“We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them.”
Keith woke up to his wife nestling against him in her
sleep. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his
back. Without even trying, trying not to, in fact, he
stiffened up and pulled away.
She rolled away from him, sighing. He lay silent,
frozen, trying to determine if she had woken or not. It was a few
minutes before his own breath quieted enough for him to hear the
ragged breathing that told him she was awake. Awake and crying,
most likely. He could almost feel the tears that must be welling
slowly from her tightly closed eyes. His own tears mirrored hers.
Keith wanted to get up, leave the room, the house, the
Earth. Anything to escape the guilt that was settling down around
him, but he knew the guilt would only follow him, and if he ran from
it, its strength would be tenfold.
He turned to face Belle’s back, punching his pillows
into a more comfortable shape. He carefully studied the outline of
her curls in the darkness and the softly glowing skin of her creamy
white shoulder. The curve above her hip slowly rose as her lungs
filled with air and then fell again as she exhaled.
She was perfect, absolutely perfect. Any man in the
world would have done anything to be where Keith was, in bed with
her, close enough to touch her. Her body was trim and tight, her
skin taut and smooth, her fashion sense impeccable. And besides
that, she was ambitions and intelligent and loyal and kind. There
was nothing about her that was lacking, nothing at all. Which hurt
and confused him all the more. What the hell was wrong with him?
Why did he cringe at his wife’s touch?
When Keith’s alarm woke him, it seemed as if he had
hardly slept. He slapped at the snooze button and turned to look at
his wife. Belle was wrapped around the edge of the bed, as far from
him as she could get without getting out of bed. He rolled toward
her slowly. Did she remember last night, or had it melted away in
the haze of sleep? Gently, he placed his palm firmly on her lower
back. She jumped at his touch and turned to face him, pulling the
blanket tightly around her.
“Good morning,” Keith tried, his voice quiet and
“Morning,” she answered, her voice husky with sleep.
She looked at him for a minute, then buried her face in her
pillows. “What’s wrong with you lately, baby? Or what’s wrong with
me?” she asked finally, her muffled voice barely reaching his ears.
Keith sighed and buried his own face in pillows for a
few seconds before he lifted his head and spoke.
“I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about it right
now. I just want to hold you for a little while.”
Belle twisted her head and stared at her husband in
silence for several seconds before she turned, at last, and pushed
her back against him. Although his wife’s flesh was warm against
his, he could feel coldness emanating from within her. But at least
she was in his arms for the moment and he could pretend everything
was okay again, at least until it was time to go to work.
When Keith got to work, there was a mountain of
paperwork on his desk waiting for him. He loved his job. It came
easily to him, and usually kept him fully engaged, but for the past
days or weeks, he wasn’t sure anymore how long it had been, he had
found himself unable to give it his full attention. It wasn’t that
he didn’t want to. It was just that as soon as he settled into a
task, his thoughts would suddenly be obscured by an intense,
detailed picture of Belle. He might see her doing something that
was part of her everyday routine, like carrying a bowl of mashed
potatoes to the dining room table, or folding laundry, or pulling
socks up over her ankles as she dressed for work. Or maybe she
would see her in bed with him, naked and soft-skinned and caressing
his body, or staring down at him, her hair brushing his face, as
they made love.
He couldn’t keep his wife’s face out of his mind. He
only wished her sudden, stubborn existence there was borne of real
desire and not of horrible, painful, heart-twisting guilt.
After lunch, Keith called Belle’s cell phone. She was
at work and didn’t answer, but he hadn’t expected her to. He left a
message. “Hey, baby. Sorry about last night. And about
everything. I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately, but it’s me,
not you. I love you.”
After that, he managed to get some work done. He made
his way through about half of the stack on his desk before his
attention waned again. It wasn’t his wife’s face in his mind this
time. Instead, he was distracted by the woman in the reception area
just outside the glass door of his office. She had been there for a
few months, ever since their regular receptionist had broken her
hip, and for whatever reason, he found himself watching her more
than he figured he should. There was no reason for it. He wasn’t
really attracted to her or anything. There was just something about
the way she looked, moved, went about her work, that drew his
attention. He tried not to think about it very often, but when he
did, it added to his guilt.
Belle left work early. She pushed her catalogs and
client lists aside, shut off her computer, pulled her jacket over
her shoulders, and smiled at the receptionist on her way out the
“Mrs. Kearns, where are you going?” the confused
receptionist asked her, glancing down at the calendar on her desk.
“Just out. It’s one of those days. I have my cell if
you need me.”
And she was out the door, turning off her cell phone as
she went. She drove immediately to gym and, once there, wasted no
time in changing. IPod in hand, she stepped onto the treadmill.
She started walking. And walking. Every so often a look of
sadness, of longing, would come over her face. When that happened,
she pushed the “up” arrow on the treadmill and walked even faster.
She didn’t stop walking until she was red-faced and breathless,
nearly falling over from exhaustion. And then, when she could walk
again, she quietly made her way into the locker room.
At five, Keith had a decision to make: stay late at work
to catch up on everything he had been neglecting, or go home to
Belle and try to make things right again. Staying late at work was
certainly what he should do; it was much easier, less stressful, and
probably more responsible. He wouldn’t have to pretend, at work,
and the receptionist had already left, so he wouldn’t have that
distraction to worry about. But then the guilt and the images of
his wife’s face would come flooding back and he might not accomplish
anything anyway. At least if he went home, he could pretend to be
the same Keith he always had been, the Keith he wanted to be, madly
in love with his wife and anxious to spend every spare moment with
At what cost, though? It hardly seemed possible to him
that she wouldn’t be able to tell he was only going through the
motions. After her reaction to his almost unconscious
middle-of-the-night rebuff, her frustrated questions this morning,
it was obvious that she knew something was wrong, or at least that
things were not the same as they used to be. At home he would only
be playing a game, one that made him feel worse with every passing
Sighing, he shut down his computer and resolved to come
in early the next day. He considered stopping for flowers on the
way home, but rejected the idea almost immediately. Giving Belle
flowers would only be admitting that he had done something wrong,
and he wasn’t entirely sure he had. Something was wrong, he
knew that, but he couldn’t yet get a clear enough picture of what it
was to know if it was his fault, or anyone’s fault at all.
When he walked through the kitchen door, he was greeted
with the smell of baking something—he couldn’t tell what—and a
flurry of activity. It made him ache inside as he wondered how he
could be anything but the happiest man in the world. It also made
him sure that the only thing he could do was pretend. He would
pretend that whatever had been wrong with him was gone now, that he
had been waiting all day to come home to her, that he was relaxed
and happy without a care in the world.
“Hey, Babe. Smells good in here.”
Keith smiled at Belle as he walked toward her, then
pulled her toward him, rested his chin on her head, held her. She
tensed at first, then finally relaxed into his arms. She stayed
there a minute or two before she spoke.
“Dinner’ll be ready in a half hour or so. Your mail’s
on the table by the door.”
He kissed her head before he let go, then took a beer
from the refrigerator and wandered into the living room. He had
been prepared to pretend everything was alright, but he hadn’t been
prepared for the feelings that were filling his being. Love,
attraction, joy, all the things he hadn’t felt in so long he almost
forgot what they were. He suspected he hadn’t expected the flood of
emotion because he also hadn’t been prepared for Belle to work so
hard at pleasing him. She really did know something was up. It
wasn’t that she didn’t cook dinner often or anything. But they
usually cooked together, or one of them would throw something
together before the other got home from work. And his mail was on
the table? Most days, if he didn’t stop and get it on the way in,
she sent him back out for it. Keith sighed and dropped onto the
He hoped that Belle knew, even if she could sense that
he was pulling away, how much he appreciated her. He couldn’t stand
to hurt her. None of it was her fault. She did everything right.
Somehow, it just wasn’t enough anymore. Or for right now, anyway.
Maybe it was just a phase he was going through. Keith just wanted
to feel like he knew himself again.
He turned on the TV, threw his legs onto the couch, and
tried to forget himself for a while.
Belle quickly arranged a chicken breast, some brown
rice, and a heap of mixed vegetables on a plate. She filled two
bowls with lettuce then topped them off with onions and cherry
tomatoes. She sprinkled cheese on one of them and then carried it
all into the dining room. She placed the plate and the salad
adorned with cheese in front of one chair, along with a glass of
milk and an assortment of salad dressing bottles. She placed the
other salad and a glass of water in front of another chair. This
was the chair that Belle sat in as she called her husband to dinner.
Keith stood up and stretched when he heard Belle’s voice
calling him, and carefully put a smile on his face before he went
into the dining room. He hoped against all hope that he would start
feeling like himself again soon; he was determined to fake it, if he
had to, until that happened. It was the least he could do for
Belle. And maybe if he faked it for long enough, the feelings would
be real. Or maybe they were already starting to be real again. He
hadn’t imagined the things he had felt when he first walked back
into the kitchen, he knew that much. It was a matter of how strong
they really were, what caused them, how long they would last. But
in her arms, for those few minutes, he had definitely felt love of
some sort. Love, and attraction, too, something he had to admit he
hadn’t felt in a while.
The thought crept into his mind that the attraction may
have been caused by some innate desire to protect her, some
caveman-esque instinct to care for the woman who loved him, rather
than by chemistry, but he pushed it away. Of course he was
attracted to her. He always had been. She was his wife.
Keith sat across from Belle at the table and took a long
drink of milk. As he did, he noticed that while there was a full
plate of hot food in front of him that looked as if it could have
come from the pages of a magazine, there was only a small salad in
front of Belle, and a glass of water.
“You feeling okay, Babe?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t—you’re not having any chicken?”
“This is all I want tonight.”
“You—you, um, sure about that?”
“Yes, I’m fine, I said. Don’t start bugging me about
how much I eat!”
After that, they ate in silence. Keith was lost in
thought once again. It seemed like he spent a lot of time lost
these days. He could remember other times when she had stopped
eating real food. It was one of the things about her that had
surprised him when they were dating. Mostly, she was healthy and
well-balanced and rational and confident, but there had been times
before they were married when she would sink into a depression,
usually set off by some small argument they had had. Or some
argument she’d had with someone else, or, once in a while, just by
the fact that she had seen some woman she didn’t feel she measured
up to. At those times, she slid into a state of constant jealousy,
and started eating almost nothing and exercising like Richard
Simmons on speed. When she finally felt like she looked good enough
to be secure again, she would stop and become herself again.
Keith suspected that one of her depressions was coming
on again, for the first time since they had been married. And he
knew with great certainty that the cause was his own behavior.
He wanted to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, that she
had done nothing wrong, that she was perfect just the way she was,
but putting his thoughts into words would be making their problems
real, and he had promised himself that, as of tonight, everything
was going to be right again. And anyway, every time she’d been like
this before and he had tried to convince her that he loved her no
matter what she looked like, that he found her perfect exactly as
she was but that even if she gained ten pounds or twenty or even a
hundred, or if she shaved her head or wore a garbage bag for a dress
or did anything else to change her appearance, he would love her
just the same, but it never worked. Until she met some arbitrary
weight loss goal and went out and got her hair done and filled her
closet halfway up with new clothes, she never became herself again.
Although Keith could understand why she might be feeling
insecure, it still angered him just a little. It was frustrating to
him that she felt like she needed to change, assumed that something
was wrong with her. It frustrated him that women, in general,
always seem to think that any relationship problems they have must
be connected to their physical appearance. It was hard for him to
believe that Belle could think he was so shallow. What had he done
to make her think that her appearance was so important to him? It
was the way that she was that attracted him to her.
Hell, now he didn’t want to eat either. He didn’t know
if the way he had been feeling was his own fault anymore. Maybe it
was her fault. Or no one’s fault at all. That was still a
possibility. He looked up at Belle and found that she was very
carefully not looking at him. He got up and covered his plate with
plastic wrap, then put it in the refrigerator. He walked up behind
his wife and stood there awkwardly for a second, wondering what to
do. He didn’t want to walk away from her without saying anything,
but he didn’t know what to say. Finally, he just placed his hand on
her shoulder and rubbed his thumb across the back of her neck before
he left the room.
He picked up the mail from the table where she had left
it and carried it with him to their home office, where he turned on
the computer. Maybe he could get a little work done from home and
not have to go in early after all. He logged into his e-mail
account and rifled through the mail while he waited for it to load.
Nothing important, just some credit card offers and a wedding
invitation from one of the guys at work. He filled out the RSVP for
himself and Belle and got it ready to send back, then turned his
attention to his e-mail. He had received a few responses about some
legal matters he was researching, which game him something to work
on from home. There was also a memo from the head of his company’s
legal department with a list of upcoming staff meetings and project
due dates. It also contained a picture that had been taken at the
staff picnic over the summer. The entire legal department was
framed by the brilliant blue sky against a background of the
sparkling lake at the park they had held the picnic at. Everyone
was smiling broadly, but one face caught his attention immediately.
Desirae, the woman who was filling for the receptionist at work, was
in the very center of the picture and she was wearing the biggest
smile of all. Her eyes sparkled even more than the ripples on the
lake did, and one had the sense that she was having the best time of
her life. She had one arm raised with her fingertips against the
side of her head in a movie star pose and the other rested across
the shoulders of one of the legal interns.
Maybe that was what his attraction to her was. She
always seemed so bright, happy, optimistic. It gave him hope that
his life could be simple again. Not that hers was as simple as it
seemed, probably, but she made it seem that way, and who wouldn’t
want to be around someone who made life seem like so much fun? His
life wasn’t so terrible, or hadn’t been when Desirae first started
working in the office, but she had made it seem like it could have
been so much better. And she was great at her job, too. She did it
competently, handling every crisis as if it were a top priority but
nothing to get worried about at all and making everyone she came
into contact with feel happy just to be alive. With a start, Keith
realized that he had been staring at her for a good ten minutes. He
turned to make sure Belle wasn’t standing behind him, although
common sense told him that he would have heard her approach, and
closed the e-mail.
Delete it, he told himself, and began to, but
once he had looked at her face again, he couldn’t make himself do
it. He turned off his computer and sat, staring at the screen, for
a very long time.
She turned and looked across the bed at Keith for a
long moment. Then she slid out from under the covers and dressed in
shorts and a sweatshirt. She grabbed her iPod on the way out the
door and by the time she had reached the sidewalk, she was at a
solid run. A few blocks away from her house she passed a house
where a family was in the process of moving in. She watched the
woman, holding a newborn in her arms, stop and kiss her husband on
the cheek before going into the house. Her eyes teared up as she
ran. She took a left and ran the four miles to the river, where she
slowed to a walk which was still not all that slow. It was a cool
fall day and she was alone except for an occasional jogger or bum.
She sat down on a bench for a few seconds, but then as
if she were propelled by some invisible force, she stood and started
running again. A couple more miles along the river and then she
turned and headed back toward home. By the time she got there, she
was completely winded and hardly able to walk straight. She peeled
off her clothes in the bedroom, dropped into bed, and fell asleep
When Keith woke up, Belle’s side of the bed was empty.
He found her in the kitchen. There was a box of donuts and a coffee
drink covered with whipped cream on the table.
“Morning, honey. I walked down to the coffee shop and
grabbed you some breakfast,” Belle said, as she loaded the
dishwasher. “I thought you might like something a little
different.” She closed the dishwasher and took a plate full of
carefully arranged fruit from the refrigerator. “Here’s something
to go with it.”
They sat at the table together. Belle was drinking
plain black coffee and she only nibbled on a few strawberries as
they talked about their plans for the day.
“I have to get some work done today. I am way behind.
I might be late tonight,” Keith heard himself saying. He almost
cringed when he said it. He hadn’t meant to, his plan was to spend
as much time as he could with Belle, trying to pump her up again so
she could go back to being her old self. Somehow, though, his
resolve had weakened. It was hard to see her like this, easier to
just not see her at all. And he really did have to get work done.
“Okay. I’ll probably just go to the gym after work,
then. I can pick something up for supper on the way home.”
“That’s okay, you don’t have to. I’m not sure what time
I’ll get done.” Damn it, he’d done it again. Instead of making it
easy for her to reach out to him, or trying to help her attain some
degree of happiness, he’d pushed her away. “I’ll just have
something delivered to the office.” Shit. He couldn’t seem to stop
his mouth. But he really found himself wanting less and less to
spend time at home. The good feelings of yesterday were gone and
they were replaced by an emptiness. It hurt him to watch her
starving herself, or beginning to. He wanted to take her by the
shoulders and shake her and yell, “Eat something, damnit! Enjoy
life! Smile! Have fun! Loosen up! Stop spending so much time
trying to change and just be who you are! That is what I
always loved about you!” He couldn’t, of course. But he really
wanted to. He wanted her to be the same old Belle so he could be
the same old Keith and not have this heaviness weighing him down
By some miracle, and the influence of several dozen cups
of coffee or so, Keith managed to get almost caught up with his work
by four or so. It was only when he had pushed aside the second to
the last project he was working on, completed, that he realized he
had been aching to look at the picture of Desirae all day. She had
called in that morning and said that her daughter was sick and she
had to stay home with her, so she wasn’t on the other side of his
glass door for once. That may have helped his concentration a
Keith remembered, back somewhere around noon, promising
himself he could look at the picture before he left if he got caught
up on everything. He hadn’t meant to bribe himself with something
he shouldn’t be doing anyway, but between all the caffeine and the
intensity with which he was focusing on his work, it had seemed like
a logical way to keep himself on task.
“See ya, Keith. Have a good weekend,” one of the
company’s other attorneys said, sticking his head into Keith’s
office. Keith jumped at the sound of his voice, and pulled his hand
off his computer mouse as it had just been dipped in hot lead.
“ Bye, Rob,” he managed with a shaky voice. Obviously
he was feeling a little guilty. “Hey—you the last one here?”
“Yep. I’ll lock the door on my way out.”
“Thanks, man. See you Monday,”
Once he was alone, Keith tried to open the e-mail again,
but he found that he couldn’t. Every time he attempted to click on
the message, his face flushed and blood rushed in his ears. He
could almost feel a scarlet A being burning on his forehead, and he
hadn’t even done anything. Hell, he’d hardly even talked to her,
except to get his messages. It struck him that if he felt that
guilty over doing nothing, his feelings must be fairly strong,
either his feelings for Desirae or his current troubled feelings for
Belle. It meant that there was something wrong that he needed to
take a serious look at.
He settled into working on his final project, but
Belle’s face, and Desirae’s too, floated into his mind from time to
time. He clenched his teeth, squeezed his eyes shut and grimaced,
the way one would look away from a terrible accident, but when he
relaxed again, both faces would still be there. And he found
himself looking toward Desirae’s more and more.
Finally, he gave up and clicked open the e-mail. It
wouldn’t hurt anything to look just once. Other guys read
Playboy all the time and didn’t consider that cheating. And
Desirae wasn’t even naked in the picture he was looking at. There
were a dozen other people in the picture with her, for Pete’s sake.
Even if, by some weird twist of fate, Belle came waltzing into his
office unannounced, somehow defying the locked door in the process,
and caught him, what would she say? What could she say? He
was looking at a picture from the company picnic, one that he,
himself, was in. No one who caught him at it would ever give it a
He had been looking at the picture for several minutes,
studying every soft line of her shape, the light in her eyes that
seemed to sparkle even from the photograph on the screen, the wide,
broad, unapologetic smile that danced on her lips, when the he heard
keys jangling somewhere outside of his office. He reached for his
mouse to close the e-mail message the picture was in when the door
swung open and Desirae walked in. He froze.
“Oh, wow, hey, Mr. Stearns,” she said, her voice raised
to reach through the glass that separated them. “I didn’t think
anyone would be here.”
Keith shrugged and smiled weakly, unable to use his
“My sister took the kids for a while after work so I
could come in and finish a few things. I don’t think I’ll be back
yet tomorrow, so I wanted to make sure everything was set so you
guys could handle things without me. Mind if I come in?” She
placed her hands on the door leading into his office as she spoke.
Keith tried to say, “Sure,” but his voice barely
squeaked and he nodded instead. She came in and stood at his side.
“What’re you working on so late?” she asked, peering
over his shoulder to look at his computer screen. He feebly reached
for the mouse to get rid of the damn picture that seemed to be
haunting him, but gave up when he saw that she had already seen it.
“Oh, hey, that’s a great picture, isn’t it? We all look so happy
and summery and carefree. I printed it out and framed it to put on
my desk. Looking at it’ll get me through the winter months.”
Keith took a deep breath and thought that he might be
able to talk again. He cleared his throat to try out his voice. It
seemed to have stopped squeaking.
“Yeah,” he managed. “It was a good day.” Desirae
smiled at him and patted his shoulder.
“Okay, well it was good talking to you. We never get to
talk much during the day, do we? I better get to work. If you need
anything while I’m here, let me know.”
“’K. Er, okay. Here, might as well take these with
you. They’re all ready to send out.” He handed her a stack of
large manila envelopes. “And you don’t have to call me Mr. Kearns.
No one else around here does. I’m just Keith.”
“Okay, ‘just Keith.’ I’ll get these ready and drop them
in the mail on the way out. See ya.” And then she was gone from
his office, sitting in the reception area, back towards Keith, bent
over her desk. The shock of seeing her walk in just when he was
bust staring at her face pumped adrenaline through his system and he
was finally able to get back to his work.
An hour later, he had finally finished with his last
past due project. He shut down his computer and took a look at his
watch. Nine already. Well, almost, anyway. And he hadn’t eaten a
thing since noon. So much for ordering takeout. In the old days,
he would have stopped at one of the little hole-in-the-wall
restaurants in the neighborhood to load up on greasy, unhealthy food
to bring home and share with Belle, but the way she’d been the past
few days, he’d be lucky to get her to drink a glass of water. He
grabbed the newspaper he hadn’t read yet, rolled it up, and stuck it
in the outer pocket of his briefcase. It’d give him something to
read if he decided to sit inside somewhere and eat. Pulling on his
jacket, he backed out of his office and locked the door behind him.
When he turned to leave, he almost ran into Desirae.
“You leaving too?” she asked him. “I just finished up
here and figured I better hurry up and get home so I can take my
kids off my sister’s hands. They should be in bed by now, but with
my sister there, they won’t be. She’s a softie, doesn’t know when
to set limits. Not that I’m much better—all they gotta do is look
at me with the right expression on their faces and I melt.”
“Kids are like that.” He held the door for her and then
locked it. When they stepped out of the elevator on the first
floor, Keith took his car keys from his pocket. Desirae took a bus
pass from a pocket on the outside of her purse. Keith wondered if
he should offer her a ride. She was trying to get home to her kids,
and who knew when the next bus would arrive. On the other hand, he
probably shouldn’t be alone with her, especially since he wanted to
so badly. He wouldn’t do anything, of course. She’d probably slap
him if he did, and he wasn’t the cheating type anyway. Look how
guilty he’d been over looking at that damn picture! But it seemed
wrong to him anyway. Outside of the building, she leaned against
the wall. She looked at her watch, then pulled a magazine from her
“Hey, um—you want a ride?” Keith finally asked, against
his better judgment. After all, it wasn’t her fault he was so
intrigued by her, and her kids were home waiting for her. “Be
better than waiting around for a bus.”
“Uh, yeah. Sure.” She smiled and tucked her magazine
away again. “That’d be great. I hate the bus, but it’s cheaper
than a car these days.”
“Yeah. I just can’t seem to give up the freedom,
“I know what you mean. If I could afford it without
going broke, I’d have one too. I’ll just wait ‘til I can pay cash,
though. My husband got loans for all his cars—he had three—and it
caused nothin’ but headaches.”
“It’s no good to owe money.”
They got in the car and Keith turned up the heat a bit
to ward off the cool night air. He backed slowly out of his spot
and left the parking ramp. So she had a husband. One who was in
debt, but a husband. The thought brought him a strange mixture of
relief and disappointment.
“So—you’re husband. What does he do?” he finally
asked. He couldn’t stop himself.
“Oh, we’re not married anymore. He’s a great guy and
all, but no money sense at all, and he makes decisions the way a
twelve-year-old does. I can’t handle that. We decided the best
thing for us to do was split up before we started hating each
other. That way we could both be a part of the girls’ lives without
turning them against anyone.”
“Wow, most people can’t be that clear-headed about
things. That’s great.”
“We try. I’m probably a little more clear-headed than
he is. I think he just went along with the whole thing because it
meant he could be young and irresponsible again. But he’s a great
dad. I have no complaints there.”
They rode in silence for a while, other than Desirae
giving directions every once in a while. Keith hoped she wouldn’t
hear his stomach growling. Between going so long without food and
being so nervous about having her alone in his car, his stomach
muscles were working overtime and he was sure it was perceptible
from the other side of the car. He reached down and turned the
radio up, offering, “I love this song,” as an explanation.
“We’re almost there. Just a few more blocks and then
you’re going to turn right by a Starbucks. Hey, wait a minute,
would you mind stopping for a minute? There’s a great deli on the
next block that should still be open. I’m starving, and my sister
probably hasn’t eaten, either.”
“Sure,” Keith replied, and pulled over when he saw the
place she had mentioned. “I’ll grab something, too. Haven’t eaten
since lunch at noon.”
“You poor thing! I bet you’re even more starved than I
am! Let me treat you, since you gave me a ride home.”
“No, you don’t have to—”
“You gotta let me. You saved me bus fare, and besides,
you went way outta your way. Please?” She stuck out her bottom lip
in a mock pout.
“Okay, okay, fine. But I’m ordering something cheap.”
“It’s a deal.”
They went in and ordered, then sat down to wait.
“So, how come you got to stay at work so late? Your
wife isn’t sittin’ home missin’ ya?”
“I don’t know. She might be. I had to get this stuff
done, though. I’ve not been very productive at all lately.”
“Well, that’s too bad. I bet she’ll be glad when you
get home. You should grab her a sandwich or something, too.”
“She wouldn’t eat it anyway. She’s sort of given up on
“Never mind. I shouldn’t have said anything. She’s
just been feeling a little low lately, and the only way she knows
how to deal with it is to starve herself and work out twenty-four
seven. She was like that back when we were first dating, too.”
“That’s too bad. It must be hard for you.”
“Yeah, it is sometimes. But to be honest, it’s my fault
as much as it’s anyone’s. I don’t know, I’ve just been drifting
away a little lately.” Keith rubbed his eyes and then ran his hands
over his head with a sigh. “But never mind. I really don’t need
to be telling you all this. You don’t need to hear it and I
shouldn’t be telling the whole world about our marriage.”
“It’s okay. I won’t say anything. Any time you need to
talk or whatever, I’m here.”
Their number was called then, so the conversation came
to a halt, and Keith was glad. He wondered what had come over him,
sharing everything like that. Especially with Desirae, who was part
of the problem, it seemed. What an idiot!
When he pulled up in front of the building that Desirae
pointed at, she thanked him for the ride and got out.
“Remember, any time you want someone to unload on, give
me a holler,” she reminded him. She turned away and started up the
walk. Just as he was putting on his turn signal to pull out, she
spun around and came back. He rolled the window down and she stuck
her head inside. “You wanna come in and eat with us? My sister’s
there, so we won’t be alone. That way you don’t have to go home and
eat—well, you know. You don’t have to eat alone, or in front of
your wife, or whatever.”
Keith considered her offer. His original plan had been
to stop down by the river to eat in the car before he went home, and
her idea sounded much better. The apartment he could see that
radiated light three stories up with two little girls’ faces in it
“Sure, I guess I could do that.” He parked the car and
got out, following her in and up the stairs. Once inside, she
introduced him to her sister and her two little girls and then doled
out the food. They had a good time eating together, listening to
one of Desirae’s daughters talk about her day in school while the
other tried to outdo her by telling tales of woe from her day sick
at home. Their were only three chairs at the table, so they sat in
a circle on the floor, and every so often Desirae or her sister,
Deanna, would reach out with a napkin and dab something off of one
of the little girls’ faces. Deanna looked almost exactly like
Desirae, just a little younger, and had the same easy-going
demeanor. Keith enjoyed himself more than he had in a very long
time. He didn’t want to leave, but when he finally looked at his
watch again, he couldn’t believe how late it was.
“Uh, I’m having a great time, but I really need to get
going. Belle’s going to be worried sick about me. And I haven’t
seen her all day, so I really should get home before she goes to
sleep. It’s almost eleven already.”
“Eleven!” Desirae looked startled. “Girls, go to bed!”
she ordered, with a grin on her face. “Your dad’s coming to get you
at nine in the morning, and if you get up grumpy, I’ll turn ya
upside down if I hafta to make ya smile!”
Giggling, the girls jumped up and hugged their aunt
goodbye. The older girl stood shyly by Keith’s side.
“I think Sarah’s wantin’ a hug from ya, Mister,” Desirae
pointed out. Keith looked over at her and hesitantly opened his
arms. It had been a few years since he’d had a child around to hug,
since his brother and sister-in-law and nieces and nephew had moved
across the country. Sarah and her sister both leaned into his open
arms and hugged him. He was surprised by how good it felt, how
strong and protective it made him feel.
Once they had gone, he said goodbye to Deanna and stood
up to leave. As he walked down the hall, he heard Desirae called
out softly, “Anytime you need someone, I’m here.” He turned to her
and smiled, then hurried out to the car.
Keith hardly saw Belle for the next few weeks. And
when he did see her, he almost didn’t recognize her. She was still
existing on fruit, vegetables, and water, and the only thing she
took in enough of was the water. She was getting up at 5 to run a
few miles before work, then going right from work to the gym every
day. She’d get home around seven and make dinner, then sometimes,
on her good days, she’d sit with him while he ate, munching on a
carrot or an apple. Other days, she just walked on her treadmill in
front of the television or went out to God-knows-where. Either way,
Keith could hardly stand to eat his food.
He tried to talk to her a few times. At first, he told
her how beautiful she was, how much he loved the womanly curves of
her flesh. Not that there had ever been all that many curves, and
there were definitely more angles than curves now, but he wanted her
to stop feeling as if she had to melt away to nothing. When that
didn’t work, he started bringing home her favorite foods. All that
did was cause her to run off to hide in the bedroom, where he
suspected she was crying, so he stopped doing that. Then he tried
to explain to her that she was getting dangerously thin, and that it
was bad for her health. Tried to convince her to go get help
somewhere, even. Brought home pamphlets on eating disorders. But
none of it worked.
It was during those weeks that Keith started to realize
what was missing in his relationship with Belle. When they had
first met, and throughout most of their marriage, she had been so
happy about everything, so easy to get excited, except for those few
times when she had sunken into her depressions, but they had never
lasted long back then. She had never worried about what anyone
thought of her and was willing to change plans on the spur of the
moment. Just being around her could make a person glow with
happiness. But slowly, that had changed. Even before the
depression set in, Keith realized, which was probably why he had
felt himself pulling away.
She had started taking everything more seriously. She
had always been able to take things seriously when the situation
called for it, but lately she had really started taking
everything seriously. He had first noticed it when he had
brought up the subject of children. Keith had always assumed they
would have children, and he never thought to ask Belle about it
because she seemed so fond of other people’s kids. But when he
finally brought it up, she had been horrified. She had told him
that she wasn’t nearly ready to start thinking of someone else first
every second of the day, and she didn’t feel like she was prepared
to be a good parent. In fact, she wasn’t sure she’d make a good
parent at all. She liked her job too much.
Keith had tried briefly to convince her that they could
afford good childcare, that she didn’t need to give up her job, that
together they would make sure everything worked out. Once he’d
taken time to think about it, though, he’d realized that having
children is not something you should talk a person into. So, he’d
backed off, decided to wait until she brought up the idea herself.
Which, of course, she never had. As the days passed, she had grown
more and more careful about every decision. Anything Keith
suggested they do at the last minute, whether it was heading to the
beach to swim or getting tickets to a play, she had to stop and
think through completely. And if there wasn’t time to consider an
option thoroughly, it wasn’t an option at all. She lost the
spontaneity that Keith had loved about her. And finally, of course,
she had stopped eating.
Throughout all of it, after the night that he had spent
with Desirae’s family, Keith remembered Desirae’s repeated reminders
that he could talk to her any time. As much as he longed to explain
the whole thing to her, to bask in the wonderful way that she
accepted everything and made reality not seem so harsh, he knew that
she was the last person he should talk to, so he kept his distance.
He would stop and say hi to her in the office every so often, smile
warmly, to let her know he appreciated her, but otherwise, he stayed
out of her way.
Finally, after weeks and weeks, and a few phone calls
with his brother, Keith knew what he had to do. Belle was tearing
herself apart, and she wouldn’t stop. Unless something drastic
happened, she wasn’t going to stop, and she was tearing him up right
along with her. He had to get out in time to save both of them.
Before he talked to her, he called Jeannette, her
closest friend. The three of them had gone to high school together
and Keith knew her almost as well as Belle did. He explained what
was going on and told her that she could hate him if she wanted to,
and should definitely tell Belle that she did, even if it wasn’t
true, but that he really wanted her to be there for her.
Then he did the hardest thing he had ever done. He sat
down on the edge of the bed after dinner one night, when Belle was
getting ready to go out running, and told her that they needed to
“I—we—we’re growing apart, Belle. I know you’ve noticed
it as much as I have. We both have our jobs to keep us busy, and
you’re absorbed in your running and working out, and—” Keith
paused. That wasn’t the right thing to say. He was making it seem
like it was her fault, and he didn’t want to do that. He still
loved her too much. Or loved who she had been, anyway, enough that
he didn’t want to hurt who she had become. And he knew, of course,
that she was very fragile now, both emotionally and physically.
“And—I have my things going on, too. I’ve been busy at
work. And things just aren’t what they used to be, and we aren’t
happy. I think we need—we need some space, Baby.”
Part of Keith expected her to break into hysterical
sobs, throw herself at his feet, threaten suicide or murder or both,
and storm around the room in a rage. An other part of him expected
her to fall to the floor in a faint, unable to accept what he had
said. There was no part of him at all, however, that expected what
“I’ll have to think about that,” she said quietly.
“Once I’ve thought it all through, I’ll get back to you.” And she
picked up her iPod and jogged through the door. He was laying awake
with the lamp next to the bed turned on when she finally came home
several hours later.
“You okay, Belle,” he whispered. She did not answer
him, but when he looked at her eyes, it didn’t look like she had
been crying. He turned the light off and lay awake, confused.
When Keith got home from work the next day, Belle was
gone. Disappeared. All of her personal things were gone from the
house. The only thing left was a piece of notebook paper by the
phone. The neat, bold, distinct handwriting on it told him that she
was staying with Jeannette and she could be reached on her cell
phone if he needed her. When he tried calling, she didn’t answer.
And a few weeks after that, he opened up the mailbox to find divorce
Keith continued to go to work every day, but he had lost
his passion for the job. In some ways it was a relief that Belle
was gone. Now he could enjoy his meals without feeling like she had
put every ounce of herself into preparing them, so much so that she
couldn’t eat herself. And he could do things on the spur of the
moment again, and come and go as he pleased. But he made those
meals himself now, and ate alone, and he didn’t have anyone to do
those spur-of-the-moment things with anymore, and no one to come and
go with. A few times, he thought of asking Desirae to do
things with him, have dinner or go to a play or just take a walk at
lunch time, but he couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to explain what
had happened to his marriage, didn’t want to think about it even.
And he still felt guilty, as if his attraction to Desirae had
somehow been the cause of the end of his marriage. Even though he
knew with certainty now that his attraction to her was a symptom and
not a cause, he couldn’t seem to give himself permission to approach
But she stopped him one Friday on his way out of the
“Hey, there, Mr. St—Keith. Are you going to Bill’s
“What? Oh, wow, I forgot all about that.” He stopped
and considered her question. Now that she had reminded him, he
remembered, of course, because the day that he had received the
invitation, sent in the RSVP, had been the same day he had gotten
the picture from the company picnic. He very clearly remembered
sealing the envelope and then opening up his e-mail to see Desirae’s
face smiling at him from his computer screen. “Um, well, I guess—I
sent in the RSVP.”
“So you’re going, then?”
“Well, I don’t know. I mean—well, when I sent it
in—see, Belle and I are divorcing.” He stopped immediately when he
realized he had said the words out loud. What was it about this
woman that made him say things he was trying not to say?
“I know. I was sorry to hear that,” she said kindly.
“You—you knew? Who told you?” Keith didn’t think he
had told anyone but his brother. It shook him up to hear that
Desirae had known.
“I don’t know, I think Rob heard you talking on the
phone or something. You know how things get around in offices.
We’ve known for a while. But we figured it was your business and
you’d tell us when you were ready, so we’ve just been waiting. I
think you should go to the wedding, you know. It might do you good
to get out for a night and have some fun.”
“You’re probably right. Actually, I was pretty sure I
was going as soon as you reminded me about it. It’s better than
spending another night home alone, and if things get too bad,
there’s an open bar, right?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Desirae said with a smile. “And
now for the reason I was asking.”
Keith froze. She was going to ask him to be her date.
She was great, he liked her a lot and was still borderline obsessed
with his attraction to her, but he just didn’t feel ready to date
yet. He held his breath and prepared to turn her down.
“I was wondering if you’d be able to give me a ride to
the reception after the service. I can take a bus to the church,
but I don’t think the buses even go out to where the reception is.
I’ll pay for some of the gas.”
Keith almost fell over with relief. Just a ride. That
much, he could handle.
“Sure, no problem. Don’t worry about the gas; I’m going
there anyway, right?”
“Thanks, Keith. I appreciate it. It’ll make my life a
Keith arrived at the church just before the service
started. He parked and hurried in, sliding in the end of one of the
pews just as the groom began walking up the aisle. He scanned the
room for Desirae but couldn’t find her. He finally gave up and
focused on the bride and groom standing in the front of the church.
He watched and listened for a while, but once things got
started—“‘Til death do us part,” and “forever and ever,” and all
that stuff—he realized he shouldn’t have come. Not to the church
service. It threw him back too sharply to the day of his own
wedding, when he had still believed the words, “I do,” before he had
recognized that they didn’t mean as much as they seemed to, as they
were supposed to.
He quickly stood up and made his way out of the church.
He could feel tears stinging the inside of his eyelids and he didn’t
want to ruin a wedding with his tears. Not to mention the fact that
he’d rather no one see him crying no matter where he was.
But just as he was about to open his eyes and let the
tears out, he heard footsteps coming up behind him. He blinked and
turned sharply to greet whoever they belonged to. It was Desirae.
“You okay?” she asked gently.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Keith stepped backwards and turned so
that she wasn’t looking directly into his face.
“I saw you get up and thought you might be upset, so I
came out after you to make sure you were okay. It can’t be easy for
you to be here.”
“Yeah. I shouldn’t have come.”
“I’m sorry. Did you come just because you said you’d
give me a ride? You could have said no, I would’ve understood.”
“No, I never even thought about it. It just sort of hit
me when I got inside.”
“Yeah, I hear ya. Hey, they’re just about done in
there, I bet. Why don’t we just head for the reception now. Then
you don’t have to go back in there, and the change of scenery might
do you some good.”
Keith nodded and they walked together to his car. They
had been on the road for a while, with Desirae reading from a map
that had come with the wedding invitation, when she abruptly looked
up and said, “Take that exit!’
Keith slammed on his turn signal, turned the wheel hard,
and stomped on the brake to make the exit. He looked confused and
reached for the directions.
“No, it’s not on here. I just recognized the exit and
thought we might as well stop, since we had some time to kill. My
family used to come here for picnics when I was little. Follow that
road over there and hang a left once it turns to gravel. There’s a
pond at the end of the road. It’s gorgeous.”
Keith shrugged his shoulders and followed her
“Okay by me.”
He stopped the car next to the pond she had described.
They got out and sat side by side on a picnic table bench, looking
out over the water. Tiny bugs skated across the surface and every
so often, a fish jumped into the air and sliced cleanly back into
the pond. They could barely hear the traffic from the highway.
They sat in silence.
Keith felt Desirae shift her weight and turned toward
her. Before he knew what was happening, she placed her hand on his
shoulder, pulled him down toward her, and kissed him. He was so
surprised that he couldn’t kiss back, but he didn’t pull away,
either. When she straightened herself out so she was looking out
over the pond again, he couldn’t stop staring at her. Finally, she
“I’m sorry if that was the wrong thing to do, but I’ve
been wanting to for so damn long. Ever since the night you drove me
home. You were so open, and good with my kids, and just—you were
everything. I know this probably wasn’t a good time, but I just had
to. Is that okay?” She looked up at him pleadingly.
It amazed him that she would be so bold. Out of
nowhere, when she knew there was a very good chance he would not
respond the way she wanted to, she had just up and kissed him. It
amazed him even more that she was worried about the timing of the
kiss and not whether she should have kissed him at all. Belle would
never have taken such a risk; she’d always let him make the first
move, even after they were married, just in case he wasn’t in the
mood or something.
It amazed him, and it pleased him. Which amazed him
even more. He leaned over and kissed Desirae this time.
“Yes. Yes, that is very much okay.”
Keith picked up the phone and dialed Jeannette’s phone
number. He had been trying all morning to reach Belle, but she
still wasn’t answering his calls. It was Sunday, so he couldn’t
call her at work, and he was pretty sure her secretary had been
covering for her anyway. He had been thinking of her ever since
last night, though, and he needed to know how she was doing, if
things were okay.
He had stayed late at the wedding reception with Desirae
and had a wonderful time. They danced almost every song, and in
between songs, they kissed. It was the best Keith had felt in a
long time. But it made him think of Belle, too. He still loved
her in a lot of ways. He didn’t want to be this happy if she was
miserable. He hadn’t even seen her since she had moved out, except
for once or twice when he had parked across the street from her
office to watch her leave work, so he could see for himself that she
really was okay. That had been in the week or two after she moved
out, though, and it had been months since he had seen her now.
Jeannette answered on the fourth ring.
“Hi, Jeannette. It’s Keith.”
“Keith? Keith! What are you doing calling me?” She
had dropped her voice to a whisper.
Keith couldn’t tell if there was displeasure in her
voice, or just surprise.
“I’ve been trying to get Belle on the phone for a while
now, and she won’t talk to me.”
“Well, can you blame her? I shouldn’t even be talking
“Don’t hang up. I’m not going to pry or anything. I’ve
just been worried about her and I wanted to see if she’s okay.”
“She’s fine. Go away!”
Keith didn’t answer right away. Instead he drew in a
deep breath and took a minute to consider her words.
“Alright. Okay. I’ll go away. But please tell her I
called. And tell her, if it helps, that I still love her, even if
it isn’t like it used to be.” He could feel the tears of the night
before stinging his eyes again. He was about to hang up when he
heard Jeanette’s whispered voice again.
“Yeah, I’m here. What is it?”
“She’s not doing so well. You know how she was being so
careful to do everything right, how she stopped eating? Well, she
went completely the other way now. All she’s done for the past four
months is go to work, watch TV, and eat. She says without anyone to
look good for, without anyone to love her, she might as well give
“I’m sorry to hear that. Tell her—tell her that if she
had given up a long time ago, she’d be happier now. She never quite
got that looking good doesn’t equal love. No, don’t tell her that.
It’ll only hurt her now. But do tell her that she’s one of my
favorite people and I love her, even if I had to move on. Please?”
“I’ll tell her.”
Belle was in the mall, walking toward the food
court, when she saw him. After successfully avoiding Keith for more
than a year, there he was, twenty feet in front of her. She ducked
off to the side where there was a crowd of people, but watched him
carefully so as not to let him out of her sight. He was in line at
the Panda Express. She made sure to stay hidden from him; when he
turned his head to the left, she ducked into a crowd of people to
the right. When he turned his head to the right, she ducked into a
crowd of people to the left. While he waited for his order, she
looked down at herself. She was drowning in a large pink t-shirt
and baggy jeans, and while no one would have called her fat, neither
was she trim and fit as she had once been. She followed him when he
lifted a tray overflowing with food and moved toward the back of the
cafeteria. He approached a table that was surrounded by people.
There were two little girls across from each other on one end and
next to them were two women. They were almost identical, except
that one looked a bit more youthful.
And they were fat. Belle couldn’t stop staring at their
massive bellies and doubled-up chins, at their broad and flabby
arms, and their legs that didn’t seem to want to stay pressed
together under the table. But more than that, she noticed that they
both wore wide, bright smiles. They were laughing uproariously, and
the little girls were rolling their eyes, but they were smiling
too. And when Keith set plates in front of them and in front of the
little girls, and in front of an empty chair for himself, they
immediately dug in. No picking out the parts that were too fatty or
avoiding the rice. They seemed to be enjoying themselves as much
while they were eating as they had while they were laughing.
As Belle watched him walk behind the little girls and
scoot their chairs in closer, bend down to talk to them, rub their
shoulders for a second, she began to look almost ill. It wasn’t
until she watched him move around to one of the women and bend over
her, brush her hair back, kiss her passionately right there where
anyone could see them, that the tears began to fall.