Dark Fire

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You can't go home again.
11.2k words
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In a mid-sized city within an average suburb sits a house that from the street looks like any other. Inside one enters a mirror world.

On the left side of the staircase, one bedroom that was once the master now looks like a bachelor pad, complete with abstract modern sculptures; on the right side of the staircase, the former guestroom now looks more like a master bedroom and has a painting of a Romantic landscape above the bed.

In the kitchen, you will find two of everything: two coffee makers, two sets of dishes, two entirely different meals in the fridge. It is not a house divided, but a home that refuses to unite.

One summer day, Betty Henderson lowered her coffee mug to the right side of the sink, next to the cabinet with her coffee mugs, above where her coffee maker (a Braun) gave off the last steam of the new pot of bold roast. On the left side, the Keurig belonging to her official husband and roommate, Ron, waited for its first use of the day with something hazelnut-blackberry inside.

Sighing, she picked up her car keys and called up the stairs: "I'm off!"

No response.

"Don't wait up for me," she said, then broke into a giggle that ended with a sob before she fell silent for her lonely drive.

Things had not always been this way. Entropy and decay happen, she knew, but it seemed that people were often too willing to let it. Allowing everything to go to hell made it easier to avoid doing the stuff that they should be doing.

Speaking of sudden mortality, she changed lanes to be out of the left lane of the freeway which ran dangerously close to the Sassafras Road bridge and its middle pillar which formed a solid block of concrete between the lanes. If you just drifted left a hair, the end came quickly. The grey rectangle marked the far end of a nice straightaway where people could get their cars up to speed, and six had died in insuppressible fire that year so far.

Her story began in a similar anonymous suburb many years ago. Born to a university professor and his high school teacher wife, Betty Jansen grew up in a house where the adults were constantly busy. They each graded the papers for their own classes, then met up for a glass of wine before bed, while the children -- Betty and her older brothers David, Phillip, and Julian -- did their homework at the identical desks in their rooms.

When she had free time, Betty liked to paint. She frequently painted "Romantic" scenes, like stormy mountain passes or Gothic castles shrouded in mist, and imagined herself living in them instead of her dreary, obedient household stranded in the cookie-cutter suburbs. She wondered what her painting, the painting of her life and how her story would end, would look like once she got old enough to make her own decisions.

Her parents gave her no direction mainly because they focused so much on her older siblings. The boys were good at sports and school, and all the adults seemed to fawn over them. Betty was assumed to be just, well, Betty: a tidy little person who liked to paint and sing, had big dreams, and would find a place somewhere.

"Will I grow up to have a castle someday, or a prince?" she asked her mother. Betty was painting her favorite scene, a radiant castle in the mountains, rich with spring green and empyrean azure above a field of white flowers.

"No, dear, you'll become a functioning member of society, develop your own career, pay taxes, and have an accomplished husband, so we have grandkids to visit," said her mother.

"What your mother said, dear," her father murmured, barely looking up from the papers he was grading. Her parents as she remember them were attired in bold browns and subdued reds.

On weekends, her father liked to golf, her mother hike, and the two would meet up on Saturday night for a "date night" that involved dinner, drinks, dancing, and a movie. They both liked arty cinema but she knew they sometimes guiltily went to see a good spine-tingling thriller. She imagined that, on that one day a week, they made love. She had no idea what went on in their room at the end of the hall; it was a loving home and a safe one, but not an affectionate home.

While her brothers went to highly-ranked colleges, Betty who had good grades but not exceptional aptitude test scores barely got a scholarship to the state university down the road. When she announced her engagement to Ron her senior year of college, after a long and steady romance beginning when they shared a group project in an early economics class, her parents barely nodded before returning to their books. Her brothers had married well or were engaged, and while the first of these events was exciting, the last was measured more in terms of how much free time it took from their comfortable middle-aged lives.

She married Ron because he seemed to fit into the painting that she hoped would portray her life: maybe not a prince, but a strong silent man, loving his devoted wife, in a castle ensconced in a valley surrounded by mountains, or at least a nice part of suburbia. To this she added two things.

First, she borrowed from what her parents wanted, and decided that her man needed to be accomplished, either by success or being an innovator. Second, on top of this vision floated her own unarticulated dream: she wanted someone to spend time with who actually wanted to be with her, who was affectionate, and appreciated her as more than just a kid with above-average grades and adequate performance on the field hockey team. Betty did not want to be her mother and father repeated.

"Hey, is this seat taken?" Ron had said. Betty looked up and saw not a football hero, but the mythical "well-rounded" all-American, a guy who was obviously both fit, being on the swim team, and going somewhere, since his research in the computer science department had already made it into at least one newspaper. They had met in her Econ 101 class, where he seemed to have a good grasp of the material but was slightly bored, revealing a shadow of arrogance behind his affability.

"No, go ahead," said Betty, and turned back to watching the game, even though she considered football about as exciting as watching traffic. One light changes, the cars go ahead, and then the lights change again, and cars from the other side go. If someone tosses a ball out of a panel van and the person in the station wagon catches it, they drive straight down the street and everyone cheers. If not, repeat.

"I didn't realize that you are a painter," said Ron. "I had a bad date last night, and ended up in the art center after too many beers, just looking at paintings. I saw this one that took my breath away. It took ordinary colors and made them glow," he said with a warm smile.

"I like to paint my hopes," said Betty, then steered the conversation toward his hopes. That chiseled jaw caused her a bit of a flutter in her lower parts, and his resonant baritone curled around her like a warm cat on a winter evening. He also seemed not just accomplished, but quietly powerful, and he liked her paintings. She made sure to offer her number.

A string of actual dates followed. The mousy brunette of above average but unexceptional looks, height, grades, and sexual prowess, according to both her high school and freshman year boyfriends, never stopped paying attention. After some time, Ron and Betty, who had thrown away her virginity on her high school boyfriend just to get it out of the way, began to spend nights at her apartment.

One evening, as he was tracing circles around her nipples while she massaged his cock back to full strength for their second round of energetic coupling that evening, she caught him looking at her with a glow of affection. "You really are a talented woman," he said, "and I'm not just speaking of your ability to keep me turgid for half the night."

She tittered and lowered her head to his stiffening member.

"But seriously, there's something we should talk about, something good," he said, sucking in his breath. Ron told her that he wanted her to submit prospective art for the company he was starting. He could get her a better computer from his mentor, and she could learn a new skill.

Betty murmured something around his penis, but when he slipped into exhausted sleep a half-hour later, she decided that this was part of her picture, too. Betty -- the former mousy do-nothing -- could also be accomplished.

She canceled everything unnecessary -- her volunteer activities, nights out with her friend group, and a call home to her parents -- and lived in her pyjamas while she learned the software. She had never worked "hard" on anything this much before in terms of giving it her complete attention, noting every detail, and measuring the quality of the outcome so severely. After a week, she had redesigned the website for Ron's startup company, and it both looked like a solid corporate site and nothing like anything else out there.

"I wasn't a big fan of that spring green and gold color scheme at first," said Ron. "I thought we wanted the big colors: red, black, orange, blue. But it works. I'll run it by my partners and see."

Life settled back into normal. She attended classes, wrote papers, studied for tests, and showed up for psychology department meetings. On Saturday night, they always went out on a date, which since neither of them had much money meant hitting a movie at the local mall, getting coffee at the independent bookshop in the little town surrounding the college, and then pigging out at the all-night Mexican restaurant just outside of city limits.

By the time junior year rolled around, Ron and Betty were "an item" with an asterisk by it. She had never asked if they were exclusive, but they were both too busy for anyone else to be in the picture. The asterisk said that they were both seeming to fall into the same trajectory, toward marriage, kids, and a bright future. No one had mentioned love, but neither of them were very sentimental, and they seemed to be moving in the direction of family.

"We have to talk," said Ron one Wednesday afternoon as he walked her home from class. Sunlight speckled through the trees above in the midst of a central Texas spring. "I'm leaving the university. My startup needs to move now, and staying in school just delays that for two years. I'll come back and do night classes."

"Okay," said Betty.

He looked pained. "You don't need to change anything. Just... say that you're not breaking up with me because of it."

"I would never do that," she said. "I'm become quite fond of you. You're my Prince Charming, just a very practical one, and I'm proud of your work."

He sighed in relief. "Good, because I think I'm rather fond of you too, Betty. In fact, I think I love you."

She was not ready to say back those words, but opted for a political compromise: "I'm very near that as well. Let's see how it goes for the next few months."

Something dark passed over his eyes, a light grey that she always found inscrutable and appealing, at that moment, but it was gone quickly. Ron had grown up like her in a family of high-achievers surrounded by the roughnecks and transients of the Abilene oil fields, which meant that he had never felt particularly special, and feared the loss of affection, esteem, and dedication.

"I understand," he said finally, with a slight throatiness as if he was hit by emotion. But like most men, he recovered quickly. "Let's get a coffee and plan the future."

They planned: she would do all the artwork, he would write all the code, and his mentor, a former professor, would handle the business side. Ron owned half the company. He wanted to retire in his thirties and travel the world. He didn't mention her; he would have, if she had said she loved him, but he hoped it would be so. His early life having been devoid of affection and rife with competition, he wanted something he could trust as the basis of his future and family. Maybe it was her.

It turned out that she did all the artwork, he wrote all the code, and his mentor, a former professor, tried to steal the company. It made a ton of money, and while Ron owned half of it, his mentor had control through his role as CEO. After a lengthy battle that occupied most of his thirties, Ron gained control through other executives supporting him, since their product was hot and could go bigger if someone with more business experience took over. Exit the mentor, enter the professionals. Ron traveled the world, but only to give talks at foreign universities.

Ron's firm made a product that Betty barely understood. He described it as a computer which spread tasks to other computers and made sure that they could get the data they needed, all while watching for anomalies that indicated a hack, hardware failure, or that a recent change was not working. At first a competitor in a crowded market, it improved once Ron could turn his focus away from corporate affairs toward systematic improvement in the product. Soon it dominated the industry.

By the time they hit their thirties, they were established, sort of. They had a nice house in Georgetown and his company was doing great things, but all of their money was tied up in the stock that cemented his ownership. For awhile they got by on her private practice offering counseling to marriages, depressed teenagers, and lonely people. Their four children appeared to be doing well in school, and unexpectedly they celebrated with a bottle of wine as the sun descended below the wide Texas horizon.

"I love you, Ron," she said softly, at one point, realizing that other than at moments where she was prompted to say this -- their wedding, date night, ending phone calls -- she rarely said.

"I know," he said. "I have loved you for a long time, as well."

Within another decade, cracks appeared in the image of the perfect life. They never managed to travel the world. Their children were growing up and sprinting away, each with his or her own mountains to climb, and as the house became increasingly empty, they had nothing to distract from a growing sense of hollowness within their relationship. Or rather: with their initial goal accomplished, their careers had taken the place of family, love, and affection.

Betty frequently arrived late and stayed late to catch patients who could only fit in appointments in the evening. Like her husband, she put in sixty hour weeks or longer. Ron traveled frequently, and they often saw each other only on Date Night and for random errands and bumming around the darker recesses of Netflix on Sunday.

On paper, their lives were good, but like the phrases "in theory" and "in the abstract," the idea of something being on paper meant an abstraction that was a phantom of the human brain, not part of the world out there where we could not directly control it. Abstraction was addictive, she recalled from her early psychology classes, and could become somewhat of a rabbit trail, leading away from reality entirely. What happens in the lab often tells only part of the story.

"You're looking worn, boss," said her receptionist Erin one afternoon. Betty found this hard to believe: in theory, she was getting her eight hours of sleep a night, but something had been nagging at her, something she could not put her finger upon. Something was amiss, even in the fairy tale she had painted for herself, which fell short of what she had originally wanted.

"Probably just season affective disorder," Betty replied.

"Calendar's light for the rest of the week," Erin mentioned. They had seen quite a few cancelations for the holiday weekend. "Why don't you go somewhere? Maybe take a cruise."

Betty thought that quite entertaining. Cruises were for people with lots of time and salaries. On paper, they had lots of money. In reality, things were often tighter than she wanted to admit, but she splurged on a ticket to New Orleans, where her husband was attending a conference. Perhaps it was time to reconnect and start sealing those cracks.

However, when Betty walked into the lobby of the grand old hotel she knew her husband favored, she could not reach him on his cell phone. At the desk, they gave her a room key, and with the same confidence she displayed with her patients, she strode right into the room without knocking. At that moment, her face fell.

All she could see of Ron -- her husband of two decades -- were his quivering buttocks as he dove into the waiting snatch of a young, pretty dark-haired girl who was trying to both contain her laughter and alert him that his wife was standing behind him. Finally she screamed and he turned around.

"I'm not going to insult your intelligence by saying that this is not what it looks like, that it's just sex, that I'll come home with a stronger love, or that she doesn't matter to me," said Ron slowly, his voice gentler than Betty suspected it would be. "We fractured. Our picture is out of focus. I'm lonely, and I've found affection with someone else."

Betty looked from one face to another and back again. Everyone seemed to be waiting on her, but in her mind, there was not much to say. "I'm sorry I interrupted," she said finally. "I'll be around for the next hour if you want to talk at some point." She departed, keeping her professional mien, and congratulating herself on handling the situation with maturity and low emotion as she walked back down the plush carpeted hall.

She settled down in the lobby, staring out into space as she collected her thoughts. As a counselor, she frequently had to give advice, but rarely to live it. Her response felt empty, as if she showed how little love she had for her husband by reacting professionally to the revelation. On the other hand, she wondered what else she would do; in her experience, ostentatious displays of emotion usually showed how the person in question was unsure of their feelings, and was trying to convince themselves of their emotions by acting them out.

Her practice had shown her this path of infidelity many times. At first, she counseled the going line in psychological circles, which could be called maturity. The maturity approach held that humans should treat infidelity like any other mistake, and lump in the deception and lack of respect as part of the act of cheating. Her clients usually saw it the other way around, which was that when someone decided to lie and cheat on their partner, respect had been lost and was unlikely to return.

She remembered a few cases:

  • A very open-minded woman who believed that by acting as a married couple again, the two could overcome the infidelity of the husband. At first, this went well, until one day the husband was a half-hour late from a trip to the hardware store. At this point, cognitive dissonance kicked in: the wife could either admit that this path was not working, or rationalize it as good by embracing the behavior. The couple became swingers, opened their marriage, and soon seemed to be getting on well, until one day the husband noticed that they were roommates with benefits and left, at which point the angriest divorce in Betty's experience began its three-year curve. By the time it was settled, one child was in jail for drugs, another had lattices of scars from slices on her arms, and the third had joined the French Foreign Legion and was never heard from again.
  • Another man could be described as an entrepreneur, and viewed his life through this filter, so saw the cheating as an attempt to renegotiate the marriage. He put an end to the renegotiation, united his family, and spent another decade as an unpaid professional actor, looking very much the devoted husband and father. This fell apart one day when the wife talked to a coworker and found out that the husband spent a lot of time "in the field," then followed him in a rented car and found not one but two love nests with younger, prettier women. The marriage dissolved in an acrimonious divorce. None of their children even completed high school, with the eldest son working as a bartender in an alcoholic haze and the daughter taking jobs in China where she gained a hundred pounds from bourbon alone.
  • The third case was told to her by a very conventional woman, church-going and active in a number of social causes, who immediately recognized that with her husband cheating, she no longer had a partner but an enemy within the gates. Defying her family, priest, and friends, she opted for a quick divorce by claiming almost none of his assets. A decade later, she had not remarried or dated, but her former husband had done so. She confessed later that her children were "black boxes" to her: they had gone on to college and careers, but almost never talked about their personal lives with either her or their father. Like the parents, the children were strangers within the family.