Charlotte Pender was born and raised in Maryland. She graduated with a BS in Technical Writing and has been in the Army for 5 years. Her work and studies have taken her abroad to many places. She enjoys reading and traveling.
And Our Hearts Go Beating On
“Would you ever have an affair with a married man?” This was a question my friend asked me while we were sitting at a cafe near our apartment complex. I hadn’t ever considered it because I’d never been put in the situation; but when I responded, I approached my conclusion from an ethical point of view. “Well, I definitely wouldn’t ever cheat on someone. If I wanted to be with someone else, I would break up with the other person.” “But what if you’re single and the other person is married?”, she probed. Still thinking through a moral lens, I replied, “I think I would put myself in his wife’s shoes, and I would feel guilty because I know how much that would hurt her. I’ve also been cheated on already, and I didn’t understand how someone could do that to another girl, so no I don’t think I could have an affair with a married man.” My friend looked at me and seemed satisfied with my answer. She later revealed that she had asked because her sister had been engaged to a man who had been sleeping with another woman. Up until that point, my friend hadn’t deemed it wrong to sleep with a stranger’s husband; but after seeing how deeply it affected her sister, she had changed her mind.
Two years had passed before I had ever reflected on this conversation again. I had been working on an Army base for six months in Fort Gordon, Georgia, when I first started shift with Isaac. We were part of the same unit and had spoken from time to time; but we had never really gotten to know each other prior to our shift work. Those first six months we did not see each other often because we worked on different shifts, and when we were both free, he would drive out of state to visit his sister, while I would spend time with the people who shared my same schedule.
This all changed when, in the middle of August, our commander decided to mix the personnel and place everyone into new groups. Isaac was now part of my team, and it sparked a new beginning for my time in Georgia. Our shifts demanded that we see and converse with our team for twelve or so hours at a time, four times a week. Sometimes the workflow could be slow; in fact, I would say the majority of my time there was spent working at a leisurely pace. During these lulls, we inevitably began to chat about our lives, our pasts, our thoughts, interests, and our experiences. I learned more about my teammates in a month than I had about a classmate in four years.
After Isaac first introduced himself to our group, I was interested to learn more about his background. He had grown up in the suburbs of Maryland and the city of Philadelphia with a father who had been raised in both Argentina and Ukraine; and he had spent summers in Lviv, so his speech represented every place in the world that had shaped him. His words were painted mostly with a Philly accent, but his diction, my friend once joked “was of a person who knew 99% of the English language.” He would use a preposition with a phrase that was just wrong enough for you to think twice after he said it, “That doesn’t bode well with me”. Every now and then Isaac’s sentences were interspersed with misspellings and malapropisms, “May I illicit a square of chocolate?” (For those of you who are confused, he meant to say “elicit”-but was still incorrect-he really should have said “solicit”). This quality endeared him very much to me because it reminded me of my Dad, who had been born in Puerto Rico, but grew up with a German American grandmother. He too spoke in a way that made you question whether or not he was foreign or native to English. From conversation, you could see that they were both still very educated-they simply mixed up their words, which was something that I believe resulted from their exposure to so many languages and cultures.
I was intrigued by his past and always made an effort to learn more about him when we worked as partners. Over the months, I discovered that our upbringings shared many similarities. We both played soccer all through our youth and adolescence, and we had a lot of siblings. We were also raised by somewhat unorthodox parents. He and I could sit together for eight hours and talk about our lives without any pause or conversational discomfort. We bonded over the idiosyncrasies of our foreign “papas” and how we had to navigate both the culture of our fathers and our own as we grew up.
Aside from our natural rapport, our friendship was solidified in the sole fact that I knew he was married, and I knew he would never cheat on his wife with me. The idea of a romantic relationship had never even begun to cross my mind as a possibility. Indeed, I almost relished the fact that for once in my life there were external factors preventing me from pursuing a potential love interest; these constraints enabled me to greater appreciate the beauty of our friendship, one never to be inhibited by the natural course of the affections that grow between a man and woman. These thoughts were never spoken, but they were certainly understood. On some level, I knew Isaac recognized this. He hadn’t articulated it exactly so; but I was certain he had this established in his mind.
One day we were sitting next to each other, working away, when he turned to me and said, “Do you know that you’re my only female friend that I have made independently of my wife?”
“What do you mean?”, I asked with a confused but flattered look.
“Well I’ve made female friends through her, but before I met her and even after, I had only ever seen females as a romantic pursuit. I never wanted to be just a friend with any of them.”
“And what about the ones you weren’t attracted to?” I asked.
“I never saw the point to engage in conversation with them. Because I had so many male friends, I wasn’t looking for that in a female. I would only approach them to potentially go out with them. I also was never in the situation where I would see females as friends. My workplace and school and soccer team were always filled with boys. Only in the Army have I had to work with females.”
Overlooking the sexist undertones of his thought process, I thanked him for the compliment, and I told him I was glad we were friends.
“I hope we continue to talk after all of this is over,” he said.
“I’m sure we will. I don’t cut others out of their life once I stop seeing them in person. I like to think I value the friendships I make, and even if I can’t talk to the person as much as I would like to. I do always make an effort to keep in touch.”
Isaac agreed with me that it was important to maintain contact with people from your past to show you care for people and are invested in their well-being.
As time went on, I began to see even more of these hidden sides of Isaac. He was a voracious reader. He had studied political science, not because it was trendy, but because he was sincerely interested in politics; and he continued his passion for it well after he graduated from college. Every now and then, he would send me scholarly articles on communism or on various economic theories. For anyone in the military, this behavior is somewhat unusual to find among the enlisted ranks.
As opposed to the gruff nature that many of the soldiers exhibited, Isaac embodied an approachable innocence. He fostered no sense of false masculinity and never felt the need to demonstrate superiority in anything over anyone. As a matter of fact, he would go out of his way to help those he could, when no one else would.
One boy there didn’t have a car, and he was a bit of an outcast. David couldn’t connect with his team at a social level, and he often made everyone in the room uncomfortable because of his inability to read social cues. His mannerisms were atypical. He hardly blinked, staring vacantly at the person with whom he was conversing, and most of his movements lacked the intricate subtlety of a socialized person. Instead of casually looking up from his desk when his name was called, he would move his entire neck and head as one gradual motion. It was somewhat alarming to the person who had spoken his name.
David would make the sort of uncomfortable remarks that would abruptly end conversations. He would stand off to the side in group gatherings, even when it was clear he was meant to be within the circle of people. The trouble he had adapting socially made was evident in his lack of friends. And unfortunately for him, he was the only person there without a car. This was an inconvenience because it forced him to walk to places that were just far enough to be a bother. Isaac would offer to drive David to the commissary and help him carry his groceries every week or take him on whatever errands he needed to run. I and others marveled at his selflessness and generosity.
Isaac was also one of the most amiable people there. Everyone wanted to be his friend, and when he walked into the room people revolved around him like he was the sun and they were planets. He had a magnetic presence. Despite this though, he had no sense of arrogance. I frequently wonder if he was even aware of the effect he had on people. In his absence, people would tell stories about him, and I noticed by their tone that they felt special or privileged to have interactions with him, especially the females.
Isaac was one of the most handsome soldiers in our group of forty or so soldiers. He was as fit as a model, and he would walk casually around the laundry room with his shirt off, displaying his sculpted body for everyone to see. In Georgia, especially during the sweltering hot and humid summers, you could do that. You could see the Eastern European features in Isaac’s face. His strong jaw, his emerald colored eyes, and larger angular nose. He had a full head of hair that would pile on his head in voluminous brown waves when he would grow it out.
There were other, less overt parts of Isaac that I really admired. One of my main problems that I faced on a day to day basis occurred with the other men at our barracks. In the Army, the majority of the soldiers are men. There were very few women where I worked, under 15%, which is below the percentage of women in the entire Army. I believe, and this is based on experience over data, that women tend to receive even more attention in the Army than they would in civilian life because of this imbalance. At my workplace, this phenomenon tended to occur even more because there were even fewer women than in a normal shop, and about half were either gay or married. In my mind, I was the object of attention for all of these reasons. I particularly stood out because I was far from your typical soldier. My long, wavy hair was unruly. My bun was never within regulations no matter how much gel I applied to tighten it down. My curvy body was not meant to fit into the straight, boxy shape of the uniform. Looking in the mirror at my camouflaged outfit, I would think I was playing dressing-up as a solider, and every day was like Halloween.
During meetings or after-action reviews, my mind tended to drift into another world. My eyes assumed a blank stare and reflected an unformidable look. I would say my disposition was unassuming, and almost never did I try to impose a sense of expertise on any subject matter. I preferred to listen and observe when I was surrounded by strangers. I asked candid questions, spoke out of turn, not out of insolence but of honest ignorance. I disliked raising my voice, and if a superior had ever wanted to punish me, he or she would only have to command me to mandate orders to other soldiers.
Socially, I seemed entirely out of place in the military, but physically, I managed to hold my own. My affinity for running was my one saving grace. It gave me a sense that in ways, I did fit in and helped me excel in the more labor-intensive facets of the job.
The athleticism that I developed throughout the years of soccer and running may also have affected how the men there interacted with me. Regularly, I had to time when I left my room and calculate the route I took to the car because they would either follow me to talk to me our would text me, remarking on my body; but when Isaac was there, he protected me from them. He acted as a shield against all of the unwanted attention. He, among so many men who were blind to their behavior, understood how maddening it could be to be a woman in the military, a fact that the provincial men there denied outright. They didn’t understand that I couldn’t go running alone at night without constantly looking over my shoulder. They didn’t know the feeling of uneasiness when men would comment on my ass to one another. “Just give them a mean look”, my boss would advise, when I would complain about it. It was as if admitting that men could be disrespectful would undermine their entire belief set; and in turn, I would rarely receive any show of support or legitimate consolation.
At a personal level, I would experience this at least three times a week. Fortunately, Isaac did empathize, and he supported me. The others didn’t recognize that men could mistake my kindness for infatuation and then treat me poorly when I rejected them. That they thought that my friendliness was a form of leading them on. Isaac acknowledged what I dealt with and acted disgusted when he saw it. He used his position and upstanding reputation to give me a voice when I had none. When I was seen as an exigent girl with irrational grievances.
Isaac also was a respite from the constant fanatical conservative discourse that echoed around me each day. A lot of those people appeared as puppets of Fox news and actively needled me or anyone who deviated even slightly from the right, to either gain a sense of validation or reinforce their own mindset. It was infuriating to be a captive audience within that setting. And to argue was futile. They were not looking for an open discussion. They wanted to stand on their soapbox and complain about everything that was wrong with liberal America, to bask in their resentments, and to feel a sense of superiority because they had “picked themselves up by their bootstraps” unlike the Americans who were lazy and only wanted handouts from the government.
Their character, however, could not be defined by the zeal from their politics nor from the behavior that stemmed from it. They would help me with tasks I couldn’t do or buy expensive dinners for the entire shifts. They were strong teammates and listened to my opinions about our work. They encouraged me to pursue my studies and were flexible when I wanted to take extra time to do so. In a way, their actions really didn’t align with their personal ideologies. One man fostered a child who had jumped from broken home to broken home. The child had behavioral problems; and from the stories I heard, acted entitled and insolent at times. Despite his frequent mischief, he continued to live in my coworker’s home, and my coworker did his best to support him. He was clearly a very compassionate and patient person yet seemed to lose this sense of understanding whenever he applied it to macro level situations, such as to youths who had fallen into drug dealing or single-parent mothers who couldn’t afford to feed their own children.
This man was a conservative conspiracy theorist who believed there was no direct explanation for any worldwide issue. He would tumble down the rabbit hole into his own theories with other like-minded people on the mission floor. While I would listen to their diatribes, I would long for the time that Isaac and I could spend talking about politics in solitude. We would point out the contradictions that many of our teammates lived by. How could they condemn universal healthcare and education one minute, and then praise the military for taking care of people by providing the best healthcare in the country, by giving the soldiers education benefits that not only paid for tuition but also paid for apartment rent? They would commend the private sector and proclaim that there should be almost no government involvement in the affairs of American citizens, and they would then devote their lives to working for the government, having never once worked outside of it. Their actions were a living hypocrisy of their sententious remarks, and they were totally oblivious to it. Isaac, in this time, was my sanctuary of sanity. He and I would talk for hours about it, each time increasingly more baffled. This in part, I think really cemented our bond and made us more and more eager to see one another.
As months passed, Isaac and I would spend more time together participating in our common interests. We would listen to NPR together and discuss what was going on in politics. He would ask me to come to his room, and I would hear it playing from his phone: “This is Lakshmi Sang, Live from NPR…” My heart would flutter as I approached his door. By a certain point, he had given me the code to it, so I could walk in. I would inhale the smell of coffee he had prepared for both of us from his French press. He would offer me whole grain crackers with almond butter, and we would share them, while we listened to what was happening in the world. Isaac told me that he had tuned in one Sunday to a story on NPR, and the speaker had narrated past memories of him and his father. And at the end, he encouraged all of the listeners to take time to record their parents’ voices to have a keepsake of the precious moments they had experienced together. Isaac told me that as he was listening to this, he began to cry, thinking about his own dad passing away; the story had been so moving that he promised himself he would record his conversations with his father.
I was touched by Isaac’s openness. He didn’t see vulnerability as a weakness. He was true to his emotions, and that made him almost invincible. I thought it was commendable that someone who in many ways exemplified the societal concept of “a real man”, was willing to defy the expectations of how a man should act and expose his feelings so outwardly. Because we had grown so close, we began to share more personal stories; and to me, the dialogue always hinted at his interest in me and mine in him. The coquettish compliments were not in any way a rarity, and the follow up questions proved to be an inadvertent form of satiating a curiosity for the other person. He and I would detail stories to one another of our past exploits. Undoubtedly, we both were imagining how we would act with each other if that were possible. We knew it couldn’t be. He was married after all. But on that base hundreds of miles from his home, his wife was a concept. She wasn’t his day to day world. He was isolated from his family. And so, it made it much easier for him to imagine a life with me, someone he already saw nearly every day. This fantasy, at that time was more attainable and realistic than spending time with his wife, than making love to her. I was only four doors away. By then, I had broken up with my boyfriend, and I was equally lonely there. I had pondered the idea of me and Isaac, but I had never really been given the opportunity to consider him as a romantic interest, until late after one very long night.
We had been in downtown Augusta with our team and one of Isaac’s friends who lived in Grovetown. I hadn’t really drunk much because I was feeling down after the breakup, and I didn’t think alcohol would improve my mood. We didn’t have work the next day which gave Isaac the liberty to consume as much alcohol as he wanted.
I don’t remember the details of that night too well before we went into the car with his friend Kyle, but what happened after initiated a subtle shift in our relationship. I could sense that Isaac was becoming uninhibited the more he drank. On the way back in the car, as we approached base, he told me out of nowhere that I was one of the funniest people he had ever met. At this point he was guffawing uncontrollably, and I was in the backseat thinking that I would have to take care of him after Kyle dropped us off. We arrived at our barracks, and I thanked Kyle for driving us home. I accompanied Isaac up the stairs and noticed that he was stumbling and didn’t seem to be doing too well. I offered him a bottle of water. This was a pretext to be alone with him in my room, to see what would happen, to tempt fate; but I had no intentions to do anything: he wasn’t very coherent after all.
It took no convincing for him to follow me. He immediately agreed, and we entered my room. I then handed him a bottle of water and waited for him to thank me and to then leave. But instead, he paused, and he looked at me as if he were begging me to communicate what was on his mind, to fill in the silence for him, so he wouldn’t have to. We were standing in the warm glow glimmering from the stream of lights that was dangling along my wall. He held my gaze and stammered through the beginning of his confession.
“Y-you know, y-you’re very pretty. And if I weren’t married, I would want to be with you. We would kiss and hold hands. You’re just so fun to be around, and we really get along, but I’m married, I’m married.”
I was frozen. I didn’t know what to say. I just nodded along and said that I understood. I didn’t express any of my feelings towards him because I was afraid to misstep even further. My arms were crossed bashfully around my chest and where desperation was written across his face, hesitation marked mine. Here it was finally, the unspoken was voiced. Expressing it out loud made it much more real. Before there was plausible deniability, but now there was no avoiding it. He wasn’t very articulate the rest of the speech, and he talked in circles. Standing there so visibly shaken, he took my hand, slowly met my sheepish eyes with a longing look in his own, and remained silent, knowing we couldn’t ever act on what we both wanted. The tick tocks from the clock on my wall counted the seconds as time passed in a lingering quiet. He must have decided that he needed to break this tension, so he walked slowly to the door and asked if I would come to dinner with everyone the following night. I accepted the invitation tacitly and then said goodnight.
He shut the door, left, and returned to his room. Minutes later he messaged me and asked if I could bring him more water. I knew that it was an excuse to be alone with me again, but it didn’t bother me. I wanted to know more about what he thought. I nervously fixed myself up and then walked through the halls, hoping that no one would see me go into his room. After all, if he were suspected of infidelity, he could be discharged from the Army, like many others before him. I was cognizant that any suspicion raised against Isaac’s favor would jeopardize his reputation and employment.
I knocked quietly, and he instantly opened the door. I figured he must have already been standing there. I handed him another bottle, only to see a half full pitcher of water on his kitchen counter.
I looked around the room more waiting out the anticipation. I loved that he had bought plants and placed them all around to give cheer and life to the place. He cared about his living space, even though he knew it was temporary. He paid special detail to appearances, I noticed. There was an ironing board placed in his room where he would carefully iron the wrinkles from his uniform. All of these details uncovered subtle insights about his personality. These hints here and there were like the little keepsakes of moments that define the true joy of the day, like the first sip of coffee in the morning or an unexpected compliment from a stranger.
My mind snapped back to reality. I raised my eyes to his to encourage him to talk because I was uncertain as to why he had called me into his room. He started again, “I-I can’t remember exactly everything I said back there, but I just want you to know that I could never cheat on Carly. She’s my wife, and I love her. But I want you to know that I would court you and bring you flowers and take you on dates if I weren’t married. You’re just so beautiful, and you have a wonderful personality. But I can’t, I’m sorry.”
There was such conflict in his eyes, and he was begging me to resolve it for him. I was part of the problem though, I couldn’t. I was unusually quiet and thought that listening to him was the best course of action, while he talked through his internal strife. His wife would be there in a less than a month. Saying anything and starting an affair would only cause me more heartbreak in the future. It was better to find solace in accepting that there was nothing that could be done, but that my love was not unrequited on an emotional level. That, above all, was most comforting. Because I was not rejected for reasons that would hurt me. I frequently think that it is not the outcome that is painful but rather the reasoning behind it.
And just like this for the remainder of the time there we continued. We recognized each other’s feelings, but we never acted on them. I was content and safe that way, and so was he. He wasn’t cheating. When we would hang out, he would always tell his wife; and we never kissed or engaged in any form of affection. We were walking the line, staying within bounds, and based off of technicalities, we had broken no rules. We were able to be friends still and find joy in the time we could share together.
Finally, a few days before his wife came, he sat me down one night. He had explained to me that our intimate friendship would have to be put on pause. He chuckled to himself, telling me that he couldn’t simply invite me over while his wife was in his room. No, of course not. But if we were only friends, how it would it be any different than if he were to invite a boy over? Because it makes all of a difference if the guest is of the opposite sex. There would be an unrecognized suspicion lurking in the minds of all parties. I knew all of this, but it didn’t make me feel any better. Isaac tried to assure me as best as he could, and I respected the gesture. The words and status of our friendship still hurt me though. Was I devastated? No of course not. I did my best to comprehend the reality of the situation; but I felt slighted, nevertheless. I felt like a placeholder for him. I served the purpose of his romantic interest-even if left unfulfilled-until he could be with his wife again. As I got to know Isaac more, I concluded that this in itself springs an unprecedented delight for anyone. It is more exhilarating to exist with an infatuation, especially one that is ongoing. The sentiments he had developed for me were even more exciting because he could fantasize to infinity. Marriage was the leash he needed to pull himself back in control: to never be able to unlock this unknown end with me. It would forever remain a mystery; and for the time, I was the object of a romantic fancy that so clearly played an important role in his own happiness. This changed when his wife arrived, and for those three weeks, I was reduced to a casual friend- I was no longer the distraction he needed while he bided his time in Georgia.
During this time, I hardly saw Isaac, except for when we were at work. At the start of December, I suggested that my team do Secret Santa, and that before I went on leave back to Maryland, we could exchange gifts. The day before we were set to go to dinner, Isaac told the group that he was bringing his wife. I felt mildly uncomfortable with the idea, but I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. The next day, we had off, and I spent it buying the gifts for my Secret Santa and preparing baked goods for everyone. I drove alone to downtown Augusta and arrived late because I had trouble finding a place where I didn’t have to parallel park. I then went into the bar where everyone was sitting in a line. I approached and sat down next to my direct supervisor, Sergeant Reinhold, a jovial old man with a good sense of humor. I saw Isaac and his wife, and he introduced us to one another. She was taller than I was and slimmer. She had died her hair blonde, but one could see her natural color was brunette. Her face was distinctive looking. Her green eyes were set close to one another, and her bone structure was rather square. I had never seen anyone who looked that way. That was the extent of our interaction there. Later, when everyone had had their fill on drinks and wanted to eat dinner, we left, and I walked with her and Isaac to the restaurant.
I felt that even though I wasn’t particularly taken by her, I wanted to make her feel welcome to the group. It can be isolating for someone to come to a dinner with a group of Army personnel because the conversation is usually filled with strings of acronyms and jargon that only people in the military can understand. I went out of my way to ask her how she liked Georgia and South Carolina to make her feel more welcome. It was a little strange to me to have such a connection with her husband but none whatsoever with her.
I thought, well maybe it is because she is eleven years older, we have less in common. Isaac was seven years old than I was, and that could have made less of a difference. Later on, I decided it was because we were polar opposites. She had a type A personality. She was a planner and organized every aspect of her life. She was the type of grade-school student who never broke her crayons while she colored, who never lost a paper, who never had a hangnail. Bobby pins never fell out of her hair. She needed to hear instructions just once to create any sort of handicraft.
She could have fun, but never too much fun. Her drinking was always responsible, and her Starbucks coffee was fat free with no added sugar. She was never late to the airport, had never forgotten her keys, had never washed a red shirt in a white load, and had never spilled food on herself. She was unforgiving towards bad service and wouldn’t hesitate to send back food that wasn’t cooked to her standard. She never made a fool of herself to anyone. She was a living plan of action that had been executed to perfection. She was the type of woman who was educated enough to incorrectly use first person subject pronouns: “this stays between you and I”. She was a bleeding-heart liberal not because she held strong convictions but because it was a badge of honor in her social circle. She was proud to say she stood with the disadvantaged but flashed a look of disgust each time a homeless man asked her for money.
Where Carly succeeded, I struggled. I frequently found money in my pockets because I had forgotten to put it in my wallet. My shoelaces always came untied, and when I did tie them, one was apt to break in half. I suffered from car problems, finding myself stuck in a ditch I couldn’t see when I was reversing. I had never won at bingo night in elementary school, I found it difficult to keep my room tidy, and whenever I cracked an egg in a pan the yolk scrambled everywhere. When I went on vacation, I never participated in guided tours, and I barely planned anything. I liked to walk around a city unfettered by pressure to arrive somewhere, and with that, I didn’t like to be restricted by time constraints; in part, it was because I was likely to get lost in a city even with the GPS. I never bothered to carry an external charger, so my phone would sometimes die, and I would have to ask people for directions. Any inconvenience Carly thought to mitigate, I would surely face at one point or another in my day to day life.
Our romantic history signified the greatest distinction between me and Carly. My past relationships or romantic pursuits were either defined by tragedy or unavailability. I would go for men who were seeing other women at the same time or whose feelings changed at the turn of a second. I had pined for gay men, my teachers, my platoon sergeants, and the best friends of my boyfriends. Predictability had never been an element of any of my love interests. Carly’s love life, on the other hand, was an extension of her personality. All of the relationships she had had prior had faced a somber, but convenient ending. Nothing too dramatic. Nothing to devastate her. They had simply reached their natural conclusion, and it was time for her to move on, to find someone who fit appropriately into the live she envisioned for herself. She had built a life that was secure, certain, and above all manageable. She could fulfill all of the expectations for a career woman living in an East Coast city. She had reached respectable heights already, and with a husband who was soon to work a government position in the Department of Defense, she was well on her way to the success she intended for herself and her future family. So how then, you might ask, did she and Isaac fall in love, if their personalities were what I would say, too opposite to attract?
Isaac, before he met Carly, was already seeing two other girls. At the time of their first date, Carly became the third he began to see. This of course is something he told me, something he would never tell Carly, for it would shatter the image she had built around his love for her. To this day, Carly still doesn’t know the real Isaac. She believes him to be Dorian before he sold his soul to the devil. Isaac was never the Dorian with the sin-tortured portrait.
They began to date, after Isaac decided he wanted her over the other two. At this time, Isaac was still an untamed lion-he was a slave to his emotions, brazenly charging through life. He was the most energetic person to arrive at a party, the best storyteller, and the person with the kindest heart. Isaac’s romantic pursuits were reckless, but they were ultimately well intentioned. He never meant to hurt anyone, and he lived in world built upon ethereal foundations. Surely, Carly was drawn to Isaac because of his amiable, playful personality; yet more importantly, she saw him as a project. He could be someone who she could help. She could teach him how to be fiscally responsible, how to pursue career goals, how to conceive notions of a family life. And he could do it with her. By the end, Isaac would live up to the potential that Carly saw in him, and it would all be her doing. He would be the end product of fastidious care and crafting, and nothing would make her prouder. And Isaac would be the sparkly bow on the present of a life she had so carefully wrapped. He would be the one aspect of her life that made her special, that made her a little different from her otherwise ordinary friends. She would have a husband she could showcase and tout as a result of her own achievements.
Carly sat with perfect posture in her chair at the dinner table. We were to exchange gifts after we finished dining. She had seated herself next to Isaac in the middle of the group. Her dazzling diamond encrusted wedding bands sparkled as her hand moved gracefully from her fork to her napkin. I wonder how much of a down payment he had to put on those, I thought. I caught myself staring at them longingly, not for what they were, but for what they meant. As jealousy began to creep into my heart, I heard someone comment on her rings. Yes yes, she said, her pitiful attempt at humility seeping from her lips, “they’re elegant, yet still modest.” In what world are those modest? She nodded at Isaac with a coy smile. “I think we should tell them about our wedding.” Here go the next twenty minutes. I have to be captivated by the expensive details of wedding napkins and tablecloths. I have to pretend that her dress isn’t a tacky attempt at alluding to a dated fashion. Thankfully, there was another girl there to help me humor Carly while she prattled on about her wedding. It was as if I was listening to Carly read off of the overpriced program she hired someone to create for her special day, except with elaborate captions. It was as if I was there, dancing with Isaac while everyone watched. This is how I can make this tolerable. I can just imagine that I am Carly. Isaac and I were arm and arm at this point smiling as the cameras took our pictures. That we would include on our Christmas card. We then took each other’s hands and watched the Ukrainian dancers, waiting for our turn to join in…
“Okay, I think this is enough”, Isaac said, smiling slightly, nudging Carly a little, “You don’t need to talk all night about our wedding, Carly.” Blushing, she returned a smile and rolled her eyes. “Okay, Isaac, okay.” No one raised any opposition to his ask.
The rest of the dinner centered around everyone opening presents. I was the last person to open mine. By its rectangular shape, I knew that it was a book before I even unwrapped it. Everyone’s eyes were on me, and I was thinking to myself: How should I open it? Do I tear all the paper at once like I would at home? Or is it more polite to carefully remove the tape from the paper? What would Carly do? Surely, she knows the social convention. I hated situations like these. It was like cutting cake slices for everyone at a birthday party. Everyone watching and my motor skills were never good enough to cut even slices swiftly, so I inevitably became the bud of everyone’s jokes.
I took a guess at the right thing to do. I began to unwrap from the edges timidly, as to not wreck the neat wrapping job; but as soon as I did, I realized I had chosen wrong. “What are you doing? Just open the present!” My teammate barked. “I hate when people do that, like you’re going to throw out the paper anyway.” “I just didn’t want to be rude.” I mumbled. Then Carly chimed in, “Yeah, I hate when people do that, like no one cares if you preserve the paper.” Oh, so now you’re part of the group? I just met you like, what, ten seconds ago? Well I guess to fit in the best way is to pick on the target. I suppose it’s easier to connect with people that way rather than by showing interest in them.
Instead of saying what I was thinking, I rushed to open it and saw that it was the new Game of Thrones book! “Oh my gosh thank you Sergeant Reinhold!” There was no better gift I could have gotten from him. The express joy I felt made up for the digs that I felt I had suffered.
That night was the last I saw of Carly. She stayed in the South until New Year’s Day, and then she returned back to Northern Virginia. I was happy she left because it meant I could go back to spending time with Isaac, and things could return to our normal. We never really spoke of our short hiatus, but I knew by the extended time I would spend in his room, that he had missed me. He would text me and ask if I had any chocolate or any sweets in my room, and then after I would welcome him to my batch of baked goods, he would stay and chat with me. He would pose questions to postpone his departure and always express the desire to meet again before he left my room.
A week before we were set to leave Georgia, my team planned an end of mission party. I was excited to celebrate with the rest of the people on the mission because I never had the opportunity to see them, as they worked on other shifts. We all went to Sergeant Reinhold’s apartment, where he had prepared a large spaghetti dinner with sausage. There was more than enough alcohol to go around, and we ended up playing some trivia game. There were an odd number of players, so problem-solver that I am, I kindly volunteered Isaac to be on my team. We would smile gleefully and whisper the answers in each other’s ears, trying not to break out in fits of laughter. “Come on! Come on!”, he said in between child-like giggles, “You gotta keep it together! We are so close to winning!” I had already spun out of control. Between the alcohol, the infatuation, and the general mirth that engulfed me, I was intoxicated in too many ways to maintain any sort of composure. “Okay, Okay!”, I attempted to talk quietly so the other players wouldn’t hear, “I think the answer is Cathy, Yeah, yeah she was the main antagonist in East of Eden.” I loved leaning in close to him, our eyes twinkling, as we beamed at another, feeling the dizzying attraction that hung in the intimate space between us. It was more of a challenge to behave ourselves than it was to answer the questions. “Okay then! Let’s give that as our answer!” He replied excitedly. We were right, and it was this last question that won us the game. “Yayyy!” He turned my shoulder a slightly closer to him and gave me a gentle high five. We were grinning ear to ear, as we went to grab more drinks.
The rest of the night we were lost in conversation. Around the time that everyone else was leaving, our friend told us she wanted to drive home. We hadn’t noticed how late it had gotten. We walked to the living room of the apartment and said goodbye to our coworkers and then descended the stairs. In the car, I was a little melancholy because I knew this was one of the last nights I would spend with Isaac. I hoped that he would try to go on a walk with me or ask me to tea when we got back.
In my room, I contemplated messaging him to see him again before the night ended. As I was debating it, he sent me a message asking me what I was doing. After some back and forth, he invited me to watch a movie in his room on his bed. We assured one another that if someone fell asleep, the other would nudge and then I would go back to my room and go to bed. Despite these promises, my heart was beating against my chest intensely, pleading to jump out to freedom. I knew that something was going to happen, but at the same time, I kept saying, “No, it’s impossible. He’s still married, and he’s probably still talking to Carly, as we speak.”
I went into his room, and he motioned me to sit on the bed and choose the movie from his laptop. I can’t even remember what I picked, because my mind was so far from enjoying a film. We lay there in silence for some time, not touching. Slowly though, I began to feel the heat from his hand, as he interlaced his fingers between mine. Just like that, we were still for five more minutes, and as each second passed, my heartbeat skipped faster and faster. No words had been voiced still. After what seemed like days stretched between mere seconds, he turned to me breathlessly, and said, “I just want to kiss you.” I paused in shock, but he pulled me in and we began slowly, navigating the newness of it all, and then more passionately as we found our way. After a few minutes, I pulled back to give him time to rethink his decision, but he had already committed to the infidelity.
I was living in a dream with him. He had reiterated time and time again that he would never cheat on his wife, and there he was breaking his vows. He held me in his arms and told me he had been dying to do this for months now. We lay there in silence for some minutes after and he turned to me and said, “You know, obviously this here is uh a tricky situation. But I think the line has to be drawn somewhere. I can’t have sex with you. I really want to, and we have this connection, this force, but I can’t. I still have to think of my wife. And I’m sorry.” I just let out a sigh of understanding and lay there wondering how he could architect moral boundaries when he had already violated so many. Even within a breach of ethics, he had still maintained some semblance of a code. And now I had to navigate that. Rules constructed by the second out of desperation to do right by two people with conflicting interests. He was trapped in a labyrinth with an end that could in no way ever appeal to every party involved.
For the subsequent days, we spent every moment we could together. We would have brunch together, run together, and even while we would do chores, the other would be in the room for company. When his wife called, he would tell her he could talk later. He was struggling to balance everyone. One night he invited me to have dinner but told me I had to wait an hour because he had to arrange flights to Portugal with Carly. On the one of last weekends there, he went to his sister’s house; and I was disappointed because I knew it would be some of the last free days we could spend together.
Isaac wanted to make up for the lost time with little gestures of kindness. He would prepare me breakfast and offer to take me to a quaint bookstore in downtown Augusta, where we would enjoy browsing the selection of books together. A few weeks prior, I had bought a book compiled of great American short stories and was enthralled by many of the plots and the poignant prose. Urging Isaac to read them with me, I hoped for him to gush over the works just as much as I did. He responded one night, after having finished The Wife of his Youth by Charles Chestnutt, “Wow, what a story..it was so lovely”, and commented further on how he admired the unremitting devotion a man had for his wife through the passing of many years. This form of intimacy between us was one that I cherished most. Isaac always leapt with enthusiasm at the opportunity to read literature I suggested; he never dismissed my recommendations as something he would get to eventually, nor would he ever put it off until he thought I had forgotten about it. I, so overjoyed at the prospect of exploring books with someone else, at the opportunity to reciprocate one of my greatest passions, would gladly become immersed in his own literary worlds. Our artistic loves sewed the threads of our intimacy, the mutual appreciation for a cinematic experience or an eloquent story were our own form of communication kept secretly between us, a common language that needed no verbal articulation. Woven in the seams literary wonder, we showed our love for one another with the equivalent potency of personal affection.
I floated for the passing hours on this dreamy cloud through twilight skies of prolonged farewells. I was trying to delay our separation as long as I could, but time eventually overcame the strength of my efforts. Before he left, he told me that we couldn’t be intimate anymore, explaining that he had ridden a swirling wave of infatuation, but now the currents were calm, and he had to revert back to his old life. We walked out of his room, but I didn’t feel the need to say anything, I wanted to compose myself before I spoke on the matter. We came to the juncture where we would go our separate ways. But on the staircase in plain sight, just before he skipped down the steps to his car, he pulled my hips towards me and kissed me over and over. Then he left for two days to go to South Carolina.
Over the weekend, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was a wreck; drowning in passion and confusion. I thought that the fairest decision would be to carry out the affair with me until it was time for us to go back to Maryland. Maybe he had come to that decision too because he messaged me and asked if I wanted to have dinner in Aiken, South Carolina on Sunday night. Just a month before, I had gone there with two of my friends, and had thought that it would be an enchanting place for a date.
All day prior I spent getting ready, so nervous and excited for him to return. I decided to wear an emerald colored dress and style my hair, so it fell gently in golden ringlets. Days seemed to have passed before he picked me up and we drove to Aiken. I didn’t know if anything was going to happen between us again. In an attempt to temper my expectations, I told myself I would let him make the first move. As soon as we exited the car, he took my left hand in his right, and we walked through the charming historical city. If one had observed us, it would have seemed as if we were married. Hand in hand laughing. It was as if no one else mattered then and there. I was living in a story that I wished would never end. He would ask me questions and I would think, “Does he really want to hear about my time as a preschool teacher? How could that be interesting for someone who has no experience working in education?” But when I am drawn to someone, almost everything he says is fascinating. He had captured my attention by explaining how a French press operates. My God, I thought, he could be reading from an instruction manual, and I would still be riveted.
We were a slightly cold from the crisp January air, hurrying to go to the restaurant he had chosen for us. I walked through a pathway under a trellis interwoven with vines of heart-shaped leaves. There were gardens on either side of the stony path with exquisite black-iron chairs resting on the soft soil around miniature tea tables. As Isaac led me through the door, my eyes took in the cozy ambiance of the restaurant. All around us, families, friends, and couples were dining. The firelit room had the same welcoming effect as a mother’s hug does for a child. I felt a blanket of quiet bliss settle itself on me as the hostess led us to our table. We were seated in a back area, away from most of the tables. All through the dinner, Isaac and I reminisced over our childhood memories, living and growing up in big families.
Though we were having fun, I couldn’t shake a restless feeling nestling itself in my heart. In the back of my mind, I could not forget that he was married. I was in a state of shock thinking: how could he be doing this right now? All of this is so crazy. But at the same time, it was as if his wife were not a part of our romantic dinner. She was not an element to be considered. In that emotional reprieve from our lives, we were alone in one another’s company, cherishing the special occasion we had planned together before we went back.
After Isaac paid the check, he took my hand and told me a story from one of the summers he spent in Ukraine. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, but I was overwhelmed by what was going on. My mind was spinning, finally grappling with what was transpiring between me and him. I could barely pay attention, and all that was running through my head was what would happen when we got in his car and got back to our rooms. Would we kiss again? Or was it over? Was this dinner the last grand gesture of his before he went back to his normal life?
When the status of your relationship with someone is so undefined, an insecurity consumes you, and you can think nothing beyond what the relationship means to the other person; you yearn for affection and attention to assure yourself of his feelings for you; and any time the person acts in a way that runs contrary to what you hope for, you feel a great slight, so much so that you question if he likes you at all. You question everything. His motives. His loyalty. His character. Your mind becomes restive when too much time has passed between each show of love; the backbone of a relationship-the understanding that you love each other exclusively no matter what-is not there. Its absence cannot provide you the security that would otherwise keep you calm in times of potential doubt; for you would know, he loves me and no other person, and this would be enough to grant you equanimity when he can’t or doesn’t want to see you.
My heart was pounding, and my hands were sweaty when we finally reached the car. The sun had already set, and the moon shone through the cloud dusted sky. He turned the key in the ignition and waited for the car to warm up before putting it into first gear. We sat there in a tentative quiet. Both knew what the other wanted, but both were unsure how to act. Finally, I took my hand and rested it on his jaw line. I held it there for a second before pulling him into a kiss, hoping that he would forget his promise to himself and kiss me back. Within seconds we were kissing again, and I felt the unique combination of relief and happiness that came with knowing he still wanted me. He stopped momentarily and whispered in a hushed tone, “Whoever you are with in the future is the luckiest man alive.” I knew it was meant as a compliment, but I felt a harsh sting, as those words meant that I wouldn’t be or end up with him.
When we returned home, he promised to sleep one last night in my bed with me but affirmed that it would end there. I agreed without any sort of resistance because I knew that he would probably change his mind. He was capricious, and to some degree, I was thankful for it. This meant that at any minute he could continue to cheat on his wife, even though seconds before he had sworn it was over between us. On the other hand, I hated being at the mercy of his whims. It was miserable to never know if he would want to see me again. It was unjust, but it was fair. It was understandable but unreasonable, it was a curse cloaked as a blessing. The arrow he struck through my heart could be coated with the finest gold or laced with the deadliest poison. Here I was existing within two disparate realities simultaneously. As much as I despised living this way, I knew that the alternative-Isaac’s absence from my life-was that much worse. I acted resigned to it but internally I was constantly struggling to reconcile our relationship. Each moment we were apart seemed to bring forth an unwavering despair.
I let him into my room for the hundredth time. We were met with shadows dancing on the walls of my room around the soft flicker of a candle on my desk. I sank into my bed, sitting upright. I was gazing outside through the window at the starry night, my thoughts wandering sideways. Isaac was sitting by my side on my bed trying to search for words that would console me. “You know,” he began quietly, his voice just above a timid whisper, “You know sometimes I think about how if something ever happened to my wife, if she died, how I could maybe be with you, you know grieve for a year or so, and then find you after so much time, and reconnect, and we could be together. I know it sounds terrible and cruel, and please don’t tell anyone I’ve said that.” I didn’t respond immediately, thinking that Isaac didn’t realize the gravity of those words. Such thoughts seem unspeakable on the surface, but I thought the sentiment that inspired them was pure. Living in a world where he cannot express his emotions is worse than eternal confinement to a cage. He speaks freely, albeit heedlessly, but when these words pour out of his mind, there is no malicious intent driving them. He sails in the whirlwind of romance; he does not consider the implications of what his qualms or actions disclose about his marriage. His world is colored from unattainable endings, not shaded by the sad realities of his dissatisfying present.
There was a long pause. I felt my heart in my throat, and if I had tried to speak, I would have been choking on my words to hold back a flood of tears. Isaac saw that I was distraught, and in an attempt to pacify my disappointment, he continued with his speech. “I’ve had time to really process all of this, and I know it has to end. The first few days, we were the marionette dolls of a puppeteer, and I was just reacting. The guilt hadn’t settled in yet. But now I just, I can’t talk to Carly anymore without feeling like I’m lying all of the time. I just can’t do this anymore, I’m sorry. We had our time together, and when I’m older, like my dad’s age, I’ll look back fondly on the memory, on the intimacy I shared with a gorgeous girl. It has to come to an end now. We can still keep in contact, and I’ll check in on you every now and then. But I can’t be seeing you in Maryland, and I can’t continue on now.”
I took some seconds before I responded. I was crestfallen. My whole body was trembling. I felt like meteors were showering down on my heart. I was thinking that his marriage shouldn’t be. How could Isaac go back to her after saying such things? He was wading in a sea of sharks, treading in place, hoping that with time that somehow the waters would clear. He was going to guard this secret for the rest of his life and bury its treasured truths with it, instead of uncovering the light it shed on his feelings toward Carly. I thought he should at least take measures to repair his relationship. But it was pointless to say that. He would only conclude that my suppositions stemmed from the desire to be with him and from nothing else. Whatever I said, even if back by reason, was undermined by his perceived notion of my interest in him. I settled on giving a neutral response, one so unremarkable, I cannot recall it now. I was inebriated from the overconsumption of the affair’s potion, and all I hoped for was that afterwards that I would see Isaac again in Maryland.
For days after, I would cry in frustration at myself, at him, and at the unfairness of his attempted resolution. I needed to talk about what I was going through to someone who knew the both of us. The anxiety and internal conflict I felt forced me to confess to my friend. I knew that she would respect my privacy and wouldn’t disclose our affair to anyone. I told her I wanted to speak with her about something personal. She invited me out, and I finally confided everything. The new love and daring affair flurried within me. I argued how there was little reason for him to stay with his wife. Clearly, their relationship was in a precarious position if he failed to stay faithful after only ten months apart. And my perspective may have been partial, but it was grounded in fact. Isaac had dreamt of a fairy tale forever with me and had proposed the possibility of our end together if circumstances changed.
I looked desperately at my friend seeking approval or at the very least empathy; but her skeptical eyes mirrored only wariness. She believed his confessions were nothing but lies seeking to placate my uneasiness. I knew how unrealistic it sounded. Isaac only wanted to achieve an end to the chase he had so longed for all that time. I was nothing more to him than a fleeting indulgence, one never to trouble him again after we parted ways. I understood why she doubted any sincerity in his words and actions; I was a cliché, a woman deceived by love’s tricks and man’s impulses, and though these thoughts dawdled in my mind, I held with strong conviction that on some level he did want to be with me. At least in that moment, Isaac was true to his heart. That is the problem though, he tended to live in the present, spoke truths within the second his lips moved. His lack of introspection could not reveal his genuine emotions, those that were deep seated, those that should have guided his actions. It is possible that in the long run Isaac was lying to me; but I witnessed his insistent entreatments, the desire for me to believe his words, to trust in a future that could have been but would ultimately never be.
As I exposed my and Isaac’s affair more to my friend, I immediately saw that she would never understand my perspective. She thought that my judgment was blinded by my intense infatuation. In her eyes, it made no clear sense to be drawn so deeply to a married man. But when have feelings ever followed rationality? Their involuntary nature is what distinguishes them from stony reason. From what ensues as the result of what people conceive is right and moral. But perhaps, if people followed their feelings down a deeper path, they would find a more veritable end. To her, I wasn’t coming to the conclusions that would form had I assumed a more practical viewpoint. I perceived this at the time as clearly as I do now; I knew it was in vain to try to explain to her. I think sometimes pragmaticism is an excuse for cowardice. People can armor themselves against unrelenting damage by hiding within crevices of logic. Why jettison yourself into a tempestuous sea when you can remain secure on a steady vessel? People can view what is more sensible as what is the path of least resistance. To stay with a spouse certainly involves less hassle and emotional upheaval. But without the toil and consequently, the personal growth that comes from it, this person will still be lost, trying fruitlessly to navigate a life they’ve settled for, and he will reassure himself that he’s made the responsible choice. But still as years go by, and milestones are passed, he is troubled by nagging doubts nettling his mind.
At least, this is what I told myself a year after our affair, when Isaac’s first child was born.