by Henry Charles Mishkoff

When Maria smiles, her eyes sparkle. They light up the whole room.

She's smiling now. I can see her reflection in the mirror that hangs over the dresser in the bedroom of our suite; her eyes are positively dazzling. She's humming as she brushes the creases out of her clothes and adjusts her necklace. Her smile fades as she fusses with some wayward strands of hair, but it returns again when she has arranged them just so.

Her eyes catch mine in the mirror, and I think: Now? Is this the time to tell her? I start to speak – but no, it's not the right time, not yet.

Or maybe I'm just a coward.

"What were you going to say?" In the mirror, I see that her eyes have narrowed. I shrug my shoulders, but she is insistent. "You started to say something. What was it?"

"I was just..." I stop and clear my throat. "It's nothing, really. I was wondering what you were smiling about, that's all."

"I'm just happy to be here with you." She fakes a pout. "Tell me, is it wrong that I want you so much?"

Her words send a delicious tingle down my spine, just as she knew they would. "Not at all," I assure her. I come up behind her, wrap my arms around her waist, pull her close to me. "Love like ours can never be wrong."

She rests the back of her head on my chest, closes her eyes, and sighs. "You know what I mean," she says.

And I do, of course. She's talking about Susan. My wife. The mother of my children. The woman who pours me a bowl of cereal in the morning and fixes me a hot dinner at night. When I'm home for dinner, that is.

In the mirror, I see Maria's sharp eyes studying my face. "How is Susan," she asks, reading my mind, as usual.

I shrug. What can I say? "She's fine."

"Oh? And why is that? Did you fuck her last night?"

I wince, just like she knew I would. "Don't use that word. It's not worthy of you. It... it sullies your beauty."

"You like me to talk like that," she points out. "You just don't like me to use 'that word' when I'm talking about Susan. Your unsullied wife." More than a hint of bitterness has crept into her tone. "And you're trying to change the subject."

She's right, of course. I don't like the turn this discussion has taken, not one bit.

Maybe it is time to tell her, after all.

I release her, walk to the bed, sit on the rumpled sheets. When I look up, Maria has turned to face me, and she's frowning. The room has actually grown dimmer, I swear it has.

"Something's wrong," she says, unsettled by my mood and annoyed by her failure to detect it earlier. "What's the matter? Tell me. Tell me right now."

I take a deep breath, release it. The room seems to have grown unnaturally quiet. The light from the muted television plays on Maria's face as she waits for me to speak. I savor the clarity of the moment; I'm hesitant to break its spell.

I've said the words hundreds, maybe thousands of times in my mind, but my voice shakes as I finally say them out loud.

"I told her," I say.

There. It's done.

"Told who?"

What a question. "Susan. I told her." I'm pleased to notice that my voice has steadied. That wasn't so bad.

"Told her what?"

Maria seems genuinely baffled. How explicit do I have to be? "I told her about you, about us." She still doesn't get it. Incredible. "I told her that I was leaving her."

Maria gasps. Her hand flies to her mouth. She stares at me with big eyes. She is motionless, paralyzed. When she finally speaks, she sounds dazed. "You told Susan... about us? About you and me?" She gestures vaguely toward the bed. "About what we do?"

"Not what we do." Why does that sound so crass? "What we are."

"Oh?" She arches an eyebrow. "And what are we?" She glares at me for a moment, then turns away. She walks to the window, looks out over the city. Clasping her hands behind her back, she rubs one thumb against the other in a rare display of agitation. I watch the ghost of her reflection in the window, framed icily against the night sky, and I try to think of something to say.

"How could you do such a stupid thing?" she asks. Her voice is small and distant. Her breath fogs the glass, clouding her reflection. I remember another night when we drew hearts on the steamed panes, giggling like schoolchildren.

"Maria," I begin... but then a sickening thought bulls its way into my mind: I've made a mistake, a horrible mistake. I must have been crazy to even think about throwing away eight years of marriage, a wife who loves me, two wonderful children – a home which, if not deliriously happy, has always at least been dependably comfortable, an island of calm in a turbulent world. And for what? For a fickle woman who berates me when I finally do what she's urged me to do for months?

I'm still a little woozy when Maria whirls to face me. Her eyes flash fire. I'm used to her sudden changes of mood, but her intensity takes my breath away.

"What has Susan ever done to you to deserve such treatment?" She shakes her head, as if trying to dismiss an unpleasant image. "You've broken her heart. The poor woman."

I'm more than a little taken aback by this show of sympathy for my wife. Not an hour ago, Maria had mimicked the mousy way Susan says "Yes, dear" when I ask her to do something, anything. Now, in a heartbeat, she's become Susan's great defender.

"Let's not talk about Susan," I say. "Let's talk about us. Let's talk about you and me. Let's talk about our new life together." I get up from the bed, and I mean to walk over to her, but there's something, well, formidable about her, and I'm hesitant to approach her.

"And your children. What will become of them?" Maria's expression is one of horror; I think she's about to cry. I've become a monster in her eyes.

I must get this conversation back on track. "I don't think..."

"That's just it! You don't think!" Her voice grows louder and she begins to pace in the small room; I, on the other hand, seem to have grown roots. "You don't think about hurting your wife. You don't think about hurting your children." She waves her arms, gesticulating wildly. "You don't think about anyone but yourself, isn't that right?" She stares at me accusingly.

"I think only of you, Maria. Nothing else." Panic rises in my throat; somehow, I push it back down. "I didn't want to hurt her; God knows, she deserves better than that." Perhaps this small concession will mollify her. "I did what I had to do so we could be together, Maria."

"So we could be together?" She stops pacing, walks over to where I stand. From less than an arm's length away, she shouts at me. "What, are you crazy? We are together! You, me, here in this room – we're together now!" She shakes her head, and her voice grows very soft. "Why did you have to go and ruin everything?"

I feel like she's plunged a dagger into my heart; I actually have to brace myself so that I won't stagger backward. How can this be happening? I've played this scene so many times in my mind, but I never imagined that things could go so badly, not in my worst nightmares.

I want to scream back at her, to grab her and shake this... this craziness from her. But I restrain myself. Barely.

I take a deep breath. "Maria," I say, "how can we truly be together while I'm married to somebody else?" I try to sound calm, reasonable. "Now that I'm free, we can be as one. All the time. For everyone to see."

She rolls her eyes; my passion, to her, is melodrama. "Is that what you really think you want? You want me to be with you all the time? Like a wife?"

"Of course that's what I..."

"You want me to... to fold your laundry? To have your dinner on the table when you get home from work? You want to see me in curlers, without my makeup?" She shakes her head, answers her own question. "I don't think so."

That's exactly what I want, I start to protest. But when she steps closer and touches my cheek, I shudder, and I can't speak. There's a sudden warmth in her eyes, surely a hopeful sign.

"Poor little boy," she says, almost in a whisper. "Don't you realize that what we have isn't real? It's a fantasy, a dream. If we take it out into the sunlight, it will float away, disappear, poof, like that." She snaps her fingers, dismisses our relationship with a wave of her hand.

Although her words terrify me, I try to be encouraged by her tone, which has grown gentle, almost tender. But when I reach out for her, she pulls back, turns and walks away.

"I'll always love you," I call after her. "Forever. I'll never leave you. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"I could never trust you." She opens the door to the walk-in closet, and steps inside. "I'd always have to worry that you were seeing other women. That's not the kind of life I want."

I'm aghast. "How could you possibly think that I'd..."

"You cheated on Susan, didn't you?"

Her voice from the closet is muffled, but her point is clear. I can't argue with her logic, of course. But I have to say something. Anything. "That's different," I say. "You're not Susan." It sounds lame to me even as I say it.

When Maria steps out of the closet, I can't believe what I'm seeing: She's wearing her jacket, the sable I gave her for Christmas. She's pulling her gloves up over her hands.

She's leaving.

I say her name; it sounds like the cry of a wounded animal. I take a step toward her, but I stop when she draws back. I don't want her to leave, but I don't wish to frighten her. It's a delicate balance.

She reaches for the door.

I'm desperate. "Maria," I beg, "think of what you're doing. Listen to me. Please."

She pauses, looks back at me with more curiosity than interest.

This is my last chance.

"I have nothing," I say. "I have no wife, no family, no home to go back to. I threw it all away for you." It's a blatantly emotional appeal, but what the hell, I don't have any pride left, not anymore. "If you leave me now, I'll be completely alone. You'll destroy me. I beg you not to do this to me. I beg you."

She pauses, her hand resting on the doorknob. I can see that she's fighting tears. Finally, I'm getting through to her. Now, she'll see how unreasonable she's being; now, she'll come back to me...

"I'm not doing anything to you," she says softly. "You've done this to yourself."

She stares at the floor, avoiding my eyes, but then she looks up, and it's horrible, there's nothing there, nothing at all. Her empty eyes stare back at me, dark, bottomless pools.

"Goodbye," she says hoarsely, with terrible finality.

She pushes the door open. She steps out into the hall. The door begins to close behind her.

"Maria, wait," I call after her. "There's one more thing I have to tell you. It's important."

Some change in my tone makes her stop, catch the door before it shuts completely. "What is it?" she asks. I can't see her; I can just barely hear her through the narrow opening.

"I made this up," I say.

She pushes the door open just a little more, sticks her head back into the room.

"I made all of this up," I explain. "I didn't tell Susan anything. I wanted to, God knows I did. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I just couldn't."

She steps back into the room. The door clicks shut behind her.

"I knew that," she says.

She smiles. Her eyes sparkle. The whole room lights up.

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©1996 Henry Charles Mishkoff