smile dominating many of the shots. I felt a bit jealous and, in one case, ever so slightly aroused. One image showed her lying on white sands, an open azure sky framing her, facing the camera and slightly spilling out of a modest bikini top. A few grains of sand clung to the curve of her breasts, begging to be brushed away. It was a morning-after-a-wonderful-night-before smile, all secrets and light, and all for the cameraman. I stared a little too long at that one. Lucky bastard.

But there were less of these photos from more recent years: she'd been tagged here and there at dinners and functions, and there were photos from business trips and conferences. She had that beaming smile on tap, it seemed, but was it just me, or did it seem a little more forced in the later images? Probably just my imagination.

"OK, quid pro quo, Clarice," I muttered. On a whim, I entered my own page's settings and added her to my Real Friends list. Now she could see my updates, my photos, my likes and pages, the link to Emma-Louise's online shrine, my publisher, my short fiction, the works: a fairground hall of mirrors offering reflections, distortions and a few surprises for my newest, old friend, even though she already knew me more completely than any website would ever permit.

I figured she'd take a look and never contact me again. And then her message arrived:

"Will, it's been a long time. Your book looks interesting. I'm glad you followed your dream. I hope to read it soon. --Sheila"

I'd imagined this before, of course, but never with such clarity. I pictured the woman in the photos buying the hardback in some upmarket store, reading the first few pages over coffee and a croissant, then ceasing to chew and swallow as a cold burn takes hold of her chest and she realizes who the characters are and what the situation was inspired by, as in the space of one chapter -- a bit the critics all loved -- the hero and his lover screw desperately in an alleyway, the action cutting as hard as their eventual thrusts between their fucking and the hero's wife receiving devastating news in a sterile office.

I drained the glass, paused, and then entered my reply. Screw her carefully policed tone and its invitation to pleasantries and protocols. After all we'd been through? No way:

"Well, brace yourself, and have the salt handy. You'll need a pinch or three by the time you're through. I missed you."

What was I thinking? I erased the last three words and hit send.

***

It was almost eight by the time I got home. I'd stayed late at the office looking at Will's profile, although I'd logged off right after sending him that message. I'd stopped by the bookstore and then a few other places while I was in that part of town. Time had gotten away from me.

"You're late," Steven called from the den where he was watching ESPN with his feet propped on the coffee table. "Again."

"Sorry. I stayed at work late and then had a few errands." And I just didn't want to come home. But I couldn't say that.

Steven walked into the kitchen were I was unpacking some groceries. "It's Friday, Sheila. Your work doesn't expect you to stay and pull all nighters anytime, and especially not on Friday."

I gestured to the bags without making eye contact with him. "Errands. I just told you that."

"I bought groceries yesterday."

I shrugged. "Well, I bought some more."

"Why do you care if there's food in the house? You're never here to eat it!"

"Steven," I said, trying to summon patience. "Can we please not fight right now?"

He was tense. He always looked tense these days. I was his wife. I should care about that. Try to... help him. But I didn't care. And I didn't want to help. And I knew that made me a bad person, a cold person, an unfeeling wife... And the knowing just made me angrier. Sadder too, once the fury boiled off and I was left to think about the whole messed up situation.

"Jesus, Sheila." His hands were balled into fists. "I don't want to fight. I just want to talk to you. I want... I want to spend time with my wife."

We hadn't had sex in almost a month. Or was it longer? How long? I couldn't remember... How sad was that? I sighed.

"Just... Let me finish putting all this away and give me a little bit to soak in the tub. Then we can... spend time together, okay? I'll meet you under the sheets?" I offered him my best attempt at a smile.

He didn't return it. He turned on his heel and stalked out of the room. A few seconds later I heard the front door slam and his car's engine rev to life outside.

I leaned over the kitchen countertop and buried my face in my hands. I hated this. I hated making him miserable. I hated being miserable. And I hated my sense of relief that Steven didn't want to have sex. What had happened to us? I could vaguely remember a time when we couldn't keep our hands off each other. I used to be crazy about him. But I just...wasn't anymore.

I went upstairs, ran a hot bubble bath, and undressed. Before getting in, I got Will's book out of my purse and set it beside the tub. A chapter or two while I soaked sounded good. I switched on the tub jets and lowered myself into the bubbles until I was immersed up to my neck. The hot water soothed my aching muscles as it swirled around me, caressing my skin. I leaned back so a couple of the side jets pulsed water onto my breasts, a teasing sensation that left me wondering if I should have tried harder to convince Steven I wanted to sleep with him. It had been so long...

My hands found their way to my chest and I touched myself, concealed beneath the foamy bubbles on the surface of the water. I squeezed and kneaded. I thumbed my nipples until they were erect, then pulled them hard enough to lift the undersides of my breasts from my body, letting water swirl beneath them. I missed feeling passion and lust and desire and raw need. I missed feeling a man's desperate hands on my body. My own were a poor substitute.

With a sigh, I reached for a towel and dried my hands and forearms, then I opened The Broken.

The bubbles had fizzled away and the water had grown cold by the time I finished the first chapter, but I was barely aware of it. Will's book was based on us. It was right there in the first few pages—an account of the one and only time we'd had sex. The alley, the rain, the wine, the urgency.

My hands, actually my whole body, shook as I closed the book and climbed out of the tub. I tried so hard not to think about that night, not to think about Will at all. What good did it do to think about things you couldn't have? Dwelling on past regrets and empty wishes was poison. I'd moved on from my mistakes with Will. I'd found Steven. I'd gotten married...

But now my stomach hurt and the emotions swelling in my chest were as fresh as they had been ten years ago. The account in the book was so eloquent. I remembered, vividly, how I'd known every time Will had walked into a room. Even if I couldn't see him. It was like I could sense him, smell the unique mix of musky cedary Will-ness before anyone else was even aware of his presence.

And my body reacted now, just like it had then. It was as if he were in the bathroom with me. The sudden tightness in my tummy, the slight clench in my pelvis, the rapid kick of my pulse, and the sharp intake of breath... Will.

I didn't dry off. I walked naked into the bedroom and started my laptop, mindless of the water I was leaving on the floor, mindless of the chill that left goosebumps all over my body and hardened my nipples into tight nubs. How much of the story was true? How much was fiction? I logged on to Facebook and Will's reply message popped up:

"Well, brace yourself, and have the salt handy. You'll need a pinch or three by the time you're through."

My eyes stung with unshed tears. What could I say to that? The old wounds the book had ripped open hurt enough without rubbing salt in them. Then I realized that he had unlocked more of his profile to me. I could see his private posts and status updates now, more pictures, links...

It was worse... Reality was worse than the fiction of his book... His wife, Emma-Louise, hadn't had cancer. She'd committed suicide. How she'd done it wasn't clear, but it was obvious from the comments on her memorial page that she'd taken her own life. And she'd done it... barely a month after that night in the alley. Dear God, how had I not known about this?

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