The Man Next Door Ch. 03byGirlintheMoon©
Where do you go when your life falls to pieces?
I didn't know.
Cathy was my closest friend, and she obviously wouldn't want me showing up on her doorstep. Other friends would be confused and I didn't have it in me to confess what happened. My mother was miles and miles away.
The pain that I not only lost my husband, but my best friend, as well, settled uncomfortably in my chest as I drove around our town. I was aimless, lost and devastated. And the worst part was the self-hatred rolling around in my gut.
Fortunately Will hadn't put a hold on our credit cards. I checked into the nearest motel and took a long, freezing shower. When I was finished, I sat on the edge of the bed and combed my hair. I put socks on my icy feet. I tried to numb my mind and not think about how I'd ruined everything. Of course that was utterly impossible.
I flicked the TV on, flipping through the channels in a mindless trance. I couldn't even imagine what my next step would be, but I knew in spite of everything I did, I loved my husband. Or at least I once did, and I desperately wanted to get back to that point.
And how was Jackson doing?
No. I couldn't think about that right then.
I switched back to thoughts of Will. Perhaps I would have to wait until he sobered up before crawling back on my hands and knees. I would have to give him a few days.
After a while I realized my cell was vibrating. Dread settled deeply in my chest when I saw it was my mother. I knew Will called her.
"Hello?" My voice was paper-thin and skittish. I was terrified
"Ashley, I'm so worried. Are you okay?"
I burst into tears and told my mother everything. She told me after that Will called her, drunk and sobbing. She didn't condemn me, but she expressed her disappointment in a way far more upsetting than outright disgust.
"I can't believe it. This isn't the Ashley I raised."
I sniffled. "I know, Mom. I'm so sorry."
"What are you going to do?"
"I honestly have no idea. Beg for forgiveness. Pray he doesn't divorce me."
Mom was quiet for a minute. When she spoke, she whispered as if she wished she didn't have to say the words. "And if he does? What were you thinking?"
"I don't know what I was thinking. Things were difficult between us. Will's been working long hours and I just got caught up in my own head."
"And this man?" Mom cleared her throat. "What's he like? How do you feel about him?"
I sat on the bed. "I don't know. He makes me feel... different."
"Like I'm not just a wife, or an accountant. He's fun. He listens."
"Oh, Ashley, baby. I don't know what to tell you. There are obviously problems much greater than Will not being around so much."
I wiped tears from my cheeks. "I know, Mom. What do I do now?"
"Do you want a divorce?"
The thought of divorce horrified me. The very word caused a revolt of senses in my body. "No."
"Then work at getting him back, Ashley. Work at it."
The next morning I called in sick to work. What difference did it make? I hadn't shown up yesterday. People would think I was still sick, if Cathy felt magnanimous. Otherwise they'd whisper about me, the Jezebel whose life was over, who threw everything away for the cute boy on the motorcycle. My neighborhood definitely thought that. I wondered how Jackson was doing under all the pressure.
My body seized when I realized how dangerous my thoughts were. I couldn't let myself think about Jackson. Not yet.
Around noon I called Will. It went straight to voicemail. Around three I tried again. Still nothing. I wanted to give him time and space, but I was terrified. He was in such bad shape the night before. I was too ashamed to call any of his friends and ask them to check on him.
By dinnertime I was frantic. I sped over and ran out of my car as soon as I shifted into park. I carefully averted my eyes from Jackson's house and ran into mine, screaming Will's name. I heard a groan from the kitchen.
He sat hunched in one of our kitchen table's chairs. He looked awful. His cheek was swollen and shiny from the sutures, his clothes were rumpled, his eyes were swollen and he reeked of booze.
"Will. You didn't answer your phone. I was worried."
His bloodshot eyes met mine. "Worried?" he asked in a scratchy voice.
"Will," I whispered. My tears were uncontrollable. "Will, please. We need to talk."
He rubbed his face and winced when his hand brushed his stitches. "Could you make me a pot of coffee?"
Thrilled to have something to do, I first got him a cold glass of water and then rushed over to our coffee pot. Will was silent but I could feel his eyes on me. The coffee was just beginning to brew when he spoke.
"What do we do now?"
My pulse sped up. We were about to have probably the most important conversation of our loves, and I was scared shitless.
I turned around and leant against the sink. My eyes roamed over my husband's face. It had always been a touchstone for me. I knew his face better than I knew my own. How frighteningly easy it is to take something like that for granted.
"I want to make it work. I want to fight for forgiveness." I stepped towards him. "Therapy? Anything. Please."
Will looked down at the table, sliding his hand against the wood. "You broke my heart."
"I'm so sorry, Will."
He smiled with distaste. "Sorry? Yeah, I bet you are."
I sniffled and wiped away some tears with the back of my hand. "I screwed up."
He sat back and regarded me with cold eyes. "Do I ask the customary questions? Should I ask how long? How many times? Did you do it here? Do you love him?"
I took a breath. "Do you want answers?"
All his bravado disappeared. "No." He looked away. "No, I definitely don't."
"I love you." The words were released from my mouth before I could gather them up and stifle them down.
"God, how can you say that? You're killing me."
"I'm so sorry. I don't know how to tell you how sorry I am."
He looked down at the table. "It doesn't matter."
"I think I love you too much to divorce you." The world melted beneath my feet. His eyes flicked up. "I don't know much else. Except that I hate you just as much as I love you. I can't even look at your face without imagining..." He broke off and swallowed hard. "And we live next to him. I heard his motorcycle roaring this morning and it made me go crazy." A small smile tugged at his lips. "I shattered your grandmother's china."
"You always hated it anyway."
We both fell silent, reflecting on happier times.
I remembered my grandmother mailing it to us from Florida. Will took one look at it and laughed his ass off, saying we should throw it out and tell her it got damaged on the trip. I told him to stop being mean, but I laughed along with him. We kissed and grinned while we tore each other's clothes off. We were newlyweds. Everything was rainbows and valentines and kisses and butterfly wings.
Will shifted in his seat and the chair squeaked against the floor. The sound snapped me out of my reverie.
"I honestly don't know what to do next. I want to kiss you and slap you. I want to divorce you. I want you out of my sight." He shook his head with a humorless smile. "God, you have no idea how much I want you gone right now. What you did to me. Fuck." He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "I'm so confused."
"I'll do anything you want," I begged.
He stared at me, thinking hard. "Therapy. We'll go. I'm not promising anything. It's going to be a long way back, Ash. A long, long way. And I don't know if I can just... I just don't know if I will be able to do this."
He stood and glanced over at the coffee pot. "I changed my mind about the coffee. I'm gonna take a nap." He was almost out of the kitchen when he spun around. "Don't make me regret this, Ashley. If you pull anymore shit I'm out of here, and I will ruin you in court. And I will make your life miserable."
I nodded. "I swear."
Will stared at the floor when he mumbled, "If you ever see that fucker again... I don't know what I'll do."
Reflexively I peered through the window and saw Jackson's vacant deck.
"I won't be able to handle that."
I squeezed my fist and felt my nails tear at my palm. "I swear," I repeated.
"I hope to God you mean it, Ashley."
Will disappeared around dinnertime. I ate a little leftover Chinese food. My brain stopped thinking, stopped accusing. It was as if it had temporarily shut down to heal from the trauma of the last few days. I watched mindless TV shows until I drifted off to sleep on the couch.
The next morning I woke up earlier than I ever had before. The sky was just shifting into a lighter blue. Birds chirped incessantly outside. It was absolutely freezing.
Then I heard Will tiptoeing around, trying to be quiet while he got ready for work. That he could still be so thoughtful brought up a surge of emotion that made it difficult to breathe. I shut my eyes again, not wanting him to know I was awake. Before he left I sensed his presence standing over me. It took all I had not to flinch under his stare. I nearly jumped when I felt him stroke my cheek. I forced myself to remain still. He sighed and dragged his fingers away. Moments later I heard the front door shut on a barely audible click.
That little click sent me sobbing.
If I let myself dare hope the rest of the day would be uneventful, that I could put a hold on my emotions for a while and just be, all those hopes were destroyed when I pulled into the parking lot at work and spotted Cathy sitting in her car. She stared at me through her car window, obviously waiting for me.
My heart plummeted to my stomach.
Cathy waited until I parked, and stepped out of her car. Her expression was blank. I was half sure she was going to kill me.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and got out, wrapping my coat tighter around me.
We eyed each other warily for a few moments. I opened my mouth to say something, but quickly slammed it shut when Cathy advanced towards me. I lifted my arms in automatic defense but the movement was halted when Cathy took me by the shoulders and wrapped her arms around me.
"I shouldn't have interfered."
I was speechless.
"That's as close to an apology you're going to get."
She sniffled against my ear. "Steven said I had no business poking into somebody else's marriage. I just wanted to help you. I thought I was giving you tough love, you know, and it would make you stop and--"
"Cathy, it's okay."
She pulled away and gingerly slipped some of my hair behind my ear. "I'm still really pissed at you. I don't really think what I did was one hundred percent wrong. And I don't think we can be friends if you keep cheating on your husband. I know that's probably not totally fair but--"
"It's over." I tried to catch my breath. "I'm sorry for everything."
She looked at me for a moment, looking for a trace of a lie. "You better be, shithead." She hugged me again. "Are you all right?"
"I don't know."
"I was so worried."
She kissed my cheek. "I love you, chickadee. Even when you're an ungrateful brat."
We walked in late to the office. Bob, my boss, lingered near my desk. The smile on his face was as fake as his hair. "Ashley, hello. How are you feeling?"
"Much better." I tried to smile.
"Could you come in my office for a moment?"
After everything I'd been through, I didn't think I could muster up enough energy to care if he fired me. I followed him listlessly, sure he very likely was putting me on probation.
He eased into his chair and I sat across from him. He wiped at an invisible speck of dust on his desk.
"Is everything okay with you, Ashley?"
"Yes," I said. Neither of us were convinced by my tone.
"I'm not one to pry--so I won't--but it's obvious you're having some issues with your personal life. It's none of my business, but when it starts interfering with my business I have no choice but to give you a warning."
"I totally understand."
"I have to tell you you're on probation right now. Please fix the additional incorrect forms I left on your desk and have them to me by the end of the day. Any questions?"
"No. Thanks, Bob. I promise everything will be smooth-sailing from now on."
"Will it?" he asked in a patronizing way. "I hope so, Ashley. Have a good day. And say hello to your husband for me, will you?"
I froze. There was a gleam in his eyes, a knowing and mocking sparkle. He'd obviously caught wind of my indiscretion somehow. It wasn't too odd; Bob was the kind of person who knew everybody. He must have known someone on my block, someone who'd caught the tableau of domestic disturbance a few afternoons before.
If he was looking for a reaction, I didn't give him one. I conjured up a sunny smile, rose from the chair with a spring in my step and gave him a peppy wave. "Thanks, Bob, I will."
The next few weeks progressed somehow slowly and quickly at the same time. Will and I were truly like ships passing in the night. He spent a great deal of his time out. I didn't ask where he went. Honestly I looked forward to the alone time. There was a weight to our interactions now. It was uncomfortable and confusing. The therapist we'd started seeing said that was normal.
The one thing that kept me going during that time was the knowledge that I loved my husband, and buried beneath the detached exterior, he loved me, too. I'd definitely fucked up, and I obviously had feelings for Jackson. But more importantly, I was devoted to making my way back to Will.
Still, I became quite the couch potato. I sat in front of the TV, yelling at reality shows and nursing bottles of red wine. It was easier to retreat than to engage Will.
Sometimes I grew nostalgic and played with fire. I would peek out the window and stare at the steady light shining from the deck of the man next door. We hadn't spoken since the incident a month and a half before. Will watched me like a hawk when he was around, and I truly didn't know how I would be able to face Jackson. What could I say?
He symbolized something to me, our therapist suggested. An alternate future.
There were nights I laid on the couch (I hadn't moved back into the bedroom, yet) and half-convinced myself we were kindred spirits. That maybe in another life, we would have been in love.
In the stark light of the morning, I talked myself out of such useless thoughts and smiled at my husband. He'd try to smile back, would give me an awkward compliment about breakfast and slip out as fast as he could.
Repairing a marriage was fittingly harder than obliterating one, it seemed.
The sounds of motorcycles screaming in the night didn't help matters, either.
Autumn turned into winter. When the first snow fell, Will had no choice but to hang around the house. We watched TV together in silence. It was dreadfully awkward, and I was grateful when he said he was going to bed early.
A few weeks later, Will had another class trip to go to. We were silent as he packed. Both of our minds were dwelling on the ever-present topic of Jackson.
Will zipped up his suitcase and kissed my cheek. "I'll call you when I get to the hotel."
He headed to the door but stopped and looked over his shoulder, not quite at me. "Are you going over there?"
I didn't pretend to not know where "there" meant. "No."
"Just tell me the truth."
"I swear I'm not going over there."
I inhaled. "I won't."
He nodded and left.
I didn't leave my house over the weekend, and I knew Jackson was out for most of it, thanks to the shrieks of his bike tearing out of the neighborhood.
Sunday was different. I woke up to loud noises that couldn't have been landscaping in that weather. Then I heard curses and recognized the voice as Jackson's.
Not knowing what the fuck was going on, I threw my robe on and rushed into the yard with only my socks on. All I saw was Jackson wielding an axe. Then my feet touched the frozen snow and I yelped.
Jackson looked up from the piece of wood he was eviscerating. He looked like shit. A silly rush of schoolgirl giddiness ran through my body, even after everything that had happened.
"Oh. Did I wake you?" he asked, sarcasm evident in his snotty voice.
"Go back to bed, Ashley. Sorry to have disturbed you."
"Obviously you wanted to disturb me."
He slammed the axe down. He looked very much like the little boy in the picture I'd looked at ages ago. It touched me that he'd been rejected by Margaret, that he clearly had issues with women. He reached out to me and I couldn't reach back.
"I do love you, you know," I said, feeling helpless.
Jackson stopped chopping wood. "Not enough." I could see his breath puff out in the air. I wanted to hug him. Kiss him.
But not enough.
"I never fucking wanted this."
"I know," I whispered, crying silently.
"You screwed me up, Ashley."
"I'm so sorry."
He finally turned around and I could see he was crying, too. He stalked and, without hesitation, tugged me to him. He hugged me hard.
"We can leave this all behind."
"Jack, please." I could barely speak over my sobs.
He took a deep breath and let it out. I could feel the heat of it against my cheeks. "We can." He kissed my wet cheek.
"I love you, Ashley," he breathed, his eyes fixed on me.
I let out half a cry, half a laugh. "I love you, too. I do. But I love him, too."
"More than me."
I rubbed my nose. "In a different way. I think you and I would make each other miserable. Can't you see that?"
"No," he said quickly.
"I'm not leaving my husband."
"You're afraid to, is what you mean."
I gave a little scream. "No. I mean what I say: I love him too much to leave him. I barely know you."
"Don't give me that bullshit. You know this was more than an affair. If you try to say otherwise, you're a bigger coward than I thought. I'm not gonna make this easy on you, so you can just shit all over me and then go back to your little perfect life."
"I've loved him more than half my life!" I screeched.
"That doesn't mean shit!"
I forced myself to calm down. "It means more than enough to me."
"So it's done, then? We're over?"
I took a deep breath. "Yes. In another life, maybe it would have been different, but in this one I'm staying with Will. I'm so sorry."
"That's bullshit," he scoffed.
He ran a hand through his hair and looked off into the distance, shaking his head with a trace of a smile. "Never in a million years did I think I'd ever be begging some married chick to run away with me."
I just shook my head.
He looked at me, his eyes pleading. "Don't make me beg."
"Even if you did," I whispered, "it wouldn't change anything."
He picked up the axe and threw it onto a mound of snow. "In another life, huh?"
"I wish I could say 'Let's be friends'."
He wouldn't look at me, but he hugged me just the same.
When he moved away, he cleared his throat. "I'm leaving this house. Selling it to a buddy of mine. He just got married, whatever. A family should live here, you know?"
I touched his jaw.
His eyes burned into mine. "Another life," he murmured.
"I hope you find whatever you're looking for, Jack. I mean it."
"Don't say anything else, okay? It'll spoil it."
I laughed through my tears. "Spoil what?"
"Our goodbye. I don't like talking to people I'm saying goodbye to. Silence is best." He reached for my hand and flipped it, planting a kiss on my palm. "I knew you were trouble the minute I saw you guzzling wine all by yourself."
I let out a tear-soaked snort. I watched him breathe into the air, the puffs spiraling and touching my hand. How strange he could seem unknown to me, and yet feel like someone I knew almost better than anyone. "I wish I could have learned more about you."