When the school calls, I have already taken off my jewelry and my shoes. We have just returned to my hotel suite after dinner in a lively restaurant. We are both buzzed but still warming up to each other with jokes and questions and stories from the past year.
I am perched on the ottoman with my cell phone pressed to my ear, and he is across from me, on the couch, sipping a glass of port that he brought up from his car. He is sitting with his legs crossed, one arm over the back of the couch, lounging, listening to my conversation with the teacher, then my husband, then my child. It’s already evening here, and the intrusion of daylight from another time zone through my phone is jarring.
After I hang up, the school crisis averted, he tells me that his therapist explained that a good, healing hug lasts seven seconds. “I think I am going to hug you now,” he says and walks over to me and holds me. The seven seconds seem impossibly long. My head rests on his broad shoulder and I allow myself a deep inhale. I hold my breath to memorize his smell.
In the bathroom I take off my leggings, my makeup, and brush my teeth. I pace around the bedroom while he takes his turn in the bathroom, unsure of the etiquette here. Do I get into bed? Do I get naked? He comes out, and while I am nervously babbling on about something—my nail polish color? The pillows?—he takes off his pants and approaches me. He is still in a T-shirt and boxers, and we stand in the doorway to the bedroom, holding each other.
For a moment I am unsure whether this is another therapy hug or something more. But then I feel him, hard against my hip, and it’s only his tight hold on me and the bit of modesty I have left that keeps me from dropping to my knees. I kiss his cheek and neck and his ear and allow my hand to slide under his T-shirt and feel the warm skin on the small of his back. When he asks me what I want, I tell him that I want everything.
There are no zippers or buttons on my dress, and after he pulls it over my head I throw it in the corner, on top of my suitcase. We laugh and stumble to bed, and when I straddle him and kiss him all I can think is that I could be dead in seven seconds and I wouldn’t even care.
There are rules, of course.
No bashing of spouses. There is also my self-imposed rule of not asking for details about his relationship with his wife: how they met, when they met—was it when he and I were still dating?—or what their wedding was like or the happiness he felt when he held his children for the first time.
We don’t talk about the future. Whatever plans we make for our next meeting are tentative, at best. There are no demands, no questions, no expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
We don’t talk about what-ifs and what could have been.
We keep quiet when the other one has to check in with family.
There is no crying. I break this rule often.
No emotional e-mails or outburst of love. I have broken this rule, too.
There are fingers and mouths and tongues, but no intercourse. “So we can say that nothing has happened,” he explains, and once, jokingly, I ask him whether his wife would be okay knowing that he’d had his penis in my mouth but not in my vagina. Would that make any of this all right with her?
He doesn’t answer. Questions like this are against the rules, as well.
The only question we both answer is the one about other lovers. “There is no one else,” he tells me. “I am not interested. Only you.”
The first time, last year, could have been explained as an accident. An old flame rekindled for one night. A momentary lapse in judgment. That’s all.
But how do we explain the second time? The premeditation? The business trip, the secret credit card, the lies at work and at home? There is intention behind all of it.
No, maybe not intention. Hope. Hope that we will see each other again, that we’ll make love, that we are both unhappy enough to make the risk worth it. One day, one night, barely 24 hours. We swim in the delicious luxury of waking up together, of eating a big, slow breakfast, of holding hands as we walk through the city.
We are so lucky.
My head is on his chest when he texts his wife. We have just woken up. He made a cup of coffee and he is drinking it in bed, holding the cup with one hand and stroking my hair, my eyebrows, my face with the other. “I am not used to waking up with someone who likes me so much,” he whispers.
I try not to look, but I can’t help it—I see what he types. “I didn’t sleep well. The couch was uncomfortable.”
I slide my leg up his under the heavy duvet and I know he wants me. He puts down the cup and the phone and there is a confidence and strength in the specific pressure of his arms pushing me down onto my back. He hovers over me and I hold on to his shoulders and whisper his name. He assures me that he is right here.
The trainer at my gym has a mantra: You can do anything for 60 seconds. No matter how painful the workout is, each exercise lasts for just a minute. She is right—breaking it down into manageable chunks makes everything bearable.
The night after he leaves passes seven seconds at a time. That’s all I can manage at once, that’s as far as I can see ahead. Folding my clothes, packing, tidying up the hotel room, ordering dinner, going for a cold walk to clear my head—seven seconds at a time. My head throbs from crying and my throat is sore. I wish for sleep—it never comes, but around 3 a.m. I am able to laugh at Jimmy Fallon who is on constant replay on CNBC. I take that as a sign that I will live to see the morning.
Less than 24 hours later I am sitting on the floor of my living room, playing with my child. I unpack and make dinner and cry in the shower and read a bedtime story and kiss my husband. But I make it through the night and the next day, and the next. I try not to look too far ahead.
“One day,” I tell him, “I want to spend an entire week with you.” Even just saying it seems outrageous—how could we possibly get away from our real lives for a whole week? We calculate how many years we have until our kids leave home, as if their presence is the only thing keeping us from running away together. I know it’s more than that. We have a long decade to go, at least, but we smile at the possibility. “You can’t die of a freak heart attack or something,” I tell him and I am secretly grateful to his wife for nagging him about exercising and eating healthy. I put my hand on his chest and feel his heart thump under my palm.
For weeks after, I expect to see two faces staring back at me whenever I look in a mirror. There is the me that goes to yoga and to work, who does the laundry and cooks dinner, who listens to her husband talk about work and who sits with him in the evenings watching TV and making summer plans. The me that goes to play dates and chats with other moms and who makes sure to always tuck a healthy snack in her purse for her child.
Then there is the other me, the one who made hotel and flight reservations and secret dinner plans. The one who bought new lingerie and perfume and who carefully planned what she’d wear to bed with her lover.
I wait patiently for the two images to merge. It takes a couple of months, and when it happens, I am relieved to see myself again.
I want to write to him every day. I want to tell him a million things and I have a million questions. They all seem important; they all seem trivial. I hold back and stay silent. So what if I don’t know whether he thinks of me? So what if I don’t know whether it was hard or easy for him to go home? So what if I know that he told his therapist about me? So what if I tell him I can still feel his hands on my breasts, or that I had to look up the word he moaned in his native language when I touched him? So what if he knows that I write all this down so that it wouldn’t fade from memory? So what if he knows I am haunted by the thought that our lives, our stories, will be made up of lies and longing from now on?
When we’re not together, do I have to know any of this? Does it matter?
So life beats on. Seven seconds at a time.
S.M. Whitfield is a writer based in New England. Her flash memoir “Photography” won second place in Split Lip Magazine’s Livershot Memoir Contest. You can find her on Twitter as @sm_whitfield.