THERE ARE PLENTY OF THINGS I should have understood but didn’t. How many times have I scraped my lips with these teeth for not seeing the signs, for not realizing the love of my life was loving another? I went with him to a work function, colleagues and cocktails. I prepared by showering and pasting with a leading-brand deodorant and dressing. I did not prepare by calling to mind the physical cues of treachery. At the party, I was introduced to the “finest project manager in the Western Hemisphere.” I assumed only some percentage of this was true. A hemisphere is large. I noticed this project manager kept her hands at her sides—no, pointed her arms down plumb like vectors—and with each hand rubbed preciously the tip of her thumb against the first two fingers. It was the tic of a child. I’ve seen it in schoolyards, never in an
office. It said she knew an excellent secret. It said she was getting through the day by dwelling very deliberately on the hunk of chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream that waited for her at home in the fridge. This is how this woman was rubbing her fingers together. Turns out she did have a secret—I wouldn’t say an excellent one—and turns out she did have a piece of cake waiting and that cake was my husband. Turns out it was a hundred percent true if you changed Western to Southern and said it dirty. Mmm, whose Southern Hemisphere has a big project for me to manage? We should all of us know that a hard slap on the back coming out of a hug is how a man says to anybody watching, Please don’t think I’m having an affair with this one, because of course I’m having an affair with this one. Hummingbird fingers look like anticipatory delight but mean guilt, plain old guilty conscience venting through the ends of the limbs. I, however, didn’t know this. I did not inherit the instincts for understanding any of this. After all, no amount of betrayal and heartbreak stops us from the folly of trying again, and procreating, and thus making sure the obliviousness and vulnerability pass to the next generation. Believe me, I’m the surest proof. Right up those stairs is my seven-year-old, in the bathroom making mud-bombs from this morning’s coffee grounds and taking too long for imagining all the times things will turn out different now he has his trusty mud-bombs. Right here, down at my feet, this is my three-year-old sitting hard against one ankle and hugging the other because part of her doesn’t know she’ll be stepped on, and part of her wants to be stepped on. It’s suddenly Christmas in the foyer of my home: commotion like a chest of drawers, frigid wool off-gassing its appliance showroom smell, and just lots of hugs. We’re having the family over and they’re freshly arrived. And here I am, in mid-hug myself, chin lapped dumbly over my mother’s shoulder, seeing my second husband, the new love of my new life, as he comes out of a hug with my sister and slaps her on the back and moves on, turning his head smooth like I’ve never seen before, her head the opposite, her head pointing carefully away and bobbing nervously like a missile that’s lost its fix. I think I’ll stay here. I think I’ll rest here, on my mother, my mother of eighty-six years, who can’t reach her honey-brittle arms around me, who has swelled my cells with genetic legacy and bequeathed me kindness and a trusting nature which are the same as gullibility, who can’t protect me from anything anymore. I think I’ll stay here forever because what else is there, watching my husband and my sister and breathing in my mother, wondering which of these has betrayed me the most.
GEORGE CHOUNDAS has work in over fifty publications. His story collection, The Making Sense of Things, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, the Robert C. Jones Prize, and the St. Lawrence Book Award. He is a former FBI agent and half Cuban/half Greek.