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Bruce Taylor

One of the Guys

By anybody’s standards but my own, I was drunk for my Wednesday night seminar, “He-ing and She-ing: The Politics of Desire,” though I thought of it as just tuning up, when a boyish face and a crazy wave appeared closer than it appeared to be in my rear view mirror. It was my lover’s husband. Before I realized there was nothing else to do, I was out of the car, exhaust smoky and blue around my ankles, to share a gloveless handshake, me in the silk scarf his wife had bought for my birthday, he in the bad plaid car coat I knew she hated, ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man booming softly through the rear speakers. The initial pleasantries -- the weather, the local teams -- were out of the question. There was nothing for me to do but ask, “How are you doing?” Which meant what he knew already, his wife had left him.

I had first met her as a student in one of my classes more than ten years ago, slightly before he knocked her up -- as she tells it -- and they didn’t quite have to get married but did. Years afterward she and I had grown into friends, then colleagues when she joined the University faculty -- Nutrition and Health, with a part time appointment in Women’s Studies. I had met him also early on in places public, say a lecture at the library or Saturday at the landfill. I remembered always his diffidence to me, which I assumed then was due to my age and position. He was obviously younger -- he and Tessa -- born exactly one week apart--had grown up nearly next door. He was also much taller than me and grew even more handsome as I began at first to continue to bump into him here or there, then began to consciously avoid it He told Tessa he was originally jealous of me until he met me and then was not, which always sort of pissed me off.

Tessa and I had recently co-edited a book, Eating the Menu: American Appetites -- part self-help literary anthology, part cookbook. Surprisingly it turned out a best-seller, academically-wise. That meant we got to go together to a few conferences during the winter to warm parts of the country. Fine with us. It was of course during one of those trips we fell into bed and then into love, or was it the other way around. Or was that why we did the book at all? A perk of the job we sometimes thought, a deductible dalliance, nobody’s business but us and the I.R.S.

I knew her husband was back at the U taking classes, a self-improvement program occasioned, I understood, by her leaving him. I knew he had a class on Wednesday evenings, and should have realized it was likely if not star-crossed we would run into one other. At the moment he materialized, I was warming up that evening’s lecture, loosely based on the theme “The Woman in Question ” -- with one half of the class reading Madame Bovary, the other Jane Eyre.

The wind picked up as we spoke, the snow went almost horizontal, as it can sometimes at moments like this, switching quickly and wildly from the west to north to southeast.. Somewhere in the middle distance I heard the whirr of one tire stuck in one rut spinning meaninglessly. He said something. I said I knew what he was going through. Perhaps he thought that meant my being left by my own wife, rather than my knowing what his wife had told me about him.

The lot was filling up quickly now with worried students greedy and combative for the last few parking spots close to the Humanities building. Wrestling with over-stuffed backpacks, with the remnants of yet another fast food supper and thermoses of coffee large enough to have their own tides. As if having to go to school during the day isn’t bad enough, but having to go there at night, after work, could only be thought of as staying after school, punishment for they all knew what.

Four parking spots away I heard the wrenching of gears as a woman in a rusty Escort jammed between forward and reverse trying to rock herself free without running over either the one guy in front or the other one behind. Both grunting and heaving, shouting at her things there was no way she could hear.

“There’s nothing to do,” I counseled my lover's husband, “in a situation like this but give it up and go on.” I meant her and away.

After class that night in the bar his wife and I discussed exactly how slimy I was and should feel. At first she thought the answer was less than I thought, then I did. Then we both agreed I had not actually lied about anything, and then we both pretended that wasn’t a lie. All this was the thesis of a paper I was thinking of proposing for the upcoming PC convention, to be called either “The Trouble with Don Juan,” or “Men Weeping in Public,” depending on where it would take me.

She predicted, and of course there was, an email from him waiting for me in the morning, thanking me for my concern and for my being such a good friend to her. Yet also he clearly implied I had heard things only from her side. Still, I kept trying to think as I read, no lies here, or no more than usual. So then the only problem, or the only one at that moment, was how to answer, and for what. Something appropriately ambivalent, something one guy could say to another, something upon which two guys could eventually agree. “Passion destroys passion; we want what puts an end to wanting what we want.” Or “Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.” Or, more pointedly, “Without adultery two thirds of our novelists, and I always added most English professors, would stand in line for unemployment checks.” A personal favorite.

She didn’t want to know anything about all this so I would not tell her I did not say, “ I have known your wife for years in ways a husband doesn’t have to.“ What a burden is romance, what a chore, for a man whose mind is on marriage. "It’s one thing to watch a woman fall in love with you, another to watch her fall out.” It is, for one thing, much slower.

Did my lover’s husband know my wife had left me to fuck some married shrink in town? Some single chiropodist or a renegade Unitarian Minister, a nearly retired health-care administrator, some any other guy from anywhere, some guy from beyond that? It is one thing for your wife to leave you for another man, it’s something else entirely when she leaves you for no one. What I should have emailed him back was Norman Mailer, who ought to know, says, “There are four stages of marriage, first the romance, then the marriage itself, then children, then the divorce without which no man can truly understand a woman.” I could have told him, “a thing like this is hard on everyone involved.”

In the paper that night there was a story, Man Dies After Fall Into River:

A man out walking his dogs on the ice of a Sheboygan river fell into open water under a bridge and died despite his wife’s efforts to pull him to safety, authorities said.

Scott Ewald, 48, of Sheboygan Falls, talked to his wife shortly before he went outside early Wednesday, and then she heard him calling. She told a neighbor to call 911 and went to help her husband, officials said. The call was made at 2:25 a.m.

When officers got there, they say Denise Ewald, 26, formerly of Chippewa Falls, had gone out onto the ice and was holding up her husband near the edge of an 8 foot hole. Officers tried to throw a rope to Denise, but she could not catch it because she was holding on to her husband with both hands and didn’t want to let go.

Later my lover’s husband answered me at length with the story of him and her, his version, which in its own inscrutability allowed me to see her both in ways I hadn’t known I hadn’t, nor even knew if I wanted to. Thankless, silent, distant, cold.

But what he didn’t say was what I really wanted to know. Where she went when she was sad? What she did when she was bored? What she was like as a wife not a lover, an implacable irony I realized even as I asked. What she was like, even, as a mother. Stuff only a father or a child would know. I wanted all the homely details. What she wore when she washed the floor. What songs she hummed when she thought she was alone. What she looked like walking away.

I wanted to tell him how I would find myself particularly though not only at the end of my own marriage, out in the yard, leaning on something -- a rake, a mower, a shovel -- usually at twilight or even beyond, watching my wife from the outside through the big kitchen window. Finishing the dishes maybe, staring out, seeing less and less of me. Or wiping off the table or taking a quick broom to the floor, looking down, or laughing softly on the phone, talking with someone else. Or tell him how impossible it was for me to see her as she was, as she’d become; I could only see her as what she was to me. Then I realized that was a line from “Fools Like Me” or was it “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

There were , however, differences. Where I thought his wife was breaking out, he saw her bailing. Where I assumed she was escaping, he saw her as fleeing. If he was Charles Bovary then I was relegated to one of Emma’s lovers, Leon or Rudolphe, a weasel or a wolf, which matters little in the henhouse. If I got to be Cyrano, he would be Christian, though the way I taught the play who was who hardly mattered.

While his wife was to me like some Hopper heroine, sultry in a thin chemise stifling in some rented room somewhere by an open window either waiting or merely gazing out. To him she must have seemed something suddenly Picasso, more like Du Champs’ “Nude Descending a Staircase.” At this point I made a note to myself to get slides of those paintings for the classroom.

“Don Juan is indistinguishable from the cuckold,” I think Kierkegaard again. Often the two men never even meet, though regularly pass -- one unknowingly, if not without suspicion -- the other, even more ghostly perhaps and as nearly naive in his faith of what he always underestimates as a simple duplicity.

Neither of them knowing if even once or more than once they were two husbands at the same market, both with milk, bread, and tampons in their baskets. Or were they those couple of guys wasting a Saturday away in the Jiffy-Lube waiting room, both reading back issues, one of Time the other of Life. Or were they just two men drinking many nights alone, twelve miles apart in dark houses, everyone else sleeping, the radio’s music low and distant, Bogarting the bourbon till the bourbon’s nearly gone.

©2007 by Bruce Taylor

Bruce Taylor, author of Pity the World: Poems Selected, has had his fiction in such places as The Arabesque Review, Carve, Slow Trains, Unlikely Stories, the Vestal Review, E2ink: the Best of the Online Journals, and most recently in Bar Stories (ed. Nan Byrne, Bottom Dog Press). He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. One of his current projects is a short fiction series called “Story Is …” of which this selection is a part.

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