This Time Will Be Different: A Love Story
I slump down the wall, the knobs of my spine bumping along the plaster, gripping the phone with both hands.
“Say something. Don’t think for a minute any of this means I don’t love you,” he says.
My chest feels like a band is wrapping around it tighter and tighter. An Ace bandage. A boa constrictor. A thick rope from the side of a boat. Shallow breaths escape through my open mouth.
How could I know that “pizza with the girls” actually meant “anniversary dinner with my wife”? How could I not?
Did he sign her card, Love, me? Did they split flourless chocolate cake, one plate two forks? Did the waitress congratulate them on sixteen years?
Traditional gift for sixteenth wedding anniversary: Wax, like a candle with a wick that melts under flame. Modern gift: Silver hollowware, a silver vessel with an empty space. A goblet, teapot, or locket.
His answers to my questions are the clipped wings of falling birds. Yes, no, not sure, maybe. The whir of the espresso machine makes it hard to hear. He’s distracted by work, by his dad’s brain cancer, by the delayed express train.
He says, “I’m taking the girls out for pizza.” The “girls” includes his wife, of course, but pizza means bright lights, pop music, stout jars of powdered parmesan and crushed red pepper. He hangs up without saying I love you.
I shovel fat-free ice cream into my sad mouth and pick at leftovers from lunch: chopped salad from a yawning Styrofoam container.
We’ve been talking outside of group therapy sessions, and it got out of hand so now we have to come clean. When I started treatment, I vowed to do anything to fix my relationships, including not keeping secrets from the group. He knows I’m right to disclose but prefers secrecy. He made a vow too.
“He was in the freezer section buying chicken breasts, and I was home decluttering my closet. He whispered what he would like to do to my body. I lay on top of my favorite J. Crew ballet flats and touched myself.”
The three women in group gasp; the two men smirk.
Our therapist’s face is inscrutable. I search for condemnation, disappointment, or girl, you’ve really done it now. I see nothing but eyes, nose, lips, chin. “No secrets from the group,” he says, looking directly at me. No one says the word “affair.”
After a month, he asks for my card as we walk to the elevator after group. It’s an oddly formal gesture, requesting the 2x3 rectangle of card stock with my name, my direct extension, my fax number. I already know about his sobriety, the choir teacher who molested him, his mother’s secret smoking. He knows about my years of bulimia, my alcoholic father, my pedophilic orthodontist named Dr. Buck.
My phone rings in my office twelve minutes later. I answer as I unbutton my coat. We drop the professional pretense after the initial greetings. I ask about his wife to prove I’m brave.
“What does she do?”
“Spends my money.”
“Bar stools at Pier One.”
Of course he will love me—single me, carefree me, young me with my downtown loft. Me who knows his secrets because we’re in group. Me who makes her own money. Me whose boundaries turned to liquid as soon as I answered the phone.
The new guy in the waiting room has arresting dimples, an expensive-looking briefcase, and a cocksure swagger—impressive given that he’s two minutes from his inaugural session of group therapy. He shakes my hand like a mayoral candidate, and I predict that he’s alcoholic or a sex addict because my chest constricts like it’s trying to warn me. Danger! You’re trying to recover from men like this.
In the first session we get his bio: Recovering alcoholic. History of depression. Joined group because of an extra-marital blowjob he received at the office Christmas party. Fifteen-year marriage on the rocks.
I watch him blush about the blowjob. Sneer at the glib reassurance. I feel the pulse of his broken, alcohol-stained heart in my own bruised chambers.
I’d break the rules for this man, I think. I’d carve myself out to have slew of inside jokes with him, to melt his sneering, sterling defense with the heat of my body. I’d lunge for the high of his attention if he ever offered it to me. This time it will be different.
Christie Tate is a writer in Chicago. Her work can be found in The New York Times, McSweeney's, The Washington Post, Nailed Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Hippocampus, and Entropy Magazine. She's currently at work on a memoir about her first six years in group therapy.