Things never end the way you think they will. And they never begin the way you think they will either.
“I love you,” he said, unprovoked, with the knowledge that she desperately wanted to hear those three words. The only time they mean anything is the first time, and this was the first time he had ever spoken those words to Sonia. They had dribbled out of his mouth involuntarily, as sometimes they do when you’ve said them tens of thousands of times. But that shouldn’t be how they arise the first time.
“Yo más,” she answered. That she didn’t actually say, “I love you” back tripped him up. Had he misjudged what she wanted? Or perhaps her being married, their affair being an illicit tryst, had something to do with it.
Steam swirled off her breasts, as if her nipples were active volcanoes rising from the sea that was the hot tub behind the mountain getaway cabin. It was a sea roiling with danger. Small craft warnings had long since been issued, but Andy Templeton voyaged on. He knew there was no undiscovered paradise awaiting him on the other side of the danger. This wasn’t about where it would take him; it was about right here and right now. For the first time in his life, he was acting without concern for consequence, and damn it felt good. He was forty-three and finally he understood how some of his otherwise healthy teenage friends had managed to wind up dead, wrapped inexplicably around telephone poles or crumpled at the base of water towers.
“Impossible,” he finally answered, “for anyone to love you more than I love you.”
“Really?” she asked, her inviting eyes sparkling.
He leaned in and kissed her. “Really,” he whispered into her ear, which led to more kissing, which led them back into the bed where they made love for the fifth time that day.
It’s one thing to spend a weekend with your lover in a cabin in the mountains. It’s another thing to carry out an affair in real life, with her children and her husband demanding the attention they need and his own conscience wearing him out. He asked himself if it were just her and me, if there was no tension around being caught, the tension itself a powerful aphrodisiac—would this work out? The answer, of course, was no. Still, knowing that, he had made the mistake of saying those three words.
Andy managed inventory for a commercial printer. It was the kind of job he could do in his sleep, but for some reason unknown to him, it paid well. So he allowed the stable salary to serve as an excuse for not pursuing his dreams. Wasn’t it ridiculous that a person could make more in inventory control than as an airline pilot? That he would be at least as good a pilot as he was an inventory manager he had no doubt. In college, he had been in a flying club, had earned his student pilot certificate. When he had nothing else to do, he perused flight school brochures, and there was one in Arizona, not far from the Grand Canyon. Wouldn’t that be a scenic place to learn to fly commercial aircraft?
But how could he justify spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on training to earn less than he earned now? Happiness? There were too many people doing exactly what they wanted to do who were unhappy. Was he happy now? No. So why should he expect to be happy with a different job?
Andy didn’t know Sonia’s husband. He’d never met him. What particularly haunted him about this whole thing was that they probably would get along together better than either of them did with Sonia. They weren’t that different. Andy was of moderate height and weight. White. Athletic. Protestant. From what he could tell from Sonia’s stories and Facebook, Donald was all those things as well. The difference was that Donald wasn’t in inventory control. He couldn’t keep a job for more than three months, and while he was an excellent father, Sonia expected him to contribute financially to the household. As a real estate agent her income fluctuated wildly. Some months they ate filet mignon, others ramen noodles. The thing about Donald was that he hadn’t let reason trump passion. He was a novelist. His first novel, Secret Beginnings, had achieved moderate success, with tens of thousands of copies sold. None of the three novels he had written since had been published. That hadn’t stopped him from devoting all of his free time to his art.
Andy didn’t have a family. He had been married to his high school sweetheart for two years when she left him for another man, a general contractor with a Harley habit. That was twenty years ago. They had married too young, and she wanted kids right away, but Andy never felt ready. This was the product of always thinking ahead. He knew how expensive kids were and could never figure out how the budget would work with an additional mouth to feed, body to clothe, mind to educate. It was like flying a plane with no engines. The pilot crunches the numbers: speed, altitude, distance. In Andy’s estimation, children always left you short of the runway.
Of course, nestled in the back of Andy’s mind was the notion that if anything could have saved their relationship it was having had children. Which was one of the reasons he doubted himself now, one of the reasons why caution was being thrown to the wind in such a dramatic way. “I love you,” he had said, pulling the pin on the grenade without knowing where he would throw it.
He had just bought a house. Very practically, it was a duplex. Why not have your property help pay for itself? That was how he had met Sonia. She was the real estate agent on the deal. There was an immediate spark. The minute he saw her, his insides lit up. Receptors that he had thought were long dead suddenly pulsed with purpose and power. Then they talked, and even though Andy had never been particularly fluent around beautiful women, their conversation flowed from the beginning as if they were old friends. So this, he thought, was love at first sight.
She referenced her children early on, so he knew about the two of them aged 12 and 17. She didn’t mention Donald at all the first four conversations they had. And they weren’t just talking shop. By then he knew that she was from Spain, that her father was an investment banker, that her favorite color was rose petal red, and that she longed to one day go to Hawaii. In the fifth conversation, he was saying to her how normal being single had become.
“Yes,” she said, “we’ve been separated three times.”
“Yes. Me and my husband.”
“But you’re back together now?” he asked.
“Yes . . . for now.”
Andy tucked all of his hope away. He wasn’t the kind of man to pursue another man’s wife. He had committed to keeping it strictly business between them. Which he did. It didn’t stop him from thinking about her all the time. Then the deal on the duplex closed, and she came by with a housewarming gift, a bottle of Spanish wine.
“Would you drink it with me?” he dared to ask.
“I would love to,” she said. They sat on his new back deck sipping Tempranillo from Styrofoam cups because the wine glasses were still packed.
“This is perfect,” he told her, “a new house, great wine, and a beautiful woman.”
“Really?” she asked. “You think I’m beautiful?”
“Every male with a pulse thinks you are beautiful, Sonia. It’s just a fact,” he said. It was true. When Sonia walked, heads turned. She had it all: the curves, the skin, the eyes, and an impeccable fashion sense. She looked every bit the movie star. No, scratch that. Movie stars were too anorexic these days. Andy hated that they all had started to look like refugees from a famine-stricken country. Sonia was classically gorgeous. No one would dispute this.
“You are so kind,” she said.
“So what are your plans for tonight? Do you celebrate after a closing?”
“My plans are to get Freddy from basketball practice, cook a quick meal for the four of us, then take a nice bath.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“I have a nice piece of sea bass thawing. I’ll broil it and serve it with asparagus and rice.”
“Sounds delicious. I bet you’re a great mother.” He looked at her admiringly.
She smiled. Looking back, in this moment, everything was fine. He had shelved his desire away. They had engaged professionally and appropriately. She was going to finish the congratulatory wine then leave to be the good mother she was, and they might have never seen each other again.
“I have a very nice tub here,” he heard himself saying. “You’re welcome to use it whenever you’d like.” Where did those words come from? They were unplanned, the kinds of words that slip into men’s minds all the time, but that they never say aloud. But, there they were, spoken, lingering potently in the air between them. This was living in the moment, doing without thinking.
She didn’t say anything. When she stood, he knew he had erred severely. He was trying to figure out how to play this off or how to magically reel the words back in, but nothing came to mind. Surely the look on his face revealed how profoundly stupid he felt. He hoped she would just leave, spare him the shame of explaining himself. She went inside, and he sat on his back deck breathing in the pine trees and the fresh mulch.
Fifteen minutes later, she had not returned. He assumed she had taken her things and left, but in the kitchen, her purse remained on the counter. He walked down the hall, to the bathroom with the Jacuzzi tub, and there she was, wearing only a broad smile as she peered out of the tub. Her clothes were all neatly folded and laid out on a moving box, the last item she had removed, a lace thong, sitting on the top of the pile.
“Join me, please,” she said.
“What about picking up Freddy after practice?” he asked.
“I texted Donald. He’ll take care of it.”
“Did you tell him why?”
“Yes,” she said. “I told him I had a last minute showing.” And she lifted her breasts from the water. “My showing!”
This kind of thing never happened to Andy Templeton. Normally, he would have analyzed outcomes, discerned the best course of action, and made the measured choice. But there was a naked, beautiful woman in his house who had taken the plunge, literally, and there was only one thing to do. Join her.
They didn’t sleep together the first time. Or the second even. They just took baths together, long, sudsy sessions in which they bared their souls as much as their bodies. It was not innocent in the slightest. It felt much more intimate than sex itself.
This went on for several months. Andy wasn’t the kind of man to do this. He had always toed the line in all things. Anyone who knew him would say that he was the most earnest, cautious man they knew. His stock Halloween costume was that of a superhero of his own creation, Safety Man. Decked out in hardhat, blaze orange vest, knee pads, and crossing guard sash, he enforced all manner of safety protocol with his whistle and strobe lights. It was not an ironic outfit. This affair was the most daring and reckless thing he had ever done.
Alone with Sonia, he thought only of her. All the clichés applied. The world consisted solely of him and her, and nothing else mattered. Then she sold a $500,000 house, and she and Donald and the kids took a family vacation. As if to torture him, she posted photos of the family fun on Facebook.
“You’re killing me with those photos,” he said to her one Saturday after a bout of lovemaking in his bed.
“What photos?” she asked, false innocence dripping from her Spanish tongue like honey.
“You know. The Facebook photos. You and your kids. And Donald.”
“Then don’t look at them,” she said.
“He always looks so adoringly at you,” Andy said. “You know he really loves you.”
“Of course he does. He’s my husband. The father of my children. Even if he is a loser in all other ways.”
“It doesn’t bother you to hurt him like this?” Andy referenced his own naked body entwined with hers.
“I’m not hurting him. I would never hurt him,” she said. “It would only hurt him if he knew, and he doesn’t know.” She gazed into his eyes, then leaned in and kissed him tenderly. “He’ll never know.”
The next day, Andy found himself at the library. He liked to read biographies and natural history. It had been years since he had read fiction, but he found himself in the fiction section, pulling from the stacks the book, Secret Beginnings. Though a decade old at this point, the book was in good shape, indicating that it hadn’t been often read.
As he checked out the book, an older librarian lifted her reading glasses to her eyes and peered at the title. “You know,” she said, “this is a local author. He comes in and does our children’s reading hour once a month. If you like it, you should come in and tell him. He would appreciate it so much.” Andy just nodded, and cradled the book like an illicit magazine as he slinked away.
Despite not being a fan of fiction, Andy quickly found himself immersed in the story. The main character survives a terrible childhood. His mother dies unexpectedly when he is five, and he retains only the faintest memories of her as a kind and beautiful woman. She was an artist and had painted a dazzling panorama of a fantastical valley. It was all that remained of her after she passed away, and the colorful image of the valley becomes sacred to his young mind. It hangs in his bedroom on the wall at the foot of his bed. Each night he falls asleep with the knowledge that the lush valley with the purpled sky is a paradise where his mother now resides.
His father remarries when he is ten. His stepmother is everything his mother wasn’t. She has exacting expectations and treats joy with contempt. When he is fourteen, they move to the other side of the country, and somehow in the process of the move, the painting disappears. The loss of the painting is devastating. It, coupled with the new surroundings, causes him to retreat into himself. This dark bout of despair renders him incapable of acting out. He longs to experiment with drugs. He daydreams of breaking into houses, of doing anything that might bring love and attention to himself. But he can’t even do that, so paralyzed is he with depression. Somehow the stepmother finally notices him. She intervenes with unexpected kindness and grace. Restored by love, he goes on to become a functional adult, finding success as a mortgage underwriter for a large bank.
Part of the underwriter’s job includes reviewing appraisals. The appraisals always have photos of the interior of the homes that borrowers are financing. One day the main character is looking at the photos of one particular house. On a bedroom wall he sees it: his mother’s painting. It’s unmistakable. Purpled sky, vast lush valley, swirling colors. The discovery changes the character’s life. He becomes obsessed with the house, determined to get there and talk to the seller before the deal closes and they move to their new place. The house is in a suburb of Chicago; the main character lives in Colorado. He does all he can as an underwriter to delay the deal, but then his boss overrides him to expedite the process. By the time he gets to Chicago, the deal has closed and the sellers have moved.
Andy found himself enthralled with both the plot and the tight writing. He had never read a book like this before. His exposure to fiction consisted of the required classics from high school and the quick-paced thrillers he had read on vacations. He had never read a book in which he could have been the main character. His own longing and quiet desperation oozed from the pages. Donald, a man whose life he was potentially destroying, seemed to know him better than anyone else.
It was their weekend away, the two of them alone in a cabin in the mountains. As far as anyone in the small tourist village knew, they were a couple with no complications. Those three potent words still lingered in the air. Saying them had changed things between them, and not necessarily for the better.
He was washing up in the bathroom after sex, when he heard Sonia call out, “What’s this?” He stepped into the bedroom. She was splayed across the sheets, her luscious ass luring him back to bed. Then she turned, Donald’s book in hand. “Are you reading this?”
Her eyes bore into him. They cast an accusatory glare, and Andy had the thought that perhaps he was seeing her for the first time the way that Donald saw her.
“Yes,” he admitted. “I am.”
She turned the book over in her hands as if it was some ancient artifact. “Is it any good?” she asked.
“You haven’t read it?”
She just shook her head.
“You should. It’s quite good.” The bed sighed with his weight. He traced the curve of her butt with the back of his hand, hoping the fury he had glimpsed in her eyes had passed.
“Then why don’t you just fuck him?” she said. The fury hadn’t passed. She was off the bed in seconds and already fastening her bra before Andy could respond.
“Where are you going?”
He lay on the bed watching her get dressed. Andy knew he could reach out to Sonia now and make things better with self-deprecation and gentle humor. But, he didn’t. He just watched her shimmy into her jeans and cinch them shut around her waist. What did it mean that he didn’t feel compelled to fix this? Did it mean the words he had spoken were just words? Said in the context of a moment that had now passed?
After that weekend, he didn’t hear from her again. No more racy texts. No more last minute booty calls. He decided this was a good thing. Life returned to the mundane repetition of gym, work, dinner, TV, sleep, repeat. Inventory control was once again the most exciting part of his life. As if the interlude with Sonia was but a dream, as if nothing had changed. But there had been change. It came not from Sonia, but from her deadbeat husband, who had unknowingly showed Andy that his life was worthy of examination, that he could be an artistic subject.
The children’s reading hour happened on the first Thursday morning of the month. Andy had to take the morning off to attend, but he had two hundred hours of vacation accrued so it was not an issue. Donald in person was unassuming. He was slightly slimmer and shorter than Andy. He had a little less hair and narrower shoulders; they could have passed as brothers.
Donald chose to read the classic children’s book, Bread and Jam for Frances. He had an earnest, approachable way about him. Andy had a hard time imagining him holding his own against Sonia’s high-test, hard-driving personality. But, somehow he did. He had never caved to her demands that he get a “real” job. Children loved him. Not having kids, and not having been a child in a book-loving household, Andy wasn’t familiar with this book. Yet, as Donald read, he again had the sensation that he could be the subject of a book. The child Frances commits to eating only bread and jam, and her mother must use reverse psychology to get her to try new things.
Was Donald’s life one of only bread and jam? Maybe it had been, until Sonia. Until Secret Beginnings. Now he wasn’t sure that he wanted to keep eating the same meal over and over. After the reading, after the children had dispersed like the embers of an exploding firework, he approached Donald.
“Did you lose someone?” Donald asked.
Andy scrunched his face up. “Lose someone?”
“You’re a little old for the children’s reading hour,” Donald said. “I thought you were a parent.”
“Oh,” he said. “No. No kids. I, uh . . . ”
Donald continued packing up his bag.
Andy shook his head. This was mistake. “The librarian said that you would be here. I just wanted to say something.”
Donald looked up. His face was lined in the ways only parenthood can line a face. Speckles of gray were apparent in his hair. “Okay,” Donald said. The levity that he wore during the reading had dissipated. He had transitioned out of kid-mode and was now full adult.
“I’m reading Secret Beginnings.”
“Ah! You’re the one!” Donald said.
“Yes,” Andy said. “I haven’t ever read anything like it. Just wanted to say that I think it’s great.”
Donald smiled. It was a genuine, whole-hearted smile. “Have you finished it?” Donald asked.
“Tell me what you think after you finish it. Most people don’t like the ending.”
“Oh.” Andy didn’t know what to say. “I will.” Andy shifted his feet. “Also . . .”
Donald cocked his head.
“Also, you have a great way with children.”
“Thank you, again,” Donald said, hefting his backpack to his shoulder. “Speaking of which, I have to go. Parent-teacher conference.”
“Right,” Andy said, nodding. He watched Donald navigate his way through shin-high chairs and exit the library.
Now he had to finish the book. Over the weekend, he tore through it. The main character finally tracks down the painting, finding it hanging in a bedroom in a house in Omaha, where the sellers had relocated. After the expected awkwardness, the owners explain to him that they had purchased the painting directly from the artist herself. Impossible, says the main character. She was my mother. She died. Not at all, the owners explained. In fact she’s still alive. The main character tracks her down in Sedona, Arizona. The truth that he discovers devastates him. His mother wasn’t a kind and beautiful soul. She had been married, and the main character was the product of an affair between her and his father. She hadn’t died. She had gone back to her husband and children. And she hadn’t painted the valley for him. She had painted it for monetary gain, had left it behind accidentally and used the move as the opportunity to reclaim it. Worst of all, she was entirely unrepentant. The main character, finding himself once again trapped in a cycle of turmoil and despair, launches himself from the south rim of the Grand Canyon.
Ugh. Andy recoiled at the ending. This wasn’t what he was expecting at all. A book that he thought was about coming to terms with loss turned out to be about how you can never escape your destiny. About how devastating Truth can be. About how we tell ourselves the stories we need to hear in order to survive. Andy wasn’t a writer. He had very little in the way of creative aptitude. But, he knew he could craft a better ending to the story.
The duplex went back on the market. He tried to give Sonia the listing, but she wouldn’t take it. When he gave notice to the printing company, it felt like the engine powering his life had finally shifted into the next gear after years of straining at maximum torque. He was free, and it felt exhilarating. It was telling that no one was more surprised at his departure than he was.
A week after leaving his job and house behind, he stood alone on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. A purpled sky hanging over a vast valley of swirling colors lay before him. The storm sparked by his three spoken words lashed its final throes. He felt neither guilt nor remorse. Mostly he felt peace. It never ends the way you think it will. The thing is that life isn’t art. Endings don’t always lead to beginnings, but they can if you want them to. They can if you want to fly.
For more on Culley Holderfield, please see our Authors page.