This one is something more like a second draft with additional tweaks. I wrote it first and then challenged myself to tell the story of the cheating husband. I am definitely not finished with these stories or these characters. There is much more work to do but I'm ready to share because that is what stories are for.
For most of my life I avoided risk and danger. I liked safety, I liked to feel in control. We don't really have much control in life though and the sooner we figure that out the better off we are. Sometimes we just need to let go and go for the ride. I can pinpoint the day I figured it out. It was the day I came home from work and found Chris in bed with another man.
I'd better back up a bit. I met Chris when we were both at university and we dated for a couple of years after that. I'd done a degree in psychology, not really knowing where I wanted to go with it and Chris was studying history, planning to go to law school. He took a job selling insurance so that he could save up to pay for law school and I found work in an office, newly built with a trendy colour scheme that would make it look so dated in ten years. The chemical smell of the paint, glues and new carpet burned in my nostrils and lungs for a full year. Eventually Chris went to law school and we planned our wedding. I went to work wearing pencil skirts and white button down blouses and mid-heeled shoes. I was anxious to look professional, to look old enough to know what I was doing. I hurried home at the end of each work day to make dinner and we would curl up on the sofa together and watch television afterwards. We were both aways exhausted.
Time went by as time does. Chris finished law school and was taken on with a local law firm. He was lucky. It was hard to get on. We saved up enough money to make a downpayment on a house eventually and I was so happy. I hoped to start a family. I wanted to grow a garden and I imagined teaching my future children how to plant seeds and pick the beans and the peas and to make pumpkin pies in the autumn with the pumpkins they would grow. I was thirty. Then I was thirty-two. Then thirty-five. I got three gray hairs, a promotion at work and a lost cat kept coming to the kitchen door and eventually moved in with us.
It was a Thursday. I remember because I usually worked a bit late on Thursdays and this day I didn't. Usually there was a staff meeting and it would run overtime and then I would water the plants in the office because for some reason staff meetings always made me think of the plants. The meeting was postponed so I watered the plants and went home. I thought maybe I should stop and pick up something for dinner instead of cooking, maybe Chinese food or pizza, but I was tired and I couldn't decide so I just drove straight home. I want to say now that I knew something was different but I don't think I did. I think that's just hindsight and maybe some superstition. I don't think I knew. I parked in the driveway and went into the house through the kitchen door and dumped my heavy purse on the chair in the kitchen. I dropped my keys on the counter. I remember these things not only because it's what I always did, how I always came in the door, but because I was not being particularly quiet. You could not say I came quietly into the house, that I sneaked in silently and caught him by surprise. No, he must have heard me.
You'd expect that a person would see that sort of thing coming. I have asked myself over and over why I didn't. Other people have asked me too. I guess that's the special skill of hindsight though; it's so clear when you look back on things. How could I not know my husband was gay? Well he isn't gay he told me, he's bisexual. So, he could just as easily have cheated on me with another woman. That's comforting.
I didn't leave right away but I started sleeping in the spare bedroom. We talked and he poured his heart out to me about the double life he had been living and how it was such a relief to come clean. He talked of his misery, he spoke of his confusion, he said that he loved me. He didn't say he was sorry but thanked me for being so forgiving and understanding. We didn't make any plans. I took a month's leave from work.
“Melanie,” he said, Saturday morning a week later, as I poured my coffee and stirred in the milk, “ do you want to go to counselling?”
“Me or we?”
“I mean both of us. To figure out where we go from here. To talk about what our options are and get some guidance.”
I leaned down to slurp my coffee without picking up the mug. I always fill it too full and my hands are often shaky. I don't dare pick it up when they are like that. I remember thinking that this couldn't be my own life. All I could think about was who might know and be laughing at me behind my back. Poor old Melanie hasn't got a clue. I buttered my toast vigorously, slathering on the butter. It hardly mattered now if I got fat. I wasn't required to be sexy in the bedroom. Or anywhere. Maybe I never had been sexy to Chris. Why had he married me? Why had he taken up so much of my life if I wasn't what he really wanted? Why had he fooled me into thinking this was love? Had he fooled me or had I fooled myself. I was angry. So angry I made a hole in my toast.
“You look like you could be dangerous with that butter knife,” he said, apparently thinking an attempt at humour was a good idea. He sat with his black coffee, unfolding the newspaper on the table and beginning to read. How was it that he was able to behave like this. He appeared so calm. He claimed to love me and yet surely he knew he might possibly lose me. I had not said I would stay. But he also claimed to love Mike too. That was it. He couldn't lose. He was just waiting for me to make the choice for him, that spineless weasely bastard! Which choice was he hoping I'd make? I almost wanted to stay just to spite him but I'm not that stupid. I almost forgot that I deserved a better life than this. Almost. I stared at the butter knife. I looked at my complacent cheating, lying husband who was not the man I thought he was, not the man I had thought I loved.
“I had a dream last night” I said slowly, concocting the lie as I spoke. “This butter knife reminds me of it.”
“I had you tied up in the garden shed”, I continued, “tied by your balls”
He looked up, alarm on his face. I continued.
“I had a butter knife in my hand. A rusty old one. Obviously not stainless steel” I added needlessly. “Not sharp. You were frightened and you asked me if I was going to cut off your balls. I said I was thinking of it and you begged me not to. I said, 'no, I won't do it' and you sighed with relief. 'You are going to do it yourself', I said. I lit a match, dropped it into a pile of old, dry newspapers and handed you the knife as I walked out of the shed.”
Chris stared at me for a moment with his mouth open and then he said, “You can't tie up a man by his balls.”
I left that day. I packed a suitcase and went to a motel. There were lots of rental vacancies then. It wasn't hard to secure an apartment that would be available in a couple of weeks. I arranged to stay with a friend in the meantime and I told Chris that I would be coming on a Sunday with boxes and a friend with a truck and that I would be taking some things. I hoped he would chose not to be there that day and he did. He left me a note telling me which things he thought it would be fair for me to take and which things not. He's a lawyer. He knew I was legally entitled to half of our possessions and half our assets. Assets are easy to calculate, but possessions are not. I didn't want too many reminders of our life together. I packed up my clothes and books and various things that had been given to me by people I still loved, people not Chris. I went through the kitchen and that's where I paused. Should I take half of the flatware, half of the dishes, half of the drinking glasses, or should I take all of the flatware and leave the dishes? See what I mean? It's not so easy to calculate halves with all the little mundane things that make up your home. I should have taken more than I did. At the time I just wanted to erase him from my life. Later I thought about how really taking my half would have saved me some money. Later, that is, when the pain had subsided and I could even begin to think that way.
I set myself up in my new home with very little furniture, knowing it would be temporary. I got myself a bed. I bought a double. “Hardly anyone buys a double bed these days”, the salesman told me.
You would be better off with a queen size. Guests appreciate that.”
“It's not for guests” I said tersely. I didn't want to talk about my life. I didn't want to make small talk. I just wanted to buy a bed. The bed was delivered by the store on the day I took possession of the apartment.
“Where do you want it set up, ma'am?”
“In the bedroom.”
“No, I mean which wall? Under the window, not under the window, that sort of thing.”
I waved them towards the non-window wall and apologised for the boxes of books piled up there.
I'd brought a sofa from the house I'd shared with Chris. It was brown leather and he had put it on his list of things it would not be fair for me to take. I covered it with shawls and blankets in various colours. I put floral throw pillows on it. I had also brought a brass reading lamp from the house. My friend Michelle and her husband Dave, who owned a truck, were the ones who helped me move. Michelle unpacked my kitchen items and I sat on the sofa staring at the floor.
“I brought shelf liner paper.” Michelle called out to me. I didn't know what state this kitchen would be in but it's pretty good. I'm going to line the shelves anyway. I hope you are okay with blue flowers.”
“Thanks, Michelle. You are so thoughtful. That's a great idea to line the shelves. Yeah, I do like blue flowers.” I was tired, and it felt like I had to force out each sentence. I was really grateful for Michelle, for how organised and practical she was. I was grateful for Dave and all his heavy lifting and for how he came into the living room with a box of my books and said,
“why don't you unpack these? I know there's no shelf but you can stack them against this wall opposite the sofa.”
Dave and I didn't have much in common but we did share a love of books. He knew I needed them, like old friends, needed to be surrounded by them and comforted by them and that sorting and organising them would help to divert me. Dave and I had nothing else in common but we both loved books. I opened the box he'd brought me and began to remove and stack books.
Michelle called out from the kitchen again. “What would you think of pizza tonight?” I hesitated. I was so grateful for their help but I was beginning to long for solitude. “Dave just thought he'd pick up a pizza for you when he goes to get the girls from piano lessons. Then he can bring the pizza back and pick me up. I should be finished by then.”
I immediately felt guilty for my desire to get rid of them and my relief that they weren't intending to stay for dinner. “Oh that sounds great. I would really appreciate that! Shall I call and order it now then?”
About an hour later I was alone, with CBC on the radio and my pizza in its box, I sat on the floor and continued to unpack books. When I went into the kitchen to get a drink, I saw the list Michelle had made for me. On it she had written every kitchen item she had noticed I didn't have and which she thought I would need. Beside was a suggested grocery list. Because of Michelle's thoughtfulness, my fridge had some basics in it. Milk,eggs and cheese, cream for my coffee and a lasagna Michelle had made. On the counter was a bowl with apples and bananas. In the pantry cupboard there was a box of cereal, a box of crackers, tea, coffee and some cans of soup. The cat brushed against my legs and meowed. There was a bag of cat food somewhere.
Time passed as time does. I slept a lot more than I used to. I baked cookies and went down the hall, knocking on neighbours’ doors, offering cookies and introducing myself. This produced confused looking faces, mumbles of thank you followed by hesitation.
“Aren't most of them elderly?” my mother asked me over the phone. “They are probably diabetic and can't eat the cookies. You are probably torturing them.”
“Okay, so should I have brought them meatballs instead?”
“Don't be so defensive, sweetheart.”
“I'm not defensive.”
“I was just joking.”
“Oh. Ha ha, very funny. All my elderly neighbours in diabetic coma is quite a joke.”
“If we can't laugh at death we may as well be dead already.”
“There's not much I can say to that, mum.”
“I've got to go now; your dad wants his dinner. I'll call again next week, sweetheart”
“Bye mum. I love you. Tell dad I love him too.”
“We love you too, sweetie.”
I poured my second glass of wine and got back to sorting my books. Each night I sorted them differently. First I put paper backs and hardcovers in separate piles. Another night I separated fiction from non-fiction and then put them in alphabetical order by author it actually took me a couple of nights to do that. I saw a picture in a magazine where the books were all organised by colour so I tried that. I didn't like it. So I went back to sorting them as they were before.
I was only just starting to sleep in the middle of the bed. At first I instinctively slept on the right side. the it was a smaller bed than what I was used to sharing, I had it all to myself. All to myself if you don't count the cat, which I suppose I really should. The cat was named Bob. Bob Cat. I liked to tell the people who asked how I was doing that things were great and I was sleeping with Bob who tends to hog the bed. Bob snores. They usually laughed and would then say something like, “well just like a husband. He probably leaves hairs in the sink too.”
I wanted a divorce. I went to see a lawyer and the process of paper work and writing cheques began. I wandered through shops selecting things, household things that suited my taste only. No compromises were required. I could buy any vacuum cleaner I wanted. I could pick any colour towels. For awhile these small things kept me occupied. For awhile.
I met Michelle at The Corner Cafe. That's its actual name and it isn't even on a corner. It was on a corner once, but the opportunity for a better location came up and the owners jumped at it. Now it's ironic and according to Michelle this makes it a hipster cafe. It was noisy with coffee grinding machines and frappe mixers and people shouting over these sounds. I think there was music too, though I'm not sure. Sometimes I hear music in my head. We sat in a corner because I got there first and chose the table. I like corners. I like to sit in the corner facing out, watching the world knowing there is nobody behind me, just the wall and the floor to ceiling shelf full of coffee and mugs and various items for sale like World Music cds. I wondered who buys those. I wanted to buy one but I was too embarrassed. Michelle came in the door about five minutes after I had settled myself in the corner, waving at me, with some sort of brochure.
“Hi! I couldn't find a place to park so I had to circle round a few times. Finally some guy came out of the insurance place and got into his car so I sat there signalling, waiting for his spot but he didn't move and he didn't move and after a few minutes I gave up. As soon as I pulled forward to drive on he backed out and some guy who was just pulling into the parking lot got the spot. So I had to go round again a few times. How are you doing?”
“I'm great” I said with my perkiest voice. I try to always reply to people that way. I believe that if you say it often enough it will eventually be true. “How about you? Besides the parking woes” I added.
“Oh I'm good, I'm good, but I'm just trying to figure out which of these programmes to put Jenna in over Spring Break.” She waved the brochure again and I saw that it was a Community Activities brochure. “You are so lucky you don't have to worry about that” she sighed. “I worry about my kids so much! It's hard being a mother.”
One of the barristas had brought the latte I ordered by this time and I sipped it to keep from letting Michelle see my expression as she said this. She had forgotten that I'd wanted children, had tried to get pregnant. There had been a miscarriage. “You don't know how lucky you are, Mel.”
“I can't imagine” I say, wiping the foam off my lip with the back of my hand.
“But I love my kids. I just love them so much, you know?” As she says this I see it. I see her remember and a flicker of embarrassment crosses her face. Michelle and I met in high school. Our lives had become so different and we had a friendship based on once having been close friends. We met for coffee once in awhile. We had a few dinners together as couples, Michelle and Dave, Chris and myself. “I'm thinking of putting Jenna in soccer” she said as she got up to order her coffee, leaving the brochure on the table. She was back in a few minutes, and I was still inside my own head when I heard her say “I'm so worried about Jenna. She's such an introvert. I think maybe a team sport will help bring her out of her shell.”
Poor Jenna, I think. I'm sure she likes her shell just fine. I know I like mine. Jenna would probably rather spend her spring break working her way through a few library books rather than kicking a ball around. Michelle was looking at me in that way that makes you think there is something on your face.
“Have you been out with anyone lately? Got any good stories to dish on?” I think she tried to sound nonchalant saying that. I think she knew it was unlikely I'd been out but still I felt like I was a disappointment when I said no. She wanted me to try e-dating. A friend of a friend of a neighbour's cousin met her husband that way.
“Not lately. There was that blind date I told you about last time...” I let my voice trail off. There is nothing more to say.
“You should just sign up for one of those dating sites. You've got to put yourself out there. You know you could get some highlights and you'd totally look like Jennifer Anniston's younger sister. Sort of. Maybe use a bit of that self tanning stuff. It's better than it used to be. You could totally get that California girl look going for you.”
“ I don't think that would really be me. Not the tanning. Maybe I could do the highlights. Would I have to shave my legs if I started dating? You know, I haven't had to bother for several months.” I was not serious but I deadpanned this, to see how she reacted and I was not disappointed. I saw the look on her face as she tried to figure out what to say to that. I bit the insides of my cheeks.
“You have to get out more and do more things to meet some guys.” She continued to lecture me.
“Who says I want to meet some guys?” I wondered if she was going to tell me that my experience with Chris shouldn't put me off men or relationships. There is an awkward silence so I grab the brochure and say, “Besides, I'm going to take a pottery class. Maybe I'll meet a sexy artsy sort of guy there. With a beard. Who wears baggy purple pants and no underwear.”
She rolled her eyes. “You'll meet other single women there.”
So then I had to sign up for a pottery class but it was okay because I really kind of wanted to anyhow. It started the Wednesday night after we had coffee. I was excited but nervous and my hands twitched and twiddled all day. I spilled everything. I dribbled toothpaste on my shirt before going out to the class and changed into a clean one despite knowing I would be getting it messy. But messy with art materials looks sexier than messy with coffee and toothpaste and remnants of dinner on your shirt. Unless you actually create art with those things. Hah! I laughed to myself at my own joke and then thought, don't say anything stupid like that tonight. Don't just say the first thing that comes into your head because it will be stupid as usual.
I went to the pottery class and enjoyed it very much and Michelle was right; it was all women and when I got home I saw in the mirror that I might possibly have spent much of the night with clay stuck to my eyebrows so I guess it's a good thing there were no men I wanted to impress there. It wasn't the actual pottery class that changed my life. It was something I saw there. It was a sign. A real one, not like that woo woo stuff; not a sign from God or the universe. It was a sign on a notice board outside the pottery class. Models needed: Life Drawing class needs models. Must be willing to pose naked. No previous experience or attractiveness required. Small fee will be negotiated.
My pulse sped up and I felt the warmth spread through my body, my face flushed and hands began to sweat, like I was doing something shameful. I wanted to do this. I knew right then that I wanted to do this so I tore off one of the attached bits of paper with the phone number. It was the local college. I feared that at any moment someone would appear in the hallway and see me reading the sign, tearing off the phone number. What would my friends think, if they caught me at that moment? Would they be disgusted and think it was degrading or worse, would they think my body wasn't good enough to display, to be art? What if someone hangs a painting of my naked body on his living room wall? What if it hangs in a local cafe? What if my mother sees it?
My mother phoned me the next night. I told her about the pottery class and how the instructor sort of looked like Aunt Shirley did in the eighties, with asymmetrical hair and purple eyeshadow. “Is that in again?” She asked incredulously. “It was bad enough the first time with those, what were they balloon pants?”
I laughed. “That was parachute pants, mum. It was balloon valences on the window and parachute pants on the people.”
“Well both were ugly” she said. “Too much fabric.” Then there was a bit of a pause while I could hear her not asking the question she was dying to ask. I considered ringing off at that point, telling her I've got to go because......because....but there was no because that I could come up with. So I put her out of her misery and said, “The class is all women, of course. Most are about mid fifties, empty-nesters seeking a new hobby now that they don't have kids to keep them busy.”
“Are they hippies?” She asked. “You know, with sensible shoes and weird baggy clothes made of hemp and jewelry made of badger teeth? There was a programme on PBS about jewlery made of strange animal bits.”
“I don't think we have any badgers here, mum.”
I had to laugh. I really wanted to tell her that I'd met and was dating a hippie man with dreadlocks and a long beard who wears hemp clothing and has a necklace of teeth but it was too late. I'd already said there were no men in the class.
“Mum, I'd better go. I have to pee.”
“Oh,” she said, “your Aunt Shirley always just takes the phone with her and keeps talking to me.”
“I am not going to do that! Bye mum. Thanks for calling. Love you.”
“I love you too, honey”. She said.
I made the phone call and arranged to go around and meet the art teacher. I was nervous as hell but wouldn't anyone be? I must have changed my clothes at least three times and that was after spending half an hour the night before trying to put together an outfit. I had no idea how a nude model dressed. Brian, the art teacher, assured me that I didn't have to undress at the interview. He just wanted to meet me but I would be keeping my clothes on. I went out on my lunch break to meet him. I had tried to look less officey and more artsy that day without attracting the attention of my colleagues. In my car I had boots and a leather jacket which I traded the pumps and blazer for. I took my hair out of the french braid and fluffed it up with my fingers, leaving it hanging loose over my shoulders.
Following Brian's directions, I found the art class room easily. It was a bright room, painted white and with lots of windows high up on the wall, allowing for lots of light but no spectators. Brian was waiting for me there. I strode in hoping to look more confident than I felt. Holding out my hand I said,
“Hi, I'm Melanie. We spoke on the phone about the modelling.” He shook my hand and said the usual, pleased to meet you sort of thing. I felt he was looking me up and down and I wondered if it had been a lie about looks not mattering.
“Have you got any questions?” He asked, seeming to indicate that I'd already gotten the job.
“ Yes. Have many other people applied? How many students are there?”
Brian pulled out a chair for me and one for himself. I sat primly and crossed my legs then immediately tried to look more relaxed than that and propped my ankle up on my knee the way a man sits. I remembered that leaning backwards could potentially make me look more confident and leaning towards him could make me look more interested. Not knowing which to chose I ended up sitting stiffly upright. I had noticed the minute I walked into the room that Brian was an attractive man. I'm not sure whether I had been hoping for that or not. I am a terrible judge of age and thought that he could have been five years younger than I am or five years older. He wore no wedding ring. I thought that this attractive man approximately my own age was going to see me naked. And following that thought I realised that perhaps several men were going to see me naked and men of all ages, some barely out of high school. What was I thinking? So I asked, “Are there, will there be, umm, are there more males or females in this class?”
“You've never done this before,” Brian said, stating it as the fact he knew it to be.
“Of course not!” I said it indignantly realising as I said it that I was implying there was something shameful about it.
He crossed his ankle over his knee exactly the same way I had mine, ran his hand through his sandy coloured hair and said, “Well there were a few other applicants but they were very young. I mean, not that they were under age but I wasn't sure about their motivations and I was uncomfortable with it so I felt you would be a more suitable candidate, being older, and....” He trailed off. I think he may have realised that it wasn't coming out quite right, that bit about my being older. I decided he must be younger. I stared at his elevated black sneaker that was spattered with paint.
“And the students?” I prompted.
“Oh yes, well it's not a day class, it's an evening class so we get more older students in this one. There are about twelve of them registered and I think it's about fifty-fifty, maybe sixty-forty females to males.” Then he showed me the area where I would change out of my clothes, told me I should bring my own robe and slippers, which I would wear going from the change area over to the posing area, which was a wooden box really, a platform with a foam on it, all draped with a white sheet and piled with pillows. It would be really helpful, Brian said, if I could take them with me after class and wash them and bring them back next time. Behind the platform was a metal frame from which a white curtain was draped, making a backdrop. He explained to me that we would make sure the poses were comfortable for me and good for the students to draw. The more he talked the more I began to feel I could do this. So I asked how and what I was to be paid. He said it would be twenty five dollars an hour and I would be there two hours every Tuesday and Thursday night. So I was going to make a hundred dollars a week for taking my clothes off. This wouldn't be turning into a career, I thought wryly. I took the job.
On Tuesday the following week I didn't eat for hours before the class and my tummy was growling loudly but I was so afraid I would fart or need to use the toilet while lying there naked on a platform with twelve people staring at me. What was I thinking? What was I doing? But I drove there, I walked into the building, I walked into the room where there were already people of various ages gathering around talking to each other, introducing themselves, and claiming a place with one of the drawing boards arranged around the platform on which I was soon to recline naked. Brian approached me beaming. “Melanie. There you are. Come in. Put your coat here.” Then he whispered, “Are you nervous?”
“Yeah. But I'll be okay. It's quite warm in here.”
“Well we can't have our model getting goose bumps” he said and I thought about those jokes Chris used to make about headlights and high beams in the cold. I shivered in my clothes and felt my nipples get hard. I crossed my arms to both cover and warm them. “I'm going to introduce you to everyone and then you can decide how much or how little you want to tell them about yourself. Then you can get changed over there.” He gestured at the little office at the back of the classroom. He made the introduction, I said an awkward hello and indicated that we should just get on with it then. I took my large tote bag with my robe and slippers and went to the office to change.
When I came out the students were all arranged at their drawing boards and nobody met my eyes as I sat on the platform and waited for some direction from Brian. He gave a little talk on how this was their first chance to just jump right in and draw what they see, that they should be fearless and draw quickly without thinking about it too much. There would be time to analyse it and learn from it later. The pose he wanted me to do was actually fairly modest. It felt really strange to just slip my robe off in front of all those people and yet in some ways it didn't. I was directed to lie down on my side and in a way that only one breast was fully exposed. My top leg was bent and angled forward over the other leg so that the pubic area didn't show. In my mind I became another person, Melanie the artist's model. I had something they wanted and needed.
“Tonight,” Brian said to his students, “you will be concentrating on the overall shape of the curves.” I liked the sound of that. The curves. My curves.
I lay in bed later that night running my hands over my own flannel pyjama clad body and smiled to myself. Dangerous curves ahead.