He slid into my car, leaned over and kissed my neck. Nothing had changed in thirty years. He still thought I wanted him to kiss my neck. Never mind that I’d been married to someone else for twenty-five years, raised four children, and was a grandmother. I was 30 when he was kissing my neck in earnest. Now I was 60.
Lynn had been my first husband’s best friend, not the cause of our break-up but not removed from it either. He took it as his mission to counsel us both but, as friends of divorcing couples do, he ended up picking a side and it was the one I was on, now newly single and available after years of flirting and suggestion. We were now forbidden fruit alone in the bowl.
Ours was a long distance relationship and a secret one. He was stepping out on the woman he left his wife for, I was a single mother. Nothing about seeing each other was normal or routine. Every meeting was a tryst with one of us flying to the other crisscrossing Lake Michigan on a Northwest Airlines prop plane. I remember so well coming back after weekends in Muskegon, sitting in the dark with just the glow of my cigarette, flicking the ash in the tiny ashtray in the arm of the seat, and wondering when he would leave his mistress for me.
These weekends started with delight and ended in misery. He told me as we were breaking up that he could no longer handle the drama of our airport partings, accusing me of having fallen on the floor overcome by grief more than once. I remember none of that and always thought he was making it up. But the honest truth was the intensity of the relationship was just blinding and numbing. So it took weeks for the news to sink in that he’d decided our relationship was over, not because he wanted to be faithful to the woman he left his wife for but because he’d fallen in love with someone new, a person who had been Miss Montana or Utah or one of the western states.
Of course all of this was long in the past. I was well into my second marriage to a man remarkably steady and true. We didn’t do drama. We did children and careers, vacations and second houses. We owned a boat, cruised up and down the Milwaukee River with friends. We loved each other.
So when Lynn called me to say he’d be in town and wanted to see me, it felt like a chance to show him how swell my life had turned out. I wasn’t needy and hysterical anymore. I had become a person of substance, not the sniveling self-pitying ‘other woman’ sitting in a plane weeping in the dark. That’s how I described it to my husband. It was a chance to show off and to right what had been an incredible power imbalance. He was skeptical.
He didn’t know about the kiss on the neck.
Boating seemed like a good way to combine showing off with safety. Clearly there wouldn’t be any more neck kissing in front of my husband and our friends.
My husband was sitting behind the wheel in our little 19-foot power boat, dressed in his favorite Brewers T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and wearing his black walking shoes with white athletic socks. As usual, when boating, he channeled deck hand, not captain. He looked up at my former lover, standing on the dock in pressed jeans and a white dress shirt, and said, “Hello there, welcome. You’ll love boating with me. I don’t know what I’m doing and I panic easily.”
I loved this line and loved him for saying it. It was all true, of course. Boating was both a joy for us and a nightmare. We had run into many docks and posts in the Milwaukee River and been stopped by law enforcement and the Coast Guard for various infractions like leaving a wake and not having the proper running lights. Despite that, we loved those nights on the river. With a glass of wine and a plate of cold chicken, the cruising was sublime regardless of our limitations as sailors. That’s what I wanted Lynn to see, how effortlessly happy and fine we were.
He never took his eyes off me. While my husband maneuvered the boat, Lynne stared. He stared while he chatted with others, cracked jokes, looking up now and then to comment on the industrial waste being generated by the river’s many factories or how cleverly the City had redeveloped old buildings into condos. But always his gaze returned to me as if he had carried the heat from 30 years ago in a Thermos stowed in his briefcase.
It was intense, obvious, blanketing almost, and it made me feel immediately guilty, as if I’d already done something unfaithful to my husband even though he was sitting right there watching it all and could see that I’d done nothing but pour the wine and carve the chicken. I wanted to shake off the stare and keep it focused on me forever. My husband watched all this, his Brewers T-shirt and white socks with shorts camouflaging his unfailing ability to read people and situations. He wasn’t working from what he was seeing. He knew what I was thinking. But he showed nothing, said nothing. He just boated.
The next night I decided to have dinner with Lynn. I asked my husband if he minded. I told him having dinner alone with Lynn was about closure, sorting out what had happened 30 years ago and putting it to bed, so to speak, repairing the breach in a friendship way, not in the way of lovers or even former lovers. We would have dinner as two adults looking back on their lives. It would be an historical review and not current in any way.
I decided to drive to a little port town where we used to go years ago. We parked in the same place and took the same walk on the long pier. The harbor was ritzier now with more expensive boats and fancy lighting. It wasn’t rough and risky like it was 30 years ago, still we retraced our steps as if old folks on a guided tour through the art museum, listening to the narration on headphones.
There was no touching. Since the kiss on the neck, there had been no touching. There didn’t need to be. He was as intense as he was in the boat, looking at me as if testing to see just when I would crack. I knew I shouldn’t be there, standing on a pier looking at a sunset with a man not my husband while my actual husband was home sitting on the back porch eating take-out barbecue and drinking beer.
Why hadn’t my husband fussed about this? Was it true what he always said about not being a jealous person? I would have gone wild if he’d done the same thing to me, brought an old lover on our boat and then went out to dinner alone with her the next night. How is someone that self-assured?
At dinner, Lynn told me about the historic preservation work he was doing as a hobby in the small town where he lived. He described his life with his wife, the former Miss western state, with whom he had finally settled after years of, as he put it, serial monogamy. Funny, he had never been monogamous with me. And then he talked about how he had gotten very attached to a young woman in his historic preservation group. They talked or emailed every day. They were very close even though they had never actually done anything, if you know what I mean. He even winked.
He told me that she was about to leave her husband which, in his mind, would be a mistake. But even so, he said, he was glad to know that he could still have that impact on people, on women. It was important to him, he said, to have women love him, to be able to make women love him.
I remember the white tablecloth, spreading my hands over the tablecloth while he was saying these things. For a moment, it occurred to me that he was trying to make me jealous with this talk about a younger woman who was ready to leave her husband and her children on the basis of daily emails and phone calls. They hadn’t even ever slept together, he said, and still she had these strong feelings. He regarded it as a beautiful thing.
He came here to reclaim me or at least to disturb me. It was as if this young woman’s devotion along with his own long marriage weren’t sufficient fuel. He needed to gather more logs. Was he visiting all the old lovers, gathering them up like worn beads on a long necklace? Was this his victory tour of serial monogamy?
I felt sick. I knew by now my husband was cleaning up the kitchen and loading the dishwasher. The Brewers were playing so he would probably sit in his favorite chair and watch the game. He wouldn’t say anything when I got home but he wouldn’t be cold either. He would just be always the man he was.
The drive from the restaurant back to Lynn’s hotel was fast and silent. I put the top down on my convertible so the wind would make conversation impossible. Both of us stared ahead. He seemed to know that the gaze had been broken. I wasn’t receiving any old bottled up heat from him. I wanted to go home and watch the game. I was glad when we pulled up to the door of his downtown hotel.
“What you’re doing with that young woman is wrong,” I told him, “Really wrong.” He waited a few seconds and got out of the car. It was the closure we all needed.