That truck was the first thing he saw as he turned into Crabtree Drive. Jake had made that turn thousands of times, and he had seen many vehicles parked in that street over the years, but this one stood out and announced to him that his world, that he had built so much of in this street, was collapsing in this moment right in front of him. There was just something about the way it was parked that told him all that he needed to know. It was at an angle not even remotely close to parallel to the sidewalk and a distance from it that not even the sloppiest of people would have accepted as reasonable. It had been parked with the hurry of a man who had been invited to satiate his physical desires, and with the confidence of a man who knew that the invitation had come from another man’s wife. It mocked him, the way it was parked outside his house. And it was a Chevy. What sort of man would buy a Chevy truck when a Ford F-150 was readily available? He already knew what sort of man. He had seen him get in to that truck a few days before at the community pool. Jake had met Monica and the kids there on the way home from another crazy day at work and he had watched her watch this man get out of the pool after swimming an inordinate number of lengths. He saw the smile, he watched her watch him with a look he hadn’t seen in a long time. He was too tired to raise it at the time, and it felt harmless and almost adolescent and so now he sat, outside his own house, all too aware of what was probably happening inside. He always thought he would be in a rage if this sort of thing was ever his story, but he was calm, defeated, and sad and he just wanted to leave. He had no intention of going inside to see what he would inevitably see and a bizarre protective part of him didn’t want to shame his wife with the moment. He knew that this wasn’t an easy thing for her to do and he knew that he had driven her there slowly over the years. He owned that and he didn’t want her exposed for who she had become. He wanted to protect her and hide her even as she was showing herself to another. And besides, Monica hated drama and avoided conflict as much as she could. She would have hated that moment and probably resented him even more for it. So, he took out his phone and typed her a simple text through slightly blurry eyes.
“I came home Mo. I couldn’t function at work with the distance between us and the things you said last night. I wanted to make it right. I saw the truck. I know what’s happening. I am sorry that I helped to get us here, and I am really sorry that you would pursue this. I still love you. But I don’t know what to do now. I will go somewhere else tonight. Need a bit of time. Let me know if you want to talk tomorrow.”
He hit send, then he switched off his phone and turned his Honda Accord around a couple of houses down from his own. A couple of thoughts stuck him as ironic. First, he was actively trying to not disturb his wife from committing adultery, which was a truly peculiar impulse. Wouldn’t it be better if he could stop her? Second, he had always wanted a truck and Monica had asked him to be more sensible, and so he never got one. He hated his marvelously reliable Accord as it drove him ever so sensibly out of Crabtree Drive and away from his destroyed marriage.
Jake hadn’t meant to push his wife away. He had met Monica in High School and loved her from that first day. Her curly brown hair had driven him completely crazy from the first time he saw her and he would make all sorts of excuses to bump into her in the hallways even though he messed up the conversation every time he did. Over time, she had come to love him too, though she took some persuading, and their relationship had been the envy of many. He meant to cherish her till his dying day just as he had promised to do, and he did cherish her deeply, in his heart, hidden away in the thoughts and impulses of his mind. But, for some reason, he couldn’t live out how he felt about her and he though he sensed her drifting for a while, he did nothing about it. They looked happy enough from the outside. Their three daughters loved their parents and the life that they provided and there weren’t fights in the house, there just wasn’t much of anything. His work, as an attorney in a rapidly growing firm, had brought a lot of stress and he had almost no ability to metabolize it and process it away and he knew that his family ended up being the absorbers of his distracted and impatient self. He would tell himself not to take the stress home, but for some reason it just provided the safe space for him to manifest it. It was safe. She loved and accepted him. He would do better soon. It was safe. Time and time again he had committed to do better. He was going to get into shape, to start romancing her with dates and experiences, to write down how he felt about her, to turn his stupid phone off, but time and time he failed. But it was okay. It was safe. Now, he had turned off his phone, but not to pursue her, but to hide from her. The safety was gone.
He never ever thought she would cheat, and yet he wasn’t surprised she had been able to. She was a very strong woman, but that is why he thought she would never do it, but he figured now she was actually strong enough to override her better judgment. Though she was a lot of fun to be around, she had always been really measured and in control of her urges and emotions. She didn’t seem to need anything, and so he was a little surprised that she would risk it all for her need of this man.
Jake sat down on the edge of the bed in his cheap motel room and wept, a lot, until he fell asleep with his turned off phone next to him. He slept for a long time, not sure what life he would wake up to.
Monica never-ever thought that she would be the cheating type. She valued loyalty over almost anything else in her life and she had spent the last 14 years choosing that value in her daily commitment to her marriage and her family. She loved Jake, and that hadn’t changed, but she felt like she had lost him and herself somewhere along the way. She had tried so many times to reach out, had so often played out the scenario in her head where she chose to have a fight with him as the only way to display her desire to fight for him, but it just never happened. Time and time again, he was just too stressed or the girls too demanding or the thought of conflict just too exhausting and she just let it go. She had heard so many stories of affairs through the years and she was never sympathetic with the cheater. Never. You just didn’t do that to people, and if Jake ever did that to her, well, he knew (and she had told him) that she would never forgive him. Then she met Derek. At first it was just a series of harmless interactions. They ran past each other in the neighborhood a few days in a row, they bumped into each other at the store once or twice, pulled up to the same traffic light on a couple of occasions and the smiles got a little longer each time. Then there was the pool. She felt so silly thinking about it, sitting on the side of the pool supposed to be watching her girls, while he swam his seemingly endless daily lengths. She would watch him from behind her sunglasses, at first just wondering what his story was, but undeniably noticing what good shape he was in. She had looked at a few men in her time, but they would always be fleeting glances, and if the men ever looked in her direction, she would simply look away and never think about them again. But she didn’t look away with Derek, and when he didn’t look away either, it was obvious that she was in trouble. He looked at her, through her, never past her. He saw her, and she felt it.
“I’ve seen you running” he coolly said the first time they spoke at the pool gate.
“We should maybe run together some time” he added.
“No, we should never, ever do that” is what she should have said. Rather, “I would really like that. You look like someone who could really teach me a thing or two” is what she actually said. She knew how flirtatious it was the second she said it and she was equal parts exhilarated and horrified. She was brought quickly back to earth by Lucy, her youngest, who desperately needed a wee and was making her need urgently and very publicly known. He laughed, which just made it all worse, and she kept glancing over her shoulder to watch him climb into his black Chevy truck and head off into the neighborhood. She was a very involved suburban mom, and so usually a shirtless man driving over the speed limit in a black pickup would have been cause for her to post a scalding remark on their community forum in the hope that this hoodlum would be punished, but she just watched him drive off, thinking that he seemed free, maybe freer than anyone else she had ever met.
She ran into him a few more times, but many of these occasions were orchestrated, mainly by her. She found ways to be around him. They started to run together. Texts started to fly, first just to arrange runs, then to download their days, then to say how lonely she felt in her marriage, then to announce that she was home alone for a few hours. It was never a single leap. It was hundreds of little steps away from the man that she had determined to walk alongside forever. Jake never seemed to notice, which only made it easier. If he had said something at any point, she undoubtedly would have stopped. She knew that Jake had seen her smiling at Derek the day at the pool. She expected him to complain. He was insanely jealous when they were first together, but he said nothing. She took another step.
She was breathless and trembling when she heard his truck pull up outside their home. She knew that she should have gone to his place, because this felt very weird and imposing in her families’ safe space. She knew that she was making it less safe, but she needed this and for once she wasn’t going to put everyone else’s needs ahead of her own. She thought she would have a second to straighten herself out, and even to heighten the anticipation by making him wait for a few moments, but he didn’t even knock, and within a couple of seconds he was in her space, breathing her air, looking longingly and urgently at her, and then taking her in his arms to kiss her. It was clumsy and desperate and he tasted so different to Jake that it shocked her. His stubble was harsh and scratchy and something about his urgency scared her and brought her to some sense of sobriety. She tried to push him away, but he wasn’t easily dissuaded and he pushed back, pinning her up against the hallway wall next to their stairway, suggesting with every muscle flex that he was going to carry her upstairs in a cliched but still somehow seemingly integrous act of passion. She pulled away again, and with her mouth free she was able to say, “Please stop.” It came out surprisingly softly and almost unbelievably with her first utterance but then she expressed it way more forcefully when it didn’t have full effect first time around. It shocked him to hear it, and he did stop immediately. He stood back looking like a scolded and mildly confused schoolboy, his face a mixture of shame and shock.
“I, err, I am confused,”he said.
“So am I,” she replied. “I am sorry Derek, but I don’t think I can do this.”
“You invited me here Mo,” he said gesturing toward her as she turned and walked for the relative safety of the kitchen, “and it wasn’t for talking,” he added with a tone that was bordering on accusatory. He followed her in to the kitchen where she stood with her back to him, letting him know that it wasn’t safe or welcome for him to approach her physically. He got the message and stood a few yards off, but his sense of confusion had only grown.
“You have been flirting with me for a month, Mo, maybe more. Did I misread you, or have you just been teasing me all along?”
She turned to look at Derek and to answer his question and she noticed that he looked exasperated. It was the first time that she had seen that in him. He always seemed like nothing impacted him, but now he looked needy, and it surprised her that her desire for him evaporated almost immediately as she recognized it. It turned out that neediness wasn’t all that sexy after all. His seeming lack of need was what had actually drawn her to him.
“I am sorry Derek,” she said through some tears. “I thought I wanted this. I thought I wanted you, but this is all too much. I am really sorry. I can’t do this. Do you want some tea?”
She was surprised by her offer and never expected him to answer in the affirmative. She said it as an excuse to turn away again from his gaze and to break the tension. She hated conflict. She hated disappointing people. To her immense surprise, he said that he would love some tea and sat down at the kitchen table. She was fine with him staying, they could just talk now, she was seeing everything so differently. Just as the kettle was boiling, her phone buzzed on the kitchen table.
It was a text. It was from Jake.
Derek had never set out to take another man’s wife, but he wasn’t afraid of doing it either. In fact, it felt somehow like a divine right of sorts, ever since Emma had left him for someone else. They had married young, too young probably, and they were chasing the American dream hard, as he thought it was what they both wanted. They bought a house in a suburban neighborhood where they were surrounded by young families and their furiously busy child-centered lives, and Emma began to feel restless from the first day they were there. Derek worked hard at establishing his construction company and Emma worked hard at sabotaging their lives. He was devastated when she left. Totally blindsided. She took off with her tattoo artist/yoga instructor idiot boyfriend in her ultimate act of rebellion against any semblance of domesticity, and after mourning and moping for a couple of years, he set out to recreate himself. He started doing triathlons and looking after himself, eating right and training every day. He brought in skilled help for his business and it started to fly which gave him some freedom, some confidence and some means. He worked tirelessly on the formerly run-down house that he had bought for Emma just off the corner of Crabtree Drive and he turned it into a dream home, for a family. He bought a truck, a totally selfish purchase of a black Chevy Colorado ZR2, and he kitted it out with every possible option. It was loud and brash and silly and his. He loved it.
He loved the attention that he got from the ladies in the neighborhood. He was clearly the man in shape in a sea of dad-bods and he made the most of it with the moms who waited for their kids to finish with swim-team squad training while he did his daily swim workout. There was one mom though, who just caught his eye and he couldn’t look away. She was older than him and nothing at all like the girls he spoke to in clubs and pubs. She just seemed so interesting, so strange, so sad and so stuck. He kept finding excuses to run into her and couldn’t believe it when she agreed to go running with him. She wasn’t a great runner and she could only work out at weird times but he didn’t care. He used to do late night treadmill runs to make up for his lack of exertion on days when he ran with Monica. He knew full well that she was married. He knew she had three kids whose life he was negatively impacting. He knew he should have stayed away. He knew he was falling in love with her.
He was seriously considering bringing an end to it on the morning when she texted. He had been in church the Sunday before for the first time in a long time and there was something so alluring about the concept of a life of self-denial. A life where you would lay down your own desires and interests to best serve the interests of others. He had to do that here. Surely?
Then the text.
“I tried to reach out to Jake last night and it went horribly. I feel so alone and don’t know what to do next with my life. You make me feel like there are possibilities, and I want to explore those. I am home alone for the next three hours. I need to see you. Mo.”
He had to read it three times to make sure it was saying what he thought it was saying. He was in the middle of a site-meeting and the sun was glaring off his phone and he needed to be sure that he wasn’t making this up. He replied.
“Wow Mo. I am so sorry about last night, but um…so excited to see you this morning??? You sure you want me to come over?”
She replied immediately.
“100% sure. Hurry, before I change my mind.”
He wrote back as he hastily excused himself from the meeting leaving his partner and the client bemused and more than a little bit irritated.
“Don’t change a thing!! Well, unless you want to change into something a little more comfortable?? Lol. ON MY WAY!”
Church was a distant memory now, self-denial a forgotten idea. There would be time for that later on in life, perhaps? He re-read the text exchange quite a few times on the drive to her house. He regretted his last text. It seemed teenaged and desperate, and she hadn’t replied, but she had said she was sure and that he should hurry and she hadn’t backed down from that. He hurried. He didn’t want any opportunity for either of them to change their minds, and so he drove too fast, parked like a man in a hurry and didn’t even knock on the door. She seemed surprised when he bounded in, but she didn’t resist when he grabbed her and kissed her. He wished he had shaved. He could feel his stubble rubbing against her skin, and he could feel her conscience rubbing against her soul.
He should have knocked.
That’s what was going through his head as he sat down at the kitchen table and watched her making tea. He wasn’t at all interested in tea, but the fact that she loved drinking it was just another thing that added to her intrigue. He knew the opportunity to be with her was gone, but he still wanted to be around her for a little bit longer. He did love her, even the side of her that was resisting him. Maybe, especially that side.
Maybe if he had knocked, he wouldn’t have seemed so desperate, and she wouldn’t have felt threatened? He should have knocked. Now it was lost. He was half laughing at himself and the thought of how silly he seemed when he heard her phone vibrate a couple of feet away from him on the kitchen table. She looked at the message. He knew he needed to go.
When Jake woke up, he was surprised that he had managed to sleep so well given all that happened. It felt surreal, but he knew it wasn’t. It was all very real. He had slept the sleep of defeat, a deep rest at the end of a long fight that he knew he had lost. Restlessness, it seems, comes from a sense of the erosion of control. It goes away – albeit only momentarily – when any idea of control is gone. It is easier to sleep when there is nothing left to fight. He made some terrible cheap hotel single-cup coffee and rubbed his eyes into the sharpness of the reality that he would have to do something next, and that is when he remembered his phone, and the fact that he had turned it off yesterday and hadn’t looked at it since. It was a strange feeling to have forgotten it. It had ruled his life for so long, and had contributed so significantly to the crisis, and yet when the crisis came, he was able to live without it, not even immediately recognizing that it was off. His finger paused over the power button. How did she receive his message? Had she replied? Was she covered in shame? Had she left? Were the girls okay?
Oh gosh, the girls.
There was the moment after powering his phone back on that it seemed that there were no messages. A strange peace where it felt like maybe nobody had been looking for him. And then they came.
Twenty-eight missed calls.
He scanned through the missed call logs. Twenty of the twenty-eight were from Monica. She had tried to call him regularly throughout the previous afternoon and night. Two were from Steve, his boss, and the rest were from his assistant, Janet. He remembered that he had left work yesterday at a very inconvenient time. Steve must have been furious. Janet must have been worried. There was one voicemail from Monica, and one text. Just one. He read the text first.
“Jake, I am so sorry. It isn’t what you think. I didn’t do anything. I wish you had just come inside. I am so sorry! Please come home.”
He wasn’t interested in any of the other messages. He read that one about twenty times. Then he quickly scanned for the voicemail from Mo. Hearing her voice broke him. She sounded defeated too.
“Jake. Baby. Where the hell are you? Please come home! I have messed up…we have both messed up, but I messed up like crazy and I am so sorry. But, nothing happened, well not what you think anyway. I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t go through with it. I love you. I want you. I want you back, the way you were, the way we were. Quit your job if you want to. We can sell the house, we can start again. I want us. Please, come home. Why didn’t you come inside? I know what that must have looked like. Why didn’t you come fight for me? Please come home. I want to fight. I want to fight with you. Let’s fight. Please come home. I love you.”
Jake stood up, more awake than he had ever been. He walked across the room to the small mirror above the dresser and he had a long look at himself. He looked terrible, still in the clothes he wore to work the day before, with grey stubble coming through his sad face. But, beneath the effects of stress and aging which made his face look more like his father’s with every passing day he saw a strength, a resolution, a sparkle of life that he hadn’t seen in a long time. He was going to fight with Mo. He was going to fight for his life, and the man he always believed he could be but never managed to turn into.
The drive away from Crabtree Drive had been a death, a death of a dream and a death of his own slow dying. The drive home felt like a resurrection, like a slow and steady rolling away of a stone. The light even felt different. It felt just like it had the first time they had seen that neighborhood and he and Mo had driven to an open house in the early morning light. He had looked across at her as she rubbed her pregnant belly and it felt like anything was possible. That light was given full effect through the open roof of his convertible BMW roadster. He knew he would have to sell it and get something bigger.
“Maybe I should get a truck to cart our family around him like a manly man?” he had asked her only half-joking.
“Don’t be silly baby,” she instantly replied. “You need to be sensible now.”
He paused as he pulled into Crabtree Drive. There was no truck outside his house. There was the welcoming sight of her Honda Pilot, which had been another sensible choice, but one that she seemed to love. He was nervous as he walked up to his own front door. What would she be like? What did she mean that nothing happened? How would they piece this all together?
He paused as his hand hit the doorknob. And then, for some reason, he did something that he never thought he would do on the door of his own house.
Mo answered the door and the two of them just stared at each other for a moment that felt like the folding in of their entire history into a black hole of a few seconds. She had been crying, but she looked fantastic. She always did.
“I want to fight, Mo” he eventually said, having to force the words through the desire to just cry. He hated how weak it sounded.
She looked at him for a moment with an almost patronizing look of sympathy, then she smiled, and hugged him with an intensity he hadn’t sensed from her in years, and he knew that it would somehow be okay.
“I’ll put the kettle on.” she said eventually and turned to walk toward the kitchen, inviting him to follow.
Before closing the door, Jake looked briefly outside his house on Crabtree Drive. His Honda Accord was parked perfectly straight and sensibly close to the sidewalk. He made a decision before the door was even shut. He was buying a truck.