Lena shifted her car into reverse and backed out of the driveway, while the now familiar rush throbbed from within her chest and shot out through her limbs. As the house disappeared from view she smiled, anticipation trumping guilt. This weekend would finally be the ultimate culmination of all the time, effort, and to put it bluntly, the lying she had put in.
In hindsight, Lena thought, the first lie had been the most difficult. Her heart sped up, pumping too much blood to her head. She blurted the words out too quickly; the room even tilted a little. But once Lena found her feet a certain kind of balance came naturally. She could hold a lie in one hand and the truth in the other, deciding which one to offer up as it suited her.
It started with small secrets that she kept hidden like pearls in her pocket. When the first vague images of her idea began to form, she instinctively kept them to herself. Tom didn’t need to know, and actually, didn’t deserve to know. Maybe she would tell him someday, but probably not.
At first it was nerve wracking, but slowly she became aware of a certain thrill when telling Tom fictitious stories. Each time he believed one, her confidence grew. She slipped into this new way of life like an actress into a costume, like a hand into a glove.
God, Lena thought. She had met Tom when she was eighteen. Tom, with blue eyes the color of sincerity and a promising future ahead of him. Within a year they married, and soon after that their daughter Charlotte came along. If you think of it like that, she thought, it sounds like complete bullshit. But it really had happened that easily. Love, marriage, baby, just like that. Now, twenty years later, it seemed unreal that Charlotte had been born, existed as the main focus of their lives and then out of nowhere, became a grown up and left. As though they found themselves standing alone, just Lena and Tom, in an empty train station, years of speeding forward in a crowded passenger car suddenly ceased. Lena sometimes wondered if this whole thing weren’t a sort of empty-nest side effect; a midlife crisis.
There were three breaking points to this midlife crisis, if that’s what she was calling it, (which, she decided, she was)- Point A: The Absence of Charlotte. Point B: The Broken Down Car Incident, and Point C: The Disco Dancing. These three spots in her memory burned like fiery stars, a constellation as it were; she could connect the dots to reveal the picture, ugly as it was.
The long and the short of it was that Tom took a new job the same year that Charlotte finished high school. He landed a position at a prestigious law firm, but with a higher salary came a higher level of stress. He became preoccupied and overwhelmed, but he had never been one to complain and he didn’t want to talk about it. Lena chose to ignore his increasing silence in spite of the growing knot of concern in the pit of her gut. She knew her husband; he wanted to be left alone. Instead of hounding him, she focused all of her energy on their daughter. She spent as much time as possible with Charlotte, who was going off to university on the other side of the country after graduation.
The day Lena dropped Charlotte off at the airport she surprised even herself with how emotional she became. Tom couldn’t get out of work, of course, and so she had to send their daughter out into the wide world all by herself. When she started to cry Charlotte laughed and hugged her tight, “I’m going to be all right Mom, it’s gonna be great.” Choked sounds similar to words of agreement pushed their way out of Lena’s throat, and she went home feeling embarrassed and bereft at the same time.
Lena realized that she was entering a new phase of her life. The empty house, the vacant hours after work to fill up with something, anything; all these things equaled a difficult transition, but she was a reasonable person and she knew it was an opportune time to pursue her own aspirations. In waves, she began to feel the first vestiges of what would become her obsession.
Initially she didn’t know where to begin. Lena wasn’t the type to jump into something without a great deal of careful planning. She needed to purchase supplies, to formulate her vision. This wasn’t going to be a housewife setting up an easel in the backyard to paint rhododendrons. Lena was thinking much bigger. She was thinking larger than life.
In the days after Charlotte moved away, Lena and Tom coexisted in the empty house without discussing the obvious issue. They rose in the mornings, mindlessly plodded through the functions of working days, returned home in the evenings to eat, to sleep. To repeat. Lena didn’t know whether to cry or scream, and so she remained as silent about the gaping hole in their marriage as Tom was being.
Headaches began to plague Lena, vacillating between mildly annoying pains and full on migraines. On a particularly dreary and rainy Wednesday she left work early in the afternoon because the heaviness behind her eyes became simply too much to bear. At home she stripped quickly, and stepped into a steaming shower, which she had found sometimes alleviated her symptoms. Water streamed over her face until her skin reddened and burned. She emerged feeling de-stressed, and wrapped a soft white towel around her body. As she combed through her recently cropped hair, she heard a car and the sound of voices in front of the house. Through the bedroom window she saw Tom sitting in the passenger seat of a red car, tiny and sporty, apparently owned by a woman who was now touching Tom’s face. Straining her tired eyes to see more clearly, Lena watched as the woman wrapped her arms around Tom and squeezed him. He was laughing, and then as Lena hunched in the window in her dripping towel, they sat there talking to each other for at least ten minutes.
When Tom finally came in the house he called out to Lena. “What are you doing home so early, are you not well?”
“I had a headache. “
“Oh, that’s too bad. Listen, Lena, my car broke down and I brought it over to Stevenson’s, you know that place on Queen St?”
“I got a ride home from a co-worker, one of our junior associates. Anyway, I’ll need you to drive me in tomorrow, if that’s ok.”
“Sure, no problem.” Lena pulled on a robe and crawled into bed, unable to sleep, but too confused by what she had seen to bother with the normal routine of their evenings.
Nights were the worst. She would lie awake next to Tom, this man, her husband, whom she had known for years, and it was like some invisible force barred her from turning to him, from touching him. Once she went so far as to nudge him, her pointed finger prodding the pale skin stretched over his shoulder blades. “What is it”, he mumbled, “Lena, is everything all right?”
It took her a minute to form a complete thought, but when she did, it was this that she wanted to say: “Something is happening to us. Something bad.” Instead she apologized. “Go back to sleep Tom, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
The truth was that Lena felt frustrated, unconnected, and very, very lonely. But she was stubborn too, and refused to be the one to beg for attention like some pathetic child, or worse, some desperate housewife. As an alternative to Tom, she turned inward. Much of her time now was spent thinking about her big idea, hunting and gathering, the vision of her fantasy revealing itself to her like a photograph in a dark room.
One evening as they sat quietly eating dinner and making the usual banal conversation, Tom surprised Lena with a proposition. “There’s a company party coming up this weekend. They say it’ll be pretty swanky. We should go, you and me, it would be fun.”
Lena, shocked and excited, agreed immediately, hoping she didn’t come across as that desperate housewife she so despised. Maybe this night out could breathe some life into the stale air surrounding them like a homeopathic remedy for what ailed them. She bought a red dress with thin straps. She colored her hair to hide the grey at her temples. She painted her nails and put on high heels. Tom wore his best dark suit with a striped tie. It should have been romantic.
The party lived up to its reputation; fancy hotel, dim lighting, jazzy music in the lobby during drinks. Inside the ball room Lena and Tom sat at a round table with some other couples. Before Lena could get her bearings, Tom introduced the woman seated beside him. Nicole. Nicky, rather. With a deep neckline cut into her black satin dress and a sullen looking husband, who drank very quickly, named John. John never took his eyes off his wife, but didn’t smile or laugh at her non-stop conversation. Nicole joked about how much time she spent with Tom at work and Lena felt every inch of herself tense; this was the woman from the car, the woman who had draped herself around Tom. John excused himself and headed to the bar.
Lena began to feel a nagging sensation in her stomach, and a thought occurred to her. Tom loved the attention from this woman. Nicole was bringing out a side of him that Lena barely recognized; he was smiling, laughing and telling charming anecdotes. Her lungs constricted, she needed some air. Outside, she inhaled deeply, hoping the cold air could somehow slow the uneven pulsing of her veins. It didn’t.
When she returned to the table she found that Tom was on the dance floor gyrating like some overzealous Bee Gee while Nicole clapped and wiggled her hips.
“God Damn it,” Lena murmured aloud, even though nobody was listening to her. “He fucking hates disco music.” She glanced around the room and noticed John leaning against a white pillar. Did he combat the same dizziness then, the vertigo of realization? He raised his glass to her, and his chin descended towards his clavicle in a barely perceptible nod.
Never in all their years of marriage had Lena doubted Tom. Suddenly, that had changed; as each day passed she became convinced of his infidelity. At first it was rage that drove her to transform into a voyeur of sorts, a spy. She found herself lurking in parking lots and hiding behind shrubberies to observe lunch dates and lengthy conversations between him and Nicky. To Lena’s way of thinking, this evidence, this visual confirmation, absolved her of guilt. Her anger subsided, dissolving into indifference. If she was being honest, something snapped inside her. Maybe it was the old trust she had enjoyed, maybe it was the very core of her love, but it cracked in half and she no longer thought about things the same way. If he was having an affair, she would feel no remorse over her own. Hers was a much higher sort of love. Her affair was pure, clean, sanctified.
The weekends away were ridiculously easy to maneuver. She’d invented an elaborate story complete with imaginary friends with whom she needed to spend one weekend a month. First, Lena mentioned them in passing, and then more frequently, until she broached the subject of the trip: a monthly girl’s weekend at a cottage up north. These ladies were a tight knit bunch, they insisted on making time for each other to do fun things; get manicures, go shopping. When Tom agreed complacently, as she knew he would, Lena felt that she could get away with anything, because he didn’t give a damn. Good, Lena thought, I don’t give a damn either.
In reality, Lena was driving two hours north to a tiny cottage that belonged to the janitor at her office. This janitor was a widow whose children wanted nothing to do with the place, because it wasn’t much more than a shack. It was a perfect studio for Lena, and she looked forward to these trips with an inexpressible longing. Early on a Saturday she would arrive ready to work all day and late into the night, uninterrupted. She loved the solitude of the place; nobody in the world knew where she was or how to reach her.
Lena painted with thick oils to create substance and depth, she labored for hours over the smallest details. To her, colors were tangible, tactile. She had always thought in terms of sky, grass, blood, flesh, and bone. The work gave her a sense of purpose, filled the void inside her as though providing sustenance. Sunday, she would continue for as long as possible, stopping only out of necessity. She always returned home by dinnertime with a list of false details for Tom but they were unnecessary; he never questioned her.
This strange schedule became her way of life. She managed to live with Tom in this new version of matrimony, this falsified reality, this fucking sham as she had come to think of it. Some days she wanted to grab him and shake the truth out of him, force a confrontation. It was incomprehensible that they could carry on like this, pretending nothing had changed. Still though, she continued the charade, waiting patiently for Tom to crack. He was the guilty party, and so he should suffer the burden of responsibility. Every so often the weight of her secret would overcome her and she would cry in the darkness with the sleeping stranger facing the other wall beside her. She would mourn the passing of the old times like they were a dead lover, but by sunrise would slough them off to reveal this new thing, this different existence.
The paintings, Lena found, grew into something wonderful of their own volition. A collection. She felt the pride of creation, mixed with a fear of judgment and the hope of acceptance. She contacted a local gallery in the city nearest her studio. She disguised herself and gave a fake name, intent on maintaining an alias. Beside herself in an almost drunken disbelief, she listened as the gallery owner proposed a showing.
Now, here she sat, studying her reflection intently in the mirror. She placed the shiny black wig over her short blonde hair and cracked up at her reflection; she had a dark, angled bob, she had bangs that made her look mysterious. It was cheesy, it was overwrought, it was hilarious. She was a literal cliché and she fucking loved it. That was the point. Fuck all of them. She applied dark eye shadow and red lipstick. She smiled because she did not recognize herself and because her philanderer of a husband had no idea where she was or what she was doing.
The gallery was lit with strings of white lights in swathes of tulle. A long table covered in glasses of wine occupied one side of the room. Her paintings were hung from the ceiling on clear wire; ten huge, unframed canvases. The central and largest piece depicted a woman strung up on a cross. She wore a tailored business suit but her blazer gaped open to expose the half formed fetus nursing at her breast. Her skirt was torn, her legs covered in fishnet stockings while menstrual blood poured down over them. In one hand she held a brief case, the other a feather duster. Her serene, virginal expression gazed into the middle distance, a halo surrounded her head.
The nine remaining pieces portrayed women and girls in various traditional roles performing degrading acts. They were everything Lena felt and suffered and understood about the times she lived in, and the real, actual imprint it left on her psyche, her heart. In this show she had exposed herself, and she had done it all by herself, with no help from anyone and no recrimination.
Lena stood alone on the gleaming hardwood floor feeling a sense of accomplishment, reveling in the freedom of anonymity. People began to arrive, to drink wine and admire her work. It was a beautiful evening and she slowly became aware that what she was feeling was happiness; she had forgotten what it felt like.
When she noticed the man looking at her fixedly, she did not immediately recognize him. He raised his glass to her, chin descending to clavicle in a barely perceptible nod. A sense of déjà vu flickered in her mind; it was John. John, the displaced husband of Nicky. Kindred, Lena thought, as only another castaway could be.
Her mind raced, trying to ascertain the reason for his presence, here where she existed so blessedly unknown. A group of people were introducing themselves, asking questions about her technique and intent. She couldn’t focus on anything but him. She was almost relieved when he finally approached her. He shook her hand, smiling.
“So this is what you’ve been doing.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Your husband thinks you might be having an affair.”
Lena said nothing. John leaned closer.
“Nicky tells me everything. Unfortunately for me she’s a firm believer in open relationships. She doesn’t consider it cheating if she tells me about it. Anyway, she’s been trying for ages to seduce Tom, but all he talks about is you. I just thought you should know that. By the way, the paintings are fantastic.”
John raised his half empty glass in a toast to Lena and made his way back to the table for more wine. It was as if she were invisible in the room full of strangers. She no longer felt seductively anonymous, just alone, utterly alone, suspended like one of her own paintings and strangely numb, as the implications of what John had said sunk into her heart with the weight of a heavy stone.
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her work has appeared in The Cabinet of Heed, (Mac)ro(Mic), Ellipsis Zine, Re-Side, and The Spadina Literary Review. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.